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The Wheel of Time's cast is diversity in fantasy done right

By Ani Bundel
Wheel of Time on Prime Logo

The Wheel of Time turns and ages come and go — or at least, that's how the books by Robert Jordan all begin.

In our world, the wheel of entertainment turns, and TV shows come and go with different genres taking the lead in different eras. The arrival of streaming happens to have coincided with the rise of fantasy and science fiction, leading everyone to invest in the wide-ranging genre. Amazon has landed two of the biggest titles: The Lord of the Rings from J.R.R. Tolkien and The Wheel of Time from Jordan. But fans who worried these shows would be carbon clones of each other can breathe easy.

The main cast for The Wheel of Time has revealed diverse casting choices across the board, from Madeleine Madden as Egwene to Marcus Rutherford as Perrin and Zoë Robins as Nynaeve. It's proof that fantasy is getting serious about inclusivity and a heartening sign that this could be a show worthy of consideration as "The Next Game of Thrones."

Once upon a time, of course, the idea that The Wheel of Time could be considered the next Game of Thrones would have been laughable. In the "which came first" battle, Robert Jordan was already working away at his series years before George R.R. Martin ever sat down to throw Bran Stark out a window. Jordan's first novel, The Eye of The World, was begun in the mid-1980s and published in 1990. By the time A Game of Thrones arrived in 1996, Jordan had already published Book 7 in his series, A Crown of Swords. If anything, Martin's work was following in the path Jordan had already forged, with the same hallmarks from strong female characters to the round-robin POV chapter structure.

It also copied Jordan in one unfortunate way as well: Both men imagined worlds where all the characters were white.

When showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss adapted Martin's work for HBO, they followed in this vein. It was partly due to a slavish dedication to recreating the early novels as closely as possible, but it was also a lack of imagination. They aren't alone in that, of course. Studies into the diversity of television show that though strides are being made, the sheer scale of the problem makes it so that these moves toward diversity are mere drops in the bucket. Moreover, as showrunners and writers are realizing, merely hitting "colorblind" in casting isn't enough.

As one of the largest shows on television, the Game of Thrones team found themselves insisting, for nearly a decade, that they were doing their best without actually taking steps to change it. The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, has said nuts to all that. Not only is it reorienting the entire series to make it a "women's fantasy series," but the ensemble list of leads is a masterclass in making diversity work.

The truth is the production heads behind The Wheel of Time needed to rethink parts of the novels to ready them for a TV series in 2020. Though characters such as Nynaeve al'Meara, Egwene al'Vere, Elayne Trakand, Moiraine Damodred, Aviendha, and so on are all portrayed as strong women, the details, along with a lot of unconscious sexism, have aged poorly. Plot points such as Rand al'Thor's three women "sharing him" comes off as embarrassing wish-fulfillment. The constant insistence by the men in the series that women are somehow unknowable creatures can grate. And no one needs to tug any braids, ever. Which is why it is understandable that Amazon would attempt to flip the script and instead of focusing on Rand put out a synopsis that focused on the female aspects of the world:

"Set in a sprawling, epic world where magic exists and only certain women are allowed to access it, the story follows Moiraine, a member of the incredibly powerful all-female organization called the Aes Sedai, as she arrives in the small town of Two Rivers. There, she embarks on a dangerous, world-spanning journey with five young men and women, one of whom is prophesied to be the Dragon Reborn, who will either save or destroy humanity."

To be clear, for fans of the series, this is a bit like "describe a book, badly." It's as if HBO came out in 2009 and said: "Game of Thrones: It's the story of Catelyn Stark, who loses her family because she could not love a motherless boy." Well, yes... But also, absolutely not.

For fans who were concerned Amazon was marching off in the wrong direction seeing the rest of the cast fill out is a relief. So was the slogan that accompanied the announcement: "It was about them all."

If anything, it seems The Wheel of Time has been affected by Harry Potter more than Game of Thrones. As much as some fans criticize Rowling for attempting to claim diversity after the fact, her embrace of the realization she never thought to say Hermione was white has opened the door for other fantasy series to do the same. Perrin, for instance, is never said to be white, only that he has "thick curly hair" and "dark brown eyes." Egwene's primary descriptor is her height, her eyes and hair are dark brown but otherwise rarely remarked upon. As for Nynaeve, it's always been about her hair in braids more than any other feature.

With just the slightest push in this direction, The Wheel of Time suddenly has a cast of six main leads and a show that is leading the way in diversity in fantasy. Despite those who insisted such things couldn't be done, Amazon just went and did it without fanfare, argument, or apology. Fantasy series that want to be taken seriously from here on out should take note.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.