The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is reportedly the most expensive television series of all time and if nothing else can be said about, it sure looks like it. The first two episodes of the series are stacked to the rafters with enough jaw-dropping imagery, stunning costumes and gorgeous locations to keep pace with any of the Peter Jackson films to which it will inevitably be compared and easily surpasses a good 85% of Game of Thrones, to which it will also inevitably be compared. There are times when the show seems eager to invite these comparisons, as if to declare its intentions to stand alongside if not improve upon the two most successful fantasy franchises of all time. It remains to be seen how well show creators Will McKay and John D. Payne will pull this unstated but implied task off, but these first two episodes, both directed by J.A. Bayona, seem up to the task.
We open during “a time when the world was so young, there had not been a sunrise,” as Galadriel narrates, “but even then, there was light.” This is The Age of the Trees, when Galadriel was a child and creation was so young that the sun hadn’t even been thought of yet, when the light of the world was supplied by the remaining Tree of Valinor. This is a huge part of the appeal of a series like this, allowing the Tolkien fan to see that which has been referred to or written about, but never portrayed. One of the things that defines Tolkien’s Appendices, not to mention The Silmarillion, is how he creates a fictional world going all the way back to its creation and the years of epic myths and world-shattering clashes before the age of man. But this opening starts quietly and in a somewhat mundane manner, with the young Galadriel being teased by the other Children of Iluvatar, who are evidently like all children. We meet her beloved older brother Finrod, who teaches and mentors her about how to find the correct path for her life and know which light to follow. This idyllic moment is tinged with death and, like all the best of Tolkien, implies a light that’s barely holding back the darkness. This shadowed idyll leads into an extended narrated monologue/history lesson, quite self-consciously modeled on the Cate Blanchett monologue from The Fellowship of the Ring, except this time, the focus is on Morgoth destroying the Tree of Valinor and the ensuing war that inspired the elves to leave their fabled home and go to war in Middle Earth. The opening battle scene from the War of the Wrath, is brief but jaw-dropping in its intensity. Those are your Amazon dollars up on that screen so enjoy it. You paid for this every time you ordered hand sanitizer and off-brand toilet paper from Prime for four times their normal price during lockdown, so suck up every bit of this gorgeousness. You did that.
Galadriel informs us that the war lasted centuries, devastated Middle Earth, and even after Morgoth’s defeat, left them with the problem of orcs multiplying and roaming the land, all under the command of “a cruel and cunning sorceror. They called him… Sauron.” Her brother was killed by Sauron, who marked his dead body with a strange symbol that no one could decipher. This leads into an extended sequence of Galadriel, Orc-Hunter, partially modeled – also quite self-consciously – on Jackson’s now iconic soaring tracking shots of small figures trekking through stunning vistas. Again, it’s not entirely wrong to consider the Galadriel of Tolkien’s Appendices and Silmarillion as someone who could and did kick some ass in her time, but this is quite an adjustment from the angelic and ancient figure that Blanchett embodied. We also think it’s notable how high and light Morfydd Clark – who is really fantastic in this – keeps her voice, as if in rebuttal to Blanchett’s deep whisper, underlining her relative youth, even though she’s centuries old at this point. She continues to tell us, as we soar through ice-covered mountains, that centuries passed while she was hunting orcs and most elves had come to believe that Sauron was gone and not coming back. You know, THAT old story. It’s interesting that the first ten minutes features one of our main heroes scaling an ice wall and fighting an ice monster in an ice cave. It’s not like Game of Thrones invented the idea of polar fantasy settings or walls of ice, but this sequence almost felt like a little wink at the audience. Watching the company of elves looking pretty badass as they scale their way up that ice wall, all we could think was, “Damn. Jon Snow used an elevator.” In fact the intensity of this entire opening is so ramped up and over the top, that it almost comes off a little overwhelming, but we appreciated and enjoyed how hard the show was working to dazzle us. It worked. We were dazzled.
Anyway, Galadriel’s company of fellow orc-hunting elves are starting to get antsy with how long this mission has gone on, just as they come across what is evidently one of Sauron’s strongholds, where the orcs gathered after Morgoth’s defeat, a place so evil that their torches stop giving off warmth. Behind a hidden door inside the ice-covered castle, they find mutilated and twisted orc corpses melded into the walls, prompting Galadriel to observe that someone was meddling in some really nasty sorcery. They also find Sauron’s sigil, which she takes as a warning that they need to go – just as an ice troll attacks the unit. It’s a fantastically dark and frightening scene. The violence in this version of Tolkien is ramped up a little closer to George R.R. Martin levels and the design on the snow troll was spectacular. Galadriel gets her Legolas-like moment as she uses her fancy elf moves to take the troll down. She announces that they will march onward, only to have her entire unit refuse and lay down their swords.
