Kingdom 2: Series review, part 2
After four episodes of zombie bloodshed, the battle enters the royal palace with a continued bloodbath. Having learned only the best villainous strategies from her father, the queen usurps the throne and unleashes her wrath on the Prince and his followers. The queen’s obsession for the throne blinds her from the immeasurable damage she threatens to cause, and she even finds sadistic pleasure in the bloodshed. If gore with sprinkles of dark humor are not for you, then this review may be as far as you get. But if you can stomach the immense bloodshed and horror of savage zombies, the ending of this season delivers sharp twists and turns that are much better experienced on the screen.
The final two episodes of the season closes the chapter on the horrific plague, but door remains open for more mysteries and zombie hunting potential. Just when you think it’s over, we get a hint about another secret. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
THE ROYAL TAKEOVER
Addressing his troops, Prince Chang acknowledges the price of their loyalty to him and the threat posed on their families. He asks if they will still follow him, and the soldiers remain resolute in their commitment. Training Commander Lee Kang-yoon looks conflicted as he takes another look at doctor Lee Seung-hui’s medical journal, which holds all of their current knowledge on the plague. He watches his family being dragged to their execution, and he seeks out the agitator state councilor.
Other state councilors hesitate to follow the queen’s orders, especially because some of the noble families are highly ranked in society. Their debate is interrupted by an unexpected visit from Training Commander Lee, who pleads for mercy on his family in exchange for information on Chang’s plans and location.
Just when you think that Training Commander Lee has betrayed the prince, we realize that he was the decoy misleading the royal troops out of Hanyang. Chang presents his identification tag at the gates of Hanyang, and the gatekeeper immediately recognizes the royal tag. Chang marches into Hanyang with his disguised troops, and they close all the gates, trapping the misled royal guards outside Hanyang.
Newly appointed as the Royal Investigation Head, Beom-pal announces the punishment of the traitors’ families, but weak-hearted Beom-pal can’t finish the execution sentencing per the queen’s orders at the sound of weeping innocent families. When Prince Chang arrives, Beom-pal swears loyalty to him, and the innocent families are released. Chang heads to the royal palace, to the place he belongs.
With the royal guards trapped outside Hanyang and the remaining guards detained by the rebel state councilor, the queen is urged to escape before the Prince arrives at the palace. Instead, the vain queen decides to head to the main hall to greet the prince upon his arrival.
When the Prince arrives at the royal gates, the rebel state councilor respectfully greets him and returns the medical journal that Training Commander Lee had presented to him as a message from the Prince. Now privy to the truth of the plague, the state council differentiates himself from the followers of the Haewon Cho clan and proves his loyalty to the Chang as he escorts the prince through the royal gates.
Though Chang enters the royal grounds without a struggle, he finds the queen imperiously sitting at the king’s throne with her newborn in her arms, awaiting his return. The young queen greets the prince as her son, and Chang refuses to accept her as his mother. He demands that she step down from the throne, but the queen argues that Chang is a traitor who killed his own father, making her son the legitimate heir to the throne.
The state councilor and Investigator Min confront the queen about the Naeseonjae murders, and the accompanying councilors echo their suspicions. Chang asserts that he’s overthrowing her because she willfully ignored the responsibility to serve their people — not because she belongs to the Haewon Cho clan nor out of ambition for power. Sword in hand, Chang demands that she step down before she’s dragged down.
The queen refuses to step down from the throne and condemns his desire to now kill his mother and brother, after killing his father. state councilors assure Chang that they will issue a royal order to dethrone the queen, and she smiles smugly. Something about her calmness and confidence is greatly unsettling.
When the queen’s main court lady hears about the official denouncement, she looks to her last resort: the keys to the zombie dungeon. Blindfolded Seo-bi works on sawing the ropes around her wrists when she hears the adjacent cell unlock and the blood curdling screams of the court lady. When she finally frees herself from the ties and the cell, Seo-bi walks through the darkness (as I bite my nails, terrified that a zombie will attack) and finally makes it to the light. But she’s met with her nightmare: another zombie outbreak.
The zombie court ladies feed on the state councilor, who had arrived at the queen’s court issue the decree of her dethronement. He quickly contorts and resurrects as a bloodthirsty monster, and his state councilor companion stabs his monster contemporary with a sword. Then, with the sword sticking out of his body, the zombie state councilor attacks his companion and feeds on him. It is nasty.
