Spoilers follow for the first half of season two…
S02E01: An unexpected setback in Sangju poses new problems for Prince Chang and the others. Seo-bi and Cho Beom-pal seek safety with Cho Hak-ju.
S02502: After prince Chang breaks into Mungyeong Saejae, a nightmare unfolds. Officials search the queen’s home, suspecting she is hiding something.
S02E03: When Cho Hak-ju is taken from his custody, Prince Chang goes after him. Seo-bi looks for a way to treat the disease. The queen awaits her prince.
Hey Terry, welcome to the pandemic quarantine edition of our collaborative works!
All (not quite) joking aside, being housebound has provided me with a great excuse to finally dive into Kingdom, Netflix’s South Korean historical zombie series. I had every intention of checking this out when it debuted last year…but then life happened. Insert emoji shrug guy.
I’m very thankful, however, to be caught up because whew boy have I been missing out. Bingeing the first season before S2 wound up being very helpful because although the series isn’t incredibly dense, it does traverse a ton of ground (often literally) and includes a constantly expanding cast of characters.
I think my favourite thing about the series is the way that historical politics and procedures are used to both inform and elevate the genre elements. I went into Kingdom expecting a fairly rote zombie series whose key distinguishing characteristic was the time period (FYI: Kingdom is set in the Joseon period, near the turn of the 17th century). And while the lack of guns and complex weaponry does change the action sequences compared to, say, Resident Evil, it is the political machinations that really make the series stand out for me.
In some ways, I’m reminded of other historical dramas like The Tudors or The Borgias, where the in-fighting of the Court is paramount for creating crisis and tension. Here the conflict is between the ailing King’s son, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ji-Hoon Ju), and his political rivals in the Haewon Cho Clan: Lord Cho Hak-ju (Seung-ryong Ryu) and his daughter, Queen Cho (Hye-Jun Kim) who is “pregnant” with the king’s baby. There’s also a famine as a result of the war with Japan three years earlier, as well as bubbling tensions around tradition and class.
Oh – and there’s also a zombie plague that is rapidly taking over the Southern part of the country. The majority of the first season followed Chang’s attempts to track down the truth about his father’s illness, which keeps intersecting with the zombie horde, which is <spoilers> the result of a plot by Lord Cho Hak-ju to keep the king alive (courtesy of a resurrection plant) long enough for the Queen to deliver a male heir. The king killed a boy, whose body was consumed by starving and injured peasants and voila! the origin of a contagious army of mutating zombies.
In S1, this all came to a head when Chang, his chief guard Muyeong (Sang-ho Kim), physician Seo-bi (Doona Bae), mysterious tiger hunter Yeong-shin (Kim Sung-kyu), and Chang’s former mentor Lord Ahn Hyeon (Jun-ho Heo) wound up facing down the zombie horde outside of the Citadel at Sangju. Throw in a few other cliffhangers, including the mysterious identity of the mole feeding Lord Cho Hak-ju information, as well as the fact that the Queen is faking her pregnancy and Muyeong’s pregnant wife is living at her secret baby camp in Naeseonjae, and you’ve got a lot of unresolved plot heading into S2.
Terry, hopefully this helps to remind everyone what they should be aware of as they head into the second season, so I’ll turn it over to you. What did you think of the resolution to the S1 cliffhanger involving the previously-inanimate-during-the-day zombies who arrived en masse at dawn? (I think it’s a bit of a retcon, but I’ll allow it). Are you happy that certifiable idiot Cho Beom-pal (Arnold Pal), the former Magistrate of Dongnae who keeps trying to get with Seo-bi, is still kicking around after the boat he was on got decimated by zombies? And are the flashbacks to three years prior, set during a pivotal moment in the war with Japan, working for you?
I’m so glad you approached me to do this, Joe, because I’ve been wondering why every horror fan has been sleeping on this show! Granted, I contributed to part of that problem because I never did review it or hyped it up when it premiered last year. But man, this show is aces and Season Two seems to kick it up a notch in the drama department. As you mentioned, there’s a lot of ground to cover here (though not as much, literally, this season so far) so let’s start with the flashback to the battle with Japan.
