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Kingdom: Ashin of the North (Special episode review)

To tide us over until the arrival of Season 3 of Kingdom, Netflix offers Kingdom: Ashin of the North, a short prequel that sits somewhere in between special episode and feature-length film. As the world of Kingdom is expanded, we get a look at other regions, characters — and a peek at the genesis of the zombie apocalypse itself.

 
SPECIAL EPISODE REVIEW

There’s nothing more fun than a rich fictional world that offers endless opportunities for story, and a historical Joseon era zombie apocalypse is no exception. Kingdom: Ashin of the North tells the story of the eponymous Ashin, of whom we got a glimpse at the end of Kingdom Season 2. Who is she? What is her story? What part does she play in the bloody mayhem? These are the questions that are answered for us in the drama special.

We meet ASHIN as a young girl, first played by Kim Shi-ah, a relatively new child actress. She’s part of a clan that’s ostracized by everyone and lives on the outskirts. Ashin’s father, though, has been faithfully serving Joseon and regularly reports to MIN CHI-ROK (Park Byung-eun), and under his real-life cover of a trader/butcher, he works as a double agent. It’s in the middle of this that we catch up with their family and the mayhem that’s happening in the country.

Beyond the tribal hierarchies and political contention, there’s a far more disturbing problem. When a group of villagers are discovered slaughtered in a forbidden territory, Joseon officials start an elaborate cover-up. The lie is that a tiger is responsible for the slaughter, not another group of people, and it’s the job of Ashin’s father to spread the story.

In addition to worrying about her father’s safety, Ashin also has a dying mother to care for, and it’s this that sends her to the old ruins outside their village. The glyphs tell of the resurrection flower, which brings people back to life — but with consequences. We see Ashin curious about this flower; though we don’t see much of her family we know she seems willing to take the risk.

When Ashin returns to her village one day, it’s been pillaged by another tribe — actually, “pillaged” doesn’t do it justice. The small village is burnt to ash, and everyone is hung from poles for all to see. Ashin is alone, and full of rage.

She finds Chi-rok and begs him to avenge her father and what was done to her village, and his total lack of decency and loyalty only grows her own hatred. This is a particularly strong scene in the drama, with Kim Shi-ah giving a great performance. It also highlights the total grime and ruggedness of this entire production — aesthetically, tonally, and thematically. Often, scenes are so dark you can hardly make out what’s happening. The villages and homes are drained of color. Everything is dark, dirty, and absolutely unforgiving.

Ashin settles in this Joseon village, living in a barn and barely scraping together enough to keep herself alive. It’s here that we have our time jump, organically inserted into her daily struggles to stay alive, and Jeon Ji-hyun takes over as Ashin.

The role is incredibly unglamorous — so kudos to her for that — but I was hoping for a bit more of Jeon Ji-hyun as I watched the episode. Not only is she only on screen in the latter half of the production, but her role is a very quiet one. We follow Ashin as she lives, plotting revenge, but we don’t actually hear from her that much, or see inside of her either. We understand that hatred, rage, and heartbreak have basically come to define her, but there’s a lack of emotional connection to Ashin throughout the episode, making it much less enjoyable than it could have been.

Whether purposeful or not, our lack of connection/closeness to Ashin does give us a sizable reveal later on. Although we know Ashin wants to take down everyone responsible for the death of her family and the massacre in her village, we don’t see her plan, nor know what’s going on in her mind. It’s not until after, at the story’s climax, that we see the fateful steps she took.

When Ashin learns the truth behind her father’s death, and reads the logs of the Joseon officials that explicitly reveal their plan from the time of the tiger incident, it’s enough to push Ashin over the edge. Enter, zombies!

