by Paola Cesarini
*Contains spoilers for Kuzgun Season 1
Kuzgun was the best Turkish series of the 2018-19 season. Period. This article will explain why and, in turn, hopefully inspire readers to tune in into this brilliant dizi, whose second season will start airing again soon.
Kuzgun narrates the story of a young man who, forcibly separated from his family at a very young age, has to fend for himself amidst the cruelest of circumstances. While experiencing unthinkable physical and emotional traumas, he manages somehow to survive and return “home” twenty years later with every intention to settle accounts with those responsible for his misery. Above and beyond this basic plot, there are several fascinating additional layers to this brilliant dizi. First, Kuzgun is not merely a story about justice and revenge. It is also a tale about conscience, guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Consequently, it deals quite skillfully with complex issues such as agency and responsibility. Second, Kuzgun is a heart-wrenching romance. This is however no ordinary sentiment, but a feeling of unexpectedly fierce strength and resilience against formidable odds. Moreover, in addition to a dark, powerful and dashing male lead (Barış Arduç), it features a strong female protagonist (Burcu Biricik), who herself is a force to be reckoned with. Third, Kuzgun is a story about family bonds and the incomparable emotion of being able to “come home” to a place one thought forever lost. Finally, Kuzgun confronts what makes us human, with exquisite nuance and surprising depth. It also offers profound cues for reflection on the inevitability of kismet (i.e. fate).
At traits vaguely reminiscent of Içerde, Kuzgun is as brilliantly written, skillfully produced, superbly acted, and magnificently scored as its illustrious predecessor. This was no mean feat during the 2018-19 dizi season, which included such highly anticipated and popular series such Carpisma, Erkenci Kus, and Hercai. Amidst last season’s new dizi landscape, however, Kuzgun stood tall above others in terms of originality and intensity, while at the same time delivering great script consistency, quality of character development and stellar performances.
We first meet Kuzgun as the 29-year old Akça in Nevşehir, the major city in Cappadocia, where he earns a living as a nightclub bouncer. He is assigned as a temporary bodyguard to a young and beautiful lawyer, Dila Bilgin, who is visiting from Istanbul. Dila happens to be Kuzgun’s childhood sweetheart, before his former existence fell apart and he became Akça. Although she cannot possibly recognize the adult Akça as the 8-year old boy she used to love, her unconscious self is at once emotionally and physically drawn to him. After thwarting a staged kidnapping, Kuzgun travels to Istanbul to obtain employment from Dila’s dad (Rifat Bilgin.) The latter is Kuzgun’s father’s (Yusuf Cebeci) former police colleague, whose corruption and betrayal caused his family’s unraveling. Soon Kuzgun discloses his true identity to the Bilgins. Dila is elated. The others are deeply concerned he might be out for revenge. He also reveals himself to his mother (Meryem Cebeci), whom he believes abandoned him, and to his two siblings (Kumru and Kartal). At the same time, he implacably rejects their overtures to reunite as a family. Upon his arrival in Istanbul, Kuzgun is befriended by a mysterious tailor, who appears determined to offer him protection while the young man meticulously sets to implement his plan for revenge. From this premise, the story develops into a seamless ebb and flow of surprising and intelligent plot twists that consistently deliver excitement, tension, romance, tragedy, and at times also humor.
The script methodically unveils the mystery surrounding Kuzgun’s life as a lost child through a succession of quick but meaningful flashbacks that reveal why and how he became the fearless, implacable, ruthless and dangerous man he is today. At the same time, we get glimpses of the heart that lies behind the steel curtain. The dramatic morgue scene following Kesik’s assassination is simply Oscar-worthy. This is Barış Arduç as we have never seen before. The intensity of his grief for his friend’s death pierces the viewer’s soul as if it were directly reaching through the screen. With an utter sense of powerlessness, we witness Kuzgun’s desperate anguish as Kesik’s death briefly reconnects him with his compassionate nature.
