I had to dig through my site’s archives to find the first post I wrote about Gollum, but even so I was shocked to discover that it’s been over two years since the first footage from the game was revealed to the public. I can just barely remember feeling disappointed with the titular character’s unexpressive face and janky movements at the time, but it seems I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, because Daedalic Entertainment has spent the last two years reworking the game. I would have probably forgotten about it entirely, were it not for a new full-length trailer for the game released on Thursday that tentatively hints at a 2023 release date and urges gamers to add it to their wish-list now.
Gollum follows the character’s circuitous journey across Middle-earth in pursuit of Bilbo Baggins during the sixty-year interlude between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, a journey that takes him from the Misty Mountains to Mordor, where he is detained in the dungeons of Sauron and tortured until he reveals who took his precious Ring, and then to Mirkwood, where he is detained in the dungeons of Thranduil and tortured until he reveals what he revealed to Sauron, and then back to the Misty Mountains to continue his long-delayed original mission, only to unexpectedly run into the Fellowship of the Ring led by Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins and begin hunting them. The game promises to flesh out these events with new material and original characters to keep Tolkienites and casual gamers alike on their toes, but Gollum’s goal, the player’s goal, is the same – survive, and find the Ring.
With everyone and everything in Middle-earth out to get you, this goal can only be achieved by being strategic about when to lean into the character’s violent tendencies as Gollum and when to unlock their deeply suppressed better qualities as Sméagol, something that is sure to be one of the game’s most interesting and unique features. Reinforcing the idea that Gollum stands in the middle of the rift between Middle-earth’s cosmic forces of light and darkness, the character’s potential allies come from both sides of the conflict, including an Elven woman named Mell who appears to hail from Mirkwood and Shelob, a monstrous demon in spider-form.
Even though many of the game’s characters are recognizable by name to even the most casual Tolkienite, including Shelob, Gandalf, Thranduil, and the Mouth of Sauron, their designs are remarkably…original, borrowing far more heavily from the bizarre, whimsical Rankin/Bass 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s borderline-psychedelic 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings than from either of Peter Jackson’s hyper-realistic film trilogies or Amazon’s The Rings Of Power. Gollum‘s Elves, for instance, are sinuous, reed-thin creatures with hooded eyes, drowning in layers upon layers of voluminous fabric and enormous, ornate headdresses. It’s the kind of game where a Tom Bombadil cameo wouldn’t seem entirely out of place, and that’s saying something.
Whether the gameplay matches the quality of the visuals remains to be seen, but I’ll leave that to professional gamers to determine: for me, as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works who simply enjoys analyzing new adaptations and debating the thematic consequences, great and small, of making changes to the source material, the main appeal of Gollum is the agency it gives to the player to make choices that will decide Gollum’s ultimate fate. I don’t know yet if the game allows you to go running off in any direction, with alternate endings depending on how you choose to play, or if it eventually forces you back on the path that leads Gollum to his canonical confrontation with the Fellowship of the Ring, but I’m excited to see how the developers at Daedalic have integrated the character’s internal struggles into every aspect of their game from the narrative to the actual gameplay.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER SEASON TWO AHEAD!
New year, same niche interests.
Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power has been lingering in the back of my mind ever since its epic season finale, which saw the human Southlander Halbrand revealed to be the Dark Lord Sauron in one of his many fair-seeming forms. With his plan to conquer Middle-earth unknowingly set in motion by the characters of Adar, Celebrimbor, and Pharazôn, the stakes are higher than ever – and the only thing standing between Sauron and his ultimate goal is Galadriel, to whom Sauron’s ambitions were made terrifyingly clear when he offered her a place at his side in the new world he intends to build from the old one’s ashes. Heading into season two, the Three Rings forged by Celebrimbor will come into play, giving the Elves an apparent advantage over Sauron that the Dark Lord will seek to circumvent by approaching Celebrimbor in a new disguise and persuading him to create more Rings with his help; Rings through which he can control the other Free Peoples, Men and Dwarves.
