Featured Post

Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Sunday, August 02, 2020

No Rainbow Over the Kingdom

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on watching Kingdom currently streaming on Netflix or are in the midst of doing so and don’t want aspects of the plot divulged, read no further.
 _______________________________________________________________________

Nick Jonas as Nate Kulina in 'Kingdom'
Over the years, gay people had been portrayed in movies as depressed, suicidal, addicted or other dark and gloomy individuals. Sometimes the opposite is presented as they are cast as buffoons or ultra-effeminate.  Many were killed off in some fashion or another. These negative stereotypes were captured in the 1995 film The Celluloid Closet that was based on Vito Russo’s 1981 book of the same title.

Of course, as gay acceptance began to increase in society and pressure on the entertainment industry was applied by such organizations as GLAAD, the portrayal of these characters had shifted to more positivity led by numerous changes in television. Ellen, Will & Grace and Modern Family helped paved the way for other shows like Shameless, Orange is the New Black, Riverdale, Schitt’s Creek, etc.

However, with the 40-episode Kingdom, the AT&T Original Series, which had run on DirecTV from 2014-2017 and is now streaming on Netflix, we took a step backwards when it comes to the outcomes of gay characters.

Kingdom is a gritty drama that centers on the lives, loves, victories and failures of a group of people connected to the Navy Street Gym and the world of Mixed Martial Arts in Venice, California. Far from glamorous, the series exposes society’s underbelly including drug addicts, alcoholics, sex offenders, sex workers and the like.  Battles in the ring are ferocious and thrilling; most are bloody.  The well-received 3-season, 40-episode series was created and produced by Byron Balasco who, along with his team, penned the episodes.

The singular main character in Kingdom who was gay wound up tragically shot to death during a violent altercation after coming out to his father. The killing, which was staged towards the end of the penultimate episode, was perpetrated by a bar bouncer in an attempt to break up the melee.  This is a further example of another gay character that writers saw fit to have perished. It could have and should have gone in another direction.

What makes this tragedy so heartbreaking is that this character, Nate Kulina, played sensitively and understated by hunky Nick Jonas of the boy band Jonas Brothers, was the one character who had his shit together, was clean, had no substance abuse issues, no baggage, and was not embroiled with any conflict other than his battles in the MMA cage and coming to terms with his sexual orientation.

Nate, in his early 20’s, was the younger brother of Jay Kulina who, was played brilliantly by Jonathan Tucker.  Both are fighters. Their father Alvey Kulina (played exceptionally well and convincingly by Frank Grillo) was the co-owner of Navy Street where he, as a former fighter, trains others in the bloody, violent, highly competitive world of MMA.

Nate’s journey towards discovering his sexual orientation gradually came to light during the second season.  His declining interest in a girl he was seeing was apparent, and then Nate’s attention was directed towards a hook-up app where photos of various guys were displayed as he pondered his next steps. 

So, for the viewing audience, the cat was out of the bag. But Nate needed to maintain this secret, and he tried desperately to do so.

Nate met a British man named Will through another contact. Will sought to bring the two closer together, but Nate’s being in the closet was a daunting barrier.  Will handed him a business card with a handwritten message suggesting a dinner date at some point when he was ready.
Jonathan Tucker (Jay), Nick Jonas (Nate) and Frank Grillo (Alvey)

Jay, Nate’s brother, discovered the card and unbeknownst to Nate, examined his phone in which he uncovered a text thread between Nate and Will. He used the phone to lure Will to a bar and proceeded to the location to confirm his growing suspicions. Jay promptly left after a cordial exchange with Will but never mentioned any connection to Nate. 

Shortly after, Nate received a phone call from Will inquiring as to when he will be showing up for the rendezvous. He didn’t know what Will was talking about.

Nate noticed the card among Jay’s belongings as the older brother was hospitalized after a fight in the cage. He checked his phone only to detect the bogus messaging and felt anguish that his true sexual identity has been discovered.

One would characterize Jay as a badass with mountaintop highs and deep valley lows, earnest and talented, volatile and violent that is fueled by alcohol and drugs but also caring and devoted. He’s a complex man, a good fighter and devoutly loyal to his brother and his drug addicted mother. His relationship with his father Alvey had been tense.

In an extremely positive scene, Nate comes out to Jay when he acknowledged that Jay learned of his situation. You may view the edited clip of how this unfolded here.

Jay encouraged Nate to tell their father conceding that Alvey most likely wouldn’t be too cool with it. In the meantime, whispers and rumors were spreading among the MMA community about Nate’s sexual orientation, which could be detrimental in this close physical contact sport.

While the coming out scene with Jay could not have been better, the one with Alvey could not have been worse. Alvey is a troubled man who besides the pressures of running the gym and training an assortment of characters, he had a failed marriage and several girlfriends who had left him. Despite his heavy, and I do mean heavy drinking, at around age 50 Alvey’s body (actually it’s Frank Grillo’s) is shredded. He is also volatile and short-tempered and facing a potential diagnosis for a neurological disease as he was preparing for a comeback fight in a legends tournament. For good measure, Alvey’s estranged mother attempted suicide, and he and his sons went to Tucson, Arizona where she was hospitalized.

It was at a cowboy bar in Tucson where the fateful scene took place. The manual on the best way to come out to a parent was thrown away during this scene. Both Nate and Alvey were drinking. Alvey’s mother had attempted suicide, which weighed heavily on his mind. He stressed about his possible illness and his upcoming fight. Plus, Alvey’s personality suggested that he wouldn’t accept his son as both gay and a MMA fighter.
Part of the cast of 'Kingdom'
“I’m gay,” Nate muttered softly a couple of times. “Your son’s gay.” Alvey exploded and asking, “You’re gonna tell me you’re a fucking faggot?”

Clearly, these were not the right conditions for this conversation to take place.  Yet, it happened, and you can view that tragic scene here . 

Alvey was obviously shaken over this tragedy and saw his role in it. He lost a dear son and for that he was broken. Prior to the legends fight in the final episode, Jay presented a touching and dramatic eulogy to Nate in the ring. You can view it here . 

In the hyped up machismo and testosterone-laden world of MMA where close body contact is intrinsic to the sport, Balasco deserves credit for weaving in a gay storyline in such an environment. And keep in mind this was only one of numerous plotlines and a minor one at that in the very well-acted and photographed Kingdom.

But with so many other characters with self-destructive tendencies and baggage, the one he chose to be killed was the gay character that everyone was rooting for. It was supremely disappointing, if not maddening, as yet another gay character was deemed expendable.





No comments: