When did I stop being enthusiastic about things I love?
In hindsight, I should have been much more vocal about my feelings about The Last Jedi. I loved, and still love, that movie for what it was trying to say, how its characters dealt with failure, how even the best of us can make bad choices and have to live with the consequences, how starship collisions can look transcendent.
But I wasn’t so vocal, because despite being a very good film, it had its flaws (like any piece of media). And every time I voiced my opinion about the film, whether in person or online, there was the deluge of “the force doesn’t work like that!” or “Luke was character assassinated!” or “that dialogue was cringe!” As if it had to be absolutely flawless in every respect to be taken seriously. As if that were even possible; even The Empire Strikes Back had embarrassing moments, like Leia kissing her (later revealed) brother Luke, or Yoda banging on R2D2 with a stick.
Video essayist Sarah Z recently coined the term “Sacrificial Garbage” to refer to the phenomena when some piece of media, targeted for being anything other than a white cis-male power fantasy, is dog-piled if it doesn’t meet an inflated standard that other media doesn’t have to.
I didn’t want to wade into that quagmire yet again, so I’ve largely kept my opinions about Star Wars to myself (with one exception — Star Wars: Visions. That’s a damn good anthology series). Maybe the Star Wars fandom is especially toxic in this regard, I thought.
Oh, no, Erik. Oh, you have no idea.
So, cut to a few months ago, when Amazon started releasing promotional material for Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power in advance of its premiere. I’m not going to share or repeat any of the garbage thrown at its cast. I couldn’t even search YouTube for commentary without wading through dozens of awful takes with atrocious thumbnails. (Though, to be fair, all thumbnails on YouTube are bad nowadays.)
I was apprehensive about the show as a whole, given 1) it’s the pet project of Jeff Bezos, in the running for “worst billionaire ever,” 2) it’s a distant prequel to the Jackson films, but can’t use any exclusive Silmarillion material due to licensing, and 3) I trust Amazon about as far out of earshot of Alexa as I can manage.
If you were apprehensive like me, and all you heard for weeks leading up to the premiere was “this is the worst thing ever!” without context, I’d say you’d be primed to hate it.
I know this is a long preamble, but now, my point: this is a very good show, and if you like fantasy at all you should give it a try.
I do have to qualify this statement, but I’ll be brief.
- It’s good, not great. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is lightning in a bottle; thinking anything could be better is a setup for disappointment. The show doesn’t do everything right that the Jackson films managed.
- It’s way too short. It’s about 12 episodes worth of story crammed into 8.
- There’s one major departure from the text (by which I mean the whole Tolkien corpus) that leads to some timeline issues, which I’ll describe later.
This show is driven by Galadriel’s quest to find Sauron, following the War of Wrath and her brother Finrod’s death at his hands. She’s not yet the graceful Lady of Lothlorien, having whatever elven equivalent of a “chip on one’s shoulder” is. Throughout the season, she learns the hard way that the pursuit of evil at the expense of reason and compassion leads to disaster. (She’s literally present at the transformation of the Southlands into Mordor, having inadvertently led to its creation.) She eventually does find Sauron, but only after catastrophe, and not where she ever intended.
This could be the dividing line between those who wind up enjoying the series and those who don’t, but flawed heroes learning from their mistakes is, in my reckoning, a good thing, even if we’ve already seen those heroes when they’re more noble. (Hello again, Luke from The Last Jedi). It’s not character assassination. Character assassination would be an abrupt shift from a dynamic, well-meaning (if too earnest and naive) leader to a pyromaniac destroying an entire city.
(Sorry, I had something stuck in my throat.)
Parallel to her story is Elrond, looking barely 20 in human years, assisting Celebrimbor with what would become the three elvish rings of power, in an attempt to stave off the elves’ impending fading into shadow. He asks his friend Durin IV, dwarf prince of Khazad-Dum (aka Moria), for help. This is my second-favorite part of the series: Elrond, Durin, and Disa (Durin’s wife) form this heartfelt dynamic between them, friendships that are nearly ended with Durin’s father (Durin III)’s reticence to help the elvish king, Gil-Galad. Khazad-Dum is well-realized.
This is also shortly before the fall of Numenor, and here we get to see it at its height, before everything goes bananas with Morgoth-worship. Elendil and Isildur, the father-and-son team from the prologue to the Lord of the Rings movies, are the main characters of this storyline, along with queen regent Miriel and counselor Al-Pharazon, the dude who eventually gets Numenor literally wiped off the map in a couple more seasons.
I would also be remiss without mentioning Harbrand, a peasant that Galadriel encounters after a long struggle at sea. He’s initially hesitant about helping any cause other than what serves him, having escaped death in Middle Earth, but Galadriel eventually persuades him to claim a birthright, and the two of them sail with Numenor into…
Haha, no, I can’t do that to you. He’s Sauron, in his guise as Annatar, the giver of gifts. And his performance (both the actor’s and the character’s) is charming right up until it becomes completely sinister.
And somewhere between all these momentous events is a band of Harfoots, progenitors of the Hobbits we know and love, living as nomads. One of them, Nori, finds a tall stranger, survivor of an asteroid impact, with no knowledge of who he is and strong magical powers he can’t fully control.
I’ll get this out of the way: it’s Gandalf. His coming into Middle Earth before any of the other Istari is a big departure from the text, but I’m ultimately happy with it. It’s a great explanation for his fondness for life on Middle Earth, his relative humility compared to Saruman, and for Hobbits in general.
His interactions with Nori, Nori’s friend Poppy (who has a lovely singing voice), and the other Harfoots are such a delight, easily my favorite parts of the series. It’s breath of low-stakes air between the power struggles of Numenor, the orc skirmishes in the Southlands, and Gil-Galad’s ponderous speeches. It also has the best world-building of the show; instead of expensive, digitally-extended sets, it’s a caravan in the wilds, the Harfoots decorating their hair with wildflowers, their children singing songs to remind them of how to stay safe in a world too big for small folk. (“Nobody goes off trail! And no one walks alone!”)
What doesn’t work? The pacing, for one. I mentioned it’s like 12 episodes crammed into 8, and there are plots that needed much more time to breathe, such as Celebrimbor’s frantic work to produce something that can save the elves. I could say that about most expensive media nowadays, though — it seems like the MCU shows are all just a bit to crammed as well.
Gil-Galad just doesn’t work as a character. He’s all duty and brooding, without the joy or energy the other elves display. Even Arondir, a lowly elf soldier caught up in the orc invasion of the Southlands, has a better character arc than Gil-Galad.
The dialogue also feels stilted at times. The writers aimed for Tolkien, but when they miss it feels really off (the much-derided “stones versus boats” speech in the premiere is one such miss). But they usually land the mark, and nothing feels like an anachronism, unlike some of the dialogue in the Peter Jackson films (how would an Orc know what a menu is?)
I probably have a half-dozen nitpicks, but you know what? They’re nitpicks, and this is a good show, not a great one.
I hope this trend of toxic discourse ends, but it won’t any time soon. There are way bigger issues than whether someone likes a certain TV show, things that literally have kept me up at night. But Rings of Power, and Tolkien’s work in general, remind me to foster hope.