Television

The Wheel of Time Isn’t “the New Game of Thrones.” It’s Better.

Everyone wants to duplicate HBO’s era-defining megahit, but Prime Video’s fantasy series is rethinking it as well.

A woman in a cloak rides a white dappled horse in front of a tall forest
Rosamund Pike in The Wheel of Time. Prime Video

Less than halfway through the first episode of The Wheel of Time, the camera pans to a woman in a bath. Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), a powerful Aes Sedai, or conjurer, washes her shoulders. The shot widens to reveal Moiraine’s Warder, Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), a man sworn to protect her, slowly entering the tub alongside her. Upon seeing Lan’s butt, I thought I knew how this scene was going to play out—after all, I’m no stranger to Game of Thrones. But instead of bumping and grinding and then pushing a young boy out a window, Moiraine and Lan simply relax together in the hot bath, pondering who the chosen one is as high fantasy characters are wont to do, and then the camera cuts away.* The intimacy is palpable, but it’s platonic and nothing more.

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In the mid-2010s, after pumping billions of dollars into Prime Video, Jeff Bezos ordered the platform’s original programming to shift away from niche slice-of-life shows and toward genre series with broad appeal. In his new book, Amazon Unbound, Brad Stone reports that Bezos gave a directive to his executive team: “I want my Game of Thrones.” In response, Amazon acquired the global TV rights to The Lord of the Rings in 2017 and placed a series order for an adaptation of The Wheel of Time the following year. Based on Robert Jordan’s sweeping 14-book fantasy series, the show bears clear similarities to Thrones. However, Prime Video’s most recent series wrestles with the era-defining HBO epic’s legacy by largely rejecting its most tried-and-true tropes.

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The Wheel of Time deviates considerably from its source material in order to condense Jordan’s Tolkienesque fictional universe; the story is so expansive that telling it on-screen without cutting some details would be impossible. Showrunner Rafe Judkins (both a Wheel of Time superfan and former Survivor contestant) ages the characters up, combines events, and strikes a less solemn tone. But the story’s core remains the same: In the World of the Wheel, history repeats itself in cycles of thousands of years, over and over again. Although men used to wield the One Power, that ability has been lost. Now women, Aes Sedai, are the only ones who can channel it, and conjurers like Moiraine fight a never-ending battle against the Dark One, who seeks to break the world. In a past age, an extremely powerful user of the One Power—the Dragon—successfully beat back the forces of evil. And as the Dark One reawakens in the current age, the Dragon has also been reborn. Moiraine must uncover who they are and guide them to save the world.*

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Jordan’s novels are classic high fantasy, complete with bards who know more than they share, magical women with hidden agendas, monsters of all kinds, and cursed objects characters shouldn’t touch but inevitably do. The streaming adaptation clearly takes inspiration from its on-screen predecessors as well. Like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time begins with the focus on a central journey, and, as a result, there are a lot of walking scenes. Filmed in the Czech Republic, the show features sweeping pans of characters traveling on foot or riding on horseback through breathtaking landscapes. Wheel of Time also relies heavily on practical effects to bring Orc-like minions of the Dark One, called Trollocs, to life. But Game of Thrones’ shadow looms largest. Prime Video’s series has a similarly ginormous budget (the first season cost a reported $80 million to make) resulting in impressive special effects and surreal CGI cities. Game of Thrones’ success paved the way for a show like Wheel of Time, and proved that the masses and awards shows alike can take fantasy seriously.

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But as indicated by that bath scene, Wheel of Time also feels decidedly unlike Game of Thrones in key areas. In an essay about the impact of the show’s legacy of sexual violence, the Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert writes, “The strange value of Game of Thrones is that it highlighted how tediously prestige television has come to rely on rape, both as titillation and as a catchall traumatic event that even the most lauded shows overuse to enable male heroism and character development.” In the six episodes of Wheel of Time available to critics, there is almost no nudity, and when there is, it serves a clear purpose. There is no rape, and all the show’s sex scenes thus far are loving and consensual. Men and women touch or offer each other comfort in beautifully tender scenes that could become sexual, but often remain platonic. Like me, viewers familiar with Game of Thrones may uneasily wait for these sweet moments to turn sour, but so far, they never do.

