There can be few shows in the history of television that have endured pressure quite like The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Not only is Amazon’s big bet reportedly the most expensive show ever made (the budget apparently hovers somewhere close to the $700m mark for the first season alone) – its creators are playing in the sandbox of one of the most complex world-builders in literature in JRR Tolkien. The new series treads the hallowed turf of a book consistently voted the most popular of the 20th century, and serves as a prequel to one of the most successful film series of all time (-ish – the canonical link between Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies and The Rings of Power is a little vague). The bar isn’t just high – it’s at vertigo-inducing, Eye of Sauron levels of elevation.
The announcement of Amazon’s “prequel” was met with some scepticism too – the show is set centuries before the events of the main trilogy and uses the millennia-spanning backstory Tolkien sketched in the appendices at the end of the book as the basis for its storytelling. While those fictional myths and histories give the show its backdrop, they’re light on character details and solid narrative structure. As much as Jackson occasionally diverted from the text in his movie adaptions, he had the fairly bulletproof narratives of the books to come back to – stories that had proved themselves robust over almost 70 years.
The Rings of Power showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay are both – remarkably – helming a major project for the first time and have had to start from scratch with just a list of battles, dates and themes to go on. Only two of their characters, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) are anything close to established characters in the novel/novels; everyone else was a blank slate. As details and pictures started to emerge showing Clark in full battle armour (something Tolkien never mentions) alongside hints at changes to the canonical timeline and – gasp! – colour-blind casting (to some Tolkien fans, dragons, walking trees and giant talking eagles are all fine, but black people are bafflingly a bridge too far), the more tedious end of the Rings fandom began to cry foul. Even some reasonable critics were raising eyebrows. There were so many risks here. So many choices that could fall flat. How could the makers possibly pull this off?
And yet… they have. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is one of the most ambitious and finely realised storytelling achievements in television: genuinely cinematic, by turns both propulsive and elegiac, and – best of all – fun.
The show has its flaws – episode one has so much world to set up that it ends up dragging its feet, and there’s a smattering of what the late, great Terry Pratchett called “as you know, your father, the king” dialogue – but by and large, at least in the two episodes we have seen, it’s an extraordinary achievement. The initial slow pace is in part due to the makers’ irresistible urge to let the camera pore over every luxurious landscape and lingering glance, particularly Clark’s steady blue eyes, which manage to flick between soft and steely in a fraction of a second (echoing those of Jackson’s Galadriel, Cate Blanchett).
But the greatest success of Rings of Power is that it successfully evokes the grandeur, poetry and mysticism of Tolkien’s writing. It’s what separates the show from something like Game of Thrones with all its blood, mud and graphic sex. When we see the legendary light-giving trees of Valinor (essentially the “heaven” of this world) they have a soft-focus, pencil-sketch quality, like a living illustration. It’s beautiful. Unless you managed to get to the premier, you’re going to wish you’d seen this on a bigger screen.
The first episode has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and though it remains remarkably beautiful to look at, it’s also not exactly light on exposition, reintroducing us to the world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, while making sure we’re aware that this is a newer, wilder version of the place we’re familiar with. It’s Clark’s Galadriel that keeps us anchored; the show begins, as the movies do, with her character recapping a few millennia of history, starting with her own childhood in Elvenhome and taking in the elves’ war against the first dark lord, Morgoth, and the disappearance of his most trusted servant, Sauron. Fans versed in Tolkien lore will have no trouble following this, but it’s easy to imagine someone coming at it fresh or from the movie adaptions struggling with the details. It’s Galadriel’s emotional arc – she must avenge her brother, murdered by Sauron, and continue his quest – that acts as a lifeline to pull the audience through the sheer fantasy of it all. Clark is wonderful in the role, nailing the balance between ageless serenity and passionate quester. Her warrior elf garb is also, for good measure, extremely cool.
This first episode, at least, is Galadriel’s story, and her strand is comfortably the most satisfying, though other characters and races, notably the proto-hobbit Harfoots and an iffy-seeming human settlement, fly by too briefly to properly engage us; the notable exception being Ismael Cruz Córdova’s appealingly still performance as lovelorn elf warrior, Arondir. Fortunately, we have more than the first instalment to go on.
While the series premiere has an epic, unreal quality, it also rather has its head in the clouds. Thank Eru Ilúvatar then (you might have to look that one up), that Amazon is releasing the first two episodes together. It’s in episode two that The Rings of Power really finds its feet. Here we meet the dwarven power couple Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife, Disa (Sophia Nomvete), a particular delight, in the majestic dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm. We also get to spend some proper time with the delightful Harfoots, a marauding group of woolly-footed tiny folk with a lilting brogue (and one that the tribe elder, Lenny Henry, seems to have some trouble with), notably the wide-eyed, idealistic Nori Brandyfoot (a sparky and likeable Markella Kavenagh), presumably our guide through this part of the story and the closest the series gets to a Frodo or Bilbo Baggins-type character.
Nori is struggling to care for a mysterious figure who has dropped in from nowhere – he’s listed merely as “The Stranger”, played by Daniel Weyma, in the show’s credits, though it doesn’t take a PhD in Middle Earth studies to work out who this likely is. There is, after all, a missing dark lord on the loose somewhere. It’s here we start to get a sense of the coming existential threat. The second episode is more engaging, creepier, funnier, warmer and more frightening than its predecessor.
If the series can maintain this standard, we could be witnessing the start of something very special indeed. The expectations may be immense, and keyboard warriors may be sharpening their knives, but if there’s one thing Tolkien’s work teaches us, it’s that the most crushing pressure and the fiercest of flames can create hypnotising jewels and rings.
[See also: Have we reached peak TV crime drama?]