Last night I watched the double-episode pilot of Kings with a judgement so reserved it probably needs treatment for agoraphobia. We’ll get to why that is in a bit, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, Kings is a strange fictional retelling of the Old Testament story of David, the shepherd boy hero who slays Goliath with a stone from a slingshot and ends up as king of the Israelites. Sunday School was too many years ago for me to remember all the detail, but for those of you who had childhoods blithely free of attempts at religious inculcation a brief summary of the basic backstory (as I remember it) might be quite interesting.
It begins X generations after the escape from Egypt, and the twelve tribes have made the Promised Land their home, the main problem being that there’s a whole bunch of other tribes currently living there or in the surrounding area — Philistines, Ammonites and such — who aren’t too keen on that Land being Promised to a bunch of outsiders (as far as they’re concerned) by this upstart YHVH with his One True God complex. Added to this, it’s a turbulent time within the Israelite culture itself, with the judges who rule the tribes not doing too good a job of it. The story as told emphasises their religious flaws in not adhering to the Law (as I recall), but the military defeats that result from God’s disfavour, in the logic of the text, are maybe no small part in the people’s dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. (This is a really crude gloss on it, I’m sure, so if anyone wants to correct me in the comments, do feel free. The key point, as far as I remember, is that the people want to change the whole structure of their society from a system of distributed authority to one of centralised authority, one with sovereignty situated in a single leader.) So eventually we get the prophet Samuel bowing to popular pressure and anointing the first divinely-ordained king, Saul. He does it grudgingly, with warnings from God himself of the autocratic imperiousness that goes along with a One True King, but… well, the people want a monarch with the legitimate authority to forge a nation in the face of hostile neighbours. So they get one.
So in terms of the backstory, there's more going on here than just the hero's journey. We're talking about governance, about sovereignty and legitimacy, Church and State, war and peace, about the building of nations. On "God-given" land. I'm intrigued.
Anyway, fast-forward a few years and the nation is forged, but the conflicts with those hostile neighbours have not gone away. Saul has pissed off God and is suffering for it, a man troubled by demons that look rather like the mood swings of a depressive or an egomaniac. Samuel has decided God wants a new king and is on the lookout for a likely candidate. Enter our young hero, the shepherd boy David, a Darling of Destiny spotted by Samuel, handsome, ruddy-cheeked and a brave warrior. Samuel’s blessing brings the boy to the attention of Saul, who finds in him not just a pretty armour-bearer but a talented harpist whose music hath charms to soothe Saul’s savage breast. In 1 Samuel 16:23 we’re told, “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”
For a while it’s peachy. David gives Saul musical relief and, after his spectacular victory in the Goliath showdown, Saul gives David one of his daughters as wife. The young man becomes even more intimate with Saul’s son Jonathon, enough so that a queer subtext is arguable even if we ultimately read their textual relationship as homosocial rather than homosexual. In a queer reading of the story, in fact, we can trace homoerotic undercurrents beyond the young men’s sharing of clothes and kisses: David’s nature-boy-musician character resonates with the archetypes of Tammuz, Adonis, Orpheus; as ephebic armour-bearer to brooding Saul, he recalls Patroklus’s relationship to Akhilleos; as servile youth to an autocratic overlord, we might even see a hint of Zeus’s houseboy Gaymede; even the phraseology of the text focuses us on the physical act of David’s hand, the young man’s fingers gently strumming this… instrument. Soothing his master. Offering him… relief.
