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‘Kingdom’ Review: This Netflix Original Series Is a Cross-Genre Masterpiece
A battle for the crown, a brawl with the undead, a fight for survival
As nightfall in the kingdom cloaks the land in complete darkness, something else comes to light: Behind palace walls lies a despicable royal family secret, one that spawns a menacing plague that cannot be contained and soon takes over Korea.
In many ways, the celebrated new Netflix series Kingdom starring Ji-hoon Ju, Doona Bae and Suk-ho Jun, is about the kingdom’s untimely takeover. One on end, it’s by devious royal officials and the pregnant queen herself (played by Kim Hye-jun), who see the king’s mysterious illness as an opportunity to grab power as soon as the queen gives birth to an heir and the designated crown prince Chang (Ji-hoon Ju) is deposed. On the other end, it’s the literal and gory invasion of the living dead, which starts like clockwork upon sundown, sparing no one who gets in the way; the lust for human flesh takes them from town to town, body after body.
Marking the return of the zombie genre—done with justice to boot—writer Kim Eun-hee and director Kim Seong-hun’s Kingdom doubles down on genre-bending antics without spoiling the series’ riveting storyline. It manages to take all the best parts of action, suspense and drama and allows the three to morph into its own magnificent monstrosity.
Here, gore is not limited to the flesh-eating undead that rule the night, but is as evident in the unjust execution of citizens and even royal subjects in broad daylight. The latter is carried out by the royal army, now single-handedly commanded by Queen Cho and her equally ambitious family members, the Haewon Cho clan, that have found a way to assume powerful positions in government. It’s as though the living and undead merely take turns in some form of bloodshed with no one brave enough to break the cycle.
This is the state of unrest the rightful heir to the throne, crown prince Chang finds himself in. Caught in the middle of a conspiracy, as posters tacked up in the capital of Hanyang touting “a new wind will blow” suggest his hasty coronation, Chang is steadfast in a newfound mission. This is not to see through yet another attempt to take the crown as the conspiracy suggests, however. It is to get answers regarding his ailing father’s health, a genuine concern no one seems to be heeding. Chang, while the king’s only blood relative left, is outnumbered, overpowered and overridden. But his questions remain: Why is the king being kept behind closed doors? Why is Chang forbidden to see him? How is the rise of the undead connected to the royal family secret not even Chang is allowed to know about? With things left up in the air, one thing is certain: the members of the royal army now dare to spill royal blood as a means to fulfill the queen’s orders. And the crown prince must be killed before he learns the answers to his questions.
In the first season of Kingdom, which is a succinct six episodes, what’s noteworthy is the creators’ consistent use of day and night to further signify divide, the main theme that runs through the veins of the series where commoners and noblemen struggle to rise up together to defeat the undead. They are, one way or another, crippled by their class differences. The noblemen, for instance, in the face of danger, cling for dear life to their elitism. “These peasants are attacking noblemen!” cries one aristocrat in the wake of a full-blown zombie attack. The poor, meanwhile, face an unfortunate fate as most of the impoverished townspeople respond to the living dead’s attacks not by fighting or fleeing, but freezing. Perhaps if there is one nuisance that must be named regarding this remarkable work of fiction, it’s the unusually, painfully extended freeze response of some of the characters.
Though given the social context of life in the medieval Joseon period, it can be said that tradition accounts for some of these more than strange events and reactions. The deeply-rooted importance of family, of loyalty, of honor and an extreme understanding of respect render common sense moot.
Still, timeless and universal concepts are what tie such varied elements together: what an insatiable hunger for power does to man, seeds of doubt and fear planted by a corrupt government, the enemy of the nation being within its walls and not outside of it.
Kingdom, as it slowly reveals one episode after another, is an amalgam of the natural and supernatural, the complexities of the human mind and relationship. Regardless of its first season with one unsettling cliffhanger, there’s a lot to unpack solely from the six episodes here...and a lot more to look forward to in the sophomore season set to follow.
Watch the complete first season of ‘Kingdom’ only on Netflix, the streaming platform that allows Globe subscribers to binge on TV series, relive blockbuster movies and discover documentaries on the go. Subscription to Netflix is required.
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