Warning, this article will contain spoilers for Rings of Power season 1. It’s difficult to think of a TV series that’s been burdened with a greater weight of expectation before its first season has even aired, than Rings of Power.
The recent Star Wars series Obi-Wan Kenobi had a lot of attention on it purely because Ewan McGregor as the character is so beloved. Even then, all it had to do was be better than the prequels. Star Trek: Picard too, had big shoes to fill, but it was always clear that it was going to be a tired victory lap, rather than anything genuinely memorable.
Unlike these examples, Rings of Power comes off the back of Peter Jackson’s definitive and beloved Lord of the Rings movies. On top of that, any on-screen adaptation of Middle-earth is going to have an enormous weight of scrutiny pressing down on it, because Tolkien’s writing is so seminal for the fantasy genre. So, with Rings of Power, it’s fair to ask if the fantasy series could have ever really, truly succeeded against expectations.
Still I was hopeful, and perhaps even a bit desperate, for Rings of Power to be good. The show had enormous backing from Amazon with a huge budget (thanks Jeff), and wasn’t a remake or a reboot. It was broadly adapting a lesser-known tale in Middle-earth and seemed like it would be attempting to tell new stories rather than capitalising on nostalgia. Unfortunately, Rings of Power is distinctly not-good. In fact, it’s a downright mess – though not, perhaps, for the reasons you think.
Of course, on the most predictable, ugly corners of the internet, there was plenty of criticism levelled at the series before it had even aired. The show was downvoted into oblivion on the streaming service Amazon Prime rating system and on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Look at the trailers for the series on YouTube, and they’re crammed with every colour of offensive, dismissive comments.
This was, apparently, for two sins. First, the casting of Black and other minority actors in roles that white actors have historically played. The second was for the ‘masculinisation’ of Galadriel. Of course, it hardly needs to be said that neither of these ‘issues’ are actual issues at all.
As it turns out, Sophia Nomvete as Disa and Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir were both among the series’ highlights. Nomvete especially gives an excellent performance and has created the template for the portrayal of female dwarves in Middle-earth in the future. Lenny Henry, though not given the best material to work with, is also distinctly Hobbit-y.
Meanwhile, having Galadriel be angrier and less tranquil than we’ve seen her before, still raw from her losses, works as an effective arc that fits in with the Galadriel we see later in the Middle-earth canon. We know that Galadriel is one of the strongest beings in Middle-earth, with the capacity for great power and anger inside her – as we see when she considers Frodo’s request to take the One Ring.
So, no. Her ‘masculinisation’ (which really is code for the fact that she’s got a sword) is not the problem. If there was criticism of her, it’s that Morfydd Clark was wooden and rather one note. However, that is likely an issue with direction rather than acting calibre.
The ‘issues’ that have been decried so vocally online aren’t the problem with Rings of Power. Instead, Rings of Power’s flaws are far less superficial and far more fundamental. Amid all the fun, glamour, and excitement of getting to recreate Middle-earth, the creators of Rings of Power forgot that they still needed to make good TV.
In almost every single mechanism of what makes effective storytelling, Rings of Power has major problems. It is bogged down by amateurish dialogue, woeful pacing, predictability, cardboard characters, and a total lack of momentum.
The most superficial of all those is the dialogue. Bad dialogue is annoying. When it sounds like it’s been written by a script writer, rather than being spoken by a real person, it’s immersion breaking. While it isn’t the biggest of Rings of Power’s issues, it is one of the most obvious.
The very worst examples are pseudo-Tolkienian nonsense; heavy-handed, over-extended metaphors intended to sound philosophical and weighty, but that are genuinely meaningless. One example occurs in the opening five minutes of the first episode.
Finrod asks Galadriel “Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot?”, before telling her that it’s because “a stone sees only downward” into the darkness of the water, but that a ship’s gaze is up “fixed on the light that guides her.” Actually, Finrod, I think it’s about buoyancy and the displacement of water.
Maybe the most egregious instance of this, though, is when Bronwyn tells her son that “In the end, this shadow is but a small and passing thing. There is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. Find the light, and the shadow will not find you.” It’s word soup. If you don’t think about it, it sounds vaguely fantastical. But, really, it’s just nonsensical glop that is intended to set a tone and evoke a time and place, rather than actually mean something.
On the other hand, there’s also baffling simplicity. Who could forget the scene where the Stranger (Gandalf the Grey) states his alignment by bellowing the words, “I am good!”
