The big ‘Rings of Power’ finale twist doesn’t work in the streaming age

Warning: This story contains all the details of the big twist at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Click away if you don’t want to be spoiled.

Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power has been building up to this moment for weeks: the revelation that Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who we assumed was an Aragorn-like leader of men and the last rightful king of the Southlands, was actually JRR Tolkien’s big bad self, Sauron. It’s a game-changing twist that forces viewers to rewatch every episode of the series to see the little hints and clues dropped through.

At least that’s what the showrunners were hoping for.

In reality, when Halbrand confirms his identity to Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), it’s likely that many viewers – especially the astute ones – have passively accepted a foregone conclusion. Many people found out about the twist long before this week’s finale, and even if you didn’t quite connect the dots, there was enough chatter on the Internet that anyone with a passing interest in the show likely ran into the popular fan theory. (For the full recap, read my colleague Erin Carson’s explanation of the ending of Rings of Power season 1.)

Had this twist taken place in the network TV era, without the help of the internet and a community of eagle-eyed viewers to share and spread their theories on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and more, the conclusion to Rings of Power would have been far more impactful.

Now that elicits a disinterested shrug.

Rings of Power marks just the latest reminder that it’s getting harder for TV shows to surprise anyone — think Jon Snow in Game of Thrones — especially in an age of streaming and hypercritical audiences. It’s also a warning to showrunners about the risks of hanging your show’s season on some big twist. Fans who catch on too soon are deflating any chance that you would be able to shock and delight your audience.

And in Rings of Power’s case, the twist, if it had actually surprised anyone, could have redeemed what was an uneven season. While there were only eight episodes, the show moved at a glacial pace, scattering between plot lines of varying quality and interest.

At best, it was a lesser version of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially the bromance between Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur). At worst, it was downright sleep-inducing. I couldn’t stay awake for some of the early episodes, even for those set in the beautiful but strangely soulless Númenor set pieces.

The show picked up towards the end and really peaked with sixth section, which had its own medium-sized twist with the eruption of Mount Doom and the creation of Mordor (which the show literally had to invent with a title card that seemed to imply little faith in its viewers). That twist had also been building in the background in previous episodes, but was more subtly laid than the hints about Sauron.

The Sauron speech began with the premiere when the show introduced The Stranger in a spectacularly fiery way. Of course the clever speculation fell to Gandalf or some other wizard. But there was enough online chatter about the character being Sauron that it acted as a red herring. Unlike the Mount Doom twist, Rings of Power courted Sauron’s speculation from the start.

The situation reminds me a lot of Star Trek: Discovery, another show built on a well-established franchise with the aim of driving audiences to a streaming service. STAR TREK SPOILER WARNING: The Paramount Plus show built its debut season around a major twist that Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a human Federation officer and lover of protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), was actually a Klingon double agent.

This was another scenario where hardcore fans found out about the twist in advance, dampening any potential impact. Aside from the twists, the season was met with mixed reactions. The good news: Discovery’s showrunners adapted in later seasons, steadily improving and moving away from the ONE. BIG. TWIST.

That’s where I hope Rings of Power goes. The reveal of Vickers’ character as Sauron opens the door to a more human interpretation of the character, something we didn’t see in Jackson’s six films. And Galadriel’s close brush with Sauron should add interesting wrinkles to her arc in season two.

But the clever prowess of fans and our ability to broadly and instantly relate to each other means that showrunners have to be really, really clever when it comes to hiding these twists. It’s certainly possible — The Good Place is a perfect example, even if it didn’t have the scrutiny of a major franchise property. Better yet, just forgo the twists. Instead of a big reveal, I’d appreciate it if they could create a more consistently compelling show.

After this bumpy first season, it might be the biggest shocker of them all.

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