Kingdom 2: Excellence in Action (Drama Review)
Kingdom’s first season is set in the Joseon period and focuses on a kingdom defeated by corruption and famine. While a rumor of the King’s death spreads, it goes hand in hand with a strange plague that resurrects the dead. Dealing with the fallout of power struggles, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Joo Ji Hoon), accompanied by his Royal Guard Moo Young (Kim Sang-Ho), fall victim to a conspiracy and begins a journey to unveil the evil scheme and the origins of the plague to save his people and the Kingdom.
Kingdom season 2 brings us back into the story directly, where it left off with Crown Prince Chang and his subordinates at the end of season 1 trying to fend off the dead. Rather than previously believed only to be active when the sun comes down, they were now swarming towards them in the daylight. With the safety now shattered, Kingdom Season 2 opens up with a dramatic first two episodes that ups the ante with the violence along with excellent action and sets up the next part of the story, which sees Prince Chang taking on his stepmother’s clan directly. Labeled a traitor, Chang and those who serve him push forward, aiming to take the throne back but, more importantly, stop the plague.
Everything with season 2 is faster, quicker, bloodier, yet at the same time gives a detailed look at what begins as one man’s struggle to save his people from the spread of the plague and the dynasty and the conspiracies of the powerful Haewon Cho Clan under Chief State Councilor Lord Cho Hak-Ju's (Ryu Seung Ryong) leadership. Matters worsen as Lord Cho decides to hide the King’s death until his daughter, Queen Cho (Kim Hye Joon), produces a son, guaranteeing absolute power. But it quickly turns into a nation’s fight to not only survive but gain the right to be treated as fellow human beings. Meanwhile, the Queen continues her plan to find a male heir and secure her power while nurse Seo Bi (Bae Doo Na) begins to try and find the truth behind the origins of the Resurrection flower and, ultimately, the cure.
Season 2 offers a greater critique of class and leadership more than any other zombie genre has ever done. The ability of the series to balance political intrigue and narrative with high octane battle sequences with fantastic fight choreography is unmatched, in my opinion. What jumps out at me most in season 2 is the Crown Prince’s growth. He goes from a son trying to find out the truth about his father’s illness to a dynasty’s selfless Crown Prince, focused on helping those around him. While exploring his own traumatic experiences that we see unfold throughout the season, his skill as a fighter is one of the most vital elements of this second season.
I attributed his growth and development to the people who tirelessly fight alongside him, such as Young Shin (Kim Sung Gyu). Despite the tragedy, he had to overcome when Lord Ahn Hyeon (Heo Joon Ho), on advice from Lord Cho, sacrificed the people of his village into zombies to defeat an army of 30,000 Japanese invaders. I did, however, find Lord Ahn Hyeon's last act of turning himself into a zombie to expose Lord Cho's evilness, a strong measure of him trying to pay for the choices he made in the past.
There’s also Special Forces Commander Min Chi Rok (Park Byung Eun), who, through his persisting investigation, finds out the Queen was gathering pregnant women at her private residence to bear her the son she couldn’t conceive. And unbeknownst to anyone, even her father, the Queen had pregnant women who delivered daughters instantly killed along with their daughter when their delivery is not as expected. But as a result of his suspicions and searches, Min Chi Rok finds the corpses of seven women and their strangled babies.
And as the backstory of the Crown Prince and his Royal Guard unfolds, we get to see how important Moo Young had become in the life of the Crown Prince, who grew up shunned and isolated for being the son of a concubine. He was his only friend, which stops the Crown Prince from acting against Moo Young despite knowing he had betrayed him to Lord Cho. The discovery that the Queen’s brother had taken Moo Young’s wife hostage to force him to spy on the Crown Prince gives a better perspective to the Crown Prince’s decision to keep Moo Young by his side. Even Jo Bum Pal Dongnae’s Magistrate (Jun Suk Ho) and Lord Cho’s nephew, and one of the most cowardly men in the Kingdom, ultimately serve a purpose in the story and become one of the Crown Princes’ loyal followers.
While the Crown Prince’s quest to power is a central part of Season 2, the series also features two powerful women who exhibit their determination differently. In Queen Cho, we witness cruelty unfold -- a woman refusing to allow her gender to define her political aspirations. She crafts her plan to steal Royal Guard Moo Young’s son, not that she knew or even cared whose son it was as long as it was a son to call her own. She succeeds and ultimately pushes against her father’s pressure and expectations. She is truly her father’s daughter in that she embodies the best of the “mad queen” trope. She doesn’t suffer from its faults, making her own rules along the way.
In contrast to the Queen, we have Seo Bi. I think what I find most endearing about her is that she is not ambiguous about her choices. She is a scientist and a doctor first, taking her duties as such to heart in trying to not only find out the origin of the plant but a cure for the plague. She is intelligent, calm, and the reason both the characters and the audience learn the details about the resurrection plant and the cause of the plague. I found her particularly strong in how she tried to save Lord Cho despite all the atrocities he had committed, not because he was noble but because she believed if she could save him and find a cure.
All that said, Kingdom is unmatched by any other series out there in its epic scale. Palaces, hordes, the wilderness, and more are all presented as larger-than-life sets, all beautifully framed and shot, including the cinematography of fight scenes. There is a quality and scale of the costuming that reflects from bright red royal robes to beige mourning attire and the dead themselves. The costuming contrasts and the nearly sterile scenery depict such a plague-infested atmosphere that it completes the beautiful drama set.
There is no denying, the fight sequences, which utilize everything from guns and swords to bows and flying high kicks, are brilliantly done. Each battle is dynamic and significant, using diverse fighting methods; no two battle sequences are ever the same. The stunts are breathtaking, and I don’t know what else to say besides praise the writer and director and actor’s ability to craft visual surroundings that use royal Joseon’s period setting as a perfect balance to the plague tale. Not even the masses of the undead took away from the personal stories happening in the background. Instead, they serve as a vital part that connects the themes around the plague and the infected with human behavior and morality.
I found admirable the Crown Prince’s sacrifice of giving up the thorn to Moo Young’s son (Kim Kang Hoon), who the Queen passed on as her son, making him the rightful heir to the throne. At least I interpreted what the Prince does as a sacrifice; he, on the other hand, saw it as punishment for beheading his plague-infested dead father. The boy is crowned King while Seo Bi, Young Shin, and Lee Chang (former Crown Prince) set out to investigate the origin of the resurrection plant in the Northern Provinces, following rumors China was responsible for unleashing the zombies on Korea. Shortly after they arrive at a seemingly empty village in the Northern Province, a mysterious woman (Jun Ji Hyun), whom we later find out is Ashin, appears inside a barn, standing next to wooden boxes with the undead inside them.
All in all, Kingdom Season 2 is excellence in action. It’s striking, gory, and showcases how South Korea continually increases the bar in their drama productions. Whether you are a fan of period pieces, political power struggles, romances, fantasies, science fiction, medical stories, zombies and, or horror, you’ll find something to fall in love with Kingdom 1, 2, and even the prequel special episode Kingdom: Ashin of the North where it all began and changed the course of history for the Crown Prince, his followers, the people and the dynasty as a whole. Read the review of the prequel here.