‘The Wheel of Time’ series premiere review: First reactions from a long time fan

The Wheel of Time surprise-hit Amazon Prime earlier than expected, dropping the first three episodes last Thursday. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel will, but does it weave us a good TV show?

When the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time were released earlier than I expected — on Thursday evening, rather than at midnight of November 19 — there were two wolves inside me.

One was already in pajamas and under the covers. The other was scrabbling to open Prime. Because I am old and have a job that requires me to wake up at 5:30am, I compromised and decided to watch the first episode, and ONLY the first episode, on Thursday night, and I saved episodes 2 and 3 for my originally scheduled Friday night viewing.

For The Wheel of Time episode 1, “Leavetaking,” I got out my iPad and my headphones and snuggled down in my bed to be transported. And transported I was. The episodes are visually lush — absolutely gorgeous on an aesthetic level. The mountains, the rivers, the greenery, it all lends the world immediacy and a grounded feel, while the glimpses of destroyed infrastructure and abandoned cities hint at the long history that the turning of the wheel has wrought.

I went into this adaptation knowing there would be changes and I was fully prepared for that. There are so many books in the Wheel of Time series and we are inside of the characters’ heads for so much of what happens. There is no way to do a straight adaptation in a visual medium that is comprehensible to a viewer who hasn’t read the books. Some of those internal struggles have to be externalized. Things have to happen visually, to give us this information in different ways.

Knowing this, I had already considered that there might be changes that would make me as a book fan feel weird, but I accepted that they would be in service of presenting the core of the narrative in a way that works better for TV. That said, let’s address all of my nitty gritty long-term reader feelings anyway.

This is going to be a pretty self-indulgent article, but if you’re a reader (or a new viewer keen to learn about the Robert Jordan canon) join me on a wild ride where I wax poetic about how The Wheel of Time TV series matches up to the book, the changes I loved, the changes I’m still unsure about, and my one big disappointment.

Related: ‘The Wheel of Time’ and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Adaptation

In the spirit of starting as you mean to go on, The Wheel of Time episode 1 has, overall, a much darker, more mature tone than the first book. This helps to make it clear from the start that the show is about adults for adults, but it does strip a little joy from the mood of the first episode, because one of the pleasures of the books is watching our characters grow from naïve teenagers into complicated adults.

The Wheel of Time’s showrunners made the choice to age the main Two Rivers crew a few years up from teenagers into twenty-year-olds. In the book, when we first meet Rand, Mat, Perrin and Egwene, they are teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, but not yet there, and their interactions show us that. Rand and Egwene are childhood sweethearts, but almost in theory more than practice. Mat is goofing around trying to get out of chores. Perrin is dutifully working as an apprentice to the town blacksmith.

Once Moiraine and Lan are introduced, we get a much more wide-eyed reaction to such outsiders arriving in the Two Rivers. The arrival of the trollocs heralds an abrupt loss of innocence. Leaving their families is a much bigger emotional weight for the heroes because they are, in fact, still children.

In the show, when we get our first glimpses into the lives of Rand (Josha Stradowski), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Mat (Barney Harris) and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), they are young and green, but they’re adults, with some adult responsibilities and relationships and even baggage. They’re less carefree and innocent, and I can’t lie – I missed my babies.

However, introducing the Two Rivers by showing Egwene’s induction into womanhood was brilliant. I love the women’s circle in the books. Especially as a teenager, I loved the idea of rites of passage that marked new phases in your life. And with the visual representation of surrendering to the river, we get a little bit of — well, I don’t know if I would call it foreshadowing exactly, but a bit of, let’s say, information we will use later, so keep it in mind.

As a reader, I loved, loved, loved Egwene’s complicated relationship with old traditions and wanting something different for herself. I feel like the show is hinting at this, but it has not really established the contradiction inherent in her desires. In this episode we see her pride at becoming a part of the women’s circle and getting her braid, the visual symbol that she has put away childish things, and we do also get a hint that she does have, for lack of a better word, ambitions. The Wisdom, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), sees something special in her and Egwene is willing to forgo certain aspects of the life she thought she’d have (a husband and a family) to be something more, but The Wheel of Time frames it as an honorable sacrifice that would serve the community.

