Remember how last week I said it felt like we’d reached something of an emotional turning point in The Rings of Power, and that, in true Lord of the Rings style, our heroes had been challenged at their direst and were due for some much needed hope? Well... about that.
Last week’s episode of Rings of Power was about forging our heroes in the crucible of trauma and challenge to emerge stronger out the other side. This week’s ominously titled “Udûn”—which, well, if you’re up on your Sindarin means hell, and is the Elven name for a little land where shadows lie—is about telling our heroes that they can be as forged in a crucible as they damn well like, but sometimes things are just going to go really bad for them anyway. Sorry, Rings of Power folks! You’re in a Lord of the Rings prequel and there’s literally thousands of years of things going wrong for you before they get better. And not all of you are even named Tolkien characters! Woof. Rough deal.
Much of Rings of Power so far has been about a slow burn wait for an inevitable clash, as Galadriel desperately rallied allies in Númenor to take the fight to the growing forces of Evil in the Southlands, “Udûn” is finally about delivering on that inevitability. It’s an episode of grand action, the grandest the show has done so far. And, for the most part, it’s very Lord of the Rings. It’s something of Rings of Powers’ own Helm’s Deep, as Adar’s forces—now bolstered by the humans that abandoned their fellow Southlands folk in despair—prepare to assault Bronwyn, Arondir, and the remaining refugees in Ostirith.
But in an even Rings-ier twist, Arondir has rigged Ostirith’s watchtower to collapse, taking out a chunk of Adar’s gathered armies while the refugees slink back to defend their village instead of a tiny, unfamiliar Elven watchtower. Like seeing the people of Rohan go up against the Uruk-Hai, this is a battle of unfamiliar soldiers defending their homeland against an overwhelming, better-equipped enemy threat—and, for the most part, succeeding. The villagers, using their inn as both a hub for those unable to fight and a rallying point for the volunteer soldiers to fight alongside Bronwyn and Arondir, put up a heroic effort, the smallfolk of Middle-earth taking a stand against great evil and overcoming it.
Then everything goes to hell. The battle seemingly over, Arondir and the surviving villagers are horrified to discover they’ve not just battled orcs, but almost entirely their fellow Southlanders—and Adar and his orcs have been hiding in reserve, heralding their arrival on the scene with a devastating volley of arrows that pretty much wipes out most of the fighters left standing. Even Bronwyn takes some hits, necessitating a gruesome, intense bit of surgery when Arondir and Theo bring the survivors into the inn, almost waiting for the inevitable slaughter. And while Adar does arrive, and people begin dying, it’s not quick: the scene comes slow and tense, as Adar demands the mysterious dark blade that Arondir has hidden, threatening to kill more and more villagers until it’s in his hands. It’s threatening Bronwyn—which remains intense, given that we don’t know her fate as an original character to the show—that makes Theo buckle, and even when Adar has what he wants, in an act of abject cruelty, he still demands his orcs slaughter who’s left.
Except this is Lord of the Rings. This is a story of people big and small, ordinary folk and mythic legends coming together to overcome the dark. Ending this thread of the story in a horrific slaughter just wouldn’t feel right. And so, just in time—once again, quite like Helm’s Deep—a cavalry charge comes to their aid. Having spent most of the episode sailing to Middle-earth, now Númenor rides to its rescue, sweeping through Adar’s forces as Galadriel leads the charge, ducking, weaving, slicing through the orcs. We don’t see a single Númenorean die—it’s barely a challenge, even in a few moments of almost-manufactured anxiety when it looks like Elendil is in a rough spot. They just go through Adar’s forces. This is it, Rings of Power tells us: the might of unity and goodness against divisive evil, light cleaving through the dark.
If “Udûn” ended there—the day saved, at least some of our disparate heroes intertwined onto a singular path, good triumph—then this would be a pretty solid episode of Rings of Power, even if, once again, it is basically the same theme it is every week except this time the theme came riding in on horseback for some fun fantasy action. Hoo... ray? We only stretch our hooray out ominously like that because Rings of Power doesn’t end there this week. It would be simply too cut and dry this early on to expect our heroes to have been suitably challenged. After all, we know the end of the Second Age is far off, and there are plenty turmoils to come on Arda for these people to face. What is surprising is the absolute curveball Rings of Power uses to rob Galadriel, Arondir, Bronwyn, Halbrand, and the forces of Númenor of savoring in their victory.
As Galadriel brushes against the same darkness within Adar interrogating him, Miriel dutifully leads Bronwyn and the Southlanders in hailing the arrival of their fated king. Meanwhile, Theo—attempting to grapple with his own guilt about almost dooming them all to save his mother—discovers that the mysterious blade Arondir thought he was hiding is nothing but a hammer: somehow, Waldreg, the sauronic servant that had tempted Theo with darkness before joining up with Adar, had managed to swipe the blade away in the chaos of the battle... and returns to Ostirith to use it to unlock a key hidden in a fountain dedicated to the dark lords of Melkor and Sauron.
Then everything goes to hell. Again. In Rings of Power’s wildest scene yet, gushing waters being held up by the dams around Ostirith begin plunging into the Southlands. At first, you think it’s one last gasp of spite, that Waldreg’s actions will drown the Númenoreans and his fellow villagers. But instead the water flows, down through the tunnels Adar has had his orcs and prisoners build, into the earth itself... until it channels into the lava beneath a mountain. A mountain that then explodes, sending ash and lava and debris everywhere, decimating the village and the people in it. Theo’s missing, Adar’s vanished, Galadriel is consumed by smoke: and we’ve just witnessed the very birth of Mount Doom itself.
This might not be exactly how it went down in Tolkien’s own mythos, but ever since we knew that the Southlands were conveniently in the part of Middle-earth that would one day be Mordor, we’ve had to wonder just how (and how tragically) Rings of Power might lead this lush green land’s transformation into an evil hellscape. It turns out giving us the origin story of Mount Doom and having the cliffhanger of your Massive Action Episode of Heroes Winning and Doing Cool Stuff be having them having their entire shit rocked by the volcanic eruption to end all Middle-earth volcanic eruptions is one hell of a surprising way of doing it. And, after all, it does tie back to that theme Rings of Power is fascinated with: the need for unity and alliance between good people, regardless of background, to confront darkness. Our heroes thought that they’d learned that lesson, and earned victory with it. Now the biggest, baddest mountain in all the land just managed to prove otherwise.
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