Watching Kings since its end-of-the-line banishment to Saturday night has been a lesson. For one thing, I'm late again; I'm hardly the most hardcore viewer in our little TV club famalam, but this has been a definite reminder of why prime-time Saturday is referred to as television's great burial ground. For another, viewing the show knowing that it's cancelled has thrown a chilly sheet of cold-water fatalism over it; no matter how good it gets -- and it's gotten quite good indeed -- it's hard to get too excited over something you know is going nowhere. In fact, it almost leaves you wishing Kings had sucked for its final installments; that way, it wouldn't be so frustrating that there's no more of it.
That's the essential tragedy about serial storytelling in general, and American television in particular, though. A novel or a movie may be good, or it may be bad, but at least it ends. A television show always runs the risk of being canceled before it has a chance to tell its story; while a show that outstays its welcome and lasts a season or two longer than it should may be annoying, one that simply vanishes in mid-story because it can't make the ratings is downright maddening. And in this regard, Kings has been particularly difficult to watch, because it stars Ian McShane, who gave such a hypnotic performance in Deadwood -- another show that ended at least one season too soon, thanks in part to poor ratings.
So much for the saddest words of tongue or pen, though. Kings is gone, and it's very likely never coming back. Its creators did a very surprising and often rewarding thing, though, by convincing a major network to air show with so many intriguing -- and downright uncommercial -- ideas. If this is the last of what they left us, let's make the most of it.
"The New King, Part 2" picks up after a hell of a tense cliffhanger last week; after old Silas went down in a hail of bullets, half the kingdom was set to step into his royal brogans, and the other half was set to oppose them. It turned out there was life in the old bear yet, though, and that's where the series finale (or season finale, depending on how hopeful you are) picks up. In order to drum up support for his profitable war, William Cross is spreading propaganda that the 'assassination' of King Silas is the fault of Gath; meanwhile, Prince Jack's loyalists are turning up dead and he knows who's behind it. "My father is still alive, and his teeth are sharp," he says nervously, while Cross advices him to grow some stones and take what has been so clearly given to him. In answer, Silas' voice is broadcast on shortwave radio, assuring the nation he is still alive and reminding its citizens repeatedly that he is the one chosen by them and by God to rule Gilboa. He ends with a chilling threat: "Like an earthquake, I will come."
Jack laments that after all these years of wishing that he would have a chance to rule the country, now that it's happening, he feels bereft, because "He" is not there to tell Jack what to do. Jack is speaking of God, of course -- this entire episode hammers effectively on the theme established in Episode 1 that, to these people, God is not an abstraction, but a living entity who gives favor, who makes decision, who can be allied or opposed -- but there's a nice ambiguity in that you can read the scene as if he's referring to Silas. Reverend Samuels says that God does not take counsel with sinners; Jack insists that if he's allowed to become king, he can undo all the evil that's been done, but Samuels assures him he'll never have that chance.
This fatalistic prophecy seems to make Jack -- who, really, is the tragic hero of Season 1 -- finally resign himself. The next time we see him, he's made a decision about what kind of king he'll really be: the first minister to raise an objection to the legitimacy of his rule is rewarded with a bullet in the back of the head. Jack threatens the same for his mother and sister, but loses his nerve at the last moment when Michelle stands up to him in full view of the cabinet -- a move which infuriates her mother, who says she has to stay alive because of the child she carries.
In their boondocks hideaway, Silas and David gravely discuss strategy over glasses of the hard stuff. Both are resigned to the fact that they'll likely be killed when they make their move against Cross and Jack; David insists that if he does live through the day, he knows Silas too well to stand by his side any further, and should victory be theirs, he's done with the royal family and its machinations. Silas, meanwhile, doesn't find it miracle enough that he's still alive; he's convinced that God has stopped speaking to him, stopped dabbling in "the back-and-forthings of we tiny men". He offers God some booze, and dares him to show his power by doing what a breeze or a toddler could do and tip over the glass. Turning away, he sighs, "I guess we're on our own"; we, of course, see the glass on the floor seconds later.
Things are happening apace back at the palace; the crown has disappeared, but Cross ensures Jack he can be be inaugurated with a duplicate -- or, as Jack thinks of it, a false crown. Rev. Samuels has deserted the premises and refuses to give the benediction, so Cross -- still confident, but with signs of nerves beginning to show -- sends soldiers to "fulfill his expectations" and murder the good Reverend. Jack steps outside and has visions of the cheering, manic crowds at his father's coronation; at his own, there are merely grim-faced guards and soldiers.
