Kingdom: Series review, part 1
The highly-anticipated Netflix original series, Kingdom, finally dropped this past weekend, and it did not disappoint. It’s no surprise that it lived up to the hype, as the production had everything going for it: the star-studded cast, celebrated writer Kim Eun-hee, and a cinematic director. It’s a satisfying yet horrifying watch, with the show explicitly and graphically portraying this fresh concept of Joseon period zombies. If you’re not one for thrillers or gore, this may not be your cup of tea, but it’s worth a peek to appreciate how effectively the show can frighten you.
As the first Netflix original Korean series, this show sets a high bar by balancing its appeal for a wider audience. In the press conference, the cast and production staff made the case that this drama combined Eastern and Western concepts: the Joseon dynasty and zombies, respectively. Though I would argue that Hallyu isn’t that clear cut, I do think that this series manages to draw in viewers with various interests, whether it be in Joseon, zombies, or Joo Ji-hoon.
This series is halfway between a drama and movie — think Goblin or Mr. Sunshine — and the Netflix medium gives the show liberties that it wouldn’t have been afforded on Korean TV, even on some of the laxer channels. With a budget for movie-like cinematography and disturbing gore for restricted audiences, Netflix seemed to be the only viable platform for this production to deliver on its potential. Luckily, this fusion of content and platform created a noteworthy production, without sacrificing the essence of the K-drama.
We’re covering Kingdom in two parts, with the part one covering roughly episodes 1-4 and part two picking up from episode 5 through the ending. Please try to refrain from any spoilers — we promise that part two is coming soon! Without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into this story.
Set in the mid-Joseon era, Kingdom showcases a royal court rife with political tensions and tumultuous power struggles. Recent defeats against Japan render the king powerless and undermine the Confucian scholars, who are blamed for misleading the nation with their pedagogy. Power-hungry politicians seek control of the throne while the literally hungry civilians suffer through a famine — so severe that the civilians supposedly eat their dead neighbors who died of starvation. As politicians usurp the throne and political authority, the weak king falls victim to a strange illness that turns him into a zombie. The truth about the king’s demise is hidden for political advantage, and the crown prince sets out to uncover the disease that has overcome his ailing father.
Our hero is Lee Chang (Joo Ji-hoon), the crown prince, and first son of the king. While he is the prince, he happens to be the son of a concubine, so his status as an illegitimate son is the primary source of tension with the king’s second wife, the queen consort (Kim Hye-joon). The queen is pregnant with the king’s child, and the child — if it’s a son — will outrank Prince Chang and be next in line for the throne.
While the queen wields immense power, especially with the bedridden king, the real power belongs to the person behind her: Prime Minister Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong). Prime Minster Cho is the leader of the Haewon Cho clan that threatens to take over the royal court. He’s also the father to the queen and the head of the Royal Investigation Bureau, Beom-il (Jung Seok-won). His children are his pawns in the royal palace, and his cold manipulative nature makes him a terrifying enemy, even rivaling the zombies.
Though Crown Prince Chang has a heavy load of enemies, he’s also surrounded by good company. His royal guard, Moo-young (Kim Sang-ho), is a constant companion and protector, and their rapport is occasionally a source of comedic relief. Chang also meets other allies at the local clinic in Dongnae in his search to find the truth about his father’s illness, and they play pivotal roles in the spread of and battle against the zombie plague.
Seo-bi (Bae Doona) is a doctor at the clinic and a mentee of the Royal Physician Lee Seung-hee, who was charged with treating the dead king. She’s a warmhearted doctor with a visible compassion for people. She and a clinic patient, Young-shin (Kim Sung-kyu), are the first ones to experience the threat of the zombie plague, and they’re the two sole survivors from the clinic. After consulting her mentor’s medical journals, Seo-bi searches for the fabled resurrection plant that holds the key to this plague.
Clinic patient Young-shin is also an ex-soldier, and his nimble instincts serve him well in the fight against the zombies. He shares a hometown with Prince Chang’s mentor, Lord Ahn Hyeon (Heo Joon-ho). Young-shin becomes a guide for Chang as he seeks out his old mentor, who has retreated to his hometown to mourn his mother’s death. Lord Ahn Hyeon was a minister in the royal palace and played a large role in the nation’s victory against a Japanese invasion, but he has withdrawn from politics since his mother’s death. Crown Prince Chang believes that his mentor can cure the corrupt palace and sets out to find him.
