The Wheel of Time Season One Watch-Along – Episode One: “Leavetaking”
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Excuse me, but I need a minute to compose myself. In my introduction to this watch-along, I wrote about how finally seeing this cinematic adaptation of The Wheel of Time after so many years of living with the story and its characters felt like a homecoming – and so it does. From the very beginning of this pilot episode, I felt immersed into the world I had spent so many countless hours in while I was reading the series. For those book fans who had any doubt about whether this TV series would be able to capture the same epic scope and grandiose beauty of the books – this IS The Wheel of Time. Even after the first episode, I find myself practically salivating at the thought of so many iconic moments from the books being brought to life in the seasons ahead – but, ahem, back to the pilot.
I’ll begin with one important criticism that I’m hoping can be rectified in the coming episodes. The pilot opens with Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike) narrating in voiceover the barest description of the event known in the book series as the Breaking of the World, in which men who could channel the One Power brought incredible devastation to the world following the sealing of the Dark One in his prison at Shayol Ghul at the end of the War of Power. In the sealing, the Dark One tainted saidin, the male half of the One Power, causing all men who could channel to be driven insane and to lash out with incredible destructive power, thereby literally breaking the world. The head of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, who personally led the mission to seal the Dark One inside his prison, was Lews Therin Telamon, known as the Dragon. As Moiraine states here, the Dragon has been born again, and she must find him “before the dark does.” Except…all that information I just gave you comes from my memory of the books, not from this voiceover. All the voiceover tells us is that a long time ago a guy named the Dragon “tried to cage darkness” and then brought the Breaking of the World. The show will need to provide the viewer more history about the War of Power in order for non-book readers to understand the historical legacy inherited by the character who, eventually, will be revealed as the Dragon Reborn. Suffice it to say that the Dragon’s reincarnation has been prophesied to either save the world or to destroy it once again – a destiny that has both the forces of good and evil highly invested in finding him.
Forgive me for using the male pronouns here, as Moiraine specifically states in her voiceover that “We don’t know whether he was reborn as a girl or a boy,” but this is a change from the books, and one that doesn’t entirely make sense. In the books, Moiraine determines that the Dragon Reborn is one of three male youths from the village of Emond’s Field, which she visits in this first episode – in the TV version, alongside those three young men, a young woman named Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) is also up for consideration. The reason this doesn’t make sense is that saidar, the female half of the One Power, is not tainted. The danger inherent in the Dragon – who is specified in the books to always be male, in every reincarnation – being reborn is that he will channel the tainted saidin, thereby condemning himself to the inevitable madness that will follow and putting everyone around him in danger. From a storytelling perspective, it makes some sense to elevate Egwene to the same level as the three boys, especially given how important her story arc is to the series – there are those who argue that she is actually the main character of the story – but, to be clear, she is not the Dragon Reborn. I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler, but the logic of the story itself demands that I defend the maleness of the Dragon.
So who are the three young men who might be the dragon? We have earnest sheepherder (and Egwene’s boyfriend) Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), local blacksmith Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), and mischievous gambler Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris). Rounding out the central characters from Emond’s Field is Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoe Robins), the village Wisdom – something of a local healer and wise woman, despite her young age of 25. I am happy to report that the casting of all these central characters is spot-on. Fans of the books will instantly be able to recognize the spirit of the main characters in each of these actors. Alongside Academy Award-nominee Pike, whom we already knew would do a fantastic job, Madden, Robins, and Harris stood out to me especially in this first episode, with Harris in particular bringing fan-favorite character Mat to life in a way that shows me he deeply understands the sweet and caring person Mat is under his carefree and nonchalant façade. After seeing his performance here, I’m even more disappointed that he won’t be returning for Season Two, as the role of Mat has been re-cast for reasons that no one seems to be willing to go into.
The Winternight sequence that sees the forces of evil invade Emond’s Field and lay it waste is an incredible set piece. The trollocs – human/beast hybrids who are this world’s foot soldiers of evil – are a terrifying and convincing blend of practical effects and CGI. It’s in this sequence that we see the One Power put to offensive use for the first time, and Pike’s body language sells the entire scene. Whether she’s ripping Trollocs in half, shooting fireballs, calling down lightning, or flinging masonry, Pike is integrated fully with the special effects that represent channeling, something that could not have been easy to pull off from an acting standpoint. She and her warder, Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), fight together in a way that is fluid and practiced, showing you through their very movements the history that these two characters have of combating the forces of evil. It’s an incredible synergy, and one that I am looking forward to seeing in further episodes.
There is a pacing issue in this first episode, but I understand why – the episodic nature of television demands that the source material be adapted in self-contained chunks of plot, and the characters HAD to leave Emond’s Field by the end of this episode. If everything feels rushed, it’s because there’s only so much that can be crammed into an hour of television – don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know these characters in greater depth as we move along in the story. There is one other issue, though, that I HAVE to talk about before ending this blog post, and it has to do with Perrin’s wife, Laila. See, in the books, Perrin starts the story as a single man – Laila is a character invented for the show. Now, I understand that there will be changes from the books, and I won’t harp on every single one (Rand and Egwene having a sexual relationship is new, for example), but Laila was invented out of whole cloth only for Perrin to accidentally kill her on Winternight as they are fighting off trollocs. This is a misogynistic storytelling trope known as fridging, in which a female character is killed for no other reason than to perpetuate a male character’s character development, and it’s a real disappointment to see it happening in the very first episode. Now, I don’t think that this decision was entirely without logic, for a few reasons.
Perrin is, by far, the most interior character from the book series – he is laconic and taciturn most of the time, and his rich inner life is only revealed to the reader during the sections that are narrated from his point of view. One character trait that the book emphasize again and again is how careful and methodical Perrin is – as a man who is very tall and muscular, he is well aware of how easily he can knock things over or accidentally hurt someone else without meaning to. As a result, he carefully considers his actions and thinks deeply before speaking, to make sure that everything he says or does is exactly what he wants to say or do. Given that he never articulates any of these motivations, his accidental killing of Laila serves as a visible illustration to the viewer of his anxiety about accidentally hurting those around him. This anxiety will also likely play into his relationship dynamic with another important character who will be introduced later in the story (book readers know who I mean). From a storytelling perspective, the fridging of Laila Aybarra makes sense…but just because it makes sense doesn’t make it any less misogynistic. Somebody along the way should have known better. For those of you who are not book readers, I urge you not to pre-judge the show for this one ill-informed decision right out of the gate; as I stated in my introduction post, the show has so many wonderful female characters whose journeys we are only just beginning to follow – poor Laila Aybarra, unfortunately, simply won’t be one of them.
As Moiraine and company flee Emond’s Field at the end of the episode in the face of an advancing trolloc horde, Pike, again in voice over, intones the iconic opening lines from Chapter One of The Eye of the World:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
And boy, was it A beginning. Notwithstanding the criticisms I have expressed so far, this first episode of The Wheel of Time is a magical re-introduction to a world in which I have lived since I was 12 years old – and it truly does feel like coming home.
Dr. Nolan Boyd is currently Visiting Instructor of English at the University of South Florida. He graduated with a PhD in English Literature and a Graduate Certificate in Women's Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Miami University in 2020. His scholarship analyzes the cultural work performed by cinema and contemporary literature, and particularly by representations of queerness and disability. He also serves as a peer reviewer for the journal.