Then, in the key-point of David’s victory over Goliath, we see a reflection of that male-male power dynamic (elder/younger, bigger/smaller, master/slave, top/bottom) overturned. If we are to queer the image of Jonathon stripping to clothe David at all, I would suggest we read this not just as the sealing of a generically homosexual union, but with the sexual politics of the erastes and the eromenos in mind, with Jonathon now David’s “armour-bearer”. Bottomboy David has turned top and taken the prince as his own passive partner. This is, of course, a deliberate queering, (and I’m not actually convinced that such queer readings have any connection to historical relevance or authorial intent,) but if we accept it as a subtextual reading, what does this say of the source of Saul’s jealousy? While the text explicitly states that Saul is galled by the women singing of David’s victories, this scene comes directly after the covenant of David and Jonathon and directly before the first manifestation of that jealousy in an act with a blindingly obvious Freudian interpretation:
“Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house, while David was playing the harp with his hand, as usual; and a spear was in Saul's hand. Saul hurled the spear for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David escaped from his presence twice.”
Sometimes a gun is just a gun, as they say, but in the shaft-and-head construction, it’s hard not to read a phallic symbol into Saul’s spear, his thwarted penetration. In a queer reading of the text, the story is not just, I’d say, of David and Jonathon as a male-male couple bound by a love characterised as surpassing that between man and wife and, like the platonic ideal it resonates with, presented as chaste or sexual according to taste. Such readings rather strike me as having an air of wish-fulfillment. Rather I see something much more gnarly here, interesting to the point of disturbing, a story of father and son sundered by a shared object of desire, versatile David who is bottom to the father’s top, top to the son’s bottom. It’s a story of thwarted desire turning to insane jealousy, Saul as spurned lover, an aggressive top denied his lust; and of desire fulfilled in surrender, Jonathon as submissive partner, archtypally dying young and mourned as Patroklus. And versatile David between them, catalyst of it all, intermediary and perhaps even — in some deeper, darker, dodgier way — surrogate. There’s a whole can of worms in that story, if we read the politics as sexual politics.
Even if we don’t, if we take David and Jonathon’s relationship as fraternal, the purely political and interpersonal relationships are at the heart of it. It’s the story of the Darling of Destiny coming into the king’s camp, beloved of him at first, winning the king’s own son as his most loyal ally, their friendship so strong that the prince stands with David even when it means choosing friend over father. Saul’s alienation of his own son is a key marker of his incapacitating irrationality, his raging jealousy. Change that dynamic and you transform the whole tale. That reserved judgement I have with regard to Kings? It’s very much to do with this.
United States of Gilboa
But first: if this Biblical story is the palimpsested underlyer of Kings, how specifically is that tale rendered strange-fictional? Rather interestingly is the answer. Most reviews of the show I’ve read couch it in terms like “present-day” and “alternate history”, and those are fairly apt on a superficial level. Kings begins with the imagery of American idyll, the pastoral patriotism of the Midwest — a flag flying, dandelion seeds in the air, a farmhouse in the background as David Shepherd plays ball with a collie sheepdog. Culturally and technologically it seems we’re in the present-day US… except for the little erratum of the fact that the flag is no Stars and Stripes, but rather a bold red banner with a stylised golden butterfly. Called inside by his mother to join the rest of her boys, David switches on the tv, and the groundwork of this elsewhen begins to be set: we see a news report with a caption telling of the “dedication of a new capitol at Shiloh”. Over the next few scenes, as we’re introduced to the key characters of Jack Benjamin (Jonathan), his mother Rose (Ahinoam, Saul’s Queen), his sister Michelle (Michal) and his father Silas (Saul, played by the ever-watchable Ian McShane), a little backstory is sketched in. We’re in the nation of Gilboah, which, yes — culturally and technologically — has the trappings of a contemporary Western civilisation, but which was only founded a few decades previous in the aftermath of a bloody “Unification War”. Its government is an absolute monarchy, headed by King Silas, who sees himself as divinely ordained by a sign from God (butterflies landing on his head in the form of a living crown). The new capitol that’s being dedicated has been built from scratch by the imperious king, a symbol of the nation pulling itself up out of its own ruins. His speech is beamed out to the masses — we see a black family at home, front-line troops in a mess hall tent, commuters in a railway station… and David Shepherd’s family of blue collar boys whose father, their mother reminds them “died fighting for this… Damn fool.”
