(“Kingdom” and its class-conscious zombies)
By Adrian Moore
Zombies mean something, right?
Monsters usually do. Supernatural and otherworldly creatures often mirror real-life anxieties, providing us with an opportunity to explore both personal and societal fears in a thrilling and, ultimately, safe space, and in contemporary horror fiction it’s hard to find a more ubiquitous monster than the zombie. Films, TV, comics, video games, all are constantly awash with our decomposing friends, to the point where their underlying meaning is often taken as a given, with most discussion devoted to more practical matters, like how quickly each version moves, how easily they are dispatched, and what euphemistic name they’ll be given this time (because received wisdom states that the minute the protagonist actually calls them ‘zombies’ it takes us completely out of the action).
In recent years, however, I think the zombie has been slightly depoliticised. In their earliest mainstream incarnations, like the films of George A. Romero, they are often reflective of a political distrust of mass movements and groupthink, from the stated parallels to revolutionary movements in Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the pointed critique of consumerist brainwashing in Dawn of the Dead (1978), which is literally set in a shopping mall. Many of these aspects still remain for the most part, but toned down. The Dead Rising video game series, for example, still maintains the mall setting of Romero’s masterpiece, but the satirical edge is somewhat dulled in favour of a more absurdist humour, like making madcap weapons out of lawnmowers and cacti.
The focus that has instead been taken in most 21st century depictions of zombies is, I think, more to do with aimless or despondent (male) protagonists taking control of their lives and becoming leadership figures and heroes, with zombies taking the role of external barriers to self-fulfilment. Shaun of the Dead (2004), 28 Days Later (2002), Zombieland (2009): all are stories of men taking control of their lives in the face of an apocalypse, a metaphor for the onslaught of finding meaning and personality in adulthood. The Walking Dead series, this decade’s most present zombie story, may occasionally explore larger ideas about rebuilding society, but at its core was still for a long time the same story: a man reclaiming his manly leader role, both in a larger group and in his fraught domestic circle. Even the rom-com Warm Bodies (2013), which has a zombie protagonist, is still ultimately a story about a man asserting his sense of self.
And in many ways, so is Kingdom, the 1500s-set Korean political zombie drama, now on its second season with Netflix. But under the surface, I think Kingdom is doing something a whole lot more interesting with its zombies. It’s bringing the politics back.
Kingdom, which just released its second season, is primarily the story of crown prince Lee Chang, whose father the king has taken mysteriously ill. Chang is denied visitation by the new, pregnant queen, whose family is attempting to use the king’s illness to secure their position of power over Korea, and so the prince, accompanied by his bodyguard, is forced to leave the capital to track down the king’s personal physician in order to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, anatomist Seo-Bi (Cloud Atlas’ Bae Doona) is attempting to keep a small, poor village running when her master, the king’s physician, returns with a dead assistant in tow, sparking a chain of events which will lead to the entire region becoming overrun by zombies. The show follows the prince, the physician, and their entourage as they fight off hordes of monsters and soldiers from the villainous Haewon Cho clan, desperately trying to save the people of Korea and reclaim the throne.
What the show ends up with is a very entertaining blend of Game Of Thrones-ey political intrigue and action horror. It’s well acted, written and designed, and with only 6 episodes per season is a very digestible watch (It also has the best hats. Like, so many hats). The thing that probably doesn’t come across in the above synopsis, however, is that the show has an acute sense of class, particularly with how the zombie outbreak might disproportionately affect different groups, and I think it achieves this effect in a few ways. I’ll be including detailed spoilers for the first season with minor references to season 2.
Take Kingdom’s portrayal of food. At Seo-Bi’s home of Jiyulheon, the villagers are starving, and so in episode 1 the enigmatic hunter Yeong-Shin secretly steals the body of the dead assistant and uses it to prepare a stew. The villagers are so starved for meat that they don’t question its origin, and everyone who eats is, of course, zombified, inciting the overall spread. But the show itself, while never excusing the action, portrays it more as a tragic, horrifying mistake than simply an aberration. Yeong-Shin explains that eating whatever meat could come to hand – including human meat – was necessary for his survival, a story we infer is not uncommon in this world. Indeed, food is often portrayed as a luxury very unevenly distributed, in pursuit of which characters are often driven to extremes. We see magistrates obliviously feasting metres away from starving locals, Even Lee Chang’s relationship to food develops: he initially forces his bodyguard Mu-Yeong into loyalty because he catches him stealing uneaten desserts for his pregnant wife – effectively using food as a weapon over those who can’t afford it – but as he grows increasingly aware of and sympathetic to the plight of people, his first real act of generosity is sharing meat with a group of commoner children.
But of course, what do zombies do? They eat. They have no other motivation, they mindlessly and violently consume and will never be full. I think there is something very striking about depicting a population needlessly starving, forced into situations largely beyond their control into becoming creatures who will devour all things. Y’know.
Eat the rich.
Unlike many zombie stories Kingdom is very concerned with exposing the origin of its monsters, which plays into its political bent. Seo-Bi’s main arc over the course of the show is attempting to find a cure for the disease, and through her we begin to learn that while the cause appears to be a plant hidden in the mountains, its dissemination is entirely due to human action. It turns out that the queen and her father, the powerful lord Cho Hak-Ju, secretly fed the king this plant, transforming him into a zombie. Over the course of the show they cover up their tracks, burning evidence and secretly feeding him low-born servants, while the disease spreads wantonly, barely touching them. The peasants and the zombies alike are pawns in the machinations of the wealthy. In times like these, where there is still an entire class of politician and commentator for whom politics is a game to be won or lost, while real people outside of their bubbles needlessly die to starvation, disease and austerity, that parallel is hard to avoid. In particular, the show explores this dynamic not only through Lee Chang’s personal growth, but particularly through another character: Minister Beom-Pal.
