Lighting Lava Lamps: A Review and Analysis of The Rings of Power, Episode 6
We are now officially three-quarters through the first season of The Rings of Power. After a thoroughly disappointing fifth episode, I feel the series is back on track, though the sixth episode is sufficiently distinct from its predecessors that it makes comparing them a bit difficult. Indeed, it has messed-up my hitherto neat and tidy categorisations of storylines.
Whereas previous episodes were four parallel storylines, occasionally interacting with each other, here the show meshes two of the major storylines (the Southlands and Númenor) together into one. The result is the only component of the sixth episode – there is no Gil-galad, no Elrond, no Durin, and no Harfoots. And in fairness, I think there is solid reason to think that we have at last reached the point where the characters themselves are driving the plot, rather than the plot driving the characters.
Structural issues aside, I also think the success or failure of this episode in the minds of viewers will hinge very much on one’s toleration for absurdities. There is copious silliness at work here, in terms of both military tactics and Middle-earth engineering. If those do not get in the way of the story for you, excellent. If not, not so excellent.
While we have a single smooshed storyline, I would categorise there as being three major components to this episode:
- The Village Skirmish: Bronwyn and Arondir versus Adar
- The Arrival of Galadriel and the Númenoreans.
- The Sword-Hilt and Orodruin.
Let me discuss each in turn.
(i). The Village Skirmish: Bronwyn and Arondir versus Adar
Here the Southlands conflict, which has been set-up all season, suddenly bursts into its climax. On one hand, we have our villager protagonists, including Bronwyn and Theo, working with the assistance of Arondir the Elf. These people are Southlanders, wanting to protect their home, and to redeem the name of their people, given their previous association with Morgoth.
On the other hand, we have Adar and his Orcs. As this episode makes clear, Adar’s actual goal is to establish an Orkish homeland in the Southlands. Or, as we shall soon know it, Mordor. Adar himself has much to say about this later, but for now he is the designated antagonist, and one whom Idiosophy notes has at least a slight tendency towards alliterative verse in his inspiring speeches (https://www.idiosophy.com/2022/09/alliteration-not-just-for-good-guys-anymore/).
The villagers’ initial ploy is to lure Adar and the Orcs into the Elven Watchtower of Ostirith, and then destroy it via self-destruct mechanisms. Apparently the show envisages this watchtower as having been originally built by Morgoth’s forces, which makes it a curious inversion of the Tower of Cirith Ungol from The Lord of the Rings (Cirith Ungol having been a tower built by Gondor, and later occupied by Sauron). The villagers then await the real skirmish back at the village.
Anyone paying attention would find this part of the episode profoundly absurd. The watchtower is in a far more defensible location than the village, and while the issue of food supplies was raised in a previous episode, didn’t Theo and Rowan loot the village food then? One can rationalise it as these people being peasants, rather than soldiers, but Arondir himself ought to know better. And the collapsible tower is a just silly – if anything, the self-destruct mechanism ought to have been on the bridge over the ravine, not the tower.
The issue here is how much logic you are prepared to sacrifice for a cool spectacle. Because, really, this episode is all about cool spectacle. The best analogy is the military insanity at the end of Jackson’s Two Towers, where Gandalf and Eomer cavalry charge down a steep slope, into rows of Orkish pikemen. That really ought to have ended terribly for the Rohirrim, but the film treats it as heroic – just as Gandalf’s nutty advice to Theoden to “ride out to meet” Saruman’s superior forces is treated as sensible strategy. And don’t even mention Legolas surfboarding on a shield. On the other hand, the internet regards Jackson’s Helm’s Deep in high esteem, so clearly people in glasshouses can throw stones. If you turn your brain off, and accept it as cheesy action, I think Ostirith is pretty fun.
Speaking of Jackson, the ensuing village battle – or rather skirmish – does have multiple shout-outs to his Helm’s Deep. Bronwyn’s allusion to the stakes involved, the shots of those unable to fight huddling in the tavern/keep, the Orcs with their battering ram against the tavern/keep, and the eventual rescue by an influx of horsemen. Even the occasional bit of music. This might be the most Jacksonian episode thus far. We even have Adar and Waldreg as parallel Saruman and Wormtongue, while the dying Orc who tells the villagers about their human foes is himself a call-back to the “taken a little tumble off a cliff” Orc from Jackson’s warg fight.
