It says something about the breadth of Kingdom and its versatility that it can change gears completely and leave its main character behind without losing a step. It’s the nature of this series that characters are going to disappear for a while, because there are simply too many pots simmering to do them all justice in any given week – the stove in question is Warring States China, after all. But while that can be frustrating, this show handles it better than most because it does a better job of establishing every thread, both in its own terms and for its important to the overarching plot.
This episode reminded me of the earlier ep this season featuring the showdown between Lu Buwei and Li Mu – a reminder that sometimes to fiercest battles are fought in palaces and not on battlefields. The combatants in this case are Zheng and his mother the Queen Dowager, the “third force” in Qin politics that everyone justifiably fears. There are three Princes who historically support the Dowager, and collectively their support could be crucial in any struggle for power in the kingdom. But the Queen obviously represents a classic “poison pill” scenario – the cure may be worse than the disease. If you accept the support of the Dowager faction, you may be unleashing something terrible that you cannot control.
It goes deeper than factionalism in this case, though. Just as I was thinking poison pill Changwenjun spoke aloud the danger as he saw it – the Queen Dowager is “venomous”. There’s an ugly history between she and her son, and she seems to have become a truly cruel and dangerous woman. This was pretty heavy backstory – she and Zheng were hostage in Zhao until he was nine years old. They were subject to terrible abuse both physical and verbal – she speaks of “dirtying” themselves in order to survive, the implications of which are left to interpretation – and now each avoids the other at least in part to avoid painfully reminding themselves of those days. And the fact that she apparently snapped and tried to murder her own son makes Zheng’s reluctance to see her understandable to say the least. There are someone – a woman named Si Xia – who took it on herself to protect Zheng, apparently, and is the reason he’s not just alive but sane. The Queen apparently had no one to fill that role for her and has become a bitter, dangerous woman.
The way she manipulates Zheng and his court (with the aid of one of her eunuchs, Zhao Gao) is quite artful. She sends him a letter using the official seal – an act of treason in itself – and the letter is blank. This sets the court off on a mad frenzy of speculation: is she declaring her neutrality? Is she declaring herself unreadable? There seems to be some of that – but there’s also a simple desire to mess with Zheng’s head, and it’s quite effective. She gets what she wants – he comes to see her, alone, and eventually gives her what she’s really after. That’s a bowed-head plea for her help – an abject surrender by Zheng, effectively. Maybe this is enough to satisfy her illogical personal vendetta against him, but I certainly wouldn’t trust her a bit. But this illustrates just what an untenable position Zheng is in: without her help, he’s badly outflanked by Lu Buewei. And if she supports Lu openly, Zheng’s position is utterly hopeless.
It seems that next week we’re going to get a flashback – perhaps in the form of Zheng relating a story to Xiang – which will likely shed some light on his rescue and the role of the mysterious (and likely deceased) Si Xia. It also promises a return for Wang Qi (a hugely welcome development) who was presumably the one who rescued the King and Queen Dowager and brought them home. Zheng’s “relationship” with Xiang continues to be a strange thing – she comes to his bed every night and he ignores her unless she speaks to him. The fact that she serves in the Queen Dowager’s “palace of women” can’t be totally coincidental, though if she’s a spy she seems to be quite an unwitting one. I’m curious more than anything just what Zheng wants out of the relationship – perhaps he’s simply lonely enough to be desperate for someone next to him, even if no words (never mind anything else) are exchanged between them. The Queen Dowager may show his scars openly, but it’s clear she’s not the only one who was damaged by their experience in Zhao.