That sound you just heard is neither drums, drums in the deep nor the roar of a Balrog. It was actually a collective sigh of relief emanating from countless “Lord of the Rings” fans who just watched the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” and realized that it is, in fact, a compelling expansion of the Middle-earth mythos. The episodes, titled “Shadows of the Past” and “Adrift,” both premiered tonight, while the remaining six will air weekly. The Second Age of Middle-earth is fairly technologically advanced, all things considered, but it would seem they haven’t yet developed the means to drop an entire season of prestige television at once.
“Shadows of the Past” begins, as the movies did, with a prologue narrated by Galadriel — this one even longer and more detailed than its predecessor. Here it’s Morfydd Clark rather than Cate Blanchett in the role, and she’s still in her battle-hardened warrior phase as she sets the stage for us. Middle-earth is attempting to move on from a ruinous war with Morgoth, a godlike being from whom all evil stems, as well as his chief lieutenant: none other than Sauron himself. The forces of good eventually emerged victorious, but not before suffering devastating losses — including Galadriel’s own brother.
She then jumps into the action herself, leading a group of fellow elves as they scout for any remaining trace of Sauron and/or his orcs — and eventually finding his sigil in a snowy cave. Galadriel considers this irrefutable evidence that their enemy persists, while her tired underlings — who are quick to point out that their excursion was supposed to have ended long ago — insist that the marking could be decades or even centuries old.
And so they return to the Elvish city of Lindon, where Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) are waiting to congratulate the group on a mission that they feel has proven they no longer need to worry about pesky old Sauron. For their valor, Galadriel and her team are to sail to the mystical Undying Lands and live the rest of their days as all elves should. But Galadriel, who at this point is beginning to seem like Middle-earth’s Cassandra, doesn’t want that; it’s as though she can feel in her bones that the threat lingers. It thus comes as little surprise when she jumps off the boat moments before crossing the threshold to the Undying Lands, leaving herself quite literally at sea.
Not that those familiar with her work in “Saint Maud” or “The Personal History of David Copperfield” will be surprised, but Clark proves more than worthy as Blanchett’s successor (or predecessor, as it were). She delivers lines like, “This place is so evil our torches give off no warmth” and “We had no word for death, for we thought our joys would be unending” with all the heft they deserve; it’s almost enough to make you wonder why it took so long for Galadriel to be at the forefront of a series like this.
Throughout these first two episodes, characters are divided into two camps: those who believe the past is behind them and those who believe Sauron hasn’t truly been vanquished. Unsurprisingly if also a bit sadly, the latter group would appear to be correct. That includes not just Galadriel but also Arondir (Cruz Córdova), whose 79-year tenure at an important elvish outpost has made him understandably wary of whatever might still be out there. Gil-galad and Elrond are convinced that their enemy is gone for good, but Galadriel thinks otherwise — and is determined to prove it. Her compatriots are none too pleased with this, and one would be forgiven for thinking that sending her to the Undying Lands isn’t a reward so much as a means of getting rid of her. Despite being a brilliant warrior and fearless leader, she’s also insolent and stubborn — but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.
Neither is she the only intriguing character in “The Rings of Power.” Arondir, a Silvan Elf being positioned as the show’s Legolas equivalent, is notable not only for his Galadriel-like certainty that the current peace won’t hold but also for his forbidden love affair with a human woman named Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi). He thinks he’s stopping by her humble abode to see her one last time after being relieved of his duty — a visit that displeases her young son — but the two end up venturing to a nearby village after a farmer asks her to look at his cow, who’s secreting something like blood from its udders rather than milk. Quelle surprise, said village has been ransacked — and it sure seems like orcs were responsible, especially when one shows up in her home and nearly kills the child. If only there were another elf with whom Arondir might eventually team up to take on this looming threat…
For all that portent, “The Rings of Power” isn’t all doom and gloom. Part of what makes “Lord of the Rings” so beloved is the way it balances high stakes with a kind of pastoral levity. That comes mostly from the hobbits, represented in “The Rings of Power” by Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), whose wish for something grander than what her modest village offers is answered when a comet streaks across the sky at the end of the first episode. She and her less adventurous friend reach it first, and discover that a person has landed with it.
Thus ends our introduction to Middle-earth’s second age, and it’s a good thing we didn’t have to wait a week to learn more. J.A. Bayona both directed “Shadows of the Past” and the as-yet unnamed second episode, and it’s clear that his work on “The Impossible” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” adequately prepared him for the heft and scope of Middle-earth.
I choose to think of “Adrift” as The Dwarf Episode, not because it exclusively features our mining friends but because the first one didn’t feature them at all — the nerve! Here we see Khazad-dûm in all its former glory, the glory that Gimli talked up before realizing it was now little more than a tomb. After being asked whether he’s heard of Lord Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and answering in the affirmative, Elrond asks the famed smith to journey from Eregion to Khazad-dûm in hopes of convincing his friend Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to help them with their secretive project, one whose true purpose would be a mystery were the series not literally named after it. Keep an eye on Celebrimbor in the episodes to come — though he hasn’t had much screentime yet, he’s likely to be one of the most consequential characters in the entire series.
Though the dwarvish capital is awe-inspiring, it isn’t especially welcoming. After initially being refused entry, Elrond is forced to invoke a rite that will grant him an audience with Durin if he can best him in a rock-breaking contest; if he forfeits, he’ll be banished forever. Elrond does indeed lose — rock-breaking is kind of what dwarves do best, after all — but while being escorted out of Khazad-dûm by Durin he successfully charms his old friend, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in decades. This, it turns out, was the source of that inhospitality: Durin was hurt that Elrond didn’t attend his wedding or congratulate him on the birth of his children. Elrond, as clever as he is charming, sincerely apologizes and asks for the opportunity to also apologize to his friend’s wife — which Durin agrees to, so long as Elrond leaves immediately after.
You can see where this is going. Durin’s delightful better half Disa (Sophia Nomvete) is a gracious host who insists that her guest stays for dinner, which allows Elrond to finally ask for Durin’s help on the project he and Celebrimbor are working on. Durin reluctantly agrees, and the two take the idea to his father: King Durin III (Peter Mullan), whose skepticism would appear to cast doubt on the whole affair.
Elsewhere in Episode 2, Nori attempts to nurse Comet Man (note: not his real name) back to health while dealing with both a language barrier and the fact that he’s somewhere between disoriented and insane. (He’s identified in the credits as The Stranger and played by Daniel Weyman.) It’s here that discerning viewers will begin wondering whether there might be some connection between the strange fellow who survived a falling star and the all-powerful antagonist everyone seems so worried about, but far be it from your humble correspondent to speculate on such matters.
“True creation requires sacrifice,” Celebrimbor says early in the second episode. Though unlikely to have been intended as such, the line feels like an encapsulation of the series as a whole. It may take some time yet to fully absorb the fact that Amazon literally dropped $1 billion on its “Lord of the Rings” show, but at least you can see where the money went. It’s difficult to think of a single television production not named “Game of Thrones” that has ever felt quite so vast and, yes, epic. “The Rings of Power” doesn’t feel small compared to the movies, nor does it feel unworthy of them. We can bemoan the fact that seemingly everything has to be an expanded universe these days, but we can also be happy when they’re good.