At the king’s palace, Royal Physician Lee Seung-hee leads a young boy carrying medicine to the king’s quarters. As the physician prepares his treatment, the boy hears a menacing growl, and against the physician’s warning, he takes a nervous peak through the veil. The boy is dragged into the king’s chambers by a monster, and this first glimpse into the palace informs us that the zombie king is patient zero. This introduction appropriately sets the mood for the series: relentlessly chilling and mysterious.
Throughout Hanyang, posters speculating the king’s death cover the streets, and the scholars are arrested for conspiring against the king. Despite their painful punishments, the noble scholars stay resolute to their assertions that the greedy politicians — particularly from Haewon Cho clan — are the traitors, the true bane of the Joseon’s welfare. Prime Minister Cho, a skilled rhetorician and manipulator, deduces that the scholars’ conspiracy about the king’s death implies their demand for their new king and culprit of treason: the crown prince.
We first meet Crown Prince Chang kneeling in front of the young pregnant queen, as he begs for permission to see his ill father. The queen disallows it and humiliates him by demanding that he show more respect to his stepmother. Though Chang maintains his composure in front of the snide Queen, he privately expresses his annoyance to his personal royal guard, Moo-young. Chang is refreshingly more informal with Moo-young, and their banter balances out the political intrigue with welcome levity: To get Moo-young on board with his plan to sneak into the king’s palace, Chang bribes his guard with the quality beef for Moo-young’s pregnant wife.
The main conflict lies between Prime Minister Cho and Crown Prince Chang, but it’s interesting that they rarely interact in person. The only time they come face-to-face with each other is when Chang gets caught sneaking through the palace, trying to catch a glimpse of his ill father. Chang forces his way into his father’s quarters, only to find Prime Minister Cho, who validates the prince’s claims of seeing a monster but accuses the prince of being that monster — a power-hungry son wishing for his father’s death. Though it’s a short interaction, it encapsulates the core conflict: the thirst for power.
While it initially seems like Prime Minister Cho is unfairly trying to frame Chang, we later learn that the prince is actually behind the scholars’ movement to dethrone the king. Chang admits that he wanted to save himself from his inevitable fate if the queen were to give birth to a son, who would become the legitimate heir to the throne.
The Haewon Cho clan intends to seize the throne by keeping the dead king “alive” until the queen gives birth to the heir, and Prime Minister Cho does everything in his power to ensure that the king stays alive, even if it’s not in a human state. Without blinking an eye, the cold-blooded prime minister watches a shackled zombie king pounce and growl right in his face.
After discovering empty pages in his father’s medical records, Chang suspects that the physicians are hiding something about his father’s illness. Chang and Moo-young find a note that former Royal Physician Lee Seung-hui visited the palace from Jiyulheon, a local clinic located in Dongnae, and they leave the palace to find answers.
As Chang and Moo-young track down Lee Seung-hui, they learn that the former royal physician returned to Dongnae with a boy who fell ill. According to their source, the dead boy didn’t look ill; rather, it looked like it had been ripped up by an animal. Chang commits himself to finding what happened to his father by traveling to Dongnae, and Beom-il — head of the Royal Investigation Bureau and son of Prime Minister Cho — trails right behind him under his father’s orders to stop the prince, even if it means killing him.
The Jiyulheon clinic family eagerly greet Lee Seung-hui when he returns, but they’re met by a somber doctor bringing home a dead boy — the one killed by the zombie king. That day, Seo-bi finds patients happily eating a meat soup at Jiyuheon. Young-shin claims that he hunted a deer to cook, and Seo-bi believes him until she refills a bowl for a patient and finds a finger. OH HELL NO. These patients are eating the dead body that returned with the physician, and this is how the disease spreads. Truly horrifying.
Seo-bi scolds Young-shin for brewing up the dead boy, but Young-shin isn’t sorry. He asserts that this is their only way to survive this deadly famine. While they argue, the patients start to choke on the soup and pass out one by one, their eyes rolling to the back of their heads. All the patients lie dead, and the one remaining lady doctor cries in shock. Night falls, and the dead patients start to rise and viciously feed on the lady doctor. For our first impression of the zombie plague, it’s downright terrifying.
With the rise of the zombies, the power struggle for the throne seems secondary, but these two main conflicts are subtly woven together. The imminent danger posed by the zombie epidemic serves as a reflection of the menacing plague of corruption in the royal court. They’re intrinsically the same conflict, rooted in irresistible hunger.