Beom-Pal is probably my favourite character on the show. He’s cowardly, stupid, and easily swayed, and when we first meet him he has just been made Magistrate of the city of Dongnae by his uncle, Cho Hak-Ju. Every step of the way, he mishandles the zombie crisis, initially dismissing it, making concessions to the wealthy in his response, and then repeatedly abandoning the people he needs to protect. For example, in the aftermath of the BRUTAL zombie attack on Dongnae (we’ll get to that) the question arises of what to do with the zombies’ bodies, who essentially go comatose during the daytime. While the sensible answer is clearly to burn all bodies to prevent further attacks, a wealthy woman dissents: her son, a great soldier, is one of the zombies now, and to her mind he deserves a proper burial. Beom-Pal’s answer? Only burn the peasants, bury the wealthy bodies. It’s heavy handed, but it does help to enforce this sense of overwhelming class-stratification. It also leads to the bitterest of ironies: When Beom-Pal and the other patricians abandon their citizens by boat that evening, the woman brings her son’s corpse with her on the ship. It breaks loose, killing almost everyone on board.
Beom-Pal, however, survives, and his arc becomes a really fascinating one. How will he navigate his devotion to Seo-Bi (who previously saved his life), his duty towards his family (who are causing the crisis), and his duty to the people he should be serving? In Beom-Pal’s constant back and forth between positions we see a really clear manifestation of the idea that the wealthy have true, iron-clad class solidarity that is extremely difficult, but essential, to unlearn. His struggles between right and wrong are sympathetic, yes, but that’s not why they’re interesting – his motivations stem from the selfish desire to protect the one commoner he finds worthy, and the question becomes whether he will ever be devoted to a larger movement rather than just one person he happens to fancy, because only then can he truly be a force for change.
But as interesting as I find these ideas, if I’m honest it wasn’t any of these that first alerted me to the show’s class consciousness – it was the zombie attacks themselves, and particularly the first half of episode 3, depicting the fall of Dongnae.
It’s hard to make zombies feel as overwhelming and brutal as they have been in the past. They’re thoroughly demystified at this point, and rarely scary. But there was something utterly chilling about the approach Kingdom takes that I found hard to watch. The first 20 minutes of the episode play out in part as a series of short scenes showing the carnage from every perspective. Some fishermen getting overrun as they bring in the night’s catch; a young man being eaten as he tries to warn his ailing father to run; a woman hiding one daughter in a box before turning into a zombie and eating her other daughter. Really upsetting stuff. But through the scene you see each district of the city, from the fancy stone buildings where a man screams ‘The peasants are attacking us!’ as he runs away, to the dirty, muddy hovels where the ordinary citizens live. Class is baked into the imagery of even the wildest action scenes. The brutality feels particularly harsh in poorer districts, because the victims are children and the elderly – more vulnerable people we don’t often see attacked in this kind of fiction because it’s usually too upsetting. Then we see survivors, including Lee Chang, running to a military base for protection, where they are denied entry by a wealthy man who has essentially commandeered the soldiers. He threatens the terrified masses with arrows until they are overrun by yet more zombies. It’s a harrowing scene, mostly devoid of even the thrill of watching zombie fights, because the show takes pains of showing people with different levels of defencelessness, giving the whole event an air of unfairness. Zombies are meant to be indiscriminate – that’s always been the case – but here we are shown how even a force attacking indiscriminately will impact more vulnerable groups harder, and of everything that Kingdom attempts to explore, this is the idea that I think is the most cutting, the most vital.
Because, not to put too fine a point on it here, this is what we’re seeing right now in the face of COVID-19. This is a disease that can and will affect anyone. Wealthy, poor and everywhere in between, people are going to suffer. But we will not suffer equally, and the truth is that the small protections provided by wealth and class are what really make the difference. Have you been laid off? Good luck buying food. You an essential worker? Well looks like you’re not avoiding human contact then. Do you have the means to stay at home, get deliveries, stockpile? The virus might be indiscriminate but it’s far less likely to hit you than someone else. Even access to testing has been regularly determined by wealth and class. And, somewhat by accident, Kingdom has provided me in the midst of all this uncertainty with the means to rationalise how folks might be impacted by an unstoppable force, whilst also giving me the light escape of seeing that force be batted back by badass Korean dudes with swords.
If Kingdom fails in its political dimensions, it’s partly due to the constraints of genre. We might have sympathy for the victims of the zombies, but the zombies themselves are still a mindless horde we wish destroyed, which somewhat undermines its humanist messaging. But I think the show is more often successful than not. The setting is part of why: most zombie stories are set long after the outbreak, where contemporary power structures have already eroded and are replaced by more extreme, distant societies from our understanding. Setting an outbreak where recognisable structures are not only intact but also clearly delineated, as they were in Joseon Korea, allows for those parallels to be far more explicit. Class is present both in text and subtext in almost every scene, and is impossible to ignore. But I also think that the show succeeds because, despite its primary hero’s journey story for Lee Chang, its treatment of the zombie attacks suggests a more collective storytelling style, where the zombies are terrifying but are only the effect of subtler power plays over ultimately meaningless titles, and which cause damage to some more than others.
Kingdom, like the best zombie stories, shows us that the real enemy isn’t the zombies themselves. But unlike those other stories, it tells us who that enemy is: the wealthy, the greedy, and the structures that benefit them. And in times like these, I think that’s a message we could afford to hear a lot more often.