There and Back Again: A Rings of Power Postmortem

Season One of The Rings of Power has ended, and none too soon. It is a mess that bears only a passing resemblance to Tolkien's world of engaging characters, strong moral code, and story realism.

“All’s well as ends Better,” old Ham Gamgee says in The Return of the King. While I am not persuaded of the better, the first season of Amazon’s Rings of Power—all eight episodes, nine hours, and $500 million dollars of it—has, mercifully, ended.

Reviewing the series is a daunting task, not only because of its scale but because it is such a thoroughgoing artistic failure. Critics of all stripes have been quick to note the show’s many defects: ludicrous action sequences, amateurish cinematography, and—as Forbes Magazine put it—“inexplicably terrible” writing. A study of the failures of The Rings of Power could very well serve as an introductory course in filmmaking—but would certainly be far too much for a single review. Instead, I will focus on those aspects of the show most likely to concern Crisis readers: its fidelity to the source material and its success in translating Tolkien’s literary vision to the screen.

It will surprise no one that I have little positive to say (see my past commentaries on the series here, here, and here). There is Tolkien in the show, to be sure—but only because the writers treat Tolkien’s work like the emperor Constantine treated classical Roman monuments. When he sought to erect a triumphal arch to rival those of his forebears, the great emperor found that he lacked workman skilled enough to the task. The solution? To strip reliefs and figures from earlier monuments and use them to adorn his own: thus, the earlier monuments served not as a model or an inspiration but merely a quarry.

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The Rings of Power writers do precisely the same thing. Dialogue, poems, and entire scenes are roughly cut from The Lord of the Rings and sloppily pasted in the show, with little regard for internal consistency, literary integrity, or artistic effect. The result is, as Gibbon said of Constantine’s Arch, “a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity.”

Apart from such cases of literary strip-mining, it is difficult to think of anything authentically Tolkienian in the show. Setting aside a few visually striking sets—proof that $60 million per episode was not wholly wasted—everything in the show feels wrong. Why is the warrior king Gil-galad so fleshy and doughy? Why is Elendil a common sailor? Why can the island empire of Númenor muster only three small ships? 

By the Second Age, Galadriel should be a wife and mother; here, she is a single, sword-swinging warrior. Her husband is, she tells us, dead; her daughter seems to be unborn. The entire history of the Second Age—and around 2000 years of the Third—are compressed into a single moment in time. In my previous review, I called Rings of Power fanfiction. This was unfair: fanfiction would have been much more respectful of the source material.

This reckless treatment of Tolkien’s work is, I am convinced, directly related to the show’s artistic failures. It is widely recognized that Tolkien’s achievement is rooted in his famously lavish attention to detail. His characters inhabit a fully imagined world, complete with its own history, geography, cultures, and languages. As a result, Middle-earth feels convincingly real; the reader is able to immerse himself in Tolkien’s sub-creation. 

The Rings of Power undoes all this. Journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles are accomplished seemingly instantaneously and with no real difficulty; main characters repeatedly converge on just the right spot at just the right moment so the plot can happen. Sometimes the show’s decisions are so blindingly stupid that they shatter the viewer’s attempted suspension of disbelief—as when Galadriel swims through hundreds of miles of sea, or dozens of characters make it through a catastrophic volcanic explosion without so much as a burn, or a grievously wounded man survives a nearly transcontinental journey on horseback—at full gallop all the way, without rest. Most of the show’s errors and elisions do not rise to this level, of course—but, taken together, they produce an overwhelming sense of unreality. The world of the show feels thin, artificial, and cheap, rather like the unconvincing plastic armor worn by many of its characters.

Characterization fares little better. Galadriel may be our protagonist, but her journey is less a character arc than it is a sine wave: for the great bulk of the season, she oscillates rapidly between a nearly pacifistic serenity and a single-minded, damn-the-torpedoes pursuit of vengeance. Thus, in Episode 6 she counsels a friend not to take vengeance on a fallen orc; minutes later, she threatens to kill all that orc’s children in front of him. By Episode 7, she explains that killing orcs is a “dark deed” that “darkens the heart.” Nor does she reach anything like maturity by the end of the season. 

