[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Episode 3, “Adar.”]
“Nobody goes off trail and nobody walks alone” might as well be a rallying cry for modern franchise storytelling. It comes, sing-song and chanted, out of the mouths of young Harfoots and community elders about halfway through Episode 3 of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” For a show invested right now in positioning viewers for the present and future of a series’ health, this third hour of eight in the opening season almost works as a second pilot, even moreso than either of the chapters that came in the show’s first week.
You can feel it in the welcome into Númenor, the island kingdom of men in between Valinor and Middle-Earth. The camera rising up over the horizon, the lingering looks at massive sculpted faces, swelling themes playing under grand seaside vistas: “Rings of Power” is never shy about using beacons and bombast to announce the arrival of a major location within this world. It’s all done with the kind of majesty you reserve for new beginnings, using a proven template that still works.
What follows at Númenor is an episode’s worth of table-setting, situating Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) in the overall relationship between the worlds of men and elves. When faced with the possibility that a growing evil storm might be building on the mainland, Númenor’s Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) asserts her people’s sovereignty. If “The Rings of Power” is moving toward a battle against Sauron and the forces of the Southlands, this episode is the biggest acknowledgment yet that this world has its own strain of isolationism standing in the way of a unified front.
For all of the splendor and visual nods to past “Lord of the Rings” properties, the early third of this “Rings of Power” season does have something of a personal touch. The opening episodes — complete with a proper unsettling home invasion sequence — had some effective reminders that J.A. Bayona cut his teeth in the horror realm. Wayne Che Yip, this episode’s director, had one of his first TV jobs helping to set the main visual template for the striking British series “Utopia,” one that used color as its own kind of brutal weapon. Here, Yip delights in those Númenórean accents, making the backdrop of this island community more than just neutral sea-sprayed limestone. There’s a richness to the blues here that’s usually reserved for screens and backdrops that get CGI’d over later.
With Galadriel and Elrond (and possibly a big bearded guy dressed in grey) all as significant later characters re-introduced in the first two episodes, “Adar” shows there’s also still more room to catch up with old friends. The next name for “Rings of Power” to jog from the memory bank is Isildur, last seen floating to the bottom of a riverbed in “Fellowship of the Ring,” shot through with arrows after a decision to walk out of Mordor with an extra, unmelted ring in tow. Here, though, is the younger Isildur, going through Númenor Navy Boot Camp and trying to fend off nepotism accusations along the way. As with the familiar elves, this is another instance of “Rings of Power” setting up a neat origin story arc by pinpointing the biggest thing each of these characters had to overcome.
For Isildur, one potential roadblock is his father Elendil (Lloyd Owen), first announced in “Adar” by the parting of his crew on the deck of his ship. In contrast to the Dwarves and Harfoots, Elendil is in line with an overall stateliness that “Rings of Power” has also set up early on. With those reserved performances comes a patience to let them gradually evolve into something else beyond warriors. Owen’s stern gruffness starts to melt away as the episode goes on, giving way to Elendil delivering something more charming. If “Adar” is going to spend its non-street-fight time in Númenor letting the island atmosphere breathe, at least it does so building that environment around families (as it does with some valuable Isildur, Eärien, and Elendil time).
While Galadriel gathers information in the Hall of Law and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) goes on an ill-advised mission to steal his way into the blacksmith’s guild, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is facing the consequences of a Southlands already fallen under orc control. It’s there that Yip and “Rings of Power” have the room to calibrate the level of bloodshed that this show can withstand. Part of that is balancing out the threat of violence with violence itself. The ability for the show to draw as much tension from a water jug passed around a POW camp as the point when the tension (and chains) eventually start to snap is hopefully a sign that “The Rings of Power” is concerned with more than one kind of action going forward.
There are a few moments in Jason Cahill and Justin Doble’s script that help keep a spirit of self-awareness in “Rings of Power,” but one that’s more playful than smarmy. Galadriel’s long list of titles, followed by Halbrand’s announcement of himself as, well, himself, helps to show that this is a series that can handle both pageantry and those with little use for it. Add to that the continuing impressiveness of the Harfoot’s camouflage skill and there’s an underlying spirit here that can really cut through the gloominess when needed.
Without leaning too much on comparisons to The Other Show People are Talking About Right Now, “Rings of Power” has embraced in its early stages that the dark can’t truly exist without the light (and vice versa). The orc stronghold in the Southlands and Harfoot migration camp are distinct atmospheres, where the absences in one can be felt in the other. Making sure there are places where the ominous and bright can coexist, as they do in corners of Númenor, will be the key going forward as everyone gets drawn into the specter of a looming battle.
As effective as the individual elements in “Rings of Power” do work on their own, there’s much of “Adar” that fit right in with Ben Travers’ assessment of the series, that “There is no ticking clock. There is only ground to cover.” Though this episode may not have some of the flourishes of its two predecessors, there’s still reason to believe that the path to come is over stable storytelling terrain.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” releases new episodes every Thursday night on Prime Video.