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Adar as seen from the side looking out at something, with torches and soldiers standing in the background past him Image: Prime Video

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The Rings of Power clears up Adar’s mystery, but confuses The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth rules run into trouble in episode 6

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“Udûn” is The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s first full-fledged battle episode, and fans of the Prime Video series certainly get their money’s worth in terms of sheer blockbuster spectacle. Yet for all the toppled towers and climactic cavalry charges, the episode’s most memorable scene is also one of its least bombastic: the quiet conversation between Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Adar (Joseph Mawle). More than anything else that happens in “Udûn,” this largely action-free encounter dramatically alters the status quo of The Rings of Power going forward — although whether it does so for the better or the worse is tough to call.

The set-pieces in The Rings of Power episode 6 are suitably impressive. We’re treated to everything from gnarly close-quarters combat to an apocalyptic volcano eruption, with several characters aside from Galadriel given the chance to shine. And if the odd blemish (like unconvincing CGI and pedestrian staging and choreography) occasionally exposes the limits of the show’s infamously large budget, most viewers will be too caught up in the epic sweep of it all to notice, much less care.

But, honestly, the most jaw-dropping popcorn moments in “Udûn” — yes, even that unexpected (and from where I’m sitting, unnecessary) revised origin story for Mount Doom — have nothing on the metaphorical fireworks of Galadriel and Adar’s little tête-à-tête. Not only does this scene finally confirm once and for all that Adar isn’t Sauron, but it also establishes that he’s a proto-orc who turned on his former master. Heck, Adar even claims he’s the guy responsible for Sauron’s current MIA status, having snapped after the dark lord conducted one too many experiments on his orc underlings.

Galadriel riding with the Numenorian forces across a scenic field, with mountains and a river in the background behind them Image: Prime Video

We also get more of Adar’s worldview, which takes The Rings of Power’s ongoing efforts to present the orcs as more three-dimensional villains than in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novels to a whole new level, further showcasing their softer side. Adar lays out a convincing case that orcs (or “uruks,” to use their preferred name) deserve the same basic rights as any of Middle-earth’s other sentient races and insists that their dubious origins don’t make them any less the children of their world’s god. By the time he’s through, you’ll get why Adar’s so devoted to his fellow orcs, and when he brands Galadriel the next Sauron for wanting to wipe them out, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with him.

It’s powerful stuff, but how well it serves the overarching Rings of Power narrative is a sticking point, at least for now. On the plus side, an orc agenda rooted in equality, not conquest, builds on the Prime Video series’ largely successful recent efforts to expand on the canon set out by Tolkien in fascinating ways. What’s more, by contrasting this agenda with Galadriel’s ruthlessness, director Charlotte Brändström and writers Nicholas Adams, Justin Doble, J.D. Payne, and Patrick McKay double down on the show’s commitment to a morally ambiguous tone.

In doing so, they’ve seemingly laid the groundwork for nuanced character arcs that Tolkien’s novels (The Silmarillion aside) weren’t equipped to deliver, and that not even Peter Jackson’s film adaptations could have attempted in a feature-length window. Here, concepts like “good” and “evil” aren’t quite so clear-cut. Are we about to see Galadriel do the unthinkable and join forces with the orcs against the greater, mutual threat posed by Sauron — is that how she finally learns to let go of her inner turmoil? And assuming Adar survives The Rings of Power episode 6’s cataclysmic finale, what will he do when his one-time boss inevitably returns, utterly unrepentant about spilling orc blood and itching for revenge to boot? Is a redemption arc in the offing? Taken on their own terms, these are fun speculative hobbit holes to go down.

But there’s a downside to the way “Udûn” reframes its villains — not least of which is that it makes Adar’s game plan in this episode and those that preceded it hard to follow. Not even a disaster-movie-level showstopper was enough to keep me wondering why the supposedly anti-Sauron Adar has spent the last six episodes rolling out the red-hot carpet for the dark lord’s comeback. Presumably, Payne and McKay (as showrunners) will clear up this apparent inconsistency before The Rings of Power season 1 wraps, but for now, it’s a real head-scratcher.

Yet, ultimately, the biggest potential red flag the Galadriel/Adar scene raises is that it signals that The Rings of Power’s take on the orcs is starting to skew too sympathetic. It’s great that, as of “Udûn,” Galadriel has a well-defined arc laid out for her, on the path from war junkie to the more even-keel stateswoman featured in The Lord of the Rings proper. The only problem is that paying off said arc will presumably require Galadriel to gain at least some appreciation for orc life, and we already know that’s not how the story goes — not for Galadriel, and not for Middle-earth.

Bronwyn standing and looking at Arondir, who is holding Sauron’s broken sword and examining it Image: Prime Video
A snarling orc in Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Image: Prime Video

It’s great that Payne and McKay are willing to rethink the orcs, especially since that species essentially having evil DNA has always been a tricky part of the lore to unpack, even for Tolkien himself. But in the end, the inherent and irreversible wickedness of the orcs — and more importantly, the moral absolution this bestows on anyone in the orc-killing business — is as much a fundamental building block of this world as its more high-brow philosophical underpinnings like hope in the face of certain death. Orcs are to The Lord of the Rings what the stormtroopers are to Star Wars, or the Nazis are to Indiana Jones: cartoonish representations of pure evil whose deaths shouldn’t cause anybody (least of all fans) to lose sleep.

Diverging any further from this depiction of the orcs doesn’t just set a shaky precedent for The Rings of Power going forward, adding an unpleasant subtext to every orc-centric action scene. It has pretty major implications for The Lord of the Rings itself as well. Episodes like “Udûn” do more than reconfigure the orcs’ role in this story; they recontextualize our understanding of their role in other stories, too. Some fans might appreciate the opportunity to relitigate the War of the Ring’s ethics, but for others, the idea that The Rings of Power could recast hitherto unimpeachable figures such as Samwise and Aragorn as morally gray protagonists will rankle.

Of course, Payne and McKay could very well have a plan in place already for reconciling their more sympathetic orcs with the soulless killing machines presented by both Tolkien and Jackson. Sauron’s imminent arrival — and with it, the likelihood he’ll be mucking about with orc genetics again soon — certainly presents ample storytelling possibilities in this vein. Similarly, Adar and Galadriel are now perfectly positioned to offer contrasting viewpoints of the orcs’ evolution, if this is indeed something Payne and McKay are interested in showing. It’s too soon to say for sure that they are, but either way, the Rings of Power episode 6’s most important scene has changed the way we look at Middle-earth forever.

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