Friday, October 14, 2022

The Rings of Power is Flawed, but Pretty Decent

 For some reason my youtube feed the past three months has been filled with about 80% people complaining about Rings of Power, even before it came out.  There are entire channels dedicated entirely to this, and youtube refuses to stop recommending them to me.  The sheer volume of apparently meritless whining informed me that I should probably give the series a chance, and have an open mind about it.  I recently got a chance to watch the first 7 episodes (as many as are out right now), and just wanted to comment on the series.

More people than I have gone in length about problems of the show, probably gratuitously so.  Yes, there are problems with the series, and really quite a few.

So instead I wanted to focus on things that are done right, or that worked really well.

The dwarves in RoP are awesome.  They are a fantastic portrayal of dwarves, not as just short humans, but as a separate race from humans entirely, with a psychology of stubbornness and tradition stemming ultimately from their creation out of rock and fire.  The glimpses of the society of the dwarves is one of rigid order, hierarchy, and single-minded pursuit of precious metals and ores within the rock of the mountain.

Ironically, the dwarven princess is one of the most sympathetic and relatable characters in the entire show.

Her casting with a black actress caused a big uproar online, and probably launched the whole anti-fandom the show now "enjoys".  I don't really care one way or another what her race is.  I would say, I'd like it more if every dwarf were black, for world-building sake, to establish that dwarves are some particular way.  But let me say this instead: she isn't a black dwarf, she's a dwarf.  She's portrayed by a black (human) actress.  But our categories of skin coloration aren't meaningful for dwarves.  Dwarves are just dwarves, and this one has darker skin.

The character the black actress portrays, the dwarven princess Disa, is really interesting.  In a world of girlbosses effortlessly killing every single battlefield threat on the first swordblow, the dwarven princess is focused instead on her family and her home.  Her talent is not combat action, but rather her special manner of song, which causes resonances within the rock of the mountain.  These resonances can reveal different types of stone, or also act as a form of prayer to the mountain rock.  It's an intriguing concept.  And her relationship with her husband is one of the best parts of the show, highlighting how they support and guide one another.

Really, everything with the dwarves is well done, and shows the dwarves as people of stout hearts and iron loyalty.

After the utterly disappointing executive-meddled dwarves of Peter Jackson's and Guillermo del Toro's Hobbit fanfic, it is relieving to see a more faithful portrayal.

I feel that Elrond of this series is far more faithful to the source material than the Elrond we saw in Peter Jackson's films.  I know for many, the Peter Jackson films are "the original."  The Jackson LotR films were very faithful and loving adaptations, but they do stray from the source material.  The real Elrond is famous the world over for his warmth and hospitality.  The valley around his house is full of joyful singing, and is an incredibly happy place.   In the LotR films, I think the director chose to emphasize Elrond's conflict with Aragorn (his daughter's suitor) over emphasizing Elrond's welcoming disposition.  So the Elrond of the LoTR films is incredibly serious, cold, unsmiling, and dour (and portrayed by an actor who normally does villains to boot).

In RoP, the actor playing Elrond has more properly captured Elrond's warmth.  He is especially skilled in negotiations with people, using his charm and humility to navigate a way in relationships.  His plotline, touching on the dwarves, is one of the only two interesting plots in the series.

The portrayal of hobbits has some serious flaws, namely their apparent willingness to abandon anyone who can't pull a wagon on a broken leg.  But the character of Nori and her story is the other interesting plotline in the series.

As a lesson to Hollywood writers, something more like Nori, and not Galadriel or Bronwynn, is what the phrase "strong female character" actually refers to.  The "strength" refers to strength of character, as opposed to ability to climb an ice wall with daggers.

Nori is a strong character because she has flaws and weaknesses, because she screws up, regrets her failures, tries to amend them, and relies on her single strength (empathy) to help her overcome impossible odds.  She has the virtue of caring for strangers, but in her insular Harfoot society this makes her not only a pariah but a liability.  The dangers this poses are illustrated several times over in the series.

Nori has character flaws, and this makes her relatable.  When she tries to do something right, only to inadvertently contribute to her dad breaking his leg, we can sympathize with her.  We can therefore feel actually concerned about Nori, as we know she might ever actually be in peril.  It feels like she earns it when not-Gandalf shows up and helps move the cart.

As opposed to if Nori were utterly invincible, untouchable, perfect in all ways, literally always right, and got exactly what she wanted all the time.

