The scope of Kingdom continues to widen, and with it the already bewilderingly large cast (which is like two casts, given that everyone has two different readings of their name). Zheng’s challenge seems to have set the series on the course it’s destined to follow for a long time – the ticking clock is now the prime mover of the plot, and with it Xin has five years to make himself the full general Zheng needs to be his standard-bearer on the battlefield when the shit with Lu Buwei really hits the fan.
This being Warring-States China, that means making a name for yourself on the battlefield. It also means there are ample – if finite – opportunities to do so, and a large number of climbers looking to do the same thing. That in turn means the enemy might not always be the opposing army. The stage is the looming war with the smaller state of Wei – the war that Li Mu’s truce made it possible for Qin to pursue in peace, so to speak. Knowing the urgency of Xin’s quest, “My Man” Bi makes his first appearance of the season – coming to the front lines to give Xin a heads-up that war with Wei is coming, and he needs to position himself to take advantage. Bi sees Xin as a younger brother, and that pretty well sums up their relationship – he’s had Xin’s back more times than I can count already, and Zheng wouldn’t have reclaimed his momentarily worthless throne without Bi’s assistance.
As large as the cast is, what Kingdom hasn’t had up to now is a true rival for Xin. We’ve had friends, potential love interests, enemies and antagonists, and mentors galore – but not another young warrior with talent and ambition trying to occupy the same space as Xin. Enter Wang Ben (Hosoya Yoshimasa), leader of the Yufeng Unit. He seems to fit the bill in every way – he’s talented, well-positioned, fiercely ambitious and if all that weren’t enough, a relative of Wang Qi. Frankly, if anything I think Wang Ben is a little over the top – he’s unbelievably arrogant and aristocratic, dismissive not just of peasant soldiers like the Feixin Force (whom he derides as ants) but also Wang Qi himself, who seems to be from a less prestigious branch of the family. It’t a bit too easy to hate him – he’s a straw man more than a real character at this point.
That said, his first confrontation with Xin on the battlefield was a real humdinger, and it definitely had my blood boiling almost as much as Xin’s. During one of the early pre-battles with Wei they both have the same idea – sneak behind enemy lines and take the enemy General’s head. But Wang Ben’s elite mounted unit gets there first, and all Xin’s boys see when they arrive is a ruined camp full of dead Wei soldiers. Every move Wang Ben makes seems calculated to piss Xin off as much as possible and put him in his place (as he sees it). And there’s no doubt that a nobleman like Wang would be inclined to be condescending and dismissive towards a ragged bunch of farm boys like the Feixin. Wang seems not to be a paper tiger – there’s some bite there along with the growl, and he’s not going to be pushed aside easily.
It’s impressive the way Kingdom is taking great pains to show the myriad aspects of life in a state of perpetual warfare. The horror of combat itself, the intensely competitive nature of the military, the political struggles in the back rooms and palaces, the strategists – all are part of a larger fabric of a society that’s dependent on conflict. We’ve barely scratched the surface historically – the biggest enemies haven’t even been introduced yet, and the series is doing a good job of showing just how monumental the challenge facing Zheng is. It’s also doing a much better job with the animation this season, happily – the show looks an order of magnitude better than it did for most of the first. Kingdom was always a series that had an enormous amount of potential based on the quality of the writing and cast, and we’re really starting to see it realized now.