Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Rings of Power-Outage

We've been making a weekly ritual of watching the Amazon Prime series Rings of Power, and then spending an hour or so after each episode (both MrsDarwin and I in person, and also a friend back in Texas via Messanger) discussing what we've just seen.

This is not because what is on display is amazingly good. I suppose it's more like how I remember my parents watching the initial season of Star Trek the Next Generation and then sitting up after each episode to discuss how it could have been written better.


What the show does well is art direction. Virtually everything is visually interesting, and the camera seems to know this and spends lots of time lingering on striking images.  Some of these visually interesting things don't make a lot of sense. The Harfoots -- (proto-Hobbits) who are apparently nomads who use heavy wagons but no draft animals and are constantly weaving plants into their hair in ways which must be very impractical -- are prime offenders in the not-making-sense department. But all of it looks good, even if sometimes the visuals don't stand up to much thinking.

The biggest issue, to my mind, has been the writing. The show is structured as an eight episode season, reportedly the first of at least five seasons.  And yet, episodes do not have a self contained episode structure at all.  Each one juggles 3-5 separate storylines from sets of characters that seldom intersect, and rather than having an episode arc which resolves at the end of the episode, within a longer series arc which slowly moves forward, each episode is simply an installment of a clearly much longer story. As a result, after watching five episodes (more than half the season) we still have the feeling that the story is just getting off the ground and most of what we've seen is set up. The experience is like watching a massive, eight hour Marvel movie -- but with even more characters and a very slow moving overall plot.

Aside from this odd pacing, the writers have picked a set of plots which require them to present a lot of diplomacy and politics, and yet they also do not seem particularly good or interested in writing about those subjects. The compelling and memorable moments of Rings of Power are all small scale. This is not a Lion In Winter type story where the person politics sizzle, nor is it a Henry V where key scenes hinge on the ability of a leader to forge a personal connection with his followers and inspire them to accomplish something great. The most human moments here are small scale -- the affectional bickering of a dwarven couple, the struggle of a captured elf to escape, etc. 

I've heard it said that the controversial thing about the series is its multi-ethic casting. However, what struck me as more of an issue is the lack of any sense that the characters belong to specific peoples with histories. For instance, we see a dwarf princess who is played by a Black actress.  And yet, she has exactly the same faux Scottish accent which the series creators decided all dwarves should have.  There are not multiple peoples among the dwarves, with different accents and skin colors. It's just that this one character (one of the most engaging ones, I must say) is Black for no particular reason.

Similarly, among the group of proto-Hobbits, one of the leaders of the clan is Black and several others look vaguely ethnic, while all the others are white. They all have exactly the same accent. There are no apparent racial divisions between the Harfoots. They've just taken what might otherwise have been an all white group and thrown in a couple other ethnicities.  That might make sense in a school story or a suburban drama situated in a large and diverse country, but it seems a trifle unusual in a tiny band of hunter gatherers wandering Middle Earth. It's not that he's Black which is the issue.  They could easily have made the entire cast of Harfoots Black and that would have been completely explicable. But instead we get a racial sprinkling in a way that doubtless makes sense in Hollywood but makes little sense in an insular and primitive culture.

In Numenor too, we see little racial diversity overall, and yet the queen is clearly of some sort of mixed race or non-white background. Her father, whom we meet, is white as the proverbial sheet. As a friend pointed out: Numenor was formed out of three houses of men who had allied with the elves in the great war against Morgoth. The show-runners could have decided to have one of these houses be Black, and place more of an emphasis on Numenor being made up of three houses with different original backgrounds. That, again, would have provided a certain texture to the background. But instead what the writers spend a good deal of time talking about in Numenor is various guilds (builders, blacksmiths, etc.) which apparently have great power and stringent licensing requirements. 

Across multiple plot lines, I found myself wondering if the writers particularly believed in these cultures as stand alone cultures. 

The Harfoots are nomads, but they have a huge amount of heavy material ill suited to their wandering lifestyle, and some very odd technology choices such as using lanterns full of fireflies instead of lanterns containing a burning wick. They carry a massive book around with them in which is stored their lore, and they all wear textiles despite not having either wool bearing animals or fields of fibrous plants (nor does this seem likely to come from trade as they hide from all 'outsiders'.) So their material culture seems unlikely in many ways. And the scattershot approach to casting goes with this. Harfoots appear to be a very small population of diminutive humans. We get not particular indication that there are other bands of them, or that those bands meet and mix. And yet the differences in skin pigmentation, hair, eye color, etc. which we associate with "diverse" casting are differences which arose when human populations were separated for periods of thousands if not tens of thousands of years. 

