Netflix's show Kingdom pokes as several guilty pleasures I have for entertainment. Firstly, there is the historic Asian drama element. I am a sucker for historic dramas, but give me the beautiful courts and robes and all the petty power plays, too? I will watch it until my eyes bleed. Secondly, there is the aesthetic. Kingdom is visually stunning and artistic. I'm not an expert in dissecting the art of film making and cinematography, but it's clear that there was thought and symbolic composition to many of the poignant shots. Thirdly, and this the weirdest one of all, it has zombies.
While this may not look like a weird thing to like, those who know me will be immediately taken aback. Zombies are a kind of "low brow" monster, and I don't typically stand low-brow anything. Zombies are the exception to that taste-rule. And shows like Kingdom are why.
(very light spoilers ahead)
Kingdom is set in Korea in the early 1600s, after a war against the Japanese, during a time of massive starvation and wealth disparity. The poor are so desperate for food, that when a corpse arrives in a small town, someone gets the bright idea to turn to cannibalism in order to feed the village. This corpse, of course, is not just any corpse but an infected zombie. Thus, an isolated incident of one suddenly spreads to the whole community. To add to this outbreak, it seems that the ruling court is keeping secrets, and there is a layered plot to keep the crown prince from becoming king as well as keeping one of the most powerful families alive in power.
Anyone familiar with Asian court dramas will be familiar with the "plan to depose the ruler" plotline. Often, court dramas are so isolated from the rest of the country and the other classes that they can have a romanticized feel to them. The point is to be drawn in by the dazzling visual spectacle and then root for the protagonists, even when they do terrible deeds. The evil are truly evil and the good get retribution one way or another. The intrigue of multi-layered plots is rarely coupled with a plague outbreak and utter mishandling of resources that affect the rest of the country.
Kingdom, however, absolutely prioritizes showing the suffering of the lower classes. This is a key point to what these zombies represent and why they work as well as they do. Throughout season one, there is a focus on the wealth of the Haewon Cho clan and that of the court, as well as the desperation of the peasant class. As I said, the country is starving to the point that just to feed themselves the village we focus on resorts to cannibalism. Once the outbreak occurs, the nobility saves themselves and abandon the people they were sworn to protect (even though it doesn't quite work out the way they intended). The dead are both the representation of the hunger of the peasant class as well as the revenge on the noble classes who have grown fat, selfish, and complacent. The incompetence of some of these characters is astounding. The active cruelty and dismissal towards the peasant class is infuriating.
And yet, the narrative continues to keep you on your toes. It's not always clear who you're supposed to root for. While we definitely have paragon characters (like Crown Prince Chang and the nurse, Seo-bi), there are many characters who are much more complex and have a variety of stresses placed on them. The good-natured bodyguard makes choices we hate, and the mysterious wanderer's motivations for helping are anything but pure. One moment we hate a character, and the next we are happy they are exactly where they were at that particular moment in time. Not to spoil too much, but I was absolutely rooting for a zombie at one point (like, actively screaming at the screen because I was so happy). Honestly, I'd love to give Kingdom a second watch from the beginning just to pick apart the characterizations and foils of each player.
Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't characters who are straight-up evil. It is clear that the leaders of the Haewon Cho clan are the true villains in this story. The clan leader is a high-ranking minister and is the mastermind behind the country's crooked politics. Additionally, his daughter is the current ruling Queen who is pregnant with a child who would have more claim to the throne than Chang (our hero) if born a male. This is where the relationship between zombies and evil becomes very interesting.
The zombies in this world are created via medicinal properties. I don't think it's much of a spoiler (as it's revealed literally in the opening scene) to say that the King is dead. He is the source of the "rot" in the kingdom, and the Haewon Cho clan perpetuates the rot in order to secure their rule. Lies are spread and secrets are kept under threat of death. The zombies are tools of power, though only loosely controlled. Still, it's interesting that they can be created to serve a purpose, whether that is to win a throne or win a war. So long as the hunger continues, even insofar as the "starvation" of the King, the Haewon Cho family prosper. That is, of course, until the outbreak becomes uncontrollable. Slowly, more information is obtained, and, of course, the plots unravel.
While the connection between zombies and hunger is not a new one, the way it's implemented here is unique in that it's a tool for control. Kingdom is one of the few zombie stories where classism takes center stage and we're able to see the careful balance of class upturned. It's no coincidence that the zombie outbreak starts in the poorest and most desperate of villages and then spreads to the capital city, ultimately spreading into the palace. If we were to take out the zombies, this is what happens with the masses are fed up with being downtrodden when the wealthy prosper at their expense. Eventually, the anger and hate spread into the palace, going even insofar as to turn against the people who are trying their best to help. I think there's a poignant lesson to be learned here.
This also serves as a tool to bend our main protagonist's character arc. The Crown Prince Chang doesn't seem to want to be king once his father is gone. He's not necessarily a carefree character, but he certainly isn't ready to take on all the responsibility. Throughout the first season, Chang sees what's happening and how incompetent and corrupt his kingdom has become, and he comes to accept his role in all this. He is part of the problem because he's done nothing, and furthermore he will someday be in a position to stop the corruption from getting this bad. Similarly, the character Cho Beom-pal is more directly part of the problem. He is part of the Haewon Cho clan and is a corrupt, selfish, incompetent noble who struggles between his family's desires and doing the right thing. I wouldn't say that either has a "redemption" tale, but their characters are able to give us perspectives with complications and caveats. Again, there are excellent lessons to take away from these characters and their motivations.
I'm excited to see where season three will take us, but I have a feeling we will be moving away from the well-crafted political intrigue to focus more on the zombies. In my opinion, that will weaken the narrative's uniqueness and it will end up becoming more like other zombie stories. I hope I am wrong and that it continues to grow more complex as the show goes on! 5 star rating
Content Warnings: gore, violence, suicide, infanticide, cannibalism (at the very least)