exit interview

The Long Road to Mordor

The Rings of Power creators explain Sauron’s identity and their plan to explore the edges of Tolkien’s map.

Galadriel discovers Halbrand’s true identity after he’s coaxed Celebrimbor (played by Charles Edwards, left) and the other Elves far into forging the first three Rings of Power. Photo: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video
Galadriel discovers Halbrand’s true identity after he’s coaxed Celebrimbor (played by Charles Edwards, left) and the other Elves far into forging the first three Rings of Power. Photo: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

Spoilers for “Alloyed,” the season-one finale of The Rings of Power.

After a season of hinting that Sauron might be lingering somewhere in Middle-earth, eluding Galadriel’s obsessive quest to find him, The Rings of Power has revealed that he was right under her nose the whole time. Or rather, right next to her on a raft, smoldering and even flirting with her a bit.

As you may have guessed, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), the supposed king of the Southlands, is actually the Dark Lord in disguise. He’s been using Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) to get into the Elves’ business while laying the groundwork to lure her to his side, and she discovers his real identity after he’s coaxed Celebrimbor and the other Elves far into forging the first three of those titular Rings of Power. After he tries and fails to seduce her into dark queen-dom, he disappears into his newly-remade Mordor, where, we assume, he’ll start building up his armies, eliminating his rivals (watch, out Adar), and get to work on the next batch of Rings. This revelation refutes any lingering theories that The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), the man who fell from the sky at the start of the season, is in fact Sauron, with the finale confirming he’s actually one of the Istari, Tolkien’s version of Wizards. As the season ends, The Stranger sets off on an unexpected journey eastward with the Harfoot Nori toward the region of Rhûn, a place unexplored in other Tolkien screen adaptations, to find the constellation that haunts him and better understand his own purpose in Middle-earth.

A lot of new information unfurls all at once in The Rings of Power’s season-one finale, finally identifying its big bad and getting the clock ticking on his master plan following a season of TV that took its merry time setting up its world. The mega-budget series based in the Second Age of Arda has delivered on spectacle and grandeur but proven divisive with audiences, with some frustrated with its protracted pace or deviations from Tolkien lore (or just out of racism). But with the finale out and the identities of Sauron and the Stranger in play, creators Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne can turn to season two, in which they’ll develop, as McKay puts it, “the weight and complexity of evil that Sauron will come to represent” while exploring the furthest reaches of Tolkien’s map.

Tell me about the origins of Halbrand as a character. Why introduce Sauron through the form of this human disguise?
Patrick McKay: One of the earliest ideas we had for the storyline came from the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring when Galadriel is tempted by Frodo’s offer of the Ring. She talks about how well she knows and understands Sauron, and there’s a quote where she says, “I know his mind, and he gropes ever to know mine, but still the door is shut.” She clearly has a darkness — that turning down the Ring is a test she feels she has to pass to finally go West — and that the darkness in her is linked with her feelings about Sauron. Very early in the writers’ room, we talked about how she and Sauron might have come into collision in an earlier life. We know he’s a deceiver and comes in disguise. If Galadriel were to bump into him in a Tolkienian chance meeting, that would be extremely unlucky for her and very lucky for him. How might he take advantage of that stroke of luck?

Did Charlie Vickers know he would be playing Sauron when he was cast?
J.D. Payne: During the audition, we put him through the paces, reading things like monologues from Richard III. We wanted to see his range. We also wanted to lean into the relationship between him and Galadriel first, so we began filming before telling him. After filming episode two, we talked to Charlie during the pause we took because of COVID, and then episodes three through eight he was fully aware. You can watch the season again and see each interaction as watching him as Halbrand and as Sauron.

Revealing Sauron at the end of the season creates a big moment for the finale, but it also keeps the big villain of the series off the table for much of the season, which is difficult for ratcheting up tension. How did you decide on the timing of the reveal?
Patrick McKay: We felt that season one had to be about reintroducing Middle-earth. It needed to be about the heroes, about each of these peoples and what’s important to them. We didn’t want the weight and complexity of evil that Sauron will come to represent to overwhelm that. The rise of Sauron and his influence spreading across the world is an enormous part of the story of the Second Age and this show, and we felt it was important to be disciplined and not rush that. Having shared an adventure with Galadriel and these other characters in season one, it will have all the more impact now that Sauron is on the board moving into future seasons.

Sauron in the books comes to the Elves as Annatar, the “Lord of Gifts.” Halbrand is never referred to by that name, though one tell of his identity early in the episode is that Celebrimbor thanks him for his gifts. Did you decide having someone call him Annatar would be too obvious?
Patrick McKay: We were concerned about a situation where the part of the audience steeped in lore is six or seven episodes ahead of the characters. If deception is an important part of the journey, we wanted to preserve that experience for book readers too. The idea that the shadow can take many forms was part of what we were attracted to. The reference to gifts is a nod to the Annatar of it all, but also, at the end of season one, three rings have been crafted, and as you know from the song Fiona Apple sings at the end of the season, there are still seven for the dwarves, nine for the men, and one for the Dark Lord to come. There are more gifts yet to come.

The show also gives the Elves more motivation for crafting the rings. You introduce new lore that revolves around the idea that their light is fading and they need mithril to survive in Middle-earth; there’s a story about mithril containing an element of the light of Valinor, via a buried Silmaril, and that it’s thus necessary for the Elves to make artifacts containing it. I thought this could’ve been a lie planted by Sauron, but by the end of the season it seems it might be true in the show’s universe?
J.D. Payne: We knew the rings needed to have a special power to them. Some of that could be in what Sauron inculcates from the unseen world and what Celebrimbor is able to do in terms of beauty. But we thought it could be interesting to play with the kind of power they have. What if there’s a grand unification theory that could connect the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, which went into the Silmarils, to the rings? The three elven rings were at least partially made of mithril; what if there’s something in mithril that could connect to the Silmarils? What if the Silmaril that went into the earth was connected through the roots of a tree that could become mithril? It was a way to connect many parts of the canon, including the elves fading, in a way that incorporated other parts of the legendarium.

