Wow. Where do I begin with Arthdal Chronicles.
I guess I should start off by saying that I went into this series with zero expectations. A South Korean fantasy that premiered on Netflix in June, the trailers for Arthdal didn’t grip me like most historical fantasies. Neither did its high-concept premise, which essentially boils down to Game of Thrones meets cave men.
Yes, you heard me. Cave men! Or to be more specific: the first Bronze Age peoples. Starring Jang Dong-gun as Tagon (a machiavellian prince with a heart of gold), Song Joong-ki as the twins Eunseom and Saya, and Kim Ji-won as the mystic Tanya, Arthdal Chronicles immediately throws you into a complex, multi-generational story. While it does this with aplomb, the learning curve is steep.
In this mystical land of “Arth” where the story is set, the Neanthal and the Saram peoples are at war over a rich, prehistoric bread-belt where the Saram are trying to create the first large-scale agriculture operation. When Tagon—a hyper-intelligent prince of the Saram—is sent to war by his father, he devises a genocidal plan to wipe out the Neanthals. Eunseom and his mother are forced to flee past the Black Cliffs to the far-off land of Iark in order to escape the violence.
Many years pass, and the characters grow older. When the Saram decide to expand their empire, they look to Iark for slaves. Tagon, who has been at war for years at the behest of his father, is once again sent out to brutalize an innocent population. This act puts him directly at odds with the now-adult Eunseom and his friend Tanya—the spiritual leader of the people he’s targeting.
When I first started watching Arthdal, I didn’t know if I would like it. But oh man, do I have opinions now.
Season 1 of Arthdal sucker-punches you right from the beginning. The opening credits give you an impression that you’re going to be watching a Game of Thrones knockoff, but once the story gets going, that’s where the similarities end.
It appears that a major source of inspiration for the series comes from the prehistorical neanderthal species and how they interacted with homo sapiens. However, while Arthdal draws from history and mythology for inspiration, it’s important to note that it adds a distinct fantasy twist to the whole affair.
In this country of Arth where the characters live, Neanthals are blue-eyed, blue-blooded super humans that can springboard through trees and tear people’s hearts out with their bare hands. They are superior to the Saram, but the Saram manage to defeat them by giving their enemies disease-ridden pox blankets: a method of biological warfare that uncomfortably mirrors the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.
I have very mixed feelings about the appropriation of this real-life tragedy for a fantasy show, but aside from that Arthdal’s attention to detail was a stand-out feature. Both the Neanthal and the Saram are built up in a way that you really only see in books.
The show manages to explore this complex worldbuilding by having each episode clock in at a whopping one hour and twenty minutes apiece, without commercial breaks. The set design—aside from the odd use of CGI—is gorgeous.
Song Joong-ki was fantastic as the twins Eunseom and Saya, and by the middle of the season Kim Ji-won’s Tanya had come into her own as well. Above all, the ruthless, emotionally conflicted Tagon steals the show.
Despite his direct role in multiple tragedies, Tagon exhibits an internal complexity that is sorely lacking from many North American villains. By the end of Season 1 you can’t help but empathize with his deep, psychological need for external love and validation from the people of Arthdal, and how it drives everything he does; a need that was never fulfilled by his abusive father’s behaviour.
Arthdal Chronicles has suffered from lackluster viewership despite its big budget. Cave men are not the most popular genre, and the rest of its issues can boil down to Arthdal’s unfortunate similarities to Game of Thrones in its opening credits and in some of the costume choices for the characters.
The writer of the show, Park Sang-yeon, has hit out against critics, saying “[Game of Thrones] is the apex of human entertainment, and our series can hardly match up to that.” He then asked audiences to lower their expectations. Credits aside, I really do think this comparison is unfair and that he’s right to say that.
The pictures circulating online over the supposed similarity of the characters’ costumes are deeply (and I would argue, purposely) misleading. In one egregious shot, Eunseom’s mother and her white ensemble are compared to Daenerys and her winter robe. The only thing these two characters have in common is that they ride a horse while wearing white. Eunseom’s mother was an unambitious pacifist whose sole crime was falling in love with the wrong person. Daenerys was a warlord and dragon queen who burned her way through Westeros in order to seize the throne.
Additionally, I would argue that Arthdal is the anti-Game of Thrones in how it approaches its content. It’s an empathetic, political fantasy where the characters are allowed to be emotionally complex, on-screen sexual assault is non-existent, power-for-power’s sake is routinely punished, and gratuitous violence is repeatedly condemned.
These were all major writing flaws in Game of Thrones, and honestly I’d recommend this series if you didn’t like the Westeros epic. It sucks that Arthdal’s lack of audience is being thrown off by its intro and misleading online rumors.
While I definitely enjoyed this series, it was upsetting to learn about the backstage drama surrounding this show. Studio Dragon—which produced Arthdal Chronicles—was accused of violating labor laws by having their crew work up to 150 hours per week.
Studio Dragon initially tried to deflect, but then admitted that they had their crews film for over the recommended maximum while shooting in Brunei. The exploitation of their staff definitely soured my enjoyment of this series.
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