‘The Wheel of Time’ Review: Amazon’s Fantasy Series Isn’t Great, but It Is Entertaining

In what feels like Amazon lowering the bar before "LOTR," this TV adaptation of popular fantasy novels works fine as a frivolous diversion (but nothing more).
The Wheel of Time Rosamund Pike Amazon Original Series
Rosamund Pike in "The Wheel of Time"
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video

For all its intricate world building, “The Wheel of Time” tends to spin smoothest if you don’t examine its pieces too closely. Take the logo, for instance. Circling the title at the end of each credits sequence is a dragon, woven into a circle, reminiscent of the ouroboros symbol — a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. It’s a fitting choice, given the emblem’s typical interpretation of life and death as an endless cycle of rebirth, and the series’ belief in a type of reincarnation, where men and women are but threads being spun into the Pattern of the Ages, which is turned forever by the Wheel of Time.

Except the actual “Wheel of Time” logo isn’t a dragon eating its own tail. It’s a dragon weaving forward, toward the screen, with its mouth open but the tail far in the distance. If you squint, you can actually see the dragon’s rear end in the middle of the circle, way behind its head. So… what does this symbol mean? Is it still designed to evoke ouroboros, even though the beast’s definitive beginning and ending contradict the symbol’s intent? Does that very contradiction speak to the power the dragon wields in the show, which centers around a search for “the Dragon Reborn,” who can save or destroy humanity? Or is it just… meaningless? Is the logo just gold and shimmery and cool, there to remind viewers of another fantasy show about dragons that they really enjoyed?

Asking questions like these is an easy way to derail a show like “The Wheel of Time.” Whether you literally hit the pause button to log each new vocabulary word or your brain simply can’t get past a a gaping hole in logic, too many queries can create an all-too-bumpy ride. But there is an alternative: Just go with it. Produced by Sony Pictures Television and Amazon Studios for a worldwide audience of Amazon Prime Video subscribers, the eight-episode first season features a lot of strange names and stranger creatures, along with plenty of magic problem-solving and silly CGI, but it’s also designed to be universally accessible. Exposition is repeated, characters fit familiar archetypes, and the plot hues closely to a traceable line.

Wheel of Time Amazon TV Show Josha Stradowski (Rand al’Thor), Barney Harris (Mat Cauthon)
Josha Stradowski and Mat Cauthon in “The Wheel of Time”Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video

Showrunner Rafe Judkins (“Hemlock Grove,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; he’s just trying to keep it spinning. If you’re a fan of the genre and just want to partake in the spectacle of an imaginary world filled with Not Orcs and Kinda Witches, you’re probably in for a decent time. (And if you’re a fan of Robert Jordan’s books, hoping these beloved novels will inspire TV’s next great fantasy show… well, lower your expectations.)

“The Wheel of Time” is led by Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a Gandalf-like figure who can see trouble ahead and gathers the necessary forces to help fend it off. Moiraine is a member of the Aes Sedai, an organization made up exclusively of women who can channel the One Power to heal people and fight the forces of darkness. (A few literal examples of their powers include ripping bricks from houses to throw at bad guys and creating whirlpools in rivers to drown their opponents.) But Moiraine’s main job is to identify and find the Dragon Reborn. All she has to go on is an age range and her magical intuition; the Dragon Reborn isn’t really a dragon — it’s a man or a woman who can be tempted by the Light or the Dark to save or destroy humanity (respectively).

Her quest, aided by Lan Mondragoran (Daniel Henney) her Warder (aka bodyguard), leads to a small town called Two Rivers and five of its inhabitants, any of whom could be the Dragon Reborn. There’s Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), a young barmaid who’s told she has a special ability to channel the wind; Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), a young man in love with Egwene who wants nothing more than a classic life on the farm with a wife and children; Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), who’s already well on his way to Rand’s dream, as a happily married young man; Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), a gambling addict and single father desperate to make a better life for his girls; and Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins), the daughter of a fisherman and Wisdom (a healer and local leader) who helps Egwene (and other women) find their path to the Light.

Not knowing which of the locals is the Dragon Reborn, Moiraine guides them all through a perilous journey to save the world, and this being a fantasy series geared toward adults, that means lots of chase scenes, sword fights, and sorcery. The CGI can be… a lot to swallow, especially in the premiere’s big battle, when an army of 10-foot tall werewolf hogs (which are technically called Trollocs) start tearing up the town, slurping up human intestines, and spewing out blood every which way. When Moiraine finally uses her magic to kill one, the visual effect looks like it belongs on “Xena: Warrior Princess” instead of a pricey Amazon original — a thought that crossed my mind a few times during the initial six episodes.

Wheel of Time Amazon Series Marcus Rutherford (Perrin Aybara), Madeleine Madden (Egwene al’Vere)
Marcus Rutherford and Madeleine Madden in “The Wheel of Time”Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video

Similar hang-ups arise when it comes to gauging intellect — there’s a cause-and-effect line of questioning in Episode 2 that any five-year-old would understand, yet it’s meant to educate an adult character (and, even worse, an adult audience) — as well as those infuriating moments when a person does something dumb only to serve the plot. There are also subjective quibbles to be made with certain loyalties to the book that just seem silly on television (like when the villainous Eamon Valda, a grown man played by Abdul Salis, insists on being called Child Valda), but these (many) drawbacks aside, I must say, “The Wheel of Time” isn’t bad.

It’s not perpetually grim, like too many hourlong dramas, nor is it stretched so thin it’s dull, like too many streaming series. A few twists are effective, enough characters are endearing (go get ’em Nynaeve), and Pike is an odd, absorbing centerpiece. Even when she sleeps through an episode (literally), the “Gone Girl” star gives just enough to keep you invested in Moiraine’s good health and grand plans. (The actor’s measured approach also helps keep the show from tipping overboard when select colleagues go way too big.)

Besides discovering who among the chosen five is the Dragon Reborn, there’s little motivation to encircle yourself in “The Wheel of Time” in perpetuity. Fantasy die-hards may be too frustrated by the adaptation’s clumsy follow-through (if they loved the books, whatever they imagined has to be more convincing than this), while casual viewers may find deeper satisfaction in other shows. (“The Witcher” Season 2 is almost here!) But if you can channel just the right spell to find its wavelength, “The Wheel of Time” has its charms.

Grade: C

“The Wheel of Time” premieres its first three episodes Friday, November 19 on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes will be released weekly, with the Season 1 finale debuting December 24.

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