In Rhovanion, “The Wilderlands East of the Anduin,” as the map informs us, we are introduced to the Harfoot tribe, one of the predecessor tribes of what would come to be known as Hobbits. We were thoroughly charmed by this sequence, which had a lot of the feeling that the introduction of the Shire had in The Fellowship of the Ring (lots of feet, food and charmingly rustic furnishings), but dialed way back to a more nomadic, far less sophisticated lifestyle. We think the production team did a wonderful job of extrapolating a culture backwards, although we admit we still have some questions about how a foraging, nomadic tribe of people who put sticks in their hair can nonetheless produce items like woven cloth, candles and paper. Still, Lenny Henry is wonderful as Sadoc Burrows, who appears to be, if not a chieftain then the most learned person in the tribe. It’s clear that the Harfoots survive by a complicated system of warnings and camouflage that allows them to stay hidden from the world. This story is set thousands of years before the story of Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, during what’s known as the Second Age. Most of Middle Earth would not even know that halflings existed until the Third Age, the time of the Fellowship, which is why so many people who come across Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin for the first time tend to react first with surprise or amusement. All of this manages to explain something that really didn’t need explaining, in the manner of so many prequels, but it’s handled so well and so smartly that we can’t say we mind at all.
The Harfoot women are concerned that travelers have been passing close to their lands (two utterly bizarre-looking wildling types inexplicably carrying moose antlers on their backs), but Sadoc tries to assure them it’s nothing to be concerned about. Meanwhile Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a rule-breaking, adventure-seeking Harfoot if ever there was one (except there probably wasn’t), is off leading some of the children of the tribe to go berry picking at a farm, far outside the borders of where they’re allowed to go. The world outside their safe encampment is a dangerous one, however, and they almost become lunch for a wandering wolf; a perfect reminder at this point in the story that Middle Earth is full of extremely aggressive and deadly creatures. Nori is excited to hear the news of passing travelers and wonders why, which prompts a rebuke from her mother Marigold (Sara Zwangobani), who doesn’t see how any of the outside world is a concern of theirs. “Haven’t you ever wondered what else is out there?” this proto-Frodo asks her mother. “How far the river flows or how the sparrows learn their new songs in spring?” This is, of course, very much in line with the classic hero’s journey character; a person from a small existence who dreams of things larger and more interesting than themselves. To be fair, she’s way more Luke Skywalker than Frodo or Bilbo, but as we pointed out once, Luke Skywalker was basically Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, Marigold reminds her that the whole system that they live under only works if everyone knows their place and stays on the trail. This is not only a setup for Nori’s adventures to come (we’re surmising), but also a smart way to explain why the Hobbits of The Shire tend to be so disinterested in anything having to do with the world beyond their borders. Their entire survival as a race was based on the idea of not minding what isn’t their business.
In the Elven kingdom of Lindon, we meet the relatively young Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who’s trying to compose a speech. He is informed that he is not invited to the next council meeting, which is for “elf lords only.” This didn’t come up in the films, but Elrond was half-elven and was given the choice to live as either a human (mortal) or an elf (immortal). He chose the latter (which is at least partially why he resisted Arwen’s decision in the films) and it looks like the series is setting things up to explore the ramifications of that. One thing that seems to be more prevalent in this story than the source material is a lingering sense of racism permeating all of the societies of Middle Earth. To be fair, by the time of The Fellowship, none of the various races of Middle Earth were speaking to each other on a regular basis and certainly Tolkien made it clear that Elves and Dwarves had a long and lingering racial resentment of each other. But these first two episodes, which are attempting to set up the socio-cultural-political landscape of the entirety of Middle Earth in the Second Age, seem to have put a particular emphasis on how little the various races trust or like each other, which is a perfect setup for fascism and evil to arise and gives the basic good-vs.-evil framework of this story the kind of nuance Tolkien intended but for which he sometimes isn’t credited.
“I’m not some courtier to be placated by idle flattery,” a visiting Galadriel tells Elrond, after the niceties are dispensed with and it’s made quite clear that she and Elrond are very good friends, long before she became his mother-in-law. She demands to see Gil-Galad, the king (Benjamin Walker). Elrond bluntly tells her that her unit didn’t desert her; she went too far in interpreting her mission. “In an act of magnanimity,” he informs her, Gil-Galad “has chosen to honor your accomplishments rather than dwell on your insolence.” This is exactly as ominous as it sounds, which is revealed when the rather imperious Elf king declares during the ceremony that “The days of war are over,” and informs the whole orc-hunting squadron that they have been granted passage from the Grey Havens. Galadriel is not thrilled, which is kind of interesting because every depiction of “going into the west,” or taking the ship from the Grey Havens, or returning to the “far green country” of Valinor was shown as the greatest reward anyone could claim, not something to be avoided or rejected. We always thought that whole deal had a vaguely ominous vibe to it, as any version of the after-life must, on some level. Galadriel tells Elrond that she intends to refuse the king’s gift, which he strongly counsels her against. Like Gil-Galad, he believes that evil has been vanguished from Middle Earth and that war is a thing of the past. This is a sentiment which is right in line with Tolkien’s writing, filled as it was with short-sighted characters who couldn’t see evil in front of them, although it’s a bit of a surprise to see Elrond of all characters expressing it. “I am grateful you have not known as I have,” she spits at him, “but you have not seen what I have seen.” He implores her to go and let the Undying Lands heal the parts of her that are broken after years of fighting.
