That Big Final “Rings of Power” Twist Doesn’t Work in the Age of Streaming
Warning: This story contains all the details of the big twist at the end of The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power. Click away if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power has been in the works for weeks: the reveal that Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who we assume is an Aragorn-like leader of men and the last rightful king of the Southlands, was actually JRR Tolkien’s own big bad, Sauron. It’s a game-changing twist that forces viewers to re-examine each episode of the series to see the little hints and clues dropped throughout.
At least, that’s what the showrunners hoped.
In reality, when Halbrand confirms his identity to Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), it’s likely that many viewers – especially the shrewd ones – have passively accepted an early conclusion. Plenty of people picked up on the twist long before this week’s finale, and even if you didn’t quite connect the dots, there was enough internet chatter for anyone with a passing interest in the series to probably clashes with popular fan theory. (For the full recap, read my colleague Erin Carson’s explanation of the Rings of Power season 1 ending.)
If this twist had taken place in the age of network television, without the help of the internet and an eagle-eyed community of viewers to share and spread their theories on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and more still, the conclusion of Rings of Power would have been much more impactful.
Now that elicits a disinterested shrug.
Rings of Power is just the latest reminder that it’s increasingly difficult for TV shows to surprise anyone – think Jon Snow in Game of Thrones – especially in the age of streaming and hypercritical public. It’s also a warning to showrunners of the risks of suspending your show’s season to a big twist. Fans who get noticed too soon deflate any chance that you can shock and delight your audience.
And in the case of Rings of Power, the twist, if it surprised anyone, might have redeemed what was an uneven season. Although only eight episodes, the series moved at a chilling pace, peppering with storylines of varying quality and interest.
At best, it was a lesser version of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy, specifically the bromance between Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur). At worst, it was downright sleepy. I couldn’t stay awake for some of the early episodes, even for those set in the beautiful, but oddly soulless, settings of Númenor.
The show picked up steam towards the end and really culminated with the sixth episode, which had its own mid-sized twist with the eruption of Mount Doom and the creation of Mordor (which the show literally had to spell out with a map title that seemed to suggest little confidence in its viewers). This twist had also built up in the background in previous episodes, but was more subtly presented than the hints of Sauron.
Sauron’s speech began with the premiere, when the show introduced The Stranger in spectacularly fiery fashion. Of course, intelligent speculation fell on Gandalf or another wizard. But there was enough chatter online about Sauron’s character for him to serve as a red herring. Unlike the Mount Doom twist, Rings of Power courted Sauron speculation from the start.
The situation reminds me a lot of Star Trek: Discovery, another show built on an established franchise with the goal of driving audiences to a streaming service. STAR TREK SPOILER WARNING: The Paramount Plus show built its first season around a big twist, namely that Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), an officer in the Human Federation and lover of lead character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), was actually a Klingon double agent.
It was another storyline where hardcore fans figured out the twist ahead of time, mitigating any potential impact. Plot twists aside, the season has garnered mixed reactions. The good news: Discovery’s showrunners have adapted over the following seasons, steadily improving and moving away from that one. BIG. TURN.
This is where I hope Rings of Power goes. The reveal of Vickers’ character as Sauron opens the door to a more human take on the character, something we haven’t seen in Jackson’s six films. And Galadriel’s close contact with Sauron should provide some interesting wrinkles in her arc in season two.
But fan insight and our ability to meet widely and instantly means the showrunners should be really, really smart when it comes to hiding these twists. It’s certainly possible – The Good Place is a prime example, although it hasn’t had the scrutiny of a major franchise property. Better yet, forgo twists altogether. Rather than a big reveal, I would appreciate if they could create a more compelling show.
After this uneven first season, this might be the biggest shock of all.