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The Rings of Power (Season 1 Review)

About The Show

Faster than a hobbit leaving the Shire on a new adventure, the first season of Amazon’s highly anticipated Lord of the Rings prequel has wrapped its first season. The show came with almost impossibly lofty expectations, but in the end, despite some moments of flawed execution and scriptwriting, the first season of The Rings of Power was an immersive, compelling, and highly satisfying return to Middle-Earth.

Whether The Rings of Power is “faithful” to Tolkien may depend on how you define terms. If the expectation is a dramatized Silmarillion wiki page, the show will surely disappoint. I understand the frustration some “purists” have toward the many changes to the established lore of Tolkien’s legendarium. But I was less worried about a one-to-one reproduction of the expansive lore than that the show captures the “spirit” of Tolkien (which I know is subjective). In the eyes of this Tolkien-obsessed reviewer, it succeeds. The Rings of Power feels like Middle-Earth.   

Part of the “spirit” of Tolkien is the tone. In an era where the fantasy genre is largely dominated by dark/gritty realism and moral ambiguity, The Rings of Power is unabashedly hopeful and earnest. While other fantasy shows, such as Game of Thrones, emphasize the darkness in the heart of every person, The Rings of Power showcases that deep down there is goodness in the world that can pierce the gloom. It was refreshing to watch a show where characters are quick to trust and friendships are not shaken by every new conflict or misunderstanding.

The Rings of Power is easily one of the best-looking television shows ever made, with visuals that hold up to or even surpass the quality of most theatrical movies this year. Some of the shots and frames are stunning, with a painting-like aesthetic. The exquisite visuals are supported by a superb musical score by Bear McCreary.

The show is not without issues. Outside the ire of the “lore purists,” perhaps the most frequent criticism is that the pacing is uneven and too slow. These critiques are valid. A byproduct of its ambitious scope and attempt to balance such a large ensemble cast is that the show doesn’t always have a sense of forward motion or energy.

It can feel slow, even if significant plot developments are happening. One reason for this sluggishness is that characters frequently stand around and talk to each other about their motivations rather than demonstrating them through action. To a degree, this is arguably more consistent with Tolkien’s own storytelling sensibilities than was Peter Jackson’s action-heavy film trilogy. In the book, the exposition-heavy Council of Elrond goes on for almost 40 pages, while the epic battle at Helm’s Deep occupies just a few. To appeal to and engage modern audiences, however, the show would do well to trust that its audience can follow the plot and character developments without having the exposition dumped into another stoic dialogue.

I typically avoid assigning a reductionist numerical rating to shows or movies, but if forced to do so at the tip of a Morgul blade, I would place season one somewhere in the 7.5 to 8.0 range. The show was not always as compelling as the source material should warrant, and there are areas where it is clearly still finding its legs. It may not be the flawless masterpiece many people hoped for, but it is nevertheless a triumph. The show offers a well-crafted, visually beautiful, and thematically rich return to Middle-Earth, and an intriguing start to what promises to be a great adventure.  

  

On the Surface

For Consideration

Beneath The Surface

Engage The Film

Find the Light

A major theme is about finding the light in a world of increasing darkness. As with The Lord of the Rings, the theme is more nuanced than a simplistic good v. evil. The show does not divide good and evil as clearly among the races (the elves are brought down from their lofty pedestal, and even the orcs are given some humanity). The show establishes that good and evil are absolutes, but that each individual must constantly strive to “find the light,” as one character says.

Legacies & The Past

There is a repeated motif about the tension between the past and the future. In the early episodes, two quotes by different characters are juxtaposed: “The past is with us all,” and “The past is gone. Let it die.” Characters such as Galadriel and Halbrand confront this tension on an individual level, as she declares to him, “Let us redeem both of our bloodlines.”

The theme is also explored on a wider, more communal level. Durin, the dwarven prince, and Nori, the inquisitive Harfoot, push against the established traditions of their people. A strength of the show is that it is willing to let its characters work through these thorny questions without providing definitive or simple answers.  

Faith & Providence

Galadriel exhorts the queen regent of Númenor, “Choose not the path of fear, but that of faith.” Religious imagery and themes are laden throughout the show, particularly with faith and trust in a higher design. Nori believes that she was meant to find the Stranger, and Galadriel declares that her introduction to Halbrand, “was no chance meeting.” There is a sense that everything happens for a reason. This faith in providence is repeatedly tested. In one particularly rich scene, Galadriel and Theo engage in the classical philosophical problem of evil. She remains steadfast in her belief in providence, while Theo questions how he can trust the hand of providence when he is confronted with the ruined wasteland of his home.

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