Chang hears the screams from the main hall, and he turns to the queen in fear. Without an ounce of fear, she tells Chang, “If I can’t have the throne, then no one can.” This psychotic woman is about to turn the whole royal palace into a zombie land. Seo-bi manages the escape the queen’s court and runs to the main hall announcing another outbreak of the plague. Prince Chang tells his soldiers to lock the gates of the palace so that the plague doesn’t escape the royal walls, and he orders them to slay any zombie, regardless of their social rank.
As the royal servants all get infected by the plague, the screams intensify. Seo-bi covers her ears in horror, but the queen looks unaffected. She cradles her son as if nothing was happening, but the entire palace is swarming with zombies. Led by Chang, the zombie fighters swiftly slay the monsters, with all the weapons they have. Beom-pal struggles to push a zombie off him, and Young-shin thankfully obliterates the zombie, whose blood spills all over Beom-pal’s face. It’s gross, but at least he’s alive.
The zombie attacks are ruthless, with one sequence involving a zombie biting off someone’s tongue, Investigator Min shooting the tongue-in-mouth zombie in the eye, and then subsequently using the eyeball arrow to shoot another zombie. These creatively grisly scenes are interspersed with incompetent Beom-pal flailing and crawling and barely staying alive, which offers some comic relief. Another unexpected moment of humor is found with a eunuch taking a dump and realizing the incessant knocking on his stall is actually the zombies trying to get in. The eunuch (cameo by Ahn Jae-hong) takes a look at the latrine pit and knows that it’s his only way out. Again, creative and foul.
The screaming finally stops, and the palace settles into an eerie silence. It’s merely the calm before the storm, and another hoard of zombies rushes toward the last remaining troops in Chang’s zombie fighter army. The rebel state councilor blocks the gate in attempts to guard the king, and he slits his throat as the zombies break through the wood.
Crows circle the royal carnage, and Chang’s zombie fighters barely make it to safety before the zombies pile up against the gate. Inside the main hall, the zombies plaster their bodies against the doors, ready to bite off some fresh meat. The zombies penetrate the doors, and Seo-bi quickly remembers the zombies’ fear of fire. She manages to fend off the zombies with a torch while the remaining guards, outnumbered by the zombies, inevitably get eaten alive.
The queen smiles as she announces to her dead father to bear witness that nothing was taken from her. To the queen, refusing to forfeit power was her victory. Then, the zombies climb up the throne and feed on her royal body. The baby prince somehow survives, and Seo-bi carries the crying baby in her arms as she runs out of the hall with a fire blanket to ward off the zombies. She just manages to lock herself in a storage room as the zombies follow close behind.
As darkness falls, Chang’s men insist that the prince save himself, as someone needs to reveal the truth to the nation. As Investigator Min strategizes about his escape through the rear garden, Prince Chang suddenly recalls the large pond in the garden. Chang has a plan — they just need to be the bait. Chang and his remaining men cut their hands on the rooftops and use their blood to lure the zombies. Wimpy Beom-pal struggles to shed blood, so Young-shin does him a favor, causing Beom-pal to whimper in pain.
As the men run on the rooftops, a few trip and fall to their deaths by zombie. Beom-pal nearly falls, but by shear dumb luck, his foot gets caught on the tile. I don’t know how he managed to last this long, but then we see that he’s accompanied by Young-shin. No one dies on Young-shin’s watch. Zombies climb on top of each other to reach the rooftop, and Chang barely survives the menacing rooftop monsters, only defeating them by unhinging the roof tiles so that they all slide to the ground. As the zombies all pursue the bait, they stop hunting Seo-bi, and she belatedly realizes that the baby prince is injured, bitten by a zombie, in fact.
Chang runs to the rear garden, vowing to block the plague this time, after failing to do so in Dongnae and Sangju. The last of the zombie fighters run across the ice pond and position themselves around the rotunda, bracing themselves for the stampede of zombies. A wind sweeps through the darkness, and a bloody body races towards them. They all prepare their weapons, but it’s just Beom-pal, yelling and slipping on the ice. LOL. Again, how is he still alive?
The zombies arrive for real this time, and Chang cues the gunmen to start shooting the ice. They’re trying to drown the zombies — brilliant! Not so brilliant is the thickness of the ice and the mass of zombies. Even after multiple rounds of shots, the ice remains solid, and the overwhelming mass of zombies is too much for the zombie slayers. Beom-pal is in full screaming and flailing mode, and that perfectly depicts the level of panic everyone should be at.