Indeed, by the time we reach our zombie apocalypse, it feels like we’ve been waiting the entire episode to get them. And that would be true, because the large, single chunk of zombie action in Ashin is a part of its culminating moment — when Ashin lets a horde of zombies loose to do what they do best. We anticipated that Ashin was the mastermind behind this revengeful mayhem, but we don’t see how she actually got there until this point. Then, all is revealed: how Ashin did employ the resurrection flower when she was still a young girl, how she learned very quickly about its power, and how she — almost inadvertently — created a zombie army.

Carnage in a zombie movie is a thing, for sure, but the story leaves many questions unanswered as it draws to a close. Ashin might have been responsible for the genesis of the zombies, but how does she manage to keep them all in check? What was it like when she learned the power of the flower? How did she keep herself safe, and keep the zombies hidden, for so many years? Is she somehow immune? Is that why she can stand on the roof with her bow and arrow watching zombies destroy the entire town without a flicker of feeling?

While Ashin might answer some juicy backstory questions about the world of Kingdom, it does introduce many more. It also ends with what feels like a stopping point that’s meant to lead directly into Season 3 — which is a good thing, because the more we see of Ashin and reach the present day, the more we want to see how the stories converge, when the characters might meet, and what will happen when and if that occurs. There’s a long wait until the rest of the story is told, but in the meantime, we’ve got a good piece of backstory to chew on.

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So when she was still a young girl, having known the resurrection flower..she then turned her people to zombies? How was she able to keep them for so long?

And what about her father, how is he still alive after all those years if he was tied up like that? Thoughts?

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Regarding the father: he was being kept alive by the other Jurchen group. He was chained and force-fed.

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Zombies can live a long time with little or no food. To zombify people safely, chain them up first. Count on the village's dire reputation to keep people away to keep them secret, but keep the bow handy just in case.

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She actually mentions it, basically to herself (and the audience I suppose) when she's feeding the human guard to her "family." She brings up how they were fed deer and rabbits and other wildlife.

As others mentioned, the father was just kept alive forcefully by the Jurchens.

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I do wonder how Ashin managed to manacle all of her family members. If I remember correctly, there is a two hour window between placing the leaves/flowers of the resurrection plant into key areas of a corpse's body and the moment the corpse becomes re-animated. Ashin knew from the drawings on the wall that the gift of life would come with a price, but there is nothing to indicate that she knew the specifics of that price. Did she tie her family members together before they became reanimated? If not, she probably would have been attacked and turned into a zombie, if not outright killed. The question of immunity is interesting. The second season did discuss the different types of immune responses following a zombie bite: some people become zombies, others do not. They just just die. I remember that Prime Minister Ho was one of the ones who did not transform. He was still infected, and it wasn't until after he was submerged in water that the parasitic worms left his body. So I guess there are actually three reactions to the zombie bite so far: becoming a full-on zombie, dying, getting infected without turning into a zombie. Where does Ashin fit into this? Is there the possibility of complete immunity, as @missvictrix wondered. I don't know. The worms get transferred through the bite. Would they die in the body of the bitten person if there is such thing as total immunity in this drama universe? I wonder.

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U forgot 1 important detail. The spreading of the zombie worms can only happen if there was consumption of victim flesh by humans who would later turned and become the spreaders.

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Yeah, I will eventually re-watch seasons one and two to revisit those details.

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There's one thing bothering me. They always speak about the flower, but it's actually the leaves who have the egg worms. The plant itself seems harmless, but there is an insect who chooses it to put the eggs. I kinda wish they'd explore it a bit more (I thought they would explore the "flower" in this prequel, but ended up exploring how the doctor got the flower for the dead king).

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Yes, it’s the eggs that matter as I recall.

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Yes, what if the eggs were removed? Does the plant itself have healing properties? Or does the name of the plant only refer to the reanimation/resurrection brought about through parasitic infection? This is definitely something that could be explored in the third season.

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I've been thinking about that too. Perhaps, not every plant of that kind has the eggs, or every herbivorous animal would become infected.

I think only a few leaves have the eggs, hence how just a few animals become infected (it seems the deer and the tiger happened many years back too because of the art in the rock wall, and it accidently happened again in the main storyline of the prequel).

