The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Review: A Storm Gathers… Ever So Slowly

The series is a feat of logistics and scene-setting rather than narrative design.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Photo: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a feat of logistics and scene-setting rather than narrative design. Its first season staggers under the weight of more intersecting expectations than any recent television series. Though beautiful, expansive, and richly imagined, the first half of the eight-episode season has so far not managed to meet many of those expectations. However, it also has the raw material to eventually become something particularly grand and spectacular if allowed to run its course.

The pressures of trying to retain fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson film trilogy while attracting new ones, though, do not visibly inform the start of the series. For the most part, The Rings of Power moves ahead with the confident, measured, contemplative speed of a hobbit taking a mid-afternoon stroll. Holding true to the idealized chivalry of Tolkien’s Nordic saga-infused tales, showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne steer clear of George R.R. Martin-style bloodbaths and soap-operatic celebrations of carnality.

Instead, the creatives behind the series seem to be creating a lengthy world-building prelude to another titanic struggle between a fractious confederation of good against an implacable evil. While its visual style pairs closely to Jackson’s—such as the sweeping overhead shots and extensive slow motion for the action scenes—The Rings of Power coaxes a more relaxed and less self-consciously heroic style of acting from its largely unknown cast.

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Set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit, and building out from Tolkien’s lengthy appendices to The Lord of the Rings rather than any preexisting stories, The Rings of Power takes place on an incredibly broad canvas. Rather than following one journey, the series disperses its narrative across Middle-earth, whose epic vistas and imperial cities—a classicist’s dream of white towers and soaring arches—are depicted with some of the most complex and gorgeous uses of CGI and practical effects ever seen on the small screen.

Though each narrative strand varies in tone, the unifying driver is the inexorable buildup of a threatening evil and the fragility of the mostly unaware forces to be arrayed against it. The first episode, “A Shadow of the Past,” uses a voiceover by a much younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) like Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring does to sketch out some ancient history. Years before, the original dark lord, Morgoth, was defeated by an alliance of elves, men, and dwarves in a centuries-long war whose toll is depicted in a shot where Galadriel adds the bloodstained helmet of her slain brother, Finrod (Will Fletcher), to a mountain of other helmets.

The Rings of Power picks up years after the war’s end with Galadriel haunted by Finrod’s death and obsessed with the possibility that Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron, is preparing for another war. Ready to put all that behind them, the elven High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) orders the elves to put down their guard and enjoy peace time. It’s no surprise when that turns out to be the precise moment when Sauron’s secret preparations for war become apparent.

Other narrative strands illustrate the peoples from different races who stand in Sauron’s way. The most engaging of these, if least connected at first to the storyline of the impending war, is a tribe of Harfoots. They’re somewhat taller, nomadic predecessors to hobbits, depicted as a loveable band of food-loving wanderers with heavy Oirish accents who use elaborate camouflage to avoid danger. When the impish Nori (Markella Kavenagh) discovers the Stranger (Daniel Weyman), a gaunt man who appears to have fallen out of the sky, she invites him to join her people’s caravan, even though he’s unable to speak and wields possibly dangerous magical powers. Though the long-gestating subplot of the Stranger is the most unrewarding and often downright irritating aspect of the season’s first half, the Harfoots—especially their sage Sadoc, played with bumptious brio by British comic Lenny Henry—have a curious charm to them.

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The dwarves are introduced in an especially strong storyline where the younger Elrond (Robert Aramayo) journeys to the dwarves’ glittering underground city-mine of Khazad-dûm—shown as a deserted and haunted ruin in The Fellowship of the Ring—to ask for a favor from his onetime friend Durin (Owain Arthur). Their decades-long estrangement and grudging re-friending is a microcosm of the inter-species suspicion and conflict undergirding Tolkien’s fiction. It also makes for a neat comment on differences in perception (those years were an eternity to Durin but a blink of an eye to Elrond, who as an elf is essentially immortal).

Elsewhere, the petulant and obsessive Galadriel—being many centuries younger than in The Lord of the Rings, she’s far less noble and more given to whims and storms of emotion—continues hunting for hints of Sauron. That quest brings her to the shores of Númenor, an Atlantean island kingdom of men who fought with the elves against Morgoth but are now suspicious and isolated. Her companion there is Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who as a Southlander man is a possible danger given his people’s bad reputation for having allied with Morgoth. As the closest thing The Rings of Power has to a rogue with a sense of humor, Halbrand gets in his share of scrapes and makes for a moderately amusing contrast to Galadriel’s icy hauteur, but his inclusion can’t help but feel somewhat forced.

