The prologue that opens Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring explains the rise of the villainous Sauron, his creation of various magic rings, the war waged by an alliance of elves and men to destroy him, and the mysterious fate of the supreme One Ring—all in about seven minutes. The short sequence is a key to the success of Jackson’s film series. It somehow bottles the colossal scope of J. R. R. Tolkien’s storytelling into something digestible for newcomers yet palatable to superfans. Most important, the densely detailed plot benefits from the time limits imposed by feature filmmaking.
Amazon’s new TV series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power has no such constraints. With a five-season commitment and a long-term production budget of reportedly $1 billion or more, the show seems like an apex of the streaming era. The action is set thousands of years before The Fellowship of the Ring and will supposedly focus on Sauron’s origins and the war that is briefly depicted in that aforementioned film’s prologue. But having seen the first two episodes, I can’t really say much else on the plot front. The series certainly looks sumptuous and works hard to conjure the ethereal atmosphere of Tolkien’s legendarium. It has a sprawling ensemble and many potential narrative directions. But I’m not entirely sure what it’s about.
Technically, the series is an adaptation of the appendix material in Tolkien’s series, which delves into the past of his fictional world and particularly explores its “Second Age.” (The books are set in the Third Age.) Some names will be familiar to even the most casual fans: There’s the elven warrior Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark), a younger and flintier version of the elder stateswoman she will become. The half-elven politician Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who will one day assemble the fateful fellowship of the ring to challenge Sauron, appears here as a young idealist. Other recognizable characters such as Isildur, Gil-galad, and Durin populate the cast list, though not all of them immediately appear. The future of the series is already so secure that Season 1 can probably afford to spend its time lazily spinning up various plots rather than telling a proper story.
So what are the deeper themes in The Rings of Power? Well, as far as I can understand it, something weird is afoot in Middle-earth, the fantasy land populated by graceful, immortal elves; grumpy, rock-smashing dwarves; passionate but flawed humans; and a bunch of cheerful little people called “Harfoots.” (Hobbits apparently do not exist in their final form in the Second Age.) Galadriel and Elrond can tell that something is up but can’t quite articulate what; essentially, a major vibe shift is in the works, but whether it’ll come in a year or a few centuries isn’t clear. While they try to get to the bottom of it, new characters pop up, including a bow-wielding elf with a crush on a local human apothecary and a delightful dwarven princess.
I have read most of Tolkien’s works and count myself as a fan. I largely enjoyed watching The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which was co-created by the writing team J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay. The New Zealand landscapes are lovely, the visual effects are both expansive and unobtrusive, and certain performers (especially Clark as Galadriel and Owain Arthur as Prince Durin IV of the dwarves) are immediate standouts. Even though I know the general gist of future story lines (given that it’s all laid out in The Lord of the Rings series), I’m still intrigued to see just how everything will develop and what approach the show will take to portraying characters in their younger years, such as a less omnipotently evil Sauron.
Yet I’m not sure that The Rings of Power will ensnare everyone. None of the twists thus far has been particularly shocking, and the action set pieces don’t have much verve. The first two episodes slowly establish various settings, mostly revolving around the kingdoms of elves and dwarves, as well as the close-knit Harfoot community; there’s still plenty of Middle-earth context left to explain, and I don’t get the sense that the show is in a breathtaking rush to do so. That restraint is the advantage of a hyped-up streaming series.
Still, I finished my two episodes with the feeling that I’d barely begun an appetizer course; the entire experience was more like having a pleasant conversation with my waiter about the kind of food that will eventually be brought out. My bouche has barely been amused, but my deep affection for Tolkien’s world will likely keep me tuning in for a while. Even the most languorous of streaming shows eventually pick up speed, and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power seems to be brewing epic tales of war, heroism, and dark magic. I just hope viewers will get more than a whiff of them over the course of the first eight episodes.