I feel like I owe readers of my review of the first two episodes of the Rings of Power an apology. One could read my apparent ambivalence confuse it for optimism. The show had everything it needed to succeed. It was backed with a limitless budget, it had a fabled canon of lore and it had the freedom to be wildly ambitious with very few story constraints.
Two months later, the Rings of Power failed to live up to its potential. It barely manages to be a competent show. It suffers as a result of the desire to be a long running piece of prestige television without the talent to back it. The first season is largely squandered leading up to an uninspired finale.
This middle earth is bland and dull, no mean feat for a show with the benefit of triple the budget of the Lord of the Rings films and an even longer run time. This isn’t Peter Jackson’s vast mysterious world of magic, dragons and talking trees. It is a mundane world filled with stubborn people with bad ideas behaving poorly and then blaming everybody else for their shortcomings.
The series begins with a summary of a war between Morgoth and the forces of good. We join our story as victorious elves have shifted their attention away from Morgoth towards Sauron, his lieutenant. We aren’t given adequate explanation why Morgoth’s death is accepted and Sauron’s subsequent disappearance becomes the focus except that is the way it is supposed to happen.
We join our hero, Galadriel, the elven avatar of vengeance, on the hunt for Sauron and the remaining orc threat. Or what would be an orc threat if they had managed to find orcs in the several hundred years that immediately preceded the show’s beginning. Normally, if something as large as an army goes missing, you tend to chalk it up as a good thing. If it goes missing for hundreds of years, you might even be safe to assume that army is gone and that the man who lead them might be dead, or just retired to a nice little farm.
But Galadriel knows better than to apply some common sense and instead presses her drive for vengeance despite all facts and logic to the contrary.
It becomes a common theme that Galadriel knows better than everyone, even when she is wrong. When Elven leaders tell her to end her fruitless search for orcs, she is certain that they are mistaken. She is so certain that she ignores her next assignment across the sea and jumps off her ship into the middle of the ocean so that she might swim home and fight some orcs.
Galadriel is eventually rescued by several strangers on a raft afloat at sea (why a woman who sees fit to swim across the ocean needs rescuing is not resolved.) Before we could develop any interest in the identity of her raft-mates, all but Galadriel and a mysterious stranger are eaten by a sea monster who hates extraneous characters. The two are eventually rescued and brought to the human controlled island of Numenor. Galadriel hasn’t even dry from her ocean romp before she is bossing around the Island’s queen and entreating the her to go to war against a non-specific orc threat.
This plan makes no sense from the perspective of Galadriel as there is no evidence of a pending orc attack. Galadriel has meager information by way of a mark left on her brother’s corpse a few hundred years ago, which matches a mark she found at an orc fortress, which may match a physical landmark she found on some map.
Galadriel finds these tiny scraps of information and is able to deduce that the orc army she has never seen is going to attack a specific village with exacting timing as to when it will take place. It stretches beyond being illogical to being an insult to the viewer’s intelligence when Galadriel’s certainty is rewarded and people who doubt her are treated as idiots and villains for not trusting such a shoddy plan.
By the time we reach the season finale, Galadriel manages to procure an army who wins an almost trivially small battle, Mount Doom erupts, and Sauron is revealed.
But it all feels feels unearned and uninteresting. Sauron, far from being a mastermind or great evil, is just a dude whose mind has been clouded by magic and would have never done any evil things if he wasn’t forcefully thrust into the situation by Galadriel on a repeat basis.
If there is one worrisome trend from the first season, it is that things don’t happen because they make sense, they happen because they are a necessary predicate to something cool writers plan on implementing later. It makes for very lackluster set ups that reduce the value of whatever the payoff is supposed to be. The writers use Galadriel as the primary agent for these events through her obstinance, so it is little surprise that she is rendered the least likeable of an otherwise unremarkable group of characters.
While there were other plot threads running throughout the season, they largely existed to break up the monotony of whatever Galadriel was doing at the moment and could have largely been shortened and more neatly integrated into the primary plot. The show’s character development is anemic, so there is little reason to care about the love between an elf and a human villager (except that it is a forbidden love, a concept that may have made sense in Tolkien’s time but modern internet experience says, everybody would be down for interspecies smooshing between sexy elves and humans.) There is no direct reason why we should care that hobbits are wandering around the forest picking up dirty homeless men that fall from the sky.
Will it matter later? Probably. Do we care now? Not particularly, because the characters aren’t likeable enough and there are no stakes to their existence.
The battle for Middle Earth is not over, but the battle over it is just beginning. After all, we live in a very stupid age. A show based on a popular movie failing should not be a big deal. For every MASH there is a Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, My Big Fat Greek Wedding the TV show or whatever Marvel is farting out this week (She-Hulk? Killer-Quilt? Some D-Lister no doubt). But shows have to also be about our bigger cultural movements and whatever political nonsense we are on at the time.
There were early signs that the show was headed towards being about these external trappings rather than the show itself. Amazon’s massive marketing machine softened and started giving traction to “if you don’t like this, you are just afraid of strong women and PoC characters” rhetoric. If this is the lead up to a show, run. Nobody in the history of entertainment has ever successfully marketed a product this way, it is only setting the terms of their pending failure.
It is inevitable that reviewers will side with studios on these matters as well. Nothing is too bland, too bad, or too tedious to not have them turn their ire on the customers as the real source of the problems with a show they had no hand in crafting. The divergence in the audience score of RoP and the Critics demonstrate that critics may think they know what is good, but they have no idea what the audience likes.
Amazon had ample warning that they were headed towards disaster. The streaming giant hired an analyst at D.A. Davidson to preview the Rings of Power and even they fell asleep on the job:
One need not get caught up in the culture war about the show because it clearly fails on its own merits. Whether the show has a strong female protagonist, black elves, or thinly veiled jabs at Trump don’t matter. These issues are used to paper over the fact that RoP is not worth the lengthy watch time and we should envy the people who get paid to watch it and fall asleep halfway through.
In the end, Amazon hoped that this controversy would drive viewership but when the show itself is bad, controversy cannot save a show from itself. Amazon has already announced the next season of Rings of Power and they have a choice, to continue to drive the show towards its controversy above story or give us a show worth watching.
Their handling of the show and treatment of the fans gives little hope to build off such a dreary start.