After last week’s fire and brimstone, it was inevitable that things would calm down for the penultimate outing of The Rings of Power (Amazon Prime Video). Episode seven - The Eye - served as an intake of breath before what we hope will be a grand finale. Apart from anything else, we needed to catch up with the shorter characters, who were left out of all the hacking and slashing in the Southlands.
While episode seven played out at a slower tempo, it benefitted from the fresh momentum. Say what you like about a pyroclastic flow, it concentrates the mind. The volcano has galvanised the drama, giving everyone a focal point and making it clear what the stakes are, namely the destruction of the world. (Or in the case of the orcs, the creation of some welcome Lebensraum where they can roam without constantly applying the SPF50.)
Most literally, the volcano united Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and co with the migrating Harfoots, helping to create a clearer sense of Middle-earth's geography. The Southlands might be right underneath the volcano, burned to an ashy Martian-red crisp, but the Harfoots were within flaming rock's reach. Their harmless caravan of scrumpers took quite a pounding this week. No sooner had they got things back on track, thanks to The Stranger's potent green thumb, than they were attacked again by the creepy white-hoodie crew, who were hot on his tail.
Speaking of horticulture, by now it is clear that this programme, like any sapling, is best when it is outdoors. The early instalments, whether the action was in fantastical cities or floating on a raft or chatting in underground dining rooms, were mostly shot on sets. When it is indoors, there is a heightened artificiality about the set design which repels the suspension of disbelief. The light is a bit shiny, the costumes too clean. The post-brawl Númenoreans, their white armour dented and dusty, faces covered in mud, are a more plausible proposition than they were as goody two-shoes at home.
During the debrief after the battle we were treated to more New Zealand, and hence more of the grandeur the scale of the subject demands. Tar-Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), so haughty at home, was humbled by her new condition. At last the violence has consequences.
The contrast was clear with the subterranean industrial dispute over in Khazad-dûm that took up most of the rest of the episode. I realise there is a lot at stake for the elves, but this plot strand is basically about health and safety regulation. Being trapped in a mine seems preferable to listening to any more about whether they ought to dig out the mithril. The ding dong between Durins pater & filius was heated but the son will surely prevail, and it was all too shiny. I found myself staring at their beards. They're spotless. What is their routine?
Finally, hours and hours in, we are seeing glimpses of the programme The Rings of Power could be, and might yet become: an epic family-friendly drama with memorable characters, large themes and enough resources to do justice to the visuals. Filming has begun on series two, a chastening lesson that perhaps newspaper critics are not the most powerful people in entertainment. The showrunners gave an interesting interview to the Hollywood Reporter this week, addressing some of the criticisms and explaining their desire that their work would stand up to multiple rewatches. That may be, but the point stands that you could have started watching last week and you would not have missed anything important.
Before the credits rolled, Adar (Joseph Mawle) wondered what to call his new shadowy realm. In a surprising production decision, it was left to the on-screen text to confirm what we knew. At long last, Mordor. We've been expecting you. Later the heroes will have to save the world from your darkness, but for now we are grateful you have alleviated the dullness.