It also raises the question. Are infected animals only capable of infecting other animals? S1 and S2 didn't have infected animals, right? It means the zombie humans didn't infect any animals. And on this prequel, the tiger didn't infect the humans he ate and killed.

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He got the flowers not for the dead king, the Japanese war came first and he used it then before being called back to use for the king.

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I thought this was a brilliant prequel. For me personally I had no trouble connecting emotionally to Ashin as she steps through a life of purgatory, working as a spy across the river, enduring poverty, abuse and rape at the hands of the Joseon soldiers while she waits for the general to enact the revenge she sold herself for. And then the realisation that, not only would that revenge never come, she had sold herself into servitude to the real perpetrators. It's why her brutal unrelenting vengeance at the end had almost no catharsis. She has no capacity for it because she's the walking dead herself.

After I watched this yesterday I'm now so excited for season 3. I hope they manage to get it together sometime next year (cross fingers).

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I felt her desperation when she knelt down begging for help in revenge, her determination in seeing it come to fruition when she washed clothes at the river with bare hands in the middle of winter and when the rapes happened and finally her immense rage that broke the dam when she found her father and truth of what happened. This episode sold it totally and I felt satisfaction in seeing those soldiers die horribly.

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I wasn't very invested in anything zombie-related, but I found this prequel very interesting and very well-done. It didn't require me to remember anything from the two previous movies in order to understand what was happening here. I loved the Ashin child actor to pieces - She was just adorable and emoted so well. One of my most memorable scenes is when the young Ashin turned into a fully-grown Ashin. I actually really really liked that scene, so kudos to the production team and the cast.

This prequel was aesthetically made, so I enjoyed almost every scene. I'm not a zombie person, so I actually liked it when zombies appeared only during the later half of the story. Another thing is that I found the grown-up Ashin's silent demeanor to be appropriate and in line with the character's experience: She had been tricked many times, so she shouldn't be able to trust anyone. That led to her complete silence and sole reliance on herself.

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Totally agree. The only words I can say is: nicely done.

It will be more interesting when you know Screenwriter Kim Eun-hee's Kingdom world related to the real history behind it. There are quite a lot of Chinese material out there which I don't have time to translate, but the Swoon (an YouTube Channel closely related to Netflix) published 2 videos describing it, they are worth to watch as well: Behind the Scene and Important Terminology.

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Ahh.. thank you! 😊

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I didn't think too deeply about it while watching but it did raise a lot of questions about how Ashin managed it all. I found it slow but Ashin's revenge was satisfying. If a third season was coming relatively soon, I would be more excited about it, but I believe they are doing a special episode with the Crown Prince next.

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I thought this was a great prequel. This wasn't a scary movie per se (despite the gore, I didn't need to avert my eyes or cover my ears like I do with most horror movies), but this is definitely horror - Ashin's story is horrific in its tragedy; the people around her are horrible people; the zombies just made that horror and tragedy manifest.

My personal opinion is that she is insane. Is there such a thing as a high functioning insane person? She was revealed to be very intelligent even as a young girl, even understanding the political nuances between the different groups of people. After finally learning how terribly her people were treated, she now just has one goal: annihilation of Joseon and Jurcheon people; after which she plans to join her zombie family. She's crazy, yeah?

I got goosebumps when it was revealed that she reanimated the townspeople -- her family, friends, and neighbours -- as zombies. While I remember a passing comment from the soldiers who found it amazing that she buried all her townspeople herself. I didn't think about the possibility that she turned them and was feeding them animals for YEARS. She was ignored as a young girl, and was being sexually abused when she became an adult (can I just say, I'm glad the director decided not to show any of that; just hinted at it); that lack of human connection led to a coldheartedness and single-mindedness that is terrifying. The only time we see her show emotion as an adult was when she found her father, with his limbs cut off and forcibly kept alive by his captors in order to maximize his suffering - yet another element of horror.

