The Watercooler Guide to Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power

It is finally here.  After years of preamble, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power kicks off its first of five seasons Thursday, Sept 1st, 9pm ET / 6PM PT on Prime Video. In early screenings, first reactions were mostly glowing. But with all the hype and history around the sprawling franchise and the many worlds and characters to conquer, you will need a big picture refresher.

Let’s take a look at what you need to know before streaming into this long-awaited journey:

When and how do I watch it?

You can’t miss the series at the top of your Amazon page or Prime Video app. After the first two episodes drop Sept 1st, the remaining six episodes will be released one at a time on Thursdays at midnight ET or 9pm PT.

What is Rings of Power about?

The series serves as a (more or less) prequel to Peter Jackson’s films, set thousands of years before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in the Second Age of Middle-earth’s history.  The epoch is book-ended by the First Age reign of the Dark Lord Morgoth, who is responsible for everything evil in Middle earth, and before The Third Age, where Sauron is represented as a big “Evil Eye” hunting for his ring.

Instead of a single quest or a single world, expect this five-season epic to explore five or six different worlds, according to the producers. All will revolve around the history and politics of Middle-earth after the brutal war with Morgoth, and the efforts of dwarves, elves and men to rebuild and thrive in the aftermath.

The Dwarven kingdoms will be seen in their most glorious state, a sharp contrast to the ruins of LOTR.  Yet as in the films and books, you can expect the storied Sauron to figure prominently, as he is the trilogy’s primary antagonist, and the story leads up to the creation of Sauron’s ring — the One Ring to Rule Them All in the fires of Mount Doom, ultimately how Sauron became “the Lord of the Rings.”

But what’s it really about?

The series explores the bigger questions raised by Tolkien’s trilogy while hinting at the relevance to our world today, albeit while remaining within the fantastical realms of the trilogy. How is power created, how is it abused, and how is it destroyed?  Throughout (human) history, kingdoms and empires rose up and conquered much of the world, only to fall into ruins. What led to their downfall?  As executive producer of the series Lindsey Weber explains, Tolkien’s stories “are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.”

A Sauron refresher

Prime Video

He has gone by many names: Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord, Mairon, Annatar, Artano, Aulendil, Gorthaur, and Zigûr. In The Hobbit, he is known as Necromancer. The character’s face is never shown in the films, but in Tolkien’s novels, Sauron began life as a Maia, an angelic-like being who was able to shift his appearance, until he becomes a servant to Morgoth in the First Age, and takes on a sinister form, slightly bigger than a human yet not quite a giant. He has also adopted the form of a werewolf, a serpent, and even an alluring, beautiful creature – a disguise to help him manipulate others.

And then there is Sauron the Eye, the image most associated with Sauron during the LOTR series. Also referred to as the Great Eye, the Eye of Barad-dûr, the Red Eye, the Lidless Eye, and the Evil Eye, this version of Sauron provoked fear across Middle-earth during the Third Age.

Yet here we are in the Second Age, the setting for Power of the Rings, where Sauron is known for going under the guise of “Annatar” to deceive the Elves of Eregion.  They created the Rings of Power under his guidance, after all, while he was secretly forging the One Ring in Mount Doom.

Sauron’s golden One Ring, also known as the Control Ring, was created as a way to manipulate the leaders of the races of Dwarves, Elves and Men — who each received powerful magic rings as gifts.  Sauron’s almighty ring interrupted the effort to unite the people of Middle-earth after the great war against Sauron’s old boss, Morgoth.

What does Sauron represent?

As Tolkien himself explained in his letters, “In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination.”

What is the source material? 

As the showrunner duo Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne explained in a Variety article, they have the rights solely to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, the appendices, and The Hobbit.  They did not have the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth, or any of the other books.

Who will be in the “Rings of Power”?

Queen Miriel. Prime Video.

There are plenty of new characters in the series, including an elf called Arondir (played by Ismael Cruz Cordova), the first person of color to play a Tolkien elf. A princess named Disa (played by Sophia Nomvete) is the first female dwarf and first black woman to play a dwarf in The Lord of the Rings.

