The overly named The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiered its first two episodes last Friday, bringing audiences back to Middle Earth 20 years after The Lord of the Rings made “Hobbits” and “Sauron” part of the pop culture lexicon. TROP is the most expensive show ever made (to date), and you can see all that money on the screen. This is a LAVISH show with gorgeous costumes and stunning sets and locations—once again New Zealand is subbing for Middle Earth—and above-average but not stupefying visuals. The first two episodes are directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, with cinematography by his regular collaborator, Oscar Faura, and there are some dazzling visuals here and there, but overall, the first two hours of TROP lack the breathtaking scope of The Lord of the Rings.
With so much emphasis on the budget and return to New Zealand, perhaps my expectations were too high, but excepting a handful of painterly frames, the look of the show is in line with other big-budget series. You can build as many practical sets as you want and forge as much elf armor as one cavern can hold, but if the actual filmmaking is indifferent, then we’re left with very average frames full of expensive props. It’s cool to see a location like Khazad-dum before it’s a ruin, but where the subterranean world of the Dwarves feels sepulchral in LOTR, like Frodo and his ragtag team of heroes are entombing themselves within the earth, here it feels like characters are touring a Disneyland water ride. And it’s not the difference of a place abandoned versus occupied, it’s how the locations are approached. In LOTR, Khazad-dum is a warning in spatial form. In TROP, it’s patter and flash, with no real sense that it’s a bustling city supporting hundreds, even thousands, of citizens. It just feels…staged.
That’s no fault of the actors, who do their best with rather thin material. There is just SO much to get through in the introductory episodes, and the writers of TROP have not, two episodes in, cracked how to get through various character intros and exposition without it feeling like a massive info dump every ten minutes. The first episode, “A Shadow of the Past”, is written by co-showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and the second episode, “Adrift”, is written by Breaking Bad alum Gennifer Hutchinson. They are tasked with plowing through reams of setup, and while the result is less than elegant, it is, at least, decipherable. TROP is basically a prequel for LOTR, covering the events that lead to the forging of the One Ring.
The excellently named Morfydd Clark stars as a young Galadriel, and far from a girlboss, Galadriel is so bent on revenge she eschews good judgment and makes a battlefield decision that costs the lives of several Elves. She is a great warrior already, though, so High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) offers her a trip home to Valinor, the homeland of the Elves. It’s basically forced retirement, and Galadriel, who wants to find Sauron and kill him because Sauron killed her brother, reluctantly gets on the westward boat. The trip to Valinor is one of the better sequences in the first episodes, though suffice to say, retirement is not in the cards for Galadriel.
Meanwhile, young Elrond (Robert Aramayo, Game of Thrones’ young Ned Stark) is trying to get his Dwarven buddy, Prince Durin (Owain Arthur), to collaborate with the Elves in building a super special forge for the Elven artisan, Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards). Elrond doesn’t know what Celebrimbor wants with a super special forge, but anyone familiar with LOTR can guess what that forge will ultimately be used for. A big hindrance to Elrond’s effort is Durin’s anger at him for missing the last twenty years of Durin’s life, including his wedding and the births of his children. It’s an interesting angle, that the Elves live SO long they are perpetually out of step with everyone around them, and I wish these early episodes devoted more space to that concept.
Everyone hates the Elves but it’s for all the usual fantasy reasons—Elves are stuck up, prissy, they are the de facto leaders of the realm, blah blah. I KNOW J.R.R. Tolkien is largely responsible for this overused trope, and thus it is true to the spirit of LOTR, but LOTR starts with a world where Elves and Dwarves and humans hate each other, and TROP starts with a world where Elves and Dwarves and humans hate each other, and maybe that is book-accurate, but it also makes TROP feel like a retread. It just would be nice if Middle Earth in TROP felt different from Middle Earth in LOTR in ways other than purely aesthetic. But it’s largely the same socio-political situation, with some new characters added in, such as Nori (Markella Kavenagh), a Harfoot—ancestors of Hobbits—who longs for adventure, a very strange longing for Harfoots.
TROP is heavily invested in the doings of Elves early on, but the scenes with Nori are consistently the best in these episodes. Markella Kavenagh has the kind of infectious screen presence that instantly prompts investment, and Nori is fun, charming, and spunky, and when she makes what is probably a fatally bad decision, it is understandable because her longing for a bigger life than the simple existence of Harfoots is so plainly grating on her. Nori’s probably terrible decision involves befriending The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), a man who falls out of a meteor. Maybe he’s Gandalf, but he’s probably Sauron, and the combination of Nori’s earnest kindness and adventurous spirit brushing up against this odd, magical man (“man”) is so portentous their every interaction brings you to the edge of your seat, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
TROP bounces around Middle Earth, following Elves here and there, encountering trolls and Dwarves and humans, but little else sings with the verve of Nori helping meteor-man. In comparison, Galadriel’s quest to find Sauron is flat, largely because we’re ahead of her fellow Elves, we know Sauron is still alive. We know Galadriel is right, so wasting time on scenes in which everyone says she’s wrong is just frustrating (a common trap in prequels). It feels like Nori’s story starts at the start, but Galadriel is still wending her way through prologue after two hours. This is a big show with a sprawling ensemble cast and many plotlines, but it’s not particularly well balanced. It’s not hard to follow who’s who, but the pacing is off between all the various plots. And nothing carries the immediate intrigue of Nori and her ill-advised new friend. The Rings of Power isn’t bad, but despite its obvious big budget, it isn’t great, either, at least not here at the beginning. If only every plotline was as good as Nori’s, then we might be onto something.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episodes 1 and 2 are now streaming on Amazon Prime, with new episodes arriving every Friday.