Kingdom opens ominously, with two attendants walking across a Joseon-era Korean palace’s courtyard to bring the king his meal. Once inside, the older attendant warns his young companion not to look into the king’s bedchambers while passing the food underneath the curtain. The young attendant can’t resist, and when he opens his eyes he’s dragged under the curtain by a snarling beast. It’s a dread-filled scene that grabs your attention, but Kingdom also uses that moment to set itself apart. Most zombie shows are centered around characters thrust into survival mode without knowing what caused the outbreak in the first place. In Kingdom, the original zombie is not just a known entity, he’s also being tended to by a royal staff.
The rest of the intro reveals a lot of information in a short amount of time. A group of scholars has been posting flyers that the king is dead and it’s time for Crown Prince Lee Chang to ascend to the throne. But there’s an issue: Prince Chang’s mother was a concubine, and his current stepmother, Queen Consort Cho, is very pregnant. Her family has seized power with their new royal status, and they’ve rounded up and tortured these scholars to find out who’s behind their support of the prince. Meanwhile, Prince Chang has grown suspicious, and decides to find out the truth about his father’s mysterious recovery from smallpox.
If that sounds more like a Game of Thrones plot than a zombie show, well, you’re right. Kingdom is really, at its core, a political thriller set in medieval times. The zombie stuff, well, that’s just part of the politics — until, you know, it isn’t.
The brilliance of Kingdom is that it doesn’t rely on twists and aggressive plot machinations to drive the show forward. The core conflict is laid out in 15 minutes flat: The king is a zombie, the queen is pregnant with his baby, and the queen’s family has seized power that would be threatened if the crown prince were anointed as the new king.
It doesn’t take much to realize who’s behind the zombification of the region’s ruler — but knowing the truth isn’t the same as proving it. Kingdom follows Prince Chang as he tries to collect evidence that he’s the rightful heir while avoiding the Cho clan’s guards, who are actively pursuing him. That alone would make for an exciting show. And then, of course, there are the zombies. As Prince Chang leaves the palace to find the doctor who treated his father, he discovers something even more terrifying: The king bit one of the doctor’s young assistants. We all know how that goes.
With a tight two-season story written and directed by Kim Eun-hee, Kingdom plays out its political games in conjunction with a growing zombie threat. It’s gripping, smart, and subtle, pacing its story in snippets of dialogue for viewers to stitch together. It’s also full of incredible action, painful suspense (characters in the daytime walking over dormant nocturnal zombies under floorboards, etc.), and truly terrifying horror: Victim by victim falls to brutal isolated zombie attacks, until a proper horde grows big enough to assault the entire royal city. Kingdom is truly an equal mashup of two different genres, and the fact that it’s done so well feels like a miracle. Just be prepared for things to get gnarly — two guards are beheaded in the opening sequence for being traitors, and if that’s the sort of violence that’s unleashed in a human-to-human conflict, just wait until the undead come into the picture.