The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time are finally here!
Welcome to our weekly reviews for the The Wheel of Time series. Though the first three episodes dropped together, we’re going to talk about them separately! This review is for episode one: “Leavetaking.” The next review for episode two, “Shadow’s Waiting,” will go up in six hours, and the review for episode three, “A Place of Safety,” will show up tomorrow at 10am ET. (Each subsequent review will be available on the Saturday after the episode airs.)
(This review contains spoilers for “Leavetaking,” the first episode of The Wheel of Time TV series. It may also contain some references to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels—I will do my best not to talk about important plot or character points from the books that will result in spoilers for the future of the show, but as opinions on what constitutes a spoiler may vary from person to person, consider this a general warning. Please note that the comment section may also contain spoilers for those unfamiliar with the book series.)
The episode opens as Moiraine Damodred (Rosamond Pike) readies herself for traveling. We’re told that long ago men gifted with great Power tried to cage Darkness. In the fallout of this attempt the world was Broken, and the women of the Aes Sedai were left to pick up the pieces. Now, the man responsible for the Breaking, the Dragon, has been born again. No one knows where, but they are coming of age now, and must be found. She walks out as Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) falls into step beside her.
Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) sits on a cliff by a river with Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) and a group of women. As Egwene’s hair is braided, Nynaeve explains that the braid connects Egwene with those who have come before her. She tells Egwene to be strong before shoving her off the cliff. Egwene struggles at first, then calms and floats on her back down the river until she reaches shore, where she lies gasping for breath.
Rand (Josha Stradowski) and his father Tam al’Thor (Michael McElhatton) make their way down the mountain path, reminiscing about Rand’s childhood love of Egwene. Rand joins his friends Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) for a drink at the inn while Mat loses all of his money at dice. Egwene arrives, to much cheering from the assembled villagers. Later, the door suddenly bursts open and Lan comes in from the rain, introducing Moiraine. She flashes her ring, showing that she is Aes Sedai. Nynaeve sends Perrin home to his wife, Laila, who is working alone in their forge.
After the party, Rand brings up how he’s been a “lovesick puppy” for Egwene since they were kids, and they kiss. They go to bed together, but afterwards Egwene admits to Rand that Nynaeve has offered her an apprenticeship. Rand is upset because Egwene will have to choose between marriage and a family, or becoming the village Wisdom, and leaves. Mat takes his mother, who is drunk, back to their ramshackle house and comforts his two little sisters. The next morning, he tries to sell a stolen bracelet to a merchant named Padan Fain (Johann Myers). Egwene admits to Rand that she’s chosen to become a Wisdom.
Back at their mountain farm, Tam and Rand light a lantern, meant to guide deceased loved ones back to the world. Tam talks about how the Wheel spins everyone’s lives, and how no one can know how long it takes to be reborn or why they can’t remember their previous lives. All they can do is their best, and know that no matter what happens, the Wheel will spin on and they will have another chance to do better. In the village, others set lanterns afloat on the river.
A celebration begins in the village, but Lan warns Moiraine that there is a Fade and dozens of Trollocs nearby, and they need to leave immediately. Moiraine admits that she doesn’t know which of the four possibilities is the Dragon. The Trollocs attack, slaughtering villagers right and left. Nynaeve drags Egwene out of harm’s way, and the two try to help the injured. Mat realizes that his sisters are missing and finds them, hurrying them off to hide in the woods; Perrin and Laila take refuge in the forge. Up on the mountain, Tam and Rand are also attacked. Tam drags a sword out from under his bed and uses it to fight off the Trolloc until he is overpowered by its brute strength and injured. Rand stabs it from behind with a fireplace poker.
Lan and Moiraine step into the center of the turmoil as Moiraine uses her Power, attacking the Trollocs with fireballs, tendrils of air, and flung rocks and boulders. Trollocs burst into the forge, and Perrin and Laila defend themselves, but then Perrin, swinging an axe into a dead Trolloc, is startled by Laila behind him and slices into her abdomen. He holds her as she dies.
Nynaeve is suddenly grabbed and hauled out of sight by a running Trolloc. Moiraine takes a thrown dagger to the shoulder, but continues to draw more and more power until she is throwing the whole inn at the Trollocs, killing all of them. She collapses, Lan protecting her from debris.
