Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Series Is Absolutely Stunning—and Puts ‘House of the Dragon’ to Shame



Amazon spent the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP to revive The Lord of the Rings, and the fruits of that expenditure ($465 million for its first season alone) are suitably magnificent. An original saga set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved epics (based on the author’s Rings appendices), Prime Video’s The Rings of Power is a kindred aesthetic spirit to Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, even as it charts an all-new prequel path designed to play out over multiple sprawling seasons. It’s fantasy writ exhilaratingly large, although at the start, what’s so impressive about showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay’s streaming effort (September 2) is its balance between the glorious and the vile, the romantic and the brutal, the euphoric and the despairing, and the grand and the intimate.

In the aftermath of Jackson’s The Hobbit, it appeared that Tolkien’s Middle Earth franchise had—in terms of screen adaptations—run its course. The Rings of Power puts the lie to such notions, returning to the author’s universe with a flair and ferocity that proves instantly enchanting. A brief prologue establishes the tension between heaven and hell, transcendence and damnation, that plagues Galadriel (Saint Maud’s Morfydd Clark), the flaxen-haired Elven warrior who will one day grow up to be the queen portrayed, in Jackson’s movies, by Cate Blanchett. Embodied by Clark with a steely determination and defiant willpower that’s as imposing as her sword-fighting skills, this Galadriel is a resolute young woman convinced that, though the malevolent Morgoth has been defeated, his orcs still roam the land under the command of his cruel and cunning minion, Sauron. Moreover, since her brother’s corpse returned from battle bearing Sauron’s fiery sigil, Galadriel seeks the sinister sorcerer out of a burning desire for revenge.

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Galadriel’s single-mindedness makes her a fearsome fighter. Yet following a battle with an enormous troll in an icy abandoned citadel that may have once been home to orcs, she finds her compatriots unwilling to follow her to the ends of the Earth to stamp out Sauron, especially since there’s no proof that he (or the apocalyptic threat he poses) exists. The Rings of Power thus puts Galadriel at odds with her own Elven people, including Elrond (Robert Aramayo), her close diplomat friend who works on her behalf to spare her the full wrath of the High King (Benjamin Walker), who forces Galadriel to accept an early retirement trip through the celestial gates that lead back to their homeland. It’s a fate that strikes Galadriel as akin to death, and that attitude immediately lands her in (literal) tempestuous waters, replete with a run-in with a gigantic sea serpent.

Galadriel is the soul of The Rings of Power, if far from its only focus. Guided by the dexterous hand of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom director J.A. Bayona (who helms the first two episodes), the series additionally introduces disparate individuals who will, in all likelihood, eventually cross paths with its heroine. Nori (Markella Kavenagh) is a Harfoot, a race of Hobbit-like folk who live in secret amongst nature and stick to their own kind—something that goes against independent Nori’s hunger for exploration and excitement. She’s the flip side to Frodo, and gets an opportunity for adventure when a burning star shoots through the sky and, upon crashing, reveals itself to be a mysterious bearded giant whose roars beget cyclones. Simultaneously, with Galadriel’s campaign at its end, hunky Elven archer Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) discovers that his duty is completed, thereby potentially ending his frowned-upon relationship with human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi)—at least, that is, until they stumble upon a mounting threat coursing beneath Bronwyn’s village that also, perhaps, has something to do with the Sauron-ish dagger that Bronwyn’s son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) possesses.

The Rings of Power crafts these characters and kingdoms—including the subterranean realm of the dwarves, whom Elrond soon visits—with assured grace, cleanly and engagingly delineating their personalities and dynamics while indulging in majestic panoramas and aerial zooms across hillsides and mountaintops, and through dank passageways and deep chasms. There’s a thrilling sweep to the proceedings, aided by a soundscape full of blaring horns and demonic whispers on the wind, and a Bear McCreary score that swells to rousing crescendos (replete with plentiful lutes). The Rings of Power is stately during moments of both blissful contentment and ominous portent, and its dialogue has a florid richness (“Night is closing in. How long can living flesh endure where even sunlight fears to tread?”) that conveys a sense of these civilizations’ ancient age and bedrock customs and myths.

As befitting a project with such a price tag, The Rings of Power’s CGI work is top-notch, be it with regards to its enormous environs, fanciful architecture or monstrous creatures, who even when spied in shadow—a usual tell-tale sign that a production wants to mask its effects’ chintziness—boast a striking level of detail. Director Bayona is, to a certain degree, doing a Jackson impersonation in the show’s maiden two installments, but it’s a triumphant one, eliciting dread and elation as it sets the stage for a brewing clash between the forces of light and darkness. Such a conflict isn’t exactly novel given The Lord of the Rings’ few-against-many campaign versus Sauron. Still, the series doesn’t resonate as a rehash; Payne and McKay deftly revive past characters and locations at the same time as they pivot their vast and colorful material around a charismatic heroine, Galadriel, whose vengeful heart is at once her greatest strength and her potential curse.

Despite the jam-packed nature of its initial episodes, The Rings of Power suggests a wider world—of fascinating places, faces, and lore—on its action’s periphery. In doing so, it comes across as expansive, all while fixating on Galadriel’s personal struggle to reconcile her loyalties to her Elven people and to herself and her inescapable conviction that doom lies just over the horizon. This legend’s conclusion (with Sauron’s defeat at the hands of Frodo and company) has, of course, already been written. Yet unlike another recently premiered fantasy prequel about houses and dragons, it feels fresh and alive—and poised, consequently, to be the one that rules them all.

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