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Who’s the Bad Guy in ‘The Rings of Power’?

Sauron is the big bad of the Second Age of Middle Earth, but two episodes into Amazon’s new fantasy series, the Dark Lord is making himself scarce

Amazon/Ringer illustration

In the two-part premiere of the eight-episode first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, only one character really seems to have their eye on the ball: Galadriel. But we all know who the big bad of the Second Age of Middle Earth was, right? Sauron.

If you’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or seen the six movie adaptations directed by Peter Jackson, you have a pretty good idea of Sauron’s place in the Third Age. The Dark Lord was an incorporeal Necromancer and all-seeing eye that was scouring the land for his One Ring to Rule Them All, a ring that contained all of his power and was linked to his scary-looking, flame-eye-adorned castle called Barad-dûr.

By contrast, Amazon’s series, which debuted on Prime Video on Thursday, is set to depict the story of the forging of the lesser rings that serve the one ring, and the rise of Sauron from “cruel and cunning sorcerer” for OG über-villain Morgoth to head of the armies of Mordor and chief antagonist of the realms of elves and men. Although some of this story is outlined toward the end of Tolkien’s posthumously published work The Silmarillion, Amazon does not have the rights to that text. Thus, the show has to make do with The Hobbit, the three Lord of the Rings books, and (most importantly) the appendices to Return of the King, which outline the family lineages and overall history of the Second Age.

Instead of sticking strictly to the Tolkien texts, the creators of the series have invented new characters and squished several hundred years of “history” into a single season. That’s understandable, because Rings of Power needs to be a successful television show more than it needs to be a faithful adaptation. But successful dramas often need nemeses, and a quarter of the way through the season, we still don’t know where Sauron is. It’s easy to see some familiar elven faces as our protagonists, fighting against a growing but faceless evil. But where is it growing? And might it have a face after all?

Sauron is somewhere in this world, and quite possibly somewhere on the screen, so let’s conduct a spoiler-free search to see whether we can find out where he’s hiding and pin the tail on the Dark Lord. All information below comes from the first two episodes, the officially released trailers and teaser posters, one character description from the casting process, and way too much time thinking about The Rings of Power.

Where is Sauron?

Wouldn’t Galadriel like to know?

At this point in the texts, Sauron has gathered sympathetic forces in the East, in the lands that will become Mordor. Eventually he will appear among the elves and help master smith Celebrimbor forge some (titular) rings in that tower of power the elf is planning. Sauron will also eventually be taken hostage by a King of Númenor (Ar-Pharazôn, played by Trystan Gravelle) and (like Wormtongue) twist the mind of that king into attempting to attain immortality. When Sauron does these things, he isn’t wearing the sharp black armor that makes such an impression in the flashback in The Fellowship of the Ring and at the beginning of the premiere episode; he does it in his “fair form.” One of Sauron’s most devious tricks during the Second Age is that he initially appears as a friend, not a conqueror.

When Sauron’s in his skin-suit, he is known as Annatar, Lord of the Gifts, and is able to hide his true evil intentions. If we can apply a term from another popular franchise that spreads the same villain across multiple trilogies, Sauron is the “Phantom Menace” of the early Second Age. The peoples of Middle Earth assumed he had retreated or been destroyed after the defeat of Morgoth at the end of the First Age, and each major kingdom falls to Annatar by accepting his gifts of rings and bad counsel.

All images via Amazon Studios

When The Rings of Power starts, Sauron is still in hiding, but portents of his return are all around, specifically in the unclosed circle symbol we see Galadriel encounter in Forodwaith in the far north. It’s the same symbol that was carved into the body of her brother Finrod, and that appears on the dark sword (which is made of dark smoke like a Morgul blade) that we see absorb some of Theo’s blood in Episode 2. The name “Sauron” is remembered mostly by Galadriel, who is chasing that symbol and searching for a great dark enemy hiding in the north. She’s not going to find what she’s expecting. As she says in the first episode, evil in waiting will blind its foes, and Sauron’s really hoodwinked the elves into thinking he’s gone.

We might spend the whole first season of The Rings of Power setting up the state of the world before Annatar reveals himself to the elves and gets to smithing. But Celebrimbor needs that tower done by the spring (or so he tells Elrond), so we may not have that long to wait before the hot smithing action begins.

Have we seen Annatar?

No one can say for sure, but it’s unlikely that Annatar has appeared in any of the trailers leading up to The Rings of Power. There is a line in the San Diego Comic-Con trailer where an unknown voice says, “You’ve been told many lies about Middle Earth,” which is definitely something Annatar would say, but we haven’t seen a fair face that is obviously a version of Sauron.

However, there is the magic-using figure with white robes and piercing blue eyes who does look very suspicious—almost too suspicious. For one, this person appears with two other white-robed figures who are carrying some vestments, such as a reflecting dish and a staff that appears to have the Barad-dûr spires at the top. (Is that an all-seeing eye between them?)

