Kingdom 2: Series review, part 1
After a long year of waiting, Kingdom is back! The acclaimed Joseon zombie thriller returns with more gore, heart-pounding pursuits, and an unraveling mystery of the dehumanizing plague. As our zombie fighters learn more about the plague and its origins, they become more strategic about navigating the zombie-infested lands. The zombies’ threat escalates in the enemy’s hands, and our hero, Crown Prince Chang, leads the charge to save his people and reclaim the nation from power-hungry enemies that seek to depose the royal family.
The first season was a commentary on hunger, and this season — according to writer Kim Eun-hee — revolves around the theme of blood. We see everything from bloodshed and bloodlust to bad blood and bloodlines, and it’s the lineage piece that this season explores further. As we delve into this bloody story from a more political angle, we see how revenge, inferiority, and desire manifest to the detriment of the royal court and the nation at large.
The second season picks up right where we ended in Season 1, and if you can’t be bothered to read any recaps, here’s my tl;dr version of Season 1 (spoiler alert!): Joseon’s king is a zombie, courtesy of the nefarious prime minister. The crown prince sets out to uncover his father’s illness and finds himself in a zombie plague caused by a zombie stew. The fake pregnant queen, also the prime minister’s daughter, collects pregnant women to steal a son to inherit the throne. The mentee of the doctor who infected the king finds the resurrection plant that caused the plague, and she discovers that the zombies, who were believed to awaken at night, actually arise in cold temperatures. Winter is here, which means the insatiable zombies are awake 24/7.
Critical details are missing (you try summarizing the whole season in 100 words or less — it’s hard!), so I suggest reading Part 1 and Part 2 reviews of season 1 for a more thorough refresher. As with the first season review, season 2’s review is in two parts: The first part will cover episodes 1-4, and the second part will cover episodes 5-6. Get ready for some blood-curdling entertainment.
THE ZOMBIES ARISE
Three years ago, Prime Minister CHO HAK-JU (Ryu Seung-ryong) confronts an impending defeat against the Japanese. Physician Lee Seung-hui presents the resurrection plant, which he claims can bring the dead to life but transform them into flesh-eating monsters. He explains that a needle with the plant’s essence is inserted into a dead person’s glabella, but the dead will not rise if the body has started rotting or the brain has been damaged. This resurrection plant is the new strategy on the map.
With this desperate strategy, Prime Minister Cho walks through the camp of dispirited soldiers to find Lord AHN HYEON (Heo Jun-ho), who oversees the collection of nametags from the rows of dead soldiers. This intro hints at the origin of the zombie plague.
Picking up from season 1, the zombie stampede arrives in Sangju in broad daylight, dispelling the notion about the zombies’ nocturnal nature. The first line of defense is a trap pit full of sharpened bamboos that pierce the hoard of zombies that fall in. It’s horrifying but more horrific that the pit fills up. The cannons are fired as the second line of defense, but soon enough, the incessant stream of zombies piles up against the barricade, forcing Crown Prince LEE CHANG (Joo Ji-hoon) to retreat with the remaining troops as the barricade collapses.
On the rafts, Young-shin (Kim Sung-gyu) manages to pull away from the attacking zombies with a few men. One of the men discovers his bitten hand and begs for mercy, but the fearful survivors push the man into the water to drown. Despite the uncertainty of the zombie takeover, Young-shin orders the men to row toward the Sangju citadel.
The Sanju citadel prepares their ladders when they hear the horn of surrender, but only a few manage to climb up to safety before the zombies arrive. Prince Chang races toward the citadel but halts at the sight of the zombies that managed to penetrate the blockade set up at the river entry point. Lord Ahn Hyeon directs Chang to the secret passageway north of the river, and they all run for their lives toward their only escape.
Young-shin’s party joins Chang en route to the passageway, and they find the old gate chained up and locked. The zombies are close behind, so the troop quickly builds a barricade while others try to break the lock. Chang’s royal guard Moo-young (Kim Sang-ho) finally breaks the lock and ushers the remaining troops to safety, but the door gets stuck. Lord Ahn Hyeon’s right-hand man, Deok-sung (Jin Sung-kyu), sacrifices himself by chaining himself to the door. He’s been bitten, so he stabs his chained torso with his sword, effectively locking the gate.
