Though I had no initial plans to watch The Rings of Power, I ended up viewing season one with a friend. I went in with an open mind, knowing that most of the material would be created solely for the show and not based directly on Tolkien’s stories. Even so, I found myself uninterested in most of the characters, bored by the slow pacing, and confused by the gaps in logic and plot. That such a big show would have such poor writing truly baffled me. The main concern of the showrunners seemed to be to tease viewers with potential characters who might be Sauron in disguise–to the detriment of developed character and and story building. Below are my thoughts about various aspects of the show, in more detail.
Poor Character Building
I had difficulty connecting with RoP from the start because I simply did not care for any of the characters. Because the show chooses to follow several different narratives (that will presumably converge, eventually), most of the characters, when first introduced do not receive enough screen time for viewers to understand who they are, what makes them tick, or why we should root for them. Bronwyn and Arondir, for instance, are reduced to a couple who awkwardly lock eyes from time to time. But I have no idea what Bronwyn’s station in the village is (some sort of healer who makes enough money to wear blue dye when no one else in the Southlands does?), how she met Arondir, or why she cares for him. I still remain uncertain how she ended up the leader of the village when she did not seem to have any standing among her people before the orcs arrived. I really didn’t care if she and Arondir lived or died, and my opinion did not change as the season progressed because viewers only ever receive a few snippets of background information on the two. Yawn. The Southlands portions of the show were some of the most boring.
The Harfoots, meanwhile, have their own character inconsistencies. The show sets them up to be rugged and loyal, chanting, “Nobody goes off trail! Nobody walks alone.” And then they read the book of the dead–all the Harfoots they left behind because they could not be bothered to lend a hand to their friends and neighbors. Why they all tear up at this is unclear. Are they weeping for their own cruelty? Apparently not because when Nori’s father Largo has trouble walking, the Harfoots leave not only him but also his entire family to perish in the wastelands, with never a second thought. But wait! That’s not good enough! The Brandyfoots are viewed as a danger to the group, so some decide that even allowing the group to attempt to migrate is folly. There are calls to take their cart wheels away so they are forced to be left behind and presumably starve or be eaten by wolves. All this makes it really weird for Largo to end the season with a rousing speech about how loyalty and support is what makes Harfoots Harfoots. They have no loyalty, Largo! They wanted to kill you!
And let us not forget the sudden change of heart the Harfoots need to have to welcome and appreciate the Stranger, before lovingly waving good-bye to him and Nori as they set off together. The whole season showed that the Harfoots only care about the Stranger when he helps them, and are willing to turn on him as soon as he makes a mistake. And then his being tangentially involved in Sadoc’s death and the near deaths of three other Harfoots is what makes all the Harfoots appreciate him in the end? I would think they would be chasing him away with sticks and cursing his name (if he had one). I am left wondering if the showrunners are trying to make me admire the Harfoots for their ruggedness, or feel horror and disgust at their callousness.
But while the Harfoots are a perplexing group, I truly did not know what to think about Galadriel. Her introduction shows the famed Commander of the North leading a ragtag band into the freezing cold past their strength and past their orders. She’s fully prepared for them all to die so she can get revenge. Why is she a leader, again? She has zero leadership qualities! Which is exemplified again when she visits Numenor and, instead of politely introducing herself to the court, she insults the whole country before demanding they form an army to follow her into Middle-earth. Please keep in mind that, at this point, they have no evidence that orcs are stirring in the Southlands and not the faintest idea of where Sauron is, so there’s no real tangible enemy she can even ask them to fight. But why all the rudeness? Galadriel may be hot-headed, but she is from a noble family, she is part of Gil-galad’s court, and she is supposed to be a leader of an army–and she has no concept of diplomacy. This makes her later speech about the need for humility all the more bizarre. She doesn’t have any. I kind of hated her, which is not, I think, what the showrunners were hoping for, since she was marketed as the main protagonist.
And why is the show so invested in suggesting that Galadriel is morally gray and could turn evil at any moment, with the right nudge? Is it for drama? Is it because modern audiences are assumed to find actually good characters unrealistic? What am I supposed to think of Galadriel when she spends seven episodes seeking Sauron and then, when she finds him, she lets him go to save her own reputation? I suspect I am supposed to find it all thrilling because one just never knows what Galadriel will do next! Maybe she will even have a little romance with Halbrand! (Ewwwww.) But having a character flail all around the place is not how one makes a character realistically three-dimensional.
Who were some of the only bearable characters? Elrond, Durin, and Disa–not only because their camaraderie is endearing, but because, tonally, they make the most sense. Their characters do not bounce all around, with the showrunners trying to make me like them at some points, and then having them “touch the darkness” randomly just to keep things interesting. If they were going for the vibe that, “Everyone in this show is morally gray and complex!” they failed. A mess is not complexity.
