The best Science Fiction series of 2009 lurches back from the grave, zombie-like, while NBC burns off it’s remaining unaired episodes. It’s strange to think that this was once considered the replacement for “ER,” before cooler heads prevailed. Just ten months ago, this show was eagerly, excitedly touted by the network as “The Next Lost,” and they gladly plunked down $4 million per episode on a twisty, turny, weird biblically-derived alternate history the likes of which American TV has never seen before. Nor, I don’t doubt, will we ever see anything like it again. Which is our loss, all our losses: the network, the viewing public, even the world if we factor in the overseas markets. Sad to see it walking-dead like this, lumbering from one grave to another, from hiatus to cancellation. It deserved better, and, once again, I’m annoyed with NBC - all too common in recent years - and their mad drive to outfox FOX in becoming the place where brilliant high-concept shows go to be brutally neglected and beaten to death by drooling troglodytes who call themselves executives.
But, shameful affront to genre, cast, crew and audience aside, “How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
I’m happy you asked: Pretty damn good, actually! Pretty damn good indeed!
PLAY BY PLAY
King Silas has a vision - his first in quite a while, and it’s all pretty and sepia-toned so we know it’s real. He finds himself in an autumn forest, leaves all around, carrying a knife. He awakes to find leaves at his feet in the bedroom, and immediately contacts the Reverend Samuels. Sam and Silas have had their differences even before God and Silas parted company, but Silas correctly realizes the portent for a portent, though he doesn’t know exactly what it means. Samuels augers the leaves, and says that Acacia is a sign of death and rebirth, new life coming on the heels of death. This is an end of something, but also the beginning of something new, and though he restrains himself at Samuel’s notion that the cost will be great, Silas is quietly and quite touchingly overjoyed that God is speaking to him again, at least tentatively. The rapprochement between King and Prophet is underplayed, but quite nice to watch.
From thence we follow a fairly standard plot structure that we don’t generally see in the show which takes a while to get going, but ultimately it works. Emissaries from Gath come to ask their new friend the King for a favor, meanwhile Princess Michelle is visiting the hospital to see how her medical reform is going, and finds that there are two quarantined victims of a plague that’s devastating the nation of Sidon. Steps are taken to contain it, but it’s super-bad mojo: universally fatal, and horribly contagious, though only for a 12-hour period. However, in that period, “Two people becomes twenty, becomes ten million.”
Gay Prince Jack and David are dispatched to Gath to give a diplomatic speech about the ongoing Port Prosperity handover, and then they vanish in to the woods on their real mission: there’s a Gathian terrorist called “Belial” (!) who’s attacking civilian targets within his own country. Gath is so serious about this they give Jack a detachment of troops in addition to his own red shirts.
Michelle, meanwhile, feels bad for the little dying boy in quarantine and exposes herself to the disease just to help him out. Jack and David’s op goes very badly, and they’re ambushed. The two of them escape, but the rest aren’t so lucky. They do, however, manage to complete the mission - despite all of his negative personality traits, Jack is a formidable opponent - and they manage to capture the terrorist. In the process, David discovers that all is not as it seems, and Belial is actually being supplied by someone in Gath for purposes unknown.
We cut back and forth between Michelle and the dying kid, Jack and David in the woods, and King Silas rallying his forces to deal with the plague. There’s a great scene when a vision impinges on his waking eyes, and he almost shuts it out reflexively, then realizes what’s going on and listens. The continuing re-alliance with Samuels works well, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit of “Hell yeah!” when he says “This is the Silas that I know.” The Evil Brother In Law even volunteers his services and asks for a new beginning to help the crisis. But how much of this is as it seems?
Belial refuses to give information, and Jack beats the hell out of him, displaying yet another unexpected side of him - he actually really does care about his men, and is furiously angry that they got killed by this bastard - and the terrorist eventually admits that he’s back by a Shilohian, who profits from war. All signs point to the brother-in-law of the king, and the King himself basically tells his wife that in order to save their children, the price will be greatest for her. In a surprisingly emotional scene, she clearly understand what he’s talking about and says effectively ‘you kill and you keep killing and then you kill some more, until our children are safe.’ Wow.
Silas orders General Abner to take out the evil brother in law, but there’s another portent. Of course we already know Abner is untrustworthy from a previous episode, but when he orders his own border guards to kill the prince, that’s when we know exactly how far he’s gone over to the other side. Bad stuff goes down, and David saves Jack yet again while Silas - who’s good with signs owing to hanging around with a prophet for 30 years - offs the general.
In the denouement, Silas in in church, clearly moved by his experience, the plague lifts with only 10 casualties, and Jack and David are clearly uncomfortable with their unofficial brotherly status. Michelle comes to visit David
This is very much a Prince Jack episode, and by golly if he isn’t the most interesting and complicated homosexual on television today! Seriously, if all gay characters on TV were portrayed like Jack - rather than the propagandistic way they’re generally used - I don’t think I’d have a problem with them at all. Compared to the occasionally-rakish horny bastards over at Torchwood, or the heavy-handed ‘we’re just like you’ crap on Trek, Jack is a complete and utter breath of fresh air.
