The Rings of Power Season One Retrospective: “The Full Middle Earth Experience”?
October 31, 2022
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is trying to do and to be many things, as is appearant from its first season and its five distinct storylines. But, above all else, showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay are resolved to provide audiences with “The Full Middle Earth ExperienceTM” with not just Elves, Men and Orcs but also Dwarves, Hobbits, Wizards and a potpurri of monsters. But does this endeavour prove to be the make of the show, or its undoing? Now, several weeks and a few rewatches later, I think I can answer this.
Walking the corporate tightrope
One of the ways in which the showrunners had their work cut out for them from the outset was in walking a couple of corporate tightropes, which to their credit they set-out to conquer with gusto. The first is that they pitched adapting the events of the Second Age – ALL of the Second Age, plus whatever events from the Third Age they saw fit to add – all based strictly on The Lord of the Rings. Its highly ambitious, and one has to commend them on their reconstructive efforts, but it could also been seen as trying to have their cake and eat it too. Its tantamount to adapting The Hobbit from Tolkien’s prologue to The Lord of the Rings. It also required time-compression that, while understandable, chips away at the grandeur of Middle Earth by flattening any sense of depth to its history.
Perhaps nowhere is this more appearant than in the pilot episode. Directed by JA Bayona, it is a sight to behold. Opening on Elf-heaven, we are greeted to a scene of Elf-children bullying Galadriel in her youth: the first half of the season will continue to struggle in pitting the prosaic and mundane against the fantastical and epic with scenes of family quarrels and bickering old friends galore. Here, however, such issues are whittled away as we quickly move to a precis of the War of Wrath: it is spectacular, but over in a flash. It does succeed at setting-up Galadriel on a revenge quest against Sauron, but fails to establish Sauron as the actual threat that Galadriel will spend the rest of the season touting him to be.
This eye-popping opener is something else, too: its a blatant pastiche of Jackson’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, and herein is another tightrope this season must tread: its trying to pass itself for a prequel to the New Line films, even though its not. Its as if Todd Philipps’ Joker spent 90 minutes trying to fool audiences into thinking it was a prequel to The Dark Knight. Mercifully, in its finale the jig is given up when the Elven Rings of Power are showcased, their design clearly different to Jackson’s.
It can feel cynical, but the show often walks this tightrope a little more elegantly: in fact, some of its better moments are in storylines and elements that hew close to Jackson, be it with Markella Kavenagh’s earnest portrayal of yet another wide-eyed Hobbit protagonist, Peter Mullan’s scene-stealing Durin III. But most of all, its with Robert Aramayo’s splended Elrond, balancing wisdom with just the right pinch of naivete.
Galadriel is a different kettle of fish: Morfydd Clark plays her steely and resolute, but she’s also a little too acerbic and (as we shall see) a little incompetent; and, like Elrond, she’s sometimes under-served by the lines she has to utter. Its not so much the callbacks to Jackson’s lines but rather lines in which the writers are trying too hard to sound “old timey” with a lot of gleeful namedrops. Galadriel rides across a pristine New Zealand coastline to a Numenorean hall of lore. Why, she wonders, “you didn’t say your hall of lore was built by Elros himself!” Elros is then brought-up again in a yarn Pharazon spins for the Numenorean crowds, while Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, showing remarkable resolve) and Elendil (Lloyd Owen) debate etymologies. The effect is overly geeky, in contrast to Jackson’s actioner blokeishness.
There is, however, a third corporate tightrope to walk: moulding this “Full Middle Earth ExperienceTM” into five seasons of eight hour-long episodes; and this results in one of the show’s two biggest detracting factors: The way its plotted, and by extension the way its structured and paced.
Middle Earth Architecture
Early on in marketing, there was a lot made of the show’s practical effects and big set builds. Actually, the producers splurged their budget on a big Numenore set, relegating Khazad Dum and Eregion mostly to closed-off, suffocating rooms juxtaposed with CGI wideshots. The designs themselves are thankfully often exquisite: any concerns I had of overly-fantastical designs were mostly fleeting or tucked away into the corners of the frame. Nay, the real issue in the construction is with the architecture and pace of the season itself. There had been some complaints about “Mystery Box” writing (and certainly this is the case regarding Sauron’s identity) but even more meaningful is the fact that the five storylines necessitated by the “Full Middle-Earth ExperienceTM” make for a tricky intercut: the opening two episodes are frenetic in their intercutting, while Episode three settles the season into a surer pace but only at the expense of benching some storylines in each episodes.