Another interesting aspect of the series is the progressive crumbling of Kuzgun’s defenses before the inevitability of love. While powerful mafia bosses like Rifat Bilgin or Şeref Dağistanlı clearly fail to intimidate him, Kuzgun finds himself quite vulnerable before Dila’s affectionate overtures. We soon realize that the temptation of trusting anyone is what Kuzgun fears most. His efforts to resist her love appear as almost superhuman. Early in the series, Dila takes Kuzgun to Büyükada to celebrate his birthday for the first time in 20 years. Desperately attempting to recreate their childhood intimacy, she gives him twenty small gifts. One for each of the years he remained missing. While clearly stunned and deeply moved by her loyalty, he appears callously to rebuff her affection. His deeds, however, subsequently contradict his words.
A great feature about the series is its realism. In the story, no character is flawless, starting with Kuzgun himself. Everyone’s motives are ambiguous. Everybody’s feelings are ambivalent. The screenwriters play a clever a cat and mouse game with the audience, with each episode providing only a few additional pieces to the Kuzgun puzzle, and offering more questions than answers. Hence, Barış Arduç’s handsomeness notwithstanding, it was quite disturbing to witness Kuzgun slip drugs in Dila’s drink, so that he could get his hands on the evidence needed to put Rifat in jail. And yet, one cannot help but be drawn to his character. Kuzgun is the villain one keeps falling in love with, even when his wrongdoings are increasingly unjustifiable. Soon in the series, Kuzgun’s behavior dispels any romantic notion about his knight-in-shining-armor persona. At the same time, viewers realize that, somewhere in his subconscious, he holds Dila as much more than a means to an end. She is the idealized emotional anchor, which he continues to hold on to during the worst of times. Late in the game, her suffering eventually makes Kuzgun realize that Dila is real, and not just a fruit of his childhood imagination. And that his actions towards vengeance risk depriving him of the only chance at happiness he might have left.
Another refreshing quality of Kuzgun is the notable absence of shy, weak, naive and sexually clueless female characters, which all too often populate the world of Turkish dizi. Dila and Kumru are smart, passionate, sassy, fearless and direct. They know what they want and will move strategically in order to achieve their objectives. It is a delight to watch them in action. Dila will not play the role assigned to her by the various strong men who populate her world. She will not do as her father says. And neither thugs nor the law will succeed in intimidating her. Most relevantly, she will not allow Kuzgun to play his heartless charade without serious interference, deploying all her feminine powers to bring him just a hair width away from losing control.
There is hardly a dizi where lovers fail to go to extraordinary lengths to dissimulate their feelings. Thus, it is a nice surprise to see how open and sincere Dila is about her love for Kuzgun. She appears fully aware of what is at stake, and does not let pride or false modesty get in her way. Mid-way through season one, she tells him: “When you came back, I dreamed that I was going to hold your hand and love you very much. Who knows? You might have loved me too. […] But it did not happen. […] So, I will give you everything I have for you to go away, because you are not safe here. […] If I mean something to you, please take my offer.” Dila’s character is a very refreshing dizi female lead. Except perhaps when her blind devotion towards an exceedingly flawed family appears momentarily to cloud her judgment, she is never a victim. She continues to love, fight for and protect those who matter to her as fiercely as a lioness, no matter how much her heart gets bruised along the way. And, being fully in touch with her feelings, she is completely open about her desires. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this sincerity that manages eventually to breach the fortress of Kuzgun’s heart.
Kumru — Kuzgun’s younger sister — is another brilliant female character. She is fiercely intelligent, utterly fearless, incredibly resilient and infinitely resourceful. She is perhaps Yusuf Cebeci’s most deserving heir. Most interestingly, she fails to conform to the younger sister stereotype, not only effectively supporting Kuzgun during key crises, but also standing up to his nonsense whenever necessary. She is sensitive as it comes, but — in contrast to her twin brother Kartal — she does not let her kind soul paralyze her. More than once, her actions critically contribute to move the story along. We therefore fully expect her role to remain pivotal in the coming season.
