It’s hard for most of “Adar,” the third episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s first season, not to wonder if it’s been misnamed. A lot happens in the episode, whose action spans the length of Middle-earth and points beyond, and we meet many new characters. But none is named Adar. Then, in the final moments, as a bunch of orcs chant his name, Adar makes a blurry appearance before a broken-down Arondir. (Adar is played by Joseph Mawle, whose credits include Game of Thrones and Sense8, though we don’t get a good look at him in this episode.) This Adar sounds important. And if all those orcs are into him, he seems like bad news — though what form that bad news will take remains TBD.
But first, let’s rewind. Before Adar makes his appearance, he’s the talk of the trenches, where Arondir and other members of the chain gang theorize about him. Who is this Adar? And why does he have an elven name? Could he be Sauron? Unfortunately for viewers, we don’t learn the truth during this hour, and even more unfortunately for our captive elves, all of their theorizing has to take place between rounds of hard labor, beatings, and the occasional sadistic throat slitting. They make an attempt at a daring escape in the thrilling action scene that ends the episode — one that involves a brutal battle with a warg — but even this ultimately proves futile. Above the trenches, Arondir watches as one of his comrades is slain by arrows. Back below, he finds himself face to obscured face with Adar himself.
Arondir’s not the only character who finds himself in over his head this episode, however, even if he is the one in the most obvious and immediate danger. As Arondir’s hacking away in the orcs’ trenches, Halbrand and Galadriel make their arrival in Númenor, an island kingdom many miles off the coast of Middle-earth. And what a kingdom it is. Though set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the world of The Rings of Power has so far looked much like the world of Peter Jackson’s movies, a kind of fantasy version of medieval Europe that doesn’t really seem to advance much technologically or change much culturally no matter how many years pass. Númenor is different. Combining elements of Venice, Egypt, and Byzantium, it’s a markedly different setting filled with distinctive architectural and artistic wonders all its own, some of which appear beyond the possibilities of Middle-earth’s inhabitants. If Tolkien’s Middle-earth is to have a renaissance in its Fourth Age, it will likely look to ancient Númenor for inspiration.
If those future peoples can find any remains of it, that is. The Lord of the Rings’ “Appendices” reveal that Númenor isn’t headed for happy times in the Second Age. But we don’t yet know how exactly it arrives at that fate. The Rings of Power is, at heart, an act of creatively filling in the blank spaces Tolkien left behind, but Númenor’s history isn’t all blank spaces. In this episode, we meet both new characters and some with names familiar to readers who pushed beyond the end of The Return of the King, names destined to experience tremendous triumphs and dramatic downfalls. Right now, however, they’re mostly hanging out and figuring out what to do next.
Galadriel and Halbrand’s arrival puts Númenor in a tizzy. Halbrand might just be an ordinary man — though, as we learn later, he’s not — but Galadriel’s an elf and Númenor has adopted a strict “No elves allowed” policy. There’s a reason for this, but even Galadriel doesn’t know it, and we only get hints of it in this installment. It’s a shame, too, because, as Galadriel puts it, Númenorans and elves were once “like kin.” In fact, Númenor was gifted to its residents by the Valar, demigods in Tolkien lore, as a reward for fighting alongside the elves in the war against Morgoth (unlike, by contrast, Halbrand’s ancestors in the Southlands).
Or maybe gifted isn’t the right word. As Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Númenor’s queen regent, sees it, they paid for it in blood. She takes this history seriously. The white tree of Nimloth in the courtyard serves as a constant reminder of both her kingdom’s past and its uncertain future. Galadriel’s request for a ship to travel to Middle-earth does not go well, but following the advice of her counsel, Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle), Miriel agrees to Halbrand’s suggestion that their uninvited guests be allowed to stick around for a bit while she mulls the decision. Halbrand’s suggestion that she follow the kindness of Elendil (Lloyd Owen), the sea captain who rescued them, probably doesn’t hurt either.
While Halbrand and Galadriel settle into Númenor for a stay, the episode moves from Elendil to other members of his family: Elendil’s son, Isildur (Maxim Baldry), a sailor in training, and his sister, Eärien (Ema Horvath). (Yes, we have even more characters to keep track of now, but Rings of Power is now setting them up pretty skillfully as part of the story rather than continuing with the voice-over expo dump of the first episode.) Isildur’s fate as a sailor seems to be preordained, but there’s something holding him back. Specifically, his still unseen brother has put the idea of deferring in his head, an idea tied to thoughts of — as an angry Elendil puts it — something to do with the past and “western shores.” (Númenor’s? Middle-earth’s?) In better news, however, Eärien learns she’s been accepted into the builder’s guild. Hooray!
