The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power recap: Welcome back to Middle-earth

·8 min read

Welcome back to Middle-earth! This is the first of EW's recaps for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power; I hope you're all as excited for this journey as I am!

But then again, maybe "welcome back" is the wrong way to start off this story, because The Rings of Power is going to show us facets of J.R.R. Tolkien's mythology that we've never seen on screen before. To my delight, the premiere episode begins with scenes straight out of The Silmarillion. We meet a young Galadriel, playing with her friends in the utopia of Valinor — and then we see how that utopia was lost, thanks to the evil of Morgoth. Our glimpse of the Two Trees is brief, but their destruction (seen as darkness spreading from the roots on up) is very reminiscent of how they are undone by the monstrous Ungoliant in the pages of The Silmarillion. I love that homage, and I love the image of a gigantic mound of elven battle helmets to signify how much they sacrificed to protect Middle-earth from evil.

Those who haven't read The Silmarillion shouldn't worry too much, though, because this opening sequence is brief. After glimpsing a very intense battle scene between elves and Morgoth's orcs, we are brought into the Second Age — a much more peaceful time, or so it seems. After Galadriel's brother died hunting Morgoth's chief lieutenant, Sauron, she has taken up his cause and pursued Sauron to the ends of the earth. She finds an arctic laboratory where Sauron's handiwork (and the hand-like symbol he burned onto her brother's corpse) is evident, but the Maia himself is nowhere to be found. The elven high king Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) is happy enough to declare this a victory and reward Galadriel's soldiers with a one-way ticket to the Undying Lands, but she still burns with unfulfilled vengeance.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Credit: Matt Grace/Prime Video Copyright: Amazon Studios Description: Morfydd Clark as “Galadriel” Filename: RPAZ_S1_UT_210709_GRAMAT_00291_R2_thumb.jpg
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Credit: Matt Grace/Prime Video Copyright: Amazon Studios Description: Morfydd Clark as “Galadriel” Filename: RPAZ_S1_UT_210709_GRAMAT_00291_R2_thumb.jpg

Matt Grace/Prime Video Morfyyd Clark as Galadriel in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.'

It makes sense that we've spent the most time with the elves so far, because they are characters we recognize — even if this fiery Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and dreamy Elron (Robert Aramayo) are clearly centuries removed from the enigmatic and weary incarnations previously played by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. But we do get to meet several new characters, too!

Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is a different kind of elf than those aforementioned lords. Rather than a high lord born in Valinor, he is a ranger set to patrol the southlands that were once loyal to Morgoth. It seems like a crappy job, not least since the humans are resentful of their occupation (a resentment that takes on added depth with an actor of color portraying Arondir). So you'd think that Arondir would be relieved to hear word from Gil-galad that the occupation is over, and all the elves can return home to their own lands. But alas, Arondir has fallen in love with single mother Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and is reluctant to abandon her to the dark shadows growing in the south. That's good, because her son is messing around with Sauron artifacts, and there seem to be dangers lurking everywhere.

Then there are the harfoots. Hobbits as we know them (living contentedly in the Shire with their ale, weed, and farm produce) do not exist yet in the Middle-earth timeline, but come on — how can you do a Lord of the Rings show without some kind of hobbit analogue? That's where the harfoots come in. They are predecessors to the hobbits, sharing the hairy feet, small stature, and genial charm — but rather than a love of home and hearth, the harfoots are constantly on the move. They are a nomadic people who survive by foraging and sticking together. As long as no one gets too far away from the rest of the group, they have safety in numbers.

But there's always someone whose heart yearns for adventure, isn't there? That would be Nori (Markella Kavenagh), who delights in pushing the boundaries of harfoot areas. That wanderlust leads her to an incredible discovery, as she is the only witness to the Stranger (Daniel Weyman) falling out of the sky at the end of the first episode.

