The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power Brings A 'Great Wave' Of Doom Over A Scattershot Episode

Ensemble shows like "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" tend to come with a built-in disadvantage compared to smaller stories with less sprawling casts. With so many characters and only so much narrative real estate to go around, J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations have always had their work cut out for them.

Director Peter Jackson navigated around this potential obstacle thanks to the very structure of "The Fellowship of the Ring" — first we meet Gandalf and our primary hobbit protagonists, then Aragorn, and then the rest of the Fellowship organically (and various other supporting characters) after it's no longer so overwhelming. For a better comparison within the same medium, "Game of Thrones" began by throwing nearly every major character into one location and then followed their progressively disparate journeys into every corner of Westeros. In both cases, the respective stories established strong foundations upon which viewers could easily branch out into the wider world without confusion or losing their footing.

Despite how much the premiere of "The Rings of Power" echoed the beginning of "The Fellowship of the Ring," the Prime Video series still took a much more disparate approach that hastily introduced audiences to several new characters in several different locations, one right after the other, and more or less forced us to keep up. Last week's episode trimmed back on its scale a bit, leaving certain plotlines dangling in favor of exploring others, and the result was a much more streamlined and thematically coherent hour.

The same can't quite be said for episode 4, titled "The Great Wave." Although the main threads are linked by a shared feeling of impending doom and open war threatening to break out — resulting in some of the show's absolute best moments — some wheel-spinning subplots, the addition of even more minor characters, and a few questionable storytelling choices can't help but make this episode feel like butter scraped over too much bread.

Omens and portents

You know what's underrated? When writers don't hold back on crucial details as some sort of a twist to be revealed and instead lean on foreshadowing to maximize drama ... even if that means "giving away" the ending, so to speak.

As someone who knows far too much Middle-earth lore than should be socially acceptable, it's been tricky to talk about the kingdom of Númenor without quite being sure of what would be considered a spoiler for "The Rings of Power." Thankfully, that question was put to rest during the very opening scene of episode 4. In the most haunting sequence of the show so far, Queen Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) dreams about a vision that has haunted her for quite some time now — the seemingly inevitable destruction of the island via a monstrous tsunami.

Here's our first real glimpse into what's driving this mysterious queen regent, who's presented initially as an antagonistic force to Galadriel (Morfyyd Clark) but otherwise seems to genuinely have her kingdom's best interests at heart. Between this vision, last week's tease of her unseen royal father, and Galadriel's repeated promises to return to Middle-earth with an army, it's clear that Míriel has been set up for a significant role moving forward.

From what we've seen of them so far, the Númenoreans are a proud and stubborn people, descending from a rich lineage of ancestors who fought side by side with elves against the might of Morgoth. Although they now live in an idyllic "paradise" (to use Halbrand's own word, which seems increasingly more ill-suited by the second) at the height of their power, the cracks are already beginning to show.

Cleverness vs. wisdom?

Take the awfully blunt and heavy-handed scene that follows, for example, when an angry mob rails against Galadriel's sudden appearance and blames elves for all their own ills. Led by one of the men injured by Halbrand, the rant even goes so far as to use common right-wing talking points about how scary boogeymen are coming to steal your jobs. In this instance, Fox News' racist coverage of migrant "caravans" is substituted for Númenorean xenophobia directed towards elves, stemming from jealousy over their immortal lives. I'm not entirely convinced the comparison lands quite as well as intended, particularly when lily-white Galadriel remains the target of this paranoia over foreigner invaders, but the hearts of the writers, credited in this episode to Stephanie Folsom and J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, are in the right place, at least.

This gives Chancellor Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle) a chance to shine, turning a potentially explosive situation into an amusingly effective political rally complete with free drinks and a heaping dose of slimy politicking. Fanning the flames of fear and mistrust of the elves even more, this feels reminiscent of countless "America first!" talking points we've heard over the years. But more than anything else, Pharazôn's stunt demonstrates just how shrewd he is and perfectly proves his earlier point to his son Kemen (Leon Wadham) about the difference between cleverness and wisdom ... as he sees it, anyway.

Onlookers Kemen and Eärien (Elendil's daughter and Isildur's sister played by Ema Horvath) are less impressed than their easily-swayed countrymen, however, giving us one small group of reasonable Númenoreans whom we can identify with. Unfortunately, when combined with the dead weight of Isildur's (Maxim Baldry) sailing trial and the visions of "the real Númenor" he's experiencing, this romantic meet cute feels like one subplot too many in an already-stuffed episode.

Trouble in the Southlands

How densely-packed is this episode? Well, we haven't even addressed the events unfolding in the Southlands yet. Last week's cliffhanger with the orc leader Adar comes into focus here, finally revealing actor Joseph Mawle (known for portraying Benjen Stark in "Game of Thrones") as what seems to be a corrupted elf. Adar's aura of menace, casual violence, and the reverence he inspires and reciprocates among the loathsome orcs — to say nothing of the god complex he reveals to Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) — suggests some interesting layers for this villain to be uncovered in the weeks ahead. Is this some avatar for Sauron himself? I don't know, but I do know this much: I fully expect an evil emo who goes by the elvish word for "dad" to inspire plenty of smutty online fanfic.

