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 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.
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.