The Wheel of Time’s first season has drawn to a close. We learned the identity of the Dragon Reborn, fulfilling Moiraine’s decades-long quest. The first season built to that reveal in episode seven. It also led to the Dragon’s first confrontation with a being, seemingly the Dark One, at the Eye of the World. The TV adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy book series has continually showcased the vast worldbuilding in The Wheel of Time with those moments and also through flashbacks. The latest of which showed us the previous Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon, before he caused the Breaking of the World. We talked with The Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins about all of this, plus a little about what to expect in season two.
Nerdist: Let’s start with the Dragon Reborn. The show revealed Rand as the Dragon in episode seven. But I wondered: did you explore the idea of diverting from the books and making someone else the Dragon Reborn?
Rafe Judkins: No, I think the books do something really interesting. The later you get in them, the more they talk about the Dragon Reborn, and the Wheel of Time, and the cycle of life, and the champion of the light, and what darkness means in a much more philosophical way than it’s sometimes handled early on. We are trying to bring that into the show too. You see a little bit of it at the end of this first season, and then definitely in season two.
I think those philosophical questions are really interesting. And I’m not going to change who the Dragon Reborn is, but I do think that they are interesting questions. I’m very interested in the idea that our characters will always question what they really know about the world. Because how can they know that something from 3,000 years ago is true or isn’t true? I think that skepticism is really true to Moiraine, especially, but also our other characters and you see that. You saw that in season one. And it continues to play a role moving forward, too. Because until you see definitive proof, how can you be 100% sure? This question will continue to rise its head in the show.
The end of the book The Eye of the World is famously confusing and messy. Can you talk about bringing that to the screen and making the change for only Rand and Moiraine to go to the Eye?
One of the first things I did when I started was talk to Harriet, Robert Jordan’s widow, and Brandon [Sanderson] about: what are the things Robert Jordan would’ve changed about the books with “hindsight’s 20/20?” They both talked about the introduction of Mat and Perrin, and how to have those characters be crystallized earlier in the show than they were in the books.
And then another thing they talked about was the end of the first book. I felt when I read it too, [that it] didn’t necessarily deliver exactly what he was hoping for. There were a couple things in it that he specifically said he was unhappy with. I worked with Brandon to find a way—hopefully you won’t understand it until season two—but hopefully one thing from the books that Robert Jordan hated, we have given an idea too, in the show. I can’t say more than that, but that would make it actually make sense.
But I wanted to take it, and take the core of what happens in there. And instead of letting Rand sort of do everything, which he does in the books—he fights Ba’alzamon, he then teleports to Tarwin’s Gap and levels an army of Trollocs, and then he gets the Horn of Valere. A lot happens for Rand there in the finale, but we wanted to try to take it and piece it out for our ensemble.
Give Perrin the Horn of Valere. The girls can be at Tarwin’s Gap, and also set their stories on a path for where they’re going in season two. Because season two is so much about these individual characters and the journey each of them is on alone. We needed more in the finale to be able to do that. That was the biggest swing, I think, we took with the adaptation, was to really take that story and be like: what pieces of what exists in the book will make the most sense for each of these characters so that we can tell the story that’s there. But we’re telling it through our whole cast instead of just through Rand.
The end of the encounter results in Moiraine seemingly getting stilled. Tell me about taking her on that journey from the beginning of season one as the indefatigable leader, to seeing more vulnerability with Siuan, to now she’s going through this traumatic thing.
In season two we want each of the characters to face the darkness within themselves. Moiraine’s quest is so much about knowledge and knowing everything. Then to have this moment, where at the end of the season, she realizes maybe she didn’t know everything and that she wasn’t fully prepared, and start to strip away all the things that make Moiraine, Moiraine for season two, and see, “can she put herself back together?” That was a really interesting question for us. And seeing where this character goes… Because that’s the character we really needed to amp up. What they had to do in book two is very, very, very small. She has one chapter essentially, her and Lan. They’re number one and two on the call sheet and we have Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney.
Those two actors are unbelievable, and we’re going to service them in season two. And so we really tried to look at that chapter that they have in book two, find what’s there, which is really this story about the relationship between the two of them, and what makes it tick, and then take that and expand it out into a season of story for them in season two. That’s how we’re approaching it. We’re shooting it now. And it’s so lovely to see the exploration of this relationship between these two characters and to get to take the time with it, to tell it across the season, instead of just trying to do it in one episode.
As Rand and Moiraine visit the Eye, the Battle of Tarwin’s Gap unfolds. It’s the biggest battle of the season but also very intimate. What was it like to find a grounded approach to the battle?
We were lucky because our director, Ciaran Donnelly is unbelievable. He had come from years on Vikings and really knew how to bring this to life for us in such a visceral way. And to never lose our characters in it. You never lose track of, even Agelmar. I think you’re emotionally connected to him at the wall. Amalisa, you are emotionally connected to her with what she’s doing with the women defending the city. So he did a great job of making sure that that emotional connection was there the whole way through this really gigantic battle.
And to see Amalisa take on so much of the One Power when we know the story of Manetheren and Queen Eldrene…
We needed to tell the story on-screen of what it’s like. Obviously women burning out is something that becomes important as the book series goes on. Seeing it visually and getting people to really understand what that means was an important piece of season one.
Okay, jumping back to the cold open. The flashback introduces the previous dragon, Lews Therin Telamon. It shows us a peek at the vastly different world in the Age of Legends. How did you explore that?
The thing I wanted to do with the first season was try to show, for non-book fans, I want to show all the great things about The Wheel of Time. I want to see more of the Aes Sedai and the things that you think of for the whole series that you love about Wheel of Time and that make it unique from other fantasy things. Because I think the story of the first book runs the risk of being too sort of derivative of Lord of the Rings for how non-derivative The Wheel of Time series is. I thought one of those pieces was the Age of Legends and the idea of the Breaking of the World. And that, actually, our story is taking place after this futuristic society existed. So I wanted to find a way to show that in the show.
And then I think one of the other most interesting things about the books is this schism between men and women that you always are feeling. You understand that it exists in the world, but what was the moment that break happened? And this scene is described in the books, obviously. It’s not as exactly as it happens in the show. You don’t ever see it on-screen in the books, but we know that it happened. For me, it was a cool moment to set up Lews Therin and who he is, and what he means. And also see a little bit of Rand in him, obviously and the connection between those two characters.
The actor even watched Josha’s performances to try to subtly use some of Josha’s ticks in his performance as Lews Therin. That, I think, gives a real expansion of the world of Wheel of Time and shows people about reincarnation, about the Age of Legends, about the Breaking of the World, about the schism between men and women, and why the Aes Sedai are all women. All of those things are kind of in this one scene. I felt like it could help us show so much to non-book fans of what is to come.
Just that visual of “this is what the world used to be.”
Yeah, there are flying cars.
Do you anticipate telling more of Lews Therin’s story in season two?
Through the series, we will certainly see more of Lews Therin’s story. I think it’s a really important piece. I can’t say too much about season two, but that story is being told.
While I’m asking about season two. The Seanchan roll in at the very end of season one!
Yes. The Seanchan are amazing. That’s why we put them at the end of season one. I love that storytelling device in book two. It just slaps you in the face and makes you realize you’re definitely not reading a fantasy series that you read before. The way the story is told with the Seanchan is so fresh and different in the books, and you’re really not expecting it. I wanted to play it the same way in the show where you really—I think non-book fans will be like, “What just happened?”
And that’s what we want them to feel. Because that’s how you feel when the Seanchan come in in the books. And when they arrive in season two, they arrive.