Samuels, as the benediction progresses without him, gives a touching confession before God; echoing the language of the benediction, he shakes with emotion while running down a list of his sins, and begs only to live long enough to see his wrongs righted. It doesn't seem like that will happen, though, as he's gunned down by Cross' loyalists.
Outside the palace, there's an untrustworthy look on every soldier, a fear that every one is ready to deliver a bullet in the wrong direction, as, mid-coronation, Silas finally appears. Gliding down the city street as if walking on water, he insists that the soldiers stand down; Cross commands them to open fire. While Silas brings the firepower in his voice, David backs him up from behind, guiding a battalion of Goliath tanks from Gath to the palace, shaking the very foundation of the city. His words are gentler, promising peace if the violence ends; in the end, the soldiers stand down, and Silas once more seizes the reigns of power in Gilboa.
In conference with the cabinet, he demands to know the whereabouts of Cross and Jack: "I ask once more with words, and then blood." Jack finally appears, and, in a devastating illustration of the way that this most religious of shows refuses to let itself be straitjacketed by religion's simplistic morality, delivers a heartbreaking assessment of his own doomed prospects: "You said I couldn't be what I was. God said I couldn't be what I wanted. There's nothing left for me but to die." Silas picks up his false crown like it was a curl of dogshit and promises there are worse things than death in store for his son.
Andrew Cross, meanwhile, betrays his father in a hot minute, displaying his extremely convenient sense of morality and obligation. "When I came back," he oozes, "My father said 'Watch and learn'. I did. I learned who should be king." He then offers to take the place of the fallen Jack, and Silas and Rose exchange glances that betray no sign of whether they're really going to take this viper into their bosom.
In the finale's only truly weak scene, Silas (after a nice little scene with Rose, in which she responds to his thanks for eternal loyalty by asking for carte blanche to put things right with those who collaborated -- and those who didn't) heads to the rooftop during a storm to hear God finally speak to him; God, not surprisingly at this point, tells Silas he's done and that David is to be the new king. The scene is necessary and, indeed, has been building all season, but it's carried out in a pretty hokey way, ending with Silas yelling to the heavens in trite dramatic fashion. I know this scene needed to happen; I just wish it had happened in a subtler way.
Finally, the dramatic confrontation between Silas and David that's been building since the show's debut comes to pass. David, who has already prepared to go back home, is summoned before the king, who confesses that God has chosen the young man to take his place, just as he was thus once chosen. David at first claims to be shocked, but Silas explodes with rage when he finally admits to a visitation from God. The canny old king knew it was coming, and tried everything he could to short-circuit God's plan; "I doubt I could have escaped the traps I laid for you," he says. The two finally fall into a deadly brawl, in a scene taken straight from the source; Silas responds to David's would-be soothing words with a thrust from a fireplace poker, and makes the fateful decision that if God opposes his rule, then he will oppose the rule of God. "Shameful, the two of you, laughing at me!" he bellows, which would seem insane if we didn't know how real God is to all of these people. David flees, his face streaked with blood.
David finds Michelle in the temple, and the two are visited by the shade of Rev. Samuels, who apparently has gotten what he wanted from God, albeit post-mortem. He declares the two married in the sight of the Lord, but their enjoyment is short-lived; David must flee to Gath, he says, the one place where Silas cannot reach him, and Michelle cannot follow, as the risk is too great.
In the end, our young protagonists are all in a bad way. Jack's fate worse than death is to remain in his cold, loveless marriage until he produces an heir meant to replace himself; Michelle becomes the first victim of the cold-blooded Queen Rose's purge of the disloyal, stripped of her rank and privileges and sent into exile; and the last we see of David is him fleeing across the border into Gath -- followed by one of God's royal butterflies.
- Well, that's it, folks. The DVD comes out on September, and that's likely the last we'll see of this excellent but doomed series. It's a shame we won't see more of it -- as cliffhangers go, this one was pretty damn good, and there's a whole lot of story left to tell with these characters, as anyone who's read the Old Testament can tell you. But at least it gave us 13 episodes of surprisingly good television; just the fact that a show this strange was able to make it on the air is odd enough, and the fact that it was worth watching was odder still. I think we may have been the only folks watching it (last week's ratings were Kings' second-lowest ever), but it's been a pleasure getting to share it with you these last few months. Thanks for reading.