This Lord of the Rings review contains spoilers for The Rings of Power.
Over the course of five episodes, it’s become clear what The Rings of Power’s strengths and weaknesses are. One of those weaknesses so far has been the politicking side of things – the show is at its best when it’s depicting huge, dramatic moments of battle or adventure, and at its weakest when examining the various power plays and conflicts between characters. This episode takes a step forward in the latter direction, as we start to see conflict arising between several factions and within themselves, and get a bit more of a sense of what drives some of them.
This is especially true in the Elrond/Durin storyline, which sees Elrond face genuine inner conflict for the first time in the series. His dilemma over whether to break his oath to Durin for the sake of his people gives us real insight into his character. Although this dilemma ends up being rather easily solved because, unlike just about every other TV character ever written, Elrond simply does the sensible thing and talks to Durin about it, that scene does give us one of the best lines of dialogue in the series so far – “A burden shared may be either halved or doubled, depending on the heart that receives it.” Elrond and Durin’s relationship is one of the key pairings that is holding the show together, with its blend of relatable love, affection, and humor, so it’s a relief to see them still together.
Galadriel also gets a chance to deal with some of her own inner conflict after episodes of making the same speech over and over again. When Halbrand questions her rhetoric about fighting Sauron and suggests that what she is really interested in is vengeance, we see another side of Galadriel, as she suggests that Elrond and Gil-galad actually saw too much similarity with the enemy in her. We’re also reminded of her status as a warrior, and we look forward to seeing her in action soon.
The Númenor storyline, however, desperately needs some more work on the human politics side of things. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting developments in these characters and their relationships per Tolkien’s outlines, but none of that potential has so far been realized in the series. The King Tar-Palantir is barely coherent and Queen Regent Míriel is mired in storylines about mysterious prophecies and forebodings and dilly-dallying over whether she should go to Middle-earth or not, when she should be at the heart of politicking and power plays in Númenor.
We finally get a tiny bit more insight into Chancellor Pharazôn in this episode, but not much. So far his plan doesn’t seem especially evil despite the sinister music in the background – he’s in favor of helping the Southlands and restoring Halbrand so they can set up trade routes and so on, which is entirely sensible and suggests a pretty decent potential ruler. Given that the show is clearly setting him up as an Evil Chancellor, it could do with offering something more than anti-Elf racism as an insight into his character and motives to show us why him ruling, or advising the ruler, is a bad idea.
The Southlands are even more desperately in need of some attention to their leadership issues and human relationships. Bronwyn seems to have become their de facto leader simply because it was her suggestion that they move out, even though she is a healer and there is no obvious reason for her to lead them. Arondir’s position of leadership makes more sense, since he has military experience, but half the population follow the old barman to go and serve the Orcs instead, while the rest seem to just hang around waiting for Arondir and Bronwyn to decide what to do. We know their king has abandoned them, but isn’t there anyone else in this group with opinions about who should lead them or what they should do?
This episode also goes some way towards addressing one of the other weaknesses of the first four episodes, which is the series’ overreliance on some level of familiarity with Tolkien’s work – or, at the very least, with the Peter Jackson films – in order for anything that is going on to mean anything. Questions like “Who is the Stranger?” or “Is Halbrand a future Ringwraith, or even Sauron himself?” are completely meaningless to new viewers, who simply see a mysterious old man who does very little, and a somewhat duplicitous king in exile.
We still don’t know who the Stranger is, but in this episode, his mystery becomes a more urgent and more easily understandable question. Rather than “is he Gandalf, or Sauron, or one of the Istari, or Saruman?” questions which mean nothing whatsoever if you’re new to Tolkien’s world, the question in this episode focuses in on the simple issue of “is he good or bad?” Obviously, nearly everyone in this world or any other is some kind of mixture of those things, but how much of one and how much of the other is the key here.
On that subject, for those who do know some of Tolkien’s characters, we still don’t think the Stranger is at all likely to be Sauron, who has very little of good in him, and we still think Gandalf is the most likely candidate. This episode does hint that perhaps he could be Saruman; Gandalf was always more strongly associated with fire than with ice, whereas it was Saruman who turned the snowy weather against the Fellowship of the Ring on the mountain of Caradhras. And Saruman was one of the good guys before he became corrupted. But judging from the way the show has tried to emulate the feeling of the movies so far, the familiarity of a wizard adventuring with little Hobbits does more strongly suggest Gandalf.
Whoever the Stranger is, he represents a change to Tolkien’s outline of the history of the Second Age, as does the show’s explanation for what mithril is and why the Dwarves and Elves are mining it. The idea that the Elves need mithril to preserve their fading light is a new one, as is the “apocryphal” legend that Elrond and Gil-galad recount about its origins. It introduces some high stakes to this storyline (and presumably this will be the reason Celebrimbor eventually decides to make some rings, which so far have been seriously lacking from this series that bears their name) but it does have the unfortunate side effect of diluting some of Tolkien’s themes.
One of Tolkien’s biggest themes is about the danger of greed, and of lust for power, and of arrogance, and all that is getting lost in some of the changes here. In The Lord of the Rings, we learn that the Dwarves delved too greedily and woke a deeper evil – but now they have to mine these depths in order to save the Elves, which is very much not the same thing. They also apparently have a better idea of what might be under there to wake up… There is, of course, nothing wrong with making changes in the course of adapting a story for the screen, but some changes can be irritating if they alter the meaning of the tale. Although in this episode, it is the change to Elrond’s mother’s backstory that is the most annoying.
Celebrimbor claims Elrond’s mother (Elwing) pleaded with Eärendil not to go to the Valar and asked “why must it be him?” This is nothing like what happens in Tolkien’s legendarium; Elwing rises out of the sea as a white bird to join her husband on his expedition. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are extremely short on female characters – there isn’t a single named female character in The Hobbit and the only really active female character in The Lord of the Rings is Éowyn. Tolkien’s mythology of the First and Second Ages, on the other hand, especially the first, features a number of rather more active and adventurous female characters, Elwing being one of them. Reducing her to a wife left at home and begging her husband not to go not only does a disservice to the book character, but it reduces the role of women in these stories, even as the series introduces original characters like Bronwyn and Nori in an attempt to increase the role of feminine characters.
Ultimately, we see some distinct movement in the plot in this episode, and the promise of more to come. There’s a mysterious new character known as “the Dweller” (Bridie Sisson) staring down at the Stranger’s crater, and we have a pretty good guess who that is which we’ll save for another article. The Harfoots are still terrifyingly brutal, as one tells Sadoc to “Take their wheels and leave them,” which is even worse than we’ve seen before – they don’t just leave some of their friends and family behind, they take away their wheels so they physically can’t travel. Nori could be in real trouble here. The breakaway group of Southlanders have turned to human sacrifice, which can’t be good. And the music as the Númenoreans sail away promises that something really exciting is about to happen, so let’s hope next week’s episode keeps that promise. To quote Durin in this episode, “Enough with the quail sauce! Give me the meat [of the story] and give it to me raw!”