The start of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series wows without convincing
One quick nerdy correction.
The Grey Havens aren't Valinor. They're the port on Middle Earth you leave from to get there.
Glad to have you on this beat, Zack!
I found myself dreading the show since it was announced, and it slowly won me over. I think you nailed the... sterile feeling of things, or sense of "i guess we have to do this" some scenes have. But Morfydd's performance really won me over.
LOTR is painted in broad strokes (the eternal 'joke', "it's all walking and then a volcano") but uses those to delve deeper into its themes and characters. I enjoyed Galadriel and Elrond here as people instead of goal posts on a quest. The Elrond/Durin/Disa scene was my favorite of this couple eps, as they were recognizably people. And I'm not made of stone in a way where I don't find Durin tending to a tree in the mines of Moria very endearing.
Story-wise, sure, we have an idea of where things land and the general shape of things. But I'd also be very happy if they spent all this money in just a ~vibes~ show. This is a world where it feels nice to just hang out in.
I'm afraid I did legitimately think the dwarf kingdom was cool. It was nice to see a thriving society with elevators and stuff--by LOTR, all we see of dwarven society is rot and decay. They were smart to do another elf/dwarf frenemies situation. And it was legitimately funny that what's his face was pissed Elrond hadn't visited in 20 years and Elrond was like "oh was I just here?" And then so patently weedling his way into a dinner invite.
Well color me shocked. Heading into this and HotD, I expected to be drawn into Thrones' political intrigue and compelling character work and bored to tears by the shiny endless parade of characters in a Tolkein story and well, that's flipped 2 episodes into each. I think the biggest thing I've noticed so far is that in House of the Dragon it feels like characters are talking at each other, and in Rings, they are talking to each other. I'm already impressed by the scale and score and I think Dragon suffers from staying mostly in one spot as they hurry up and get their time jumps out of the way, whereas Rings greatly benefits from all that map hopping (i.e. burning Amazon's money). It was such a joy to hang out with the Dwarves again, I love they cribbed the mirror idea from Legend (or maybe something earlier, I am not well versed in all the fantasy tropes) to provide natural light to what would otherwise be a sweaty dark cave. Looking forward to seeing where this goes and that in itself is a pleasant surprise.
I'm a huge Tolkien fan who doesn't really care if adaptations deviate from their source material, so I'm in pretty much the perfect position to enjoy The Rings of Power. And no surprise, I very much enjoyed these first couple of episodes. At the most basic level I'm just so thrilled to luxuriate in Middle Earth again and let the imagery, costumes, and music just wash over me, but I found myself surprised at how quickly I found myself latching onto some of the new characters. Some of that comes from familiarity with where these different groups will end up - the Harfoots being nomadic make them feel like a more earthy, magical group than their Hobbit descendants will be, and seeing the Elves have more earthly concerns (and specifically, Galadriel being driven by vengeance and Elrond by ambition) rather than being ethereal stewards makes them feel approachable in a way that they never have been before (and really, were never supposed to be in LOTR).
But for me, the Dwarves were far and away the highlight. I think that's because in the Jackson films we saw Dwarves as individuals, but never really as a civilization in a way that we saw Hobbits, Men, or Elves. We saw what their ruined cities looked like, but not what they looked like when they were populated with people and families who were making a life. Beyond the plot points that they have the rights to and need to connect, there's an opportunity for this show to fill in little gaps in different civilizations and cities in a way that is very exciting.
And speaking of rights issues, the adaptation nerd in me can't stop wondering about what the show does and doesn't have the rights to. I know they paid for LOTR and the appendices and The Silmarillion and other writings are off limits, but I'm not fully clear on what that really means. If a name appears in a family tree or in passing in the books, are they allowed to incorporate backstory from those off-limits works, or do they just have the rights to the name? It felt pointed how...fuzzy the history covered in the prologue was, how fast and loose the show seems to be playing with the Ban of the Valar, and how Galadriel only ever said "my brother" as opposed to "Finrod" and after the first episode I thought I had my answer. But then the second episode name dropped Aule, Feanor, and the Silmarils, all things which I expected to very much be off limits. I keep finding myself wondering if a change was made because it legally had to be or for storytelling purposes, and while that sounds distracting I'm kind of enjoying not knowing what may or may not be able to be introduced next. I know these stories so well that having some uncertainty introduced into this new one is kind of thrilling.
The first couple episodes remind me of GOT's first season--I can't really keep anyone straight (except Sean Bean and in this case Galadriel) and I'm just trying to keep up and not questioning a lot. Eventually it will either kick into another gear and it will all click for me, or it will stay in this liminal space of not-a-movie-not-a-tv-show. I'm not sure what the plot is yet (Orcs are back? Sauron is back? People are chilling?) but they kind of hint at one coming up sometime soon. What worked for me was there were scenes when the characters felt like real people: Elrond with his friend's family in the mine, the Hobbiharfootswhatever sneaking off to get berries, Nora from How I Met Your Mother and her forbidden Elf lover at the well, not so much for Galadriel yet but she looked cool. There's a promise of a lived in universe to be had and not just one counting on our love/knowledge of the LOTR Jackson trilogy. I hope it gets there (but not holding my breath).
(Also, in the only House of the Dragon comparison I'll make this week: thank god this show has some humor. HotD suffers greatly from that and just being one Very Serious tone all the time. At least this had some moments where I genuinely laughed/smiled in between the brooding.)
So, after having actually seen the first episode, the one thing that did not sit well with me, tone-wise was the fact that Great King Gil-Galad GRANTED access to the undying lands as an honour. Exactly WHAT access looked like at this period in Tolkien's timeline is a little unclear. The ban from the first age has been lifted. It is explicitly forbidden for humans, which suggests it isn't for elves, and there were elves living on an island that is sort of half-Valinor. These elves visit both Valinor and Numenor where men live.