The survivors reluctantly retreat to safety as Deok-sung suffers attacks by the bloodthirsty zombies. Young-shin remains behind, and Deok-sung apologizes to him with his last dying breath before Young-shin slits his throat to end his suffering. Deok-sung’s apology is curious and alludes to his involvement in the death of Young-shin’s family.
In the Frozen Valley, doctor SEO-BI (Bae Doo-na) climbs up the waterfall with Magistrate CHO BEOM-PAL (Jeon Suk-ho) to escape the growling zombies below. Beom-pal is bewildered by the zombies’ consciousness during daylight, and Seo-bi explains that the zombies resemble the resurrection plant, which thrives in cold temperatures. Now that the solstice has passed, the winter weather allows the zombies to stay awake even during daylight. To escape the zombies, Seo-bi and Beom-pal head further up the mountain toward Mungyeong Saejae, where the Prime Minister is stationed.
In Hanyang, the head of the Royal Investigation Bureau, MIN CHI-ROK (Park Byung-eun) summons the State Councilor to present evidence of three dead women and a strangled newborn, who were discovered last night. One of the dying women revealed that the remaining women at Naeseonjae would be slaughtered, just like them. Naeseonjae is the queen’s home, and Investigator Min is determined to unveil the queen’s secrets.
As the queen (Kim Hye-joon) awaits the shaman’s reading, she’s informed about the investigation of Naeseonjae. She refuses to seek help from her father, Prime Minister Cho, and she asserts that she’ll be untouchable once she claims her son from one of the pregnant women in Naeseonjae. The shaman predicts that the queen will hold a prince in her arms before the next crescent moon, and the sinister queen smiles.
The zombies continue to linger at the citadel gates in Sangju, and the people hide in fear. Lord Ahn Hyeon’s long-serving soldier notes how the plague looks different from three years ago and wonders if they are paying for their sins now. Lord Ahn Hyeon asserts that he does not regret his decision because he saved Gyeongsang from invasion.
Moo-young eavesdrops on this conversation and reports Lord Ahn Hyeon’s familiarity with the plague to Chang. He advises Chang to escape, but Chang suspects that Moo-young is acting on Prime Minister Cho’s orders. He accuses Moo-young of being the mole (one of the unresolved mysteries of season 1), and Moo-young pleads innocent, reminding Chang that he left his family and pregnant wife behind to protect the prince.
The confrontation is cut short by an urgent report of a fire, which burns down the storage facility for the last remaining food in Sangju. The fire was caused by a man who dropped a lamp while trying to gather food for his hungry son, and the man’s hopelessness highlights the dire state of the nation, exacerbated by the plague.
At Mungyeong Saejae, Prime Minister Cho grants refuge to Beom-pal, as the last remaining heir of the Haewon Cho clan, and to Seo-bi because she worked doctor under Lee Seung-hui. Prime Minister Cho catches Seo-bi studying the resurrection plant and discovers that they know about the zombie plague. Seo-bi admits that she read about the plant and illness in her mentor’s medical journals and proves her knowledge of resurrecting the dead. Prime Minister Cho decides to bring Seo-bi with him to Hanyang, but he has one deed left to complete before they return.
Prince Chang determines that Mungyeong Saejae is their only hope for survival and strategizes their approach. Soldiers lure the zombies to the gate of the citadel by dripping their blood, and Chang escapes through the underground passageway guarded by dead Deok-sung. They head for the northwest gate, which has the tallest walls and therefore will most likely have little to no soldiers posted for defense. Chang asserts that he will kill Prime Minister Cho, save the nation from hunger and the plague, and lead a new nation.
At Mungyung Saejae, Seo-bi jumps at a strange sound from a palanquin and sneaks into the inner court to find an empty bloody palanquin with unlocked cuffs. Prince Chang & co. scale the walls of Mungyeon Saejae, and the troop clears the way for Chang to enter the inner court. Young-shin alerts Lord Ahn Hyeon that the camp is unusually empty, and they quickly run after Chang.
Blood drips from Chang’s sword as he’s locked inside the main quarters, and a growling beast bursts through the door. It’s the zombie king. Chang struggles to defend himself while keeping his zombie father unharmed. As the feral king approaches, Chang sees the image of his living father and remembers his father’s desperate plea in his youth — for Chang to survive and prove what a real king is.
