For decades fans of J.R.R. Tolkien faced a common problem: what to do once you've read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (often repeatedly)? Tolkien's Middle-earth, as depicted in those books, is a rich, enchanting place filled with distinct cultures, dreadful foes, wondrous locales, and a deep history, about which the novels leave many unanswered questions. There is more to read, but this sometimes means navigating choppy waters. Tolkien ends The Lord of the Rings with extensive appendices that provide some details of Middle-earth's history, and, in 1977, Tolkien's son Christopher Tolkien published The Silmarillion, a history of Middle-earth from its creation to the events of The Lord of the Rings he edited (and sometimes supplemented) working from his father's unpublished writing. It's a book rich in lore, a tremendous work of what we now call world-building. But it's also a tough read many abandon before getting very far. Moments that recall the pleasures of Tolkien's storytelling in his most beloved books are few and far between.
Tolkien adaptations hit a similar problem in 2014. By then Peter Jackson had adapted the whole of The Lord of the Rings and followed it with a three-film expansion of The Hobbit. Not only would whatever came next have to find another corner of Middle-earth to call its own, but it would have to find a way to fill it with stories that could stand beside Tolkien's. That's no small task. Veer too far on the side of invention and you risk breaking away from the spirit of Tolkien's work (and annoying Tolkien purists). Veer too far toward the other side and you end up with a textbook-dry history lesson.
Based on the two episodes provided to critics it's not yet clear if Prime Video's ambitious new series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will find a middle path, but it's making an earnest effort and largely headed in the right direction. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay are laying the groundwork for a series spanning the entirety of Middle-earth, from gleaming elf cities to dwarf mines bustling with life to the under-the-radar camps of the harfoots, a race of hobbits-in-all-but-name halflings. It's a place populated with seemingly dozens of significant characters, some of whom appear to still be arriving as the second episode draws to a close. That's a lot of setup to get through even before The Rings of Power gets to its overarching story about the return of a dire evil that threatens to destroy the world.
Though The Rings of Power is set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings, that evil is a familiar one, though one glimpsed only in flashback: Sauron, a sorcerer of tremendous power that the elves of Middle-earth believe they've defeated. Most of them anyway. But another familiar Tolkien character, the elf warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), suspects otherwise and has dedicated her life to making sure of Sauron's defeat no matter what those around her believe. Galadriel is at the center of the action for much of The Rings of Power's first episode, which whisks through centuries of history covering the conflict between the elves and their dark foe, Sauron's predecessor Morgoth, a conflict that eventually enveloped all of Middle-earth and its human, dwarf, and elf inhabitants.
Though Middle-earth now seems untroubled by Sauron and his forces, Galadriel is not the only one picking up on signs of trouble. In the wilderness of Rhovanion, a young harfoot named Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) chafes against the restrictions of her village elders, a tendency that will lead to a remarkable, and dangerous, discovery. Miles away in the elf capital of Lindon, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) receives a new assignment working with the brilliant smith Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards). And in the Southlands, an elf named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) drags his feet against orders to leave his post overseeing a village of humans, in part because of his taboo attraction to the human Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and in part because he suspects some unusual events, like a cow suddenly prone to producing a black fluid instead of milk, might point to other forces at work.
There's more, too. The second episode introduces characters like the ill-tempered sailor Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and Durin (Owain Arthur), a dwarf prince who (eventually) renews his friendship with Elrond. That's a lot to keep track of, but if the first episode feels like a series of exposition dumps (a feeling compounded by none of the central characters interacting with one another except Galadriel and Elrond), by the end of the second episode (written by Breaking Badand Better Call Saul alum Gennifer Hutchison) The Rings of Power picks up considerable narrative momentum. (The arrival of some dread creatures helps shake things up, too.)
Where it goes from here remains to be seen, but a solid cast (with Kavenagh a particular standout) and building sense of tension bodes well. And The Rings of Power has already established itself as one of the most visually striking shows around. Jackson has no involvement in the series, but Rings of Power takes cues from the look of Middle-earth established in his films, from the costumes to the terrifying orcs to the graceful use of digital effects. The Rings of Power also makes striking use of New Zealand locations, which are diverse enough to stand in for a whole continent. (The steady hand of J.A. Bayona, director of The Impossible and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, at the helm of these two episodes undoubtedly helps as well.)
For now it feels like a world worth revisiting, even if The Rings of Power is still putting all the pieces into place. And while much has been made about the contrast between this series and HBO's House of the Dragon, it would be a mistake to see the shows as in a competition in which one must prevail over the other. George R.R. Martin's books and the series they inspired are in some ways a response to Tolkien set in an alternate take on Middle-earth filled with realpolitik and deeply flawed characters where it's not always clear who, if anyone, is on the side of good. Tolkien's world isn't without moral ambiguity of its own. In many respects, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of how good people can become corrupted. But it's also a place in which good and evil undeniably exist and engage in operatic clashes, and The Rings of Power seems intent on staying true to this spirit. Fantasy is a big genre, and there's room for both approaches. And for those who've missed Middle-earth and its inhabitants, The Rings of Power should feel like a homecoming.
Premieres: Thursday, Sept. 1 at 9/8c on Prime Video
Who's in it: Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Markella Kavenagh, Robert Aramayo
Who's behind it: J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay
For fans of: Tolkien (obviously) and fantasy epics in general
How many episodes we watched: 2 out of 8