“The Wheel of Time” Review: Amazon’s Attempt at a “Game of Thrones” Doesn’t Channel the Magic

Daniel Henney and Rosamund Pike in “The Wheel of Time.” Photo Courtesy: Prime Video

Rating: 5/10

I tend to like Rosamund Pike in all shapes and forms. The Londoner played the beautiful and above all warm and innocent sister Jane Bennet in Joe Wright’s version of Pride & Prejudice (2005); she showed the world she was a woman with two very different faces in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014); and she simply terrified me as the unscrupulous legal-appointed guardian Marla Grayson in I Care a Lot (2020).

Being a complete novice when it comes to Robert Jordan’s series of bestselling fantasy novels published in the 1990s and early 2000s, I approached The Wheel of Time as another way of enjoying Pike’s inability to typecast herself. In the eight-episode first season of this Prime Video adaptation, which debuts November 19 with the first three episodes and weekly releases after that, the actress plays Moiraine. She’s a member of an all-women organization called Aes Sedai. Its powerful members can channel the One Power (a.k.a. magic).

As with most fantasy, there’s a lot of world-building that needs to be done for the viewer to understand what’s going on. The Wheel of Time actually starts with exposition from the first frame of the show. Moiraine’s voice explains how some children are just coming of age and one of them is prophesied to become the next Dragon. They must find them before the Dark does. The last Dragon broke the world, but the next one could build it. All that while her character is getting dressed on screen and readying herself for the long journey.

What I failed to understand when I first started watching the show is that The Wheel of Time — at least when it comes to the majority of the running time for the six episodes available for review — is a road movie the same way The Lord of the Rings is. Moiraine gets on the road and goes on an adventure to find and bring to safety five possible contenders for being the next Dragon: Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), Rand (Josha Stradowski), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris).

Moraine is not alone in her search. Her faithful Warder — a man with whom she shares a very special bond and whose main goal is to protect her — is always with her. Most Aes Sedais have at least one Warder. Moiraine’s is called Lan and is played by Daniel Henney.

The show does a lot of teasing — and not that much showing — at the maybe sexual nature of the relationship between some Aes Sedais and their Warders. Moiraine and Lan like sharing long silences and, when they talk, it normally shows how intimate the nature of their bond is. “I shouldn’t have had a drink. You always get emotional when I drink,” Lan tells Moiraine one night. What one feels, the other senses too.

“The Wheel of Time” Is Attempting to Be “Game of Thrones” Light

Josha Stradowski, Barney Harris, Daniel Henney, Madeleine Madden and Rosamund Pike in “The Wheel of Time.” Photo Courtesy: Prime Video

Ever since Game of Thrones went off the air in 2019 (and probably even before that), streamers and cable networks have scrambled to produce the next fantasy adaptation that would capture millions of viewers around the world. And even with the many flaws that GoT had, the task has proven difficult. HBO tried it with His Dark Materials, Apple TV+ has See and Prime Video is betting not only on The Wheel of Time next year it will premiere a prequel series to The Lord of the Rings. So far the only streaming service to have managed to capture some of GoT‘s popularity and acclaim seems to be Netflix though, both with The Witcher and Shadow and Bone.

Even though I see all the markings of a GoT-light show in The Wheel of Time — the political machinations, the fight for the survival of the world, the magical elements, the coming-of-age stories — I don’t think this will become the next must-watch show.

Pike and Henney are the two main reasons I kept watching The Wheel of Time. They manage to give a bit of gravitas to the mainly young and inexperienced main cast. At times I didn’t know if some of those younger characters were underwritten or simply too immature for me to care about their stubbornness and lack of ability to follow simple commands. Then I remembered my favorite characters in Game of Thrones were actually the bad/ambiguous ones. But here evil is characterized for the most part by a dark force and its orc-like followers, so I didn’t find many Cersei, Tyrion or Littlefinger equivalents.

What this show gets right though is diversity. It boasts an incredibly diverse cast in every one of the worlds it represents. It makes every little town, crowded city, nomadic camp and even the home tower of the Aes Sedais inhabited by people of as many races as possible. It contrasts with the Game of Thrones approach of having a mainly white cast and choosing to cast people of color only in the representation of exotic faraway lands.

Diversity is also represented in the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in The Wheel of Time. But at risk of spoiling a revealing moment in the show, I won’t tell you more.

Building the World of the Aes Sedais

Kate Fleetwood in “The Wheel of Time.” Photo Courtesy: Prime Video

As much as The Wheel of Time left me basically indifferent, I very much warmed to the universe of the Aes Sedais. Your introduction to them is Moiraine, and it’s difficult not to be intrigued by her order. She’s the type of woman who doesn’t hear “no” often. She can cure others through the Power, but not herself. She can’t tell lies. She dresses in blue because Aes Sedais who choose that color are in charge of gathering secrets.

Pike portrays Moiraine with absolute stoicism while uttering life lessons like “Dreams have power, more than you know” and “Women hold the great power but men still control much of the world and they’re rarely kind to little girls who show a spark at being greater than they are.” She plays sort of a mentor figure to Egwene and Nynaeve, who both have an untapped amount of power but haven’t learned to guide it yet.

I’m not sure if the show is attempting to comment on gender. It would be a missed opportunity not to. The power is supposed to be meant only for women. Men who touch it make it filthy, we learn. There’s a whole order of Aes Sedai — they dress in red — in charge of chasing down men who channel. Yet, for all we know, the next Dragon could be a man. Plus we’re told several times about the many political games the Aes Sedai like playing. They may not make for the most reliable of organizations.

Some of the show’s premise centering the Aes Sedais and their magical abilities reminded me of Naomie Alderman’s novel The Power (2016). And while I wait for the TV adaptation of that book, I just wish this show would have focused more on the fascinating Aes Sedais and their ploys and rules and less on whomever the next savior of the world is. But I guess that probably defeats the series’ purpose.

The Wheel of Time has already been greenlit for a second season.