I have no idea what is supposed to happening with the politics in this show, but I have a feeling I’m not supposed to care. I’m supposed to just go along with the spectacle. For example, how did Bronwyn become a leader for her village? Why did Adar just let Arondir go instead of coming up with a plan actually worthy of a villainous mastermind? Why did Numenor decide to go to war in Middle-earth when Galadriel cannot promise them they will even find an enemy there? Seriously, she finds a symbol that references (in the vaguest possible way) a place on a map and a whole island nation that allegedly hates Elves decides it is a good use of public funds to follow a random Elf, sail there, and see what is up? And who is Pharazon? I know who he is in the books, and I know the show finally indicated he is the Queen Regent’s cousin, but why is he running all over the island making speeches? What is his actual job? I don’t know, but he’s probably not good at it since he decided a bunch of strangers should be allowed to sit alone in the dying king’s bedroom and draw him. And is he the one who left all the military ships unguarded, to be blown up by a teenage discontent with no actual skill in espionage? Numenor needs to get it together.
This show has some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard. The awkward, meant-to-be-inspirational bits are bad enough, like the constant calls that, “The sea is always right!” (Worst catchphrase ever.) Or Finrod’s memorably sage advice that, “Rocks look downward.” (No, they don’t.) But then we have gems like, “Give me the meat, and give it to me raw!” (I don’t know. This sounds nasty?)
The writing also often fails to work tonally or in context. For instance, when Theo asks his mother to say what he used to tell her when he had bad dreams, she answers, “In the end, the shadow is but a small and passing thing. There is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. Find the light and the shadow will not find you.” Apparently, the need to reference Sam’s words in LotR overcame the need for a mother to give a realistic answer like, “Shh. It’s okay. I’m here.” Which is what one might suppose a mother would say to a child with a nightmare!
And then there is the big reveal when Halbrand asks what drives Galadriel to seek Sauron when all others have given up. This was the moment when it was all supposed to come together, when viewers really started to understand Galadriel and her quest. The answer? “I cannot stop.” It almost felt like the writers didn’t know what to say, so they went with vagueness.
I can say definitely that the cringey dialogue is one of the worst aspects of the show. The writers so clearly thought they were channeling their inner Tolkien to write catchy snippets that would inspire and sound deep and, like many who reach for the heights, they fell unusually low.
Some have indicated to me that the show is a “slow burn” and it’s worth it to wait and have it all start to come together in the end. I find that strategy odd because I was so bored and uninterested by the first two episodes, I wanted to stop watching altogether. I only managed to get through the season because of pressure from a friend. I had zero interest in the characters, since there were too many of them to be developed adequately at the start and, when I tried to sum up the episodes, I was left with random assortments like, “Galadriel floats a boat. The Harfoots walk around. Elrond smashes a rock with an axe.” Good stuff.
The focus on the show seems to be not on plot or character development, but with teasing viewers about character identities and withholding information just for the sake of creating mystery. For instance, the driving force of season one seems to be the questions, “Who is the Stranger?” and, “Which character is Sauron?” and the creators play that up, with characters periodically accusing one another of being Sauron only to be told they are wrong. These puzzles take up more energy than actually developing the characters or the logic of the plotline.
Other random information is also withheld, seemingly just for the purpose of making viewers wonder about it so the showrunners can triumphantly pull out the answers later. This is presumably why we still have no clue about what happened to Theo’s father or why Galadriel randomly announces several episodes in that she has been married this entire time, but her husband is missing and presumed dead. Viewers know Celeborn isn’t dead. They’re just supposed to wonder when he’ll pop up.
Though it has its moments of suspense, Tolkien’s writing is very straightforward, and he never spends time trying to trick readers into thinking characters are not who they thought, or leaving out information just so people can speculate about it. Deliberately misleading viewers just to shock them is admittedly a valid strategy, especially in the age of the internet, when fans can immediately go online to try to puzzle out the mysteries together. It is, however, arguably not Tolkien-esque. Perhaps more importantly, however, the question, “Which character is really Sauron?” does not seem pressing enough to spend an entire season on, to the detriment of actual character and plot development.
