It’s time to swear our
love fealty with a Sacred Oath Rod on this week’s excellent episode.
(These reviews might contain some minor spoilers for the Wheel of Time book series. Please note that the comment section may also contain spoilers for those unfamiliar with the book series.)
“The Flame of Tar Valon” opens in a fishing hut by a river, where Berden Sanche (Peter De Jersey) wakes his daughter Siuan (Keira Chansa) to go out fishing. Berden, who has only one hand, struggles to untie a knotted line until Siuan channels, using the One Power to free the tangle. Returning to shore, they find their hut burned to the ground and the Dragon’s Fang scrawled on the rubble. Berden decides to send Siuan to the White Tower, since it isn’t safe in Tear for girls like her.
Moiraine, Alanna, and Liandrin stand in the Hall of the Tower, surrounded by the leaders for the Ajahs. Leane (Jennifer Cheon Garcia) announces the Amyrlin Seat, a grown Siuan (Sophie Okonedo). Servants bring Logain to her. Siuan isn’t fooled by his attempts to bait her into killing him, and informs him that he will live out his days held up as an example to other False Dragons and men who dare to channel.
Alanna and Moiraine stick up for Liandrin’s decision to gentle Logain, and the Amyrlin reminds them that their laws exist to protect their people from the Aes Sedai, not the other way around. She blames Liandrin, which prompts Liandrin to bring up Nynaeve. When Siuan questions Moiraine as to the purpose of her travels, she refuses to answer. Siuan commands Moiraine to kneel and kiss the floor before her, then dismisses her to wait while Siuan decides her penance.
Moiraine secretly observes Loial and Nynaeve leaving Mat’s room. Lan and Moiraine go in; Rand is surprised that Moiraine is alive, but draws his sword to defend Mat from gentling. He is disarmed by Lan. Moiraine stops Mat from stabbing her with the ruby dagger using the One Power, then removes the shadow from inside him and channels it back into the dagger. Rand thanks her for taking on that evil for Mat, and they discuss the fact that this doesn’t necessarily mean that Mat isn’t the Dragon. Nynaeve and Loial return, and Moiraine upbraids Nynaeve for not telling her as soon as she found Mat.
Moiraine meets Maigan (Sandy McDade) in a steam room. Maigan claims that Siuan is losing her grip, and she knows about Moiraine sinking Taren Ferry. She tells Moiraine that they owe Siuan their protection and loyalty, and promises to intervene on Moiraine’s behalf. She also tells Moiraine that she is needed in the Tower, permanently. An informant in the Yellow Ajah leads Moiraine to where Perrin is recovering from his injuries. She assures Egwene that she knows Rand and Mat are alive, and Egwene returns Valda’s collection of rings to Moiraine. Egwene tells Moiraine about Perrin’s eyes and his connection to the wolves.
That night, Lan comes to Moiraine’s room, concerned because she masked their Bond. He doesn’t think she is safe in the Tower, but she tells him his first priority has to be protecting their friends from the Two Rivers. She uses the Power to open a secret doorway through a painting on her wall, and steps through into a room that looks like a fishing hut, where Siuan is working with twine.
Siuan complains about the display Moiraine forced her to put on in the hall, and about the risks Moiraine takes on. She reminds Moiraine that the Amyrlin is supposed to remain neutral, with no life or love of her own, only the seat. Moiraine points out that they have never followed the rules, and they kiss. Later they lounge in bed together, and Moiraine tells Siuan that she found five potential Dragons in the same village. She suggests bringing the other sisters into their secret, but Siuan reminds her that they’ll be stilled if any other sister finds out what they’re doing. Siuan says that she has been dreaming of the Dark One at the Eye of the World. She tells Moiraine to take all five to the Eye to defeat the Dark One while he’s still weak. Moiraine tells Siuan that she must sentence her to exile, and they bemoan the fact that they never have more time together.
Moiraine reunites Egwene and Nynaeve in the Hall of the Tower, then brings them to see Siuan. Egwene is respectful and Nynaeve is prickly, and Siuan tells them that the Wheel doesn’t care what they want, and that the fate of everyone rests on them. The Last Battle is coming.
Moiraine is sentenced to exile in the Hall, and commanded to swear obedience to the punishment and to the Amyrlin Seat on the Sacred Oath Rod. Moiraine swears, but specifically names Siuan, not the Seat, in her oath. The other Aes Sedai turn their backs to her as she exits the Hall and leaves the Tower. Outside the city, she meets with Loial in front of a huge stone structure as the Two Rivers folk and Lan ride up. Everyone greets each other, and Moiraine explains what is at stake—that they are going to travel the Ways to reach the Eye of the World, where one of them will face the Dark One and finish what the Last Dragon started. She channels, opening a dark doorway in the stone structure. Everyone steps in except Mat. As the doorway closes, everyone calls to him to hurry, but he only stands and watches.
