Season 1, Episode 6: ‘Udûn’
Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies won raves for their lengthy combat sequences, filled with fantasy beasts and spectacular backdrops, unlike anything ever seen before in a multiplex. Those scenes in turn inspired some of the most talked-about episodes of “Game of Thrones,” which devoted entire hours to armies at war. Now “The Rings of Power” has its first “battle episode” with “Udûn,” in which roughly two-thirds of the running time is spent on the orcs’ two swarming nighttime invasions of the human strongholds, followed by the tide-turning daytime arrival of the Númenórean forces.
The 45 minutes or so of nearly nonstop fighting stands up well to both “Game of Thrones” and the “Rings” films — though as was the case with those, it was also a little fatiguing. So far, each episode of this show has featured impressive action choreography, in scenes that stand out because they last for just a few minutes. The daredevil stunts and dynamic camera moves in this week’s episode are just as excellent; but when there are so many of them, they become less special.
That said, it is always exciting to see the likes of Halbrand, Galadriel and Arondir fight with skill and valor. The time the writers have taken to establish each of these characters makes it easier to pick out who’s who in the middle of any melee. Plus, the stakes of their skirmishes are always perfectly clear … which makes the ultimate outcome of the fighting this week all the more devastating.
Here are five takeaways from an episode that accelerated the plot in this series, before delivering a cruel twist.
The forces of darkness
Part of what made the action this week feel a little exhausting is that so much of it takes place either at night or indoors. This show has generally been refreshingly bright and colorful for a prestige drama, so the retreat into deep shadow didn’t just make the battles harder to see, it also felt a little like a disappointing fall back into a visual cliché, aping all the pitch-black “Game of Thrones” combat.
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Broken down into individual moments, though, there is a lot going during the night scenes, as the orcs and their minions first storm a mostly abandoned tower fortress and then, after a frustrating defeat (and a brief respite from all the fighting), make their way down to a nearby village where Bronwyn and her people have retreated to regroup and fortify. Arondir gets a well-deserved spotlight during much of this long sequence, showing off not just the archery skills we have seen throughout the series but also his brute strength when he has to fight hand-to-hand with the orcs.
In classic “just when all seems lost” pulp-fiction fashion, the nighttime battles end in a series of seemingly insurmountable losses. Arondir almost gets his eye gouged out. Bronwyn, who saves Arondir, gets pierced by an arrow and nearly bleeds out. The villagers make the mistake of peeking under the helmets of their attackers and see that many of the “orcs” they killed were actually humans — likely their former neighbors, who joined up with Adar at Waldreg’s behest. And, worst of all, Theo tries to save the day by handing over his much-coveted evil sword-hilt … right when we hear the rumble of horses’ hooves, off in the distance.
The cavalry rides in.
Those horses, of course, belong to the Númenóreans, led by Galadriel, who have made it across the sea to the Southlands just in time to save the day. I could quibble with the timing of all this, but unlike in “Game of Thrones,” where travel took ages for the first few seasons and then just a blink of an eye by the end, in “The Rings of Power” we have been given no specific sense of where all these characters have been all this season in their respective timelines. In other words: Galadriel could have started her expedition months ago, long before the humans even took up residence in the elves’ tower.
Anyway, the Númenóreans arriving when they do makes for better television. It makes for some more great action sequences too — and shot in daylight this time. Galadriel and Halbrand are especially impressive, dodging arrows and ducking off the sides of their horses to get a better slashing angle. It’s no wonder Theo gasps, “Who is that?” as Galadriel rides by.
Halbrand’s whole story arc so far has been one of my favorites of Season 1 — so much so that I now wish the writers had given him more screen time earlier. Still, I appreciate how he remains reluctant to embrace his place as the true king of the Southlands, even as he understands that the restoration of a ruler to a broken kingdom gives the humans a cause to rally around.
This week he even gets to face his old tormentor when his armies beat the orcs and capture Adar. But here’s the bitter irony: For all the importance the humans have attached to Halbrand coming home and dispatching his mortal enemies, when the king looks Adar straight in the eyes and asks, “Do you remember me?,” the villain says, sincerely, “No.” The humans have their agenda; but as we will see in the episode’s closing minutes, this is of little concern to Adar and his orcs.
The Adar question
After all the sword-fighting and archery in the first two-thirds of this episode, the long scene of Galadriel interrogating Adar was a welcome change of pace — and also a major advance of this season’s larger plot. Adar confirms that he is part of the race of elves who were transformed by Morgoth into the “sons of the dark,” becoming the first orcs. He also indicates yet again that he is not Sauron, and that Sauron abandoned his responsibilities to immerse himself in the study of “the power of the unseen world,” to heal Middle-earth and bring its ruined lands together. Adar even says that he, in fact, killed Sauron. (Perhaps he means this in a “Darth Vader killed Luke Skywalker’s father” way.)
Adar is actually sympathetic throughout this conversation, as he talks about the loved ones killed by Sauron’s ambitions, and as he reminds Galadriel that even orcs “have names and hearts.” And Galadriel doesn’t exactly cover herself with glory when she says, “Your kind was a mistake,” and tells Adar she intends to eradicate every orc except him, so he can witness the end of his race. Galadriel was exiled from Lindon because Gil-galad felt she had become as much the cause of the elves’ problems as the solution. Adar echoes these sentiments when he tells her that he apparently is “not the only elf alive who has been transformed by darkness.”
And they lived happily ever … oh, wait.
As I hit the one-hour mark of this episode, I wondered if I had been mistaken about Season 1 of “The Rings of Power” containing eight episodes. Even though there were no dwarves, Harfoots or Elrond this week, it sure seemed like we were reaching a natural endpoint. Adar had been captured and Halbrand had claimed the throne. Time to reset for Season 2.
But remember when Arondir described Theo’s purloined sword-hilt as a kind of key? Well, in the closing minutes we find out what that means, as Waldreg plunges it into a lock in the ground, setting off a chain of events that involves avalanches and floods, forcing water through the underground tunnels the orcs have been busily building and causing a nearby mountain to spew lava and ash, blotting out the sun.
Fans of the “Rings” movies may have noticed how the elves’ tower fortress in the Southlands looks a little like Sauron’s Dark Tower. Now the exploding volcano resembles Mount Doom, the central landmark of Sauron’s evil kingdom of Mordor. These may not actually be the same locations, just like Adar — or so he insists — is not Sauron. But it sure seems like the orcs have set in motion exactly what Galadriel has spent years trying to warn everyone would happen. In the episode’s final shot she stands still and silent as the ash engulfs her — consumed at last by the darkness she has spent her whole life hunting.