This article contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Kingdom.
As we move into the second year of the COVID-19 nightmare, people have already begun to speculate about when the inevitable wave of “virus outbreak” movies (probably already in production) will hit us. Films that will satisfy the cathartic urge to see our year of collective suffering reflected back at us while we process the lessons that were learned along the way. Well I’m here with an announcement: there’s no need. Pack up production, save your money. Because we already have Kingdom.
Who would have thought that the most urgently relevant TV show to our struggles this past year would be a zombie show set in feudal Korea? But somehow, that’s where we find ourselves.
This Korean thriller hit Netflix in 2019, and at the time of writing is two seasons deep. It tells the story of a young prince trying to find out what happened to his father the king, whom royal officials are mysteriously keeping under lock and key. We soon find out that daddy has been turned into a zombie by the royal doctor, acting under orders from the pregnant young queen to keep the king’s recently-deceased body “alive” — even by horrifically unnatural means — for another month or so. Just until she gives birth to the king’s son and consolidates her grasp on power. Of course, the king’s “condition” turns into a viral plague, and proceeds to spread faster than you can say “no one could have possibly seen this coming”.
If there’s one thing that Kingdom knows very well, it’s that the last thing a great zombie flick is about is the zombies. The undead hordes are just a way to force the survivors to breaking point, and to see what breaks first — and what that says about us. Zombies have been used to shine a light on everything from human selfishness to male rapiness to domestic violence. But Kingdom takes aim at class inequality and political corruption, telling a story of the government failing its citizens and pursuing its own ends, even as a deadly virus ravages the land. And boy does that pack a punch in 2021.
Kingdom is also well aware of zombie tropes, and cleverly inverts them to draw attention to societal issues. In the very first episode, we witness both a beheading and cannibalism (staples of the genre) — but the outbreak hasn’t even begun yet. Instead, the beheading was for treason, and the cannibalism was a desperate act of starvation by the residents of a hospital waiting to no avail for the government to send provisions. The message is clear: this society was monstrous well before the first shambling corpse began to claim its victims.
As is often the case in zombie fiction, the way that the virus spreads is both extremely preventable and also painfully inevitable. The first victim’s dead body is dumped at a hospital, and all that needed to happen for the outbreak to be prevented entirely was for the body to be buried as planned. But one of the starving patients cooks the dead man into a stew and shares it round. Overnight, one victim turns into twenty. In a playful use of the flesh-eating zombie trope, the patients eat human flesh — and only then become zombies. When the resident nurse exclaims, aghast, “How can a person eat another person?”, she’s not talking about the walking dead. She’s referring to what these people, driven to desperation by a society who has let them down, have already become.
The desperation of ordinary people also played a role in the spread of COVID-19. People in insecure and low-wage work have always been at higher risk of catching and transmitting the virus, because they cannot afford to take time off work and are less likely to be able to work from home. Here in Australia, the constant low-level horror of 2020 was punctuated by a disastrous outbreak of COVID-19 in aged care homes. This is no coincidence, considering that a substantial amount of aged care work is casualised, with paid carers commonly working multiple jobs to make ends meet, travelling between shifts at different workplaces, and working while sick due to poor sick leave entitlements. And so, it was both extremely preventable and also painfully inevitable that a small number of cases, which might otherwise have been contained, spread like wildfire.
It would be overly simplistic to say that Australian aged care workers, or Italian taxi drivers, or American grocery store employees, or the poor cannibals in that Korean hospital, are to blame for the spread of the virus. Instead, we should ask why they felt they had no choice but to turn to unsafe practices in order to survive, unintentionally helping the virus to devour society’s most vulnerable citizens when they all should have been, well, eating the rich instead.
Speaking of the rich, Kingdom gives the ruling classes an unrestrained lashing for their selfishness and cowardice in the face of looming danger. Time and again, government ministers protect themselves from the zombie threat at the expense of the lower classes. The city walls are closed, and survivors seeking refuge are shot down from above. One official literally uses a poor nurse to shield himself from a zombie, a gut-wrenching reminder of the medical staff risking themselves every day to keep the rest of us safe.
It always seems to be the poor on the frontlines, while members of the upper crust find shelter and protection. This cuts a little too close to home after this past year, a year when we experienced a pandemic that hit marginalised communities particularly hard. A year when some of the world’s largest corporations reported massive profits while their executives hunkered down in their million dollar mansions. A year when CEOs pocketed bonuses while their employees were forced to continue risking exposure in unsafe conditions. In a year when grocery store workers, medical staff and delivery drivers kept us alive at risk to their own safety, it’s more clear than ever who the most valuable members of society are — and it’s not the guys with the fancy hats.
This past year, we saw how a global crisis can bring people together in solidarity to demand the creation of a more fair and equal society. We also saw how willing some were to use social divisions in an attempt to convince us that certain people were just not worth protecting — to declare that 60 year olds should be happy to die rather than to see the economy reformed, that roving migrant workers are to blame for their horrific predicament, and to virtually ignore the impact of the pandemic on other vulnerable populations.
Kingdom is not exactly subtle about depicting the absurdity of this obsession with status and power over basic human decency. There is one scene in which villagers are fleeing a horde of ravenous flesh-eaters. A nobleman gets attacked, and another exclaims, horrified, “These peasants are attacking noblemen!” As though the class rank of the humans being devoured is the most important part. As though it wouldn’t have been so bad if the victim had been a filthy peasant.
Contempt for the poor has a way of being exposed in a time of crisis. Some politicians have revealed themselves to be more preoccupied with victim-blaming — with making distinctions between those who deserve to be poor and those who don’t and stoking outrage for imagined welfare mooching— than in actually providing leadership during a human catastrophe. In Kingdom, as the political elite escape town on the only ship out of the zombie-infested village, they leave behind a swarm of people begging not to be abandoned. “They should do something instead of just whining”, says an official. The word “bootstraps” seems to hang heavily in the air despite there not being an era-appropriate Korean term for it. The poor must deserve what they’re getting. They should have had the good sense to be born into a wealthy family.
This scene is also an embodiment of a broader mindset on the part of the rich and powerful, one we see all the time — a lackadaisal attitude to crisis born of the knowledge that when things get bad, they’ve got a get-out-of-disaster-free card made of money. When a crisis strikes, they won’t die of respiratory failure while waiting for a hospital bed. When the seas rise, they won’t be left homeless. When extreme weather events hit, they won’t be left shivering — or burning — to death. They will be the ones safely sailing on the ship out of town — not those left on the pier.
It should be said that Kingdom can be thoroughly enjoyed on a basic zombie-survival-thriller level. But it also offers a surprisingly hard-hitting reflection on what we’ve all been through; what we’re still going through. And even though the show is ostensibly about dudes in fabulous hats lopping off zombie heads, it’s not hard to see where its focus really lies — you only need to look as far as the title. In making sense of the year that was, Kingdom shows us where we should direct our attention—to the very structure of the society we live in. And even though I’m ready for our own collective nightmare to be over, I can’t wait for season 3.
Youtube: Pixel a Day (www.youtube.com/pixeladay)
Other published work: https://intothespine.com/2020/10/12/in-search-of-the-blue/