Sometimes it can be really difficult to be a female fan of genre television, particularly in the fantasy space. Because no matter how much you might love it, nine times out of ten, it does not love you back. Representation can be slim, when present at all. Women are too often stuck as de facto supporting characters, usually present to serve as love interests to one of the male heroes rather than drive the action themselves. Many (most?) end up as victims of physical or sexual violence, and their stories tend to be peppered with the sort of casual misogyny and pointless objectification that generally only exists to serve a male gaze.
To be fair, we’ve certainly come a long way from the days where The Lord of the Rings’ Eowyn (Miranda Otto) was forced to essentially carry the hopes of an entire gender on her back as J.R.R. Tolkien’s token female character (never forget Liv Tyler’s role as Arwen in the film trilogy was basically made up out of whole cloth!) whereas most fantasy television shows are now guaranteed to have at least a handful of women on their canvases—however scantily clad they might be. Huzzah for progress, I guess?
Yet Game of Thrones, which notably gave us a groundbreaking array of female characters, from the traditionally feminine Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to murderous dragon rider Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), still generally positioned its women as exceptions to their genders, succeeding only in ways that were acceptable or similar to men. (And most were still raped or otherwise violated along the way.) Even Netflix’s The Witcher, which has established itself as something of a gold standard for female agency in the fantasy space, is still an explicitly masculine story, albeit one that generally treats its women as equals in their own rights.
This is the reason that Amazon’s new high fantasy drama The Wheel of Time feels like such a breath of fresh air. The simple fact that the show features so many women in major roles feels rather astounding, but more than that, the series consciously treats them as the primary drivers of the tale we’re watching. In this story, women are everywhere, as everything from powerful sorceresses and gifted politicians to rural blacksmiths and village healers, and the nuanced depiction of these different types of female power is both an exciting and necessary change of pace.
Based on Robert Jordan’s sprawling series of novels, The Wheel of Time not only features at least a dozen major female characters, its world is an explicitly feminine (and feminist) one. Women are the only beings capable of safely channeling the One Power and are therefore responsible for protecting the world against the inevitable rise of the evil Dark One. (Insert your “girls literally run the world” joke here.) And, as a result, it means that every woman is born knowing that her life doesn’t have to revolve around becoming a wife or mother, not unless she wants it to. This difference may seem pedestrian on paper, but it ultimately creates a world where female characters are given choices—and the agency to make those choices—that many of their fantasy sisters simply do not have.
The story initially follows Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), a member of the magical order of women called the Aes Sedai, and her Warder (a.k.a. bodyguard) Lan al’Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) on a quest to discover the identity of the prophesied Dragon Reborn, who is destined to either save or doom the world. Along with five potential candidates rescued from a small mountain village, she will return to the magical city of Tar Valon, where it is hoped the Chosen One’s identity will be revealed. Nothing about the bones of this story is terribly new, and much will feel familiar to viewers who have read any one of several popular fantasy series beyond Jordan’s own. But the choices The Wheel of Time makes in the telling of its tale allows even the most predictable beats feel fresh, often improving upon the original in important ways.
In the books, for example, it is explicitly stated that the Dragon Reborn must be a man, automatically making Egwene (Madeleine Madden) and Nynaeve (Zoe Robins) something like second-class citizens on their journey to save the world. In Amazon’s version, it is assumed the prophecy can apply to anyone who fits the right age criteria. And this is the first of many decisions that make The Wheel of Time’s world feel wide open, from its effortless diversity to the modern feel of its politics.
Here, women are not torn down or made to seem less so that male heroes can be built up. Instead, all the series’ characters are given genuine depth and treated with respect. There is no pointless nudity and women don’t have to experience violence to grow or change. The sex scenes thus far have been loving, sweet, and entirely consensual. And the show’s central relationship isn’t a romance, but a platonic male/female relationship that is still allowed to be as fully warm and tender as any marriage.
Yet, the female characters of The Wheel of Time are not a monolith, and in this world, there are as many ways to be a woman as there are to wield the One Power, and all are of equal importance. Some Aes Sedai are righteous seekers of justice, while others are manipulative and self-serving in their pursuit of power. One order (or “Ajah”) is basically comprised of open misandrists who despise all men. Others are scholars or healers, while still more are hardened warriors. And all of them occupy complex moral and narrative spaces, each with their own agendas, flaws, and goals. Featuring female characters who are as fully realized as any of the male heroes who have come before them—whether for good or ill—shouldn’t still be so shocking. And yet, here we are.
Look, The Wheel of Time is far from perfect. And the show makes several baffling and problematic choices that cannot be blamed on the restrictions of the source material, not the least of which is its decision to give Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) a wife just to brutally kill her in the series’ pilot so he can have something to feel guilty about for the rest of the season. It also takes an awfully long time to illustrate that the powerful Nynaeve is more than the apparently bottomless rage she carries within her. And, as fascinating a character as Moiraine is, the series likes to hold her at a certain distance, keeping her motivations a mystery from the audience for longer than is strictly necessary, making her seem pointlessly cold and standoffish in the process.
But these are all surmountable quibbles, especially when put up against all the smart ways that The Wheel of Time consciously pushes back against many of the tropes that helped make Game of Thrones (the show that rightly or wrongly it is most often compared to) so popular. And despite its flaws, it remains a story that whole-heartedly embraces female empowerment over female exploitation. The world of genre television would be vastly improved if more shows followed its lead.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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