With a grand total of nineteen Rings of Power floating around in season two (minus the One Ring forged by and for Sauron alone), audiences can look forward to appearances from the future owners of the Seven Rings made for the Dwarves and the Nine Rings destined to enslave Men. On top of that, the first season came to an abrupt end before the Elves gathered to witness the forging of the Three Rings could decide who among them should wield these precious artifacts, leaving open the possibility that multiple high-ranking Elven-lords and ladies will vie for a Ring of their own before they inevitably come to rest on the hands of Galadriel, High King Gil-galad, and Círdan the Shipwright. The books and posthumously published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien are largely unhelpful for theorists, offering only a vague account of how the Rings of Power were distributed – which means there’s no predicting how Amazon’s adaptation of this story will play out.
At one point, Tolkien toyed with the idea that the Rings of Power had originally all been made for Elven wearers, and that it was Sauron who later went amongst Dwarves and Men, handing out the sixteen Rings he had stolen from Celebrimbor’s forge when he sacked the city of Eregion. I can easily believe that Men, with their short lifespans and shorter memories, would fall for that trick, but it’s never made much sense to me that the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, who promptly closed their doors in Sauron’s face after Eregion was sacked, would reopen them for any mysterious stranger bearing Rings that could only have been made in Eregion. I’ve always preferred the account passed down by the Dwarves themselves; that Celebrimbor himself presented a Ring of Power to King Durin III, making at least one out of the Seven a true token of friendship between Elves and Dwarves.
The identities of the other Ringbearers also eluded Tolkien, or else he never gave the matter much thought. It is generally assumed, for good reason, that the rest of the Seven Rings were given to the heads of the seven Dwarven clans (Longbeards, Firebeards, Broadbeams, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, Blacklocks and Stonefoots), but I do not believe that this is actually confirmed anywhere. It’s theoretically possible that two or more Dwarf-lords of a single clan each received a Ring, and that some clan leaders steadfastly refused to accept Rings at all. Seeing as the Dwarves were generally far more resistant to the corrosive powers of the Rings than Men or even Elves, it would not surprise me if that were the case. The names of the nine Men who became Sauron’s Ringwraiths were either lost to time or suppressed, all save one; Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, who was second-in-command to the Witch-king of Angmar.
That’s the story we’ve been told, anyway. Amazon intends to tell their own, and it seems to me that there are already a few original characters (i.e. characters invented for The Rings Of Power, who didn’t exist or weren’t named in Tolkien’s works) that have been set up in season one to become Ringbearers in season two, amongst them Durin IV and Disa of Khazad-dûm, Bronwyn and Theo of the Southlands, and Kemen of Númenor. The concept alone may offend some Tolkien purists, but allow me to lay out the argument for each of these non-canonical candidates.
Representing the prestigious Longbeard clan as the main Dwarven viewpoint character in the series, Prince Durin IV is the most obvious choice to receive the Ring of Power given to his father by Celebrimbor in the semi-canonical version of the story only sketched out by Tolkien. He is, at any rate, far more likely to accept the gift without questioning its origins than his father Durin III, who in Amazon’s retelling is deeply distrustful of the Elves and all their handiwork. The Ring, with its tendency to “inflame [the bearer’s] heart with a greed of gold and precious things”, would bring out the worst qualities in Durin IV, who unsuccessfully sought for six episodes to convince his father that the value of mithril (a precious metal coveted by the Elves, but only found in narrow crevices deep below the foundations of Khazad-dûm) far outweighed the dangers of mining it. With a Ring on his finger to assure him of his own infallibility, he would become insistent upon digging ever deeper in search of mithril, inevitably awakening the monster nestled in wait at the mountain’s roots.
I see these tragic events unfolding in Durin IV’s future as clearly as if they were already filmed, but whether his wife Disa make it out alive or not will depend entirely on whether she learns too late what Gandalf told Saruman in The Fellowship Of The Ring; that “only one hand at a time can wield [a Ring of Power]”, meaning that its bearer will soon become possessive of it and irrationally suspicious of anyone who offers to share it, even if only to ease the mental and physical toll it exacts. I fear that this once inseparable power-couple will break under pressure, and that while Durin is dragged down by the weight of his Ring to a dark and terrible place, Disa will be put in an extremely difficult position where she can choose to stick by his side, either for true love’s sake or in the naïve hope that she can make the Ring work for her too, or she can get out before she’s buried with him beneath falling monuments to their selfishness and greed, the only thing they ever truly shared.
