“The Wheel of Time” Season Two Has Done the Impossible

After a cringe-inducing first season for this big-budget fantasy epic, the second feels like an entirely new (and finally binge-worthy) show

October 2, 2023 2:50 pm
Nynaeve al'Meara stands before the arches in the White Tower in season 2 of The Wheel of Time
Nynaeve al'Meara (Zoë Robins) prepares to enter the arches and begin her test to become an Accepted.
Jan Thijs/Prime Video

If you stopped watching The Wheel of Time after season one ended, I can’t fault you. 

The big-budget fantasy epic, streaming on Amazon Prime Video alongside the even-bigger-budget Lord of the Rings prequel series, received two waves of criticism during its debut: when fans of the 14-book series binged the first three episodes that were released simultaneously in November 2021, seemingly every comment online was on the spectrum of disappointed to enraged (I was the former); and when the eight episodes concluded, newcomers to the material mostly fell into the camp of the Reddit commenter who wrote, “I’m not a book reader and honestly the tv show is boring me to death. Probably not going to watch the next season.” 

The second season of The Wheel of Time arrived this September, almost two years later, with the final episode set to be released on Thursday, October 5. If you haven’t been watching because of the lackluster debut, or because you read all of the lackluster reviews that were found on Instagram posts and The New York Times alike, you’re missing out on a rare feat in the TV and streaming world.

With these seven new episodes, creator and showrunner Rafe Judkins and crew have done the impossible, turning a misstep-laden snoozefest into must-see TV that’s increasingly meeting the precedent set by Game of Thrones. This second season feels like a new show entirely, and while a third season had already been greenlit in July 2022, this follow-up saved the series from irrelevance among the glut of streaming options. 

The Seanchan and Ishamael in the second season of The Wheel of Time
When a sadistic invading army appears, the costume and prop designers of “The Wheel of Time” get another chance to flex their creative muscles.
Jan Thijs/Prime Video

The story picks up with our five heroes, who were plucked out of their bucolic life and thrust into a quest to save the world by sorceress Moiraine Damodred (played by Rosamund Pike, the one A-list actor in the series), and who are now split up throughout the show’s mystical realm.

Rand, who was revealed to be the Dragon Reborn, a magic-wielding man who is prophesied to fight an ultimate evil known as the Dark One, faked his own death and ran off to seek an understanding of his newfound powers. Egwene and Nynaeve are toiling away in training at the White Tower, the home of the all-powerful witches known as Aes Sedai. Perrin is roving the countryside with a merry band of warriors searching for the Horn of Valere, and trying to figure out why he keeps having visions. Then there’s Mat, who also finds himself in the White Tower, but in a dark and dank dungeon.

Judkins notoriously went off script in this TV adaptation, making a number of changes to the storyline that deviated from Robert Jordan’s books, which led to the initial outcry from fans. For those hoping the second season was able to right the ship by adhering closer to the source material, I have bad news for you: If the first season had enough alterations from the books to fill up a blog post, the second season could fill up its own Wheel of Time book (that’s funnier if you’ve actually seen how thick these 14 novels are). No plotline, character trait or world-building detail is safe in the hands of Judkins, and every time one thread is altered, it has a cascading effect that necessitates a dozen other deviations, on and on and on. 

Start Reading “The Wheel of Time” Now, Before Amazon Makes It the Next “Lord of the Rings”
Or “Game of Thrones,” as a similarly ambitious TV series will debut on Prime Video in November

As a staunch fan of the books and apologist for what can seem like an unnecessarily lengthy fantasy series, I surprisingly don’t mind these changes at all. In fact, it seems that by freeing themselves of serving the exact details of the text itself, they’re better able to serve the audience by creating more compelling television — the best example so far being the three reality-bending challenges Nynaeve must face to move up the ranks in the White Tower, to the title of Accepted, which are completely different in the book compared to those she faces in the series. 

It wasn’t as easy to accept these revisions in the first season because the episodes felt unpolished, like rough drafts that weren’t ready to be shown to the public, in more ways than one. Despite a reported budget of $10 million an episode, much of the CGI — from falling rocks to swirls of magic called the One Power — felt like the worst of Marvel. When the characters were free from beasts and sorcery and left to simply talk, like when will-they-or-won’t-they couple Rand and Egwene lashed out at each other in the woods, you wished there was a director who could have coaxed a better performance out of the young actors (Josha Stradowski and Madeleine Madden, respectively), or at least frame it in a way that sold the emotional heft in the lines spoken. The debut season also lacked the episodic magic of Game of Thrones, where each monumental cliffhanger didn’t simply leave you worried for one character, but left you with a million questions about how the fate of one would impact the fate of all. Most Wheel of Time episodes ended with a shrug instead of the need to rush to Twitter to see how others were reacting.

In season two, that has all changed. With each successive episode, the tensions ramp up with Rand’s increasingly erratic power, Nynaeve’s diabolical trials in the mysterious archways underneath the White Tower, Moiraine’s search for prophesies à la Gandalf at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, and Perrin’s run-in with a sadistic invading army; and those threads are all endcapped with final scenes which leave you convincing yourself that, yes, you can afford to spend another hour in front of your TV.

Some of this newfound success can likely be attributed to an even larger budget. After season one concluded, Vernon Sanders, now head of TV at Amazon Studios, told IGN that they’d be pouring even more money into season two. Another major factor is undoubtedly the new slate of directors who have been tasked with shepherding each of the individual episodes, including Thomas Napper, Sanaa Hamri and Maja Vrvilo. While episodic directors on TV series aren’t quite as important as directors on movies (Judkins is the real creative lead on this show), they’re still integral in the look and feel of the final product; tellingly, while Game of Thrones always had director carryover between its seasons, The Wheel of Time didn’t bring back any of its four original directors to helm an episode in the second — and from an audience perspective, that made all of the difference.

It’s not all large-scale changes that have rerouted this fantasy tale into a new, more satisfyingly epic direction. A few key cast additions, including Natasha O’Keeffe (Peaky Blinders) as the secretive Selene, and Tony- and Olivier-winning Lindsay Duncan as Moiraine’s sister, add some much-needed acting chops to a show full to the brim with fresh faces. As well, Mat is now played by a new actor, Dònal Finn, and he brings a natural mischievousness to the role that originator Barney Harris lacked. For book diehards, that’s at least one win you can tally on your side of the scorecard. 

It’s fairly common for TV shows to get better with age. They hook you with an interesting premise in the first season, but then the creative team hits their stride in the second and creates something worthy of endless re-runs and weekend binges. Yet I can’t think of a show that has achieved the same feat as The Wheel of Time, where the first season was completely forgettable, while the second season inspired countdowns to each episode release. I generally don’t like using Rotten Tomatoes as a barometer of taste, but when the audience score for the first season is 60% and for the next it’s 82%, that’s a hard consensus to deny. 

The season two finale of The Wheel of Time premieres on October 5. If you’ve missed out on this season so far, as long as you watch two of the hour-long episodes a day, you’ll be caught up. That may sound like a lot of TV to binge in one week, but be careful — once you get to the end of episode two, you may just get sucked into what can now confidently be called a binge-worthy epic. 

Update: This story has been edited to reflect that the finale premieres in the U.S. on October 5, not October 6.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.