The motif for this episode was definitely chess. It’s not coincidental that military strategists have historically been good chess players, or that the game itself draws so heavily on the phraseology and indeed mindset of war (and the reverse is also true, actually) – the type of thinking involved is not at all dissimilar. But we rarely see the connection demonstrated so directly as it was in this episode of Kingdom. An Asian mind might be taken to thoughts of Go or Shogi, but a Westerner like me goes directly to the 64 squares.
This side of the battlefield is the last to get any major attention from the narrative, but it quickly becomes the center of the Kingdom universe. When we last left it, Wang Jian had just given Bi a field promotion to 5000-man
Sucker General, with orders to lure Wei’s Jian Yan into an enclosed valley with only one narrow escape route. I mentioned death flags for My Man Bi last week, but one way or another it was certainly clear that Wang Jian wasn’t playing his entire hand with that move. He’s the supposed conventional half of Meng Ao’s vice-general team, the scion of the elite military family, but it’s clear from the way he presents himself that Wang Jian is not a conventional thinker.
One of the common elements of chess is of course to sacrifice pieces – sometimes even highly valuable pieces – as part of a cleverly-laid trap for the enemy. So what came about here wasn’t a total surprise by any means, though Bi certainly didn’t see it coming. “He’ll make a good decoy” Wang Jian says of Bi – and that’s exactly and only what Bi is to him. The name of the game on this side of the battlefield is how many moves you’re capable of thinking ahead – and when Jian Yan’s reinforcements appear from out of nowhere and seize the high ground that Bi was so reluctant to give up (as good generals always are) it appears he’s pulled off the gambit that will finally raise Bi’s death flag for good.
That’s when things start to get really convoluted – one might almost say comically, as there is a bit of vaudeville to the way each side keeps popping up and trumping the other – but these things have happened historically when the truly great minds meet in battle. The next to spring the trap is Wang Jian, who reveals that he’s been playing his own gambit and an astonishingly clever one, too – from the very beginning his battle with Jian Yan has been an effort to hide his true strength, and to manoeuvre the center of the action to the part of the board he’s prepared. In fact Wang has stashed much of the strength from his disappearing headquarters forces in close proximity to the canyon, waiting only for the moment to use them. The most interesting part of this sequence comes as Wang Jian offers Jian Yan a chance to surrender and swear fealty to him – an offer it never seems likely he’s going to take, even before he looses an arrow at Wang Jian like a fart in his general direction, a gesture that seems like the last derisive act of a man who’s accepted that he’s about to die.
My read on this is that Jian Yan was genuinely surprised that Lian Po showed up when he did – I got the sense that he was genuinely upset with himself for being outsmarted by Wang Jian, and impressed with the way it was done. Either way, the big dog has finally entered the fray – the biggest name in this war and maybe the greatest general in the world now that Wang Qi is no longer in it. Rather than a quadruple-bluff to trump Wang Jian’s triple-bluff, I think Lian Po improvised this – he sensed what Wang Jian was doing and jumped into the fray, perhaps sooner than he’d intended. But he’s lost one of his Four Kings and very nearly another in Lun Hu, and he may have simply decided he didn’t have the luxury of sitting back and planning strategy any longer. One can assume Lian Po wouldn’t personally step onto the battlefield unless one of two things were true, and probably both – the situation is desperate, or he thinks he can strike a decisive blow for his side. The preliminaries are definitely over – it’s time for the main event.