Next, we’re off to the lands of men, in The Southlands region on the map, to a small wood-and-stone mud village, where Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) an elf charged with patrolling the area for orcs and keeping an eye on men, stops by for his fortnightly visit to check on things and questions a tavernkeeper about reports of a poisoned patch of grass in the area. A kid in his cups has had enough of Arondir’s questioning and angrily calls him “knife ears” (there’s that racism again), making it clear that he resents being questioned by elves just because his ancestors happened to side with Morgoth in the war centuries ago. He makes reference to the “true king” who will return and save them from the elves, which indicates just how long the world had been waiting for Aragorn. Outside the makeshift tavern, Arondir flirts a little with local healer woman Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), which is noticed by his patrol partner, who warns him of the rather disastrous record regarding human/elf romantic pairings. This is a very prequel sort of thing, to check off all of the major themes of the work that inspired it, in this case, not just the romance of Arwen and Aragorn, which is millenia away, but also of Beren and Lúthien. There are times here when these callbacks work really well and times when it tends to feel a little forced.
They return to their watchtower and learn the news that Gil-Galad has declared all war to be over, effectively ending their watch. Arondir is conflicted about leaving his post after 79 years and having clearly fallen in love with a human, which his watch warden must have picked up on, because he reminds him that “the blood of those who sided with Morgoth darkens their veins” and to be grateful that he’ll never have to see them again. There’s that racism again. He leaves his company to go and see Bronwyn and her bratty son Theo. She begs him to say what he came to say, but he tells her he has already said it a hundred times over in every way but words, which is the kind of thing every girl wants to hear. A villager shows up with a sick cow who’d been grazing in an area to the east, which may have something to do with that poisoned grass the tavernkeeper was talking about. Arondir goes to check it out and Bronwyn goes with him.
As soon as they’re gone, Theo and his friend go to the barn and pull what looks like the hilt of a broken sword out of a safekeeping place. It’s at this point that we have to note how the story and the episode are starting to become weighted down with too many introductions and too much information. We also have to note that pretty much anything to do with humans has been far less interesting than the rest of the story, but we suppose that’s to be expected. We also can’t say we love the idea of some other broken sword being introduced to the story. There’s a danger that this could all wind up with a case of prequel-itis, in which every character and icon of the original story must have some sort of explanation or callback in the prequel. The sword has Sauron’s sigil on it and it starts to glow in Theo’s hand.
At this point, the episode cuts back and forth to every area of Middle Earth and all of the main characters in a manner that feels a little jarring because it’s totally anathema to the style and structure of Tolkien, who was not exactly known for shifting quickly from scene to scene. In Lindon, Elrond notes that Galadriel has passed beyond his sight as her ship travels from the Grey Havens. Gil-Galad assures him that he’s done the right thing and that the two of them must now “look to the sunrise” and make plans anew for the world. To that end, he introduces him to the legendary Elvensmith Celebrimbor, who has a new project in mind. This project may have something to do with the actual title of this series. Or it may not. Who can say? In Rhovanion, Sadoc looks to the sky and notes that there’s something wrong with it, as if the stars are all watching and waiting for something. On the ship sailing the Sundering Seas, we get to see what it’s like when the elves pass through the shimmering curtain and it’s actually a little creepy and frightening. Or at least it is from Galadriel’s perspective, since she absolutely doesn’t want to go. This is going to continue to a bit of a problem with Galadriel’s character, since her fate is so well articulated. We know she’s not going to Valinor just as we know she’s not ever going to die every time the story puts her in some sort of dangerous situation. This is an inevitability with prequels, although it could be avoided by not constantly putting Galadriel in these sorts of situations. Bronwyn and Arondir come upon a neighboring village which has been more or less destroyed. A meteor streaks across the sky and seems to travel the entire map of Middle Earth as every character watches it pass over head. On the ship, as all the elves start passing to the other side, Galadriel remembers her brother Finrod telling her that sometimes you cannot know which lights to follow until you have touched the darkness. Something streaks across the sky and lands with an explosion in Rhovanian while Galadriel jumps ship and starts swimming her way back to life, and to an evil she is sure is out there, waiting. Gil-Galad notices a leaf turning black and rotting. And Nori comes across a naked, bearded man in the middle of a flaming pit. It’s a LOT.
As an episode, it’s some of the biggest, most well executed spectacle television has ever seen. It is a bit overstuffed with characters and story, but charitably speaking, you could view that as a confident ambition. Realistically speaking, we can’t claim they didn’t pull it off on almost every level. It simply looks amazing and so far, we haven’t detected one weak performance. Everyone involved in this is clearly on their A game and while many a scholar can and will argue as to whether they’re doing the master Tolkien himself proud, there’s no doubt in our minds that they take their responsibility very seriously.
[Photo Credit: Amazon Studios]
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