A Crystal Mith Problem: A Review and Analysis of The Rings of Power, Episode 5
Well. That was something else. Hot on the heels of The Rings of Power’s first unapologetically good episode, we now encounter its first unapologetically bad one. As you might have noticed, I have been generally positive – or at least charitable – about the show, but I cannot in good conscience go to bat for Episode 5. It was bad. It was very bad. If I had to sum it up – two of the four plotlines make no sense when viewed on their own terms. A third has zero progression to justify the screen time, and the fourth is more interesting for the villain(s) than for the protagonists. Not to mention my inherent tendency to bristle every time the words “stand and fight” are uttered in a Tolkien adaptation.
It’s an ugly situation all round, dear reader. And it particularly pains me because I still want the show to succeed. I hate seeing certain Internet Suspects crowing about its impending failure – not least because my objections to this episode remain a world away from theirs. The issue is not that the show is betraying the source-material – there is vanishingly little source-material to betray, of course, though at times things felt a tad Shadow of Mordor. Nor is it about the cast or supposed politics.
(Worst of all, I think, are the online natterings about needing to bring in Peter Jackson to rescue the show. That just bugs me – as though Jackson, who was adapting complete novels not summaries, didn’t make a pig’s ear of his own invented storylines. Remember Alfrid, for goodness sake – in a fanfiction show like this, Jackson is not the answer).
No, the issue really is the episode breaching Willing Suspension of Disbelief, in a manner more associated with late-season Game of Thrones than anything else.
The four broad plotlines this week:
- Elrond and Durin at Lindon
- The readying of the Númenorean Expeditionary Force
- The Harfoots
- The Southlands
(i) Elrond and Durin at Lindon
This one hurt. It really did. The hitherto best storyline in The Rings of Power has suddenly turned sour. It is not because of Elrond and Durin themselves, of course. They remain as awesome a pair of friends as ever. Nor is it because the show is making Durin into undignified comic-relief like Jackson’s Gimli. He’s amusing, but clever – though the table gag invites the question of why it never occurred to the Elves to ask about why the Dwarves would ever want to part with such “sacred” stone. Nor is the real problem even because of the icky character-assassination of Gil-galad, though we shall get to that.
No, it’s the Mithril Problem.
There are two parts to this. The first is the bizarre Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir – an account of an Elf and a Balrog battling on a mountain-peak over a tree. A tree with a Silmaril in it, because why the hell not? (one discord community I am involved with has been concocting Twelve Days of Christmas parodies already). Lightning strikes the tree, sending Divine Light, essence of Elf, and essence of Balrog down from the roots, into the mountain. The result? Mithril.
Now, on one hand this is yet another example of the show giving us The Silmarillion without giving us The Silmarillion. In this case, it’s a reference to Glorfindel versus the Balrog. On crack. I mean, the notion of a Silmaril in a tree is just mad – but the show knows it is mad, and makes it clear this is an apocryphal legend. The writers are getting Elrond to point out its absurdity to cover their arses. On the other… while there is foreshadowing of the eventual association between mithril and Balrogs (Durin’s Bane), this raises questions as to why Elves would be quite so keen to be involved with a substance reputed to contain essence of Balrog.
Which ties-in with the second, and much more deal-breaking, point. The show decides to link mithril with Sudden Elvish Fading Syndrome. Supposedly, if the Elves don’t bask in mithril by next Spring, their souls will shrivel up from deprivation of Divine Light.
At least with the Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir, we were dealing with a mad-but-harmless addition. We could dismiss it as a silly conceit, a playful shout-out to Glorfindel. Here? The sheer heavy-handedness at work beggars belief. Now, the Rings of Power (both the objects and the show) will eventually be about combatting Elvish fading. It’s an important Second Age theme. But hitherto, the passage of time issue has been explored in a comparatively subtle and intelligent manner. Durin. The Southlands. Here, the issue is a sodding sledgehammer.
Worst of all, the show’s handling of the concept does not even make sense on its own terms.
- Plenty of Elves have never been anywhere near the Two Trees or the Silmarils… and they haven’t faded.
- There is a canonical source of Silmaril light literally floating around – it’s Eärendil. Elves can canonically collect such light (c.f. the Phial of Galadriel), so surely they would be focusing on that, rather than dosing themselves with crystal mith?
- Why next Spring? The suddenness is just odd.
- Celebrimbor already has a nugget of mithril to analyse – where did he get it? Unless mithril was already a known substance… in which case the earlier portrayal of the Dwarvish discovery feels a bit weird.
- The response of Gil-galad here makes no sense. He ought to have fully informed his diplomat (Elrond), and frantically kowtowed before King Durin III. And built ships while he’s at it. Instead, he tries to kick Galadriel upstairs, and he’s cold and vaguely antagonistic to Prince Durin, alienating the very people he needs so desperately.
