Kingdom: Season 2 Review
I've lost count of the number of people I've now told to watch Kingdom (my season 1 review here), which released its second season at probably the best possible time. Nothing like a strange fiction-reality parallel of a easily contagious ailment to distract us during a perpetual lockdown. I managed to marathon through the six episodes in the first day of release (March 13th), which was both satisfying but also saddening because now I need to wait another year before season 3 (or will there be a season 3? See my thoughts after the spoilers section).
What's worth noting is that every single person who's acted on my recommendation to watch this series has gotten sucked in and powered through within a week. So if you haven't yet seen any of this, give it a chance as it's one of the most sharply plotted and worthwhile dramas I've seen in years. The trick is to make it past season 1 episode 2, as that's when you grow adjusted to the horror elements and when the story and intrigue pick-up.
This review though is to cover my thoughts on season 2, which finally resolves the incredible cliffhanger that we ended season 1 on. Read on for my full thoughts.
What I've always loved about Kingdom is its ability to combine a thrilling story with unique characters that you find yourself rooting for all the way through. Even though the story speeds along (giving us only about six 45-min episodes per season), we don't ever lose out on the character development. It's tough to find that right balance between action and pathos, but it's one Kingdom expertly navigates in a high stakes manner.
Season 2 picks right up with the start of the daytime battle against the now hordes of zombies storming the castle. It's all in all a seamless transition back into our characters and story, nevermind the fact that this was probably filmed over a year later. Our haughty prince remains as righteous yet likeable as always, picking up his sword and we launch into another adrenaline-fueled zombie fight.
Similarly, we pick back up with Seo-bi and the Magistrate back at the lake, where they've managed to escape from the sudden onslaught of zombies by climbing up the mountain behind the cave. They've made the shocking discovery that ended season 1 - that the zombies aren't afraid of daylight, but rather heat, and that now with the cold winter upon Joseon they will be awake and ready to attack 24/7.
Before I dive too deeply into the rest of the series, I'll touch upon what I enjoyed vs didn't like as much generally about this season. While our characters remained consistent in their motivations and the battles remained gripping to watch, I would say that things felt a bit rushed in season 2 compared to season 1, which meant that at times I felt like the story was pushing itself too fast to take me with it. For instance, many key moments and action items seem to be skipped over. It's never clear to us how much time passes as the show progresses, which also made it more difficult to feel drawn into the story.
Season 1 likely covered the span of a month or less from the time of the outbreak, with many episodes covering the developments over a single day. Conversely, Season 2 has an open-ended feel with time. Certain battles are covered extensively, such as the one in the beginning as well as the one in the Palace in the end, but in between the storyline skips through what may well be weeks of time. For example, we don't know how long it takes the Prince to travel from one city to another - the entire journey gets skipped over and we are only shown what happens upon arrival. It's a small element that takes away a certain aspect of credibility in what we are being shown.
I am quite certain now that the director change had to do with the lessening story clarity starting in episode 2 of season 2. It was confusing because the original Director, Kim Seong Hun, still shows up in the credits for the episodes, but the director changed over to Park In Je starting from episode 2 on. It's a very noticeable difference in retrospect, and unfortunately not one I prefer. Director Kim managed to keep everything believable and easy to follow, even in the most violent and frenetic of fight scenes and political developments. Conversely, there were several pivotal scenes in Season 2 that just felt confusing to follow (the Palace scene is the biggest example of this), and overall the story seemed to lose some of its mystic and gravitas as it wore on.
That isn't to say that it wasn't enjoyable - indeed, I found the twists to still be quite splendid and the episodes extremely watchable. It was just less hold-your-breath amazing and twisty, with a palpable loss of control it felt on the story.
I'm now going to talk about specific events and scenes that I struggled with when watching Season 2. I did thoroughly enjoy the first couple episodes, especially the sorrowful fight in Mungyeong Saejae. Starting in episode 3 is when some moments lost me. For example, I am still confused as to why Mu Yeong tried to run away with Cho Hak Ju. I presume it was to use him as some blackmail to save his wife, but how exactly and why couldn't he get his loyal prince to help him? Mu Yeong was one of my favorite original characters, and it was wrenching to see him die, especially in such a confusing manner.
I'm also going to say I really didn't care for the worm-in-flower mythology for how the zombie transmission occurs. There's something quite gross about the ideal of worms going into your body, and it takes away a lot of the mystique of this being a strange plant induced condition. With the worms, the story takes a spin that makes it akin to Alien or other parasite-inspired films, which I've never found all that creative. I'm also still confused as to how water so easily cures this ailment - this is again I believe a failure in directing, because the entire method shown of how the worm just floats up out of the body when under water felt quite over simplistic in how it was portrayed.
