WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Wheel of Time Episode 1, "Leavetaking."
The first thing to know about The Wheel of Time is that there's a lot to know. Unlike many other popular fantasy stories, this one doesn't take place in an analog of medieval England; the various cultures in the setting, and their history, have no direct parallels to the real world. Consequently, a new viewer needs a good amount of exposition to make sense of everything.
With limited time to convey volumes of information, the TV series starts with a voiceover from Moiraine, describing the long-ago Breaking of the World and the present-day rebirth of the man who caused it, called the Dragon. Although there's a clear sense of urgency to her mission to find the Dragon Reborn "before the Dark does," the apocalyptic events she refers to are in the distant past, and the dangers allegedly unleashed by men attempting to "cage darkness" are vague.
The next scene is much more specific. Two terrified men are scrambling to escape a faction of women on horseback, who soon corner them and deliver a condemnation: One of them can channel the One Power, forbidden to men. The other, it turns out, doesn't exist -- he's an imaginary friend, a sign of the madness that takes men who channel.
There are visual and verbal signs that although the women who run him down are Aes Sedai like Moiraine, they're of a different kind. Indeed, Moiraine and her Warder Lan are watching the scene unfold from out of sight, and their only commentary on it is that this isn't the man they were looking for so they must continue on their journey. One lasting consequence of the Breaking of the World is now clear: Men who can channel are so dangerous that an entire division of the women who can channel -- the Aes Sedai's Red Ajah -- is devoted to hunting them.
The worldbuilding continues in the Two Rivers, with the quiet pastoral life of the villagers colored by a few traditions that wouldn't be found in similar historic European societies. Egwene is undergoing an intense ritual before she's welcomed into the "Women's Circle," led by the village Wisdom, whose authority is equal to that of the Mayor. The prominence of women leaders is a subtle effect of men being the corrupted channelers, blamed for the Breaking.
As the Two Rivers prepares for the festival of Bel Tine, the idea of reincarnation is brought up again, with all characters subscribing to the belief that their deceased loved ones will be born again with no memory of their past lives.
When the village is attacked by Trollocs, led by a terrifying eyeless Myrddraal, everyone's lives are of course changed forever, but the underlying truth is that these unnatural monsters have been around for a long time -- just like some of the scenery, which suggests the remains of ancient cities. Thanks to its remote location, the Two Rivers has been sheltered from conflict brewing throughout the rest of the world. The Breaking of the World didn't just end the idyllic Age of Legends; it planted seeds for an even greater apocalypse which wipes out everyone and breaks the Wheel of Time itself.
The role that the Dragon Reborn will play in the decisive final battle is unclear. Moiraine's five candidates from the Two Rivers know that one of them might be this prophesied figure, but even they have questions about the logic of the next Dragon saving the world after the first one practically destroyed it, and they don't know yet whether they can trust the machinations of the Aes Sedai.
From the perspective of the audience, the odds look even uglier. Moiraine and Lan are operating independently, keeping secrets even from the White Tower, and they know that there's no guarantee the Dragon will choose to side with them against the Dark. Their quest is a desperate attempt to avoid the worst-case scenario, fueled by the hope that after things get worse, they might get better.
The Wheel of Time is now streaming on Prime Video, with new episodes released on Fridays.
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