Wheel of Time, Season 1 (2021)

It's a far different world from when Robert Jordan wrote and published his epic Wheel of Time series, a sprawling mega-fantasy book series that he intended to encompass thirty novels. In those days, only a few devoted readers knew where he got most of his ideas (Tolkien) ... but in the modern age, twenty years after The Lord of the Rings blew our minds at the box office, everyone has seen a world similar to this one before -- and the parallels (some might call it plagiarism) are obvious.

   

A dark evil is about to awaken in a high fantasy world where magic exists, from a foe defeated centuries ago. In this world, everyone reincarnates over and over again, living different lives, which means the same threat can awaken anew in a different body in another age. Men who receive the ability to 'channel' the earth magic often turn dark, causing the women who serve the magic to amass to stop them. Rumors have it that an ancient force known as the Dragon is about to awaken, and an expert magical wielder named Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) has gone out into the world to gather the five suspects and bring them back for testing at the White Tower, where those of her kind amass and concentrate their power.

   

Her arrival in an innocuous hamlet coincides with the arrival of a master force of enemy creatures, bent on destroying everything in its path -- forcing her to use her magic to beat them back, but also draining her of power in a time when they need her healing abilities the most. The candidates for this new force to help them battle the original evil are a local healer, a farmer who remains skeptical of these events and his girlfriend, a would-be thief who dreams of escaping his mundane life, and a man wracked with grief after the accidental death of his wife during battle, but who has a dark secret of his own -- the power to communicate with wolves. Together with her protector, Moiraine helps them flee toward the White Tower, but an injury received in the battle renders her useless at the hour they need her most -- and the little group gets separated, lost in a world that wants to destroy them, haunted by creatures who carry their scent, and unsure which of them has the great power Moiraine so fears.

   

Though I know that in future books and episodes, this story will deviate from copying Tolkien -- there are just too many similarities that cannot be ignored, from Moiraine (Gandalf) showing up and gathering together a sort-of Fellowship to fight a great evil, to them being pursued by creatures that resemble Uruk-Hai (only they have goat faces), to an eyeless evil creature leading them (like the Nazgûl), to them losing them by escaping across a bridge just in time... to the White Tower that remains a prominent part of the plot, to getting lost in the darkness of a series of tunnels, and finally to a battle in the last episode that is structured almost exactly like Helm's Deep. It's solid storytelling, but we have seen a lot of this before and it's surprising the screenwriters did not try to restructure some of it to avoid direct comparisons to The Lord of the Rings. It also features a large cast, opening scenes ahead of the credits that may or may not appear to directly impact the main plot (most of them do connect later), and plenty of violence.

    

The series starts off with a bang, lags a little in the middle, and has an intense payoff of a final episode that sets up future seasons. The cast is wonderful, although Rosamund Pike is the most powerful performer; she has the best-written and most mysterious character, and the scenes that don't feature her seem to lack mystique. The set design is incredible; this feels like a world you could step into, and it's one I want to know more about (even if I'm intimidated by the vast collection of novels that awaits me). The best scenes take place between the Dark Lord and the Dragon toward the end of the first season; that's where the series shows originality, along with a truly sinister and creepy stint in a haunted city that seems capable of consuming anyone who stays there after dark. Its flaws are that it has too many uninteresting side characters and can be confusing for people who haven't read the books and aren't familiar with the world-building, but it does a good job of explaining the main magical threads and then throwing us into the action. I also love the costume design for Moiraine and her sisters, and there's an utterly despicable man hunting her kind that you root to see die -- and he does, in a satisfying way. I would have preferred a little more originality, but that should come in later seasons. And I appreciate that while the series isn't clean by any standards, it's not laden with R-rated content, which makes it far more enjoyable.

   

Sexual Content
Implied sex on several occasions -- between hetero and homo sexual couples (a man and woman kiss and we find them 'afterward'; a woman enters a man's room and they kiss before the scene fades out; a woman and a woman kiss, and one tells another to get on her knees -- for oral, presumably). References to sex, to pleasing men, to brothels, some immodest clothing.
 
Language:
A few misplaced f-words.
 
Violence:
Infrequent but gruesome and graphic -- men are sliced in half, creatures are imploded, people are beheaded through magic and fall to pieces, we see them without their heads, shadows consume people and disintegrate them, people are gutted, struck with swords, shot with arrows, and tortured for information. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does show up on screen, it's bloody.

   

Other:
Social drinking, themes of earth magic, some anti-male undertones (men who receive magic go insane and become mass-murderers), the inclusion of homosexuality where the books only hinted it.

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