What Netflix’s ‘Kingdom’ Reveals About Modern Society and Human Nature9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
I think a major reason why we fear zombies is that we could be just like them, if not for our free will. Of course, their monstrous and ravenous behaviour is terrifying, but there’s something about the loss of personal agency that’s even more unimaginable.
The undead in pop culture have always represented different kinds of fears, from communism, globalism to even nuclear destruction. But what do these things have in common? Humans. They’re all man-made phenomena with the initial goal of improving human lives before eventually turning destructive. They become monstrous entities that can wreak havoc once we lose control of them.
It’s clear why the zombie is such a prolific symbol of fear in pop culture. Yet, there’s still much to be said. Netflix’s Kingdom addresses the moral and political decay that inevitably come about because of human greed. Put simply, this has made humans into moral zombies.
Kingdom contains a convoluted web of characters and conflicts, as is usually the case with political dramas. So, here’s just a rundown of the characters that I’ll be talking about in this article.
Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) is the Crown Prince of the kingdom and is the current heir to the throne. His claim is contested, however, as his now deceased mother wasn’t of noble blood. Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun) is currently pregnant with the King’s child, who would threaten Chang’s right to the throne. She and her father, Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong), are both plotting a scheme to overthrow Chang and thus have their family in the highest position of power in the court. As complicated as this is, we’ve only scratched the surface.
Spoilers for Kingdom Seasons 1 and 2 ahead.
The Insatiable Hunger for Power and Wealth
Political corruption has always plagued society, and the Joseon period (around the 16th century) is no different. During this time in the show, Korea is ruled by a diseased monarchy, led by power-hungry politicians who pay no attention to their civic and moral duties. While the country is ravaged by poverty and hunger, the nobles sit comfortably in their ivory tower.
The mysterious plague first appears to originate from the working class. Their starvation pushes them to unwittingly consume the flesh of another human, which is believed to be the cause of the disease. The metaphor being made here is pretty clear – they’re in such destitution that they’ve been completely dehumanised. Their hunger has made them animalistic.
But animalistic hunger goes beyond just the physical. And this is precisely what Kingdom reveals to be the scourge of the entire society. Selfishness and greed for power led to a moral decay, which eventually becomes the source of the whole kingdom’s downfall.
When the King dies before the birth of the queen’s new son, the Cho family summons a physician to resurrect the monarch to ensure that Lee Chang cannot take the throne from them. But instead, they’ve created a ravenous monster – the King is patient zero. With the disease originating from the heart of the kingdom, this becomes symbolically significant of the corruption from within.
What comes from this greed is an aberration of nature. Hak-ju himself gets bitten, and I’m sure the parallel between his moral depravity and the zombie infection isn’t lost on us here. What’s even more significant is that Hak-ju doesn’t succumb to the disease and somehow survives. Yet he ironically (or perhaps befittingly) dies by his own daughter’s hand.
The Cho’s plan hinges solely on the queen bearing a son. So when it’s revealed that the queen has actually been faking her pregnancy, her position is gravely threatened. In order to keep this secret, she poisons her father to guarantee her own authority in court. Again, greed gets the better of her humanity. Ultimately, she is also infected by the disease and dies from it.
I think this political corruption points to something more existentially tragic. Yes, it’s human nature to want to secure our own comfort and stability. There’s even some research showing that humans are naturally selfish. But there comes a point where these lines are crossed, where humanity ceases to exist.
Zombies are essentially mindless creatures, whose sole purpose is to consume those who were once their own kind. Removed from any form of consciousness or morality, the undead’s only motivation is to gratify their hunger. Zombies are spawned from the capitalistic avarice of the rich. Put simply, it’s because of the moral deterioration that the kingdom is in such mayhem.
It’s first believed that the zombies would only prey at night, and that they feared the sun. The people were able to rely on daybreak for some refuge from the zombie attacks. But the grave revelation that it’s actually the temperature that influences the zombies couldn’t come at a worse moment. Winter is drawing near. There’s no repose to be found in a world of political and moral decay.
Just as the zombies are devoid of humanity, so are the nobles devoid of morality. And without moral values, what sets animals and humans apart? The physical decay of the masses only reflects the moral decay of the nobles.
Perhaps it’s also worthy to note the fact that there’s no apparent cure for the disease (as of the end of season 2). The disease doesn’t see social standing – it doesn’t matter who’s high or low born. These corrupt nobles can’t be protected by their ivory towers anymore, their status means nothing. Some people, however, appear to be immune, including the Crown Prince Chang. There’s a comparison to be made here, where avaricious men are doomed while those who are inherently righteous may be the key to salvation.
That the King becomes patient zero of the pandemic is significant, particularly given the beliefs of the time. The power of monarchs is believed to be legitimate with the Mandate of Heaven, that they have the right to rule because the gods willed it. The spread of the disease, because of the King at that, seems to suggest that they’ve lost this divine authority because of their moral corruption. The royal legacy is poisoned, no longer fit to be the rulers of the people.
Prince Chang isn’t like the other nobles. Although he’s the king’s son, he’s an illegitimate one. And maybe that’s precisely what the kingdom needs in order to remedy the existing corruption within – a systemic change.
He’s always made it clear that he doesn’t want to be like the other aristocrats, who would much sooner abandon their subjects than to break a drop of sweat. Chang’s motivation to protect his claim to the throne, on the other hand, is essentially for the greater good. It’s as if this genuine sense of responsibility to the people that ‘protects’ him from the disease.
With Chang being the hero of this story, it may be easy to say that his moral standards are unrealistically flawless. Nevertheless, Kingdom reveals the ambiguity of morality. Ethics is a convoluted and complicated system where the answer to whether something is right or wrong is never really clear. Indeed, Chang’s record isn’t exactly spotless. His decisions have led to the deaths of many of his subjects, and that of his own father’s.
But what makes a good leader is the ability to make difficult choices for the common good. Chang even relinquishes his position as the rightful heir, something that he’s been protecting his entire life, in order to investigate the origin of the disease in the hopes to completely eradicate it. While the rest of his contemporaries run away from the disease (only to be infected anyway), Chang is in pursuit of it. His immunity to the disease functions both like a gift for his selflessness, as well as a shield. He’s the perfect person to save his kingdom.
Essentially, Kingdom to me reads as a cautionary tale that’s especially pertinent for our current times. The consumer-based society that we live in isn’t too far off from the state of affairs in the Joseon dynasty. There aren’t literal brain-eating creatures roaming around the streets, but modern capitalism could just as easily be a threat as zombies are. Such an environment is a fertile breeding ground for materialism and megalomania.
Catch the first two seasons of Kingdom now streaming on Netflix.