I had to dig through my site’s archives to find the first post I wrote about Gollum, but even so I was shocked to discover that it’s been over two years since the first footage from the game was revealed to the public. I can just barely remember feeling disappointed with the titular character’s unexpressive face and janky movements at the time, but it seems I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, because Daedalic Entertainment has spent the last two years reworking the game. I would have probably forgotten about it entirely, were it not for a new full-length trailer for the game released on Thursday that tentatively hints at a 2023 release date and urges gamers to add it to their wish-list now.
Gollum follows the character’s circuitous journey across Middle-earth in pursuit of Bilbo Baggins during the sixty-year interlude between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, a journey that takes him from the Misty Mountains to Mordor, where he is detained in the dungeons of Sauron and tortured until he reveals who took his precious Ring, and then to Mirkwood, where he is detained in the dungeons of Thranduil and tortured until he reveals what he revealed to Sauron, and then back to the Misty Mountains to continue his long-delayed original mission, only to unexpectedly run into the Fellowship of the Ring led by Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins and begin hunting them. The game promises to flesh out these events with new material and original characters to keep Tolkienites and casual gamers alike on their toes, but Gollum’s goal, the player’s goal, is the same – survive, and find the Ring.
With everyone and everything in Middle-earth out to get you, this goal can only be achieved by being strategic about when to lean into the character’s violent tendencies as Gollum and when to unlock their deeply suppressed better qualities as Sméagol, something that is sure to be one of the game’s most interesting and unique features. Reinforcing the idea that Gollum stands in the middle of the rift between Middle-earth’s cosmic forces of light and darkness, the character’s potential allies come from both sides of the conflict, including an Elven woman named Mell who appears to hail from Mirkwood and Shelob, a monstrous demon in spider-form.
Even though many of the game’s characters are recognizable by name to even the most casual Tolkienite, including Shelob, Gandalf, Thranduil, and the Mouth of Sauron, their designs are remarkably…original, borrowing far more heavily from the bizarre, whimsical Rankin/Bass 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s borderline-psychedelic 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings than from either of Peter Jackson’s hyper-realistic film trilogies or Amazon’s The Rings Of Power. Gollum‘s Elves, for instance, are sinuous, reed-thin creatures with hooded eyes, drowning in layers upon layers of voluminous fabric and enormous, ornate headdresses. It’s the kind of game where a Tom Bombadil cameo wouldn’t seem entirely out of place, and that’s saying something.
Whether the gameplay matches the quality of the visuals remains to be seen, but I’ll leave that to professional gamers to determine: for me, as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works who simply enjoys analyzing new adaptations and debating the thematic consequences, great and small, of making changes to the source material, the main appeal of Gollum is the agency it gives to the player to make choices that will decide Gollum’s ultimate fate. I don’t know yet if the game allows you to go running off in any direction, with alternate endings depending on how you choose to play, or if it eventually forces you back on the path that leads Gollum to his canonical confrontation with the Fellowship of the Ring, but I’m excited to see how the developers at Daedalic have integrated the character’s internal struggles into every aspect of their game from the narrative to the actual gameplay.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER SEASON TWO AHEAD!
New year, same niche interests.
Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power has been lingering in the back of my mind ever since its epic season finale, which saw the human Southlander Halbrand revealed to be the Dark Lord Sauron in one of his many fair-seeming forms. With his plan to conquer Middle-earth unknowingly set in motion by the characters of Adar, Celebrimbor, and Pharazôn, the stakes are higher than ever – and the only thing standing between Sauron and his ultimate goal is Galadriel, to whom Sauron’s ambitions were made terrifyingly clear when he offered her a place at his side in the new world he intends to build from the old one’s ashes. Heading into season two, the Three Rings forged by Celebrimbor will come into play, giving the Elves an apparent advantage over Sauron that the Dark Lord will seek to circumvent by approaching Celebrimbor in a new disguise and persuading him to create more Rings with his help; Rings through which he can control the other Free Peoples, Men and Dwarves.