The next day Rand arrives with Tam slung over a horse. Mat reunites his sisters with their parents and then runs to Perrin when he sees him carrying Laila’s body. Egwene brings over Moiraine, who heals Tam’s injuries with the Power. Rand accuses her of being connected to the arrival of the Trollocs, but Moiraine explains that they came for the same reason she did: She tells them of an Aes Sedai who saw glimpses of the future and foretold the rebirth of the Dragon, and it’s one of them—Mat, Perrin, Rand, or Egwene.
Up in the mountains they can see more coming, and Moiraine tells them that they must leave. The army of Darkness is coming for them, and if they want to protect their home they can’t remain in it. The four mount horses and ride out.
Can I just start by praising how beautiful the opening of this episode is? I will never tire of watching epic characters dress and pack for their quest, and we get so much submersion into the world from just a few moments and a quick voice-over. Voice-overs, in my opinion, can often be clunky and distracting, but this one is simple and effective, providing the perfect counterpart to watching Moiraine ready herself for her quest. Rosamund Pike brings a steady and majestic quality to Moiraine’s voice, slightly husky tones that carry power and gravitas in every syllable, and it’s as stunning an introduction to the character as the grand chamber in which she stands, or the determined look on her face as she slides her serpent ring onto her finger and her hood up over her head. This scene gives us a place to stand, the basis of the plot upon which our story will turn, and a grounding sense of the world we’ve just stepped into.
Viewers who are unfamiliar with the books will probably note that the opening and closing voice-overs of the episode are very reminiscent of Galadriel’s voice-over in The Fellowship of the Ring. This is intentional; Robert Jordan paid a great deal of homage to The Lord of the Rings, and viewers will catch many other moments in the early episodes of this series, both in dialogue and in various plot moments. It may also be worth noting that the end voice-over in this episode is lifted nearly verbatim from the beginning of the first chapter of The Eye of the World, which was published in 1990, long before Cate Blanchet’s Galadriel declared “history became legend… legend became myth.” So in a way the homage runs in both directions, if unintentionally.
The Wheel of Time series has a lot of characters to introduce us to, and in short order. The opening scene of “Leavetaking” shows us who Moiraine is even before we get to see her fight monsters—an adventurer, a hero, a half-Gandalf/half-Galadriel figure. And then in the next scene, where we see Red Aes Sedai chase down a man who can touch the Source, we start to get a sense of what she is up against. The context of what is being done to the man, and whether the women in red are allies or antagonists to Moiraine will come later, but our sense of the stakes, and of the fact that Moiraine is in some way separated in her quest from other women like her, is established right away—again, before we meet any monsters.
I think the episode also does a very good job of introducing us to Egwene, Perrin, Mat, and Rand. One of these four young people will turn out to be the Dragon Reborn, and all four will be deeply significant to the events to come, so it’s important for the viewer to have at least some spark of connection with them right away. Egwene’s life is perhaps the easiest for us to hook into. We meet her in a very important moment as she experiences a ceremonial rite of passage into adulthood and a traumatic dive into a rushing river. We also learn that she is at a personal crossroads, trying to decide if she will become an apprentice to Nynaeve and eventually the village Wisdom, a choice which means she won’t ever be married or have children. She and Rand are clearly in love, so this choice is painful and personal.
This rule that a Wisdom cannot marry is not in the books, but this little tweak does match Egwene’s journey and choices she makes later in the series. I think the change is an excellent one. The Egwene of the books has a great capacity for love, and is also quite determined, studious, and ambitious. Watching Egwene choose the path to becoming Wisdom, rather than the path to becoming Rand’s wife, tells us a lot about her personal ambitions and what she wants her life to look like. But we don’t lose the loving Egwene—Madden’s portrayal imbues the character with a quiet and attentive kind of tenderness that endeared me immediately to a character who, in the books, takes a bit of time to warm up to.
The character of Mat Cauthon, on the other hand, isn’t as immediately likable as he was in the books. This Mat is a sly, disreputable sort of character, with a standard “I’m dishonest because I have a terrible home life” set up, whereas the Mat of the books is more of a boyish scamp—a Pippin type, if you will. (We’re introduced to him via pranks he likes to play, often with Rand and Perrin as accomplices.) And I think that the way he’s portrayed here makes him a little too much of an empty trope. However, there are moments when he is with Rand and Perrin that are quite endearing, and I thought the scene where his two friends insist on giving Mat a few coins to buy lanterns for his sisters was especially well played. Also, the moment in which Mat told Perrin that Calle Coplin would “piss in your mouth and tell you it was raining” was absolutely perfect. So while Mat on his own didn’t grab me as a character, I did very much like how the close friendship between the three was immediately evident.
