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!
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE EIGHT AHEAD!
“‘In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'”
– The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Mirror Of Galadriel, p. 366
The iconic passage quoted above is from a pivotal scene in The Lord Of The Rings where Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), hosting the Fellowship of the Ring in her home as honored guests, is freely offered the One Ring by Frodo Baggins. In shock and disbelief at the suggestion, she is forced to confront the Ring’s tempting power for the first time, and even after training for just such a moment for over three-thousand years she can’t resist breaking into a classic evil villain monologue before finally gathering her wits and prevailing. Her success in that moment ensures that she can eventually leave Middle-earth and find peace in the Undying Lands across the Sea.
It’s a moment that The Rings Of Power‘s writers have obviously tried to foreshadow in the first season’s final episode, with…moderate success. In a sequence invented for the series, which takes place roughly three-thousand years before the events of The Lord Of The Rings, Galadriel is offered a place at the side of the Dark Lord Sauron and wavers for a minute, torn between her duty to the light and her obsession with the darkness, before rejecting him and his half-baked philosophies so thoroughly that a reunion of their hearts seems inconceivable. It’s supposed to be a moment of catharsis for the protagonist, the moment that her storyline has been leading towards throughout this entire season – and yet it falls flat for two crucial reasons.
Put simply, Galadriel’s epiphany in the finale belongs to a totally different version of the character. I would even wager it was specifically tailored to fit the version of Galadriel who appears in the published Silmarillion and in one of the most frequently-quoted essays in Unfinished Tales – the version widely considered “canonical”, who left Valinor because “she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands [of Middle-earth] and to rule there a realm at her own will”. I myself have long adored the canonical, complex, morally ambiguous version of young Galadriel who seems so at odds with the serene and wise character we meet thousands of years later in The Lord Of The Rings, and there was a time when I had hoped to see her onscreen in The Rings Of Power. But when it became clear that Amazon didn’t have the rights to either The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, I resigned myself to the fact that we would probably never get to see a truly ambitious Galadriel in the first season.
And we never did…until the finale, which I have to assume was written very early on, for a version of Galadriel who actually lusts for power, and was never rewritten even after the writers were denied access to the rights they obviously wanted. Maybe they thought it would work as an homage to the canonical version of the character that most fans wanted to see all along, but it doesn’t track with what we learned about the version of Galadriel we actually spent time with in The Rings Of Power; a battle-hardened warrior who has never been shown to crave either power or status in Middle-earth, who scoffs at politicians and seems unaccustomed to dealing with kings and queens, who desires one thing and one thing only: vengeance for her brother’s death. And that, ironically, is the one thing Sauron never offers her when he makes his impassioned plea.
Of course, that’s because Sauron himself is responsible for the death of Finrod (Will Fletcher), and both he and Galadriel know it, but it would have made sense for him to appease her in the moment by promising her vengeance on those ultimately responsible for all the suffering her family has endured – the Valar, Middle-earth’s pantheon of gods. That suggestion may seem bizarre to some, blasphemous to a few, but hear me out: in The Silmarillion, which contains the closest thing to a “canonical” account of Galadriel’s life that Tolkien ever wrote, it is said that Galadriel rebelled against the gods in her youth and refused their pardon after the downfall of Morgoth, hence why she remained in Middle-earth long after the other “chief actors in the rebellion” had died or departed. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that her relationship with the gods is complicated; something that Sauron could and arguably should have exploited when he had the chance.
And frankly, what better moment to test the limits of her faith than when she’s face-to-face with the enemy she’s hunted relentlessly for centuries, whom she befriended, grew to trust, and even began to love? It didn’t actually happen that way, so there’s no sense in me veering off on a tangent, but I do wonder why the writers went down the path they did if their stated goal was to humanize Sauron and force the audience to empathize with him against our will. How can we, if all we know of him is that he craves power? We’ve heard it said, once or twice in the show, that Sauron plans to heal Middle-earth’s hurts (an idea fleshed out fully in Tolkien’s letters), but what we see of him tells a very different, and in my opinion far less interesting, story.