It’s too easy, and perhaps a bit mean spirited, to pick out quotes of bad dialogue and wave them around to laugh at. Taken out of context, dialogue from a fantasy world always stands a chance of sounding a bit silly. The problem here is that, even in context, some of this is just ridiculous. If only that were the biggest problem.
The very biggest sacrifices that Rings of Power makes, as it adapts the story of the creation of those titular rings, are time and distance. To Tolkien, distance and time were, arguably, the two single most important aspects of his fantasy world. These were details that are so valued by him that there are endless maps and appendices recounting what happened where and when. Unfortunately, time and distance are treated as inconsequential trivialities to the showrunners,
This means that throughout Rings of Power, it’s almost impossible to establish where characters are going, and how long it’s taking them to get there. Take the eruption of Mount Doom. Waldreg (that’s the mean old man, in case you were wondering) steals the sword-key and then runs… somewhere to use it to unlock the dam. We don’t know where this is, or how Waldreg knows where it is, but the impression is given that it’s at a huge mountain top lake. Then, in the immediate aftermath of the eruption, Adar and Walreg are immediately reunited.
That is one, small example. There are countless others. How long will it take the Númenóreans to arrive at Middle-earth? How long will it then take them to get to the Southlands village? Elrond goes back and forth between Lindon and Khazad-Dûm (a journey that takes hundreds of miles) on many occasions, but his journey is never shown. He just fast travels, like a character in Skyrim.
So, what’s the timeframe here? Is it days? Is it weeks? Years? Is the timeline parallel to the events in the Southlands? Because that seems to be taking place over a matter of days. I genuinely just don’t know the answer. In Rings of Power, anyone can be anywhere at any time. Travel simply takes as long as the plot requires it to.
What’s interesting, then, is that not even this problem is consistent. There are moments where I am sitting watching Rings of Power hoping to see anything, literally anything, other than characters travelling around on foot. I am, of course, referring to the Harfoots.
The Harfoots lack the teleportation abilities of the other characters, which means that the storyline centred on the Hobbits, who are mildly charming, is centred mostly on them walking around. Where are they going? Who knows. We just know that they’re strolling around during their “wandering days”, and we’re lucky enough to see it. The issue is, watching people wander, not knowing where they’re wandering to, doesn’t make for particularly compelling television.
This fits into the much broader issues with pacing, and narrative momentum. Rings of Power is slow. Imagine you’re watching a very slow person run a race against Usain Bolt. You’d think ‘wow, that person is slow’. Somehow, despite being unburdened by the restraints of time and distance, Rings of Power is even slower.
Describing a series as slow, or fast, doesn’t have to come loaded with connotations – one is not better, or worse, than the other. For example the new sci-fi series Andor has been slow. Its plot developments have unfolded at a decidedly low-gear pace. Worldbuilding, character arcs, atmosphere, and motivations have been prioritised instead of rapid plot development. However, Andor has something that Rings of Power has failed to establish: narrative momentum.
Narrative momentum is about having a sense of where the plot is progressing to. This should, in theory, give us a sense of why things are happening, and what they’re building towards. From episode one, I knew that Andor was going to be hunted down by localised Imperial forces, and have to escape. From episode four, I knew that the series was building up to a big heist. These are small milestones, but they’re enough to latch onto.
In Rings of Power there is no sense of where things are going – or why characters are doing things – so there is no narrative momentum. There was no build up to the forging of the three rings. This wasn’t a plot point that was explored over a three episode arc. It was just decided, in the final half hour of the finale, that three rings would be made. That was what the whole show was building towards. But if the series hadn’t been titled ‘Rings of Power’ would you have been able to see that this is where it was going?
And, because there’s no sense of what the plot is building towards, it’s mostly unclear why the events that are unfolding on-screen are important. Ar-Pharazôn’s son blows up a boat, for some reason. Did that matter? No. In fact, there’s a decent chance you had forgotten that it had happened. But they spent ten minutes on it anyway.
Equally, I don’t know what the Númenóreans plan to do now, or why they ever really decided to come to Middle-earth in the first place. I don’t know what Adar’s plan ever really was, or whether everything that happened with Sauron was just a coincidence. Did he plan for Mount Doom to erupt? Was it a plan within a plan? I don’t know, and what’s worse, I don’t think Rings of Power knows, or cares, either.
This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that Rings of Power gives itself so much run time to play with. Each of the eight episodes is well over an hour long, which means that the first season runs for about nine hours. This is around the same runtime as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And over that time, so little has happened.
