TV or Not TV | Lars’ Anatomy: “The Kingdom” Returns

Lars’ Anatomy: The Kingdom Returns

By Michael Sicinski

The Kingdom: Exodus (2022), the long-delayed third and final installment of Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred’s supernatural television series, is kind of stupid. This doesn’t mean that Exodus isn’t enjoyable (it very much is), or that it lacks merit (it does not). But seen for itself, and in relation to its two earlier installments (1994/1996), the new series mostly seems like an extended jape, characterized by von Trier’s knowing mockery of both himself and the very idea of “peak TV.” Granted, The Kingdom was always little more than a portentous gag, using campfire ghost-story hokum to introduce various ideas (body horror, institutional indifference, the arrogance of medical science) in order to treat them, if not trivially, then with a somewhat limited sense of purpose. 

Von Trier developed The Kingdom for Danish TV network DR after completing his first three features, and considered in that context, one can certainly perceive a learning curve. In making the first two seasons of The Kingdom, von Trier explores what would become his primary artistic preoccupation: the coexistence of good and evil. But he did so in the broadest, most declarative manner possible, creating a tale of suppressed demons bubbling up to the surface while spiking the punch with some well-honed embarrassment comedy. (Ernst-Hugo Järegård’s performance as the arrogant, beleaguered Dr. Helmer, railing against “Danish scum,” lingers in the mind long after the crying ghosts in the elevator have evaporated from memory.) 

The first series of The Kingdom was quite a bit more invested in its haunted-hospital conceit than subsequent seasons. Dr. Helmer’s malpractice, which resulted in permanent brain damage for a young patient named Mona (Laura Christensen), was regarded with considerable poignancy, with the humane young Dr. Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark) placing a miniature grave for Mona on his private monument to the Rigshospitalet’s medical malfeasance. This small gesture—“It seems like someone should remember”—is repeated verbatim in Stephen King’s single-season ABC-TV adaptation Kingdom Hospital, suggesting that King too saw it as a major thematic moment. It echoes quite directly with the opening sequence used for all three series, which explains that the hospital stands on the former site of “the bleaching ponds” where poor Danes would stand in giant chemical pools toiling away for the textile industry. Harking back to Gothic literature, The Kingdom used the ghost story as a way to consider history as a vertical time structure, a way to literalize the hold of the past on the present.

But by Kingdom II, von Trier seems less interested in the hospital as a space of reckoning. The last image of the first Kingdom remains indelible, as Dr. Judith Petersen (Birgitte Raaberg) is shown giving birth to a mutant ghost baby, the bloody adult head of Udo Kier emerging from between her legs. The fate of this enormous man-child, named “Little Brother” in Kingdom II and “Big Brother” in Exodus, becomes one of The Kingdom’s primary plot strands, and it tends to signify von Trier’s loss of interest in real-world matters like the abuses of science and industry on the Danish people. Instead, Kier’s malformed sacrificial lamb permits The Kingdom to double down on its most obtuse, lunkheaded ideas. The Brother is the spawn of Satan himself, and his death and (partial) resurrection sets the stage of Exodus’ showdown against the Prince of Darkness, known here as the Grand Duc. Von Trier certainly understands that the devil is in the details, and Exodus takes great delight in revealing the Grand Duc as a surprise movie-star cameo.

It’s all quite diverting, to be sure, even if the final two episodes of Exodus suffer from sloppy pacing and a lack of focus. A well-constructed television show staves off monotony by flitting back and forth between multiple plot strands, and this is something at which von Trier is very adroit. To be fair, though, his co-director Arnfred appears to have focused his own career on genre work, and so it’s entirely possible that his formal contribution to the series has been underappreciated, and that Arnfred may in fact be Mark Frost to von Trier’s David Lynch.

Nevertheless, if The Kingdom gradually reveals itself to be a case of diminishing returns, that’s because the series initially asks to be taken somewhat seriously as an artistic enterprise, but winds up abandoning any pretense of commentary or real-world purchase in favour of a cosmic shaggy-dog story that insists on pointing out how self-aware it is of its overall lack of substance. Starting out on solid ground, The Kingdom quite deliberately wanders into the weeds.

