Now that the first seasons of The Rings Of Power and House Of The Dragon have finished airing, how are we feeling? Did they do what they set out to accomplish? Did they satisfy or disappoint? Are we excited for them to come back for season two? The A.V. Club’s Matt Schimkowitz and Cindy White, who have written extensively about both shows this fall, weigh in with their thoughts on this fall’s epic TV fantasy showdown.
So, general impressions, how are we feeling about these two juggernauts of fantasy television: House Of The Dragon and Rings Of Power?
Matt Schimkowitz: Generally speaking, so far so good! Ultimately, both have similar problems, strengths, and weaknesses, which is they have massive expectations to live up to. HOTD has a slight edge in that it has the infrastructure of Game Of Thrones to draw upon but, at the same time, a more active fanbase to answer to. In that regard, I think ROP is more fascinating, its mission a little more provocative, and its execution a little harder to judge. We know what a Game Of Thrones show looks like, and to my eye, HOTD is delivering a distilled version of that, one that’s even more grotesque and visceral, focused even more closely on family dynamics and throne-room politics.
On the other hand, ROP is a bit unprecedented. Feel free to correct me, but has there ever been a show with a five-season order on this scale before? This type of long-form storytelling is kind of being created as we see it. That said, considering 20 percent of the story has been told thus far, I think it’s in good shape—if we’re judging by Lord Of The Rings, we’ve made it to the Council Of Elrond, and our quest is just beginning. Thus far, we have a strong sense of character, location, and stakes. Some of these things need a little ironing, which I think is true of most first seasons, but for the scale it’s operating at, it’s beyond impressive to me. Most importantly, the themes and motifs of Tolkien are in place. This, more than anything, is why the Jackson trilogy was successful as an adaptation and why I have similar good feelings about Rings Of Power.
Cindy White: I can’t think of any other instance of a show getting that many guaranteed seasons before the first one even aired either. It was a gamble, but maybe not a very risky one given the popularity of the Lord Of The Rings franchise and the amount of resources Amazon has available to put into it. People talk about seeing the money on the screen, and you definitely could in ROP. It looked stunning, and you could actually see everything. The Valinor scenes absolutely lit up my screen. That was one of my frequent complaints about HOTD this season, they clearly put a lot of work into the production design, but a lot of times it got lost because the scenes were so dark.
Which brings me to another nagging complaint. While it’s great to have so much fantasy content now, I would have preferred it if they hadn’t aired simultaneously. I still followed both shows from week to week, but I think scheduling them like that naturally invites us to compare and contrast. And that’s not really fair, because although they may fall under the same fantasy umbrella these shows are different in so many ways.
That being said, I did enjoy both for their individual merits. ROP is a show I can watch with my kids in the room, which is nice. HOTD is the one you save for after they go to bed. I appreciate the more positive messages in ROP of hope and what it means to be good and true, the emphasis on adventure and the joy of simply wandering through the world. I also love the juicy court intrigue in HOTD, the strategic political maneuvering, and the messy dysfunction of the Targaryens. I’m really looking forward to returning to both of these worlds, whenever they come back. First seasons can be uneven, and these certainly were, but both shows did what they needed to do to set up what promises to be some big payoffs in their sophomore seasons.
MS: Absolutely. I feel like, more so than other shows, people had their knives out to call it a success or a failure, a worthy successor or a step backward. But a lot of the things we’re picking up on are the same problems every fantasy series or movie has. Even Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings left plenty of people bewildered and bored long after Oscar night. I’ll never forget watching Clerks II in the theater and Randal (Jeff Anderson) making the same jokes about LOTR that my buddies made five years earlier. I’m definitely willing to give these shows a little grace. Though, I get why people wouldn’t: These are expensive shows, but our time is more valuable.
MS: Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge Game Of Thrones person. I read the first book, listened to the audiobook of the second, and watched the whole series, but it never really clicked with me as anything other than a diversion. I would watch it, listen to fans complain, and try my best to keep up. But its profound horrors never made it a great hang. HOTD is even worse in this regard, doubling down on brutality.
To that same end, I am a huge Tolkien fan. Though I would never call myself an expert, I’ve read Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit something like 10 times. I’ve even plowed through The Silmarillion two or three times. Seeing this world rendered in such an expansive and unpretentious light is overwhelming at times. And while this question of lore has been a hangup for fans, it didn’t phase me because the emotion was always in the right place. There’s such joy and love emanating from these characters and for these characters. Basically, it feels like we’re in good hands; any issues within Tolkien’s legendarium will get resolved in time, I think.
CW: I’m the exact opposite! I’ve seen all the Peter Jackson films, but I’ve never read Tolkien. What I know about the lore beyond The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies I learned through osmosis by being friends with people who were massive Tolkien fans. So I needed to have some things clarified for me while watching ROP. Is Valinor supposed to be, like, elf heaven? Sailing into the west means they’re basically dying, right? How are the Harfoots related to Hobbits? Is Durin a name or a title? No need to jump in, I’ve had all these questions answered for me already by experts (to the best of their ability). It just goes to show that I was fully invested, despite not knowing as much as more dedicated fans. Also, I’m proud to say, I did make some correct predictions, including the identity of Sauron. Matt can confirm.
When it comes to Game Of Thrones, however, I’m much more versed in the history of George R.R. Martin’s world. I’ve read all the books, including Fire And Blood, and watched all eight seasons of the show. It’s a familiar medieval setting, but with dragons and magic thrown in sparingly. Martin based a lot of the events in Westeros on real history, so it feels rooted in some kind of historical authenticity. I’m sure the depth and scope of the lore doesn’t compare to Tolkien’s, but it’s easier for me to wrap my head around.