And so it goes. The prophet Samuel becomes Reverend Samuels. The conflict with hostile neighbours becomes a war with Gath, a country on the nation’s northern border. Goliath becomes a tank, taken out by David in a courageous raid across enemy lines to rescue hostages — one of whom turns out to be Prince Jack. The recontextualisation is often deft and engaging, with little touches that appeal to the same intellectual impulse that appreciates flourishes like, say, the engraved branding of a gun as a Rapier .45 (or whatever) in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Here the king’s personal scribe records the spin of current events on his PDA, press releases dictated by the king in biblical idiom. Here, instead of the harp David plays piano. But the palimpsesting of biblical and contemporary cultures is also deeply dissonant, deeply estranging. It unmoors the story from geography — from history even. To retell a story so fundamental to present-day culture requires this if one doesn’t want to be dragged down in metafictional side-issues — the story of Kings is on too grand a scale to be simply spliced from one here-and-now to another, the way Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers can be transplanted to “Verona Beach”; and Gilboa can’t just be slipped into our world like Ruritania — but the dislocation from the here-and-now is at such a base level, it makes this elsewhen as strikingly foreign to us as it is familiar.
When Silas references “global culture” and “premier of Austeria” we have little concept of what that means, how Gilboa and Gath fit into this. Are they large or small? In Asia, Europe or North America? The material wealth of a Gilboa capable of such a grand rebuilding project, its climate and flora — these might signal that we’re on the North American continent, dealing with nations the size of the US and Canada. The scale of warfare however and directly referential turns of phrase like “push us into the sea” throw us back to the Middle East. Does the elsewhen of Kings even have those continents? The WASP royal family and the ethnic diversity of supporting characters (and their generally marginalised roles) might signal a history of immigration, slavery, emancipation, a parallel and continuing struggle for civil rights, but all we are given is the vague reference to “unification”. Yes, it looks like America but do we have any sense at all of this nation’s roots on the historic scale? If Silas’s general, Abner is played by a Native American, does this mean there are “Native Gilboans”? On reservations? Did this world have a Columbus? Pilgrim fathers? Does “WASP” even mean anything in this elsewhen? Samuels is referred to by the distinctly Christian title of “reverend” but there’s not a single mention of Jesus. Thing is, given that we’re seeing an Old Testament story playing out, I see no sense whatsoever in setting that story in a discrepant worldscape where the New Testament has already run its course, no reason to assume that’s the sort of world we’re dealing with.
For an “alternate history” then, Kings, in the pilot at least, has little concern with explicating its world, mapping it spatially and temporally, what exactly it is and how exactly it came to be. Personally though, I don’t give a fuck. This is not a reason to criticise it but a reason to praise it, to my mind. This stance may seem inconsistent after I laid into Battlestar Galactica for its worldbuilding failures, but where in Moore’s show the result was an unconsidered assumption of Americanist values, (my real problem with that worldbuilding failure,) Kings’ wiring in of divinely-ordained monarchy is so utterly at odds with the cultural markers of Americana that it becomes an erratum permeating the very substance of the show, a fundamental quirk. And in the way it deals with that erratum this show has so little in common with the “if Nazis won the Second World War” school of alternate history that I really don’t think it’s purposeful to critique it in those genre terms at all. This is not a schematic rewrite of history, not a scholastic recreation of worldscape, but a restaging of drama. What it has most in common with, for me, is the sort of live production of Henry IV, Part One I saw as a kid, set on a sparse stage with characters in anachronous military uniform, or Tom Paulin’s BBC-produced redaction of Prometheus Bound — Seize the Fire — with its main character in a greatcoat bound to concrete by twisted steel rods, conjuring up an air of the Russian Revolution and its heroes-become-victims. The aim is ahistorical bot pseudohistrical. The temporal dislocation is performative, a matter of backdrops and props, idioms of rewritten dialogue. It doesn’t seek to be consistent, to offer the well-built world of counterfactual speculation. The strangeness is not there to be explicated away, but to be exploited. Doubtless there are those who’ll berate the show for this “shoddy worldbuilding”, but for me it makes for a refreshing focus on drama over detail. The “clomping foot of nerdism” has been hacked off and chucked away. Deal with it.
