The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – Episodes 1-2 Series Premiere Review
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings premieres to a stunning spectacle, but does it have Tolkein’s spirit and heart.
Not in a long while has there been a series, an adaptation so widely anticipated, yet so dreadfully frowned upon as Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The bidding war that culminated in the tech company splurging $250 million to acquiring the rights, the heavily marketed $465 million production budget for Season 1, the praises showered and hatred spewn over the series embracing diversity, the show’s choice to delve into the Second Age which Tolkein least wrote about, leading many to classify the show as elaborate fan-fiction: the series has been mired in controversy and distrust ever since Amazon won the lucrative deal. And part of the reason for the fan distrust comes right from that very studio associated with the show. Amazon’s luxurious marketing spend didn’t help assuage concerns, neither did the studio’s attempts at culling negative reviews from its own site in the guise of review-bombing.
All said and done, the series had an uphill battle to fight: with perspectives already skewn, biases forged and ardent fans determined to give this a pass, the real question on a casual viewer’s mind was: keeping aside all the negativity, is there any merit to the show? Is the show actually, objectively, good? Refusing to believe any press in hopes of it being sponsored by Amazon, fans were even rooting for the show to fail. But now that two episodes are out there, commoners like myself can share our own experiences of how we find the show. The point of the aforementioned lines was to emphasize that while I may not consider myself to be a staunch Tolkein purist, I’m well aware of the controversies and issues that plague the show’s production. So keeping all those in mind, I’m happy to report that The Rings of Power delivers. Its hard to rate art “objectively” but by my account, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation is a great show with stunning spectacle, an adventure encompassing a myriad of Middle-Earth locations and, amongst all, lots of heart.
Choosing to drop two episodes at once was a wise decision. I wouldn’t necessarily call either episode slow-paced but having two to binge back-to-back does help draw us closer to the world created by showrunnerrs J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay have crafted out of Tolkein’s lore. The series begins with what’s unarguably a long, extended prologue, lasting a full 20-minutes, revering Peter Jackson’s penchant for extended editions. We learn how Morgoth arose as a threat from the shadows and it takes an army of Elves to fight him off for good, the battle culminating in a massive loss of Elven lives. His aide Sauron might still be out there. Determined to weed him off the face of Middle-Earth, Galadriel, relentlessly pursues him across mountains and forests despite repeated protests from her men, until they eventually relent, forcing her to abandon her quest and return.
Galadriel is a crucial character for a multitude of reasons. From a purely marketing standpoint, it helps that she’s present in The Lord of the Rings movies. Her and Elrond’s presence instantly help the fanbase connect the show to the movies. Being an elf, Galadriel can live hundreds of thousands of years without aging, allowing the story to unfold over a longer period of time, despite being rooted in a central character. And Galadriel’s brother Finrond embarked on the search for Sauron, before being slain in his pursuit, making the mission a lot more personal for her than others. At the other end is Elrond, who tries reasoning with Galadriel to let go of the past and focus on what lies ahead. Their banter and conflicting viewpoints on whether it’s worth pursuing Sauron when the realm hasn’t heard of him for so long form the crux of the Elven sequences, accompanied by the introduction of Elven High-king Gil-galad who, in an act of “magnanimity”, chooses to forego Galadriel’s defiance of his order and coronates them to be sent to “heaven”.
Throughout the two-episode premiere, the series jumps between different character clans, with a few intersecting at some point. We meet Harfoots, the predecessors to Hobbits, yet again helping casual fans connect the series to the LotR movies, while also providing us a literally grounded perspective to the goings on in Middle-Earth. We also meet a bunch of humans in differing setups, one of which hints at a prospective romance between a human Bronwyn, mother to Theo, with an Elf Arondir. And when Elrond seeks help in assisting the Elven smith Celebrimbor, he reaches out to his old friends, Dwarves, residing in the prestigious kingdom of Khazad-dum, to be later laid in ruins by the Third Age.
The entire sequence between Elrond and Durin remains the two-part premiere’s highpoint. Seeing Khazad-dum at the height of its glory definitely leaves a mark, and the interactions between the two characters helps sell their friendship and hurt while serving as a stark reminder of how the blink of an eye for an Elf might be an entire lifetime’s worth of memories for a Dwarf. It plays out nicely, with a lot of heart to it, without subverting any expectations. Eventually the two seem to reconcile when Elrond lays out his proposal and the warmth exhibited by Durin’s wife Disa plays a large role in mending old wounds.
There’s definitely a table-setting quality to both episodes, as is evidenced by the constant fear of an impending doom, an old foe lingering around the shadows if you will. Fans will probably take issue at yet another aspect the series is taking liberty in: timelines. Where events in the books span hundreds of thousands of years, the show is running on a compressed timeline to ensure it can keep most of its Harfoots and Dwarves alive to witness and participate in the central conflict. As such, the end result is that you can’t help but feel Sauron’s arrival is being rushed and emphasized a lot more strongly. Which again, makes sense from a storytelling and a marketing perspective. Plot wise, Sauron is the biggest threat to the Second Age since Morgoth. Marketing-wise, he’s the nemesis most familiar to LotR fans and the build-up to an all-evil, all-powerful antagonist definitely helps up the stakes quickly.
