THE SHORT VERDICT:
More often brisk and breezy than not, more often engaging and fun than not, and more often interesting and entertaining than not, The Three Musketeers is more than your average fusion sageuk.
This drama is a pretty bold attempt to adapt an age-old tale across mediums (novel to drama) and across cultures (French to Korean), while doing its best to retain the optimum crack ingredients that would appeal to a kdrama-loving audience.
Possibly due to its ambition, pacing across the show can be a little uneven, and logic gets sacrificed on more occasions than one might expect. Put on some generous Logic Blinders, though, and there are likely to be enough goodies in this one to make it worth your while.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Before I dive into the review proper, it occurs to me that it’s relevant to highlight my context in watching this show.
Unlike many other viewers who are also fans of the novel, I haven’t read the novel (gasp! I know! What kind of an English graduate am I, right?). Which means I watched this drama without any lens that connected me with the source material whatsoever.
Rather, I came into this purely as a drama fan, and experienced this as a drama fan.
I also ended up enjoying this drama a lot more.. moderately than a lot of other viewers did. While many other viewers have raved about what a fun ride this show turned out to be, I’m pretty sure I didn’t find it quite as fun as they did, even though I liked it well enough.
To go on a somewhat related amusement park analogy tangent, instead of bumper-car/rollercoaster thrills like it was for so many viewers, for me, this drama felt more like a water ride.
There was a moment or two that managed to produce some stomach-flipping highs, but the rest of the way through it alternated between being a little bumpy and mostly pleasant.
While I may not love the show as ardently as many others do, for the record, I still liked it.
A FEW BIG PIECES
I don’t know if it’s because of the shorter run-time of 12 episodes, or because this show is the first of 3 installments and therefore hasn’t gotten to its real meat; I didn’t feel as engaged with this drama’s story as I usually am with a show’s narrative.
Instead, I found myself enjoying this show more for its characters and their relationships, while I felt content to keep the show’s story at a bit of an arm’s length.
For this reason, I’d like to just quickly touch on the show’s execution, story & pacing, and narrative cohesiveness, before spending more time talking about the characters and their relationships.
This drama is one stylish beast, no doubt about it.
From beginning to end, everything within the frame remains beautifully shot and stylishly edited. One thing we regularly get, is an artfully spliced up screen, bold lines criss-crossing the shot to create visual complexity and tension, like so:
We also get edgy black-and-white title frames with every episode, like this one, which shows just half of Crown Prince So Hyeon’s face (Lee Jin Wook), while a splash of dark red (ink? blood?) whooshes down the screen with panache, along with the episode’s title.
Stylish? Check. Snazzy? Check. Just a little bit of edge? Check.
It’s clear that no effort was spared to make this show pleasing to the eye.
From fancy aerial shots, to artistically conceived night scenes, to slo-mo effects and a revolving camera, we get treated to the full works of PD Kim Byung Soo’s Make-It-Pretty kit-bag, and the result is a stylish, snazzy and very polished drama with excellent production values and a seemingly endless supply of Pretty.
Likey. Likey a lot.
Story & Pacing
There’s a delicate balance that every drama with political settings has to manage.
How much political intrigue is enough to create a rich context for our story, and how much political intrigue is too much? Coz let’s face it, there are very few viewers among us who watch a drama primarily for the politics. At least, I know I’m not one of those viewers.
As a viewer, I need just enough political intrigue to create a rich context. Beyond that, I’m more interested in the characters, their relationships, and their personal stories. The less time I need to spend watching political machinations, the better.
This is where the drama’s balance didn’t work so consistently for me.
While there were many stretches where the balance hit a breezy sweet spot for me, there were also a number of times when I felt bored by the politics and started to mentally disengage.
As a general rule of thumb, whenever we got to see our Musketeers in swashbuckling action, whenever we got meaningful moments between characters, and whenever things were more personal than political, I was a happy camper.
On the flip side, whenever we were shown the imperial court and were subjected to political factions angling for the king’s favor, I could only last so long before I started to mentally check out.
