Abigail Nussbaum: In honor of the new show, I reread, in the months before it aired, both The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Silmarillion. It wasn’t my first time with the latter, but it was the first time in a long time—maybe even twenty years! The LOTR reread reminded me of how good a writer Tolkien is in ways that aren’t always heralded: the finely observed details of life in the Shire, for example, which almost rise to the level of the novel of manners in some scenes; or the way he writes about landscape and moving through it, dwelling on the specific details of moving through the wilderness in a way that we don’t tend to think about as modern people.
The Silmarillion, on the other hand, reminded me how much our perception of this world has been skewed by the fact that LOTR is its most visible story. Because if you understand the foundation on which that story rests, which is one of tragedy, hubris, and failure, the heroics of the more successful novel are given an entirely different flavor. These are people snatching the last possible victory out of the jaws of millennia of defeat.
Aishwarya Subramanian: It has been a few years since I’ve done a full LOTR reread. I read and loved first The Hobbit, then The Lord of the Rings as a child. I reread them quite frequently until probably around university. The Hobbit featured in my PhD thesis, so I have much more recent memories of it. I love it all still. (Admittedly, though, I first read The Silmarillion only in my teens and have reread that one a lot less, for reasons that are probably obvious.)
Gautam Bhatia: Yes, I think a lot of people probably feel the same way … but more than any other writer, J. R. R. Tolkien is woven into the fabric of my childhood. My parents gave me a copy of The Hobbit when I was twelve. I devoured it. The Lord of the Rings followed the summer after. I was enchanted. The first of the Peter Jackson films came a year later, and put a seal on it: it’s hard to describe the impact of The Fellowship of the Ring on a teenager yearning for escapism.
William Shaw: So I’ve always had a pretty distant relationship with Tolkien. I have vague memories of watching the The Lord of the Rings films on DVD as a kid (I must have been about eight or nine). I tried watching them again in my early twenties and lost interest halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. My grandfather is a huge fan of The Hobbit, though, and he encouraged me to read that in my teens. I liked it, and we went to see those films together, which I think are better than their reputation but still not great.
Gautam Bhatia: For my part, the films led me to The Silmarillion, and then to the many Christopher Tolkien-edited works that lined the shelves of Delhi bookstores. I also discovered Blind Guardian—the power metal band—and their album, Nightfall over Middle Earth, which is The Silmarillion in the language and rhythms of rock music. Simultaneously, I was listening to the much softer At Dawn in Rivendell series, which set Tolkien’s poetry to music. Books, films, music—it was all Tolkien.
Aishwarya Subramanian: My history with Tolkien adaptations is a little bumpier. I was very much a purist about the Jackson movies (and unfortunately, had access to the internet and could share those feelings with the world. I’m very relieved that this was all under a pseudonym). Even now, when my attitude towards adaptations in general is far removed from what it was as a sanctimonious teenager, I’m pretty indifferent to them. There are moments that I think work wonderfully, but in general I don’t feel that what I enjoy about Tolkien is of particular interest to those films—and that’s fine. In the run up to this new series I was a little bemused by the way that Jackson’s trilogy has been increasingly positioned as the Good and Faithful adaptation of the books (often by people being outraged by whatever they think this new series is doing)—meanwhile, the scraps of trailers and images I saw of the new show suggested that it was very much in the same vein.
So I didn’t really have strong feelings of anticipation or trepidation about this new series; more mild curiosity to see what they do to fill in these largely empty spaces in the narrative, and resignation to the culture wars drama that feels inevitable.
Abigail Nussbaum: I think it was my recent reread, more than anything, that changed my attitude towards this show, about which I had until then been mostly sceptical (not least because of the involvement of Amazon and Bezos). I can imagine a really great story about the world before LOTR, between the utter calamity of the First Age and the beginning of the end of the Third. In particular, I came around on the idea of Warrior Galadriel, because the impression you get of her from The Silmarillion is of someone who witnessed the complete destruction of her family and home(s), and extending that to a shell-shocked warrior makes a lot of sense to me. So I was cautiously optimistic.