This is a particularly difficult episode to recap because there is both a great deal of plot information as well as a lot of character work, especially for Moiraine. It’s also an absolute feast for the senses—I especially love the architecture of the Tower and the landscape around the river where Siuan grew up. Her theme music is absolutely beautiful as well.
As with the last episode, “The Flame of Tar Valon” is more focused on conversations between characters than action or battles. It shows some of the intricacies of White Tower politics with the introduction of Maigan and the role of the Amyrlin as both a kind of military leader as well as an almost spiritual figurehead, mimicking the structure of catholic nunneries right down to the way the Aes Sedai call each other sisters, the Amyrlin is “Mother” and they are her “Daughters.”
Siuan is an incredible character and beautifully introduced. Her background being so similar to Nynaeve and Egwene’s helps the audience hook into her immediately, and the performances by De Jerse and Chansa are particularly moving. Okonedo brings both a power and gravitas as well as a warmth and vulnerability to Siuan that is apparent in every scene, even before we learn about her true relationship to Moiraine. We see immediately why she is the Amyrlin when she so easily sees through Logain’s attempts to bait her into having him exiled.
On the other hand, Siuan seems to let Liandrin bait her very effectively. Liandrin’s reaction to being told that she will receive penance is like a childish teenager, and she immediately deflects by throwing Moiraine under the bus in a very transparent way. It seems that Siuan could have put off the public confrontation with Moiraine by pointing this out, but probably feared to do so because of the danger of appearing to show favoritism. The danger is real; given that Siuan was once a Blue, her enemies will no doubt be alert for any signs that she might favor her old Ajah—as Liandrin says during her accusation. What’s more, Siuan isn’t just hiding her personal relationship to Moiraine but also their partnership in hunting for the Dragon Reborn. When they are talking together she reminds Moiraine that the price for being found out will be stilling—being cut off from the One Power the way men are when they are “gentled.”
Pike and Okonedo do an incredible job in every one of their scenes together, and the reveal that Moiraine and Siuan are in a romantic relationship is an important moment of queer representation—they are not only gay women but middle-aged gay women. This also redresses a deep flaw in the books; Moiraine and Siuan are shown to have a very close, important relationship in the novels, especially the prequel New Spring, but their sexual relationship is treated in a homophobic way within the narrative; they do have a sexual relationship while they are students at the White Tower, but they are never said to be in love with each other. Directly after we learn about their previous sexual relationship, the narration goes very out of its way to have both of them reflect at length on their attraction to men, their desire to kiss men, etc.
The claim that same-sex relationships only exist as a poor substitute to heterosexual ones is often leveled at gay and queer people, and it’s something that I myself experienced when I fell in love with my college roommate. Siuan and Moiraine’s connection to each other was clearly deep and profound, even formulative of their characters and yes, platonic friendships can be all of that, as Moiraine and Lan’s partnership is. But the presentation of the “pillow friends” concept is a dig leveled at Moiraine by another Aes Sedai, and the way the narrative hurries to assure the reader that they are not actually gay is both obvious and painful for a queer reader. The Wheel of Time has redressed this issue here, and given two very excellent characters their due in a beautiful and satisfying way. The tragedy of their relationship is that duty keeps them apart, and it gives a beautiful weight to Siuan’s speech to Nynaeve and Egwene about how the Wheel doesn’t care about their youth or their fears, or what they want for their lives. No one knows the burden of duty more than Siuan and Moiraine, and there is such incredible pride in Moiraine’s eyes as she listens to Siuan speak.
And then, of course, there is the swearing on the Oath Rod, which basically comes across as a very emotionally fraught wedding ceremony, with Moiraine literally saying the words “to honor and obey” and then swearing her allegiance not to the Amyrlin Seat but to Siuan specifically. I have to wonder how none of the other sisters had questions about Moiraine’s alterations to the oath or the fact that Siuan had tears in her eyes while the whole thing was going down, but it’s worth it for the performance, and the perfect call back to Siuan’s forced departure from her home and her father as Moiraine speaks the same endearments he did.
The way Liandrin and Moiraine’s antagonism is presented in this episode almost seems to be implying that there was something romantic between them as well, or at least a friendship. She refers to Moiraine at one point as “old friend” which could be sarcasm, but is also reminiscent of Alanna using the same endearment. There is definitely something personal, not just professional, in her hatred of Moiraine, and I’m interested in learning more about it.
