If you could boil down the essence of the beloved hobbit characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to determine their most endearing and admirable quality, what would it be? A resilience to evil, perhaps, or the courage to take on great deeds despite their lack of physical prowess? A kind and gentle demeanor? I submit that although those are fine choices, the most important core tenet of hobbithood is a pure and simple devotion to one’s friends and family, a faithfulness that outweighs all considerations of danger or practicality. It’s why the likes of Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and especially Samwise are so easy for the reader to admire—they represent the best aspects of human nature in Tolkien’s mind, an earthy wholesomeness and empathy for each other that is never constrained by ego, vanity, or selfish pursuits. When the chips are down, the hobbits are always there for each other. It’s why they make great ring bearers!
And that faithfulness is no doubt part of why the depiction of the Harfoot clan in Amazon’s The Rings of Power often seems so strange and off putting. Granted, these are not the comfortable hobbits we’ve previously seen growing fat, content, and sedate within the confines of the well-protected Shire. The lives of the Harfoots are considerably more perilous, and they’ve grown up with a culture that emphasizes the hard choices that must often be made in the name of survival. But even then, the show’s depiction of Harfoot life often seems needlessly, even comically heartless and cruel. On a show that has often done visual justice to its unprecedented, billion dollar budget five episodes in, it’s one of those nagging issues of characterization that make Rings of Power such an odd roller coaster of satisfaction, confusion, and disappointment.
Put simply: The Harfoots are uniquely awful to one another, whether that’s on a personal level or an institutional one. The screenwriters, meanwhile, have made a feeble attempt to portray the heartlessness of the clan as a policy of survival, but the show hasn’t done nearly enough to convey why a single adult’s sprained ankle is treated as an insurmountable obstacle that an entire society can’t find a way to deal with. Instead, the Harfoots have come off like a den of Ayn Randian zealots, preaching ethical egoism as they try to sign the death warrant of an entire family (young children in tow), rather than band together as one expects of, you know … protagonists. It’s a bizarre choice; one that rings especially false in comparison with the hobbit characters we know so well.
The Harfoot troubles begin when Largo Brandyfoot, the father of inquisitive and empathic young daughter Nori, suffers a badly sprained or broken ankle while assisting in festival preparations. Immediately his family fears for the worst, that they will be “left behind” during the upcoming migration, a yearly quest to reach safer and more bounteous lands during the harvest season. This appears to be the ultimate existential threat of Harfoot existence, that your family will be left by the rest to be devoured by wolves or other monsters, remembered only via a dutiful (and brief) mention in each year’s tribute to the dead—the Harfoot equivalent of an Oscars “In Memorium” montage, except with more chuckling at deceased family members who were stung to death by bees.
Immediately, though, the fatalism and concern of the Brandyfoot family rings as strange to the viewer, because we’re given no reason for why a single, relatively minor injury is treated as such a massive burden on their society. Knowing what we know about hobbits, we fully expect the community to rally around their injured member! We expect to see them taking turns in caring for Largo, in building him a sling, in carrying him in each family’s cart. They’re already traveling with a rather ridiculous assemblage of goods for transitory migrants—you’re telling me that none of these hale and hearty adults are able to take on any additional burden, or travel a little lighter? Hell, the guy isn’t even immobile—he’s just walking a little slower than normal.
Consider, after all, what being “left behind” really means here. It’s implied that when one is left behind, they inevitably don’t make it to the ancestral harvest home, which means for all intents and purposes that this a death sentence. One would expect the community to treat such a thing as an extreme last resort, or for a Harfoot to say “we leave no one behind unless we absolutely have to.” You expect to see these goodhearted hobbit precursors agonize over such a decision. And instead, we get the exact opposite, with village elders such as Malva seemingly pushing as hard as they can for the extermination of the Brandyfoot family, and poor Poppy (whose song I loved in a totally unabashed and unqualified way) by proxy. For god’s sake, they’ve got a little kid in tow who looks about 6 years old! I demand that you look at the face of Dilly Brandyfoot right now, and then tell me that the audience shouldn’t judge the Harfoot elders for not caring whether she becomes a bleached little hobbit skeleton they’ll note in their list of the abandoned.