With a grand total of nineteen Rings of Power floating around in season two (minus the One Ring forged by and for Sauron alone), audiences can look forward to appearances from the future owners of the Seven Rings made for the Dwarves and the Nine Rings destined to enslave Men. On top of that, the first season came to an abrupt end before the Elves gathered to witness the forging of the Three Rings could decide who among them should wield these precious artifacts, leaving open the possibility that multiple high-ranking Elven-lords and ladies will vie for a Ring of their own before they inevitably come to rest on the hands of Galadriel, High King Gil-galad, and Círdan the Shipwright. The books and posthumously published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien are largely unhelpful for theorists, offering only a vague account of how the Rings of Power were distributed – which means there’s no predicting how Amazon’s adaptation of this story will play out.
At one point, Tolkien toyed with the idea that the Rings of Power had originally all been made for Elven wearers, and that it was Sauron who later went amongst Dwarves and Men, handing out the sixteen Rings he had stolen from Celebrimbor’s forge when he sacked the city of Eregion. I can easily believe that Men, with their short lifespans and shorter memories, would fall for that trick, but it’s never made much sense to me that the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, who promptly closed their doors in Sauron’s face after Eregion was sacked, would reopen them for any mysterious stranger bearing Rings that could only have been made in Eregion. I’ve always preferred the account passed down by the Dwarves themselves; that Celebrimbor himself presented a Ring of Power to King Durin III, making at least one out of the Seven a true token of friendship between Elves and Dwarves.
The identities of the other Ringbearers also eluded Tolkien, or else he never gave the matter much thought. It is generally assumed, for good reason, that the rest of the Seven Rings were given to the heads of the seven Dwarven clans (Longbeards, Firebeards, Broadbeams, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, Blacklocks and Stonefoots), but I do not believe that this is actually confirmed anywhere. It’s theoretically possible that two or more Dwarf-lords of a single clan each received a Ring, and that some clan leaders steadfastly refused to accept Rings at all. Seeing as the Dwarves were generally far more resistant to the corrosive powers of the Rings than Men or even Elves, it would not surprise me if that were the case. The names of the nine Men who became Sauron’s Ringwraiths were either lost to time or suppressed, all save one; Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, who was second-in-command to the Witch-king of Angmar.
That’s the story we’ve been told, anyway. Amazon intends to tell their own, and it seems to me that there are already a few original characters (i.e. characters invented for The Rings Of Power, who didn’t exist or weren’t named in Tolkien’s works) that have been set up in season one to become Ringbearers in season two, amongst them Durin IV and Disa of Khazad-dûm, Bronwyn and Theo of the Southlands, and Kemen of Númenor. The concept alone may offend some Tolkien purists, but allow me to lay out the argument for each of these non-canonical candidates.
Representing the prestigious Longbeard clan as the main Dwarven viewpoint character in the series, Prince Durin IV is the most obvious choice to receive the Ring of Power given to his father by Celebrimbor in the semi-canonical version of the story only sketched out by Tolkien. He is, at any rate, far more likely to accept the gift without questioning its origins than his father Durin III, who in Amazon’s retelling is deeply distrustful of the Elves and all their handiwork. The Ring, with its tendency to “inflame [the bearer’s] heart with a greed of gold and precious things”, would bring out the worst qualities in Durin IV, who unsuccessfully sought for six episodes to convince his father that the value of mithril (a precious metal coveted by the Elves, but only found in narrow crevices deep below the foundations of Khazad-dûm) far outweighed the dangers of mining it. With a Ring on his finger to assure him of his own infallibility, he would become insistent upon digging ever deeper in search of mithril, inevitably awakening the monster nestled in wait at the mountain’s roots.