I think this all feels more noble in the show than it does in the book. Inside her private point of view, we get a better look at the somewhat selfish underpinnings of Egwene’s desires. She wants to be an adult and make her own decisions and not be beholden to anyone, while also having a deep desire to do the right thing. Egwene’s character arc rides an extremely fine line and her ability to listen to others and to bend and include others in her decision making is constantly tested. It will be interesting to watch how this develops on screen.

The two biggest backstory changes belong to Mat and Perrin. In the book, we meet Mat as a bit of an irresponsible scamp who is prone to getting his friends in trouble, but he’s not desperate or unhappy in the bone-deep way that he’s coded right from this first episode. That change comes later and is developed in the course of his journey, not by way of a pre-existing tragic backstory. As much as I miss that Mat, I do think that the show has done a good job of transposing book Mat into this different family life (bad parent AU tag on AO3, am I right?) and giving us what would have been the result, in order to get trauma!Mat from the jump.

Perrin’s change, though – I don’t even know where to start. I think it makes more sense to me than Mat’s, but watching it was harder. Much harder. Even in the books I always wanted something different for Perrin. Something softer. I love him so much. He wants so much to be one thing, but is constantly driven to be something else. His struggle to bring those two sides of himself into some version of harmony is agonizing.

I think I would have liked to have his soft, careful side more fully underlined in this episode. I’m not entirely sure what we were supposed to take away from his relationship with his wife (who did not exist in the book). It seemed oddly estranged, when I feel like a version where they more clearly adored each other would have made his accidental ‘bloodlust’ killing more shocking than it already was.

Look, would I have given Perrin a wife just to fridge her 30 minutes later? I would not, but I think it serves to put Perrin in an understandable headspace as they move forward. I need to know if that relationship is going to continue to be unpacked – what was going on with them? – especially when someone finally gets the truth out of him about how she died. Perrin is a very complicated, internal, delicate character and I do see how they are trying to externalize some of that internal struggle, but I’d very much prefer to wrap him in some blankets and let him be the soft character that he wants to be.

Moving on to the introduction of the newcomers, Moiraine the Aes Sedai (Rosamund Pike) and her Warder Lan (Daniel Henney.) The bath scene: let’s talk about it.

This scene made an impression on me for, uh, several reasons. Let’s get the prurient reasons out of the way first. Lan’s ass. I have been deeply in love with Lan Mandragoran as a character for 30 years. He is probably the root cause of my well documented infatuation with stoic, emotionally unavailable fictional men who actually possess a deep capacity for love, but if you had asked me to guess which character we might see naked first in The Wheel of Time, Lan would not have been on that list.

Moiraine in the tub was gorgeously shot, but I admit that I had just a tiny prickle of unease thinking we were going to jump right to Moiraine naked. My internal monologue went a bit like this, “Oh, this is lovely. Hmm, I hope we don’t get some gratuitous nudity here, Moiraine is too good for that…” – LAN’S NAKED ASS APPEARS – *record scratch* “Oh. Um. That’s. Okay. Yeah. I. I feel. Yes. Okay. Good. That’s good. Very good character development. On my screen. Necessary. Yes.” Anyway, having the moral high ground is overrated.

Once we get past that, I loved everything this scene gave us about Lan and Moiraine. They have such a fascinating relationship in the books. They are, in many ways, as close as two people can be-their lives, physical health, and emotional well being are deeply intertwined, both personally and magically. That is how the Aes Sedai-Warder bond works. The only real way they could be any closer would be if they were also sexually intertwined, but they are not, and, unless the show makes some major changes that I don’t think they’re going to make, they never will be.

When I originally read the books that felt so novel to me! I loved this example of a man and woman who were teamed up in the most intense ways possible, who loved and cared about each other, but who were not in love. When Lan got in that tub I had a moment of fear that The Wheel of Time was going to diverge on this point. But! Instead we got this lovely, intimate moment between them with teasing and worry but no charged undertones. Any time nude scenes are normalised in a non-sexual way is worth noting, but when have you seen this sort of trusting, platonic, comfortable nudity between male and female friends before? It told us SO much about their relationship in such a short period of time. Excellent! Very Good! Chef’s Kiss!

Related to this, every scene where Lan and Moiraine are fighting together is pure bliss. Please continue to apply the serotonin directly to my brain, Rafe Judkins. The weaves of the One Power are beautifully done, and Lan’s constant swirling around Moiraine to keep her safe while she works is lovingly shot.