The somewhat genericized version of Sauron we’re introduced to in The Rings Of Power‘s season finale wears the ruggedly handsome face of a mortal Southlander, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), and strangely never sheds that disguise even after revealing his true identity to Galadriel. The showrunners must have their reasons for sticking with Vickers, and if commitment to the role was one of their criteria I can see why he was chosen to continue as Sauron, because you can’t fake the kind of extensive research that Vickers has done for this role, not just into the lore and into Sauron’s backstory, but into Tolkien’s own thoughts on the nature of good and evil, as well as those of his contemporaries and close friends like W.H. Auden.
Unfortunately, someone in the writer’s room either betrayed Vickers or hugely overestimated his improvisational skills, because Sauron is inexcusably underwritten in the finale and little to none of Vickers’ research shines through his stolid performance. On top of that, the hairstyling and costuming departments failed miserably when constructing his look – between his dirty, uneven reddish-brown wig and the plain garments he wore throughout the season, every styling choice that befitted the persona of Halbrand feels out-of-character for Sauron in retrospect, and the fact that he willingly keeps this form even after parting ways with Galadriel warrants an explanation in and of itself (some of that is probably my headcanons speaking, but I really am bewildered by a number of styling choices made on this show).
But whether in spite of his scruffy appearance or in part because of it, Charlie Vickers exudes sexuality – and the unconsummated tension between him and Galadriel, which can be variously interpreted as sexual, romantic, or entirely platonic, doesn’t entirely dissipate even after he’s revealed as Sauron. Yet I could wish, were it of any avail, that Galadriel had not been so quick to reject him – her haste to assert her moral superiority over the charismatic Dark Lord seems to be for the audience’s benefit rather than her own, echoing moments in dozens of other books, films, and series’ where pure-hearted heroines have spurned their villainous love-interests, with Alina in Shadow And Bone and Rey in The Last Jedi coming to mind immediately. I’m not the best person to examine why women’s wrongs are vilified by writers while men’s are romanticized, but I would very much like to see this trope subverted someday and The Rings Of Power has already failed in that respect.
If the show’s version of Galadriel was even half as politically ambitious as her counterpart in the books, she would have rejected Sauron’s offer not because it was the “right” thing to do but because it would mean sharing power with someone else. And all I have left to say on the subject is that it would have made for a far more compelling scene than the one we got, which is unsurprisingly sexy and well-shot (props to director Wayne Che Yip) but also…unsurprising. When a master manipulator like Sauron is on the game-board at last, you’d think that there would be some twists and turns in store but the finale instead takes the most direct path to its destination, leaving me to once again wonder whether showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay should maybe leave the writing to others.
The highlight of this mostly average episode, for me, is the scene where Halbrand introduces himself to Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the Elven jewel-smith with whom he will go on to forge the first Rings of Power…in the span of about fifteen to twenty minutes. Though the writing is nowhere clumsier than when Halbrand explains the concept of alloys to Celebrimbor, Edwards’ performance is nowhere more lively than when he’s shyly blushing at Halbrand’s compliments, or when his fingertips and Halbrand’s brush against each other for a moment as they exchange a piece of mithril silver. Many fans felt dissatisfied by the lack of interactions between these two characters and criticized The Rings Of Power for blatant queer erasure as a result, but I wouldn’t be so sure that in season two, with Galadriel no longer susceptible to manipulation, Sauron won’t turn all his attention on Celebrimbor.
And just to be clear, I too would have liked to see the queer undertones in Sauron and Celebrimbor’s story brought to the surface when they were first onscreen together, but nowhere near as much as I wanted Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) to kiss in the final minutes of the episode, as Elanor set off on a new adventure into the unexplored east of Middle-earth while Poppy led the nomadic Harfoots in the opposite direction. I knew then that their story wouldn’t parallel Frodo and Sam’s, or even Merry and Pippin’s, but for a few moments, I actually wondered if they might just be our queer parallels to Sam and Rosie – and when Poppy screamed “Wait!” my heart soared, only to drop again when I realized they were just going to hug and cry before saying goodbye. I wish I could say I have no problem with theirs being a sweet platonic relationship, but in a story as vast and sprawling as this one, to have no queer characters at all is…suspicious, not gonna lie.