Ashin's story is amazing; this writer is fantastic. I hope to see more of this Joseon zombie world.

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Ashin's story is really full of tragedy. And this prequel actually explores that humanity can be the monster too, instead of zombies. I liked that narrative a lot.

I also enjoyed the child's performance way more. I get that Jun Ji-hyun's part was silent because of what she went through. But I couldn't feel an emotional attachment. I know she is an anti-hero, but I usually sympathize with anti-heros, but not her. Something felt flat to me. But the child actress was superb!

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The deer tells us that animals that eat the wrong flower zombify... So what do we fear most:

Zombie rabbits? Not unless you are Jimmy Carter or Monty Python.

Zombie wild boar? No, those are dangerous enough in non-zombie form.

Zombie caterpillars...

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Zombie worms.

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Zombie clams... :P
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Semi serious answer is that decay as an extant form of life already exists in the form of Fungi, as do parasites and certain insects that effectively zombiefy their hosts during and after consumption. What do we fear most, zombies, or the horrors of our existing world... ;)

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To answer again semi seriously (or perhaps not), what we fear is a lack of control. Which is why the genre lives in socioeconomic disparity and dies in American xenophobia (but won't stay dead... some pun intended).

The clams are real. They lurk. And wait.

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I enjoyed it, and the despite the slow pace mostly held throughout, when it got to the credits I was like "Oh, it's over already?" I think this might have worked a bit better as a mini series vs. the one episode we got. Jeon Ji-hyun definitely had a less animated role than I was expecting, but she did a great job, and so did the child actress (her scene where she wanted her family avenged was great). I'm always a fan when actors or actresses will take on these understated performances.

When she makes it back to her village near the end, and she sees in her head all their happy faces smiling at her returning, that was just a nice juxtaposition from her about to feed this guard to her family.

You definitely get why she is the way she is, and it just makes me want to watch the world burn with her, silently perched atop the rooftops.

Man I want the third season now! I'm a little saddened that if the rumors are correct, we'll be getting another special before the next season.

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As much as Asin's bio revenge warfare is as badass as it is dark, she could've also just fed her then would be abuser to the pigs in the sty next door after killing him, as that would've removed all the most significant fleshly evidence , and her role as a laundry women would've made it easy to get rid of the rest of the material evidence...

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I had no idea why you're saying this because Ashin's goal wasn't to kill her sexual abuser but to kill the ENTIRE Joseon and Jurchen people. And pigs can't eat a human body fast, the smell would get her caught for sure

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Huh???

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This was a lot darker than I was expecting. To be honest Kingdom despite it's promos has never been that dark but this was very dark. I did like how the darkness of this episode didn't actually come from the zombies but the living. What did bother me was the lighting in some of the night scenes was too little but maybe it was intentional.

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Not really a fan of zombie stuffs but then there's Jun Ji-hyun hahaha....
Ahsin standing on the rooftop looks cool but also it made me laugh like wow, how did she manage to climb up there without breaking a sweat. I sympathized with her backstory and her taking revenge after finding out the truth but I don't understand her intention to bring her family back from the dead. Isn't it bad enough that they died brutally? Why not let them go peacefully? Does bringing them back even as zombies lessen her grief or guilt as the sole survivor? How did she managed to control them for so many years? I still have so many questions hahahah so I'll just have to wait for Kingdom 3 then :)

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Because she is lonely. In they ending scene she said that she isn't lonely because her zombie family is there. As for control, I'm pretty sure it'll be fleshed out in s3

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What a horrifying and brilliant twist ending to this special. I kind of anticipated it when they started showing the flashbacks, but to visually see it on screen sent chills down my spine.

I thought this special was really well written. I was surprised at how small JJHs role actually was, but once she was on screen the story development went at lightning speed. I do enjoy the conflicting emotions of empathy/horror. Ashin's childhood was shaped by monsters and she grew up to become to biggest monster of them all.

