It was Amazon’s biggest new series of 2021; a fantasy epic that hopes to one day rival Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings. The story of five young people from a small town who might just save the world (or destroy it), The Wheel Of Time has magic users, a Dark One, more prophecies than you can shake a wizard’s staff at, and a whole mess of monsters to contend with.

Empire recently caught up with showrunner Rafe Judkins, already deep in production on Season 2, to talk about some of the changes to the books that he made for this season and his hopes for the time ahead. For more from Judkins, check out the full interview on our Empire Podcast Spoiler Specials channel – but here are a few of the highlights with what we learned about the show – and beware, spoilers for all of Season 1 ahead…

The Wheel Of Time

The Dalai Lama helped inspire Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine

Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series is unusual in that its hero, the Dragon Reborn, has the power to break the world again as well as save it – so people are more than usually conflicted about him turning up as prophesised. Except, that is, for Moiraine Sedai (Rosamund Pike), a magic user who has dedicated her life to finding the him. It was key for Judkins and his team to find a way to make her quest feel real. “You’re very used to seeing a ‘Chosen One’ construct in fantasy and sci-fi and all these genre pieces, but you’re not used to seeing one that has the subtlety and nuance of what exactly it means to be the Dragon and its reincarnation aspects,” Judkins explains. “So we really tried to approach it like Moiraine was on the search for the new Dalai Lama, and actually took a lot from stories of people who search for the Dalai Lama. What’s that like? What does it mean to try to find someone’s soul in a new body?” The show withheld the identity of the Dragon until late in the series in order to “let the audience be a part of that mystery with Moiraine”.

The show’s true hero, Rand, really doesn’t want to be there

In the books, you realise very early on that one of the young people Moiraine mentors has a Mysterious Origin that makes him prime suspect to be the Dragon Reborn. The show withholds that information until its second-last episode, allowing Josha Stradowski’s Rand to gradually come into focus. “Often a show needs a different way [in] than books do. So getting [people] invested in this idea of ‘who is the Dragon’ really helps keep them watching,” says Judkins. “But also, hopefully, [it] got them interested in what it means to be the Dragon. Rand isn’t the character who’s saying, ‘Look at me, look at me!’. The whole idea of him is that he’s a man who’s been chosen to save the world that really wishes he hadn’t been. So one thing we tried to show with him is that, first and foremost, [he’s] the character of the five who wishes that he was home instead.”

The Wheel Of Time

Perrin got married for a reason

In the show, Marcus Rutherford’s Perrin is married – which is new – and accidentally kills his wife in the heat of a Trolloc attack, leaving him haunted by guilt – that’s definitely new. “One of the most important things to do, right at the beginning, was to give new audiences who don’t know and love these characters something to hang on to. Not just with who they really are, but also what their arc is going to be through the whole series.” So for Perrin, who’s always been wary of his own strength in the books and extremely conflicted about his propensity for violence and the need for it in this world, this horrifying accident is a way of making external what’s always been going on inside.

Mat is darker in the show, and that’s very deliberate

“One of the things that was consistent about [the feedback they got from book readers] was that they felt Mat was not a fully defined character in the first couple of books,” says Judkins. So the show set about defining Barney Harris’ Mat, giving him light fingers and a propensity for pickpocketing, but also a troubled family background with unreliable parents who left Mat caring for his two sisters. “He has this much darker feeling, you know. He is so overcome by the darkness of the dagger, but also some character motivation behind it. I think the very core of that character is a hero who doesn’t think he’s a hero.” The kind of guy who’d run out into a Trolloc fight to rescue his sisters and instantly regret it. “To me, that was just iconically Mat. He’s got a mischievous side, you see that. He thinks he’s up to no good. But when push comes to shove, he delivers. That’s Mat to me.”

The Wheel Of Time

Meanwhile, Mat 2.0 is settling in

Harris did not return to the show after the Covid-enforced break, so Dónal Finn is taking over the role for Season 2. Judkins says he’s settling in well, not least because, as luck would have it, Mat’s character in the books changed with the stories they’re telling in the second season. “I’m so excited for people to see Dónal,” Judkin says. “When you get to a Mat chapter you’ve got a smile on your face, and I think Dónal’s the same way. It’s a weirdly Kismet meeting of an actor and point in time with the character where it feels bizarrely similar to what happened to the character in the books in a way that we never could have planned for predicted or work towards. He’s great – and Barney was too, you know, so it’s big shoes to fill.” Judkins also confirmed that Season 2 draws from both the second and third books of the series, and said that much of Mat’s story comes from the third book, The Dragon Reborn.

