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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – nice cake, OK icing

Would The Rings of Power be improved by a more gripping start? Of course. But that’s probably missing the point.

Sometimes a decent story can be a distraction. It’s no secret that people rarely watch a James Bond movie for the plot: nice clothes, good-looking people, glamorous holiday destinations and exciting action scenes is the real checklist there. Likewise, the initial appeal of Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings movie was the chance to see a whole new fantasy world brought to convincing life; wanting to see what happened next came later.

So the fact that the Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power doesn’t really have all that much of a story? Not as big a problem as you might think.

Set thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings, but with a narrative that suggests Middle-earth’s political problems are pretty much unsolvable, across its first two episodes The Rings of Power starts slow and never really builds up much dramatic steam. Then again, when you start out summarising a massive centuries-long war, maybe you’re entitled to coast a little.

Elves. Image: Amazon Prime.

In the wake of the defeat of supreme evil Morgoth, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is determined to track down and eliminate any stragglers from his armies. Her main focus is Morgoth’s still-missing 2IC Sauron, the being that killed her brother. Her mission has become politically inconvenient for the Elvish government, who are keen to move onto the ‘being peaceful’ stage of the peace. She’s promoted out of harm’s way to eternal bliss in the Blessed Realms; it doesn’t take.

Read: Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – what you need to know

Elsewhere in the first episode there are hints that evil is back – cows giving black milk, travellers passing by earlier than usual, kids playing with a sinister relic they found in a barn – culminating in a fiery meteor streaking across the sky that crashes near a peaceful encampment of Harfoots (Harfeet?) (proto-Hobbits) and reveals itself to young Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) to be a man … though considering the eye-shaped scorchmark created by his impact, ‘man’ may not be quite the right word.

Harfoots afoot. Image: Amazon Prime.

Episode two speeds things up and explores more of the world as Galadriel’s buddy Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is sent on an important diplomatic mission (short version: dwarves!). In practice, this means more gorgeous scenery and extravagant world-building – the series will cost a billion dollars across the five planned seasons, and it shows. As for the story … well, they didn’t spend that billion dollars on writers. It’s called The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: a title that bluntly tells you pretty much all you need to know on that front.

Critical response

The critical response to Rings of Power has been divided. That’s not a surprise. With a generation of television critics trained to see epic fantasy as home to the kind of gritty political backbiting and brutal examinations of power dynamics served up by Game of Thrones, this kind of visually stunning but dramatically lightweight entertainment can’t help but feel a little half-baked.

(To be fair, the dialogue is at times just plain clunky. Not even trained Shakespearean actors with decades of experience could make some of these lines sing – and the producers haven’t cast any of them)

A better comparison would perhaps be with Avatar, another 00s-era product where stunning, side-of-a-panel-van-come-to-life visions were the driving aim. The whole point of these kind of projects is to create and then show off a fantasy world that the audience is encouraged to imagine themselves in. No matter how much people enjoyed Game of Thrones, most of that series went out of its way to remind audiences that for almost everyone its fantasy world wasn’t much of a fantasy at all.

Read: House of the Dragon is too violent – I can’t stomach it

And with these projects, a simple, straightforward story is a feature, not a bug. The characters are specks in the foreground, there as much to suggest scale as to provide drama. It’s a world of good versus evil, with obvious and repeated echoes with the original Lord of the Rings.

While there might be shades of good (the current Elvish leadership seem a bit less committed to stamping out evil than one would like) and evil (does a village that sided with Morgoth a century ago still deserve to be under military occupation?) it’s still a fair way distant from the boundless plains of grey that Game of Thrones offered.

Galadriel. Image: Amazon Prime.

Complex motivations, subtle drives, nuanced characterisations; sure, those things are nice, but check out the Mines of Moria! If half your show is a handful of characters arguing in a castle dining room, then those characters better be interesting. If half your show is pristine New Zealand countryside with millions of dollars of CGI layered in over the top to create a magical world we can never hope to reach, then the people walking through better know to keep their heads down.

Would The Rings of Power be improved by a more gripping start? Of course. But that’s like saying a cooking show would be improved by stronger characterisation. For this kind of project – calling it a series (let alone a drama) seems a misnomer – a complex, multilayered, emotionally engaging story would be the icing on the cake. The icing here might not be all it could be, but the cake is doing a pretty good job on its own.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is screening weekly on Amazon Prime.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.