There’s a languid lusciousness to The Rings of Power which, if it was the only thing assessed by an audience when watching the show, might lead them to suspect the show is all thoughtful prettiness and not much else.
Certainly there are moments of breathtaking beauty such as when Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and the man assigned to watch over in the legendary human city state of Númenor, Elendil (Lloyd Owen) are galloping across the plains outside the city, all sweeping golden grass and Galadriel lost in rare delight, or when we sweep across the dying expanse of the Southlands now ravaged by Orcs, and the show, like the movies before it, makes a great deal of the stunning vistas in which it is set.
We are meant to be enthralled and entranced because the vast landscape of Middle Earth with its massive mountains and sprawling plains and wild, blue seas is a beast and a thing all unto itself; but while this is all very lovely, and one of the aspects of the show that make it so appealing, The Rings of Power goes one better by investing all this visually thoughtful rumination with a great deal of emotional weight and substance.
In our modern digital viewing age where cliffhangers and shocking twists and turns happen three times before the opening credits have finished running, there is something enormously pleasing about a show that feels secure enough in its storytelling to let things happen at a meaningfully languid pace.
This is evidenced, for instance, in episode five, “Partings”, where Galadriel, all singular determination and abrasively passionate tenacity finally convinces the hitherto anti-elf Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to send a Númenórean military force of five massive ships and 500 men to Middle Earth to stand against the gathering evil of Sauron.
It’s a big moment, make no mistake, and marks a moment where Númenór chooses virtue and integrity and its establishing alliance with the Elves over shrill populist dogma, the kind that has prevailed in the city for years, a fascistic xenophobia that is almost as dangerous as the evil they now rush to confront.
Not everyone is committing to this fighting force for altruistic or noble reasons – the man who is the chief advisor to Míriel, and effectively, Númenór’s prime minister, Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle), is in it purely for the eventual money, power and influence that will accrue to his homeland, a piece of brutalist realpolitik that goes hand-in-hand with the xenophobia – but with a dark vision foretelling doom for the city if they don’t rush to war, there’s little choice, as far as Míriel is concerned, but to do the right thing.
Such moral conundrums are affecting all men equally, of course.
While some in the Southlands, such as accidental leader, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her Elven would-be lover Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) are determined to stand against the Orcs who are EVERYWHERE, led by the creepy but troubled twisted Adar (Joseph Marle) who is the first Orc created from a kidnapped Elf millennia earlier, others such as the amoral innkeeper and general all-around unthinking idiot, Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) think that they can make a deal with the Orcan devil and suffer no consequences or pay no cost.
But, of course, that’s not the case, something Waldreg and half the people sheltering in the Tower of Ostirith (the one just vacated by the Elves who rather prematurely declared the war is over just as the new one is beginning), belatedly discover when they leave to save themselves by pledging fealty to Adar and Morgoth’s evil Orcan blight and find out that the whole serving evil as a path to salvation thing isn’t quite the cosy deal everyone envisaged.
Of course, it’s not, and as we all know, serving evil of any kind has a way of corroding the soul in ways the power hungry and cowardly self preservational never quite consider, and so it is in “Partings” where those left behind in the tower, though frightened and tempted to pledge the same fealty to Sauron via Adar, decide their only option is to stand and fight, and hopefully hold onto their humanity in the process.
It’s that sophisticated discussion of the effects of good and evil on a culture and people that really sets The Rings of Power, and Tolkien’s work generally, from other fantasies.
While yes, the show does employ accepted tropes of good and evil such as white vs. black (itself problematic in many ways) and beautiful vs. ugly (trees vs, industry, flawless figures like Galadriel as opposed to the inner and outer ugliness of Adar), it goes deeper than the usual obvious markers and delves into the effect that giving yourself over to one side or the other can have on you.
Case very much in point is Adar who is heart and soul, the Father of the Orcs – weirdly for such an evil bunch for whom violence is the only main currency, the relationship between the Orcs and Adar is strangely touching illustrating the nuance that The Rings of Power brings to surprising characters and cultures – and who, though he did not choose his fate, being one of the misshapen kidnapped Elves, bears the scars physically of the turn to darkness within.
The Rings of Power also insightfully explores how turning from guiding principles of selflessness and community above all can sully and send a culture into decline, something true of Númenór which is going to war, in part, for selfish reasons that have nothing to do with the lofty ideals of old, but also of the Elves with Elrond (Robert Aramayo) troubled that the Elves, and specifically the High King of the Elves Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) are willing to break with honour and treasured vows such as the one Elron has with Durin (Owain Arthur), prince of the Dwarven city of Khazad-dûm, over Mithril, to look after themselves.
There are, of course, lofty notions of honour, duty and fighting for the survival of good over evil, embodied in people like Galadriel and Elrond, who, it is no surprise are close friends, but by and large, The Rings of Power, even in the slow-burn storytelling of these three episodes, is les concerned about epic battles of good vs. evil, though they are and will be there, as it is about the way the lure of selfish ambition and narcissistic benefit and the way that can corrupt people.
It’s a fascinatingly nuanced approach that informs the show with a knowingness about how people of all kinds aim high but often fail to reach the stars they can see twinkling just out of reach.
Speaking of stars, the Stranger (Daniel Weyman) who you may recall fell from the sky in a flaming meteor before rescued by adventurous Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and her more timid bestie Poppy (Megan Richards), continues to make his presence felt in ways that reassure and alarm, almost in equal measure.
While some are saying he might be Sauron made flesh, so far, it’s all hints and suggestions at twenty paces, with all the good he does like helping Nori and Poppy’s to keep pace on the Harfoot migration which is far more Darwinian that has been previously revealed, matched by some deeply unsettling moments such as the Stranger turning Nori’s arm to ice.
He seems to be both good and evil in one, an intriguing idea that has a mirror in the Mithril, and it will be intriguing to see what part his character plays in the ever-gathering storm of a narrative that is starting slow and deliberate (both highly welcome qualities in a modern drama, fantasy or otherwise) but looks like it’s going to reach the Middle Earth of all crescendos as we journey over land and across the Sundering Seas into the final no-doubt action-packed final three episodes.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is currently streaming on Prime Video.