By James Field | TV | October 6, 2022 |
By James Field | TV | October 6, 2022 |
So that happened. With 3 episodes left The Rings of Power dropped a climatic battle that would end most television seasons, or take up an entire Peter Jackson LoTR movie, and the kind of geological event that made living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius such an exciting proposition. Here’s a quick rundown of what happened in “Udûn.”
People talked, there was a big battle, and then the mountain exploded.
What, you want more? Fine. The Númenoreans’ remaining three ships successfully crossed the sea and are on their way, but with several days of travel before they arrive the situation is grim. Galadriel and Isildur meet for the first time on the voyage. The Southlanders, so recently threatened by Adar, twisted elf and possible Sauron stand-in, are in dire straits as the Uruk army approaches the watchtower that is their only remaining stronghold, and Bronwyn and Arondir make plans to level the battlefield. Literally, in the first instance, as some quick undermining turns the watchtower into a cascade of falling stone, crushing much of the Uruk force. The villagers flee back to Tirharad and prepare it for battle as best they can. Theo’s brush with death has made him a far more sympathetic character, and he doesn’t waste time whining about the Elves or demanding he is treated like an adult while his voice breaks.
I won’t spoil the battle, except to say that it’s glorious, lasts half the episode, and you can actually see all the action despite the nighttime filming. The House of the Dragon team should watch and take notes. The first half of the battle is a tactical contest between Arondir and Adar, and it’s interesting to see the personal and larger struggles taking place. It’s a close thing before the Númenoreans arrive and save the day. No major characters are killed, and Halbrand and Galadriel work together to capture Adar, retrieving Morgoth’s hilt at the same time. The Uruk army is stopped, with a number of prisoners taken. The two take turns stopping the other from murdering Adar as he manipulates them during his interrogation.
Galadriel names him a Moriondor, a Son of the Dark, and threatens to torture his Uruk brethren until he answers her questions. Adar claims he killed Sauron after the Dark Lord sacrificed more of Adar’s “children” than he could stand. Galadriel doesn’t believe him, but either way, it doesn’t change her ultimate goal of eradicating the Uruk altogether. Galadriel and Halbrand share a moment before Halbrand is summoned by Queen Regent Míriel to claim kingship over the Southlands. Theo confesses his longing for the sword’s power to Arondir, who bids him get rid of it by physically handing over the hilt to Galadriel. It’s only then that Adar’s ploy is discovered; he swapped the hilt for a normal hatchet, and Waldreg took it back to the now-destroyed watchtower. With it, he triggers a reservoir’s release into tunnels and trenches dug by the Uruks that lead to the caverns hidden below the nearby mountain. It hits molten rock and vaporizes right before the steam causes the mountain to explode like an overheated pressure cooker. The pressure wave and flaming wreckage destroys much of the village before it is overwhelmed by a cloud of fire, gas, and ash. Adar’s chains sit empty; he has won. Mount Doom is ignited, and blots out the sun, covering the land in darkness just as he promised his children.
What works in this episode? Most of it. This episode, the Helm’s Deep of the season, is its most successful because it strips away the filler. Adar (Joseph Mawle) is the MVP of the episode, and possibly the whole season. He’s a much more tragic villain than any of the original antagonists in Tolkien’s work, apart from Gollum. Twisted by years, perhaps decades or centuries of torture and dark magic into the Uruk’s progenitor, he is no longer the Elf he was despite his continued respect for their rituals.
Planting seeds before the battle was a nice touch in that regard. But it pales before the reluctant affection he feels for his new people. It’s obvious he holds Men in contempt, and it feels as though his fellow Elves leaving him in Morgoth’s and then Sauron’s grasp burned away any empathy he felt for his former race. Adar seems tired, more than anything, and grimly determined to see his offspring find a new homeland. The Uruks are invaders and colonizers, but unlike other forces interested in a similar takeover — the Númenoreans, for example — they don’t have a nation of their own. I hesitate to compare them to displaced peoples in the real world, because that never ends well and I don’t need all those angry emails. I’m already uncomfortable with social media’s tendency to call Russian invaders Orcs despite the obvious parallels. But along with being despoilers and killers they are a slave race that, if Adar is telling the truth, only recently gained their freedom after he gutted Sauron.
I have my doubts about his honesty. I particularly appreciated his tactics regarding the first wave of attackers that hit the village, and his strategic vision that led to Mount Doom’s eruption. Trenches that to us made no sense without a large-scale battlefield suddenly served a purpose, and it’s similar to the unexpected twists that make Amazon’s The Boys so much fun. Galadriel and Arondir may be solid tacticians, but Adar’s strategic vision beat them before the first arrow left the Elf’s bow. I’m less convinced that he’s one of Sauron’s many guises than I was during his first appearance. That said, it’s still a possibility and I can’t wait to find out. Killing him off would’ve been a huge mistake, and I’m glad the writers didn’t make it. Morfydd Clark is killing it as Galadriel in this episode, a spirit of vengeance on the battlefield, and the stunt work is flawless. Whoever acts as her stand-in during the riskier horseback or battle scenes is indistinguishable from Clark and is extremely capable.