I see these tragic events unfolding in Durin IV’s future as clearly as if they were already filmed, but whether his wife Disa make it out alive or not will depend entirely on whether she learns too late what Gandalf told Saruman in The Fellowship Of The Ring; that “only one hand at a time can wield [a Ring of Power]”, meaning that its bearer will soon become possessive of it and irrationally suspicious of anyone who offers to share it, even if only to ease the mental and physical toll it exacts. I fear that this once inseparable power-couple will break under pressure, and that while Durin is dragged down by the weight of his Ring to a dark and terrible place, Disa will be put in an extremely difficult position where she can choose to stick by his side, either for true love’s sake or in the naïve hope that she can make the Ring work for her too, or she can get out before she’s buried with him beneath falling monuments to their selfishness and greed, the only thing they ever truly shared.
We have yet to see any Dwarf-lords from the other six clans scattered across Middle-earth from the Ered Luin to the Iron Hills, and I doubt that The Rings Of Power will ever find the time or space to flesh out their stories anyway, but I imagine we’ll see the other Dwarven Ringbearers gathered in at least one scene, solely so that Amazon can replicate that iconic moment in the opening sequence of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, where the seven nameless Dwarf-lords hold up their Rings as one. Personally, I’m hoping for a little more diversity in Amazon’s version, because if Galadriel can get grouped in with the “Elven-kings” in the famous Ring-verse despite being a woman (and explicitly not even equivalent to a king amongst her own people), then there can be some Dwarven-women among the “Dwarf-lords” mentioned in the next line.
That brings me to the next character I believe might be tempted to get her hands on a Ring – Bronwyn of the Southlands, a humble human apothecary who became unexpectedly crucial in deciding the fate of Middle-earth after leading her people to a victory against the Orcs that was only overturned when Orodruin suddenly erupted, forcing her to flee to Pelargir with her family and other refugees at the end of season one. Not only is she now acquainted with the Dark Lord Sauron (albeit in the fair form of Halbrand, long-lost king of the Southlands), giving her the means to obtain a Ring of Power, she also has the motive to want one: she’s in love with an immortal Elven warrior named Arondir who has been around since the First Age and will still be around long after Bronwyn’s great-grandchildren are dead, which is sure to pose a problem in their relationship as they start to wonder what’s next for them now that they’re comfortably settled down in Pelargir.
By a complete coincidence, the nine Rings of Power given to Mortal Men have the side-effect of extending their bearer’s lifespan long beyond its natural endpoint, something that sounds really appealing until you realize that the Rings can’t do anything to preserve your physical body or your mind, but will continue to puppeteer your undead husk for centuries until even that has crumbled away and finally all that remains is an overworked and exhausted soul tied to the world by the Ring on its nonexistent finger. If that fate awaits Bronwyn, it will be far worse than dying of old age, for death would come as a sweet release after an eternity of numbness.
Frankly, I’ve always felt that Middle-earth needs more women who are morally ambiguous in all the ways that men have always been allowed to be, so I wouldn’t necessarily object to Bronwyn becoming a Ringwraith, but I do have concerns that if her story goes down this route, it might gradually become the story of Arondir’s attempts to save Bronwyn from herself, rather than remaining focused on her – very relatable, and extremely Tolkienesque – struggle with the fear of death, so I’d like to hear opinions from women about how (or whether) it can be depicted without that happening.
Bronwyn’s son Theo has a rather more straightforward motive for desiring a Ring of Power. Ever since Waldreg stole the mysterious sword-shaped key that Theo had been using to stab himself so he could get high on blood loss and used it to activate Orodruin (why was the key shaped like a sword, anyway? I still have far too many questions regarding the key, the keyhole, and Sauron’s bizarre plan to anti-terraform the Southlands for there to ever be good enough answers), Theo has spoken about feeling powerless without it and wanting revenge on the Orcs to fill the gaping void in his life. While Sauron might not allow him to go that far, he can offer Theo something else – an even stronger drug that will silently kill off the parts of him that are good and innocent, reducing him to a vacant vessel ready to be filled with Sauron’s malice. The alternative, in my opinion, is that Theo becomes the King of the Dead, and either way he’s going to be trapped between life and death for a long time before getting peace.
