Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Spoilers are also present for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and other J.R.R. Tolkien works.
The Rings of Power – or to give it its full, clumsy title: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – got underway yesterday on Amazon Prime Video. As one of the shows I’d been most interested in all year, I tuned in almost as soon as the opening pair of episodes were available, curious to see what Amazon’s sky-high budget and years of planning could bring to the high fantasy genre.
For me, and doubtless for many other viewers as well, The Rings of Power simply cannot escape three massive sets of expectations. Firstly, the show has a legacy to live up to in the form of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Secondly, as the first-ever “billion dollar” television show, The Rings of Power must demonstrate an ability to go above and beyond pretty much anything else present on the small screen. And finally, there are inevitable comparisons with the show that set the bar for multi-season serialised high fantasy television shows: Game of Thrones. I think it isn’t unfair to say that there hasn’t been a television project in a generation that finds itself under so much pressure to deliver.
As we discussed back in February when I previewed the series, some viewers have taken to pre-judging The Rings of Power. Partly there seems to be a bloody-mindedness in hoping that Amazon would fail, and there were definitely racially-motivated criticisms of some of the casting choices – something that’s been incredibly disappointing to see. But there are also some genuine concerns: could the series possibly live up to the legacies of one of the most successful film trilogies and one of the most influential television shows of the past twenty years? How would it fit in with the “established lore” of Tolkien’s Middle-earth? And more fundamentally, is there even a story here that’s worth telling?
Some folks seem to have arrived at their answers to these questions already, deciding that The Rings of Power is going to be irredeemably awful and taking to social media at every opportunity to denounce it to anyone who’d listen. In the past couple of days the show has even been subjected to a degree of review-bombing. But speaking for myself, I wanted to see The Rings of Power before rushing to judgement. While two episodes of an eight-episode season aren’t enough to paint a full picture, I feel like I can at least share my first impressions of the series with you today.
I liked The Rings of Power. The acting performances were solid, the visual effects were competent, its aesthetic style harkened back to The Lord of the Rings films, and when the story got going it held my attention well enough that two episodes passed by in what felt like a matter of moments. As the credits rolled on the second episode, Adrift, I felt myself curiously interested to see what happens next.
The two-part premiere did a decent job at introducing us to what seems to be the primary characters whose stories The Rings of Power intends to follow. One of my criticisms of Game of Thrones back in 2011 was actually how dense its first few episodes felt; had I not binge-watched Season 1 I may actually have stopped watching the series, as keeping track of so many characters and storylines was pretty confusing. In that sense, The Rings of Power did a good job not to overwhelm viewers with too much all at once.
So I felt that The Rings of Power got off to a good start – but perhaps not a spectacular one. After two episodes, the show feels like it’s trying to play it safe; I didn’t note much by way of risk-taking that could take a decent, competent series and elevate it to the kind of phenomenon that The Lord of the Rings films or Game of Thrones became. By sticking relatively close to the visual style established by The Lord of the Rings, for example, The Rings of Power has tried to both find a ready-made identity and pluck at the nostalgic strings that its producers hope will bring in viewers in droves. But by re-using this aesthetic style, The Rings of Power has surrendered its opportunity to construct its own identity.
It’s also worth talking about the story framework that we saw in the premiere. The trope of a hero who finds evidence of an impending threat or disaster, only to be ignored by their superiors, may have been brand-new when Tolkien was writing in the first half of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t exactly make for a groundbreaking or unique story in 2022. Yet this is the outline of both Galadriel’s story with the Elves and, to an extent, Bronwyn’s story in the Southlands. A common trope like this doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest introduction to a new story.
Though The Rings of Power did a solid job at introducing us to its main characters, there were definitely moments where I felt some background knowledge of Tolkien’s works was something that the series expected from its audience. These mainly concerned elements of backstory – who the villainous Morgoth is, what a Silmaril is, the relationship between factions like the Elves, Men, and Dwarves, and how Sauron fits into the story of a conflict between the peoples of Middle-earth and Morgoth. A very brief sequence at the beginning glossed over some of these points, but not in sufficient depth that a newcomer to the world of Middle-earth would find them easily understandable.
In terms of laying out the world of The Rings of Power, though, I felt that the series did a good job. After two episodes I feel that I understand who lives where, where locations are in relation to one another, and the layout of the world and the primary locations we’ve visited so far. The relatively simple construction of a map, shown on screen for no more than a few seconds at a time, actually ended up being a very effective tool for communicating these things, and I felt it worked well. The seamless transition from the map to the sea at one point was also a neat effect.