Barış Arduç offers a remarkable dramatic interpretation as Kuzgun, skillfully alternating between ruthlessness and vulnerability, irony and cynicism, love and hate, and hope and desperation. The series’ success, however, relies first and foremost on a terrific ensemble performance by the entire cast. No one’s acting is ever over the top. Despite the many opportunities available to turn Kuzgun into a soap opera, the script remains focused and crisp, and the actors consistently deliver selfless performances. For example, during several painful encounters between Kuzgun and Meryem, he makes no effort to hide his contempt for the mother who allegedly abandoned him. At the start, his fury is palpable and as powerful as his inner torment. On the other hand, Meryem never appears intimidated by her son’s rejection. Relentlessly, she focuses on reminding him not only of her mother’s love, but also of his own compassionate nature. And slowly but surely, she gradually reawakens his conscience, as well as his ability to love. In the hands of different actors and screenwriters, this hopeless mother/son relationship could have easily turned into melodrama. In Kuzgun, instead, their immeasurable pain is handled with both dignity and respect. And their progress towards reconciliation, which is never taken for granted, happens more through silent glances and gestures than lengthy dialogues in what results as one of the most moving parent/adult child performance since the Füsün/Sarp/Umut scenes in Içerde.
While easier, Kuzgun’s rapprochement with his two siblings is also a protracted affair. The cotton candy scene, however, settles the issue with moving elegance. Kuzgun waits for Kartal and Kumru outside the courthouse where Rifat has just been sentenced to jail. He buys them cotton candy from a street vendor, while a series of flashbacks relate the last conversation with his father in jail, when the latter instructed Kuzgun to celebrate with his siblings once justice was delivered. While only few words are exchanged, the siblings fully realize that the cotton candy fulfills that twenty-year-old promise. And that Kuzgun can now finally let himself “come home.” Viewers who have yet to see this scene from season one, should definitely have tissues at hand.
Kuzgun’s first season ends with a “pyrrhic” victory. This expression comes from the antiquity. More precisely, from King Pyrrhus of Epirus’ battles against the Romans in 280 BC, when his army prevailed but at the price of irreplaceable casualties. Similarly, Kuzgun’s vengeance inflicts such a devastating toll upon himself and others, that it ultimately deprives him of any true sense of achievement. And is hence tantamount to defeat. This is the clear message that meeting his 8-year old self conveys. Little Kuzgun shows the adult one that vengeance won’t heal his wounds. Only love — Dila’s love — can. To become aware of revenge’s ultimate futility, however, Kuzgun had to come full circle. He had successfully to carry out his plan and personally gauge its devastating consequences. What is more, he had to realize that retribution only leads him to turn into his worst nightmare — i.e. into an arid, delusional and lonely man, whose cruelty (as his mother correctly points out) is however foreign to Kuzgun’s DNA. Differently put, Kuzgun’s carefully planned revenge unexpectedly leads him to self-discovery, as well as to forgiveness, love and redemption. Uneasy feelings long ago forgotten, which he appears completely unprepared for.
After season one’s brutal cliffhanger, it is everyone’s guess in which direction the brilliant screenwriters will take Kuzgun in the second season. As a result of previous tragic events, Kuzgun may enter some sort of Purgatory phase, where he may turn away from the vicious cycle of violence he initiated and, in so doing, lay the foundations for a difficult redemption. At the same time, the previews indicate that he will face a new formidable adversary. Interpreted by an outstanding actor (Onur Saylak,) who is well versed in playing complex über-evil roles, Ferman will challenge Kuzgun for the leadership of the criminal underworld, as well as for Dila’s love. While the premise may sound familiar, Kuzgun’s script has yet to deliver a formulaic or predictable story. Viewers may thus rest assured that this series will take them again on a wild ride that will keep them glued to the screen, at the edge of their seats, and thoroughly entertained in what remains one of the most anticipated series of the 2019-20 dizi season.
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A native of Italy, Paola Cesarini has a Ph.D. in Political Science and worked as an international civil servant, a university professor, and a leader in higher education for many years. She is fluent in six languages and is currently learning Turkish. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two children. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, classical music, swimming, skiing and exploring other cultures.
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