I'm not saying Nori is a fantastic character.  But she's a good character, in a series of mostly flat characters with no challenges who can't grow because they are already literally perfect and able to overcome everything.

The other very good thing about the series is the villain, called by the orcs "Adar," meaning "father".  I think the villain is the best things about the show, and is certainly one of the better villains seen on screens in over a decade.

One of the hallmarks of a good villain is a realistic motivation, especially one that even almost convinces the hero.  Hollywood writers have taken "I have past trauma" to be the end-all-be-all of "good villain" motivations, and it's become so cliche that at this point I don't even think they remember why they keep trotting out this trope.  "Past trauma" was never a very compelling motivation in the first place, and I've been sick and tired for decades of films trying to make me shed a little tear for the poor bad villain who had a rough upbringing.  

But the villain of RoP is not motivated by past trauma.  He is motivated by a genuine love for the orcs, seeing them as his children.  In his first scene, he delivers a form of last rites to a critically wounded orc, whereby he looks into the orc's eyes while quickly ending the orc's life with a dagger strike.  Driven by a love for orcs, he is leading them to conquer a land to make a home, a place where they can live in freedom and not suffer in the sun.  He is convinced of the justice of his cause, so much so that he can calmly, coolly, tell his elvish enemies that he is in the right and his cause will be vindicated.

After all, the orcs are part of the same creation of the elves, and the same hidden fire (their souls) burns in them.  Why shouldn't the orcs be free?

The only scene where Galadriel is even remotely interesting is her confrontation with the villain's reasoning.  Faced with it, she has no meaningful answer.  Only threats.  She grows irrationally angry with the cognitive dissonance, and someone has to pull her back.

The villain, Adar, is also compelling in his portrayal.  We are used to BBEGs (big bad evil guys) who chew scenery, throw their minions around like puppets with little regard for orcish lives, and scream about how great it will be for darkness and evil to overthrow all that is good.  It's effective, but also cliche and boring.  In contrast, Adar is calm and speaks only quietly.  He is truly concerned with the orcs and their welfare, and has earned not merely their fear but their genuine loyalty.  The orcs will do as Sauron says because he could hurt them; but they do as Adar says because he is their father giving them a home.  Though his plan is to literally blot out the light in the land, in one scene he laments it, knowing that losing the light of the sun will mean losing part of what he used to be.  Yet he will do it anyway, for his friends the orcs.

He is a far more compelling villain than we're accustomed to.  He is confident, convinced, assured of his justice and his eventual success, inspiring loyalty in his people and leading them to drive mankind out of the lands he seeks to claim.  He embraces clearly dark, evil methods, yet does so with such deliberateness, as opposed to hot-blooded anger or zeal for power, that it is even more creepy when he says "Only blood can bind."  He is not asking this out of wanton cruelty.  He means it.

I'm reminded of CS Lewis' take on a truly good dentist vs a cruel dentist.  A cruel dentist, sure, might drill unneeded holes just to cause more pain, but is also only doing things on a whim.  He might get tired of it, or relent halfway, because he ultimately doesn't care about drilling holes.  The good dentist, the truly good dentist, will not stop, no matter how much pain it causes, because he knows this is what he has to do.  He will drill on, because he has to keep drilling.  This latter is much more terrifying.  

While obviously Adar isn't "good," he is similarly motivated as the good dentist.  He will do what he has to do.

(And Adar is almost certainly Sauron.)

Some people have gotten over-zealous in their criticism, I think, and started just looking for things to nitpick.

For instance: just because Galadriel says her husband Celeborn is dead, doesn't mean that RoP killed off her husband.  It's a device known as dramatic irony, where the character doesn't know something the audience does.  This is because characters aren't literally omniscient and don't know the entire plot.  So just because a character says something, that doesn't make it true.

A clearer example of dramatic irony in this series is at work in the entire argument between Durin II and Durin III about the mithril mines.  We are clearly being led to sympathize with the younger dwarf.  But the subtext behind the conversation, which the audience should know, is that this is how the dwarves unleashed Durin's Bane, the Balrog we see in the Fellowship of the Ring.  This dramatic irony gives greater weight to the wisdom of the elder king.  Durin III doesn't know there's a balrog there, but we do, and we make conclusions based on his lack of knowledge.

Likewise, Galadriel doesn't know Celeborn is alive.  But we do.  We saw him in the Fellowship of the Ring.  When and how will she discover the truth?

