Season 1, Episode 5: ‘Partings’
This week’s “The Rings of Power” is the grandest in scale so far, with every major race and most of the series’s prominent characters getting at least some screentime. We see the Harfoots, mid-migration, on their way to find the best places to burrow, to forage and “to snail while the snailing’s good.” We join the dwarf prince Durin at an uncomfortable dinner in Lindon with the elf king, Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker). We see how Adar’s offer of safety to all subservient humans tears the tower’s refugee community in two. And we follow the action back in Númenor, where the natives make a last-ditch effort to sabotage Galadriel’s expedition to Middle-earth.
The downside to all this sprawl is that “Partings” is also the series’s longest episode yet; and I can’t pretend the length isn’t noticeable. Earlier chapters have had the pleasurably relaxed feel of reading a book, with long stretches spent in single locations. This week feels more like a typical fantasy TV show, hopping back and forth from place to place. “The Rings of Power” has an outstandingly cinematic look and sound, with its state-of-the-art digital effects, its thrilling stunts, its subtly graceful camera moves and its rousing Bear McCreary score. But the writers have more narrative pieces to shuffle around than a typical movie does; and when they introduce so many into a single episode, the need to bring each of them to a good “to be continued” point can feel a workmanlike.
That said, a lot happened this week that was meaningful to where this saga has been and where it is going — and a lot of it was plenty entertaining, to boot. Here are some takeaways and observations from an episode teeming with memorable moments.
Once upon a time …
This episode covers so much ground, yet still finds the time for a brief flashback to an obscure, possibly apocryphal legend, about an elven warrior who battled with one of Morgoth’s balrogs on the Misty Mountain, over the control of a much-coveted tree. The sequence is visually spectacular, looking like a live re-enactment of a classical painting. It’s also crucial to the overall direction of the series’s plot.
The story, told by Elrond, is really about the origin of the super-mineral known as mithril, which the elves believe can revive their flagging spirits and keep them from having to abandon Middle-earth. Elrond can help make that happen, if he is willing to betray an oath to a friend. But he considers oaths to be the things to which “our very souls are bound.” It’s a tough call for our well-meaning ambassador.
The humbling of the elves
Elrond does, of course, betray that oath by explaining the situation to Durin, admitting that his superiors sent him to the dwarf kingdom in the first place to expose their mithril supply. Durin, unsurprised, agrees to aid the elves, seeing this as a potential win-win: for the future of Middle-earth, and for the dwarves as the keepers of the ore. (He also gets off a good prank at the elves’ expense, when he pretends to be offended that their dining table is made of a material sacred to dwarves, in order to embarrass the king and to get a free table.)
Elrond isn’t the only elf who has to grovel among the rabble in this episode. Galadriel, to win over the humans, gives them a dynamic lesson in orc-fighting, and allows herself to take a hit in the trial combat, to prove elves aren’t unstoppable. Meanwhile, in the Southlands, Arondir teaches archery to Theo, who gets him to acknowledge that elves have spent the past few centuries monitoring humankind — “counting every whisper, every kitchen knife” — and making them feel resentful. To win over the humans, the elves have to become more … well, human.
Oh, the humanity!
On the other hand … What if humans are bad, actually? At the start of the episode, Bronwyn delivers an impassioned speech to all those barricaded in the elves’ tower, saying that if they stand and fight, “This tower will no longer be a reminder of our frailty, but a symbol of our strength.” But later, when the situation looks impossibly dire, Brownyn considers surrendering, and in despair tells Arondir, “We’re destined for the darkness. It’s how we survive. Perhaps it’s who we are. Who we will always be.”
One of the quirkier aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Rings” books is that while most of his fantasy races have an innate character and purpose, the humans tend to be harder to pin down. In this episode, Arondir offers an explanation of sorts for the Southlanders’ past alliance with evil. He describes Theo’s mysterious sword-hilt as “a key” to “enslave your ancestors,” suggesting that Morgoth ensorcelled humankind.
But Dark Lord magic does not explain the deviousness of the Númenórean chancellor Pharazôn, who confesses to his skeptical son Kemen (Leon Wadham) that he is only supporting Galadriel’s mission to Middle-earth because he believes the restoration of a human king in the Southlands will make his people more powerful and prosperous. “When all this is over, elves will take orders from us,” he says, smugly. (This however does not prevent Kemen from torching one of the ships earmarked for the expedition — a crime stumbled on by Isildur, who then saves Kemen’s life, keeps the young man’s secret, and earns his way onto one of Galadriel’s vessels.)
Humankind can at least still claim Halbrand, who is a true credit to the world of men … maybe. Though initially bitter that Galadriel used his secret royal origins as a promotional tool for her Middle-earth campaign, in the end Halbrand agrees to join the mission and to become a cause the Númenóreans can rally around. But before he has that change of heart, he warns Galadriel that humans are a sketchy breed, suggesting that if she knew what he had to do to survive before he fled the Southlands, she would be appalled. She reassures to him with a line first spoken to her in the series premiere: “Sometimes to find the light, we must first touch the darkness.”
Friend or foe?
The Harfoots and their tall Stranger have the least amount of airtime this week, though we do get what could be an important bit of foreshadowing when a disgruntled Harfoot tells Sadoc he should hobble the Brandyfoots’ cart and leave them behind. I hope this doesn’t happen, for a lot of reasons — but primarily because I am enjoying Lenny Henry’s performance as Sadoc, and I doubt the character would appear as much if Nori Brandyfoot were off having her own adventures.
The Harfoot scenes offer a few of the episode’s most memorable moments, including a conversation where Nori explains the concepts of peril and death to the Stranger, who thinks about all the fireflies he killed and wistfully says, “I’m … peril?” Later, the Stranger proves he may indeed be peril when he saves his new friends from an attacking pack of wild animals but then accidentally harms Nori during the process of healing his wounds with some kind of ice-spell.
One last note on the Stranger: At one point in this episode we see a few curious-looking, white-clad, armored figures (possibly elves, but more likely the same race as our magical sky-man) standing around the crater where he landed in the series premiere, seemingly very concerned. Which once again raises the question: Just what kind of creature is this Stranger?
And while we are at it: What is the deal with Adar? We get a long sequence with the orcs’ “father” this week, after his offer to the Southlanders drives the weaselly Waldreg to lead a splinter group of humans to Adar’s camp. Waldreg is in for a surprise though when he refers to his new Dark Lord as “Sauron,” only to have Adar sneer at him. As a punishment, the old man has to prove his loyalty to the cause by killing one of the humans he brought with him.
That’s pretty grim. But who can blame Waldreg for his confusion? If Adar isn’t Sauron by some other name, then who — or what — is he?
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