We have yet to see any Dwarf-lords from the other six clans scattered across Middle-earth from the Ered Luin to the Iron Hills, and I doubt that The Rings Of Power will ever find the time or space to flesh out their stories anyway, but I imagine we’ll see the other Dwarven Ringbearers gathered in at least one scene, solely so that Amazon can replicate that iconic moment in the opening sequence of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, where the seven nameless Dwarf-lords hold up their Rings as one. Personally, I’m hoping for a little more diversity in Amazon’s version, because if Galadriel can get grouped in with the “Elven-kings” in the famous Ring-verse despite being a woman (and explicitly not even equivalent to a king amongst her own people), then there can be some Dwarven-women among the “Dwarf-lords” mentioned in the next line.
That brings me to the next character I believe might be tempted to get her hands on a Ring – Bronwyn of the Southlands, a humble human apothecary who became unexpectedly crucial in deciding the fate of Middle-earth after leading her people to a victory against the Orcs that was only overturned when Orodruin suddenly erupted, forcing her to flee to Pelargir with her family and other refugees at the end of season one. Not only is she now acquainted with the Dark Lord Sauron (albeit in the fair form of Halbrand, long-lost king of the Southlands), giving her the means to obtain a Ring of Power, she also has the motive to want one: she’s in love with an immortal Elven warrior named Arondir who has been around since the First Age and will still be around long after Bronwyn’s great-grandchildren are dead, which is sure to pose a problem in their relationship as they start to wonder what’s next for them now that they’re comfortably settled down in Pelargir.
By a complete coincidence, the nine Rings of Power given to Mortal Men have the side-effect of extending their bearer’s lifespan long beyond its natural endpoint, something that sounds really appealing until you realize that the Rings can’t do anything to preserve your physical body or your mind, but will continue to puppeteer your undead husk for centuries until even that has crumbled away and finally all that remains is an overworked and exhausted soul tied to the world by the Ring on its nonexistent finger. If that fate awaits Bronwyn, it will be far worse than dying of old age, for death would come as a sweet release after an eternity of numbness.
Frankly, I’ve always felt that Middle-earth needs more women who are morally ambiguous in all the ways that men have always been allowed to be, so I wouldn’t necessarily object to Bronwyn becoming a Ringwraith, but I do have concerns that if her story goes down this route, it might gradually become the story of Arondir’s attempts to save Bronwyn from herself, rather than remaining focused on her – very relatable, and extremely Tolkienesque – struggle with the fear of death, so I’d like to hear opinions from women about how (or whether) it can be depicted without that happening.
Bronwyn’s son Theo has a rather more straightforward motive for desiring a Ring of Power. Ever since Waldreg stole the mysterious sword-shaped key that Theo had been using to stab himself so he could get high on blood loss and used it to activate Orodruin (why was the key shaped like a sword, anyway? I still have far too many questions regarding the key, the keyhole, and Sauron’s bizarre plan to anti-terraform the Southlands for there to ever be good enough answers), Theo has spoken about feeling powerless without it and wanting revenge on the Orcs to fill the gaping void in his life. While Sauron might not allow him to go that far, he can offer Theo something else – an even stronger drug that will silently kill off the parts of him that are good and innocent, reducing him to a vacant vessel ready to be filled with Sauron’s malice. The alternative, in my opinion, is that Theo becomes the King of the Dead, and either way he’s going to be trapped between life and death for a long time before getting peace.
Kemen, the weakly rebellious son of Pharazôn, is by far the least interesting and least sympathetic character who could potentially end up wearing one of the Nine Rings, but I have to believe there was a reason for writing him into the series, and this is the only one that makes any sense to me. Throughout the first season, in the few and far-between glimpses we caught of Kemen and his father interacting, we watched with second-hand embarrassment as the young man almost reluctantly matured – though only after his puppy-like attempts to please his father (“I was only trying to be clever”) were met with contempt. Kemen’s guilty anger emboldened him, and he thwarted his father’s imperialist agenda by blowing up a ship intended to set sail for Middle-earth, although he barely made it out of the conflagration alive. In season two, I expect Kemen to go to even greater lengths to sabotage (and at the same time, subconsciously impress) his father, and it would be most ironic if he only succeeded in enslaving his will to the Dark Lord.