Look at that face. LOOK AT IT.
It might be different in Largo Brandyfoot was portrayed as some kind of weathered, ancient elder of the community whose “time had come.” In that scenario, at least the screenwriters might believably be able to write the guy saying something like “leave me behind for the good of the clan.” But obviously, that isn’t the case—Largo is just an otherwise healthy adult male in the prime of his life, someone who happens to be slowed down by a temporary injury. Given a little while to heal up, surely he would be a contributing member of their village for literal decades or a generation to come. Condemning him (and his entire family) to death for his minor injury is like a farmer finding out his plow horse has a cold, and reacting by deciding to shoot not just that one horse, but also its entire extended family. The show has just never provided any rationale for which such an extreme reaction is necessary.
And it’s not getting better, either. Despite the fact that the Brandyfoot family has seemingly been able to keep up during the migration thanks to the assistance of The Stranger—and none of the other Harfoots—the village elders haven’t stepped back on their campaign to leave Nori, Largo and the others behind. In fact, Episode 5 of Rings of Power depicts the clan slogging their way through an unusually barren forest, which results in the elders deciding that the presence of The Stranger is no doubt at fault for any and all misfortune that may come their way. The lovely Malva approaches village leader Sadoc to offer a typically empathetic piece of advice: The group should preemptively assure the deaths of the Brandyfoots by forcibly taking the wheels off their wagons, stranding them in the inhospitable wilderness. Essentially, she’s arguing that because she doesn’t like the look of The Stranger, the clan should respond by upgrading the Brandyfoot family’s death sentence from passive, implied death to active, spiteful death. And Sadoc’s response? He doesn’t disagree with her. To which I can only say: Wow. These are our protagonists? These guys. It seems more pleasant and supportive to be a member of orc society, than Harfoot society at this point. Imagine trying to live your daily life next door to a neighbor who advocated for stealing all your stuff and leaving you to die.
As Paste TV editor Allison Keene observed: “I guess this is why their community is so small, though—they love leaving people to die. The hollow promise of ‘no one walking alone’ is increasingly comical.”
At this point, it feels like we’re one or two episodes away from the village elders suggesting that the rest of the clan burn Nori at the stake to appease their gods, Melisandre-style, or eating her family like so much proto-Hobbit trail mix. They need to keep up their strength, after all. It’s a long walk.
All jokes aside, it’s not difficult for the viewer to understand how the screenwriter would like for these events to be perceived. We’re meant to understand that the migration of the Harfoots is fraught with dangers, and that a painfully utilitarian philosophy is how they respond to these conditions—they’re willing to do whatever it takes to safeguard the community as a whole, even if it means being very ready to sacrifice individual members or whole families along the way.
The thing is, you can’t just assume the audience will come to those conclusions, and you especially can’t do that when we’re basing most of our understanding of the Harfoots on the Tolkien hobbits we know and love so well. It would never even occur to the likes of Samwise Gamgee to leave a little hobbit child behind to die, so the idea can’t help but be shocking and distasteful to the viewer. And thus, if Amazon is going to portray such a cruel offshoot of the hobbit world in Rings of Power, they need to do a far better job of making us understand why the Harfoots believe sacrificing five or six people is a worthwhile tradeoff to the alternative, which is helping a guy with an injured foot tough it out. It’s either that, or fully lean into the dark side of these Harfoots by acknowledging their positively villainous tendencies.
Which is all to say: I sure hope Rings of Power can figure out sooner or later how we’re meant to perceive these little guys, so ready and eager to abandon one another at the first opportunity. Never did I think I’d be so repulsed by a hobbit—or a Harfoot.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.