In fact, I can sum up the major plot points in one sentence. The Númenóreans come to Middle-earth to help Galadriel fight Sauron, Mordor is created by the eruption of Mount Doom, and Celebrimbor makes the three rings. I considered adding the adventures of The Stranger to that list, but nothing has happened to the character. He landed on Middle-earth, and since then he has just walked around for a bit, before realising that he’s Gandalf after getting attacked once at the very end.
This isn’t nine hours worth of plot. Like Bilbo at the start of the Fellowship of the Rings, Rings of Power feels thin and stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
It would help, hugely, if Rings of Power had stakes. But Rings of Power is far, far too sanitised and safe to play with stakes. Unlike in the world of Westeros, to make the obvious comparison, there is a palpable lack of danger surrounding the characters.
Bronwyn, after being impaled by an orc arrow, is just fine. Sauron, after being stabbed and having contracted sepsis, rides on horseback from Mordor to Lindon and is fine too. That is the entire span of Middle-earth, and longer than Frodo and Sam’s entire journey.
To make up for this lack of death, there is a bewildering focus on the deaths of glorified extras. Take the Elf who was tagging along with Arondir early on. You probably don’t remember him. He had – what? – three lines? Four lines, maybe. His death is given the slow motion treatment, with huge emotional crescendos in the score. This hyper-fixation on the death of minor characters is a trick, to make you think that there’s more death than there really is.
Of course, there is one culprit that stands out above all others: the volcanic eruption of Mount Doom. Here we go, I thought foolishly. This is the moment where the story is going to unburden itself of all the minor characters who have been dragging the story down to a snail’s pace.
One of Bronwyn, or Arondir will die. Elendil might be safe due to his future in the Middle-earth lore, but Queen Miriel is toast. My biggest hope was that the uniquely irritating Theo would be removed from my screen – permanently. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were only two casualties: Isildur, and my patience. And, as anyone familiar with Middle-earth lore will know, one of those casualties will end up being a fake out.
Hold on, I hear you cry! Isildur’s friend died in the eruption! Sure, I guess. But could you have told me his name without checking the internet first? Could you have told me anything about him? He was an extra, not a character, and all his death elicited from me was a mild chuckle. For what it’s worth, he was called Ontamo. R.I.P, I guess.
So, that’s Rings of Power. Accompanying the show for its eight episode journey feels a lot like being in the passenger seat with a learner driver at the wheel. They’re often stalling, going much too slowly, and generally have very little control. The only difference is that, while you might fall asleep watching Rings of Power, you probably aren’t going to fall asleep next to a learner. So that’s a positive for insomniacs, I guess.
Of course, this is all very unfair. Nothing is perfect, and if you talk exclusively about negative aspects of things that you don’t like, you can make anything sound bad. The truth is, the fantasy series isn’t all bad. The designs for the Dwarves look great, as does a lot of the set work (especially in the Elven city of Lindon). And, the series does improve as it goes on. Especially if you can sit back and enjoy the aesthetic cues of Middle-earth, the grand tone, and Bear McCreary’s familiar score, you may find that there’s a lot to love in Rings of Power.
As a Tolkien devotee (yes, I do paint tiny plastic Hobbits in my spare time. Why do you ask?) I wish I could settle for that. But no matter how much I want to like the series – and I really, really want to like the series – it’s missing too many of the fundamentals. Some things, no matter how much we want them to be, just aren’t good enough. I worry that Rings of Power is one of them.
This could all be premature. Plenty of series have wobbly starts. Take the Star Trek series TNG. The first season of the sci-fi series is infamously painful to watch, but steadily it turned into one of the greatest TV series of all time. But, then, it did have a great potential, and cast of characters. I’m not sure that Rings of Power can say the same.
There are, really, only two explanations for why Rings of Power is the way that is it – complacency, or ineptitude. The first is the more charitable explanation. It’s hard to escape the idea that, because this is a Tolkien show, and everyone loves Tolkien, it was assumed that people are going to give it the benefit of the doubt, and be swept up simply by the fact that the show exists in the first place. Everyone loves Middle-earth! But such an attitude is not conducive with the creation of good TV.
Then, there’s ineptitude: the possibility that Rings of Power is simply poorly planned, and what has been planned is poorly executed. This would suggest that the show was doomed from the start, created by people who are so concerned about making a huge, epic story, that they forgot they needed to tell a good one too.
I don’t know which is more likely. I hope that it’s the former, though, because that raises the prospect of improvement. Season one could just be a lot of setup for Rings of Power season 2, which is retrospectively proved to be necessary. Who knows.
Wherever Rings of Power goes in the future, and no matter how much it improves, its first season was a misguided, confused mess. That isn’t exactly the greatest springboard for success.