As much as I enjoy the Wheel of Time adaptation on Amazon, there was one small (?) change to the starting circumstances of one of the characters that did not sit right with me. Whereas many of the changes in the show streamline the storytelling and humanize the characters, this one undermined one of the character’s most distinct character traits.
When I say “Perrin Done Wrong,” please know that I am not saying “Perrin (Has) Done [Something Execrable],” though that is a factor in the complaint. Rather, “Done Wrong” is a participial phrase referring to how Perrin has been rendered. But I want to clarify further that I have no problem with Marcus Rutherford’s portrayal of the character. I think he brings a lot of depth and subtlety to one of the most thankless characters in the (book) series. I’ve written elsewhere about my particular attention to how reserved characters are portrayed, and Rutherford does an excellent job of playing an energetically reserved character. My problem is not with his performance, or even with the majority of the business he is given to do in the show. My problem rests entirely with a single alteration made to his origin story in this adaptation.
- Spoilers for Episode 1, “Leavetaking” and for Book 4, The Shadow Rising.
In the first episode of the season, “Leavetaking,” we get just a glimpse of the unexceptional daily lives of our main characters. A friend of mine refers to this as the “Hobbiton” of the story arc, and I think that’s apt. This episode works overtime to establish a moderately large core cast in terms of their normal circumstances in a short amount of time before the Trollocs invade and upend those circumstances irreparably.
A couple of changes from the books are notable: first of all, the characters have all been aged up a couple of years. Instead of having a core cast of late teenagers angstily figuring themselves out and squeaking their voices at each other, we have some twenty-year-olds who had already started settling into what their lives were going to be in their village of Two Rivers. This does make for a few differences, and most of these are there to help us “get” the characters more quickly: Mat is less of a prankster and more of a burgeoning con-man, with a toxic family situation compelling him rather than generic orneriness. Rand and Egwene are already more-or-less in a relationship, as opposed to just being an “understood item” around town–this gives Egwene’s decision to break things off in order to train as a Wisdom1 a little more emotional stakes, giving both her to Rand more to work with, since “I thought we were going to do a thing, but I guess not” is a little less rich than “wait, we were in mid-thing, and now the thing must end?”
And then there’s Perrin. Perrin the blacksmith’s nod to maturity is that he’s already married. Now, on the one hand, this is true to his character in the books. Of the core cast, Perrin is the first to get married. There’s something incredibly domestic to the character. Whereas the others want to develop their magic talents (Egwene, Nynaeve) or just get out of the small town and see the world (Mat), Perrin just wants to be a homebody and lead a quiet life.2 But his canonical wife has not been introduced early. Instead, a knew character has been made out of whole cloth just for this episode.
Her name is Laila. She works in the forge with Perrin. Their relationship is strained, and at one point she rubs her stomach in a way that suggests she may be pregnant. And that’s pretty much all we learn about her before she’s killed in a Trolloc raid. Note that I say “killed in a Trolloc raid,” not that she was “killed by Trollocs.” Because the hand that slays her is none other than that of her loving husband, Perrin: The two of them were defending their forge against the monsters when Perrin entered what is referred to in DnD manuals as a “berserker frenzy,” going absolutely apeshit on one of the attacking Trollocs. As he’s doing this, he hears movement behind him and swings without thinking–killing Laila.
This is loss. This is tragedy. This is the moment that defines Perrin, for the purposes of the show. However, I believe this is a narrative misstep that deprives Perrin of a key aspect of his character from the books.
I get why they did this. It makes certain abstract motivations of the character tangible. Also, Perrin is a real slow burn of a character–he doesn’t really distinguish himself until later in the series when he returns to the Two Rivers. This gives the writers and the actor something to do with the character in a more immediate fashion. But in the process, something valuable may have been lost.
Preludial Problem: The Refrigerator
I do not really want to discuss the “fridging” at the center of this scene, but I feel I should acknowledge it before moving on to my point.
