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At Last, ‘The Rings of Power’ Forges Ahead With Sauron Unmasked

Spoiler warning

The universal challenge of making a prequel is that some events are set in stone — or, to use a more appropriate term for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, forged. Viewers of the extravagant Amazon series should already know that 19 rings of power will be split between the races of elves, dwarves, and men, and that all of them can be controlled by the One Ring in possession of the Dark Lord Sauron. But while Sauron looms large throughout much of Middle-earth’s expansive history, we have yet to put a face to the name. With the exception of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s stunning prologue, in which he lords over his enemies in the heat of battle with some [technical term] kickass armor, the most enduring image of Sauron is as a giant, disembodied eye in Mordor.

Of course, all of that would have to change with The Rings of Power, the first JRR Tolkien adaptation to incorporate the iconic villain as a genuine flesh-and-blood character who deceives the elves into forging the rings in the first place. Part of the thrill of the show’s first season was sussing out who, exactly, he was. The Sauron theories have been spilling out for weeks, but it’s not until the season finale, “Alloyed,” that The Rings of Power finally shows its hand: He’s the Stranger! Or at least, that’s what the mysterious, white-clad trio of the Nomad, the Ascetic, and the Dweller believe.

The Stranger-Sauron reveal is the very first scene of “Alloyed,” and The Rings of Power uses the rest of the episode to poke holes in that assertion. For one, the Stranger hasn’t crossed paths with anyone of significance aside from the wholesome harfoots, so having him appear before the elven smith Celebrimbor by the end of the season seemed like a reach. (Surely The Rings of Power wouldn’t wait until the second season to give us a taste of the titular rings?) What’s more, Sauron supposedly appears in “fair form” to the elves, and with all due respect to the Stranger, he looks more like Tom Hanks in Cast away. Unless the Stranger was given a Queer Eye makeover and a much-needed bath, he can hardly be seen as fair.

So let’s turn our gaze to other candidates — chief among them, Halbrand. From the beginning of the series, the case against Halbrand being Sauron has been that it would be too obvious. (One of the first things he says to Galadriel: “Looks can be deceiving.”) But having Sauron hide in plain sight as the character who is, initially, the most suspicious in The Rings of Power‘s ensemble would be its own kind of brilliance. Halbrand initially makes you a bit wary with a mysterious backstory in which he’s the king of the Southlands by birthright, but he never actively seeks out power. In fact, it appears Halbrand would much rather be an anonymous smith in Numenor — from the audience’s perspective, he is coaxed into reclaiming his homeland di lui by Galadriel. Either Halbrand’s going along for the ride, or he’s tricking others into believing he’s a passive participant in order to get exactly what he wants.

After all, following the ill-fated battle in the Southlands — now transformed into the ruinous Mordor — Galadriel takes Halbrand to Eregion so he can be healed by elven magic. If Halbrand really is Sauron, then Galadriel just gave him a front-row seat to the eventual forging of the rings. The biggest hint of Halbrand’s true intentions is when he’s alone with Celebrimbor, first appealing to the smith’s ego by admiring his work di lui, then all but laying out how mithril can be alloyed with another ore to create something powerful. “Call it a gift,” Halbrand tells him with a mischievous look.

Once Celebrimbor repeats a phrase in front of Galadriel that Halbrand uttered— “Not of the flesh, but over flesh,” which she already heard from the orc leader Adar — the alarm bells finally ring. Galadriel’s suspicions are confirmed when she has an elf archivist look up the history of the Southlands, and a scroll reveals that the lineage of the Southlands’ king was broken over a thousand years ago. Halbrand isn’t who he claims to be, and while he’s gone by many names over the ages, we can finally say with certainty: This is Sauron. (The Stranger, meanwhile, is basically the antithesis of Sauron: He saves the harfoots from the Nomad, the Ascetic, and the Dweller, and it’s greatly implied that he’s none other than our beloved Gandalf.)

There is a tragic irony in Galadriel’s honorable quest to rid Middle-earth of an evil like Sauron, convinced that he was still lurking in the shadows, only to be the catalyst in giving him access to a power that he can use to take over the realm. But while Sauron duped Galadriel this far, he can’t quite compel her to join him and rule together — even as he penetrates her mind di lei and, briefly, assumes the visage of her deceased brother di lei. His pitch di lui: They both want peace in Middle-earth, though he, crucially, doesn’t see a difference between saving the realm and ruling over it.

Like anything coming from the notoriously deceitful Sauron, the sincerity of his proposed alliance with Galadriel should be taken with a grain of salt. Not that it matters: Galadriel has enough moral conviction to reject him, and Sauron flees back to Mordor with the knowledge to forge a ring of his own di lui. (In a roundabout way, the man formerly known as Halbrand is technically going to rule over the Southlands … hooray?) In the meantime, Celebrimbor is able to create three rings by bonding mithril with Galadriel’s dagger — the one passed on from her brother di she. While Galadriel has yet to confide in anyone about Halbrand’s true identity, it may be only a matter of time.

And there you have it: The Rings of Power finally delivered… some rings of power. More importantly, with a season of clever misdirection out of the way, Rings of Power has cleared a path for Sauron to be his best — or rather, worst — self going forward. (Series cocreator Patrick McKay likened the next step of Sauron’s journey to that of Tony Soprano and Walter White, though I’m pretty sure the Dark Lord won’t be going to therapy or having awkward breakfasts with orcs.) While this turn of events might not bode well for Middle-earth, it could prove to be a make-or-break moment for the show — and, perhaps, the future of Amazon’s ambitions as a streaming service.

Across its first season, The Rings of Power was able to lean on its sumptuous worldbuilding: an inconceivably expensive combination of New Zealand’s natural splendor and state-of-the-art special effects. It was easy to bask in the familiar charms of Middle-earth, and let the series take its time setting the stage for the inevitable conflicts to come. But to win the Streaming Wars against fellow fantasy heavyweights like House of the Dragon, Rings of Power must do more than coast on good vibes in the coming seasons. With Sauron finally unveiled and Celebrimbor cracking the mithril code, The Rings of Power will need to forge ahead in every sense of the word.

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