This didn’t happen a lot, but it was enough to make me notice the unevenness in the drama’s pace, and mar the viewing experience for me.
Long-time residents of dramaland would be familiar with the regular need for suspension of disbelief when it comes to enjoying drama. After all, coincidences abound in dramaland in order to connect all our characters and engage them in the same space.
Of course, there a good number of dramas that require us to suspend disbelief in more ways than that. Sometimes one has to look beyond actual logic fails in order to continue enjoying a drama.
Like any drama fan worth her salt, I’m more than capable of closing one eye (sometimes both eyes!) to things like plausibility and narrative inconsistencies. But also like any drama fan worth her salt, I have my limits too.
Let’s just say there were times that this show really pushed those limits for me.
Here, I’m just going to highlight 2 instances in the show where I found it, well, extra challenging to continue to suspend disbelief in service of our story.
The Stabbing Cover-Up
In episode 7, Crown Prince So Hyeon gets stabbed by Hyang Sun (Yoo In Young), which puts the Musketeers in a tight spot, since they need to get him medical help yet can’t reveal the real reason he is outside the palace. Time is running out as So Hyeon is seriously injured.
To top it off, Minister Kim Ja Jum (Park Young Kyu) is making thinly veiled threats to expose So Hyeon’s secret activities to his father King Injo (Kim Myung Soo).
The complicated cover-up involves but isn’t limited to:
1. an elaborate cover story of So Hyeon’s compulsive gambling habit,
2. dousing the injured and unconscious So Hyeon in liquor,
3. pretend-drunk Musketeers using the pretext of retrieving gambling losses to descend on Kim Ja Jum’s quarters to steal incriminating evidence,
4. leading Kim Ja Jum on Hyang Sun’s trail to the scene of the stabbing, and
5. leading royal guards to the same scene, just in time to catch a puzzled Kim Ja Jum with the bloodied dagger in his hand.
The dramatic tension created by all these complications is great.
And the way it’s solved is clever, but it’s also pretty unbelievable, because the intricate cover-up was conceived so quickly, down to multiple little details, some of which – like perfect timing – weren’t within the Musketeers’ control.
This incident stretched the boundaries of believable for me.
Still, compared to other offenders in the same category this drama, this particular incident just managed to stay within those boundaries.
For an incident that completely skipped over that boundary, read on.
Dal Hyang’s Death-Defying Escape
In episode 9, we see Dal Hyang (Jung Yong Hwa) face off with Yong Gol Dae (Kim Sung Min), and the next thing we know, there are claims that Dal Hyang is dead.
The body, wearing Dal Hyang’s uniform and identification tag and holding Dal Hyang’s sword, is decapitated, and everyone is in an uproar trying to determine whether the body indeed belongs to Dal Hyang.
By the end of the episode, we see that Dal Hyang isn’t dead, but alive, hiding under the floorboards of the room where the headless body was discovered.
The dramatic tension from wondering how Dal Hyang survived is pretty great. But the explanation is really unbelievable.
In episode 10, we learn that an injured Dal Hyang had managed to knock out Yong Gol Dae, and then kill the spy sent to ensure Dal Hyang’s death.
Then, with only moments (mere seconds!) to spare before people came charging into the room, Dal Hyang had switched clothes with the dead man, cut off his head AND hidden himself and the decapitated head under the floorboards before anyone came upon the scene.
This explanation is so far-fetched that I found it utterly unbelievable.
Considering the change in clothes involves several difficult layers, his identification tag, his sword, and a very dead uncooperative body, there’s just no way that Dal Hyang could’ve pulled it off – and pulled it off so neatly! – with the little time that he’d had.
All that, and he managed to cut off the guy’s head and hide himself under the floorboards, quietly and neatly, while injured and unable to walk properly.
That’s just really, really hard to believe.
I willed myself to just go with it – y’know, artistic license and all that – but the liberties that the writers take with what’s plausible or even humanly possible did niggle at me as the series went on.
