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Wheel of Time improved a fantasy saga’s gender binary in just six episodes

The show’s One Power works differently than in Robert Jordan’s books

Egwene and Rand from The Wheel of Time sitting on a mountainside Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

When we meet Egwene al’Vere in “Leavetaking,” the first episode of The Wheel of Time, she is attending a ceremony that marks her passage into womanhood. As she stands at the edge of a cliff, newly welcomed by the women of her village, her mentor, Nynaeve, grasps her by the shoulders and murmurs, “Be strong, Egwene. Trust the river.” Then she shoves her off the edge. Egwene screams before she hits the river below, struggles to swim against the raging current, coughs as the water slides over her head. Then suddenly, she calms and begins to float on her back, eyes closed, letting the river carry her downstream as it wills.

It certainly is an interesting way to mark someone’s coming of age. But the word “trust” stuck out to me, as a fan of the book series on which the show is based. It’s a different word from the one that is used in Robert Jordan’s 14-novel epic, illustrating the subtle and yet profound way that the show has altered how the One Power functions; how it is improving on the concept of channeling; and how it is erasing some of the problematic gender stereotypes of the source material.

[Ed. note: This essay contains spoilers for the first six episodes of The Wheel of Time, and for the identity of the Dragon Reborn in the novels.]

In the world of The Wheel of Time, there is only One Power, the energy which turns the Wheel of Time, spinning out the thread of people’s lives to weave the Pattern of Creation. It is a singular energy; however, in the novels it is divided into two halves, saidin and saidar. These two halves work both in opposition to and cooperation with each other, and it is their push and pull that creates the motion that drives the One Power and turns the Wheel.

Some people have the ability to touch the True Source, to channel the One Power and use it to perform miraculous feats. But it’s here that the world-building hits a snag, because the two halves are divided into a strict gender binary, with saidin being the male half and saidar being the female half. This creates a lot of problems for the series, and while Jordan manages to subvert them in places, more often, the narrative falls into the trap of reinforcing tired gender stereotypes.

Nynaeve watches as a woman braid’s Egwene’s hair in a still from the pilot episode of The Wheel of Time Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

Perhaps the most egregious of these is how channelers interact with their respective sides of the One Power. For men, saidin is a raw and fiery torrent that fights against being controlled. Channelers have to “seize” saidin and bend it forcibly to their will; they are often described as “dominating” saidin and “wielding” it like a weapon. Saidar, the female half of the One Power, is described as a steady but incredibly powerful river. In order to channel saidar, women must open themselves to the power and allow it to fill them, before gently guiding it where they would like it to go. They are described predominantly as “yielding” and “surrendering” to it.

It’s here that the show gets the imagery of the river as a metaphor for the One Power, and seeds the concept immediately at the beginning of the series with Egwene’s experience. As we have learned by the fourth episode of The Wheel of Time, both Egwene and Nynaeve possess the ability to channel the One Power. But they didn’t know this initially. It is Moiraine who explains to Egwene that the Wisdom’s skill of “listening to the wind” is just another name for being connected to the One Power. Nynaeve doesn’t discover her ability to channel until she instinctively heals Lan and the Aes Sedai injured in Logain’s attack. And yet, despite being unaware of their abilities, and despite Nynaeve’s hatred and distrust of the Aes Sedai and what they do, this ritual has begun preparing Egwene to learn how to channel, to understand and connect to the One Power.

Later, when Moiraine shows Egwene that she has the ability to touch the True Source, she has Egwene concentrate on a blue gem and imagine that it is a river.

Moiraine does eventually use the word “surrender” as she is speaking to Egwene, but it is not the forefront of the conversation. Rather, her focus is on producing an almost meditative state in Egwene, telling her to let herself drift and to allow all distraction to fall away until only the river — the One Power — remains. There is no mention of saidar here, and it is my hope that the television series might be doing away with the concept of the two halves entirely. But even if it isn’t, the show seems intent on avoiding much of the harsh binaries of the novels.

Rosamund Pike as Moiraine in The Wheel of Time season 1, channeling the One Power Image: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

Indeed, Jordan’s own characters often defy the binaries he sets around them. One of the reasons the series is so beloved is for the numerous, complex, and flawed female characters that Jordan created. Nynaeve is a perfect example. She is an incredibly competent, powerful, and stubborn person. She is a healer and a tracker, as well as a leader of her people. But the story often feels like it’s punishing her for her more “masculine” traits, reminding the reader that she is still a woman and bound by gender roles. This results in some very uncomfortable moments, such as when Nynaeve enters a dreamscape and her desire for Lan causes her clothes to suddenly become extremely revealing, or when she repeatedly refuses a man’s advances toward her and is then assured by her female companions that they can see her enjoying the attention and purposely leading the man on.