In season two, it seems that Elanor’s screentime will once again primarily be shared with The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), now revealed to be one of the five Istari or “wizards” sent to Middle-earth to combat Sauron between the Second and Third Ages. Which one, exactly, remains a mystery; but of the five, only two are ever said to have journeyed east into the lands of Rhûn, where the Stranger is currently headed – and those two are, conveniently, the enigmatic Blue Wizards whom Tolkien wrote the least about in his lifetime, which could make them particularly appealing to writers looking to expand on the legendarium. Alternatively, he’s just Gandalf, but surely that or one of his many other names would have been used in the episode if that were the case, no?
Either way, the Mystics from Rhûn somehow recognized him as an Istar immediately after discovering the full extent of his power, but they’re dead now (much too soon, if you ask me), and the Stranger hopes that in Rhûn he can learn whatever it was they knew. But he already knows the most important thing: that he is good, and not because of what he was told but because of what he chose to be. I can imagine the eye-rolls that will have induced from some, and yes, it’s clearly intended to be heartwarming, but aren’t all stories involving Hobbits, to some extent? Isn’t that what we love about them, that they always voice their true emotions without reservation even at risk of sounding overly earnest? And isn’t it beautiful that the Stranger, who didn’t speak at all when he first descended from the sky, is learning to speak what he truly means and feels from the best teachers in Middle-earth?
Of all the characters crammed into The Rings Of Power‘s first season, I dreaded the Harfoots the most, largely out of fear that they would slow down the story – and yet in the end, theirs was the only subplot that consistently moved slowly enough for my tastes. While the Rings of Power themselves were forged in a matter of minutes by characters who’ve had barely any screentime throughout the season, abruptly resolving a story that had only just gotten started, the Harfoots required eight whole episodes to build up to their own extremely satisfying cathartic moment in the finale; the moment where they band together to defeat the Mystics, pelting the ethereal antagonists with small stones – possibly alluding to how Bilbo defeated the ravenous spiders of Mirkwood (which is incidentally also where this scene takes place, although in the Second Age it’s still known as Greenwood the Great).
So yeah…definitely didn’t go into this expecting to want more non-canonical Harfoots and less of Sauron the literal Dark Lord, but I have a feeling Tolkien at least would be pleased to know that the light can be more interesting than the darkness, and sometimes all it takes is someone like an Elanor Brandyfoot or a Poppy Proudfellow, the most quintessentially Tolkienesque characters to have never flowed from the author’s pen.
If The Rings Of Power can’t yet commit to telling the darker stories of the Second Age with the nuance they deserve (I’m still not sure where and when exactly the writers lost the thematic through-line of mortality and the fear of death, but by the time they find it the story of Númenor’s downfall will be over at the rate we’re currently speeding through major plot-points), at least it doesn’t lack for wholeheartedly magical subplots that make this first season worthwhile despite a disappointing (and to be fair, only temporary) conclusion to Galadriel and Sauron’s intertwined character arcs.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE SEVEN AHEAD!
“‘I shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess,’ said Sam gloomily. ‘And that’ll take a lot of time and work.'”
– The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, The Scouring Of The Shire, p. 1020
A very good episode in and of itself, but poorly-suited for its crucial spot towards the end of season one, “The Eye” will, I think, be remembered unfavorably by fans for failing to deliver on the promise Amazon made with that arresting title and their marketing, that this would be the episode where the Dark Lord Sauron’s identity would be revealed outright, to the audience if not to the characters. Whether you feel that’s entirely on fans for allowing themselves to be so easily deceived, there’s no denying that episode seven is surprisingly slow and uneventful for the penultimate episode of a season that has been widely criticized for taking too long to get wherever it’s going (and until now I’ve been on the opposing side, saying the season has moved much too quickly for its own good, but this episode is almost as slow as an Entish good-morning).
This episode brought to mind something that I’ve heard said about Peter Jackson’s The Return Of The King frequently over the years, namely that the film has too many false endings where it feels like the story has been satisfyingly wrapped up but after a fade-to-black it’s revealed that that’s not the case and instead it just keeps going, and going, and going – it’s a critique I hear a lot from casual fans, who don’t realize that Jackson was heavily abbreviating the last few chapters of the book: which follows the Fellowship on their homeward journey north from Minas Tirith after the War of the Ring, with stops every couple of paragraphs at Edoras, Helm’s Deep, Isengard, Rivendell, Weathertop and Bree, all before the four Hobbits make it back to the Shire, where they discover Saruman has installed himself as “Chief” in Bag-end and has hired mercenaries to oppress the Hobbits.
