[On this site I cover all things Star Wars, and also some things from other Lucasfilm properties like Indiana Jones and Willow. But I also share a love for The Lord of the Rings, and having kept up with the Rings of Power episodes weekly, I decided to write a review for the first season overall. Not to worry, this site will remain dedicated to Star Wars, but I hope that this brief excursion to the world of Middle Earth is permitted and enjoyable. ***Major spoilers about the Rings of Power series are ahead.***]
The first season of Amazon’s highly-anticipated Lord of the Rings series has wrapped up, with the eighth episode of Rings of Power premiering on the streaming service today. The most expensive show ever made, the plan for the series is a five-season story that centers around the forging of the rings of power, which play a major role in J.R.R. Tokien’s world and stories. The first season of that story has now been told, and I’m very impressed.
The story of the first season is, in overly simplistic terms, about Galadriel’s quest for Sauron, and the mystery of Sauron’s true whereabouts continues until the final episode of the season. But the season is actually told through several different stories that take place. (1) One of those, perhaps the most dominant one, is focused on Galadriel and her quest – one that takes her to Lindon, Númenor, the Southlands, and Eregion. (2) Another storyline focuses on the Harfoots (a kind of Hobbit), particularly Nori, who are nomads – and who are visited by a mysterious and powerful stranger from above. (3) In the Southlands, the Elf Arondir and the locals (especially Bronwyn) discover Orcs plotting to take over the land, under the direction of the corrupted Elf Adar. (4) And while all of this happens, Elrond is tasked by Gil-Galad with assisting Celebrimbor. But as the very existence of Elves in Middle Earth is threatened, Elrond re-kindles his friendship with the Dwarf Durin to enlist their help.
One of my biggest question marks entering the show was how it would stay faithful to the world of Tolkien, and I wasn’t so concerned with particular details as I was with wanting it to keep the same themes and heart behind Tolkien’s masterful stories. And on that note, I was thoroughly impressed. Sure, there were a few details that have been altered, but overall I think the show has taken great care to capture the feel, heart, and story of Middle Earth in a faithful yet fresh way. And all the while, it shows us some key moments we always knew happened but have never actually seen: the creation of Mordor, the forging of the three Elven rings, the halls of Khazad-dûm in their prime, the kingdom of Numenor in its glory, and more.
The show moved slowly at times, but rarely did I think it was too bogged down or lagging. They did stretch some questions on for a while, but I’m more or less ok with that given how they addressed them in the season finale. Who is the Stranger? And where is – who is – Sauron?
The question of the Stranger was introduced as the cliffhanger to the first episode, as he arrived from the sky – leading to plenty of speculation from viewers. This was the mystery that grew a bit old for me, as it felt like the storyline with him was stretched on a bit needlessly without resolution. However, after seeing the finale, I get why they did it: the showrunners wanted to use the Stranger as a fake-out for who Sauron really is, and I like how that came together, so it helps the overall storyline in the season. But in short, despite being mistaken for the Lord Sauron by the dark cultists, the Stranger is not him but “the other” – an Istar, a “wise one” or “wizard.” As Tolkien’s story goes, the Valar sent five Istar wizards to Middle Earth to counter the rising threat of Sauron in the Second Age. Among these five were the wizards who became known as Saruman and Gandalf. We don’t know exactly which of these five Istar the Stranger is, but the finale especially seemed to hint that it’s Gandalf (there’s a line the Stranger says that’s eerily similar to a line from Gandalf in The Felllowship of the Ring)… but I’m also not ruling Saruman out yet (he was supposedly the first one sent to Middle Earth and the timing here would line up better than Gandalf). Regardless, I’m glad to have some resolution to this mystery, and it’s exactly as most of us expected.
The other mystery, and the one that I thought was the better-executed and more interesting of the two, was about Sauron’s whereabouts. The opening scenes of the series established that Galadriel believed he was still out there, but that others grew skeptical. And in the first episode, Gil-Galad sends Galadriel to the Undying Lands, telling Elrond that he had forseen that had she stayed she would inadvertently kept alive the evil she sought to destroy. His prophecy came true. Galadriel turned away from the Undying Lands, and as she did she encountered a raft adrift – and upon the raft a man named Halbrand. They each save the other’s life as the season goes on, and it’s Galadriel’s confidence in his future (and her thinking he’s the king of the Southlands) that inadvertently brings the evil she swore to destroy back into the picture – for, as it turns out, Halbrand is Sauron. That’s revealed when he befriends Celebrimbor, and I thought that reveal was tremendously done… at least for those familiar enough with Tolkien’s story to catch on at the moment. Galadriel comes to realize her mistake, but she doesn’t stop the creation of the rings because she realizes it’s the only hope for the Elves staying in Middle Earth – and if the Elves leave Middle Earth, there’s no hope of Sauron being stopped.
The scenes between Galadriel and Halbrand are spectacular, primarily in the finale after Galadriel catches on. In Tolkien’s writings Galadriel was one of the few whom Sauron feared, as he recognized her power – power nearly unrivaled among the Elves – and that’s picked up on here as Halbrand attempts to have Galadriel join him. He offers her power as his queen, and in doing so he actually uses the same langugae that Galadriel uses centuries later when Frodo offers her the ring in Lothlórien. It’s a brilliant bit of writing and foreshadowing, and it highlights how she does thirst for the power, even if she might intend to use it for noble ends.
At the beginning of the series, a young Galadriel asks her brother, Finrod, how she is able to tell the light from the dark. He tells her that a ship floats because it stays focused upward, “Fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.” Galadriel confesses that sometimes the light can be just as brightly reflected in the water, so how can she tell the difference? Finrod answers that sometimes to be able to discern the light, one must touch the darkness. That is a fitting summary of Galadriel’s story in this season, as she attempts to follow the light but winds up following the reflection (which is why the reflection of her and Sauron in the water in the finale is even more perfect) and touching the darkness. Now, though, she has more clarity than she did before, and it’s almost as if a weight has been lifted all the while another one has been added.
It’s all setting up season two, where now that Sauron is revealed he’ll play a major role. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner J.D. Payne said, “Season one opens with: Who is Galadriel? Where did she come from? What did she suffer? Why is she driven? We’re doing the same thing with Sauron in season two. We’ll fill in all the missing pieces.” Fellow showrunner Patrick McKay said, “he’s evil, but complexly evil.” As such, executive producer Lindsey Webber told Deadline that, “I think in some ways, [season two is] going to [be] grittier, more intense, maybe a little scarier.” Sauron has returned, and Sauron has been revealed.
Overall, I think the first season of this series was a success. The story was interesting and thematically faithful to Tolkien, but what really stood out was everything else about it. The performances of the cast were absolutely brilliant. Morfydd Clark as Galadriel stole the show in particular, but the entire cast was stellar. Not only was it one of the biggest strengths of season one; it’s one of the biggest reasons to be excited about coming seasons as well. I can’t say enough good things about the cast. But the same goes for the visuals, cinematography, and costume design, which were stunning and felt more than worthy of adding to the Lord of the Rings worlds created on-screen by Peter Jackson. And Bear McCreary’s score was perfect, alongside the theme written by Howard Shore.
It wasn’t a perfect season, but it was a very good one. And it has me excited for season two, even if it’s not coming anytime soon.