Part historical political drama, part supernatural zombie horror, the South Korean series Kingdom proved to be a smart, heady, addictive delight when it debuted last year, easily earning a spot on our year’s best list for 2019. It boasted stunning visuals, memorable characters, and a juggernaut of a plot, with the occasional moments of comic relief. If anything, S2 is even better. Honestly, between this outstanding series and the Oscar-winning Parasite alone, South Korea has firmly established itself at the forefront of global film and television.
(Spoilers for S1; some spoilers for S2 below the gallery.)
The series is based on a popular South Korean webcomic Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee, who also adapted it for television. Set in Korea’s Joseon period, ), Kingdom begins as the current king has succumbed to smallpox. His conniving young wife, Queen Cho (Kim Hye-jun), and her family have kept him artificially alive—via a “resurrection plant” that turns the king into a flesh-eating zombie—until her son is born. Her son would inherit the throne over the current Crown Prince, Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who was born to a concubine.
The king’s “affliction” soon spreads to the outer provinces. The zombie king kills the physician’s young assistant, and the body is brought back to his clinic in the remote village of Dongnae, where the people are starving. One of the patients, a former soldier named Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu), makes a meaty stew with the dead man’s body and serves it to the unsuspecting patients, turning them into flesh-eating monsters. The exiled crown prince teams up with a nurse, Seo-bi (Bae Doo-na), and other survivors to beat back the encroaching zombie horde.
This is an expensive series, with superb production values—so much so, that budget overruns resulted in just six S1 episodes. Perhaps that’s why the six episodes of S2 feel more like a natural continuation than a whole new storyline. Per the official S2 premise: “As winter approaches, the battle between the living and the undead in Joseon is just beginning. The royal court is teeming with snakes, the zombies are coming, and the crown prince has a nation to save. The worst is yet to come, and everyone will need to choose a side without knowing who they can really trust.”
When we last left Lee Chang and his band of survivors, they were in deep peril, outnumbered as a vast army of the ravenous undead advanced. Queen Cho had seized the throne in Lee Chang’s absence, despite the last-minute reveal that she had secretly miscarried and was faking her continued pregnancy. S2 opens right where we left off.
As I noted in my S1 review, these zombies have more in common with the monsters of World War Z than classic Romero movies: they turn fast, and they move fast. The humans were able to get some respite in S1, because the zombies seemed to hate sunlight and were dormant during the day. But we quickly learn that with the coming of winter, the zombies can now attack in daylight. So the situation has gone from very, very bad to downright apocalyptic.
Meanwhile, back at the royal enclave, the Cho clan has solidified its power. And Queen Cho has essentially imprisoned dozens of expectant mothers, waiting for one of them to give birth to a boy that she can then claim as her own. (Be forewarned: terrible things are done to newborn female babies and their mothers in S2. Kingdom has always had plenty of gore, but this might be a bridge too far for American tastes, in particular, to cross.)
Like all the best offerings in the zombie genre, Kingdom is about much more than endlessly battling hordes of the ravenous undead. Kim Eun-hee has said her webcomic (and the series) was inspired by an account she read in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty—a medieval dynasty that lasted some 500 years (1392-1897)—about hundreds of thousands of inexplicable deaths that had occurred. She decided to make a zombie attack the cause of those deaths, using the outbreak as a means of exploring broader sociopolitical themes. The general populace suffers from hunger and disease as their oblivious leaders vie for political power. It is only fitting, then, that the starving commoners become the zombie horde, while the hunger for power of certain leaders results in rash decisions that could mark the end of the Joseon Dynasty entirely.
Fortunately, there are just as many (if not more) people able to find the better angels of their nature and rise to the occasion. Seo-bi is a true heroine, selflessly putting herself at risk to learn more about the resurrection plant and hopefully find a cure. And Yeong-shin leads a daring mission to bring food to those starving under siege, via a series of tunnels—with several in their company nobly giving their lives to ensure the mission succeeds. Selfless sacrifice for the greater good may be the only way the zombies will be defeated—and that’s perhaps a message we all need to hear right now.
Kingdom is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s best to view both seasons (12 episodes in all) back to back, if you’re in a bingeing mood, since one flows so seamlessly into the other. The S2 finale wraps up most of the narrative threads, but there is a set-up for a possible third season, with a fresh storyline. So we could be getting even more South Korean zombie goodness in the future.