Machiavelli en Terra di Mezzo: The Rings of Power as a political thriller
With the show already established as a prequel to the live-action films, lets explore how it will distinguish itself from the films by focusing on the court-dynamics of Númenórë (between Míriel, Pharazôn and Elendil) and Eregion (between Galadriel, Annatar and Celebrimbor), rather than focus on yet another cross-country quest.
“My dear, always come out of another hole” – Sir Noel Coward
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of double entendre, I started with this saying of Noël Coward’s, aimed at a young Sir David Lean, to explain why I chose to contrast my previous topic – which was all about how the show will pick-up from the feature films – with this one, which is all about how the show will, in Coward’s words, “come out of another hole” and differentiate itself from the films. This is a valuable point because, done right, it will allow Amazon to have their cake and eat it: both enjoying the benefits of using the popularity of the films to create a popular prequel, but also using the different nature of the show’s narrative to make it feel so distinct as to make any unfavourable comparisons to the films moot.
Said difference in nature is one of genre: sure, both the films and the show are fantasy (actually, mythology, but lets not split hairs), but whereas the films are action-adventure, the show is shaping-up to be something else entirely: a Machiavelian thriller. That’s right, repeat after me: a “Ma·chi·a·vel·lian thriller.” Granted, I could be less posterior-savvy (hey, don’t rain on my parade!) and call it a “political thriller” but then, that term tends to denote more contemporary films with a contemporary political statement like All the President’s Men and we already have enough people worried about the show being “contaminated” with contemporary identity politics, and so I choose to shy away from that term. Rather, the show is a “political thriller” in the sense of exploring the politcs of its own universe: warring royal houses, scheming within the royal court, coups d’état – that line of country.
This is a strong contrast to the films. Hopefuly, not so strong as to give people the whiplash that the senate scene in The Phantom Menace gave them after being weaned on three space-westerns in the 1980s: the Middle Earth films may be action-adventure, but they’re a very specific brand of action-adventure: somber, grandiose, languid. In times, they dabble in Machiavelian overtures, and in a sense I think Sir Peter Jackson is at his happiest during such scenes. Talking about his last Middle Earth feature, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, he said:
Of all of them, this feels most like a thriller to me. Obviously they are fantasy action adventures but this is closest to All The President’s Men’s evolving personality-based thriller style. I’m enjoying that too. We don’t introduce any new characters. We don’t go anywhere. There’s no traveling. The dwarves and everyone else got to where they need to be last time and everybody’s been introduced. Whatever happened before changed when the mountain became empty of dragon. Mike Fleming Junior, “Q&A: Peter Jackson On His Middle Earth Exit, How The Beatles And Stanley Kubrick Nearly Did LOTR, And A Disguise That Let Him Haunt Comic-Con“, Deadline, 27 July … Continue reading
This is a very astute comment: other than the return journey and a brief excursion to Gundabad, The Battle of the Five Armies is not an adventure story: its not about a group of characters going from point A to point Z via points B-Y. Rather, its about exploring the conflict between four feuding factions, three of which are busy quarreling over issues of responsiblity and remunerations for the recent refugee crisis of the people of Laketown. The action revolves around Thorin’s broken psyche and his reluctance to give-in, with Bilbo acting as a covert mediator. And there are precedents to this in other places in the films: Denethor’s suspicion of Elrond and Theoden, Thranduil’s isolationist policy, and Gandalf running around manuevering everyone.
The show is shaping-up to be like that, by a factorial of ten (so, lets see, that would be “Battle of the Five Armies”10! = “The Rings of Power”). Doubtless, partially for spectacle’s sake and partially to smoothen over the transition, it will have some of the overtures of an action-adventure: we’ve already heard about Galadriel undertaking the perillous quest of the Helcaraxë and encountering a snow Troll, and the show’s requisite Halflings will appearantly be mostly busy making-do in the wilderness, but presumably (and hopefully) those would be the entremets to the proper mets of the show. A good comparison would be the Orlando Bloom-helmed Kingdom of Heaven: there’s definitely an intriguing dynamic in the royal court between Baldwin (the dying king), Sybilla (his sister), Balian (her lover) and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas as Sybilla’s estranged husband), but its balanced with a healthy dose of expeditions to new, exotic locales and a strong helping of warfare.
There are two main political scenarios in the Second Age: Eregion in the Mid Second-Age and Númenórë in the late Second Age. Both of them ultimately result in a great, all-out war – replete with sudden character deaths – but in the interim, there’s much conspiring and dealmaking to be had on the part of the various vying factions, which would easily sustain multiple seasons. In Númenórë, we have a pretty well-fleshed-out royal court dynamic: the benevolent but disfunctionally-decrepit king Tar Palantir (Geoff Morrel?), his daughter and in-effect ruling monarch Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), her first cousin and right-hand Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle) who’s busy solidifying his own political power; and the assembled noblemen of the Council of the Spectre, including the close-relatives of the royal line in the form of Elendil (Lloyd Owen), Lord of Andúnië, and his son Isildur (Maxim Baldry), who gain the favour of Palantir. Ontop of that we have a younger sister of Isildur’s, Carine (Ema Horvath), who’s said to be “deeply politically minded, which presents a particular challenge when the political leanings within her own family become increasingly divided…”Caleb Williams, “Full Character Breakdowns For Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ TV Series“, Knighted Edge Media, 9 January 2020)
You can already see the Machiavelian (there’s that word again) entaglement that ensues, especially as the court becomes increasingly divided over issues of colonization of Middle Earth and, pertinently, aiding the Elves, as Galadriel comes as an ambassador of-sorts to the island. The debate of isolationism versus interventionism had never been a new one for this franchise (well, what do you know? another topic for an essay!), but this is the first time its being grounded into such a fleshed-out Byzantine setting. There are even roles for a son of Pharazôn’s, Kemen, a lady-in-waiting of Míriel’s and three friends of Isildur’s.