Does anyone know if Ashin will be a major character in season 3? I can't wait for the crown prince/ nurse vs. Ashin face off!

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I am both a fan of the Kingdom series and of Jun Ji-hyun.

I so hate to say this, but I found this prequel incredibly boring. There is just not much happening, and the story is contradictory and lacking:

Ashin is unbelievably (in the truest sense of the word) well educated (advanced medical knowledge, able to read and write Chinese characters), but she is too dumb to recognize (over years, if not decades) that she is being betrayed by the Joseon warlords? She can use the Zombie flower just like that, but endures years of abuse?

Although I would love to see a third season, this prequel lost me half an hour into the movie.

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Let's be honest, taking revenge to Jurchen is hard and the easiest way was to ask Joseon for help. The choice Ashin made in the end was her last ditch and is the most risky. Regarding her not realizing Joseon has been betraying her, from the beginning Ashin was raised purely and protectively by her father so that could be the cause.

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you're probably calling it "boring" because you expected more action, but the special episode is meant to be a quiet character study- what a person must go through to completely lose faith in humanity and to become cold and dead inside. It is meant to reflect the harsh realities of existing as an ethnic minority shunned by their people and the people they work for.
There is a lot happening, but none of that is relevant to Ashin's story because she lives on the fringe of the geopolitics, and I'm sure they are saving things for season 3 to deep dive into.

educated does not mean a person cannot be NAIVE. Again, Ashin was a young girl of what? Maybe 12 years old or 14 when her village was massacred. Do you think she had any real awareness of the geopolitics going on? On top of that, her father was the one who trusted the Joseon commander. She had no reason to suspect him at that point in time.

She wanted revenge. Surely you don't expect a CHILD to take on an expert warrior tribe when not even the army of Joseon would willingly meet them in battle? so she went to the only adult with power that she believed would help her avenge her village

It was very succinctly explained why she endured years of abuse-there was a power imbalance between her and her abuser. She could most definitely kill him, but that would get her kicked out of the camp, or worse. And she needed to be useful to Joseon because she believed they were the means to an end- her exacting revenge on the Jurchens who killed her family.
Once she knew the truth, she did what was necessary.

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I believe that her last ounce of human being had gone when she had to kill her own father. After that, I think she has become a monster -a person with no heart left.

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No, I called it boring, because it WAS boring.

No action, and certainly no "character study". Otherwise we would be in no doubt whether Ashin had "awareness of geopolitics", would we not?

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The Ashin story is a great fit into the Kingdom narrative and I couldn’t wait to see how this plays out in S3.

However, I’m disappointed at not able to feel emotionally connected despite the epic tragedy of this back story. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong with the directing or how the story was pieced together. I felt detached - when I should be rooting for her from early on. It’s a pity.

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Tbh I think Ashin is an anti hero. We weren't supposed to be rooting for her fully

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Amen!

Especially since Jun Ji-hyun is a really good actress (but then again, she did not show up until the movie was almost over).

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It was treat to see JJH again, and the child actress was really good but after exciting opening (zombie tiger!!!) it felt like the rest of the move was sacrificed for the sake of climax. I watch Kingdom for zombies in Joseon and there wasn't enough zombies for my liking.

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There’s one detail I think isn’t really consistent. Either in the first or second season, the king was resurrected after consuming the plant. He would devour human bodies however, those victims do not turn into a monster, they just die. It is only after other people eat the corpse do they turn into a monster. But in this prequel, she killed a Joseon soldier and gave him the plant and soon after, the whole camp became a zombie military. So the question is, how could they have become monsters? Shouldn’t they have just been dead? I’m honestly so confused so can anyone help me figure it out? Maybe I missed something from this episode.

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All zombified people were killed by Ashin. They implied this with the sleeping soldiers who that turned out to be dead and kicking when that one guy returned to the barracks and bathroom before going to sleep, and showed it explicitly when one of the officials found another "sleeping" soldier with a flower on his forehead right before he reanimated.
That explains why it was in waves. Ashin couldn't kill them all at once, she quietly killed and prepared them as they slept.

