Every so often Kingdom – which is really good all the time – has one of those episodes. The ones where the tension is tighter than a bowstring, where great forces are drawn together in events of great magnitude and intimacy. You could kind of see this one coming, and it makes sense. So much of the series has been building towards this crowning ceremony that you know something really dramatic was planned for the moment. Even so, that the series always manages to exceed my expectations at such times is testament to just how good the writing is.
As usual, the battlefield is really just the culmination of the political machinations driving the gears of history. Ai is a tool in Lu Buwei’s hands, that much has been clear all along. His fingerprints are all over its creation and his agents are strategically hidden amongst its ranks. The Queen Dowager considers herself his equal of course, but her presence here reflects the fact that he’s outmanouvered her to this point. This was not an invasion she wanted, and worse, she’s the one to take the fall for it. She knew that when she led the Ai entourage to the coronation, but she wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.
The key to the plan is the forged imperial seal, which literally has her fingerprints all over it. With it, an Ai army of 30,000 troops is able to get through Hangu Pass unharried and proceed towards Xianyang. This itself is interesting, because Lu Buwei expected that number to be 10,000. But the Ai general Fan Wuji added 10,000 troops from the annexed minor kingdom of Rongdi (still nursing resentment a century later), as well as 10,000 conscripted along the way with the fake seal. Did the Queen Dowager know about that? Hard to say at the moment.
Lu Buwei’s plan is for that army to raze the capital (killing Zheng’s family in the process), only to be defeated by Meng Wu under his command, making him the hero of Qin. He cockily moves to end the coronation ceremony, but Zheng will have none of that. He vows to see it through to the end (which is critical for obvious reasons). And he and Changwen seem oddly calm despite the terrible news delivered to Yong in the middle of his ceremony. A crucial question here is the role of Changping in all this – he’s ultimately loyal to Lu Buwei’s faction but is he in on this plan in its entirety?
Zheng knows – that becomes clear to Lu Buwei quickly enough. But how? Is someone in his camp a spy for the King’s camp? Could the Queen Dowager herself possibly have tipped Zheng off when things spiraled out of her control? That wouldn’t be illogical but she’s not acting like that’s the case. In any event Zheng has obviously acted on this information, though the crucial question of for how long he has known is still unanswered. It could never have been anyone but Xin that Zheng would call upon in the ultimate moment of truth – the only question is just how it would go down.
The matter of that odd message Diao received – with the broken seal – is obviously crucial to all this. It makes sense that Zheng would need to code a message to Xin to return to Xianyang at haste in order to keep his plans secret from Lu Buwei, but why the broken seal? Whether that message was the means by which the king ordered Xin’s return to the capital or not, return he is – there to face off with Fan Wuji’s army (which has just capped off their victory over a token Qin defense force by beheading 1,000 surrendered prisoners).
What a grand dramatic moment this is, befitting almost four seasons of buildup. If Zheng is successful in this gambit – outflanking the infallible Lu Buwei in the process – he will have effectively cemented his supremacy in one fell swoop. And not only that, in doing so he will have made Xin – his staunchest ally in the military and most trusted companion – a national hero, in the process skyrocketing him past the likes of Wang Ben and Meng Tian and making him the leading light of the new generation of generals. It’s too soon to declare victory but at the moment, Zheng appears to have the upper hand on Lu Buwei at last.