By Femke van Son, November 29 2022—
This review contains minor spoilers
The new Lord of the Rings streaming series from Amazon is a visual spectacle that puts every cent of its massive budget on-screen but falls flat in its characters and script.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is like a tower made of porcelain. It is beautiful to look at but fragile and unstable. Unfortunately, what was one of the most anticipated series of all time suffers from bad writing, poor pacing and a lack of coherent direction. While the visuals, score and cast are fantastic, it is ultimately brought down by its underwhelming script.
Set more than 3,000 years prior to the Lord of the Rings novels, the fantasy series follows an ensemble cast in the Second Age of Middle Earth as they collectively grapple with the potential of Sauron’s return. Bouncing between the storylines of Númenor, the Southlands, Khazad-Dûm and the Harfoots, the first season is centred on a mixture of iconic characters from Tolkien’s lore, such as Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo), as well as newcomers like the hardened Elf warrior Arondir [Ismael Cruz Córdova] and the rebellious young Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh).
The new series is likely the most expensive television show ever made and you can certainly see the price tag in its visuals. It is gorgeous, displaying the monumental beauty of New Zealand that was present in the original Peter Jackson films. Most of the sets are practical, which is a breath of fresh air in the CGI-dominated industry, and great strides are taken to make each region unique. In particular, I enjoyed the Classical architecture and motifs in Númenor, reflecting its inspiration from Rome and Atlantis. The wardrobe further supports this, cleverly incorporating fish scales into armour and jewelry to express Númenor’s position as a sea-faring society.
However, where the series succeeds in its look, it fails in its writing. Disregarding the notable — and often baffling — changes made to Tolkien’s original lore, the writing on its own comes across as amateurish and inconsistent. It suffers most prominently from plot convenience, plot armour and poor pacing. Character actions often feel forced for the pure purpose of either moving the plot forward or keeping major characters alive during action scenes. Nothing kills tension faster than watching an Orc just toss Arondir around instead of stabbing him, something the Orc had been perfectly fine doing to nameless extras.
The primary problem of the writing is that the titular, Rings of Power, are neither created nor discussed in detail until the season finale. The series meanders through several disconnected storylines for the majority of its runtime and then rushes to bring them together, create the Elven Rings and reveal Sauron’s identity, mostly all in the final episode. Given the general lack of upward momentum, this pacing feels like a leisurely walk that suddenly breaks into a sprint and crashes at the finish line. Considering how much of the runtime is devoted to the mystery of Sauron instead of the Rings, a more accurate title would have been The Lord of the Rings: Sauron’s Return.
The characters themselves are a mixed bag. Some, like Elrond, Durin (Owain Arthur) and Adar (Joseph Mawle), are notably well-written, but the majority of the cast is plagued by poor characterization, underdeveloped personalities and a lack of impact on the plot. Galadriel in particular suffers the most, being virtually unrecognizable from her Lord of the Rings counterpart. Her aggressive, unyielding personality comes across as rudely arrogant in most scenes. Specifically, her behaviour toward Queen Míriel of Nûmenor (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) made her feel like a spoiled child and not the confident, powerful woman we know her to be. Her personality and motivations are highly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings character Eowyn. The series is so obsessed with having Galadriel evoke the Rohirrim princess that it forgot to have her evoke, well… Galadriel.
Overall, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a flawed series with touches of potential. It looks beautiful and strongly evokes Tolkien in its worldbuilding, so if you are just looking for some pretty visuals and want to satiate your classic high-fantasy thirst, you’ll probably enjoy this, but if you are a fantasy fan who values good writing and strong characters, then this is definitely not the series for you.