Josh Reviews The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – Season One
Back in 2017, Amazon bought the rights to make a TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for a staggering one billion dollars. For years, LOTR fans like myself have been curious to see what sort of show Amazon would create.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is an eight-episode series (the first of a projected five seasons) set in the Second Age of Middle Earth. We’re about a thousand years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sauron and the forces of Morgoth have long-since been defeated, but the Elf Galadriel is certain that evil has survived and remains a threat. Her fellow Elves doubt her. Galadriel’s adventures eventually result in her being lost at sea with a human man, Halbrand, who might have a connection to lost nobility from the Southlands of Middle Earth. The two travel to the kingdom of Númenor, where they seek aid against the evil Galadriel fears. Tendrils of that evil threaten a small human village, leaving the healer Bronwyn and Arondir, the Silvan Elf who loves her, to try to muster some sort of defense against ravaging Uruks. Another Elf, Elrond, travels to the Dwarf Kingdom of Khazad-dûm; Elrond shares an unusual friendship with the Dwarf prince Durin IV, whose discovery of the material we know as Mithril might change the balance of power in Middle Earth. Elsewhere, an amnesiac human-looking stranger has fallen out of the sky and been given shelter by a group of friendly Harfoots, a group of proto-Hobbits. Is this stranger friend or foe…?
I have mixed feelings about this first season of The Rings of Power. I thought the early episodes were very rough, though as the episodes progressed I found myself more engaged than I’d expected to be in the many disparate stories being told. Curiously, I found that The Rings of Power shared many of the same problems as the other recent epic fantasy TV prequel series: The House of the Dragon. Both series seemed to me to make the mistake of assuming that the audience was all-in for the season, and so both shows chose to throw the audience into the deep end in the early episodes, with multiple parallel storylines jam-packed with lots of characters, many of whom had very confusing and hard-to-remember names, taking place across the breadth of the fantasy world. I found this very off-putting in the early episodes of both shows. There were too many stories, too many characters, all dumped on us at once, and I found the episodes hard to follow and harder still to engage with. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings wisely started out as relatively small, contained stories with a few characters you could easily follow… and then they expanded into great epics. Jumping right into the deep end of the saga was, I think, a mistake for both The Rings of Power and The House of the Dragon.
I almost gave up on both shows. In both cases, I’m glad I didn’t, because by the end of each of their first seasons I wound up enjoying both series. At the same time, I think that both shows could have/should have been far stronger than they were, considering the money and effort that was clearly spent on both.
Speaking of which: the series looks amazing. This is a huge, epic series, filled with an extraordinary array of fantasy locations and races, and it is all depicted on a scale that is staggering for a TV series, even in today’s era of “prestige TV”. This series can 100% stand next to Peter Jackson’s LOTR and Hobbit films in terms of the execution of the visual effects. The sets, the costumes, the props; everything looks amazing. They clearly spared no expense.
Speaking of Peter Jackson’s films, it looks to me that this series has been crafted to be able to fit, visually, with Mr, Jackson’s films. There are different styles to the looks we see here of the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, proto-Hobbits, etc., than what we saw in the films… but they’re not that different, and those differences can be explained by this series being set 1,000 years before the films. For the most part, it feels like the design ethos created by the artists at Weta Workshop for Mr. Jackson’s films have been followed and expanded upon for this show. This feels like the correct decision, as Mr. Jackson’s films were so successful, and also so perfect in the “rightness” of how they brought the words and worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien to life on the screen. I think that had this show adopted a vastly different look for this world and these fantasy races, the audience would have objected.
The only downside of this approach is that when there are differences — in the music, or in the actors who play characters like Galadriel and Elrond who appeared in Mr. Jackson’s films — those changes stand out in a way that takes some getting used to.
This series has so many different characters and storylines. I respect the show for its ambition, though as I’d commented above, I think this would have been a stronger show had it been more focused in its storytelling, at least in the opening episodes.
Ready to dive in deeper? There will be some SPOILERS ahead, so beware. I will try to keep any spoilers light, so as not to ruin all of the show’s twists. But it’d be difficult to discuss the characters and storylines without any SPOILERS at all, so please beware if you read past this point.
The show begins with Galadriel, so let’s start there. It’s striking to see such a grim, beat-down version of Galadriel. This violent, action-hero version of Galadriel feels very different to me than version of the character we met in Peter Jackson’s films, and Morfydd Clark brings quite a different spin to Galadriel than what Cate Blanchet did. I grew to like this Galadriel by the end of the series, but this was one aspect of the show that I had the hardest time getting used to. For quite a while I felt that Ms. Clark’s tight-lipped line delivery felt wrong for Galadriel. (I still think that’s the case, though I was eventually able to get used to Ms. Clark’s approach.) It was interesting to see the show develop the connection between Galadriel and the human Halbrand (Charlie Vickers). It almost felt like the show was hinting at a possible love-story at times, which surprised me. I enjoyed how this story played out over the course of the season. I liked Mr. Vickers’ work as Halbrand. The casting very intentionally channeled a little bit of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, the idea of a rough-and-tumble guy who might have nobility hidden within him, and Mr. Vickers played that well.
