For a massive show rumored to have a production budget of more than $1 billion, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s first moments are decidedly small. Evocative of the quote from Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and in good-tilled earth,” we see a small elven girl making a paper boat alongside a creek.
As the ship enters the water and floats downstream, it’s smashed by a rock. The metaphor isn’t quite as blunt as the rocketed stone which aims to push the boat off course, but its impact remains the same: In the land of Middle-earth, calm is often fleeting. The serenity briefly glimpsed soon gives way to a spectacle as a new chapter in Tolkien’s world unfolds in magnificent scope.
Set in Middle-earth’s Second Age, which takes places thousands of years before Fellowship, Rings of Power explores the events which transpire in the prologue audiences glimpsed in Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking trilogy: the alliance that came together to stop Sauron after his deception of the peoples of Middle-earth by creating the titular rings of power and the one ring to rule them all.
At the outset of Rings, audiences will find themselves at the start of this journey, but the beats will feel familiar. Middle-earth’s first great evil, Morgoth, was defeated by a group of elves, and peace has come across the land. That isn’t stopping Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), far from the queen she’ll become and instead a fierce commander, from scouring dark corners of Middle-earth to ensure this evil is truly gone. As she explores, she comes across signs that confirm her suspicions. In the Southlands, one of the realms of men, something is causing chaos which draws the attention of elven warrior Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) to investigate alongside his human lover Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin). Finally, the nomadic Harfoots (the precursors to Hobbits) discover a man who falls from the sky like a meteor.
Across its first two episodes sent for review, showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, alongside director J.A. Bayona, prove Rings doesn’t lack ambition. The series features a staggering 22 series regulars and attempts to juggle each of their plots, which makes for a delicate balancing act. Rings succeeds through those first two episodes, providing compelling stories for all involved. While there’s undoubtedly a massive size and scope, the pacing is solid.
Galadriel’s quest is the driving force, but Payne, McKay, and Bayona ease viewers into their vision of Middle-earth by slowly introducing a new element or two in each episode; the first episode is heavy on Galadriel and the world of elves and features slight detours into the world of the Harfoots, while the second expands to cover parts of the world of men, the dwarven kingdom, and a slightly table-setting plot for Galadriel that’s not quite as effective as what’s come before. That Galadriel bit is the first indication that the pacing of Rings’ myriad stories will make or break the series. If Payne and McKay can balance these scales effectively, the show has the foundation to be compelling from a narrative standpoint.
The other delicate dance is that of the cast. With such an expansive group of characters, it might be easy for a handful to feel underutilized or underwritten. At this point in the series, that’s not the case. It’s nothing short of heroic how Payne and McKay manage to keep all their balls in the air regarding this aspect—but it helps a lot of the early goings lean into relationship dynamics established by Tolkien. To wit: Arondir and Bronwyn’s forbidden love echoes that of Aragorn and Arwen’s, providing viewers with a shorthand into their dynamics—especially Boniadi, who quickly works to bring a depth of love and melancholy to Bronwyn. It’s a bit of a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless.
Rings finds firm footing when it’s not evoking Tolkien, too. Galadriel appears to be the series’ primary character—at least in these preliminary stages—and thus, much of the show rests upon Clark’s shoulders. The Welsh actor rises to the occasion and is magnetic in the role infusing Galadriel with both the warmth and tenacity she’ll need when she’s a ruler later in her life. You can certainly see the traces of who she’ll eventually become in the seeds of this performance. The same goes for Robert Aramayo as Elrond, who is far more curious and jovial than when the Fellowship encounters him later in his life, but just as determined and focused. Harfoots Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy (Megan Richards) are worthy of mentioning alongside Frodo and Sam, as their kind hearts and adventuring spirit make the show feel light on its feet. One of my favorite new additions to Tolkien lore is that of Sophia Nomvete’s Princess Disa, the first female dwarf who brings a radiant warmth to the sometimes chilly dwarves in her brief appearance.
Visually, Rings is astonishing. The massive sets and VFX were worth every penny of that rumored billion-dollar spend, as it’s often hard to tell where the two end or begin. Even on a screener, not in 4K, the series looks like how you’d want Middle-earth to appear. It was difficult for me to comprehend this was all for a television series and not for a film, which I wager is Amazon’s intention. Director J.A. Bayona knows how to effectively capture the wonder of this world, often aligning his framing to fill the screen with plenty of exhilarating images. I am curious—and slightly nervous—to see how other directors will tackle this moving forward since Bayona just helmed these two.
Everything about Rings of Power is massive: the budget, the cast, the production design, and the story. But it’s an enormous bet for Prime Video, which is banking on the series to become the crown jewel for its streaming service. We’re just at the start of what will be a long journey for both Amazon and for Rings—this is just the first of five seasons—but the first steps are fascinating. The key, moving forward, will be for everyone involved to stay firmly planted upon the compellingly exciting path they’ve created.