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yeah i actually figured it out soon after i posted that comment. but what about the tiger? i mean in the beginning of the episode i think it was a deer that ate the plant and then the tiger ate the deer. so does that mean that one can also get infected if they consume a monster?

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yes. that's what happened in season 1. at the "clinic" where Seo Bi was working, the dead body that was infected (with worms) from the bite of the zombie king was fed to the ill people as a soup. People who ate the soup turned into zombies. Those that didn't were later eaten by zombies.

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I think the reason the victims of the king did not turn into zombies was because they were thrown into the lake immediately, and the zombie worms don't work well in water.

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But the tiger killed several man and none of them turned into zombies. Maybe I'm thinking too much and it's a plothole?

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or it could simply be that the zombie parasitic infection is not zoonotic- that is cannot be transferred from animal to human.

we also have to keep in mind that it takes at least 2 hours or more for the infected to rise from the dead as zombies. We didn't see what happened to the people who were attacked by the tiger later.
We followed the Joseon guards into the field where they confronted the zombie tiger and the Pajeowi men.
So whether the people who were attacked by the tiger turned into zombies or not wasn't confirmed onscreen

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I was confused too. In fact, I felt that inconsistency right when the tiger got infected. Because the deer was the "first" zombie. It did not make sense. Morever, those whom the tiger killed were not zombies, they just died, didn't they? The King was the "first" zombie too, but his victims just died (I think the worms were dormant in the victims' bodies but became active once they found new hosts). Morever, those whom the tiger killed were not zombies, they just died, didn't they?

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I don't think the whole camp became zombies. She burnt most of the zombies at the end and there weren't that many. I think she turned some soldiers into zombies while they were sleeping. (But I'm not sure how.) The rest that were bitten did just die.

But still, I'm confused about how she managed to chain all of "her families". Or why did the deer turn into zombies from eating the flowers? (Wasn't it supposed to be acupuncture?) And the whole tiger thing. If the tiger ate the deer (the only way it can turn into zombies), then the soldiers it bit should also turn into zombies.

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I feel like there's huge plot-hole in the story. On season 1, it was explained that those bitten by the King just died. They didn't turn into zombies because they were not infected by parasite living in the plant. But those who consumed the flesh turned into zombies and in turn infects those they also had bitten because the parasite found a new host to spread on.
And yet, in here we saw one soldier where the flower was used on--he's the 1st zombie, much like the king is--,but instead of just dying for those that he munched on, they too turned into a zombie, which is similar to how the cook on season 1 spread the disease and those who ate the flesh spread the zombie-disease.
Very confusing! The parasite is the leaves of the plant, not in the flower itself. I wonder if that is important. Plus, it takes 2 hours for those given the flower to turn into a zombie. I feel like I need to rewatch this whole series again.
Also, I feel sad about Ashin being used as a comfort woman by that soldier.

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It is not an outcast tribe. It is a story of a Jurchen vs Joseon conflict with a small border village of Jurchen betrayed by Joseon. Jurchens would later form Jin Dynasty of Manchuria/NorthChina & then Qing Dynasty of China.

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I think they meant outcast because Ashin's tribe, although Jurchens, were different from the ones who lived across the river. They were the ones who settled in Joseon land, and because they were loyal to Joseon, they were sort of outcasts of the Pajeowi, but also outcasts because the Joseon people shunned them but used them as butchers. In some sense they were outcasts of society. But not outcasts of the Jurchens- because Ashin's ancestors chose to live in Joseon,they weren't expelled from the Jurchen community.

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nice tv series

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so this was far better than I expected and kept up the suspense quite well.
Joseon zombies are the scariest after all

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What a fantastic prequel to Season 3! I absolutely loved how they set up her story/character and tied it to the ending of Season 2. And that climax was chilling. She is going to be a terrifying antagonist and I can’t wait.

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