In its second week, The Rings of Power seems to settle into whatever flavor of awful it’s fucked to be. It’s a 69-minute slog that infuriatingly avoids being “nice,” dragging along on the assumption that elves and hobbits are inherently dramatically compelling, and accidentally breaking into three-minute spurts of interesting stuff. Wherever this is going, it highlights Tolkien’s flaws and manages to make them worse. “Adar” is probably marginally more competent television than “A Shadow of the Past,” but it is sinfully ugly, and possibly the single most unpleasant episode of television I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, did this need to be over an hour long? And what is the point of it? Nori and her family are slightly-but-not-totally estranged from the Harfoots, non-Ian McKellen has said a couple words, Arondir begins and ends the episode in an orc prison camp (of which more below), Elendil and his family are introduced and apparently matter because fans will recognize them, and Galadriel and Halbrand… make some babysteps towards a plot, so minimal kudos there. But on the whole, this episode is aggressively pointless and lacking in events. Even its title character, who is mentioned once and appears at the end, has no role whatsoever in the episode. I repeat my mother’s question: who the actual fuck is this for?
I can hardly claim to be a typical Middle-earth fan. No such person would write something as absurd and eccentric as Nowhere and Back Again. But when The Rings of Power puts Númenor and Ar-Pharazôn onscreen, and even I, who knows their significance in Middle-earth, am bored shitless, something has gone very wrong. There are moments of promise: Lloyd Owen brings a tragic, kindly gravitas to Elendil, and Númenor’s immediate moral ambiguity avoids traps this show might easily have fallen into. But the whole enterprise is so drab to look at (Alan Lee’s absence is glaring) and its realization of Númenor’s problems are downright malicious. Númenor isn’t bad because it’s an avaricious ethno-state: it’s bad because its working class is a bunch of murderous thugs, leading to a grotesque out-of-place mugging scene where Halbrand, almost the show’s most interesting character, graphically maims and kills several people. It’s appallingly, unwatchably bad, and cruel for no conceivable aesthetic reason.
Halbrand is particularly infuriating here. Starting out as a vagabond who saves Galadriel’s life out of pity for a stranger, his presence as a homeless descendant of Morgoth’s followers almost makes him a break from the Hobbit/Dúnedan/Sinda mold Middle-earth keeps clinging to. For a little while, Halbrand is a counterweight to Galadriel, a normal personal who’s compelling for his interiority rather than anything mythological significance. And then, quelle surprise, Galadriel figures out that Halbrand is a pseudo-Aragorn lost king. This show can’t even rip off Peter Jackson right.
Where do you go with this? Everyone onscreen is stumbling around in boots they have no reasonable chance of filling. Morfydd Clark remains the show’s best paltry hope by merit of doing things Cate Blanchett wouldn’t have done. But the drama of this show is rooted in knowing the iconic significance of The Lord of the Rings. It simply lacks any dramatic or emotional anchor beyond “you like elves, so here are elves getting disemboweled by a giant wolf.”
Yes, that last part actually fucking happens. I’ll concede that my personal dislike for most cinematic gore is a matter of individual taste (and trauma, to be honest), and that The Rings of Power’s violence is not actually a flaw. You can’t adapt Tolkien without the presence of violent death. The man lived through the fucking Somme, a fact The Rings of Power both confusingly and tastelessly recalls by having its orc camps resemble World War I trenches. No, the problem here is that the show neither has Tolkien’s traumatized antipathy to violence nor Jackson’s tantalizing skill for stylized gore. The action scenes are bizarrely sterile and unpleasant to watch at the same time. The shot of Arondir hurtling through the air in slow motion made me physically cringe. The carnage lacks style or horror. It’s just nasty, unpleasant violence with no sense of aesthetics.
The bigger issue is, of course, the fucking orc concentration camp for elves. I’d like to describe it in a more tasteful way, but this is literally a place where orcs enslave elves, force them into labor, and murder them in broad daylight. The show clearly intends this as a racial war camp. It’s not even subtle. The orcs are a debased and evil species, and the elves are an intrinsically noble one. When almost-nameless elves die, it’s sad because they’re elves, even if you can’t remember their names.
I cannot stress how viscerally unpleasant this all is to watch. Tolkien’s conception of orcs as debased elves was always racist shit, but The Rings of Power’s depiction of orcs has turned it into outright white supremacist fascist propaganda. The backlash against The Rings of Powers’ Black and Brown actors is evil, yes, but it’s also stupid for missing what a racist show this is. This episode is The Lord of the Rings’ equivalent of The Rise of Skywalker or “The Timeless Child.” It is a malevolent, incompetent, evil piece of television that deals its source material a wound that may never heal. It lays bare all Tolkien’s flaws and makes them worse. This may be the single worst TV show I have ever watched, and the prospect of watching more of it actively depresses me. Wish me luck with that, but mostly just steel yourself for a world where Amazon makes fascist television like this.
- A Shadow of the Past