The show played with the question of whether we’d see Sauron this season, and whether one of the two mysterious men — Halbrand or the Stranger who crashed from the sky and met the Harfoots — might actually be Sauron in disguise. I enjoyed how that played out (and I’m pleased to say I guessed correctly).
Speaking of the Harfoots, I enjoyed the time the show spent developing the many members of this nomadic Hobbit-like group. Markella Kavenagh was excellent as Nori, the brave and good young Harfoot who steps outside her culture’s fear of the unknown to befriend the big-person Stranger. Nori was a delightful creation for the show, and a successful continuation of the line of great Hobbits we’d met before. I also enjoyed Megan Richards as Nori’s loyal friend poppy; Dylan Smith as Nori’s father Largo; Sara Zwangobani as Nori’s mother Marigold; and Lenny Henry as Sadoc Burrows, the Harfoot elder and guide. (It was lovely that our main Harfoot characters were females in this adventure, rather than male like Bilbo and Frodo, and I was also delighted that there were so many Hobbits of color among the group.) Daniel Weyman played the Stranger who falls from the sky in the opening episode. He does a fine job with his mostly-silent character, skirting the line between someone who might be a protector or a threat to the Harfoots. In many ways, the story of Nori and the Stranger is the least exciting of the series’ many different storylines — many of which involved a lot of action and intrigue — but I was happy that the makers of this show understood the importance of a group of Hobbit-like characters to the larger story being told.
The next major storyline involved the Silvan Elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and his sublimated romance with the human woman Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi). I loved seeing a lead Elf character of color, and I quite enjoyed Mr. Cordova’s spin on what an Elf hero might be like. He captures the nobility and grace I’d expect from an Elf; but he was also quieter and more internal than I’d expected… and also a little more rough and tumble. I really liked this character. I liked Bronwyn too, though she doesn’t wind up getting developed as much as I’d hoped. We don’t know much more about her at the end of the season as we do after her very first scene. Similarly, I was intrigued in the first episode by this story of an Elf and a human who clearly loved one another but who weren’t together. I was interested in learning their backstory and/or to seeing where that story went. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get much of either. Their story sort of petered out in the second half of the season. This part of the show morphed from a character story into an action/adventure piece. I loved all the battles-with-Uruks action that we got… and the twist at the end of the season that this storyline was leading towards the creation of a major location from The Lord of the Rings was a cool surprise. But I wish the character stuff was stronger.
I was intrigued to meet the villainous character of Adar (Joseph Mawle), the head Uruk who appears to be a twisted Elf who has become the father of the Orcs. I really enjoyed Mr. Mawle’s quiet, understated performance; he was a smart and scary villain! I do wish the show had given us more information as to Adar’s backstory and his goals. (Is he in fact connected with Sauron? Does he know what Sauron is up to? Does Sauron know what he’s been up to?)
When Elrond (Robert Aramayo) was first introduced in the opening episode, I wasn’t sure about this new version of the character, who looked and sounded so different from Hugo Weaving’s Elrond from the Peter Jackson films. But the story of Elrond’s unusual and unexpected friendship with the Dwarf prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) turned into one of my favorite aspects of the show. I really loved Mr. Arthur’s boistrous performance as Durin. He quickly became a wonderfully iconic and memorable new Dwarf character. I wasn’t expecting the show to depict the origin of Mithril, but that was a cool twist as the season unfolded. I also loved Sophia Nomvete as Disa, Durin’s wife. It was wonderful to finally meet a female Dwarf character! I loved her look, and I loved how powerful a personality Disa wound up being.
I was less taken with Benjamin Walker’s performance as Gil-galad: the High King of the Elves. This is a combination of writing and acting choices that I didn’t like. Gil-galad is presented as too much of a willful obstacle for our heroes Elrond and Galadriel. He seems arrogant and stubborn and oblivious to what’s happening around him. As an Elf-king with incredible knowledge and foresight, I wish he didn’t come off as such a bone-head.
I was more interested to meet the Elf artist and smith Celerimbor (Charles Edwards). I don’t have such a detailed knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and lore beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but as soon as Celebrimbor was introduced on the show I perked up, as I knew that he was one who forged the rings of power. I was excited to see how that story would play out, and that was one of the more enjoyable threads in this first season for me.
