This is a spoiler-free review of the first six TV series episodes of The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime.
The Wheel of Time is a new high fantasy streaming series launching on Amazon Prime.
Adapted from Robert Jordan’s fantasy series of the same name, the show is set in a world governed by magic and prophecy. The central character, at least for this first season, is Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike). A member of a mystic order known as the Aes Sedai, Moiraine is tasked with identifying the “Dragon Reborn,” a mystical figure whose long-promised return might just save the world – or damn it.
In the small village of Emond’s Field, Moiraine identifies five possible candidates to fulfill that prophesied role. However, the Aes Sedai are not the only ones looking to wield this power. When the evil forces of the Dark One ravage their peaceful community, Moiraine must guide her young wards on a dangerous journey across the fantasy landscape – where they will face threats both magical and mundane.
Because young pop culture phenomena are always framed in terms of past successes, the default point of comparison for The Wheel of Time has been Game of Thrones. The series has been repeatedly summarized as a contender to be “the next Game of Thrones.” This isn’t entirely fair. As any fan of Robert Jordan’s books will tell you, The Wheel of Time actually predates Game of Thrones, to the point that George R.R. Martin actually eagerly sought a cover blurb from Jordan for Game of Thrones.
Instead, The Wheel of Time was always compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Watching the three initial episodes, releasing on Friday, that influence is obvious. It plays through various plot points, with a magical and manipulative mentor figure leading four young villagers on an epic journey away from an idyllic existence and into danger. It carries through to imagery that seems lifted directly from Jackson’s films, particularly an early scene involving a river ferry.
At points, The Wheel of Time feels like a dress rehearsal for Amazon’s upcoming epic Lord of the Rings series. Wayne Che Yip serves as a director on Wheel of Time and had been made a co-executive producer on the upcoming Lord of the Rings, creating a clear bridge between the two shows. The Wheel of Time feels like a decidedly old-fashioned fantasy epic compared to the more modern sensibilities of something like Game of Thrones or even The Witcher.
The Wheel of Time works best when it leans into the sweep and scope of something like The Lord of the Rings, especially in the early episodes that follow the characters as they wander this vast world. The series shot on location in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia. It uses these locations well, creating a sense of scale and majesty to the adventure. The series demonstrates how television has evolved over the past decade, with this sort of production value becoming almost common.
The series looks impressive, as one might expect from a streamer like Amazon. Ondřej Nekvasil’s production design and Isis Mussenden’s costume work deserve particular mention. As one might expect, given Jordan’s source material, the world of the series feels both complex and developed. This is a fantasy epic governed by its own rules and internal logic. As with a lot of fantasy adaptations, The Wheel of Time spends a lot of early time on exposition, but it mostly works.
However, the season suffers somewhat in its middle stretch, as the scattered primary cast reassemble around a central location and the show moves into the realm of politics and scheming. These sequences invite comparisons to the early years of Game of Thrones, when the show lacked the budget of its later seasons. These dialogue-driven sequences suffer because the characters and the dialogue aren’t as compelling, with exposition and backstory often delivered via monologue.
The result of all of this is that The Wheel of Time can feel curiously stately, like a particularly lavish BBC production. In terms of tone and mood, it’s arguably closer to BBC co-production His Dark Materials than to Game of Thrones. It helps that the cast is stacked with reliable veterans of British film and television, particular Pike in the lead role. There are strong supporting turns from reliable British actors like Abdul Salis, Kate Fleetwood, and Sophie Okonedo.
To be fair, the early stages of these sorts of shows can be rough. There is a lot of world-building to be done and a lot of rules to be established. The Wheel of Time spends a lot of time doing the hard work of laying a foundation, but within the six episodes of the first season screened for critics, it doesn’t yet feel fully lived in. It seems like The Wheel of Time is a little too busy setting everything up for the next go-round.
The Wheel of Time is premiering November 19 on Amazon Prime. The first three episodes will be released as the premiere, with a new episode every Friday. Six of the eight episodes of The Wheel of Time season 1 were made available to critics for review.