Besides Kemen, it’s possible – though very unlikely, in my opinion – that another Númenórean, Eärien, will become a Ringwraith. I personally believe she will be lured to the dark side not by promises of power or eternal life, but by the opportunity to build the Temple of Morgoth in Armenelos where Sauron and Pharazôn will sacrifice prisoners-of-war and members of the Faithful arrested on false charges of treason, including Eärien’s own family. I will support her every step of the way, mind you, no matter what unspeakable crimes she commits to become the greatest architect in Middle-earth for one brief shining moment before it all comes crashing down around her, but for that climax to be truly satisfying I believe Eärien must surely die in the building she designed to last for centuries, like Thomas Andrews going down with the Titanic.
With the cast of The Rings Of Power expanding in season two, there’s a very strong chance we’ll soon meet other future Ringwraiths from Númenor, Middle-earth’s Southlands, and the currently uncharted regions of Rhûn and Harad. But I don’t know anything about these characters, and Tolkien left nothing for me to work with, so this is where I must sadly end. Of course, there is one more Ring, one of which I have not yet spoken, but that One was made for the Dark Lord’s hand alone, and it was only by chance (which some might call the divine intervention of Eru) that it was cut from his finger and later lost in the murky waters of the Anduin, only to be picked up by a hobbit or something akin to one, anyway. For the record, however, I do believe the One Ring will be forged in the season two finale, concluding Sauron’s irreversible descent into darkness.
So…which of the characters I’ve mentioned will actually get their hands on a Ring of Power when all is said and done, and which will become corrupted, transforming into horrible Ringwraiths? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
Ah, how I’ve missed the Amazon marketing team’s wildly unpredictable strategy for promoting what is reportedly the biggest and most expensive series ever made for television. Coming off a premiere with record-breaking viewership numbers that caused lots of online discourse but nevertheless generated a dedicated fanbase who thereafter kept the series at or near the top of the Nielsen charts for multiple weeks in a row, The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power has fumbled one opportunity after another to keep that fanbase’s undivided attention through what is expected to be a long downtime between seasons. Most casual fans probably weren’t even aware that season two had quietly started filming back in early October, while the first season was still airing, because there have been almost no official updates on the production out of Bray Studios in England.
Until Thursday morning, when Amazon chose to randomly spring on us a total of seven new casting announcements for The Rings Of Power season two – with one, unfortunately, being the unexpected recasting of a major character. Nobody behind-the-scenes seems to have considered how slipping this important piece of information into a press release might completely overshadow what should have been a celebratory moment for the seven new actors joining the world of Middle-earth, or how a day of warm welcomes would inevitably turn into a day of solemn farewell messages directed at Joseph Mawle when it got out that he would not be returning as “Adar”, the darkly seductive leader of the Orcs that so many of us had grown to love.
Samuel Hazeldine, best known for his work in Peaky Blinders, The Sandman, and The Last Duel, will assume the role going forward. Knowing nothing about Hazeldine and his acting process, I only hope that he isn’t compelled to mimic Mawle’s mannerisms too closely, or worse, directed to do so – while there should be a sense of continuity between their two iterations of the same character, Mawle’s Adar was by all accounts the end-result of meticulous research and immersion into Tolkien’s mythology for the Orcs, and I (along with many others) would ideally like to hear that Hazeldine took a similar journey before settling on his own, subtly unique, characterization for this enigmatic antagonist. Beyond that, I can guarantee that fans will be comparing the two actors, and a few will be coming into this season downright mad about the recasting and mad at Hazeldine through no fault of his own, so channeling Mawle might just have the undesired effect of drawing attention to his absence.
