“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”—Gandalf
“He could’ve landed anywhere, but he landed here. I know it sounds strange, but somehow, I just know it’s important. It’s like there’s a reason I found him. Me.”—Nori Brandyfoot
If the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien teach anything, it’s that the road goes ever on and on. On Middle-earth, stories don’t end, they live on in the characters who survive them, the characters who tell them, and the people who read them. Stories are a living thing to Tolkien. He often likened them to trees, with deep roots and changing leaves that grow taller and fuller with each addition. It is only in this context that a billion-dollar adaptation of the appendices of Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord Of The Rings, makes any sense.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power doesn’t delineate between the end of one story and the beginning of the next. Each beat resonates with the other, bouncing off the history and legacy of Tolkien’s creation and our relationship with the author’s work. J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork of literary wonder isn’t a hill. It’s a mountain, made of Earth and ore, air and water, and countless small parts that reflect back to each other. Every bit of its ecosystem has a story to tell that illuminates and enriches the others. In The Rings Of Power, the viewer never consumes one story, but a whole history in a few lines.
Expectations for the most expensive show ever made are undoubtedly high, but the lowest bar to clear was making something coherent out of the densest and fashionably out-of-step fantasy series on Earth. Would audiences go for a show that’s not just steeped in lore but about the lore?
The good news is that in its first two outings, Rings Of Power isn’t just good; it’s stupendous. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world doesn’t merely fit neatly with the world Peter Jackson created in the early 2000s, but it also folds into a larger cultural story about Tolkien and what his work continues to inspire in people. Rings Of Power makes clear that every story in Middle-earth is part of the larger whole and treats each moment, big and small, with appropriate grace and splendor, where a fresh berry is as miraculous as a sorcerer’s seeing stone. The optimistic Rings Of Power finds the world to be a place of majesty and mystery, a world worth fighting for. Payne and McKay haven’t just recreated a world both familiar and foreign, but they do so with the confidence of filmmakers ready to make a three-hour King Kong.
With so much history to unpack, director J.A. Bayona swipes a page from Jackson’s book and opens with a prologue narrated by Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), who immediately personalizes this story to reel us in. “Nothing is evil at the beginning,” Galadriel says in the opening shots, slowly unveiling Valinor, the equivalent of Middle-earth’s heaven, in the First Age. A young Galadriel puts a small paper sailboat into a bubbling stream in the Elf’s own Garden of Eden. When one of her friends sinks the boat, Galadriel shows her fighting spirit and attacks her bully before her brother Finrod (Will Fletcher) stops her. Their scene together has the same instructive patience as the “Why do we fall, Bruce?” sequence of Batman Begins. Interestingly enough, this series starts from a similar place.
Like Batman Begins, which set its action in a time period most comics writers avoid, e.g. Batman’s training years, LOTR: TROP focuses on the Second Age, a period largely left unfinished by Tolkien. Galadriel gives us the recap of the First Age, explaining how the first Dark Lord Morgoth destroyed the two trees Valinor. This led to the centuries-long “War Of Wrath,” concluding in the death of Morgoth, the rise of Morgoth’s apprentice Sauron, and the Elves leaving Valinor for Middle-earth. After the war, Finrod goes hunting for Sauron, making it his life’s mission to stomp out this evil. When Sauron’s forces kill Finrod, he’s left with a mark on his shoulder that Galadriel spends the rest of the prologue hunting. Finrod’s death sparks in Galadriel a drive
to stop all crime in Gotham City to hunt down Sauron’s forces wherever they roam.
No doubt, people will take issue with this interpretation of Galadriel. We’ve never really known her to be much of a fighter. However, canonically, Tolkien mentions that she fought alongside Finrod, and the show smartly expands upon this. Galadriel makes this threat personal, providing solid ground for the audience. With so many Dark Lords and strange Elven names and words, it would be so easy to get lost in the thicket. Payne, McKay, and their writers’ room were right to give her a very clear target with Sauron while not losing sight of the bigger picture. This is a personal fight for Galadriel, but one that affects every character in different ways.
In her first proper scene, atop the mountains of Forodwait, Galadriel and her Elf battalion find an old outpost, where she discovers the same marking branded on her brother, and it looks curiously like the Eye Of Sauron. After dispensing with a Snow Troll, those under her command say they will travel no further. Galadriel had already defied the High King’s instructions. It’s time to go home.