A character note that I loved was when Moiraine gets injured, Lan seems very ready to take her and flee to safety, leaving the town to its own devices, not because he is uncaring, but because his mission and duty is so specifically tied to keeping Moiraine alive. Moiraine just looks at him and pulls the knife out, and he instantly backs down and supports her decision. The unadulterated emotional swell I experienced as Moiraine — mirrored by the Winespring Inn toppling behind her — fell to the ground and Lan rushed to cover her body with his, can not be measured. They are such a good team and I love them very much.

Regarding the drama of what goes down in the first episode slash start of the book, there is an implied but missing scene that I was really hoping we’d get to see on screen, which is the scene of Rand dragging an injured, delusional Tam all the way back to Emond’s Field while trying to keep him quiet and avoid trollocs in the woods. I have such strong visual images of this scene — the danger, the desperation, Tam’s delusional rantings that turn Rand’s world upside down, and Rand’s stubborn, stubborn insistence that if he can just get his father back to the town everything will be fine, only to arrive to a destroyed town in complete disarray. It’s just so *fist clench* you know?

From a storytelling perspective I get why they excluded it. That scene puts a lot of cards on the table that the showrunners probably wanted to keep hidden a bit longer for anyone who hasn’t read the books and isn’t googling the answers. While it seems a strange choice to be so precious with spoilers for a 30 year old book, I’m withholding judgement until I see how they build up to the reveals. I maybe think they should have just included the same foreshadowing we as readers got – there was a reason it was included at that point in the narrative – but I’m holding out a tiny bit of hope that we might get a flashback to that Tam moment at some point.

The second episode “Shadow’s Waiting” does a good job of establishing a few key points. One: Moiraine will do what she has to do for her mission to succeed and, in spite of the logic of her choices, it breeds distrust among some of the Two Rivers folk. Two: our Ta’veren (Ta’veren, in case the episode isn’t clear enough, being people whose lives are more closely influenced by the Wheel of Time) are being targeted in some way by the Dark One in their dreams. Three: Nynaeve is correct about Egwene being able to ‘listen to the wind,’ or more accurately, channel the One Power.

And, finally, it re-emphasizes that at this point, Lan’s loyalty is to Moiraine more than the mission. I’m a little curious on this, because it feels to me like they are hitting this point a bit harder than in the books (but I might be misremembering). I have some thoughts about why that might be, but whatever the reason, I actually love it because it gives us some space for growth, baybee.

Okay, I know I should talk about the Whitecloaks. But… I hate them. I hated them in the book and I am going to hate them in the show. I don’t hate them in an “Oh, what a good villain way.” I hate them in an irrational, “Please make them go away,” kind of way. Are they good villains? Yes. But do I have what could loosely be termed religious trauma from going to a Christian school from 3rd through 8th grade? Also yes. They give me the deep willies. I will comment only to say Abdul Salis is absolutely scene-stealing as Eamon Valda and leave it at that.

I hesitate to say I was meh on “Shadow’s Waiting”, but I had the least emotional reaction of the three that Amazon dropped this last week. The ill-advised detour into Shadar Logoth is considerably abridged. In the episode, it is framed as a decision that Lan makes in desperation because of Moiraine’s weakened condition, and one Moiraine rebukes him for before passing out. In the novel, Moiraine is not at full strength, but she is also not at death’s door. She and Lan make the decision together and they both accept the risk.

They do, however, underestimate how dumb teenage boys are. Rand, Perrin and Mat sneak off to go exploring (their first real city, even if it is abandoned) and – this isn’t included in the show – they run into an ancient evil (Mordeth) disguised as a treasure hunter, who tries to convince them to help him steal some treasure, which they are absolutely going to do, until he discovers they’re with an Aes Sedai, goes bonkers and scares them out of their wits.

Mordeth is the one who sets the evil shadows on them, eventually separating our heroes from each other. The deadly shadow does indeed still do that divisive job in the show, but I’m left uncertain about whether the Mordeth plot is a thing, since we don’t see him as culpable here. In the books, it does continue to have a track, but this book series has 2782 named characters, so. Who can tell what will make the cut at this point?

