‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Season 1, Episode 8: Ramble On

The season finale included at least one shocking twist and other revelations that set up future seasons. Here are five takeaways from the episode and from the season as a whole.

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By Noel Murray

Season 1, Episode 8: ‘Alloyed’

Like most prequels, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is headed toward a fixed endpoint. No matter how many new characters and locations the writers introduce, by the time the series reaches its intended end — after five seasons, if all goes according to plan — we will have witnessed the events that ended the Second Age of Middle-earth and led to Sauron’s all-controlling One Ring disappearing for thousands of years, before eventually landing in a hobbit’s pocket.

Unlike most prequels, “The Rings of Power” arrived with much of its story already extensively mapped out, via the tidbits of Middle-earth history J.R.R. Tolkien dropped in both the text of “The Lord of the Rings” novels and in their extensive appendices. This is why fans watching this series have been paying close attention to the names they have never heard before, trying to figure out how they fit into the Tolkien saga. For example: Why did the author never mention Halbrand, the lost king of the Southlands, returned to his home by Galadriel and a contingent of Númenóreans in a failed effort to prevent the orcs from establishing the shadowlands of Mordor?

This week’s Season 1 finale answers that question in shocking fashion. Halbrand is Sauron. There is no lost king of the Southlands. Adar, the orc-father, has established a kingdom his former master and most hated foe will someday claim.

Part of what makes “Alloyed” a successful season finale is that in resolving the biggest mystery introduced this year — Where has Sauron gone? — it establishes a foundation for fresh conflicts in the next round of episodes. As this mercurial dark angel Sauron returns to the territory Adar has remade into Mordor, a fascinating power-struggle lies ahead, rooted in ancient history and Middle-earth’s longstanding racial conflicts.

This episode also fulfills one of the main functions of a prequel, shading in some key details from “The Lord of the Rings” back story. It is part of Tolkien lore that Sauron helped forge the Rings of Power. How did that happen? Now we know: In the form of Halbrand, under the cover of a story of woe and redemption, he charmed his way into a fateful moment that would shape Middle-earth’s destiny for over a thousand years. The ironies are rich; and the ramifications are just beginning.

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Here are five other takeaways and observations from this episode — and from the season as a whole:

Stranger danger

Before the big Halbrand-as-Sauron reveal, this episode teases the possibility that the Stranger is Sauron, as the mysterious white-clad mystics finally track him down and then surprisingly bend their knees, vowing to serve their Dark Lord. All of this happens before the opening credits, in a clever bit of narrative misdirection, intended to keep the audience from catching on too quickly that Halbrand is our Big Bad.

There is, as it happens, important new information about the Stranger this week, though it is something much more expected: He is, we learn, one of the Istari, or “wise ones,” or wizards. We still don’t have a name yet for this big fella, but by the end of the episode — after a tense skirmish between the Harfoots and the mystics that sees Sadoc sacrificing his life and the Stranger gaining access to a powerful magic staff — he does finally start speaking in full sentences.

The Harfoots story line ends with a promising setup for Season 2: Nori will continue to travel with the Stranger as he sets off toward the land of Rhûn to learn more about who he is. He welcomes her company, because traveling alone is just a journey, but traveling with friends is an adventure. And as Tolkien fans know, adventures are more fun.

‘The ones who see’

Earlier this season, while trying to persuade Míriel to join her cause, Galadriel expressed sympathy with the Queen-Regent and her burdensome responsibilities, saying, “I know how it feels to be the only one who sees.” Yet one of this show’s more powerful themes has been the idea that heroes can follow a path of logic and honor with absolute certainty, and still arrive at the wrong conclusion — or worse, can bring into existence the very thing they were trying to prevent.

In Galadriel’s case, her need to use Halbrand as a symbol — to inspire her Númenórean army — leads to her bring her sworn enemy Sauron into Eregion, where he then coaxes Celebrimbor into amplifying Elrond’s minuscule supply of mithril by combing it with an alloy, in the form of a crown. Halbrand’s sudden eagerness to create something that will provide “power over flesh” makes Galadriel suspicious, so she has an archivist check the genealogies of the Southlands, which reveals that the region’s last king died centuries ago and left no heir. Not only has she been duped, but she has given Sauron access to a force that could tilt the balance of power in Middle-earth forever.

Does the Halbrand reveal make sense, in the context of the season as a whole? I can think of some moments from earlier episodes — like Halbrand hesitating over whether to accept the mantle of king — that may not fit so neatly with what we now know to be Sauron’s grand designs. (On the other hand, Númenor is clearly hugely important to Sauron’s plans as well, so he may have just wanted to stay there rather than heading back to the mainland so soon.)

Ultimately, this big twist works because it is a pivotal part of Galadriel’s character arc. In a moving sequence after the reveal, Sauron enters the elf’s mind, and corrupts her happy memories of her brother, intending to convince her that they have all had the same goal all along: a stable and peaceful Middle-earth. Back in Númenor, Halbrand tried to tutor Galadriel in the ways of persuasion by saying she should find out what people fear, and then give them the means to master it. He does that with her here by proposing they rule together — just as he “helps” her fellow elves forge a tool of control.

After Galadriel rejects Sauron and flees Eregion, the elves decide to make three rings rather than one crown. But the process that will lead to the next great war has begun. And the one who saw it coming is largely responsible.

Island life

The other major story line in the finale involves Miriel’s return to Númenor, where she learns that her father has died — though not until he has first shown Elendil’s daughter Eärien how to find his palantir, and has urged her to help lead the kingdom back to its “old ways.” Númenor has been a terrific location in this series, and before Elendil and Miriel left, we were teased with a lot of as-yet-unrevealed history and courtly intrigue that should be fruitful to explore in Season 2.

Still, perhaps because of all the big revelations elsewhere in the episode, the action on the island in this finale was fairly forgettable. One of the flaws of this first “Rings of Power” season is that some key characters haven’t been developed enough to grab the audience’s attention. I would say that’s especially been an issue with Elendil and his children. I have barely mentioned Eärien in these reviews, because she has rarely been doing anything noteworthy. Isildur has been a bigger factor in the plot, but given how important he is to the “Rings” saga as a whole, he too has yet to stand out from the sprawling cast.

Perhaps Season 2 will handle that better. Speaking of which …

Needs improvement

What could “The Rings of Power” improve on in the seasons to come? One of the show’s biggest weaknesses is one shared by a lot of prestige TV dramas: The episodes are too long, and too repetitive. Partly that springs from the source material. A proper Tolkien experience should be somewhat leisurely, where the conversations and the adventures on the road matter as much as the big battles at the final destinations. But also: This series is handsome-looking and features excellent actors delivering well-crafted dialogue. Sometimes it’s hard for creators with those kinds of resources at their disposal to use less of it.

They should, though. Too often this season, episodes spent two or three scenes covering the same narrative and thematic ground — or had single scenes drag on until losing their oomph. (See: Nori’s goodbye to her family in this finale, which is very sweet at first and then just … keeps going.) A brisker pace could tip this show from good to great.

The road goes ever on.

All of that said, what stands out most to me from this first season is how much more impressive everything has been than I had expected. The sets, the effects, the language and even the small moments of singing and humor are all clearly crafted with a lot love — and paid for with a lot of money.

“The Rings of Power” has offered spectacle and scope beyond what any current television series is attempting. Yet the creators also showed a strong command of that flash and grandeur, using it to frame a good story. This show is hardly perfect, but for the most part it is what it needs to be: the TV equivalent of a page-turner fantasy novel, for fans to get lost in.

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