The battle episode of The Rings of Power is here and, when it comes to the spectacle this series promised through its budget alone, it delivers. Charlotte Brändström directs this episode with aplomb. She captures the thrills and horrors of battle with an honest brutality I did not expect from a show whose tone has largely been “lightly salted chicken.” The pacing in the first half of the episode exudes an energy that could only be described as propulsive. And Nazanin Boniadi delivers a commanding performance as Bronwyn, elevating a thinly written character into a character worth caring about. Then the saviors show up and the episode takes a turn into both welcome surprises and surprises that are, well, confounding at best.
But before we get to the Númenorians semi-ex machina, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on what makes a battle episode like this one click. What makes a battle episode click is how much you care for the characters in the fight. The pyrotechnics can be exquisite – and here they are. The shots are thrillingly framed. The tension builds until you get goosebumps dancing across your skin. And it all comes together with excitement and fear as characters you care about potentially meed their end in the melee. But what happens here is akin to the Battle of the Bastards on Game of Thrones, where the stakes are theoretically high but actually feel mundane because there are no stakes present within the story itself. So that battle episode, while expertly filmed by Miguel Sapochnik, was entertaining but emotionally flat.
The crux of the issue in “Udûn” is the emotional flatness. The series creates such little emotional investment in its characters that l never felt anything about how they would fare in this brutal conflict. I would have been upset if Bronywn died, but more so out of her being killed for the purposes of torturing a character, than for losing her as a character in the series. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) remains exquisitely good looking, buthe has such a thin personality that he never amounts to more than eye candy. Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) is an intriguing character, but there’s no sense that she’s even remotely in danger. Even if she was, it wouldn’t be that effective given how little they’re put into the character.
Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is the most engaging character in this battle, but it doesn’t help that a) we know that she’s going to be fine and b) the fight choreography kind of goes to hell once the Númenorians arrive and not in a good way. Nevertheless, she forms half of the episode’s best moment. Her confrontation with Adar (Joseph Mawle) after Diet Aragorn (Charlie Vickers) knocks him off his horse is the Rings of Power at its best. After its visuals, its actors are the show’s greatest strength. By allowing two characters to just talk, it lets the strength of the performances command the audience’s attention.
One of the biggest criticisms of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy was that depicted orcs as a mass of evil monsters without agency. That the orcs were dark-skinned when the heroes are all almost universally white only made that deception more horrific and dug a chasm for many fans of colour when it comes to that text. The Rings of Power confronts this dilemma directly. How this fits with the overall narrative and characters of Middle-Earth, however, is a question better answered by someone more familiar with the lore than myself. So I’ll focus on what it means for Galadriel. She goes to the dark end by informing Adar that she will spend the rest of her life committing genocide against the orcs and will make sure that he remains alive to see the destruction of his people.
That she says this after understanding the complexity of how Adar came to be in this form is damning. The show so rarely does effective character work, but here, in just a few lines, it gets across what this endless search for Sauron has done to Galadriel. It demonstrates what it can mean for someone to become obsessed with seeking out evil to the point that it consumes them. It reveals what it can mean for someone to adopt the immorality they had convinced themselves they were going to eradicate. Adar mocks Galadriel for falling into the same darkness he encountered, and he’s not far off from the truth. Galadriel recognizes this but even that recognition isn’t enough from her almost slicing Adar’s throat.
Halbrand’s voice brings her back from that brink but that she went there represents something that hints at some real potential. It remains to be seen if the series is capable of achieving it.
+ I don’t want to hear a single complaint about Galadriel’s battle antics in this episode after I sat through four movies of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas defying basic gravity and common sense just so he could look cool.
+ By all metrics, there’s no way the Númenorians would be able to get to the Southlands that quickly, right? Unless those are like some magic ships or something.
+ How cool was Míriel’s helm?
+ Why didn’t Adar move out of the way when Diet Aragorn was coming his way from the front? Utterly bizarre.
+ Diet Aragorn has to be Sauron, right?
+ Adar’s complexity is great character development.
+ I let out such a big groan when Bronwyn said, “Are you the king we were promised?”
+ If I was in that village, my first question to Diet Aragorn would be, “Where the fuck have you been, my dude?!”
+ I appreciate that the creation of Mordor came at its end through the hands of a random person. There’s something thematically poignant about that that I really like.
+ Umm, how did everyone not die from that volcanic eruption?