Nodding to Tolkien’s love of boundary-crossing romances, the series also pairs a runaway Silvan elf, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), with a Southlander human and healer, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), whose flirtation with the elf gets under the skin of her neighbors, who see his kind as an arrogant occupying force. The most action-heavy of the show’s narrative strands follows Arondir and Bronwyn’s discovery that Sauron’s orcs are making surreptitious advances in preparation for war. There are narrow escapes, a few horror-film scares, a nastier and tougher breed of orc than seen in Jackson’s films, and the appearance of an elven traitor.

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That last development shows how closely The Rings of Power looks to follow Tolkien’s lead, even with the show’s writers weaving entirely new stories into his mythology. On the surface, the struggle in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was between the alliance (elves, dwarves, men, the occasional hobbit) and Sauron. But given Sauron’s status as demonic authoritarian with an enslaved army of monsters at his bidding, the drama was located in the fractious interplay between the bickering and untrusting groups allied against him. This isn’t surprising, given how much of Tolkien’s work was composed against the backdrop of Nazi ascendency. In Middle-earth, it’s always the 1930s and there’s no lack of Neville Chamberlains.

With war brewing and the forging of the rings seemingly still far off, the first half of The Rings of Power’s first season constitutes little more than stage-setting for the struggle to come. Given the lack of quests and central commanding figures, it often makes for less-than-gripping drama. However, given that there are four more seasons already planned, and potentially dozens of new characters to be introduced, the slow and throat-clearing build is possibly a good sign. If the showrunners continue to carefully unfurl the drama while also fully exploring this world and embracing the tragic—but, unlike Jackson’s straightforward hero narratives, not try to rush everything toward the next CGI battle—they could end up with something closer to Tolkien’s complex and ultimately more rewarding vision.

Score: 
 Cast: Morfydd Clark, Will Fletcher, Fabian McCallum, Kip Chapman, Lenny Henry, Sara Zwangobani, Thusitha Jayasundera, Maxine Cunliffe, Dylan Smith, Beau Cassidy, Megan Richards, Benjamin Walker, Daniel Weyman, Markella Kavenagh, Robert Aramayo, Owain Arthur, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Nazanin Boniadi  Network: Amazon

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

10 Comments

  1. More and more streaming shows seem to be built around the concept that I have to give it multiple episodes or in this case (according to the writer), multiple seasons to make it worthwhile. Sorry, I watched one episode, I may watch one more but otherwise, there’s a lot of stuff that’s good from the start and I’m no longer willing to play this game of give it a season (or more).

  2. This article reeks of being a paid for apology, not a real review. The show is objectively bad, because the acting is BAD, the writing is BAD, the plot is nonsensical gibberish, and the casting decisions (and here I am talking about Galadirel, Elrond, and Celebrimbor) were terrible – NONE of this trio have the slightest level of gravitas or believability to carry their roles off. And spare me the “young version of Galadriel” excuse; she is, at this time in the show, (admitted i the show ITSELF!!) well over one thousand years old – probably more like two thousand (hard to say, because the “timing” of this show is beyond erratic and confusing). Yet the “writers” have her behaving like a petulant, spoiled teenager. She is “older”, in fact, than either Celebrimbor or Gil-Galad, yet Celebrimbor looks like her grandfather. And, her age is critical; because if she’s NOT that old, then how in the world are we supposed to believe the high king made her “commander of the northern armies”??? And, if elves are immortal, why is Celebrimbor a doddering old man??? Just…my complaints could fill a book, and they have NOTHING to do with race, or sex, or “Tolkien”. Just the terrible lack of quality of this really really bad production.

    • It must be sad to be that critical of an amazing production. It seems you just discovered the existence of incoherencies on screen… maybe you should give Jackson’s movie another go, you might hate them too.

      • It must be so sad to lie to yourself and actually think this is good writing. Most can tolerate some inconsistencies, but most cannot tolerate consistent bad writing and scene that make absolutely no sense

    • Spot on. Struggled to keep watching, had to scroll through the phone through some stretches. Wonder where they spent all that money – can’t be the acting, writing or the direction. Only the visual splendour I guess. Was looking for a review that matched my sentiments, to share with a friend. This comment came closest 🙂

  3. As soon as they put Galadriel, a many thousand year old Noldor Elf, in jail; I’m sorry I had to put the show down for good.

  4. So we just have to stick around for several more seasons to see if this abysmal writing gets any better? Not gonna happen

  5. Zero direction.,
    Just violence for the sake of shock value and words for the sake of words.
    Characters are so dull compared to there LOTR/Hobbit trilogy comparisons.
    Have yet to find a single thing that entices me to watch any further and i only got through all of the first 2 episodes and part of episode 3.

    Sticking to House of Dragon, atleast that has a Game of Thrones feel and shares the same theme song

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