Sticking with visual effects, there weren’t many in the first two episodes that I felt were sub-par. There were a few moments where the blending of real actors and sets with CGI backgrounds wasn’t entirely perfect, but those issues can be noticeable even in big-budget productions, and none of those handful of moments really pulled me out of the immersion. I’d particularly call attention to the “falling star” seen in A Shadow of the Past as one of the better CGI creations; it really managed to feel like a meteor of some kind was hurtling toward Middle-earth.
If I were to nitpick, I’d say that perhaps the physical fake snow used in the first part of A Shadow of the Past wasn’t particularly impressive, managing to have the same flat, non-reflective look of similar set dressings that have been in use for decades. The CGI snow used elsewhere in these sequences looked decent, but when Galadriel and her team were seen up close, there was a noticeable difference in texture. Otherwise, physical props and costumes used throughout the first pair of episodes were solid.
One of the most interesting props is the darkly enchanted sword hilt that Theo uncovered. It’s fascinating from a story point of view, of course, and may well belong to Sauron or one of his most-important minions. But it manages to look fantastic on screen, too – a dark, intimidating design that seems to harken back to the image of Sauron in full armour from The Lord of the Rings films.
Speaking of harkening back to The Lord of the Rings: surely I’m not the only one who noticed that Halbrand actor Charlie Vickers was doing an almost over-the-top impersonation of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn as he made his first appearance! The way his hair was styled, the way he held himself, and even the way he opened his mouth all felt like they had been carefully choreographed to mimic that iconic portrayal. Halbrand is not a canonical character from Tolkien’s works, and the aforementioned mimicry could be a deliberate red herring, but part of me thinks we’re going to learn that this character has some kind of connection to Aragorn in the episodes ahead!
Some of the battle and post-battle scenes early in the season premiere carried a very strong First World War influence, and I have to assume that was done deliberately. Tolkien was himself a veteran of that conflict, and its influence can be felt in the massive scale of the wars and battles that he created for The Lord of the Rings in particular. This level of destruction, with battlefields reduced to mud, trees stripped of all of their branches, and huge piles of bodies, also succeeded at communicating the scale of the Elves’ conflict against Morgoth and Sauron in a relatively short sequence that didn’t have time to go into a lot of detail, so as an effect it worked well.
Even a century on from the First World War, the way its battlefields looked is still seared into the minds of many people here in the west, and The Rings of Power took advantage of this to use a familiar visual cue to communicate, in a short sequence, just how destructive and devastating this war was as it set the stage for the story to follow.
A good television soundtrack is unobtrusive. It subtly tells audiences what emotional state certain characters are in, whether danger is just around the corner, or fills an otherwise-awkward gap during silent moments. While a theme tune can become iconic, the soundtrack of episodes themselves should be a relatively toned-down affair. The Rings of Power didn’t get this right, in my view, bringing an incredibly dominating soundtrack that, at several critically-important moments, seemed to hit levels rarely seen outside of soap operas.
The old-fashioned, heavy soundtrack came booming in during several crucial scenes, drawing attention away from the characters and the action instead of backing it up. This is obviously the opposite of what a good soundtrack should be doing, and there are criticisms of both the composition and the sound mixing in both of the first two episodes that I really shouldn’t be needing to make. When we’re at this level, these are some of the basic competencies that a television production should be pulling off flawlessly without even thinking.
I’m not a Tolkien super-fan, so I can’t be sure whether some of the dialogue in The Rings of Power has been lifted directly from works like The Silmarillion. But what I would say is that much of the language used in the first two episodes, particularly in scenes featuring the Elves, was very flowery and old-fashioned, as if it had been written decades ago. That was almost certainly intentional, perhaps to tie in with Tolkien’s own writing style or perhaps to give The Rings of Power a “classiness” or even just to distinguish it from other modern shows. However, the effectiveness of this kind of flowery, old-fashioned language is very much a subjective thing, and how well it will work isn’t exactly clear at this early stage.
Some of the lines of dialogue in the first two episodes felt scripted and clumsy – partly as a result of this choice of language – and while I didn’t feel knocked out of my immersion once I got used to it, it was definitely something that took a little getting used to. In any work of fantasy, actors have to work hard to make strange and unusual words and phrases seem normal, but that really isn’t the issue in this case. I can easily accept conversations about warp cores in Star Trek or dragons in Game of Thrones, but here in The Rings of Power, choices as far back as the scriptwriting stage made otherwise innocuous or basic conversations feel almost stilted, as if the production itself, despite its modern visual style and impressive CGI work, was from a much earlier era. For some fans, that’ll make The Rings of Power feel even better. For others… I think it has the potential to detract from the story.