Lord Ahn Hyeon enters the inner court, and it’s a trap. Armed men emerge from the shadows and aim their guns at Lord Ahn Hyeon, and the others in Chang’s company are tied up outside the court. Despite Lord Ahn Hyeon’s protests, Prime Minister Cho labels Chang a traitor and announces that the king will deliver his punishment to Chang directly. He offers mercy if Lord Ahn Hyeon turns in Chang as a traitor and reminds him of his wise decision three years ago, but Lord Ahn Hyeon rejects the temptation that he previously caved to — the decision that made his last three years living hell.
Turning to the armed men, Lord Ahn Hyeon declares the king dead and accuses Prime Minister Cho for resurrecting the king as a monster to wield power. He announces Prince Chang the official heir to the throne and approaches the main quarters, but Prime Minister Cho orders his men to shoot at the honorable lord. Lord Ahn Hyeon suffers multiple fatal gunshots, but he heroically manages to open the door to find the king and the prince.
The zombie king’s head, sliced by Chang, falls to the ground. Defeated by this set-up, Chang weakly admits to his mentor that he beheaded his own father. With his last remaining strength, Lord Ahn Hyeon crawls to Chang and assures him that it’s not his fault. He insists that Chang is the nation’s king and embraces him tightly before dying in his mentee’s arms. Prime Minister Cho delivers a convincing performance as a mourner and orders the detainment of the traitor prince and his followers.
In Hanyang, Royal Investigator Min insists on probing further into Naeseonjae, despite the potential consequences of threatening the Haewon Cho clan’s power. The righteous investigator argues that a family with such power in this nation should be scrutinized more closely. A trail of palanquins quickly escapes Naeseonjae just before the righteous investigator storms into the court to scrutinize the grounds for any evidence of killings. A random man snarls on the roads like a zombie, but he’s just a drunk man who vomits, phew. That’s either a tease or some subtle foreshadowing of what’s coming to Hanyang.
Inside Naeseonjae, Investigator Min discovers blood under the flooring of living quarters and his men find soft dirt indicative of recent digging. Investigator Min recalls the leaving palanquins and traces them down to find more dead bodies stuffed inside. He reports this to the State Councilor and notes that all the female babies were strangled to death while the male babies show no signs of harm, meaning they were likely stillborns. He deduces that whoever murdered these people was seeking a son.
The sound of the horn rings, signaling the death of the king, and the councilors of the royal court read the message from Prime Minister Cho, who incriminates Prince Chang for murdering the king in his quest for power. The councilors mourn the death of the king and confer about the heir to the throne. Unless the queen gives birth to a son, they’re left to scramble for the king’s indirect bloodline to fill the vacancy. Their discussion is interrupted by a perfectly timed and premeditated update that the queen has gone into labor.
As the queen waits in her literal birthing nest, her court lady assures her that they’ve cleared Naeseonjae as ordered. Unknown to them, the State Councilor orders the Investigator Min to continue his examination of the murder case. They’re sharp enough to read through the queen’s cover-up.
Training Commander LEE KANG-YOON (Kim Tae-hoon) oversees the transportation of the king’s body and decides to honor Lord Ahn Hyeon with a proper ritual as well, despite the lord’s treason. As Seo-bi tends to Chang’s wounds, he stops her and silently writes a message on the ground with the water.
Young-shin is determined to complete his revenge before he dies and devises a plan to kill Prime Minister Cho with his fellow detained zombie fighters. With Young-shin’s hidden knife and stealthy plan, they fight the guards and escape. The rebels fend off the army as Young-shin prepares his gun to shoot at Prime Minister Cho. It all happens in a split second, and Prime Minister Cho barely has time to register the sniper’s aim when the gun fires. The smoke clears, and
the lucky bastard Prime Minister Cho is saved by a guard who shielded him from the fatal shot.
The soldiers detain the rebels once more, but their attention is pulled to a familiar snarl. A flag approaches them, stuck in the back of zombie Lord Ahn Hyeon. AHHH! Prince Chang looks calm, and we see that Lord Ahn Hyeon had begged Chang to turn him into a monster upon his death to prove their claims about this nefarious plague. Chang had then ordered Seo-bi with the water message to resurrect the deceased lord.
