Over the weekend I started developing an explanation for the abysmal first episode of the long-awaited Wheel of Time series on Amazon Prime. My main concern was that the show was, in effect, fan fiction. In other words, that since the writers hadn’t had to come up with the world or characters on their own, they hadn’t applied the kind of oversight that comes naturally to an author who does. A fantasy author must consider what have come to be known as Sanderson’s Three Laws, considering carefully the implications of the underlying principles that build a fantasy world. These are, as Sanderson says, just good storytelling rules, but I had thought the failure to apply this kind of thinking must somehow be inherent in fan fiction, and a similar attitude on the part of the show’s writers must have prevailed.
Now I’m thinking a little differently after watching the next two episodes of the show, and reading a particularly thoughtful blog post by Abby Goldsmith. Although the writers have made mistakes that still demonstrate a lack of feedback and oversight (when they have Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal to consult!), I think the bigger problem is it’s a show written in 2018 and in particular, it’s a show explicitly designed as “the next Game of Thrones.” That’s particularly ironic because The Wheel of Time was mostly written before and was a huge influence on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (as was Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams). Martin’s series was, as I see it, a furthering of the critique of heroic storytelling started by Jordan in The Eye of the World, but Martin did it in a way that made adapting it for TV particularly easy. This isn’t surprising because Martin was a TV writer and producer. Robert Jordan was, on the other hand, a great epic fantasy writer, probably the greatest, and trying to cram his brilliant writing into a TV show in the post-CSI era of television is particularly sad.
The subsequent two episodes of the show demonstrate the particular problems of this era of TV writing, or perhaps it’s a particular style. These problems are emphasized by the particularly down nature of the two episodes. Quite frankly I was bored. I was yawning. The three biggest problems are:
- Tone: the show is really really dark, almost horror-based (a wolf ripping the guts out of a dead woman, Rand yanking a bat out of his mouth, with apologies to Ozzy Osbourne, etc), whereas the books are relatively even, with lighthearted moments balancing the intense parts. Those intense parts are not like horror, but more like any heroic story from Herakles to The Hobbit. The characters are dull, depressed, and not particularly fun or interesting to watch.
- Unnecessary dialogue: characters say things to “help” the audience; things they wouldn’t say or that it’s better they not say
- Comic book exposition: exposition is done in long, pretentious speeches while the characters do nothing interesting. The actor’s tone is pregnant with importance, even though there is really no basis for it, and often it has little to do with what’s going on in the scene. Or perhaps it’s not even a scene; it’s just someone giving a speech.
The first of these can be put squarely on the show trying to be “the next Game of Thrones,” i.e. trying to appeal to the same audience. And yet the degree to which The Wheel of Time isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire should have been a clue that there was a new audience to tackle, or that the same audience might have preferred something a little different, a little more Hobbit-ish. I mean really, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, The Eye of the World is a fun adventure with plenty of dark moments but the spirit of adventure is really the most important thing in it. The internecine machinations of the Aes Sedai and the court intrigue of Andor, Cairhien, and Tear don’t come into it until much later in the series. The first four books are quests in the fashion of Jason and the Argonauts, the Hobbit, and so on.
The characters on the show, in keeping with this depressing tone, look bored, irritable, and flat. They are depressed. They are not interesting. Written as they are, it’s no wonder the writers had to resort to piling on all kinds of bad exposition and out-of-nowhere action because the characters aren’t interesting at all. The characters in the book, by contrast, are plucky little teenagers who, while not being stupid, are stupid enough to get into trouble. You get to know them in the first few chapters of the book and they are real, interesting, funny, and distinctive. This problem is especially evident on the show when they go into Shadar Logoth, and Mat goes off by himself (because he hears a voice?) and gets the ruby-hilted dagger for no damned reason other than he’s a maudlin jewel thief. The way they’ve set up the character, there’s really no way else for him to do it, but it looked particularly stupid. And then they killed Bela, which for me, just kills the show.
But the title of “worst example of a fun character who is portrayed as depressing and boring” now goes to the show’s portrayal of Thom Merrilin, who in the book is fun and interesting because it is his job. Somehow Thom, in the show, gets up on stage and sings a thoroughly depressing song badly and then goes around asking people for money, and he robs Mat? What the hell? It’s not even that he’s not the same Thom in the book. He’s an asshole. Why? What purpose does having this character serve now? He’s a knowledgeable, world-wise asshole but he’s still an asshole. And why is he playing a guitar? That goes into the fan fiction category: I feel like any considerate writer would understand why it’s important to have Thom play the harp and not the guitar, but these writers just didn’t bother with that. If he’s going to play a guitar, why is he playing such a piece of crap guitar?
