JThe Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (First video) is likely to be divisive, especially depending on whether you’re watching it on a big TV or squinting at its splendor on a phone or laptop. It’s so rich and beautiful that it’s easy to spend the first episode just admiring the scenery, as it dips and swooshes between the lands of elves and dwarves, humans and harfoots. It’s a television made for the big screens, although surely intended to be watched on the little ones. It’s so cinematic and grand that it makes Dragon House look like it was tinkered with on Minecraft.
This makes it hard to judge The Rings of Power as an ordinary series, because there’s so much extraordinary about it. It’s Tolkien, which means that this world is already revered and loved by so many people, whether in the form of books, Peter Jackson movies, or both. There is an extraordinary weight of waiting before a spectator presses play. Add to that the fact that it would be the most expensive TV series ever made – $465 million for eight episodes – and it’s hard to consider this just another show. It’s an event, a spectacle, but if it’s not quite perfect, does that make it a failure?
The first 10 minutes of the opening episode set an incredibly busy and robust pace and tone. It begins quietly and beautifully, with a very young Galadriel sailing a paper boat through the “undying lands” of Valinor. Then he abruptly puts his foot down, traveling through centuries of history and warfare and, above all, the overthrow of the dark lord Morgoth. I’m usually wary of having to read manuals before embarking on a new series – it should be self-contained – but here it’s probably worth doing a bit of homework.
As he settles, in the twilight of the Second Age, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is the commander of the armies of the North, the Warrior of the Wasteland, still hunting Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron, on a hunch, centuries after most elves believe he has been defeated.
I love Galadriel the fighter. She is valiant, imperfect and haughty, as bloodthirsty as she is brilliant, marked by the horrors of war. If that doesn’t sound like much fun to you, just wait until you see what she does to a snow troll.
If the elves provide the intensity, then there’s plenty of earthly light and joy in the harfoots, Tolkien’s predecessors to the hobbits, preparing for their seasonal migration. Young harfoots forage for berries and frolic in the mud, their elders (including Lenny Henry) on hand to explain how it all fits together, via a not unwelcome exposition of who lives where and what land they protect. The opening episode also introduces us to the Southlands, where elves and humans coexist uncomfortably amid decades of resentment in the aftermath of war.
It takes until the second episode and the arrival of the dwarves for the immersive feeling to blossom – that feeling that this is a fully realized world worth skipping over wholeheartedly. The dwarves ground it and temper some of the show’s more pompous instincts. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the initial romance is soon to be shattered. The elves’ insistence that “our days of war are over” is more of a dream than cold political analysis. There are hints early on that decay is in the air and it doesn’t take long for those hints to turn into sirens, blaring warnings at high volume. When it gets scary, it’s really scary. Towards the end of episode two, it’s breathlessly tense and far more gruesome than I expected.
I have a few small reservations. Occasionally there’s a burst of ‘feel the fart’ action, which is perhaps hard to avoid when every other line is a deadpan aphorism such as, ‘A dog can bark at the moon, but he can’t bring it down.” The pacing, too, is a bit of a hit or miss. It either skims through stunning action scenes or lingers on a single meaningful conversation or look. But those are quibbles and in the end the show wins. It’s extremely enjoyable TV, a cinematic feast. Now I just need to find someone with a huge TV to let me watch with them. .