Despite the predictability and linearity of the plot compared to some other fantasy or science-fiction shows, The Rings of Power adds a few layers of mystery around certain elements. The biggest of these perhaps is around Daniel Weyman’s character as a stranger who lands on earth from the skies right in Nori and Poppy’s neighborhood. The showrunners are coy enough on whether he’s Sauron, Gandalf, or some other personification of one of Middle-Earth’s famed wizards and there are enough clues ranging from his look to the actor’s resemblance to the location of his landing to the color of his blanket to sway us in either direction. What also remains a mystery is just how Sauron will stage his grand appearance, with his sword having fallen in Theo’s hands and signs already pointing to a young Theo falling prey to his spells. The appearance of humans in a makeshift boat capsized by a monster is also equally mysterious; more so is the outcome of that monstrous attack in which only one named Halbrand manages to survive. So yes, Tolkein enthusiasts definitely have lots of theorizing to do on their hands as Amazon adheres to a weekly schedule.
What sets The Rings of Power apart from its own nemesis in the fantasy sphere, House of the Dragon, is that this is a show with a lot of heart. It’s something that’s conveyed through all of its major plotlines. Whether it’s Nori’s innocent dreams of wanting to see a lot more of the world and its wonders than being confined to the limited space that Harfoots dwell on, whether it’s Galadriel’s pure, if one-note, drive for revenge that keeps her going to the ends to find Sauron, whether it’s Arondir’s love for Bronwyn that keeps bringing him back to the human village, never mind the tumultous history that places Elves and men on opposing sides, or even Prince Durin’s disappointment at his friend Elrond missing his wedding – these are all bits that are ripe for feeling cringe and may inhibit values that seem out of date in a world that’s used to seeing grey characters, sex, gore and the like. But in the capable hands of J. A. Bayona, director of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and his famed A Monster Calls that put him on the map, all of these beats play off with an earnest sincerity that one could have only expected a veteran like Tolkein to pull off. The scenes have a theatricality to it that makes the proceedings appear like an elaborately staged play. It has just the right bit of dramatics to elevate it above verisimilitude, yet feel right at home in a world where hobbits thrived.
Of course, this greatest asset can also tend to become the show’s weakness, for it can either tend to present scenes that overstay their welcome at times, or cut across scenes far too quickly for the emotional impact to seep in. In the second episode for instance, the series tries to juxtapose its multiple subplots to weave them into a singular narrative: that everyone is bound to be impacted by the emergence of Sauron. In the process, certain threads such as Arondir’s exploits have little of substance to offer before they coalesce at the eureka moment, resulting in us seeing them for extremely short bits. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be done with the Harfoots, now that the Stranger has landed, which ensures they take up the biggest chunk of time. And in a world of complex, flawed, characters, it can be hard to make idealistic ones interesting. One can’t help but feel bogged down by some of the one-noteness that grips a lot of characters, especially Galadriel, who maintains a singular drive for hundreds of years. While Tolkein wasn’t all for morally complex individuals, I’m hopeful this is something that will be addressed in future episodes as more nuance is added to each of the characters to help us see them from all three dimensions.
Whatever merits or demerits the storytelling might carry, The Rings of Power seems to have received an almost unanimous praise of its visual prowess. And I have absolutely no complaints on that front. Many of the shots and vistas of Middle-Earth are stunning and capable enough of sitting right alongside Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. In fact, dare I say, the level of spectacle accomplished in this series is as big achievement in some ways as the movies did. For context, Jackson’s movies arrived at a time when big-budget fantasy filmmaking was as good as non-existent. The success of those movies opened up the genre for other adapations. Likewise, The Rings of Power shows that it’s possible to deliver visual fidelity of a cinematic level for the smaller screens. The battle with Morgoth in the prologue, Galadriel’s pursuit of Sauron, the kingdoms of Khazad-dum and Lindon with the Silver and Gold trees, the lush fields, the Elves’ ascension into heaven – the series is brimming with visual spectacle to the extent that it would warrant an entire review just to rave at the magnificence of the world in front of us. Between this and House of the Dragon, the bar has been raised to an astronomical, almost irreversible level.
Stunning visual effects and production values are just part of the puzzle. We’re treated to some intricate costume design that lends distinct looks to each of the core families of characters. The Harfoots appear rugged and dirty, as they should, and contrast a lot with the pristine Elves of Lindon. The Dwarves are a nice mix of regal royalty flanked by a groundedness in their works. And Bear McCreary’s score is bang on, perfectly reminiscent of and evoking the best of Howard Shore’s bits from the movies. My personal favorite so far is the theme for the Harfoots although the soundtrack is an abundance of riches that I’m looking to scour, stream and discover separately. He nails the flutes, the vocals, the chorus – it’s McCreary at his finest.
For what it’s worth, The Rings of Power has its heart in the right place. It’s got a solid start and manages to make a fairly compelling premise out of whatever little is known of the Second Age. If the showrunners can up the ante, take us deeper into the individual characters and their lives so as to make their eventual unions a lot more rewarding, this definitely has the potential to be a great series. And in doing so, it can hopefully shed some of the stigma surrounding its development and the baggage its carrying as a result of Amazon’s association with it. Tolkein fans may have already decided to ignore this, but if you’re someone with an open find looking for a good, pure, fantasy show to dive into, look no further. This does not disappoint.