Now that season 1 of Rings of Power is already behind us, it’s time for a retrospective look at Amazon’s big-budget fantasy.
Does Rings of Power live up to the hype? Or does it fall into obscurity?
*Heavy spoilers follow, obviously*
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
It’s been remarked upon by all and sundry, but Rings of Power is a terrific looking TV show. The art direction, makeup team, prop department, CGI designers, and cinematographers have done a sublime job.
It’s easy to downplay this when the show has cost upwards of £400m. But without talented people, and a passion for the craft, you’ll never achieve the level of love and care that has gone into the creation of Rings of Power.
The transformation from Southlands to Mordor itself is a visual spectacle, providing a stunning ending to episode 6, even if it’s a little hammy.
Middle-Earth itself is the star of the show.
From the architecture – particularly in Númenor and Khazad Dum – to the dreary landscape of the Southlands, there’s a genuine understanding of how Tolkien’s world should look.
Some of the online discourse has centered around Rings of Power either not understanding the lore, or willfully ignoring it, but from an aesthetics point of view, the creators have done a great job.
Númenor looks phenomenal. Being the ancestors of men in Middle-Earth, it’s great to see the detail that has gone into the architecture and clothing of their people. Visual cues and some fantastic designs nod to the later establishment of Gondor and Rohan, which shows real care and attention from the art and props team.
The orcs in Rings of Power are cruel, grotesque, and sinister, which was a pleasant surprise.
In the first couple of episodes, they’re reminiscent of a horror movie monster – emerging from the darkness and disappearing almost as quickly. Not unlike the trollocks of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, which were one of the very few positives of that show.
And when the orcs attack the Southland villagers, they’re ruthless and brutal. It adds that extra element of threat that orcs don’t always possess in fantasy – particularly those in The Hobbit.
I’m glad that they chose to use people in makeup and prosthetics, instead of CGI – it always looks better.
Unpopular opinion time.
I like that the writers chose to use the source material as inspiration to tell their own largely original story (and that’s something I never thought I’d say!)
In fact, when it was announced that the creators of Rings of Power only had access to the appendices, rather than the expansive Silmarillion, and would be filling in the blanks, I was incredibly sceptical. Quite concerned too.
Having now watched the show, I think it was mostly a success.
It’s worth remembering that an adaptation is just that – it’s a piece of media ‘based on’ the original material, and not always a like-for-like reconstruction.
Rings of Power‘s pacing is staggeringly slow. Especially when you consider that the first season runs for 560 minutes – a mere 3 minutes longer than Peter Jackson’s theatrical cut of the original trilogy.
Galadriel’s arrival on Númenor is a perfect example of this. Following a dramatic unveiling of the historical nation upon the sea, the plot immediately grinds to a halt whilst we’re introduced to a bevy of new characters.
The introduction of Elendil and his son Isildur should feel like a seminal moment in the series. After all, these are two of the most important people in the 2nd age of Middle-Earth.
However, the plot rapidly devolves into a small-time family drama. Isildur and his friends offer very little, Earien even less, and whilst Elendil commands great screen presence, his slow-mo horse ride with Galadriel is hardly riveting television.
Five seasons have been budgeted for, which raised a number of eyebrows when it was first announced. But if each season continues at the same glacial pace, then five seasons seems realistic. But that’s not a good thing.
To be fair, it’s not as if nothing happens – each episode always features a solid chunk of world-building, and the plot is typically advanced, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Poor Character Development
Rings of Power has a major problem with character development, and a stunning lack of charisma, which is perhaps why the pacing feels so off.
Tone-wise, it’s all a little one-note. There are very few moments of levity amidst the drama.
Compare this to Merry & Pippin of the Peter Jackson movies who undergo phenomenal character arcs whilst retaining the cheeky sensibility that directly contrasts with the world of wizards and elves.
The only exception here is the relationship between Elrond and Durin, which is truly the heart of Rings of Power. Both exhibit some actual character development for a start (shock horror!) and a richness in charisma that, aside from Galadriel, lacks in other parts of the show.
Calling back to the Hobbits of the Shire, the Harfoots represent the David & Goliath themes of small people changing the world. In reality they do nothing except move from place-to-place.
