It’s still a huge relief that “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has been rolling out on a weekly basis. More a strategic decision than a purely creative one, the idea was almost definitely to give this massive Prime Video adaptation a weekly chance to not only remind TV viewers of its existence, but to carve out a decent chunk of the fall TV conversation every Friday.
Aside from the obligatory back-patting viewership numbers released after the show’s debut a few weeks ago, we don’t have any solid facts about just how many people are taking in these episodes on a regular basis. So instead, gauging interest becomes an anecdotal guessing game. “Rings of Power” hasn’t been the culture-engulfing phenomenon that those signing off on the show’s price tag might have been hoping for, but with a little under half the season left, it’s positioning itself for a different kind of slow burn buzz.
When Amazon bought the rights to build out its own corner of Tolkien lore, it was paying for prestige. It’s not that “Lord of the Rings” is inherently high-brow at its core, but there’s a certain kind of stately dignity that comes along with its storytelling magic. The hallowed royal halls of different races arrive hand-in-hand with a lighter, more playful look at different regions of this world, regardless of the evil that’s starting to encroach. This opening “Rings of Power” season is not without some pacing issues, but establishing a world of genuine trust and camaraderie takes its time. Setting up the dynamic of uneasiness between men and elves, dwarves and elves, and Harfoots and any outsiders are things that the opening episodes effectively set in motion but could never do in full. That reality is all the more stark when its easiest comparison point right now is often fueled by ruthless and vicious infighting with more frequent and bloody consequences.
So “Rings of Power,” in growing that united front against a common enemy, is often left without the kind of sensational, cliff-hanging moment that can dominate the cultural conversation week to week. That doesn’t make it an inherently superior or inferior show to its current competitors, but it does make for a more honest way to consider the consequences its characters are facing. Part of the show’s ethos is a kind of consistency, of establishing a world as it is before a major change. “Rings of Power” has to make the viewer feel the massive weight of multiple societies being drawn into a battle they can’t avoid. That takes really living inside the way things are before that transformation comes. Here, discussions of power are not as easily boiled down to petty palace intrigue and soapy backroom maneuvers.
Ben Rothstein/Prime Video
Fans likely needed to recalibrate their watching experience, given that the demands and rhythms of episodic storytelling are fundamentally different from how most people have seen stories in this world before. “Rings of Power” has been at its best when its episodes feel like something more than a collection of check-ins with different groups. The expectations of self-contained arcs with orcs (honed over the past two decades by floods of movie marathons and a “Game of Thrones” run that built artificial escalation into the DNA of its later seasons) have come with momentous showdowns and drastic changes. “Rings of Power” so far has resisted those jarring shifts in favor of putting added emphasis on what the show is building toward. In the process, it’s avoided treating these opening five episodes as blockbuster mini-movies.
It’s also deemphasized the “theory” aspect of modern fandom. With the notable exception of The Stranger — and the more coy it’s been with him, the more frustrating that particular subplot has been and potentially could be — “Rings of Power” isn’t demanding its viewers to go beyond what’s already been presented. There’s the source material for those who may still want to go looking for clues, but the show is, to some extent, bound by the in-world history it’s hurtling towards. Because “Rings of Power” is driven more by environments than schemes and plots, there’s less an invitation to “solve” it before it happens. In a genre TV landscape that’s constantly inviting an audience to second-guess around the edges, one of modern fantasy literature’s richest texts has given rise to a show that’s designed to be more an experience than a conversation.
And it’s not that “Rings of Power” doesn’t have its own revelations. Galadriel’s path has been an unexpected spin on prequelizing an iconic character. Isildur, mithril, and all the other nods to movie trilogy predecessors have taken on that same idea that no one reveal is going to be seismic enough to singlehandedly change the course of the series. They’re all working together in tandem to build a bridge to a coming conflict. And bridges can be feats of their own.
That idea of “Lord of the Rings” prestige was going to be more about the execution of environments. Performances and character choices are still vital to the success of the show, but this adaptation was always going to rise or fall on spirit and tactility. “Rings of Power,” especially in its Númenor sequences, is thriving on the lived-in details of places that have never made it to the screen before. There’s a grandeur there that’s meant to be soaked in rather than be condensed down to a sensational, momentary thing to parse over. The series’ most recent episode has a literal explosion, but it’s clear that its purpose isn’t to inspire “This Changes Everything”-style headlines or reactions. The emphasis here is less on creating spectacle as it is looking at what that surprise stirs in the people who witness it and those who have a hand in making it happen.
Given the drumbeats that grow louder with each episode, it’s not as if “Rings of Power” is going to stay in Tolkien Travelogue mode for the entire season. Unpacking the mystery of The Stranger is almost certainly something that will give the show a true entry point for a bigger discussion when those answers come in their own due time. Elsewhere, enough factions are itching for a battle in the Southlands to the point that the last three episodes seem primed to be the kind of finale that some viewers might be expecting. Either way, it wouldn’t be a “Lord of the Rings” story without giving equal weight to the destination and the journey.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” releases new episodes every Friday on Prime Video.