Conventional storytelling wisdom dictates that a good story needs a good villain. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay lean into this truism hard with episode 4, “The Great Wave,” pushing several new and previously established antagonists into the spotlight as the Prime Video series hits the halfway mark. It’s a move that pays off, too. Not only do The Rings of Power’s baddies prove suitably compelling in their own right, but they also further delineate the show from the J.R.R. Tolkien novels that inspired it.
New arrival Adar (Joseph Mawle) embodies the virtues of episode 4’s villain-centric approach best. Created especially for The Rings of Power, the orc leader is arguably unlike any Middle-earth evildoer we’ve encountered before — either in Tolkien’s writings or Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning big-screen adaptations. True, Adar has comparatively little screen time in “The Great Wave,” yet Payne and McKay, together with director Wayne Che Yip and writer Stephany Folsom still manage to sketch an impressively nuanced character.
Adar isn’t someone obviously corrupted by his lust for power like Morgoth, Sauron, or Saruman, nor is he driven by a pathological desire to wallow in a Scrooge McDuckian vault of gold, like Smaug. Instead, his motivations come across as disarmingly layered, particularly his cryptic remarks to Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) about Middle-earth’s history being whitewashed, which hint at a more personal agenda. Toss in Adar’s unique aesthetic (Is he an orc? An elf? Something in between?), his apparent aspirations to godhood, and Mawle’s restrained performance and he’s instantly one of The Rings of Power’s most interesting characters.
The rank-and-file orcs under Adar’s command continue to reveal unexpected depths as well, even as they stand poised to dramatically downsize the Southland’s human population. The Rings of Power episode 2 gave us orcs as movie monsters, episode 3 touched on their capacity for religious devotion, and both of those elements are still at play in episode 4. But “The Great Wave” adds something else into the mix, something even scarier: orc tenderness.
Watch as Adar — whose name, fittingly, translates to “father” in elvish — comforts and then mercy kills one of his troops mortally wounded during the previous episode. Just look at the adoration in that orc’s eyes as Adar caresses his face; this guy has an unmistakable, almost childlike affection for his master. Throughout the rest of The Rings of Power episode 4, the orcs are the bloodthirsty ghouls (and, on occasion, hapless goons) we’ve come to love to hate. Here, though, there’s an almost sympathetic quality to proceedings. It’s both effective and affecting — after all, who ever imagined we’d see anything close to emotional vulnerability in an orc, even if only for a few brief moments?
It’ll be interesting to see whether this window into the softer side of orc culture winds up being a one-off deal, or if Payne and McKay intend to develop this concept further in future episodes. The journey toward true evil in Middle-earth often has a seductive undercurrent, and luring unwitting parties into his service was something Sauron himself excelled at during The Rings of Power’s Second Age setting. Could we be headed toward the game-changing revelation that orcs were simply the first of many communities to fall under his spell? This wouldn’t necessarily line up with Tolkien’s legendarium, but it would address the moral dilemma posed by an inherently irredeemable race the Oxford don supposedly grappled with throughout his life.
Meanwhile, over in Númenor, Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle) ostensibly remains on the side of the angels; however, those familiar with The Silmarillion will spot signs of his inevitable heel turn. The biggest of these comes when Pharazôn demonstrates his knack for controlling an angry mob early on in “The Great Wave.” On the face of it, this is a good thing, as the queen regent’s advisor defuses a potential riot. Yet Pharazôn’s address to the crowd also plays strongly to the anti-elf prejudices of its members — you might even call it “warg whistling” — in a way that foreshadows Númenor’s future turmoil just as effectively as Míriel’s (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) stunning, petal-infused vision.
Then there’s The Rings of Power’s overarching antagonist Sauron, who (true to form) continues to lurk off camera rather than actively taking part in episode 4’s narrative. That said, Yip, Payne, McKay, and Folsom seed the Dark Lord’s return throughout the second half of the episode, with differing degrees of success. On the one hand, the subplot surrounding Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) and his sinister sword hilt still feels like it was ripped from another, entirely separate fantasy series. On the other, Theo’s exchange with creepy Sauron sympathizer Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) perfectly captures the ineffable sense of dread Tolkien cultivated around Middle-earth’s would-be conqueror in the books.
Yet, in the end, it’s the forces of good who prove to be their own greatest enemies in “The Great Wave,” something else that feels very true to Tolkien’s work. Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) epitomizes this best — continuing to demonstrate a grasp of diplomacy so poor it’s frankly breathtaking — but she’s far from the only one of our heroes making life hard for themselves and those around them. From the sneaky behavior of Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to the shortsighted self-sabotage of Isildur (Maxim Baldry), this episode is full of good people making bad choices.
Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and Míriel fall under this category, too. For his part, Celebrimbor cheerfully pushes ahead with his great work in the face of prophetic counsel that any sane person would’ve considered at best a warning and at worst a threat — and which will obviously end in tears. (Seriously, Celebrimbor: Maybe don’t go into business with the very person you know will one day decide your fate.) Míriel isn’t much better, treating her subjective interpretation of the palantír’s apocalyptic imagery as an objective fact that justifies her xenophobia for much of episode 4’s run time. If Celebrimbor represents the dangers of unchecked optimism, then Míriel is surely The Rings of Power’s caution against going “full Denethor” and jumping to the worst possible conclusion.
Again, both these threads gel with Tolkien’s canon; specifically, the recurring plot device of having characters misinterpret prophecies and portents (especially where the palantíri are concerned) as their foes close in on them. And that’s undoubtedly the case in “The Great Wave,” with its focus on villainy both external and within. Yet the episode ultimately closes on the kind of hopeful note that Tolkien was also fond of — signaling that all is not yet lost for the peoples of Middle-earth, even with evil on the rise.