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Rings of Power: Season One Review

“Now adventures, they must be shared.”

The first half of this review is spoiler-free. After a big, bold heading and an adorable Spoiler Harfoot, I refer to the big revelations in the final episodes. If you haven’t seen the series, I recommend that you watch it before reading past the Harfoot.

My expectations for Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings prequel series, Rings of Power, were very low: I did not particularly expect to care about it, because I do not particularly care about Lord of the Rings.

Don’t get me wrong: I do like The Lord of the Rings. I read the trilogy immediately after graduating from college, perhaps in a subconscious rejection of all the highfalutin’ literary fiction I read for my major. I watched all three movies over three successive Christmas visits with my mother and brother. I was too old then to have a child’s nostalgia for the text now, but I do have an adult’s appreciate for their comforting, and comfortable, power.

I never, however, became a Tolkien obsessive, perhaps because I’m just not wired that way. I read The Hobbit at some point. I own the Silmarillion but have only leafed through it. And, with a combination of intentionality and laziness, I refused to do a single bit of research prior to watching this series, or even writing this review.

Despite all that, I am aware—much more aware than I want to be—of the debates surrounding this series. One set of fans is delighted to see Middle-Earth on screen again. The other is horrified that the show isn’t filled with white people. Both groups spend a lot of time grousing about or pondering the significance of additions to, and departures from, the source material, as though the goal of an adaptation is replication rather than transformation.

In our present era, mass culture is fixated on excavating every last bit of ore from existing “IP,” which means most viewers—and most reviewers—are fixated on fidelity to established canon and fancy guesswork about what might happen next, as if predicting plot points is the height of thinking about narrative.

I’m more interested, though, in looking at Rings of Power as a television series. What is it about, what are its goals, what does it try to do, and what does it do well?

Set an eon before the events of Lord of the Rings, the show follows five main groups: rural villager humans, urban humans on the island of Numenor, nomadic proto-Hobbit hippies called Harfoots, dwarves, and elves. (There are also orcs, but they’re antagonists who obviously don’t suffer from main-character syndrome.) There are characters you will recognize—Galadriel and Elrond are the most obvious—and characters you’ve never met before but will like, or even love, such as the Numenorians.

Over the course of these eight episodes, I did come to love many of these characters and their adventures. The villager humans are besieged by orcs after being abandoned by the elves. The elves are politicians worried about their political, an existential, future. The dwarves are running their own game down in the mines, with Prince Durin (Owain Arthur) a standout as the king’s son and a friend to Elrond in the early days of his career in Elven public service.

The Harfoots, who are basically Hobbits who smoke pot and migrate seasonally, were annoying at first, but I came to appreciate their simple bravery, which is probably exactly how I would have described my initial reactions to Frodo, Samwise, and the other Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings. Although they interact the least with the other groups this season focuses on, the Harfoots clearly have a role to play in events to come.

The Numenorians, who live in an island off the coast of Middle-Earth, were a surprise to me: the Lord of the Rings books and films were set primarily in rural, wild areas with very few people. The urban civilization of Numenor, though, brought to mind ancient Rome or Byzantium. As regular readers of my reviews know, I absolutely love television that provides a strong sense of place, and Numenor was both gorgeous and complicated, with rival guilds, political maneuverings, and fabulous hair:

That hair! OMG that hair!

My favorite character, though, was young Galadriel, who provides the connective tissue between many of the plots. Described as someone who runs both “hot” and “fast,” and played by the lovely Morfydd Clark, this version of Galadriel is a far cry from Cate Blanchett’s imperious queen. In this show, she’s on the political outs, adventurous, driven, madcap, crazy for horses, an incredible fighter, and just all-around fun to watch.

But how does it all fit together? I really struggled to figure that out for a few episodes: I couldn’t tell what I was supposed to want for any of these people, or where the show was headed. I enjoyed the tour of these lands and the people in them, but I kept stopping episodes in the middle because I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to feel suspense, expectation, or some other emotion. (It was at that point that I consciously decided not to do research into what to expect.)

As a result, by the end of episode four, I was drafting my review with an adaptation of a famous quote from the opening scenes of Fellowship of the Ring to describe my feelings about the show: “I don't understand half of this half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of it half as well as it deserves."

By episode six, though, as these various people started to intersect, and things started to really happen, I suddenly began to care.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

MIND THE SPOILER HARFOOT!

Spoiler Harfoot!
The sixth episode, “Udun,” at first seemed to take a page straight out of the best battle scenes of the films: the Numenorians arrive just as the rural villager humans need them. Galadriel demonstrates her incredible fighting prowess. Young Isildur shows his mettle. The orcs fall quickly, black gooey blood spurting everywhere. There are moments of vulnerability but also moments of heroism.

And then, suddenly: catastrophe. The humans (and their elven helpers) played right into the orcs’ plan, resulting in a volcanic explosion that seems to obliterate everyone. I really did think, in the space between finishing “Udun” and clicking play on the next episode (“The Eye”) that showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne had gone full George R.R. Martin on Tolkien’s lore.

But they didn’t. This is not, after all, Westeros. This is not grimdark fantasy in which death acts as a signifier of cynical understanding of how the world works. This is Tolkien, where things are not always easy, but right does eventually prevail. What seems to be catastrophe is just a bump on the road to the adventure of eucatastrophe.

