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Kingdom - Seasons 1 and 2 - Review - Playing a Game of Chess with the Running Dead

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Minor Spoilers Follow
I do not ruin the time that one SPOILER takes the SPOILER on the SPOILER and SPOILER ensues.

Crown Prince Lee (Ju Ji-hoon) knows something is rotten in the state of Denmark, which here is the kingdom of Joseon. His father is ill, and his pregnant stepmother Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun) refuses to let Lee in to visit. Should Queen Cho give birth to a son, her legitimate child will displace Lee’s claim to the throne, giving her father Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong), head of the very unpopular but very powerful Haewon Cho clan, complete control of the kingdom. While Lee’s predicament is precarious, the majority of the country is faring even worse. A fairly recent war coupled with a crippling famine and the tyranny of Lord Cho Hak-ju has resulted in widespread poverty, starvation, and disease. As always, if it sucks to be royal, it’s a nightmare to be a peasant. Lee decides to sneak in and see his father, but this attempt is foiled, although he does catch a glimpse of something uber disturbing. There is only one course of action: take a roadtrip. With his bodyguard/closest person to a best friend (Kim Sang-ho as Mu-yeong) he has at his side, Lee runs away to visit the physician that recently treated his father. Naturally, Lord Cho Hak-ju sends soldiers after him. Lee’s destination is Dongnae, where one of the physician’s assistants Seo-bi (Sense8’s Bae Doona) clashes with visiting hunter Yeong-shin (Kim Sung-kyu) about how to help her starving patients. Some days later, Lee and Mu-yeong arrive at the clinic and discover it seemingly abandoned, except for the masses of dead bodies under the floors! Something is actually rotten in Joseon.

If you’re guessing that Prince Lee is going to have to assemble a squad, well, you’re right. Kingdom is both a period drama and a zombie thriller, and it dishes up the goods in spades. Hye-jun is positively chilling in her villainous role, never losing the nuance of her character even as increasingly macabre details are revealed about Queen Cho. The young queen might have a one-track mind, but she’s the series’ most dangerous wildcard. While his stepmom serves up evil to go with her regal fashion, Prince Lee finds himself on a much different path. His quest to get answers about his father’s condition brings him into direct contact with his people, and he begins to prioritize protecting them over securing his throne. Lee starts off as a very reserved character, the tall, handsome, and silent type. Ju Ji-hoon gives an excellent performance as Lee grows into a leader with more than one tragic hurdle to overcome. In a way, we as viewers come to know and befriend Lee as the members of his squad do, which sets up some intense emotional payoff in the second season.

Once the first episode sets the stage and introduces most players, Kingdom hits the gas and doesn’t look back. Along the way, Seo-bi continues to investigate what is causing the zombies, and Dae is thrilling in this role, terrified yet courageous at every turn. Though there are countless heart-gripping action scenes, the early fight to survive Dongnae is brutal. Seo-bi saves Cho Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho brings the perfect amount of comedy to balance out all the bloodshed), Lord Cho Hak-ju’s nephew, and he ends up joining the squad as they attempt to outrun the dead to reach safety. The show’s writer (also the author of the source material) Kim Eun-hee understands that you know what to expect from zombies, but she inserts more than one creative twist to take that part of the plot to the next level. Jump scares are largely ignored; instead we get the best kind of suspenseful tension in the brief waiting periods before the next gruesome battle. One episode opens with a gory skirmish playing backwards, rewinding through the events, and that is only the second most unsettling thing to happen within the hour.

Little does Prince Lee realize (though a member of his squad does unbeknownst to him and us at first) that there is far more going on than meets the eye. As he scrambles to identify trustworthy allies, an action he takes in self-defense brings down the wrath of Lord Cho Hak-ju. A quicksand of betrayal, secrets, and murder threatens to undermine all his attempts to stop the swarm of undead. This builds to a scene in season two that doesn’t work if you think about it; but when you don’t think about, it’s insane and glorious. Both seasons mingle quick cathartic character moments in with the frantic escaping and fighting and scheming, which keeps the show from ever feeling overstuffed. Almost every show with an apocalyptic feeling to it falls back on the same worn out conflicts of people fighting each other to the point the undead barely matter. Kingdom cares about its characters more than that. The threat and mysteries revolving around the undead are just as intriguing and horrifying by the end of season two as they were at the beginning of the show. Characters aren’t killed off for shock value, and you get time to really develop emotional bonds with them. Incredible production values are just the icing on the cake.

Another theme I have often seen in zombie shows is the characters facing an erosion of their humanity due to what they've done to survive. Kingdom avoids falling into the usual cynical traps here, something I especially appreciated. Being allowed to just root for characters to save each other and discover the extent of their strengths without falling into a cynical, existential crisis is a gift. This is to not to say that there aren't moral dilemmas the characters face, nor are the devastating consequences of some choices swept under the rug. However, I love how much this show just lets its characters fight zombies and how much the show stews in its eerie settings. (It is rather dangerous to be an infant in Joseon though.) Watching the show is an experience of the highest caliber. Even though Netflix hasn't renewed it for season three, season two provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion and a tantalizing epilogue that leaves the door open just enough to make another installment possible. I must also praise Kim Seong-hun and Park In-je, the directors.

Kingdom is Netflix’s first original Korean series, and, while dubbing is available, this is a great show to experience in its original language with subtitles. The frequency of the show’s action and the caliber of the cast make it one of the most subtitle-friendly shows I’ve watched on Netflix. With just twelve episodes so far, it's the perfect binge watch for the weekend.

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