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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.



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?)


  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.

  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.

  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.

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

    I binged it cause it was completed and I LOVED IT

  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.

  6. Finally got to the spoiler section, after completing Rings of Power two or three weeks ago. Your review is excellent, Josie. I especially love your zeroing in on how this series' more idealistic tone (completely in line with Tolkien's themes, as far as I can tell) conflicts with this age of ridiculously cynical entertainment we're living in, which has conditioned many of us to react cynically to a lot of what we take in... including stuff that might be lighthearted, somewhat optimistic, or genuinely inspired.

    I also wasn't sure about it for the first few episodes, but I quickly got into it once I was familiar with, eventually and endeared toward, the characters. Then I was just along for the ride. It's big season finale twist does ape the big twist at the end of Westworld's first season, in my opinion, but I still liked the execution of it. And overall the visuals and Middle-Earth atmosphere are cool enough to keep my attention even if I hadn't been impressed with the characters or plot, which I was.

    Like House of the Dragon, I'm not sure how well this show can maintain its current momentum. But like HotD, the vibes of the show are so strong that I'm excited to see whatever else they've got coming.

    Once again, really great review.

    1. I'm really glad you liked the show, Logan!

  7. Great review. I first read the original trilogy (with appendices) in the 70s and later Silmarilien—and (surprise!!I think Amazon got a lot right with taking the original material and converting it to a human scale—Galadriel’s struggles with temptation in episode 8 being a great example. I can’t wait to see where the writers go with that theme. This may be a minority view among long-time LOR fans. But that’s the beauty of art—everyone gets to appreciate (or not) on their own terms. Thanks again for your insights and keep up the good writing!

  8. Thank you, Josie, for such a good review. Your word skills certainly deserve their place of honor in reviewing RoP. I appreciate your perspective, approaching pretty much untainted by expectations. That’s the perspective I tried to have in watching, I just wanted to enjoy the ride, be it a scenic cog railway trip through the Alps or Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. Hard aspiration to live up to since I’m somewhat of a Tolkien purist. Season 1 turned out to be a bit of both and I loved it. It was fun seeing Middle Earth again, along with a beautiful introduction to Numenor. It was a treat seeing old friends and meeting new ones, with a whole lot of hoping who might be revealed next. For me, the story runners stayed close enough to canon not to make me stumble too badly. My biggest complaint was the confusion of the altered timeline. I liked the slow reveal of Halbrand as Sauron. I did see it coming, mostly thanks to my nerdy knowledge of Sauron’s early dealings with the Elves and Numenorians. But ew, I never thought I’d be made to like Sauron! Looking forward to season 2. (Can it really be 2 years away?).

    Still hoping for Glorfindel.

  9. I had high hopes for this series, especially as an obsessive Tolkien fan. For people who aren't big on the books, I'm sure this series has something they like. But for those of us who have read every single Middle-Earth related book and knowing how Tolkien wanted people to see his works, we're appalled at this travesty of an adaptation. In Middle-Earth, "white" people is a matter of perspective. Race isn't how we know it. Elves are a race. Dwarves are a race. Men are a race. Skin pigmentation has nothing to do with it. And this is coming from myself who is a dark skinned Chickasaw native. I'm glad you got some sense of satisfaction from the series. But it's clear that both writers clearly never had any intention of honoring Tolkien despite them going in front of audiences and absolutely lying to us all. In other words, they robbed us all out of a truly magical experience that Tolkien wanted. But hey, Tolkien was a white guy so who cares, right?

  10. I honestly was so nervous when the series was announced. I love Tolkien so much and I do/did dearly wish to see the earlier Ages on screen. I made myself hit play on that first episode and ultimately I am glad I gave the series a chance.

    I was mostly unaware of the casting backlash, though I am part of the group that didn't like them changing things. Most of that stemmed from their response to it rather than the changes itself - I could have gotten behind a 'you're right, this probably isn't what Tolkien envisioned, but we think LotR should be for everyone and want to have a diverse cast' instead of the 'it's not technically against canon, they're not really described, and you're a racist if you don't like it' stuff that was thrown around.

    I hated the romance, but Arondir was actually a character I enjoyed in the series - especially the moment when he was willing to let his love die, yet also comforted Theo after and didn't condemn him for making the other choice.

    There was lots I didn't like, especially the mithril saving the Elves plot and acting like Isildur died. I also just could not get behind Elrond. The actor itself was great, but the choices made there were horrible. The short hair just didn't look good and his outfits looked more like frumpy bath robes.

    I however think the biggest issues with the show stem from not having the rights to enough of the backstory and trying to obscure what they *were* using/doing. With the movies, while people took liberties, they were still telling the same basic story of the books.

    With Rings of Power, it was Tolkien inspired but not Tolkien. There was no recognizable story being told. It was as big a mystery to book fans as it was to show only fans. Because of that, very little of it actually felt like Middle Earth. A vast majority of the show could have been its own story outside of Tolkien entirely.

    That said, when they did show something from the books, it was amazing. The prologue part with the swords/oath, the ships, and the Two Trees - oh wow, I got such goosebumps! I was seeing Valinor on screen for the first time! And then again with Númenór - when the ship came into the harbor and the island was shown, I had the same feeling - I was seeing Númenór on screen! The music itself was always top notch, too, and contributed to those feelings. I just wish more of the series gave me those feelings.

    Now, complaints aside, I came into Rings of Power knowing one thing above all: I am fascinated by Sauron and his backstory, so if they did him even remotely right, I'd overlook a lot. And to me they did. And so I'll keep watching for now.


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