Recap: The Wheel of Time: Episode 1, “Leavetaking,” Covers a Lot of Ground and Does It Well
“The arrogance,” Moiraine Sedai pronounces in the opening moments of Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, condemning “men who believed they could cage Darkness itself,” leaving “the women of the Aes Sedai to pick up the pieces.”
With that and one set of Bi Panic™-inducing leather suspenders, the creators announce this is not going to be anything like the misogynistic fantasy television we’ve seen before. From the first moment, we leap headfirst into the expansive setting as Moraine and her Warder, Lan Mandragoran, search for the prophesied savior—or destroyer—of the world.
This pilot needs to cover a lot: ground us in the setting, illuminate some of the mechanics of how this world works, introduce seven characters, set up their relationship dynamics, and end with a battle fought on multiple fronts in several locations. That the showrunners managed to do all this cohesively in 54 minutes is impressive.
Even the second sequence is a firehose of information: Aes Sedai—this world’s magic users—do not work in lock-step with each other toward a singular purpose, but instead have different motivations and beliefs. An extended landscape pan reveals elegantly twisting, but overgrown, skyscrapers, illuminating how this world is not vaguely medieval but post-apocalyptic. The magic system is closely related to gender, and men who can touch it are doomed to go “nuclear” (to use an apt metaphor), and finally, Moiraine is headed to a place full of history called the Two Rivers—all squeezed into less than three minutes.
Once we’re in the Two Rivers, we first meet Egwene and Nynaeve during Egwene’s Women’s Circle initiation ceremony. Nynaeve is the village Wisdom—a leader, teacher, healer, and semi-priest who glows with pride at her charge’s accomplishments, as well as being fiercely protective of everyone under her care. Egwene is a self-possessed and capable young woman just entering adulthood, facing an age-old question: career or family? Self-actualization or domesticity? Her decision to apprentice under Nynaeve as Wisdom—a role that precludes marriage—throws her fiancé for a loop.
That would be Rand, a mountain shepherd whose desires are simple: keep sheep, marry Egwene, raise a family. He makes up one third of his core friend group and plays the role of “hopeless romantic.” (His pining and besotted grins, all directed at Egwene, are adorable.) Perrin, a blacksmith, is the steady one: already married and settled, he’s somber and serious, concerned about things like a war in Ghealdan. Mat, the last of the three, is mischievous, quick-witted, has money issues, and is utterly devoted to his younger sisters with a strong sense of responsibility and duty to others, no matter how much he tries to cover it up with sass.
We pick up the threads of these characters during the Two Rivers’ version of New Year’s Eve: Winternight, celebrated the evening before Bel Tine. Winternight festivities are in full swing at the Winespring Inn when Lan and Moiraine abruptly enter during a heavy storm, when it’s clear no one in town was expecting anyone else.
The appearance of strangers—an Aes Sedai and her Warder, no less—causes a stir, and most people are eager to see them gone while being carefully circumspect and exceedingly polite. Aes Sedai “pull the strings of the world from the White Tower,” Tam, Rand’s father, muses, implying that the presence of one in the Two Rivers is probably Bad News Bears.
He is unfortunately proven right the next evening when trollocs, genetically spliced half-breeds of humans and animals leftover from the War of Power and the Breaking, attack during the Bel Tine dances. They quite literally and viciously slaughter every villager they can get their maws into, and they’re not overly particular if their victims are dead before they start eating them.
Moiraine and Lan appear mid-battle and devastate the trolloc horde in a seamless dance of swordsmanship and the One Power, with Lan easily dispatching any trolloc who gets too close to Moiraine while she hurls lightning, fireballs, and boulders at the enemy. Even when pierced through the shoulder with a trolloc-size dagger, she merely rips it out and keeps going.
Perrin and his wife, Laila, square off against two trollocs in the smithy while Mat desperately searches for his sisters in the pandemonium; Egwene and Nynaeve attempt to administer first aid to those they can rescue; and up the mountain Tam fights off another trolloc with a shocking amount of finesse for a backwoods shepherd while wielding a heron-marked blade.
During the battle, Nynaeve is snatched and dragged away by a trolloc, and Perrin, in a haze of terror and adrenaline, mistakes the sudden noise and movement behind him for the second trolloc when it is, instead, his wife, who dies in his arms with his axe embedded in her abdomen.
The next morning reveals why Moiraine has come to the Two Rivers: She, as well as the trollocs who descended on their town last night, is searching for the Dragon Reborn—and that person is either Mat, Rand, Egwene, or Perrin. Another trolloc army is already on their way, and if these four want anyone they love left alive, they have to leave. Immediately.
Longtime Wheel of Time readers can tell there’s an incredible amount of compression happening here, as this episode covers at least two hundred pages of events and world-building. While the fifteen-book-series’ author, Robert Jordan, depended heavily on inner dialogue and focused almost myopically on his characters’ interior emotional struggles, this medium has no such ability. Instead, we are given concrete, understandable, and sympathetic motivations for our main cast that translate well into the 21st century.
First: Egwene. I am not unbiased; Egwene has always been my favorite, but Robert Jordan neglects her character development for a book and a half. For most of The Eye of the World, all we know about her is that she’s down for adventure. Just from this first hour of the series, we know Egwene is driven, talented, and conflicted but ambitious; she’s informed by a strong understanding of what she wants.
Of all the changes they’ve made, my favorite is probably in Nynaeve, who I struggled to warm up to in the books. Her dynamic with Moiraine is fraught at the best of times, but never clearly explained outside of “vague backwoods superstition.” Now, we know why. Her adoptive mother bitterly remembers being rejected by the Aes Sedai her entire life, and Nynaeve is now carrying that chip on her shoulder. She will protect the people she loves from the White Tower, and Light help anyone who gets in her way.
All Rand wants is a simple life and simple happiness, but he is doing his best to be understanding and supportive of the women he loves. He’s close with his father and cares deeply for his lifelong friends. He’s an accomplished woodsman and archer, stubborn as a mule, and not easily intimidated—even by a mysterious Aes Sedai.
Mat’s sense of duty and responsibility, especially to his sisters and friends, is his driving force. He’s extremely protective and will go to any lengths necessary to fulfill his sense of obligation, even if those lengths are not always ones others would approve of or understand (like fencing a stolen bracelet to a certain whistling peddler with dubious motivations). There’s a clear conflict between what he wants for himself, his duty to others, and how he wants to be perceived.
Perrin is probably one of the most difficult characters to adapt. Likely because of that, the showrunners made the most significant change to his backstory: He begins the episode a husband and ends a widower—with an intense self-hatred focused on his own capacity for violence and a desperate need to keep everyone around him safe, even from himself.
That’s an incredibly important through line for his character, so while I am decidedly Not Thrilled with the decision to marry Perrin to a formerly-background character just to kill her off … I can understand the reason. With some heavy side-eye.
Moiraine, a complicated and sometimes unnerving woman, is yet crystal clear in her purpose: What the Dark One wants, she opposes. No matter the cost.
And finally, Lan helps with that. Also, he has a very sexy butt.
(featured image: Amazon Prime Video)
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