Maybe it's stupid that she hasn't noticed he's gone in all this time, but the show didn't kill him off.

Another related nitpick I want to counter: the villain says orcs are better, so the show is trying to say orcs are the real good guys.  Just because a character thinks something, doesn't mean it's true.  It means that character --- the villain, the guy who's close friends with the orcs --- thinks orcs are the good guys.  Of course he does.  But orcs are clearly not the good guys, in any way shape or form.  The series nowhere portrays them sympathetically.  It is only Adar who sympathizes with them.  But giving them sympathetic resonances with a credible and relatable cause to fight for, with a leader who thoroughly believes in the justice of his actions, makes them far more formidable than if they were just being evil for the evulz.

So what isn't good in the show?  

For one, the intersectionality totem pole has rendered the majority of the rest of the characters boring and unrelatable.

The intersectionality totem pole, if you're unfamiliar, is a means of indicating the superiority of certain people on the basis of their group identity and their group's history of oppression.  The more oppression boxes you can check, the higher up you rank.  This is how an outsider describes it; actual adherents would obviously not frame it that way, nor do I think they're consciously aware of this construct in their theology.  But here's how you can see it.  Galadriel is a woman.  Women rank higher than men on the intersectionality totem pole.  For this reason, Galadriel is uniformly better than all men at all tasks.  Especially martial tasks, but not even limited to martial tasks.  The writers are forbidden by their religion from portraying Galadriel losing a fight, because to do so would be to imply a woman is not as good as a man at fighting a troll, and heaven forfend.

But if Galadriel ever got into a solo sword fight with the Queen of Numenor, you know who would win.  Inexplicably and out of nowhere, but you know the fight's outcome.

The result of it, ironically, is to make the female characters boring and uncompelling.

Galadriel is boring and uncompelling because she never grows, is never meaningfully challenged, is never overpowered, never struggles to overcome anything, and never learns from her mistakes because she never makes any mistakes.  The closest thing to a struggle she has is when other people around her momentarily fail to see how right she is.  She can't be overpowered, can't struggle, and can't make mistakes because it would be a form of blasphemy for the writers to show her doing any of this.

The elf in the Southlands is also boring and uncompelling (so much so I don't even remember his name).  He starts as a stoic and invincible fighter in love with a human woman, and ends as a stoic and invincible fighter in love with a human woman.  He never grows or is challenged in any way.  Yeah, he has to defend a village form orcs.  And he just kills them all.

There is no tension in any scene with these characters.  They will effortlessly succeed in killing everything because the religious views of the writers dictates so.

The scene when Bronwynn is challenged by an orc in her home offers some kind of excitement, because up to this point Bronwynn hasn't done much of anything at all.  It would be easy to think she's in any sort of real danger, especially since she's hiding in a closet.  The threat of danger makes the scene interesting.  It has tension.  But the moment the orc finds her, it turns out she can expertly use a found sword to decapitate an orc in a single blow, and proudly shows off her kill in the very next scene.

Why is she able to effortlessly decapitate the orc?  Because it would be a form of blasphemy to show her failing in a fight against orcs, getting beaten by the orcs, or having to flee the orcs.  Especially if she fled the orcs to ask the men in the tavern for help.

From then on, there is no tension in any scene with Bronwynn.  She can get shot with an arrow then trapped in a burning house, and she'll still kill any orc that comes within a sword's length of her.  She does nothing to earn success.  She just succeeds.

None of this is commentary on the actors, who I'm sure are doing a fine job portraying these boring and unrelatable characters.  It annoys me when people blame the actors for the poorly written characters they play, because it isn't fair to them.   The actors don't get to write the characters, they just read the lines.  I really think the actress for Galadriel is doing a great job of playing the character in the script.  I think the actor for the elf in the Southlands is doing a great job acting the character in the script.  It's just the script.

These sorts of invincible, always-right, perfect characters are known as Mary Sues (or Marty Sues, if male).  Mary Sues are a form of self-insert wish-fulfillment on the part of the authors, and have long been understood to make horrible characters.  For the author writing it, it is probably very satisfying to always effortlessly triumph over every single obstacle in the story.  Maybe even therapeutic.  But for the audience it's boring.  

Unless the audience happens to be enough like the self-inserted author to get the same therapeutic effect.

Given the rigid orthodoxy that permeates the West Coast, and in particular in Hollywood and tech, I imagine almost everyone at Amazon who reviewed the script did think enough like the self-inserted authors to not notice how horribly dull these characters are.

