Plodding through Middle-earth

Peter Jackson’s forays into Middle-earth yielded one very fine movie (The Fellowship of the Ring), one flat-out masterpiece (The Two Towers), and one worthy if overlong denouement (The Return of the King). They also produced three insufferable travesties (the Hobbit films) that tested the very limits of human moviegoing endurance. The lesson, for those who will learn it, is quite literally in the details. Stretch three adult novels into a fantasy trilogy, and one has a fighting chance to stave off tedium. Do the same with a single 95,000-word children’s book, and watch the enterprise drown in minutiae.

Based largely on Tolkien’s “appendices,” bonus lore typically bound alongside The Return of the King, Amazon’s The Rings of Power would seem a poor candidate for success according to this standard. The recipient already of a five-season commitment, the series will presumably deliver 40-plus hours of content despite the relative paltriness of its source material. While The Silmarillion could conceivably provide additional grist for the show’s writers, Tolkien’s punishingly obscure legendarium is just as likely to compound the problem of excessive trivia and insufficient plot. Have showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay kept narrative momentum in mind through the four episodes currently available to critics? Sometimes. But there are significant and damaging exceptions.

Like Jackson’s movies, The Rings of Power begins with a measure of table-setting. Morgoth, the source of all evil in Middle-earth, has been defeated by an elven army but is succeeded by his disciple, Sauron. Leading the hunt for that familiar villain is the elf Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), a staunch commandress for whom the ends of the known world are not too far to pursue. Having lost a brother in the centuries-old war, Galadriel is deaf to the notion, held by Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and other elven leaders, that Sauron has vanished from the realm. When High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) declares the long struggle over, our heroine simply ignores him and sets off on a revenge quest of her own.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon’s production wastes little time settling the Sauron question in Galadriel’s favor. Investigating rumors of trouble in a human village, an elf named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) discovers not only a smoking disaster area but evidence of an orc infestation. Further proof of lingering evil comes when Galadriel meets Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a mysterious man who offers his own tale of orc activity. Throughout Middle-earth, peculiar happenings foretell a land in some peril, as when proto-hobbit Nori (Markella Kavenagh) discovers a naked stranger (Daniel Weyman) inside a smoldering meteor pit. By the time audiences meet Isildur (Maxim Baldry), an adolescent sailor who will grow up to be seduced by the One Ring, it is perfectly clear that Gil-galad’s peace-mongering is the work of a naif and fool.

Any critique of The Rings of Power must begin with the show’s visual design, an achievement of such magnitude that CGI detractors may well fall into stunned silence. The beneficiary of a reported half-billion dollars in spending (thus far), the series is so richly detailed that I found myself rewinding transition scenes just to get a second and third look at exterior establishing shots. Though Numenor, an island kingdom to which Galadriel and Halbrand travel, is a sleek Atlantis gleaming with palatial beauty, the show’s most striking location may be the dwarf realm of Khazad-dum, seen in ruins during The Fellowship of the Ring but reimagined here in its full glory. From a storytelling perspective, I could have done without the entire Khazad-dum subplot, in which Elrond and an elven blacksmith seek help from a dwarvish frenemy (their mission: to forge the titular Rings of Power). Yet to miss out on the underground paradise would be to lose no small portion of the show’s grandeur. It is (mostly) worth the digression to see the wonderland that Payne and McKay have built.

This tension — between design and narrative, function and form — is at the heart of what ails Amazon’s series. For every stunning vista on display, the show offers two or three plot lines that add texture to Middle-earth but not much else. Jackson’s movies, sprawling though they were, benefited mightily from a coherent, overarching dilemma: the One Ring had to be destroyed in Mount Doom. The Rings of Power, set thousands of years before Tolkien’s more famous tales, has no such foundation. Or if it does, the business is so predictable — Sauron must be proven to exist — that it is essentially useless.

The result of this narrative laxity is a show that holds one’s attention only sporadically. Yes, the Arondir plot is enthralling, but what of the seemingly endless roster of minor characters in Numenor and Khazad-dum? A scene involving Nori’s stranger and a swarm of fireflies is as lovely and odd as anything in Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre, but Isildur’s misadventures in the Numenorean naval academy left me cold. As is often the case when writers operate within an existing mythology, the temptation is to lean too heavily on famous names and symbols. (“Just give ’em another shot of Darth Vader’s helmet.”) At its best, The Rings of Power avoids this trap, playing coy, for instance, with the fact that Nori’s stranger is obviously the wizard Gandalf. At other times, lore worship creeps in. Why should audiences care about Isildur? Because he’s Isildur.

Whatever its flaws, The Rings of Power is difficult to dismiss as a failure. Better production design will not be seen on television this year, and Tolkien’s world retains its archetypal majesty, even at this late civilizational hour. What is needed is a general hastening of the gears that propel the series forward. “The same wind that seeks to blow out a fire may also cause its spread,” says Gil-galad in a portentous moment. All well and good. But my advice? Spread faster.

Graham Hillard is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.

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