“Screenplays are structure.” – William Goldman
In the past few years, you may have heard multiple creatives refer to their miniseries as “not a miniseries, but rather an eight-hour movie.” The more obvious element of this is that a miniseries simply offers a larger amount of time to tell a story and I can think of at least seventeen examples off the top of my head of movies that would have been better served as a miniseries. Why cram everything into two hours if you can have six or eight?
The more unfortunate, less obvious element is that some storytellers only view the story they are telling in its long form and forget that dramatic television also requires an episodic structure. Singular episodes also have to have a weight unto themselves and can’t just exist as an unruly part of a larger whole. Ideally, the episode’s disparate scenes would also be connected thematically but so far, The Rings of Power seems to be caught up in a structural lack of cohesion that is severely harming its ability to utilize the full storytelling potential that is clearly there.
That The Rings of Power doesn’t have the full rights to all the pieces it needs to be able to refer to and incorporate into its storytelling is probably its most significant foundational roadblock. But then the question is if you can’t create a fully realized and fleshed out world with a coherent history and an understanding of how that history informs its characters, then why does this show exist?
The episode’s centerpiece is the Kingdom of Númenor and in this centerpiece the show’s greatest strengths and failures are on full display. On one hand, without a singular doubt, Númenor is one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever seen depicted on screen. The teal and gold colour motifs, the statues carved throughout the mountainside leading into the city, the opening shot of the ship that Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is on entering the waters upon which the city lies. Just, absolutely, unequivocally, stunning.
Episode 3 also, most crucially, corrects a significant issue from the first two episodes and manages to give Númenor not just visual splendour, but also a sense that it is a real place where people live and breathe. It isn’t a lot, to be blunt, but since I doubt that this is the only time we will see this kingdom, it’s a more promising start than any other location we’ve visited so far (outside of Khazad-dum).
Part of what makes Númenor come alive is the sense of shared history most of the show is severely lacking in. Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and Galadriel’s confrontational back and forth is excellent and easily the show’s most engaging exchange of dialogue so far. You get the sense that there is a deep sense of historical grievance between the the elves and the humans of Númenor and it establishes some key character traits for both. Galadriel is combative and haughty in a way that rubs a lot of people the wrong way that cements for others that elves are indeed drowning in pride and an unearned sense of superiority.
Queen Regent Míriel, meanwhile, cuts a striking figure in her own right. Cynthia Addai-Robinson does an excellent job of portraying a figure who is self-assured but also gives off a sense that she has to be self-assured. I don’t know if The Rings of Power will delve into the realpolitik of Númenor (the way Lloyd Owen’s Captain Elendil emphasizes the word “regent” in her title seems to suggest that it might) but regardless, her performance suggests a layered character and that’s a welcome sight in this series.
Where The Rings of Power continues to fail is its inability to create a cohesive sense of historical world-building. I don’t need grit in all of my stories. I don’t need blood and gore in all of my stories. I don’t need political schemers killing people left and right for power. What I do need, for any sense of emotional investment, is a sense that these places and characters within them are real. For that to occur, that historical sense of world-building must be present and it’s quite galling that in spite of an unprecedented tv budget at least three times as expensive as the next most-expensive tv show on air, such little attention has gone to that.
For example, when Galadriel and Míriel have that heated exchange about their history, it’s thrilling because it provides real stakes to their characters, their relationships with the people around them, and the overall story of darkness rising once more while everyone has fallen into the usual false sense of security. Then when Galadriel and Captain Elendil talk about repairing the mistakes of their people over the previous war, that sense of history gets taken out from beneath my feet and I feel as if I have lost a crucial piece of information that would contextualize this development.
Similarly, when the Harfoots talk about how they’ve kept themselves safe by keeping to themselves and not engaging with outsiders for a thousand years, I have no sense of what they’re talking about. In an immediate context, it’s obvious enough but when you tie it to the overall narrative, I have no idea what the necessary connective tissue is. That we don’t get all of the historical context is more than fine – this is after all a television series and not a lore encyclopedia. But when the series makes dramatic pivots based on that historical context without sufficient explanation, it’s a problem.
People talk about their history and the world that binds them together. It informs who they are, how they relate to others, and what actions they take. But what does Morgoth mean for the people of Númenor? Do they think of Morgoth in the same way most elves do, that that risk has gone away? When a character says “These humans are not like yours – your people stood with Morgoth,” what does that mean? Why did some humans stand with Morgoth and some didn’t? The series expects its audience to just come into its halls with a prior knowledge of Tolkien lore but in that expectation offsets its responsibilities onto said audience.
+ I hope that this is the last time I will have to reference the wildly bizarre adaptation rights issue present in this series. It can’t remain an excuse for the show’s shortcomings.
+ “No one kneels in Númenor” is a great line
+ “The sea is always right” is a cool motto and I like how the script found multiple meanings
+ I’m sorry, but you can’t just play dramatic music when you kill off a character to compensate how little characterization said character has
+ The Southlands are destroyed now, which would mean something if the series had done much to establish it in the first two episodes
+ Galadriel doing some parkour like movements was great, even if I don’t buy that no one walking around the streets would notice her
+ That freeze frame of Galadriel riding a horse on a beach is one of the most unintentionally hilarious shots I’ve ever seen. How an editor didn’t look at that and immediately cut it is beyond me
+ Similar vibes of Galadriel realizing that Sauron’s symbol is the same shape as a mountain range – it instantly reminded me of Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding an ancient Sith artifact in The Rise of Skywalker and that’s not an association you want
+ “Without friends, what are we surviving for?”
+ “Your people have no king, for you are him.” Um, ok
+ Arondir’s (Ismael Cruz Cordova) flips are too Orlando Bloom’s Legolas flips in the films and I can’t
I realize I sound super down on this show, but the potential is so clearly there and it’s just frustrating that it’s not being realized