That said, there are, I think, points where the approach leads to problems. The Samuel character becomes an example of what I hereby christen the Magic Luther King Negro — that particular brand of stereotyped wise-black-man with gravitas and potency reinforced by their role as pious prophet-to-the-people. That the mythic figure is based on actual public figures doesn’t make it any less stereotyping than a Mandingo based on Mike Tyson. The subservient roles alloted to other characters of colour become similarly dubious. Just how are we meant to take the fact that King Silas’s secret mistress, Helen, is non-white, especially given the fact that one character labels her a “whore” (and especially given the xenophobic associations of that term in the bible with rival polytheist cultures)? Here the lack of historical context leads to an obfuscation of all sorts of issues as regards the moral climate of Gilboa, structures of prejudice and privilege that are clearly pertinent to a drama with aristocracy in the centre of its lens and a blue collar white boy as its hero. If it wants to be truly socially relevant the show will need to articulate the race relations of its elsewhen. And if this simply doesn’t fit with its intent, if it’s positing a Gilboa where skin colour is a non-issue, a multi-ethnic land without that history of abjection — the way one might cast an actor of whatever skin colour as MacBeth or Hamlet without trying to make a Meaning of it — well, they should really think about the prejudices being unintentionally articulated by the particular casting choices that they’ve made, because then there’s really no excuse for relegating your characters of colour to the cliché roles of pious reverend, palace secretary and secret mistress (Magic Negro, servant and slut).
I’ll suspend my judgement on that mark for now, as it’s too early to predict how much detail they might add to their elsewhen and to what effect. For now, I think if this “United States of Gilboa” (my term, not theirs) muddies the writers’ intent as regards race, it does at least make for some intriguing thematics in other areas. The fundamental skewing of what seems familiar recasts the nominally secular culture of contemporary America in a way that foregrounds the religiosity that pervades it at the deepest level. A culture where separation of Church and State is written into the constitution is transfigured (and pointedly so) into one where the head of state claims divine mission, where the mythology of destiny underwrites the very notion of national identity. Through its conceit, Kings has the scope, I think, to address some pertinent questions as to how that goes wrong, how the Silas’s of our world use the power of myth to legitimise their dubious agendas, where patriotism is co-opted by propaganda, where territorial greed and religious faith are fused and confused in bloody wars. It has the scope to tackle both the power-game of Straussian politics as it’s played at the highest level and the bloody brutal fallout of that on the very people who buy into the rhetoric most completely, or who are simply sucked up into the conflicts it creates. Better still, the biblical story it’s grounded in gives it the capacity to articulate these questions in the language of those who hold utterly to the most basic principles of God and family and country. It could — if it has a mind to — be a profoundly subversive series. Moreover, the conceit does universalise the drama and themes of the show, I think, succeeding where Battlestar Galactica failed, to my mind, regardless of what its defendants say. I’ve been focusing on the Americana in my reading here, but there is indubitably a potential relevance to the present day situation of the land it’s base story has its root in. It will be very interesting to see how far Michael Green might choose to address modern Israel through his strange-fictional story of its first kings.
