Conventional wisdom rightly holds that “Game of Thrones” ended miserably, but it feels like a masterwork when compared to virtually any of the shows that have aspired to replace it. The latest production expensive enough to bankrupt Scrooge McDuck and wildly miscalculate what made its predecessor so watchable is Amazon Prime’s “The Wheel of Time,” an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s 14-book series.
Starring Rosamund Pike as a member of a medieval magical sisterhood fighting an eternal war between good and evil against a backdrop of reincarnation (hence the title), it’s an epic with little sense of grandeur, populated by characters with missions but no personality. In that sense, it fulfills Jeff Bezos’s alleged demand that Amazon develop its own “Game of Thrones” — in the most unspecial manner possible. (Disclosure: Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
But the fantasy staple that “The Wheel of Time” resembles most closely is “The Lord of the Rings” (which gets its own Amazon prequel series next year). Like LOTR, the action begins in the last place imaginable: an idyllic village tucked away in the mountains where the townspeople pay little attention to the wars brewing below. It’s there where four unworldly young adults are recruited by a mysterious stranger to embark on a long journey that’ll determine the fate of humanity (and several other species, like the demonic Trollocs and the ogre-ish … Ogiers).
That stranger is Pike’s Moiraine, one of a group of superpowered women called the Aes Sedai who strive to keep evil in check by neutralizing the aptly named Dragon, a magical being born into various human incarnations who may be steered toward goodness or destruction. In their seemingly Buddhist-inspired search, Moiraine and her companion, or Warder, Lan (Daniel Henney) narrow down the Dragon candidate to the quartet. Already eager to dedicate herself to a cause, Egwene (Madeleine Madden) trusts Moiraine most readily, in stark contrast to her scoffing once-lover Rand (Josha Stradowski). Mat (Barney Harris), who has cared for his younger sisters when his alcoholic mom couldn’t, is the sorriest to leave their hometown behind. Their friend Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), who accidentally maims a fellow villager in the chaos of a Trolloc attack, is so sparsely characterized it’s utterly unclear how he feels about being so abruptly uprooted, yet offered distance from the site of his grave mistake.
By the end of the six episodes provided for review (of eight total), it’s still unknown who the Dragon is. (Already renewed for a second season, the series apparently feels no great urgency in its storytelling.) More pertinently, we’re given little reason to care, since magical powers aren’t exactly a rarity in this world.
With nearly every installment ending in an action sequence, the show doesn’t seem to be designed to induce medical comas like Apple TV Plus’s gorgeous but deadly dull Isaac Asimov adaptation “Foundation.” But there’s just too much portent, exposition and bad writing where engaging characters should be. Despite her most dedicated efforts, Pike’s no match for marijuana-friendly but limply grandiose lines like, “The wheel of time turns and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the age that gave it birth comes again.”
“The Wheel of Time” disappoints most in its surprisingly prosaic visuals. Shot in Prague, the scenery changes often, and there’s no shortage of elaborately costumed extras. Moiraine, Lan and the Dragon hopefuls gradually make their way on horseback to the White Tower, the Aes Sedai headquarters, and you can see where the reported $10 million budget per episode went: to the battle scenes with the Trollocs, the military camps in which a loquacious Aes Sedai hunter (Abdul Salis) peacocks about, the wandering troupe of obviously doomed pacifists, the writhing black-and-white smoke that does too much of the fighting between the characters. Yet no aspect of the production feels particularly inventive or even revealing of the characters. The color-coding of the various factions of the Aes Sedai feels particularly hamfisted. Dedicating one’s life to fighting the apocalypse should at least buy you the luxury of wearing more than a single jewel tone, no matter how dashing Moiraine’s rival (Kate Fleetwood) looks cosplaying as a vengeful and grown-up Red Riding Hood whose sharp cheekbones no wolf would dare approach.
But it takes only the fleeting appearance of a genuine star like Sophie Okonedo, who steals her introductory scene midway through the season with her regal magnetism, to illustrate what a lavish house of cards we’d been watching so far. Her role as the Aes Sedai chiefess, too, is underwritten, but the actress radiates warmth heated by sensuality and tempered by practicality, exuding a sense of a life lived. All too briefly, Okonedo offers what “The Wheel of Time” couldn’t buy with all the money in the world: a beating heart.
The Wheel of Time premieres Friday on Amazon Prime with three episodes; new episodes will stream weekly.