There are margins of error for how bad Jeff Bezos’ The Silmarillion could be. Those margins widen when you factor in the two unknown Mormon showrunners from McLean, Virginia, the most corrupt city in Northern Virginia. The Rings of Power is further hampered by its need to recall the audience’s memories of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings while satisfying the Tolkien Estate by keeping the show self-contained. And then there’s the fact that Amazon essentially bankrupted its corporate client state New Zealand to produce this show. Everything about The Rings of Power’s conception is self-evidently evil. The question is what it does with that evil.
Remarkably, The Rings of Power just about keeps its damning circumstances at bay, if not quite escaping them. It broadly understands the assignment: do the Second Age for TV while connecting it to The Lord of the Rings. As a prequel, the show is a mixed success, utilizing recognizable iconography while broaching mythological ideas that Jackson’s (in my opinion, justifiably) protracted films lacked space for. It preserves The Silmarillion’s sense of the sublime and takes advantage of the Second Age’s relatively sparse material by filling in blank spaces. The series works to reconcile Jackson’s aesthetics with Tolkien’s mythology, trying to stay on the right side of everyone involved.
The problem is that this appears to be The Rings of Power’s main occupation. It studiously accomplishes the bare minimum, throwing hobbits and elves at the audience with a mild semblance of plot structure and nebulous sense of theming. Its desperation to recall the Jackson movies reminds me of The Force Awakens, but without that movie’s clarity of purpose. The first episode, “The Shadow of the Past,” hops from setpiece to setpiece, throwing Galadriel fighting a cave troll Legolas-style and then quaint little “Oirish” hobbits bantering about food and adventures with hardly a coherent theme to be found. It slogs its way through sixty minutes with a weirdly loose hand on tone, trying to open with a mythological prologue that awkwardly segues into Galadriel’s childhood bullying.
“The Shadow of the Past” is weirdly unable to grasp how to portray its characters, presenting them as tropes and icons before wrestling with any kind of interiority. Elrond (whose portrayal by young Ned Stark is a steep decline from Hugo Weaving) is only recognizable through his name, and lacks few distinguishing characteristics beyond that. Individual performances shine — Lenny Henry as a hobbit is casting genius, while Morfydd Clark plays a thoroughly convincing young Galadriel that recalls Cate Blanchett without imitating her. But on the whole, characters are reduced to ciphers, having less to do with dramatic arcs than “hey, remember this character?”
The exception is Galadriel. Clark is brilliant, elevating her material, which sometimes turns her into “female Legolas” in a way that flatters Tauriel. Galadriel was always one of The Lord of the Rings’ most compellingly understated characters, serving penance for her disobedience to the Valar. Her “instead of a dark lord, you would have a queen” monologue is a virtuous character’s admission of profound rage and envy (and makes for my favorite chapter in The Lord of the Rings).…