In both versions, book and show, Mat has been warned not to touch or take anything, and in both cases he secretly takes the dagger out of Shadar Logoth with grave consequences.

While it hurt to hear Moiraine say “You have killed us all,” surprisingly, I did like what giving Lan the burden of this choice did for his character. It sets us up well for the last 10 seconds of the episode, which might be my current favorite 10 seconds of television.

One of the big changes in the opening of The Wheel of Time was Nynaeve’s abduction by Trollocs. I wasn’t upset by it, and unlike Egwene I wasn’t worried she was dead, but I was confused. I justified it, because in the books the boys and Egwene leave in secret, and when it is discovered, Nynaeve leaves to find them and bring them home. Since they leave with the knowledge of the whole town in the show, I assumed they needed Nynaeve out of the way so she didn’t pitch a gigantic fit (which she most certainly would have.).

I was eager to see where they went with this because Nynaeve tracking and finding them, and Lan’s reaction to that, was one of my favorite scenes in the books. It turns out, this particular tweak is probably my favorite that show has made so far. Nynaeve outsmarting the trolloc and finding and confronting Lan was literally more than I could have dreamed of. These two have a very important relationship in the books, and episode three gave me big “We Are Doing This Right” vibes.

You can absolutely watch Lan’s attitude toward her shift over the course of episode three. He goes from reluctantly impressed, to distrustful, to willing to leave the most important person in his life in her hands. Nynaeve’s journey feels a little more subtle in the episode, but I felt her just a little bit trying to figure out Lan and Moiraine’s relationship. I hesitate to bring jealousy into it, but I did feel an element of her wanting what they had, of her watching Lan care for Moiraine and maybe just feeling a longing? Possibly I’m reading a lot into it. I have some pretty big feelings about the two of them, and when a non-reader friend messaged me immediately after that episode to be like “so… that’s a thing, right?” I felt even more excited for the potential of this version of Lan and Nynaeve’s relationship.

The change to Mat, Rand, and Thom’s story in episode 3 is so vast that it resists comparison to the books. I can’t even do a simple spot-the-difference. It gets us where we need to be, but it is an entirely different plot. I think I loved it though?

When Thom Merrilin was left completely out of the Two Rivers scenes, I wondered what would compel him to join the group, and I like that he and Mat are the ones who have a moment together. TV Mat has some big daddy issues and Thom is a good potential father figure for him moving forward, and I liked that we got a compassionate hint at who the Aiel (that’s the dead guy in the cage) are.

In the Mat/Rand side quest, Barney Harris does an excellent job of subtly giving us some clues that Mat might not be okay, and may be getting less okay, and I’m already feeling a lot of regret that the actor is not returning for season 2. Hopefully the new Mat can keep that up.

Rand’s already been established as the distrustful one of the group, and he learned a hard lesson about trusting anyone this episode. It all feels very much a case of putting the characters in a slightly different scenario while still having their reaction feel true to their personalities in order to push the narrative a bit faster.

I always found the Perrin/Egwene scenes to be sort of lovingly awkward and I think the show more or less captured that vibe. They both make such an effort to protect and comfort the other. Again, I think Egwene is being handled more delicately here than she is in the novels. We really aren’t getting her book-brand of stubborn bravery. In the show, she seems to be the most sensible of the group, and while she certainly thought that was the case in the books, she has just as many blind spots as the boys.

In some ways I think I like this Egwene more as a person, but I do think Jordan had a gift for giving all of his characters, even the presumed heroes, flaws that were a real threat to the group’s success, so I would like to see those flaws more clearly underlined so that we can recognize the work that goes into a hero’s choices and complete journey.

For me, so far, the series is a win. I think it absolutely works for someone who has never read the books. And as someone who has read the books, it absolutely also works for me. The visuals are killer. The character beats feel true to the book’s characterization – faithful in spirit and energy and understanding, rather than faithful in replicating every exact moment. I have some minor irritations, but nothing that is putting me off the show or making me distrust the overall vision. After 30 years, the wait is over. My favorite books are accessible to everyone! I can’t wait to watch more and hear what everyone thinks.

And that biggest disappointment?

I was expecting Tam al’Thor to have more DILF energy. And if that’s the biggest thing in The Wheel of Time so far that I truly want to grouse over, they’re probably doing okay.

‘The Wheel of Time’ airs Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.