First things first; at its very best, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a visual spectacle like no other television offering so far (not even HBO’s concurrent House of the Dragon comes close) leaving you to constantly wonder just how much Prime Video have invested in this new Tolkienian saga.
The answer is a sweet $470m for the eight episodes in its first season, and credit must go to showrunners John D. Payne and Patrick McKay for making the project live up to its tag of being the most expensive TV series ever created, atleast in the first two episodes made available for viewing.
With Peter Jackson’s legacy looming large, it is impossible to judge Rings of Power without comparisons to the multiple Oscar-winning movies. But for a while atleast, it is with a mix of nostalgia and fascination that you lose yourself admiring the stunning vistas that alternate between lavish landscapes, murky mountains and treacherous terrain of all other kinds, such as an operatic ocean battle involving a sea monster.
The plot, however, kicks off, steadfastly based on one narrative: after an extended prologue, Elvish warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), the commander of the northern armies, is searching for Morgoth’s lieutenant Sauron. While most believe he is dead, she remains convinced that his disappearance is indefinite; after all, “Evil does not sleep, It waits.”
Set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, we are soon introduced to a host of other characters, all fighting their own demons, both metaphorically and literally. There’s High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo) who rubbish Galadriel’s theories; the good-natured dwarf prince Durin IV (a fabulous Owain Arthur) and his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) huddled in the Dwarven city of Khazad-dûm; human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and the Elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) who are caught in a forbidden romance; and Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the Elven smith who forges the Rings of Power (!).
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
But it is the Harfoots — ancestors to the Hobbits and similar to them in stature and behaviour — who make the most impact, and leaves one wondering if we are going to witness a similar arc with Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) akin to Frodo and Sam’s quest to reach Mount Doom. Could the wide-eyed, bushy-haired little folk end up being unlikely heroes in the long battle towards Sauron’s first fall? Only time will tell. For now, they are embroiled in the mystery of a stranger who falls from the sky in a meteor. (Yes, that’s exactly what happens)
There’s also much to admire about the casting choices; many people of colour appear across the fictional races, acclaimed veteran stars such as Lenny Henry and Lloyd Owen are sure to be scene-stealers, and all the actors seem like they “belong” to the universe of Middle-earth, like J.D Payne says.
But there are complaints too. While some sub-plots are thrillingly immersive — such as Theo’s (Bronwyn’s son) infatuation with a shattered sword that has Sauron’s symbol on it, or Galadriel’s journey with the surreptitious Halbrand after she is rescued from the Sundering Seas onto a raft — others don’t quite hit the mark. The long-winded Elven conversations get painfully passive after a point, and while copious amounts of exposition and world-building are certainly necessary to set up a story of this magnitude, they could have done with a sprinkling of humour... or brevity. Similarly, one of the most exciting characters, Isildur (Maxim Baldry) is sorely missed in the episodes so far, and one hopes that the incoming origin tale will help us make sense of his infamous future altercation with Sauron, that sets into motion the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Having said that, it’s way too soon to rank Rings of Power, or even compare it to other fantasy-epics like Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time just yet. With around 50 episodes reportedly mooted over the course of the series, there’s plenty of time to witness how these new environments, plots and characters intersect and interact, while turning fledging talents into global superstars. One thing’s for sure though; at a time when CGI in films takes precedence in the most unnecessary of occasions, it is remarkable that the creators give us a fully-realised, lived-in, intricate world that looks and feels as real as anything we are used to, urging us to willingly suspend our disbelief without hesitation.
Maybe Tolkien is in safe hands after all.
The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Prime Video on September 2 with weekly episodes