Rings of Power has spent its entire season reminding us that it, at its core in manners similar to Lord of the Rings as a whole, is a story of enduring hope in the face of seemingly unyielding darkness. This week is much the same, but it also takes a lot of time to allow its heroes to wallow in the fact that seemingly unyielding darkness really, really sucks.
“The Eye” is almost entirely about the fallout of last week’s climax in the battle for the Southlands, which saw the land literally and metaphorically shaken by the cataclysmic creation of Mount Doom. This despair lingers all over the episode, whether it is in its stunning, haunting opening scene—as a horrified, ash-caked Galadriel wanders through the ruined aftermath of Theo and Bronwyn’s village—or even further afield, as hunks of molten rock from Doom’s eruption are revealed to have devastated the orchard the Harfoots were planning to migrate to for the season.
Even in visiting plotlines unaffected by Doom directly, the air of despair weighs heavy—Elrond and Durin, who have quietly become one of the show’s most beautiful and enduring relationships, find themselves torn asunder as their pleas to Durin’s father to mine Mithril to help the Eldar end in not just falling on deaf ears, but basically destroying Durin’s relationship with the elder Durin entirely. And this is not just a momentary incident of despair: it just keeps getting worse and worse.
Isildur is “seemingly” lost to a crumbling house in the ruins of the village, bringing an ugly heartache to his father that laces his relationship with Galadriel with venom. Miriel’s loss is altogether more physical, as the crumbling of that aforementioned house leaves her blinded. Even where there are no physical injuries, the mental scar of traumas are there for all to see across the cast: Theo and Galadriel, separated from the remaining survivors as they try to make it back to the Númenorean encampment and harassed by now-freely-roaming orcs in this land of endless ash and night, bond over their shared despairs that they’re to blame for this calamitous turn of events. The Stranger, whose attempts to breath magical life into the ashen trees of the Harfoot’s orchard home almost lead to Nori and her sister being crushed by falling debris, is so horrified at his potential to harm that he takes his leave of the halflings entirely... leaving them vulnerable to the mysterious evil-worshippers that have been quietly hunting for the Stranger to casually and callously turn their encampment to flame.
While “The Eye” does eventually get to finding some level of hope for its heroes, this wallowing in the rise of evil feels unlike the show has done so far. We don’t need the frankly obtuse last-scene reveal that the Southlands have indeed now become Mordor, as their map-fonted name on the screen burns out to be replaced with its dark new title: we have spent the entire episode exploring what it means that Mordor now exists, that the tide of evil is rising across Middle-earth. We see it in the direct despair of the humans and Númenoreans, in Galadriel and Theo’s self-doubt, we see it in the decisions made in anger and fear by people like King Durin and the Stranger. Many times before has Rings of Power challenged its characters with seemingly overwhelming despair and asked them to overcome it, but “The Eye” really feels like the first time that they won’t.
And yet, of course, this is a story in The Lord of the Rings. Our heroes have to, because Tolkien’s world is one of hope and not cynical despair. And so, bit by bit, we see sparks, forged in tiny bonds of fellowship. Elrond and Durin’s relationship endures the elder Durin’s attempts to snuff it out, stronger than ever wrought before in touching scenes of teary-eyed intimacy between the two men. Theo is reunited with Bronwyn and Arondir at the Númenorean encampment, and his encounter with Galadriel steels him to put aside the doubts that lead him down the path towards Sauron’s cursed blade in the first place. No matter how irrevocably changed Elendil’s relationship with Galadriel is by Isildur’s apparent death—even if we of course know that’s not the case—her bond with Miriel is forged even harder, as the latter promises to return to Middle-earth with renewed reinforcements and vigor, a treatise not just with Galadriel but all of Elf-kind. And Nori, Poppy, and Marigold convince Sadoc that they have to help the Stranger, setting out on roads untravelled by Harfoots in eons to do so.
We know things have to get worse in the story of the Second Age coming into Rings of Power’s first season finale next week, and in plenty of times to come beyond it should this story continue. There are hints of it here and there in “The Eye”—King Durin’s hesitation over Mithril proved right by the (somewhat egregious) tease of the Balrog that lurks where dwarves will one day delve too deep. It’s perhaps there in Halbrand, who does little to assuage all those “is this guy Sauron in disguise” theories by being conveniently found on the road back to the camp by the Númenoreans entire fine except for one injury—one not grave enough to stop him from riding horseback with Galadriel, and yet one grave enough that it specifically requires Elvish medicine to treat. But in the here and now, even in The Rings of Power’s darkest hour, in the birth of Mordor itself, the show still shines with a prevailing hope—a hope all of our myriad heroes are going to need soon enough.
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