Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and their guests dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, our own Aes Sedai, Caro Perny of the Publicity Ajah, muses on the trailer for Rafe Judkins’ adaptation of The Wheel of Time, trailers in general, and how we cope with an unknowable future.
If I’ve learned anything from my lifelong obsession with fantasy, it’s that liminal spaces are uniquely powerful things. SFF media is littered with stories about crossroads and life-altering riddles, fae appearances at dawn, the veil between worlds thinning at dusk—but all of those seem anachronistic in our modern world. In the present day, I’d argue that there is no liminal space quite so powerful as the time between the release of a trailer and the actual airing of the story it corresponds to. Simply put, trailers are a glimpse into the future where we as the viewer are required to fill in the blanks—both about the story being told, and who we’ll be when the telling happens. That’s what makes them so powerful.
One need only look at the direction that media has gone in for proof; years ago, trailers were a thing to be skipped while you waited in line for popcorn at the movies. Now though, they’ve become their own mini media events, with teaser trailers and trailer reveals tied to major cultural events like giant fan conventions, or the Superbowl. Major franchises see trailer views in the millions mere hours after releasing them online, and fans light up various forms of social media discussing and dissecting every last potential Easter Egg. Right now, for example, there’s an enormous supply of hype over the arrival of Amazon’s Wheel of Time—a book series that, whether I like it or not, imprinted itself upon me as a young reader. But for all the excitement and the extensive media coverage, there hasn’t been any proof yet as to what the show might hold and that’s exactly where the particular magic of trailers comes to life.
A series as extensive as The Wheel of Time holds countless opportunities for pedantic one-upsmanship and metaphorical pissing contests about who remembered which detail best—but once the full trailer for the series dropped, a beautiful scarcity of knowledge was created; the source material may span across fourteen absolute book units, but once the trailer drops, everyone has the same two-minute clip to refer back to. It’s like a professor telling you that you can skip a chapter of your assigned reading, so long as you show up to the discussion.
From the moment we gaze upon Moiraine Sedai’s ageless face and listen to Siuan Sanche command her to “swear her oaths,” it’s clear that there is astounding attention paid to little details from the books, from the way that magic presents as semi-invisible “weaves,” to what the Oath Rod looks like (for those who don’t know, this is essentially a magical lie detector that also makes you keep your promises, and it’s supposed to look like a fancy carved up femur).
It’s impossible to know exactly what all the little details included will be, what they’ll all mean—and it’s equally impossible to predict exactly how the show will approach major plot points. The books are ostensibly about an entirely average Chosen One character, Rand al’Thor; but based on the trailer, the show will be focusing more on Moiraine Sedai, the magical badass who takes him away from his shepherd life. Yet there’s no way to really be sure until the series airs. The possibilities seem endless, which is always alluring—but what’s even more enchanting is the concept that, just for this short span of time between the release of the trailer and the premier of the show, all of my speculations could be true.
Listening to Rosamund Pike’s dulcet tones hypnotically reciting the three oaths of the Aes Sedai, it certainly seems that Moiraine and all the women of Wheelieworld are centered much more than Bland al’Thor. Sure, sex is cool, but have you ever gotten a chance to speculate wildly and without consequences? Welcome to trailer town, my friend! Until The Wheel of Time is readily available for viewing, my fan theories about the eradication of bioessentialism in Randland might still be true, and my hopes for the femme-first focus could still come to pass. Sure, people can tell me how wrong I am, but they can’t prove it.
But those aren’t all the spokes on the great wheel (forgive me, I had to). There’s a much more elusive aspect to why trailers hold so much weight in our culture, and it hinges on mental health. I just played the WoT trailer for the seventh time today (I didn’t even cry this time, please clap). As my bemused partner walked into the room, I felt a need to justify myself: “You know I’m going to entirely lose my mind when this comes out, right? We have to cancel all our plans and watch it all AS SOON AS IT DROPS.” When I said those words, I fully meant them; I am preparing to make a Bingo card for every time I think a character is hot (I’m going to absolutely slay at bingo, I think).
But this version of the future I’m imagining is just as fantastical as a world where blacksmiths talk to wolves and witches hurl lightning at monsters. I’m imagining a version of the future where I’m able to drop all my plans and watch—and enjoy!—this show that will be hugely significant for me. In my head, we’ve made a nice dinner, and are eating it while watching. Our dog and cat are with us, and they magically do not hate each other, they are incredibly invested in the fate of the trollocs. Our apartment is effortlessly clean, and we are not tired, we are able to have a scintillating conversation dissecting every aspect of this show before getting a restful eight hours of sleep.
Not to point out the obvious, but as we’re going into our third pandemic winter, more and more studies are coming out about the overall effect on mental health. One of the ones I’ve dealt with is that watching shows or movies that I don’t know the ending to gives me a new and exciting form of anxiety. We all have precious little free time to spare, and I’m terrified of wasting mine on a show that isn’t good. I need the guaranteed rush of serotonin that a re-watch gives me—but when I watch a trailer, I get to indulge in an idea of myself as a person who doesn’t have anxiety, who can consume media as it airs and be part of the cultural conversation surrounding it.
Maybe that’s an overly dramatic way of looking at a highly produced video clip, but I don’t think that makes it any less true. Trailers are like coloring books for our brains; we can color future stories in whatever shades we want them to be, and no one can tell us we’re wrong. And so what if we color outside the lines a bit and add a little background, as a treat? It’s got all the DIY-allure of fanfic, without any of the work. If humans are just cucumbers with anxiety—and I think we can all agree that we are—then it makes sense that we think about the future all the time; we have to. We have to plan our lives out, budget our money, schedule our time, and we essentially gamble with the coin of our wellbeing. So of course trailers are a refuge: not only is it entertainment, but it’s guilt-free, effortless speculation that’s harmless. Which is why I firmly believe that the real Wheel of Time is actually just the trailers we watched along the way.
Caroline Perny has probably threatened to fight you at some point, and she feels that this is enough to qualify her as an Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah.