After the crescendoing disaster of “Adar,” The Rings of Power vaguely rights itself with this week’s “The Great Wave.” This episode actually had some themes, and a plot structure, and even a sense of momentum propelled by character moments. I’m vaguely shocked to report this after declaring The Rings of Power the worst TV show I’ve ever seen. The show’s inherent shortcomings are on full display, but “The Great Wave” shockingly takes advantage of its limits rather than surrendering to them like “The Shadow of the Past” or exacerbating them like “Adar.”
“The Great Wave’s” primary success is actually its plot structure. While some previous episodes were inhibited by the cast being separated by geography (and, to be honest, by a lack of drama or any connection between A, B, and C plots), this week’s episode deftly maneuvers between its myriad plots. The episode sagely pairs up characters in separate geographic locations, not unlike The Wire or Game of Thrones (though that’s not say it rivals even the intensely flawed Game of Thrones in quality, despite Bryan Colman’s fleeting presence). Galadriel and Míriel work out their problems in Númenor, Elrond and Durin rekindle their friendship in Moria, while Bronwyn and Theo… well, they do something, I guess.
This is genuinely hard to do. Having a geographically separated ensemble is often a recipe for disaster which even Tolkien only narrowly pulled off. It increasingly hampers George R. R. Martin, whose influence weighs heavily on The Rings of Power. The show has already botched the formula at least twice, although it partly circumnavigates the problem this week by altogether leaving the Harfoots out (thank Yavanna). Last week’s hour felt like a slog, while this one has a clear plot direction moving forward.
In “The Great Wave,” the show finally feels like it’s working towards something. The introductions of mithril and palantíri are irritating in how they expect the audience to care about them simply because they’re vital Rings lore, but they’re steps towards a larger project. Galadriel and Míriel are slowly founding the Last Alliance of Men and Elves in the face of Númenor’s destruction, while the Eregion-Moria plot is a well-paced tragicomedy where Elrond and Durin’s friendship is subject to history. Characters are trapped by their ancestor’s machinations, a thematic concern of Tolkien’s that the show finally seems aware of.
Indeed, theming is strong this week too. The protagonists are slowly drifting away from their people in the face of apocalypse. Númenor, Moria, and Eregion’s doom is a given, so the characters are tasked with surviving the apocalypse. This is a deft way to handle Tolkien’s themes in 2022, when the seas are boiling and the ice caps are melting. Míriel’s apocalyptic visions are powerful and feel more like The Lord of the Rings than much this show has done so far. In spots, the lore even becomes a machine for character drama, something I never expected The Rings of Power to do.
The show’s problems are still present, of course. McKay and Payne have tin ears for dialogue as always, with moments like Arondir asking Adar “what are you?” The ending is also nauseating, with every Númenórean raising their hand to say “I will serve”, joining the girlbosses on a voyage. Isildur continues to only matter because lore demands that he does, even while the show only depicts him as a failson nepotism baby. And Adar matters even less in this than he did in “his” episode, amounting to little more than a J. J. Abrams puzzle-box who’s a mystery for his own sake. And the politics are as appalling as ever, with the Southlands king being “no common brawler,” while Theo seems to be apparently yet another lost heir whose blood activates an evil-looking sword.
The Rings of Power was never going to be a good show. It almost certainly can’t escape the curse of its origins. The J. J. Abrams influence weighs heavily on the show, whose dramatic engine is “this matters because you like The Lord of the Rings.” Amazon producing a show that lectures its audience on the dangers of nationalism while portraying the working class as violent scum is beyond disgusting. These are all inherent limitations. But “The Great Wave” works within those limitations, making something that’s, if not compelling, at least interesting. Maybe this will add up to something more than a protracted addition to Nowhere and Back Again. Apparently I have to write about Mirrormere now. We’ll see how that goes, just as we’ll see whether Bezos’ The Hobbit ends up being watchable.
1. The Great Wave
3. A Shadow of the Past