Let me lay out a scenario. You’re stuck inside and scrolling through Netflix in search of something to help you forget that you’re stuck inside and scrolling through Netflix, and the algorithm gives you a choice:
You’ve got warriors with swords strapped to their backs. You’ve got the word “kingdom.” Promising so far! But which should you watch? Both have released new seasons since you started self-isolating. Both are classified as violent period pieces, and both are rated TV-MA for, among other attributes, language and gore. Both are shot and produced outside the United States. Both have been dubbed the “perfect” show to binge after finishing Game of Thrones. This isn’t helping you pick. So you seek the wisdom of crowds, but both boast 90-plus percent critic scores and 95-plus percent audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe IMDb user ratings will set the two apart? Nope! Both 8.4.
Can you see yourself facing this extremely specific scenario? Have you heard of both shows—even if it was only a paragraph ago—and wondered which you’d prefer? Are you currently crying, “My kingdom for a Kingdom guide?”
When The Last Kingdom debuted in October 2015, we took it on faith that whatever else happened, we wouldn’t have to worry about any subsequent kingdoms. Then Kingdom came out in January 2019, and ever since, the world has known no peace. So I’m standing before the smoldering ruins, unsheathing the keyboard that’s strapped to my back to bring you this blog. Kingdom or The Last Kingdom? The obvious answer is “both.” But you still have to start with one or the other, so consider these questions before you begin.
How much TV do you have time for?
If you’re commuting, working, or socializing a lot less than normal, you might be happy to give Netflix control of your calendar. But depending on the size of your streaming backlog and the number of non-TV-MA-aged humans you’re supposed to be parenting, you may be wary of committing to a big binge. For better or worse, there’s much more The Last Kingdom content than Kingdom content: twice as many seasons (four), and three times as many episodes (36). The average episode of The Last Kingdom is longer, too, ranging from 50 to 60 minutes compared to Kingdom’s 36 to 56. Neither show has been officially renewed for another season, but both have built loyal followings and appear to have plenty of material left.
Which series’ scenery is the best substitute for going outside?
At a time when travel is restricted and many Americans are cooped up, TV has become a vital source of vicarious sunlight. Between bloodbaths, both Kingdom and The Last Kingdom serve up enough open space and historical sightseeing to fool you into feeling like you left your couch.
Kingdom and The Last Kingdom may both be period pieces, but their respective periods are several centuries apart. Kingdom, a zombie sageuk, is set sometime around the year 1600, a low point in the power of South Korea’s Joseon dynasty, which spanned the late 14th to the late 19th centuries. When the series’ story begins, the ruling class has recently succeeded in repelling a series of invasions by Japan, but an internecine struggle for control of the throne is coinciding with a plague that’s sweeping across the country and turning corpses into bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters. (When it rains, it pours.) The show was shot in and around Seoul in a number of historic locations or replica sets.
The Last Kingdom takes place in the proto-England of the late ninth and early 10th centuries, during the decades leading up to the unification of the four independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia. When the show begins, Alfred the Great of Wessex is trying his best to, basically, persuade his neighboring monarchs to stop preemptively voting “Leave” on his unified-England idea, but the pillaging, plundering Danes keep forcing him to focus on foreign relations. The series is filmed in Hungary, with occasional coastal scenes in U.K. locations.
The Last Kingdom’s countryside can be quite picturesque, so the series does offer some eye candy when eyes aren’t being gouged out, but it’s more drab by design. As locations manager Martyn John said shortly after the release of Season 2, “Last season we filmed in wintertime and the look of it was so fabulous because it was really muddy, snowy, and cold. But this time we filmed in the summer and it all looked very pretty. That’s not really what the show is all about, so we’ve tried to block out the sun as much as possible.” Way to spoil our TV tanning, Martyn. Kingdom’s architecture is much more striking than The Last Kingdom’s mundane medieval huts and halls—think decorative, tiled roofs rather than thatched ones—and its exquisite, colorful costumes trump pelts, chain mail, and monk’s robes. A lot of its action unfolds at night, during the zombies’ business hours, but Kingdom is still a visual spectacle.
What a time for South Korea on the international stage: Parasite won Best Picture, the country quickly instituted testing for COVID-19 and recently reported no new domestic cases, the KBO beat MLB back to action, and now, another victory in a crucial category of the great Kingdom vs. The Last Kingdom debate.
Which main character is cooler?
Let’s get to know the sword-wielding dudes in the Netflix thumbnails. The protagonist of Kingdom is Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who’s the son of a concubine and thus liable to lose his dibs on the throne if the queen has a son. Unfortunately for him, the queen consort is the daughter of a powerful figure in the Haewon Cho clan, which is desperate to displace him. Chang’s father, the king, is believed to be ill, but the truth is worse than that: He died and turned into a zombie, which the Haewon Cho are keeping quiet until the supposedly pregnant queen can produce an heir. Chang uncovers the conspiracy and sets off with his bodyguard, Moo-Young, to find out how and why the king came back to life and to stop the sickness from spreading, all while eluding capture by the political rivals who’ve branded him a traitor. Chang isn’t driven by ambition; all he wants is to help his people and protect his country, which makes him a top-notch crown prince but an uncomplicated character.
