Less than two weeks after HBO launched its game of thrones prequel Dragon HouseAmazon unveils its own highly anticipated fantasy epic: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a massive nearly four-year-old endeavor, the streamer reportedly committed over $1 billion (!) to the series before it even premiered. It’s undeniably a huge swing, but after watching the first two episodes, I have to say: it connects.
rings of power (begins this Thursday at 9/8c; sign up now for Prime Video) isn’t just good, it’s brilliant: a beautifully immersive and hugely ambitious spectacle, filled with stunning imagery and compelling plot threads. More importantly, it captures the same sense of awe we felt watching the the Lord of the Rings movies – one we don’t often get to experience on the small screen.
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Now I’ve seen and enjoyed those Peter Jackson movies, but haven’t read any of JRR Tolkien’s original books, and at times watching rings of power, I felt like I needed a cheat sheet to sort through all the new characters. Even if you can’t spell their names, their innate humanity still shines through. (Plus, the series helps us out by pointing out the setting of each scene on a giant scrolling map of Middle-earth, introducing us to the various lands and inhabitants.) There’s no Gandalf or Frodo here – though let there be Harfoots, an early form of proto-Hobbits – and no rings, at least not yet. But we see younger versions of the elf heroes Galadriel and Elrond from the Lord of the Rings…because elves are immortal, you know.
Set thousands of years before The Lord of the Ringsduring Tolkien’s Second Age, rings of power begins with the elves locked in a brutal war with Sauron’s orcs that has been going on for centuries. Galadriel (Its dark materials‘ Morfydd Clark) is a fierce warrior elf who is determined to avenge the death of her beloved brother Finrod on the battlefield. Even after the war is over and everyone thinks Sauron is soundly defeated, she won’t give up, fanatically determined to wipe out every trace of evil in the kingdom once and for all. Along the way, we encounter jolly dwarves and curious Harfoots, as well as a forbidden romance between humans and elves that generates some serious heat. (Parts of this sound familiar: A wide-eyed young Harfoot named Nori, played winningly by Markella Kavenagh, craves adventure just like Frodo, and she even looks like she’s the long-lost cousin of… ‘Elijah Wood.)
The cast is mostly made up of little-known actors – although I recognized alumni from Country and game of thrones – but that only makes the series even more immersive, as if we’re meeting them here for the first time. And all the money Amazon spent is certainly up there on display: rings of power offers stunning combat scenes like a bloody entanglement with an ice troll, an encounter with a terrifying sea beast known as The Worm, and a harrowing orc fight that plays out as a zombie attack from The Walking Dead. But it also wows us with stunningly beautiful visuals, from impossibly green valleys to towering walls of ice to glittering elven towns. Bear McCreary’s sweeping and ethereal musical score also adds to the sense of grandeur. It’s almost worth watching just to marvel at sights like a sprawling dwarf metropolis built inside a mountain. (Pro tip: Watch this on the biggest screen you can find.)
But neither is it a meaningless feast for the eyes. Character motivations may seem basic at first, but they develop and deepen over time; the second episode is even better than the first, artfully expanding on the relationships introduced in the pilot. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay (Star Trek: Beyond) have a lot of story threads to juggle, but they all work so far, with early episodes planting seeds that will bear fruit later, like a mighty sword shard and a mystical alien born from a fiery comet . (breaking Bad Vet Gennifer Hutchison is also a writer and executive producer here, which is an encouraging sign.) But beyond that, rings of power just feels epic. It manages to tap into an elemental power that transcends plot and character and takes us into a world filled with wonder.
TVLINE’S BOTTOM LINE: Amazon the Lord of the Rings series power rings worth the wait: an ambitious grand epic with stunning visuals.