Throughout the first season, I was keenly interested in hearing more about this battle because it seemed to have ramifications to the current problems plaguing the nation. And this one scene hints at the direct connection by introducing Lord Cho Hak-ju to the resurrection plant, while their forces are surrounded by Japanese forces. It’s a brief moment–put a pin in that–and before it can even sink in, we’re back in the present, picking up right where Season One ended: our intrepid heroes are facing down a massive horde of undead who are no longer afraid of the dawn…
…which is because they never were afraid of it to begin with. It’s the heat. Now, you mention it’s a bit of a retcon and I’ll agree that the introduction feels a little stilted. It’s one of the moments that really reminded me that this is based on a web comic by Kim Eun-hee, who also writes each episode. This development uses a similar shorthand that comics sometimes do in order to up the ante. It didn’t bother me, but I don’t think it necessarily holds up under scrutiny, either.
Regardless, this was the moment that I realized how much the entire crew working on Kingdom has stepped up their game. The first season was gorgeous, but this new season is absolutely stunning; it is dripping with production value that puts Game of Thrones to shame. This opening fight just showcases how confident and assured their filmmaking has become. It’s shot during the day (take that, “The Long Night”), filled with blustery cannons, charging hordes of zombies and an amazing bit with a large pit full of spikes that steadily becomes absolutely stuffed with wriggling corpses that the rest of the horde simply run over.
It’s a lot.
And that’s before the slow motion shot of our heroes running from the exploding, toppling ramparts as the undead overwhelm it. It’s an extended fight sequence that felt reminiscent of Kingdom S01E03’s night attack in its intricacy, pacing and choreography.
After the battle, things are still incredibly dire as the Citadel of Sanju, where all of the survivors are huddled, is surrounded by the undead with little to know supplies. They’re cut off, not only because of the zombies but also the encroaching horde of The Five Armies led by Lord Cho Hak-ju, who not only wants to silence the plague but also to get his revenge on Chang.
Meanwhile Seo-bi and her wannabe paramour Cho Beom-pal have escaped with the resurrection flower to the Walls of Mungyeong Saejae where Lord Cho Hak-ju, Beom-pal’s uncle, is currently stationed. What is it about Beom-pal that keeps me so invested in him? He’s an absolute dolt who makes the situation worse with everything he does. He bumbles through attacks, zombie uprisings, failing his family, all the while continuously embroiling Seo-bi in more and more trouble. Maybe it’s because his character is a hilarious satire of Middle Management and their ability to continually fail upward into jobs that they clearly aren’t suited for.
While the first episode resolved a lot of the cliffhangers from Season One while setting up the conflict for Season Two, I have to ask about the resurrection flower, Joe. Did you notice the way Seo-bi looked at the little…orbs hanging on the opposite side of the flower that looked, to me at least, suspiciously like eggs? Were you surprised at how the second episode heightened the emotional stakes between Chang, Lord Ahn Hyeon and the King? Did the violent ending of episode two surprise you?
I can’t say that I took notice of the resurrection flower, so I’ll have to go back and take another look! I will say that I like that the way that the zombie outbreak thrives in the cold like the flower that enables the dead to return; it’s touches like this that prove that Kingdom is as focused on the little details as it is on the large scale battles.
One of the other elements that I’ve really come to appreciate is how Kingdom will dart back and forth between palace intrigue and the zombie outbreak. If the season premiere is almost entirely dedicated to the horde, they are almost completely absent from the second episode so that writer Eun-hee can (re)prioritize the human drama. I’ll confess that I was momentarily confused when the King suddenly appeared in Mungyeong Saejae because we had only ever seen him in Hanyang. Occasionally the series will jump locations and I’ll confess that sometimes I struggle to identify if it’s somewhere we’ve been before, or where it is in relation to the other places (Part of this confusion stems from the ease it takes to get from one place to another; sometimes horseback is required, but other times running will do the trick).
Episode two gives a really big spotlight to Lord Cho Hak-ju and Lord Ahn Hyeon, which makes sense considering their history during the war. A few elements didn’t entirely work for me (if Lord Cho Hak-ju is so desperate to silence Lord Ahn Hyeon, wouldn’t he have struck the blow himself rather than let the man spill all of his secrets?) It’s a minor quibble, but Lord Ahn Kyeon lives SO long – he not only manages to remove the bar from the gate, but survives long enough to develop a plan with Prince Chang that will allow him to reanimate him in the third episode and attack their adversary? It’s a biiiit of a stretch, even if it is incredibly satisfying when Lord Ahn Kyeon appears in the mist at episode’s end, literally carrying the flag on his back. It strains credibility, but it’s one hell of visual to go out on.