While Arondir is set free to deliver a warning to the Southlanders gathered at the watchtower, reckless teen Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) gets into trouble of his own when he ventures into town for food. Predictably, he's beset by orcs; surprisingly, they're aware of the broken sword he carries (referred to as "the hilt") and seem intent on recovering it at all costs. In director Wayne Che Yip's most thrilling stylistic flourish, the scene of Theo's attempted escape is shot in one take, reminiscent of a video-gamey evasion sequence right out of "Assassin's Creed," until the moment he's caught by a keen-eyed orc.

The resulting set piece where Arondir saves the day provides all the action in the episode, further setting up a rapidly approaching conflict with Adar and his army of orcs, but the major takeaway occurs when the barkeeper Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) spills the details about that pesky sword hilt, hinting at a secret society of Morgoth/Sauron-sympathizers amongst the Southlanders and that trouble is coming, in more ways than one.

Secrets, secrets are no fun...

Perhaps no storyline suffers more from the episode's constant skipping around than the events unfolding in and around Khazad-dûm, now set apart both geographically and thematically from the rest of the show in a narrative island of its own. After taking the last episode off (this week sees the harfoots placed on the sidelines), we return to Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) as they oversee the tower that will eventually host the great forge beginning to take shape. But when alerted to Prince Durin's (Owain Arthur) elusive behavior, Elrond seeks out his dwarf friend to get to the bottom of his apparent secret. Of course, this has to do with that glowing object teased two weeks ago, which is revealed to be a newly discovered ore that Elrond names mithril — an unparalleled metal with the power to revolutionize the dwarven way of life.

Although it does its best to justify its existence thematically, with Elrond and Durin bonding over their daddy issues, this storyline can't avoid the pervasive feeling of running in place until more substantial events come to pass.

Back in Númenor, Galadriel's repeated confrontations with Míriel fare better in this regard, boasting some genuinely clever parallels between the two women that also drives the plot forward significantly. Despite her stirring speech to convince the queen regent to add her swords to the fight against Sauron in the Southlands, Galadriel's protests land on deaf ears. When Galadriel escapes jail to petition the kingdom's "true ruler" in the form of Míriel's kingly father, she only finds a sickly old man and a queen who she has more in common with than she thought. Here, Míriel's ominous visions help Galadriel realize that the two are burdened by knowledge that nobody else knows or believes — Galadriel with her hunt for Sauron, the queen with Númenor's destruction.

Admittedly, Míriel abruptly backtracking on sending Galadriel back to the elves and instead announcing her intentions to accompany Galadriel to Middle-earth with an army feels ... off. As stirring as those concluding moments are, it plays like a cheap and totally unnecessary dramatic reversal. Much like the overall episode, the promising broad strokes of this story come across diminished by some shoddy execution.

Riddles in the dark and other stray thoughts

  • Dreaming of Doom: Those who've read Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" will have a leg up on the significance of the tsunami imagery as it pertains to Númenor. One significant reference comes from the character of Faramir, whose dream of a "great wave" overtaking all of Middle-earth evokes the downfall of his Númenorean ancestors. Fun fact: Tolkien's inspiration for this motif comes from his own tsunami-plagued nightmares ... which he later found out was also a recurring dream shared by his son Michael. Spooky!
  • Far Out: The Khazad-dûm storyline isn't a complete bust, mind you. The appearance of mithril should sound alarm bells for book readers and those who remember the Mines of Moria exposition in "The Fellowship of the Ring." But in another neat moment of visual flair from director Wayne Che Yip, we get a brief moment where we see Elrond's heightened senses from his own perspective, allowing him to discern where Durin is hiding out from across a large distance. Is this an example of the elven gift of foresight? Maybe not, but here's hoping we see more of it moving forward.
  • Dynamic Duo: Shippers, this one is for you. The bickering dynamic between Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) and Galadriel continues to drive one of the best character pairings in the entire show. A hilarious smash cut from Galadriel's impassioned speech directed at the queen to her imprisonment behind bars gives Halbrand the chance to discuss the difference between her aggressive sword-fighting mentality versus the fine art of strategically handling royal egos. Despite what some naysayers claim, Galadriel is repeatedly depicted as brash and flawed (as is Halbrand) in a refreshing and honest way.
  • The Lost Seeing Stones: The penultimate scene between Míriel and Galadriel reveals one other key bit of lore, as well: the palantír. The Middle-earth equivalent of long-distance calling, these seven powerful objects were likely crafted by the legendary elf Fëanor and played a significant role in "The Lord of the Rings." The description of the other six stones already being lost might be a departure from Tolkien's text, at least during this specific moment in time, but we'll have to wait and see how this ultimately plays out.