One of the most powerful elements of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring is the harsh contrast between the simple country life of the Shire and the darker places the story goes to later on, such as Gandalf’s fall in Moria.
It emphasises the acute danger of the journey to Mordor, and the risk that the Hobbits are taking in order to see the task succeed.
The Harfoots narrative has an entire season to build this emotional weight or tension, and fails spectacularly. Who is Nori really? What does she stand for? One season in, it’s still not entirely clear. It’s dreadful.
The Writing of Female Characters
Tolkien’s writing in general has problems when it comes to female characters.
From the frankly bizarre absence of any women at all in The Hobbit, to the pitiful fate of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings’ appendices, it’s just not good enough.
Sure, there’s Eowyn – a remarkably progressive depiction of a woman in fantasy fiction. Plus there are a handful of really well-drawn female characters in The Silmarillion such as Melian, Lady Haleth, Luthien, and Idril. But the point remains that these characters are in relatively small company considering the scale of the canon.
Tolkien on-screen doesn’t fare much better. Attempts to redress the gender balance in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit resulted in the creation of Tauriel – an uninspired personality vacuum defined by her love triangle with Kíli and Legolas.
And then there’s Rings of Power. Its representation of women has certainly improved when compared to previous Tolkien media, but it’s not great.
Take Earien for example, whose role on Númenor exists just to be Isildur’s sister. Beyond this, she has a dinner date scene and stumbles on a palantír (one of Middle-Earth’s ancient seeing stones) in the finale, albeit by accident. And that’s about it.
Perhaps she’ll offer more in future seasons, but it’s not a great look after eight 70-minute episodes.
Then there’s Bronwyn, who has the opposite problem. She goes from unimportant civilian to de facto leader of the Southlands in a mere handful of scenes.
It’s not as if she’s an out-and-out bad character – and Nazanin Boniadi does a serviceable job in the role – but there were so many opportunities missed to demonstrate why Bronwyn is an influential character.
Why is sbe consorting with the Queen of Númenor, Galadriel, and Elendil? Because she’s important. Why is she important? Because we’re told she’s important. Again, that’s about it.
Mirien, said Queen of Númenor, is an example of representation done well. As Queen, she’s powerful, persuasive, and the people respect her. In spite of protectionist troubles in Númenor, she is able to assemble enough troops to attempt the liberation of the Southlands.
Compared to the Mirien of the book, who is forced into a marriage with Ar-Pharazon as part of his ambitions to seize power, Rings of Power does a far better job at exploring who the daughter of Tar Palantir actually is.
Finally, Galadriel probably warrants an article of her own. Faced with some reasonable critiques about a lack of character growth and some creative decisions around her military role, she has also copped a boatload of very unfair (oftentimes sexist) criticism.
Morfydd Clark has done a tremendous job in bringing Galadriel to life. Her on-screen presence is exceptional, with some stellar vocal work, and natural charisma befitting of Tolkien’s elves. Meanwhile her scenes with Halbrand (née Sauron), particularly in the finale, are excellent.
But her character has undoubtedly suffered from poor writing at times, and Clark has shined in spite of the script, not because of it. Nor has she had that much of an arc. It’s been hinted at, but rarely reached any meaningful depth.
Season 2 must improve this, both for Galadriel and the wider show.
Rings of Power is an imperfect show, with some brilliant creative ideas and a handful of odd ones.
The world feels like authentic Tolkien, and from an aesthetic perspective, it’s £400m well spent.
It does deviate from lore in some notably awkward ways – time compression of events, mithril as a healing property, and the Harfoot narrative in general. This doesn’t make for good television, let alone good depictions of Tolkien’s work.
However, Rings of Power does include some nuanced lore that all but the closest readers of Tolkien would notice. The portrayal of Sauron and the titular rings of power for example – which was highlighted by Twitter user MadEyeGamgee – is inspired:
This demonstrates how the showrunners developed both Halbrand’s arc and why they perhaps chose to pursue the ‘mithril as a healing property’ narrative arc.
It also shows how Rings of Power is far closer to the lore than its critics make out.
Still, is Rings of Power the event television it proclaims to be?
No, probably not. It’s an ambitious television show that undoubtedly entertains, but the writing room has a lot to do for season 2 in order to improve upon its quite notable flaws.