“I want my Game of Thrones.”
This was reportedly the demand that Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos made of the development team at Amazon Studios five years ago. At the time, the online retail colossus’ streaming video service was best known — to those customers even aware that they got original TV shows free with their Amazon Prime subscription — for quirky boutique comedies like Transparent, or dad-friendly book adaptations like Bosch. But Bezos, by many accounts, wanted bigger. He wanted a world-shaking hit akin to Thrones, HBO’s beloved (at the time) take on George R.R. Martin’s violent fantasy novels.
This being an industry where imitation is the sincerest form of television, Bezos’ underlings took his mandate as literally as possible. They did not attempt to make just any kind of blockbuster, but their own high-fantasy epic, based on one of the biggest influences on Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They did not do so cheaply, either, paying $250 million just for the rights to Tolkien’s world and characters, and a lot more to bring them back to the screen two decades after Peter Jackson’s first LOTR film hit theaters.
Back when Bezos’ order for his own Game of Thrones was first making the Hollywood rounds, it was fair to ask whether the audience was excited for fantasy shows in general, or for that fantasy show in particular. It became an even thornier question after the concluding seasons of Thrones seemed to seriously devalue the brand, most notably via an inert series finale that melted down audience enthusiasm right along with the Iron Throne. But HBO and Amazon remained on a collision course, with the former launching the palace intrigue-focused prequel series House of the Dragon a few weeks ago, deliberately timing its premiere to steal some of the thunder of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Between those two series and the continuation of Amazon’s translation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the market will not lack for tales set in parallel worlds filled with magic, monsters, and/or giant flying creatures who breathe fire.
House of the Dragon just notched the biggest premiere in HBO history and has already been renewed for a second season, so it’s safe to say that viewer appetite for Martin’s fictional universe has not yet ebbed. But do viewers want anything beyond that brand? Even involving a property that once upon a time would have considered GoT to be its own off-brand imitator?
The good news is that the first two episodes of The Rings of Power are packed with eye-popping visuals, several vividly-drawn characters, and a sense of awe that was such a crucial component of the first three Jackson films. (The Hobbit trilogy, less so.)
The new show takes place thousands of years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. Middle Earth is a few centuries past a brutal war between the noble elves and the evil Morgoth. Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett as a beatific and wise elf elder in the movies, is a (relatively) young woman and fierce warrior, played here by Morfydd Clark. She is obsessed with the belief that Morgoth’s sorcerer companion Sauron — you may remember him as a giant glowing eye in Fellowship, et al — is still alive and gathering strength for a new assault against the forces of good, even as her friend Elrond (Robert Aramayo, stepping into Hugo Weaving’s old role) warns her that the elven aristocracy wants to embrace the idea of a peaceful future. Meanwhile, a young Harfoot (ancestors of Hobbits) named Nori (Markella Kavenagh) longs for adventure despite her people’s desire for safe anonymity, and has a mysterious quest literally fall from the sky in front of her, in the form of a man who seems very confused about where and who he is. And single mother Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and elf soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) discover new evidence to support Galadriel’s belief that dark times are ahead for humans, Harfoots, elves, dwarves, and all the other races of Middle Earth.
All of that Amazon money is very much up there on the screen. Director J.A. Bayona and his frequent cinematographer Óscar Faura craft one stunning image after another, like Galadriel swimming away from a rampaging sea monster, or elf warriors scaling a sheer ice cliff. The latter scene, and the way Rings of Power uses an animated map to transition from location to location, can’t help evoking Game of Thrones (even if Tolkien’s books came first), but everything here looks richer and cooler than GoT on all but its very best days — and that was among the most visually impressive series ever put on TV before now. Rings can be just as remarkable on a technical level with the intimate stuff as it is with the massive battles; an orc gradually entering a small house is chilling because of how the scene is shot and edited. (Though perhaps it will feel familiar to viewers who watched Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which featured similar scares with dinosaurs rather than orcs.)
The scale of Rings of Power — developed by untested writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay — would feel empty without compelling characters at the middle of those lush pictures. Fortunately, the show has a promising collection of those, first and foremost its more aggro Galadriel. No matter what kind of grand landscapes or horrible creatures she is placed in front of, Clark’s fiercely still performance ensures she is always what you are looking at first. And she sparks well opposite Charlie Vickers as Halbrand, a roguish mystery man she encounters on the high seas. Arondir is on the bland side despite Córdova’s strong physical presence, but the tension Nori feels between modest Harfoot tradition and her desire for something grander is an endearing hero’s journey.
Payne, McKay, and their collaborators are also careful to not require foreknowledge of the books or movies; when Elrond visits his friend Prince Durin (Owain Arthur) in the thriving dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm, it’s fun if you recognize it as the place where the Fellowship will one day fight the Balrog, but it’s not necessary to understand any of what’s happening.
Two episodes is not a huge sample size, and the excitement level of the show leans much more on the spectacle than on the stories. Amazon showed the first two episodes to many critics (including this one) in movie theater settings, the better to emphasize those enormous production values; revisiting the series at home on a much smaller screen, some of the plots felt substantially less thrilling without that visual wow factor. (Though in the moments when things are less engaging, Bear McCreary’s gorgeous and stirring score is there to do the emotional heavy lifting. After the budget itself and Clark, he’s the show’s MVP.)
That said, Bezos’ team seemed to be taking a completely backwards approach to developing this series, paying a quarter billion for the rights without having a specific idea of what to do with them, and hiring two creators whose only prior work of note was an early, uncredited draft of Star Trek: Beyond. That the end result is still this lively and colorful, despite that misconceived development process, isn’t just a testament to Amazon’s limitless coffers of cash, but to the clear passion and skill of this assembled creative team. (Said team also features some TV veterans like Gennifer Hutchison from Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, and Bryan Cogman, who wrote some of the most beloved episodes of Game of Thrones.)
“I can’t help but feel there are wonders in this world,” Nori insists. Rings of Power has plenty of wonders to offer at the start. Now we’ll have to see if the show can keep them coming, and if viewers are as excited for them as Nori is.
The first two episodes of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will be released at 9 p.m. EDT on Sept. 1, with additional episodes releasing weekly at 12 a.m. EDT on Fridays for the rest of the season. I’ve seen the first two of eight episodes.