Something that is genuinely impressive about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is that he understands the need to slide up the scale as he goes. A prologue scene aside, The Fellowship of the Ring began with everyday life among J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbits. It ups the size of the story gradually from there: four Hobbits on the road, then escorted by Aragorn, and then with the elves in Rivendell. From there it expands again, with the titular Fellowship escorting the One Ring to Mordor, and it’s only at the end that this group of characters splinters into three parallel storylines to be followed in The Two Towers.
There is a simplicity to Fellowship that makes it by far my favourite of Jackson’s trilogy. It ensures an audience buy-in and sets emotional stakes before the story expands to an unwieldy size. The Rings of Power, Amazon’s gargantuan streaming serial, has simply failed to do this. The series is suffering as a result.
There is a small-scale, almost domestic plot thread that dominates this episode, with the charming Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh) caring for a mysterious bearded man who fell from the sky. It is well performed by Kavenagh and Daniel Weyman, who plays the nameless stranger. It seems a perfect Fellowship-style lead-in to an expansive multi-season epic, except it is drowned in competing subplots from all around Middle Earth. Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) lost at sea. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) visiting the dwarves of Khazad-dûm. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) investigating ominous disappearances among human villages. Each thread in isolation is reasonably enjoyable, but altogether they are splitting the focus. It damages the episode’s ability to develop a traditional three-act structure, because it keeps jumping back and forth to form a story in increments.
Serial storytelling is hard for this reason: every episode bar the first and last in a series tend to begin in the middle of things and end in the middle. Finding natural plot structures can be difficult, but when successful make a world of difference. As it stands, The Rings of Power feels altogether too busy: never enough time to engage with a particular set of characters, or to make for a satisfying chunk of story. It would likely be fine if audiences were binge-viewing an entire season at once, but Amazon’s strategy is for a week-by-week schedule: the series itself needs to cater to that. There is a genuine risk that audiences will bounce off the show while waiting.
There is some lovely material here regardless. Elrond’s visit to Khazad-dûm is a treat for viewers who last saw the underground city in a ruined state back in The Fellowship of the Ring. The dwarf Prince Durin (Owain Arthur) is suitably in keeping with the film vision of the dwarves: all enormous beards and Scottish accents. Sophia Nomvete is an absolute highlight as Durin’s wife Disa: purists may bristle at her lack of facial hair (sideburns at a bit of chin fluff is all you get), but the character is delightful and Nomvete’s performance has made her an immediate favourite in my eyes. A late episode encounter between Bronwyn and a rogue orc shows off director J.A. Bayona’s gift for screen horror: it is great to see the monstrous invader depicted in such a nightmarish and visceral fashion.
There is clearly so much talent, effort, and money thrown at this series. It is maddening that it is failing to assemble together in a more engaging way.