Those who studied Akallabêth will know (spoilers!) that, around the death of Palantir, Pharazôn performs a coup d’état and, to solidify his power, forces an incestuous political marriage upon Míriel (see you around, Game of Thrones) and begins to prosecute Elf-friends, with Elendil and Isildur – much put-upon by Pharazôn – covertly offering them shelter, forming a de-facto underground rebel force (see you around, Star Wars) in their fief while Pharazôn solidifes his power at the capital. Furthermore, Pharazôn captures Sauron who even as captive is able to sway Pharazôn into turning Númenórë into a satanic theocracy (see you around, Cabiria) and ultimately bring about a cataclysm (hello, Götterdämmerung), from which Elendil and Isildur are able to allow narrowly arrange an exodus for their subjects. In other words, its a version of Gladiator where Commodus gets the girl. This is of course followed by the survivng refugees led by Elendil forming a Last Alliance with the Elves to fight Sauron, and between the resulting battle and the subsequent Orc ambush at the Gladden Fields, “then everyone died – the end” (paging Hamlet!)(End of Spoilers)
The other big “political” scene of the Second Age is that of Eregion, much earlier on. There are several versions of this story, but the main gist of it is that one Annatar convinces the Elflord Celebrimbor and his guild to forge Rings of Power (huh, fancy that!) against the better council of Galadriel, who resides in the realm, and of Elrond and Gil-galad, who worryingly watch the events unfold from their nearby realm of Lindon, who’s relations with Eregion deteriorate as Eregion gradually falls to Annatar’s influence, finally reaching such a pitch as to have Celebrimbor to drive Galadriel out. Blimey, its Revenge of the Sith with Elves!
Its important to stress that this is NOT the showrunners seeking to emulate Game of Thrones, as such: this is mostly as Tolkien himself set these stories up which were, as he says: “Nearly all are grim and tragic: a long account of the disasters that destroyed the beauty of the Ancient World, from the darkening of Valinor to the Downfall of Númenor and the flight of Elendil.” That being said, there is a major distinction between Tolkien’s (and presumably, the showrunners’) politiking and GRR Martin’s, which I’ll touch on in my closing remarks.
As you can see, its a very different kind of show, as well it should. For one thing, it helps distinguish the show from the films which had taken the quest narrative as far it will go, with two juxtaposed quests: the Quest of Erebor and the Quest of the Ring. It also helps set it apart from its sister show, Wheel of Time, and, really, from most of the major franchises which are predicated upon quests stories (Joseph Campbell’s proported “Hero’s Journey”this is beyond the scope of this essay, but Campbell’s Monomyth “formula”, which many films – mostly of the Star Wars variety – claim to follow, had in fact been … Continue reading) or on Bildungsromane seasoned with romance and mystery (paging Harry Potter).
But just as importantly, this genre lends itself to television better: it would be very hard to sustain a quest narrative across five seasons (or even three, really) of television. Its also beneficial to Amazon from a practical perspective, in that it will help make their move from New Zealand to the United Kingdom much more palatable: because the show is not some cross-country travelogue, it should be easy to reuse the same plates for the establishing wideshots of the main settlements – Armenelos, Andúnië, Forlindon, Ost-in-Edhil, Dwarrowdelf et al – and fill-in the rest with medium-wide shots in which it would be easier to marry the UK visuals into the New Zealand ones.
This kind of story of political maneuvering, allegiances and scheming is also conducive to great character drama, because its so nestled into character interactions, dialogue, internal and inter-personal conflict and complex motivations. That isn’t to say its a morally-relativist story like Game of Thrones: take Gladiator, for example, which definitely has plenty of scheming and back-and-forth going between Commodus and Falco on the one hand, and Gracchus, Lucila and Maximus on the other, but we never feel like Lucila’s motivations or Maximus’ actions are less than noble and sympathetic. That is, of course, not to say that characters like Elendil or certainly Isildur would be stick one-dimensional heroes, either, nor Pharazôn a one-dimensional villain: the inclusion of the latter’s son, for instance, would suggest the showrunners are setting-up a sob story to make us at least pity the queen’s right-hand.
And ultimately for anyone who, like Tolkien, was “raised on ordinary history” or for anyone who, like me, enjoys movies about historical subjects, this Florentine air can only serve to add a lot of credibility to the setting; the same kind of credibility that Jackson had sought when he based his films on historical epics (bet you didn’t think we’d circle back to David Lean, did ya?) which were in turn replete with the kind of scheming and power-plays that the show is looking to have.
Hook. it. in. my. veins.
|↑1||Mike Fleming Junior, “Q&A: Peter Jackson On His Middle Earth Exit, How The Beatles And Stanley Kubrick Nearly Did LOTR, And A Disguise That Let Him Haunt Comic-Con“, Deadline, 27 July 2014.|
|↑2||Caleb Williams, “Full Character Breakdowns For Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ TV Series“, Knighted Edge Media, 9 January 2020|
|↑3||this is beyond the scope of this essay, but Campbell’s Monomyth “formula”, which many films – mostly of the Star Wars variety – claim to follow, had in fact been discredited by other folklorists since.|