There’s a lot happening on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power as the series’ first season draws to a close. The Southlands are lost. Mordor is rising. A squad of mysterious mages with cheekbones of death tracks the still-unidentified Stranger with a lot of literal firepower and some clear ill intent. Galadriel is leading a man who may or may not be her worst enemy into the heart of her kingdom. A balrog has woken in the depths of Khazad-dum. And the elves are fading, in desperate need of the newfound ore known as mithril to survive.
Yet, despite this wide array of potentially apocalyptic events happening in virtually every corner of Middle-earth, all I’m truly worried about right now is the fallout from dwarf prince Durin IV’s decision to stand up to his father on behalf of his elf bestie Elrond. A brave and selfless act that cost him his title, may have inadvertently sparked a dwarf coup, and almost certainly woke up an ancient and terrifying monster that is probably going to try and kill them all, the gesture is just one of many examples of the incredible and heartfelt bond that exists between the two men. And if anything happens to break up these best friends, I will not be okay. Protect these two at all costs, because their relationship has somehow managed to become the heart of the show.
The Rings of Power regularly juggles a half dozen major storylines at any given moment, complete with twice as many main characters, all of whom are connected to potentially world-breaking events in some form or other. But at the end of the day, the series works because, despite its epic scope, it is as grounded in relationships as it is in prophecy, depicting a battle between good and evil that’s technically spread across centuries through the more immediate lens of the everyday lives of the races of Middle-earth. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the bond between Elrond and Durin feels so important and necessary. Tolkien’s stories have always worked because of the emotional relationships at their center, stories that remind us what’s worth fighting for in the first place thanks to their unironic embrace of love and friendship as the greatest powers of any age. The fact that in this particular corner of his universe, that love is between a male elf and a male dwarf is just the icing on the cake.
The television industry has made a lot of progress when it comes to issues of representation in the genre space, and The Rings of Power reflects a lot of that growth with its wide array of female characters and diverse casting choices. But the show truly hasn’t gotten enough credit for one of the things it does best, which is the deft, thoughtful way it portrays masculinity across the variety of Tolkien’s different races and kingdoms. Far too often male characters in fantasy are primarily depicted as little more than tough, stoic types who are some variety of emotionally repressed, stubborn, angry, or violent. (And look, I love Geralt of Rivia as much as the next The Witcher fan, but it is truly okay for men to communicate in more than elaborate grunts!) These sorts of characters are rarely allowed to express deep emotion, and almost certainly never toward one another.
In fact, you could argue that one of the things that sets Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy apart in the fantasy space is how willing it is to be soft and emotionally vulnerable—the male characters form deep and lasting bonds and don’t shirk from verbalizing how much they mean to one another. (Sam’s speech about carrying Frodo is an all-timer in this area, but so is Aragorn and Boromir’s farewell, and the scene between Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep about dying next to a friend. These boys!) It feels only natural that The Rings of Power should follow in the films’ footsteps on the small screen, giving us what is essentially an age-defining bromance in the story of Elrond and Durin.
There’s so much to love about these two, from their open and obvious affection for one another to the way they are both willing to apologize and admit when they’re in the wrong. They bicker and tease like children, yet they’re deeply loyal to one another, often even above and beyond their own families. These two men could not be more different, yet they’re both willing to talk out their problems and genuinely listen to each other’s perspectives, repeatedly choosing reconciliation and forgiveness over anger and conflict. Every interaction they have is infused with the sort of deep and lived-in history that makes it apparent that The Rings of Power understands how important this relationship is to the story the show is telling and how much it ultimately means to the emotional journey of both characters.
(If you really want to make yourself cry, think about the Elrond of Jackson’s films, an elf with much harder edges who clearly lost his best friend centuries prior. Whew.)
Too many big-budget fantasy series these days are so concerned with the scope and spectacle of the story they’re telling that they forget to build meaningful arcs and relationships about the characters we’re watching week in and week out. (Looking at you, House of the Dragon.) The ultimate destruction of Khazad-dum that results from the dwarves’ decision to “mine too greedily and too deep” in search of mithril will have far-reaching ramifications for many characters now and in the ages to come. (And will inevitably result in some fairly elaborate action setpieces, one has to assume.) But it’s the fact that the birth of the hell pit that is Moria ultimately stems from an act of love and selflessness that gives its story an extra bittersweet layer of emotion. In the end, Durin is trying to do the right thing, because his best friend is drowning and he loves him too much to let him go. That dragon show could never.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.