The series still, inevitably, suffers a little bit from the curse of the prequel – most of the characters’ fates are known. We can’t feel Elendil’s worry for Isildur because we know what happens to him, and the same goes for Galadriel, who is apparently impervious to volcanic eruptions. Bronwyn, Arondir, and Theo are all new characters, but since they are the only three Southlands characters (except Halbrand) that we’re following, they are unlikely to be killed off either – there are no redshirts left in their storyline. Unlike poor old Ontamo, the funny one of Isildur’s group, whose fate was sealed the moment he said he’d had enough of fighting last episode. RIP Ontamo, your comic relief moments will be sorely missed.
Thank goodness we still have Disa and Durin, who manage to combine humor and seriousness in a more effective way than any other characters on the show. Their storyline progresses the least in this episode, but it does culminate in a really chilling image. The shot of the Balrog awakening is the best use the series has yet made of nostalgia for the Peter Jackson movies or references to The Lord of the Rings in general. It also works especially well because even if you aren’t familiar with The Lord of the Rings, it’s a scary image. We have a strong sense from Durin III of how risky it is to mine so deep, and we know there might be a Balrog down there from Gil-galad’s story in episode 5. It’s a shame the episode didn’t finish on that image – seeing the phrase “The Southlands” fade into “Mordor” is a fun idea and nicely done, but we’ve all known that the Southlands were going to become Mordor for weeks, so it’s not quite as exciting as seeing a Balrog stir into action.
The Harfoots storyline has a distinct advantage over the others when it comes to the prequel-problem because all those characters are new. We don’t know for certain exactly who the Stranger is, but even assuming he is a character we’ll see again in a later incarnation, all the rest of the Harfoots are unknown in Tolkien’s lore and we genuinely don’t know what might happen to any of them, which means any time any Harfoot is in danger, it’s that much more uncertain and exciting for the audience.
The Harfoots themselves are becoming more rounded and relatable characters as well. There are some inconsistencies in how they have been portrayed across the series. Largo’s speech about staying true to each other is very nice, for example, but isn’t reflected in the Harfoots’ attitudes as seen in previous episodes. These are people who will leave a friend to die if they break their ankle! But we see them work towards helping their friends a bit more in this episode, and they also give us our latest Middle-earth twist on a common saying – Largo threatens anyone who would “harm a hair on her foot” instead of “her head,” because Harfoots, like Hobbits, have hairy feet. It’s a nice touch.
Although the big questions are still unanswered, we are starting to get answers to some of the smaller ones – most importantly for book fans, just what is going on with Galadriel and Celeborn, her husband? In the books, Galadriel and Celeborn are already married at this point, but living separately. In the show, Galadriel seems to believe that Celeborn is dead, describing him as “lost” and talking about the last time she saw him, when he was going off to war in badly-fitting armor. Again, we know he is alive, but the fact that Galadriel thinks he is dead may be significant in season 2.
This episode introduces a new bit of potential speculation as well – who is Theo? Galadriel gives him an Elvish sword. No human characters carrying Elvish swords that we haven’t already met from Tolkien’s lore spring to mind, so perhaps he is an entirely new character. In Tolkien’s lore, Isildur had a brother called Anárion who hasn’t appeared in the series. It’s most likely his role will go to Isildur’s newly invented sister Eärien, but it’s always possible Theo will join Elendil as a sort of adopted son at some point and take on the role instead, though that would make Anárion not a Númenorean, which would be a significant departure from Tolkien’s mythology.