Did I mention that this wasn’t the last of it? That there’s more? Yep, that’s right. Logic and plausibility just weren’t this show’s strengths.
A Small Tangent on Withholding & Dispensing Information
Another thing this drama liked to do, is to splice scenes, often to withhold information from us about the past, while showing us glimpses of the future. It’s only later that we backtrack to the past to get the full story of what happened.
The effect of this is that we often get shown events that we don’t have explanations for (like Dal Hyang’s survival in episode 9, for example).
On the one hand, it kind of makes the show look clever because it keeps us wondering about the whys and hows of the situation.
On the other hand, I find this device more manipulative rather than truly clever. The apparent cleverness is only a result of withholding information from us by skipping to a point in the future without explaining how we get there.
I’m pretty sure that if the events were told in sequence, that the show wouldn’t appear quite as clever.
Still, the overall effect is entertaining enough that I’m willing to give Show the benefit of the doubt, of being more fun than manipulative, even if it meant that I had to literally remind myself of it from time to time.
Where I felt the drama failed me in its pacing and (lack of) logic, it more than made up for in its characters. I genuinely enjoyed many of the characters in this show, and here, I’d like to touch on a number of them.
Jung Yong Hwa as Park Dal Hyang
Having seen Jung Yong Hwa in You’re Beautiful (2009) and Heartstrings (2011), I’d concluded that acting probably wasn’t one of his strengths. I mean, he’s quite pretty to look at, but he was really quite stiff in both of those roles.
When I read that he’d signed on to be a main character in this show, I vacillated between steeling myself for the cringes that I felt were sure to come, and mustering up the will to be at least cautiously hopeful that maybe, just maybe, he’d do better this time.
Well, color me surprised – Jung Yong Hwa’s actually not bad in this!
I mean, I can’t say he’s brilliant (yet?), but he’s definitely more animated, energetic and has a wider emotional range than I’d seen from him in his prior works.
You read that right, ladies and gents. This is literally the best that I’ve seen from Jung Yong Hwa to date, acting-wise.
It helps that Dal Hyang’s character is written as a little stiff and a little square at heart, coz that helps to mitigate the lashings of stiffness that we do get.
On the whole, though, Yong Hwa plays Dal Hyang with a brightness and exuberance that I haven’t seen from him before, and I think it’s very good progress indeed.
As a character, I found Dal Hyang sympathetic and generally likable. Despite his naiveté, he’s smart, determined and loyal. And in spite of himself, he cares.
Which, importantly, made him a relatable narrator for our story.
Yang Dong Geun as Heo Seung Po
I found Heo Seung Po very amusing as a character, and I think a lot of it has to do with Yang Dong Geun’s effortless portrayal of Seung Po as our resident Reluctant-Jaded-Indolent Musketeer with a hidden teddybear’s marshmallow heart.
I particularly like the slang-drawl with which Yang Dong Geun delivers all his lines.
It’s a small touch, but it gives such a full flavor and feel for the character; it’s almost as if Seung Po’s so stingy on expending energy that he can’t even be bothered to enunciate properly.
That drawl, combined with Seung Po’s penchant for regularly
digging checking for nasal gold, made his very presence onscreen a source of amusement for me.
Jung Hae In as Ahn Min Seo
I also really liked Jung Hae In as Min Seo.
First of all, Jung Hae In is quite the cutie, and I love the fact that Min Seo the Musketeer is so Flower Boy pretty that he’s got all the girls secretly (ok, maybe not so secretly) oogling him.
There were times when his pretty features reminded me of Kim Soo Hyun, and I consider that a pretty cool bonus.
I enjoyed the fact that Min Seo as a character is as strait-laced, prim and wholesome as Seung Po is alcohol-, woman- and party-loving. This makes him such a great foil to Seung Po, and the two of them such a hilarious odd couple.
I really liked it whenever Min Seo and Seung Po appeared together on my screen.
Lee Jin Wook as Crown Prince So Hyeon
First of all, let’s get this out of the way; unlike many of my dramaland friends and so many other viewers, I am not on board the Lee Jin Wook train (yet? I’ve learned to never say never in matters of the fangirl heart!).