Patrick McKay: But also, we know Elrond is a lore master, and he is aware of this tale. He says in that fifth episode that it’s apocryphal. I would trust his read on a piece of lore. Mithril is unusual in Middle-earth. It’s Tolkien’s vibranium, or adamantium, or like the one in Avatar, unobtainium. We know from canon that mithril is in at least one of the rings, Galadriel’s ring. We felt there were possibilities to hint that maybe there’s a little more to it — but maybe not.

The finale reveals the Stranger is really one of the Istari, a.k.a. a wizard. Why involve a wizard in a show about the Second Age?
J.D. Payne: When we were laying out the menu, so to speak, that we felt would be in a classic Tolkienian epic, there were certain ingredients that would have to be part of it: Elves, dwarves, halflings — in the form of Harfoots. It was hard for us to think of a Middle-earth tale that did not have a wizard in it. We also found hints within the text that, while the wizards’ most prominent role was in the Third Age, some of the Istari wandered unknown among the beings of Middle-earth even earlier than that. Whether that’s one of the ones that are named, like Gandalf or Saruman, or other ones, we will leave to the series to unveil.

The story seems to be headed off to Rhûn, off in the east, which hasn’t been seen onscreen. What do you want to explore in depicting that?
Patrick McKay: In our very first conversations with Amazon about this, our aspirations were to go to the far reaches of the map. You see the northernmost wastes in the first episode. In the books, Aragorn talks about how he’s done some traveling in Rhûn and the stars are strange there. That felt like an opportunity, to have the stars the Stranger is following lead him to a continent that lovers of the lore have never visited.

“In Middle-earth, everything at the end of the day is about the fate of Middle-earth,” says The Rings of Power co-creator Patrick McKay (left), with co-creator J.D. Payne. “It’s a high bar for anything to clear to deserve a spot in the story.” Photo: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

Back in Númenor, Eärien, Isildur’s sister and a new character invented on the series, is the last to see the king Tar-Palantir before his death. What interested you in involving her in the succession plot that will surely play out in the second season?
Patrick McKay: She’s stumbled across the Palantir seeing stone, this ancient artifact that the queen has been taking counsel from. We loved leaving open the question of what she’s going to do with that knowledge. If you look back over her trajectory this season, it seems like she’s been pulled into the Pharazôn camp, and that could mean big things for Númenor moving forward.

J.D. Payne: Could she touch the Palantir and see why Miriel has been making the decisions she’s been making, and increase her sympathies toward the faithful? Or take issue with the idea that the queen has been using an Elven artifact and go the other way?

Are there any aspects of the audience response to the first season that you plan to incorporate into the second season?
J.D. Payne: We’re certainly listening to the critics and to our audiences. You don’t want to give any one voice too much weight, but figure out what people are responding to in the aggregate. I don’t know if I want to point to any specifics.

Patrick McKay: My immediate reaction to that question is no. Not that we aren’t paying attention to the response the show is having; I don’t know how you could shut it out. But the second season has been written for some time now, and the storytelling grows and goes in different directions. That is informed by what we learned on season one on our own. There are things that seemed to really work and others that didn’t work as well as we might have hoped. The storytelling will be different next time, not because of the response to the show, but because of the experience of making the show for us.

What specifically did you learn in making season one?
J.D. Payne: On a show, we have a lot of time to get to know the characters, to go deeper into mythology and lore. Some scenes we shot didn’t even make it into the final edit. When you put them up against the larger stakes of the world, they didn’t quite punch their weight. Even with small character scenes, you need to have a sense of how it connects to the stakes and will contribute to the whole.

Patrick McKay: In Middle-earth, everything at the end of the day is about the fate of Middle-earth. It wants to tie back to the battle of good and evil and the temptation of power. It’s a high bar for anything to clear to deserve a spot in the story. Starting this journey five years ago, J.D. and I had an idea of what that bar was. Having gone through the process, we have more specificity of what really feels like Middle-earth and what doesn’t. Hopefully we have raised the bar for the show going into season two.

The Rings of Power is leaving behind the vistas of New Zealand to film in England in season two. Production wise, does it feel like your approach will change along with that?
J.D. Payne: Not tremendously. We have different terrains and topography that are available to us here. We have an excellent crew on the ground here. We had an excellent crew on the ground in New Zealand. We brought a lot of institutional knowledge from one place to the next. In coming to England, we feel that we have brought Tolkien home.

Once the Stranger starts recovering his memories, actually, he starts speaking in what feels like a classic “British wizard accent,” like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf.
Patrick McKay: Leith McPherson is our dialect coach and she’s an important part of our fellowship. The specifics of these things matter so much. And actually, Daniel Weyman, who plays the Stranger, developed a voice with her that has a little twinge of the Irish lilt the Harfoots have. He’s talking like the folks he’s learned to talk around.

If Nori is going off with him toward Rhûn, is the show leaving the rest of the Harfoots behind?
J.D. Payne: In long-form storytelling, in the shows we admire — we talk about The Wire sometimes — you might spend a lot of time with a season-one character and the next season they are much more on the periphery, or not there at all and you pick up with them a season or two later. Every character we’ve introduced that’s still alive is on the board for possible continued storytelling. We’re excited for audiences to see how their narratives develop.

The Long Road to Mordor