Not THE Ending, but AN Ending
Delayed reactions to the Wheel of Time first-season finale
I actually watched the first-season finale of The Wheel of Time very shortly after it dropped, streaming it on Christmas Day in my parents’ basement, The Chromebook I watched it on has a tense relationship with their wi-fi, though, which both compromised the viewing experience (about a three-minute stretch of buffering at one key moment) and kept me from writing it up. I re-watched it while biking to nowhere yesterday, though, and thus you get to hear my Thoughts on the finale, and the season as a whole.
The TL; DR version is that I liked the show for what it is, and would recommend it to anyone willing to have an open mind about that. If you’re really wedded to the specific details of the books, you’ll have a lot of trouble with it because it’s a pretty loose adaptation, but if you’re willing to roll with it, it’s got some good stuff. More detailed discussion is below, but spoilers abound, so if you don’t like those, don’t read further.
Well, they definitely made some… Choices when adapting The Eye of the World, didn’t they?
On the whole, I think that most of what they did is defensible in at least one of two ways. First, that video is a very different medium than prose, and they needed to make some very significant changes to accommodate those difference, and second, that the first book is really a bit of a muddle already, particularly at the end, and could seriously use some cleaning up.
The big difference here is that books by their nature give you access to the interior voice of at least some of the characters, which Jordan uses very effectively through a limited set of tight POV sections— in the first book, I believe it’s just Rand, Perrin, and Nynaeve who get chapters of their own. This lets you see the internal struggles or Rand and Perrin as they grapple with being away from home for the first time, and on the run from dark forces. (Later books broaden this out to a much wider range of characters, some of which work better than others…)
A TV show is necessarily more external, and one with a big ensemble demands some different narrative choices to make sure that the audience gets more of a feel for more of the cast. Given that, it makes a lot of sense for the cast to be split up during the finale, with Rand and Moiraine at the Eye, Perrin and Loial in Fal Dara, and Egwene and Nynaeve defending the city with the One Power, not to mention the sections focused on Lord Agelmar at the Gap. In the book, most of the large cast have nothing to do at the Eye, but that’s OK, because we’re seeing it all through the eyes of only one character, anyway; that just doesn’t play as well in a visual medium.
Those changes work very much to the benefit of Egwene and Nynaeve, who are given a meaningful role in the concluding action. Rand and Perrin, on the other hand, are ill served by these changes, because their struggles are mostly internal, and their stories really suffer from the loss of the interiority that’s inherent to the tight-first-person POV of the book.
They sorta-kinda address this with Rand by externalizing a lot of the conflict through the dream-world showdown with Ishamael. He at least gets to act against another person, and a visible manifestation of the temptation he’s facing. It doesn’t come off perfectly, because Josha Stradowski just looks confused and/or concerned through most of it; the most charitable interpretation of this is that he’s just been given really limiting material to work with, and not asked to show much range, which is a weakness in the writing.
Perrin gets by far the worst of this, though, particularly since they made the choice to move up his struggle against the very idea of violence. This works well in the parts of the books where it comes up, because you get to see his internal monologue, but Marcus Rutherford gets no help from the script here. His Perrin just comes off as ineffectual and kind of dim, which is a real disservice to a character who’s great through the first four books. (It should be noted that I am very sensitive to the “Big Equals Dumb” trope in pop culture, which comes up here in a major way…)
Egwene and Nynaeve spend the critical moments of the finale grimacing in front of a green screen, which is pretty limiting, but they both get some good moments elsewhere, Zoë Robins in the earlier scene with Daniel Henney as Lan, and Madeleine Madden as the dream-world Egwene. And even the green-screen grimacing is a big step up from what their characters get in the conclusion of the first book.
And then, of course, there’s Sir Hastily-Written-Out-of-the-Finale, Mat Cauthon. This is a shame, because I thought Barney Harris did a nice job in the earlier episodes (admittedly, he was given a bit more to work with). They’ve done a pretty good job of writing around him leaving the show for unclear reasons (and the lack of even rumors about why the character was recast is impressive in this day and age), but there’s a definite hole in the plot where he ought to be.
Anyway, I thought the closing episode worked pretty well for wrapping up the show as what it is, which is to say a scaled-down, better-suited-to-television adaptation of the first book. Stepping back a bit, I think the season as a whole worked reasonably well, but would’ve been better served by having a couple more episodes to let the characters breathe a bit more. For a bunch of reasons, they needed to give more screen time to Moiraine and Lan— and Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney do great work with their characters— but that means the Two Rivers Five get kind of short shrift.
Some of this will naturally get taken care of in the second season (which is now filming), and it’s kind of fun to speculate about how they’ll hit the necessary plot beats for the next couple of books (some of which I’ll put below). All in all, I think this is a reasonably promising start, and I’m glad they’re getting the chance to continue it for at least a little while longer.
Miscellaneous Other Thoughts:
— The production design team is clearly working hard to steer away from Generic Medievaloid Fantasy Europe, which is kind of nice.
— As a book reader, it’s fun to see Uno Bloody Nomeshta appearing, but 1) why is he the only white dude in Shienar? and 2) why is he flexing all the time?
— I assume that the cliffhanger apparent deaths of Uno and Loial will be fixed by Egwene and Nynaeve healing them between seasons. This is so obvious a move that it really negates any impact of their deaths.
— That said, Johann Myers’s Padan Fain was kind of fun. In the way that slimy villains often are.
— Among the limited-screen-time cast, Kate Fleetwood’s Liandrin does a great job of being the Red Ajah bitch on wheels that the story needs, and Kae Alexander’s Min is very good, but Sophie Okonedo as Siuan Sanche wins the season in a walk.
— They’ve pared back the mythology quite a bit, which makes a lot of sense given the time constraints. It does create the impression that they know a whole lot less about what’s going on than even in the books, though, which is interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
— The Seanchan in the end-of-show stinger look nicely sinister. This is clearly setting up the next season to cover the key events of The Great Hunt, though the scattering of the Two Rivers boys is a bit of a challenge. My speculation: Rand wanders on his own, passing through Caemlyn where he meets Elayne (because I know that part has been cast), then somehow meeting up with Perrin who’s pursuing Padan Fain with folks from Shienar and presumably some Aes Sedai in the Verin role. Mat could be brought back in either through some random wandering of his own, or because he was caught by the Red Ajah and is offered a chance to redeem himself by tracking the Shadar Logoth dagger that Fain’s carrying. Moiraine is away for most of that book, which is set up nicely by her being shielded in the show; she can go somewhere and do research into how to undo that and in the process generate a lot of exposition about the Forsaken and other bits of history. Egwene and Nynaeve can go to the White Tower and follow more or less their same plot line from the book, getting sold out by Liandrin or another Black Ajah.
Of course, having written that out more or less guarantees that none of it will work out that way… If you’d like to have my reaction to this being proved wrong turn up in your inbox as soon as it happens, here are some buttons you might click:
And if you’d like to leave a record of your own wild speculations, the comments will be open.