The second episode is snappier and more engrossing. There’s a thrilling (and again, impressively epic) sequence set at sea, while much of the show’s early levity comes through a wonderful set of scenes between Elrond and his old dwarven friend Durin (Owain Arthur), who is upset at the Middle-earth equivalent of Elrond having left him on read. This episode also announces The Rings of Power as quite a different prospect to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Rather than a hero’s journey, this is a slower, more granular tale, which can at times suffer from the prequel urge to fill in backstory – much like an appendix. As is often the case with prequels, seeing what already happened in the past is not as interesting as pushing a plot forward (the exceptions, such as Better Call Saul, tend to negate that by going in-depth on character).
Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, the characters of The Rings of Power are more archetypal, more traditionally mythic. This is not to say that Game of Thrones is better because it is more subversive: Tolkien and Martin merely inhabit two different realms of fantasy. Game of Thrones is engrossing because of its complicated characters and challenging morals; The Lord of the Rings, while not a simple tale of good and evil (remember Boromir?) is arguably more poetic in tone, and ultimately more moving in nature.
The first two episodes of The Rings of Power occupy an awkward space where it’s not yet apparent if either of these approaches apply to it – its characters have not yet revealed themselves as complex, while it’s too early to tell if it will rebottle the catharsis of Tolkien’s work or Peter Jackson’s movies. Yet what does make it work so far is what made The Lord of the Rings work: the earnestness of its performances, and the sincerity of its writing. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay may have come from nowhere to develop The Rings of Power, but they display a deft understanding of Tolkien’s soothing rhythms, his grandeur and musicality. It’s a pleasure to hear the characters talk.
There are reports that The Rings of Power will determine the future of Amazon’s streaming strategy. Whether it will be the hit that Amazon Prime needs it to be – considering the amount of money that it costs – remains to be seen. Based on the first two episodes, the signs are promising – but maybe promising is not enough when expectations are this high. Either way, there is no doubting the scale of the show’s ambition, or its dedication to the soul and substance of Tolkien’s work. For a TV show that is essentially the newest play-toy of a billionaire, it is surprisingly bold stuff.
The first two episode of Rings of Power premiere on Amazon Prime on 2 September, with subsequent episodes following weekly
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