This review contains full spoilers for season two, episode five of The Wheel of Time, now available to watch on Prime Video.
After all the time wasted on isolating its characters culminated in multiple big cliffhangers in episode 4, The Wheel of Time finally picks up the pace in episode 5. Much of the focus of “Damane” is on the villains. The episode is filled with scheming and vamping that both demonstrates how widespread the Dark One’s plots are while also portraying his agents as individuals with their own disparate agendas. It’s over the top, but it’s a lot more fun than the season has been so far.
Natasha O’Keeffe’s performance as Selene was so subdued it’s hilarious to see her instantly unleash some unadulterated villainy now that her true identity – that of the Forsaken Lanfear – has been revealed, dramatically killing or maiming anyone in her way and swapping her drab clothes for all black. The move plugs Lanfear into a wider range of storylines, expressing a grudging respect for Moiraine’s ruthlessness and a flirtatious rivalry with her fellow Forsaken, Ishamael (Fares Fares). The scene between the Dark One’s top lieutenants is one of the highlights of the episode, filled with foreshadowing about the Forsaken yet to be unleashed and the various plots in motion to crush the Dragon Reborn.
Ishamael dismisses the entire genre of fantasy as “bashing about with swords and queens” while reminiscing about the far more sophisticated society that existed before the Breaking of the World, which the show briefly depicted in a season 1 flashback. Fantasy often feels artificially static, with the heroes fighting to maintain some idyllic millennia-old status quo – The Wheel of Time has always stood out because Robert Jordan rooted it in cyclical Eastern philosophy as much as Arthurian legend. A fear of a new cataclysm has led the world into a period of stagnation and decline, and the only way forward is to acknowledge the inevitability of change while fighting those who would embrace nihilism.
That scene, and the episode as a whole, demonstrates how divided the Dark One’s forces are. Ishamael is the only one of the Forsaken who actually agrees with his philosophical mission of breaking the Wheel of Time, while most of his other agents have more concrete goals like love, power, or an escape from some form of suffering. Villain team-ups often break down into petty squabbling that’s convenient for the overwhelmed heroes, and The Wheel of Time is ensuring that those internal conflicts don’t feel unearned.
Case in point, the Red Aes Sedai Liandrin gets significantly more development in the show than in the books, with Kate Fleetwood bringing a perfect balance of steely menace and vulnerability to her performance. Her conversation with Nynaeve (Zoe Robins) segues nicely into both Ishamael explaining his designs on Moiraine and Liandrin’s interactions with the Seanchan noble High Lady Suroth (Karima McAdams). Liandrin and Suroth may technically be allies, but their interests are so different that it drives the Aes Sedai to exercise just a bit of remorse by cutting Nynaeve loose.
“Damane” over the top, but it’s a lot more fun than season 2 has been so far.
It’s powerful to see Moiraine so vulnerable. I still don’t really know why it was necessary to still her, given that facing a 3,000-year-old Aes Sedai who can’t be conventionally killed and can hurt you in your dreams would be a tough task even if Moiraine could still channel. But watching Moiraine’s now old younger sister bring her a bit of forgotten wisdom helps humanize one of the show’s toughest characters.
The Brown Aes Sedai Verin (Meera Syal) also continues to shine in this episode. Despite spending a long time away from the White Tower, she seems to play its games better than Moiraine, quickly enlisting two of her sisters to her side and setting about uncovering Liandrin’s plot. Her warm exterior and bookishness both provide powerful strengths: Verin clearly recognizes that Liandrin is consciously covering her tracks with her white asparagus ploy, but needs to hide what she knows from a very dangerous enemy.
There’s no Mat (Donal Finn) at all in “Damane,” further evidence of the damage wrought by the actor swap. However Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) finally gets some good scenes as he cautiously pries information from Children of the Light officer Dain Bornhald (Jay Duffy) and rescues the captive Aiel warrior Avhienda (Ayoola Smart). Their fight scene is excellent, with Avhienda laughing at Perrin’s attempts to defend her but accepting his help while demonstrating why she calls fighting “dancing,” moving around the numerous combatants like a whirlwind. Her flirtation with him later is hilarious.
The show’s costume department has apparently decided that Aes Sedai should always be dressed in their colors to help the audience keep track of who’s who, but it’s ridiculous that Liandrin puts on a black cloak as soon as it’s revealed that she’s Black Ajah. Suroth’s wig work looks off, too, the bald cap giving her far too prominent a forehead. But otherwise the costuming and props are lush, from the Seanchan’s ornate ensembles to the details on the ax wielded by Bornhald. The absolute highlight has to be Lanfear’s ludicrous outfit in the final moments of the episode. I’m excited to see that dream scene pick up next week.
The Wheel of Time is gorgeous, well acted, and strongly written, a show that understands the characters and plot of Robert Jordan’s books without being slavishly loyal to the source material. The first three episodes use a mix of gripping action and personal dramas to bring the pages to life while also providing an accessible introduction to series newcomers. The groundwork showrunner Rafe Judkins is laying shows he has a plan for the future. Hopefully he will be given the time and money to see it through.
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