Kemen, the weakly rebellious son of Pharazôn, is by far the least interesting and least sympathetic character who could potentially end up wearing one of the Nine Rings, but I have to believe there was a reason for writing him into the series, and this is the only one that makes any sense to me. Throughout the first season, in the few and far-between glimpses we caught of Kemen and his father interacting, we watched with second-hand embarrassment as the young man almost reluctantly matured – though only after his puppy-like attempts to please his father (“I was only trying to be clever”) were met with contempt. Kemen’s guilty anger emboldened him, and he thwarted his father’s imperialist agenda by blowing up a ship intended to set sail for Middle-earth, although he barely made it out of the conflagration alive. In season two, I expect Kemen to go to even greater lengths to sabotage (and at the same time, subconsciously impress) his father, and it would be most ironic if he only succeeded in enslaving his will to the Dark Lord.
Besides Kemen, it’s possible – though very unlikely, in my opinion – that another Númenórean, Eärien, will become a Ringwraith. I personally believe she will be lured to the dark side not by promises of power or eternal life, but by the opportunity to build the Temple of Morgoth in Armenelos where Sauron and Pharazôn will sacrifice prisoners-of-war and members of the Faithful arrested on false charges of treason, including Eärien’s own family. I will support her every step of the way, mind you, no matter what unspeakable crimes she commits to become the greatest architect in Middle-earth for one brief shining moment before it all comes crashing down around her, but for that climax to be truly satisfying I believe Eärien must surely die in the building she designed to last for centuries, like Thomas Andrews going down with the Titanic.
With the cast of The Rings Of Power expanding in season two, there’s a very strong chance we’ll soon meet other future Ringwraiths from Númenor, Middle-earth’s Southlands, and the currently uncharted regions of Rhûn and Harad. But I don’t know anything about these characters, and Tolkien left nothing for me to work with, so this is where I must sadly end. Of course, there is one more Ring, one of which I have not yet spoken, but that One was made for the Dark Lord’s hand alone, and it was only by chance (which some might call the divine intervention of Eru) that it was cut from his finger and later lost in the murky waters of the Anduin, only to be picked up by a hobbit or something akin to one, anyway. For the record, however, I do believe the One Ring will be forged in the season two finale, concluding Sauron’s irreversible descent into darkness.
So…which of the characters I’ve mentioned will actually get their hands on a Ring of Power when all is said and done, and which will become corrupted, transforming into horrible Ringwraiths? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
Ah, how I’ve missed the Amazon marketing team’s wildly unpredictable strategy for promoting what is reportedly the biggest and most expensive series ever made for television. Coming off a premiere with record-breaking viewership numbers that caused lots of online discourse but nevertheless generated a dedicated fanbase who thereafter kept the series at or near the top of the Nielsen charts for multiple weeks in a row, The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power has fumbled one opportunity after another to keep that fanbase’s undivided attention through what is expected to be a long downtime between seasons. Most casual fans probably weren’t even aware that season two had quietly started filming back in early October, while the first season was still airing, because there have been almost no official updates on the production out of Bray Studios in England.
Until Thursday morning, when Amazon chose to randomly spring on us a total of seven new casting announcements for The Rings Of Power season two – with one, unfortunately, being the unexpected recasting of a major character. Nobody behind-the-scenes seems to have considered how slipping this important piece of information into a press release might completely overshadow what should have been a celebratory moment for the seven new actors joining the world of Middle-earth, or how a day of warm welcomes would inevitably turn into a day of solemn farewell messages directed at Joseph Mawle when it got out that he would not be returning as “Adar”, the darkly seductive leader of the Orcs that so many of us had grown to love.
Samuel Hazeldine, best known for his work in Peaky Blinders, The Sandman, and The Last Duel, will assume the role going forward. Knowing nothing about Hazeldine and his acting process, I only hope that he isn’t compelled to mimic Mawle’s mannerisms too closely, or worse, directed to do so – while there should be a sense of continuity between their two iterations of the same character, Mawle’s Adar was by all accounts the end-result of meticulous research and immersion into Tolkien’s mythology for the Orcs, and I (along with many others) would ideally like to hear that Hazeldine took a similar journey before settling on his own, subtly unique, characterization for this enigmatic antagonist. Beyond that, I can guarantee that fans will be comparing the two actors, and a few will be coming into this season downright mad about the recasting and mad at Hazeldine through no fault of his own, so channeling Mawle might just have the undesired effect of drawing attention to his absence.
