The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power recap: A shadow falls over the Southlands

Welcome back to Middle-earth, where we are now digging into the aftermath of last week's big battle.

We last saw Galadriel closing her eyes as a wave of black smoke from the newly-activated Mount Doom swept over her. Surprise surprise, the main protagonist of the show is not actually dead. But she has been separated from the rest of the Númenóreans she came with. She does find Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) though, which is good because the kid could probably use someone to look after him.

As they make their way through the ash-covered land, hiding from orcs like the hobbits hiding from Nazgul in The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel explains to Theo that the orcs have transformed the Southlands into their own "shadowland," more fit for their bodies' needs than those of elves or men. Honestly, it's a pretty impressive feat of terraforming. Not to overdo my sympathy for Team Orc, but they have really carved a place for themselves in the world. They exist, so why shouldn't they be allowed to live? We know there's room for the displaced humans of the Southlands in the rest of Middle-earth — Gondor and Rohan haven't even consolidated into kingdoms yet!

The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power' recap: The Eye
The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power' recap: The Eye

Prime Video Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.'

Galadriel also tells Theo something else — that she hasn't seen her lover, Celeborn, in ages and believes him to be dead. I was admittedly a little confused by Galadriel saying that they first met when he came upon her dancing in a field of flowers. That's actually the meeting of Beren and Luthien, the legendary love story at the heart of The Silmarillion that was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien's real-life romance with his wife. As much as I enjoy identifying references to The Silmarillion in this show, moments like this almost make me wish this show was just adopting those rich, mythic stories instead of playing karaoke. In any case, we know Celeborn isn't actually dead, because he'll be there in Lothlorien to greet Frodo et al in The Fellowship of the Ring! Maybe he and Galadriel just ended up on opposite sides of the continent or something? But we've already seen Galadriel travel across leagues and leagues of hard terrain, so you'd think she would've found him if he's out there… again, it's confusing.

Speaking of characters who are supposedly dead but we viewers know actually aren't, Isildur (Maxim Baldry) ends up in a bad spot. One of his comrades, the one who vowed to stay behind in the Southlands and help the population find its footing, is dead under debris, and soon Isildur gets trapped as well. After that, we don't see him for the rest of the episode, and neither do the other characters. Elendil (Lloyd Owen) is hopeful when he sees Isildur's horse, but unfortunately his son is nowhere to be found. This is another frustrating source of contrived drama, since we know Isildur will be alive and well by the time of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.

I much prefer when Rings of Power focuses on its original creations, or characters who won't make it to The Lord of the Rings proper, because they have potential for actual surprises and twists. Case in point: The most compelling moment in this episode is when Queen-Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) realizes she's been blinded by the volcanic event. She asks Elendil how much longer they'll be stuck wading through smoke — but as both he and viewers at home can see, their company has already made it through the smoke. So her vision is just gray and cloudy all on its own. It's like her father told her: Only darkness awaited her in Middle-earth. She just didn't realize he was being so literal.

This injury is an awful surprise, and gives resonance to Elendil's bitter declaration that he should have just left Galadriel in the sea where he found her. But Míriel, despite her blindness, is optimistic. She declares that the Númenóreans will return, in even greater strength, to avenge their setbacks at Adar's (Joseph Mawle) hands. That sounds nice… but I also have to wonder if she'll still have the political advantage over Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle) when she returns home to the island, or if he'll be able to take power on a more isolationist platform.

The elves and men aren't the only people affected by Mount Doom's eruption, however. When the Harfoots finally make it to the Grove, which they have previously told us is a utopia of fruit trees and other foodstuffs, they find it blackened and ashen as well. The Stranger (Daniel Weyman) tries using his magic to revive the trees. At first this only seems to damage the trees further, and Sadoc (Lenny Henry) angrily shoos him away. But when they wake up the next morning, sure enough, the trees are all revived and full of fruits.

That's some pretty powerful magic! In fact, it doesn't go unnoticed. That night, our trio of silent white-clad weirdos arrive at the Grove too, chasing the Stranger's trail. Cheered up by the Stranger's aid, Nori (Markella Kavenagh) helpfully emerges from hiding and points them in the direction he went. Without saying a word, they reward her kindness by… burning the Grove again. Oh well. With nothing keeping them there, the Harfoot leadership decides to set off after the Stranger themselves, in order to truly repay his help by aiding him against whatever these people want with him.

The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power' recap: The Eye
The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power' recap: The Eye

Ben Rothstein/Prime Video The three mysterious figures chasing the Stranger in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.'

This episode also takes us back to Khazad-dûm, where a serious family conflict is brewing. Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) wants to give his friend Elrond (Robert Aramayo) some of their mithril in order to help the elves with their vaguely-defined sickness, but King Durin III (Peter Mullan) is adamant in his opposition. After all, as he points out, the destiny of the elves was decided by Iluvatar himself eons ago — if this is their fate, who are the dwarves to interfere?

This is actually a pretty good point, but it doesn't go over well with the younger generation. Disa (Sophia Nomvete) tells her husband that he should force the king's hand, so the younger Durin takes Elrond to see the mithril vein in the mountain. They discuss their earlier rock-splitting contest, and Elrond says he purposefully lost in order to catch Durin's ear on the way out — which sounds like bluffing, but whatever. This friendly moment is interrupted by the king, who promptly kicks Elrond out of Moria and then has a private conversation with his son. Said conversation gets very intense, with the king talking about how sick his son was as a baby, and the prince invoking his mother as a reason they should help the elves. It goes so far that Durin III rips off Durin IV's golden necklace, which seems to be some form of disowning him.

It would definitely be helpful if we had a better sense of what the elves' problem even is. I know a black leaf is disturbing to look at, but it's still just one leaf. Is a plague spreading across the forests of Lindon at a rapid pace? Are elves themselves getting sick? We haven't seen any of that. We know from Tolkien lore that the elves believe their problem is real, because they will eventually forge their three rings of power in order to preserve themselves, but in the absence of more evidence I find the king's skepticism sympathetic. In fact, he's totally right! Because we know from Lord of the Rings that the dwarves' mining of mithril will eventually awaken the Balrog that will destroy the dwarves' entire kingdom.

Oh, you forgot about that? Well, don't worry, because this episode literally ends with a glimpse of the Balrog at the bottom of the mithril mine. That's almost frustratingly on the nose, as are the title cards that tell us the Southlands have officially become Mordor. But for anyone who missed the implications, that's where we are and where we're headed in Middle-earth. B-

For more on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, listen to EW's new podcast All Rings Consideredfeaturing in-depth episode breakdowns and exclusive interviews.

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