Hailed as South Korea’s first ancient fantasy drama, the first season of Arthdal Chronicles was a sprawling Bronze Age epic that introduced us to the politics, magic and people in the mythical continent of Arth. While the series’ lore is as complex as anything J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin could have imagined, the show focused heavily on the rise of Ta-gon (Jang Dong-Gun), a closeted Igutu (the purple-blooded hybrid between humans and a supernatural species called Neanthal) who used his military genius to seize power as the land’s first king. After transforming Arthdal from a union of tribes into a nation, Tagon set his sights on the rest of Arth, aiming to conquer the ”barbarian” tribes of the East.
Four years after that tantalising cliffhanger, Arthdal Chronicles returns for its overdue follow-up entitled The Sword of Aramun. Set eight years after Tagon’s coronation, season two catches us up on his empire’s expansion. Despite fierce resistance, Tagon’s forces have been largely successful in colonising their neighbours. Currently only a few tribes remain, including the Ago Tribe, led by Eun-seom (Lee Joon-Gi), an Igutu prophesied to be their reincarnated saviour Inaishingi. Fortunately, our noble hero has convinced Ago’s 30 warring clans to unify in the face of looming invasion. Unfortunately, that threat has arrived, and it’s commanded by Eun-seom’s cunning twin (and Ta-gon’s adopted son) Saya, who’ll stop at nothing to fulfil his dad’s plans.
Back in Arthdal, the political intrigue remains as tense as ever. After enslaved Wahan Tribe shaman Tan-ya (Shin Se-Kyung) was revealed to be a direct descendant of Arthdal’s sacred Great Mother, and has spent the last few years solidifying her status as Head Priestess through philanthropic acts and her psychic powers. Now revered as a kind spiritual leader, she intends to use her growing influence to undermine Ta-gon, and rescue her lost love Eun-seom. Meanwhile, Queen Tae Al-ha (Kim Ok-Bin) is raising Ta-gon’s biological son Arok, who she seeks to install as heir, which is tricky because many are trying to assassinate him – including Saya who is next in line. Thus, she schemes to learn the secret of Yeol-son’s (Jung Suk-Yong) revolutionary iron technology as leverage.
And we haven’t even mentioned the prophecy that three heavenly objects represented by Eun-seom (sword), Saya (mirror) and Tan-ya (star-shaped bell) will somehow end the world. Or the various agendas and grudges of dozens of ministers, soldiers, religious sects, merchants, spies and exiled tribespeople. Or that Neanthals aren’t entirely extinct, with a handful still running around. Arthdal Chronicles’ scope is indeed labyrinthian, but thanks to season one’s intricate worldbuilding, it’s much easier to track everything now that viewers are familiar with the mythology, geography and dynamics. While the machinations are indeed clearer to grasp this go-around, the plots themselves can vary from clever to derivative.
Obviously the biggest concern heading into season two is the shocking recasting of Song Joong-ki and Kim Ji-won, who played main characters Eun-seom/Saya and Tan-ya respectively. Thankfully, the show’s new leads have proven to be more than capable of filling their predecessors’ shoes. Lee Joon-Gi and Shin Se-Kyung are fantastic in capturing the essence of these three crucial roles, while adding new touches to display how they’ve matured in the intervening years. Long-awaited moments that were built up for most of season one – such as the long lost brothers’ showdown, alongside Eun-seom and Tany-a’s reunion – happen fairly early on. And credit to both actors for pulling off these pivotal character beats with such aplomb that viewers won’t even be thinking about their original faces.
Boosted by impressive battle sequences helmed by director Kim Kwang-sik, improved CGI, whirlwind pacing, bombshell twists and a more streamlined narrative, The Sword of Aramun has certainly addressed most of the criticisms levied at season one. However, Arthdal Chronicles still can’t shake its adherence to exhausted fantasy tropes and similarities to other epics (most blatantly Game of Thrones). It remains to be seen whether the series can subvert the genre’s cliches to deliver a surprising and satisfying endgame, but the spectacle we’ve seen so far certainly holds plenty of promise.
Arthdal Chronicles: The Sword of Aramun airs every Saturday and Sunday on tvN, and is also available to stream on Disney+
The Post The Sword of Aramun’ review Originally Posted on www.nme.com