I don’t know what it is. I don’t hate him or anything.. I just find it hard to emotionally engage with his characters, generally speaking. Not that I think he does a poor job of the acting, mind you. I think he does well, and is consistent.
Perhaps it’s the crinkly-eyed smirk that everyone else finds charming. I feel like that very crinkly-eyed smirk has a touch of distance built into it, such that I feel that his character isn’t being completely transparent or vulnerable to us as viewers.
I think that’s a Thing with me. I think I consistently feel a need to be able to engage emotionally with a character in order to really love the character, and by extension, the actor (or actress) portraying that character.
Coz, if you can be vulnerable with me, I can be vulnerable with you; something like that.
As an aside, I felt the same way about Lee Jin Wook’s performance in Nine, like he (&/or his character) was somehow being withholding, and on purpose.
I still liked the show and I still empathized with his character, and I think Lee Jin Wook delivered consistently well over the course of the entire series; I just didn’t love him the way other viewers did.
Maybe one day I’ll discover the full appeal of Lee Jin Wook’s charm. For now, though, I’m not there yet.
One good thing is, that very trait that niggles at me is built into Crown Prince So Hyeon’s character, and therefore it actually felt organic to the character in this drama.
In that sense, I hafta say that I liked Lee Jin Wook more as So Hyeon than any other character that I’ve seen him as so far (yay for silver linings!).
Through most of my watch of the show, I vacillated in terms of how much I liked So Hyeon as a character. I mean, I think So Hyeon’s an interesting character; I’m just not sure how much I liked him.
On the plus side, I like that So Hyeon is sharp-witted, very smart and isn’t easily unnerved. On the downside, I found So Hyeon sometimes a little too self-serving, often lacking in empathy, and also often emotionally unavailable.
Three times I didn’t like So Hyeon so much
By the end of the show, I liked So Hyeon more than I disliked him, which is a good thing. I like being able to like my main characters, after all.
Still, to give you an idea of the back-and-forth I grappled with, with his character, I thought I’d highlight a few times in the show that I didn’t like So Hyeon so much.
1. The bet with Dal Hyang
In episode 6, So Hyeon challenges Dal Hyang to a bet in order to address Dal Hyang’s insistent pursuit of Yong Gol Dae, whom So Hyeon is protecting against the king’s wishes.
The stakes are high; if Dal Hyang wins, So Hyeon will hand over Yong Gol Dae, and if Dal Hyang loses, all of So Hyeon’s previous kindness to him will be revoked, Dal Hyang’s test results will also be revoked, and Dal Hyang has to leave the city and return to his hometown.
Firstly, it’s a bet with pretty unreasonable terms, and those terms are set by So Hyeon. I didn’t really like the fact that So Hyeon basically challenged Dal Hyang to wager practically his whole life.
Secondly – and more importantly – I disliked that So Hyeon used an unfair advantage to win the bet with Dal Hyang, by getting some expert coaching from Yong Gol Dae on how to beat Dal Hyang.
It’s a shrewd move on So Hyeon’s part, but this did not earn him cool points in my books. Particularly since So Hyeon positioned the request to Yong Gol Dae as being because of his own injury that he needed the help.
So Hyeon conveniently doesn’t mention that Dal Hyang’s sporting an almost identical injury himself.
Essentially, So Hyeon challenged Dal Hyang to wager almost everything, then used an unfair advantage to make him lose.
Yes, I know they made up eventually and Dal Hyang eventually knew about So Hyeon’s trickery yada yada yada. It still doesn’t make So Hyeon’s behavior in this moment any more excusable, is what I’m sayin’.
2. The meeting with Hyang Sun
In episode 7, So Hyeon finally comes face to face with Hyang Sun, and after a charged conversation, Hyang Sun plunges a dagger into So Hyeon’s shoulder.
Hyang Sun asks bitterly, “Does it hurt?” and So Hyeon raises his hand to wipe the tears from her cheek, and says only, “I missed you.”