Elendil has other worries beyond his kids’ future plans this episode. Miriel charges him with keeping an eye on Galadriel, whom he catches considering stealing a skiff. After a tense exchange, they reach a tenuous truce, especially after he speaks a bit of Elvish and offers to take her to Númenor’s Hall of Law, a short but welcome horse ride away. There, she gets a brief lesson in Númenoran history — including its connection to Elros, Elrond’s brother — and a mysterious king who remains loyal to the elves and lives in exile in a tower (a king who Miriel seemingly visits at the end of the episode to warn him, “The elf has arrived”). What’s more, she learns that Sauron’s sigil, which she’s been seeing all over the place, isn’t a sigil at all but a map of what Lord of the Rings fans will recognize as Mordor and Mount Doom; she also finds out Sauron’s plan might be further along than even she suspected.
Halbrand faces a different set of problems adjusting to life in Númenor. He makes nice with some locals by buying them some drinks but then spoils it with a valuable brooch from one of them. In the clink, he meets with Galadriel, who outs him as a lost king of the Southlands, a now-kingless land in desperate need of being united, a job he seems reluctant to assume in large part because his ancestors’ allegiance to Morgoth fills him with shame. Galadriel suggests that, together, they could do great things in Middle-earth. But doing that means getting there first.
What awaits Middle-earth as a whole remains to be seen, but the Harfoots’ main concern is getting safely from their current home to their next stop in a place called “the grove.” Their departure isn’t the only eventful happening in this episode, however. The other Harfoots learn about Nori’s discovery of the Stranger, a discovery that threatens to have Nori “de-caravaned” and puts her family in danger of being left behind. Ultimately, though, the Stranger proves to be good news for the Brandyfoot family. Largo, still hobbled by an accident that may be mysteriously tied to the Stranger, isn’t physically fit to pull his cart and make the migration. Fortunately, the Stranger joins them to pull the cart along.
Plot-wise, not much else happens in the Harfoot scenes of “Adar” (apart from Nori attempting to steal a star chart from Sadoc). But we learn a lot about Harfoot culture, details gracefully integrated into the story in some of the series’ best scenes to date, from Sadoc leading the others in a “Nobody goes off trail, nobody walks alone” chant designed to reinforce the Harfoots’ core cultural values to the concept of de-caravaning and the acceptance that those who can’t keep up will, however unfortunately, be left behind. The close-up on Poppy as her family members’ names get read in remembrance is particularly heartbreaking. The sweeping spectacle might be the show’s selling point, but it’s these humanizing moments — even when the characters aren’t human — that make The Rings of Power’s world worth returning to each week (assuming Adar doesn’t destroy it, that is).
• If The Rings of Power follows Tolkien closely — and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t — there’s a lot more to reveal about Elros and Elrond. It’s probably best the show is pacing itself, however.
• Speaking of Elrond, we didn’t see him this week. In fact, that whole underground region of Middle-earth didn’t appear in this episode, nor did the parts of the Southlands where Bronwyn and Theo are currently on the move. That’s understandable. There’s a lot going on.
• There’s nothing flirtatious about her performance at all, so it’s kind of remarkable how Morfydd Clark generates palpable chemistry with both Owen and Vickers. It doesn’t feel as though the series is setting up a romance with either character (though who knows?) but there’s an X factor to Clark’s interactions with both that give their scenes a compelling charge.
• It’s “Harfoots” not “Harfeet.” That’s canon thanks to the dialogue.
• The Númenor puppet show is a neat touch and a nice acknowledgment that Galadriel is both a weirdo outsider who showed up unexpectedly and a borderline mythic figure in Middle-earth (and its outlying island continents).
• This is the first episode in the series not directed by J.A. Bayona, but it’s as good looking as its predecessors. (The scenes in the makeshift orc tunnel, as Arondir comes to and tries to piece together what’s going on, are especially effective.) Behind the camera here is Wayne Che Yip, whose credits include Doctor Who and The Wheel of Time. Script credit goes to Jason Cahill (Halt and Catch Fire, The Sopranos) and Justin Doble (Stranger Things).
• There’s been a lot of nonsense commentary floating around raising objections to the casting diversity of this series, which, it bears repeating, takes place in a made-up fantasy world filled with orcs and elves. I’d encourage everyone to recognize them as the retrograde, bad-faith arguments they are and not give those making them anymore oxygen by commenting on it further. And I’m going to take my own advice beyond this post.