This review covers episodes 1-4 of The Wheel of Time season 2
Two years is an eternity in the world of returning streaming shows, but Prime Video has nonetheless been confident enough in The Wheel of Time to renew it for a third season long before the second premieres tomorrow. Only time will tell how far it runs beyond that, because as much as the new episodes expand and deepen the fascinating-if-dense lore, it still stumbles into many of the same pitfalls as its predecessor.
As tends to be the case with small screen fantasy, things do indeed get darker second time around, although anyone who hasn’t revisited season 1 for a while might want to make a point of revisiting the first eight chapters before diving into the sophomore run, because one brief recap isn’t enough to refresh even the strongest of memories about everything that went down last time out.
Picking up from where things left off – and with the majority of world-building foundations having been laid – The Wheel of Time‘s first four installments of season 2 feel as though this is where the story really begins, now that audiences know who the key players are, what sets them apart from the rest, and where their interconnected narratives appear to be heading, at least for the time being.
Joshua Stradowski’s Rand al’Thor is trying to live the quiet life after discovering that he’s the Dragon Reborn, haunted by the mere prospect of being seduced by the dark side of the One Power. Of course, nobody with a greater destiny is allowed to ignore it for too long, but it soon becomes clear that his anonymity isn’t quite as blissful as he initially assumes it to be.
Meanwhile, Madeleine Madden’s Egwene struggles to maximize her potential at the White Tower, matters that aren’t made any easier by the resident Aes Sedai becoming increasingly enamored with Zoë Robins’ Nynaeve. Embracing his feral side to a much greater extent in the vast wilderness, Marcus Rutherford’s Perrin has his own quest to contend with as he and a fellow pack of hunters track down the Horn of Valere.
Having been guilty of giving uneven performances in season 1, the younger principal cast members now feel a lot more comfortable in their roles, which helps immerse you in both the world of The Wheel of Time and the constant doubts and anxieties that plague each and every one of them in relation to their place in it, whether it’s one they’re trying to carve out themselves or a pre-ordained fate they’re either running towards or away from.
Nynaeve and Rand may not interact, but it always feels like their stories are running parallel to one another; her vulnerability is counteracted by immense power others are encouraging her to explore, while he’s on a quest to find the right people to help him embrace his own abilities for better or worse. As a result, Natasha O’Keefe’s enigmatic Lanfear has a major part to play in the latter’s ongoing arc, but it doesn’t exactly play out as you might think given the way we’re introduced to their dynamic.
Rosamund Pike has always been positioned as the erstwhile lead of the show, but that isn’t quite the case in the first half of season 2, with her Moiraine completely absent from episode 3 altogether. While it’s never a good idea for a sprawling episodic epic to place too much stock in any one character, her performance is so complex and layered that she’s missed whenever the action sidelines her for too long.
Always trying to push those closest to her as far away as possible, she actively attempts to create distance from Daniel Henney’s al’Lan Mandragoran, and that barely even scratches the surface of her manipulation towards allies, acquaintances, and family alike. In lesser hands we’d be talking about an altogether cold and unlikable character, but it’s to Pike’s credit once again that she manages to make the part fully-realized and fleshed-out when there often isn’t much more required than a glance or subtle body language.
There’s a meandering quality carried over from season 1 that finds the constant slow-burning dragging its wheels on occasion, but when things ramp up, they do so in style. The action and effects have always been among The Wheel of Time‘s strongest suits, and that’s no different here as mysticism meets steel, with several slick sequences involving the Fade, hints of the Black Ajah, and the Seanchan Empire all leaving an impression through a winning blend of choreography, visceral impact, and the way each individual beat progresses the larger story forward.
There might be some uproar among fans of the source material for some of the deviations that have been made from the books, but as somebody that’s never picked up a copy of The Wheel of Time in any shape or form, this writer would assume they were made for the sake of preserving the core conceit of season 1 without having to remain slavishly faithful at the expense of pacing or urgency.
While there are moments where you’ll find yourself becoming so bogged down in the never-ending exposition drenched in fantastical terminology and ominous intonations of terrible things to come that are spoken in a hundred words when 10 would do you’ll be crying to come up for air, that’s part of the bargain when you sign on to dive headfirst into one of the most well-constructed worlds on television.
Big budget fantasy is everywhere you look on streaming these days, and as a result it’s becoming harder than ever to stand out from the pack. By increasing in scope, scale, and spectacle but still remaining true to the characters and their journeys both individually and collectively, The Wheel of Time doesn’t just know what it wants to be; it refuses to alter that perception regardless of how stodgy it can frequently become.
Episode 4 ends on a major cliffhanger that indicates things are poised to kick up several notches once the back half of season 2 begins rolling out, and it’s to the immense credit of the creative team that anybody with even a passing interest in The Wheel of Time will be desperate to see how it all shakes out. “Engagement” and “completion” are buzzwords by which streaming services live and die these days, but with another season confirmed regardless of what happens from here on out, Prime Video’s marquee fantasy (sorry, The Rings of Power) has more than enough in the tank to continue growing its audience based on the strength of its concept, the work of its cast, and its unique and ultimately fascinating mythos that gives off the impression it’s still barely been scratched a full dozen episodes in.