Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has. That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature.Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Over the past couple of years, my partner and I have become increasingly invested in K-dramas.
As anyone who has ever watched a K-drama knows, starting one is a commitment. You can’t just put an episode on in the background while you’re doing the washing up. Even if I were fluent in Korean, so much is constantly happening that in the two minutes it takes me to dash to the toilet, I’ve missed a secret family member reveal, a love confession and subsequent rejection, and a tragic accident that no doubt signals the start of the dreaded amnesia plotline. Plus, with approximately sixteen episodes per season, each the length of a feature-length film, you might want to consider updating your Facebook status for the first time in years so your friends don’t think your prolonged silence means you’ve been kidnapped.
However, due to a number of pandemic-induced social lockdowns, we’ve had both the time and the desperate desire to escape reality to commit to more dramas. So far, dramas we’ve finished include (but are not limited to): Hotel Del Luna, My Wife’s Having an Affair this Week, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim, and Crash Landing on You (twice).
Technically, K-drama just refers to a “Korean drama” and can therefore encompass a variety of genres. However, the majority we’ve watched are set in modern day and revolve around a central romantic relationship (with a few secondary relationships sprinkled in). At times, the development of this relationship can be extremely frustrating – especially when a lot of the conflict between the two characters could’ve been completely avoided if they had just used their words to communicate instead of occasionally saying the other’s name and looking sad while melancholy music plays in the background (Boys Over Flowers, I am looking at you). But I put up with this because K-dramas are also full of extremely soft romantic interactions à la Mr. Darcy’s hand flex in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, and I am a sucker for it.
You know what else I’m a sucker for? Zombies.
Zombies? It’s a no-brainer
I am a firm believer that everything is better with zombies – the only possible exception being this pandemic, as going out to the shops once a week for food is difficult enough without also having to worry about being chased by undead brain junkies (I suppose at least the anti-maskers would be safe).
But when it comes to books, films and video games, zombies are always a welcome addition for me. So it’s surprising that Kingdom, a K-drama and zombie thriller, sat in my Netflix watchlist for about a year before I watched it.
Kingdom is set in either the 15th or 16th century, during the Joseon dynasty. The crown prince has been accused of plotting against his father, the king, who is mysteriously ill with “smallpox” and hasn’t been seen for days. The only person who has any contact with the king is Cho Hak-ju, the chief state councillor and father of the new queen. In order to clear his name and get some answers, the prince flees south to find Lee Seung-hui, the physician who attended his father… and arrives just in time for all hell to break loose.
Now, I understand if the idea of watching a TV show about a strange virus that spreads uncontrollably from town to town, ripping apart the fabric of society as it does so, might hit a little too close to home right now to seem enjoyable. But in my opinion, the current state of the world actually makes Kingdom the perfect show to watch right now.
Still sceptical? That’s okay, I came prepared – here are my five most compelling reasons for why you should consider Kingdom for your next Netflix binge… zombies and all.
1. The Zombies
“You should watch this zombie media for the zombies” might not seem like the most compelling reason – particularly if you do not share my self-declared enthusiasm for the grave-defying gourmands – but bear with me.
In the 80-odd years since zombies first lurched their way out of the grave and onto our screens, we’ve come to expect certain traits from them. For example, zombies will spread zombieism via bites, can only be killed by blows to the head (or fire), and have the sole purpose of chowing down on as many humans as possible. These tropes are so established that zombie media doesn’t need to use the word “zombie” for us to recognise one (which is just as well as it almost never does).
However, in order to keep things fresh, zombie adaptations will often tweak or expand upon these expected traits. For example, some zombies slouch along, as in Shaun of the Dead, and some run full pelt, as in 28 Days Later (and I will be the first to admit that if a zombie apocalypse does happen and they can run, I probably won’t survive very long).
It is important to acknowledge that, as fond as I am of the decaying fleshbags, not all zombies are created equal. But on the scientific scale of “Tear my throat out, you festering carcass” to “I will eat my own brains if it means this will be over“, the zombies in Kingdom can munch on my trachea any time.
First of all, they’re really fun; they’re bloody and dirty and terrifying, and I can only imagine the actors had a whale of a time playing them. I realise that this may seem like a very surface-level analysis, but considering zombies are such an important part of the show, it wouldn’t be great if you just get thoroughly bored whenever they appear on screen.
Second of all, while they were fairly typical of the genre, there were a couple of things about these zombies that genuinely caught me by surprise. It’s difficult to mention the specifics without spoiling anything (although I will say that these zombies do run), but I really enjoyed how these traits not only added a new twist to the carnivorous cadavers, but directly impacted the story and the characters’ decisions.