That’s true of House Of The Dragon as well. I knew what I was in for going into the show. Well, mostly. Fire And Blood is based on the historical accounts of several narrators, and they don’t always agree about what actually happened. That left the showrunners with several options to choose from when adapting it, including “none of the above.” Season one wasn’t perfect, and the time jumps were annoying, but I have to give it a slight edge over ROP for me, simply because it felt like coming home. I do miss having characters like Tyrion, Arya, Jon, Brienne, and Bronn, who you can root for and even sometimes laugh with, though. Neither HOTD nor ROP has much in the way of comedy. I don’t expect the characters to start exchanging rapid-fire, witty dialogue all of a sudden, but both shows could stand to lean into the lighter moments a bit more.
MS: I’m actually kind of relieved there wasn’t much comedy in Rings Of Power because, well, Tolkien isn’t as funny as he is sweet. Like, I’ll crack a smile at the Hobbits stealing a mushroom, but is that really the funniest thing I’ve ever seen? No. Do I like it? Hell yeah! Still, it would be weird to see Galadriel quipping up a storm and horrifying the fanbase more than her being a flawed individual did. But a couple of jokes, like “Bees” during the Harfoot memorial, wouldn’t be out of place.
Although, a little levity in House Of The Dragon would be appreciated. The show is so bleak and so brutal, I found myself missing the Lannisters’ running commentary. More than anything, I miss Jaime Lannister.
Are you planning to come back for season two for both shows? If so, what are you looking forward to?
MS: Unless it starts getting really, really positive notice, I don’t think I’ll be back for House Of The Dragon. It’s simply not my thing. Sometimes I appreciate the dourness of life, our tortured existence played out in fantastical drama. But I think I need something I recognize. There’s no human story that I’m connecting with here. Everyone is simply awful, and even the ones I’m supposed to be siding with (I think) don’t compel me. What compels me on the show is not wanting to see what’s going to happen next. The lore, which I’m also not a huge follower of, directs my attention back to the end of Game Of Thrones, when all of our problems were solved with a good stabbing. The White Walker angle really lost all of its power in one episode, and it continues to be a massive shame.
House Of The Dragon is a little insulated at the moment. If I heard they introduced some characters outside the throne room, I might be more willing to jump on board. But the show, more than others, really just drains me with its pessimism. I take their point, life sucks. But it’s not all bad, is it?
ROP, however, I’m all in on. It hasn’t left my mind since the show wrapped, and I’m already itching to rewatch it. Apart from finding the imagery beautiful, the character dynamics are engrossing, particularly among the secondary characters this season, like Durin and Elrond and Nori and The Stranger. I’m fascinated to see where they take this, but I really love the amount of time we’re given to just let their relationships build, learning to eat snails and all that—my favorite chapter is “Of Herbs And Stewed Rabbit,” so you know I love some Hobbit meal time. Rings Of Power elevated what I love so much about Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s first trilogy: These expressions of love and respect between friends. Just as it was with Sam and Frodo, it’s great to see two male friends share an undying platonic love for each other. I had to start watching the show with a tissue box because I found these themes and scenes so touching.
As for the big bad, Sauron, I’m curious to see where they take it. I was a little mixed on where things ended this season, but the show is clearly so in love with the source material, I trust that that will get ironed out. I’m also down to see a new side of Sauron, so if they’re playing this a little differently than they did in the books, I’m fine with that. Just as long as the emotion is in the right place.
Actually, more than Sauron, I’m really interested in Adar. I want more of him. I want to know everything about him. I want to know what he and Sauron got up to before the show. And that’s where I think the show really succeeds, I’m drawn into the world and ultimately want to know more about it. With House Of The Dragon, I haven’t been shown anything lore-wise that makes me want to boot up A Wiki Of Ice And Fire.
But let me just say it up front: What I want from season two is more Durin and Elrond (and some Ents). What about you, Cindy? Are you in for the long haul?
CW: I love Durin and Elrond! They were one of my favorite parts of Rings Of Power. They’re like star-crossed buddies, complete with the “but daddy I love him!” scene. I could watch a whole show just about the two of them.
But anyway, you asked about whether I’d be in for these shows for the long haul. As of right now, I’m a yes for both. I’m very curious to see where ROP goes now that Sauron has been revealed. It’s a game-changer that really threw Galadriel for a loop, and we barely got to see the aftermath. The reveal about The Stranger being a wizard wasn’t surprising, but I feel like, aside from having him quote the “always follow your nose” line, they didn’t fully commit to him being Gandalf. So they could go either way with that, I think. And of course, I’m interested to see if that Balrog appearance means anything or was just there as an Easter egg for LOTR fans. A lot of references in this show go right over my head until someone points them out, but that one I got immediately. Maybe Easter egg is the wrong terminology—unless you’re talking about those really obvious ones left out on the lawn for the little kids to find.
HOTD spent the entire first season building up (not slowly) to the civil war, and Luke’s death was the moment the Greens crossed the Rubicon. It’s game-on now. I expect when the show comes back it will have a lot more action, spectacle, and Game Of Thrones-type set pieces. They’re going to have to open up the world a bit too, since all of Westeros will soon become involved. I also feel like everything that happens from now on in the book is essential, and can’t be skimmed over with a time jump without losing a good chunk of the plot. So a lot of my issues with season one are likely to be addressed, just by virtue of where we are in the story.
It’s going to be a long wait until 2023, but in the meantime, there’s some more fantasy content coming down the pipeline. In November we’ve got the Willow series coming to Disney+ and next March a new Dungeons & Dragons movie that looks pretty good. Lots to look forward to!
MS: I’m holding out for Rings Of Power: Season One: Extended Edition. When is that getting announced?!? I need more! They’re saying it’ll be years. Maybe I’ll check out Andor while I wait.