Rand is a bit harder to introduce, but the focus on his soft heart is a really good place to begin. There is something wonderfully “first love” about the berry moment with Egwene—when he produced the strawberry to show her that he’s still a “lovesick puppy” for her, only to get teased for carrying it in his pocket all day. It was very sweet, but also really funny. There is also a slight otherness about Rand in this episode—despite his friendships and his love for Egwene, despite his dreams about the house and family he will have one day, we almost feel that he is a little apart from everyone else. Part of it is in the way he and Tam live fairly far from the village, and choose to celebrate Bel Tine alone rather than with their neighbors. But it’s also in the way Josha Stradowski holds himself, and in the comparatively lighter colors that he wears. He’s the only red-haired person in the village. He stands out, just a little.
Perrin’s introduction is, in my opinion, the worst of the four. His backstory is the one that has been most changed from the books; Perrin doesn’t have a wife at the beginning of the story, and the screenwriters have taken a side character and made her into a different (and very cool) person—a blacksmith and Perrin’s wife—just so that they can fridge her as part of Perrin’s hero origin story. In the books, Laila Dearn is someone else’s wife, and Perrin does recall having once dreamed of marrying her. The narrative even suggests that she is the poorer for her current marriage, but that’s apparently not the case here: At least she didn’t get accidentally murdered by the guy.
Perrin’s struggle with his own capacity for violence and whether or not he can (or wants) to choose another path is a big theme for him in the first few books of the series, and one can see here that the writers are trying to set him up for that same journey. But I think this was a cheap way of doing so, and involves killing a female character off just to set up a male character’s pain. Don’t invent me a cool lady blacksmith and then just off her like that, The Wheel of Time!
I absolutely love the look of the show, and I have to say that they’ve really surpassed my own imagination when it comes to the look of the Two Rivers. These people really do live in the mountains, don’t they? Big, gorgeous mountains. I think the way the landscape shots are framed does an excellent job of showing how isolated these villages really are. When Moiraine tells the quartet that they have lived too long in the mountains believing that what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t affect them, you really do feel that it’s true. And when you have that sense of isolation to play off, it makes the arrival of Moiraine and Lan, not to mention the arrival of Trollocs, that much more shocking and poignant.
I have my complaints about how they changed Perrin, but there are tweaks the show makes that actually improve on the source material. Perhaps my favorite scene in the episode is the confrontation between Moiraine and Nynaeve in the sacred pool. It is a scene that functionally serves to deliver more plot and background—we learn about the former Wisdom traveling to join the Aes Sedai, for example, and hear the words “The White Tower” for the first time. But we also see a dynamic develop between the two women. We see how Moiraine works, hiding the truth of her search and the reasons of her questions, and we see how Nynaeve experiences the interrogation as an accusation about her age and the value of who she is. Her history with the Aes Sedai rejecting her old mentor gives Nynaeve a real personal reason to feel hostile towards Moiraine—a hostility that also exists in the books, but is made much clearer and easy for the audience to quickly key into. I think the tweaking will serve the story well. Also, their chemistry as antagonists was beautiful. I have to applaud both Pike and Zoë Robins on their work in this scene.
The show also brings a really clever bit of world building into the festival of Bel Tine. In the books it is only a festival to celebrate the arrival of spring (inspired by the Celtic festival Bealtaine), but the scriptwriters have added the concept of lighting lanterns to help guide the souls of those they lost back to the world to be reincarnated. This not only gives us the opportunity to learn more about what the Wheel is and how reincarnation works in this world, but also grounds the customs of the Two Rivers within their own mythology in a very moving way.