We leave the grand adventure of the Elves and head to the wilderlands of Rhovanion, where a nomadic race of halflings, known as Harfoots, have set up camp for their harvest festival. Unlike The Shire, where the Hobbits reside in the Third Age, Harfoots travel from place to place, setting up shop away from the prying eyes of big people, wolves, and other terrors. Their camp recalls the Lost Boys village in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, with secret compartments and clever, twine-based mechanisms. It’s probably catnip to kids with growing imaginations, and yet, our main Harfoot, Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), aspires for something more.
The arrival of hunters and wolves near their camp signals to Nori and a local elder named Sadoc Burrows (Sir Lenny Henry) that trouble may be afoot down south. Considering Galadriel mentioned that Sauron’s sign in the Snow Troll’s cave signaled to followers that the Dark Lord is moving north, we have to assume she’s right.
Nori has a lot of Took energy, which is to say, she wants an adventure. “I can’t help but feel there are wonders in this world beyond our wandering,” Nori tells her mother, Marigold (Sara Zwangobani). If we think back to what we know of Hobbits, like Bilbo, this is a very un-Hobbit thing to say, and yet, sometimes they surprise you. It’s the same urge that drove Bilbo out his door. Marigold responds with typical Hobbit isolationism. “I’ve told you countless times,” Marigold says. “Elves have forests to protect. Dwarves, their mines. Men, their fields of grain. Even trees have to worry about the soil beneath their roots. But we Harfoots are free from the worries of the wide world, we are but ripples in a long, long stream. Our path set by the passing seasons.” We’ve heard all this before, and it’s a strong counterpoint to Galadriel, who will soon choose whether to abandon Middle-earth or remain and hunt Sauron.
Back in the Elven city of Lindon, our old buddy Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is scribbling away, trying to find the perfect metaphor for Galadriel’s efforts (“Like a spring rain over the bones of a
dead animal”). Aramayo gives us such a warm introduction to what’s traditionally been a very cold character. As the right hand of High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), Elrond is a politician by trade, but here, he’s Hobbit-like in his complacency, being introduced in a very similar fashion as Bilbo or Frodo in Fellowship, nose in book and at peace in nature.
In their first dynamite scene together, we see the divide between Elrond and Galadriel. Galadriel may be like Batman on a never-ending quest for vengeance, but Aramayo plays Elrond like Obi-Wan Kenobi, countering the weight of this mythology with pure love for his friend. He wants her to stop because he sees how much pain she’s in, a truth that Clark and Aramayo play with sincerity and gravitas. Elrond informs Galadriel that Gil-galad will celebrate Galadriel’s efforts (and not punish her for insolence) by sending her and her battalion back to Valinor. “They are going home,” Gil-galad proclaims, making the Elves seem like a death cult. Galadriel tells Elrond that she does not want to bring her pain into an “undying” and “unchanging” land. Still, she agrees to go home. Even on the ship, Galadriel can’t give up the fight, clutching her brother’s dagger as the clouds open and welcome her to heaven. She stares deep into the camera, a striking and powerful shot that is very different from the type of blocking or staging we’re used to on streaming shows. It’s an ambitious long close-up that Clark holds with power and an open heart as if waiting for the viewer to go on this journey with her. Of course, we agree, and she dives off the ship.
Finally, we jump over to the Southlands, where a curious Elf named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) keeps watch over the men of the south, who generations earlier were followers of Morgoth. Sam Gamgee may be excited to meet the Elves, but those who didn’t grow up with Bilbo’s stories are skeptical of their powers and temptations. Long story short, the men of the south would like to get those pointy boots off their necks. Arondir, however, has a special relationship with humans. Like Aragorn and Beren, he loves a mortal, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), deepening Arondir and Bronwyn’s stake in the larger story through a deft remix of the Elf-human romance found in the Lord Of The Rings between Arwen and Aragorn and The Silmarillion with the ballad of Beren and Lúthien.
In Bronwyn’s tavern, Arondir learns that a sick cow is lactating black sludge after grazing farther east. It sounds like Sauron nonsense, so the lovers make a trip to a ravished campsite to investigate. Meanwhile, Bronwyn’s son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) shows off a Morgul Blade he found to the same troublemaker we met in the bar, the one complaining about elves.