Liandrin also tells us that “the purpose of all Blues is to gather secrets and discover danger before it strikes” at the Aes Sedai and the Amyrlin. This is a slight streamlining of the way the Ajahs work in the books, and it is a very effective one. There is a deep dramatic irony in knowing that Moiraine and Siuan, a Blue and a former Blue, are doing exactly that, but the secrets are so deep and so dangerous that not even other Blues can know about it. Yet there is no greater secret than the identity of the Dragon, and no bigger danger than the Dark One’s attempts to find them. The gravity of the situation is driven home by the fact that the prophecies say that the Dragon will either defeat the Dark One or join him. Siuan is willing to sentence four innocent young villagers to death in order to send the Dragon to stop the Dark One. And Moiraine is willing to kill the Dragon herself rather than let them turn to the Darkness.
The character of Loial doesn’t feel like he is being given his due, and I imagine that fans who haven’t read the books might be confused as to why he is needed on this journey. In the novels, the Ways belonged to the Ogier and were built for them by the Aes Sedai. But Moiraine doesn’t need Loial to open the Ways for her as she did in the books, so one wonders what his role is here—if he is needed to guide them through the Ways at all, or if perhaps the show will be giving him an entirely different purpose. Whatever happens, I hope we get to know the character better soon.
The show is doing some very interesting things with Mat. I still wish that he had been given a more lighthearted side, as a compliment and contrast to the “darkness inside him” as Moiraine puts it. One wonders the cost of his refusal to enter the Ways with the others, and Moiraine’s reminder that the prophecies say that the Dragon might join the Dark One seem particularly important where Mat is concerned. None of the others seem likely to choose that path, though of course many things can change over the course of the story.
Lan and Moiraine’s relationship continues to be a focus in this episode, though in slightly subtler ways. He has clearly been keeping an eye on Nynaeve, Rand, and Mat while Moiraine has been busy with Aes Sedai business. He offers to stand with her in the Hall while she is sentenced. And he clearly not only knows about her relationship with Siuan but actively supports it—he even tells Moiraine to give Siuan his love, and stands guard all night outside her room so that no one will discover she’s not in there.
Interesting Moments and Easter Eggs
- “The Flame of Tar Valon” is the title of Chapter 1 of The Great Hunt
- There is something very profound about the way Siuan’s official titles (The Watcher of the Seals, the Flame of Tar Valon, the Amyrlin Seat) are contrasted with the titles her father gives her (Daughter of the river, clever as a pike, strong as the tides).
- Siuan tells Logain that he will be studied until he loses himself entirely to the madness. She doesn’t seem to be talking about the grief that a gentled man experiences that makes him stop wanting to live, but rather about the madness that Logain is already suffering from because he is a man who channeled. This is interesting because the madness comes from interacting with the Power, so ostensibly he should no longer be exposed to the Dark One’s corruption now that he can no longer channel.
- When Nynaeve and Lan come to meet Egwene and Moiraine in the Hall, Nynaeve is talking to Lan. She tells him “If you can’t lead the world from a room built of wood and dirt, how can you call yourself a leader?” This could be a reference to Lan’s background, or perhaps to what will be demanded of whoever turns out to be the Dragon. It also applies to her, as someone of humble birth, and to Siuan.
- Lan being salty: “It’s nice to see you too,” when Rand focused on his surprise over seeing Moiraine alive.
- Egwene tells Moiraine that Valda won’t hurt any more of her sisters, but I won’t believe he’s dead until we see a body.
- Liandrin is paying secret visits to a man in Northharbor. Moiraine seems to think it’s a romantic visit, but there could be another explanation.
- The collar of Siuan’s fabulous gown has pale stripes in all the Ajah colors.
- All the little details between Moiraine and Siuan that feel so much like a real relationship: Moiraine admiring Siuan’s new tattoos. Siuan hating being called Mother. The way Siuan knows when Moiraine is lashing out because she’s stressed, and calls her “little puffer fish.” The way they both make each other laugh.
- I’m not even going to start on the “On your knees” reversal because it’s too good—and too hot—for words.
- Favorite Quote: “Siuan Sanche waits for only one woman. And it isn’t you.”
- Runner up: “If Wisdom is the title you claim, I suggest you start using some.”
- Second runner up: “Isn’t that confusing, to have the woman and the throne named the same thing?” I thought the same thing for like two books, Egwene.
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.