What about those who haven’t seen the earlier movies or read the books and have no knowledge of Tolkien’s world? It’s certainly a lot to take in, that much is true! But the series doles out its exposition in chunks, breaking it up to allow new viewers to follow along. We know that the series will eventually introduce us to at least 18 core cast members from four different peoples (Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Harfoots), and at least six different cultures (Ñoldorian Elves, Silvan Elves, Men of the Southlands, Númenorean Men, Dwarves from Moria, and the Harfoots). We only meet four out of the six in episode 1 and by episode 2 there’s still one group and some significant characters we haven’t yet met, so viewers can get to grips with the interlocking storylines and the lead characters of each slowly. The downside to that, of course, is that much of the first two episodes is dedicated to set-up and exposition, with a bit more to come.
Episode 1, “Shadow of the Past,” suffers from that expositional nature in particular. It’s a rather sweet sort of tribute to Tolkien’s Chapter 2 of The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow of the Past,” which was also very heavy on exposition, and it carries it off pretty well, but there’s no denying it’s largely an hour of getting to know everyone. Episode 2 weaves in a bit more action while also continuing to introduce characters and cultures. Having said that, episode 1’s climax is especially strong and combines emotion and foreboding to great effect, while episode 2 finishes on an intriguing but less exhilarating note.
The series has a romanticized tone that suits Tolkien’s world very well. It’s really nice to see epic, high fantasy in the Tolkien style – there’s romance but not explicit sex; there’s war and violence and tragedy, but not masses of gore. The whole thing is a dramatic story aimed at adults and taken seriously, but it doesn’t throw in “adult” content for the sake of it, and it’s suitable for younger teens and families to watch together. That’s not meant as a criticism of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, both of which we love. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sex and violence in adult entertainment, it’s just nice to have options!
The acting is all-round excellent, mostly from a not particularly well-known cast, with the obvious exception of Lenny Henry, and even he is not well known outside the UK. He is brilliant as ever, playing a lively but wise Harfoot leader. The series really rests on the shoulders of Morfydd Clark as Galadriel though, who does extremely well playing a character who could conceivably be a younger version of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel without imitating Blanchett’s performance.
Whether you’re a book reader, film fan, or new viewer, Galadriel is our guide through this world, and the main character we’re following (ably assisted by Markella Kavenagh’s Nori Brandyfoot, Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn, Ismael Cruz Cordova’s Arondir and Robert Aramayo’s Elrond). Clark is a perfect choice for the role, managing to combine the ethereal, the tough (Galadriel here is much more of a warrior than her later incarnation) and the likable to draw viewers into her world.
Overall, we’re impressed so far. It’s hard to judge two episodes that give us so much set-up and exposition without knowing where the rest of the series is going. These episodes effectively do what early episodes need to do, which is to get us invested in these characters and their stories and excited to watch the next installment. How well they stand up on repeated viewings will depend on how satisfying those later installments turn out to be.