But it’s important to put the series into context. The Kingdom was pivotal to von Trier’s development as a filmmaker. The first two Kingdom series were completed following his commercial breakthrough Europa (1991), and just before his artistic breakthrough with Breaking the Waves (1996). So if von Trier used The Kingdom to workshop his material, learning how to transform religious and philosophical inquiry into broad thematic strands, some of the Manichean simplicity of the first two series is entirely forgivable. And while von Trier’s subsequent filmography contains its fair share of missteps, he certainly embarked on far less cartoonish considerations of desire and ethics. Dogville (2003) is probably the high-water mark for von Trier’s explorations of everyday depravity, but there is also much to be said for Antichrist (2009) and its hysterical deep dive into Western misogyny, not to mention von Trier’s own self-portrait as a deluded, mediocre sadist in The House That Jack Built (2018).

Wherever one stands on von Trier and his divisive oeuvre, it’s clear that the enduring popularity of The Kingdom is due, at least in part, to its blatant lack of seriousness. A bit like the underrated The Boss of It All (2006), The Kingdom is von Trier’s version of light entertainment. As such, it has proven highly influential. It’s the kind of work that is so transparent in its aims that it can serve as a fairly legible road map for directors and showrunners of the future. In the intervening years, traces of The Kingdom can be found nearly everywhere, from its self-conscious adaptation of the medical drama into a campy soap opera, to its reliance on hoary supernatural tropes. Very few current Netflix series would be thinkable without The Kingdom, and it looks very much like a major signpost on the road to today’s “elevated horror.” 

But Exodus is a slightly different matter. Considered strictly from the point of view of TV production, it can be seen as von Trier’s attempt at a victory lap, taking advantage of the contemporary audience’s relative comfort with Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, The X-Files, Fringe, the German series Dark, and other entries that hinge on the inter-dimensional polarity of light and dark. It’s easy to consider the original Kingdom “ahead of its time,” despite the fact that it was actually quite popular in its day. 

But if we look at The Kingdom as a stage in von Trier’s creative development, there’s not much reason to return to this well. When The House That Jack Built was released, fans and detractors alike wondered where von Trier could possibly go next, since the film was a virtual cri de coeur of self-lacerating artistic regret, one that ends with the filmmaker summarily sending his onscreen avatar (Matt Dillon) straight to hell. It’d be inaccurate to charge The Kingdom: Exodus with being a cynical cash grab, but it absolutely is a kind of cash grab with scare quotes, a return to a cornier, dumbed-down von Trier that goes to great lengths to mock its own idiocy. It anticipates any criticism you might lob at it, and simply shrugs.

Every episode of The Kingdom ends with von Trier delivering a retrospective summary and interpretation of the show we’ve just watched. (It’s a show that incorporated its own recaps, long before that practice became the de facto format for television criticism.) This continues in Exodus, with a slight difference. Lars speaks from behind a curtain, with only his shoes poking out. He says that he is vain about the fact that he’s aged, and doesn’t want to be on camera anymore. But von Trier abandons the recap format in the fourth and final episode of Exodus, instead offering a director’s statement in the end credits: “Everything is stolen.” 

This is von Trier using the language of postmodernism, appropriation, and pastiche to remind us that The Kingdom is essentially a put-on. It would be impossible for any halfway attentive viewer to miss Exodus’ citations of Lynch, Maddin, Tarkovsky, Ghostbusters, St. Elsewhere, Grey’s Anatomy, and dozens of other reference points. But above all, Exodus steals from The Kingdom itself. Instead of making a virtue of necessity, Exodus casts necessity as a set of cheap gags and knowing winks. 

Given the advanced age of most of the key personnel, it’s no surprise that nearly all of the lead actors from the first two series have since passed on. No matter: Järegård is replaced by Mikael Persbrandt, who plays “Halfmer,” Stig Helmer’s son. Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), the hospital’s dithering chief of staff, is gone, and in his place we have Pontopidan (Lars Mikkelsen), a slight variation on the original character. And the role of Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), the paranormal investigator from the first two Kingdoms, is now occupied by Karen Svennson (Bodil Jørgensen), a fan of the Danish TV series The Kingdom who wants to infiltrate the hospital to find out what happened to the doctors, patients, and restless spirits from the end of The Kingdom II.

That’s right, Exodus introduces a Möbius narrative logic whereby the original Lars von Trier series The Kingdom exists within the diegetic world of Exodus. Nurses and orderlies complain about “that stupid show” that gave the (real) medical staff such a bad reputation, while the halls of the hospital are occasionally clogged with fans, led on tours by a guide who cheekily admits that Kingdom II was a disappointment. But make no mistake: Exodus does nothing noteworthy with this sequel-as-second-order-fandom conceit. (Tom Six actually applies it more systematically in his Human Centipede sequels.) This is simultaneously von Trier’s half-assed attempt at retconning Exodus into semi-conformity with the earlier series, and his snarky nose-thumbing at the very idea of the retcon, a reminder that TV has rules, but those rules are silly, because at its core TV is silly too.