It also results in a complicated relationship to her channeling, which often contradicts itself — in the first several books, Nynaeve experiences a mental block to channeling that only intense anger allows her to overcome, which doesn’t fit at all with the rules of saidar. She later overcomes her block after “surrendering” to the thought that she is going to die. After watching Nynaeve use her stubbornness and determination to survive much more intense situations than the one she gives up in, the moment actually seems a little ridiculous.

Ultimately, the narrative of the novels constantly asserts that women’s strength is in cooperation, manipulation, and other “soft” versions of power; it then doesn’t know how to handle the many female characters within the story that don’t fit that assertion. The challenge of the show is to maintain this separation when it is thematically relevant — the division between men and women caused by the corruption of the One Power, and how it weakens humanity as a whole, is one of the most important themes of the story — and improve upon it everywhere else.

So far, it is doing an admirable job. Liandrin — basically a cartoon villain in the novels — has quite a few moments where viewers may feel empathy for her, such as after Kerene’s death, or when she tells Nynaeve that men “are rarely kind to little girls who show a spark of being greater than they are.” In the very next scene, Eamon Valda justifies murdering Egwene by explain his fear and loathing of women who wield the One Power “like gods among men.” When Nynaeve’s stubbornness and fear of the Aes Sedai could have resulted in Mat’s death, there is no suggestion that the trait is “unwomanly” in some way, and she doesn’t start acting less like herself when she develops feelings for Lan.

And it’s not just the show’s female characters who are being freed from gender prison. It would have been better if the show had kept some of Mat’s playfulness, but the impulse to give him a parental connection to his young sisters is a good one. It is not just women who have a desire and an instinct to care for children, but male characters are not given this trait very often, and it makes Mat’s reticence to be involved with Moiraine (and his resistance to the possibility that he is the Dragon Reborn) more complex and relatable.

Rand, meanwhile, is shown to be loving, gentle, and kind — more traits that are too often denied to male characters. This tracks with the Rand in the books, but as his story progresses, the focus of the narrative seems to be solely on the burden of manhood and male leadership. Rand has to make decisions as a general, to sacrifice people or treat them badly in service of a greater end goal, and he struggles deeply with the pain of having to become “hard,” as he terms it. While his role in the TV series sometimes feels more sparse than the others’, the show definitely seems interested in developing this conflict without erasing the fact that his gentleness and desire to be kind and connected to others is a strength, not a weakness.

Rand and Mat from The Wheel of Time walking through the streets of Tar Valon Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video
Perrin and Egwene being surrounded by Whitecloaks on horseback in a forest in The Wheel of Time Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video
Lan and Stepin play-fighting in a still from Wheel of Time Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

We are seeing the show do exactly that with Lan. He is a very stern, self-possessed character with a tragic backstory. He speaks little (as several characters have observed), and puts duty above all else in his life. He is also deeply loving and can be very gentle, but this character trait takes a back seat in the novels — in the same way Rand’s gentleness does — to a focus on the burden of being a man. This onus of male violence, male duty, and male aggression is heavy on all the main male characters, but it fails to be an interesting theme because the narrative doesn’t unpack it. Instead, the books continue to insist that this is just the way things are, an immutable fact of gender, just as it is an immutable fact of saidin.

As with the other men, the show has allowed Lan to demonstrate more of his gentle and caring side. It has focused on his friendships with other Warders, allowed him to share quiet moments with Nynaeve, and depicted him as openly proud and admiring of Moiraine. It has even had moments where he goes to her for comfort and strength, firmly establishing the Warder/Aes Sedai bond as a two-way connection, one that doesn’t leave Lan emotionally repressed and unhealthy.

When a fellow Warder dies in episode 5, the show leaves space for Lan to grieve. It feels like a balm, considering that the books treated such moments as footnotes; something had been fixed in his soul and in mine. And the funeral scene is not a departure from Lan’s original character, either. He is not losing control of himself, but rather, enacting a ritualistic expression of grief in service of all the Warders, who have lost a brother.