None of that makes it into the Extended Edition of Jackson’s Return Of The King, much less the Theatrical Version with which most casual fans are probably familiar, and yet even the swift transition from Frodo reuniting with his friends in Minas Tirith directly to the coronation of Aragorn and thence to the Shire is enough to bore some viewers to tears – and while I can’t say I ever felt bored watching The Rings Of Power‘s seventh episode (unlike the Elves, I have not yet grown weary of Middle-earth and likely never will in my lifetime), I think I finally understand where those critiques are come from, at least to an extent…though I still don’t agree that The Scouring Of The Shire “needed” to be cut entirely, and The Eye works for me precisely because it explores several of the same themes as that chapter. Slow pacing and a few too many false endings aside, it actually does so rather well.
The first few minutes of the episode, packed with high-stakes action as the survivors of Orodruin’s eruption stagger blindly through the burning wreckage of Tirharad, dragging their wounded friends and loved ones with them, give no indication that the episode will soon grind to a halt as subplots collide, characters reel and take time to recover, and a lot of subtle internal development occurs as a result, especially to Galadriel (Morfydd Clark). The Noldorin Elf, born in Valinor before the first sunrise, is paired up with Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin), a fourteen-year old mortal boy stunned into silence by the sheer scale of the devastation unfolding around him, devastation he unwittingly helped to bring about and at the time believed worth it for his mother. These two, companions by chance, learn valuable lessons from each other that will shape them both moving forward.
In Theo, Galadriel sees another version of herself rising from the ashes of Tirharad – another dangerously naïve child with fire in their heart and behind their eyes, whose instinctive response to trauma is to exact vengeance on those they’ve determined to be responsible. Galadriel, though not a child in years when her older brother Finrod was killed by Sauron and his mission became hers, was still childish and impulsive, like most of her family (sadly, in The Rings Of Power, Galadriel’s family consists strictly of her brother Finrod and father Finarfin because Amazon can’t legally mention anybody else). She hoped, as a child might, that when Sauron was gone, her heart would be healed, and instead she spent over a thousand years pursuing him across Middle-earth without success, while alienating everyone she cared about (possibly including her husband, Celeborn).
Following Finrod’s death, Galadriel had no one to advise her against making the worst decision of her life…at least in The Rings Of Power‘s abridged version of events, where no mention is made of her mentor in sorcery, Melian the Maia, and where Galadriel’s husband Celeborn is said to have never returned home from the wars against Morgoth, which to her implies that he perished although I have a feeling only she and very casual fans of the franchise will be shocked when he inevitably returns in a future season. Anyway, this time around, someone is there for Theo, someone to help guide that frightened child back from the brink of bitterness, anger, and despair, instilling in him the self-control she was never taught when she was young – and that person is Galadriel, of course.
As they meander slowly (too slowly) through the burned and blackened remains of the Southlands, Theo is driven almost to his breaking-point by his grief and guilt – but Galadriel keeps him from falling apart with gentle words of encouragement, urging him not to justify evil deeds to himself as she did. The sense I get from all their interactions is that, much like how in The Lord Of The Rings Frodo clung to the notion that if he could save Gollum there might still be hope for him in the long run, Galadriel needs to know that Theo can be saved for her to feel she too can be. But if Theo is the person Galadriel was meant to cross paths with all along, as I now suspect, where does that leave Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who has only ever sated Galadriel’s appetite for blood by feeding her the information she wants to hear?
With Halbrand, newly crowned King of the Southlands, vanishing after the eruption of Orodruin only to wind up so badly injured that Galadriel takes it upon herself to urgently shuttle him out of the Southlands – and away from all his new responsibilities – to Lindon for the kind of healing only Elves can provide), the case for him being Sauron in disguise has never been stronger. I mean, assuming all goes according to plan, he’ll literally be delivered to Gil-galad and Celebrimbor as if on a silver platter. But the truth of the matter is a well-kept secret over at Amazon Prime Studios, at least for a day longer (meanwhile, House Of The Dragon‘s plot is available to read in its entirety on Reddit and full episodes leak in advance of their release every week).
