The Long Plot, Sans Spoilers
A physician and his assistant are led into the palace in secret in the middle of the night to treat the king, but his majesty's mysterious illness is revealed to be more nefarious when he viciously attacks the young assistant.
It turns out Lord Cho Hak-Ju (Ryu Seung Ryong), head of the Haewon Cho clan and the king's top advisor, and his daughter, the young queen, has been keeping the king's condition a secret, telling everyone in the palace that his highness is dangerously ill from smallpox and making sure no one, especially the crown prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon), is allowed to see him.
Because of the king's prolonged absence, people in the kingdom have begun to speculate that the king is actually dead and the Haewon Cho clan has seized power. Lord Cho Hak-Ju orders the arrest of those suspected of being responsible for spreading what he and his family claim is #fakenews. They torture the prisoners in the hopes that they would implicate the crown prince as well.
Desperate to find out what has happened to his father, the prince convinces his personal guard to sneak into the royal infirmary and steal the physician's journal, which keeps a meticulous daily record of the king's health.
That night, as Lee Chang awaits his personal guard's return from the infirmary, he decides to do some snooping himself. He sneaks into the king's palace, and overhears the guards say that the king is missing. As he makes his way to find his father, a hideous foul-smelling beast shows up. Before he could confront the creature (or before it could eat him), it disappears. He is quickly discovered by the commander of the royal military (who is also the son of Lord Cho Hak-Ju because, yes, evil runs in this family) and unceremoniously kicked out.
His personal guard returns with the journal, but the mystery only deepens when they find that the royal record on the king's health stops abruptly after a brief note that what ails his majesty has no cure.
His royal guard then notices a name, Lee Seung-Hee, in the journal's last entry and points it out to the prince. The young royal recalls that he is a retired palace physician. Believing that Lee Seung-Hee knows the truth about what happened to his father, the crown prince decides to look for him. Road trip!
He and his personal guard sneak out of the palace and head to Jiyulheon, the village where the old physician is from. When Cho Hak-Ju learns that the prince has left, he sends his son and the palace guards out to go after him.
Meanwhile in Jiyulheon, people are sick and starving. Seo-Bi (Bae Doona), a young female physician, and her companions are in over their head. The people have nothing to eat and the medicine is not working. At her wit's end, Seo-Bi cannot wait for Lee Seung-Hee to return from the palace.
When the old doctor finally arrives, they are all shocked to learn that Dan-I, the young assistant who was attacked in the palace, is dead. Lee Seung-Hee offers no explanation. He seems troubled and preoccupied, and immediately holes up in his cottage to do some research.
Young-Shin (Kim Seong-Gyu), a young hothead whose backstory and identity will remain unestablished in season one, is in Jiyulheon, too, to receive treatment for his injuries. Unable to sit by and watch the people wasting away from hunger, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
When Seo-Bi returns from gathering herbs and medicinal roots in the forest, she is surprised to see the villagers eating heartily. She finds Young-Shin cooking what he claims is deer stew. But when Seo-Bi picks up the ladle to taste the soup herself, she is aghast by what she discovers, and confronts Young-shin about what he has done.
Soon everyone who has eaten the stew becomes violently ill and dies. But within seconds, they come back to life and violently attack everyone in Jiyulheon.
The next day, the young prince arrives at the village. It looks like a scene straight from a medieval horror show. Undeterred by the bloody bamboo spikes that greet them, he and his personal guard make their way inside, where they a find a grim scene: the dead bodies of the townspeople all piled underneath the huts.
He orders the local magistrate to move the corpses and investigate what has happened. When Young-Shin, who has apparently gone out to fetch more bamboo shoots to fortify Jiyulheon, and Seo-Bi, who has been looking for a plant that's supposed to help cure the people, return, they are horrified that the bodies have been moved out into the open.
They tell a disbelieving crowd that those people are not dead, that they should burn the bodies before the sun sets or the corpses will come back to life and start attacking them. Naturally, nobody believes them. But when night falls, the entire town finds out the hard way that they were telling the truth.
