It feels like zombies have become scarier over time, especially since, through the decades, the idea of the undead rising to attack the living has evolved from people literally rising from the grave, to a highly contagious virus infecting people and turning them into mindless monsters. When it comes to TV, there's no better show that combines the gore and thrills of a zombie movie with the political plotting and intrigue of Game of Thrones than Netflix's Kingdom, which just returned with a second season.
Picking up right where we left off last season, Kingdom Season 2 throws us into the middle of an epic battle as the Crown Prince of the Joseon Kingdom, Lee Chang (Ji-Hoon Ju), his chief guard Muyeong (Sang-ho Kim), physician Seo-bi (Doona Bae), Chang's former mentor Lord Ahn Hyeon (Jun-ho Heo), and vengeful tiger hunter Yeong-shin (Kim Sung-kyu) find themselves facing down a zombie horde right outside the Sangju Citadel. And while the disease threatens to ravage the land, those with political power only try to keep themselves safe while shutting out those who actually need help, leaving them to suffer. (Of course, any parallels to reality are merely coincidental.)
In many ways, Kingdom resembles HBO's Game of Thrones, both thematically and structurally. Kingdom spent its 6-episode first season cutting back and forth between the Crown Prince fighting to take back his throne and unravel the horrible things the Haewon Cho clan have done, and Seo-bi slowly discovering the truth behind the zombie outbreak. A big part of the series that carries over to Season 2 is the idea that corruption and official incompetence can lead to catastrophe. In the first season we saw how officials and ministers allowed the disease to spread because they focused on saving themselves rather than helping everyone, and Season 2 pulls back the curtain to show how there are always those who profit off tragedy.
From the grand-scale fight scene that opens the first episode, Kingdom kicks into high gear in its sophomore season. Stories that were merely hinted at in the first 6 episodes suddenly become integral to the plot and get proper time to breathe, while the tiniest of details from Season 1 return in huge ways. Not to be outdone by Game of Thrones, Kingdom also serves as an intriguing courtroom thriller, with a plot involving a mole, and the queen faking a pregnancy while hoping a peasant woman would give birth to a son that she could present as her rightful heir to the throne. Much like early seasons of the HBO show, Kingdom manages to give compelling backstories and motivations to its expanding cast, making even the villains at least a bit sympathetic, all while finding the right balance between action and politics.
One of Kingdom's main strengths is its setting. From its lavish costume design, to grand palaces and vistas to the elaborate choreography, this season becomes a feast for the eyes, with cinematography that is just begging to be added to the One Perfect Shot Twitter account. As for the action, this season doubles-down on its Peter Jackson influence, with several of the epic-scale action sequences including direct nods to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The production value seems to have increased this season, as we see more sieges and battles that take place inside grand palaces and walled citadels, with endless hordes trying to break in and just a handful of soldiers with torches shining in the pitch darkness, while the blasting of the cannons fills your ears.
The season finale in particular puts Game of Thrones' "The Long Night" to shame, making you feel like you're on the battlefield and the characters are actually in danger. Indeed, no one is safe in this season, and main characters die left and right in the span of minutes, building up to a visually stunning last stand on a frozen lake that brings to mind the shock of early seasons of the HBO show and how it used to off fan-favorite characters in the blink of an eye, to emotionally devastating yet compelling results. That being said, Kingdom isn't above finding humor in horror, not only in the form of comic relief doofus Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho), but also a fantastic yet hilarious scene where Chang literally piledrives a giant zombie into ice like he's at Wrestlemania.
And if you think there's nothing new to be done with the mythology of zombies, think again. Season 2 of Kingdom doubles down on the viral aspect of the zombie outbreak, exploring its natural origin, how it spreads, and most frighteningly, how it evolves. In the Season 1 finale, we found out that the zombies aren't actually vulnerable to sunlight, but to warm temperatures. This season kept giving us new discoveries about the "resurrection plant" and actually treats the zombies as victims of a viral infection that controls their movements, rather than supernatural undead ghouls.
Netflix's Kingdom reaches new levels of terror given the context in which it was released, but even without the real news of scary viruses, this zombie show breathes new life into the genre by combining stunning action with an intriguing political plot and compelling characters whose suffering and deaths have actual impact. Kingdom shows that the zombie genre will never really go stale.
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