The action sequences are pretty good. A little too dark—to see, that is—but it’s not as egregious in The Wheel of Time as it has been in some other series. I really enjoyed watching Tam fight the Trolloc. I also really liked seeing the way the Emond’s Fielders rallied against the invaders, even though none of them had seen a literal monster before. Nynaeve’s focus on protecting Egwene and on trying to provide medical aid to injured villagers even in the middle of a slaughter shows us a great deal about who she is as a person, and also reinforces how important the bond is between the two women. Seeing Mat protect his sisters was also very moving. The Old Blood runs deep in the Two Rivers, as Moiraine observes to Lan, and we see it in the battle, even from side characters and unnamed townspeople in the background.
And then there’s Moiraine and Lan coming to fight. It’s what I’ve been waiting for since the series was announced, and I must say I am not disappointed. The scene does a really good job of showing how they work together, with Lan at Moiraine’s back protecting her as she brings the Power to bear against the Trollocs, both working as one without the need for words. In the books, women who can touch the Source are able to see when other women are doing it, perceive the “weaves” of the Power, but no one else can see anything beside the effects. And even within the narration there is very little description of what the weaves look like, so the show basically had free rein to design however they wanted. It’s a tricky thing. Viewers need some kind of visual cue, but too much quickly becomes silly. And opting for only hand gestures runs the risk of continually reminding one of Star Wars. I think that the choices made work well; Pike has clearly put a lot of thought and practice into how Moiraine moves as she weaves, and the way she seems to draw from fire, from air, from sky and stone, fits with the way the Power works in the books, made a little bit more literal for on-screen purposes.
Also, I can’t believe Moiraine’s finishing move is rocks. I don’t mean “it rocks” there, although it does, indeed. I mean it is literally throwing rocks! I can’t tell you how happy that made me.
In the books it’s stated that women who use the One Power tend to be stronger with water and air, while men tend to be stronger with earth and fire, which is a silly sexist trope that I’ve complained about before. Hopefully the show is going to get rid of a lot of the binary structure that permeates the world building, but even in the book, Moiraine is shown to have rather a strong affinity to working with earth, and I love that we see it here. There’s also something about smashing baddies with big chunks of brick and stone that rather defies stereotypical norms of femininity—Moiraine’s movements are graceful but the end result is just a bunch of gross thuds and crunches. I’m so enamored of it, and I can’t wait to see more channeling from her.
And finally, speaking of The Lord of the Rings homages, Tam’s speech to Rand about the Wheel was beautiful and moving. There is a quiet wisdom in Tam every time McElhatton has a line, and I especially liked that he not only said that ‘one can only do the best with the life they’re given,’ but that the turning of the Wheel and the resulting reincarnation means that one day, you’ll get the chance to do a little better. There’s some lovely foreshadowing in that as well.
And now our heroes are off, with an army of Darkness at their backs and only the slim hope of reaching safety. One of them is the Dragon Reborn, and the other three are all ta’veren, important players in the coming fate of the world. If they can survive that long.
Interesting Notes and Easter Eggs:
- “Leavetaking” is the title of Chapter 10 of The Eye of the World
- During the ceremony, Nynaeve tells Egwene that her braid connects her to all who came before her, and that when she is surrounded by darkness and has no hope, to feel the braid, and remember that all of the women of her village stand with her. For fans of the books, one of the greatest jokes is how often Nynaeve tugs or yanks on her braid when she’s upset. In one swift motion, the show has changed a bit of narration that Jordan overused to the point of amusing readers into a poignant and heartfelt gesture—I know I’ll be watching to see when Nynaeve touches her braid, seeking the strength of the women who came before her.
- Also, I like how different all the braids were—different women wear different styles of braid, showing that the tradition can be highly personalized. In an extra fun bit of tie-in, Egwene’s is a fishtail braid. Trust the river, indeed.
- Nynaeve wears a yellow skirt under her green tunic and brown outfit, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing for those in the know.
- For those not in the know, did you see the way the camera flashed in on the heron on Tam’s sword? Keep that in mind, it’s important!
- Um, the bath scene? Love seeing the chemistry there, the easy comfort and trust that Lan and Moiraine have with each other. Also, Daniel Henney is a fine, fine man.
- Favorite Quote: “Your life isn’t going to be what you thought.”
Tune back soon for episode two: “Shadow’s Waiting”!
Sylas K Barrett is a writer, actor, and long-time fan of epic journeys, heroes, and magic. You can find other reviews and op-eds here on Tor.com, including his ongoing Reading the Wheel of Time series, in which he reads the novels for the first time and engages in both critical analogy and a fair bit of fanboy glee.