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'The Rings of Power': Will the Real Sauron Please Stand Up?

By Nate Parker | TV | September 30, 2022 |

By Nate Parker | TV | September 30, 2022 |


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Five episodes in, and pieces begin to move across the chessboard that is Middle-earth. Motives and identities are questioned, alliances shift, Men choose between freedom and survival, and the Númenoreans continue to suck. So let’s dive on in to last week’s episode.

The Stranger, Poppy, and Nori’s family maintain their position at the back of the band, much to the chagrin of Malva, who hints the Harfoots are not above taking wheels off the wagons of those they wish to leave behind. The Harfoots have a very insular, almost Puritanical impulse towards outsiders, and they’d rather blame Nori’s misdeeds for their ill fortune than look past the end of their noses. For Malva and the band, their opinions shift when the Stranger uses his immense physical strength and a kinetic blast to ward off some Pleistocene-looking predators. Nori is thrilled, at first, until the Stranger’s power is unintentionally turned on her. I feel like a traveler experienced in Middle-Earth’s many dangers should know better than to touch something she doesn’t understand and that fire burns as well as warms, but her alarm is understandable. Speaking of the Stranger, it appears he’s being hunted by 3 pale figures. They appear Elf-like, though not necessarily of that species, and are nearly colorless save for the leader’s curiously blackened fingers. Their motives remain unknown, but they don’t give off a friendly vibe. Questions abound about these 3. Why is one holding a serving platter? Is the being with black fingers, an ominous staff, and what may be an eye on his chest armor the true Sauron? And why does he look like he’s about to hit a cotton candy vape while telling Eminem about the pregnant girlfriend in his trunk?

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The Númenoreans are about to set sail in 5 ships, headed for the Southlands to push the Orcs out and put Halbrand on the throne. It’s curious how gung-ho most of the population seems about the voyage, given that it wasn’t all that long ago they essentially overthrew their King when he pushed for a less xenophobic society. Their motives for doing so aren’t entirely altruistic, of course, as Pharazôn makes clear to son Kemen after Eärien asks him to try to convince his father to call off the invasion. Whether Eärien is against it simply out of concern for Isildur and Elendil or because she distrusts the Elves remains to be seen, but Pharazôn is in it for land, money, and status. Queen Regent Míriel is after her father’s approval, but the mostly-senile old man warns her not to take the voyage, perhaps fearing an insurrection while she’s gone. Galadriel provides sword-fighting lessons in an excellent swashbuckling scene that recalls Hollywood’s Errol Flynn heyday before Isildur, unable to convince his father and friends to trust him on the voyage, stows away aboard one of the ships. It’s a good thing he does, as an angry Kemen attempts to burn them all before they can set sail. Isildur manages to save 3 of the 5 ships and prevents Kemen from dying from his own foolishness. He also doesn’t tell Elendil what happened, and Kemen remains free to try his hand at arson again. It’s enough to convince Elendil to let Isildur accompany the small armada, and his friendships appear patched up after they hit him a few times and Elendil relegates Isildur to stable duty while aboard. Galadriel and Halbrand, meanwhile, have a moment where Galadriel admits that she doesn’t know how to stop fighting the Dark, and Halbrand confesses his past allegiance to Sauron’s forces. In the end, he’s willing to throw in his lot with Galadriel and try to save his people, despite his misgivings.

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The Men of the Southlands need all the help they can get, because Adar is ready to make his move. This other top contestant for Sauron’s alter ego wants to blot out the sun, it seems, and the next step in his journey toward godhood involves taking the Southlands and the massive sword hilt currently held by Theo. His job becomes easier when Waldreg leads a sizable percentage of the tower’s current population to Adar’s encampment. They surrender, but Waldreg infuriates Adar by calling him Sauron. Adar demands a blood sacrifice to prove their loyalty, and Theo’s friend Rowan ends up on the chopping block. Farewell, Rowan; we hardly knew ye.