The gunmen go down, and zombies continue to grow in numbers. We see a familiar royal garment, and it’s the freaking zombie queen. She eats away at flesh just like the other zombies, and our favorite zombie fighters, including Chang, Young-shin, and Beom-pal, get bitten. With a zombie bite on his shoulder, Chang tries to shoot at the ice again and desperately pounds the ice with his fist, but it’s no use. As a last resort, he charges at a large zombie, causing it to slip and fall head first onto the cracked ice. That finally breaks the icy pond, and everyone falls into the water.
Chang and the living zombie fighters squirm under water, and then their bodies go still. Worms wriggle out of their submerged bodies, and they suddenly open their eyes, fully alive. The resurrected and human zombie fighters swim to the surface, bewildered that they’re still alive, while the masses of defeated zombies float up against the ice.
When Chang opens the gates of the palace, he orders Team Commander Lee to collect all royal guards to clear out the carnage in the palace. When they hear that the baby prince’s body has yet to be found, the head scholar urgently advises Chang to find the baby and kill him, as the child is the only threat to Prince Chang’s authority.
The zombie carnage gives us a sense of relief, but this show likes to make it clear that it ain’t over until it’s over. As Young-shin searches the dead bodies in the palace, he finds Seo-bi’s medicinal pouch. He picks it up, and then a half-killed zombie suddenly growls right at his face. JESUS. Young-shin immediately shoots it dead, and I hope the show is satisfied with my very startled reaction.
Chang enters the royal portrait hall, where the remaining two spots to honor the royal bloodline were reserved for the late king and Chang. Seo-bi comes out of hiding and reveals the bitten baby. Fearful of the potential monster, Chang draws his sword, but Seo-bi begs him to save the child. The baby hasn’t transformed into a monster, and she reminds him of his plea to protect the child, who he knew to be Moo-young’s son. Seo-bi remains hopeful that the plague will end as spring approaches, and she’s right. As spring arrives, the people of Sanju experience a renewed hope as the dormant zombie bodies are burned. But Chang knows as long as the baby lives, it won’t be over. Then, he raises his sword.
Seven years later,
Pil-gu the young king participates in a royal ceremony, and a eunuch (the one who saved himself in the latrine pit while taking a dump) covers the scar on his hand. One of the royal ministers, formerly Fisherman Uncle, tells the king that his request to read the records from seven years ago cannot be granted. The king is desperate to know the truth behind the plague that wiped out his father, mother, and brother. Beom-pal, now one of the king’s ministers, ushers the king to his studies and tells Fisherman Uncle in private that must keep those records a secret, even though the king’s yearning for his family grows by the day. As the young king passes through the palace, his birth mother, now a court lady, looks at him longingly.
Young-shin pays Beom-pal a surprise visit, and Beom-pal is overjoyed to have an old pal from the war visiting him. Beom-pal assures Young-shin that he’s fulfilling his promise to Chang to help guide the young child to become a wise king. Flashing back to the moment before Chang swung his sword at the innocent newborn, we see that Chang stopped to confirm if the baby was really uninfected. Seo-bi assured him that the worms left the child’s body.
The head scholar insisted that the child must be killed, since there can only be one king. Chang agreed that there can only be one king, but he questioned who deserves to die. The baby prince was the legitimate heir by blood while Chang was the illegitimate child and traitor who killed his father. Chang understood who this suffering plague-ridden country needed and that the baby king was their nation’s only hope. Tearful and earnest, Chang entrusted the head scholar to mold this child into a good king for the nation.
Investigator Min begged for the truth to be revealed, that the child cannot inherit the throne if he is not of royal blood. But Chang insisted that this child was the legitimate heir. As his final gesture as a royal, he asked for that his corrupt and bloody family deaths be credited to the plague in records. Prince Chang walked out to the booming silence of his sacrifice, as the witnesses revered his decision.
Young-shin shares an updated medical journal on the plague written by Seo-bi, who has spent the past years researching the infection in depth. In the journal, she states that a worm transmits to those bitten by the infected, but the zombie manifestations do not occur in the bitten victims. Instead, the victim’s body becomes cold, and the symptoms lead to death.
She indicates that the transmission and transformation into zombies started at the Jiyulheon clinic, but not all those who were bitten by the rabid monsters deteriorated into zombies. If the bitten victim submerges themselves in water before death and before the worms reach the brain, the worms will escape the body, reawakening the victim to their human life. Also, the infection does not spread to babies whose brains have not fully developed.