Not long after, in episode 8, we hear Hyang Sun tell Yoon Seo (Seo Hyun Jin) that she forgives So Hyeon for everything because he’d told her he missed her after she stabbed him.
Gah. This plot point did not endear So Hyeon to me.
Firstly, having seen So Hyeon be so emotionally distant to his wife, I found it rather irksome (pretty much on her behalf, really) that he would allow another woman so much emotional real estate in his heart.
Secondly, and just as importantly, I found it extremely dysfunctional and quite disturbing that his response to Hyang Sun stabbing him would be to stroke her cheek and tell her that he missed her.
So Hyeon and Hyang Sun appeared to be so equally dysfunctional and disturbed that I felt that they deserved each other. After all, she was happy to stab him, and he was happy to be stabbed?
Yes, I exaggerate, and yes, things totally changed later in the show. But you know what I mean about my reaction in the moment, right?
3. Seung Po’s beating
In episode 8, Seung Po, Min Seo and Dal Hyang are sentenced to harsh beatings for failing to protect So Hyeon from his own (fictitious) gambling problem.
Seung Po is the first to be beaten, and it’s after the 7th stroke (out of the 60 strokes he’s been sentenced to) that So Hyeon arrives to halt the proceedings and save his friends.
While the boys are relieved to be saved, a very much in pain Seung Po grumbles in dismay at already having been beaten 7 times, to which So Hyeon gives the amused smirk that you see in the screencap above.
Considering that the beatings are serious enough that the 7 strokes have rendered Seung Po unable to walk properly and that he requires medical attention, I rather disliked So Hyeon’s amusement at Seung Po’s chagrin.
I mean, yes, the scene is played for laughs and all that, but I did find So Hyeon’s lack of empathy for Seung Po’s suffering – on his account too, thankyouverymuch – rather aggravating.
I’m not asking for a lot, really. Just an acknowledgment from So Hyeon of Seung Po’s suffering, would’ve gone a long way to mollify me. Y’know, just a “고생했다” (“you’ve suffered”), said with the same smirk even, would’ve made me – and probably Seung Po too – much happier.
Three times I rather liked So Hyeon
To balance out the previous section of So Hyeon meh, here are 3 times in the show where I liked him a lot better.
1. When he finally realized how sad he was making his wife
In episode 9, after Yoon Seo passes out after a desperate drunken attempt to get herself dethroned for her childlessness, So Hyeon finally seems to realize how deeply unhappy his crown princess is, and that he’s the cause of that unhappiness.
While Yoon Seo sleeps off her drunken stupor, So Hyeon writes her a letter, which reads thusly:
“If we’re in the same palace… we’re both under the King’s watch. I’ll leave for a while so you don’t have to feel pressure. You didn’t do anything wrong.
It’s entirely my fault. But… I can’t control myself even with my recognition. Mi Ryung [Hyang Sun] is a flaw of my life I can’t even understand.
I’m sorry and I understand you… but I need some more time. Let’s take some time for us. This time I wrote this letter with my sincerity. I mean this, believe me.”
Romantically, it’s not much, but after multiple instances of So Hyeon rebuffing Yoon Seo with a consistently infuriating facade of jokey-ness, it is the first time that we see a moment of true sincerity from So Hyeon to Yoon Seo, and I liked that a lot.
I don’t need our hero to be lunging forward with the burning love of a thousand suns. I just need him to show some sincerity and honesty towards his leading lady, and I got it in this moment. And that went a long way in softening my heart towards So Hyeon.
2. When we get the full backstory of his order to Hyang Sun
In episode 9, we also finally get the full story on the multiple-episode mystery of why, years ago, So Hyeon had ordered Hyang Sun to kill herself.
As the episodes progress, we are given bits and pieces of the story around what had happened. Mostly, we only know that Hyang Sun now holds a grudge against So Hyeon for destroying her life when he’d ordered her to kill herself.
It’s only in episode 9 that we find out that he’d ordered her to do so, in order to protect the real Mi Ryung’s family – the real Mi Ryung whom Hyang Sun had impersonated and murdered, by the way – from being executed for having deceived the royal family.