William Shaw: I deliberately avoided a lot of the pre-release chatter about The Rings of Power. Maybe I was being cynical, but I couldn’t help situating this new show in the post-Game of Thrones fantasy gold rush, to the point where this new show was going up against the Game of Thrones prequel (which Robbie Collin has pointed out gives things a weird Armageddon vs Deep Impact feel). I may not be a Tolkien expert, but I feel confident enough to say The Lord of the Rings is a very different series to Game of Thrones, and I was interested to see how this show played up to or avoided the conventions of contemporary mass-market fantasy.
Beyond that, I was just hoping for something vaguely accessible. I generally think that adaptations need to stand on their own, and should be comprehensible even if you’re not familiar with the source material. I’m interested to find out how the show walks the line between pleasing invested Tolkien fans and a more casual audience, especially as we’ve seen both more and less successful versions of that in the previous two film trilogies.
Gautam Bhatia: There was a time when I could recite the lore of the Second Age and argue about the motives of Ar-Pharazôn, and then there was a time when … I couldn’t. That time has now lasted around a decade, so it’s safe to say that I’m coming to this series with very little active memory of the story.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Right. Yet with the first episode, like most people with some familiarity with The Silmarillion, I was mainly interested in contextualising whatever was going on within that history! I think the show made some interesting choices—for example, Galadriel’s narrative of the Elves’ departure from Valinor leaves out a lot that seems relevant to their later actions in Middle Earth, and it was almost as if the show wanted to do some of the playing around with perspective and genre that Tolkien does across the Middle Earth writings. And I found myself partially convinced by the Elves-in-colonial-outposts plot—not so much in relation to The Silmarillion, but to bits and pieces of the other writings, the vibe felt appropriate to me. I’m slightly fighting off the temptation to do some rereading here, but I do, characteristically, have a colonialism in Middle Earth reading list somewhere …
Abigail Nussbaum: So I had two reactions to the opening, one for each episode. With the first hour, my reaction was “this is so close and yet so far.” I was looking for a lot of details and plot elements, too—perhaps moreso, because I’d just finished The Silmarillion. And I constantly had the reaction of mingled familiarity and foreignness. I’m not talking about stuff like Warrior Galadriel, or even huge deviations like “the Elves maintained decades-long military rule over humans who sided with Morgoth.” But small things like the way Sauron is held up as the Big Bad, the relationship between Elves and Dwarves, the attitude towards Valinor. It all felt very uncanny valley.
With the second episode, what struck me was the Peter Jackson of it all: how much these two episodes, taken together, felt like the opening act of one of his Middle Earth movies, and how different a vibe that was from just about every other fantasy show currently running, even the ones that are supposedly less highbrow, like The Wheel of Time or The Witcher. It was all forward motion, and the characters—even the ones that feel more complex, like Galadriel—felt like instruments of the plot rather than people in their own right. Which is funny: first because Jackson’s films are now held up as the “right” way to adapt Tolkien, when really he was whittling those novels down to a specific mode and style; and second because in Game of Thrones we have another template for how “serious” fantasy shows are supposed to work—lots of realpolitik and pensive character moments—and it was almost instantly clear that this show isn’t interested in that at all.
Gautam Bhatia: I agree about “the Peter Jackson of it all.” That was my overwhelming impression from the first two episodes: the aesthetic, the dialogue, the music—it all felt like a Peter Jackson rerun, twenty years on. In one way, I suppose that is not overly surprising—many media critics have pointed out how the overwhelming number of recent reruns, remakes, and expansions of popular franchises are essentially a form of service to fans who “grew up” with something in the early 2000s. In that way, I felt that the first two episodes were signalling to that generation of fans (my generation!) that this was safe territory, a space for us to relive our childhoods and teenage years that were draped by the magic of Jackson’s original trilogy.
But I also felt that the opening episodes fell well short of even achieving that goal. For one, it’s twenty years on, and, if Peter Jackson’s trilogy succeeded because it was perhaps the first to do epic fantasy at that scale, in the intervening two decades we’ve had a fair bit of media that has done similar. So it no longer has that breath of freshness. Secondly—and this isn’t the fault of the show of course—it does make a difference watching Peter Jackson on a cinema screen, and watching Rings of Power on a laptop. I don’t know if that sense of scale can work on anything other than a cinema screen. And finally, I felt that there were far too many times when the gravitas of the dialogue simply wasn’t justified by the emotional depth of the scene and the characters—so at a lot of times, the dialogue simply felt jarring.