THAT ending for Nynaeve and Egwene

The finale of Season 1 left some viewers unclear as to the fate of Zoe Robins’ Nynaeve and Madeleine Madden’s Egwene. Had Nynaeve died, and Egwene brought her back to life? Had she been stilled and Egwene healed her? Judkins clarified that Nynaeve definitely wasn’t dead. “We put in a lot of stuff to make it very clear that death cannot be healed,” Judkin explains. “We reinforce that in Season 2 for anyone who might have been led astray in season one.” Originally, Egwene was going to resuscitate Nynaeve using abilities she’d learned as a village Wisdom in Episode 1, but COVID rules meant that the actors had to stay a little more distant. That all said, Judkins very much wanted to make clear that burning out is something that can happen for people who draw too much of the One Power on the show: “We wanted something in this first season that set up really clearly that there are limits to the power of these women. Yes, they have done something incredible in fighting back this Trolloc army, but there are very real costs to the accessing that much power. It’s something that the characters will struggle with all the way through the series.”

The Wheel Of Time

Moiraine’s future was deliberately left in doubt

The end of the season sees Moiraine unable to use the One Power after her confrontation with the season’s Big Bad. So is she permanently stilled, and cut off from the Power? Or has she perhaps been ‘shielded’ by him, with the shield tied off so she simply can’t reach the Power? Well, that’s going to play into Season 2, so Judkins can’t say much. “It’s not a story that exists in the books. So, what are we going to do with it, and how does it play out, will be something that people are paying really close attention to in future seasons,” he explains. “That’s about the most I can say. One of the most interesting things about Moiraine is that [she’s not] the most powerful woman in the world. What she does is so much more about this unbelievable willpower and the intelligence that she uses. It’s not being an Aes Sedai, it’s not about wielding the One Power. It’s about so much more than that. Moiraine’s story in Season 2 shows a lot of that.”

The cold opens were essential

Two episodes open with key flashbacks – one to the scene of a warrior woman giving birth, mid-battle, on a snowy mountainside, and one to the Age Of Legends and the decision of another Dragon to strike at the Dark One. For Judkins, these were a key part of the book. “They’re something that’s so fun when you’re reading the book,” he says. “We tried to use the cold opens as kind of an homage to that storytelling device from the books of being able to both open up the world to something bigger, but also they all tell us something about a character or about our world; they’re pushing story forward in the same way that they were used in the book.” The Age of Legends flashback (though it’s set millennia before the show’s main timeline) matters because some personalities from that time will endure. And, Judkins notes significantly, “if people think that there was anything misspoken in that scene, there was not.” He refers, we can assume, to Lews Therin Telamon himself being referred to as a Dragon Reborn, and not just the Dragon.

The Seanchan are coming!

For Judkins, the arrival of a foreign invasion fleet in the second book “felt like I had been punched in the face. Fantasies don’t do this!” So it was a great pleasure for him to tease this new wrinkle at the very, very end of Season 1, arriving on the far west coast of the continent where our story is set. “We always talked about it as kind of the Spanish galleons arriving on the shore of the New World. Except our characters are in the New World. So who are these people, where did they come from and what do they want is a big part of Season 2. I think Sharon Gilham, our costume designer, did an unbelievable job with the Seanchan. I think people will be astounded.”

Season 2 is on the way – but will take a while

Production on Season 2 has been marked by significantly fewer notes than the estimated 11,000 he received just on the pilot of the first season, but COVID is still “a thorn in our side” (and a bramble to their hand) for the production. While production is moving fast, this is still a huge undertaking, and Season 2 – plus newly green-lit Season 3 – are still some way off. “One of my friends texted like, ‘Oh, I hear we’re getting a trailer for Season 2 in March’,” Judkin says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know who you’re hearing that from but that’s not that’s not even close.’” There’ll be open water between The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power finishing and Season 2 of The Wheel Of Time beginning, but Judkins promises “really cool content” between the seasons. Mostly, however, he’s focused on keeping this momentum going: “It’s just such a huge relief for everyone to have the show out and to have it be, you know, such a huge success. We didn’t really ever expect this in the first season; I always thought it would be something that we could build towards. It’s just been incredible.”

The Wheel Of Time Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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