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‘The Wheel of Time’ Is a Hit Fantasy Series — Can It Be More?

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains light spoilers for “The Wheel of Time” Season 2.]

If you’ll spare a weary critic a moment of vulnerability, I must admit: I do not understand “The Wheel of Time.” Not enough, anyway, though not for lack of trying. I’ve now seen the first season of Amazon Prime Video’s fantasy adaptation twice. I’ve read the Wiki pages as well as reviews from my fellow critics. I’ve screened the available Season 2 episodes, while poking around in recaps and social media reactions. The books remain unopened (since, in addition to time constraints, I don’t believe you should have to consume every version of a story to appreciate one telling of it), but I’ve gone over their synopses and summaries, so I feel I’ve done my due diligence. I have given “The Wheel of Time” a spin, a fair shake, and a hard look.

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Nevertheless, I don’t get whatever is going on here. In Season 2, Mom and Dad are fighting, but I can’t quite pinpoint how Lan (Daniel Henney) “failed” Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), or if it’s just a limp excuse for added drama. The Dragon Reborn (who’s almost certainly not the Dragon Reborn, right?) is still in hiding, but he’s happily banging an innkeeper (who’s definitely not an innkeeper) to keep him from thinking about his one true love, Egwene (Madeleine Madden), who he’s decided to never see again but desperately wants to remember? Speaking of Egwene, she’s in training at the White Tower with Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), which is a perfect opportunity to explain how the magic in “Wheel of Time” actually works, and yet the Aes Sedai’s abilities remain conveniently fluid and frustratingly opaque. (They can conjure water out of the walls and air, so is that why Moiraine takes so many baths? Because they’re always available?)

Then there’s Mat (Barney Harris in Season 1), who goes through an unacknowledged physical transformation that no one’s going to mention? OK, OK, I know how recasting works (Dònal Finn takes over the role in Season 2), but that it’s entirely believable for a character to shapeshift only furthers my point: The rules in “The Wheel of Time” are very loosely defined, whether emotional or practical, and both are beyond a casual viewer’s comprehension.

That could be a problem, because Prime Video has a bonafide hit on its hands. When “Wheel of Time” premiered in November 2021, its first three episodes netted 1.16 billion minutes of viewing time — in its first week. That was Amazon’s best Nielsen performance to date and compares well with the streamer’s next fantasy epic, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which pulled in 1.25 billion minutes in its debut. (Both were surpassed by “Reacher,” but that’s another story.) “Lord of the Rings” went on to tally 7.52 billion minutes across its seven-week run, while “The Wheel of Time” tallied around 4.5 billion minutes in its own seven-week span. That’s a significant difference, but an expected one: “The Lord of the Rings” is a proven franchise in Hollywood, thanks to the beloved blockbuster film series, whereas “The Wheel of Time” is just getting started.

Also worth noting in all those streaming numbers: “The Wheel of Time” barely lost any audience at all in the week after its finale. Typically, shows with a weekly release see a sizable drop-off once the last episode is released, but “Wheel of Time” only lost 1 percent of its finale-week views. Comparatively, the heavily hyped “Lord of the Rings” saw a post-finale dip of 50 percent. There are a few ways to interpret the data — for instance, given its popularity, “Lord of the Rings,” fans may have watched the ending as soon as possible to avoid being spoiled — but one could also argue “The Wheel of Time” was steadily growing its audience. Good word-of-mouth draws new viewers throughout the Season 1 rollout, which would help explain the near-identical post-finale viewership.

For a series debut — even decades-old I.P. with an established fanbase — that’s an impressive first season. But if good word-of-mouth can propel a series forward, what happens if the second season disappoints? “The Wheel of Time” Season 2 premiered September 1, so no viewership data is available yet. (Nielsen ratings for streaming originals are released on a three-week delay.) It’s hard to spot, let alone verify, any emerging rancor among the fandom. Reviews remain mixed, though there are far fewer for Season 2 than there were for Season 1 (a common occurrence when a show isn’t a critical favorite, or simply doesn’t demand continued coverage beyond fan sites).

Wheel of Time Season 2 Madeleine Madden (Egwene al'Vere), Zoë Robins (Nynaeve al'Meara), Ceara Coveney (Elayne Trakand)
“The Wheel of Time”Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Prime Video

Still, while I may not understand everything about “The Wheel of Time,” I can spot benchmarks of a Season 2 slump without any help from the One Power. The once-united ensemble has been scattered to the wind. Fan-favorite pairings are being kept apart — be it Moiraine and Lan, Lan and Nynaeve, Rand and Egwene, Rand and Mat, the list goes on — as each member of the original cast is asked to help introduce new characters needed to expand the story. Some of the newbies are welcome enough (it’s great to see more of Kae Alexander’s Min, a clairvoyant bartender who’s now Mat’s keeper), but too many others are too shallow to explain their screentime. It takes way too long for Selene’s (Natasha O’Keeffe) true purpose to be revealed, and Elayne (Ceara Coveney) feels like a sounding board meant to keep Egwene busy until her plot is ready to start rolling.

Speaking of plots, I cannot believe how long they’ve drawn out Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and his identity as a “Wolfbrother.” Remember when his eyes turned yellow, like a wolf’s, when he was being tortured? Remember when he had a special connection with the wolves outside? Yeah, that was in Episode 5 of the first season — and he’s only now asking questions like, “Am I going to turn into a wolf?” (Also, I’m sorry, but this show has not earned the right to laugh off a bizarre question like that, not when Season 2 starts with a little girl petting a Trolloc.)