William Shaw: Yes, my gut reaction to the opening was “well that was OK.” The first episode was kind of a slow start, and I wasn’t sure about the decision to frontload the big prologue like we were setting up a prequel series to the prequel series. But it was pretty and well-acted, and the golden and orange colour palette made a nice contrast to the sludgy greys and browns of so much fantasy TV these days. I especially liked the weirder bits of stray detail, like the dudes with massive moose antler backpacks. The production design was generally on point.
There were a handful of interesting ideas (the Elves as colonial policemen, the Hobbits as an itinerant community rather than middle-class homebodies, Galadriel turning down a free pass into Elf Heaven); but I felt like the show wasn’t really emphasising them enough. The cliffhangers felt a bit anticlimactic, especially the one at the end of episode two. It felt like a show taking its time because it could bank on a certain level of audience buy-in. But it was at least pleasant and nice-looking with it.
As the show went on, however, I found it increasingly frustrating. It’s odd, because plenty was going on; but I still felt like we were bogged down in the first act. The plotline about Galadriel trying to get Halbrand to take his rightful place as king felt hackneyed and derivative, the Harfoot plot line felt like it was jogging in place, and Adar felt completely nondescript as a villain. I was hoping for something vaguely accessible; I found myself doing just fine following the main plot beats, but also feeling as if the main reason I was expected to care is simply that all this is happening in Middle Earth.
Abigail Nussbaum: Yes. By about five episodes in, my reaction was decidedly mixed. There were things about the show that I loved—the visuals most of all, but also the way that it constructed some of its locations. I really enjoyed seeing Khazad-dûm at its height and the Harfoot society. I think Galadriel and Elrond worked really well as earlier versions of the characters we know. And some of the elaborations on the canon were just brilliant. Pace Will, I loved the idea of Adar—if Elves are immortal, then why shouldn’t one of the Elves captured by Morgoth and used to create Orcs still be around, and totally out of his gourd? I was charmed by the idea that Bilbo borrowed the line “Not all those who wander are lost” from an old Hobbit song that dates back to their forebears’ days as nomads. I had a wonderfully wrongfooting moment when it finally sank in that the “Southlands” everyone had been talking about were the region we’ve come to know as Mordor. And I was simply blown away by Númenor, both the physicality of it (when we got our first glimpse of the city, my brother, who hasn’t read past LOTR, said “Minas Tirith?”, and they really have found a way of evoking that location while doing something notably different) and the glimpses we had of its society.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think the Númenor sets are beautiful. A lot of the settings and lighting were wonderful (though I struggled with some of the haircut choices). But if it was so beautiful, why was I unmoved?
Gautam Bhatia: Númenor was so well done. The architecture, the people, the music—it’s the only set of scenes in the show where I’ve genuinely felt that justice is being done to the scale at which Tolkien wrote and imagined. It’s a bit like the feeling I had when we first saw the Argonath in The Fellowship of the Ring—awe, wonder, and yes, a sense of being moved. I have to confess, I squealed when Ar-Pharazôn first came on the scene—he is one of my favourite characters from the legendarium (who doesn’t love a bit of doomed hubris?). And I think Elendil was by far the most convincing character on the show: when I first saw him, I remarked to a friend that he looked like a first draft of Aragorn … before doing a double-take, because of course, he literally is a first draft of Aragorn.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Speaking of the Elf-friend himself: one thing that I found very striking about the show was that it made the attitude of the other peoples of Middle Earth towards the Elves in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings very understandable. Though both books are told from the perspective of hobbits who really like Elves, pretty much everyone else we meet finds them suspicious, manipulative, unpleasant. Knowing what we know about what’s going to happen in this world’s future (that Sauron is back, that the Elves are fading), it would have been easy to do a flat reading of them as the Good Guys; and so I found it interesting that we had multiple scenes of Galadriel demanding that Númenoreans owed her loyalty, or of Arondir and his captured friends telling Orcs their lives are worthless compared to those of trees.
