Now that’s more like it!
Look, I’ll admit there are any number of reasons why I might have warmed to this episode of The Rings of Power more than its predecessors. Maybe, as a guy with the White Tree of Gondor tattooed on my arm, I just want a big-budget J.R.R. Tolkien TV series to succeed. Maybe I’m simply getting used to the show’s depictions of its characters and their world and learning to live with them rather than chafe at them. Maybe I’m feeling peer pressure!
Or — and I think this is the more likely case — maybe the show is finally doing what I’ve wanted it to do from the start: tightening the focus, abandoning the cheap “cliffhanger” mysteries that artificially forced the plot along, and allowing the story to emerge organically from interactions between characters with different personalities, goals, fears, plans, desires. Maybe it’s acting like a drama, instead of an expensive sandbox in which to play with a bunch of Tolkien and Tolkienesque toys.
In other words, maybe it got good!
The episode takes its title, “The Great Wave,” from a recurring and prophetic vision experienced by Númenorean queen Tar-Míriel, her ailing and deposed royal father, and finally Galadriel, courtesy of a Palantír. No, not the panopticon created by right-wing ghoul Peter Thiel, but the magic crystal ball he named it after. (See? there’s a long history of right-wing ghouls not understanding Tolkien! The “hobbits and Elves can’t be Black” people are just hopping on the world’s shittiest bandwagon.) It shows the petals of the kingdom’s mystical White Tree falling, then the entire kingdom getting washed away by a gigantic tidal wave. This, Míriel’s father believed — likely correctly — is the fate awaiting this massive kingdom of Men unless and until they repent their wicked ways, reconcile with the Elves, and follow the will of the gods called the Valar once again. For his attempts to get them all to do this, he became an exile in his own tower.
And now we learn the reason why Galadriel’s presence has made the queen so edgy. It’s not that she shares the anti-Elf racism of her people, some of whom are out in the streets ranting about Elves taking good jobs from humans (lol), others of whom — like her adviser, Chancellor Pharazôn — simply arguing that no Elf could ever threaten such a mighty realm of Men. Rather, it’s because Galadriel’s arrival was the start of that horrible vision, the trigger point that begins it all.
So, after several tense conversations in which it seems that Tar-Míriel will once again refuse Galadriel’s request for aid against the resurgent Sauron, the queen changes course and rallies the kingdom for a full-scale naval invasion of Middle-earth to defeat the Enemy. (Even Pharazôn is on board for the plan.) And it appears that friendly captain Elendil and his failson Isildur will help lead the charge. And oh, Pharazôn’s son Kemen (Leon Wadham) is now dating Elendil’s daughter Eärien. As I’m fond of saying, what could go wrong?
Back in Middle-earth, we abandon the Harfoot storyline and rejoin that of Elrond, already in progress. Thanks to the help he acquired from Prince Durin and the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, the massive forge that craftsman Celebrimbor needs for his big plan — whatever that might be — is halfway to being built. Celebrimbor himself has an interesting moment during which he recalls Elrond’s father, the legendary hero Eärendil, once telling him that Elrond would hold Celebrimbor’s fate in his hands. His sudden twinge of unease is strangely reminiscent of Bilbo from The Fellowship of the Ring, realizing that something is wrong with him but unable to articulate what. Its as if the power of the Rings that Celebrimbor intends to forge (sorry if that’s a spoiler!) is already at work on him.
Anyway, Elrond heads back to the Dwarf kingdom, where we finally discover the nature of the mysterious maguffin that the prince and his dad have been trying to hide from Elrond. (Clearing up forced mysteries like this one and the nature of Tar-Míriel’s father goes a long way toward making the show feel more coherent and tight.) Turns out that they have discovered, for the very first time in history, the near-magical strain of silver called mithril — lighter than silk, stronger than steel, more valuable than gold, and glowing as if lit from within, as Prince Durin and Elrond describe it.
The problem is that King Durin is firmly against the project, concerned about the instability of the mine required to unearth the mithril — which, indeed, caves in, nearly killing several unseen workers. (As Princess Disa points out, Elrond’s visit is probably the only thing that kept Prince Durin from getting trapped in the cave-in as well.) But when the prince starts to rant about telling off his father, Elrond tells the story of his own dad Eärendil, whose miraculous efforts to woo the Valar helped the forces of good defeat the Great Enemy, Morgoth, and led the gods to set Eärendil and his ship in the celestial firmament, where he ferries the North Star on its nightly rounds.
In other words, Elrond says, let the grudge go and cherish your father while you still have him. This the prince does, in a genuinely touching scene where the king promises his son he’s always with him, even when he’s angry — heck, especially when he’s angry. (He also sends the prince back to the Elf kingdom of Lindon with Elrond to see what the heck the Elves are really up to.)
Speaking of Elves, hoo boy, do we have some news on that front. Still imprisoned by the Orcs who’ve been surfacing in the Southlands, Arondir meets their leader, a being they call “Adar,” or “Father.” Played by Joseph Mawle, Game of Thrones’ Benjen Stark, he appears to be a corrupted Elf, badly scarred by some unknown trauma and imbued with a penchant to talk in evocative, mysticism-shrouded dialogue. “You have been told so many lies,” he says to Arondir. “To untangle it all would all but require the creation of a new world.”
“I am no god,” he also says. “At least…not yet.” Yikes! Even though the canonicity of such a corrupted Elf is dubious — Tolkien went back and forth on whether the Orcs were originally warped Elves, and while Elves certainly commit horrible crimes in Tolkien’s books from time to time, not once did a single Elf go to work for Morgoth or Sauron — his Dark Enlightenment vibe is compelling.
And he has a reflection in the humans led by Bronwyn, now sheltering at the abandoned Elf watchtower where Arondir once worked. There’s a side plot in which Bronwyn’s kid Theo and one of his buddies return to their abandoned village for supplies, only for Theo to get trapped by Orcs and require rescue by Bronwyn and Arondir, whom Adar has set free — more on that later — but that’s not really the important thing.
What is? We discover the nature of that Sauronic artifact Theo stole from the tavern-keeper’s secret stash. It’s a sword hilt for a magical blade that forms out of shadow — a weapon for which Adar and his Orcs have been searching. Thanks to Theo, they now know the humans have it and are hiding it in the tower. The tavern-keeper knows it too, and he knows exactly what it is and what it’s for — has known all along, in fact. He refers to its original possessor as “the Beautiful Servant,” revealing that he still harbors sympathy for the devil just like his ancestors did. “Have you heard of him, lad?” he asks Theo. “Have you heard of Sauron?” Genuinely creepy stuff. (He also says that meteor from earlier in the season is a sign that Sauron’s return is near, though personally I still doubt that the Meteor Man is Sauron himself.)
I’m not sure who to credit for the show’s sudden creative turnaround. Perhaps writer Stephany Folsom, who helped script the episode with showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay? Perhaps the whole team, which was maybe rolling the story out too scattered and slow at first but now, by episode four, has had the opportunity to lay out all the pieces and can finally put them together? Perhaps I’m just getting used to it? Regardless, I’m happy to have enjoyed the episode so much, and excited to see where the story goes now that it’s, y’know, going. Keep it up!