Squawk Box: Wheel of Time, Season 2
If you're a fan of The Wheel of Time series and haven't been living under a rock for the past few years and are unaware that it's been made into a television show, welcome. It's a television show. The first season, if you've been connected to the internet in any way, was moderately well-received in some quarters and downright vilified in other quarters. It was... controversial, to say the least, and has riven the online fandom of the series in two.
Personally, I didn't get quite that upset by the first season. There were parts of the first season I liked quite a lot. There were parts of the first season that made me go "eh" and there were parts of the first season that made me go "nope, nopity nope nope nope" but on balance, by the end of it, my general feeling was: "All right, I'd watch another season of this, just to see what they do to it." They had, in my opinion, done enough to get me back for another season. I think part of the problem with show viewing today is that there's increasingly less and less room for shows to grow into themselves. Part of that is because streaming has shortened the traditional formula of 'seven seasons and a movie' and part of that is because seasons aren't, generally, twenty-odd episodes long the way they used to be. If you think of 90s-era Star Trek for example: after The Next Generation got going, you went into subsequent seasons knowing that there were going to be a few 'meh' episodes in the batch, because that was just the nature of it. It's different now, but I still find myself sympathetic to shows starting out now because much like TNG-- it takes time to 'grow a beard.'
So, I came back for Season 2 of The Wheel of Time and I was glad that I did because I don't know if it's quite 'grown its beard' just yet, but it's fixed an awful lot of what was wrong with the first season and, as a result, the second season, while being more of a 'put that thing down flip it and reverse it' of the second book in the series, The Great Hunt, actually felt like The Great Hunt. There were no radical departures from the books in the season-- though given the first season 'nope, nope nope nope nope' moment in the end (where Lady Amalisa burns out Egwene and nearly Nyneave and then Nyneave brings back Egwene which is not at all something that happened in the books) I was expecting at least one. It was a pleasant surprise not to find one.
Season 2 opens with our heroes split up and scattered about the place. Rand is off in Cairhien, believing that he's killed the Dark One (he didn't, he just stabbed Ishmael- who is fine, by the way) and having a torrid love affair with the mysterious Lady Selene (Natasha O'Keefe). Moiraine, who believes she is cut off from the One Power forever, is attempting to recover at the home of Verin (Meera Syal) an Aes Sedai of the Brown Ajah, who lives on a farm away from the White Tower with her sister Adeleas (Nila Aalia). Egwene and Nyneave are settling into The White Tower as novices and chafing at the rules a bit. Perrin is off with Loial, Ingtar (Gregg Chillingrian), Uno (Guy Roberts), and a 'sniffer' Elyas Machera (Gary Beadle) who turns out to be a Wolfbrother as well and gives Perrin some insight into what's happening with him. Mat (Donal Finn) is in The White Tower as well, a captive/guest of Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood) along with Min (Kae Alexander).
The main narrative thrust of the season is bringing (most) of these characters together by the end-- in that, it mirrors the book more or less perfectly-- everything winds up at Falme in the book and it winds up in Falme in the show. They go about it in a different way, of course, but it's pretty quickly established that that's where this is going to go. Elayne (Ceara Coveney) shows up as a fellow novice in the Tower and when Nyn goes through the arches (the opening scene is more or less taken straight from the book) to be raised to Accepted and doesn't come back (at least not immediately), she waits with Egewene in anxious vigil, before they are all taken by Liandrin and turned over to the mysterious Seanchan.
The Seanchan- and I didn't know this until listening to a few podcasts about it, are meant to have a Texas-like drawl (that's what all the 'slurring' in their speech is that the books reference.) The show nods to that but doesn't quite manage it as well as I think they could have. What you end up with is a bunch of fairly flat, generic American accents, which... work. It's kind of nice to hear it in a fantasy setting and they're certainly trying to distinguish them from the rest of the established world. In terms of their aesthetic and general behavior, the show more or less got them right-- I know there was some light mocking of the ball-gag/pacifier-looking thing the damane are forced to wear, but it didn't bother me over all. The trauma that Egewene suffers in captivity feels very in line with the books as does her relationship with her sul'dam, Renna (Xelia Mendes-Jones).
