Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: I get it. You’re skeptical. You’re right to be. Handing the key to probably the most beloved fantasy series of all time over to Amazon of all places isn’t exactly reassuring. Especially when you consider the genesis of this series which was, reportedly, Jeff Bezos demanding his own Game of Thrones.
His development team took Bezos seriously and shelled out a reported $20 million for the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic. And that was before a single line of dialog had been written, a single character cast or a single prosthetic fit for a Hobbit foot. And now, an estimated billion dollars later, we’ve got The Rings of Power. So just what kind of TV show can Amazon money get you?
A pretty good one, based on the first two episodes made available to critics. The obvious temptation for a show like this would be to lean into the nation’s obvious appetite for fantastical intrigue, as Game of Thrones’ hit prequel series The House of Dragon proved could succeed. But instead, The Rings of Power stays stubbornly true to the spirit of Peter Jackson’s original trilogy. The money went to production values, and the grand, cinematic vistas here transport fans back to Middle-Earth better than Elijah Wood and Sir Ian McKellan suiting up again ever could. Drawing from some of Tolkien’s less well-known lore like The Silmarillion for inspiration, The Rings of Power looks and feels like a Lord of the Rings product, which is no mean feat for a TV show in the age of streaming.
The show introduces us to a much younger (like, several thousand years younger) Galadriel, played by Morfydd Clark. She’s a long ways from the austere, regal Lady of the Wood we meet in Fellowship of the Ring, portrayed here as a headstrong fighter, stubborn to a fault. She lost her beloved brother to Sauron and is on a mission of vengeance to get him back, one that puts her at odds with the wishes of her friend Elrond (Richard Aramayo), who wants her to embrace these days of peace. But unbeknownst to him, those days of peace might be over anyway. A collection of Harfoots (early Hobbits) have run across a disoriented man who fell to earth from the heavens. And an elf warrior named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and his human squeeze Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) have made some unsettling discoveries about a nameless evil spreading far from the elf lords’ sight.
The series excels at just the sort of balance of operatic sweep and small character moments that made Jackson’s adaptation sing. An early shot of elves scaling a wall of icy cliffs is stunning (Amazon is releasing these episodes into theaters, and many of the shots warrant it) as is a journey under the mountains to the spectacular realm of the dwarves. These are the sorts of lush, carefully wrought visuals that have been missing from television, and neither Game of Thrones nor House of Dragon has anything to rival the spectacle on display here.
But everyone knows Bezos can afford that. What keeps people coming back to Tolkien’s classic is the rich cast of characters, and while it’s hard to predict where things will go with only two episodes to review, things look promising on that front. As Galadriel, Clark is an absolute treat, striking a multitude of excellent notes: headstrong and bitter, but also idealistic and occasionally vulnerable. The Rings of Power was right to highlight her as an early focal point. Likewise, the Harfoots are full of rich, warm characters; especially Nori (Markella Kavenagh) as a girl aching for life beyond her people’s contented, agrarian existence.
And over all of this hangs Tolkien’s sage ethos. The Lord of the Rings was an influence of George R.R. Martin’s world, but it is spiritually a very different beast. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth takes place in a far more moral universe than Game of Thrones does. Tolkien has good and bad guys in a way Martin does not, and while Tolkien’s good guys are certainly capable of falling to temptation, just as his villains are capable of kindness and courage, there is never any doubt that good and evil are real absolutes that do not shift with the characters’ wants and needs.
That is something The Rings of Power understands. Power is a theme in Tolkien’s work: who deserves it, who doesn’t and what getting power can do to even good people. Galadriel seems to be an early candidate for the person who will face the most temptation to evil in this series and, of course, anyone who’s read the books or seen the movies know that our hero ultimately refuses the call to be a queen “not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Dawn.” But just because you know how a story ends doesn’t mean the middle isn’t worth your attention.
Things could fall apart quickly after two episodes. It’s hard to predict just how far this show can make it on Bezos money and the Tolkien estate’s blessing. But the early signs are promising.