The Wheel of Time is the type of show designed to go on for years: adapted from the Robert Jordan novels of the same name, the Prime Video series has decades of lore to mine, and a loyal fanbase that goes back to the ‘90s. Jordan’s massive world comes with its own appeal on the page, but translating it to the screen is another thing entirely — and The Wheel of Time learned that the hard way in its first season.
That said, the series wasn’t without its merits. Take away its epic scale, and The Wheel of Time is essentially about power: who can wield it, and who will destroy themselves trying. Magic in Jordan’s universe is literally called “the One Power,” and it’s inherently gendered. Women are the only ones able to access it at will, while men are cursed with madness for attempting the same.
This rewrites the rules in a big way, tipping the scales of power into a realm that’s wholly unfamiliar to our own. And while this premise was one of many dueling for our attention in Wheel of Time’s first season, its second is finally free to explore the grey areas in this seemingly binary world — and it does so with gusto.
The finer details of the series might prove difficult for casual fans to recall going into Season 2, but Wheel of Time does settle into a compelling groove in the first four episodes provided to critics. After a brisk recap of what’s at stake (the Dark One is returning, and the Dragon Reborn is the one person with the power to stop him, etc) the series continues its multi-pronged struggle between good and evil — this time with a better grasp on what makes such a sprawling series work.
While the powerful sorceress Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) discovered the identity of the Dragon Reborn — it’s none other than Rand (Josha Stadowski), the unassuming shepherd boy from the Two Rivers — the pair inadvertently released a powerful sorcerer (Fares Fares) back into the world. Moiraine was also cut off from the Source in the aftermath, which leaves her faith shattered and her bond with bodyguard Lan (Daniel Henney) on shaky ground. Rand, meanwhile, has parted ways with the fellowship to grapple with his status as the Dragon Reborn, and with the madness that has claimed the lives of so many before him. Rand’s disappearance leaves his sweetheart Egwene (Madeleine Madden) completely heartbroken, but she and her one-time mentor, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), have been called to join the Aes Sedai, the order of witches that protect the realm.
Halfway across the world is Perrin (Marcus Rutherford). He’s on the hunt for the Horn of Valere, which will prove useful in the Last Battle — whenever that comes around. And then there’s Mat (Dónal Finn, taking over for last season’s Barney Harris), secretly detoxing from the dagger that once corrupted him with dark magic.
Admittedly, there’s still a lot going on in Wheel of Time, but it all feels that much more grounded this time around. There’s a reason this series once felt nearly impossible to follow: its first season had the thankless task of setting up Jordan’s expansive world, rife with unique schemes and a specific brand of magic. It forced many of the series’ best qualities — like its lived-in production, or its momentous action — to take an unfortunate backseat.
An abundance of plot also exacerbated some of the series’ other flaws. The characters, themselves a little stock-y, were frequently buried under mountains of exposition. The mythic struggle at the center of Wheel of Time was lacking a human element as a result. Now that most of the set-up has been established, however, the series can finally explore its heightened fantasy from a more empathetic, balanced perspective.
After the earth-shattering revelations in Season 1, it’s suddenly that much easier to care about this scattered group of heroes. Through Rand, the series digs into the complicated plight for any man that dares to defy the laws of nature. Through Nynaeve, we learn much more about the inner workings of the White Tower, the Aes Sedai’s stronghold, and discover the hypocrisies that could undo the entire society. Even Moiraine, once the fellowship’s fearless leader, is beginning to strip the layers of armor that made her feel so inaccessible last season.
Season 2 is decidedly angstier for each member of this group, and that makes the tedious moments set-up in Season 1 retroactively worth it. It’s especially rewarding for characters like Perrin and Mat, who each seemed the adrift against so many scattered plot lines. The Wheel of Time finally knows what to do with its sprawling story, and it’s tapping into the potential in each its characters brilliantly here. There may still be a handful of mysteries (some frustrating, some tantalizing) to uncover, and our heroes may still lack a bit of substance as a result. But at least now it feels like The Wheel of Time has a destination in mind, and that gives fans a reason to keep watching.
The Wheel of Time has never truly been a Game of Thrones clone, and that was as much a credit to its subject matter as it was a detriment to the interpersonal relationships within. Its first season lacked the heart it needed to compete with other high fantasy heavyweights. But Season 2 is back with a new focus — and if it can be maintained, it may actually boost its standing as the next bingeworthy series.