And yes, it’s unexpected when he’s attacked because everything about Lord Cho Hak-ju screams “final villain” to me. Granted he doesn’t die from the encounter, though he is knocking at death’s door in episode three, despite Seo-bi’s best efforts to use herbs to keep him alive.
But Terry, we’ve barely touched on the whole “fake pregnancy” plot and how that contributes to an about-face with Muyeong in the third episode. What did you think of the reveal of the mole? Is all of the baby drama capturing your attention? And can we talk about how stunning Queen Cho’s pregnancy bird nest is?
I’ll be honest, with all of the death and the very few times we see Muyeong’s wife, I wasn’t quite sure if she was dead or not. But the way episode three tackles Muyeong’s divided need to provide for his family and his loyalty to Chang really worked for me. That’s, of course, all centered around Queen Cho’s fake pregnancy. I enjoyed the way the narrative included members of the Royal Commandery Division investigating the events at Hanyang and Naeseonjae. It feels like the noose is tightening around Queen Cho, her fatally-bit father and their empire. Which makes me wonder what Queen Cho will do when her power is directly threatened on all sides…
…if she can leave that fabulous nest. Like, damn. Regal and comfy.
While I wish Queen Cho was given more to do than be fake-pregnant, I do love the way it ties together a lot of the drama befalling our heroes. In particular, it’s directly tied into the mole reveal, which I found to be incredibly heartbreaking. Since season one, we’ve known that someone around Chang has been feeding information to Lord Cho Hak-ju and there hasn’t been a whole lot of suitable choices. It felt both inevitable that it would end up being Chang’s closest companion and also shockingly painful, at the same time. Particularly when it ended so tragically…again at the hands of the bumbling Beom-pal.
The way episode three ended, with a stunning shot of a forest of white trees and Chang, bawling and cradling his dying friend in his arms, was actually quite moving…even if, like Lord Ahn Hyeon’s final moments, Muyeon’s ability to cling to life also stretched credibility.
I initially brought up the egg-like things attached to the flower because 1) Seo-bi examines them with a very perplexed look in her eyes and 2) the final shot of episode two, with Lord Ahn Hyeon snarling at the camera, had a weird-looking squiggle moving just under his skin and through his eyes that made me wonder if they’re actually infected with some kind of parasite.
Man, I don’t know, Joe. This season is booking. It’s moving so fast that it’s difficult to keep up with the various plot wrinkles. What were your thoughts about the mole? What do you think is going to happen in the next three episodes?
Agreed that the way Muyseon went out was heartbreaking. I appreciated that he wasn’t simply villainous and he got a brief, fleeting opportunity to try and redeem himself before he was unceremoniously treated like a arrow pin-cushion.
I’ll confess that I did wonder if the mole would turn out to be Yeong-shin, since his character has been called into question so often (though in hindsight, it seems obvious that it was Muyeon attempting to throw Prince Chang off his own scent). I’m possibly the most intrigued by Yeong-shin out of all the characters because he’s been given this tragic back story – what with his connection to the residents of Sumang village, the place where the zombie virus was originally used to defeat the Japanese – but it hasn’t really been touched on more than that. Of all of our main characters, we know the least about Yeong-shin and Seo-bi, so I’m hoping that we’ll get a bit more of them in the back half of the season.
What else do I expect? The tease with Queen Cho has been dragged out for quite some time, so that certainly has got to come to a head, if only because I need see Hye-Jun Kim do more than smile menacingly at the end of each episode. I’ve been waiting for her to ascend to her full potential for nearly two seasons and given the way her father talks to her, I definitely think she’s going to take him out now that he’s wounded.
It also all depends if Kingdom gets a third season, too. I’m fairly certain the plan is to continue, so I don’t think the zombie threat will be contained before season’s end, which also likely means another big cliffhanger. Perhaps the horde will finally descend on the capital of Hanyang.
We’ll find out shortly when we jump over to Gayly Dreadful for the back half of the season!
Both seasons of Kingdom are now streaming on Netflix