For those who may not have encountered that term before, “fridging,” “refrigerator stuffing” or any variation on those terms refers to a persistent trope in which a female character is killed off, not in the culmination of her own narrative arc, but entirely as a motivation for a male character. The term comes from an issue of Green Lantern, when Green Lantern Kyle Rayner finds a note, ostensibly from his girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt, saying that there is a treat for him in the fridge. When he opens the fridge, he finds his girlfriend’s dead body, left for him by the villain Major Force. (By the way, RK Milholland wrote a send-up of this moment that is so apt [warning: mild gore], that if I were somehow to become producer of a Green Lantern TV show, I would want to bring him on for a story arc that deconstructs this moment.)
That’s the eponymous example, though by no means the exclusive one. You’ll likely recognize the trope from countless action movies, where the Charles-Bronson-type action star spends eighty-five minutes brutally avenging the death of a wife/girlfriend/daughter/niece in the first five minutes of the film–someone we may have known as a character, but whose primary function is to die and give Bronson an excuse to let slip the dogs of vigilantism.
I’m sure other people can discuss this more competently than I, and that is perhaps a conversation we need to have about this episode. But I trust that conversation is already happening, so I can have a different one:
I want to focus on how this move not only cheapens Laila, it also cheapens Perrin.3
The Problem of Perrin’s Pathologized Pacifism
- Spoilers for Episode 5, “Blood Calls Blood.”
All the protagonists in the Wheel of Time books (at least the Two Rivers folks) fall into some variation of “reluctant hero.” Rand is the idealist in over his head. Mat is the accidental revolutionary who doesn’t want to be responsible for anything ever. Nynaeve is the woman with a singular purpose, whose low-stakes mission quickly becomes much more complicated than she could have anticipated.
Then there’s Perrin, the gentle giant: a large man with strength enough to kill a hundred, but who would prefer not to kill at all. He carries an axe but would prefer not to swing it. We see him actively flirt with the Way of the Leaf–a philosophy of complete non-violence. He develops the magical ability to communicate with wolves–and gains their heightened senses–yet shrinks from this talent lest it make him a monster. This is a relatively common character type in all forms of narrative. It’s a comforting type because there is something potent in the idea that real power is not in the exertion of strength, but in the active choice not to exert that strength. It puts me in mind of a monologue from Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June in which Looseleaf Harper–the pilot that dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki–laments the act that defined his military career.
Yeah, Jesus–but wars would be a lot better, I think, if guys would say to themselves sometimes, ‘Jesus–I’m not going to do that to the enemy. That’s too much.’ […] I could have been the father of all those people in Nagasaki, and the mother, too, just by not dropping the bomb. I sent ’em to Heaven instead–and I don’t think there is one.–Looseleaf Harper from Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June
The character type twins the idea that there is power in pacifism with the sad recognition that that power is not taken seriously unless it is clearly intentional. The scrawny weakling who refuses to fight is, in the cynic’s eye, trying to make a virtue out of his uselessness.4 It is only when a strong, martially-capable man is peaceable that we consider his philosophy sincere. Thus, even if the gentle giant has no history of violence (only a capability for it) there is always something mournful to the character type.
And Perrin retains this mournfulness whether or not there is a dead Laila buried in his origin. So what (beyond the fridge) is the problem?
Well, if Perrin’s trajectory is faithful or even parallel to that from the books, we can expect him to return home to the Two Rivers where he attempts to settle down into a quiet life, but is propelled into an involuntary leadership of his community that finds him commanding forces in a protracted battle against the forces of darkness. The gentleness is broken and the giant must fight. Both in the broadcasts and the books, we would have a Perrin Aybara who wants a quiet life but is fated for violence.5 This is not my complaint. At its core, the Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy that hinges on combat, both on a kingdom-and-armies scale, and on an assassins-in-the-woods scale. I’m not saying Perrin should never fight–that change would make his arc completely unrecognizable, and out of step with the entire narrative. To me, what makes a big difference here is why Perrin is a pacifist.
Without the death of Laila, Perrin is a pacifist because… he is a pacifist. Without some core trauma to make him disgusted by violence he is simply a man who finds violence disgusting. When he is eventually compelled to take up arms, that assumption of violence is a failure state. It is the denial of the one thing he had ever wanted, the one thing that would give his life completion. It is, by certain classical definitions, tragic.