With that out of the way, there are six other actors joining The Rings Of Power who are lucky not to have the shadow of another looming over their heads, and it’s time we moved down the list. First up, there’s Gabriel Akuwudike, who comes from a background in theatre and has had various small roles in film and television (including 1917, Game Of Thrones, and Cursed). He’s around the same age as Morfydd Clark and very handsome, so naturally everyone in the fandom has jumped to the conclusion that he’s playing Celeborn, Galadriel’s canonical husband who has not yet appeared in The Rings Of Power (in a significant deviation from what Tolkien wrote on the subject, the series’ version of Celeborn has been believed dead for centuries, which is already a hell of a lot more interesting than anything he ever did canonically; sorry, someone had to say it). Of course, this is all just speculation, and it’s just as likely that Akuwudike is playing an original character.
Next on the list is Yasen Atour, and his face might already be familiar to some of you as that of the Witcher Coen in the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher. He struck me as very funny and likeable there, so I’m excited to see what kind of energy he brings to The Rings Of Power, whether his character is dramatic or comedic. My most out-there theory is that he’s Theo’s nameless father, who disappeared from Tirharad before he was born (and at one point was widely suspected to be Halbrand), but the mystery surrounding that character and Theo’s origins in general weirdly trailed off without a proper resolution halfway through the season, around the same time the Orcs attacked Tirharad. With Theo and his mother Bronwyn presumably safe and sound in Pelargir at the beginning of season two, maybe there’ll be time for the show to address all our burning questions regarding Theo’s bloodline, and his connections to Mount Doom and Sauron.
Moving on, we have Ben Daniels – an acclaimed British actor with a long and distinguished career on the stage (his performance in All My Sons at the Royal National Theatre in 2001 earned him a Laurence Olivier Award, and he is a three-time nominee), as well as in television and film (globally, he is probably best known as Antony Armstrong-Jones in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, but he has also had major roles in House Of Cards, Merlin, and Jupiter’s Legacy). With that resume, I have to imagine his character in The Rings Of Power is someone of significance: Círdan the Shipwright perhaps, or Amandil, the grandfather of Isildur, if Amazon obtains the rights to his remarkable yet tragic story.
Amelia Kenworthy and Nia Towle have similar backgrounds in theatre and to date have had only a few film and television acting credits between them. For Kenworthy, in fact, The Rings Of Power will be her television debut – although the RADA graduate has previously appeared in several productions of Shakespeare’s work, including as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Towle, who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, received very strong reviews for her performance as Lettie Hempstock in the West End debut of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, and most recently appeared briefly in Netflix’s anachronistic adaptation of Persuasion.
And that brings us at last to Nicholas Woodeson, who has been working in theatre since the early 1970’s, when he started out at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Looking at his enormous body of work, which includes numerous appearances in film and television, including Heaven’s Gate, Conspiracy, Skyfall, and the HBO series Rome, I see a similar career trajectory as the one Sir Ian McKellen took to the role of Gandalf, which made him a household name globally. Looking at Woodeson, I could potentially see him as another wizard – one of the Blue Wizards, perhaps – or as a Harfoot, if there are any new characters yet to be introduced from that group. He could be Círdan (he’s certainly closer in age to how I would imagine the Shipwright than anyone else in the cast), but something about him doesn’t fully scream Elvish to me.
Well, that’s everything I know about everyone joining the cast of The Rings Of Power in season two. There are probably still a few more names that haven’t yet been revealed, important ones too, but I’d be surprised if we saw many more new additions to the cast – after all, there are still over twenty returning characters from season one. Whose introduction (or return) are you most excited for, and is there anyone from the books you think we’re seeing here for the first time without even realizing? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE SIX AHEAD!
“”The Eagles!” cried Bilbo once more, but at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew no more.”
– The Hobbit, The Clouds Burst, p. 260
“‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’ For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.”
– The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, The Black Gate Opens, p. 893
For as much as J.R.R. Tolkien’s great tales, The Silmarillion and The Lord Of The Rings in particular, are stories set in times of war that deal with related themes, they are not about the act of warfare itself. Wherever he possibly can, Tolkien simply avoids having to write about battles entirely by knocking his viewpoint characters unconscious in the first five minutes of combat and having them wake up hours later after the fighting has concluded – see, for example, the two passages quoted above. Where he cannot fall back on this trick, he nonetheless still pulls back from the heat and intensity of the action to give readers a concise play-by-play of the battle from the distant perspective of a narrator. I suspect that as a veteran of the First World War he had difficulty writing about bloodshed in great detail.
