Of Kings and Prophets Season 1 Episode 1: Review
It is always tricky with Biblical epics: how true do we stay to the source material and how far are we allowed to digress without losing the essence? The first episode of this new Old Testament-based series walks a tight rope when dealing with this question, but succeeds for the most part, drawing the viewer into a story that can potentially become one of the television greats – as it is supposed to be*.
Partial to Biblical storytelling as well as film making myself, I was firstly struck by the attention to detail of the production design. It was wonderful to see proper set design, cinematography and grading that is very much on par with the likes of Game Of Thrones and Vikings (even to the point of mimicking some of that, but more on that later). This, thankfully, breaks the notion that just because it is based upon or an interpretation of religious material, it needs to be skimmed over in favour of some pushed-down-the-throat, overtly religious message. Of Kings And Prophets steers very clear of this and opts to ask some very serious questions: if Israel is supposed to be “the light for the nations”, a notion that King Saul himself utters twice in this episode, then why must the Amalekites be vanquished in their entirety? Why must women and children be murdered in the name of Elohim? It is unfortunate that the matter of the anathema did not get explained. Instead the episode fell into the Game Of Thrones-trap, which started with earlier historical series such as Rome, of using gratuitous sex and nudity as a flimsy exposition device, all the while stating itself as a “mature” series. It didn’t need to do that to get its point across. It could have used that space to explain to more uninformed viewers why Samuel said what he said.
Which brings me to the most interesting parts of this episode: the portrayal of the characters. Ray Winstone as King Saul shows convincingly that this man would be tethering on the brink between greatness and madness from the get go. I admit I was a bit uncertain about the choices for him and David at first, but throughout the episode they grew on me. I am anticipating how Winstone will have us see-sawing between rooting for and hating Saul in future episodes. Saul’s wife is a delightfully cunning woman and it would be interesting to see where her character will be going in the next few episodes. Jonathan was solid, as was Mikhal, who is to become David’s wife at some future point (this is not a spoiler, it is in the Bible). David’s portrayal became more convincing as the episode carried on, which is weird considering that filming is rarely done sequential, but nonetheless, he became someone we can root for as the series progress. The little seeds of romance between him and Mikhal as well as the bit of tension between him and Saul at the end of the episode provided some nice foreshadowing, albeit not necessarily surprising for those acquainted with the Biblical narrative. But it does make you want to see how it will be portrayed (and how far they will go with David and Jonathan’s friendship, eventually, seeing that they are not scared to shy away from, well, explicit sexposition). Garth Collins as Goliath was a treat and I can’t wait to see David throw his famous stone into his big Granite forehead. Yoab, who is to be a general in David’s army some day in the future, was fine and his relation to David was set quite firmly. The biggest question mark to me was the portrayal of Samuel the prophet, who doesn’t really explain himself or draw Saul into his reasoning, but simply commands holy war in a “God wills it!”- fashion. He didn’t convince me to be the sturdy but slightly disappointed man of God** as he was supposed to be and his lisp did not help either. But, all things being equal, he should die within an episode or three of old age anyway, so we will let that pass for now.
As far as narrative goes, it seems that some liberty will be taken with the order of certain events so as to make for suspenseful storytelling, something that is not necessarily a problem. Anyone familiar with the problematic behind Old Testament history will know that oral tradition allows for certain events to be switched around, as well as leaving some blanks that needed to be filled in by the modern-day screenwriters. They did a fine job inserting some almost literal renditions of lines from the book of 1 Samuel (Samuel the prophet’s lines at the end of the episode especially sounds chilling when heard out loud). They also cleverly set-up certain other points of future action, such as the mole inside Saul’s household and the reason(s) for the war against the Philistines, which will be intriguing for viewers both familiar with the tales to come as well as those who are not.
All in all this was as strong a start for a series as anyone could hope for, with a strong narrative and characters that, thank God (pun intended), we can distinguish from each other and whose names we can actually pronounce. The strongest card in the series’ suit (or biggest stone in their slingshot, if you will) is the potential to ask difficult questions regarding the will of God, how people understood Him back then, how we are to do it now and how we are to react to His participation in our lives, without having to become overtly spiritual (although there was some very ethereal lighting in a cave at some point, hinting towards the whole Lion of Judah-theme, but let’s let the gaffer and his team have their fun). It also has the power to reintroduce the Bible to a generation that has forgotten how to read it. Let’s hope it continues to keep its balance on the tight rope it created for itself.
*This viewer is especially proud of all the South African involvement on this production. May it serve (along with Mad Max: Fury Road’s recent Oscar success) to install the deserved trust from international investors that our filmmakers and technicians know what they’re doing.
**Samuel was disappointed that the tribes of Israel wanted a king just like the nations around them, instead of remaining a theocracy, under the rule of God by voice of the prophets. He reluctantly anointed Saul and was especially saddened by Saul’s disobedience throughout his reign. He was a bit happier to anoint David in Saul’s stead, but even that wasn’t exactly what he envisioned for the nation of Israel. It would serve to know a little about this to understand his seemingly curt actions.