(There's also a beautifully subtle moment when they're linked and Egewene sort of gives Renna a side eye about *something* that anyone who has read the books will know exactly what it's for, but pays off beautifully in the show. Though I do think turning Renna over to be a damane would have been more impactful overall-- the idea that sul'dam can channel is an incredibly disruptive idea to Seanchan culture in the books and would have provided more story opportunities for the show, I think.)
If there is a weak part of this season, it's probably the Moiraine and Lan of it all. It was honestly the thing I was most nervous about through the season-- I was wondering if this show was going to be good for one 'WTF' moment a season, but eventually, after much brooding and frustration, it occurs to Lan that perhaps Moiraine can't see male weaves and maybe she's shielded and not completely stilled. Moiraine becomes a bit less broody once she gets back to her sister's place in Cairhien and starts meddling in family dynamics and the inevitable politics of it all. Big props to the show for delving into something that's sort of glossed over in the books: Aes Sedai live for a very long time and they leave people behind along the way-- sort of the price they pay for the use of the One Power. Lindsey Duncan is excellent as Moiraine's sister Anvaere (who they actually do reference in New Spring, so there's a book connection there.)
Eventually, they figure it out. Eventually, they get the band back together and it's a lot better for it. I would have vastly preferred this particular subplot be sorted out way sooner than it was, but it is what it is and the way it ended- especially with Siuan- whose insistence on an Oath of obedience on the Oath Rod in the first season comes back to bite them a bit in the second season and comes close to looking like compulsion, which is very forbidden in the books. (But what it does do and where I think they're heading with this is that it throws Siuan into the wringer a bit- especially if they're introducing Elaida next season who will undoubtedly have questions about all of this.)
Rand, who thinks he's in love with Lady Selene is, in fact, working at a mental health care facility where he can get access to Logain whom he wants to learn about saidin from. It's a relatively intelligent move by Rand and one that was, of course, instigated by Moiraine who had him moved to Cairhien to begin with. Lady Selene also turns out to be Lanfear, one of the Forsaken (not a surprise if you've read the books), and as close to perfect casting as you can ask for in this role. (They might have done themselves one better with Moghedien- whom I am very excited about.)
The show does run into some of the same problems as the books do-- which is that with so many characters, it's hard to give them as much attention as they deserve consistently. Mat actually gets some character development and starts on his path more effectively than he did in Season 1. Perrin gets some more Wolfbrother information- but more importantly, perhaps, meets Aviendha (Ayoola Smart), Bain (Ragga Ragnars), and Chiad (Maja Simonsen) which is another bit of groundwork for what I'm guessing will be next season that I'm increasingly excited about.
The finale might not feel as epic on screen as it does on the page, but that could also be down to the medium of it as well. You don't want to set the bar too high for early seasons when you have the biggest battle of all as your (presumed) finale. I thought it worked a little better for me, actually. The Whitecloaks attack in an intelligent way. The Heroes of the Horn were great-- (though what happened to the horn?) and even though Ishmael tricks Mat into being the one to stab Rand that's not a huge departure from the books to me. Rand still gets stabbed.
Overall: Better, so much better than the first season-- I'm testing a hypothesis on that for a future post, but I cannot tell you how excited I was to get to the end of this season. If you're still mad about the first season, I don't know what to tell you at this point. There were fourteen books and like a bajillion pages and words total-- however much we may wish it, we were never, ever going to get a perfect adaptation of this. The second season, however, felt far more like the books than the first season did. I noticed. I loved it. I'm excited for where this show goes next and while it wasn't perfect and there were things that I would have probably done differently, I can say that if you haven't read a lick of these books but saw the first season, the second season takes a giant step forward in terms of writing, plotting, acting, and quality. A good sign for seasons to come. My Grade: *** out of ****