Seo-bi and Young-shin somehow survive the zombie outbreak, but Chang disrupts their efforts to keep the zombies contained. Chang and Moo-young discover Jiyuheon in bloody shape, with bamboo spears surrounding the perimeter walls and a pile of dead humans under the floor. The dead bodies are taken to the office of Magistrate Cho, a newly appointed magistrate from the Haewon Cho clan. Magistrate Cho is a cowardly and incompetent pushover, but he offers some comedic relief and develops a cute crush on Seo-bi.
The only potential cure for this zombie outbreak is the purple resurrection plant — supposedly both the cause of and cure for this deadly disease. Chang and Moo-young find Seo-bi in the Frozen Valley, digging for this resurrection plant because this is the only source recorded in the medical journals. The mention of this mysterious plant is brief, but it will surely be vital to curing this epidemic, if that’s even possible.
At the magistrate’s office, the sprawled-out corpses contort and twitch as they wake up and begin to chase their human prey. At Jiyulheon, Beom-il, who had come to arrest the prince, falls prey to the zombie condition, and Chang effectively defends himself by decapitating zombie Beom-il. While the visual of the decapitated head is over-the-top, it shows us that decapitation is one of the few methods to eliminate a zombie for good.
The spread of the zombie epidemic is terrifying, with the cruel visuals of swarming zombies feeding mercilessly on their prey, but it’s also creative and engaging. There’s variety in how the zombies kill their prey, and while all the circumstances of zombie contact look equally awful, the family sacrifices feel the most sadistic: a son who gets bitten just as he tries to save his ill father and proceeds to feed on his father; a mother who hides one daughter in a chest after getting bitten, only to feed on her other daughter. The zombies are also great runners, and their pursuit of the humans feels like an actual life-threatening chase.
Meanwhile at the palace, Prime Minister Cho and the queen watch the zombie king feed on a young court lady. The queen tries to hide her discomfort while her father orders her to look at the weak king to teach her unborn child the consequences of losing power. He’s kind of the worst.
Chang and Moo-young just barely survive the zombie chase by jumping off a cliff and because apparently zombies can’t swim (taking a mental note of that). The few remaining survivors cower in fear through the night until the sun sends the zombies to hide in the shadows, which is just as repulsive of a visual as zombies swarming around to feed.
In daylight, Chang takes charge and orders the soldiers to destroy all the zombies before nightfall and evacuate the survivors onto their last remaining ship. Despite witnessing the wrath of the zombies, the higher-class villagers are resistant to the idea of burning their precious family members because it be disrespectful to their nobility. It’s a classic Joseon manifestation of classism, and it’s even more ironic in the context of a zombie apocalypse.
The Chief Scholar — head of Sungkyunkwan — hears suspicious reports about corpses being discovered in the king’s palace, and he plans on enlisting the support of Lord Ahn Hyeon. When Prime Minister Cho intercepts a letter from the Chief Scholar to Lord Ahn Hyeon, he doesn’t seem concerned about the Lord Ahn Hyeon influence in the opposition. His confidence that Lord Ahn Hyeon could never oppose him is curious and raises questions about what side this powerful figure would be on.
While the villagers prepare for their escape, Chang confirms through Lee Seung-hui’s medical journal that the resurrection plant brought the king back to life. He finally accepts that his father has passed, and we get a rare glimpse of the alive king giving the young prince to stay alive. It sounds more like a sad plea, one that the king doesn’t anticipate will come true, but it stuck with the prince and drives him in his battle to survive. The crown prince decides that he must go to Lord Ahn Hyeon to gather support for his fight against Prime Minister Cho.
The ship departs from Dongnae with only the aristocrats of the village, leaving all the poor civilians in the zombie-infested village. Though everything seems resolved on the ship, we later learn that an aristocrat mother brought on a chest with her zombie son in it, and they suffer the consequences. Serves them right.
Though justice may have been served against the cowardly aristocrats, the remaining villagers still need to find shelter from the zombies. With the sun quickly setting and nowhere else to go, the villagers rush to Jiyulheon. It was the only proven place that the zombies couldn’t escape from, so they couldn’t get in, right?
Luckily, this logic proves true, but the process of getting there is a heart-pounding race with zombies running at full speed. It’s in this chase that we learn of Young-shin’s expert shooting skills, as he shoots the heads of the zombies at their tail with perfect aim. Moo-young finds Young-shin’s gun-handling skills suspicious and dangerous, but he’s the perfect choice as their guide because he shares a hometown with Lord Ahn Hyeon. Plus, he’s an ex-soldier and could probably share a survival tip or two.
