We are living through peak Lore Explainer TV. The twin successes of Game of Thrones and the MCU have given rise to an explainer industrial complex, one that thrives off high-profile genre adaptations and the curiosity they inspire. There’s nothing wrong with this; I, for one, owe at least part of my career to this phenomenon, and I can’t be too mad about something that pays my rent.
However, as time has marched on, the work of adaptation has started to creep more toward the realm of expansion, as genre epics increasingly exist to complement each other more than they stand alone. This can be obvious, like the way nearly every frame of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is crafted with the assumption of Tolkien expertise (or proximity to it), or less so. House of the Dragon, for example, was frequently compelling television, but structured in a way that pushed viewers back to George R.R. Martin’s text to understand the finer points of its political maneuvering.
The Wheel of Time exists somewhere between these two extremes. Much of its first season echoed The Rings of Power in both its plot (finding a Good Guy and a Bad Guy with Important Destinies and their identities obscured at a pivotal point in their fantasy histories) and in the way they played primarily to a knowing audience, trying to outsmart book readers with their ultimate destinations when they might have been better off focusing on the journey.
Season 2 of the show, which premieres with its first three episodes today, focuses on that journey. To continue the Tolkien comparison, it’s The Wheel of Time in The Two Towers mode. Its cast is spread to the wind, their motivations interrogated, while the nature of what they’re fighting against is reevaluated. This in turn affords The Wheel of Time space to be satisfying television, focusing on characters Going Through It in between big plot machinations.
As things stand now, Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), the magic-wielding Aes Sedai who endeavored to find the messianic Dragon Reborn, is unmoored, magicless, and maintaining the lie that Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), the prophesied Dragon, is dead. He’s not, but he is isolated from his former traveling companions and questioning his fate. Meanwhile, his four friends, who Moiraine had gathered in season 1 after suspecting they each might be the Dragon, are all on their own individual journeys.
For Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden), their journey takes them to the White Tower, where they are undergoing training to join the matriarchal Aes Sedai order. Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) hits the road with a group of fighters who eventually encounter a powerful new force that arrived in the final moments of last season. And Mat (Dónal Finn, taking over from last season’s Barney Harris), the traitorous member of the team that was under the influence of an evil dagger, goes through detox in a dungeon.
In its first three episodes I previewed, The Wheel of Time leaves ample room to simply be a fantasy drama, particularly when it comes to Nynaeve’s training and Moiraine’s new status quo. They’re opposite sides of the same coin, as the former struggles with her potential for power and the latter grieves her lost power — and what that means for her relationship with her Ward, al’Lan (Daniel Henney), who is also at a loss now that his magical connection to Moiraine is severed. The show is less grounded when it focuses on its male cast members, simply by virtue of positioning them all in plot-critical locations where big things are going to happen, eventually. But for now it’s all foreboding.
But just because The Wheel of Time has a refreshing focus on character doesn’t necessarily mean it’s abandoning its ambitions of being a fantasy epic. Most episodes are a full hour in length, and much of those hours can feel tedious as characters debate the finer points of the One Power, the source of this world’s magic, and what everyone’s role is in the conflict against the Dark One. For every dynamic the series is able to artfully show, there are three more that it can’t help but tell.
This is nigh unavoidable when it comes to big fantasy adaptations — eight hourlong episodes is a lot more time to work with than, say, a movie, but it still doesn’t compare to the expansive approach a series of novels can bring. What makes The Wheel of Time feel so laborious at times is the way that its themes still feel underserved, as its uniquely (and rather fraught) gendered approach to fantasy magic, where women are the only wielders of the One Power and men who try inevitably go mad, feels ripe for subversion that never comes. Even in this matriarchal setup, among this cast of predominantly women, the normative order asserts itself, as the world bends its attention to the fate of the blandest man on the show.
Yet there’s still time, both in this season and, hopefully, in future years of the show. It’s right there in the title: The Wheel of Time is a story about cycles, and familiar patterns yield similar outcomes. The question then would be: Is breaking the cycle the goal of this story? Or is it just when the fun begins? If you’ve read the books, don’t tell me the answer. The Wheel of Time is better the less I need someone to explain it to me.