There are questions raised by TRoP’s Uruk culture that neither Tolkein’s series nor Peter Jackon’s movies answered. To put it in terms familiar to most alt-fic fans, the original Uruks are at best aligned with Chaotic Evil, ruled by Lawful Evil antagonists like Sauron and Saruman. But is that a genetic trait, or cultural? It’s less clear-cut than in Tolkein’s original texts, particularly with Galadriel advocating for the torture and outright genocide of the Uruk race. Tolkien’s decision to make the entire Orc race irredeemably evil had a huge impact on the nascent genre, with Robert Jordan’s Trollocs an obvious example. It’s one reason eugenicists and nationalists cling so tightly to their interpretation of Tolkein’s work; this work of fantasy fiction justifies so much of their worldview they’re threatened by every change. Tolkien’s original series was groundbreaking but sparsely fleshed out, with clear delineations between Good and Evil. The Rings of Power is much less certain about its good guys and bad guys and, LoTR purist complaints aside, is stronger for it.
The Númenoreans are better this episode, with more stabbing and less moping. I appreciated Valandil taking Galadriel’s advice on the best way to kill an Orc (stab, twist, withdraw). His and Isildur’s quiet acceptance of Ontamo’s realization that he’s not cut out for warfare was a nice touch as well. Isildur spends so little time talking I forgot how much he annoys me, although the bonding scene with Elendil was clumsy. Galadriel is a beautiful monster, a whirlwind cutting through the Uruks. Theo’s obvious awe as he watched her gallop away was probably the first time I empathized with the kid. What a woman. The cavalry charge was great, and a good example of how crucial animal handling and real world sets are to a production. I recently watched Thor: Love and Thunder for the first time, and was immediately struck by how fake all their riding scenes looked. Bad enough that Thor and Jane’s CGI costumes made it seem as though their heads were barely attached to their bodies; every time Jane moved on “horseback” she looked like she was on rails, and probably was. Horses don’t move like that. My friend group is well aware of my general feelings on the beasts — they’re nervous, flighty cows that don’t taste as good — but if you’re going to shoot someone on horseback, please put them on a real horse.
Variety has a great piece on how the battle of Udûn was shot, and it makes clear the necessity of real animals, of which they used about 30. They add real elements of speed and danger that can’t be faked with CGI. The episode also cut back on the slow motion, using it only during the cavalry charge in ways that made sense. And not to belabor the point, but I could see everything that happened during the battle without screwing with my television’s picture settings. It’s interesting to me that Amazon productions are much better at making action visible without becoming cartoonish, compared to either HBO Max or Disney+ Marvel shows. I don’t know what the difference is, (oodles of cash?) but I’ll take it. The cinematography remains gorgeous, and I love the suggestive camera angles they use.
Not everything worked. Halbrand went from “leave me alone” to “yes I’m your King” much too quickly. Worse was the speed with which Bronwyn and the other villagers bent the knee when their alleged monarch arrived. Nothing about it felt organic, particularly Bronwyn herself. Southlander Men were little more than protected animals on a nature preserve once the Elves beat Morgoth, taking care of themselves without royal oversight, and managed to nearly beat an Uruk horde on their own before the Númenoreans arrived. And yet they still want a King. It’s like making it through a pandemic working from home, and then being excited to once again have your supervisor micromanaging your every decision. Hell. No.
I know lots of voters miss autocratic leaders, but when it comes to hereditary monarchies, count me out. And Bronwyn, who just spent who knows how long dealing with men’s hyper-critical judgment of her personal life before taking command of the townspeople and organizing a wartime defense, is cool with a stranger taking over without so much as a “by your leave?” I doubt it works any better than when the U.S. installs a figurehead. Fortunately, the last few minutes of the episode make it unlikely the transfer of power will be a peaceful one. As for Halbrand himself … Some are still convinced he’s Sauron, which I doubt. He’s too common a man, and starting out as a shipwreck survivor feels like much too complicated a plan with a strong chance of failure. That said, the fact he recognizes Adar but not the other way around is suggestive. My personal guess is that he’s one of the poor bastards who ends up with the Nine Rings as his desire for strength to protect himself and his people makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Only time will tell if he’s a future Nazgul, but it seems a strong possibility. The same holds true for Valandil and maybe Kemen, who remains on Númenor.
The last thing that struck me about the episode as too pat is how quickly the Elves and Men become romantically interested in one another given their societies’ blatant hostility to the pairing. Arondir and Bronwyn make some sense, though Arondir’s lifespan and the fact he watched over her parents and probably grandparents from infancy to old age makes his romantic interests a little creepy. Meanwhile, Galadriel and Halbrand are clearly attracted to one another. I get it, they’re hot, and the “will they/won’t they” dynamic is always good for ratings. But I’m beginning to think the Elves’ disapproval for mixed-race couplings is because they’re constantly horny for humans rather than their own kind. You know the old saying: once you go human, all roads lead to ruin.
“Udûn” was exactly what I hoped for when The Rings of Power was announced. It filled its 69-minute runtime (nice) with action, adventure, and set up the next episode very well, although the Harfoots will also be back. Lame. At least we get to see Durin and Disa again!