And speaking of characters…
2. The Characters
Fleshed-out zombies are all well and good, but they’re only one part of the equation. For a good zombie story, you need to actually care about the people and root for their survival – otherwise, you may as well switch over to lions hunting zebras on the animal channel because at least that’s narrated by David Attenborough.
In my opinion, there are about five main protagonists in Kingdom:
Prince Lee Chang: While technically the crown prince, the new queen’s pregnancy threatens both his position and his life. The poor man is under a lot of pressure as he tries to juggle a potential coup from the Cho clan and a zombie outbreak, yet still manages to pull off an excellent character arc
Mu-yeong: The prince’s long-suffering yet faithful bodyguard who accompanies the prince on his quest even though it means having to leave his heavily pregnant wife back in the capital. He gives off very strong “middle-aged dad” vibes, but can (and will) cut you.
Seo-bi: A physician working at the clinic owned by Lee Seung-hui. She is by far the cleverest character out of the group and manages to keep her cool under shocking pressure. Corona would never stand a chance.
Yeong-sin: An ex-soldier and suspected tiger hunter who is so tight-lipped about his past that “Yeong-sin” probably isn’t even his name. He initially comes across as very harsh and jaded but is actually a massive softie.
Cho Beom-pal: The magistrate of Dongnae and Cho Hak-ju’s nephew. He starts off as comically ineffective, but ends up undergoing the biggest character development of all of them.
These characters are the show’s emotional anchors, and my desire for them all to be safe and happy was matched only by my desire to see the antagonists become the latest honorary members of the maggot parade.
In fact, I was so invested in all of them that I genuinely struggle with picking a favourite (that’s a lie, it’s definitely Yeong-sin due to his tendency to try and solve any problem by literally throwing his body at it).
3. Historical fanfiction
At this point, contemporary zombie stories are so prevalent that I think most people have some idea of what they would do in the event of a outbreak, even if they’re not zombie fans.
This also means that our general tolerance for characters acting stupidly or as if they’re unfamiliar with zombies is extremely low. Admittedly, this pandemic is proof that our expectations may be a little high when it comes to the level of common sense we expect from people – but we tend to have higher standards for our fiction than we do real life.
For example, shortly after I finished Kingdom, I was desperate for more zombie content, so I watched Black Summer. The show is set in modern-day USA wherein everyone turns into zombies once they die, regardless of whether they’ve been bitten or not. In the final episode, a lot of survivors were running through this big plaza, shooting at oncoming zombies with machine guns. Not only did the majority of them miss the zombies’ heads, meaning that the guns were essentially useless, but they managed to hit and kill other people around them – thus creating more zombies and the whole thing just turned into an absurd mess (and the worst thing was I couldn’t even be too mad about it because it was probably a very accurate portrayal of how a zombie apocalypse would play out in the USA today).
As I said earlier, Kingdom is set during the Joseon period at some point in the 15th or 16th century I don’t know enough about Korean history to make a judgement on the show’s historical accuracy, nor am I suggesting that the show is only good because of its historical setting. However, I do think that historical settings can bring refreshing, new perspectives to old stories and tropes, as the context of the time impacts everything from the character dynamics to the knowledge and resources they have at their disposal.
Also, without the historical setting, we wouldn’t have all the hats – and the hats are truly wonderful.
In short, there aren’t nearly enough alternate histories featuring classic horror movie monsters (and if no one will give me a retelling of the Black Death as a vampire invasion and the baker of Pudding Lane as a vampire hunter who purposefully starts the Great Fire of London to eliminate the blood-sucking threat, I will write it my damn self).
4. Second-hand adrenaline
I think it’s safe to say that this pandemic has not been particularly enjoyable for anyone (with the exception of billionaires, but I’ll get to that). Personally, one of the biggest impacts that corona has had on my daily life is the lockdown-induced inertia.
In order to limit the spread of infection, the majority of people are now (understandably) spending more time at home than ever. Before the pandemic, I might have thought that being cooped up all day would leave me bursting with energy – but the reverse has happened. Some days it’s enough of a struggle to summon the energy to walk down the stairs and check the post box, let alone change out of my pyjamas and go for a walk outside of all places. Even the 1.5 litres of black coffee my partner and I gulp down between us per day no longer makes my leg jitter uncontrollably like it used to.
