DMZ Chooses Its King

Emanuel Padilla

In a fragmented world, leaders only protect their own. Their turf. Their people. Their assets. But what happens when resources are so few, various tribes need a leader to bring them together to survive? Who can be that leader?

In the HBO Max miniseries DMZ, which takes place after a 21st-century civil war divides the United States, one mother returns to Manhattan—known now as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—to search for her lost son. In this dystopian world the country is split into the United States of America, which is run by the military, and the secessionist Free States of America (FSA). Between these warring factions is the abandoned island of Manhattan and all those left there after an evacuation eight years earlier. The evacuation is the last memory Alma (Rosario Dawson) has of her son Christian (Bryan Gael Guzman) before she lost him in her escape. She risks her life returning for him. When she arrives, she’s thrust into political drama as the people of the DMZ prepare to vote for their first governor. Who will be king? What kind of kingdom will they establish? These questions drive the four-part series to a prescient theological answer.

Based on the DC comic of the same name, DMZ explores a fragmented world where marginalized people are caught between the wars and political maneuvers of powerful men. Those left in the DMZ are misfits, the poor, sick, and weak. Employing a cast of nearly 1,000 extras, director Ava DuVernay populates the first episode with people from a variety of ethnicities and nationalities, intentionally raising questions of equity and division. The island is unruly, chaotic, devastatingly broken, divided as it is among several tribes. From these groups emerge two leaders campaigning for the governorship: Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt) and Wilson Lin (Hoon Lee). Episode One reveals that Parco is Christian’s father; he’s been manipulating his son to turn him into a mercenary weapon. To free Christian from Parco’s influence, Alma must work with Wilson and others to ensure Parco loses the election.

The second episode, directed by Ernest Dickerson and aptly titled “Advent,” concludes with a debate between the two primary candidates. (Spoilers ahead.) Standing in front of gold-colored banners with the symbol of a crown and the slogan “Rey del Barrio” (King of the Hood), Parco preaches a message of unity under his rule. He raises questions about the name DMZ, arguing that it shouldn’t define the people of Manhattan. He invites the audience to see themselves as an overthrowing army prepared to fight for their land. Wilson, dressed as a refined man of business, presents a vision of lawless freedom and self-actualization. His vision is all about protecting the people’s license to do as they please. One motivates with fear and the other with lust. Both men appeal to the marginalized and their desire for revolution.

The series presents women leaders as counter-voices who warn of the violence ahead in each candidate’s vision. In the most pivotal conversation of the series, between Alma and Susie (Jade Wu), Wilson’s mother figure, Susie expresses skepticism about Wilson’s leadership: “I’m not young enough to believe that anything depends on any one man in charge. . . I think one ruler is the problem. From up close they’re different, perhaps, moment to moment, but that’s just an illusion. . . From above, no. All men who rule by and for themselves alone will succumb. In the end, the cycle is the cycle.”

Susie then asks Alma, who came to the DMZ from beyond its borders, “What will you do with these orphans that call the DMZ home?”

The series presents women leaders as counter-voices who warn of the violence ahead in each candidate’s vision.

Indeed, Alma offers a distinct vision for liberation. If she becomes “king” of the DMZ, she invites the people to build together. At one point, Alma speaks to the DMZ through the city’s only remaining radio station, encouraging the people to examine their hands and pay attention to the signs of struggle and survival. She reinterprets their scars as signs of strength and will. As her voice reverberates through the streets, people throughout the city and from every tribe, along with the scattered poor who have no tribe, are seen contemplating their hands. Her voice has gathering power.

In a later speech before a crowd of people from every tribe, Alma declares, “I invite you to a new table, our table. The DMZ is not either of two Americas, not anymore. But it is our home, and it is our future. Now, we begin.” The work of kingdom building, in Alma’s vision, is collaborative, privileging the poor over the mighty. Using the metaphor of the table, Alma imagines everyone having a seat, a voice, and a role. To change the metaphor, she dignifies the priesthood of every citizen. Hers is a vision of mutual flourishing that breaks the cycle of self-centered empire building.

Christians often think of 1 Samuel 8 as a story criticizing Israel for requesting a human king in place of God. This interpretation misses two important points of context. First, the people asked for a king after Samuel’s sons, whom he appointed as Israel’s leaders, turned “aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” Their leadership was already like the other nations. Second, the Lord had given instructions for what Israel’s king should be like. According to Deuteronomy 17, the king must not acquire many horses (a sign of military power) or take many wives (a sign of a licentious heart). Israel’s king should “not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites,” but should live as a model servant of the Lord among the people. The tragedy of 1 Samuel 8 is that Israel thought they’d find that king in the visions of neighboring nations.

Long after the failure of Israel’s monarchy, God’s people still couldn’t recognize the vision of kingship embodied in Christ. Jesus had a preferential option for the poor, much like those left in the DMZ. These are his people. Under the sound of his voice crowds gathered and, with his blessing, their resources proved enough to feed the masses. In a world of fragments and factions, Jesus bonded disparate people, restoring the blessed diversity first envisioned at Babel.

Empire-building leaders who try to rule with fear or license can be found in every tribe. Alma, an echo of Christ’s vision, invites the DMZ to choose instead a loving liberator as their king. Long before Alma presented the alternative of a new table, Jesus imagined a table for everyone. The cycle of toxic leaders is only broken by the one who, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant . . .” Let the people of the DMZ see this servant and choose him as King.

Topics: TV