The first two episodes of the Rings of Power have dropped, promising a new epic fantasy to unseat the now completed Game of Thrones.
The first tranche of episodes is a careful and deliberate entry into Middle Earth’s Second Age, long on set up but short on individual payoff.
Rings of Power is visually stunning. The phrase ‘sparing no expense’ is seldom so apt for the billion dollar series. There are sweeping vistas, gorgeous cinematic set pieces and CGI that should make the Marvel crowd feel shame for their half-baked twerking monsters.
The visuals do justice to the Lord of the Rings legacy. It is no small accomplishment to make high fantasy look good and RoP delivers a theater worthy experience.
It is a shame that the grandeur and beauty of the series is weakly supported by a soft cast and glacial plot that could have been managed in a single episode or less.
One could be left with a mistaken impression of urgency by the show’s first moments, which feature flashbacks to an elven war with a dark entity known as Morgoth who is dispatched in summary fashion. Hundreds of years of history are recounted in moments with scenes of epic battles that promise action of similar scope and scale in future episodes.
The first two episodes largely center around a well known character in Galadriel. Galadriel hates orcs. She really, really, hates orcs because they killed her brother in the aforementioned war. The elven warrior takes the lead of a small band who seek to eradicate any remaining orcs. This hunt for orcs has taken centuries and at the time we join our group, the orcish trail has long since grown cold and the warriors are threatening to abandon their quest.
By the miracle of lazy plot devices, the conflict about the group’s direction happens at the base of an orcish citadel that reveals itself as they bicker. Obligated to investigate, Galadreal and crew discover the first real evidence of orcs in centuries. So they do what every normal hunting band on a multigenerational search for this very evidence would do, they quit on Galadriel and went home.
These actions beggar belief unless you view them as steps to establish later story developments without a care for how mind bogglingly silly they are in the moment. Does it establish Galadriel as more devoted to her task than her compatriots? Sure. Does it lay a predicate for a pending orc threat? One would suppose. But the thread that ties it all together is awfully weak, relying on small clues so tendentiously related that they do more to depict Galadriel as unreasonable in her orc hunting zeal.
Galadriel’s story reflects a general shallowness to how the characters are introduced and developed. She does not fail so much as others fail her, her crew, her brother, her king. While she doesn’t act put-upon or complain, she is burdened with unfailing perfection in a world where everything falls short of her loftiness. This isn’t a fatal flaw by itself, but there needs to be more to the character than her icy purposefulness.
It is not unfair to compare a TV series based on Tolkein’s works to its most famous and beloved films, especially in light of the extravagant efforts in doing so. But for all of the expensive visuals and even more expensive film rights, Amazon misses out on the interpersonal relationships that drive the series.
The Lord of the Rings is noteworthy in large part because the relationships between the characters are deep enough to transcend a story about hobbits tossing some jewelry into a volcano when they could have just used the eagles and saved everyone 9 hours. There are multiple complex relationships that are forged and broken in the course of the films: Sam and Frodo, Legolas and Gimli, Sam and Po-Tay-Toes.
Long segments of the series are dedicated to add real stakes to the lives involved so that you care about Frodo’s corruption by the ring, Sam’s faithfulness, or the puckishness of Merry and Pippin turning into valor and heroism in Return of the King.
Rings of Power largely dispenses with these deeper developments. In keeping with the modern tv drama style, RoP interweaves multiple plot points and groups into a story that will eventually marry up into larger events. However, so little is done in service of establishing these characters that the scant plot development and relationships make them feel hollow and meaningless.
In the first episodes we are introduced to other elves, the denizens of a small human village and hobbit-like harfoots. We briefly jump into their individual stories but not enough to care what happens to them other than to assume that they serve some greater plot purpose later on.
The characters largely feel cold and distant to each other up until the second episode where we see a brief glimpse of personality in Elrond using his diplomatic ties with the dwarf prince Durin. The dwarf genuinely feels like he is friends with Elrond and demonstrates a fondness with his wife that is sorely lacking in the show’s other relationships.
These connections are too few for two hours of screen time considering what was accomplished in the LotR films before the Hobbits ever leave the Shire.
Weak plot or character development would be more forgivable if there were more action to fill the time. While the show takes great pains to tell us that orcs constitute the protagonists’ chief threat, it is done through narration. When presented in battle, they are too easily beaten. The most notorious of these sequences comes in the form of an almost comical battle between Galadriel and an ice troll, which was a floaty, dreamlike faceoff lacking in any excitement. The monster is so swiftly dismissed that it undercuts the idea that orcs and trolls serve any actual danger.
Later, a farm woman and a child manage to kill one and escape unscathed. If the show is building to a broader and greater threat, it had better get there sooner than later.
The Rings of Power debut is cautious with an eye towards future significance. It is done well enough and cast well enough that it is possible it will reach that point. But it does little to make the current episodes feel vital in their own right. There are no water cooler moments to discuss when people return to work next week. No cliffhanger that will cause viewers to wait for the next episodes with baited breath.
It may pay off but you may be forgiven if you opt to watch the episode summary before later episodes in lieu of a multi hour time sink instead.