Kingdom season 2 review: Netflix's Joseon-era epic on zombie epidemic continues its thrilling ride
Despite a few missteps, season 2 does work hard in its unusual role as an epic for an epidemic. It ensures that for now at least, Kingdom continues to be a glorious addition to the zombie cultural invasion.
Until I watched Kingdom's first season last year, I didn't even realise that there was a zombie epidemic-in-a-Korean-period-setting sized hole in the pop culture landscape of my life, just waiting to be filled.
Like certain combinations that seem so perfectly suited to each other that you wonder if anything else will match up in quite the same way —
(for instance, as a friend notes, space + existentialism, small town + weird/paranormal happenings, upbeat sounding tracks + serious/sad lyrics, slow movies + big cities, and historical events juxtaposed with the present day in art)
— Kingdom indicated that zombies in the Joseon dynasty could trump their Regency-era England counterparts anyday.
Season 2, which released on Netflix this Friday the 13th, amid a coronavirus pandemic, reiterates that conclusion.
In season 1, Kingdom (based on the graphic novel The Kingdom of the Gods) set up its somewhat Game of Thrones-inspired narrative:
In the late 16th/early 17th century Korea during the Joseon dynasty, the King is in the grip of a mysterious illness. His illegitimate son, the Crown Prince Yi Chang, isn't being allowed to see his father. Meanwhile, the Queen and her father, the General Cho Hak-ju — the Lannisters of this story — have wrested and consolidated all power in the hands of their clan.
Palace intrigues aren't all that keep Kingdom's heroes and villains busy — there's a plague sweeping through the land, turning people into flesh-eating zombies. No one is safe.
Season 1 ended on a cliffhanger, with the Crown Prince and his band of merry men (his personal guard Moo Young, his mentor Lord An Hyun, a vengeance-seeking hunter Yeong-shin jein) making a stand against a ravenous horde at the stronghold of Sangju. Other characters, such as a nurse Seo-bi, and Beom-pal — a bumbling district official who is also Cho Hak-ju's nephew — were looking for the flower of the Resurrection Plant that seemed to be at the root of the epidemic.
Back in the capital, the Queen is preparing for the birth of a royal heir, who would of course push the Crown Prince out of the line for the throne for good.
Season 2 picks up these strands.
The siege of Sangju, needless to say, isn't going according to plan — an occupational hazard when dealing with zombies en masse.
The action cuts to the past, three years before these events the Crown Prince and the others are involved in, to a war between Japanese and Korean forces. Vastly outnumbered by the Japanese, Cho Hak-ju consults with the Physician Lee (the same doctor who is brought back to "care" for the King during his illness) to kill all the sick and wounded in Sangju and then resurrect them as zombies with the help of the plant. Lord An Hyun reluctantly goes along with the plan, and the zombies are unleashed on the Japanese soldiers.
Back to the current timeline, the story moves at breakneck pace as the Crown Prince confronts Cho Hak-ju, faces a betrayal and mounting losses, makes his way to the capital Hanyang, faces off against the Queen and so on. Kingdom thumbs its nose at GoT and The Walking Dead in how it quickly disposes of several prominent characters — and doesn't dwell on these overmuch. There's always the next narrative point to get to, another sub-plot to uncover, the next deception to fall prey to.
At times, this works to Kingdom season 2's disadvantage.
Season 1 had a fairly straightforward narrative, and enough attention could be devoted to the detailing: to the landscapes, costumes and architecture, to the class politics and deeply entrenched social hierarchy, to the symbolism of a zombie epidemic in a country laid low by famine and corruption, and the class politics. In season 2, all of this just whizzes by. Or perhaps the makers thought that it wouldn't be novel enough this time round to emphasise overmuch.
The twists retain the element of surprise, but the speed with which they come about leaves you with a sense of unfinished business, of loose threads knotted with haste.
The real flaw this season seems to be that while Kingdom gets its humans (mostly) right, it gets its zombies wrong. The depiction is inconsistent, to say the least: One moment they're asleep during the day, then they're up and about in the sunlight and we're told that it is the heat they dislike, not the sun itself. Some people turn into zombies after being bitten, others because they've consumed infected flesh. The "treatment" Seo-bi comes up with is too ludicrously simple and lowers the stakes somewhat.
Of course this is a little like arguing over whether vampires should glitter in the sunlight or, in a more self-respecting manner, combust (combust! combust!). We shouldn't expect lore to abide by logic, but Kingdom's zombie rules shift a little too much for comfort. The makers try to explain it away by presenting it as an infection that not much is known about (and Seo-bi gets to play medical detective in a manner that fits in with our present-day pandemic panic), but it comes off as lazy storytelling, on occasion.
Despite these missteps, season 2 does work hard in its unusual role as an epic for an epidemic. It ensures that for now at least, Kingdom continues to be a glorious addition to the zombie cultural invasion.
Kingdom season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
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