The Wheel of Time, based on Robert Jordan’s popular novels, just wrapped up its second season. It has a more modest budget than Prime Video’s other big fantasy series—and less buzz than something like HBO’s House of the Dragon—but it consistently delivered juicy intrigue while taking its nerdy elements seriously without being too self-serious, for the most part.
It also did a good job managing the steep learning curve for viewers unfamiliar with Jordan’s dense source material. That said, season two did allow itself to be a bit more rapid-fire with characters and locations that readers would immediately recognize as significant—but newcomers might have a harder time keeping track of. Throughout the season, Wheel of Time’s core characters spent much of their time splintered apart, tasked with their own adventures and quests after season one’s climactic face-off with sinister forces that, in season two, were still plotting their ascent to power. There was a lot to keep track of, and the season finale, “What Was Meant to Be,” felt like a rush to get everyone in the same place and tie up loose ends ahead of the already announced season three.
While Wheel of Time has a clear Chosen One figure—Josha Stradowski’s Rand al’Thor, a reincarnated version of the Dragon, the man who “broke” the world after fighting the Dark One 3,000 years prior—he wasn’t the character who had the most compelling journey across season two. It also wasn’t the guy who has a psychic connection with wolves, the powerful magic-wielder dealing with the devastating loss of her link to the One Power, or the femme fatale masquerading as an innkeeper who’s actually an ancient being able to invade people’s dreams… though she came pretty close. Instead that honour went to Egwene al’Vere, played by Madeleine Madden, who was the heart and soul of Wheel of Time’s sophomore season.
Egwene didn’t have an easy time of it in season one, but she went through it in season two and emerged forever changed; she’s still got her moral compass tuned correctly, but she’s also a stone-cold killer. Hardly what you’d expect from the gentle Two Rivers girl with nascent One Power abilities we met at the beginning of season one, just as she’d decided she’d rather become a Wisdom (a healer and community leader) than settle down with Rand, her childhood sweetheart. Season one was mostly about unraveling the mystery identity of the Dragon Reborn; with that out of the way, season two could focus on individual characters exploring their unique powers.
For Egwene, that meant becoming a novice Aes Sedai, occupying the lowest rung at the White Tower—doing dishes and other grunt work for superiors who barely deign to make eye contact with her—while honing her “weaves” (Wheel of Time’s word for spells) and refining her ability to “channel the One Power” (use magic). Egwene is a hard worker and she believes being an Aes Sedai is her destiny, so she doesn’t mind paying her dues; her emotional state, however, is more fragile than she’d like to admit. Not only does she believe Rand is dead, she’s at odds with her best friend, Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins), a fellow novice whose prodigious talents have made her a near-celebrity among the Aes Sedai. Living in Nynaeve’s shadow would be trying enough, but Nynaeve—who bristles at authority figures and is not the type to do other people’s dishes without complaint—has her own internal turmoil, which causes a rift in their relationship. Some of that void is filled by the kindly Elayne Trakand (Ceara Coveney), another novice who becomes an important ally—and a third traveling companion when Egwene, desperate to maintain ties to her Two Rivers friends, joins Nynaeve on an ill-fated rescue mission.
Ill-fated, because for reasons too complicated to detail here, the girls are kidnapped before they even leave the White Tower. Nynaeve and Elayne manage to scramble away, but Egwene faces a dreadful fate: she becomes a “damane,” enslaved by the Seanchan army that’s invaded the seaside city of Falme. Her purpose is to use the One Power in destructive ways. She has a malevolent handler (or “sul’dam”) named Renna (Xelia Mendes-Jones), who uses a collar-gauntlet contraption that binds them together on a psychic level. Renna has complete control over Egwene—Mendes-Jones’ “masochistic but also cloying and deadpan” interpretation of the character is terrifying—and her methods of discipline frequently stray into torture. Painful physical torture, agonizing psychological torture, snipping off Egwene’s long braid, a sacred symbol of her Wisdom training… Renna’s got range.
When not in use, Egwene and the other damane are locked in cells in a place everyone calls “the kennels,” which gives you an idea of how bleak their situation is. You can see why the other captives, some of whom are former Aes Sedai, others snatched from their families as young girls, have had their spirits completely broken. Wheel of Time is not a show that shies away from cruelty and trauma, but what Egwene goes through is deeply harrowing. One of the damane torments is having a shield placed over their mouths so they can’t speak while they’re in battle, but Madden’s eyes express anger so forcefully there’s no doubt what Egwene is thinking at all times. (She also gets a chance to inform Renna “I will kill you,” which we fully believe even if Renna doesn’t.) Because we know Egwene—we’ve seen what she’s endured before this, and we’re aware of how strong she is—we know there’ll come a moment when she turns the tables.
In “What Was Meant to Be,” all the main Wheel of Time characters converge on Falme ahead of Rand’s fated showdown with the Dark One. But the most pressing concern for everyone—including Rand, who has the fate of the world resting on his shoulders—is rescuing Egwene. Falme is under attack, so the damane are hauled to the top of the city’s highest tower so they can launch fireballs at Seanchan enemies. But despite being leashed to Renna, Egwene has too much compassion and empathy to attack a crowd of innocent civilians, including children. When she refuses, it creates a hole in the defensive line and everyone is around her is soon buried in rubble, setting the stage for her confrontation with Renna.
The Wheel of Time made you wait long and hard for this moment, but it was so worth it, with Egwene exploiting Renna’s secret shame of having One Power abilities while killing her… slowly. For an instant, you almost wondered if Egwene would show some of that earlier compassion and let Renna go. But no: Renna has earned this excruciating demise, and something has crossed over in Egwene that allows her to see it through. She doesn’t need her friends, who show up just after Renna expires, to rescue her. She’s got it handled.
Immediately following, Egwene changes gears to help Rand and her other Two Rivers friends face the next evil obstacle in their path. But the final battle of the season feels like a half-step in the plot, as one foe falls but many more are soon revealed to have been unleashed. Egwene’s own victory—a feat equal parts intimate, ghastly, and cathartic—really felt like the biggest triumph of the season, and maybe even both seasons combined.
Seasons one and two of The Wheel of Time are now streaming on Prime Video; a third season has already been announced.
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