The Zombie-Infested Kingdom Mirrors Our COVID-19 Reality
It feels like the end times. A deadly plague has infected the populace and it’s spreading faster than can be controlled. It’s disruptive, terrifying, and impacting our society in a way that’s never been seen before. By the time it’s all over, countless lives will have been lost and the world will forever be changed. In many ways, COVID-19’s effect on our lives feels like a zombie apocalypse.
It seems appropriate, then, that the best zombie series on television is back so you can watch a zombie apocalypse to escape the zombie apocalypse. Kingdom, the South Korean period drama on Netflix, picks up where it left off in the finale of the first season. The first episode of Season 2 is an anxiety-inducing adrenaline rush from start to finish, raising the stakes for Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon) and his companions.
Ju Ji-Hoon is Crown Prince Lee Chang.
One of the things that sets Kingdom apart from other zombie stories is the character of Chang. The first season saw him grow from a bookish prince to a man of action. “What he had only known through books, he was able to experience, see, and really feel firsthand and he learned a lot from that,” Ju explains, “so compared to the first season, in the second season he is a lot more active and tries to make improvements by actively participating.”
In times of crisis, the importance of strong and compassionate leadership can’t be emphasized enough. Unlike many Western zombie dramas where characters can be morally gray, particularly in the long-winded and detestable The Walking Dead, which seems to revel in human depravity, the protagonists of Kingdom—Lee Chang and Seo Bi (Bae Doona), in particular—stand out because of their compassion.
Bae Doona plays the nurse Seo Bi.
Ju explains why he admires the character he plays: “He's very human. He isn't a prominent leader from the very beginning. Like many other people, he's very afraid, wants to run away, and shows a lot of vulnerabilities.” Chang reluctantly grows into his role and his arc is essentially the heart of Kingdom. “At the end of the day, he accepts what he is faced with, and tries to find ways to overcome the situation within his capabilities and I really admire that about the Prince. And I think I am personally also similar to that, although I am no prince,” adds Ju, “but when I am met with such difficulties or challenges I like to think that I don't give up and push forward.”
That’s what we must do. As humans facing a crisis, we push forward.
'I am no prince but when I am met with such difficulties or challenges I like to think that I don't give up,' says Ju.
In other cases, leaders are a little more like the self-serving Cho Hak-ju, the chief state councilor of Joseon and one of the most powerful men of the state. As head of the influential Haewon Cho clan and father of the Queen, Cho isn’t unlike many prominent political figures from powerful families. Ryu Seung-ryong, who plays Cho, breaks it down: “I don't think that he began as absolute evil in the very beginning. I'm sure he had a sense of justice and a sense of need to really rebuild the nation the way he saw right. However, during the process, he stuck with the wrong direction and the wrong values, which were mixed with the immense hunger for power and desire, which ended up creating the character that is Cho.”
Ryu Seung-ryong is the chief state councilor of Joseon.
Kim Sung-kyu is the mysterious fighter Yeong-Shin.
The wonderful thing about Kingdom is that it isn’t actually about zombies. The undead is just a side effect of what is essentially political ambition that spirals out of control. The first season revealed that the zombies were a result of Cho Hak-ju’s machinations, turning the moribund king into a zombie just so he and his daughter would stay in power. It’s an allegorical tale of contrasts, of the rich and the poor, the gluttonous and the starving, the living and the dead, all set against the beauty of Joseon-era Korea.
It’s a brilliant concept made possible by the freedom of crafting a series for Netflix. “When it comes to working with Korean terrestrial broadcasters, we are never free from the pressure of ratings,” relates Kingdom writer Kim Eun-hee, “and there's also the factor of having instant and very immediate feedback from the viewers, which sometimes results in having to make revisions to the script and whatnot.”
That freedom, which allows Kingdom to show scenes or images otherwise banned or blurred in South Korea (holding a knife must be blurred on broadcast television), has resulted in a macabre blend of horror and historical drama that’s unlike any other show. Yet Kingdom manages to be relevant, initially because of its political allegory but now even more so because of the impact of COVID-19 and the confused and slow-footed response of governments around the world. Nothing else reveals a nation’s vulnerability and weakness of leadership than a full-blown epidemic such as this.
Kingdom’s self-serving leaders, both Cho and his extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile daughter Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye Jun) not only brought the zombie plague upon the kingdom but the latter’s ambitions for the throne lead to even more death and destruction in Season 2. It’s an extreme example, but trying to downplay the situation, as China did in Wuhan (and a few other notable world leaders) by dismissing the threat back in January, parallels the way the general populace has been kept in the dark about the zombie plague. The results in Kingdom were disastrous, and thanks to a leadership unable to take swift and decisive action, we seem to be careening in this direction, too.
But for every confused and ineffective leader, there are a number of medical frontliners at every overwhelmed hospital testing PUIs and caring for the growing number of infected. In Kingdom, this is paralleled by the remarkably ethical and morally upstanding Seo Bi, whose commitment to her Hippocratic Oath is such that she even uses her skills to cure a truly questionable individual who would’ve probably been better off dead. Yet, in doing so, Seo Bi discovers something about the infection that proves helpful in combating the plague.
"All throughout Season 1 and onwards, Seo Bi has always felt very strongly about the fact that her role is to save lives,” Bae explains, “and that is also true when she realizes that her goals are in line with what Prince Lee Chang wants to achieve so she decides to go through the journey with him.” Like our nameless and faceless medical professionals who risk their lives by exposing themselves to the virus, Seo Bi is, “like a shadow, you know—she doesn't like to really make a big show of what she's doing but she's constantly supporting others from the sidelines.”
Seo Bi’s role is understated but integral to the development of Kingdom’s story. If Lee Chang is Kingdom’s head and heart, Seo Bi is its soul. The radiant goodness of these two characters from two different backgrounds is what makes Kingdom shine. All throughout the series, their actions and the sacrifices they make are ultimately what saves (for the meantime) the kingdom. It’s also stirring to see so many supporting characters sacrifice themselves in order to save others in stark contrast to a few self-serving individuals.
Kingdom is one of the most beautifully crafted shows on television, with breathtaking cinematography side-by-side with frenetic zombie chases and stressful fight choreography. Costume and production design is topnotch and character development is satisfying, particularly the Prince’s, whose ultimate fate is moving but also inevitable. It’s a compelling story that’s more relevant now than ever, but soon we’ll know whether it will merely be a cautionary tale or a close parallel to our lives.
The second season of Kingdom is now showing on Netflix.