As I said, though, once my ears had acclimatised to this way of speaking I didn’t feel it was horribly awkward – but it’s worth noting that, at least for me, it was something that took some getting used to before I could fully immerse myself in Middle-earth. Perhaps I should’ve re-watched The Lord of the Rings before watching The Rings of Power, because now I can’t really remember whether this issue of flowery, old-fashioned language was present to the same degree. I don’t remember it ever being a problem, and I regard that trilogy as one of the best ever brought to screen. But it would be interesting to take a look and compare!
So let’s talk story. Although I find myself curiously interested to see where The Rings of Power goes next and how it will weave its disparate narrative threads together, I don’t feel absolutely gripped by the story after the first two episodes. I’m not desperately awaiting next Friday in the way I can be for new episodes of Star Trek, or in the way I was for Game of Thrones or even shows like Lost.
I think partly this is because of the “prequel problem” that I’ve talked about here on the website on more than one occasion. In short, we know where these characters will go and what the ultimate outcome of this story will be. There’s no real sense that Galadriel will ever be in serious danger – because we know she survives for another four thousand years after the events of The Rings of Power. While the series is doing its own thing to an extent by introducing new characters and telling its own story, it’s also billing itself as being firmly set in the world of The Lord of the Rings – heck, that’s the first part of the show’s title. So given that we know the story of The Lord of the Rings and how characters like Elrond, Galadriel, and Sauron fit into it, it’s difficult for The Rings of Power to really reach out and grab me in the same way as a new story with an unknown outcome could.
When we look at The Silmarillion and other Middle-earth books set millennia before The Lord of the Rings, one of the key points is that the characters involved don’t know who Sauron is, whether he’s still around, whether he can come back, etc. But as the audience watching The Rings of Power, we know how this ends: Sauron returns, raises an army, and it takes an alliance of Men, Elves, and Dwarves to defeat him on the slopes of Mount Doom – as seen in the introduction to the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Knowing what’s coming robs a story like this of at least some of the tension and excitement, and while it can still be fun to see how the characters arrive at their ending points, we know the destination.
Even someone like me – and I’m no super-fan of Tolkien by any stretch – knows the basic outline of the story of Sauron’s rise and fall in this era, and just like other famous prequels have struggled to keep up the tension and excitement, I feel that the same issue is already hampering The Rings of Power – at least to an extent. The fates of characters like Nori, Bronwyn, Arondir, and Halbrand are definitely up in the air and ripe for exploration, and I’m absolutely interested to see what comes next for them. But characters like Galadriel, Elrond, Celebrimbor, Durin, and Gil-Galad have their futures written.
Overall, though, the first pair of episodes did a good job at setting up this idea of a slowly-awakening evil; a gathering storm. We saw the slow build-up to the discovery of Sauron’s survival through Galadriel’s eyes, then saw how the Southlands are slowly being corrupted and attacked by Orcs in the stories of Bronwyn and Arondir. The proto-Hobbit Harfoots also had comments to make on the unusual goings-on in Middle-earth, and of course were present for the “falling star” that brought a character currently known as the Stranger into the story. The idea that the world is on the edge of some drastic changes, and that the ruling Elves are oblivious or perhaps wilfully blind to these problems was well-established and conveyed through these different storylines. The latter part – leaders ignoring or trying to downplay serious problems – feels rather timely at the moment, too!
I definitely felt Galadriel’s frustration at being dismissed by Elrond and Gil-Galad, and I think that’s a testament to some strong performances from Morfydd Clark, Robert Aramayo, and Benjamin Walker. Though I called this setup a trope earlier, there’s no denying that it works in this context. The aloof presentation of the High Elves gives their leaders an arrogance that absolutely succeeded at getting me firmly on Galadriel’s side. While again this isn’t something that can be said to be unique to The Rings of Power (look at how the Vulcans are portrayed in Star Trek: Enterprise, for instance) it was pitch-perfect in the way it was deployed.
The sequences at sea with Galadriel, Halbrand, and (briefly) Halbrand’s companions were among the best in the premiere. I’m not certain how or where this was filmed, but the water was so incredibly realistic, managing to look like deep ocean instead of a shallow sea or pool – and this one visual cue did so much to ramp up the tension as the duo survived an attack by a sea monster. The dark water felt dangerous, not only because of what it was hiding but because deep water like that is usually only seen far from land. Look at how films like The Bounty use this same deep water effect to signal how isolated and far from safety characters are; The Rings of Power really did a great job here.
And these scenes with Halbrand and Galadriel also took the story in somewhat of a different direction. Galadriel’s choice to swim back to Middle-earth could have been a simple one, perhaps even one that was resolved off-screen, but putting her in this “shipwrecked” situation was a definite change of pace for a character who had been on a mission.