However, the death of Laila breaks that. By rooting it in trauma, Perrin’s pacifism becomes a pathology–a symptom of PTSD. Perrin’s reluctance toward killing–his active avoidance of fighting–have been demoted to a defect. The pacifism ceases to be a principled stance and becomes a sign of his inability to claim the full measure of his power. He doesn’t pursue the Way of the Leaf because he finds that mode of life attractive; her pursues it because he is haunted by Laila’s death at his hands. He doesn’t run from his supernatural talent because he fears it will turn him into a monster; he runs because he’s afraid of his own power, having already seen its unintended consequences.
In short, his pacifism has been pathologized. And should the Two Rivers arc come to fruition in the series, when Lord Aybara takes the field it will not be a tragedy or a state of failure. It will be restoration. That defect rendering him incapable of killing will be resolved. He can kill again and be normal.
To see a previous post about The Wheel of Time and its interesting narrative decisions, click here.
- Slightly magical local healer who never marries. ↩
- (Spoilers for Episode 7, “The Dark Along the Ways”): To be fair, Rand wants this, too. But Rand is the Dragon Reborn, and is destined to e at the center of a great age-defining battle, and Perrin isn’t–so Perrin is more free to pursue his desire than Rand is.6 ↩
- In the words of Sideshow Bob, “I’m aware of the irony, so don’t comment on it.” Yes, I get that one of the main problems with fridging, second only to the violence itself, is that it means the female character exists only to give depth to a male character–and here I am performing a similar act by focusing on how Perrin is cheapened instead of Laila. My point is not to say that the problem is only a problem because it affects Perrin’s characterization. Rather to highlight how an act that is intended to serve his character development fails to achieve even that. So not only is it cruel and unimaginative, it is ineffective to boot. ↩
- This, of course, is the central conflict in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is the “weakling” who believes in the supremacy of law and civilization. He is willing to die as a peaceful man as an act of resistance to brutality represented by Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance. He isn’t taken seriously until he takes up a gun against Valance. It doesn’t matter that he never kills again7–having killed gives an air of seriousness and legitimacy to his political idealism and paves the way for his entire political career. ↩
- I do not use the word “fated” idiomatically. Perrin is ta’veren–which means he is the latest in a long line of reincarnations of an ancient hero. As ta’veren, he has a persistent influence on the world around him–things are just going to happen around him. However, the eponymous Wheel of Time has a stronger pull on him; his fate will seek him out more forcefully and more violently than non-ta’veren will be sought by their own. ↩
- Not that the narrative world and his own particular fate are going to let Perrin have this life, but he is more free to pursue it. ↩
- Spoilers for a sixty-year-old move: Stoddard didn’t kill anyone. It was Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who killed Valance from an unobserved side street. But the simulation of Stoddard-as-killer is so complete that, for the purposes of all involved except Stoddard and Doniphon, the difference is immaterial. While Doniphon’s revelation of what truly happened that night resolves a good measure of Stoddard’s angst (he isn’t really a hypocrite because he didn’t really kill anyone), the fact remains that the entirety of his political legitimacy rests on his reputation as a killer. We see this still haunts him in the last scene of the film, when he blanches at being called “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” We can read this reaction in a variety of ways (which is what makes the film retain so much of its power): We can see it as Stoddard’s regret that the contributions of his recently deceased friend and rival will be lost to history. Some have chosen to read it as Stoddard’s shame that he isn’t the “real man” that Doniphon was and never will be (eyeroll). However, I read it as his mournful recognition of just what I’ve been discussing: that the path of radical peace is so devalued that it can only be entertained if it carries at least a hint of threatened violence. ↩
One thought on “Perrin Done Wrong”
I really enjoyed your thoughts here. I hope there is a way for the show to split the difference somehow and make it a little bit of both. Perrin’s initial story IS more interesting with Laila but yeah, there is a chance that they have hollowed out the full arc of Perrin’s character development in the books. Even if we’d had a bit more time to get to know Perrin and Laila and thier passifist stance – which is hinted at when Mat gives Perrin the dagger in Shaidar Logoth – that would work to add color to the story which could pay off the book arc better.