Here’s the long and short of it, or Ent and Hobbit of it if you’re already packing your bags to be whisked off to Middle-earth again: The Rings of Power is The Lord of the Rings through and through. It looks incredible, it bursts with hope, and, above all, it’s very long and takes a bit of time getting going.
This is said with all the love and affection the world has had for Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings films—and their slightly-less beloved successors in the Hobbit trilogy—themselves known, especially in their extended editions, for likewise being epic endeavors to sit down and watch. Prime Video’s new prequel series, The Rings of Power, has managed to achieve the impossible in rekindling the feeling of seeing those lavish first steps into Middle-earth two decades ago and, with the almighty power of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, spent the budget to make such a thing happen with the most expensive television show in history (so far), dying gasps of the streaming wars be damned.
It might be peculiar to so keenly focus on The Rings of Powers’ billion-dollar budget, but much has been made coming into the fantasy series—set in the Second Age of Middle-earth thousands of years before the events of Lord of the Rings, in the wake of a devastating war between the Elves and the forces of the Dark Lord Morgoth, and at a time when his sinister Lieutenant Sauron hatches his return as the next in line to the evil mantle—and the price tag that only a megacorporation like Amazon can possibly pour into an eight-episode season of television. But as galling as it might be to see such massive amounts of money thrown about, it’s surprisingly effective just how well it is thrown about on-screen across the first two episodes of the series provided for review.
In an age where blockbuster studios are trying to blur the line between cinematic output and streaming TV to various degrees of success in the world of genre franchises—from Marvel’s Disney+ universe to the re-advent of Star Trek, from Prime Video’s own The Boys to Star Wars’ newfound success on the small screen—The Rings of Power still manages to look unlike anything committed to TV screens this century. Incredible vistas are given the scope and scale for your eyes to be lost in; stunning set design in tandem with breathless CG evokes the legacy of Jackson’s films without directly rehashing them, and detailed costume and prosthetic work make the series an utter spectacle to watch unfold, emphasizing the vast breadth of its world and the characters and story threads Rings of Power quickly shows it is teeming with. Everything feels big and romantically transportive—transitions evoking the Jackson films as cameras sweep over lavish drawn maps of Middle-earth do actually make you feel like you’re getting a glimpse of a massive, lush world, as does the actual scenery the camera fades into showing you.
But The Rings of Power would only get so far with its sumptuous visuals if there was no meat to its bones—but thankfully, with a cast as vast as its vistas, the series has plenty to offer beyond its surface level spectacle. The opening episodes of the series revolve around four major threads and pockets of this vast cast: the first sees a young Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), arguably the protagonist of the series, defy the the beliefs of her people and their leader, Gil-Galad (Benjamin Walker), and set out on a warrior’s quest to prove the evils of the Elves’ past are preparing to return. There’s also the duties of her friend and scholar Elrond (Robert Aramayo), tasked with aiding the artisan Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) by making a deal with the kingdoms of Dwarf-kind in the mountain of Khazad-dum. Away from the lands of the Elves are two much further-flung arcs: one sees an Elven ranger, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), defy orders by his commanders to pull back from their watch over the human lands to investigate reports of mysterious ill portents in a nearby villain, while the last sees an inquisitive young Harfoot—the nomadic predecessors to the Hobbits before the halflings would settle in the Shire—named Nori (Markella Kavenagh) long to look beyond her kind’s secrecy, and get the opportunity to do so when a mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) comes crashing down in front of her.
There’s a lot going on, and Rings of Power puts in enough work to make these stories feel immediately compelling, mixing fantastic performances—Clark’s Galadriel, not the ethereal mystic embodied by the Elven queen in Lord of the Rings, but a zealous, determined warrior frustrated by her people’s recalcitrance, is a particular standout, as is Kavenagh’s perpetually-optimistic Nori—with emotional beats and themes that speak true to the heart of Lord of the Rings. Crucially too, for viewers more familiar with the films and the Lord of the Rings books rather than the indices and world of the Silmarillion that Rings of Power is more directly inspired by, there are going to be shades of recognition in some of these archetypes.
Galadriel and Elrond, of course, are known characters from those stories, albeit the versions we get here are much younger, and much less distant from the world as they are in those later tales. The mystery of the Stranger in Nori and the Harfoot’s arc feels evocative of the relationship between Frodo and Bilbo with Gandalf, while Galadriel’s unlikely partnership with a human named Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), contrasted with Arondir’s romantic connection to the human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), play on the transcendent relationship between Aragorn and Arwen. Elrond’s partnership with Celebrimbor—the one day crafter of the titular Rings of Power—sets the most direct connection to those later stories in motion, and the former’s attempts to rekindle his friendship with the Dwarven Prince Durin (Owain Arthur) has shades of Legolas and Gimli’s own lovingly antagonistic partnership.
But for all those familiarities these stories don’t feel like rehashes of what came before. These relationships give each of these different arcs across the first two episodes a much needed human depth (regardless of the fantastical species involved), but more crucially they evoke the themes that make The Lord of the Rings what it is in the first place. The romantic wanderlust of wanting to see what’s beyond your life and your people’s borders, the desire to see good remain steadfast over evil and believe in that hope when things look dire, the utmost belief in the bonds of fellowship and that standing together rather than alone, regardless of your differences, will always triumph. These are themes that are universal in Tolkien’s work, and seeing the seeds of them sown in the earliest parts of The Rings of Power feels more enriching than it does a re-tread. It’s a reminder, that for all the differences and newness, that these themes are enduring and universal.
This is a delicate balancing act of characters and stories that doesn’t always work in the opening episodes, however. Given that each of these plot threads and groups of characters are largely isolated from each other—even more so when Galadriel and Elrond go their separate ways—there’s very little tying each thread together beyond the nebulous overarching threat about the return of an equally-rather-nebulous evil. So as the series flits between these different perspectives to set up relatively similar broad-strokes stakes for each group of characters—the idea that something feels off about the world, and them psyching themselves up to go confront it—things can start to feel a little slow. And while there are definitely things about each isolated arc that individualize them and make them uniquely compelling, the fact that these episodes by their very nature of re-introducing us to Middle-earth, and in a time period most viewers are going to be unfamiliar with, means they have to flit between various stages of set up for two hours of runtime, making it feel oddly staccato at times. Two hours is a lot of time to invest in stories that are barely just beginning, and the series is, so far, juggling that risk across four major narratives.
But if The Rings of Power’s biggest problem is that it takes a while to get going, then it’s in a very good place to get going from as the rest of its first season plays out. These first two episodes have enough promise, and enough sparkle to them, to show that the series understands what makes The Lord of the Rings such a beloved icon of fantasy—perhaps even right down to its capacity to drag here and there. No matter the time it takes, the stage is set for a journey that is worth taking, unexpected or otherwise.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power begins streaming on Prime Video September 1 at 9pm ET, with new episodes streaming weekly afterwards on Fridays.
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