Or the show could fail completely. The story of Saul is of a divinely-ordained king’s descent into tyranny, one that might well interrogate the notion of nobility, but Kings is clearly David’s story as much as Saul’s, and David’s is a monomyth — the Darling of Destiny plucked from obscurity, anointed as God’s Chosen to save the kingdom and win the princess. (Or maybe the prince.) If Kings has the scope to interrogate the fantasies of absolute monarchy, the political machinations validated by appeals to faith, our appetite for authority, it also has the capacity to surrender utterly to the rapture of those dreams. It would not be hard at all, I think, to turn Kings into a legitimisation of every Bible-Belt, blue-collar, baptist-boy’s most bullshit belief, a weirdly slipstream epic fantasy for the Left Behind crowd. American culture as the white-trash Christian Israel, with a blond-haired, blue-eyed, red-necked war-hero as its golden boy king, victorious over the cultural aristos of the power elite and the raghead Philistines who are, after all, pretty much just “The Enemy” in the original text. The presentation of David as a peace-broker and the introduction of an evil war profiteer (who’s currently a tad too crudely villainous for my liking, even if I appreciate the ethical slant) might intimate otherwise, and it’s deeply reassuring to know that Green is Jewish rather than Christian; but never underestimate the conservatism of network television. And it’s unlikely that we’ll ever reach the ambiguities of the later character of the biblical David, I think, the unpacking of the heroic fantasy. For that the series would have to survive a good few seasons of unpredictable ratings. It would have to do so without succumbing to the commercial and narrative imperatives toward easy answers, pat moralising and monomythic pandering. More to the point, it would have to survive without McShane as Silas, continue to function dramatically even after the Saul counterpart dies and its linchpin is gone — which seems, at the moment, inconceivable.
Still, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that it at least gets a couple of good seasons and has the guts to go as far as it could with them. Even if its thematics turns out to be quite at odds with my own deep-rooted atheist-humanism (which seems a fair bet given that God is pretty integral to this story), I’ll be happy if at least has the balls to develop that thematics rather than copping-out constantly a la BSG. We’ll see.
There is one thing that makes me reserve judgement here though, more than any of those doubts. It makes me feel terribly predictable and all rainbow-flag-waving single-issue gay rights activist, but I really have a crawling horror at what they’ve done with the Jonathon character and where that means they might go with it. It could be alright, but I have a horrible feeling that it’s going to go all wrong.
Which is where we come back to that subtext.
Teh Ebil Gay
So, one of the biggest and boldest moves in a show that’s pretty big and bold even at the level of basic premise, is that they’ve made Prince Jack, the Jonathon counterpart, gay. Fair enough, one might say. Isn’t this just making the subtext text? While David is (so far, anyway) presented as essentially straight — immediately attracted to Princess Michelle, his musical tendencies shorn of any superficial significance of “sensitivity” (i.e. gayness), just a regular all-Gilboan boy-next-door when it comes down to it — doesn’t this make for a potentially very interesting dynamic, a frisson of unrequited love in their intense loyalty to each other, a dash of one-way lust that doesn’t just spice up the story but places a positive queer character right at the heart of it? Doesn’t it challenge religious homophobia by ascribing homosexuality to this respected character? Doesn’t it allow for an exploration of the subtext of their intimacy that’s nevertheless subtle rather than crude, focusing on undercurrents of desire rather than taking a sledgehammer to the story just to make a blunt point? Isn’t this potentially even more interesting terrain, a deeply loyal mutual love between two men that’s sexual for one, but not for the other? Couldn’t they maybe even rip apart that hoary old cliché of the gay tormented by desire for the unattainable straight boy, suggest that — shock horror — gay Jack isn’t defined by his sexuality any more than straight David, and their friendship might be just that? That David just, you know, isn’t Jack’s type? Isn’t it just a twist that could be taken all sorts of fascinating places?
