The Pitch: Welcome, Prime Video subscribers! Welcome (back?) to Middle-earth! It’s like medieval times, with all the swords and suits of armor and peasant living, but it’s also a fantasy land filled with wondrous and also horrifying things! There are Dwarves, and they have cool beards and live in mines! There are Harfoots, who are kinda like Hobbits and super-cute! There are Elves, and some of them even have names you might recognize! And there are Men, and they are capable of great things but also prone to xenophobia!
And whether they live in the kingdom of Lindon or the mines of Moria or the plains of the Southlands, a dark presence is lurking in the shadows, in the crops, and in the hearts of those susceptible to evil. While not everyone sees reason for concern, Elven warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is convinced that the threat her brother died fighting in an epic war is not gone for good — and evidence that she’s right can be seen everywhere the light touches…
If Only John Ronald Reuel Could See This: Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and/or Peter Jackson, get ready for something very different — and yet also very familiar. It’s hard to sum up everything that’s going on in the new Prime Video series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. But the first two episodes of the series, which premiere together this Friday, offer a deliberately paced but increasingly intriguing take on Tolkien’s world.
In case you don’t want to read Austin Gilkeson’s excellent and detailed explanation of what Tolkien works serve as source material for The Rings of Power, here’s the short version: All of the officially published books are off limits, but the show’s writers are able to explore Tolkien’s additional writings on the Second Age, set thousands of years before the Third Age (when The Hobbit and the original LOTR books take place) and relatively unexplored in Tolkien’s work, compared to other Middle-earth eras.
However much this was driven by contracts and legalese, this has created a combination of strict limits but also a lot of potential freedom for where the story can go — which actually gives the show a major advantage, creatively.
There are clear plot points being built towards, specifically the rise of Sauron as an apocalyptic threat, but unlike a prequel series like Obi-Wan Kenobi (set just 10 years before one of the most iconic and rewatched films ever made), hardcore fans will be able to sit down with The Rings of Power without worrying too much about how certain plot developments might threaten established canon.
And, probably of greater interest to the folks at Amazon (who have bet a huge amount of money on this series being successful), new audiences might theoretically tune in without even knowing what The Silmarillion even is.
New and Familiar Faces: While the ensemble is pretty vast, a lot of the first two episodes hinges on Clark, whose Galadriel is a Cassandra figure who, despite her fellow Elves telling her that the war against evil is won, isn’t ready to put down her sword. As the star of the well-received A24 horror film Saint Maud, Clark might be the biggest name in the cast, and serves as a stalwart protagonist who’s at the center of the show’s early action; it’s daunting to imagine filling Cate Blanchett’s metaphorically giant shoes, but Clark doesn’t seem intimidated.
In terms of other characters you might remember, Robert Aramayo’s take on Elrond is a lot more mirthful than Hugo Weaving’s, but we’re meeting Elrond as a young and inexperienced Elf, unaware of the grim future that will shape him. Elrond only really pops as a character, though, when we witness his friendship with the delightful Prince Durin of the Dwarves (Owain Arthur) — not to mention Durin’s equally delightful wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete).
Meanwhile, if this show has a beating heart, it’s Markella Kavenagh as Nori, an inquisitive, sweet, and smart Harfoot who finds herself at the center of one of the show’s biggest mysteries — Kavenagh brings the wide-eyed innocence of Elijah Wood’s Frodo, but with her own unique energy.
Many other cast members prove their potential to break out despite limited screen time: Under-represented so far in terms of screen time are intriguing characters like Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a healer whose fellow Men aren’t huge fans of her connection with hunky Elven soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) — when Boniadi gets a chance to take a stand, she really does command the screen, and hopefully her screentime increases as the series continues.
The Verdict: There’s a temptation to spend a lot of time comparing how The Rings of Power holds up against other Tolkien adaptations, because the degree of debt owed to Peter Jackson’s original trilogy is pretty staggering; whatever else is going on here, the series is not terribly interested in reinventing what those films already did so successfully.
And one way in which the show does live up to what came before is its craftsmanship: You really do feel that two billion bucks as you watch, if only thanks to the sheer scale of the storytelling, with so many different realms and races and sets crafted so deliberately for the screen, all captured by the painterly eye of cinematographer Óscar Faura.
But when we think back on The Lord of the Rings, and what a cultural juggernaut it was in the early 2000s, it’s important to remember what was so effective about The Fellowship of the Ring: While far from a short film, laden down with plenty of lore, Jackson and his collaborators knew its theme of many different races coming together to fight a great existential threat had the capability to hit a universal nerve with audiences.
The Rings of Power is only just beginning to inch towards that point, especially on a thematic level, because if one thing is clear from these first two episodes, it’s that a very long game is being played here. Starting off with a two-season order means that developers J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay have the confidence to take their time introducing audiences to their version of Middle-earth: In fact, they are taking so much time with it that at least one or two of the major kingdoms we can expect to see featured in the series have yet to be introduced in the first two episodes.
Ultimately, the biggest issue facing The Rings of Power is its pacing — if your idea of a good time is doing an all-day marathon of the Extended Editions (and if you don’t need any clarification as to what is meant by the Extended Editions), then easing into this new adventure will be like sinking into a delicious bath.
Those with limited patience for fantasy epics might tune out, at least for now. But even for those viewers, there are enough original ideas and concepts packed into this beginning to make it worth keeping an eye on. Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy never reached the same heights as The Lord of the Rings because it felt like too much of a retread. Whatever’s happening with The Rings of Power, it somehow manages to put a fresh coat of paint on what came before — plus its own delicate flourishes, which might evolve into something truly fascinating.
Where to Watch: The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiere Friday, September 2nd on Prime Video. Subsequent episodes will debut weekly.