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This review contains spoilers for The Rings of Power.

When my brother was young, my mother read The Lord of the Rings aloud to him. He loved the tale so much that, at the end of each chapter, he would ask, “What will we do?”—“we” meaning him and Frodo. Tolkien had a gift for telling an epic story without letting the dazzling world of the fantasy eclipse the characters and the importance of their moral choices. Amazon’s TV series The Rings of Power, on the other hand, struggles throughout its first season to strike a similar balance.

The show is set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It sets out to tell the story of the forging of the One Ring (and the other rings made by the dark lord Sauron), drawing its source material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. The visuals are stunning, with sweeping views of natural, formidable beauty reminiscent of the style of Peter Jackson’s films. But even with chyrons labeling the different geographic locations of the series, it is hard for the viewer to connect them into one land—to get a concrete sense of place—and hard to connect the many separate storylines into one coherent narrative.

Throughout the season, it felt as though the show's writers were playing to social media rather than trying to simply tell a compelling tale. They seemed to be leaving gaps and relying on fans to fill them in. Amazon’s marketing hyped Sauron’s identity as a mystery—which member of the main cast might be revealed to be the dark lord in disguise? But within the world of the show, nothing establishes Sauron as a treacherous deceiver, or anything other than a war leader. The mystery is part of the conversation around the show, not based in the text of the show itself. These tactics might be good for Twitter engagement, but they make the stakes of the story unclear, and the drama of the characters' individual choices uncompelling.

Tolkien’s stories aren’t mystery boxes. His characters have a very clear idea of what is asked of them, even if they have no idea how to accomplish it.  At the Council of Elrond, Frodo says, “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” Tolkien’s heroes can take on what seem like hopeless duties—Frodo cannot guarantee that his quest will succeed, but, day by day, he chooses not to fail it. Instead of building the drama around Frodo’s long-term plans and stratagems, Tolkien treats each moment of temptation and choosing as epic in itself. In contrast, the veiled plots and many mysteries of Rings of Power mean the characters don’t know enough about their situation to know what to choose rightly, let alone how.

For instance, one plot thread follows Galadriel (Morfydd Clark, steely with flashes of joy) as she tries to restore the lost king of the Southlands, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers, styled as a discount Aragorn), to his empty throne. He demurs, saying he fled his own acts of evil and doesn’t trust himself to return. She absolves him without inquiring what his misdeeds were: “Whatever you did, be free of it.”

Elsewhere, the proto-Hobbit Nori (a warm Markella Kavenagh) offers a similar invitation to “the Stranger,” a man who has mysteriously fallen from the sky. The Stranger (Daniel Weyman, endearingly lost) channels powerful magic without sufficient control, and appears to have forgotten his sense of self. When he is greeted by Sauron cultists and hailed as their leader, he urges Nori to flee, convinced his nature is a poisonous one. “Only you can show who you are,” she says. “You choose by what you do.”

In the finale, Halbrand is revealed to be Sauron, while the Stranger rallies to defend the weak. After Sauron is revealed, he makes a pitch directly to Galadriel, saying that he wants to rely on her to “bind me to the light” so he can mend what he has broken and become a protector for Middle-Earth. This time, instead of a sweeping absolution, Galadriel refuses to forgive: “No penance could ever erase the evil you have done.” Is the show suggesting that Galadriel erred twice, first with her over-hasty absolution, and then again with her similarly sweeping condemnation? Was Nori’s patient trust the correct choice? Or do both women ultimately respond correctly to the intrinsic nature of the men they took under their wings?

I can’t tell. The show doesn't have an answer—indeed, it doesn't seem interested in examining the drama of the characters' moral choices. The clouded plots, geared toward hyping fan speculation, distort the quiet clarity of Tolkien’s stories, which revolve around the choices of individuals. The world may be in shadow, but it is a passing thing. To act, Tolkien’s heroes find a point of light that is not dimmed. In Rings of Power, the stakes of the story are murky; it is impossible for Tolkien's themes of discernment, prudence, and hope to be at the heart of the adventure. 

One might protest that this is only the first year of a five-season arc, and that it’s enough for the showrunners to put interesting pieces on the board and wait to see their significance. But I don't think that is enough. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien commends fantasy stories for being able to refresh our vision of the world we actually inhabit. A heightened story of dragons, rings, and volcanoes can help us see small moral movements as epic. It is, after all, the brief, still moment in which Bilbo refrains from violence against Gollum that allows Frodo, many years later, to destroy the ring when his own strength fails. But when the characters' small moral movements are muddied, the show's dazzling aesthetic feels like an errant spotlight, illuminating nothing by its beam. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option

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