Gil-galad’s characterisation really hurts here. Now, it’s a perfectly fine adaptive choice to make him an aloof and distant High-King. It’s also fair to allow for a weight of worry to affect his mood. But making him into an incompetent bully, who tries to get poor Elrond to break an Oath? Oaths matter in Tolkien, and I must say how profoundly happy I was that Elrond at least acted correctly here, by not only refusing to break his promise, but also doing what Gil-galad should have done earlier… and actually confessing the difficulty to the Dwarf like an adult.
(That is not to say that Gil-galad approaches the sort of character-assassination we saw with Jackson’s Denethor. But it’s a definite and noticeable problem – at least we know show-Galadriel will evolve).
Now, in fairness, there is an optimistic interpretation one can put on this mess. Perhaps a certain Annatar is already assisting Celebrimbor in Eregion. Perhaps Annatar is the source of the story about mithril, and the impending Fading. After all, the purpose of the Rings of Power is to stop time – inducing panic in the Elves would make sense. But that not only would require Celebrimbor to attain ever-more impressive levels of gullibility, but would also ignore the sick tree in Lindon, a sure sign that something is indeed up. And hovering around in the background is the possibility that Halbrand is actually Annatar – something I am now very much hoping does not turn out to be true.
So yeah. Ugly stuff. And again, it is not lack of adherence to Tolkien that inherently bothers me here. I am no Purist. It’s just that the show – while grasping the themes perfectly well – periodically feels the need to make sure we haven’t missed Deeper Meanings, to a level where it is willing to sacrifice coherency of plot, or even Suspension of Disbelief. First we had Galadriel leaping overboard and running across Halbrand (but it’s Providence!). Then we had the Harfoots (they’re conformists!). And now we’ve got Sudden Elven Fading Syndrome, to be treated by dosing oneself with crystal mith (hence the inevitable Forging! And maybe the Balrog!). It’s all so awkward. And all the sadder, given that the first four episodes had represented a steady improvement.
(ii) The readying of the Númenorean Expeditionary Force
So we have the Númenoreans training up soldiers, and organising their military intervention in the Southlands. Well and good, albeit the one young fellow musing about how it “will probably be over by the time he’s gotten off the boat” carries a whiff of “It’ll be over by Christmas!” Not a hopeful sign…
What I do not like about these scenes is the notion that Númenor – supposedly the greatest of the realms of Men – is only capable of sending five ships and five-hundred men to the Southlands. Recall that when Aragorn leads six-thousand to the Morannon, he notes that it would have only sufficed as a vanguard force in the days of Gondor’s might. Really, this force ought to be more like two-hundred ships, and twenty-thousand men. A certain bearded Chancellor might dream of Empire, but he’s not getting an Empire out of a pathetic five-hundred. The Peace Party might actually be right here, if only because this appears a recipe for getting this band of volunteers killed and/or stranded – they need to send more troops.
Moreover, the fact that the Númenoreans need to be trained up to fight begs a question – what the hell does the sea-service actually do? I had previously run with the impression that the island engaged in copious trade with the Men of Middle-earth, and needed a navy to keep the sea-lanes free of those pesky Corsairs – after all, what exactly are the Corsairs trying to steal if there are no trading ships around? I accepted that there is (as yet) no Empire, so I can understand the lack of a large standing army on home soil.
But now? It looks like the island was far more isolationist and pacifist than I had thought. Those five-hundred aren’t veterans, but rather volunteers. There are some dubiously (in)competent Guards, the odd armed noble like Elendil… and very little in the way of fighting men. To what purpose, then, does the navy sail around the seas, in a setting (so far) without cannon? To what purpose does the Blacksmiths Guild have the ability to forge weapons? When are these things actually needed? And speaking of the Blacksmiths Guild, how is it that Halbrand gets caught stealing a Guild badge in one episode, only for him to be working happily as a smith in the next? Surely the Blacksmiths Guild would want nothing to do with the guy – he’s a direct threat to their power, and a criminal to boot!
It’s all a bit of a headscratcher, and I do not like it. It makes for a setting that does not “make sense” on its own terms, and that brings one back to the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. If one is left wondering about worldbuilding – and where the hell the rest of the soldiers are – that rather takes away from Isildur and his fellows making their triumphant departure. It jolts one out of the story, when one should be immersed.
