If you’ve been waiting all season for The Rings of Power to answer the question, “Who is Sauron?”, good news! The eighth and final episode of its first season, “Alloyed,” gives us an answer—twice.
To be precise, only one of them is the right answer. The evil-looking ladies who have been lurking around the edges of the show for half a season (at least when they’re not burning up the poor harfoots’ houses) turn up in front of the Stranger and immediately swear fealty to their dark lord, who seems kind of puzzled by the whole thing. It seems unlikely that the show would spend seven-plus hours building up to this moment and then stick it before the opening credits, but he did come in second in Slate’s ranking of potential Sauron candidates, so who knows? Maybe they’re just destroying traditional dramatic structure before they get around to laying waste to Middle-earth.
It becomes pretty clear pretty fast, though, that the episode is wrong-footing us, mostly in the way the scenes involving Halbrand, who pulled Galadriel out of the ocean in the first episode and claims to be the wayward king of the Southlands, seem to keep going on a little bit too long, with just a hint of … something creeping in around his words. For a while, he just seems like a giddy tourist in the elven land of Lindon, psyched to even catch a glimpse of Celebrimbor’s smithery. But it turns out that ancient elven masters are just as susceptible to flattery, so when Halbrand starts suggesting new techniques for forging the elves’ tiny quantity of mithril into a massive powerful object, Celebrimbor is just excited to have a bright young student in his workshop.
If you haven’t gotten the picture thus far, the show fills in a few more brushstrokes. Celebrimbor reveals that, even with Halbrand’s suggestion of adding other metals to enhance mithril’s power, the chosen shape of a crown just won’t work. What about, Halbrand says nonchalantly, something that’s still round but … smaller? (Whispers to date: those are the rings of power.) Galadriel, meanwhile, has been starting to get suspicious, and has sent off for a record of the Southlands’ royal lineage, which reveals that the line died out more than a thousand years ago. Combined with the previous episode’s reveal that the Southlands are now going by a new name, Mordor, that’s all the information we need. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for: Sauron.
As Marissa Martinelli argued here last month, Halbrand is the most “dramatically satisfying” choice for Sauron, and the reveal involves less mystical hocus-pocus than having Sauron appear after dropping out of the sky in a ball of flame. (That, we’re informed, is the behavior of an istar—basically, a wizard—which is what the Stranger is revealed to be.) Sauron is, at least in this context, just a man, and if he turns out to be a bit of a hunk—so that’s what it means when Tolkien writes, in The Silmarillion, that Sauron took on a form that was “fair”—sometimes the bad guys are. As he argues to Galadriel, he’s never lied about who he was, exactly, although he certainly led her to make erroneous assumptions about him. He did say he took the king’s sigil off of a dead man, just neglected to mention that had happened several centuries ago, and he straight-up told her, “I am not the hero you seek.” Time to brush up on your close reading, Galadriel.
Technically, the Halbrand reveal fits. Game of Thrones was hobbled by its dedication to the “holy shit moment,” but The Rings of Power feels content with, “Ah, that makes sense.” Reddit sleuths certainly had no trouble guessing Halbrand might be Sauron—although there were also plenty of tortured counter-theories that he was so obvious he couldn’t be—but the point wasn’t really to bowl us over with surprise. (If it had been, the writers wouldn’t have left so many breadcrumbs.) But in a world where villains wear black (unless they’re Saruman the White), even this degree of ambiguity feels like a bit of a curveball.
Still, the Halbrand reveal is also satisfying in the way it doesn’t fit, in the sense that there’s still lots to learn about the dark side of his character. It seems likely we’ll get more of the character’s evil psychology in forthcoming seasons (the show’s creators, describing their plans for Season 2, have invoked Walter White), but for now, he’s not an antihero to be explored or explained. The first season wasn’t his origin story. Instead it was the story of how others came under his sway: How Celebrimbor became the Oppenheimer of Middle-earth, and how Galadriel—seeking in part to avenge a brother whose death Sauron caused—let her headstrong nature pull her over the edge. The twist tells us more about them than it does about Sauron. (It turns out that the Tolkien fans who review-bombed the show, complaining that the its bloodthirsty Galadriel was too warriorlike to be the same woman as The Lord of the Rings’ serene Lady of Light, could have just waited for the end of the season, when they’d watch her not only lay down her weapon but throw it in a fire.)
This Sauron is still a trickster, telling Galadriel his goal is peace even though he ends the season putting on one of those black capes and literally walking into Mordor (when you’re Sauron, I guess it really is that simple), but it’s not his cunning that ensnares others so much as their readiness to be ensnared. This will ultimately be a story of tragedy and not triumph, and we are already well on our way.