All this comes to a head toward the end of the episode as a flash of light slices the sky and a meteor falls to Earth near Nori’s camp. At the crash site, Nori finds a giant bearded man known as “The Stranger” (Daniel Weyman). It would seem that there are more to the Earth’s wonders than the Harfoots’ wanders. The Harfoots will be confronted by those wonders, whether they go looking for adventure or not.
The first episode of Rings Of Power lacked opening credits, but they express an idea that is central to the whole enterprise. Bits of gold roll into a ringed shape, visualizing the idea that Disa (Sophia Nomvete) introduces: Resonating. As explained by the Dwarf Princes Disa, resonating is when “we sing to the stone. You see, a mountain’s like a person, it’s a long and ever changing story made of countless small parts. Earth and ore. Air and water. Sing to it properly and each of those parts will reflect your song back to you. Telling you its story, showing you what might be hidden, where to mine, where to tunnel, and where to leave the mountain untouched.” This idea is a big part of Tolkien’s work. Just as Bilbo’s quick (by comparison) adventure in The Hobbit fed into the larger narrative of the Lord Of The Rings, every little piece in Rings Of Power has its place. The show has great respect for this idea, not in a Christopher Nolan, cogs in a machine, type way (Tolkien would hate that), but as Marigold explained, like ripples in water. Ripples are small but they matter; enough ripples and you have a wave.
When we return to Nori and the Stranger, we start to see the bigger parts of her story come alive. Two hunters and the wolf definitely did not bode well for the Harfoots as they proved a prophecy true. But now that this giant has landed, what are they to do with him? (There will be plenty of time to theorize who or what The Stranger is, but theories will probably circle around the same character—especially considering the symbols he carves are very similar to those found atop Weathertop. So we’ll avoid theorizing for now so as not to ruin the surprise.)
Prophecy starts playing a bigger role in the comings and goings of things with The Stranger’s arrival. As Sadoc admits, “The stars are strange,” and the arrival of the hunters does not bode well. The others in town begin debating whether they should leave the area. Ironically, Nori is bringing one back to camp. After their first disastrous meeting, in which The Stranger fails to cannot control the volume of his voice, the mystery man passes out, and Nori and her friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) load him into a wheelbarrow and bring him home. Nori, we learn, likes to bring in weary travelers, usually in the form of an injured bird. But this time, the task is bigger than she nor Poppy can handle. Nevertheless, Nori feels drawn to the strangers as if the Stranger were meant to find her.
From new connections to decaying ones, at the end of episode one, Gil-galad introduces Elrond to Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the great Elven-smith who wishes to create something great, like his mentor and Galadriel’s uncle Fëanor, who forged the Silmarils, the most beautiful jewels in Middle-earth. Celebrimbor asks Elrond’s help in building a mighty kiln that can create exquisite and probably world-ending jewelry. Elrond knows just the guy who can build it.
Elrond takes Celebrimbor to the Dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm, also known as Moria, beneath the Misty Mountains. Expecting to be invited in for tea and scrumpets, Elrond finds himself entrenched in an endurance test with his estranged friend Durin (Owain Arthur). For all his talk of friendship, Elrond has been a piss-poor friend to Durin, the prince of under the mountain. For the last 20 years, Elrond’s been M.I.A. from Durin’s life. That time might be the blink of an eye in Elf terms, but it’s a lifetime to a Dwarf. Elrond missed the birth of his children, his wedding, and all the little things in between. Meanwhile, the sapling Elrond gifted Durin two decades ago is flourishing under the mountain because Durin continued tending to the plant long after Elrond disappeared from his life. Friendship and relationships require active care, not just the assumption of goodwill.
Elrond fails the endurance test of stone smashing and confronts Durin on the lack of hospitality. The Elf gets chewed out by Durin for neglecting his friend, so Elrond asks to apologize to Durin’s wife Disa. And what a delight Disa is. The whole Dwarf chunk is incredibly jovial, but Nomvete brings the right amount of love to their disagreement. The deepest bonds in Lord Of The Rings have always been friendship; Rings Of Power has this in spades. Durin acquiesces and agrees to deliver Elrond’s plan to his father.
Arondir has less success going underground. After discovering the burned-out village, which strangely doesn’t have a single casualty, he and Bronwyn discover a tunnel under one of Bronwyn’s friend’s houses. Arondir elects to follow the tunnel and sends Bronwyn home to tell the others to flee. We’re landing at Middle-earth in a time of great separation. No one trusts the Elves, not even former allies. Harfoots live in fear of the hunters. And the men of the west, who we will meet soon, are living on the island of Númenor. Needless to say, all this displacement will lead to conflict.