Galadriel’s story line has been well established in the first two episodes: She’s hunting down Sauron to avenge Finrod, the one who told her in her youth that sometimes darkness must be touched before discovering the true light. Galadriel is so sure about this that she bailed during a trip to immortality.

Morgoth lost the War of Wrath, which closed out the First Age, but he had many followers, such as Sauron, who were still following him. We can see that in the paranoia that the elves show about the people of the Southlands returning to Morgoth worship. It would fit the existing lore if the figures in white end up being magic users loyal to Morgoth who have glommed on to Sauron’s power. In the Second Age, there were still beings in the East and South who worshiped the previous Dark Lord, and Sauron uses the philosophy of Morgoth worship to twist Ar-Pharazôn in the future. Though that detail comes from The Silmarillion, which is off-limits to Amazon, it’s possible that we’ll still see a version of it and learn about Morgoth worship as the show progresses and the elves pull out of the Southlands (bad move).

If these three white-robed figures are devotees of Morgoth who could be puppeteered by Sauron, they would not be embodiments of Sauron himself. Plus, these folks look like they’re up to no good! When Annatar does show up in the series, he won’t be sinister or evil looking, but superbly trustable—an apparent ally who is willing to help the realms of elves, men, and dwarves face the challenges of the Second Age.

Is the meteor man actually Sauron?


Are you sure?

… No. But … come on.

The impact site where the mysterious Stranger lands burns in a shape that looks like Sauron’s Eye from the Peter Jackson movies, but a round impact crater does not make a villain. As we see in the first two episodes,this being can talk to insects, yell up some wind, and has trouble remembering his identity. We’ve seen those things before in The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf does them.

In Tolkien’s mythology, the wizards were sent to Middle Earth by the Valar to oppose Sauron and show the beings of Arda (Middle Earth) that their creators had not abandoned them. Sauron doesn’t need a comet to manifest; he’s already dwelling in Middle Earth. In trailers, we’ve seen the Stranger appear to use magic to fend off some warg-looking beasts to protect the Harfoots (probably Nori). It doesn’t make a lot of story sense that Sauron would first appear incarnate to the Harfoots, who are inconsequential in the Second Age. We don’t have any precedent for a Harfoot knowing where to find Eregion, where the rings will be forged.

That’s a wizard, Harry. Which wizard is still a big question. The history of two of them (the “Blue Wizards”) wasn’t detailed by Tolkien in his writings, so it’s possible that this is one of them. In Tolkien’s letters, he suggests that the Blue Wizards mostly operated in the South and East and might have made magic cults of their own, but canonically the wizards are not villains. It would be a big lore shift if the Stranger is an antagonist.

Another piece of evidence is that the Stranger’s initial clothing looks pretty gray. Although Saruman would outrank Gandalf, and one could describe the Stranger’s garments as Radagast brown in some lighting, the odds are really on Gandalf. Both because general audiences are familiar with him, and because he actually wields one of the elven rings of power during the events of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf possesses Narya, which gives him some flame powers. A scene in the extended edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and some shots in The Return of the King reveal that Gandalf secretly had Narya in the film adaptations as well. During the Third Age, the other two elven rings of power belong to Galadriel and Elrond.

There would be some nice symmetry to the show if, in Episode 1, we met the characters who would wield all three elven rings and were able to track them into the Peter Jackson movies, right?

Who is Halbrand?

Halbrand (played by Charlie Vickers) is another show-created character whom we see in Númenor in the trailers and on the raft with Galadriel during an intense storm in the premiere episodes. Suspiciously, he’s handsome and not immediately of any consequence. He says he’s fleeing his home in the Southlands that was raided by orcs and burned to the ground. In promotional material we see a couple glimpses of him in battle, but otherwise Halbrand appears to be a bystander who will be an ally in Galadriel’s quest.

The character simultaneously sets off two metatextual alarms: the “Annatar alarm” and the “Han Solo alarm.” He is fair, and he does appear to side with the men who will eventually fall to Annatar in the trailers, but he could just as easily be the reluctant ally of our heroes who has a front-row seat to their downfall. Annatar is supposed to influence the elves to forge some rings before he is eventually defeated in battle and taken to Númenor. Yet Halbrand looks like he’ll be in Númenor in the next episode, far from the tower where the rings will be forged.

If Halbrand touches a ring of power, he’s in danger of becoming a Nazgûl (that’s the effect Sauron’s rings have on humans), unless he is Sauron in disguise. Being involved with Galadriel and Númenor would put his character in the correct circles to sow discontent, but in all of the promotional material, Halbrand appears to be on the side of “the good guys.”

