When you play the game to be the next Game of Thrones, you win, or you waste a whole lot of money.
You remember Game of Thrones, right? Epic fantasy drama adapted from a beloved (but still unfinished) book series, kicked off a new blockbuster era in television in terms of both scale and audience size, then alienated most of its audience by the end? Ring a bell?
Now, get ready for the Thrones clones. HBO has an expensive prequel series, House of the Dragon, coming sometime next year, and their execs are no doubt hoping that the 300-year time gap between the events of the two shows will allow viewers to forget how much they disliked the GoT finale. Next fall, Amazon is introducing a Lord of the Rings series for which they spent a quarter of a billion dollars just to acquire the rights to the J.R.R. Tolkien books, never mind how much they’ve spent actually making it. First to market, though, is another Amazon fantasy adaptation, this time of Robert Jordan’s beloved, massive (more than a dozen books, several of which were completed after Jordan’s death) Wheel of Time series, with a reported $10 million budget per episode — more than the comparatively modest $6 million-per-episode cost of that first GoT season with Ned Stark, though less than the $15 million of that last batch of installments, with all their CGI ice zombie and dragon battles.
We’ll have to see next year how effectively House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings have used their budgets, but the underwhelming Wheel of Time is a reminder that money alone does not make a fantasy world go around.
Wheel takes place in a world where magic — frequently referred to as “the one power” — exists, but is largely the province of a group of women known as the Aes Sedai(*). The titular Wheel refers to a civilization-wide belief in reincarnation, with people being reborn again and again in different circumstances. Mostly, this is fine, but one of those on track for returning is a figure called the Dragon, who in its last iteration broke the world. The Aes Sedai witches have fixed things as best they can, but no one knows whether the new Dragon will be a destroyer or a healer, or even what gender it will be. So the powerful sorceress Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) travels the countryside with her bodyguard (or “warder”) Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) looking for this new Dragon, in hopes of harnessing its power for good instead of evil. In the first episode, she arrives in a small river community and is surprised to find four potential candidates — stoic archer Rand (Josha Stradowski), warm bartender Egwene (Madeleine Madden), mighty blacksmith Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), and the rascally hustler Mat (Barney Harris) — plus a local healer (or “wisdom”), Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) with intriguing abilities.
(*) It’s pronounced more or less like “I said hi,” and is one of many names that will make closed-captions feel essential.
The books have been adapted for the screen by Rafe Judkins, a veteran writer of nerd-friendly shows like Chuck and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.(*), and a professed lifelong fan of the Wheel of Time series. Perhaps his approach will please fellow Robert Jordan obsessives, but as someone approaching the show as a total newcomer to the world (as I was to Thrones), the appeal of the story — and, in particular, of the central characters — proved elusive.
(*) Fun fact: He was also a contestant on Survivor: Guatemala, where he finished in third place.
In one episode, Moiraine gets into a philosophical argument with an opponent about the nature and purpose of the Wheel of Time itself. Moiraine argues that the Wheel can’t want things any more than a river or the rain do, but that, “It’s people who want.” The people, though, are the big problem here. Most are bland and forgettable, and a few are outright annoying. Moiraine and Mat are the only two who stand out even a bit, and that’s owing more to the performances by Rosamund Pike and Barney Harris than anything either is given to do. (And Harris has reportedly been replaced for the second season, which is in production now.) Almost everyone gets one note to play, maybe two — Rand, for instance, alternates between exasperatingly pouty and generically heroic — in ways that are perhaps meant to make them seem archetypal and instead render them fairly dull. One of Moiraine’s colleagues complains that it’s hard having a conversation with someone like her who won’t say anything, which sums up our overly cryptic heroine. That said, Pike’s sheer presence is often the most compelling thing in a given scene, and the show suffers even more during a stretch where Moiraine is sidelined by injury.
The thing that’s easy to forget about Game of Thrones is how relatively modest it was in the beginning compared to what it became. Battle scenes were often skipped over in their entirety due to budgetary limitations. It didn’t matter, though, because the heart of that show at its best was its interpersonal dynamics; put any two characters with even a bit of shared history in a room together, and something interesting was sure to happen. The huge fight scenes of the later seasons were fun in their own right, but they worked because the audience was already invested in, say, Jon Snow before he had to defend Castle Black against a horde of Wildlings, or in Jamie Lannister and Bronn before they came under literal fire from a dragon. There’s an action set piece in the climax of the first Wheel episode that’s bigger and mostly more visually impressive(*) than anything Thrones did in its early seasons, but it feels like hollow spectacle because we’ve barely gotten to know any of the people involved by that point. Battle and chase scenes in later episodes aren’t much better, because even though the show has spent more time on the characters, they remain flat ciphers whose fates feel irrelevant. The scenery in and around Prague is stunning, though, with certain vistas capable of evoking a similar feeling to some of the New Zealand travelogue sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. But when the scenery is one of a drama’s biggest selling points, that’s a problem. Whether a lot is happening in a given episode or scene, or we’re just watching people journey from place to place, little of it feels engaging because the characters are so threadbare.
(*) Only mostly, because it involves a group of monsters called Trollocs who look scary when amassed in the distance and cheesy whenever we get an up-close look at one of them.
The gender dynamics help distinguish Wheel somewhat from other fantasy series and films. The power of the Aes Sedai has led to women being largely treated as equal to men, and some stereotypical relationships are turned on their heads: Moiraine and her fellow spell-casters are the cool and ruthless ones, while their male warders tend to be far more sensitive and prone to being ruled by emotion. But through no fault of its own, other parts can’t help feeling derivative. There’s periodic talk, for instance, of how the new Dragon will have the power to “break the Wheel,” which is a phrase that predates the A Song of Ice and Fire books (the first one was published six years after the first Wheel novel) yet now instantly conjures up thoughts of Daenerys, Tyrion, and friends. For now, only one notable Thrones performer appears — Michael McElhatton, who played Roose Bolton on GoT, pops up briefly as Rand’s widower father here — though several other actors in small roles may send you rushing to IMDb to be sure.
Familiarity wouldn’t be an issue if Wheel were more entertaining, though. Across various eras, TV has been inundated with Westerns, legal dramas, hospital or cop shows, etc. There have even been stretches with multiple fantasy series at once, though they’ve tended to be far more modestly-budgeted — all the Sam Raimi/Rob Tapert syndicated shows of the Nineties like Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance. But fantasy, like every other genre, needs to give potential viewers a reason to care. Wheel of Time is arriving in this long gap between the end of Game of Thrones and the premiere of several other shows like it, which may bring in some fantasy fans starved for any morsel of magic and wonder. But the whole thing is empty, if expensive, calories.
The first three episodes of Wheel of Time premiere Nov. 19 on Amazon Prime Video, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen six of the first season’s eight episodes.