The following contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power S1E3, “Adar” (written by Jason Cahill and Justin Doble, and directed by Wayne Yip)
“Adar” the third installment of Amazon’s new show The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power had to do a lot of heavy lifting to get the point across, with success in some areas and challenges in others. The response to the series so far has been mixed, though I loved the premiere, with critics and many others charmed by the super expensive show, some people raising legitimate questions about the storytelling so far, and many people being dismissive, disingenuous, racist, trolls.
I have no time or inclination to engage with the last set of people but, like Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) and Isildur (Maxim Baldry) wrestling with the call to the darkness that lurks inside, I keep wanting to focus on the things I enjoy, especially to ensure I don’t accidentally fall in with the disgusting and truly evil. So, I will quickly address the one issue I think the legitimate critics of the show have right, and then move on to a deeper analysis of another pretty incredible episode of television.
That issue, like all great dilemmas, stems from the same place as the story’s great strength, the source material. The world of Middle Earth is a gorgeous setting, high fantasy with a grand design, and a great and symbolic battle between good and evil, but in all of that, the individual characters and plot points can tend to feel secondary and rote, or purely expository. In The Rings of Power S1E3 that feeling arises from time to time. The dialogue and choices, particularly as we are introduced to Nuremor in the first few scenes, are very stilted and plot-driven, including some really distracting clunkers.
Despite that, there was much to love in The Rings of Power S1E3, I’ve decided to structure the conversation around each prominent location rather than looking into things based solely on how they were presented, or by the characters. For this episode we don’t get to visit Khazad-dûm (so no Durin or Elrond), Lindor (so, thankfully, also no Gil-Galad or Celebrimbor), or wherever Bronwyn and Theo are running. Instead, we spend the whole episode either within an Orc prison, a human prison, or a societal prison.
The Ruins of Hordern
The last time we saw Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) he was taken captive by Orcs in the tunnels under Hordern. We return to his plight in The Rings of Power S1E3 and things don’t go as expected. As a heroic figure in an early episode of the show, we might expect that we will get to see a heroic escape, perhaps saving a lot of his fellow captives along the way. Instead, we get a harrowing account of failed plans, dead friends, and uprooted trees.
Arondir is not the only prisoner as it turns out the orcs have taken many other elves and humans captive in order to complete their foul digging project, which includes both the tunnels we saw previously and some sort of mystery project that includes larger, deeper, holes. The other elven captives include both Arondir’s friend Médhor (Augustus Prew) and Watchwarden Revion (Simon Merrells), who we met in Episode 1, confirming that the orcs have really stepped up this project in scope and danger. The elves do plan their escape, but that’s when everything goes sidewise.
A particularly nasty orc overseer offers the three elves a sip of water and if “never accept a gift from an orc” isn’t a saying in Middle Earth, it should be. The water wasn’t poisoned, as they had all feared, but it brought death all the same, as the orc slit Médhor’s throat as he drank, sending the others into a pained panic. The plan to escape is moved ahead and the fight that followed included some gory deaths of people, elves, and orcs along with a warg devouring some people.
The entire scene was directed and choreographed by Wayne Yip and the team with great skill. The use of the chains on the prisoners in their attempt to escape and by their captors in their attempts to stop them were particularly inventive. Córdova really leans into Arondir’s outrage and anger at the deaths of the others, as his take-downs of the orcs become more and more visceral as the plan falls apart and more people die. In the end, in a real reversal of expectations, just as it looks like Revion will escape. he is shot down with arrows. Arondir is then recaptured and brought to meet the mysterious leader of these orcs, Adar. We don’t get a good look at the character but Adar is an elven name… so there is that.
The Island of Númenor
All the way to the west we rejoin Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand as they awaken on the ship that rescued them from the sea. It turns out that the sigil on the ship that many identified was indeed that of the island kingdom of Númenor. As with so many other places and characters we are just meeting in the show, that island has darkness in the future, and once we get there we can see why the nation fell out of favor with the gods.
The ship’s captain is none other than Elendil (Lloyd Owen), father of Isildur and original wielder of the legendary sword Narsil (which will eventually get reforged for Aragorn, some thousands of years in the future from the story we are watching now). Elendil takes Galadriel and Halbrand back to Númenor for an audience with the ruling regent, Queen Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). This is in direct conflict with the laws of the land, which are decidedly anti-elf—even though Elrond’s brother Elros was a founder—so things quickly take a turn against them.
Halbrand, in the first of many suspicious moments in The Rings of Power S1E3, smooth talks the queen into letting them hang around for a few days. Miriel agrees but basically puts Galadriel under Elendil’s supervision. Elendil winds up taking her back to the western coast of the island where we meet his children, Isildur and Eärien (Ema Horvath). We get some key backstory about all of the family and it really starts to establish the importance of these characters, while also humanizing them. Elendil and Isildur will be key figures in the wars to come but for now, the key development is that it turns out Elendil is a follower of the old king and friend to the elves. So Galadriel gets to plan her return to the mainland of Middle Earth.
It really seems that the queen should have kept a better eye on Halbrand as well. After his Saul Goodmanesque parlay in the court, he and Galadriel have a moment where we learn he had stolen and hidden her dagger. It is also a moment that crackles with sexual chemistry between Vickers and Clark. Later Galadriel discovers—we think—that he’s the exiled king of the Southlands, ashamed of his ancestors for following Morgoth. But, as we see earlier in the episode when he gets attacked and winds up going ham on about ten guys all at once, he has a deep and abiding darkness that he is trying to hide. We don’t know yet if he is hiding the darkness from himself or from Galadriel, but his obsession with blacksmithing and staying on the island long enough for Galadriel to raise an army don’t point to him not being up to no good.
The Harfoot Caravan
Finally, we also spend a portion of The Rings of Power S1E3 back with Nori (Markella Kavenagh), Poppy (Megan Richards), the rest of the Harfoots, and the mysterious stranger (Daniel Wayman). Somewhat incredibly what we learn about the Harfoots changes, challenges, and deepens our understanding of them. The Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit represent the purest and most incorruptible creatures in all of Middle Earth, but we learn here that, while these distant ancestors also live closer to nature, their society is much harsher. Effectively punishing anyone who cannot “keep up” with their migration with exile and (presumably) death.
This is complicated too, as Sadoc (the great Lenny Henry) intones to them all, this commitment to the greater good is the only way the Harfoots can keep the entire community alive. But it doesn’t make things less sad when he starts to read from the book of the dead and they all chant about the lives they have lost. (This includes not only Sadoc’s partner, Rose, but also all of Poppy’s family.) This makes Nori’s transgressions much deeper and more devastating than those of Bilbo and Frodo. Her (entirely understandable) desire to help the stranger could lead to a terrible fate for them all.
Thankfully, this grim prison of the cycle of life and regrets is broken by the emergence of the Stranger into full view. He still can’t really talk, but he can stumble around, nearly get Nori banned, and then, in a moving moment, come to save the day in the end. As the migration of the Harfoots starts, Nori’s family has been moved to the back—which is as good as exile due to her father’s broken ankle. But, just as it seems all is lost, the Stranger steps forward, calls Nori a “friend” and hitches the wagon to himself. The value of reaching out and taking a chance on the unknown for the greater good is just the sort of optimistic message that makes the heart of the entire Tolkien universe so bright.
In the end, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power S1E3 (“Adar”) is able to advance the story, deepen the characters, and really start to show the way the show can sing once the exposition is all finished. It was a beautiful and surprisingly emotional journey that has me ready to see where things can go.