But what strikes me as wrong about this lore-wise is that it is clearly the Valar (that is, the Gods of the Undying Lands) who decide what access to the undying lands should be like, and when men try to take this power in their own hands, they are punished for it. So that an elven king gets to decide who goes and who doesn't seems to me usurpation of the authorities of the Valar which is clearly a sin in the world of Tolkien.
1) Who is The Stranger who crashed to Middle Earth like a comet?
2) Do any other characters jump out to you as having a secret about their identity?
3) What is in Durin's box?
I used the phrase "empty grandeur" recently to explain to a friend why I wasn't feeling enthusiastic about either this or House of the Dragon, and would be waiting in either case to see what kind of reviews they were getting. Unnecessary-seeming prequels have certainly surprised me with their quality in the past -- Better Call Saul and Hannibal both come immediately to mind -- so I'm not writing these off entirely. But your review captures exactly what I expected / feared about the latest venture into Middle-Earth and validates my decision to stay away for now.
Lots of different audiences out there, but personally I need compelling characters and an actual story. If I just wanted to revisit the world, I'd reread the books or rewatch the trilogy.
was anybody else really bugged in the dialogue when elrond (pretty sure it was elrond) said the dwarves care for the living rock "like one cares for an aging relative". it's a neat analogy but not one an elf would identify as a universal experience -- it really isn't! their relatives don't age!!! why would elrond just say this and celebrimbor just get it?
it could be meant to demonstrate how much elves interact with other races, i.e. so much so that they've incorporated details of mortal lives into their own vernacular. i don't buy this. not because elrond wouldn't have this familiarity -- a) he's probably seen elder care in his travels, b) he may even have done it in his early life as the son of a human woman. but celebrimbor, the aristocrat and master craftsman, so absorbed in his engineering elrond practically had to remind him the other races exist? hard to imagine a plausible explanation for why he would just understand this and more importantly why elrond the attentive deliberate speaker could be confident it would land.
with a couple of changed words, they could have shown that elrond had witnessed and admired dwarven elder care and wanted to include that as another awesome thing to share about them: "like they care for their aging relatives". they wouldn't even have needed to shoot an example! it would have been a cheap easy way to deepen whatever else we're meant to know about Elrond's previous time in khazad-dum. not to mention, highlighting the different passage of time between the two peoples would have been a neat foreshadowing of the later conflict with Durin.
the only plausible reading i have of the scene as written is that elrond is nerding out hard and not exercising his usual care about reading the room, and in fact the analogy does not land, but celebrimbor is too much the politician to let it show. that could be there in the writing, but it isn't on the screen at all. to have elrond going a little too fast and to just slightly elevate a respectful but humoring "wow bud I'm sure excited too!" tone in celebrimbor's line actually would have been a fun character and relationship moment for both of them.
if they meant that, they didn't show it. instead it kind of plays as a straight interaction. the show overall and this plotline in particular are great, but this shit is sloppy. and easily fixed with ADR and/or editing. with so many eyes and resources, how the hell did this get missed?
Nice review, Zack, but I have to say, that's a lot of words to say nothing... I know your whole point is that there is not much to this show but could you please dive a bit more into it than that? You had two episodes' worth of content to do it and in the end I was more interested in the Stray Observations section than any of what came before 😕
I come at this series with essentially zero knowledge. I have not read the books nor watched the movies. So I actually don’t know where it’s going. As for my impression of the first 2 episodes, here goes:
1. Boy is this pretty.
2. Wait, what? Who? Where?
3. Okay, I am kind of understanding what’s going on.
4. Sometimes this show feels more like homework and also I am feeling a tad drowsy.
5. Oh, okay, dwarves. They seem fun.
6. Thanks for letting me know that the attacker in the house was an orc. That wasn’t spelled out.
7. Beautiful theme music. Ah, Howard Shore. (Fun fact: I enjoy listening to The Lord of the Rings film soundtrack music while never watching the movies.)
I think “it looks and sounds good, and some of the characters are fun” is enough to keep me coming back for more. I do think this recap and the comments are going to be helpful going forward!
I went in with pretty low expectations and am pleased to find I'm looking forward to the next episodes. The one thing I'm wondering about is when is it supposed to take place? I was looking at a time line for the 2nd age in the Appendix for ROTK , and it's not like Sauron made his Ring and then next year, bam, Gil Galad and Elendil were fighting him. This takes place over hundreds if not thousands of years, which isn't a problem for the elf characters, but I'm interested to see what it means for the harfoots/humans; is there going to be time jumps, etc?
Review hits pretty much he same notes I felt watching this.
It feels strangely expositionary as a whole. I actually think there's some heart to some of the story beats but at other times it feels alienating (sometimes even within scenes).
World is crafted quite beautifully, really dense and cinematography is stunning. Feels like they are actually going for a wholly cinematic angle which I like. It seems very Jackson-inspired though at the same time I never read the original books (well only the 2nd when I was a kid) so not sure to what extent it is just Tolkien-esque aspects both adaptions are portraying.
The dwarves are my favorite part so far, the rest of the characters didn't register much with me yet.
I do think there's some real threads for the series to build on, I'm just not sure if the creators (or Jeff Bezos) care enough to stray from the path the series is currently on. I'll keep tuning in though, curious to see which direction the show will take.
Picking up on the second half of this: "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. "
Yeah, that is more or less right. In LOTR, The Gray Havens is the end-station before you leave (Middle) Earth. But in the time period of this series, it was a vibrant kingdom and not yet a transit station.