So, sometimes, watching people run for their lives from a horde of zombies gives me exactly the adrenaline rush I need to get my daily tasks done. Maybe I’ll even have a little energy left over to put the kettle on again for another cup of coffee before I re-collapse on the sofa.
On a deeper note, there’s something strangely cathartic about seeing people fight against – what is essentially – the physical embodiment of a disease. As much as I do not think a zombie pandemic would be preferable to this one, at least zombies are a tangible thing that you can physically attack and fight back against (or would like to imagine yourself doing, anyway). Corona has had such a massive impact on our lives – and yet the only thing we can do about it is stay home.
Don’t get me wrong, social distancing is an active choice and crucial for fighting the spread of contagion. But it still feels pretty passive. Therefore, while I can’t physically fight corona, I can live vicariously through Prince Lee Chang slicing his way though hordes of the ravenous undead.
5. Eat the rich (literally)
At the beginning of the pandemic, corona was framed as a great “equaliser” of people: whether you were a billionaire or on benefits, your ability to be infected was the same.
However, as time went on, it became very clear that the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities that existed before. Just because we can all be infected with the virus does not mean that we all have an equal chance of being exposed to the virus, that we all have the same resources to cope with the societal impacts of the virus (e.g. job loss), or even that we will all receive the same treatment if we do catch the virus.
For example, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by around USD 75.6 billion since March 2020. Despite this substantial increase in wealth, Amazon is also facing increasing criticism for failing to sufficiently protect or compensate frontline workers in Amazon warehouses, and for being elusive about infection rates at its facilities.
Inequality is also evident in how the various rules impact people’s lives. In the same month that the NHS in London was in danger of being overwhelmed by covid cases, British influencers were flocking to Dubai on “essential work trips”. In December, British tourists went on skiing trips in Switzerland and then refused to quarantine when a new variant was discovered, even though you’d think that that would be something you’d be prepared for when choosing to travel in a pandemic. Not to mention the people flouting quarantine rules domestically by hosting mass gatherings or driving 260 miles across the country with your suspected covid-positive wife and child.
Obviously, the UK is not alone in this, and I could go on with more examples. But honestly, I’ve already had my 7.5 decilitres of coffee today and my blood pressure doesn’t need any reason to go higher.
So. How does this relate to Kingdom?
Before the zombies even arrive, the show goes out of its way to demonstrate a massive wealth inequality in the country, with the poorer majority living in slums and starving while the richer minority host exorbitant parties in their palaces.
When the zombie outbreak does happen, it is directly linked to this disparity.
Even after the first taste of chaos, the rich upper classes all pack their things onto a boat and sail away, abandoning the villagers to their fate.
Of course, the zombie outbreak in Kingdom is fictional. However, the schadenfreude I felt when one of the rich people decided to smuggle their zombified relative onto the boat with them, and that obviously did not end well, was very real.
In a way, it was therapeutic to see consequences for selfishness, particularly from the more affluent in society, who so often allow the consequences for their actions to be borne by the more vulnerable and less fortunate. This isn’t to say that the TV show made me feel better about social inequality, as nothing short of significant social reform will (or should) do that. But it did help alleviate the stomach ache I was getting from being so angry about it all the time.
Zom-be or not zom-be?
Zombies are scary because people are scary. We are scary. Whether we’re more terrifying to ourselves or each other is an open question, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s been going to the movies lately that we are telling a lot of scary stories about the future of humanity. Zombie stories are by nature dystopian. Zombies signify failure–of political will and social cohesion, of technology and medicine, of the human body and soul.Elly Blue, Pedal Zombies: Thirteen Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories
Kingdom sits so perfectly at the centre of my venn diagram of interests that I would’ve watched – and probably enjoyed – it regardless of the pandemic. But, it absolutely resonated with me more because I watched it in a pandemic.
Horror often gets a bad reputation for being overly sensationalist or needlessly grotesque, and while it can be those things, it can also help us to process our fears and anxieties in a safe environment. While I wouldn’t classify Kingdom as a pure horror show, it has enough horror elements to trigger that same response.
However, even if you aren’t a horror fan, I would still recommend Kingdom for the engaging plot, the well-rounded characters, and the sheer variety of amazing hats. It’s set far enough away from our current reality to still work as escapism, and there are only two seasons with six hour-long episodes each, so you don’t have to worry about vast chunks of your hair turning grey before you finish it.
So, the next time you’re stuck on what to watch on Netflix, give Kingdom a go – and then message me immediately afterwards and tell me which hat was your favourite.
(But please watch it in Korean with subtitles – you don’t need to put yourself through Netflix’s dubbing right now.)