I myself have oscillated between suspecting Halbrand and wanting only the best for him. Frankly, I don’t see how all his actions throughout the first season will retroactively add up if he turns out to be Sauron. He was downright insistent about staying in Númenor from the moment he set foot there, but then he was insistent about staying in the Southlands with his subjects – and since on both occasions it was Galadriel who ultimately coerced him into following her, the only way I can rationalize this is if Sauron is legitimately trying to do good everywhere Galadriel brings him, thinking she is his salvation the way she was for Theo, yet by a cruel twist of fate Galadriel is preventing that from happening by leading him closer and closer to his long-suppressed ultimate goal, the kingdoms of the Elves.
The emphasis placed on Halbrand’s skill as a smith leads me to believe that, whether he is Sauron or not, he will play a key role in the creation of the Rings of Power – perhaps, if he is just some guy from the Southlands trying to do good, he will contend with the real Sauron for influence over the project only to be corrupted and then later gifted one of the Nine Rings for mortal Men as a reward for his assistance. But if he is Sauron, I only pray that he poses as an Elf while dealing with Celebrimbor – Elven arrogance is one of the main ingredients in the Rings of Power, and I can’t easily envision Celebrimbor taking advice on this subject from a Man he deems inferior to himself in every way. It was hard enough getting him to work with Dwarves.
Regardless of whether Galadriel is literally accompanying the chief enemy of her people back to Lindon, the volatile situation she’ll find when she returns is practically ready and waiting to be manipulated by the Dark Lord, much like how Orodruin was waiting for a single catalyst to cause a chain-reaction of catastrophic events leading directly to the volcano’s eruption. Riled up by rumors and scant evidence that the light of the immortal Elves is fast fading and only mithril can prevent their decay (which to them is the closest equivalent to death), King Gil-galad and Celebrimbor are plotting to take decisive action, which sounds to me like someone is about to forge a prototype Ring of Power.
As much as I strongly dislike The Rings Of Power‘s take on Gil-galad as a patronizing middle-aged guy, I appreciate that the writers are implicating him in the creation of the Rings – because it always bothered me when reading The Silmarillion‘s account of the Second Age that Gil-galad saw straight through Sauron’s disguise, knew he was trouble, and even forbade him entry into Lindon, yet allowed him to stay in Eregion for centuries, all while Galadriel was going around telling anybody who would listen that Sauron was most definitely back. In The Rings Of Power, I would not be surprised if Gil-galad refuses to act because he wants Celebrimbor and Sauron to finish the Rings first, and it doesn’t matter to him if Celebrimbor gets hurt or killed because he was a Fëanorian and Gil-galad can always have the historical record edited to show that he warned Celebrimbor about Sauron.
Elrond (Robert Aramayo), Gil-galad’s young herald, is also said to have advised the High King against permitting Sauron into Lindon, but in The Rings Of Power thus far he’s only returned to Lindon once since leaving with Celebrimbor in episode one, and has spent most of his screentime haranguing the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm in the hopes that they’ll share their mithril with the Elves. He really is becoming a politician, as Galadriel once observed with some scorn in her voice that I now think was not unwarranted: apart from missing several important events in his friend Durin IV (Owain Arthur)’s life, including his wedding and the births of his children, Elrond has lied to Durin and the Dwarves on numerous occasions, or bent the truth where it behooves him to do so.
In this very episode, Elrond even admits as much to his friend, telling Durin that he intentionally threw the rock-breaking contest in episode two so that he could speak to the Dwarf (which kinda makes sense; if he had won, Durin would have been publicly humiliated and never would have heard him out). Durin laughs it off, but he doesn’t seem to realize that Elrond is manipulating him – and to be fair to Elrond, I don’t think he fully realizes it either. He just wants to make his mark on Middle-earth independent from Gil-galad, and he thought defying the High King’s will would be enough, but he’s still using the tools of Gil-galad’s trade to get what he wants. Only by discarding those tools and employing the unbiased empathy unique to him will Elrond finally evolve into the character we know from The Lord Of The Rings.