Chang proves to be a noble prince for the people, staying behind to ensure the safety of the elderly instead of running off to save himself. He’s also generous, giving away his food to the children and providing his meat to the hungry villagers. The relief from the zombies and hunger is short-lived, however, as the royal guards arrive at Jiyulheon to arrest the prince for treason and killing Beom-il. When the prince hesitates to surrender, arrows fly mercilessly into the former clinic, unfairly killing the villagers who have just escaped death. These people can’t catch a break!
Chang freezes in shock and guilt, but when Young-shin yells at him to take responsibility, he comes to his senses. While I agree with Moo-young that Young-shin seems like a suspicious lad with combat skills far too advanced for a commoner, he offers a nice balance to Chang’s noble idealism. His cynicism grounds the prince in reality and his role as a guide to Sangju also seems figurative. Chang and Moo-young sneakily mislead the royal guards and swiftly escape towards Sangju, with Young-shin and Seo-bi accompanying them for their journey.
The cascade of signal fires from Dongnae eventually alert Hanyang, and the Chief Scholar decides that he must defy orders and see the king in person. Prime Minister Cho unexpectedly allows this and leads them to the zombie king against the Queen’s orders. The tension between Prime Minister/Father and Queen/Daughter is palpable, but it’s clear that the Prime Minister is the true wielder of power.
Prime Minister Cho gets his way and reveals the terrifying state of the king as the sun sets. Once again, the prime minister uses crafty framing and rhetorical questions to insist that the king — despite being a zombie — is alive and undeniably still the king. Anyone who denies this has committed treason, including the crown prince and Chief Scholar Kim Sun.
We find out the true reason for Prime Minister Cho’s pivot in strategy, why he chose to reveal the king’s true state to the ministers. The royal army had brought back the decapitated head of his son, Beom-il, and he has a new prerogative to kill the king and anyone who gets in his way. He tells the queen that her only deed is to give birth to a son to inherit the throne and ruin Chang for good.
When I first heard about the premise of Joseon zombies, I honestly chuckled a little. Joseon-era zombies seemed like a funny fusion concept to me, and boy, was I wrong. This show is terrifying. The director effectively captures the essence of the zombie to instill real fear and repulsion for these monsters, and I feel absolutely no empathy for anyone once they become a zombie. It’s an interesting process to feel bad for someone’s death and immediately turn on them, but I think that’s kind of the charm of it. The actors who play the zombies certainly deserve high praise for their extremely convincing performance and commitment to portraying these contorted ex-humans. This show could not have been this enjoyable without these chilling monsters running after you like Olympic athletes.
I found the theme of hunger to be well-embedded in the story through the hungry civilians, the hunger for power, and the blood-thirsty zombies. This constant thread ensured that the seemingly disparate storylines — the palace conflict and the zombie conflict — felt connected. Lee Chang and Prime Minister Cho navigated their “hunger” very differently, though they were direct enemies in the battle for the throne. I think their “hunger” manifested differently because their motivations differ. Prime Minister Cho is an ambitious and calculating politician who needs political power to fulfill his dark soul while Chang seeks political power for survival. Lee Chang is a more nuanced hero — slightly unqualified but has the heart to become a king for the people.
The cast really delivered in this series, but the compelling performances were expected. I knew that the veterans would deliver no less than perfection, but I was pleasantly surprised by the actor who plays Young-shin: Kim Sung-kyu. I could tell he was putting in 110% in all the action scenes, and I was impressed. He’s definitely a character to keep an eye on, and I’m curious to see how he contributes to the political side of this conflict. Also, I were to ever find myself in a zombie apocalypse, Young-shin would be my first pick to get me out alive. Maybe he’s kind of sketchy, but I trust my survival instincts, which are at their peak after watching this series. Dibs on Young-shin!
- Premiere Watch: Spring Must Be Coming, Kingdom, Romance Is a Bonus Book
- Netflix’s Kingdom brings terrifying zombies and corrupt palace decadence
- A prince faces his enemies both alive and undead in Netflix’s Kingdom
- Netflix’s Kingdom adds multiple seasons and supporting cast
- Joo Ji-hoon, Ryu Seung-ryong, Bae Doo-na consider Netflix show Kingdom