Going into The Rings Of Power‘s sixth episode, therefore, my worst fear was that it would be, from beginning to end, an interminable action sequence devoid of the microcosmic, quiet and emotionally-charged moments between characters that Tolkien generally preferred to settle on between more vague descriptions of military movements – to name just a few examples, Aragorn leaning wearily on his sword to chat with Éomer at Helm’s Deep and again on the Pelennor Fields; Éowyn trading blows with the Witch-king while protecting the body of her fallen king; Merry and Pippin stumbling through the streets of Minas Tirith to the Houses of Healing. The opposite extreme would have been a battle robbed of even a pretense at weight and consequence by characters stopping every five seconds to make some witty remark in Marvel-movie fashion.
Happily, my fears did not come to fruition. Under the direction of Charlotte Brändström (only the second female director on this franchise, at least to my knowledge, after Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson’s wife and co-director on The Lord Of The Rings), The Rings Of Power‘s largest and longest action sequence to date strikes a balance between being entertaining and engaging for its audience and absolutely exhausting for its characters. Indeed, the violence is more brutal than anything in the first five episodes – and at times, more than anything in either of Peter Jackson’s two trilogies, which generally refrained from showing human characters die gruesome deaths. Brändström seems to have no such qualms, pushing the limits of the TV-14 rating about as far as I think is possible.
But the most intense moments in this episode occur amidst lulls in the fighting, such as when the village healer and de facto leader of the Southlanders, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), is wounded in battle by an arrow and has to try and remain still while her lover Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) pulls the shaft from her shoulder, all while she’s losing lots of blood and watching wide-eyed as her fellow Southlanders are dying in droves without her assistance. I’m squeamish about gory injuries, so the fact that I had to turn my face away from the screen both times I watched the episode may say nothing about how brutal it actually is, but it’s not just the bloodiness of the scene or the sound-effects of the arrow sliding through flesh that made me physically shudder – Boniadi and Córdova’s tortured expressions and frantic performances help to ensure the scene is difficult to watch, in the best way.
But in an episode that also features the very first kiss between their two characters, it’s a bit of a shame that Boniadi and Córdova’s portrayal of mingled pain resonated with me, while their halfhearted attempts to convey romantic interest in the other fell flat. I simply don’t understand, six episodes into the first season, why they’re in love beyond the fact that they share an interest in nurturing and healing – plants in Arondir’s case, people and animals in Bronwyn’s. I appreciated that they finally confessed their love for each other at the same spot where they rendezvoused in episode one, hands clasped over the living woods of a tree growing in the middle of Tirharad, thereby connecting them to Middle-earth and to the Vala whom Arondir claims “watches over growing things and those who tend them”, Yavanna Kementári (her name, sadly, cannot legally be used by Amazon, as it never appears in The Lord Of The Rings or its Appendices), but the heavy emphasis on this one surface-level aspect of their attraction doesn’t make up for an absence of anything else deeper to it.
Their most touching moment comes when they plant the alfirin seeds Bronwyn gave Arondir back in episode one, to ensure the survival of one new life before the imminent death of hundreds, if not thousands. It’s a beautiful ritual, one we also see the enemy leader Adar (Joseph Mawle) partake in at the beginning of the episode, subtly indicating to the audience that, while he no longer identifies exclusively as an Elf, he has retained many of the memories and customs he learned before he was turned to the darkness. The question of what Adar is and whether he and his Orcs have any claim to the respect they say they’re owed is one that looms heavily over this entire episode, which sees Adar leading his armies into battle with the intention of taking the Southlands – not for political purposes, but to establish a homeland for the Orcs, his “children”. He sees them as living beings whose creation, though apparently unnatural, was nonetheless permitted by the One (i.e. God or Eru Ilúvatar as He is called in Middle-earth) for a reason, in the same way Dwarves and Ents were created by other Valar and then integrated into Eru’s plan.