The Harfoots’ camp recaptured at least some of the idealised, pastoral feel of the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Showing how the Harfoots live in a temporary camp, migrating with the seasons, was a neat addition that made it feel even older, somehow – like some depictions of Native Americans prior to European colonisation.
Within that framework we got the traditionalist Harfoots to contrast with the more adventurous Nori; her story was set up well enough by leading some of the camp’s children to a berry bush, but I didn’t feel that the danger posed by a wolf was properly paid off – though I suppose it’s something that could be revisited in later episodes, the wolf’s presence was very brief and although it did feel like a threat to the diminutive Harfoots, it seemed to be rushed past and quickly forgotten by a story that had other priorities.
Nori’s relationship with the Stranger is still something that The Rings of Power is building up – beautifully, in my view. Her care for this mysterious giant who fell from the sky humanises her and takes her from being a somewhat rebellious child to someone that I’m sure we’ll be able to get behind as the story progresses. Although I’m sure there’s a lot of speculation as to the identity of the Stranger, I felt that the impact crater and fire seemed to resemble an eye – and a flaming eye definitely carries with it memories of a certain Dark Lord!
Of all the settings we’ve seen so far in The Rings of Power, none felt quite so familiar as the Dwarves’ mountain home of Khazad-dûm. We’d spent a lot of time with Dwarven mines in The Lord of the Rings and particularly in The Hobbit trilogy, and The Rings of Power seems to borrow heavily from those projects in practically every way. From the design of the Dwarves themselves all the way to the aesthetic of their subterranean kingdom, The Rings of Power really succeeded at recapturing how the Dwarves have been presented in the past.
It was also in Khazad-dûm that I felt The Rings of Power beginning some of its more delicate and character-driven storylines. Stories focusing on Arondir and Galadriel feel epic in scale because of their focus on this growing darkness and the impact it will have on Middle-earth, but the conflict between Elrond and Prince Durin brought The Rings of Power back down to an understandable level. Durin was upset that Elrond, a long-lived Elf, had simply disappeared from his life for such a long time – and it took Elrond a moment to fully grasp that. For me at least, this became one of the best and certainly most-relatable storylines in the opening pair of episodes.
The Rings of Power is off to a good start – but not a great one. Visually, the series is well-made. It borrows from The Lord of the Rings in many ways, but it also incorporates new design elements that help it feel distinct; part of the same world, but not a carbon copy of what came before. There were definitely some issues with the soundtrack and sound mixing that shouldn’t be present in a series that aims to compete at this level, and that’s something I hope can be addressed promptly. There have been some wonderful moments of characterisation that really pulled me in… and a handful of others that weren’t quite reaching that same high bar. Overall, I’d say that the series has left a good first impression and I’m happy to return to it next week to pick up the story. But I’m unlikely to be spending much time between now and then speculating, theory-crafting, or even really just thinking about The Rings of Power very much.
Am I nitpicking too much or being too harsh on The Rings of Power? Well, that’s up to you to decide. But what I will say is this: The Rings of Power is the most expensive television series ever created, and that brings with it expectations in terms of quality that basic competence doesn’t cover. Moreover, as much as I want to judge The Rings of Power entirely on its own merits, by very deliberately leaning into The Lord of the Rings films, the show has invited comparisons to that trilogy – and other works in the high fantasy genre.
I’m glad that I gave The Rings of Power a fair shake and didn’t make a snap judgement. Although I can understand a certain amount of schadenfreude at wanting to see a massive corporation like Amazon meet with financial and critical failure, speaking for myself what I really want to see is another success in the high fantasy genre. I don’t want The Rings of Power to be disappointing – I want it to be entertaining! The first episodes, while they had some issues that I’ve tried to elaborate on, broadly speaking managed to entertain me, and I came away from them feeling satisfied with what I’d seen.
I’m hopeful that The Rings of Power now has a foundation upon which to build a successful series. With five seasons having been planned – and potentially somewhat of a soft reboot coming in Season 2 thanks to a change in filming locations – there’s a long story to get stuck into, one that, like Game of Thrones before it, will unfold over the next few years. There’s time for some of the production’s weaker elements to be addressed, even if it doesn’t happen this season. Whether The Rings of Power will still be talked about in the same breath as Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings by future audiences… well, that’s still an open question. But it feels as though all of the elements exist for this series to reach those high bars. I genuinely hope that it will.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the copyright of Amazon Studios, New Line Cinema, and Amazon. The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other works mentioned above are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.