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The Weekend Binge: Black Knight

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Netflix's Black Knight is a visually striking dystopian show, but flat storytelling, predictable characters, and one too many vague and unexplained subplots make this dusty k-scifi tale as dry and as uninteresting as the wasteland it's set in.

The plot:

It’s 2071, and a comet has struck the Earth, eviscerating nearly everyone and turning everything into a giant dustbowl. The air has become unbreathable for the 1% of the population who survived. In this hellish landscape, Korea has become a fragmented society where the elites enjoy idyllic lives in lush greenhouses while refugees scour for food and gasp for air.

To stay alive, everyone else must keep purchasing oxygen and supplies sold by a conglomerate and shuttled around by stylish deliverymen or “black knights.” These deliverymen, with their monstrous trucks and fighting skills, have earned a rather illustrious reputation. They also have become a career aspiration for many refugees who see that job as a ticket out of their miserable existence.

One day, a legendary deliveryman, codenamed 5-8 (Kim Woo-bin), crosses paths with an impoverished refugee Sa-wol (Kang Yoo-seok) who wants to become a “knight” (a deliveryman) as well. Aided by 5-8 and his adoptive sister Jung Seol-ah (Esom), Sa-wol quickly discovers that he has what it takes to become a legend himself. But when a horrific eugenics conspiracy threatens everyone, 5-8 and Sa-wol must quickly join forces to fight for everyone’s right to live and breathe.

The show is based on the eponymous webtoon by Lee Yun-kyun.

black knight, kim woo bin, kdrama
Kim Woo-bin cuts a menacing figure as the legendary deliveryman, 5-8.

Our Review

There is nothing new in 5-8’s dystopian world — we have a world that's run out of an essential resource, a scrappy refugee who wants to improve his life in that said world, some gifted people who will aid that refugee on his journey, and a Big Bad Capitalist (Song Seung-heon) at the end waiting to be overthrown. This has all been done before, and the recent spike of dystopian Young Adult literature has used up every classic trope that Black Knight has in its arsenal.

However, we must give credit where it is rightfully due: Korea is really out there proving that the near decimation of the planet is not an excuse to be unfashionable or to have bad skin. The cinematography of Black Knight is great, the musical score is raw and fresh, the visual palette is bleak and beautiful, and the CG work is impressive as usual. The costumes are also quite striking, as to be expected from Squid Game's Cho Sang-kyung. But all this stylishness and sleek color palettes can't save a story that is as dry as the wasteland it's set in and adds very little to the already overdone genre.

Any show that wants to be taken seriously as a dystopian fantasy must fulfill an unspoken cardinal rule: it must adhere to both solid logic (preferably deeply scientific logic) and stringent world-building. And here’s where Black Knight, despite its interesting premise and visually arresting first episode, begins to crack.

The show seems to refuse to lay out all the rules of the new world right off the bat, so you’ll have to do some analyzing yourself. This wouldn't be an issue if not for how unclear and inconsistent the rules are in this dystopian world. Take the basic rules that govern breathing. When does one have to put on a mask? When can you take it off? How long one can go without a mask? And why do some people smoke cigarettes in a world with very little breathable air? A clear rule on this evades us till the end. Let's not even get started on how a whole community was built during a time of rarefied air, how everything is powered, or how something as basic as food or clean water is sourced and harvested.

kim woo bin
Where's the mask?

Thankfully, the show doesn't dwell in a depressive funk all the time, but even the fight scenes peppered in every episode or so feel forced and unnecessary. It's almost as if everyone knew the story was so threadbare that they had to keep audiences awake with the usual flash and bang. The dialogue is also too expository and stilted, almost unhelpful when everything is almost too easy to infer.

We are also given one too many characters with unclear backstories who are hard to care for, which makes nearly everyone in the show disposable and forgettable. While there is some chemistry between Deliveryman 5-8 and the spunky teen Sa-wol, it does run out pretty fast. Even with revelations of mutations and evil conspiracies, the characters remain thinly drawn. Loose subplots, such as the mutation angle, are also never really explored to fruition. However, there are rumors that a second season of Black Knight is in the works. Maybe we’ll find out more when those episodes come around.

Interestingly enough, the show is almost devoid of a love story, which is a key feature of many dystopian shows and stories. Would the show have been livelier if it had a heavy romantic angle? Would we have cared for the characters more if they had fallen in love while plotting a revolution?

The philosopher Michael Foucalt, in his examination of the three classic dystopias (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” Orson Welle’s “Nineteen Eighty-four,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”) has argued that romantic and sexual relations in dystopia are essential because love is significant to a character’s motivations and is a major source of revolutionary power. Yet Black Knight has steadfastly refused to have an overtly romantic plotline. This glaring lack of a love story may be an interesting divergence from the usual genre fare and seems like a bold creative choice for the show, but without it, it becomes painfully obvious that something so crucial is missing.

esom, black knight, netflix
Now the masks are back on again.

Post-apocalyptic tales in sci-fi, whether fuelled by the dream of a utopia or a nightmare of a dark future, remain popular because they cling to a central truth of human nature: that we all want to live in a better world. Black Knight conforms to the usual setup of a dystopian universe where our worst fears are realized. It builds a world where clean air is a luxury, perpetual quarantine is a way of life, horrific eugenics is blatantly carried out, vaccines kill instead of save, and private companies manipulate a helpless citizenry.

However, the point of the dystopian genre is to celebrate the triumph of hope and love over fear and misery. This triumph is usually hard-won by a young radical who is in love and thirsts for a more equitable world. While Black Knight tries very hard to showcase all of this, it never really catapults us to the exhilarating endgame. Instead, for all the show's stylishness and sleekness, it falls flat and remains as dusty and as dry as the world it lives in.

Stream if you have the patience to slog through a dystopian story we've all seen before.

Skip if you'd rather use 5 hours of your life for something much more interesting.

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