Adar’s nuanced opinions on this controversial subject stand in stark contrast to how Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) describes her enemies bluntly as “a mistake”, made in mockery of Elves without the blessing of the One, rendering them devoid of even the semblance of sentience and free will. Adar insists that his Orcs are masterless, following him out of genuine love, not fear or domination of the spirit. Galadriel retorts that they are still bound to Sauron, their true master, whom Adar believes he killed long ago. The argument between these two characters is one which J.R.R. Tolkien had with himself many times throughout his later life, as he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the theological implications of an evil race and began to explore alternative origin stories for the Orcs – though ultimately he was never able to settle on one he liked, and instead fell back on the excuse that the original Elven authors of the great tales were biased and unreliable, so their account of events, which was nonetheless published in The Silmarillion, might well have been a fabrication.
Where The Rings Of Power has leaned most heavily into the unreliable narrator trope, I have a suspicion it’s for many of the same reasons: the showrunners and writers either haven’t settled on the answers to this and other confounding questions, or simply don’t want to make irreversible choices that could be divisive within the fandom. Leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions once too many times can easily lead to frustration, although at least in this case there’s plenty of evidence in the writing and in Mawle’s charismatic performance that Adar is exactly what he says he is: a living person driven by the beatings of his own heart, deserving of love, respect, and a home.
Love and respect he has earned from his children many times over through countless personal sacrifices, but a home can only be earned by winning the respect of Middle-earth’s other Free Peoples, either through diplomacy or conflict – and seeing as Galadriel speaks for most Elves and Elf-friends when she says Orcs should be eradicated without mercy, Adar recognizes that diplomacy is useless and prolonged conflict will force his children to make unnecessary sacrifices. He is left with just one option: to cause a volcanic eruption that, apart from turning the tide of the battle in his favor, also leads to the sun being blocked out by a cloud of volcanic dust and ash…which, for the Orcs, means they can at last walk freely across the surface of Middle-earth in the daytime without fear of burning alive. Unfortunately, it also means those seeds Adar planted right before the battle will probably never sprout, but that’s a small price to pay in his mind. He loves his children deeply.
Paternal affection is a thematic undercurrent throughout this episode, which sees the Númenórean ship-captain Elendil (Lloyd Owen) paired up with his wayward son, Isildur (Maxim Baldry), throughout the battle. The two narrowly avoid death by Orc, death by geyser, and death by volcanic rock fragments (properly known as tephra), to come out the other side with a much stronger appreciation for each other – Isildur finally sees his father in action, casting off the disguise of the world-weary widower that he’s worn for so long in a well-intentioned effort to keep his family safe back in Númenor, now fighting fiercely to protect his loved ones. And at the same time, Elendil realizes that his attempts to stifle his son’s interests for the boy’s own sake will never succeed, for Isildur is most reckless when he feels caged-in or cornered.
Now, on that note, we have to talk about Tar-Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who watches dispassionately from the sidelines as soldiers under her command give their lives for the cause she loudly endorsed from the comfort of her palace. Either she’s self-important or a coward, and in a world where kings lead by example, it is definitely a Choice by the showrunners and writers to make the first ruling woman of color (and one of the few ruling women, period) in Middle-earth’s history a mere bystander to her first battle. If the writers want to deconstruct antiquated monarchist tropes (that’s me playing devil’s advocate, but it’s plausible given The Rings Of Power‘s other writing choices), then they need to be less subtle about it.
In-universe, I think Míriel made a terrible choice: if my predictions for the finale come true, she’ll already be returning home to find that Pharazôn has accumulated more power in her absence and is now vying for the throne with the support of the citizenry; last thing she needs is for her own troops to weigh in by revealing she did nothing in the battle. She’ll be blamed for what is quickly shaping up to be an unprecedented military disaster, and Pharazôn will effortlessly seize power before either forcing her into a politically-motivated marriage (the canonical sequence of events) or banishing her to the tower in Armenelos where her dying father is confined. Ah well, at least she looked cool in her gilded scale-mail armor and impractical radiate crown.
