In a world where even Prime Video’s multi-billion dollar “Lord of the Rings” series doesn’t seem to have broken through to mainstream popularity the way they expected, another season of “The Wheel of Time” feels particularly superfluous. The first season premiered on Prime Video less than a year before “The Rings of Power,” presumably as an amuse-bouche for the high-fantasy epic to come. By its proximity in both release date and approach, it seems like an also-ran, a suggestion the algorithm can pop up on your screen after you’ve exhausted your “Lord of the Rings” binge. “Viewers also suggested…”
The problem is, in both last season and this one, “The Wheel of Time” doesn’t have much to offer the discerning fantasy fan. Besides, of course, lengthy runtimes, a glossary of high-fantasy gobbledygook, and plot threads as gossamer-thin as the magical waves the “channelers” of Robert Jordan’s fantasy world twirl around themselves, “Last Airbender”-like, when using their abilities.
Following a first season that struggled to build momentum, it’s doubly frustrating to see “The Wheel of Time” keep up that go-nowhere sensibility. At the end of Season One, our five villagers from River’s End are scattered to the four winds: Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) struggles to understand his potential abilities as a “wolf brother,” Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden) begin their training as Aes Sedai—the magical female warriors who scheme and set policy in this magical land—and Mat (Dónal Finn, replacing Barney Harris who did not return after the show resumed production after COVID-19 lockdowns) stews in a Sedai prison after being potentially corrupted by the Dark One last season.
Meanwhile, their mentor Moiraine (Rosamund Pike, who also produces) reels at the loss of her powers at the end of last season, and the fracturing bond between her and her Warder, Lan Mondragon (Daniel Henney), who’s no longer tied to her by life and death in the same way other Warders are to their magical mistresses. All of them fret about the fate of Rand (Josha Stradowski), who discovered last season that he’s the chosen one meant to save or destroy the world. He’s presumed dead to most, but in reality, he’s shaved his head and gone into hiding, struggling to understand his newfound powers and destiny … and might consult some darker forces to do so.
If that sounds like a lot of plot ground to cover, that’s because it is; “The Wheel of Time” is as dense a fantasy tome as you’ll find, and showrunner Rafe Judkins and his team of writers do their best to streamline it for a streaming audience. But it’s still too unwieldy by half, burdened by too many protagonists in too many similar-looking fantasy locations—pitch-black forest, stately castle, muggy tavern, hay-covered village—to make any of them truly stand out.
The sleepy performances and overwrought dialogue don’t help; so much of “The Wheel of Time,” in both seasons, involves young, hot actors mumbling samey dialogue peppered with silly names with nary an ounce of humor. Season Two attempts some much-needed levity, particularly in its first episode, as two older Aes Sedai women titter amongst themselves while they watch Lan do some shirtless sword training. But most of the time, we get a constipated smirk as some poor actor tries to elevate the thee-and-thou dialogue with more than grave import.
To the show’s credit, the production is still impressively assembled: Sharon Gilham’s costumes, in particular, are gorgeous, from the flowy robes of the Aes Sedai to the gilded-cage masks of the Seanchan, a new gang of baddies our heroes must face. The effects remain seamless and sparing, with a few hazy tricks here and there, and the few bursts of action that punctuate the end of each episode are a welcome respite from all the leaden conversations in alabaster rooms.
But it’s those conversations, and the nagging feeling these conversations aren’t going anywhere interesting, hamper any momentum “The Wheel of Time” wishes to build. Even at the end of the four episodes provided for review, the characters still seem like they’re licking their wounds from the first season, the writers shuffling characters from place to place in a kind of narrative fantasy limbo. It’s sometimes worth it, like when Lindsay Duncan shows up as a royal with interesting connections to both Rand and Moiraine or the Seanchans roll into a recently-conquered village, like the Persians in “300,” and demand fealty at the edge of a spike. But these moments require our characters to speak in more than a haunted whisper, which seems beyond the reach of much of “Wheel of Time”’s cast.
In the rare moments our fellowship is actually assembled, the show starts building some livelier energy. But by insisting on sending a half-dozen protagonists on their own indistinct hero’s journeys and spending an agonizing hour-plus each episode flitting between them, “The Wheel of Time” threatens to hobble off its axle before it has a chance to pick up speed.
Four episodes were screened for review. Season Two of “The Wheel of Time” premieres on Prime Video on September 1st.