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Unlike Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time also sincerely prioritizes representation. Women contain interiority and exist as more than bodies to be violated or damsels to be rescued. The cast is diverse, yet no characters are tokenized or endure suffering as a result of their race. Same-sex relationships are integrated seamlessly into the story, rather than sensationalized—Judkins, who is gay, told GQ that reading Wheel of Time with his mother helped him and his family process his coming out at 18. And nearly all instances of violence feel intentional and necessary to the story, rather than gratuitous.

That isn’t to say that Wheel of Time is perfect: The first episode turns a minor character from the books into a main character’s wife, only to kill her off right away in a classic example of fridging. But after years of Game of Thrones dictating the parameters of violence and sexuality in prestige fantasy TV, Wheel of Time is still a breath of mostly fresh air.

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Unlike Game of Thrones and other popular shows that used and still use excessive brutality to attract viewers, Wheel of Time is banking on the idea that shock value isn’t the only way to make people pay attention. In her essay, Gilbert points out that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss eventually toned down depictions of rape after receiving extensive criticism, and the show’s audience only continued to grow. Wheel of Time’s story is good enough, entertaining enough on its own without needing to resort to cheap tricks.

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However, it would be incorrect to characterize Wheel of Time as simply a response to Game of Thrones. In fact, Wheel of Time came first. Jordan released the first seven books in his series between 1990 and 1996, before the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was published, and they’re chock-full of progressive themes: Women are at the forefront of the battle against evil. The world is expansive and multicultural, depicting people of different ethnicities. And numerous characters are queer. Judkins just punches up elements that already exist in the books.

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But Wheel of Time offers audiences a less painful viewing experience in more ways than one. The new series is literally lighter than Game of Thrones. While there was no shortage of things to criticize about the latter’s final season, one of fans’ biggest gripes was the show’s darkness. Some episodes—particularly “The Longest Night”—contained scenes so dimly lit that viewers had to squint or turn up their televisions’ brightness to make sense of what was happening. By contrast, Wheel of Time is a ray of sunshine. The show’s brightness allows audiences to easily make sense of fast-moving battle scenes. Wheel of Time’s costume design is also a departure from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings’ overwhelmingly gray and brown wardrobes, used to signal “serious” fantasy drama. In the Prime Video series, characters wear brightly colored tunics, plush cloaks in earthy greens, and jewel-toned gowns with modern silhouettes, which are a feast for the eyes if a little incongruous.

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Altogether, these creative changes shift the story’s tone, which may work for some viewers and not for others. While the books are very much like LOTR—weighty, far-reaching—the streaming series at times feels more like the CW’s The 100 or Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, which is sure to turn off some Wheel of Time purists. But while the adaptation isn’t a carbon copy of the books, it works well as a complement. The streaming series benefits from strong performances—Pike, in particular, commands viewers’ attention as Moiraine, deftly conveying the conjurer’s quiet strength with an arched eyebrow or whispered word.* And the first six episodes succeed in evoking the scope of Jordan’s fictional universe, while indicating that they’ve only just scratched the surface and there’s more magic to come. (A second season has already been greenlit.) Wheel of Time succeeds in retaining the earnestness and hope that characterize the novels, and which Game of Thrones lacked. But it also offers viewers something new.

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If Game of Thrones was “just tits and dragons,” as Ian McShane famously said, Wheel of Time is more soft touches and sweeping landscapes—a welcome change for many. Wheel of Time’s gentler, more socially conscious strategy seems to be working. Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke told Deadline that the series’s premiere was Prime Video’s most watched of the year and in its top five of all time. The TV audience has fractured so much since the Game of Thrones finale that it will be an uphill battle for any attempt to duplicate its hold on the cultural conversation. But who knows? The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.

Correction, Nov. 30, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Moiraine Damodred’s first name.

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