Rings of Power episode 4 review: The Lord of the Rings villain at his best

Conventional storytelling wisdom dictates that a good story needs a good villain. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay lean hard into this truism with episode 4, “The Great Wave,” which thrusts several new and previously established antagonists into the spotlight as the Prime Video series reaches its halfway mark. It is a move that also pays off. Don’t just do Power ringsthe villains prove suitably compelling in their own right, but they also further delineate the show from the JRR Tolkien novels that inspired it.

Newcomer Adar (Joseph Mawle) best embodies the merits of episode 4’s villain-centric approach. Made especially for Power rings, the orc leader is arguably unlike any Middle-earth villain we’ve encountered before – whether in Tolkien’s writings or Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning big-screen adaptations. Admittedly, Adar has relatively little screen time in “The Great Wave”, but nevertheless Payne and McKay, together with director Wayne Che Yip and writer Stephany Folsom, manage to outline an impressively nuanced character.

Adar is not someone obviously corrupted by his lust for power like Morgoth, Sauron or Saruman, nor is he driven by a pathological desire to wallow in a Scrooge McDuckian vault of gold, like Smaug. Instead, his motivations come across as disarmingly layered, particularly his cryptic remarks to Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) about Middle-earth’s history being whitewashed, suggesting a more personal agenda. Throw in Adar’s unique aesthetic (Is he an orc? An elf? Something in between?), his apparent aspirations to be a god, and Mawle’s reserved demeanor, and he’s instantly one of Power ringsmost interesting characters.

Photo: Matt Grace/Prime Video

The rank-and-file orcs under Adar’s command continue to reveal unexpected depths as well, even as they stand poised to dramatically reduce the South’s human population. Power rings episode 2 gave us orcs as movie monsters, episode 3 touched on their capacity for religious devotion, and both of those elements are still in play in episode 4. But “The Great Wave” adds something else to the mix, something even creepier: orc tenderness.

Watch as Adar – whose name aptly translates to “Father” in Elvish – comforts and then mercy kills one of his troops mortally wounded during the previous episode. Just look at the adoration in that orc’s eyes as Adar caresses his face; this guy has an unmistakable, almost childlike devotion to his master. Through the rest of the Power rings episode 4, the orcs are the bloodthirsty ghouls (and sometimes unfortunate goons) we’ve come to love to hate. Here, however, there is an almost sympathetic quality to the proceedings. It’s both effective and affecting—after all, who would have ever imagined we’d see anything close to emotional vulnerability in an orc, even if only for a few brief moments?

It will be interesting to see if this window into the softer side of orc culture ends up being a one-off deal, or if Payne and McKay intend to develop this concept further in future episodes. The journey against true evil in Middle-earth often has a seductive undercurrent, and luring unwitting parties into his service was something Sauron himself excelled at The Ringing with powerits Second Age setting. Could we be heading for the game-changing revelation that orcs were simply the first of many societies to fall under the spell? This would not necessarily agree with Tolkien’s legendarium, but it wanted address the moral dilemma posed by an inherently intractable race the Oxford don has reportedly wrestled with throughout his life.

Pharazon walks and looks to the side as he walks with his son behind him

Photo: Prime Video

Galadriel is standing at a table talking to Miriel with Eindiur on another side

Photo: Matt Grace/Prime Video

Meanwhile, over in Númenor, Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle) apparently remains on the side of the angels; however, those who are familiar with The Silmarillion will detect signs of his inevitable heel turn. The biggest of these comes when Pharazôn early on demonstrates his ability to control an angry mob in “The Great Wave”. On the face of it, this is a good thing, as the Queen Regent’s advisor defuses a potential rebellion. But Pharazôn’s address to the audience also plays heavily on its members’ anti-elven prejudices – you might even call it “warfare” – in a way that foreshadows Númenor’s future turmoil as effectively as Míriel’s (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) stunning, petal-infused vision .

So it is Power ringsits overarching antagonist Sauron, who (faithfully) continues to lurk off-camera rather than actively participate in episode 4’s narrative. That said, Yip, Payne, McKay and Folsom make the Dark Lords return throughout the second half of the episode, with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, the subplot surrounding Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) and his sinister sword attachment still feels like it was ripped from another, completely separate fantasy series. On the other hand, Theo’s exchange with sinister Sauron sympathizer Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) perfectly captures the indescribable sense of dread Tolkien cultivated around Middle-earth’s would-be conqueror in the books.

Yet, in the end, it’s the forces of good who turn out to be their own worst enemies in “The Great Wave,” something else that feels very true to Tolkien’s work. Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) epitomizes this best – continuing to demonstrate a grasp of diplomacy so bad it’s frankly amazing – but she’s far from the only one of our heroes who makes life difficult for herself and those around them. From the sneaky behavior of Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to the short-sighted self-sabotage of Isildur (Maxim Baldry), this episode is full of good people making bad choices.

Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and Míriel also fall under this category. For his part, Celebrimbor cheerfully goes about his great work in the face of prophetic counsels which any sane person would have regarded as a warning at best and a threat at worst – and which will obviously end in tears. (Seriously, Celebrimbor: Maybe don’t go into business with the person you know will one day decide your fate.) Míriel isn’t much better, treating her subjective interpretation of the palantiren’s apocalyptic imagery as objective fact that justifies her xenophobia in large part of episode 4’s runtime. If Celebrimbor represents the dangers of unchecked optimism, then Míriel is Power ringswarns against going “full Denethor” and jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

Again, both of these threads gel with Tolkien’s canon; specifically, the recurring act of having characters misinterpret prophecies and omens (especially regarding the palantíri) when their enemies close in on them. And that is undoubtedly the case in “The Big Wave”, with a focus on villainy, both external and internal. Still, the episode ultimately ends on the kind of hopeful note that Tolkien was also fond of—signaling that all is not yet lost for the people of Middle-earth, even with evil on the rise.

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