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In Its First Season, ‘The Rings of Power’ Was Never Better Than When It Went Small

In Its First Season, ‘The Rings of Power’ Was Never Better Than When It Went Small

With the final episode of the most expensive TV show of all time finally out, Amazon has an interesting situation on its hands. The show never seemed quite as buzzy as a show of its caliber should have been, hovering in the mid-range stratosphere for a lot of viewers. It’s the sort of show people plan to watch when they get around to it, not quite capturing the appointment viewing status of shows like Stranger Things. You get the idea that we’re all sort of suffering from content fatigue.

And it’s a real shame because now that we can evaluate the season as a whole, The Rings of Power was quite good. It came out of the gates swinging, with a couple of gorgeous episodes that showcased an utterly unique dedication to production quality. In short order, HBO’s House of the Dragon was regulated to the second-best looking fantasy show on TV, by a pretty wide margin.

But the real draw to George R.R. Martin’s shows have always been the complex character dynamics and propulsive drama, and The Rings of Power stumbled on the latter a bit in its mid-section. After taking the necessary opening episodes to introduce its core cast and general state of Middle-Earth, it took a little while for things to start happening. The characters, from elven warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) to ambitious Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenaugh) to the mysterious Stranger (Peter Mullan), were all compelling, dimensional figures. But they spent a lot of time taking viewers on beautiful tour guides of their surroundings that often ended up right where we started.

You get the sense that the intentions here were noble. Novice showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay wanted to stay true to Tolkien’s focus on the small, character moments that made his grand epic sing. The problem was that those tiny moments in The Lord of the Rings were set in the middle of a gripping quest. Throughout the trilogy, characters are shot like arrows on rescue missions, daring offensives, last stands and one climactic confrontation in a lava pit at the top of a spicy mountain. In the meantime, a few middle episodes of The Rings of Power lacked these concrete stakes, going instead of political jostling (the elves forging an alliance with the dwarves), existential crisis (elven magic disappearing) and mysteries like “Where is Sauron?” and “Who is the Stranger?”

None of these are dull on their own, but they all lack the tangible stakes of staying one step ahead of the Nazgûl or saving Frodo from Shelob’s clutches.

But then came episode six, “Udûn,” in which several wicks that had been burning slowly for many episodes suddenly reached the gunpowder, and The Rings of Power clicked into the show it had almost-but-not-quite been all season. A thrilling (and very expensive-looking) battle sequence in which an army of orcs laid siege to a human village hummed with intensity and, like the best action set pieces, used the fights to move the story forward in meaningful and surprising ways.

“Udûn” seemed to unlock something, and the final three episodes have been one banger after another, balancing smart character work, thrilling action and tiny moments of powerful emotion into an enormously satisfying piece of storytelling. Questions are answered, fan theories are confirmed/denied and moments of great consequence are executed. But the show continues to double down on the smaller, intimate meditations on truth and beauty that are key to any good Middle-Earth story. But now, these moments land harder because we’ve got more stakes, and we care more about the people in them. While these moments had me checking my phone earlier in the season, they had me wiping away tears during the finale.

All told, it looks very much like The Rings of Power is set for a spectacular second season. There’s nothing unusual about this. Most great shows take a little while to find their rhythm, and Rings of Power figured it out faster than most. It’s harder than it looks, even with Jeff Bezos footing the bill. But no matter how much money is being thrown at your project, when in doubt, always follow your nose.

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