It’s fair to say the first two episodes of Amazon Studios’ The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power left me underwhelmed. The approach J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay took to adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s world in “A Shadow of the Past” and “Adrift” struck me as paradoxically over- and undercooked, with too many plot threads and too few new ideas. Where was the clearly defined quest set against a lived-in world brimming with unexplored new vistas that defined Tolkien’s own work? Waiting just around the corner in the Prime Video series’ third episode, “Adar,” as it turns out.
First and foremost, “Adar” is much more focused than either of its predecessors (especially the aptly named “Adrift”). Written by Jason Cahill and Justin Doble and directed by Wayne Che Yip, “Adar’’ zeroes in on Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), while also making room for new characters Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and Isildur (Maxim Baldry). While there are check-ins with Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Nori (Markella Kavenagh), however, this episode is more concerned with advancing the core “hunt for Sauron’’ narrative than it is with advancing every one of the show’s surfeit of subplots.
Putting the spotlight back on Galadriel and those in her immediate vicinity doesn’t just make for a tighter, more briskly paced hour of television — although it certainly does that. It also gives Yip, Cahill, and Doble space to broaden the scope of The Rings of Power’s vision of Middle-earth. Notably, “Adar’’ provides our first glimpse of Númenor on screen, and as depicted here, the island kingdom makes for a suitably impressive location. It’s reminiscent of Minas Tirith as described by Tolkien and later realized in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but still has a look and feel of its own.
Setting The Rings of Power episode 3 predominantly in Númenor also presents Yip, Cahill, and Doble with the opportunity to dig into the subcultures that exist within the world of men. Sure, Jackson’s movies made it clear that the inhabitants of Gondor (who descended from the Númenóreans) were a decidedly different bunch to their neighbors, the Rohirrim. Yet “Adar” takes this to a whole new level, showing us Númenor at its peak and really emphasizing how exotic this society was compared to the remnants that washed up on Middle-earth’s shores. The small taste we get of the Númenórean’s seafaring ways — unheard of in Jackson’s largely landlocked adaptations — promises to add a welcome naval dimension to future set-pieces, too.
It’s not just the Númenor segments that bring something new to the table in “Adar” either. The Elven chain gang Arondir finds himself a part of, while hardly the biggest elaboration on existing Middle-earth lore The Rings of Power has to offer, serves as a storytelling springboard for Yip, Cahill, and Doble to flesh out orc culture. True, we don’t learn anything especially profound (spoiler: orcs are horrible jailers). Even so, it’s still neat to see the quasi-religious hold Sauron has over his minions more than just hinted at, so hopefully, this will be explored in greater detail going forward. And hey, what’s not to love about finally witnessing the orcs’ aversion to sunlight dramatized on screen (something only paid lip service to in the Jackson movies)?
The few brief bursts of action in “Adar” also deserve a shoutout, as they do a lot to allay my nagging concerns that The Rings of Power might wind up a largely bloodless affair. Sure, it would be nice if the show relied less on weightless wirework and less-than-convincing CG, both of which undermine many of its set-pieces. Still, it’s reassuring to know that Payne and McKay, like Jackson before them, appreciate that Middle-earth — although not quite as blood-soaked as George R.R. Martin’s Westeros — has always had a certain “meatiness” to it. Even The Hobbit, a book originally written for children, squeezed in the odd stabbing, so the broken bones and clawed-up flesh in episode 3’s handful of skirmishes are welcome inclusions.
Then there’s the harfoot bit of the equation, which has thus far proven the most uneven, to say the least. Incredibly, even these sections of “Adar” contribute something new and meaningful to our understanding of Tolkien’s world. Purists may balk at the idea of a migratory breed of hobbit, and it must be said, The Rings of Power’s take on the harfoots stretches the established canon (which references them crossing the Misty Mountains this one time) to breaking point. But the concept pays off once you finally see it in action in “Adar,” immediately distinguishing the harfoots from the expedition-averse Shire folk of the books and films and even imbuing their community’s history with a surprising amount of pathos.
The upshot of all of this is that The Rings of Power episode 3 feels closer to the spirit of Tolkien’s books — most of all, the sense of wonder they convey — than either episode 1 or 2, even as “Adar” plays fast and loose with the author’s legendarium (which it does for much of its run time). Admittedly, it’s been a while since I leafed through The Lord of the Rings’ appendices or picked up a copy of The Silmarillion, but I seem to remember Elendil and Isildur’s backstory doesn’t play out quite the way it does here. The same goes for Galadriel’s arc, which is truer to Tolkien’s conception of the character than its detractors are willing to admit but still has elements — such as the whiff of a burgeoning doomed romance we get in “Adar” — that will come as a surprise to Middle-earth devotees.
Your mileage will vary on whether this uptick in canonical infidelity represents a positive or negative shift, but “Adar” seems to indicate the show is moving in the right direction, building out a world of its own within the lore of Middle-earth. For one thing, Clark continues to excel as the younger, scrappier Galadriel. Not only has the Welsh actor mastered the breathy delivery and deliberate cadence we’ve come to associate with the elves, but she also proves just as effective in the few moments she’s afforded to demonstrate Galadriel’s less po-faced side. The same goes for Vickers as Halbrand, who injects some much-needed swagger into proceedings, while Cynthia Addai-Robinson makes a strong impression as Númenor’s queen regent, Míriel.
With all this acting talent on deck, it’s a real shame that Rings of Power still can’t seem to capture Tolkien’s voice. The dialogue isn’t uniformly bad, but the lines that stick out (“The sea is always right”? Yikes…) are out-and-out howlers. What’s more, for all the great world-building and lore expansion in this episode, Yip, Cahill, and Doble still manage to recycle at least two more Tolkien tropes, which culminates in them adding not one but two kings in exile into the mix — because previous uncrowned characters Aragorn and Thorin Oakenshield clearly weren’t enough. It’s like they’re afraid to fully chart their own course for Middle-earth, for fear of diverging too much from a roadmap they already know works so well.
This, more than anything, is what’s stopping The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power from reaching its full potential. Otherwise, the show already has everything in place to tell a story — and just as importantly, explore a world — that Tolkien fans have never seen before. In “Adar,” we get a small taste of what that story could be; with five episodes left, here’s hoping the main course is up next.