By Janie Walenda
This review contains spoilers for the whole of “Rings of Power” season one
I’m not sure how I feel about the season finale of “Rings of Power.” That’s not a great first sentence for a review, but that has been the overwhelming feeling that has stuck with me. On one hand, the finale delivers its twists with its usual style and a surprising amount of complexity. However, the developments in this episode do nothing to lessen my concerns about how “Rings of Power” handles Tolkien’s lore.
Obviously, the two main talking points for this episode are the big reveals about Halbrand and the Stranger’s identities. Because of this, these are the only two storylines the finale follows, leaving both the Dwarves and the Southlanders in perilous position. Both revelations are executed surprisingly well with each resulting in a final showdown full of jaw-dropping visuals.
The biggest reveal is that Halbrand is Sauron, and has been all along. While I don’t think the buildup to this reveal in the previous episodes is as strong as it could’ve been, the way it unfolded in this episode was excellent. Charlie Vickers pulled off the shift from reluctant king to evil incarnate seamlessly. The most ridiculous part of this reveal to me is that nobody told Vickers during the filming of the first few episodes, which explains why despite the hints within the show, I didn’t see anything in his performance that revealed Sauron. To the credit of the screenwriters and Vickers, they do a great job of tying together Halbrand’s journey throughout the first season, including pulling tidbits from Tolkien’s lore.
Sauron indeed experiences periods of repentance in Tolkien’s writings, and I think “Rings of Power” did a great job exploring this without redeeming him in any way.
The other part of the finale that frustrates me is how we speed past Sauron’s manipulation of Celebrimbor and the initial creation of the rings. There are still many windows in the show to see him as a manipulator, and I hope “Rings of Power” takes advantage of Sauron’s ability to shapeshift, but I wish we spent more time on this specific instance, especially given how iconic it is in the “Silmarillion.”
The plotting of the show is something I have reserved judgment on until the end of season one. Now that we’ve reached that point, I do think it needs some work. I don’t mind the slow burn, and the finale doesn’t necessarily feel rushed. But I do think “Rings of Power” would’ve benefited by moving the creation of Mordor up an episode to give the ending more room to breathe.
As for the Stranger, “Rings of Power” is holding out on the official reveal that he’s Gandalf. Nonetheless, the finale does make it abundantly clear that he is. The members of Sauron’s cult confirm that he is a wizard, and as he regains the ability to speak he sounds more and more like Gandalf, even quoting one of Gandalf’s original lines from the movies. While it would’ve been interesting if the Stranger was one of the blue wizards instead of Gandalf, Daniel Weyman does such a fantastic job capturing the spirit of Ian Mckellan’s performance that I can’t complain.
Ultimately, my problem with both these reveals is that there were more interesting alternatives than the ones we got. We could’ve seen a different wizard at work. We could’ve seen Halbrand embrace his heritage, only to fall prey to the rings and become the Witch King. The choices that the “Rings of Power” showrunners made aren’t necessarily bad decisions; they just aren’t the most interesting.
That doesn’t stop “Rings of Power” from ending on a high note. When I called my brother after the finale aired, one of the first things I heard was our younger brother in the background. “Why do I have to wait until 2024!” That was the most excited I’ve ever heard him be about a TV show or movie. Even my more Tolkien-obsessed brother begrudgingly admitted excitement and enjoyment of the show. On campus, I watched the finale with around 15 other students, and our watch party ended with an excited conversation about everything we just watched and where the show would go in the future.
Does “Rings of Power” spit in the face of Tolkien’s writing? I don’t believe so. The show remained surprisingly true to Tolkien’s values and themes. But does “Rings of Power” steward well the incredibly rich lore of Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no. Even without the rights to “Silmarillion,” the creators could’ve done much more to respect Tolkein and his creations.
Even with its rough patches, “Rings of Power” is a thoroughly enjoyable show, thanks to its atmospheric fantasy and satisfying, if not ingenious, twists.
“Rings of Power” season one is now streaming on Amazon Prime
Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation, and cold brew.
Images courtesy of Prime Video