There’s an explosive five-minute action sequence in the pilot episode of The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime Video’s sprawling new fantasy series, where a powerful sorceress blasts magic fireballs at ogre-like creatures, while her samurai companion goes around slicing their heads. It’s bafflingly dull to watch. Between the frantic action, choppy editing, and sloppy CGI, what should’ve been a sequence that leaps off the screen, end up being blurry, disorienting, and incoherent. Like this, much of Prime Video’s latest big bet has its ambitions set sky-high but fails to deliver on the bare basics.
From series creator Rafe Judkins (Agents of S.H.I.E.LD), The Wheel of Time is based on Robert Jordan’s bestselling book series of the same name and is an unabashed attempt to fill the Game Of Thrones-sized hole in our lives (It’s even got veteran Thrones writer Dave Hill amongst its sea of writers). I haven’t read the books, but as a fantasy fiend and proud nerd, I’m always excited to sink my teeth into a new world. And the source material here seems to have everything you could ask for.
Set in an intriguing world of magic and monsters, the series follows a powerful sorceress, Moiraine Damodred (a well-cast Rosamund Pike), who must find the next ‘Dragon’ — an Avatar The Last Airbender-style once-in-a-generation all-powerful chosen one–destined to save the world. We’re told the last Dragon broke the world, and the new one will have to unite it and defeat The Dark One, who’s rising to power once again, as Dark Ones usually do. Following her 20-year-long search, along with her formidable warrior protector Lan Mandragoran (an impressive Daniel Henney who’s pure conviction), Moiraine believes she’s finally found the Dragon Reborn. In a small town, she finds five youngsters, one of whom she believes is the chosen one. What follows is multiple warring factions, opposing sides and seedy characters each with their own intentions to use the Dragon, kill them or steal their power, and so on.
Based on the six episodes I’ve seen so far, (three of which are out now with this season’s remaining five to be released weekly thereafter), The Wheel Of Time has everything going for it, on paper. Massively mounted scale, lavish sets, lush costumes, attention to details, strong cast, a rich, fantastical world, mature themes, Rosamund Pike in the lead, and more. But in the absence of coherent, engaging storytelling to bind them together, the net result is a show that’s just…expensive rather than enticing.
As is made clear in the terrible pilot episode (arguably the worst of the lot), The Wheel Of Time is an exercise in feeble world-building. Like Game Of Thrones, the writers here attempt to take the “throw you into the story and let you figure things out along the way“ approach with characters randomly referencing places and events which you’re supposed to piece together. But that only works if you care enough about these characters and what they’re going on about to even want to find out more. It’s a story that hinges on the central, captivating mystery of who among the five is the Dragon. But one that’s so poorly told, it ensures you don’t particularly care who it is.
It doesn’t help that, instead of exploring this mystical world, the show chooses to devote most of its focus to these poorly fleshed out, mostly sullen characters and their emotional journeys. The result is a humourless, dreadfully slow watch. The kind where your entire investment in each episode hinges on that one battle scene or magic fight or twist or revelation to keep you going.
I’m all for epic fantasies taking themselves too seriously, but only if they have the writing and world-building to back it up. When that clearly isn’t on offer, the very least you’d hope for are flashy battle sequences and good old-fashioned monster-y magic stuff to fall back on.
Even Netflix’s The Witcher, for all its messy, muddled timeline jumping, still had enough going for it by way of a monster hunters hunting monsters in each episode. You can’t really go wrong on that front.
But in The Wheel of Time, the spellcraft, creatures, and mysticism of it all is arguably the worst thing on offer here. Between the blurry, budget-friendly CGI, the tepid action, or even the fact that, for a show that’s literally about magic, the way that magic is used, is spectacularly unimaginative. Intense wizarding duels and lavish sorcerer face-offs are reduced to a bunch of smokey wavy white lines in the air, making it that much harder to take any of this seriously.
Even aspects such as the geography of how this world is brought to life fall short. The plot follows five people whose lives are ripped away from them overnight, as they’re forced to go on a journey to discover the destiny they never asked for. They’re supposed to traverse hundreds of miles from their unassuming small homes to fancy cities and treacherous towns and magical towers. But the repetitive sameness of the landscape makes it impossible to get a sense of place. They’re all just interchangeable hills and mountains and forests.
It also must be said that, throughout the show, characters keep referring to the Wheel of Time saying stuff like “The Wheel Of Time keeps turning”, and I still for the life of me can’t tell you what it is. Is it a metaphorical wheel? Why is everyone using the same metaphor over and over again? Is it an actual wheel? Did they show the wheel? I didn’t see a wheel. Did I miss the wheel? Where’s the wheel?
There are, however, individual parts within the messy sum that do shine. As with many massively-mounted Hollywood projects these days, it’s heartening to see so much diversity on screen in the show’s colourblind casting. This is also a world where women run the show. It’s what makes it that much more heartbreaking to think of what this could have been.
You can feel the artistry and sheer dedication in the work of the hundreds of people behind The Wheel Of Time in everything from the production design to the costumes and performances. The intent and painstaking effort is all there, but in the hands of storytellers who are clearly biting off more than they can chew, the series is dead on arrival. Between all the talent in front of and behind the camera, and the rich source material of witches, wizards, white towers, black riders, dark ones, and dragons, I just wish they could have conjured something better.
The Wheel of Time
Directors: Uta Briesewitz, Wayne Yip, Salli Richardson and Ciaran Donnelly
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Henney, Madeleine Madden and others