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). Given that she’s both recognizable and under-explored, making her the protagonist is an intelligent choice that comes close to giving The Rings of Power a dramatic anchor.
“The Shadow of the Past”’s best scene is its ending, an admittedly powerful portrayal of Galadriel’s apostasy, where she looks at heaven, almost passively rejects it, and finds herself alone in the water. Tolkien never describes this scene in detail, and the Jackson films basically ignore it. The realization of it as a moment of profound blasphemy, where Galadriel chooses her war of vengeance in Middle-earth over divine will, is a gobsmacking moment of soteriological horror, worthy of Tolkien’s morbid Catholicism. After nearly an hour of thundering mediocrity, the show suddenly wakes up, and realizes its potential.
It’s the second episode “Adrift” where The Rings of Power consistently remembers that it’s drama. This is largely down to writer Gennifer Hutchison, the show’s first writer with actual television writing experience (I keep having to look up the showrunners’ names), coming off Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with an idea of how to write characters and themes. “Adrift” is structured by vignettes which pair up characters, taking advantage of the “preemptively split party” premise and making it a thematic strength rather than a roadblock.
Hutchison pairs up characters with fractured relationships, from the elf-human lovers Arondir and Bronwyn, Galadriel and an refugee from orc raids (an inevitable but disappointing choice in a show that’s been attacked for starring a few Black actors), two Harfoot children, and Elrond with Durin IV. The pairs are smartly conceived, combining new characters and classic ones in relationships other Middle-earth works don’t. Elrond and Durin IV as close friends whose relationship is hampered by the elvish experience of time is compelling stuff in a way Legolas and Gimli’s comparatively shallow rivalry never reaches. Knowing Durin’s fate in the books gives the relationship a tragic edge: there’s always a chance Durin will never show up again.
The depiction of Khazad-dûm also impresses. It has youth and majesty while still looking like The Fellowship of the Ring’s mines of Moria. The sense of “the horror hasn’t arrived yet” is offset by past horrors. As I’m approaching Moria in Nowhere and Back Again, I’m both appreciate and irritated that I have more material to write about now (though given that I’ll write that essay before the show is over, I’ll be necessarily working off of incomplete material). Other places also get their time to shine: Lindon and Eregion, which might have gotten short essays in Books V and VI, are certainly going to get more attention now. And Hordern, a creation of the series, simply needs to be a book-exclusive (so look forward to that in 2023 or so).
The Rings of Power depicts a Middle-earth recovering from the apocalyptic First Age, shown only in shadows. The fact the Valar are never seen is obviously a correct choice. The Ainulindalë and Valaquenta are unadaptable depictions of divine acts, rendering large parts of the First Age unfilmable. Showing Morgoth only as a shadow menacing the Trees of Valinor is wise (although shaping him like Sauron is a fairly lazy choice). Morgoth and Fëanor are only distant memories, while Sauron is still offstage, not even a suspect to most characters. While The Lord of the Rings shows a world in decline, The Rings of Power depicts a world in limbo, past the horrors of a golden age but waiting for a storm to set in.
“Adrift” largely excels on its portrayal of relationships infected by time and history. Elrond and Durin is perhaps the apex here. As two iconic characters, they can only be so close, and it’s only Celebrimbor’s errand that dispatches Elrond to Moria. Yet their personal history and care for each other is tender and angry in a way much of the show struggles to be. Tolkien’s themes of displacement and migration thwarting relationships are more relevant than ever in 2022, and seeing Hutchison grasp that is perhaps the best omen for this show’s future.
Sadly, Hutchison is not the showrunner, and the underlying creative vision is still that of two nobodies working for one of the most evil organizations on the planet. The show is visually muddy — I could barely make out the action in early scenes. When I was 12, The Fellowship of the Ring’s Last Alliance prologue split my brain wide open. Nostalgia is a trap, but when you’re fighting against a memory that powerful, weak presentation becomes an even greater problem. Hell, the way the show courts Jackson’s visual style while desperately avoiding continuity with it is strange, cowardly, and (according to some of my Twitter mutuals) visually confusing.
When Season 2 arrives, it’s bound to be hampered by major production changes. I’m not sure if Weta Workshop will still work on the show after its move to England, but if it doesn’t, The Rings of Power is going to look different. Hell, even the move to England is going to change the show drastically, given that New Zealand and England are not the same and in fact are different countries (and that’s not even going into Amazon moving production due to its outrage at New Zealand not wanting COVID to kill everyone). Wherever this show is going, its future is going to make the Hobbit trilogy look like a minor political squabble for New Zealand.
There’s no telling how a show that’s pulling in so many directions is going to play out. If Gennifer Hutchison has a leading role in the series’ writing, The Rings of Power may have a shot. But the underlying greed and nostalgia of the project may well doom it. J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay do not inspire confidence. The Rings of Power avoids being Chris Chibnall’s The Lord of the Rings by dint of understanding its job, but its strident appeal to the bare minimum makes this next age of cinematic Middle-earth look grim. By Aulë’s beard, let’s hope Hutchison can salvage this shit.
2. “The Shadow of the Past”