The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Series-Premiere Recap: Tolkien Time

The Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power

Shadow of the Past
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power

Shadow of the Past
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Prime Video

Welcome back to Middle-earth, a wondrous world filled with elves, dwarfs, halflings, wizards, orcs, and a lot of strange locales that look like various parts of New Zealand (a small country with a lot of contrasting landscapes)! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? We’re over 20 years out from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the film in which Peter Jackson & Co. proved that J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy could be convincingly brought to life. And it’s been eight years since the final film in the Hobbit trilogy, after which Jackson left Middle-earth for the Undying Lands (or, more accurately, moved on to other projects).

Since the action of the Hobbit films predates the action of The Lord of the Rings, it seems like we keep slipping further back in the chronology of Middle-earth history. And with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Prime Video’s massively scaled new series, we’re traveling back further than ever before — by thousands of years. The Rings of Power is set in what Tolkien dubbed the Second Age, a period after the overthrow of the dread Morgoth when, as the bulk of the series’ action begins, much of Middle-earth is breathing a collective sigh of relief.

The peace won’t last long, however. Here’s how Tolkien sums up this era in one of the appendixes to The Lord of the Rings: “The Second Age ended with the first overthrow of Sauron, servant of Morgoth, and the taking of the One Ring.” So — oops, belated spoiler warning — we know how this story will eventually end. And thanks to the rest of the appendixes and The Silmarillion, the massive collection of Tolkienana that doubles as a history of Middle-earth, we know the highlights of what happens in between. So is The Rings of Power a project that will simply fill in the gaps?

Yes and no, at least based on this episode, which doubles as a reminder of just how many gaps have been left unfilled. It also makes clear how much setup the series will have to do before its wheels can really start spinning. Even Tolkien scholars may find themselves a bit overwhelmed by the information packed into this promising, if probably unavoidably, exposition-heavy first episode, written by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom).

That’s not to say that The Rings of Power doesn’t relay the exposition with a tremendous amount of flair. Any Tolkien-inspired series automatically finds itself competing both with the imaginations of Tolkien’s readers and Jackson’s films — both pretty high standards when it comes to creating fantastic worlds and employing special effects. The Rings of Power smartly does a bit of standing on the shoulders of giants. (Maybe Ents?) Though Jackson is not involved in the series, its Middle-earth, Middle-earth’s inhabitants, and the series’ CGI effects all owe a debt to his films, which seems like the right choice. It would be jarring if this version of Middle-earth looked radically different from the Middle-earth we already know. (It also sounds quite a bit like it, too, thanks to Howard Shore’s theme and Bear McCreary’s similarly sweeping episodic music.)

“Shadow of the Past” doesn’t quite begin with the Tolkien equivalent of the big bang, but it comes close. The series’ opening line even has “in the beginning” in it: “Nothing is evil in the beginning.” That’s an apt way to begin a Tolkien-inspired series. Tolkien’s world doesn’t have the same moral murkiness of George R.R. Martin’s — and with House of the Dragon’s recent debuts, it’s hard not to compare them, even if it’s not exactly fair — but the idea of corruption is at its center. In Tolkien’s stories, glory fades, noble intentions get twisted by greed and deceit, and what was once good falls into darkness and ruin. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and in his work there is good and there is evil, and evil is always clawing at good, trying to bring it down.

Kind of like a ship and a stone when you think about it. Those opening words are spoken by the elf Galadriel (played as an adult by Morfydd Clark), and they accompany Edenic scenes of her childhood in the elf homeland of Valinor when she’s being comforted by her brother, Finrod (Will Fletcher), after some elf bullies sink her paper ship. “The ship has a secret,” Finrod tells her. “For unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward but up, fixed upon the light that guides her.” When Galadriel says she can’t always tell light from its reflection, Finrod whispers some unheard bit of wisdom that she wants to dismiss as too simple. “The most important truths,” he replies, “often are.”

A brief Galadriel origin story follows. When Morgoth comes to Valinor, Galadriel transforms into a warrior, taking the fight across the sea to Middle-earth for centuries of epic battles involving orcs, dragons, humans, and dwarfs that ends in victory for the side of good but leaves the continent in ruins and still vulnerable to the attacks of Morgoth’s disciple Sauron and his minions. It also leaves Galadriel quite angry, hell-bent on revenge after Finrod dies in the struggle against Sauron.

But as The Rings of Power settles into its main time frame, Galadriel finds she’s a zealot in service of a dying cause. Determined to hunt down Sauron, she finds signs of life in some frosty wastes but can’t get those around her to continue the pursuit, channeling a lack of enthusiasm shared by their superiors. Never mind the clues, including Sauron’s distinctive sigil. One fight with a (really cool-looking) snow-troll and they’re ready to call it quits.

It’s here that The Rings of Power leaves Galadriel’s side for the first time. It won’t be the last. In time, it seems likely that the series will draw its many characters and plot strands together. But for now, it’s doing a lot of globe-trotting. (Or, more accurately, map-trotting, given the device used to show transitions.) First stop: Rhovanion, “the wilder lands east of the Anduin.” It truly seems like a wasteland to a pair of human hunters (or “travelers,” as we’ll soon hear the land’s natives call them) who can find no game. They do seem frightened of some “dangerous creatures” called Harfoots. They sound terrifying!

They’re not. The Harfoots are basically Hobbits, or proto-Hobbits, or a particular strain of Hobbit, depending on which Tolkien source you consult. Whatever the case, they certainly seem a lot like Hobbits. There’s no Shire to speak of for the Harfoots, however, or at least for this band. They live a surreptitious floating existence, hiding their quaint, makeshift village from any passersby. It’s here that we meet Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), Nori to her friends, an adventurous young Harfoot who leads her more cautious companion, Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards), and some younger Harfoots outside the village gates to pick some delicious berries despite their elders’ proscription. It’s there they find a giant footprint, inspiring Nori to scoot everyone back to safety before a terrifying wolf can attack them. This, it would seem, will serve as a bit of foreshadowing for Nori.