It quickly becomes apparent that a strange and terrifying disease is threatening to spread across the kingdom if the crown prince, his personal guard, Seo-Bi, and Young-Shin fail to find a cure or contain the outbreak.
It dawns on Lee Chang that this is related to his father's mysterious illness and absence in court, and that the Haewon Cho clan knows something about it, and may even be behind it all.
The Short, Honest Plot
The king has been MIA for a while and the people are getting restless. The press release from his top advisor and the queen, two of the most powerful members of the Haewon Cho clan, is that he is seriously ill with smallpox. Nobody can corroborate this as no one has been allowed to see him, least of all his son, crown prince Lee Chang.
Speculation that the king is dead and the clan is keeping it a secret isn't far from the truth. To claim the throne, the pregnant queen has to keep up the charade until she gives birth to a prince who will have a more legitimate claim to the throne than Lee Chang, whose mother was a concubine.
The crown prince isn't about to roll over and admit defeat. He is determined to find out what happened to his father and yes, secure the crown. In his search for the truth, he meets Seo-Bi, a young female physician, and Young-Shin, a man with a mysterious backstory. The two are witnesses to the first zombie outbreak and attack. In fact, Young-Shin is directly responsible for the disease's mutation and contagion.
Together they embark on a mission to find a cure for and contain the spread of the disease, and of course survive the zombies. In the process, Lee Chang hopes to discover the truth about his father and what the Haewon Cho clan is up to.
The Actors And Where You Last Saw Them
K-drama fans may remember Ju Ji-Hoon from his debut performance in 2006's wildly successful Princess Hours, where he also played a crown prince, except, y'know, without the zombies. His most recent project prior to starring in Kingdom was 2018's true crime movie Dark Figure Of Crime, about a series of unsolved murders in Busan.
Those familiar with the work of the Wachowskis will recognize Bae Doona from Sens8, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. In 2018, aside from the final special episode of Sens8, she also starred in Matrimonial Chaos, a K-drama about a couple trying to make marriage work in this day and age.
Kingdom is his first K-drama series, but he has done previous works in movies. The most recent film he starred in was The Accidental Detective 2: In Action.
Ryu Seung Ryong
This veteran Korean actor starred in the critically-acclaimed tearjerker Miracle In Cell No. 7 in 2013.
Did You Know?
1. According to an article on Korea Portal, Song Joong Ki was initially offered the role of crown prince Lee Chang but the actor turned the part down, reportedly to focus on his then upcoming wedding to Song Hye Kyo.
2. Geek Culture shares that the show is actually based on a webtoon called The Kingdom Of The Gods, which was also penned by Kingdom screenwriter Kim Eun-Hee.
3. Kim Eun-Hee revealed to Soompi that the idea for a live-action Kingdom had been brewing in her head for a while. "Kingdom is a production I've been thinking about since 2011, when I was writing the second half of Sign. I wanted to take modern-day fears and horror and put them in a Joseon era setting."
4. AllKPop reports that during an interview with the press at a café, Bae Doona shared how thrilled she is with the global response to Kingdom, saying, "I am greatly satisfied that the response to the show reflects the time and effort we spent making it. I had anticipated that it would do well, since it was going to premiere worldwide simultaneously, and I'm happy because the response overseas, or with my foreign friends, is better than I expected."
5. Unlike most Korean dramas, which come in a single season made up of 16 to 20+ episodes, Kingdom only has six episodes and will be a multiple-season series. In an interview with Variety, director Kim Seong-Hun says, "Kim Eun-hee, the writer of the series, is currently working on the new season, aiming to go into production in February 2019. The plan is to renew the series annually." Sounds like we're in for a long wait, Kingdom fans.
