On the moral universe of Amazon’s Rings of Power
As the first season ended in “Rings of Power,” Amazon’s entrée into the cape-and-dragon genre, I found myself cheering for the Orcs. Let me explain.
Amazon acquired the rights to a chunk of historical writings from the Tolkien estate that cover the “Second Age” of Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth. The writings comprise a high-level political history of sorts. Any dramatization of this material would necessarily entail filling in a fair bit of detail. Therein lay the peril for Amazon. Faced with a lot of white space, Amazon had to resort to its own constrained imagination.
What quickly becomes apparent is that the show writers are genuinely incapable of envisioning characters and motivations that meaningfully break from contemporary tropes. The Elves, being high-status, are dreadfully managerial. It felt like a walk down the halls of the Professional Managerial Class institutions where I cut my teeth. Celebrimbor is the grasping boomer boss. Elrond is a puckish and conniving striver. Gil-Galad is at once both politically calculating and hopelessly naive. Galadriel is the omni-competent girl boss who never owns the consequences of erratic decision making. These characters make decisions for banal reasons, based on personal ambition (i.e., Elrond rising through the ranks of Big Elf, seeking prestige) or personal revenge (Galadriel). The show writers went so far as to introduce a public health storyline. The Elves are dying, but for some reason being exposed to the magical metal mithril heals them. The problem demands a technocratic solution (supply-line management, logistics). You can imagine my relief when the show did not in the end subject us to a debate about mithril mandates.
On the flip side, the ancient ways, codes and superstitions of the low status folk are flippantly discarded. Over the course of the first season, we see the “Harfoots” – a proto-Hobbit people – inexplicably evolve from a traditional society with a strict way of life to the sort of society where people abandon ancient rites on the basis of pronouncements such as “that’s not who we are.” The little Harfoot protagonist is rewarded for her chief virtue – open mindedness – by getting the chance to ascend to the managerial class, leaving her people in favor of traveling with Gandalf and managing Middle Earth’s problems. Meanwhile, those reticent to embrace managerial rule face less charitable treatment. Arch-villain Al-Pharazon is cast as a populist, a Numenorian Trump of sorts, whose power derives from cultivating the resentment of low status dock workers who are concerned–I do not joke–that the Elves will move in and steal their jobs.
This is not the sort of society where chivalry is possible. There is no space here for the high romances of Beren and Luthien or Aragorn and Arwen. In this world, men and women are interchangeable, no courtship code governs their interactions, and any heroic feminine archetypes are obscured. As such, romances seem more akin to Tinder matches, arising from brute chemistry and directionless hanging out (“Netflix and chill”). Worse, the show is incredibly queer, and not in the Tolkienien sense. Many of the episodes would not pass a reverse Bechdel test.
That’s how a reasonable person could, despite Amazon’s prompting, end up cheering for the Orcs. The Orcs are a brotherhood and show solidarity with each other. They have devoted filial piety for their “father,” Adar. Perhaps the show’s best conceived character, Adar is a steadfast leader who seeks the commonweal of the Orcs. And the Orcs for their part make decisions based on a universally accessible logic that is comprehensible even to people who haven’t swallowed modern cultural conditioning. Faced with cruel natural forces where they cannot tolerate sunshine, they engineer for Mt. Doom to erupt and cover their lands in protective clouds. Faced with managerial Elves who view them as irredeemable and want to genocide them, these deplorables naturally resist. In the highpoint of the first season, as Adar delivered a rousing speech urging the Orcs rise up to claim a land of their own, free from Elvish tyranny, I found myself imagining a new, doubtless very different kind of Adar.
You can watch the show if you like. It’s far from the worst cape-and-dragon fare out there. For my part, I will continue to watch and cheer for the subversive Orcs who, despite Amazon’s best intentions, end up offering the viewer a compelling protest vote.
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