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The Rings of Power Eps 1 & 2 review: Stunning but flawed

The Rings of Power is cinematic TV that feels like a homecoming for all fans of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth but also suffers from some weak writing

Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power'. (Courtesy Prime Video)

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Spoiler Alert: This article is a recap of Episodes 1 and 2 of The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power. Please watch the first two episodes, which are streaming on Prime Video.

One of the biggest fallacies that has been spread about JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (LoTR) trilogy is that it is the simplest of fantasy stories, a straight dust-up between the forces of good and evil. To that end, the new Amazon epic TV series The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power (TRoP from here on), may prove a long-needed corrective. Tolkien’s vast, granular mythic world was never based on something so simplistic, rather than about the grief for the inevitable fading and destruction of everything that is beautiful and joyous. Against this “long defeat”, as the Elf Galadriel puts it in the books, the fight for permanence is fought on the wings of hope, for which Tolkien had coined the Elvish word “Estel”.

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A viewing of the first two episodes of TRoP gives hope that it is this, more complex set of emotions, that will be explored in the season. And the other thing it will likely explore, given the show’s rich cinematic sheen, is wonder. There’s plenty of that in the first two episodes, as well as dread. Whether the show will be the hit that Amazon expects it to be is anyone’s guess—for the show isn’t without its flaws—but it definitely be a fun watch.

The plot of TRoP is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, the fictional continent where the action of LoTR is set. But while Frodo Baggins’s quest to destroy Dark Lord Sauron’s One Ring is set at the end of the Third Age, the events of the show, if it sticks to its source material, should span a period of time that begins roughly 6,000 years before Frodo’s day, and ends some 3,000 years before Frodo’s quest.

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That is an incredible amount of time to cover, but the show gets that boat sailing with a bang. Following a brief moment set in the “Undying Land” of Valinor (where the gods of Middle-Earth, the Valar, dwell, along with most of the Elves), exploring an event from Galadriel’s (yes, the very same) childhood, the show races across the great events of the First Age (the stories of which Amazon doesn’t have the rights to), to bring us to the beginning of the Second. 

Through Galadriel’s voice-over, we’re given a brief glimpse in the centuries-old struggle between the Elves and the OG Dark Lord Morgoth and his ultimate defeat, and how Morgoth’s evil lieutenant Sauron killed Galadriel’s brother Finrod Felagund during the war. Which brings us to the beginning of the series, where Galadriel is fighting a losing battle to convince the Elves of Middle-earth that Sauron isn’t gone but remains in hiding. Elvish high king Gil-Galad of Lindon, and his herald, Elrond Half-Elven (yes, him the future lord of Rivendell), convince Galadriel that evil is vanquished and that she should sail back to Valinor. 

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This is the first of the Episode 1’s three parallel narratives, and it is the one that’s the closest to the “Tale of Years” of the LoTR Appendices that Amazon have the rights to. The other two are entirely original, and they are a bit of a mixed bag. The one in which we spend time with the proto-Hobbits, the Harfoots, is the most ridiculous (c’mon, there were no Hobbits in the Second Age!). In this, the very annoying Elanor Brandyfoot, or Nori, comes across a mysterious man, The Stranger, who has fallen out of the sky in a flaming comet. Talk about literally parachuting in a plot! 

Still, it’s intriguing to try and guess who this man is. My bet is that this is either a previous incarnation of Gandalf the Grey, the great wizard of the LoTR books, or at least, generally speaking, a Wizard. Has he been sent by the Valar (as Gandalf will be in the future) to help build resistance against the rise of Sauron? It seems likely, and this made-up encounter with the Harfoots maybe a reason why the future Gandalf was so fond of Hobbits. 

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The third storyline is the most interesting, set far away to the east of Mordor (where Sauron will one day set up his evil headquarters). Right now, it is a beautiful green land, peopled with some surly humans. An Elvish outpost is in the process of being abandoned (since Gil-Galad believes that the threat of Sauron and his orcs don’t exist), when we get wind that sinister things are afoot. The land itself seems to be getting slowly poisoned, and in the second episode, there’s a scary orc as well. An Elvish soldier, Arondir smells something’s rotten and investigates. Seems like some orcs are burrowing under the landscape. Also, Arondir’s human love interest’s son seems to have discovered Sauron’s sword in the family barn!