But Amazon’s The Wheel of Time goes beyond merely liberating characters from some false binary. Reincarnation is a fact in the novels, but since the gender binary is literally written into the elemental forces of the universe, it is perhaps unsurprising that souls are said to have immutable genders that do not change from incarnation to incarnation. And so, the soul known as the Dragon is always a man.

The last incarnation, Lews Therin Telamon, managed to save the world from the Dark One’s threat, but also caused the Breaking of the World when the Dark One managed to corrupt saidin. In the books, when Moiriane arrives in the Two Rivers, only Rand, Mat, and Perrin have the ability to be Lews Therin reincarnated, or what they call “the Dragon Reborn.” Egwene and Nynaeve are never contenders, and are not even said to be ta’veren — special people the Wheel uses to manipulate threads of the Pattern — like all three of the boys are. In a series in which only women can use magic, and do much, if not most, of the heroic work, they are never as symbolically significant as the male protagonists.

So far, the show has only hinted at what exactly happened before the Breaking of the World, but the basic outline of events seems to be the same, even if the details of what Lews Therin did may end up being altered. Either way, the fact that only the male half of the Power is tainted becomes more interesting when the Dragon might be reborn as a girl — it would be much easier for the forces of the Light if Egwene or Nynaeve turned out to be the next savior of mankind, and the Aes Sedai wouldn’t have to deal with a Dragon who will be corrupted and perhaps destroyed by the taint.

The tweak might not mean much, plot-wise — it seems unlikely that The Wheel of Time on TV will have a different Dragon Reborn than in the novels — but even knowing that the Dragon could have been a girl changes the universe in fundamental ways. The savior of the world and champion of the Light has been a woman in times past and times yet to come. Gender is not so immutable a fact of nature that even death and rebirth cannot shake it. Being male isn’t inherently necessary to being the strongest channeler or best warrior against the Dark One. Listening to that opening monologue from Moiraine, I felt the way Logain did when he saw Nynaeve channel for the first time. I thought I knew the world I was in; I thought I knew the rules by which I was being constrained. Instead, I saw a universe of power and possibility. Anyone can be the savior in The Wheel of Time.

The core Wheel of Time cast — Nynaeve, Mat, Lan, Moiraine, Egwene, Perrin, and Rand — walking across a field Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

And who knows, maybe the show will choose to be truly bold and do something very different from the novels down the line. Not only have the writers added in the concept that the Dragon might be reborn as a woman, they have also slightly altered how confident Moiraine and Siuan are in the prophecy foretelling the Dragon’s birth. He’s supposed to be a certain age, but Nynaeve is so powerful that Moiraine feels like they can’t discount her as a candidate. Moiraine even raises the possibility of a “many-headed” Dragon — one soul split into several bodies — after hearing it from a gleeman somewhere. She points out that the Dark One seems to know no more than they do. It almost feels as though she is talking to the fans of the books when she advises Mat, Rand, Perrin, and Egwene to forget everything they think they know about the Dragon Reborn.

The Wheel of Time novels presents us with a narrative that claims that men and women are fundamental opposites, to the point of being consistently confused and frustrated by the other, and believing that the other gender must be controlled in a variety of ways. But it also claims, through the mechanism of saidin and saidar, that they are fundamentally necessary to each other, that only by cooperation can they truly achieve greatness. There is little room in such a narrative for same-gender love, just as there is little room to allow truly brilliant characters to escape the constraints of heteronormativity and gender stereotypes.

The depth of things like Siuan and Moiraine’s relationship in the books — dubbed “pillow friends,” which is basically the Tower’s version of the “gay until graduation” trope applied to all-women’s schools, or the “brothers in arms” relationships experienced by soldiers — gets shortchanged in favor of reinforcing the need for women and men to come together. But the TV series has chosen a different path, and a different narrative. We already encountered a queer and polyamorous relationship between Alanna and her Warders in episode 4, and the other Warders’ easy acceptance of it paves the way for more queer relationships in future episodes. Moiraine and Siuan’s relationship is treated with respect, and as an important part of their identities.

The show may make mistakes along the way — as it did when it invented a wife for Perrin that didn’t exist in the novels, just to kill her off in service of his journey — but ultimately, it has embraced a broader worldview, one that makes space for every type of person. They are not inherently limited by their gender, or their sexuality, or whether they can touch the True Source. And that is fitting, not only because it reflects our real world, but also because it reflects what the novels say when they are at their best: Everyone is part of the Pattern, spun out by a Wheel that is driven, not by two disparate forces, but One Power.