The Númenor storyline, however, desperately needs some more work on the human politics side of things. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting developments in these characters and their relationships per Tolkien’s outlines, but none of that potential has so far been realized in the series. The King Tar-Palantir is barely coherent and Queen Regent Míriel is mired in storylines about mysterious prophecies and forebodings and dilly-dallying over whether she should go to Middle-earth or not, when she should be at the heart of politicking and power plays in Númenor.
We finally get a tiny bit more insight into Chancellor Pharazôn in this episode, but not much. So far his plan doesn’t seem especially evil despite the sinister music in the background – he’s in favor of helping the Southlands and restoring Halbrand so they can set up trade routes and so on, which is entirely sensible and suggests a pretty decent potential ruler. Given that the show is clearly setting him up as an Evil Chancellor, it could do with offering something more than anti-Elf racism as an insight into his character and motives to show us why him ruling, or advising the ruler, is a bad idea.
The Southlands are even more desperately in need of some attention to their leadership issues and human relationships. Bronwyn seems to have become their de facto leader simply because it was her suggestion that they move out, even though she is a healer and there is no obvious reason for her to lead them. Arondir’s position of leadership makes more sense, since he has military experience, but half the population follow the old barman to go and serve the Orcs instead, while the rest seem to just hang around waiting for Arondir and Bronwyn to decide what to do. We know their king has abandoned them, but isn’t there anyone else in this group with opinions about who should lead them or what they should do?
This episode also goes some way towards addressing one of the other weaknesses of the first four episodes, which is the series’ overreliance on some level of familiarity with Tolkien’s work – or, at the very least, with the Peter Jackson films – in order for anything that is going on to mean anything. Questions like “Who is the Stranger?” or “Is Halbrand a future Ringwraith, or even Sauron himself?” are completely meaningless to new viewers, who simply see a mysterious old man who does very little, and a somewhat duplicitous king in exile.
We still don’t know who the Stranger is, but in this episode, his mystery becomes a more urgent and more easily understandable question. Rather than “is he Gandalf, or Sauron, or one of the Istari, or Saruman?” questions which mean nothing whatsoever if you’re new to Tolkien’s world, the question in this episode focuses in on the simple issue of “is he good or bad?” Obviously, nearly everyone in this world or any other is some kind of mixture of those things, but how much of one and how much of the other is the key here.
On that subject, for those who do know some of Tolkien’s characters, we still don’t think the Stranger is at all likely to be Sauron, who has very little of good in him, and we still think Gandalf is the most likely candidate. This episode does hint that perhaps he could be Saruman; Gandalf was always more strongly associated with fire than with ice, whereas it was Saruman who turned the snowy weather against the Fellowship of the Ring on the mountain of Caradhras. And Saruman was one of the good guys before he became corrupted. But judging from the way the show has tried to emulate the feeling of the movies so far, the familiarity of a wizard adventuring with little Hobbits does more strongly suggest Gandalf.