With that out of the way, there are six other actors joining The Rings Of Power who are lucky not to have the shadow of another looming over their heads, and it’s time we moved down the list. First up, there’s Gabriel Akuwudike, who comes from a background in theatre and has had various small roles in film and television (including 1917, Game Of Thrones, and Cursed). He’s around the same age as Morfydd Clark and very handsome, so naturally everyone in the fandom has jumped to the conclusion that he’s playing Celeborn, Galadriel’s canonical husband who has not yet appeared in The Rings Of Power (in a significant deviation from what Tolkien wrote on the subject, the series’ version of Celeborn has been believed dead for centuries, which is already a hell of a lot more interesting than anything he ever did canonically; sorry, someone had to say it). Of course, this is all just speculation, and it’s just as likely that Akuwudike is playing an original character.
Next on the list is Yasen Atour, and his face might already be familiar to some of you as that of the Witcher Coen in the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher. He struck me as very funny and likeable there, so I’m excited to see what kind of energy he brings to The Rings Of Power, whether his character is dramatic or comedic. My most out-there theory is that he’s Theo’s nameless father, who disappeared from Tirharad before he was born (and at one point was widely suspected to be Halbrand), but the mystery surrounding that character and Theo’s origins in general weirdly trailed off without a proper resolution halfway through the season, around the same time the Orcs attacked Tirharad. With Theo and his mother Bronwyn presumably safe and sound in Pelargir at the beginning of season two, maybe there’ll be time for the show to address all our burning questions regarding Theo’s bloodline, and his connections to Mount Doom and Sauron.
Moving on, we have Ben Daniels – an acclaimed British actor with a long and distinguished career on the stage (his performance in All My Sons at the Royal National Theatre in 2001 earned him a Laurence Olivier Award, and he is a three-time nominee), as well as in television and film (globally, he is probably best known as Antony Armstrong-Jones in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, but he has also had major roles in House Of Cards, Merlin, and Jupiter’s Legacy). With that resume, I have to imagine his character in The Rings Of Power is someone of significance: Círdan the Shipwright perhaps, or Amandil, the grandfather of Isildur, if Amazon obtains the rights to his remarkable yet tragic story.
Amelia Kenworthy and Nia Towle have similar backgrounds in theatre and to date have had only a few film and television acting credits between them. For Kenworthy, in fact, The Rings Of Power will be her television debut – although the RADA graduate has previously appeared in several productions of Shakespeare’s work, including as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Towle, who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, received very strong reviews for her performance as Lettie Hempstock in the West End debut of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, and most recently appeared briefly in Netflix’s anachronistic adaptation of Persuasion.
And that brings us at last to Nicholas Woodeson, who has been working in theatre since the early 1970’s, when he started out at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Looking at his enormous body of work, which includes numerous appearances in film and television, including Heaven’s Gate, Conspiracy, Skyfall, and the HBO series Rome, I see a similar career trajectory as the one Sir Ian McKellen took to the role of Gandalf, which made him a household name globally. Looking at Woodeson, I could potentially see him as another wizard – one of the Blue Wizards, perhaps – or as a Harfoot, if there are any new characters yet to be introduced from that group. He could be Círdan (he’s certainly closer in age to how I would imagine the Shipwright than anyone else in the cast), but something about him doesn’t fully scream Elvish to me.
Well, that’s everything I know about everyone joining the cast of The Rings Of Power in season two. There are probably still a few more names that haven’t yet been revealed, important ones too, but I’d be surprised if we saw many more new additions to the cast – after all, there are still over twenty returning characters from season one. Whose introduction (or return) are you most excited for, and is there anyone from the books you think we’re seeing here for the first time without even realizing? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE 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.