‘Rings of Power’ is a misnomer.
Most people familiar with The Lord of the Rings (either from Tolkien’s books or Peter Jackson’s celebrated film trilogy) are aware of Frodo and Sam’s quest to destroy the One Ring and defeat the dark lord, Sauron.
Of course, Tolkien aficionados will know that there were actually twenty rings—nine for men, seven for the dwarves, three for elves, and one for Sauron—forged during the Second Age of Middle-earth. These events are outlined in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which form the bulk of the source material for the new Amazon TV series.
"The production design is impeccable but the plotlines and characters feel like echoes."
Despite these rings being referenced in the title itself, only three out of the original twenty barely make an appearance in the show. This occurs at the very end of the last episode, when noted elven craftsman Celebrimbor finally forges them.
Now, if you think that is agonizingly slow, it is nothing compared to the other plotlines, where the audience follows several elves, dwarves, humans, Harfoots, and even orcs across the length and breadth of Tolkien’s fictional landscape.
There are both familiar characters and new here—a careful move designed to appeal to the older generation of fans who grew up on the books and films, as well as entice casual viewers who are eager for the next Game of Thrones with the promise of a multi-season saga drenched in CGI.
The result, for the most part, is a mess.
A prologue informs us that a young Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is searching for Sauron, who killed her brother, Finrod. During her travels, she befriends Halbrand (played by Charlie Vickers), who claims to be the exiled king of the Southlands.
The duo land in Númenor, where the alliance between elves and humans is already strained due to petty politics. Meanwhile, an old raggedy man with Gandalf vibes (dubbed ‘The Stranger’ and masterfully acted by Daniel Weyman) quite literally falls from the sky as a group of nomadic Harfoots begins their migration.
Orcs, led by Adar (a convincing Joseph Mawle), are pillaging villages, forcing humans to do their bidding. This is also a setup for a transgressive interspecies love story between the Silvan elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi)—perhaps to mirror the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen—that quickly fizzles out.
Finally, a younger and more cheerful Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is off dining with Durin IV (Owain Arthur), the dwarf prince, with the hope of rekindling their friendship and extracting mithril—a magical metal that grants elves their immortality.
While the cast of characters may initially seem compelling, their intersecting storylines are lackluster, meandering through Middle-earth and regurgitating dialogue as though they were NPCs in a video game. Even though their motivations are familiar, the emotional beats never quite land.
A part of the problem is the deliberate attempt to mimic and improve upon Peter Jackson’s distinctive style. The production design is impeccable but the plotlines and characters feel like echoes. The Elves in particular are shiny to look at, but very stiff, as though they've just walked out of an IKEA showroom.
Additionally, the script spends too much time on exposition, so much so that nearly every scene unfolds with painful slowness. Very occasionally it works, such as when first introducing viewers to the majestic island kingdom of Númenor. But most of the time, such as when Arondir battles and triumphs over a warg, or the orcs set afire another village, it feels exhausting, especially since the audience isn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters.
Slow pacing need not be a bad thing in and of itself. Last year, when Amazon Studios adapted Robert Jordan’s slow-paced high fantasy saga, The Wheel of Time, it did an impressive job.
But adaptations like Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon, and The Wheel of Time were based on books where the author had already delineated the narrative and emotional arcs of the key players. Perhaps that explains why the quality of Game of Thrones sharply declined when the showrunners ran out of books to adapt and began to improvise. See also The Hobbit film trilogy, where Peter Jackson expanded a 300-page children’s book into three very long films, all of which lacked the grandeur of the Lord of the Rings movies (wherein he did just the opposite, condensing over 1,000 pages of plot into a coherent and engrossing narrative).
In The Rings of Power, the writers had to improvise from the outset. All the events of the Second Age (the forging of the rings, the fall of Númenor, and the rise of Sauron) are gleaned from the author’s own notes and not presented as a fully-realized novel or a series of novels with clear character motivations and conflicts.
Apart from Galadriel’s personal quest and her involvement with Númenorean politics, and occasional skirmishes between the humans and the orcs, conflict is pretty much missing from the narrative.