Does it all work out perfectly? Of course not. The lovely Southlands have become Mordor. The lovely Numenorian queen Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) has gone blind. Isildur (Maxim Baldry) is missing; his father Elendil (Lloyd Owen) mourns him. Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) briefly can’t find his mother Brownyn (Nazanin Boniadi). Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) spends a frightening amount of time on the edge of death. Galadriel feels guilty. There are serious problems, some of which are not resolved.

And by the final episode, we can see the topography of Middle-Earth history emerging: the elves get mithril from the dwarves to make three of the many rings that will eventually bind the people of Middle-Earth to Sauron. Sauron himself turns out to have been the friend we made along the way: swashbuckling, charming bad-boy Halbrand. That certainly can’t be good. But there is hope, and our heroes do make plans for the future to deal with the problems they have discovered (or sometimes, created).

In the first half of the season, I wondered what I was supposed to hope for. By the end of the season, I realized that, much like the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, this show is about different people coming together out of shared goals, compassion, and empathy. The scheming so prevalent in the first half of the season was a problem to be solved; friendship was the solution to that problem.

It's a handy cliché to say that stories teach us how to read or watch them, but in retrospect I understand why it took me a while to figure out how to watch this show. Given the cynicism of our current pop-culture landscape, filled with antiheroes and trauma plots and “chaos is a ladder,” it was easy for me to think that it was all too neat, too pat. At one point, a dying man—a good man—wished to see just one last sunrise, and the sun immediately rose. “How convenient,” I muttered.

And then I was aghast at who I have become: the type of person who is upset that a good man gets what he wants, who demands grimdark chaos in the guise of “realism” rather than someone who, like the characters in these stories, is able to see little moments of grace and optimism in a world that is complex, but not nonsensical.

Sure, sometimes the cavalry doesn’t arrive in time. But in a show like this, they usually do, because The Lord of the Rings universe, and Middle-Earth itself, is supposed to make its own kind of peculiar, warm-hearted, magical sense. That's an adventure I want to share.

Four out of four Strangers.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review. It's interesting to compare to GRRM because the source material for this (the Second Age) is much darker and more tragic than the Lord of the Rings. However, Tolkien is still a moral absolutist rather than a cynic. But this is not going to be like LOTR where all our heroes survive to the end.

    As something of a Tolkien nerd, it's umm...interesting how people seem to view where it's important to be faithful to the source material and where it's not. Only a few nerds are griping about female dwarves not having beards, and nobody complains that Galadriel isn't 7 feet tall. She's described as being as tall as her husband, who is very tall even for an elf, and elves are taller than humans. And it's never actually said anywhere that elves, dwarves, hobbits and Numenoreans are all white. I'll grant that probably Tolkien visualized them that way, but sorry "fair of face" means attractive, not necessarily light skinned.

    I had a hard time with the show for other reasons though. It looks beautiful but where I think GRRM's influence has harmed the show is not in its tone but in the decision to tell many stories at once, which made the show feel slow moving in the first half and oddly rushed at the same time. And that's not from the source material since two of the main threads aren't based on Tolkien at all, and the other two took place thousands of years apart. I guess they wanted to be able to use the same cast in every season, instead of having to change out all the non-elvish characters. Still, I feel like it contributed to the show having an all over the place, where is it headed feeling that could have easily been avoided.

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  2. My twenty something best friend was a Tolkein die hard, and even disliked the moves which i was obsessed with at the time but could never get through the book. So names like Tom Bombidil are familiar and I know the difference between Sauron and Saruman even though those names are far too similar.

    Suffice it to say, I liked the original films enough to try this. I watched the first episode and stepped away. It wasn't until I started to watch with a friend (a different one who is not a die hard fan) that I actually got into this show and I'm glad I did. This isn't those movies, it is new and unknown and I love this Galadrial. I still have two more episodes so I didn't read your spoiler section but I totally agree with the idea that this show slowly teaches you how to watch it and it isn't about the darkness it is about the heroes who fight against it.

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  3. GOD I love your writing, Josie.

    I'm not a Tolkien person. I've tried to read the original trilogy about five times. Some female characters might have helped me which, fortunately both Jackson and Amazon have taken note of, giving Galadriel a lot to do here and making up that elf Evangeline Lilly played for The Hobbit trilogy.

    I don't intend to watch this but my friends have kept me apprised of what's been going on (unintentionally). Which is good because I'm pretty sure my Dad (who has one episode to go) is confused and going to need an explainer.

    Really, beautifully written, Ms. Kafka.

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  4. I avoided this show cause I was worried it would be bad

    I binged it cause it was completed and I LOVED IT

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  5. Avoiding the spoiler section because I still don't know if I'm gonna watch this or not. I'm not married to this universe or its lore (only ever read The Hobbit and seen the Peter Jackson movies), but I do really love the vibes and feelings they usually evoke; I even appreciate the Hobbit films, as flawed and discordant as they are.

    What I did read of your review was very intriguing, so I may have to finally give it a look at some point. If not just to have my own opinion in the face of seemingly half the internet (including those who have never seen it) insisting that everyone else recognize it as the worst thing ever produced.

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