This Lord of the Rings review contains spoilers for The Rings of Power.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Episode 8
Now that was more like it! Eight episodes in, The Rings of Power feels like it’s finally kicking into gear. This first season finale was full of dramatic action, answers to nagging questions, and it even killed off a loveable character. And not only did people talk about rings, they actually made some!
The show has finally cleared up the issue of who Halbrand and the Stranger actually are, thank goodness. And we will hold our hands up and say, we admit it, we were wrong! Halbrand is Sauron after all, as half the internet had guessed a few episodes ago. The reveal was nicely done, balancing the growing realization for fans of Tolkien with a dramatic and, more importantly, clear and unambiguous reveal for non-book readers.
When Halbrand started offering Celebrimbor advice on how to make artifacts of power, and called it a “gift,” Tolkien fans knew for sure who he was. In Tolkien’s lore, Sauron appeared to Celebrimbor in the form of Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, and convinced him to work together to make the first 16 Rings of Power (the Dwarves’ Seven rings and mortals’ Nine).
For those unfamiliar with the text, the reveal followed shortly afterwards. Galadriel and Halbrand/Sauron’s confrontation was tense, powerful, emotionally loaded, and beautifully visualized. The use of visions enhanced and emphasized the verbal power struggle between them, presenting Sauron as a Devil-like character, showing our hero visions to try to tempt her away from the path of good. Will Fletcher playing Sauron-as-Finrod deserves recognition as well, for a gloriously creepy performance that sent chills down the spine.
Similarly, we now know who the Stranger is, and that one we all had pinned down almost straight away: Gandalf! Granted, as of this episode we haven’t heard any of his names, so we only know for sure that he is one of the five Istari (the wizards). There is an outside chance he could still be Radagast, or one of the two Blue Wizards. But we think that is very, very unlikely.
One of the tell-tale signs that we aren’t being teased with a different wizard here is that the Stranger actually quoted one of Gandalf’s most memorable lines from the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. When it was time to embark on their next adventure, he told Nori to follow where the air smells sweeter, and when in doubt “always follow your nose,” just as Gandalf told Pippin when they were lost in the mines of Moria (he makes the same decision in the book, phrased slightly differently). Not only does this reassure us that we can stop all the endless guessing games because he really is Gandalf, it’s a lovely callback to the Peter Jackson films.
This is one of the ways this episode really cracked the art of making a prequel that provides links, nods, and references to the Lord of the Rings material we already know, but in a way that doesn’t undercut its own story. We see the same technique used in Galadriel’s confrontation with Sauron. As Sauron tempts her to join him, he promises to make her a “Queen” who will be “stronger than the foundations of the earth.” This exact phrase was spoken by Galadriel herself when she was tempted to take the One Ring from Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring (both book and film), and it forms a powerful connection between the two stories and between these two characters as it is, of course, Sauron’s Ring that is tempting her. But it also plays perfectly sensibly to anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t remember that line.
There are still some niggling issues here. We desperately need to know more about Gil-galad and Chancellor Pharazôn. What does it mean to give Gil-galad a Ring of Power? What sort of person (Elf) is he? Is he likely to abuse that power, or use it wisely? Any viewer who hasn’t read Tolkien has no idea. Similarly, should we be worried that Pharazôn is in charge of Númenor at the time of the King’s death? What sort of person is he, other than someone who doesn’t like Elves very much? Is he a threat, or an ally? We’ve had glimpses into these two characters in previous episodes, but they were so brief, we really don’t know what to expect. It is not enough to assume that everyone watching has read all the Appendices and can fill in the blanks for themselves.
A certain amount of uncertainty and mystery can be a good thing, but too much can leave viewers just confused, or irritated, as we have seen throughout this season. A bit of a guessing game can be fun, and disguise and trickery were certainly elements of Sauron’s character and methods in Tolkien’s lore, so the idea of holding off on revealing Halbrand’s or the Stranger’s identity in itself isn’t bad. But it was dragged out for so long, and there was so much guessing and uncertainty and rather unnecessary layers of mystery over this season that viewers were left not entirely sure what story they were actually watching. Now we know, and we can get properly invested in the characters we are supposed to be invested in. We need to feel we have the same knowledge of who Gil-galad and Pharazôn really are.
We could also pick some minor nits in some of the choices made in the adaptation, partly relating to the odd pacing issues that have dogged this season. After not one mention of rings the entire season long, suddenly Sauron reaches Celebrimbor, makes a helpful suggestion, they start work, Sauron’s identity is revealed, and the Elven Rings are forged, all in one episode. After weeks and weeks of slow pacing, this all came out far too quickly.
Now Sauron has gone off to make the One Ring, and we haven’t heard or seen anything about the Seven for the Dwarf-lords or the Nine for Mortal Men. Durin and Disa weren’t even in this episode. For non-book readers, this presents a minor plot hole, since the Rhyme of the Rings clearly refers to them; for film fans, we know that the Nine at least are very important. For book fans, it’s a huge, gaping hole in the plot. Presumably Sauron will go and forge those 16 rings in season 2, or Celebrimbor will. It’s certainly a resolvable issue, but leaving it unresolved across the gap between seasons is a bit perplexing.
Although the finale avoided an outright cliffhanger, we also have some deliberately unanswered questions leading us into season 2. What exactly is going on with Ëarien and the palantír? Who were the Dweller, the Ascetic, and the Nomad? Are they related to Khamûl the Easterling, a Man who will eventually become that first Black Rider who sniffs for the hobbits in the Shire? Where has Isildur got to? (He’s with that horse Elendil was obsessed with, isn’t he?) And what’s up with the Balrog now awake in Khazad-dûm?
Overall, though, this was by far the most satisfying hour of The Rings of Power yet. The story is coming together and things are moving forward in a direction that makes sense. We can see the conflicts that will shape season 2 starting to form in the political turmoil that will undoubtedly follow the King’s death in Númenor, the enmity between Galadriel and Sauron and their competing Rings of Power, the attempts to save the Elves and work with the Dwarves, the rise of Mordor, and the future of Men in Pelargir. This series has a lot of promise, and it’s just now starting to fulfill that potential and become the exciting, epic drama that we all want it to be. Here’s hoping that season 2 will continue the upward trend.