Did I watch the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime (Rings of Power from here on out) on Thursday evening as soon as they dropped? Well, I tried. I didn’t quite finish the second episode, or even really make it quite halfway. I can’t blame Amazon for that one so much as a schedule that has me up and moving early every morning. I was intrigued enough to finish episode two while I ate lunch at work on Friday. But when Jim Cornelius from Frontier Partisans asked my opinion on the show, I couldn’t muster much passion in response. I’m just not that invested, and the first two episodes didn’t change that.
SPOILERS for the first two episodes below the fold.
The first two episodes, pretty much from the get-go, are split among four storylines, which makes for a slow start. A young Galadriel looked to be the main character in the promotional materials, and the first two episodes bear that out. Of course, “young” is a relative statement when speaking of an immortal elf. We are introduced to Galadriel as a child during the First Age when the world was still lit by Tree not Sun and learn she took up arms during the war against Morgoth. In the Second Age, where the show is set, she leads a team hunting for signs of Sauron and his orcs on the mainland (in the north). The powers that be are convinced that no sign remains and—in a decision so inexplicable as to be mighty suspicious—plan to send the elven soldiers that guarded against Sauron’s return to Valinor. Galadriel chooses to remain at the last possible moment and spends the rest of our short initial time together floating rather aimlessly.
She isn’t the only elf who chooses to stay. Arondir, who kept a watchful eye on humans who had served Morgoth (in the east), is unwilling to walk away from his post when there are reports of mysterious doings. He investigates with the local human healer Bronwyn, who’s son Theo dabbles in orchishness. Elrond, also returning from the much later movies and after talking to Galadriel, heads to the Mines of Moria to hire dwarven workers. Elrond and Galadriel have been both politicians and warriors, but Elrond is wearing his politician hat here. The final storyline involves hobbits (here, called Harfoots), especially Nori, who discovers a person who arrives like a meteor-strike.
Each of the storylines has something to recommend it. I think there was some conventional wisdom that it was Sauron who crash-landed by the hobbits, but I don’t think that’s right. There are other context clues that it is instead Gandalf, but the biggest clue is that it will be important later that Sauron not really be aware of hobbits. Their low profile makes them providence’s secret weapon in the main series. We don’t need to see Gandalf discover hobbits, except under prevailing Hollywood prequel-origin story logic. (I should pause here to note that much of the timing of events here is obviously incorrect. It is a product of both the storytelling need to greatly compress the timeline and the limited rights Amazon actually has.) I don’t really need to see the wizards here, but I don’ t mind. I really just want to see the Blue wizards.
I like the Elrond storyline mostly because it departs from the world we know. How often have we seen a character acting as a politician in a Lord of the Rings story? And dwarves were rarely well served by Jackson, who invariably chose to portray them as buffoonish, but Rings of Power takes advantage of its extra runtime to show us the human-side of its characters over a dwarven dinner. The Lord of the Rings movies were too epic and hasty and the Hobbit movies too cartoonish for those moments.
My favorite storyline is the one featuring Arondir and Bronwyn. Jackson’s elves aren’t nearly fey enough (despite his reputation for popularizing generic elves, Tolkien’s are quite fey) and wind up boring as a result. Rings of Power doesn’t look like it will change that. Arondir is instead more compelling because he comes off as more human. The real mover here is that all of the relevant action for the first two episodes comes here. An investigation of blight to the east soon turns up orcs. The director of the first two episodes of Rings of Power and Jackson both have horror backgrounds, but Rings of Power does horror far better than Jackson’s LotR ever did.
The big disappointment is Galadriel. If she in fact is to be the main character (even in an ensemble), then a lot is riding on her character and actor’s shoulders. I don’t have any problem with Morfydd Clark. But her character is too blandly written, too tropey thus far. We need much more from her, but her character most of all is likeliest to be hobbled by current Hollywood convention.
That bit of bland storytelling and writing aside, the show otherwise looks and feels competently made. The casting overall is good, although I am not yet ready to render a final verdict. This is a famously big-budget show. It can credibly compete with a big-budget movie in look and feel, in a way that Wheel of Time and early-seasons Game of Thrones cannot. Which is not to say there are no nits a sharp eye can pick. Amazon is bumping up against a hard wall—you can spend movie money but you can’t spend movie time.
When I was a kid in the 80s, we had great, if low-budget, fantasy movies like Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, and Willow. Then the 90s came and live-action fantasy effectively disappeared for a decade. The Fellowship of the Ring was an event not just because it was Tolkien but because it was a big-budget, live-action fantasy from a major studio with cutting-edge effects. Game of Thrones was the same thing for TV. I wasn’t A Song of Ice and Fire fan—I only read the books in the run up to the show premiere—but Game of Thrones was a huge deal to me because we had never seen a high-production value show from a major channel. The Jackson LotR movies and Game of Thrones made the current landscape—rich with options—viable, and I will always look fondly on them for that. I will watch and enjoy Rings of Power and House of the Dragon. But they cannot recreate the magic of the earlier adaptations. And those adaptations, for all their importance, were always flawed. We will always have the books to rule them all.
(I might feel differently about Rings of Power if I were hardcore about Tolkien lore, but I never made it to the end of either The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales during the heart of my Tolkien-reading in middle school and haven’t attempted either since. The new show is a great excuse, but the time is hard to come by.)
You can find all of my other Tolkien posts here.