This is not an argument against diversity in the overall cast of a series set in Middle East.  There is no reason that everyone in Middle Earth should be white. But it does seem like things should be explicable in terms of actual populations with movements and histories and cultures.  If a setting is supposed to be a cosmopolitan melting pot of different peoples from around middle earth, it would make sense for the characters there to be from a number of different backgrounds. But if a setting is supposed to be more insular, it seems like the casting should be based upon the idea that there are one or several distinct peoples who make up that setting. In this regard it would have made a lot more sense to have all the Harfoots be played by Black actors. (And for anyone who thinks such a thing doesn't make sense in the comparatively short timelines of Middle Earth: the European hunter gatherers, who populated the continent prior to the middle eastern farmers and steppe peoples migrating in, appear to have been people who had dark skin, and that's 6000 to 8000 years ago, an amount of time not shocking compared to Tolkien's ages.) Similarly, instead of casting a Persian actress to play Bronwyn while casting most of the rest of the people in the Southlands as generic medieval grunge, it would have been much more interesting to both cast all of those characters from that part of the world, and also to give them some kind of culture in terms of textiles and building styles.  As it stands, only Bronwyn even gets to wear colors, with everyone else wearing frayed rough cloth of grey or brown.

[From here the piece does mention plot points which occur within the first five episodes of Rings of Power, so feel free to skip if you do not want these revealed.]

 Although there's a lot one can criticize in the writing and pacing of the series, the gaping hole at the center is in world building and character. 

From a character point of view, the biggest single problem is with Galadriel. While in Tolkien's stories Galadriel is one of the greatest of the High Elves, here she is a lone warrior who is totally incapable of controlling her own mouth. In the first episode, we see her show her swordswoman prowess by easily killing a troll, and yet she's such a poor leader that she's blindsided when her entire group of followers mutinies and refuses to follow her any further. Then the elven kingdom of Gil Galad is so eager to get rid of her that they ship her off to Valinor, and Galadriel doesn't want to go so she jumps overboard at the last minute and spends nearly all her scenes in one episode swimming. After that she's picked up along with a shipwrecked human and taken to Numenor, where she's so bad at making friends an influencing people that she's thrown into jail where she's schooled by her human companion in very basic elements of how to tell what is important to other people and base your actions on that -- and she responds with a "oh really, I never thought of that!"  In her... what?  Five thousand years of life up to that point, she never noticed things like how to tell what's important to the person you're talking to and not kicking metaphorical sand at them?

Pretty much. But even then she can't learn and continues as the world's worst diplomat even down to the present episode.

And then we have an extremely hard-to-believe plot twist introduced in Ep5 where apparently during a fight between an elf warrior and a balrog back in the first age, the perfect balance of good and evil light was captured and infused into Mithril deep in the Misty Mountains, and now the elves are faced with a Mysterious Blight and they'll all be dead by spring unless they get lots of Mithril (which the dwarves have to mine for them) which will replace the light of Valinor for them and allow them to still have their powers because otherwise... things.

I should say, one moderately intriguing and wholly original thing in the series is an elf named Adar, who was clearly badly wounded at some point, and is now somehow in command of a large group of orcs who call him "father". The Orc Father (as I have been calling him) has had minimal screen time and only appeared much in episodes 4 and 5, but he hints at an interesting and conflicted background to an extent that few characters do. 

While the series is coy as to what is going on with the forces of darkness, it appears that in the wreckage of the previous war there are multiple dark leaders who are gradually drawing power to themselves and seeking to create realms in the area that will one day be Mordor, but that no one person is predominant while Sauron himself is not to be seen. It's one of the few seriously intriguing things about the series.

Overambitious and curiously under-executed, the series is frustrating to watch. We'll stick it out, at least through this season, but the writing is the great weakness here, and although a few elements of the long term arc seem interesting, the overall plot and world building simply don't have much of a touch.

No comments: