The Rings of Power season 1 was the most expensive season of television ever made at the time of its debut in September 2022. Unsurprisingly, the premiere pulled in huge numbers for Amazon Prime Video, although reports suggest the series saw a steep drop in viewership in later weeks.
Despite winning a few awards and being nominated for many others, online fan discussion about the show has tended to be a bit on the negative side, particularly when compared with HBO’s House of the Dragon, which aired around the same time in 2022. Both were prequels to earlier hits, based on major fantasy franchises, spinning out fairly brief source material into something much longer and more detailed. But where House of the Dragon pulled fans back into George R.R. Martin’s Westeros after the last few seasons of Game of Thrones put many off, The Rings of Power was perceived as a disappointment by many Lord of the Rings fans, despite following up on the similarly disappointing Hobbit movies.
Some would say The Rings of Power was an unmitigated disaster, which is not really a fair assessment. The show is not a total failure and there are aspects of season 1 that worked really well. On the surface level, you can really see the amount of money that was thrown at the show up there on the screen. The costumes, sets, cinematography, and real-world locations are all absolutely beautiful. The season also produced some great dramatic moments as well, like Galadriel leaping off a boat to the Undying Lands in the first episode, the awakening of a Balrog, and the creation of Mordor through an eruption of Mount Doom.
In short, the show has a lot of promise, and we think season 2 has the potential to be really great – Amazon just needs to fix a few things from season 1…
Drop the “Mystery” Angle and Focus on Epic Storytelling
One of the biggest flaws in The Rings of Power season 1 was the focus on two “mystery” characters, Halbrand and the Stranger.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, the Dark Lord Sauron disguises himself as an emissary of the Valar (the god-like Powers who shaped the world) called Annatar, the “Lord of Gifts.” Elrond, Gil-galad, and Galadriel do not trust him, although they do not realize who he is. Others welcome him and Celebrimbor works with him to forge the Rings of Power. The idea of Sauron disguising himself and winning the trust of the Elves (especially Celebrimbor) leading to a rug-pull moment when his identity is revealed, then, makes sense and is actually pretty close to the books.
The problem with Halbrand’s story in the show is that the changes from the book hide his identity from book readers as well, and that his primary relationship is developed with Galadriel, not Celebrimbor. Halbrand and Celebrimbor barely meet at the end of the season, and very quickly three Rings of Power appear. It is Celebrimbor who is most deceived by Sauron and betrayed by him, so Disguised!Sauron’s primary relationship should have been with him.
Moving forward, the show needs to drop its obsession with trying to build a mystery where there doesn’t need to be one. The writers seemed determined to make sure no one could work out who Sauron was from reading the books. This decision prompted lots of think-pieces and online speculation, including from us here, on who these characters were, as we were all pretty sure they must be key characters from Tolkien’s mythology (and please do go back and enjoy how wrong I was about Halbrand!). In that sense, they achieved some of what they were going for.
But Tolkien’s stories are not murder mysteries, or twisty psychological thrillers, in which readers/viewers are expected to enjoy not knowing what secrets characters are hiding, or who is well-intentioned and who is not. The mystery also lasted far too long, so that as the series went on, viewers ended up more and more confused about who or what they were watching. Book readers, meanwhile, were unsure whether they were waiting for Annatar to show up, or should be looking for him somewhere in the show.
Most viewers have not read the source material. But for those that have, introducing the character as Annatar instead of Halbrand would have been so much more effective. Non-book readers would have been presented with the same mystery, but the sense of impending doom for book readers who would immediately recognize the name would have been far more compelling than playing a guessing game trying to work out where characters fit into the bigger story for an entire season.
Confirm the Stranger’s Identity
While we’re on this subject, the mystery of the Stranger’s identity is even more desperately in need of resolution. We know now that he is a Wizard, and it seems likely that he is Olórin/Mithrandir/Gandalf, judging by his line quoting Gandalf from one of the Peter Jackson movies – “always follow your nose.” That is a change from the books, in which Gandalf did not come to Middle-earth until the Third Age (the show takes place in the Second Age), but that’s fine, it’s an adaptation, things are going to change.
But the show doesn’t seem interested in confirming it’s Gandalf yet and that we’re watching the origins of Gandalf’s relationship with Hobbits. That origin story would add meaning for anyone who has seen the Jackson films (or any of the other screen adaptations of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit) or read the books. If it is a Blue Wizard, we are watching a new character, which is less emotionally meaningful, but interesting in a different way. If we are watching Saruman, we are seeing the Wizard’s slow downfall, which is a different story all together.
There comes a point where we want to know what story we are watching. This is especially problematic for the Stranger and Nori’s storyline, because there is no clear connection between their story and the rest of the show. Without knowing who the Stranger is and how he ties into the bigger story, it’s difficult to get properly invested in this plot thread.
Work on Balancing the Pacing
There were big problems with the pacing of season 1. Some parts of the plot felt very slow, like Nori and the Stranger’s storyline, while others were very rushed. The biggest victim here was the forging of the titular Rings of Power themselves, which happened all of a sudden when Halbrand and Celebrimbor finally met in the season finale. It’s especially a mindboggling storytelling choice when your show is called The Rings of Power.
Presumably, season 2 will feature the creation of the Seven Rings for the Dwarf-lords and the Nine Rings for Men, and it will lead up to Halbrand/Sauron forging the One Ring by himself. If this crucial plotline is given a bit more weight and more time to develop, it should be really exciting.
Work on the Harfoots and Their Culture
The development of Harfoot culture in season 1 was surprisingly problematic. The two main points of controversy were the choice to give the rather twee Harfoots Irish accents, and their practice of leaving members of their community behind.
The Irish accents, however controversial, are probably something we are now more or less stuck with. But there is hopefully room to explore the idea of the Left Behind a bit more. The implication of season 1 was that as soon as a Harfoot experiences any level of physical difficulty – even a relatively minor and temporary foot injury – they are left behind by the tribe to die. This does not match with the script repeatedly telling us that Harfoots are big-hearted people, and it certainly does not fit with anything Tolkien ever wrote about Hobbits or Harfoots. Yes, the idea that they are wandering nomads, rather than the Shire-dwelling Hobbits, makes sense and has roots in Tolkien, but we’re pretty confident he never meant to imply that they were the sort of people who just abandoned anyone with a slight limp.
We’re not sure if there is a way to re-work this particular Harfoot custom into something less reprehensible, or if it simply needs to be retconned. But whichever route the writers choose, doing one or the other will make the Harfoots as a whole far more sympathetic and allow viewers to get more invested in their storyline. That is, if we see the rest of the Harfoots again, of course – we might just be following Nori and the Stranger going forward.
Give Us More Gil-galad and Celebrimbor, and Flesh out Tolkien’s World
We are hoping that Nori and the Stranger’s journey will take them into little explored corners of Tolkien’s world where there is room for the series to expand. When we were all trying to work out who Halbrand was, our favorite theory was that he was one of the Nazgûl, otherwise known as the Ringwraiths or the Black Riders, the nine mortal Men corrupted by nine Rings of Power. Given the title of the show and the fact that there is very little on the backstory of these characters in Tolkien’s mythos, that seemed to make sense. The only two Ringwraiths we know much about at all are the Witch-King of Angmar, their leader, and Khamûl, an Easterling king – perhaps Nori and the Stranger will run into him on their journey to Rhûn in the East.
We would also love to see more of some of Tolkien’s beloved characters who do not make appearances in The Lord of the Rings – Gil-galad and Celebrimbor especially, two powerful and fascinating characters here who have barely been explored by the show. We are excited to see more of Chancellor Pharazôn and Queen Míriel in Númenor as well, as Pharazôn especially was quite under-developed in season 1.
Embrace Tolkien’s Darkness
Don’t get us wrong on this one: we don’t want Rings of Power to turn into House of the Dragon. It’s nice to have a big budget fantasy show aimed at an adult audience that offers a bit less on the sex and violence front. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and having that variety helps to set Rings of Power apart from a lot of grimdark adult fantasy.
Having said that, Tolkien’s story is not all sweetness and light, and the mythology he created for Middle-earth tends to go to darker, grimmer places than the two Hobbit-centric novels he is best known for. There is kin-killing, theft, forced marriage, incest, curses, and Tolkien’s abandoned idea for a Lord of the Rings sequel even featured Satanic cults.
Not all of this belongs in The Rings of Power, but some of the storylines the show is following do feature some of these themes, along with some dark and dirty politicking to come. If season 2 can embrace those aspects of Tolkien’s story and weave them into the wider world of Middle-earth, it would allow the show to go to corners of this universe we haven’t seen before on screen. It’s worth bearing in mind, after all, that Fire and Blood/House of the Dragon is inspired by The Silmarillion…
Bring the Funny!
Embracing the darker aspects of the story does not mean making the entire thing grim and miserable. In Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, warmth and humor were a big parts of how the characters related to each other, and that very much matches with Tolkien’s own sensibilities in the books. It makes these characters more relatable, as well as making the films more enjoyable to watch.
One of the most enjoyable and compelling relationships on The Rings of Power season 1 was that between Elrond and Durin. Part of that was because of the tension between them as a result of the differences between Elves and Dwarves, but an equally important part was the frequent use of witty and humorous moments between them. Watching it, you look forward to their scenes together, you root for their friendship, and become invested in their conflicts. Not all relationships were as well developed in season 1, and they could learn a thing or two about Elrond and Durin for the second season.
Galadriel especially would really benefit from having a bit more humor and wit introduced into her story. The depiction of Galadriel on the show has received some of the most vigorous criticism. Some fans did not enjoy Morfydd Clark’s performance, a point on which we will respectfully disagree. Some complained about the character’s depiction as a warrior, but that has its basis in Tolkien’s own work. Other complaints focused around her motivation, particularly her drive for vengeance. Some of this relates to her position as the lead character of the series, so all the issues with the mystery around Sauron, and with the pacing, affect Galadriel most of all, and some of it relates to her singular focus on vengeance depriving her of any other character traits.
But we wonder if one of the key things fans are missing from Jackson’s much more well-received screen depiction of Galadriel is the warmth that Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel had. This has nothing to do with Clark, who is working with the scripts and direction she is given. It is in the writing, primarily. Galadriel needs more humanizing (Elvenizing?) moments, in which she shares a joke with an old friend, or responds to something with a bit of wit, or even just sits down for a chat with someone that is not specifically about her primary goals.
There is nothing wrong with the show’s idea that this Galadriel is harder-edged, more impulsive, a younger woman still becoming the person she will eventually be in The Lord of the Rings and who has not yet gained the wisdom of her older self. But this should still be the Galadriel who could give Gimli a beaming smile and three locks of hair, and perhaps even, in this youthful incarnation, be a bit looser and more prone to the odd bit of banter than she would be later on. A more fleshed-out Galadriel who isn’t just hellbent on getting revenge would be a big improvement for season 2.
No release date has been set of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power season 2.