The Wheel of Time enters its second season this week with a third installment already on the way. That frees up Prime Video’s Robert Jordan adaptation to delve into storylines that don’t have to be resolved in just eight episodes—with stakes that feel both higher and more uncertain for all its characters.
io9 was provided the first four episodes in advance, and we won’t be spoiling any plot twists in this review. A few months have passed since the magically gifted youths from the Two Rivers—Rand (Josha Stradowski), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Mat (Dónal Finn, seamlessly replacing last season’s Barney Finn), and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins)—completed their quest with Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) and Lan (Daniel Henney). The mystery propelling season one (read our catch-up here) was discovering who among the group was the Dragon Reborn, destined to face off with the evil Dark One and save the world—a world that’s, incidentally, still very much in the process of rebuilding after the last Dragon/Dark One battle thousands of years prior.
The series took its time teasing out what fans of Jordan’s book series already knew: Rand is the Dragon Reborn. After seemingly defeating the Dark One (Fares Fares) in the season finale, and fearing the widely held belief that any man with the ability to use magic, or “channel the One Power” in Wheel of Time lingo, would lose his mind and kill all his loved ones, he told Moiraine—an exiled member of the Aes Sedai, an organization of powerful women channelers—to pretend he’s dead, and trudged into his own self-imposed exile.
As we pick up with the characters in season two, nobody is living their best life, though some are far worse off than others. At the bottom of the heap is Moiraine, whose connection to the One Power was severed by the Dark One during the confrontation with Rand. Always an icy presence, she’s now depressed and suffering from extreme PTSD. Lan, her faithful Warder, also doesn’t know how to act or what to do now that his life’s purpose has been yanked away from him. Egwene and Nynaeve are both in struggle mode while going through the gauntlet as Aes Sedai novices—especially Nynaeve, who’s having difficulty tapping into the One Power despite her immense talents. Mat, seemingly recovered from being possessed by an evil dagger in season one, is being held “for observation” at Moiraine’s behest by Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood), an Aes Sedai whose hatred of Moiraine is second only to her hatred of men, especially those who can channel.
Having a slightly better time is Perrin, who’s still having those weird visions and seeing wolves everywhere, but is now on the road with the jolly Ogier Loial (Hammed Animashaun) and a group of sympathetic warriors tracking down the Horn of Valere, a magical weapon stolen by Dark One loyalists in season one. Rand, meanwhile, is living incognito in the far-off land of Cairhien, caring for patients at a local hospital and spending all his free time in bed with a seductive innkeeper named Selene (Natasha O’Keeffe). And the Dark One? Well, let’s take back what we said about nobody living their best life, because his star is on the rise, and even the good guys can’t deny his influence is becoming more prominent. As season two quickly establishes, the character played by Fares Fares in season one wasn’t actually the Dark One; he’s not the top guy, but still a high-ranking member of the forces of evil. Set free thanks to Rand and Moiraine (oops!), he’s now roaming the world summoning other underworld types and lending his clout to mortal villains.
This includes one of season two’s most thrilling new elements: High Lady Suroth (Karima McAdams), a cruel ruler whose massive Seanchan army was seen launching its invasion at the end of season one, and whose resident channelers—sinister little girls with eerie gold masks covering their mouths—use the One Power in horrifically destructive ways. Every detail about this crew, from High Lady Suroth’s uncannily long fingernails to her lieutenant’s American twang (in a show where most everyone else uses the “standard fantasy” British accent), is creepy as hell, and whenever they’re on screen The Wheel of Time tilts more toward Game of Thrones (particularly its gorier aspects) than more consistent influence The Lord of the Rings.
With all these pieces placed on The Wheel of Time’s ever-widening board, and free from the exposition that filled season one, season two finds a pleasing rhythm; there’s still the impending “Last Battle” to worry about, but with another whole season to come after this one, there’s no rush to get there. Instead, we get to hang out with the characters, most of whom spend the first half of the season learning lessons that’ll presumably help carve their various paths to the next showdown. Separating the heroes—and that includes Egwene and Nynaeve, who are logistically close but have some yawning emotional chasms between them—is a common ploy in fantasy, but it’s an effective way to force everyone to work on themselves so they’ll be stronger when the inevitable reunion arrives.
Another notable point of the season so far is its fascinating look into the inner workings of the Aes Sedai; we got a glimpse of it in season one, but season two reveals not just the arduous training that novices must endure, but pokes deeper into the significant political and philosophical tensions that permeate its most elite ranks. Liandrin was sort of a one-note antagonist last season, but here we get a glimpse of the complicated woman behind that cut-glass jawline, elevated by Fleetwood’s fiery performance. Another bit of Wheel of Time lore that gets a closer examination is the unique link between an Aes Sedai and her Warder, or multiple Warders in some cases; though magic is involved, the bond is built on absolute trust and respect. It’s meant to last a lifetime, and the splintering relationship between Moiraine and Lan—whose platonic but deeply held affection was a bedrock of season one—is depicted as an agonizing process, especially for Lan.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear why the Two Rivers villagers feel so strongly about maintaining their own bonds: it’s impossible to trust anyone in The Wheel of Time, but you have a better shot with people you’ve known your entire life than with newcomers who may only appear to have your best interests at heart. That’s a theme that emerges over the first half of the season, and it’s no doubt going to become even more important as the characters face harrowing new depths of darkness. For all its tropes—and there are many, including plenty of moments that will feel familiar for fans of that other big Prime Video fantasy series, The Rings of Power—The Wheel of Time is still an entertaining ride. It does an admirable job plucking threads from Jordan’s massive book series to weave into a story that doesn’t always surprise you, but will 100 per cent keep you watching to see what happens next.
The Wheel of Time drops its first three episodes on Prime Video today, with a weekly rollout of the five episodes that follow.
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