Back in the village, Nori gets chastised for straying from the village, and her expressed desire to experience the wonders of the world doesn’t win anyone over. “We Harfoots are free from the worries of the wide world,” she is told by her mother, Marigold (Sara Zwangobani). “Nobody goes off-trail, and nobody walks alone.” She hears this but obviously doesn’t take it to heart.

Next stop: Lindon, “Capital of the High Elves,” where we meet another familiar Tolkien character, Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who is working on a speech as he’s told he won’t be invited to the next meeting of the High Council, as it’s for “elf lords only.” That’s the bad news. The good news: Elrond’s old friend Galadriel has arrived. She’s still angry about her company turning against her, but Elrond’s sympathy only goes so far. He kind of agrees that Galadriel went too far.

For her centuries of bravery, she is commended by the council, but it’s a bit of a barbed honor. “They have proven without any doubt that our days of war are over,” Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) says to her and others who have served the cause. It’s a high honor that doubles as a forced retirement. For her reward, she is allowed to return to the Undying Lands of Valinor, away from Middle-earth and all its troubles. But the look Galadriel shoots Elrond suggests that she feels her work here is far from over. Later, she tells Elrond — who has fully bought into the idea that evil has been defeated for good — she’s not going. And though she gets on the ship bound for the Undying Lands in the episode’s final scene, she disembarks in dramatic fashion.

By episode’s end, Elrond is on his way to a new destination, too, albeit one not so far away. Gil-galad has an assignment for him: He’s to join Lord Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) — yet another name sure to ring bells for Tolkien fans — who is, in Elrond’s words, “the greatest of Elven-smiths.” Celebrimbor is about to begin a new project of “singular importance.” What is it? Celebrimbor emerges from the shadows to tell him, but we’ll have to wait.

Meanwhile in the Southlands (“the Lands of Men”) another elf also suspects he has been called away too soon. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is essentially an Elven beat cop, part of a patrol determined to sniff out and wipe out any last traces of their old foes. It is apparently dull work, at least when it comes to catching bad guys. But like Galadriel, he’s not so sure the bad guys have given up on Middle-earth. And he has another reason for wanting to stick around: a verboten love for Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a village healer.

Both Arondir’s detective skills and his taboo attraction are in evidence this episode, as are some underlying racial dynamics. When Arondir keeps asking questions about a story concerning a poisoned patch of grass, a villager expresses resentment toward the elves (even trotting out a “you people” for added insult) and their ways and refers to a prophecy about a true king returning to “pry” the humans “right out from under [their] pointy boots.” (A return of the king, you say?) From there, he segues into a conversation with Bronwyn about healing and beauty loaded with unspoken desire, shortly before learning that his unit is being disbanded after the proclamation of peace.

What’s a suspicious/lovestruck elf to do? Per his partner, he ought to be grateful to leave this place after 79 years because humanity is suspect to the core. They’ve kept watch, Arondir is told, not “because of what their ancestors once did but because of who they still are.” Love can make you do strange things, however. Arondir returns to Bronwyn, who we soon learn is a single mom raising Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin), a boy whose father’s identity remains a mystery (and who has to put up with all kinds of innuendo about his mom possibly being involved with a “pointy”). Does his father’s identity have something to do with the intimidating bit of metal, a sword hilt from the looks of it, buried in his barn? The one bearing Sauron’s sigil?

Also a mystery: What’s up with that sick cow that’s producing some kind of black fluid instead of milk? Learning she had wandered away and grazed on grass from a field farther away than usual, Arondir swings into action with Bronwyn by his side. Bronwyn knows the place well. The cow had been grazing close to her birthplace, a region known to have been sympathetic to Morgoth. Bronwyn takes umbrage at Arondir’s bringing this up, then, after he smooths it over, they almost kiss (which is about as erotic as Tolkien stories get, but it doesn’t seem like The Rings of Power can keep them from each other’s arms forever), only to be distracted by smoke rising from the now-ruined village. They’re sure to find something of note in the ruins, but that will have to wait.

It’s not the only strange happening afoot, however. Back in the Harfoot village, Harfoot elder Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry) looks to the sky and isn’t sure of what he sees. Nori interrupts his astrological inquiry, then decides to investigate for herself after Sadoc tells him, “The skies are strange.” What lands from the skies, a man surrounded by flame, is stranger still. As the episode ends, all Nori can do is look on in wonder.

Mithril Links

• The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s cast isn’t filled with household names, but you’ve probably seen at least some of them before. Aramayo played a young Ned Stark on Game of Thrones. Henry has been a high-profile actor and comedian in the U.K. since the 1980s. Clark is amazing in the terrific (but intense) horror movie Saint Maud. Boniadi is a veteran of Scandal, Homeland, and Counterpart. Peter Mullan, who shows up in the second episode, is a well-respected veteran who has been in every sort of British film imaginable.

• Also not household names: showrunners Payne and McKay, who had to beat out a lot of competing pitches to win the job of being Prime Video’s Tolkien masters. They’ve worked together for years, often contributing without credit to projects like Jungle Cruise and Star Trek Beyond.

• Is anyone else feeling a little winded after that episode? That’s a lot of information to take in, right? Still, it’s a pretty compelling hour that should allow future episodes to benefit from the groundwork laid here.

The Rings of Power Series-Premiere Recap: Tolkien Time