And then there is the way in which the Peace and War parties align to the King’s Men and the Faithful respectively (a tad ironic, given their portrayals in Tolkien, but let us run with it). Isildur is enthusiastic about the War, whereas his more King’s Mannish sister finds the idea reprehensible. As indeed does her boyfriend, Kemen – who castigates his father for taking orders from an Elf, and later tries to destroy the ships. Cue a Silmarillion reference to Losgar, with Isildur playing a luckier Amrod. But the show also tries to add some nuance here. Pharazôn (King’s Man) argues that the War will have political benefits beyond helping Elves, and old Tar-Palantir (Faithful) warns his daughter to not go to Middle-earth. I think Pharazôn’s stance is appropriate, and shows his political nous, but I think the Tar-Palantir scene is a mistake. Miriel has agreed to the War because Providence – via the White Tree – has spoken. Having the old visionary King warn against it? That muddies the waters, and subtracts from the themes. Oh well.
(And as a final pot-shot at this episode’s handling of the plotline… the training scene. I liked the reminder that whatever show-Galadriel’s political weaknesses, she’s got skill with a sword. Problem is, if this is training, why aren’t they using wooden swords, and decent protection? I’m having to head-canon that the training swords were blunt, but even so… those would be perfectly capable of killing or maiming).
(iii) The Harfoots
The Harfoots were back this week. And in something of an indictment on the show… nothing meaningful happened. Our Dear Little Friends are still migrating, down to Mordor by the looks of the map, and they are still getting help from Meteor Dude. We knew Meteor Dude was magical, and his sorrow over the fireflies testifies to him having a good nature, but really? There was so much unnecessary filler here. Albeit it was at least pretty filler – Poppy’s song was gorgeous, and as a New Zealander, I cheered the tussock grass. And Meteor Dude staring at the Moon would cheer that faction of fans who think he’s Tilion. But alas, it was all style over substance.
So far as the Harfoots themselves go, we once more got a look at their sociopathic side, with one of them urging Sadoc to de-caravan the Brandyfoots. Again. Thankfully Sadoc is a decent guy, even if he looks rather uncomfortable with the situation.
On the bright side, the Creepy Cultists have at last shown up – so we know the context – and they are clearly hunting down Meteor Dude. So at least we have a fresh conflict in the storyline.
(iv) The Southlands
The Southlands wins my vote as the strongest storyline this week, simply by virtue of not being the others. It is also a curious one, in that Adar and Waldreg (antagonists) are infinitely more interesting than Arondir and Bronwyn (protagonists).
From the safety of the Elven watchtower, Bronwyn gives us the generic Jacksonian stand-and-fight nonsense – which I disliked – but to the show’s credit, it actually adds nuance to the situation. You see, Waldreg, Creepy Old Dude that he is, points out that the Southlander ancestors – the ancestors who aligned with Morgoth – at least survived. Standing and fighting will just get everyone killed, whereas agreeing to Adar’s terms will get them out of this mess. Waldreg himself is a survivor, and has spent all his life bowing before Arondir, so such pragmatism is in his character, though we also know he has a sincere ideological commitment to Sauron. It is what makes him such a Creepy Old Dude.
Then in a marked subversion of other such heroic scenes, half the village population actually defects over to Adar, to acknowledge the power of the one they think is Sauron. We are seeing the foreshadowing of the Haradrim and Easterlings from The Lord of the Rings… but something very, very different from Jackson, where there is no such nuance whatsoever about dealing with enemy forces. In what is otherwise a poor episode, I did appreciate the intelligence of this scene. My only objection is that Arondir really ought to have been more surprised by Waldreg’s sudden betrayal – he’s presumably known him for decades, and drunk his ale many times.
(On the other hand, Adar rather resents the implication that he is Sauron, and forces Waldreg to kill Rowan to prove his loyalty. Adar may be interesting, and he might not be Sauron, but he is not cuddly. Rather, he is genuinely sadistic. What, exactly, Adar’s current intentions are remain unclear, though there is the previous episode’s reference to godhood aspirations. In this episode he demonstrates that he is probably a rival to Sauron, rather than an ally, and he has a scene where he talks about how he will miss the sun. Whomever he is, Adar is quite mad. It is glorious to watch, and he seems to perk up even a weak episode like this one).
Such are my thoughts on The Rings of Power, Episode 5. Highly critical thoughts, as you might have noticed, a reflection perhaps of raw disappointment. The previous four episodes had, after all, given me cause for thinking the show was improving, so to run into a brick wall of badness like this was quite disconcerting. And who knows – perhaps this episode will represent an ugly blip, and the improvement will resume in the follow-ups. Perhaps the really ugly parts of the episode will turn out to be misleading as all hell, in terms of their supposed exposition. Perhaps Gil-galad has a character arc to match Galadriel’s. I am not going to write The Rings of Power off yet. Just please, please let Halbrand not be Sauron.