There’s no question that Kingdom sports some of the finest writing of any series in the past year. It stands out like a sore thumb for a multitude of reasons, that being only one: as a sweeping military/political epic it really feels like something from another time. They just aren’t making many anime in this style these days, and haven’t been for a while. It also has a bewilderingly large cast of characters and that combined with the sweep and breadth of the plot can make it a bit hard to follow at times, but when it sets its sights narrowly as it did this week Kingdom can be especially brilliant.
Kingdom is a series about war, no doubt about it, but this episode was about a different sort of war. There are a lot of subtleties in who the good guys and bad guys are in this show, which is suitable for a Warring States era when everyone was trying to subjugate everyone else. Who you saw as the good guys and the bad guys depended on where you were born and where you ended up. We saw two of those nebulous characters front and center this time – Li Mu and Lu Buwei. Buwei has been an uncertain presence since he was introduced, a merchant from Zhao who rose to become the greatest power broker in Qin. His “Four Pillars” all hold influential roles in Qin’s government, and Buewi’s interests clearly don’t always coincide with those of his young King.
Then there’s Li Mu, the brilliant military strategist who says he hates war and ended up as the Prime Minister of Zhao. His brilliant campaign to bring down General Wang Qi earned him the enmity of all of Qin, but from his perspective Mu was acting in the interest of the greater good. These two men have their fates drawn together, but hardly by accident – Lu Buwei has kidnapped a young man apparently close to Zhao’s King and insisted Li Mu come personally to negotiate his release. The whole thing is a complex plan which even Buwei’s Four Pillars seem to be in the dark about, but what’s most striking is the way Zheng and Changwenjun are powerless to do anything but rage helplessly as Buwei’s machinations unfold before them.
This episode is basically an epic staredown between these two brilliant manipulators, though Lu Buwei certainly holds the advantage. He clearly chose his target because he knew the erratic King of Zhao would demand Li Mu come to Qin, effectively putting his life in Lu Buewei’s hands. The extended faceoff is really brilliant, start to finish – from the first moments of small-talk it’s packed with tension and the potential for mayhem. As Xin and Qiang Lei (invited by Lu Buewei’s military commander Changping, who apparently knows nothing of Buwei’s true plans and intends to use Xin as an assassin if needed) look on, the two titans verbally test and spar with each other, with the stakes being Li Mu’s life. The only leverage he has is the diplomatic damage Qin would suffer if Li Mu were killed on a diplomatic mission, but he offers more – a plan whereby Zhao and Qin would temporarily ally in order to allow each other free reign to subdue strategically important and weaker kingdoms.
This sounds like a pretty good deal to Changwenjun – but Lu Buewei demands more, the surrender of Hangao, a huge and strategically vital castle Li Mu has been building. He presents it to Li Mu as a drop-dead decision – either take the deal or I kill you. Li Mu acquiesces – and at least superficially, it appears the genius who outflanked Wang Qi on the battlefield has been outflanked by Lu Buewei at the bargaining table. I’m not convinced he doesn’t yet have a few tricks up his sleeve, but it’s easy to see the benefits of the overall truce arrangement for both sides. Meanwhile Xin must swallow his rage as he watches the man who caused the death of Wang Qi declared an ally of Qin – for the nonce, anyway. And it’s a hard lesson for him, too – that the real power lies in the throne rooms and back halls of palaces, and the land his men claimed with their spilled blood can be given and taken with the spilling of nothing more than ink and wine (and I expect to see both spilled next week). At this stage the story is in many ways that of the education of its young heroes (I think even Li Mu could be included in that) – most especially Xin – and the events of this episode were a crash course.