But I think more than Jackson underlies this. The skirmish in the village actually strikes me as vaguely resonant with the Battle of Bywater in Tolkien’s own Scouring of the Shire. Lure the overconfident enemy into the centre of the village, block off their escape with carts, and have archers on the rooftops pepper the foe with arrows. Moreover, in stark contrast to Jackson, in terms of both plot and theme, a substantial number of the enemy forces are not Orcs, but rather fellow villagers who have been drafted into Adar’s forces. The effect is twofold – to leave a profoundly sour taste in the mouth, as the extent of Adar’s manipulation becomes clear (War in Middle-earth isn’t just Orcs versus Men. It’s also Men versus Men), and to invoke a dark plot twist as Adar’s real forces turn up. Adar does actually gain a temporary victory.
(Meanwhile, the village skirmish is played heavily for horror – appropriate given the consistent darkness of the Southlands storyline. The eyeball scene is dragged out for all it is worth, while having Bronwyn – hitherto a fairly flat character in contrast to her son and Waldreg – get hit by arrows, and then undergo bloody and painful treatment is ugly stuff, but it at least it means we now care about her somewhat).
(ii). The Arrival of Galadriel and the Númenoreans
Notwithstanding that this element of the show resolves the village skirmish, I do not think at heart it is about the action. It is instead about the characters. Specifically, a further fleshing out of their motivations and mindsets.
The best example of this is the confrontation between Galadriel and Adar after the latter has been captured. Adar reveals who, exactly, he is – one of the original Elves captured and corrupted by Morgoth in the beginning, a literal father of the Orcs (or as he prefers, Uruks). And I cannot say how overjoyed I was to hear him say that. Sure, the character is channelling a dark vision of Maglor and Maeglin, giving us The Silmarillion without giving us The Silmarillion, but for rights reasons that was never on the cards.
The biggest worry, as per a leak out of Fellowship of Fans, was that this was somehow Galadriel’s brother. Not Finrod, but another one. But no. I got my preferred option all along – he is basically a captured and tortured Avarin Elf, though the show prefers the term ‘Sons of Darkness’ in Quenya. In this light, having Adar plant seeds before a battle, in accordance with show-invented Elvish custom, was a nice touch. It makes him far more nuanced than anything we saw in Jackson, where the villains were all about pure genocide and destruction. Adar really is a twisted Elf, in both a literal and a spiritual sense.
Better yet, we face some quite delightful moral issues in this scene. Recall that Tolkien was never comfortable with devising an exact origin for the Orcs, since it invited a host of ethical and metaphysical questions. Here, Adar is straight-out throwing these questions back in Galadriel’s face, after the manner of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice.
“Prick us and do we not bleed” indeed. Are Orcs not ensouled beings, still Children of the One, like the other peoples of Middle-earth? If so, do they not have the right to live too, with a land to call their own? Do they not have names of their own? These Orcs are not the faceless creatures of Jackson – they “have names,” and are “brothers and sisters”. Adar cites his own supposed rebellion against Sauron, claiming to have killed Sauron out of a desire to protect his children from the Dark Lord. How truthful that story is remains to be seen.
(Meanwhile, suggesting that Sauron was motivated by a warped desire for healing and order actually ties back to Tolkien’s famous essay on motivations in Morgoth’s Ring. We are digging quite deep here, and again a very far cry from Jackson).
And then there is Galadriel. In contrast to the supremely awesome Adar (seriously, I now hope the guy survives the season. Along with Durin, he’s my favourite show character), I am much more on the fence about her in this scene.
It certainly fleshes out her character, but it does so in ways I am not comfortable with. Sure, one might excuse this as early Galadriel, who will grow into something different and more mature. I have taken such a position myself, finding the Feanorian-style portrayal of Galadriel to be highly interesting. It is just that there is a line between hot-headed Feanorian and what Galadriel is doing here. Sure the Feanorians commit enough war-crimes to land them in The Hague multiple times over, and Celegorm’s servants leave Dior’s sons in the forest to die… but would they endorse torture and genocide with quite the gusto Galadriel does? I am actually not sure. Tolkien wrote an essay in Morgoth’s Ring, where he includes this:
But even before this wickedness of Morgoth was suspected the Wise in the Elder Days taught always that the Orcs were not ‘made’ by Melkor, and therefore were not in their origin evil. They might have become irredeemable (at least by Elves and Men), but they remained within the Law. That is, that though of necessity, being the fingers of the hand of Morgoth, they must be fought with the utmost severity, they must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery. Captives must not be tormented, not even to discover information for the defence of the homes of Elves and Men. If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost.† This was the teaching of the Wise, though in the horror of the War it was not always heeded.