Uninspired Allusions to Peter Jackson’s Trilogy
I am not entirely sure what viewers are supposed to get from the numerous, indeed, overwhelming, numbers of allusions to Peter Jackson’s LotR. They do not often seem to be thematically important. For instance, why should I particularly think of Arwen riding to the Ford of Bruinen when Galadriel is riding a horse? Should the Numenorean charge recall Rohan’s charge? It would make more sense to tie them to Gondor, no? I found the allusions tiresome, as I do not want to play “spot the reference” when trying to immerse myself in a secondary world.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the show, for fans of Tolkien at least, will undoubtedly be the decision to make the Elves’ immortal souls fade away unless they can bathe in the light of mithril (said, in the show, to contain the light of one of the Silmarils). This plot point has a lot of logical problems, of course. How did the light of a Silmaril imbue a bunch of random ore? How does that work, precisely? And how much mithril is needed to save everyone? (Answer: three rings’ worth will do because handwavy magic??) If the Elves need the light of a Silmaril, why can’t they just stand outside when Earendil passes by in the night sky? He has one in his ship, after all! And why is this even happening in the first place? How on earth did the trees of Lindon decide to die and indicate the “rise of evil” when, at that point, Sauron is apparently still stuck in the middle of the ocean and maybe/maybe not considering a simple life as a peasant blacksmith? Maybe the leaves should have decided to die at a more pressing time like, I don’t know, when Morgoth was taking over Middle-earth?
The real problem with this plot point is, of course, that no power that is not Eru (the One) should be able to kill an immortal soul. And the power of the Valar should not be able to save a soul. (The Silmarils contain the light of the Trees of Valinor, which were made by the Valar.) It simply is not consistent with Tolkien’s worldview to suggest that a soul can be made or unmade by anyone who is not the God of that world. Honestly, I found the suggestion to be shocking, considering how the showrunners were assuring everyone that they are huge Tolkien fans, and considering how many Tolkien scholars were gathered before the show’s release to Tweet out their approval of this new vision of Tolkien’s world.
I understand the show is almost entirely fan fiction since the rights to the material concerning the Second Ages are limited. I was not expecting the show to be the work of a Tolkien purist. But this whole idea seems rather wild, even for an adaptation. Even if we go with a vaguer explanation about the need to reclaim the light of Valinor to stop the Elves diminishing, I cannot see how implying that an external source can change one’s internal state would ever be thematically consistent with Tolkien’s vision of good and evil. Is it supposed to be like a reverse of the One Ring? As the One Ring tempts one with power until one is corrupted and chooses evil, the Silmaril light inspires one until they start following the Valar again? Maybe? But I think the show needs to develop this further since the entire Silmarillion is about how the light of the Silmarils tempted Sauron to invade Valinor and then lead the Elves to centuries of warfare as they attempted to reclaim the jewels, and turned on their own kin in order to possess them. Clearly just being in the presence of a Silmaril does not inspire one solely to goodness.
If we really want to get into the nitty gritty of the show, there was plenty to baffle and annoy me. One thing that really struck me was the inconsistency of how Elves experience time. Tolkien wrote that an Elf year is 144 sun years. The show references the idea that time passes differently for Elves when Durin chastises Elrond for not visiting in 20 years, even if that seems like nothing to an Elf. At other times, however, the show forgets this and has Arondir speaking of 70-some years in the Southlands as a long time, when really that would probably seem like six months or so to him. He also speaks of his youth 200 years ago like that’s a long time.
Then there are the strange moments that make no sense. Galadriel, Commander of the Army of the North, chases an enemy to retrieve a powerful object–only to give it away to a random Elf without looking at it or asking questions. The orcs release Arondir for no reason, after killing a bunch of Elves over a tree, as if the showrunners were not sure how to have him escape. Pharazon lets strangers sit in the king’s bedroom without supervision, even though previously no one was allowed to see the king at all for any reason. Miriel reverses her entire worldview in about ten seconds because some leaves fall off a tree–and the anti-Elf sentiment in Numenor that literally caused the removal of the previous ruler immediately vanishes as they all agree to go fight in a foreign land for people they have never seen and know nothing about. A sword is a key that turns a rock that breaks a dam that causes a volcano? (Sorry, I got lost there.) Internal logic in a story is important to me, but I saw very little of it here.
A Few Things I Liked
As many have said, the CGI looks great. I also enjoyed Elrond, Durin, and Disa. Nori is a fun character, even if the Harfoots seem cruel. And I thought it was a fair choice to make the Elves seem more supernatural/superhuman with some of the fighting skills shown by Galadriel and Ardonir. I also liked the attempt to make the orcs seem more nuanced, with Adar’s insistence that they have souls and deserve a home. (I’m not sure where the show is going with this, though, since it’s hard for viewers to sympathize with orcs creating a home by killing everyone in the Southlands and literally forming Mordor. Expansion on this point is needed.) I also thought pretty much all the actors did an excellent job, even when the material given to them was poor.
Rings of Power fails for me, not as a Tolkien adaptation, but as a show. I understood going in that the creators only had the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and would be making up almost the entirety of the show. I was not expecting a purist adaptation of Tolkien. However, the lack of character backstories, the flip-flopping of characters from good to evil, the slow pacing, and the logical inconsistencies and baffling politics, would make me rate any show poorly–even if it had nothing to do with Tolkien. I did not enjoy watching Rings of Power, and the show sadly is unlikely to be part of a new beloved fandom for me.