Show Developed by J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay — Season Directed by J. A. Bayona, Wayne Che Yip, and Charlotte Brändström.
Late next year we’ll be twenty years removed from the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. That means it’ll also be twenty years since ten-year-old me sat in a theater and sobbed as Frodo said his goodbyes. Peter Jackson’s first three films in the Tolkienverse fully got me. I remember asking my mother if movies would ever get that good again, and she assured me that they would. She was right.
However, you wouldn’t know it from Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy, the prequel films, The Hobbit trilogy. Those three films disappointed someone so deeply emotionally invested in the universe so much that I chose not to see all of them immediately as they were released in theaters. So, I was skeptical when it was announced that a return to Middle-Earth was on the horizon at Amazon Prime Video. However, while it suffers from some notable problems, I think the first season of The Rings of Power mostly works. In any case, I’m happy to say that I loved being back in a universe that I didn’t realize I had been missing for quite some time.
Based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, The Rings of Power takes place thousands of years prior to the events of the Peter Jackson films, and the writers of the show have condensed the timeline of Middle-Earth’s Second Age. The show starts after the Dark Lord Morgoth has been defeated and Elven High-king Gil-galad (played by Benjamin Walker) insists that now is a time of peace. Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark), the elf played by Cate Blanchett in the Jackson films, isn’t so sure. She is on a quest for revenge against Morgoth’s chief servant Sauron, who her brother died fighting, but the High-king warns her that in trying to find evil, she may inadvertently be the cause of its return. Meanwhile, Elrond (played by Robert Aramayo), the elf played by Hugo Weaving in the Jackson films, is trying to get help from the Dwarves to complete one of Elven-smith Celebrimbor’s projects. Elsewhere, we also follow the events of the Southlands, where evil hides under the floorboards, as well as a group of halflings who encounter a strange and confused man found inside of a meteor crater.
Yes, a lot is going on in The Rings of Power, and I suspect this may be something of a hurdle for viewers who aren’t fully on board with this universe. It also doesn’t help that the show has been competing with the Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon every week. Of course, it must be said that these are very different fantasy universes, but I think the previous decade has done a lot to educate audiences on Game of Thrones’ type of fantasy, while the conversation around the Tolkienverse has quieted after the Hobbit trilogy, and that may make it difficult for The Rings of Power to break through (especially since I suspect the viewers could use some handholding in the deeper lore of Middle-Earth), but I digress. For me, it was really nice to be back in Middle Earth, and while there are a lot of things to keep track of, I truly enjoyed seeing this kind of fantasy on my television screen again. But I would be lying if I said it was entirely a smooth experience.
A lot is going on in this show, and it leads to somewhat of a lack of focus, and it certainly doesn’t help that the way this season is structured leads to quite serious pacing problems. I think it would be fair to say that some of the season’s subplots move really slowly, especially the one involving Galadriel. While Clark plays her exceptionally well, the way the character has been written has been met with a lot of fan criticism. I think some of it is harsh, but I also think it is fair to say that it can take some getting used to when you see different characterizations of characters you already know. Once Galadriel gets to Numenor, an island kingdom housing a formidable human civilization, it feels like the show gets stuck in quicksand. At the end of episode four, it feels like the Numenor subplot is about to go in a new direction, but then that subplot essentially stands in place for the entirety of the next episode. It is especially frustrating because this subplot is probably the one that suffers the most from the way it is written (there are some really simplistic lines of dialogue here and a lot of bland characters).
However, I think it would be wrong to say that writing is a problem throughout the show. For example, I think that the subplot involving Elrond is extremely well made and written, and it was constantly the highlight of the show for me. Everything about the Dwarves is just pitch perfect, and the rapport that Owain Arthur’s Prince Durin and Robert Aramayo’s Elrond share is honestly magical. To add to that, while I thought the halfling subplot moved a tad too slow, I also do think it, too, is written fairly well.
One of the things that makes this show such a nice overall experience is that they’ve managed to capture similar looks, feels, and sounds when compared to the Jackson films. The show is absolutely gorgeous. The effects are movie-level, the show has a lot of bright colors, as well as rock-solid impressive production design. To add to that, Bear McCreary’s music is terrific. On a technical level, The Rings of Power is exceptional and lives up to the notion that this could be the most expensive series ever made. There is a great battle in episode six that rivals similar epic television battles seen in Game of Thrones and this episode also does a good job of adding nuance to both the show’s heroes and its villains.
I do want to talk about one pretty major fan criticism and that is the criticism concerning whether the show is following canon or not. I think it is fair to say that the war surrounding the show is that of creative puritanism versus creative liberties. The show is taking some notable liberties in condensing the timeline, but also in the way the show adds a new backstory to something the Dwarves have discovered. While I can understand these concerns, any adaptation will have to make some changes, and I’d like to remind Tolkien purists that the existence of this show doesn’t harm the original text, even if it makes some huge changes. Quite the contrary, this show should make more people interested in Tolkien canon. I don’t state this to negate their criticisms, but rather with the hope that they may ease up and take the show for what it is, i.e. an adaptation meant to breathe new life into Tolkien appreciation.
The Rings of Power is a stunning return to Middle-Earth that is absolutely sublime when it comes to music and visuals. Rich with characters and lore, it isn’t as focused as it maybe should’ve been, but some of its storylines capture the magic of Middle-Earth in a way that made me feel like a kid again. It does suffer somewhat from pacing issues, and certain subplots are better written than others, but, on the whole, I enjoyed this first season quite a bit and look forward to seeing upcoming seasons.
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.