(† [footnote to the text] Few Orcs ever did so in the Elder Days, and at no time would any Orc treat with any Elf. For one thing Morgoth had achieved was to convince the Orcs beyond refutation that the Elves were crueller than themselves, taking captives only for ‘amusement’, or to eat them (as the Orcs would do at need).)
So show Galadriel toys with Elven war-crime territory (gender-flipped Celegorm strikes again!), but to be fair, there is Tolkien’s caveat that the rules were not always heeded. And for dramatic purposes, we are not supposed to agree with Galadriel in this scene. We are supposed to see her merciless ethos – an ethos shared by Jackson’s Aragorn, incidentally (“show no mercy, for you shall receive none!”) savagely deconstructed. A pleasant change from a movie series where ostensible good guys behead ambassadors under a flag of truce. The show outdoes Jackson here, and asks the viewer to reconsider their base assumptions about this world. Fair enough. It’s just that as the show’s flagship character, Galadriel is plumbing new depths of unlikability. Unlikable anti-hero protagonists in fantasy are not new – see Thomas Covenant – but I do not think that is what The Rings of Power is aiming for.
(It also raises further questions about Gil-galad’s competence as High King. Were I in his shoes, I would keep this woman as far away from military leadership as I possibly could. She does not even have the excuse of being analogous to Caesar in Gaul, since she is not popular with her own troops).
Apart from Adar and Galadriel, we also see some nice family relations between Elendil and Isildur, together with something about Elendil’s dead wife. I am not sure where they are going with Isildur’s relationship with his horse though. And then there is Halbrand, who has some anger issues involving Adar. This can be read either way, so far as the Halbrand is Sauron theory goes – either he’s a re-embodied Sauron angry at Adar’s earlier betrayal (based off Adar’s own account), or he is not Sauron, and his anger is purely Southlands-induced. The debate rolls on. As before, I hope he is not Sauron.
(iii). The Sword-Hilt and Orodruin
The big-money shot of the show thus far. The eruption of Orodruin (fun fact – the mountain they use to represent the volcano is itself one https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Ngauruhoe. Now there’s an idea… have the Sea of Núrnen be analogous to Lake Taupo. When the invented Núrnen volcano goes, Middle-earth needs to be evacuated).
As with Ostirith, this is another case of having to weigh up coolness and absurdity. The visuals of the eruption are undoubtedly cool. But the notion of Theo’s sword-hilt being a key to unlocking a dam, to send water coursing through Adar’s tunnels, over to Orodruin, and thereby making the Mountain erupt? It’s daft. Utterly daft.
Ignoring whether you can even provoke a volcano this way, if Ostirith was constructed by Morgoth’s side, the dam probably was too. But Adar had to dig those tunnels himself (or rather, his children did), so they were not part of the original design. Which suggests that the normal usage for the dam ought to have been more mundane, a release of water for fertility reasons, perhaps. Sauron might be an engineering genius, but such mundane uses for his magic sword-hilt feels out of character. And healing Middle-earth via drought prevention also feels odd when the key is a literal blood-drinking sword.
I will just have to head-canon that Sauron’s project was interrupted by Morgoth’s defeat, and he never got around to digging the requisite tunnels to Orodruin. Adar merely finished the job… even if there is the question of why he didn’t just mess with the dam directly. Logic holes are a pain this episode. I’d also note that Arondir merely tries to smash the sword-hilt with a smith’s hammer before giving up. He doesn’t try to melt it or anything. On the other hand, Arondir isn’t a smith, so maybe he doesn’t know about how to heat up the forge.
(And to be fair, getting Orodruin to erupt via mechanical technology and not hand-wavey magic, is very appropriate for Sauron at a character level. If he engineers Steampunk Númenor in season four, I will be so happy. And the flooding water is a clear homage to Jackson’s Ents flooding Isengard).
So yeah… The Rings of Power, episode 6. Potentially the best thus far, but hard to judge, since it is so qualitatively different. A single smooshed storyline, rather than four distinct shows in parallel? Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. I also appreciated the meaningful character interactions, and intelligent handling of Tolkienian themes. There are some very spectacular visuals too, and copious homage to Jackson even as the show takes issue with Jackson’s vision. Just a shame that the plot required to get to those visuals can be so damned silly…