Seo-bi notes that the zombies are dormant during spring and summer and only arise during the night during fall and winter. But once the solstice hits, the zombies can be awake at all hours due to the temperature. The one mystery that remains unsolved is why an infection that thrives in the cold seems to become more potent in heat, as with the zombie stew. She speculates that the resurrection plant holds more unknown secrets.
The resurrection plant was discovered in other regions, and Seo-bi has continued to search for answers with Chang and Young-shin. In the foggy mountains, Seo-bi finds another crop of the resurrection plant and speaks to the father and son who live near the mountain. The father admits that they planted the seeds of the resurrection plant after his son bought it on the Amrok river from a merchant who claimed that the plant brought the dead to life. The seller even shared how to administer the plant’s essence, which implies that the seller has a deeper understanding of the plant’s pathology. In case of another outbreak, Young-shin was sent by Chang to share the medical journal with Beom-pal.
In search of this seller, Chang and Seo-bi head north and discover an abandoned village. Seo-bi finds remnants of the resurrection plant, and they hear rustling in the darkness ahead. The ominous sound of bells nears approaches them, and a zombie emerges from the shadows. Chang expertly slices the zombie’s head, and they know they’re in the right place.
At the palace, we see a worm emerge from the king’s scar and slide up to the king’s head. This is one of the unknown secrets of this infection. Another unknown secret is waiting to be discovered in this abandoned village, where we see severed zombie limbs and chained-up living zombies. There’s someone behind this — omg, it’s Jeon Ji-hyun.
This season felt more aligned with the zombie horror genre, as the action and gore were more explicit in this season, but the additional bloodshed wasn’t trying to compensate for anything. The great writing still anchored this show. The last two episodes wove in the themes and elements of this season in a crescendo to the climax, showcasing a script that was sharp and perceptive to the social hierarchies of the time. I appreciated the alluded metaphors of power and bloodlines throughout the show, and once I got over the visual shock of zombies, I also enjoyed the bloody sequences and came to appreciate the tightly choreographed battles.
The exploration of power and social hierarchy wasn’t limited to just the royals, though the royal bloodline battle was the overarching plotline that carried this story forward. Underlying the grand battle for royal power, the interspersed commentary on social rank amongst commoners served as an interesting reflection of the main battle. Social rank was indicated on identification tags, which recorded a person’s birthplace and family. The identification tags were introduced in this season with Lord Ahn Hyeon checking the tags of his fallen soldiers, and the consistent use of these tags throughout the season — when collecting bodies or entering Hanyang — hinted at the overall theme of bloodlines.
Discussion on who deserves to die were often held when those in power identified people of higher status being sentenced to death. For example, the state councilors were uncomfortable with executing the families of nobles or higher ranking officials who were labeled as traitors by the queen. Had these traitors been commoners, would the councilors have considered disobeying a royal command? I think the answer to that question is implied by how the people of Sangju were disregarded until Prince Chang saw the unfair suffering in person.
Chang’s sacrifice of the throne felt monumental, especially during a time in which ancestry and family names carry far more weight. Chang’s emotional plea to raise a good king for the nation — surely inspired by Lord Ahn Hyeon — was moving and perfectly executed by Joo Ji-hoon. I felt like I had accompanied Chang in his character journey, seeing how hard he fought to reclaim his rightful place and tracking his growth along the way. So as a viewer, this sacrifice felt like a rewarding culmination of his growth. By dispelling the fixation on royal blood and direct lineage, Chang redefined the concept of “bloodline.” For Chang, “bloodline” is legacy, and he certainly left a resounding legacy by burying the truth of the plague and relinquishing his inherited power.
Though the records won’t reflect the actual history, the truth is bound to be revealed. The ominous worm flowing up to the young king’s brain implies that the worst has yet to come. Beom-pal will need to put that updated resurrection plant pathology guide to use if he doesn’t want history to repeat itself. The secrets of the resurrection plant seem endless, and I’m excited about the prospects of Jeon Ji-hyun’s character in the next season. Is she a zombie hunter? Is she the seller? Who the hell is she?! Regardless, she would be an amazing addition to this stellar cast.
I like that we’re ending on a mystery and an open door for possibilities. But the door isn’t just cracked open –it’s kicked open for another season. Did you get that message, Netflix? We won’t be knocking on your door for another season, we’ll just kick it open with a zombie on leash. As Ryu Seung-ryong proposed at the press conference: with music, you’ve got BTS; with movies, it’s Parasite; with streaming, it’ll be Kingdom. Hope to see you soon, season 3!
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