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‘The Rings of Power’ Surprisingly Positions Sauron as a Protagonist

We dig into the Rings of Power Episode 9 and consider how it challenges how Sauron operates in the books and previous adaptations.
Rings Of Power Episode
Amazon Prime
By  · Published on October 16th, 2022

Middle-earth Explained is our new ongoing series, where we delve into the latest Lord of the Rings-related shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry examines The Rings of Power Episode 8 and how it recontextualizes Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor.

The Sauron guessing game is over. After eight episodes, The Rings of Power finally reveals its hand. The Dark Lord is not the Stranger (Daniel Weyman) who fell from the sky or the Dark Elf Adar (Joseph Mawle) storming his Orcs across the Southlands. He is the sweetie who pulled Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) from her watery grave. He’s the masquerading Southland king, the wretch with the five o’clock shadow, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers).

The reveal is not a terrible shock. For weeks, many were speculating on such a twist. Halbrand wooing Galadriel to his dark thinking recalls her exchange with Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring when she refused the One Ring and imagined a corrupted version of herself. Galadriel has a touch of darkness within her, as we all do. She is but one poor decision away from succumbing to her violent leanings. The possibility that she could have sided with Halbrand/Sauron is not so far-fetched. The Rings of Power merely underscores her moral fragility, which could stir frustrations in readers who saw her as pure goodness.

Purity is not really a thing in Tolkein. Unless we’re talking about the pure evil called Sauron and his former boss Morgoth. Exploring a humanity in the Dark Lord is probably The Rings of Power‘s greatest stretch from the source material, but it’s not blasphemous. Well, that’s the hope, anyway. TBD.

Through the text, we know Sauron took a fair form during the Second Age. He likes to hide in plain sight. It’s not too far from peering through the palantíri or whispering sweet nothings through the lips of Wormtongue via Saruman.

In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, co-showrunner Patrick McKay reiterated how basic a villain Sauron is in the books and within Peter Jackson’s adaptations. We’ve dined heavily on the unstoppably evil threat and how it ignites heroism in the hearts of elves, humans, and hobbits. The Rings of Power presents an opportunity to challenge the simplicity of evil:

We felt Sauron should be a character in his own right. We wanted to study the currents running within him in a way that hopefully would reward audiences as they follow him moving forward as he becomes the Dark Lord.

Whether we guessed Sauron was underneath Halbrand’s smile or not didn’t really matter. As the showrunners state elsewhere in their conversation, the surprise only works on one viewing, and they’re making a series they hope is worthy of multiple viewer visits. The Rings of Power is bringing dimension to Sauron. McKay hopes that the humanity will overall aid in our understanding of evil:

Sauron can now just be Sauron. Like Tony Soprano or Walter White. He’s evil, but complexly evil. We felt like if we did that in season one, he’d overshadow everything else. So the first season is like Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight is the next movie.

Invoking Walter White and The Dark Knight is a major ask. Sauron is a demon; a creature who we’ve only seen lust for power over flesh. What more is there to understand about such wicked and deadly arrogance?

Confronting Sauron’s simplicity is tricky. Metaphorically, the character represents unvanquishable evil. Peace breeds war, and war breeds peace. The cycle is never-ending. Humanity must always be on guard, ready to defend itself from whatever threat emerges over the horizon.

The Rings of Power puts a face on the darkness. In comparing Walter White and Sauron, Patrick McKay asks his audience to see their Tolkein villain beyond the metaphor. His Sauron is horribly human, a person who prioritized their life above others, a collection of catastrophic decisions. No one is born evil. Not even Tolkein’s tyrant?

With The Rings of Power Episode 9 fully exposing Halbrand as Sauron, I now wish the series dragged on this dastardly plot a little longer. I was just warming up to Halbrand and his somewhat cantankerous relationship with Galadriel. Pulling the mask from his face Scooby-Doo style is a nifty gag, stinging those watching who were equally wooed by Charlie Vickers’ performance. However, consider how horrendous a feeling it would have been if they withheld this reveal for the second season.

Of course, pulling off a longer con would probably hinder the more canonically known saga The Rings of Power is looking to tell next season. Episode 9 climaxes with the forging of the three elvish rings: Vilya, Nenya, and Narya. These trinkets will initially go to Elrond, Gil-galad, and Círdan but will eventually end up with Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf. Galadriel believes she’s solved their dark, controlling possibilities by filtering their power through three items, but since Sauron initially devised their power as Halbrand, she’s merely falling into his One Ring trap.

The Rings of Power‘s second season will continue to tell the tale of how the other 17 rings came to fruition. If we’re to experience Sauron as Walter White, we can assume we’ll have more sequences of him pulling strings. The puppet master has his domain in Mordor, but we should not expect him to stay behind his borders. He’s the king of the Southlands, and the hearts of men, dwarves, and elves on the other side of his mountains are still naively perceptible.

The show’s title are the tools of Sauron, representing his initial victory over Middle-earth. We thought The Rings of Power was another tale of small folk combatting big evil, and it still very well could be, but, it turns out, Sauron is far larger a player. He may ultimately be the main focus of the show. Giving such space to a satanic presence drives more than shivers through this particular viewer. It provokes my Tolkien beliefs.

We’re on quite a cliff’s edge until the series returns in 2024.

The Rings of Power Episode 8 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)