Finally showing blatant fear, Prime Minister Cho urgently orders his men to aim for the zombie’s head. Zombie Lord Ahn Hyeon beelines for Prime Minister Cho and rips off a healthy bite of his cheek. It’s hard to watch because the scene is so detailed and gory, but it’s one of my top moments of the season. The zombie lord clenches the flesh in his cheek, and we see a worm-like figure slither up inside the lord’s forehead.
Three years ago, Prime Minister Cho proposed to Lord Ahn Hyeon that they infect the dying people of Sumang village — Young-shin’s home village — and use them to fight the Japanese forces. Lord Ahn Hyeon refused to kill the people they swore to protect, but Prime Minister Cho claimed that he swore to protect the royal family and will do anything to do so. To convince Lord Ahn Hyeon, Prime Minister Cho unleashed a chained zombie and stated the realities of their losing battle: their dwindling soldiers, the endangered citizens of Sanju, and the lesser sacrifice of Sumang village.
The massacre of the Sumang village ensued, and the sacrificed villagers were turned into zombies that defeated the Japanese forces. Lord Ahn Hyeon vowed to remember this sacrifice and to repay his debt to these people. He finally repays his debt by showing the soldiers at Mungyung Saejae what the plague looks like… and by biting off Prime Minister Cho’s cheek while he’s at it.
Prince Chang intervenes before zombie Lord Ahn Hyeon causes more carnage and beheads his mentor. He announces to the soldiers they must aim for the head to exterminate the infected and discloses everything they know about the plague’s origins. Chang accuses the power-hungry Haewon Cho clan for starting the plague and starving the nation’s people and demands that the soldiers open their eyes and ears to determine the right path forward.
With the forces at Mungyeong Saejae join behind him, Chang first plans a mission to deliver food to the trapped people in the Sangju citadel. Cannons fire at the swarming zombies as they chase after the soldiers delivering the supplies, and a kite flies at the end for visibility as the troops enter the mountains. It’s a brilliant solution and an effective strategy to slow down the zombies, and the soldiers successfully deliver the food through the underground passageway.
Seo-bi tends to unconscious Prime Minister Cho and commits to finding a cure to this infection. She notes that not all bitten victims transform into zombies, as with Dan-yi, the young boy who was bitten by the king and died (from season 1). The disease began to transfer when the people at the Jiyulheon clinic unknowingly ate Dan-yi’s stewed corpse. Attempting to help his uncle’s recovery, Beom-pal offers a rare plant, sappanwood, that he’s been sending to the Queen, and Seo-bi finds it curious that the Queen would acquire this herb.
When Chang returns to the base camp, he finds out that Moo-young has kidnapped Prime Minister Cho and immediately follows in pursuit. Moo-young desperately escapes thinking about his pregnant wife, who he left at Naeseonjae after being threatened by Beom-il, the late son of Prime Minister Cho. To ensure his wife’s safety, he reported on Chang’s plans and locations. We knew he was the mole, but the desperation makes his betrayal even sadder.
Investigator Min interrogates the Naeseonjae servants and learns that there was a total of six palanquins that left Naeseonjae, not just the three that they caught. Determined to find the truth, Investigator Min storms into the queen’s court and locates the three palanquins. The main court lady forbids him from the grounds while the queen is in labor and claims that the palanquins brought in ladies who will nurse the queen’s newborn. He demands to see these nurses in person and finds them immediately, negating his investigation.
With Investigator Min detained, the queen no longer faces any obstacles with her plan. The surviving pregnant women — Moo-young’s wife among them — were brought back to Naeseonjae, and now they wait for news of a prince.
Seo-bi demands that Moo-young make a rest stop for the sake of her ailing patient and busily prepares treatment. Seo-bi knows that Moo-young has betrayed the prince and tries to convince him to reconsider, but guilt-ridden Moo-young remains resolute in his betrayal. Then, she shows him the sappanwood herb that the queen has been consuming and explains that this medicinal herb, traditionally used for postpartum bleeding, is too strong for pregnant women to ingest. She asserts that they must inform Prince Chang about this bewildering mystery. Moo-young remembers the other pregnant women gathered at Naeseonjae, and the pieces come together.
Prime Minister Cho coughs from his room, and Seo-bi quickly tends to her conscious patient. Moo-young demands to know Prime Minister Cho’s scheme with the women at Naeseonjae, but Prime Minister Cho actually doesn’t know because his children are behind the Naeseonjae scheme. Soldiers arrive at the rest house and immediately attack Moo-young while the sick Prime Minister Cho is escorted out. This was an order from Prime Minister Cho to Beom-pal, who for once in his life, successfully executed a task.
Moo-young suffers fatal wounds and tells Seo-bi to go ahead without him. He weakly tells her to discover the truth behind the queen’s herb, and Seo-bi reluctantly complies. Moo-young quickly approaches death while his wife goes into labor at Naeseonjae, and he’s barely alive when Chang discovers his bloody body in the woods.
During the pursuit, Chang had told Young-shin that he kept Moo-young at his side despite the betrayal because he didn’t want to lose anyone else. As the prince risks losing another valuable person in his life, he cries for help. Moo-young weakly reports the suspicious activity at Naeseonjae and shares that his wife and family are there. Chang whimpers as he holds dying Moo-young tightly in his arms, and with his dying breath, Moo-young apologizes for not being at Chang’s side. In the beautiful white forest, Moo-young dies in Chang’s arms, and his son is born in Naeseonjae.
Chang recalls making a deal with Moo-young: In exchange for Chang’s permission for Moo-young to steal the royals’ food for his pregnant wife, Moo-young promised to always stay by the prince’s side as a trusted companion. Overcome with grief, Chang holds his trusted bodyguard and barely registers his soldiers’ reminder of their mission to defeat Prime Minister Cho.
Ill Prime Minister Cho arrives in Hanyang, and Seo-bi tries to construct a treatment for the weakening patient based on her knowledge of the infection. She deduces that the zombies fear fire because of the temperature but doesn’t know why they fear water. To find out, they dunk Prime Minister Cho in a water bath, and he convulses until worms exit his wound under water. This is a novel revelation about the infection.
The queen “gives birth” to a son, and the bell rings through the palace to signal the birth of a prince. The councilors congratulate the queen in her court, but the suspicious State Councilor isn’t convinced that this prince is legitimate. Chang and his troops catch the Naeseonjae murderers in the act of burying the pregnant women’s bodies, and they save one surviving woman, Moo-young’s wife, from murder.
The suspicious State Councilor discloses the details on the Naeseonjae murders, but his accusations are extinguished by Prime Minister Cho’s intervention in the meeting. Unfortunately, he lives to see another day with a nasty wound. Prime Minister Cho orders for the Royal Investigator, the traitor soldiers from Saejae, and their families to be punished by death without a proper investigation.
Watching the detained innocent families pass by, Beom-pal advises Seo-bi to keep her protests to herself but seems uncomfortable at the sight of crying children. Young-shin discreetly catches Seo-bi’s attention in the crowd, and he brings her to an abandoned scholarly institution in Hanyang to tend to Moo-young’s wife, who cries in devastation about her taken child.
Seo-bi shows Chang the worms from Prime Minister Cho’s wound and shares her findings: The eggs on the resurrection plant hatch inside the bodies of the deceased, and the worms cause the infection. Chang comments on how something so small can cause catastrophic destruction, and he vows to stop anything worse from happening. To help his mission, he asks Seo-bi to become the queen’s doctor.
With Beom-pal’s endorsement, Prime Minister Cho agrees to assign Seo-bi as the queen’s doctor. Prime Minister Cho brings Seo-bi when he visits the queen and the newborn, and he demands that the queen oblige to the doctor taking her pulse, if she has nothing to hide. Seo-bi reports that the queen’s normal heart rate indicates that the newborn is not her child.
The queen had schemed for this illegitimate heir with her brother ever since she miscarried, and they kept this a secret from their father because of his fixation on the Haewon Cho clan bloodline. With the truth revealed, Prime Minister Cho berates the queen for her foolishness that will tarnish their legacy. He would rather find a distant relative of the King to take the throne than Prince Chang or this illegitimate child, and he plans to kill the child, in addition to everyone who knows about this.