Bronwyn returns home, where she discovers that the mouse doing a “proper jig beneath the floorboards” of her son Theo’s bed was actually an Orc. She enters just in time for a killer action sequence that ends in a hell of an edit. She warns the village to flee. Meanwhile, Arondir ends up captured by what we assume are orcs. He could use some help, and he’s not the only one.
Just before being welcomed into the eternal grace of the Gray Havens, Galadriel jumped off her boat to certain death. She treads water until coming across a raft of people being pursued by a a giant sea-serpent they call “the worm.” The battle with the worm features some of the dodgiest CGI in the series, but it’s worth noting how cleverly Bayona shoots around the monster. With our perspective locked to Galadriel, we only see what she sees, which are flashes of a tail and the floundering crew of the raft falling dead into the water. It’s honestly surprising to see a big expensive show like this not show off its computer-generated creations. The restraint is appreciated.
Galadriel does meet a non-canonical hottie named Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a man who was chased from his homeland by Orcs. Perhaps Halbrand comes from the Southlands. The two have an immediate distaste for each other. Men of South, as we’ve seen, resent elves, but when she falls overboard, Halbrand dives in to save Galadriel, and they are found by a mysterious ship. Things don’t happen to Galadriel by accident. Does anything?
Finally, the last bit of the episode focuses on some magic. The Stranger invites Nori to a little light show, crafting constellations out of fireflies. The Harfoots understand that The Stranger is sketching a star chart and agree to help him find his destination. However, when all the lightning bugs go dim and drop dead, Nori remembers that they’re playing with some dangerous magic.
Whatever wickedness flows through The Stranger pales in comparison to what Theo’s up to, though. After tussling with an Orc, his hand drips with blood that appears attracted to the Morgul blade he found. When his blood touches the dagger, the blade reforms before his eyes, forming the symbol we saw in the Snow Troll’s cave. Unfortunately, for Sauron, Theo’s allegiance to his mother outweighs the dagger’s pull, and the son joins his mother as they make the long trudge toward “safety.”
Yet safety isn’t so easily found in Middle-earth, not at this period in the Second Age. Taking their time as they set up their pieces, Payne and McKay establish the type of world that Tolkien popularized, one with hope but not guarantees. There’s plenty of that here, as allegiances are tested and relationships require tending. Still, they all feed into the one story. Rings Of Power seems just as focused on the ties that bind communities and people to each other, not just the darkness that binds the Ring. As long as they remain true to each other, our heroes will survive the tests that await them. Unfortunately, some of these relationships aren’t what they seem. All that is gold doesn’t glitter, certainly fits Arondir and his Aragorn-esque ass. But this is also true of the villains in hiding, cloaked in the veneer of friendliness. We may have already met some. There are many whispers of trouble but not hard proof. Sauron will use this to his advantage.
- Welcome to the Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power recaps! I’m so excited to be writing about this show. I’m a longtime fan of Tolkien—though far from expert. That said, I’m going to be doing my best to bring you a comprehensive and accurate dissection of each episode without going too heavy into lore. This show has been the perfect reason to brush up on a lot of Middle-earth history, but the Second Age is a big mystery that I look forward to discovering.
- “The evil in here is so great that our torches give no warmth” is such a killer line.
- The hunters have these really cool broad, flat antlers from massive bucks on their backs, making them look winged, which must be used as a defense mechanism against eagles and wolves.
- When the meteor flew passed the Ents, I gasped. Very excited to see these bad boys, which look spindly and younger than the ones we met in Two Towers.
- Arondir has so much of Aragorn in him. Though all this talk about Theo’s father has me worried. Lineage mysteries feel overdone at this point. Still, so long as his father doesn’t turn out to be Arondir or Sauron, it should be fine.
- There’s a lot of love of Peter Jackson in these episodes by my favorite happens when Arondir looks down the tunnel and we’re treated to that rack-focusing shot similar to that found in Fellowship Of The Ring.
- Counterpoint: many landscape shots recalled Jackson’s trilogy. I hope that the show comes up with more of its own language.
- The actor who loses it on Arondir in the bar is also Theo’s friend whom Theo shows the blade. I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy turned out to be some sort of servant of Sauron.
- Morfydd Clark absolutely owns this show. It’s going to be a blast watching Clark grapple with her temptation from the ring.
- When the Stranger yells at Nori: