The ratings for the first episode of Kings were, well…'abysmal' would be one way to put it. Despite weeks of hype on NBC, the two-hour premiere landed with a sickening thud. And that's too bad, because episode two was absolutely terrific, maintaining the show's overall tone and highlighting all the things I loved about "Goliath". Judging from your reactions, you generally liked the show as much as I did, and reaction amongst most of my friends was the same, but that apparently adds up to precious few people watching, and those who did largely seemed to catch it on DVR, Hulu or some other digital medium, which may or may not be a good thing for the show's future. With a number of successful network and syndicated shows wrapping up this week, maybe Kings will find its audience, but by the time "Prosperity" was over, I couldn't help but be slightly pissed about the show being so damn good, because I can't shake the feeling that it's doomed.
I mentioned last week that one of the things I like about this show is that it takes the presence of God seriously, but not in a preachy or moralistic way — as a friend of mine put it, God isn't the source of goodness in Kings, he's the source of power, and if you seek His grace, it's because it's the only hold you have on your own kingly authority. Thus this week's episode starts out with King Silas and David, in a gorgeous set of shots, their destinies tied together with the phrase "don't go". David sees it in a dream, and his goal in this episode is to interpret its meaning; Silas speaks it to the heavens, thick with portentous birds, and he knows exactly what it means: he's begging God not to abandon him, and leave him bereft of power. The moral conflict of "Prosperity" will be whether or not David's dream is one that leads him to save his nation, or increase his own personal power, and whether Silas' entreaty is to preserve his station or do right by his people.
As the episode opens, we're treated to a nice montage of Queen Rose commanding her "army" — an ultra-efficient household staff that she lectures on the importance of their job in the enjoyable blend of Shakespeare and the KJV the show employs so effectively. She warns them of "battles lost for want of a dessert spoon" as the Court of Gilboa hosts the leaders of Gath in hopes of turning the temporary truce between the warring nations, secured by David in the pilot, into something more permanent. Meanwhile, the King himself takes tea, in one of many scenes reminiscent of the great, departed Deadwood, and — in a world where everything is an omen — has a bird shit on his saucer in a scene that's both funny and menacing. Of course, it's taken deadly serious by his counselor, Thomasina, setting up a running gag where the two bumbling security guards from the pilot attempt to chase off the birds of ill fortune. I hoped last week to see these guys again, and I wasn't disappointed — they provide a much-needed touch of humor, and function in the role of Shakesperian clowns in a pitch-perfect way.
King Silas, whose calculating nature becomes clearer every minute, has already decided that David is more of a threat than his popularity is worth, and arranges for his military chief of staff (played by respected Native American actor Wes Studi, maybe best known as the goofily enigmatic Sphinx from Mystery Men) to have him killed as soon as the peace treaty is signed. The only trouble is, the Gath contingent wants the man who authored the peace in the room when the deed is done. The king's brother-in-law William, head of the CrossGen corporation, is scheming to bankrupt the treasury in order to extend the war (and, by the way, this whole subplot still strikes me as trite and flat), but he's not the only one who doesn't want peace: the top Gath general — played by Miguel Ferrer, one of my favorite character actors, in the first of two fantastic debuts tonight — has no interest in ending the war and seems to have a special hate on for David, whom he constantly prods into doing or saying the wrong thing.
So David is sent for, and King Silas is blunt about the way he wields power, mentioning how he once had a trusted ally executed — perhaps trying to tip David off to his own fate if he doesn't play ball and do "what God wants you to do today". David's mother, who's in town to collect a death benefit for her oldest son, who died in the war, serves as a dramatically useful but unsatisfying oracular role, warning that she doesn't want her son to become an important person, because important people always die "old and unhappy or young an unfinished". You can't really fault writer/creator Michael Green for putting this aspect in the show, since it hews closely to the Biblical story, but the scenes with David's mother were amongst the only ones in this episode that didn't work for me.
While the peace process drags on (and starts to go wrong, as Ferrer's General Malick objects to some language in the treaty slightly altered to Gilboa's benefit, claiming that it's through such subtle lies that Silas built his kingdom — another one of the hints at the rich backstory the show is quietly teasing out), there's more intrigue in the royal family: Queen Rose is shocked, and more than a little disappointed, to learn that her daughter Michelle isn't running a game on David, and bad-seed son Jack takes his loyal military subordinates on a shopping spree. At first, this seemed like a dud to me; it came off on screen as a dopey makeover-montage sort of thing. But soon enough, the layers became clear: first, that Jack is building a loyal private army; and second, that he knew his credit card — backed by the national treasury — would be declined, and he could cast doubt in front of dozens of reporters, at the health of the economy, just as he had planned it with William.
One of the nice bits about this episode is that when things go wrong with the treaty, David interferes in a hot-headed way, but the script is careful not to tip us in one way or another what his motivation is. It's important that the show do this, as David must eventually be revealed as something less than a perfect hero. Is he simply a decent, patriotic kid who wants his brother's sacrifice to mean something, or is it his ego that won't let the peace process fall apart, for fear that it'll take him out of the spotlight? It's nicely ambiguous, in contrast to the leaden obviousness of the CrossGen machinations, which don't even get the gorgeous Jamesian eloquence — the cliched envelope full of cash has none of the grace of the prophetic scenes involving the bigger players, and William's man on the inside even gets corny dialogue ("the King is scary quiet, the way he gets") instead of the beautiful speechifying granted other characters.
Still, William's plan must be dealt with, and after a tense confrontation, the king dashes off to a secret prison in the countryside to meet with his mad predecessor and former King of Carmel, Vesper Abbadon. (Take that, Lost!) Delightfully played by Brian Cox, Abbadon is one of the leaders Silas defeated during the Unification Wars that made Gilboa into a superpower, and Silas has allowed the world to think he was dead, when in fact, he's been in isolation for decades, scrawling lunatic nonsense into chapbooks and acting as the one advisor Silas can really trust. Their scene is an outstanding recall of the ones they shared together in Deadwood — it's a treat to watch two great actors who love to play off one another really go at it. Silas proves to the old man (who it's hinted was a sort of brutal, Saddam-Husseinish figure in his day) that he has no equal as a schemer, blackmailing him into giving up his country's long-lost wealth by showing him an enigmatic photograph.
With William's power play in ruins, Queen Rose advises her brother to back off completely in exchange for the possibility of his estranged son Andrew being allowed to return to court. (I'm guessing Andrew, who we have yet to see, is the long-promised Macauley Culkin, and may also be the product of the incest plotline McShane has hinted is coming.) King Silas also gets his daughter to back off of David by reminding her of a mysterious vow she once took. And the peace treaty is finally signed — thanks to some dramatic showboating by David, but also some clever maneuvering by Silas. He makes an offer to the leaders of Gath that will set up future conflict, make David look bad in the eyes of General Malick, and yet get David even further on his side, allowing him to forestall the popular war hero's assassination (in a crazed finale that brings the bird imagery of the show's opening full circle as well as provide a funny capper to the subplot with the security guards). Silas is orchestrating power plays that even he doesn't fully understand.
I thought this was another fantastic episode — in a lot of ways, even better than the pilot — but there's an edge of frustration I just can't shake. I don't think Kings is going to last, not only past its first season, but maybe not even long enough for those 13 episodes to air. So the better it gets — and if the first two episodes are indicative, it's going to keep getting better — the more annoyed I'm going to be when it disappears. The show is so skillful at teasing out revalations about the rich backstory of Gilboa and its royals, and so clever at setting up future conflicts and plot twists, that it's just going to make it hurt worse if we don't get a chance to see them come to fruition. Enjoy this one while you can, folks — like King Saul, it's got an air of tragic doom to it.
- We're really getting what was only hinted at in the first episode: a lot of gradually leaked-out bits and bobs about the alternate history and timeline of Kings-world. There were great subtle reveals in the scenes with Miguel Ferrer and Brian Cox, and they definitely hint at a pretty rich degree of world-building on Green's part. For all the good it'll do.
- The language in this show is really quite amazing. It's often based on Biblical phrasing, and has a Shakespearian rhythm to it, but it's also quite unique — it isn't written in petameter, and it takes enough liberties with the Bible's language that it makes the lines its own. There were a heap of great lines in this one: King Silas telling David that "the health of the kingdom depends on the good air in my lungs", Jack's lieutenant scoffing that the king "doesn't know a fig from a fart", and Vesper Abbadon saying to a stressed-out Silas "there's a black weight over your head — it looks like a squid."
- It's probably pointless to engage in such speculation for a show that could be cancelled by April, but are y'all up for some Noel Murray Lost-recap-style clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories? Namely: what were your favorite moments of Biblical fanservice this week? What was Michelle's vow to her father? What's up with William's son Andrew? And what was the photograph that Silas showed to Vesper Abbadon to get him to give up his gold?