One galling example happens in episode six, which sheds the Harfoots and Elrond just as the latter storyline had a timelock placed on it: Aramayo squirms as he has to regale the pompous Gil-galad with stories of how Mithril came into being, and then to Durin about how its appearantly the only way to abay the Elves impending doom. Its absolute fantasy gobbledgook intended to put a fire under that storyline, but its scuttled away in favour of the battle for the Soutlands.
That battle itself is inventive and tense, and benefits from having an episode dedicated to it in its entirety. A tense but bloodless scruffle with an Orc in episode two led me to fear a rather bloodless season, but episodes such as this made good use of the TV-14 rating, and any fears I had of seeing Helm’s Deep rehashed were, thankfully, nullified; subverted, even… The battle is ostensibly the apex of the season: Galadriel spends a stupefying 316 minutes (!) getting an expedition to help relieve the Southlanders of the Orc scourage. Having arrived at the Southlands, however, she fails as Adar (an electrifying Joseph Mawle) puts his plan into motion: in a rube goldberg machine-like manner, Mount Doom is made to erupt, turning the green pastures into Mordor. Galadriel’s quest ends in an anti-climax that’s worked-out over the penultimate episode. In the finale, instead, we learn Elrond’s attempts to acquire Mithril were bust and instead he and the avuncular Celebrimbor end-up making Rings of Power: in other words, the finale episode deals with a plot that is separate from the bulk of the season, only adding to the feeling of the season moving at fits and starts.
While this is going on, the Harfoot storyline exists in a bubble all of its own. Most of the time, it actually benefits from being given room to breath in the edit: the Harfoots may have concieved in part as a corporate mandate, but its clear the showrunners were sympatico to the need to have Hobbits in the show – remember “The Full Middle-Earth ExperienceTM“? – and gave them a lot of love. It gets a little saccharine with Largo spouting inspirational words while staring down the barrel of the camera, but at least it doesn’t feel like pieces are missing like in some of the other storylines.
Returning, however, to Adar and his robe goldberg machine, we have the show’s other main issue: how it functions as a prequel. We already spoke about how the time-compression flatten the depth out of Middle Earth’s history. Likewise, the characters seemingly metastizing across the great swathes of wilderness reduces Middle Earth’s geographic sprawl. That’s all excusable, but what’s harder to swallow is the showrunners’ propensity to dramatize creation myths.
Depicting the Undepictable
Of course, all prequels are about origin stories: for Darth Vader (Star Wars), for Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), for Dumbeldore (Fantastic Beasts), but as I wrote this I struggled to think of any prequel that’s about creation myths: we don’t see the protogenesis of the Force, the don’t learn how Smaug and the dragons came to be. The closest example may be Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. There’s a reason for this, and its one Jackson explains as the issue of “depicting the undepictable” and “when you are depicting the undepictable, you don’t depict much at all.”
The Rings of Power doesn’t heed this advice. It has some coups to claim to its credit as a prequel, one being the aforementioned Adar and his pitiful band of ragtag Orcs. They’re still monsters, and pretty menacing ones at that, but they’re a little bit fleshed out and pitiable to the audience. Even the Somme-like visual of their camp is a new and welcome addition to “The Full Middle-Earth ExperienceTM“.
Other beats, however, are not as succesful: these include the visit to Elf-heaven, the creation of Mordor, the creation of Mithril as well as all the “scientific” babble woven around the creation of the Elven Rings. Some of these, like the wideshots of Valinor and the Krakatoan eruption of Mount Doom make for grand spectacle, but ultimately they can’t match the abstract power of the human imagination: they are, sadly, demystifying.
And while this season was glorious to behold and pleasant to listen to, at times intriguing and even involving, just as often it was sadly inert and ultimately demystifying. There’s reason to hope for better things out of Season Two, with its promises of wilder lands in Nori’s journey to Rhun, and with all the buildup having been done in this season. Nevertheless, with such a long wait, one hopes for something more than a glorified prologue. What we have here ultimately is a season that’s pleasant going on intriguing, but tedious.