The Stranger's meteoric entrance to Middle-earth coincides with Galadriel's team approaching the gates of heaven. Since elves can't die naturally, their choices are to spend centuries in Middle-earth or get a ticket to the Undying Lands. It's the highest reward imaginable for a deserving elf, but I love that it's also being wielded as a backhanded punishment by Gil-galad. As we see him tell his speechwriter and herald Elrond, Gil-galad has foreseen that Galadriel's pursuit of Sauron may actually end up strengthening Sauron rather than eliminating him forever. So sending her to the Undying Lands accomplishes multiple things at once: It rewards her and her companions, and also stops her from aggravating the situation in Middle-earth.

Too bad for these men, Galadriel isn't done yet. At the last moment, she turns away from heaven and jumps off her boat just as it disappears beyond the veil. What I love about this is that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies ended with the Undying Lands, with multiple characters sailing off into happily ever after. That's where the story of Middle-earth has existed ever since, give or take a few bumpy Hobbit movies. But this new Lord of the Rings show begins with the Undying Lands, rejecting the happy ending in favor of all the risks and rewards of a new adventure. That meta resonance works for me.

Even for Galadriel, though, swimming all the way back to Middle-earth is a tall order. Thankfully, in the second episode we see her end up on a raft with shipwrecked humans. Most of those humans are killed when a giant sea monster attacks — and I have to say the sea monster looks pretty great! Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this show, and you can really feel it in scenes like this. Galadriel ends up alone on the raft but for Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who doesn't seem entirely trustworthy but hey, sometimes survival is the most important thing.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video Copyright: Amazon Studios Description: Robert Aramayo (Elrond) Filename: RPAZ_S1_201104_ROTBEN_00051_R2_thumb.JPG
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video Copyright: Amazon Studios Description: Robert Aramayo (Elrond) Filename: RPAZ_S1_201104_ROTBEN_00051_R2_thumb.JPG

Ben Rothstein/Prime Video Robert Aramayo as Elrond in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.'

The second episode also gives us another fun reference to The Silmarillion when Elrond visits the smith Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and sees the tools of Feanor at hand in the workshop. Feanor forged the jewels known as the Silmarils from the light of the Two Trees, and is also one of the most hot-headed drama queens in all of fiction. Presumably, we won't see much of the Silmarils themselves in this series, but they are an important precedent for Celebrimbor's ambition to build new wonders that will help Middle-earth. Will those wonders take the form of rings? Who can say?

In order to accomplish his dreams, Celebrimbor needs help — and there are only so many elves at this point. So Elrond ventures to the mountain home of his dwarven friend Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to ask for the dwarves' aid in forging miracles. They are expert forgers, after all. But Elrond has gotten a little too used to the elven perspective on things. He still considers Durin a good friend even though he hasn't seen him in 20 years — 20 years in which Durin has gotten married, had children, and done other important marks of a mortal life. I'm glad that Durin and Elrond mend fences, because I want to see more of the Khazad-dum kingdom. Those shots of trees growing underground in the dwarven realm, and the mere presence of dwarf women and children, definitely belong in the category of "things we haven't seen on screen before." But I do appreciate this reminder that not every character in The Lord of the Rings experiences the passage of time in the same way.

Now, back to the Stranger. In the second episode, we see a lot of interesting things from this character as Nori tries to care for him and hide him from her family. He's giant (at least compared to a harfoot), he doesn't speak the common language, and he seems to have mysterious powers. So what's going on here?

The most logical explanation seems to be that we are witnessing Gandalf's arrival in Middle-earth. The moment where he screams, and the sky darkens, and the winds blow, is very visually reminiscent of Gandalf's "do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks!" at Bilbo back in The Fellowship of the Ring. Being found and nursed to health by harfoots would also explain Gandalf's lifelong friendship with hobbits. But perhaps the fact that this seems the most obvious explanation indicates that it's a ruse or red herring. He could also be Sauron in the flesh, or perhaps one of the other Istari like Saruman or Radagast. Was I the only one with Saruman on the brain, with all the hand-shaped symbols appearing in this episode?

This is going to be a long journey, and we still have lots of characters and places to meet (we haven't even seen Númenor yet!), but I'm definitely intrigued by The Rings of Power so far, and I hope you are too.

Grade: "A Shadow of the Past": B "Adrift": B+

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