What My Friends Think:
"I got really excited when Netflix came out with Kingdom, and I'm glad it did not disappoint. There's already so many zombie flicks, and after a while, watching them can become pretty tiresome. Kingdom, on the other hand, gave a spin to the genre by putting the flesh-hungry undead in a period setting. The political conflicts added more to the tension and gave viewers time to catch their breath. Can't wait for the next season!" —Sunshine Selga Funa
"One episode into Kingdom and I already know it's my kind of show. It has all the elements that make up a successful series: a handsome leading man, the loyal and funny sidekick, an evil queen, political intrigue, and family drama. Throw in the zombies and dial up the eww factor, and there you have it—the K-drama I didn't know I needed, but really, really did." —Mariel de Jesus
"When it comes to the zombie genre, Kingdom is like a breath of fresh air. It's set in the Joseon era, so no scientists, no labs, no experiments, no billionaires who 'want to discover a cure for profit,' or government-run facilities. It also has GOT feels, with a bastard prince protecting his people from an undead invasion. I enjoyed the whole series because it was a mix of scares, comic relief, action, and suspenseful chases that made me scream and jump. Six episodes wasn't enough. I hope they make more than 20 episodes for the next season. And I hope the king escapes so he can devour the queen regent. I hate her." —Irish Glori Alvarado Galon
What I Think:
Just when I thought I've seen every incarnation (or reincarnation, as it were) of the zombie genre, Kingdom comes along like a zombie virus and breathes new life into it. Not that the zombie genre is dead. The success of The Walking Dead and Train To Busan has proven that. But Kingdom offers something new that's sure to surprise even diehard zombie fans who've seen it all.
Instead of being set it in a post-apocalyptic world that's triggered by a zombie outbreak, Kingdom is set in the medieval Joseon dynasty. Like most historical K-dramas, this one is fraught with political intrigue. The usual tropes are present: the scheming palace advisor who is using his daughter, the queen, to take the throne from a crown prince who has yet to step and grow into his role as the rightful leader of the nation. Except this time, the prince's growth process is going to involve zombies.
And the breed of undead on this show is terrifying. Closer to the Busan than the Walking Dead zombies, these guys are so fast, they could qualify for—and win the gold at—the Olympics. At one point, when our heroes were being chased by the zombies, I actually screamed "Ruuuuuuuuun!" at the television, clutching my sister's arm so tight I left nail marks. You'll know which scene I'm talking about when you watch it.
The zombie rules are different in Kingdom, too. If you think "been there, done that," prepare to be surprised. The cliffhanger at the end of the season, the big reveal where they change the rules of the game on you, will blow your mind. I swear I gasped audibly.
Whenever we take a break from the zombie action, we switch to historical drama mode. And no, it doesn't slow the story down one bit, because they managed to make the political intrigue just as gripping. I may have seen the big reveal about the queen's big secret coming a mile away—your probably would to, the clues are not that subtle—but it wasn't any less satisfying. The bit involving the pregnant wife of Lee Chang's personal guard, for example, came as a shock. I'm very concerned for her and her unborn child's well-being. Someone please save her in season two.
Speaking of the prince's royal guard, the funny banter between them, though unexpected is not out of place in a K-drama. It's a welcome respite I didn't know I needed. When it all but disappears as the season progressed, I kind of missed it. Although I get it; it would make it hard to keep a consistent tone and may start becoming intrusive if they kept pushing it. I hope we see more of it though in the second season.
The actors on the show inhabit their roles completely and effectively. You become invested in the lives of our heroes, wanting them to survive and win. You are intrigued by characters whose motives are not yet clear (We're talking to you, Young-Shin. You, too, Lord Ahn Heyon). You detest the villains completely and can't wait for them to get what's coming to them. And the horde of zombies instill the fear of God in you.
As more and more K-dramas are made available for streaming on and produced or co-produced by Netflix, it's clear that the Koreans have brought their A-game, coming out with shows and genres that are unique, original, and appeal to a more global audience. I'm very, very impressed.
I'd Recommend It To:
Kingdom offers even the most seasoned and diehard fans of zombie genres something new and different. It reinvents the genre and reimagines the zombie rules. It offers K-drama fans something different from what they're used to watching. If you're neither a zombie fan nor a K-drama fan, I'd still recommend you watch the show, because simply put: It's great entertainment.