Lost in the Movies: The Kingdom II - "Gargantua" (episode 7)

The Kingdom II - "Gargantua" (episode 7)

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 15, 1997/written by Tómas Gislason, Niels Vorsel & Lars von Trier; directed by Morten Arnfred & Lars von Trier): I should have known. Although the stakes seemed incredibly high at the end of the previous episode, they are quickly dragged back down to earth at the start of "Gargantua." Helmer has been merely wounded by an apologetic Rigmor. Jørgen was rescued by a man who wanted to sing a funeral dirge for his corpse. Despite all the intervening leaps, we're back where we were before, with Jørgen and a wheelchair-bound Helmer still trying to outwit each other for Mona's anesthesiology report. Hilariously, there is a "chase" inside the archive room as they inch toward/away from each other just slowly enough not to trigger the alarm. Another hilarious Helmer chase involves a bailiff with a yellow envelope calling the surgeon to court; Helmer is warned of this threat by another snobbish Swede, his lawyer (played by notable guest star Stellan Skarsgård, fresh from the director's international triumph Breaking the Waves). Ole's attempt to impress Sanne ends in a whimper; she cares more about her slasher films than the fact that he's become the "Falcon" she was so infatuated by. As if looking for another avenue to prove himself in, the new ghost-driver tells a dying man (injured and eventually killed by, I think, the previous driver, not Ole) that his family will be provided for and decides to do one last ambulance run - a blind one in this case, with the windshield obscured - so he can earn enough money to fulfill that promise.

Sigrid and Bulder pal around with Hansen (Otto Brandenburg) all episode, initially - harmlessly enough - in hidden rooms, sussing out dream-clues about the nature of the hospital. Bulder is guided through a vision in which he travels deep into the bowels of the Kingdom and rearranges the stone-hewn letters of its Danish name ("Riget") so that they spell “Tiger.” When a tiger materializes before him, Bulder turns into a bird (albeit, to the great annoyance of Sigrid, one that can't fly). Sigrid takes these clues as a reference to the painting she saw in her near-death experience, and Bulder digs up a magazine reproduction of the image, that he clipped back during his "hippie phase" in the early seventies. His mother deduces that the tiger is the hospital, the serpent in the tree above it is the doctors, and those uncanny birds of passage are the spirits (perhaps Bulder, even in his visionary state, could not turn into a flying bird because he lacks the spiritual nature of his mother; he's too - literally - down-to-earth). Here's where Hansen becomes dangerous; the amateur pilot suggests flying them into the airspace above the hospital, where spirits may haunt the atmospheric corridors much as they haunt the building’s. As they ascend to the heavens, Satan is afoot below; the "ghost" of Age Krüger returns to see his son, now dubbed Little Brother, and is identified by another spiritualist as not a ghost at all, but a demon (at which point he instantly grows two horns and flees before snapping them off his own head). He is the one who killed the priest last time and as his son, part-demon himself (but determined to be good), prepares to die it seems that two Udo Kiers may be too much for this rickety structure to handle.

My Response:
The credits, which have been updated for the second season, have little clues about what's to come, so I wasn't surprised to see an airplane circling in the clouds. By reaching up into the sky and down into its own cellar, it does feel like the hospital itself its stretching its bounds as strenuously as Little Brother (granted, we've already traveled as far afield as Haiti, but that felt different - there was no force of gravity resisting our ascent/descent as there seems to be in these sequences). The "gargantua" theme is all over this episode, articulated by von Trier in the end when he cheerfully notes that the vastness of this universe renders our own experiences not simply small but altogether nonexistent. And yet here we are, watching, laughing, shuddering along. The Kingdom's shaggy-dog storytelling is a utility and a charm, giving us an excuse to explore its demented universe - giant babies strapped to walls as they recount imaginary academic experiences; buffoonish doctors slapping each other's wrists as penalty for going to a chiropractor; a wheelchair-bound surgeon blasting pop music on a Walkman's headphones as he furiously rolls himself into an elevator to escape a process server; a spiritualist mother, pleasant with others but always cruelly abusive to her tolerant son, berating the middle-aged man for turning into a penguin in his dreams.

All these absurd situations are enabled by overarching plot mechanisms, but they don't serve merely as excuses - we find ourselves foolishly invested in their outcomes, as trapped in their self-perpetuating madness as the characters themselves. When Helmer's lawyer advises him that his best bet to escape the looming lawsuit is to simply avoid official summons in perpetuity, the Kafkaesque absurdity of this situation strikes us - if the doctor is living in such neurotic desperation, what exactly is being achieved? Most of the characters are like this to an extent, trapped in their ridiculous and often self-imposed situations, trapped ostensibly by the whims of other characters but really by their own adherence to immediate self-interest and obsessive desire to avoid any consequences. This is dramatic logic taken to its extreme, catching everyone onscreen in its wheel and spinning them around so the audience has something to cling to and the series has somewhere to go. If there's a heaven and hell above this hospital, than the Kingdom itself is a very earthly limbo, and yet we're delighted to be trapped inside of it. There's only one episode to go and I'll miss the dense, desperate ecosystem of the Kingdom - as I remarked yesterday, it's amazing how much is packed inside so little. Granted, with extended episode length the whole show is nearly double the length of an eight-episode American run of the same period, but eight episodes is still not very long. The Kingdom, like life, seems both epic and brief. We busy ourselves with distractions to fill the time, and might as well pretend they matter.

Next: "Pandemonium" • Previous: "Birds of Passage"

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