As Prime Minister Cho continues to curse his daughter, he begins to cough uncomfortably and then coughs up blood. The queen poisoned his tea! Prime Minister Cho collapses dead in front of the queen, and she retorts that his underestimated daughter will usurp everything, including the Haewon Cho name and this nation. Prime Minister Cho’s death is credited to the plague, and the commoners are convinced that they will all die soon.
Prince Chang visits Ganghwa Island (the place that Prime Minister Cho knew as home to distant royal heirs) and accompanies a fisherman, who’s soon revealed to be Chang’s uncle. Though he’s of royal blood, the well-read fisherman rejects the notion of power based on bloodlines. While Chang agrees, he understands the reality of this nation, one that values royal blood.
Chang asks Young-shin why he continues to follow him, even though his revenge against Lord Ahn Hyeon and Prime Minister Cho is complete. Young-shin sees no change in the grim realities of his people, and he believes that Chang can change that reality.
The queen appoints spineless Beom-pal to the Royal Investigation Bureau, and he commits to protecting the queen. When he asks about Seo-bi, the queen simply says that the doctor was dismissed from royal grounds because she was deemed unnecessary. In reality, Seo-bi is locked up in the dungeon with caged zombies in the next cell. The queen instructs Seo-bi to learn more about the infection, as she plans to use these zombies — as her father did — to amass power.
This season carries forward the momentum from the end of last season, and I’m enjoying the change of pace, which aligns with the imminent combined threat of zombies and political enemies. Overall, the story feels faster and more plot-driven — an appropriate sequel to season 1, which now serves as a prologue and introduction to this intense story. One thing that has remained the same is the incredible cinematic experience. The streaming platform affords the production team more creativity in format, length of episodes, and ability to condense this story to be told in a compelling manner. The production team is taking full advantage of the liberties on the Netflix platform (relative to the status quo of Korean dramas), which includes jaw-dropping gore that cause nightmares.
Learning about the sacrifice of Sumang village simultaneously made my blood boil and my heart sink. The concept of “lesser sacrifice” is never correct and often remains in history as ethical missteps. The moral conflict was poignantly expressed by Lord Ahn Hyeon, who refused to regret this sacrifice but vowed to repay the debts owed to the people he promised to protect. These first four episodes were about retribution, and both Lord Ahn Hyeon and Prime Minister Cho’s deaths seemed to ring of poetic justice.
One of my favorite moments in this season was the demise of Lord Ahn Hyeon as a zombie and his foresight in his dying moments. What an incredible way to end that character. That image of the zombie lord with the flag anchored in his back gave me goosebumps, and I was thrilled (as in excited but also terrified) by the literal bite that the zombie lord took from Prime Minister Cho’s face. It was flabbergasting and also validated by decision to watch this season all the way through before writing my review. If I had written my review during my first watch, this review would look very different, likely filled exclamations and expletives.
The eerie timing of this season and unfortunate relatability of this show at this exact moment presents some historical irony that is not lost on me. In this show, science, medicine, public health, facts, and reliable media are represented through Seo-bi, whose understated commitment to solving the mystery of the plague is pivotal in this season. Her acute understanding of the disease is what will ultimately save the nation, but in the meantime, strong and dependable leadership (and for us in the real world, washing your hands and social distancing) is what the people rely on.
Prince Chang experienced heavy losses in this season, but we’re witnessing the strength of his character and leadership potential through how he handles his grief and carries on the legacies of those he’s lost. The king instilled a sense of urgency and regret, which Chang internalized as responsibility to his royal bloodline and to reclaim the nation. Lord Ahn Hyeon emphasized the importance of a king’s commitment to his people, and his sacrifice to transform into a monster showed Chang the power of proving his authority. The heartbreaking loss of Moo-young and his trust in Moo-young despite betrayal reveals Chang’s longing for trusted companionship and family, something he’s never truly had. His compassion is genuine, and I foresee this compassion serving him well.
As the baton for Worst Antagonist gets passed from father to daughter, we’ll see how the queen’s bloodlust and desire for power clashes with Chang’s mission to diminish her authority. The queen is not kidding around, and she clearly has no restraint when it comes to eliminating inconvenience, even with her own father. Brace yourselves for the finale — we’re in for a bloody end.
- Kingdom: Series review, part 2
- Kingdom: Series review, part 1
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