Some things to be worried about with Halbrand: His first line is “Looks can be deceiving”; he’s the only member of his party to survive the attack at sea; he’s hiding the sigil of his house from Galadriel; and he seems a little anti-elf! When diving down to cut loose a sinking Galadriel, Halbrand spots Finrod’s dagger. We’re supposed to be thinking, “Ah, yes, he sees a way to cut Galadriel free!” But it could just as easily be that he recognized the dagger because he werewolf-tortured the previous owner to death (more on that later). If we find out he’s a talented smith, that should set off Annatar alarms, but until then, just keep an eye on this guy.

Who is Adar?

If Rings of Power is slow-playing the Sauron reveal by hiding his fair form as Annatar, this first season of the show could focus on another antagonist entirely. The best bet there, given what we’ve seen, is the owner of this armored hand and wicked blade:

In trailers, we’ve seen this gauntlet wandering among the orcs, suggesting that this character could be the military leader of the forces that represent the creeping darkness in Middle Earth and are digging tunnels to assault the Southlands. If Sauron is going to come in secret and fair guise, he’d need a force to serve him and could incite conflict throughout the land to test the weakness of its leaders. Perhaps the men of the Southlands could be turned now that the elves are abandoning their watch? Alternatively, the orcs could be scouring the lands for any remnants of Morgoth’s magic. (Hide that blade, Theo!)

This gauntlet wearer could be the character “Adar,” who will be portrayed on screen by Joseph Mawle (Benjen Stark turned Coldhands in Game of Thrones, Jesus in the 2008 BBC version of The Passion, and star of the second film in the Red Riding trilogy). When casting calls went out for this character, he was not listed as “Adar” but as “Oren,” and was described as:

“A villain who can also evoke a deep sense of pathos and wounded / fallen nobility. Must possess a certain degree of physicality. Should seem middle-aged, though must also project a sense of timelessness.”

Neither Adar or Oren appears in a Tolkien text, meaning this is another character created for the show. In the final trailer for The Rings of Power, released last week, a new shot of a dark-haired elf looking down on a calm pack of orcs could be our first look at Adar’s ears, which reveal: an elf!

A bad elf, or a fallen elf, would be fairly new to Tolkien lore. There are some elves who commit horrible acts on self-centered quests (feel free to Google Fëanor’s kinslaying, his seven sons, and Eöl and his son Maeglin), but usually elves are on the side of good, even if they’re misguided. They are an immortal race, after all, granted eternal life in the west. There isn’t an elf who ever worshiped Morgoth or Sauron, and there’s only one elf in canon who ever knowingly did something in service of the Dark Lord: Maeglin, who sold out his kingdom in an attempt to marry his cousin. All of that is in The Silmarillion, which means it shouldn’t be part of The Rings of Power.

The leaked tease “fallen nobility” from the casting call is even more tantalizing, as we know a bunch of elf royals from the appendices. Elves live long lives before going into the west, which means this might not be a show-created character at all, but a recontextualized one. If a fallen elf is such a big deal, who would be the most compelling elf to have been turned into a tool of Sauron?

It’s possible Adar is an elf who was assumed dead after the War of Wrath but had been tortured by Sauron into becoming a leader of Orcs. It’s probably not Finrod himself, as we see him dead on a slab in trailers, seemingly branded by the mark of Sauron. But consider that Galadriel finds evidence in the north that Sauron has been messing with forbidden magic that has produced what looked like an orc coming out of a swirling stone wall. Can you make a fake body with that magic?

In the books, Finrod dies defending a man called Beren—who ends up being important as half of one of Tolkien’s rare elf-and-man couplings and is sort of referenced in the premiere episode—from werewolves Sauron was using to torture and interrogate them. Beren survives and escapes, but Finrod doesn’t. Beren was the only survivor of a party of 12 that was captured by Sauron; could Adar have been one of those 12? The one who broke?

It’s pretty clear by now that the orcs are attacking in the Southlands, where Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a silvan elf created for the series, investigates one of their tunnels. There are several more sequences in the trailers of Arondir fighting this orc force. In one blink-and-you’ll miss it snippet, Arondir is chained with other captives as they are beset by animals that look like wargs (or werewolves!) in an echo of the fate that met Finrod off-screen. This would be a fitting torture for Adar to put another elf through if it’s a callback to the same event that led to his fallen nature.

Be on the lookout for a reveal of Adar’s intentions. He does not appear “fair,” so the Annatar alarms are silent, but he does seem like an antagonist who can shock the elves into a state of paranoia by his mere existence. If the elves really are capable of being straight-up evil as the Southland humans seem to think, does that prove them fallible? Would the presence of Adar’s raiding forces make someone like Halbrand desperate? Desperate enough to accept the advice of a Lord of Gifts and forge some fateful rings? As the season proceeds, keep your eyes on a swivel. It’s what Sauron would do.

Dave Gonzales is a writer, producer, and podcaster based out of Denver, Colorado. He’s currently writing a book about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and appearing weekly on the Trial by Content podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Da7e.