Unfortunately, it’s much too late for him to repair Durin IV’s relationship with his father, Durin III (Peter Mullan), which was already strained before Elrond entered the picture but broke at last under additional pressure from the Elf. Durin III is absolutely at fault for stifling his son’s ambitions and refusing to so much as entertain any of his suggestions, but he’s also weirdly not wrong for distrusting Elrond, believing the Elves should accept mortality as all others in the world must, not wanting to challenge the will of Eru Ilúvatar on that subject in particular (see: Akallabêth), and above all else not wishing to endanger Khazad-dûm and its people by digging for mithril beneath the city. At the same time, Durin IV isn’t wrong for wanting to help his friend or for feeling immense guilt and shame when his father intervenes on his behalf, but the Dwarves wouldn’t advise against digging too deeply if they didn’t have reason to believe there was something down there, something bad.
As we discover near the end of the episode, there is something bad down there, a Balrog of Morgoth to be precise, and if all it takes is a single falling leaf for this thing to wake enraged from its slumber and roar, imagine for a moment what the ceaseless sound of picks and hammers just above its head will do to it. Unless there’s a whole colony of Balrogs hiding out beneath the Misty Mountains, I’m inclined to say this is the very same Balrog that will in a future Age arise from the darkness to slaughter the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm; the same Balrog that made a brief but memorable appearance in The Fellowship Of The Ring, where it killed Gandalf the Grey and was killed by him; and the same Balrog described in the non-canonical Song Of The Roots Of Hithaeglir, though no mention was made of it falling into the Misty Mountains.
But these are events in the far-off future and past, respectively, and right here and now this Balrog serves no real purpose except as foreshadowing and fan-service. In the season finale I might have excused it, if it were one of many little teases to get people hyped for season two, but in the penultimate episode of the first season it’s totally misplaced. It’s definitely not getting brought up again before the season’s end, I can assure you of that, and frankly I’m not even sure we’ll see the Dwarves again, unless it’s part of some closing montage wrapping up all the subplots. But what is there to wrap up? Durin III is old and obstinate, and I don’t see him changing his mind for the sake of any Elf in Middle-earth, so all that’s left for him is to die or be defied. I’ll confess to being somewhat morbidly curious at the thought of a Dynasty-style, cutthroat Dwarven family soap opera, but even Durin IV’s ambitious wife, Disa (Sophia Nomvete), advises her husband to simply wait for his father to pass on before making his next move.
Another major character I’m not sure we’ll see again in what little remains of this first season is Theo, who parts ways with Galadriel after reuniting with his mother Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her Elven boyfriend Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova). The last we see of this lovely trio, they’re leading the Southlanders even further south-west to Pelargir near the mouth of the River Anduin (prediction: Arondir gets nostalgic for Beleriand and its great river, and begins to experience Sea-longing, a sign that the Elves are indeed fading). The city of Pelargir was canonically established after the forging of the Rings by Númenórean colonizers, but in The Rings Of Power it’s described as one of their ancient outposts, which implies that Númenor had an empire once, before they became a nation of isolationists, which indirectly (and probably unintentionally) implies that it’s only once they stopped colonizing Middle-earth that they fell out of favor with the gods…am I interpreting that correctly?
A number of controversial yet potentially very interesting choices were made with the Númenórean characters in this episode – Isildur (Maxim Baldry), separated from his friends in the chaos following Orodruin’s eruption, is set up to have a solo arc in Middle-earth next season, perhaps allowing him to lay the groundwork for the kingdom of Gondor (and interact with Theo, who I believe is destined to become King of the Dead); his father Elendil (Lloyd Owen)’s faith in the Elves is shaken by the apparent death of his son, which will make the future alliance between him and Gil-galad all the more emotionally impactful; and most notably, Tar-Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), the Queen-Regent of Númenor, is blinded by flying sparks.