Speaking of Orcs, and to return to our apparent disagreement on Adar: that scene where the Orcs adored him worked really well for me. Obviously there’s a huge body of work out there on the depiction of Orcs as fundamentally twisted Elves, inherently bad, and so on; it felt like the showrunners have perhaps read some of it? What they can do with that acknowledgement of Orcish personhood I’m not sure—the overarching logic of the series (Middle Earth in general, not The Rings of Power) sort of demands that this not really go anywhere significant.
Gautam Bhatia: I think the bit I’m most dissatisfied with is Adar and the Orcs. I think the showrunners have ended up doing a weird halfway-house with the Orcs. They have tried to give them motivations, reasons, backstories—a sense of personhood—but, taking on from what Abigail has said about characters serving as instruments for the larger plot, it feels to me that ultimately all this is only in service of sharpening the inner conflicts of our protagonists. I think you can go one of two directions: treat the Orcs as nothing more than the lumps of genetically-engineered, unthinking violence that Jackson did; or make them genuine antagonists, characters in their own right. For me, Rings of Power gets caught somewhere in the middle, and the result is rather unconvincing.
Abigail Nussbaum: Where I think the show fell down hard was when it tried to do political storytelling. There are some incredibly thorny issues being raised in some of its storylines—a leader who ascribes to an old-fashioned, unpopular religion who is driven by her beliefs to involve her people in a war in a foreign country; people who have lived under military rule for decades being asked to choose between two different colonizers—and the handling of them invariably felt glib and unconvincing. I don’t buy anyone’s moral dilemmas or turnarounds.
Partly this is that Peter Jackson-esque quality, which creates the sense that everyone here is on rails, playing a part in a story rather than making decisions like a person. (Though Jackson, it must be noted, was a lot better at striking this balance, perhaps because he was drawing on stronger source material.) But mostly I just don’t think the writing was there to sell, say, Theo’s moral quandary, or Halbrand’s reticence about becoming a leader (whether this is a cause or effect of the fact that these are my two least favorite characters may be left as an exercise to the reader).
It certainly didn’t help that the show kept trying to come up with Ring-alikes before the actual rings were forged: the sword hilt Theo finds, or even mithril itself. Between that and the way The Stranger was portrayed as helplessly drawn to evil, it speaks to a shallow understanding of both the moral issue at stake and what the Ring actually represents.
William Shaw: The exposition about mithril in the fifth episode feels indicative; it tosses out the word “Silmaril” like it expects us to automatically know what that is and flashes up a brief visual of a Balrog as if to say “hey, remember this from the films?” Yet the thing I actually enjoyed most about the show was the personal relationship between Elrond and Durin. It’s obviously reminiscent of the Legolas and Gimli relationship in the Peter Jackson films, but Robert Aramayo and Owain Arthur have a good rapport, and I like that the treatment did a few non-obvious things with the relationship. A different show might have played the “do I betray my friend’s trust to rescue my own species”: dilemma for several episodes of angst and secret-keeping; but Elrond immediately going and telling Durin about it, and Durin milking the drama but ultimately taking it seriously, is intriguing and well-played.
Aishwarya Subramanian: All that said, I’m also finding the plot beats rather dull—a big conspiracy about mithril that lasts a couple of minutes because no one can keep a secret; the taking over of the Southlands (I have several thoughts about how I’d want that whole storyline to be stronger, and this parenthesis has undergone several edits, but some of them are simply not ideas I would trust this show to explore yet), Númenor’s choice to send ships to Middle Earth—I’m aware I’m just echoing Will here, but as much as five episodes in everything still felt like setup for something.
William Shaw: But then came episode six, which was probably the most lively and interesting. OK, so all it amounts to is a great big punch-up, and there’s a hilarious anticlimax in the following episode when everyone just goes home, but the ending of the sixth episode is probably the most memorable image in the whole show. If I had to pick a favourite element of this whole enterprise, it’d have to be either that or the Elrond/Durin relationship, which remained charming throughout.