Arondir bonds with Bronwyn’s resentful son Theo, trying out the stepdad role over some archery practice. To Theo’s credit, it seems much of his anger left with Waldreg; the boy got a firsthand taste of the Orcs’ brutality and wants no part in it. In a move I didn’t see coming, he even tells Arondir about the sword hilt, and the Elf recognizes it immediately as an object of Power sought after by the Dark. Bronwyn loses her remaining hope upon hearing this, and who can blame her; an entire army marches for the sword and her people’s blood.

Prince Durin and Elrond have journeyed to Lindon, where King Gil-Galad plies the dwarf with food, drink, and flattery as he probes for more information on the mithril he suspects hidden beneath the Dwarves’ mountain. He and Celebrimbor probe Elrond for information and eventually the true reason behind Elrond’s visit is revealed; the Elves’ light is fading. They are losing their immortality and with it their virtue and power. Lindon itself is corrupted with a black rot, reminiscent of Morgoth and Sauron’s power. During ancient times, the Valar and a Balrog did battle over one of the magical trees filled with the light of the Silmarils. This tree was struck by lightning and the power was driven deep into the earth, forming the mithril veins. Gil-Galad hopes if they can retrieve this metal it can be used to rejuvenate his race. Elrond, sick with indecision and worry for his people, is relieved of his oath when Durin, smarter than his temper suggests, figures out what’s going on. He even agrees to help the Elves, though time will tell if his father the king is so accommodating.

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A lot of factors are coming into play as the end of this first season approaches. Questions remain over the identities of the most powerful pieces in this game. Some remain convinced the Stranger is Sauron, rather than Gandalf. I have my doubts; Sauron was never described as losing his memory and falling to earth to join with proto-Hobbits. I’m convinced the Stranger is Gandalf, though if so he’s showing up an Age too early. Gandalf never hid that his power was a two-edged sword, and that great harm could come to those around him should it be used improperly. The damage done to his arm when he channels kinetic energy without a tool like his staff suggests the same. He does speak the Black Tongue when he arrives, but we know Gandalf to be a master of all languages. He could be Saruman, or one of the other Maiar wizards sent to Middle-Earth around the same time period, but I doubt it.

Adar remains a mystery, particularly now that Marshall Mathers the Dweller has arrived. Sauron was a beautiful being before his fall, and an ethereal being in a white robe fits his Annatar persona, which he will use to convince Celebrimbor and other smiths to craft the Rings of Power. On the other hand, he is a master of disguise with many other gifts, including the ability to travel swiftly. It’s possible Adar and the Dweller are both Sauron in different guises. Sauron loathed being named by lesser creatures, and that could be why he turns so quickly on Waldreg. I doubt it after this episode, however, and suspect he’s one of the Elves tortured by Sauron into becoming Orcs. It would explain his twisted face and ability to stand in the sun, as well as why the other Orcs call him Father. He may be the first of their kind.

Despite a lingering need to treat every exchange of dialogue as though it has world-shaking consequences, The Rings of Power continues to develop its storylines and move toward large-scale confrontations between Men, Elves, and the Dark. How the Dwarves will react to the Elves’ urgent desire to plunder their natural resources remains to be seen. There’s something very “Manifest Destiny” in Gil-Galad’s assumption that the mithril belongs to the Elves. Their desire or even need doesn’t equal ownership, of course, and I suspect the King may have a very different view of their demands, no matter how politely they are worded. TRoP Elves are portrayed more as colonizers than the distant, benevolent saviors of the original trilogy, and it’s an interesting approach. Man’s original sin of following Morgoth remains fresh in their long memories, and it seems obvious that this has bred a level of contempt for Middle-Earth’s mortals. Gil-Galad seems none too convinced of the Dwarves’ intelligence and trustworthiness, either, despite his own race’s blindness to Sauron’s reemergence. It will be interesting to see how that plays into the creation of the Rings, and the encroaching battle. I wonder if the Elves’ arrogance will lead the Dwarves to keep out of the fight entirely.

5 episodes down, 3 to go! I’m excited to see what new questions today’s episode brings.