Another problem is that the most memorable character on the show, Galadriel, is the stiffest and least complex. A common criticism that is rightfully leveled at Tolkien is the lack of female characters in his narrative, and that the few who are present are not granted enough agency. The show tries to remedy that by making Galadriel the heroine—an angry warrior woman who constantly pisses people off, is determined to have her own way, and slowly learns the art of subtlety and diplomacy.
But this “strong woman” stereotype is depicted without any nuance or complexity, especially since the actress is remarkably expressionless on most occasions. The scenes between Galadriel and Halbrand are coded to suggest a simmering attraction between them, but they lack any chemistry together.
This problem isn’t only limited to Galadriel, although it is most pronounced in her arc. The secondary players, such as Elendil, Isildur, Míriel, and even Elrond, act like characters playing dress-up at a Renaissance fair, which further breaks the sense of immersion. The only exception is in the Harfoots storyline, where the young, plucky Nori (played by Markella Kavenagh) goes against her community to help the Stranger, showing him kindness and hospitality and breathing warmth and life into an otherwise insipid narrative.
In general, the story relies completely on formulaic tropes, recycled nostalgia, and Easter egg-baiting (such as the Balrog reveal) to drive the momentum forward. The visuals, though, are absolutely remarkable. They're gorgeously rendered, filled with breathtaking detail, and successfully bring Middle-earth's landscapes and various cultures into the small screen. But the constant dependence on cinematic shots and panoramic vistas in every other scene only slows down the show—it tries to dramatize every moment rather than focus on character-building.
Instead of wowing the audience, the art direction ends up breaking the immersion and giving viewers multiple opportunities to check the notifications on their phone instead. If this had been an art exhibition, or a tourism advert, or even a teaser for a VR game loosely inspired by Tolkien’s fiction, perhaps all this CGI showing off would have been appropriate. But here, it slows the story rather than enhancing it.
However, the show isn’t without any redemptive potential. The last episode, “Alloyed," turns the tides with two unanticipated twists—the lone stroke of genius in the otherwise bland script. First, it teases that the Stranger may in fact be Sauron himself, with his memory wiped and left to survive on his own.
This explores the idea that evil isn’t necessarily innate but a product of toxic circumstances, and if treated with kindness and empathy, even cruel overlords can be reformed. Of course, this outlook is altogether too optimistic.
In the second, more satisfying twist, it is revealed that Halbrand—whom Galadriel trusted and confided in—is actually Sauron, ready to replace Morgoth as the Big Bad of the show. These twists hint that perhaps, with sufficient reshaping, the show can make a comeback with a better-written second season.
The other bright point is that the show at least tries to rectify Tolkien’s conservatism. In much of mainstream high fantasy, female characters are largely erased from the narrative (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) or are subjected to a great deal of violence (The Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon).
Rings of Power does try to make amends for patriarchal and racist traditions by having several women in lead roles—Galadriel, Nori, Míriel, and Bronwyn—who exercise their power and agency in different ways. (The fact that they are poorly written is another matter.) The show additionally has inclusive and diverse casting, which is refreshing to watch. This isn’t a feat in and of itself, but given the flak that Ismael Cruz Córdova’s Arondir has received for playing an elf of Color, it is perhaps a small step in the right direction.
But Rings of Power’s politics can be compared to Chris Chibnall’s run of Doctor Who, where the showrunner addressed some of the series' sexism and whiteness, but the scripts weren't sufficiently entertaining or engaging.
Of course, this highlights a larger issue—how Hollywood 'wokeness' is superficial and targeted towards winning over a specific demographic, rather than any serious and sustained engagement with the genre or its history.
Perhaps the more pressing problem is that the fantasy genre has perhaps outgrown western medieval fantasy in general, and Tolkien-derivative high fantasy in particular. Ultimately, it may be more interesting to adapt stories set in secondary worlds that are from alternate storytelling traditions.
In short, most of the first season of Rings of Power is a rather spectacular failure. While its beautiful visuals and multiple storylines might still tempt some fans for a sojourn to Middle-earth, long-term Tolkien purists and connoisseurs of authentic storytelling are unlikely to be impressed.
However, given the last episode, there may still be some hope for the second season.