In The Last Kingdom’s corner, we have Uhtred, son of Uhtred. (You can guess what he names his son: Nigel. No, also Uhtred.) Born Saxon but enslaved and eventually adopted by Danes, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) doesn’t fully fit in anywhere; like Ryan Atwood choosing between Chino and Newport Beach, he’s torn between the two halves of his history. Uhtred understands the Danes, so he’s useful to their enemies, but the Saxons don’t trust him, both because of his swagger and because he won’t worship their god. As a result, he’s always in and out of Alfred’s good graces. Uhtred has his principles, but he’s mostly a mercenary: He cares more about settling his own scores and reclaiming control of his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg than he does about Alfred’s dream. Clever, charismatic, and cheeky in every sense of the word, he’s also a fearsome fighter, and Dreymon’s martial arts background and multinational past help him embody the role. Thanks to all of Uhtred’s sword-swinging—on the battlefield and in the bedroom—he’s shredded AF and frequently shirtless, and he looks great in GIFs. Chang is his country’s rightful ruler, but Uhtred rules this section.
Which has the better bad guys?
Ah, the age-old question: Vikings or zombies? The Last Kingdom’s Vikings are pretty par for the course: They loot, conquer, kill, and hope to die in a way that will qualify them for a quick trip to Valhalla. Kingdom couldn’t be further from The Walking Dead: These are rabid, Train to Busan–style zombies, so they’re nightmarish monsters that sprint after their prey and reanimate almost immediately. Neither adversary is entirely original, but Kingdom distinguishes itself by delving into the origins of the virus and gradually revealing vulnerabilities and variations in transmission that affect how the zombies behave.
Which has the better battles?
Both go big, but in different ways. Kingdom’s battles are like Left 4 Dead’s survival mode, pitting waves of mindless zombies against overwhelmed and intimidated defenders who are often just trying to buy time.
In The Last Kingdom’s encounters, all of the combatants have functioning brains, so tactics matter more.
The Last Kingdom’s depictions of the battles of Edington and Tettenhall are the most impressive set pieces in either series, but Kingdom has the more dazzling cinematography and the more gruesome kills. Let’s call it a draw.
Which one will teach you more about history?
To paraphrase Caesar, “Streaming television is the best teacher.” If you’re using international Netflix originals as an alternative to edX, there’s an easy answer here. The Last Kingdom is based on Bernard Cornwell’s 13-book Saxon Stories series of historical novels, whereas Kingdom is adapted from a webcomic created by Kingdom writer Kim Eun-hee. Unsurprisingly, considering the source material—and the zombies—Kingdom cares less about getting its history straight. In response to a question about Kingdom’s historical accuracy, Kim recently said, “I’m not a history major.” Cornwell has a history degree.
The Last Kingdom occasionally strays from the books, and it takes creative liberties: Unlike a lot of the characters, Uhtred himself is only loosely based on a real person, and he hardly seems to age between Edington and Tettenhall, which took place 32 years apart. But The Last Kingdom has given me a first-paragraph-of-a-Wikipedia-page-level knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England that I can’t claim for circa-1600 South Korea. Anglo-Saxon names all sort of sound the same, but I now know my Aethelflaeds from my Aethelreds and my Aethelwolds from my Aethelstans. By contrast, I completed Kingdom without knowing anyone’s name, even though I was watching with subtitles. (As always, the dubbing is bad.)
Are you in the mood for romance?
If so (or if not!), your choice is clear from the thumbnails alone. Kingdom’s TV-MA rating comes partly from “fear,” whereas The Last Kingdom’s cites nudity. IRL, most people prefer nudity—which is sometimes scary, too—but when watching TV, your mileage may vary. Suffice it to say, though, that if you’re looking for sex scenes, The Last Kingdom is the clear victor. Uhtred has his hands full with wars and vengeance, but unlike Chang, he still finds time to practice the art of seduction. The only pleasures of the flesh on Kingdom are the kind that comes from eating it after you’re brought back to life.
The bromance between Chang and Moo-Young is a fine substitute for physical love, although The Last Kingdom holds its own on a platonic level, too: Uhtred’s lifelong bond with his father figure Beocca is touching, and his relationship with his buff Irish friend Finan is the stuff of a slash fiction fan’s dreams. (I Googled. It exists.)
How much more content about contagious diseases can you stomach?
If you don’t want your escapist entertainment to remind you of real life, a show about a deadly contagion and the deceitful, corrupt, and incompetent leaders who can’t control the threat might not be the best streaming Soma right now. Then again, Chang’s righteous response to their treachery is kind of cathartic. Plus, Season 4 of The Last Kingdom has a plague plotline, too, so you’re stuck with some sickness either way.
Which one is more similar to Game of Thrones?
Kingdom has an army of reanimated corpses, but The Last Kingdom has sex, multiple kingdoms competing for supremacy, religious rivalries, and George R.R. Martin’s medieval aesthetic. Both give you gore, great acting, and political infighting, but neither one will match the character depth, dialogue, lore, or massive scale of Thrones. The Last Kingdom comes closer.
Which one feels less like something you’ve seen before?
Neither of these series has its premise to itself. The Last Kingdom competes with the six seasons of Vikings available via Hulu, and a sequel series, Vikings: Valhalla, is on its way to Netflix. Beyond that, the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla sounds a lot like The Last Kingdom: The Game. (They even share an actor.) The replacement level is still lower for The Last Kingdom than it is for a show about zombies: There’s enough zombie TV content to form a stand-alone streaming service, even on Netflix alone. But Kingdom still seems slightly fresher, thanks to its setting and a level of violence that wouldn’t pass muster on Korean network TV.
I’ve given you the keys to the Kingdoms; the rest is up to you. Just don’t ask me to help you choose between the show called Kingdom on Amazon Prime and the other two shows called Kingdom on Hulu. Have we mentioned that there’s too much TV?