The consequences of this choice are not immediately clear to me, and though I’ve seen speculation that Míriel’s disability will provide her chancellor Pharazôn with the only excuse he needs to take on more responsibilities in the governance of Númenor, if this is to be the case I hope it’s handled very carefully by the writers – there are a dozen routes Míriel’s storyline could take that would veer into ableist territory, and I worry that, given her ultimate fate, it’s rather callous to make her of all characters Middle-earth’s first and (off the top of my head) only blind character. But if, Eru forbid, Míriel is ever reduced to a Victim archetype, I trust that will not be the fault of Addai-Robinson; she seems to understand the importance of finding an authentic balance between vulnerability and strength, and the fact that these were the very first scenes she filmed, before she even knew the character, is pretty remarkable.
But with all the chaos and drama unfolding in the Southlands on this week’s episode, I’m sure I was not alone in feeling tonal whiplash when director Charlotte Brändström cut away from Isildur being buried under a burning house and Tar-Míriel screaming while clutching at her eyes to Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) singing about snails. The Harfoot subplot initially comes across as deliberately interruptive, as if it was meant to give viewers a quick breather before plunging back into the smog blanketing the Southlands – and seeing as The Stranger (Daniel Weyman) and Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) basically just retread the same ground we covered in episode five (with Stranger once again performing magic that goes awry and scares the Harfoots), that may well be the case. It’s not until the Stranger leaves to be on his own, and the Mystics come looking for him, that things get really interesting.
The Mystics, a harmonious trio of tall, gaunt, eerily-silent, wispy women who go by the titles Dweller (Bridie Sisson), Nomad (Edith Poor), and Ascetic (Kali Kopae), made only a small impression on me when they were introduced in episode five, but this week we saw them in action – and sure, maybe it’s just from the perspective of the diminutive Harfoots that they’re absolutely terrifying, but they can practice dark magic, which to my mind already implies that they’re on roughly the same power-level as the Stranger in his current state. Additionally, Middle-earth’s magic-system relies heavily on staffs or staves, and you’ll notice that at all times one of the Mystics is carrying a black scepter crowned with the symbol of the Lidless Eye – a bit like how, in Greek mythology, the three Grey Sisters share a single eye. I believe that’s why their magic works, and the Stranger’s doesn’t…yet.
But before the end of the season, I predict that the Stranger will wrest that black scepter away from the Dweller (who most often appears to be in charge of carrying it around) and using it for the first time will cause him to radically transform, for better or worse, into a completely different person. At the very least, I hope then we’ll be able to confirm what class of being he belongs to, and if Amazon is feeling especially generous they’ll share his name with all of us. On that note, keep in mind that even if he turns out to be Gandalf, he’s unlikely to refer to himself by that “Mannish” name – instead, the Quenya Elvish name he would presumably be using upon his arrival in Middle-earth is Olórin. Likewise, if he’s a Blue Wizard, keep your ears pricked for the names Alatar, Pallando, Morinehtar, or Rómestámo.
Some fans still think the Stranger’s identity won’t be revealed this season, and I think that’s absurd now that we know he and the Harfoots will return in the finale (what do they have left to do this season, if not get to the bottom of this lingering mystery from episode one?), but given how many subplots seemed to just end this week I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if neither he nor the Harfoots reappeared. I think that’s why this episode feels so slow, because it’s wrapping up most of the really engaging subplots a little earlier than anticipated while apparently shifting focus over to the one that never picked up steam, and to characters like Gil-galad and Celebrimbor who only got a few minutes of screentime in total. The finale needs to sell us on that subplot, or going into season two many casual fans will be more hyped to see the return of original characters than the forging of the Rings of Power, and that would be a shame.
I won’t lie, going into the season finale with no clear idea of how, when, where, or even if Sauron will be revealed is kinda nerve-wracking for this fan who’s been waiting to see him in his full glory for a very long time now – but I have no doubt that, each week, regardless of whether my expectations are always matched or surpassed, The Rings Of Power will continue to take me on a thrilling journey with every new episode. I only wish it didn’t have to end so soon. It feels like just yesterday I was sitting in a movie-theater, staring up in awe (and I mean straight up: me and my sister were seated in the literal front row) at locations and characters from these books I adore that I’ve never before had a chance to see onscreen, with Bear McCreary’s score echoing in the room all around me, surrounded by people presumably just as eager to see what J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay had to offer in the first two episodes screened for fans. Maybe that’s the upside to false endings: they allow us to spend a few more precious moments in this world we love before finishing the story.