Early on, one of “The Wheel of Time’s” strongest traits was its willingness to embrace an episodic structure while plowing ahead with its story. Change happened fast. Decisions had to be made in a hurry. Despite all the necessary exposition about who people are, what powers they have, and where they need to go, episodes worked to fit it all into traceable narratives (the episode with the fake Dragon Reborn, the episode where Moiraine is on trial, etc.) Season 1 felt like it was moving. Season 2 feels like someone jammed a stick in its spokes.

For readers, it probably doesn’t feel so static. Knowing what it means for this character to pop up or for that action to take place can be comforting; you already know the story and can thus recognize how the TV show is choosing to tell it. Genre fans, who love learning the language, admiring the world-building, and spending time in a lavishly realized fantasy realm may also be perfectly happy with how Season 2 is taking shape. “The Wheel of Time” offers all of that and then some — and that’s great! Not every show has to be for everyone! This “Wheel” could run for seven seasons and never get a spinoff or sequel or prequel, and those who’ve been behind it since the beginning would likely be satisfied.

It’s just… that’s not really how TV works anymore. “The Wheel of Time” appears to be a sizable hit, and while it’s not Prime Video’s top priority — the company has invested far more in “Lord of the Rings” — hits tend to become tentpoles, so long as the audience continues to grow. And grow it should. It should just also try to improve. Given the flashes of potential onscreen and what’s still to be mined in the original source material, there’s a version of this show that can do right by die-hard fans and curious newcomers. But for that to happen, I’d contend casual viewers need to like what they see. Or, at least, understand it.

Not all shows have to make sense. Plenty get along just fine living in chaos. “The Witcher” is pure chaos, yet Henry Cavill provided enough grand brooding to make three seasons of monster-hunting worth sitting through. Then there’s chaos generators like “The Morning Show” and “And Just Like That,” which are meant to share a reality with their viewers, yet characters and actions often feel relegated to a bizarro universe lacking rational thought and common sense. What matters, though, is when the inexplicable happens, it’s half-infuriating, half-astonishing, and fully captivating. Carrie Bradshaw wants to date an ex-boyfriend who refuses to step foot in her home? Seems like a terrible idea, but sure, let’s see how it plays out! Reese Witherspoon– whoops, sorry, Bradley Jackson (played by Reese Witherspoon) was inside the Capitol on January 6? I mean, sounds a little convenient, but I’ll go along with it. Both shows lean into batshit insanity for the sake of good old-fashioned entertainment, teasing juicy drama or ludicrous twists that can be satisfying when a bit of fun is all you’re looking for.

The Wheel of Time Season 2 Perrin Aybara actor Marcus Rutherford
Marcus Rutherford in “The Wheel of Time”Courtesy of Jan Thijs / Prime Video

“The Wheel of Time” isn’t leaning in; it’s reaching out — outside the bounds of narrative cohesion, into a place that feels too loosey goosey to keep up with. Go nuts. Raise a little hell. Get back to the friendship and fighting that gave Season 1 a boost. Why? For the sake of the story, of course, but also because if too many viewers tune out in Season 2, Amazon risks losing a pillar of its original programming. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is far from the streamer’s only long-term franchise. “The Boys” has long been a hit, and its spin-offs — even in one-and-done efforts — make it clear the superhero satire can sustain more stories. “The Terminal List” is anything but D.O.A., as a second season of the Chris Pratt action series has been renewed, along with a spin-off starring Taylor Kitsch. “Citadel” is a thing, apparently, while “Reacher” — Prime Video’s most-watched first season to date — certainly won’t end anytime soon.

But outside of “The Boys,” none of these programs have proven they can copy their initial success. Prime Video (along with the rest of television) wants franchises, and “The Wheel of Time” is begging to be exactly that. Robert Jordan’s book series ran for 14 volumes — 14! And that’s not including a prequel and two companion novels. If Amazon can make two shows out of “watch Chris Pratt kill people” then how many should it be able to engineer from a massive ensemble, an entire fantasy world, and more than 4.4 million words of source material?

The answer is “a lot,” but before an exact figure can be pinned down, “The Wheel of Time” has to build demand. Despite what executives would have you believe, franchises can’t exist without demand, and demand typically doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. (“Citadel” and its pre-planned franchise — built from nothing more than the Russo Brothers’ names and two words of plot: “super-spies” — aims to be the exception to that rule.) Fandoms have their own guiding principles, and there are undoubtedly many, many fans of Jordan’s books who tune in just to see how his stories will be realized onscreen.

But as a critic — no, as a massive fan of television, I have a hard time seeing how “The Wheel of Time” can roll out decades of storytelling modeled after what we’re seeing this year. Hit shows typically aren’t this hard to track, and even when they are, there are clear, immediate reasons people are willing to put in the work. (Reasons like, “I love ‘Sex and the City’ too much to let go,” or “Damn, they cast Jon Hamm in this now?”) I’ll be more than happy to be proven wrong — again, I do not pretend to understand the widespread appeal or narrative intricacies of this show — but it sure seems like this “Wheel” needs to offer a smoother ride.

Grade: C-

“The Wheel of Time” is available on Amazon Prime Video. The Season 2 finale will be released October 6.

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