Elrond. Prime Video

Key characters include Queen Regent Míriel (played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson) of the island of Númenor, who tries to maintain peace and stability in Tolkien’s version of Atlantis.  The ageless Elrond (played by Robert Aramayo in the series and Hugo Weaving in the films), the mighty half elf/ half man ruler.  And Prince Durin IV (played by Owain Arthur), of the Dwarf Kingdom of Khazad-Dum, a descendant of the three King Durins who is considered to be a reincarnation of legendary Dwarf king Durin.

Prince Durin IV. Prime Video.

You can expect to see some familiar characters from the films, including Gilgalad and Galadriel (portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Benjamin Walker in the films).  While they will not be as powerful and wise as they were in the film series, the audience will watch each character develop into the people they became in the films.

As for the antagonists, Isildur (played by Maxim Baldry) will start off as a Númenórean sailor who eventually becomes King of Arnor and Gondor. The character’s origin will be explored more deeply — given his importance in confronting Sauron in LOTR.

Where are the Hobbits and Wizards?

The Hobbits will not be in the series because were not born during this time. Sorry, no Bilbo or Frodo; instead, their ancestors, the Harfoots, will take their place, providing the humor and excitement we have seen from the Hobbits. They are known to live as nomads, so hopefully they will be journeying through different worlds. Eventually, the intermixing of other species will lead to our favorite jovial Hobbits we came to love.

Will we see Gandalf or Saruman? Who knows, maybe not as we know them from the films, but perhaps in some new iteration.

The meteor – or man? — that fell to Middle Earth

Who is the man that fell from the sky like a meteor in the trailer? No one knows, but many are guessing he is either a new character, Gandalf, or Sauron in another form…since the event seems to be the catalyst for the show. We saw Gandalf put things in motion in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so it would not be a surprise if this character were indeed Gandalf. We also know that Sauron has changed his form in the books to put his plans in place, so he would not be a bad guess either.

What else to expect?

Expect to see the fall of Númenor, which is Tolkien’s version of Atlantis, the foraging of the rings, and one of the last alliances of elves and men. Also, expect to see the rise of Sauron before he becomes the well-known antagonist with his infamous ring.

From the stills and trailers we have seen so far, it looks like the $1 billion budget was put to good use on the CGI and practical effects. Expect to see familiar places from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings universe, like the Elven cities of Lindon and Eregion.

The first reactions

So far, the Rings of Power has received largely favorable reviews from fans, critics, and Twitter influencers — albeit with some noteworthy critical takes.  The Independent‘s Kevin EG Perry describes it as “a spectacle-filled return to a lovingly rendered Middle-earth that promises to deliver an awfully big adventure.” USA Today‘s Kelly Lawler describes it as “the most transportive current series on TV” despite its flaws, placing it above House of the Dragon. On Twitter, Rodrigo Salem, hails it as a cinematic experience that is “Pure Tolkien” while being very connected to Peter Jackson’s movies. “The effects are brilliant, the acting is superb, and the PROLOGUE itself will destroy any awful feeling you had,” says Salem.

Ironically, one of the most damning reviews comes from The Washington Post, owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, a Lord of the Rings superfan and the series’ bankroller. The critique from Ingoo Kang: “The performances are serviceable but unremarkable, while the dialogue is particularly corny and inartful, with too many intoned monologues about the search for ‘the light’ or the ever-vague nature of evil.

Of course, it’s the larger questions and modern day parallels — as well as the ever-vague open to interpretations — that will keep the series generating watercooler talk for years to come.  Even those who believe the series is doomed to fail due to some of the liberties the writers took — changing the phenotype of the characters like Sauron, bringing more diverse characters into the world such as female dwarves — will be sparking debates sure to rage around each episode. But as Tolkien himself made clear in a 1950s letter, he wanted to leave room for other creatives to build upon or retell the story of LOTR.

That’s the need-to-know for the premiere episodes. Break out your favorite goblet and brace yourself for what promises to become 50 hours of epic storytelling.

And if you want to meet fellow viewers and throw around theories, join our After the Rings Watercooler Talk via Zoom on Thursday, September 15th.

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