I was happy when the show brought us to Númenor. I was very impressed by the depiction of this great city; this was, I think, my favorite location on the show. It was gorgeously designed, and the scale of its realization really impressed me. It also helped that I felt the show burst into life when it introduced Elendil (Lloyd Owen). Mr. Owen had the energy and force of personality that I was missing from the characters we’d met up to that point in the show’s early going. His was one of my favorite performances in the series. We met a lot of other interesting characters in Númenor: Isildur (Maxim Baldry); Isildur’s sister Eärien (Ema Horvath); Isildur’s comrades Valandil (Alex Tarrant) and Ontamo (Anthony Crum); Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), the queen regent of Númenor; Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle), Míriel’s advisor who has an agenda of his own; and others. I was particularly intrigued by the show’s depiction of Isildur. Here on the show he’s a good-hearted young boy, trying to do his best. But we know that he’s going to grow up and become the King who chooses not to destroy the One Ring (as see in the prologue to the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring). I’m not sure how the character we see here connects to that Isildur we know he’s going to grow up to me. But I love the idea that the show is planting the seeds for a tragedy that I guess we’ll see conclude in the final season of the show.
Other thoughts on this first season:
- I’ve written above about how I didn’t love the early episodes of this show and that I found the series hard to get into. A big problem for me was that the first episode opened with an extended prologue that was a huge information dump. I guess they were trying to mimic the prologue that opened Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. But they did not succeed. (Frankly, there have been a TON of fantasy films since Fellowship that have attempted to open with a similar style of prologue, and almost none have succeeded. It almost always feels like a boring and confusing info-dump of material that would have been better presented to us as a more organic part of the story being told. Mr. Jackson’s Fellowship prologue was a minor miracle.) I found my head spinning when watching the first ten-to-fifteen minutes of the opening episode. It was too much, too fast. I didn’t want to feel confused only a few minutes into this new show.
- I loved the look of Sauron’s abandoned fortress that Galadriel finds, in the frozen wastelands, in the opening episode.
- I was intrigued to see the show present Elves going to Valinor. We didn’t get to actually see Valinor, of course (that Elf “heaven” feels like it’d be impossible to satisfactorily depict on screen) but it was cool to get closer to this sacred Elven land that was discussed in The Lord of the Rings.
- I thought it was cool that the mark of Sauron turned out to be a map of Sauron’s territory.
- I liked the few times the show depicted a map of Middle Earth (as we’d seen in Mr. Tolkien’s original books, and in Peter Jackson’s films). I wish we’d returned to that map more often, so I could have better understood the geography of the show and where the various events we were watching were happening in relationship to one another.
- I wasn’t wild about Bronwyn’s emo-looking, up-to-no-good kid, Theo. It seemed surprisingly obvious in the early episodes when he was making bad choices. I was, though, pleased that his story took a different direction by the end of the season. (Also: his name is Theo? Seems like a boring name for this fantasy world…)
- I’m curious to see where Míriel’s vision of Númenor being destroyed by a giant wave is going. I am pretty certain that Númenor is going to be destroyed or otherwise lost by the end of the events chronicled in this series, but I don’t know enough Tolkien to already know how or when that is going to happen.
- I’m also curious to know what’s the story behind the death of Isildur’s mother (who we learn drowned).
- I loved seeing the creation of Mount Doom. That was a fun surprise and a very cool moment (and a terrific visual effects sequence).
- We know Isildur survived the fire in Bronwyn’s village. Knowing that, it felt weird to me that his father left him there, without scouring the village to make certain he hadn’t survived. I was also somewhat surprised that the Númenorians left Middle Earth and slunk back to Númenor so quickly after that defeat. I’d assumed they’d stay and track down and punish the surviving Orcs.
- It was cool to see an awakened Balrog under Khazad-dûm in the finale. (But I’m confused; we know from Gandalf that “the dwarves dug too greedily, and too deep”, and awoke a Balrog some time between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Am I to understand the exact same thing happened a thousand years earlier? That seems lame to me.)
- A low point in the show was Galadriel’s confrontation with Halbrand in the finale. She did the dumb thing that characters in movies and TV shows often do, after they’ve acquired important knowledge. Do they tell anyone else? No. Instead they try to confront the antagonist on their own. I rolled my eyes at that.
- While I don’t understand why neither Galadriel nor Elrond were able to stop the creation of the three rings in the end (it feels like both had plenty of time to do so), it was cool to see those three rings arrive at the end of the season. (Why didn’t Celerimbor craft them to look more like one another?) I’m curious to see how the rest of the rings get forged in the ,coming seasons.
I enjoyed this season, and I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope that future seasons can improve on the foundation we’ve seen created here. I’d like to see more tighter storytelling, with more focus on exploring the characters and allowing us to invest in them and engage in their adventures. The makers of this show clearly have the resources available to them to create something very special. I’m on-board to see what they can do, and where they go from here.
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