Except that the pilot pretty much immediately abandons the very idea of their friendship. In the Kings version of the story David’s victory over Goliath is tied to a rescue of Jack, but there’s little sign of any real gratitude here on Jack’s part, just, “hey, you saved my life.” There’s no fraternal covenant, and the offer of clothes is a perfunctory loan of a tuxedo, to be fetched from Jack’s wardrobe and tailored to David by palace staff. In fact, the lauding of David by the Gilboan people in general and King Silas in particular only inspires a jealous animosity in Jack. It quickly becomes clear that Jack has father issues, that nothing he does seems to win respect in his father’s eyes and that this disregard is a wound he can’t stop poking. To the embittered and decadent playboy prince, David is a rival and an interloper, a farmboy being celebrated even as Jack’s ordeal as hostage is not simply forgotten but twisted into suspicions of incompetence. To the show’s credit, those suspicions are revealed as entirely unfounded — Jack is a brattish party animal but he’s not presented as a fuck-up in military terms — but slowly the pilot sets out his character as that of a classic Shakespearean bastard in the mold of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, except with homosexuality in the place of illegitimacy. The key scene comes in a humiliating confrontation with his father, where King Silas reveals that he knows exactly what Jack gets up to after the night clubs and parties, after he’s made his grand show of licentious womanising. Silas has known for a long time that Jack prefers the boys, and that’s why he rejects his son, why he can never see him as a viable heir. It’s a strong scene, with Jack shocked into silence, visibly shaking as he tries to suppress the tears, as Silas lashes him with his words, laying down the law with raw homophobic hatred. But if the pilot is anything to go by it’s also the pivotal moment that sets Jack on a course of opposition to his father, not as David’s loyal friend but as Silas’s sworn foe, a villainous plotter whose heart is turned black in the breaking. We don’t quite see this role cemented in action in the pilot — not quite — but towards the end Jack turns to that (introduced) character of the (crudely villainous) war profiteer. He’s clearly being drawn to the dark side, and you can virtually hear the thoughts in his head:
Curse you, father! If you will not love me, if society rejects me, then I shall turn myself against all that you stand for, all that society stands for. I shall become… Teh Ebil Gay!
Now, it’s entirely possible that we’re going to see a turn-around in Jack’s character. I’m not sure how you can possibly tell the story with Jack as David’s scheming enemy rather than his friend — not unless you have him as a truly treacherous fake friend, playing the bosom buddy even as he plots against the hero. Actually, I’m not sure how, in this day and age, you could actually think it was anything but cheap, exploitative and just plain bigoted to make Jack a faggot Don John, a homo Iago — not unless you were gobsmackingly insensitive and/or outright prejudiced. And given that Michael Green spent time working on Sex and the City, that sort of patently homophobic character trajectory would seem… astonishing. So I heartily hope that this is simply a little soap-operatic twist to the initial set-up, to be unravelled as the series progresses, with our blackhearted bumboy prince finding an ally rather than an adversary in the hero. But at the moment it feels like a spurious brainwave that should have been smacked down, a “wouldn’t it be neat if…” twist on the original text that wasn’t really thought through in anything other than shallow plot terms.
It’s that sense of shallow plot dynamics potentially over-riding thematics, actually, that engenders the core doubt. My worry with Jack is not so much (or not simply) that he might be a signifier of ill-considered prejudicial clichés at play in the series, but that he might be a signifier of a soap-opera sensibility, a capacity of the show to slip from drama into melodrama. Clearly much of the story of Kings is going to be dealing with inter-personal relationships, and one can assume, I think, that female characters like Michelle are going to be given more important roles to play than most of their biblical counterparts do, leading to a much greater focus on romantic shenanigans. If it can manage to do this and still tell stories that exploit its unique premise, take advantage of this utterly idiosyncratic approach they’ve adopted, this may only strengthen the show. My fear is that rather than exploiting the errata they may, once they’ve established the elsewhen sufficiently to just tell simple soap-opera storylines in that context, they may end up excusing it, end up with a show that functions just as Dallas or Dynasty, but with a superficial gloss of strangeness that adds a sense of wonder to it without serving any other real purpose. Which would be a criminal squandering of the series’ potential.
For the moment then, I’ll definitely be wanting to see where it goes, how it develops. It could be brilliant, it could be awful, or it could be anywhere in between, at any level of consistency. Who knows? But I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it.
If nothing else, I really want to see how they’ll work the steaming pile of two hundred Philistine foreskins in.
What? You don’t remember that bit?