He’s gay as a French horn, and very clearly uncomfortable with himself because of it. Primarily because - as his father points out - it’s inappropriate and makes him unfit for the throne, but also because - let’s face it - Jack is just a bit put off by himself as well. Coming in the shadow of Silas, it’s possible Jack would be uncomfortable with himself even if he was straight, but I don’t think that’s the real issue here. I think Jack is wonderfully conflicted on just about every level, with his orientation, with his outlook, with his sense of duty and his grudging admiration for David. This episode went a hell of a long way towards making Jack the second most compelling character on the show. He loves his men - he’s amazingly loyal to them, and up until now we just thought that was an act put on for the press, but no, it’s real. He fears David, but is gradually growing closer to him. When he thinks his uncle is the one behind Belial, he’s clearly very strongly shaken, and not *just* because that’s a road he nearly went down himself. He’s, frankly, a marvel to watch because - hey - nobody really wants to watch well-adjusted self-actualized beautiful people live lives of peace and propagandistic prosperity, regardless of their orientation. People want drama, and drama comes from “The human heart at war with itself.”
Obviously, Republibot is a republican SF site. We’re not subscribing to the whole gay rights agenda, and we’re particularly annoyed with the way studios have felt the need to bludgeon us over the head with it and force it in to the SF genre. Gay Prince Jack, however, is something remarkable on TV: he’s a person first, and a sexual deviant second, and it is impossible not to feel some compassion for him. He’s what every other show has claimed they want to do with their gay characters, but they’ve completely lacked the heft and facility to pull off.
As Johnathan and David are best friends in the bible, I was annoyed with the needless tension between the two in the early episodes, but now I get a sense for where all that was going, and had the show survived beyond episode 13, I do think the two of them would have become fast friends. It’s a shame we wont’ get to see that play out, because it’s dramatically interesting,and it’s being handled in a way that’s not at all cliché.
Much as I like plague stories, and as great a big ol’ slab o’ drama as Princess Michelle was given tonight, I don’t think the actress really pulled it off. This is surprising, as she’s generally impressed me on the show, a nice blend of girl next door and ‘the rich aren’t like you and me.’ Here, she struggles to connect, and though we know why she does and can sympathize, it lacks the emotional punch to really make as much impact as they want. Remember the episode of Babylon 5 where Delenn and Lannier go in to isolation with a bunch of plague-infected Markab, and at the end of the hour, the two of them are the only ones left alive? Remember the look of horror and shock on her face when she came out and saw Sheridan? That’s what they’re going for here, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.
Of course to be fair, with all the machinations going on with Silas and Jack, it’s easy to get overshadowed.
I have to say good things about Wes Studi as General Abner, too. I’ve always liked him, he’s one of my favorite character actors, with his great voice, strong presence, and unusual Cherokee looks, but tonight he was at the top of his game. Of course we knew he was not to be trusted for a while now, but I totally didn’t see this level of betrayal from him, nor did I see the resolution. When Silas killed him - using the very knife from the beginning of the episode - I was shocked. I’m not sure why, it couldn’t have been any other way, but still it was strangely effective, particularly when Abner/Studi grabs him as he’s dying, but not, apparently, to try and harm him. It’s strange, almost as if in murdering Abner, he’d redeemed himself in Abner’s eyes. Perhaps I’m reading too much in to it? Suffice to say that Studi’s absence in the show from this point on will leave a big empty spot. And of course, this is not how the Abner in the bible buys the farm, so we’re seeing some intriguing deviations from the source material.
This is the first episode, by the way, not to have our two idiot comedy relief guards in it. A wise choice, there’s just nowhere to shoehorn them in that wouldn’t be instantly distracting.
Also a wise choice to have David hang back and not be in every scene. The show is called “Kings,” after all, and we’ve got three of them here - Silas, David, and Jack. As Peter said the one time he got the girl on The Monkees 40 years ago, “It doesn’t need to be you every week, Davey.”
Name check: We now know another country in this weird world - “Sidon.” Now a large city in Lebanon, Sidon was a vastly important Phoenician city-state in biblical times. Thus far, virtually all of the place names in the show have been biblical. “Belial” is one of the names of Satan, by the way.
We get our first actual reference to the bible in the series tonight - Belial tells a version of the story of Cain and Abel, though he gets it wrong. He tells us that we’re all sons of Cain, we’re all murderers. He neglects to consider Seth, the son born to replace Abel, so humanity is half murderer, and half deliverer. I wonder if this was intentional, or just sloppy writing.
God is more Hands-on than we’re used to seeing in this series. He’s intimately involved in people’s lives - have they the eyes to see, and Abner clearly didn’t - moving history in some nebulous direction for an even more nebulous purpose. This presents a problem for a lot of people watching the show, who are used to a God who gets name checked at best, or is a bit more distant in an Enlightenment Deism sense. Many, of course, are simply uncomfortable with God being involved in something as mundane as a TV show, and there’s a valid point behind that. Unless handled really, really well, it smacks of disrespect. However this show is deliberately taking an intriguing and deliberately old testament track with it - well duh - the version of God we meet in this show clearly expects obedience, but He allows people to wrestle with Him in their consciences and in their hearts, and there’s something strangely liberating in that. Yes, God is God, and there’s no arguing it, He is worthy of respect and love, and all that stuff, but at the same time, we are talking about the very same God who wrestled with Jacob and who let Job argue with Him for days on end, who took the trouble to teach Jonah an object lesson when it clearly would have been easier just to get someone else to go to Nineveh. God is always going to do what He’s going to do, but He at least pays attention to us, confers with us, commiserates knowing full well that what He asks of us is hard.
By exploring that option, Kings has opened up whole new avenues of drama that have been closed off to us for far too long, and that, alone, makes the experiment worth doing.
In short, a brilliant episode of a brilliant show that makes the mistake of assuming the audience is brilliant, too, and gets kicked in the ass by fate and the networks as a result.
Sad. But entirely human. And in the end, despite all the posturing about God, this is the most fundamentally human show on TV, possibly the most human show that’s ever been on TV.