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A big draw of the fantasy genre is the way it so often presents the world in binary terms: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and not much else in between. Yet it is this in-between area that The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Episode 5, “Partings”, is largely concerned with picking up where Episode 4 left off, with our heroes continuing to serve as their own worst enemies. “Partings” takes this theme one step further, with several characters now being forced to agonize over make-or-break choices that aren’t easily labeled as “good” or “bad”. The result of this is an extra layer of moral ambiguity in the proceedings that comes as a welcome addition – not just for The rings of power episode 5, but also for the show’s broader view of Middle-earth itself.
If this all sounds a bit too abstract for a show that pulls from the JRR Tolkien playbook, rest assured that episode 5’s obscurity manifests itself in other, more tangible ways, even seeping into the story. We get partial answers to many of The rings of power‘s main ongoing mysteries – like why the orcs seem fixated on Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) – but we’re also left with a lot of questions. How exactly are Adar and Sauron connected? What’s the deal with the Stranger (aka “Meteor Man”) and is he friend or foe? How does the Sauron sword “unlock” the return of the Dark Lord? “Partings” doesn’t say anything, and the arrival of some suitably sinister Sauron followers halfway through the episode only clouds the water further.
This confusion is inherent in the design; showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, who worked for puzzle box maker JJ Abrams’ company Bad Robot before landing their dream gig, know that guessing games are a surefire way to keep us on the hook. But while speculating about things like Sauron’s true identity is undeniably fun, what is? For real interesting about The rings of power Episode 5, and what ultimately makes it work so well is the hitherto unseen uncertainty surrounding the characters. the hobbit and Under the spell of the Ring dubious men, elves and dwarves – and the One Ring provided the perfect morale-testing McGuffin – but the best, most moral course of action is always clear (to the audience, if not always the characters themselves). This does not apply to ‘Separations’.
Throughout the episode, director Wayne Che Yip and writer Justin Doble perform dramatic encounters that cannot be easily reduced to “side with good and defeat evil.” Whether we’re talking about Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) weighing the merits of a bloody war on foreign soil, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) brooding over his duty to his friend versus his obligation to his people, Bronwyns (Nazanin Boniadi) faltering Determined in the face of the impending genocide, and Nori’s (Markella Kavenagh) continued faith in the unstable Stranger (Daniel Weyman), it’s hard to say who will be on the right side of history once the dust settles. It’s a definite shift from Tolkien’s novels and Peter Jackson’s big-screen adaptations, which at least give it a boost. The rings of power closer The Silmarillion in terms of its general characterization and tone.
Somewhat inevitably, the tensions in “Partings” also run higher than we are used to in stately Middle-earth. Forget the lofty voices during The Fellowship of the Ring‘s Council of Elrond scene or even the tense exchanges between Gandalf and Denethor in The Return of the King — people are sincere angry in this episode. From the passive aggression between Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) and Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to the open hostility whipped up by Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) at the Southlands encampment, The rings of power Episode 5 really hammers home the barely contained resentment that rages within the various communities of this world.
It all feels very messy – in a good way. It also feels very faithful The rings of powersource material, even if “Partings” deviates even further from Tolkien’s established canon. How the Mithril subplot develops in Episode 5 is a perfect example; Yip, Doble and (presumably) Payne and McKay come up with a wild origin story for Mithril, and continue it by revealing the legendary metal’s apparent ability to charge the elves’ immortality. It’s enough to make a purist shudder, but by using this plot point as a way to explore (and test) the bond between Elrond and Durin IV, Yip and Doble touch on a theme central to Under the spell of the Ring: friendship.
The same goes for the events in the Southlands in ‘Partings’. Much of what’s going on here involves: The rings of power‘s creators embellishing Tolkien’s legendarium – you won’t find many of these characters or events in the “official” history of Mordor or his southern allies. But Tolkien is doing talk about men who voluntarily join Sauron; he just doesn’t unpack the “why” of all this in any real detail or nuance, and Jackson went on to follow suit. “Partings” bucks this trend by expanding existing knowledge, and (consistent with the rest of the episode) what we learn isn’t as clear cut as the folks of the South with innate bad tendencies.
Instead of, The rings of power Episode 5 offers a more challenging explanation for why Waldreg and his minions decide to share their fate with Sauron: social mobility. They sincerely believe that their quality of life will improve under the rule of the Dark Lord. Tolkien famously disliked allegory with a passion hotter than the fires of Mount Doom, but he also recognized the potential of his novels to be “applied” to real life (and vice versa), and it certainly seems to are what Yip and Doble are aiming for here. After all, it doesn’t take much to make comparisons between our own socio-political climate and the Southlanders who flock to a dubious savior after years of grinding under the elven elite.
Then there is the Númenórean side of things, and this too reflects the thorny morality involved in The rings of power Episode 5. Aside from Míriel’s hand-wringing over the future of the island kingdom, we also get Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) manipulating each other for much of the episode’s running time, albeit without any real malice. Eärien (Ema Horvath) and Kemen (Leon Wadham) are likewise forced to take drastic measures for the greater good, even if what we already know about Middle-earth history doesn’t exactly support their anti-war stance. Indeed, the only person in Númenor who has nothing out of the ordinary is Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle). The Queen Regent’s advisor finally lays out his plan to seize power in this episode, and if not… quite what Tolkien described in The Silmarillionthe Machiavellian spirit of it is still roughly in the same ballpark.
Ultimately, though, the best thing about the moral ambiguity in “Partings” isn’t that it leads to richer characterizations or even expands on Middle-earth knowledge. It’s the way the shadows cast by this ambiguity make the few glimmers of hope in the episode shine all the brighter. With every new episode, The rings of power makes it increasingly clear that this world still has a chance – as long as Galadriel, Elrond, Nori and the rest continue to work to get better and do good for those around them. This sentiment is purely Tolkien, and his continued presence bodes well for The rings of power‘s remaining episodes, no matter how dark things get.