“A Shadow of the Past” & “Adrift”
- Creators: JD Payne, Patrick McKay
- Starring: Morfydd Clark, Robert Aramayo, Owain Arthur, Nazanin Boniadi, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Markella Kavenagh, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Daniel Weyman
Warning: Reviews of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power season 1 will contain spoilers.
It feels quaint to say it now, but it’s hard to overstate how much Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy changed blockbuster and franchise filmmaking forever in the early 2000’s. Not only did Jackson introduce a new era for computer imagery, but its production schedule altered our expectations for sequels and prequels. No longer did fans have to wait years and years for the next installment of their favorite films, as each of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films were released with clockwork regularity. Now, Amazon has upped the game in a new way by utilizing the budget of a small country to fund its new television series, The Rings of Power.
It’s important to note that the show is not a sequel to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, nor his Hobbit trilogy. Rather, the only similarity to be seen is that it takes place in Middle-earth. Only a couple characters return from the films, and even those are played by new actors. It remains surprising to me that Jackson isn’t even credited as a producer on the show, given how much visual inspiration The Rings of Power clearly owes to him. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, as well as JA Bayona, who directed these first two episodes, clearly show off New Zealand’s natural splendor in a way that Jackson tapped into so well.
The Rings of Power concerns itself with Middle-earth’s Second Age – both film trilogies all took place during the Third Age – and the rise of Sauron. Watching the Lord of the Rings films as a nerdy teenager that was enraptured with JRR Tolkien’s work (I even read The Silmarillion out of my own volition), I had no problems absorbing the lore and world on display. Watching The Rings of Power as a thirty-something that hasn’t kept up on any of Tolkien’s books, or the tertiary texts cobbled together by his estate, I found myself trying to piece together the various mythologies at play and how it fits within Middle-earth’s grander history – though perhaps that’s why I’m so positive on the early episodes, despite their flaws. It also doesn’t help that the show is playing at the same time as HBO’s House of the Dragon series, another mythological fantasy series set hundreds of years before the original with a dense history of its own to unpack.
But Payne and McKay make the show friendly enough to newcomers by introducing a range of likable and interesting characters. Our main protagonist is Galadriel (Morfydd Clark here, Cate Blanchett in the films), an Elven leader whose brother was called into battle and slain by Sauron. The bulk of the first episode nicely showcases Galadriel’s perilously unending quest for revenge, taking a group of elves to the ends of Middle-earth in search for any sign of Sauron, including a fantastically staged battle with a snow troll.
Though it can be disorienting to move from one land to the next, the show smartly transitions locales by use of its labeled map when it needs to; think of it as the opening credits in Game of Thrones. On the other side of the world is Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an Elf patrolman who strikes up a relationship with Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human healer in a small town. The rapport between Córdova and Boniadi does a lot of emotional heavy lifting in these first two episodes, and echoes a familiar storyline – though not perfectly – that Tolkien originated. The rest of the show is dedicated to Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a member of a roving Harfoot tribe who yearns for adventure. It’s not until the second episode that things get intriguing in this portion of the series, as the first episode ends with a mysterious asteroid falling out of the sky and depositing a strange man in its wake. This is the lightest and most humorous portion of the series so far, but the second episode implies much darker things to come. I have faith that Payne, McKay, and the writers will find a way to incorporate the Harfoots (think of them essentially as Hobbits, though nobody refers to them with that moniker) in a way that isn’t simply another re-tread of either film trilogy, but I found my attention waning whenever the show ventured to this part of Middle Earth.
After the grand-scale table setting of the first episode, the second installment only minutely advances the plot through Elrond’s (Robert Aramayo) storyline. After conferring with Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) about building a gigantic hearth to forge the titular Rings of Power, Elrond ventures to visit Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to enlist the aid of the Dwarves. Strangely, the show has yet to justify Celebrimbor’s interest in creating the rings besides “elves want to create things” or “the plot demands it”, but I’m sure this will be investigated by the end of the season.
Beyond this, everyone else is almost literally stuck in place throughout much of the second episode. Galadriel is set adrift with a raft of strangers after jumping ship on the way to Numenor. And Arondir and Bronwyn investigate a village that was mysteriously destroyed.
It should come as no surprise that, from top to bottom, The Rings of Power looks incredible. From impeccable production design to seamless visual effects to unique costumes to Bear McCreary’s score (and theme music from Howard Shore, who composed the films’ music), this is a show that clearly utilized all of its massive budget smartly. The early goings are smaller in scale, outside of the aforementioned battle with the troll, but I fully expect that a Helms Deep-sized battle will be coming sooner or later. This is a show that deserves to sweep virtually every crafts category at the Emmys whenever it’s eligible. We have yet to see any of the locales from the movies, but each one of them easily looks and feels as if it exists in the same world.
I won’t blame viewers for tuning out of The Rings of Power because its world is too dense to unpack, or because it doesn’t display the same levels of sex and violence that made Game of Thrones a global hit. And browsing through the show’s massive cast list suggests that more characters are set to be introduced in the coming episodes, another similarity to Game of Thrones. But in its first two episodes, the show has already shown it’ll be adept at displaying a level of spectacle that’s rarely seen on the small screen (obviously you should watch this on the biggest screen available). Throwing a large pile of money at a production doesn’t always guarantee success – just look at this year’s The Gray Man for proof of that. The show isn’t without its stumbling blocks so far, but if the talent involved can continue what they’ve set up in these first two episodes, The Rings of Power could be one of the year’s best shows.
2 Episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are available on Amazon Prime Video now, and subsequent episodes will be released each Friday