It's only in Episode 2 that the main story of the Second Age gets underway. The Elves of Eregion, near the Misty Mountains, led by master smith Celebrimbor, and Elrond, get in touch with the Dwarves of Khazad-Dûm (Moria from LoTR), to help them with some unspecified future “great task”. The Rings of Power cometh. Meanwhile, Galadriel leaps off a Valinor-bound ship and ends up stranded on a raft with a man fleeing an orc army.

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What to make, then, of TRoP? It is visually stunning and manages to convey the otherworldy beauty of Tolkien’s creation. It also keeps the same visual tone as that of Peter Jackson’s original LoTR films. While these are both major positives, the writing is highly uneven, and the worry is that the show will become too much of an ‘Adventures of Galadriel’ story (something that’s completely non-canon, since Galadriel is mostly absent during the events of the Second Age in the books) and ignores the finer points of the fates of Celebrimbor and the Elves of Eregion. Also, where is Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband? The other great saga of the Second Age, that of the tragic history of the Atlantis-like island kingdom of Nùmenor hasn’t been broached yet, but I suspect Episode 3 will take us there.

The most ridiculous thing about TRoP is the fact that it is based on the Appendices of Tolkien’s LoTR trilogy. When I saw that bit in the credits of the first episode, I’m afraid I laughed out loud. Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos shelled out $250 million for the rights to the Appendices! And then Amazon spent another $462 million in producing said Appendices! Well, wonders will never cease. After watching the first two episodes, I hope the show builds on the good bits (Eregion and Khazad-Dûm) and cuts out the flab (the ridiculous proto-Hobbit storyline). I also hope that the show doesn’t squeeze a rich 3,000-year timeline into a few years of action. Right now, that is a bigger threat than the rise of Sauron.

Some observations:

-It’s good to meet the younger, greener, much less serene versions of Galadriel and Elrond. And a younger, different version of Middle-earth itself, where Durin's Bane hasn't turned Khazad-Dûm into Moria, where the lands of east of Mordor aren't a wasteland, where the Elvish realm of Eregion isn't just a fading memory.

-The bit where Galadrieal almost sails to Valinor, but then decides to abandon ship at the last moment was a ridiculous bit of forced tension. The real Galadriel, along with the other Noldorin Elves, abandoned Valinor for Middle-earth in the First Age not just to wage war on Morgoth, but because they wanted their own dominions on Middle-earth, away from the Valar. Galadriel had the chance to return to Valinor at the end of Morgoth’s overthrow, but she didn’t do so because she wanted to rule a realm of her own. Certainly not to avenge her brother.

-Speaking of Finrod, the Elf-bro briefly featured in the first episode is nothing like the great Finrod Felagund of The Silmarillion, the ruler of the Elf kingdom of Nargothrond and one of the greatest Elves ever.

-The Sauron’s mark storyline is interesting, and so far, it keeps a sense of foreboding dread going. On the other hand, what is Sauron’s broken sword doing under a house in Tar-Harad? Who is Theo’s father? Is it Halbrand, the shipwrecked man?

-I bet Nùmenor makes an appearance next week. But will we go straight to the tragedy of Tar-Miriel? That takes place nearly 2,500 years after the first stirrings of Sauron in Middle-earth. If the show chooses to go this way, it will be a great disappointment.

-There's one major blooper in the opening sequence. The Elves didn't sail from Valinor to wage war on Morgoth. They crossed on foot, over the hellish glacial land bridge of the Helcaraxë. The experience was a formative and traumatic one for all elves, including Galadriel. Moreover, the map of Middle-earth that accompanies this introduction shows the Middle-earth of the second Age, and not the First. It should have included the drowned Beleriand where so many great Elvish kingdoms had flourished.

-Why is Celebrimbor so old? As Fëanor’s (the Elf who made the Silmarils and then precipitated an Elvish Civil War) grandson, he should be at least as young as Galadriel, if not younger. Also, Celebrimbor says that the Elves brought war to Middle-earth. No Elf would ever say that. 

-It’s good to re-meet the Dwarves and their burpy ways!

-Middle-earth race politics: men don’t like Elves, Dwarves don’t like Elves. Elves are haughty but like everyone, except orcs, whom no one likes, except some humans. No one probably even knows that the Harfoots exist in the Second Age. Like Tolkien didn’t. Also, Elrond gets subtle shade from the other Elves because he is, by birth, only Half-Elven. I hope we get to meet his brother Elros.

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