Review: The Wheel of Time is a solid adaption that welcomes newcomers

Image: The Wheel of Time/Amazon Prime Video
Image: The Wheel of Time/Amazon Prime Video /
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After decades of misfires (including an epic calamity headlined by Billy Zane), Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time has finally gotten a proper adaptation courtesy of Amazon Prime Video. Boasting a massive cast to tell a 15-novel tale, showrunner Rafe Judkins has a huge task in adapting these books for TV. The Wheel of Time ideas of reincarnation and alternate realties with your typical Chosen One narrative in a way that feels both familiar and fresh.

In The Wheel of Time, the all-female order of Aes Sedai are the world’s wizards, who in addition to nominally preparing the world for a battle against the evil Dark One also hunt down men who have the ability to channel (summon magic), as all men inevitably go mad from touching the One Power. Once found, such men have their powers removed (gentled). The Aes Sedai’s ultimate goal is to eliminate anyone claiming to be the Dragon Reborn, a reincarnation of a man who once decimated the entire world. No one knows who the true Dragon Reborn might be, but he has the power to either save the world in its fight against the Dark one, or to destroy it again. Got all that?

Amazon decided on a split release schedule, with the first three episodes already available and the remaining five dropping one at a time each Friday. We’ll have reviews of each episode as they land, but first, let’s take a look at the first three together, starting with Episode 1, “Leavetaking.”

The Wheel of Time
Pictured (L-R): Madeleine Madden (Egwene al’Vere), Josha Stradowski (Rand al’Thor). Credit: Jan Thijs. © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc /

The Wheel of Time review: Episode 1, “Leavetaking”

As with most fantasy series, The Wheel of Time opens with exposition, laying the ground work for what’s to come while explaining how the world got to where it is. There’s not as much exposition as what I outlined above; we jump almost immediately into the action, as Aes Sedai Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood) cuts a random man who can channel off from the One Power. Moiraine and Lan (Daniel Henney) observe but do not interfere, a hallmark of Moraine’s.

Quickly cutting away, we are introduced to some of the show’s main characters, starting with Nynaeve (Zoe Robins) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden), villagers in the Two Rivers, a quiet hamlet nestled in the mountains. After the former shoves the latter off a cliff and into a river to initiate her into the Women’s Circle, we meet farmer’s son Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradakowski), who’s making his way into Emond’s Field alongside his father Tam (Game of Thrones vet Michael McElhatton).

And while we get a sense of the characters, we also get our first real look at the show’s sets and environments, and I’m happy to say they look real, lived in, and expensive. Amazon clearly has put some money into the series (not that it was much of a sacrifice).

We’re then introduced to Mat (Barney Harris) and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) at the village inn, and book-readers will quickly get a sense of some of the changes the show has made to the source material (more on that later). The chemistry between the cast is on full display early on. Their shared history, affection, and love for one another feels natural.

Having read half of the book series, I can also say the performers feel like the characters they’re playing. Book readers will also be happy with the small bits of foreshadowing producers sprinkle throughout the early episodes. Most of “Leavetaking,” is devoted to the characters; learning who they are feels more important that their ultimate fates, although Moiraine does proclaim that one of the five leads — Mat, Perrin, Rand, Egwene and Nynaeve — is potentially the Dragon Reborn.

With that kind of destiny, a quiet life is not in store for our Emond’s Field Five. A lot of the episode passes at a languid pace fit for life in Emond’s Field, but when that peace is shattered, oh boy, we are off to the races. As the village celebrates the holiday of Winternight, Trollocs, massive creatures that are part human, part animal and minions of the Dark One, launch a full scale attack that is a sight to behold.

Unlike wizards in other fantasy series, Moiraine’s channelling abilities seem tailor-made for violence. There is no lighting a flame to see in the dark; here the flames are designed to kill, and quite frankly it is stunning. The Trolloc attack is brutal and bloody, equally as violent as the peaceful tranquility that proceeded it. It might be easy to lose track of the score amidst the action, but composer Lorne Balfe’s work swells and soars as needed, especially when Moiraine first begins her counter attack.

Moiraine inflicts massive destruction but is not invulnerable, leaning on Lan’s quick sword work  while she charges up, much like a tank leans on infantry on the battlefield to protect it. The two work in concert, decimating the Trolloc ranks as the villagers begin to defend their town. The whole sequence is a wondrous introduction to the series. When Moiraine’s violence reaches its crescendo alongside Balfe’s score, I legitimately had goosebumps even on my second viewing.

Without getting into spoilers, book-readers might take issue with some of the changes Judkins and company have made, but I’d strongly argue that they not only work on screen, but are an improvement and sometimes necessary. For instance, Perrin’s journey on the page is largely internal, but the show gives him a conflict it’s easier to externalize. None of the changes fundamentally change who the characters are, and some — like Mat — are given more depth.

Overall, “Leavetaking” is an excellent opening episode. From the deliberate opening pace to its action-packed second half, the episode doesn’t overburden the viewer with exposition. Adapting such a massive series will surely be difficult, but “Leavetaking” sets the show up for success.

Grade: A