Before we get into what we think of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”, let us address the fact that no matter what we say, there will be some readers who will get very angry and possibly even call us mean names. That’s okay. We are confident enough in our opinions to handle a little outrage and name-calling.
For various reasons, some self-inflicted by Amazon Studios and their promotional team and some completely out of their control, “The Rings of Power” finds itself in the middle of a culture war. Yet to be perfectly frank, it doesn’t appear anyone informed the people who actually wrote and made “The Rings of Power” about this culture war or for which side the show is even supposed to be fighting.
Perhaps those last sentences gave us away, so we won’t belabor the point: We liked the first season of “The Rings of Power.” In fact, we liked it a lot. We also find the cultural firestorm that has surrounded the show to be pointless and predictably annoying. Taken on its own merits, independent of all the outside noise and fury, “The Rings of Power” is a welcome return to Middle Earth. It is a show filled with spectacular visuals, transcendent music, interesting characters, compelling storylines, and surprisingly deep spiritual resonance.
It’s not a perfect season of television, but there is plenty of good to be found and we eagerly anticipate season two. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay are mostly successful in transporting us back to the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien. (We rate the season 7.7 out of 10.) Instead of a traditional review, we decided to go a slightly different direction. What follows, are reflections about “The Rings of Power” from a few of our writers. We hope you enjoyed the show as much as we did. Let us know in the comments. And if you disagree with our take, feel free to tell us. Just be respectful or your comment will be tossed into the Sundering Seas.
Daniel Plunkett on preconceptions and being pleasantly surprised by “The Rings of Power”.
Unfortunately, my preconceptions going into “The Rings of Power” were generally negative because of all I had heard about how “woke” it was going to be. I thought we might be forced to endure heavy-handed political and social commentary even from Middle Earth. Thankfully, I didn’t perceive any of that. While Tolkien’s mythology was unmistakably northern European in influence, I don’t think it really affects the story or heart of the matter to have a multiracial cast, but I digress.
I liked the show, and my negative preconceptions probably helped because I got to be pleasantly surprised. The production values are high. The creators did a good job getting the “feel” in line with the Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films. The language sounds Tolkien-esque without being forced, even though the writers would not have had the benefit of being able to quote directly from Tolkien so easily as the screenwriters could for LOTR.
Most importantly, the scope of the show is solid. Tolkien’s mythology of the Second Age is vast, and it would have been easy for the story to be unwieldy and to have too little heart/personal connection, or too condensed and rushed. If the show errs it’s in the latter manner, but not by much. It’s tough to get a huge story right on screen.
Having just seen the season finale I would say one of my favorite elements is Halbrand and the revelation of Sauron. Watching most of the show I felt that the inclusion of “Halbrand” and the focus on the people of “the Southlands” was a needless distraction when Tolkien had so many characters, locations, and events to explore. Why make so many up? I’m still not sure about the Southlanders in general, but Tolkien is actually pretty vague about how Sauron rises to power in Mordor or what that looked like.
I had also eagerly anticipated Sauron taking “fair form” and presenting himself to the Elves as “Lord of Gifts” in order to ensnare them with the making of the rings. It was fairly easy to see that the Southlands would be Mordor, but I had assumed that Halbrand was a strange invention by the writers, perhaps to help further Galadriel’s character, and that we would see Sauron in disguise and the forging of the rings in the second season.
I was delighted to find that Sauron had already been in disguise and had been a character in the show all along! Only when he began helping Celebrimbor with the rings and offered some advice as “a gift” did I make the connection with Halbrand’s love of smithing established earlier.
I do wish this had been drawn out to keep the deceitful assistance to the elves going longer and to include the creation of the nine rings for men and the seven for dwarves. The quick revelation of Halbrand/Sauron’s identity was puzzling, as was Galadriel’s response. But, even then, Sauron’s guile is actually persuasive. It makes me look forward to the next steps, including his “imprisonment” and corruption of the Numenoreans in a subsequent season
Phill Lytle reflects on the complex character dynamics of “The Rings of Power”.
One of the biggest complaints leveled at the show revolves around the character of Galadriel. First, the chief criticism is that she was a “Mary Sue“. If you are unfamiliar with that term, it basically means a young female character who is good at everything, is loved by most other characters, and who has no real flaws. To be clear, if that is your assessment of “The Rings of Power’s” Galadriel, you either didn’t watch the show or your judgment is completely broken.
