Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers about “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” season finale.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has ended its first season, with plans for several more to come. Yet the real battle for Amazon could be convincing everyone that its very expensive – and mostly underwhelming – gamble on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga has been a rousing success.
Amazon has acted like it’s thrilled with the show’s execution and performance, with Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke touting its audience numbers in an interview with Variety, while noting that the first season accomplished “the hard work of setting up who all those characters are.”
After initial reviews admired the scope and visual grandeur, though, more critical voices have drifted into the naysaying column, pointing out – as the Daily Telegraph’s Duncan Lay put it – that the series “managed to be both pretentious and boring.”
Forbes’ Erik Kain sounded a similar note, writing that after the opening chapters, “The Rings of Power” has demonstrated “how quickly a badly written TV series can wear out its welcome once the shimmer fades.”
A few barbs from critics are to be expected, and an earlier controversy surrounding the series and HBO’s “House of the Dragon” – involving greater inclusion of people of color, breaking up the monochromatic nature of these mythical worlds – perhaps helped distract from, or delay, more fundamental observations about the show and its flaws.
The eighth episode/season finale underscored that point, offering belated revelations regarding Sauron and his identity, while presenting the actual forging of the rings, lovingly shot before fading into the threat to come.
At 70-plus minutes, it mirrored the season as a whole: Pretty, with a few visually striking moments, but slow and bloated. Where “House of the Dragon” has raced ahead using multiyear time jumps, generating ample buzz and viewership in the process, “Lord of the Rings” – unlike Peter Jackson’s trilogy – has operated at something closer to a crawl. Heck, it took seven episodes just to see the name “Mordor” flash across the screen.
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Students of Tolkien canon can obviously revel in that, poring over the smallest of details. Still, it’s hard to escape a sense that this slow-motion advance has less to do with servicing the story than a calculation to stretch it out, given the commitment – and perhaps the necessity to justify Amazon’s investment – to tease this out over multiple seasons.
For Amazon, those expenditures on “The Lord of the Rings” – totaling hundreds of millions of dollars – make the pressure to deliver more than an academic exercise, but a property that could significantly influence the company’s long-term commitment to streaming.
Like Apple, Amazon has spent heavily on creating content, even if that’s not its core business. These deep-pocketed tech companies thus have different priorities than studios like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery (the parent of CNN), since producing movies and TV is a peripheral enterprise for Amazon, not at the heart of its corporate mission.
Amazon has launched major hits, including the boundary-pushing superhero satire “The Boys” and the Emmy-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” In a short time, the company has established itself as a major player in entertainment.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was personally involved in acquiring rights from the Tolkien estate way back in 2017, reflecting the company’s high-stakes bet. But the history of Hollywood is littered with outsiders who sought to buy their way into the business, before getting their noses bloodied and eventually engineering strategic retreats.
It’s become popular to refer to certain large corporations as being “Too big to fail,” and in TV terms, “Rings of Power” is about as big as they come. Once you get past the hype machine, however, the series has yet to earn its place in the top tier of TV fantasy, much less any claim to ruling them all.