Unnecessary dialogue and comic book exposition are two problems that I find particularly galling, because they show a basic lack of respect for the audience, and if not that, then a basic lack of confidence on the part of the writers. For those of you saying “well, there’s a lot of exposition to get through,” go watch old episodes of LA Law, The Dukes of Hazard, Law and Order (before 2000), and even kids shows like Clone Wars. You will not find this crap on anything before CSI premiered. Some shows managed to hold out, but lots of them got into the same habit as CSI of explaining everything to the audience in particularly blunt, on-the-nose dialogue. It sucks. They set up the moment where the viewer comes to a realization, or some background piece of evidence is revealed and then the characters say it out loud as if the audience were blind. The most egregious example of this comes in Episode 3 of The Wheel of Time, when Nynaeve is trying to treat Moiraine’s wound (a wound that should have killed her or impeded her ability to channel, but we’ll let that go for now). Nynaeve looks at Lan and says “I know that Warders and their Aes Sedai are linked, that you will feel what she feels, so get ready because this is going to hurt.”
Now, why the hell did she need to say all that? The bond between warders and Aes Sedai is interesting, but it’s not relevant to the plot or even the scene. Beyond that, if they wanted to show that, because it’s cool, why is Nynaeve talking about it? She could have just cleaned out the wound without saying “this is going to hurt,” and shown Moiraine and Lan reacting to the pain. WTF, seriously, folks. It shows that they don’t know the difference between stuff that’s relevant to the plot, and stuff that isn’t. Another gem is when Moiraine wakes up and asks Lan where they are. “Shadar Logoth,” he says, to which she replies “You have killed us all.” What? She wouldn’t say that. Totally useless. Doesn’t add no kind of nothing.
Comic book exposition is particularly bad in this show because almost none of it is relevant or interesting. It doesn’t spice up the story, it doesn’t provide motivation, it doesn’t even really qualify as exposition because it’s all background that doesn’t affect anything anyway. There are passages in the books where Moiraine explicitly explains things to the Kids and tells them stories, but it’s done in a way that adds to the book. It isn’t boring.
So my new theory is that the writers are writing in a way that they think they have to, and that is a bad way to write a TV show. I also think plenty of viewers are just used to it, and it just doesn’t bother them. It bothers me, but perhaps the people who are saying they like the show just aren’t noticing that they’re doing things the CSI way.
There were also plenty of things that, in the vein of my first set of criticisms, just didn’t make sense. The boys and Egwene are repeatedly characterized as idiot country bumpkins, but then they know all this stuff about Aes Sedai, the Children of the Light, and so on. How exactly? It seems the writers change the characters whenever it’s convenient for a particular scene, which just adds to the see-through nature of the characters.
Then there’s the Children of the Light themselves. This was just weird. They’re burning an Aes Sedai at the stake? Aes Sedai aren’t stupid. Some of them are hundreds of years old. They don’t go out advertising what they are anywhere that might be hostile. They have networks of spies, pigeons, aliases, and hidden sisters to tell them where they can be safe revealing themselves. Most of the time they don’t even wear their rings. And somehow Carridin has managed to cut the hands off a Yellow Sister and burn her at the stake? And no one else in the camp is watching? He’s just sitting there having lunch?
And what is with those guys just fondling Moiraine on the side of the road? Eamon Valda, the guy who has spent his life camped out next to Tar Valon, trying to destroy The White Tower, is not going to tell a traveler on the road to have an Aes Sedai check out her wound. It doesn’t make sense.
And another thing: have you ever ridden a horse? Cuz I have and I won’t wear my everyday jeans when I do it, because they’ll get too dirty. No way are the Children riding around in those white uniforms. They’re called Whitecloaks, not Whitehabits. Again, they just didn’t pay attention to these things.
Lan still bothers me because he looks like something from our world. You have all these fantasy characters in cloaks and tunics, and then a guy from Japan. It’s distracting.
Then we have The Tinkers, who are wearing ponchos and have dreadlocks and the children don’t look like they’re related to their parents. It seems like the writers instituted some rule where every group, every town, encountered along the adventure has to be of thoroughly mixed race even when they are supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world, shunned, segregated, and only marrying within their group for three thousand years. Just not well thought-through. “Well, but it’s a fantasy world,” you’re saying. Yes, and fantasy worlds have rules. Robert Jordan did that better than anybody else, and it’s a shame that they’ve thrown that out the window.
Now I know what you’re saying (because people have been saying it to me all weekend): this is just because you’re a big fan of the books and you wouldn’t notice any of this stuff if you weren’t. Oh yeah? I’m also a big “fan” of medieval European history, especially the Anglo-Saxon period in England and yet I love the show Vikings. That show has very very little basis in historical reality, despite using a few character names that come from history, like Alfred the Great and Harald Finehair, and yet it’s still a good show. Why? Good characters, good conflict. The conflicts the characters face are believable for them even if they weren’t real people. There were plenty of moments throughout that show when I said “Now come on, they wouldn’t just kill all those people” or laughed seeing how they used weapons on the show. In particular, you don’t swing a shield like it’s a bludgeon, it ceases to be a shield when it’s not in front of you. I thought they got really carried away with the whole shieldmaiden thing (an idea that has absolutely no basis in reality). And yet the story was still good. Good enough that I let all that stuff go. It didn’t matter. With the Wheel of Time show, on the other hand, one thing after another just distracts from a story that hasn’t come together.