For those still determined to hate the show, the criticisms soon morphed into a general complaint that Galadriel is unlikeable. We will deal with both of these complaints by examining Galadriel as she is presented in the show.
From the outset, Galadriel is right about Sauron and the danger his return would pose, but she goes about it the wrong way. Multiple characters challenge her on that latter point. They are proven correct in their assessment even when they are wrong about Sauron’s return. (Gil-Galad for one.) For all the Galadriel is a “Mary Sue”, she is called to task on numerous occasions, by males nonetheless, so clearly the writers realized she had flaws. By the end of the season, her flaws and misguided rage create problems across the board.
Her efforts to avenge her brother and save Middle Earth are twisting her into the very thing she seeks to destroy. Her journey for vengeance brings her face-to-face with true darkness, both literally and internally. By the end of Season One, Galadriel is learning how to preserve the good without losing her soul in the process. I find that to be emotionally complex and nuanced for a television show. I would rather go on a journey with a character who grows, even if that growth can sometimes be frustrating, as opposed to a fully realized Third-Age Galadriel who has everything figured out, is loved by most, and makes the right decision every time.
Michael Lytle considers the visual aesthetic of Middle Earth on screen.
I do not consider myself a Tolkien expert. I have read The Lord of Rings three times and have watched the films several times as well. Beyond that, The Hobbit book and movies are the only Tolkien material I have read/watched. I am a fan for sure, but the other contributors to this article have much greater knowledge of all things Tolkien than I do.
Coming into this series I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there was not a detailed story for the writers to follow, but more of a set of bullet points Tolkien had written. I was excited about this because I felt it gave the creators of the series more freedom to build their own story while still honoring the legacy of Tolkien’s written word as well as Jackson’s films.
One of the things I appreciated the most about the series was the continuity they maintained with what we have seen on screen before. The series looks1 like it belongs in the same universe as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Jackson’s trilogy, for better or worse, is the visual image that most of us have when we think of Tolkien’s work.
Personally, I think Jackson and his team did an amazing job and I am glad the new series kept the same look. Like any good series should, they expanded on Jackson’s vision and gave us some different locations and set pieces, but overall, it does not look like we are in a completely different world. This series feels like Middle Earth and that is a very good thing indeed.
Michael and Phill Lytle marvel at the overt and profound spirituality of “The Rings of Power”.
Michael: I love that the writers sought to keep Tolkien’s worldview front and center. From the very first lines of the first episode, we see this, when Galadriel echoes Genesis chapter 1 in talking about the time before the first sunrise, where there was still light. Tolkien was a Christian and his belief in God impacted what he wrote and how he wrote. The series does not shy way or downplay the knowledge of a higher power at work in the world. I don’t know if this is something that the Tolkien family insisted on or if it was always part of the script. Either way, we have a better show because of it.
Phill: I’d like to build on what Mike just mentioned. The writers have little-to-no Tolkien words to guide them here so you could forgive them for simply avoiding his appeals to a higher power or his belief in a greater, benevolent power influencing the world. But they don’t, which tells me they want to get it right. There have been numerous examples of the show leaning into this more strongly than Peter Jackson’s trilogy did.
The trilogy had plenty of spiritually resonant moments, but those were due to sticking with the words on the page. There are no “words on the page” for “The Rings of Power”. There is no narrative to draw from. They have an outline, a chronology, and a few more details to work with. Any deeply spiritual moments are coming directly from what they feel Tolkien cared about. Which tells me they get Tolkien, much more than the detractors of this show want to admit.
Beyond the obvious allusions to Eru, the Valar, providence, and a light that shines even in the darkness, “The Rings of Power” is a show built on a foundation of faith, hope, and love. Yes, the show has moments of darkness and despair, but it never dives so deep into that despair that is loses sight of what really matters. While it can get grim and dark, those things do not define it. At its very soul, “The Rings of Power” cares about friendship, family, and holding true to one another. If that isn’t at the heart of Tolkien, I don’t know what is.
As we said at the beginning, “The Rings of Power” is a welcome return to Middle Earth. While there are elements of the show we could quibble with2, taken as a whole, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Season one has done the hard work of establishing the tone, the characters, and the overall story. It is a strong foundation which should allow the rest of the series to flourish. We are eagerly looking forward to seeing more of Galadriel, Elrond, Durin, Elendil, Gil-Galad, Arondir, Disa, The Stranger, Nori, and Sauron himself.
And so, until next season, we echo the words of Elrond to Durin, “Namárië. Go towards goodness.”