The Death of Kings
Why you should be sorry you never watched NBC's biblical drama.
The ways Kings betrays the Bible can be even more interesting, evidence that even a faithful interpreter needs to clean up these stories to make them palatable to a contemporary audience. Biblical David is a notorious womanizer who can't see a cute Israelite without bedding her (and killing her husband). The David of Kings is a romantic puppy, tediously faithful to the princess. Kings also soft-pedals the religious beliefs of its characters. The God of Kings is not Yahweh, and the Gilboan religion doesn't appear to be either Judaism or Christianity. Religious ceremonies occur in churchlike buildings, but they're resolutely nondenominational.
We're clearly meant to believe God is real. Silas talks to the thunder and feels he's conversing with God. And God's blessing is tangible. A gorgeous, hypnotic cloud of butterflies circles and settles on the head of the Lord's beloved, accompanied by New Age harps and choirs. But this butterflies-and-Enya kind of religion bears little resemblance to the faith of biblical David, Saul, and Samuel. The Israelites worshipped a brutal and uncompromising God, and they joyfully committed violence in his name. (Just listen to David as he taunts Goliath.) The men of Kings are doubters. They lack confidence that God is on their side and rarely act out of faith. David Shepherd doesn't attack the Goliath tank to serve God, as biblical David did; he does it to rescue a fellow soldier. I imagine the producers favored this vaguer religion for pragmatic reasons: They wanted to offend as few people as possible. But it's a bit of a cop out. A truer portrayal of David would have made him a more rabid fundamentalist.
Perhaps the most profound alteration in the source material is in the character of the king. Saul is the villain of the Book of Samuel, repeatedly attempting to assassinate David, disobeying direct orders from God, consulting with witches, and massacring innocent priests by the dozen. Silas is ruthless and occasionally vindictive, but he always seeks peace for his kingdom and prosperity for his people. (Perhaps a second season of Kings would have depicted Silas' descent into paranoia.) Silas' excessive goodness, in fact, compels Kings to manufacture a nonbiblical villain, an evil tycoon seeking to dethrone Silas and install a stooge monarch.
Despite its pedigree, Kings is most compelling not as a biblical drama but as a counterfactual history. If you (like me) are bewitched by accounts of worlds that don't exist but could—alternative histories of the Civil War, realistic sci-fi dystopias—you're likely to be fascinated by Kings. Our world is still filled with authoritarian, often religiously sanctioned monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bhutan, various emirates) and familial dictatorships (North Korea). Gilboa, unlike any of these real monarchies, appears to be prosperous and free and tolerant. King Silas is all-powerful but also mostly just. The press is manipulated but not grotesquely. Gilboa has gay nightlife, an elaborate alternative energy grid, and religious tolerance. King Silas is even a foodie, always whipping up omelets for the princess.
At times during its short run, Kings was essentially a high-concept soap opera. Yet it was always a soap opera with genuine intellectual ambition, and at its best, it was a provocative thought experiment: How would a religious monarchy work in a modern, pluralistic society? Could the values that Americans cherish survive in such a system? And would the actual presence of God solve or compound the problems of governing a nation? (When God gets angry at Silas, for example, Gilboa's windmill farms break down.)
These are, I admit, mostly fantastical problems. America is never going to crown a king, and even the most ardent Obama worshippers have not reported seeing him trailed by butterflies. And the real-world examples of religious monarchy (see: Saudi Arabia) demonstrate all too clearly that tolerance and kings don't play nicely together. But at a time when partisan deadlock may prevent even modest legislative accomplishments in America, it's fun to speculate what a king could get done in Washington. In episode five, after all, King Silas decrees universal health care with a word.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Still of Ian McShane in Kings © 2009 NBC Universal.