In the show’s final minutes, she discovers that her travelling partner/prospective boyfriend is, in fact, Sauron in disguise. Though she rejects his invitation to join him, she chooses not to reveal his identity to her friends and allies; one might have thought they had a right to that information. It is implied that she does not do so because she would be ashamed of her error in judgment. To reiterate: Galadriel, the screenwriters’ darling and protagonist of the show, values her ego more than the freedom—and, indeed, survival—of Middle-earth. That this is something of a problem seems not to have crossed the writers’ minds. 

The incoherence of the amoral Galadriel brings us neatly to what is, in my mind, the gravest defect of the series. Tolkien included his hobbits, in part, to ground the action of Middle-earth—to put “earth under the feet of ‘romance,’” as he put it. They provide a moral center for The Lord of the Rings—but The Rings of Power has none. 

We certainly do not find any fixed morality among the Harfoots. For all their whimsy and merriment, the prehistoric Hobbits are pint-sized moral monsters. Their leader knowingly and deliberately dooms an injured hobbit and his family to all but certain death because of the crime of his child. Shortly thereafter, we see the halfling caravan moving along with festive glee—as their lame friend, with his wife and children, struggle vainly to keep up. Later, the leader and his cronies discuss disabling the family’s wagon to ensure their death in the wilderness. The Lord of the Rings taught us that heroism and nobility can be found in any person, no matter how small. The Rings of Power wants us to know that psychopathy can, too.

But perhaps we should be grateful for the general moral incoherence of The Rings of Power: whenever the show does gesture toward an overarching morality, the results are troubling. In my initial review of the show, I fretted about Luciferian overtones in the first two episodes. I felt almost silly doing so: surely, I was overreacting, paranoid.

In retrospect, I feel vindicated. The show’s two most compelling and sympathetic characters are evil—the corrupted elf Adar, and Sauron in his human disguise. But are they truly evil? Both Sauron and Adar reverently invoke The One—that is, God; if memory serves, they are the only characters in the show to do so. We learn from Adar that the orcs—marginalized and excluded as they have been—are the victims of the grand drama of history. They are as much God’s children as anyone else, and they deserve their own place in the world. If the laws of nature must be broken and the world remade to give it to them, then so be it. 

For his part, Sauron seems to be driven to evil almost reluctantly—and, as several commenters have pointed out, it is largely Galadriel that does the driving. The showrunners have already announced their intention to set Sauron up as a compelling antihero in the second season: like Walter White from Breaking Bad, or Satan in Paradise Lost.

This recurrent sympathy for the devil comes through at other points, too. Let us consider the most glaring examples. In Tolkien’s novel, the Balrog of Moria awakens because the dwarves “delved too greedily and too deep” in their pursuit of mithril. The show reverses this: the Balrog is awakened because the rigid old king refuses to allow his son to engage in the risky mining project. Restraint, not hubris, is the trigger; it is the forbidding father (not the transgressing son) who awakens the nemesis. 

Amazon reimagines the forging of the Rings of Power in just the same way. For Tolkien, this had been the key act in a second Fall of the Elves: in crafting the Rings, they assert their self-will and resist the ordinance of God. No longer; now the original rebellion is reimagined as a heroic act. And on and on it goes. No cause can be permitted to be purely noble, no hero truly virtuous. Both the Elves’ war against the darkness and the Southrons fight for it are presented as errors that must be “redeemed.” In all of this, Tolkien’s great fear has been realized: his beloved work has been handed over to those who treat it “carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.” 

For all this, there is, in the end, a curious comfort in Amazon’s spectacular failure. After all, Tolkien wrote, “the Shadow…can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.” That claim, at least, has been fully and conclusively vindicated. In this way, and no other, Amazon Studios has paid fitting homage to the maker of Middle-earth.

[Image Credit: Amazon]

  • Ben Reinhard

    Ben Reinhard is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His new translation of Beowulf is available from Cluny Press. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio with his wife and five children.

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