“I’ve heard the dwarves have greatly expanded their halls of late,” the elven smith Celebrimbor says to Elrond, the future Lord of Rivendell, as they approach the dwarven city of Khazad-dûm in the second episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. “They sculpt the rock with the respect of one who cares for an aged parent. I’ve long wanted to see them work.” Celebrimbor shares that curiosity with viewers of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy: It’s the cavernous ruins of this underground citadel, after all, that make a memorable impression in The Fellowship of the Ring as the home of a terrifying Balrog. (Also known as the sequence in which Gandalf the Gray becomes immortalized as a meme.)
Even in a state of disrepair, what remained of Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring was almost inconceivable in scope: halls and tunnels that seemed to stretch to the very center of Middle-earth, holding centuries of dwarven history within their walls. You couldn’t help but wonder what the city would’ve looked like in its heyday. That’s where Rings of Power comes in, set thousands of years before the events of Jackson’s trilogy. As Elrond descends into Khazad-dûm, the place is teeming with life: there’s subterranean waterfalls, verdant gardens, and giant mirrors refracting sunlight into the farthest reaches of the city. It’s an astonishing achievement in more ways than one.
Ever since Amazon acquired the television rights to the Lord of the Rings franchise from the Tolkien estate for an eye-popping $250 million in 2017, it’s been clear that the company will spare no expense in trying to create the next Game of Thrones–like megahit. (Once you factor in the actual budget of the first season, Amazon reportedly has spent more than $700 million, making Rings of Power’s debut the most expensive season of television ever made.) But it’s one thing to throw a bunch of money at a treasured piece of IP; it’s another to actually know what to do with it. Suffice it to say, there was healthy skepticism—particularly from Tolkien diehards—that Amazon would be worthy stewards of the franchise.
Midway through the first of five planned seasons, it’s far too early to say whether Rings of Power can live up to the sky-high expectations of (non-racist) Lord of the Rings fans. But the series has so far excelled in its intricate world-building, establishing a new imagining of Middle-earth that feels just as expansive and lived-in as Jackson’s film trilogy. Rings of Power showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne still have plenty of work ahead in terms of crafting the story, but they’ve already got a rich foundation to build from.
If there’s a pervading sense that Middle-earth could actually exist, it’s probably because New Zealand has been such a convincing stand-in for it. To that end, the first savvy move from Rings of Power was to follow Jackson’s lead and use the country’s captivating landscapes to cover myriad corners of Tolkien’s universe. (It’s a little disappointing that the show’s second season, which starts filming next month, has moved to the United Kingdom.) Even as the series funnels an ungodly amount of money into its visual effects, the sight of Galadriel riding a horse across a picturesque beach in the human kingdom of Númenor is priceless in its own right—and might as well be used by New Zealand’s tourism board.
Of course, the secret sauce of Jackson’s movies was that they complemented New Zealand’s natural splendor with special effects that have barely aged a day, an accomplishment that can’t be said for many blockbusters from the early aughts. For Rings of Power, pouring considerable resources into 10,000 VFX shots is only half the battle—just ask the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, what makes the show’s world-building so effective is that every location tells its own story about the inhabitants within it.
The harfoots, for instance, are diminutive nomads who blend into the forested areas they call home in order to avoid large predators such as wolves; their anonymity is key to their survival. Rather fittingly, the harfoots find beauty in the little things that might otherwise go unnoticed, like fireflies lighting up the night sky. The harfoots’ understated existence is a stark contrast to the ostentatious elven kingdom of Eregion where the ill-fated rings of power will eventually be forged: a CGI stronghold whose grandiosity will only be matched by the breadth of its inevitable downfall. (For anyone worried about spoilers: Galadriel tells us exactly how the conflict with Sauron begins and ends in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring; such is the nature of prequels.) Then there’s the orcs, who simply raze every landscape in their path without remorse—the fantasy equivalent of modern industrialists destroying the planet for their own gain.
Some of these insights may be self-explanatory—it’s no surprise the orcs are malicious and destructive—but the fact that Rings of Power has taken its time setting up major plot developments is a strong indication that the series is comfortable having Middle-earth be its biggest selling point. In other words: Rings of Power knows that Middle-earth is a vibe. The show’s somewhat leisurely pace might be off-putting for certain viewers, but off the heels of Thrones controversially speeding through its final two truncated seasons, there’s something comforting about a big-budget fantasy series that feels confident in its grander narrative designs. There’s no rush to reach the finish line.
Speaking of Thrones: While Rings of Power quite literally has been a bright spot for fantasy television, frequently bathing its settings in ethereal light, the series’ world-building does bring to mind the early seasons of the HBO drama, which almost immediately established the stakes for its characters spread throughout Westeros. (And, in the case of Daenerys Targaryen, her steady ascent in neighboring Essos.) Ironically, perhaps the biggest issue with the Thrones prequel House of the Dragon is that its focus on House Targaryen has suddenly narrowed Westeros’s scope, making the show feel constrained until a mighty dragon flaps its wings. By comparison, Rings of Power has made all the conflicts and individuals in the series seem so small against Middle-earth’s vast history and those who remember it, whether it’s the statues of fallen elven warriors in the kingdom of Lindon or the archival Hall of Lore in Númenor. You can’t blame the series for routinely letting the audience soak in the scenery instead of moving the plot along, especially when it looks this good.
Nevertheless, Rings of Power is not without its flaws: As with any show that jumps between different characters, some story lines have been more compelling than others. (Give me an entire episode of Elrond and Prince Durin’s elf-dwarf bromance.) What’s more, the broader focus on Middle-earth world-building has come at the expense of the show developing its ensemble, though that should improve over time. But there hasn’t been a more transportive television experience this year—one that’s attempted to stay true to the grandeur of its source material through a familiar combination of New Zealand’s stunning vistas and dazzling visual effects. For now, Rings of Power has made good on its early promise, underlining that, much like the dwarves mining in the deepest depths of Khazad-dûm, there remain fascinating corners of Middle-earth just waiting to be discovered.