Abigail Nussbaum: I’d say my main issue with the show is its bifurcated approach to its storytelling, and especially how it filled in the source material. Yes, sometimes it felt incredibly imaginative and creative. I really liked the Sauron reveal, for example (not least because it did something interesting with what was until then my least favorite character). It’s technically true to the canon—we know that Sauron appeared to repent during the Second Age, and may have even been in earnest, and that he spent time in Númenor—without feeling beholden to it. And I liked that it didn’t take the classic form of the prestige drama twist that forces you to rewatch the season to catch all the scattered clues. It’s not that Sauron had an evil scheme that Galadriel fell into. He was genuinely out of sorts—he probably would have been perfectly happy to play the Southlands king, for example, at least for a while—and what he clings to is the sense of connection he has with Galadriel. I like the idea of these two characters finding something in each other, even if she ends up rejecting it. The image of them as evil lord and queen is a great twist on the established canon because it’s entirely plausible—once again, it’s true to the text while still being its own thing.
But at its worst, the show feels depressingly mechanical, driven by the sort of thinking that gave us “how Han Solo got his blaster.” I don’t think we needed a Mordor origin story, for example (and especially not one that hinges on such dodgy geology). And the actual process of crafting the three elven rings felt depressingly literal-minded, transforming what in the original text was almost a religious mystery into a matter of ores and alloys. It sometimes feels as if there are two shows, and I’m not sure which one will eventually win out.
William Shaw: Oh, that season finale … oof. The rings of power don’t turn up until the series finale, at which point the whole thing is over. More broadly, the emphasis placed on actually producing the rings is baffling to me. I am very much a casual viewer of this stuff, but I don’t know if people are into Tolkien for the hot metalworking action. The Halbrand twist is fine, I guess, but I didn’t feel like Halbrand himself was sufficiently developed for the heel turn to feel all that meaningful.
Aishwarya Subramanian: On the rings and their use within the plot: as with most of our other complaints it comes down to conceptualising the show solely as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings; so that ultimately there isn’t space to develop the original additions, like Adar or the weird Sauron-worshipping cult, which had some potential. I could be excited by the hot metalworking action of the last couple of episodes if it had been treated better—well-developed characters getting excited about bouncing ideas off each other and making something new? Yes please. Halbrand going “guys, have you considered … alloys?” is not that.
Gautam Bhatia: I think I’m in the minority here, in that I actually liked the forging-of-the-rings plotline. I think it was appropriately paced out, held on to a sense of expectation throughout, and it’s the one thing that I’m looking forward to in Season Two. But the issue remains that the show’s approach to Tolkien is, “Peter Jackson is the gold standard, and if we can manage to replicate the aesthetic, we’ll also replicate feelings and emotions that the original trilogy managed to stir in so many viewers.”
It doesn’t work entirely because of an overlap in the characters. For example, I think one of the scenes from the original trilogy that is seared in everyone’s mind is the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring: Isildur walking away from Mount Doom and Elrond calling after him. That, in turn, entrenches a certain vision of Isildur in our heads. Now you have a very different—almost jarringly different—version of Isildur in The Rings of Power, and it takes at least a couple of moments to be able to reconcile those two versions. And it’s in that time that the suspension of disbelief which is so important to making fantasy work dissolves. I think this is true to a lesser extent for Elrond and Galadriel as well: the presence that those characters had in the Jackson trilogy feels just a mite diminished in The Rings of Power, which—in turn—makes it harder to truly believe in them.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think I should emphasise that there were some things I liked: in addition to Adar comforting the Orcs, that one episode before the Harfoots began their journey where we were able to see their lifestyles as potentially quite ruthless and even sinister; the moments of real human connection between Durin, Elrond and Disa, and between Nori, Poppy and the Stranger.
