The idea of devoting an entire episode to a single conflict was perfected, of course, by Game of Thrones with installments like season 2’s “Blackwater,” season 4’s “The Watchers on the Wall,” and season 8’s “The Long Night.” These in turn were partly inspired by the lengthy Battle of Helm’s Deep sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But those sequences featured more actual fighting than this one does. In fact, the episode doesn’t quite seem to want to commit to the conflict-driven setting, breaking up the pace with quiet conversations about horses or trees, but it does bring the story into focus and provide considerably more plot movement than previous episodes, which have had to spread their runtime across more storylines.
This kind of pre-battle or mid-battle character work can be a really satisfying way to build up to a big death, but its effectiveness is a little bit limited here because we haven’t really spent quite enough time with these characters beforehand (perhaps excepting Galadriel) to really care if any of them die in battle. With four competing storylines, we barely know most of them, and none of the significant characters (Arondir, Bronwyn, Theo, Galadriel, Halbrand, Elendil, Isildur, Míriel, Adar) actually die anyway.
Ultimately, the battle resolves itself in a pretty predictable manner, with Númenor charging in to save the day just as all hope seems lost for the Southlanders. But there’s more to it than that. The final quarter of the episode is devoted to the aftermath of the fighting. We get a bit more information about Adar, but the biggest takeaway there is that he claims to have killed Sauron – which, of course, we know is not true, there are six movies that tell us so. He calls himself “Uruk” but he is an ancient Orc, not one of Saruman’s later Uruk-Hai – Saruman is not only still a good guy at this point in the story, he is not even on Middle-earth yet, and his Uruk-Hai could move in daylight.
We see quite a lot of Halbrand, and the final part of this episode certainly provides some ammunition for the Halbrand-is-Sauron theory. He is extremely angry at Adar, which would make sense if Adar had tried to kill him, and he asks if Adar remembers him. Adar asks who he is with some interest, and then he is hailed as King of the Southlands (right before the entire village is swept away). The actual destruction of the dam is carried out by the irritatingly-still-alive Waldreg, who could have been acting under orders from Halbrand, who might have been able to swap the sword hilt for an axe after helping Galadriel to recover it. But we still lean towards a different, Ringwraith-shaped fate for Halbrand (his character and actions just don’t seem to match what Sauron should be up to at this point), but it’s fair to say this episode provides plenty of hints that Halbrand might not be who he says he is.
There are some other effective moments in the episode. The discovery by the Southlanders that their own people are fighting with the Orcs against them is horrifying and well done, and Bronwyn talking Theo through her own medical treatment is appropriately wince-inducing as well. The action itself is decent enough, with Orc blood dripping into Arondir’s mouth an especially memorable image. Galadriel also introduces us to a new expression – “eat your tongue” instead of “bite your tongue” is rather good, and should make its way into everyday usage.
The sequence in which Galadriel chases down Adar and his evil sword hilt on horseback through the woods is a clear re-working of the famous – and brilliant – chase scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Arwen just barely escapes from all Nine Ringwraiths, all on horseback. Galadriel is even whispering the same word (“nurolîm” which is Elvish for “faster”) to her horse. It’s a nice call back, though it does make Halbrand’s solution to end the chase (knocking out Adar’s horse’s legs) a little bit underwhelming in comparison with Arwen’s (raising a river to sweep away the Riders).