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Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, “A Shadow of the Past” & “Adrift” | Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2
The start of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series wows without convincing
In its first two episodes, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power proves it that is absolutely, definitively, and without question a show that exists. Amazon hasn’t been shy about letting people know how much money they poured into this latest entry in the endless Franchise Wars, and the cash is visible on screen–gorgeous vistas, immaculate costumes, grand monsters, and legitimately impressive CGI. The cast is, so far at least, bereft of big name actors, but their semi-anonymity works to the series credit; Morfydd Clark may not be a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett, but her take on Galadriel hits just the right note of familiarity to establish a connection between the two without belaboring the point. We have elves, beautiful and noble and just slightly annoying; we have drunken, loutish, good-hearted dwarves; we have mostly shitty humans; and we have hobb–I’m sorry, “harfoots,” definitely not going to make that mistake several times going forward.
What we don’t have, and the main way in which these two episodes fail, is a reason for the show to exist. Oh, there’s a meta-textual reason: “Game of Thrones was super popular, and Amazon wants some of that shine for themselves.” But as a narrative in its own right, Rings is tasteful, immaculate, and fundamentally sterile. It’s not bad, exactly, although that depends on the individual viewer’s definition of the term; for me, while I was occasionally a bit bored, I rarely got that “oh this is nonsense” feeling I get watching a legitimate failure. But there’s nothing essential about it, nothing gripping, nothing immediately engaging. One gets the impression of a well-furnished house in the countryside, rooms full of gorgeous, well-arranged furniture and decoration, but without a single soul to call it home.
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This isn’t a new criticism, of course. Reviewers have been pointing out the inessential nature of prequel media for decades now, and Rings seemed pointless even before a single image was shown to the public. The show isn’t based on The Silmarillion (although the Silmarils get name-checked at one point, and I definitely hooted and pointed at the screen like the small nerdy child I am). It’s not so far back in the mists of time as to require a new villain–Sauron gets introduced briefly in the opening narration, and we even get a glimpse of him in his instantly recognizable armor. Middle-Earth is different than the one featured in Lord Of The Rings, but it’s not so different as to make for a compelling contrast. Elves is still elves, hobb–sorry, damn, should probably underline that, harfoots (“harfeet!”, to steal a joke from someone on my Twitter feed) is still harfoots. The language may be a little more archaic, but this is all taking place more than a thousand years before Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam were born–maybe more of an effort could’ve been made to establish the temporal distance?
Of course, that would’ve meant breaking even further from the movies that Rings is clearly trying to recapture. To its credit, the show is not slavish in its imitation; anyone familiar with the Jackson movies will recognize bits and pieces, but, at least for now, the show avoids the exhausting tedium of The Hobbit trilogy. (It helps that the creative team isn’t trying to force a children’s book into the shape of a multi-volume epic.) While these first two episodes feature some familiar names, they rarely if ever dip into full on fan service territory, which is as it should be–the whole set-up, or vibe if you will, is somber and stately and respectful, and it would be an obvious, and hilarious, mistake if, say, one of the harfoots started going off on “po-ta-toes,” or if Durin told Elrond that he had an axe to share, should Elrond require it.
“Tasteful,” “stately,” “respectful.” I’m using my thesaurus this morning for sure. But it’s hard to avoid the terms, if only because, so far at least, there don’t seem to be many others that apply. Crass TV cash-ins are old news by now, but one of the fascinating aspects of the rise of streaming services is watching such old concepts gain a sheen of respectability, even grace. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a TV show version of LOTR would’ve likely been pure Saturday afternoon hookum, a Hercules/Xena rip-off with dodgy costuming, bosomy elf princesses, and sets that looked a few seconds away from collapsing on themselves. Instead, we have something put together with the resources of a small country. It’s easy to get nostalgic for the pop culture flotsam of the past, but there’s still some charm to be found in watching a gigantic, omnipresent corporation put this much time and effort into something that is absolutely, unquestionably, and without a doubt extremely nerd shit.
But is there anything past that charm? I’m not sure yet. What makes these opening episodes a challenge to review is that I can talk about “IP iteration” and effects work until I’m blue in the face, but there’s not a lot to hold onto in terms of actual meaningful content. There’s a story, and it progresses a bit, and there are threads that are intriguing without being exactly compelling, but the whole thing is so seamless and smooth that it’s hard to pin any of it down for actual discussion. This is, in some ways, a problem with a lot of streaming shows; given how so many are designed to be viewed in a big gulp without particular consideration shown to any individual entry, reviewers like myself who grew up watching episodic TV are left to summarize plots, point out individual high or lowlights, and miss the days when shows ran forty-five minutes and solved their problems in that span, come hell or highwater.
Rings doesn’t really have anything remarkable about it yet (aside from all that gobsmacking cash), but it also doesn’t have anything so terrible about it that I can point to as a sign of things to come. It’s like the glass mountain in a fairytale, beautiful to behold but impossible to get a good grip on. There are wonders here, but no real surprises, no sudden swerves or shifts to suggest this is anything but what it very clearly is: the telling of a story we already more or less know.
Is there value in that? There can be. And there’s some fun in seeing Galadriel in full kick-ass mode. The season’s opening episode is told largely through her perspective, although the show is following the GoT model of jumping between multiple continent-spanning storylines to establish its scope and stakes. But we get a Galadriel monologue at the start, just like in the movies, giving us the broad strokes of the situation: things were really nice once, but then they became unpleasant; there was an evil, Morgoth, who was very bad, and all the nice people went to fight it (him? Do mythical celestial godlike beings have gender?); Morgoth was defeated, at great cost, but his main man Sauron survived; Sauron killed Galadriel’s brother, and Galadriel took that personally; now she’s determined to track the bastard down, even as the rest of the elves are ready to move on.
Not a terrible set-up, although it does mean that Galadriel is stuck in serious vengeance mode for the duration of both episodes. Clark is fine in the part, but there really isn’t much for her to do here as of yet beyond look determined, angry, and a bit sad. But then, pretty much all of the characters are stuck in a narrow bandwidth of recognizable behavior. This version of Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is curious and respectful, with none of the alien aloofness Hugo Weaving brought to the role. The elves are pretty much exactly what we’d expect from elves, all metaphor and stillness. Even Arondir (Ismael Enrique Cruz Córdova), an elf soldier in love with a human woman, barely really registers. The passion is present, but it’s, again, tasteful. There’s little raw or vital or visceral about any of it, and while I don’t necessarily need my Rings content to go full on Evil Dead or Heavy Metal, it would be nice if there was something on screen that wasn’t exactly how I imagined it would be when I heard the words “Amazon is doing a Lord of the Rings show.”
The main plot point to come out in “A Shadow of the Past” (the title of the second chapter of Fellowship of the Ring is “The Shadow of the Past,” in case you were wondering what bells were ringing just now) and “Adrift” is that most folks think everything is fine, but a few folks disagree. Galadriel nearly goes back home before remembering a speech from her brother and diving back into the ocean–her rescue in “Adrift” is probably the closest the show comes to outright bad in its opening hours, as the whole sequence (annoying humans, a sea monster, one human slightly less anything than the rest) feels like the sort of padding one has to do when juggling multiple storylines that don’t always move at the speed. Arundir investigates an incident, and his lady friend, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) has to fight off an orc with her son. Elrond meets Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), gets involved with his plan to make some cool shit (it’s the rings), and hangs out with dwarves who have their own secrets. And Nori (Markella Kavenagh), a halfli–sorry, sorry, harfoot who yearns for adventure, tries to befriend a strange man who fell out of the sky.
Does any of this work? I’m not made of stone, I’m down for watching the Rings get made, and I desperately hope the dwarves are delving too greedily and too deep; gimme that sweet Balrog action and I’ll forgive a lot. The orc attack in the second episode is intense and well-done, and it’s great to be nervous about orcs again. The Stranger, who is very cleary Gandalf (or Sauruman, or possibly Radagast; Gandalf would make the most sense, given how fond he is of hobbits), is fun to watch, and while I’m not truly convinced he’s a threat, I appreciate the show trying to pretend he is. I’m curious how Sauron is going to mess with Cerembrimbor’s plans, given that everyone already knows Sauron is a bad guy. I know enough Tolkein lore to have a basic grasp of where this is headed, but not enough to know specifics, which can be fun.
I’m not sure it’s enough, though. Part of the reason the original story, and the Jackson movies, worked so well was a sense of perspective and contrast. The hobbits weren’t just lovable goons, they were more or less stand-ins for the audience, nice folks who don’t really get involved in big people nonsense. Watching the scope of Fellowship move from Frodo palling around with the lads to the cavernous Mines of Moria and beyond made the former feel more valuable, and the latter more awe-inspiring. Here, though, it’s pretty much all the same note. By episode two, Elrond is hanging out in Khazad-dum, moving through stunning, cavernous spaces with a mild “Oh this is nice.” We’re not seeing this through Frodo or Sam or Merry or Pippin’s eyes; Nori is an important character, but she’s just one among a dozen or more. For magic to work, you need more than just lovely furnishings. You need a reason to sit down and pay attention. Rings isn’t quite there yet.
Did the Stranger cause Nori’s father to hurt his leg? It’s edited in a way that suggests he did, especially given what happens to the fireflies later on, but I have no idea why.
Not really sure the human/elf tension works; it just feels like the sort of thing one does in this kind of story. Hopefully we’ll get a better understanding of it later in the season.
I’m in no way a Tolkein scholar (please be gentle), but it’s odd seeing the Gray Havens (aka Valinor) treated like a place where one goes and has a whole life and career and what not. I always read it as a metaphor for death.
Sea monsters? Why?
Hey, thanks for reading! Whatever my reservations, I am legitimately excited to be covering the rest of the season; at the very least, it’s easy on the eyes.
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