The 10th Kingdom: 20 Years Later

The 10th Kingdom, the meta fairytale miniseries, premiered twenty years ago today. This is my retrospective…

Shortly after we all ceased clutching our pearls over Y2K disasters (some of you are too young to remember — and you’re the better for it), a twenty-three-year-old me packed up all my worldly belongings, my three-year-old daughter, and way too many homemade potholders to admit and hitched her way (via a plane ticket provided by my husband’s new employer) from Detroit to Silicon Valley.

And then I cried almost every night for two months straight.

I never anticipated I’d be hit with culture shock without even leaving the country. California, however, was nothing like Michigan. It was crowded, confusing, had way too many crazy drivers, and it never snowed. Oh, and it was EXPENSIVE. So, so expensive. (Note: this hasn’t changed.) It was the height of the dot-com era and Silicon Valley was the epicenter. Everyone who could stitch together enough code to program a VCR (google it, youngin’) was pouring into the area. Residential rentals enjoyed a 99% capacity and prospective tenants were showing up to open houses and leasing offices with home-baked brownies, hoping to edge out the competition.

For two months, we lived out of a hotel. During the day, my husband worked 12–15 hour shifts at his new job, while Amara and I drove around in my beaten up Subaru wagon (it would stall at every third stoplight), going to rental after rental, hoping to strike gold. By the time we’d crawl home each evening, it was just enough time to make dinner, give her a bath, and make out a list of places to visit the next day. I was exhausted and needed an escape from the insanity.

I turned to TV.

I’d like to be able to tell you exactly which shows I frequented in 2000. I suspect Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were among them — but the point of escape is that you don’t keep track. That all changed, however, when The 10th Kingdom premiered on this date, February 27, 2000.

For those of you who haven’t had the privilege, let me sum it up very quickly. It’s the Meta Fairytale. Which one? No, not all of them, but most of the ones you’re familiar with: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Little Bo Peep, King Midas… and elements of a dozen more. 10th Kingdom played out in two-hour episodes over a period of four weeks, and it was MUST SEE TV OR DIE viewing in my house. I swooned over Wolf, laughed along at the bromance between Prince Wendell and Tony, and prayed for Virginia’s Happily Ever After. 10th Kingdom gave me the escapism I needed during a very trying and emotionally draining time, when I too felt alone in a strange Valley, surrounded by towering glass trees and ruled over by tech wizards and real estate queens. I got to be Virginia, battling against the demons of my youth who told me I couldn’t be anything in this world where so many were more qualified, prettier, and had more money and bigger dreams than I did. I got to play along with the fairytale.

I’m sure that had lasting effects. (Notes: to see evidence of this lasting effect, you can, of course, check out any of my fairy tale retellings).

And so, realizing that the 20th Anniversary of this cornerstone of my love for all this Fae and Fair was upon us, I sat down recently to rewatch the whole series from tip to toe. In the 20 years that passed, I’m happy to say it still holds its claim as one of the best things ever, and I’ll knife fight anyone who says it wasn’t (as long as the knives are plastic and we part as friends), but the forty-three year old me sees the Grimm-er elements of the fairytales. Just as you can never step in the same river twice, so too can you never hear the same story twice.

Wolf was a stalker, and the relationship he and Virginia embark on will be anything but happily ever after… The unlikely love story between the protagonists starts when Wolf is sent by the Evil Queen to murder his to-be paramour. Yes, that’s right, the first time Virginia sees Wolf, he’s brandishing a knife, standing in her grandmother’s kitchen while Grannie is tied and marinated in preparation for his consumption. What changes the dynamic? Fairytale magic, of course. Upon seeing the young heroine, Wolf falls instantly in love, and transforms from would-be killer to committed stalker. Now, granted, through the four episodes, his character does develop considerably, and because the episodes were played over many weeks, it feels like he has time to change. Still, there is a brief period on their journey when, under the influence of a full moon, Wolf turns downright verbally abusive, threatening, and to some degree, violent (he kills a whole coop of chickens and possibly, a bunny). Even if you buy in that he’s transformed into a good guy (and, come on, it’s a fairy tale, so you must), looking beyond the HEA-like ending tells you that full moons are known to happen regularly. What’s to stop Virginia from his cycles of abuse?

But, on a side note, 2000 Scott Cohen was HHHOOOOOTTTT….

If not for the plot, Tony may have committed rape… Okay, I might be hyperbolizing this one, but at the very least, Tony was a creep. Yes, part of 10th Kingdom’s greatness is that it showed a more fleshed out set of characters than is typical. Everyone is flawed and has baggage. But… there’s flawed, and then there’s Tony. In an early scene, while still in New York City, Tony, Virginia’s father, receives a magic bean in exchange for information (given to a still-on-the-path-to-murder Wolf) about Virginia’s whereabouts. One of the things Tony wishes for is for his boss and the boss’s entire family to become his servant and (somewhat hysterically), kiss his ass — a wish that is granted quite literally when repeated members drop to their knees and pucker up. Soon enough, the whole Boss family is busily adhering to Tony’s commands: clean the kitchen, polish his shoes with his tongue, fix the broken elevator… But the Bossman’s wife, a leggy, beautiful blond, is nearly whisked away by Tony to a lingerie shopping trip, with some subtle suggestions that he intends so much more than that. Watching back in the #MeToo era, I definitely didn’t gloss over this like I did the first time. Straight up, Tony is a creep.

Virginia is still suffering from some major childhood trauma and shouldn’t be in a relationship with anyone. (This one contains spoilers.) Towards the end of the penultimate episode, we get the big reveal: the Evil Queen who we’ve been learning to hate since Scene #1, is in fact, Virginia’s estranged mother. The truth of the night Virginia lost her mother plays back for the audience in a series of flashbacks and via some magic-mirror induced visions. Queen Christine started life as a beautiful and somewhat loosely-moral New York socialite. As a young, successful entrepreneur, Tony caught her eye. They’re married, have Virginia, and then Tony’s business crashes and they end up poor. Christine doesn’t adjust well. She starts sleeping around, and grows more disenchanted by Tony and Virginia’s presence in her life. Finally, one night when Virginia’s eight years old, things come to a head when Christine tries to drown her daughter in the bathtub, saved only by Tony’s serendipitous arrival home from work. Christine flees and chances upon a magical portal to the Fairytale dimension and the house of the Swamp Witch, aka, Snow White’s evil stepmother, in the waning years of her life. Meanwhile, Virginia grows up in a home with a father who sits around watching TV while she cooks and cleans, with a grandmother who is two sheets to the wind and somewhat delusional, and working a dead-end job. To top things off, when she does have her moment of reckoning with her mother, Christine tells Virginia she was a mistake, that she should have been killed at birth, and again tries to kill her. Virginia, in an act of self-defense, uses the poisoned comb of Snow White lore to put her mother into a state of eternal torpor, but still laments her passing and feels guilty for her acts. That’s a lot to unpack, and there’s no indication she’s had any kind of realization of just how damaged she is or how dangerous her relationship with Wolf is likely to be. Girlfriend needs some deep therapy.

At the end of the day, however… The reason, perhaps, that 10th Kingdom still resonates with me has remained true. Unlike the Disney-sugared version, the original fairytales were meant to show us that life sucks, that evil is real, and that there is all kinds of danger in the world beyond our understanding. But, if we are loyal, brave, persistent, and true, life sides towards good.

Having said that, I soooooo want Netflix or Amazon to buy up the rights to this and do a complete remake, because that scene in the forest that faded to black when Wolf and Virginia FINALLY hooked up… Yeah, I might want to see that expanded upon a bit.