A big draw of the fantasy genre is the way it so often presents the world in binary terms: There are good guys, there are bad guys, and not much else in between. Yet it’s this in-between area that The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 5, “Partings,” largely concerns itself with, picking up where episode 4 left off, with our heroes continuing to serve as their own worst enemies. “Partings” takes this theme a step further, with several characters now forced to agonize over make-or-break choices not easily labeled “good” or “bad.” The upshot of this is an extra layer of moral ambiguity to proceedings that comes as a welcome addition — not just to The Rings of Power episode 5, but to the show’s wider vision of Middle-earth itself, too.
If this all sounds a bit too abstract for a show pulling from the J.R.R. Tolkien playbook, rest assured that episode 5’s murkiness also manifests in other, more tangible ways, even seeping into the story. We get partial answers to many of The Rings of Power’s major ongoing mysteries — like why the orcs seem fixated on Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) — but we’re also left with plenty of questions, too. How exactly are Adar and Sauron connected? What’s the deal with the Stranger (aka “Meteor Man”) and is he friend or foe? How does the Sauron sword hilt “unlock” the Dark Lord’s return? “Partings” doesn’t say, and the arrival of some suitably sinister Sauron acolytes midway through the episode only muddies the waters further.
This confusion is by design; showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who before landing their dream gig worked for puzzle-box-maker J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot, know that guessing games are a surefire way of keeping us on the hook. Yet while speculating about stuff like Sauron’s true identity is undeniably fun, what’s really interesting about The Rings of Power episode 5, and what ultimately makes it work so well, is the hitherto-unseen uncertainty surrounding its characters. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings featured dubious men, elves, and dwarves — and the One Ring made for the perfect morality-testing McGuffin — but the best, most moral course of action is always clear (to the audience, if not always the characters themselves). This doesn’t apply to “Partings.”
Throughout the episode, director Wayne Che Yip and writer Justin Doble stage dramatic encounters that can’t easily be boiled down to “side with good and defeat evil.” Whether we’re talking about Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) weighing up the merits of a bloody war on foreign soil, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) mulling over his duty to his friend versus his obligation to his people, Bronwyn’s (Nazanin Boniadi) faltering resolve in the face of impending genocide, and Nori’s (Markella Kavenagh) continued faith in the unstable Stranger (Daniel Weyman), it’s hard to say who’ll be on the right side of history once the dust settles. It’s a marked shift from Tolkien’s novels and Peter Jackson’s big-screen adaptations, that, if anything, nudges The Rings of Power closer to The Silmarillion in terms of its overall characterization and tone.
Somewhat inevitably, tensions also run higher in “Partings’’ than we’re used to seeing in stately Middle-earth. Forget the raised voices during The Fellowship of the Ring’s Council of Elrond scene or even the tense exchanges between Gandalf and Denethor in The Return of the King — people are straight-up pissed in this episode. From the passive aggression between Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) and Durin IV (Owain Arthur) to the open hostility whipped up by Waldreg (Geoff Morrell) among the Southlands encampment, The Rings of Power episode 5 really hammers home the barely contained resentment festering within this world’s various communities.
It all feels very messy — in a good way. It also feels very true to The Rings of Power’s source material, even as “Partings” diverges even further from Tolkien’s established canon. How the Mithril subplot develops in episode 5 is a perfect example; Yip, Doble, and (presumably) Payne and McKay invent a wild origin story for Mithril, then follow this up by revealing the legendary metal’s apparent ability to recharge the elves’ immortality. It’s enough to make a purist wince, yet by using this plot point as a way of exploring (and testing) the bond between Elrond and Durin IV, Yip and Doble touch on a theme at the very heart of The Lord of the Rings: friendship.
The same goes for how events shake out in the Southlands in “Partings.” A lot of what’s going on here involves The Rings of Power’s creators embellishing Tolkien’s legendarium — you won’t find many of these characters or events in the “official” history of Mordor or its southern allies. But Tolkien does talk about men willingly joining up with Sauron; he just doesn’t unpack the “why” of it all in any real detail or nuance, and Jackson subsequently followed suit. “Partings” bucks this trend by expanding on existing lore, and (in keeping with the rest of the episode) what we learn isn’t as clean-cut as the folks down south having innately evil inclinations.
Instead, The Rings of Power episode 5 puts forward a more challenging explanation for why Waldreg and his followers decide to throw their lot in with Sauron: social mobility. They genuinely believe their quality of life will improve under the Dark Lord’s rule. Tolkien famously loathed allegory with a passion hotter than the fires of Mount Doom, but he also acknowledged his novels’ potential to be “applied” to real life (and vice versa), and that certainly seems to be what Yip and Doble are shooting for here. After all, it doesn’t take much to draw comparisons between our own sociopolitical climate and the Southlanders who flock to a questionable savior figure after years spent chafing under the elven elite.
Then there’s the Númenórean side of things, and this too reflects the thorny morality at play in The Rings of Power episode 5. Aside from Míriel’s hand-wringing over the island kingdom’s future, we also get Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) manipulating each other for much of the episode’s run time, albeit without any real malice. Eärien (Ema Horvath) and Kemen (Leon Wadham) are likewise compelled to take drastic measures for the greater good, even if what we already know about Middle-earth’s history doesn’t exactly back up their antiwar stance. Indeed, the only person in Númenor who is outright up to no good is Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle). The queen regent’s advisor finally sets out his power-grabbing plan in this episode, and if it’s not quite what Tolkien described in The Silmarillion, the Machiavellian spirit of it is still roughly in the same ballpark.
Yet in the end, the best thing about the moral ambiguity in “Partings” isn’t that it leads to richer characterizations or even that it expands on Middle-earth lore. It’s the way the shadows cast by this ambiguity make the few glimmers of hope present in the episode shine all the brighter. With each new episode, The Rings of Power makes it increasingly clear that this world still has a chance — so long as Galadriel, Elrond, Nori, and the rest keep working at being better and doing right by those around them. This sentiment is pure Tolkien, and its continued presence bodes well for The Rings of Power’s remaining episodes, no matter how murky things get.
This article was originally published here post