William Shaw: Oh, the Stranger. I really wanted him to be Tom Bombadil. Obviously that would have been funny, but the broader point was a desire for the show to do something other than the extremely bloody obvious. As soon as a bearded dude in a grey cassock shows up in a The Lord of the Rings thing, the obvious candidate is Gandalf. So to spend eight episodes going “ooh, who is this man,” and then to reveal that it’s the obvious candidate just feels like a waste of time. (Also, he’s suddenly very articulate in the last episode for a man who could barely speak for most of the series.) And even the reveal that he was Gandalf required my Tolkien-loving wife to translate a bit of Elvish! Just an extremely lazy, superficial set of decisions. (And an utter waste of Lenny Henry’s talents, to boot. Seriously, they have an era-defining comedian on the show, and barely give him any comic material? Madness.)
The show isn’t incompetent (or, frankly, interesting) enough for me to hate it, but I can’t say I’m dying to watch the second season either. For a show with this much hype surrounding it, this much of a legacy to live up to, and this amount of money being spent on it, this kind of bland mediocrity simply isn’t good enough.
Abigail Nussbaum: I agree that there isn’t a strong sense of what this show is about, but I think that ties into my observation about how different it is from other expensive fantasy series. Those shows—chiefly Game of Thrones—created the expectation that a prestige fantasy drama is primarily character- and theme-oriented (as we’re seeing right now on House of the Dragon, to mostly rather dull effect), whereas The Rings of Power is fully plot-oriented. The answer to “what’s it all for” is “to get us from the end of the First Age to the end of the Second Age.”
Which is still not entirely reassuring, because as I wrote above, it still leaves the question of how we’re going to get from A to B (and whether that’s a story that can sustain a multi-season TV show as opposed to a couple of movies).
William Shaw: I really do think the answer may lie with Tom Bombadil. If the TV show’s project is just to mine the bits of Tolkien that Jackson and co. haven’t already done, then there’s no excuse for leaving out the silly bits. Just a bit more levity could have made series one a lot more tolerable, I think; every time a Durin scene rolled around I was like “nice, something a bit less po-faced for a change.”
I think a more comedic tone (or even just something a bit less portentous) would make for a more agreeable show overall. For all my complaints about the Gandalf reveal, if he’s going to be a more important and active character in the next series, he should be perfect for this. Gandalf in The Hobbit is a reliable source of comic lines and even in the Jackson films he has a wry sense of humour that could help counterbalance the dark brooding offered by Sauron making his way to Mount Doom at the end of this series. While it’s de rigueur in a lot of critical spaces to bemoan the Abundance of Quips in genre film and TV these days, I think The Rings of Power could really benefit from taking itself just a bit less seriously.
Abigail Nussbaum: I definitely agree that ranging beyond the established Jackson-ian canon would be a good direction for the show, and in fact I already see hints of it. Gandalf and Nori’s journey seems to promise to take them to parts of Middle Earth that aren’t even well covered by the books, and already in the first season there were hints that there is more to the story of Isildur (who is, it seems safe to assume, not dead) and the house of Elendil than we’ve seen or than is known from the canon.
And yes, I absolutely think the show should do Tom Bombadil. I don’t know if I think he needs to be a comedic element—on the contrary, I think he has the potential to be very strange, and I think the show would absolutely benefit from veering in that direction. As I’ve said, its greatest failing point is a tendency to veer towards the mechanical and over-explained, so restoring a sense of the numinous and unexplainable would be all to the good.
Gautam Bhatia: Totally agree with the Tom Bombadil love.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I agree that the show needs to take itself a little less seriously (though I’d prefer the humour to take the form of weirdness rather than being tastefully quippy) and be a little less driven by fan service. But I think more than anything else I want it to pick a thing that it cares about being and fully commit to it.
Gautam Bhatia: I think some of Season One’s best moments are indicative of what I’d like to see in Season Two: more Númenor (of course: I think the Númenorean arc has the potential to be truly moving and truly devastating, if done right, though I don’t recall now how much of it was covered by The Silmarillion, and is therefore out of bounds); the moment when the Southlands turned into Mordor was genuinely frisson-inducing, and shows that there are ways in which the show can presage the Trilogy without feeling like fan-service—so, lot more of that please! And finally, I do feel—as Abigail has said—that a greater focus on characters in themselves—and not as canvases on which a world-historical conflict plays out—would get us a lot more invested in the plot and story in its own right.