Review: the Rings of Power First Season
Updated: Feb 7
A dog may bark at the Moon, but he cannot bring it down.
— Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur)
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power from Amazon Prime Video may have caused a stir in the fantasy world, but its first season showed just a glimpse at the expansive possibilities found in Middle Earth and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Viewers follow multiple converging storylines, as Galadriel, the elvish Commander of the Northern Armies, rages against the festering evil of the Dark Lord Sauron, while a roving community of Harfoots (Harfeet?) endure a perilous journey and the Southlanders struggle to survive the last days of sunlight in Mordor. Set thousands of years before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Rings of Power tries hard to live up to imaginary standards.
Did the rest of the season satisfy the criticism?
No, but its creators don't need to appease the trolls.
While the cinematography and costume design create an aesthetically pleasing veneer, the script needs more depth. Rings of Power derives from the interconnected Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, a much less descriptive and less narrative source than the actual books or their prequel, The Hobbit. Producers embellished the existing cannon in significant ways, adding characters like Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Adar (Joseph Mawle), and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers). Surrounded by talented actors, Benjamin Walker does not make a convincing High King Gil-galad—unless of course he was not meant to be likable. And as one of the only elves with long hair in the series, his mane of a wig casts a looming shadow of its own.
Peter Jackson and his crew had also deviated from the writings of Tolkien in both film trilogies without drawing the same amount of ire. As mentioned in my other post about the premiere episodes, Rings of Power improved on some of the mistakes of its cinematic predecessors by hiring a diverse cast into prominent roles and uplifting the power of women. By the end of the first season however, it still has much else to improve on.
"The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost..." spoke Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in the opening lines of The Fellowship of the Ring. Those words came directly from the text written by Tolkien. Morfydd Clark and the team at Amazon elevate the status of Galadriel in The Rings of Power, yet much of the dialogue lacks the same narrative quality.
Sauron tricked everyone. As the smiths of Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) worked to craft the Rings of Power, Galadriel realized her mistake in trusting Halbrand. Tolkien wrote only a vague passage about this deception, but Amazon Studios built an entire plotline around it.
Harfoots might seem insignificant, but their presence shows the highest form of fantasy in which people live peacefully in community and harmony with nature. Elves and dwarves also display intimate connections with the landscape, whereas the humans of Middle Earth and Númenor fight among themselves. Almost like fairy folk, Harfoots pack a huge amount of magic. Nori (Markella Kavenagh) leads the Stranger (Daniel Weyman), who fell out of the sky on a meteor, through darkness to discover himself in this wild world. Watching the Stranger disintegrate those three witches from Rhûn was both satisfying and upsetting, because they were mysterious and nothing like the rest of Middle Earth. Given his rough grey appearance and magical abilities, it seems that the Stranger will eventually be known as the wizard Gandalf.
Another twist happens when orcs bring about an environmental catastrophe by triggering the volcanic eruption of Mount Doom, thus transforming the Southlands into the land of Mordor. After enslaving Arondir and the rest of his elvish company, orcs under the command of an Uruk named Adar force them to dig trenches and cut down trees in their campaign to scar the terrain and destroy its life. Intentional or not, such an apocalyptic event resembles the climate crisis with its potential to gobble up vast swathes of territory and force the survivors to become collaborators or refugees.
What can we expect in the second season?
Nori and the Stranger conclude the first season by setting off on a quest of unforeseen peril, similar to the Fellowship of the Ring and An Unexpected Journey, the first chapter of The Hobbit. What lies ahead in upcoming seasons likewise remains uncertain, with production currently in process. Due to complications that arose from shooting in New Zealand during the pandemic, filming for following seasons will occur in the British Isles where Tolkien derived much of his inspiration. Showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay have admitted they intend to listen to some of the criticism, while standing firm behind their talented cast. With the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and the role of Tolkien lore in its discourse, Rings of Power exists in the context of a real and terrible conflict.
In The Two Towers, Faramir linked this literary war of good and evil to real world issues by looking at a fallen soldier who died fighting for Sauron and speaking almost directly to the audience: "The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and if he'd not rather have stayed there, in peace. War will make corpses of us all." That kind of writing is a level of artistry Rings of Power has yet to match.
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