Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Kingdom II - "Death on the Operation Table" (episode 5)

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Kingdom II - "Death on the Operation Table" (episode 5)


Welcome to my viewing diary for the two-season Danish miniseries The Kingdom. Every day (except Saturday) I will offer a short review of another episode. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on November 1, 1997/written by Tómas Gislason, Niels Vorsel & Lars von Trier; directed by Morten Arnfred & Lars von Trier): Who could that "death on the operation table" belong to? The season finale left many options: Bondo, receiving his new liver (no, he's still with us, albeit looking extremely depleted); Judith, giving birth to what appeared to be a full-size man (she survives and is even drawn to be a mother - for a time); her baby, choking and screaming as it bursts from her body (as it turns out, he just has the head of a full-size man attached to a small if weirdly-proportioned infant baby)? Instead, the victim of fate's caprice is the character most obsessed with death herself until now. Sigrid Drusse is discharged at episode's beginning, uncomfortable with recent events and guilty with her role in releasing new spirits upon the hospital. She immediately returns as a patient - a genuine one this time - when she's struck by an ambulance in the parking lot; after hovering in critical condition all episode she appears to die in the end, floating above her body as a transparent spirit, ready to join the ghostly ensemble she studied for so long. Notably, Helmer is implicated in both events pertaining her to her demise. She's hit by the ambulance while distracted by Helmer's rushed re-entry to the hospital (on roller-skis for some reason), and later flatlines as a direct result of Jørgen passing out just as he's about to resuscitate her (a loss of consciousness caused, it seems, by Helmer's possibly fatal Haitian poison, gulped down in a cup of coffee).

Elsewhere, the hospital seems slightly hungover from the feverish night before. Mogge attempts to break free from Jørgen only to discover that a videotape exists of him removing the head from the refrigerator. Officials continue to badger the staff, in this case objecting to the arrangement of beds, while the elder Moesgaard has completely lost his former vigor and confidence, wandering the corridors of the Kingdom in a daze before stumbling across a quack psychiatrist forcing a patient to beat a drum in the basement. Helmer comically dithers between poisoning and not poisoning Jørgen, based on the arrangement of coffee cups at morning meetings as well as information he receives from a cheerfully spiteful Rigmor (she, along with the meek, malleable Sanne, played by Louise Fribo, contribute to a motif of male-spiting feminine irrationality). Elsewhere, mundane workplace romances, rivalries, and political jockeying take place; the hospital is as haunted as ever and some characters are in crisis, but for the most part we are distinctly post-climax, and what we're building toward now is uncertain. But when Judith's baby, its limbs outstretched like a spider's legs, grabs its mother and screams for her attention, spittle flying in every direction...things don't look good.

My Response:
Cheerful as ever, von Trier closes the show with another monologue: "Well, it was no good. There was no bite, and those great expectations got well and truly run down. The spirit was gone, as was the humble hope of a repeat of past successes. Yet perhaps the spirit hadn't quite vanished. Mrs. Drusse's, that is. For beneath the worn ceiling tiles in the operating theater it was still peeping out. Perhaps it is when we let that go that we make our greatest gain. Taste and habit go hand in hand but letting them run away with us will do no good. But if we relinquish just once what has comforted and filled us and really say goodbye perhaps the result will be a merry wee 'hello' to something new, unlike the old and not tasting like it, and for precisely that reason not so bad at all." Sometimes with these sorts of direct-address addenda (think the Log Lady intros), we have to strain to discern meta-commentary embedded in the plot points or abstract pontification. Not so here; if anything, it's difficult to find narrative relevance in the baldly confessional content. This little speech could be the apologetic anthem for all second seasons and when the gap between seasons is three years, such damage control seems all the more necessary.

I think (but can't confirm) that I've heard a few different things about The Kingdom II: that it is stranger and bolder than the first season/series, and also perhaps that it's more disappointing. I can see the potential for the first, and at times I was worried about the second but overall I'm hopeful. In other words, I concur with the director's own conclusions. What is most compelling (and revolting), and hardest to foresee, is the dramatic arc for Judith and her baby. If season one posited her as a Rosemary's Baby figure, carrying a demonic spawn that she nonetheless felt protective towards, season two offers both a sequel to that concept (something that, to my surprise, already exists in both televisual and literary form) and a nod toward Eraserhead...Judith may be a more willing parent than Henry, but Baby Udo also looks far more overtly violent and dangerous than Baby Spike. As his mother and stepfather trace his bloody path through the building, we dread what we will find. Of the other subplots, the most enjoyable is Helmer's poisoning mishaps; the writers/directors showed quite a flair for slow-boil but madcap comedy in the third episode and they repeat that effect here, with Järegård brilliantly selling Helmer's anxiety. These horrific and comical high points aside, it's fair to say that "Death on the Operation Table" is a little underwhelming; at times it feels like it's treading water, looking for a new direction. I don't like Moesgaard's development, frankly. He was much more fun as the cheerfully blase boss-man; as a mope he's, well, a drag, although the performance works hard to put it over. But Helmer and horror continue to carry The Kingdom and I look forward to saying a wee "hello" to something new.

Next: "Birds of Passage" • Previous: "The Living Dead"


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