Even Conan the Barbarian, the ultimate in male power-fantasy self-inserts, has been more challenged, tested to the limits, and nearly defeated than Galadriel.  Conan, for instance, never jumped off a ship to casually swim across an entire ocean on a mere whim.

I will contrast this again with characters in this same series like Nori, Disa, both Durins, Elrond, and Adar, who all have actual character depth and have to use their few strengths to overcome problems they otherwise couldn't face.

I will contrast this with, for instance, the original Brienne of Tarth (books, not show).  Like Galadriel in RoP, Brienne is a powerful warrior woman who can beat most men in combat.  But she also has limitations, such as being widely ridiculed, socially awkward, and self-conscious about her ugliness.  She faces challenges.  Some related to her social weaknesses.  But she also faces challenges in the area of her strength.  It isn't a given thing she'll win every combat.  Sometimes she loses.  Sometimes she wins but is so badly hurt it's hard to not see it as a loss.  It's interesting to read about her for this reason.  You can be worried for Brienne when she faces an issue, then relieved when she succeeds, because she doesn't effortlessly succeed.  She is a strong female character, not because of her arm strength but because of her character strength.

Most of the plots in RoP are ridiculous and uninteresting.  The entire plot with Numenor, beginning when Galadriel actually jumps off a boat and swims across an ocean, has no meaningful stakes or conflict, except for wondering when everyone will realize Galadriel has been right all along.  The Southlands plot, following a village of about forty people who nevertheless have an entire Numenorean army come rescue them, is completely preposterous.  

But despite its problems... I'm still watching it.  I think it's interesting enough to keep going back.  I want to see the pay-off of the hobbit plotline, and I've bought in to the dwarven plotline.  The Southland plotline is interesting only for the villain, but I love seeing him on screen.  The show isn't *really* Tolkien, and I don't view it as Tolkien.  I don't view "Galadriel" from RoP as being the actual Galadriel; she's just an elf warrior woman in a world with similar place names as Middle Earth, with a similar name as a character from LotR.  And maybe that mental separation is why I'm able to enjoy it.  

It's not a great show, and has serious issues.  But it's pretty decent show, and there are few enough shows about dwarves and elves out there, so I'll take it.

I went into it with an open mind.  The show has serious flaws in the writing.  But it's also got some truly good parts as well.

Note: since writing this, I binged a bunch of reviews by Men of the West, who had similarly mixed opinions, though picking out different threads to like or dislike.

I recognize most people hate the Harfoots.  And I agree.  I hate the Harfoots as people.  The first thing we learn about Harfoot society is that they all stick together and "nobody walks alone," and then the second thing we learn about Harfoot society is that they force you to walk alone if you can't pull a wagon fast enough.  And they'll take your wheels if you're really slow.  I just think the Nori/not-Gandalf thread is well done.  It has some hints of Willow.  If done as a standalone movie and by real writers, it has potential.

Men of the West was very excited by the Numenor thread, and really enjoyed the Southlands elf.  I thought they were boring and pointless.  Men of the West is really into the Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales, the Legendarium, and all the other thousand-year backstories for all the elf characters in LotR.  I've never read any of that.  My main connection to Tolkien is the Hobbit, which is still my favorite book, and LotR, which I loved as a teenager.  As far as I really care, the Hobbit is the backstory of Elrond from LotR.  He was excited to see characters like Elendil and Tar-Miriel on screen (who I had assumed were original characters), and so liked the Numenor plot.  He also thought the Southlands elf was very close to a real Tolkienian elf.  Whereas I just thought the character was stoic and boring.  He also got incredibly offended by the mithril story and Gil-Galad asking Elrond to break an oath due to lore reasons (which is where Men of the West officially began disliking the series), whereas I sort of just didn't care.  I knew that's not where mithril comes from and that they made up the elf/balrog story, and that mithril doesn't work that way, but I also wasn't invested enough to mind.

But Men of the West is another reviewer who went into this with an open mind, trying to weigh it fairly.  He got really offended by parts that honestly didn't bother me that much.  But overall I agree with a lot of his criticism of the writing in the series.

I think the writing team has one actual creative then three people with degrees in TV board room writing.  I think they assign the writing out by subject, and the one real creative keeps getting different parts at random.  He got the dwarves, he got the villain, he got Nori's character.  The rest went to the other writers, who only know how to rely on banal tropes to fill in time between the scenes they want to happen.

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