Ask just about any fan of Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time what the best episode of season 2 was, and chances are they’ll point to episode 5, “Damane.” Not the explosive finale, no; but rather the emotionally intense episode in which Egwene is broken by her Seanchan handler to obey unwaveringly or pay the price. It was an episode that both pleased readers of the Robert Jordan novels, who recognized the arc as a pivotal moment for Madeleine Madden’s character, and surprised viewers new to the story with its brutal depiction of enslaved channelers.
We were unable to speak with Madden when the episode originally aired because of the SAG-AFTRA strike going on at the time, but we caught up with her during the hiatus before season 3 returns recently to ask her about her experience with the critically-acclaimed episode, both as an actor giving a powerful performance and as a cast member enjoying the response of The Wheel of Time fans after the fact.
Den of Geek: When you were first cast in the role of Egwene, it probably didn’t take you long to discover that you would have to participate in this horrific damane arc. What were your thoughts when you first heard about it or read those scenes?
Madeleine Madden: When I first got the role, I looked at what Egwene’s journey would be, and when you’re new to The Wheel of Time world and you’re doing a quick glance over what’s happening, it’s kind of hard to conceive. For me, it’s always been really important for my process to stay where we are in the books to where we are in the series, not to get distracted and stay in the moment.
[Executive producers] Rafe [Judkins] and Justine [Juel Gillmer] and I had a conversation at the beginning of season 2 about this chapter that was coming up, and they wanted to make sure I felt comfortable with diving into this part of the world and going to those places. And for me it was really important to show the full atrocities of the damane/sul’dam relationship and what the Seanchan are capable of.
Egwene really faces the true evils of this world pretty quickly from where we find her at the beginning of this series, so for me this was a really important part of the story, which I know is the same for a lot of book fans. It forever alters the course of her life and who she is.
Photo Credit: Prime Video
Xelia Mendes-Jones (who plays Renna, Egwene’s sul’dam) deserves part of the credit for how creepily effective they were in acting justified in their treatment of Egwene. What conversations did you two have off-camera to make that dynamic work so well?
They were fantastic, so fantastic. We met shortly before filming, and we spent a little time together and spoke through what we wanted to do. Both of us wanted to lean into it fully to show how confusing and toxic this relationship is. Xelia did a fantastic job with portraying the self-righteousness but also the caring side in nurturing Egwene and telling Egwene how special she is, but then also the ability to be so sadistic and cruel.
I think how similar in age Renna and Egwene are only makes it that much more insidious, the fact that someone so young as Renna could be so cruel. But we really see how awful this institution is and how there are things worse than death in this world, and showing how awful and brutal this breaking process is sets up beautifully when Ryma, the Yellow Sister, gets collared.
With the mouthpiece and the collar being such strong symbols of subjugation, was there anything the costume designers could do to make those items more comfortable for the actors, or was a certain amount of discomfort necessary?
When the collars were first created, we see the damane moving in very rigid military movements, so I think they worked really well for that. But Sharon [Gilham], who is our head of costuming, is fantastic, just a genius. How can you make a collar look like it’s just sitting magically on you but also beautiful and comfortable to wear? It was through trial and error of moving around in the collar and rehearsing in the collar — and I was in that collar all day — they did their absolute most to make it comfortable for me.
And also leaning into when it was uncomfortable! There were movements that I couldn’t do: I couldn’t sit up properly with it on; I couldn’t tilt my head too far down. And I wanted to keep it that way because that’s also what the character would be feeling. So even though it was a bit uncomfortable for me, it also helped my performance with it being realistic as well.
In a very tragic sense, was Egwene’s time in the collar partly responsible for her unlocking her true potential as a channeler?
Egwene was really struggling with not standing out at the White Tower and not feeling like she was special or excelling at the rate that she wanted to. She was trying these new things like trying to channel without the use of her hands after her experience that she had with the Whitecloaks and never wanting to feel that powerless again.
And we’ve seen that she’s always had this determination inside of her and what she felt was best for her. Being at the White Tower actually wasn’t and in turn was great for Nynaeve, and she’s really confused by all this. And tragically, her time spent in the collar — she really found out how strong she is and what her potential is and has excelled at a very rapid but brutal and effective rate.
That’s also attributed to her relationship with Renna; Renna has taught her just how special she is, and even in that moment where you see Renna tell Egwene that, there’s a moment of appreciation, but also a lot of guilt and shame for feeling those things, for needing that, for needing to be seen and for needing to be validated. By the end of the season, we really see that Egwene is strong. She doesn’t need to prove that to anyone anymore. She knows that within herself.
Did you follow the fan reaction to “Damane” at all, and did you anticipate that it would resonate so strongly with readers in particular?
I knew that this was a moment in the book series that people were really like, ‘Wait ’til she gets collared! Wait for the damane part!’ So I knew that it was something that fans were expecting and anticipating, but I was really excited for the episode to come out because we’re in the cell with her whereas in the books we don’t really see the beatings and the torment. It’s relayed to men by Egwene. So I was really excited for the fans to actually see the torture that takes place and how awful it was for Egwene.
The support that I’ve seen online and people’s praise has just been really, really wonderful. It was an incredibly difficult episode for me as an actor, and everyone’s love has just been really wonderful because all of the hard work really pays off when you see new fans but also book fans be like, ‘This is what we envisioned!’ This is a character that people hold close to their hearts, so it’s the biggest compliment you could ever ask for.
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