Moving on, I'll also say that I found nearly everything about the final battle in the Palace to be very poorly done. First, the Queen, who was easily one of the most fascinating characters in the entire series, suddenly seemed to lose her entire sanity and all of her previous savvy through a nonsensical unmoving do-or-die stake on the throne. It felt a bit unbelievable and a disappointing end to an otherwise complex and very sharp character.
Second, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Queen's maidservant would think it's a good idea to release the zombie from his cell in the dungeon. I understand loyalty, but I don't understand the willingness to die in such a graphic and unnecessary way. Surely she would rather ditch the loyalty to stay alive, given that otherwise she was portrayed as a cold and very self-centered character?
The Palace fight itself felt rather cheaply filmed - we were shown thousands of stampeding zombies in the battle that started episode 1, yet here in the final battle there's no more than 20 extras in any given scene. I find it laughable that the Palace would be so thinly populated, to the point where entire gates are completely unguarded and only a couple dozen ministers would flock around. I know that they consistently ran over budget in Season 1, which I anticipate was due to the sheer scale of the battles, but candidly you need that level of people in order to properly convey a sense of dread and fear in the audience.
The whole event was also unnecessarily gory - for instance, I don't know why we needed to see a zombie puke into the Magistrate's mouth for a good minute (also, why would the worm not somehow be transferred in that process, if this thing originally came from people ingesting the worm? Another logic fail). Kingdom isn't one to be shy about gore in its fights, but this one bordered on just about unwatchable, even for me.
Furthermore, I wasn't much impressed with the escape on the roof (it just felt poorly coordinated) as well as the final battle on the frozen lake. I don't understand still why the soldiers didn't start trying to break the ice well before the zombies were upon them - given they waited until it was entirely too late to avoid being bitten. And again, the whole idea of the worms just exiting the body once they're underwater felt too convenient to me.
Finally, in the post-battle scene when we stumble upon a young Pil Gu who plays Mu Yeong's son and the now sole heir to the throne, I was originally really sad to see that after all this Lee Chang simply abdicated his position. I would have been ready to riot if that really was the end of the series, especially after that fairly excessive fight on the lake.
But thankfully it was not, and I was thrilled to see Seo-bi and Lee Chang still staying together and doing what they do best, digging further into the mystery behind the zombies (indeed, please don't let the worms floating in water be the final end to this). When we finally pan to the female villain in the last scene, which I realized only after was played by the legendary Jun Ji Hyun, I was revived again. Yes, at this point I can't fathom of any reason why we wouldn't be getting a Season 3, and if it features Jun Ji Hyun then I absolutely can't wait to see more.
My final gripe with season 2 is that it felt like there were a number of items that were just completely brushed over and not resolved. For instance, it felt like the events of 30 years prior (when apparently dead soldiers were made into zombies to battle the Japanese) would be a huge plot point, but then following episode 3 all mention of that disappeared. What was the significance of that? Will it be brought up again, especially in terms of how it was resolved, or is that all we're getting?
I also wish we had gotten more backstory and time with Tiger warrior Yeong-shin jein, who was easily one of the most fascinating characters. I wish overall we had more time, as the season 2 episodes were notably shorter than season 1 (especially again starting in episode 2 after the new director came on), which makes me wonder if they simply tried to race through filming and production. It always bothers me when things are unresolved, so anyways I hope that when season 3 comes we will hear more.
That said, if anyone from the production team or Netflix reads this, please please please bring back Director Kim Seong Hun as its clear that this is a series that has to be handled with a deft storytelling hand. Too much and it borders on farcical, too little and there's no stakes for the viewer to be tied to. I love Kingdom too much at this point to not watch whatever comes next, but also hope they don't extend the story without plenty of additional meaty mythology to back it up. We don't want a repeat of what happened to West World.
Until then, I'm going to have to try to force myself through a couple other Joo Ji Hoon dramas and hope that he gets cast in other meaty and plot-rich dramas. I was not a fan of the first couple episodes of Hyena that I watched (I'm all about strong female leads, but 1) the age gap borders on creepy here and 2) it was just too much of everything). I'm also excited for this rumored Jun Ji Hyun drama with the Kingdom writer, which sounds like everything I need.
In sum, give Kingdom a chance if you haven't, and let me know if you agree with my thoughts on season 2 once you do!