Most reviews of Exodus compare it to Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), and that is understandable. David Lynch got funding from Showtime to produce the new series 25 years after its last installment, the theatrical feature Fire Walk With Me (1992). Likewise, von Trier and Arnfred unveiled Exodus at the Venice Film Festival a full 25 years after the broadcast of The Kingdom II. There are also quite obvious formal and thematic connections. Both series consider human misdeeds to be outward expressions of a struggle between good and evil on a more universal plane (cf. Twin Peaks’ White and Black Lodges), and the expansiveness of series television permitted Lynch, like von Trier, to pull his viewers out of the cosmic battle with off-the-wall humour. The inept hospital chiefs of staff, for example, could be compared with Twin Peaks’ childlike Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz); the brusque Drs. Helmer and “Halfmer” align quite well with the dyspeptic Albert Rosenthal (Miguel Ferrer); and the dishwashers who work in the hospital’s basement (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers in the first two Kingdoms, Jesper Sørensen and the voice of Jasmin Junker in Exodus), providing cryptic but insightful commentary, are a bit like Margaret the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson).

Exodus, fitfully amusing as it is, does not really compare with The Return, because von Trier takes very few risks with it. But more than this, both belated third-series installments are firmly grounded in the aesthetic temperaments of their makers. Von Trier quite fashionably situates his project in irony, undercutting any moral or ethical intimations that bubble up in The Kingdom. Like a skilled magician who harbours doubts about the validity of his trade, von Trier can’t help following each well-executed trick with passive-aggressive stage patter: “We all know how this is done, right?” By contrast, Lynch approaches even his surrealist comedic flourishes with absolute sincerity. Exodus may not be especially concerned with the fates of Karen, Mrs. Drusse, Mona, or Big Brother. The Return, like the entirety of Twin Peaks, cares very deeply about Laura Palmer.

But the comparison is misleading in more significant ways. Von Trier is frequently arch in his creations, and Lynch disarmingly openhearted, but this is only half the story. As we have seen, in both certain of his films (Antichrist, The House That Jack Built) and his infamous 2011 Cannes press conference for Melancholia (“I understand Hitler,” a statement borne from frank acknowledgment of and disgust with his own authoritarian tendencies), the world has a habit of responding quite poorly when Lars von Trier speaks from the heart. This is probably more a sign of the times than any particular animus toward von Trier, since the scumbags among us are now expected to perform liberalism’s deferential shim-sham, not to come clean as part of the problem.

So if we recognize that the current state of arts funding offers more options for television than for cinema, and that for-profit entertainment concerns have much more faith in content with a pre-existing brand (“intellectual property”), then there are clear financial reasons for the existence of Exodus, The Return, Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep series (2022), and Exterior Night (2022), Marco Bellocchio’s serialization of the Aldo Moro kidnapping, a topic he already explored with Good Morning, Night (2003). Major film artists are expected to build on their “brand,” and adapt it to the current demands of the marketplace, which is dominated by streaming and not theatrical exhibition. Serialized narratives are seen as better suited to over-the-top distribution, despite the fact that the pause button can theoretically “serialize” anything.

For von Trier, it’s not just that returning to The Kingdom made good economic sense. Exodus doesn’t just jump-start an old, well-regarded TV show: it gives the people the Lars they apparently want, and keeps the persona non grata under wraps—a self-erasure that Exodus openly mocks by hiding its creator behind a red Twin Peaks-ish curtain. The von Trier that is most reliably bankable, the one least likely to “get cancelled” in both senses of the word (TV programming and culture-war lingo), is the one who carefully couches any aesthetic predilection inside a thick husk of sarcasm and genre play. 

After all, if everything is stolen, then there is no author to hold responsible, no one to stand bare-chested in the arena, putting his ugliest preoccupations on display and announcing ecce homo. Fittingly, The Kingdom: Exodus ends with the final victory of the Grand Duc, the destruction of nearly every character, and a final shot of the Rigshospitalet exploding into a glowing cloud of neon dust. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the scene in The Dark Knight (2008) when the Joker blows up Gotham General Hospital with an amusingly faulty detonator. The Kingdom: Exodus, like The Dark Knight, firmly establishes two simple facts: there’s no escape from branded IP, and all the world loves a clown.