Despite my fear that Galadriel would be slowed down by her own heavy suit of armor, that proved not to be the case – in fact, a short clip of Galadriel swinging gracefully off the side of her horse to mow down orcs before righting herself in the saddle has been making the rounds on Twitter for the past few days after one viewer complained that it was “unlikeable” and rightfully got piled on in the the quote-tweets and comments for not only ignoring or excusing all of Legolas’ gravity-defying stunts in The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit (not to mention descriptions of Galadriel outperforming all the athletes of the Noldor in her youth), but for completely missing the point that The Rings Of Power has been trying to hammer home for a while now, which is that Galadriel is unlikeable.
Her arrogance is explicitly shown, more times than I can count on two hands, to be her greatest character flaw and a hindrance at every turn, yet annoying dudebros online act like it’s a “gotcha!” moment when they point it out – no, FirstNameBunchOfNumbers, it just means you have no concept of how positive character arcs work because the idea of bettering yourself is fundamentally abhorrent to you. And Galadriel is working on being more humble: it’s not easy for her, because she always saw arrogance and ambition as a strength (almost like she grew up surrounded by Fëanorians), but she’s slowly learning from Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) that there’s value in treating other people as equals and negotiating with them instead of always using her titles to get what she wants. She relapses when confronted by Adar, who sees right through the new persona she’s been trying to build with Halbrand’s help, but the learning process continues.
And as it does, Galadriel and Halbrand continue to grow closer…and closer…and closer, until they’re sitting mere inches apart from each other in the middle of the forest, trading shy glances and stumbling over their words. Halbrand coyly suggests that fighting alongside Galadriel, basking in her light, he felt for the first time that he could be free of guilt for all his past misdeeds, and Galadriel responds that she felt it too – which is a big deal coming from an Elf, to whom mortal Men are typically insignificant. Compare her intimate conversation with Halbrand to the chat she has with Isildur at the beginning of the episode: with Isildur, she was aloof and distant, as an adult is to a child, but with Halbrand she is present, so near they could believably kiss in that moment. And unless Halbrand is not a mortal, I don’t know how he could get Galadriel feeling butterflies (I mean, he’s good-looking, don’t get me wrong, but Elves don’t just fall for humans or crush on them, either).
Halbrand and Galadriel don’t actually kiss, hold hands, or even embrace in that moment, and I doubt they ever will, though the tension between them is palpable, and everyone – from the actors to the audience – can feel it. If The Rings Of Power had come out in the mid-2010s, these two would have been extremely popular on Tumblr and there’d be no shortage of fan-art and fan-fic dedicated to this ship (“Galbrand”, “Haladriel”, or “Halatáriel”, the latter an amalgamation of Halbrand and Alatáriel, a Telerin name ironically given to Galadriel by her canonical husband, Celeborn). But the fact that they’re still pretty popular even without the boost that Tumblr in its heyday would have provided is a testament to the writing, the chemistry that Clark and Vickers have…and the fact that they’re both very attractive, which is all it takes for us mere mortals to become obsessed, admittedly. I feel for the actor cast as Celeborn who will have to try and one-up Vickers.
In the meantime, the question next week’s episode will have to answer is whether any bond of love born in fields of battle can survive when nourished not by the fear of imminent death, which has a way of loosening tongues that would otherwise remain silent. There’s no hope for Galadriel and Halbrand in the long run, not unless Celeborn is open to a polyamorous relationship (I would not be opposed, Tolkien might be but who can say for sure?), and there’s plenty of time for death to come between Arondir and Bronwyn – not that I believe Bronwyn will die anytime soon, but I’ve always wondered if she might grow resentful towards her immortal lover, and now her near-death experience in battle has allowed that seed of fear and doubt to germinate in her heart.
And keep in mind, all of this was derived from an episode that’s largely comprised of people hacking each other to death with swords and spears. That’s the sign of a good script, a good director, and showrunners who understand that Tolkien uses violence not for shock value and never to gratify, but to say that which cannot be said by any other means. That is exactly the purpose this episode serves, and the fact that it just so happens to be one of the most action-packed hours of fantasy television I’ve ever seen is a happy coincidence, if you ask me.