Somehow, knowing the full context around this incident made So Hyeon a more sympathetic character to me.
It’s like I finally understood a little better, the kind of emotional torment that he’d gone through, having been put in the position to order the girl that he loved to kill herself, after finding her not only a fraud but a murderer.
Also, the difficult decision it must have been for a young So Hyeon to make, to save an innocent family at the cost of sacrificing the girl he loved, guilty as she was.
3. When he was willing to die for his brothers
In episode 12, when King Injo orders So Hyeon to be hanged together with Seung Po, Min Seo and Dal Hyang, So Hyeon basically offers to shoulder all the blame and die alone.
When King Injo asks So Hyeon if he regrets it, So Hyeon answers impassively but sincerely,
“I regret it… I made them die when they’re innocent. I put my wife’s life in danger. I couldn’t see her sincerity. I ruled the evil with evil. Also, I killed someone as a prince. I also had them… deceive the government. It’s all my fault.”
King Injo asks incredulously if So Hyeon means that he wants to die alone, and So Hyeon answers quietly, “If that’s possible… yes, Your Majesty.”
So Hyeon is genuinely ready to die for his brothers, and that’s a Big Deal, any which way you slice it.
This one action from So Hyeon pretty much made up for all the other times that I found him unsympathetic towards his brothers. Coz if he’s willing to die for them, that’s Love, man. And it’s hard to dislike a guy who loves his brothers that much.
Seo Hyun Jin as Yoon Seo
I LUFFED Seo Hyun Jin as our Crown Princess. So much.
Yoon Seo is really cute without ever becoming cutesy, and is earnest, sweet & vulnerable without ever coming across as clingy or needy. In the limited scope of her power and influence over her problems, she tries to be strong, which I love.
Despite being trapped in a cold marriage with a distant husband, Yoon Seo continues to work hard to get close to her husband, and manages to retain a strong sense of emotional truth through it all.
I loved Yoon Seo for being so earnest and sweet, and I felt sorry for her, that she had to contend with a disengaged husband who would have none of her attempts to draw closer to him.
Seo Hyun Jin’s wonderful delivery made Yoon Seo a Crown Princess that I not only liked and enjoyed, but also admired. *hearts in eyes*
Here are just 3 instances when I loved Yoon Seo.
1. When she refused to be swayed by her first love
Given that she’s been consistently and frustratingly held at arm’s length by her husband for the last 5 years – the husband that she was reluctant to marry in the first place, in fact – how conflicted Yoon Seo must have felt, to have her first love appear – the first love that she’d desperately wanted to marry too – having worked hard everyday for the same 5 years that she’d been held at arm’s length, all in the hope of marrying her.
A lesser woman in Yoon Seo’s place would’ve allowed herself to be swayed by this, but Yoon Seo remains steadfast.
Yes, one could say that she wavered ever so slightly in keeping the old letter that she’d written to Dal Hyang once upon a time, but to be fair, she never gave Dal Hyang any false hope of residual affection, nor did she ever behave inappropriately with or toward him, as the Crown Princess.
All this, despite hating it in the palace and constantly being ignored by her husband.
Instead, we see Yoon Seo sincerely and continuously trying to establish a connection with her distant husband.
In this, I felt Yoon Seo’s strength and.. well, genuineness.
To me, her reaching out to So Hyeon never felt like a political move or a quest for power. Yes, in a sense, she saw it as a duty, to bear a royal heir, but her attempts to get closer to So Hyeon always felt like they came from a real and sincere place, and I loved her for that.
2. When she was brave in the face of death
In episode 10, an anxious Yoon Seo is in a precarious position as a suspicious King Injo demands to see the royal hairpin that she doesn’t have in her possession.
Despite knowing that approaching the King without the hairpin could result in disastrous consequences for her, including death, Yoon Seo decides to approach anyway.
I really loved Yoon Seo in this moment; she is so strong and so brave, even when she is afraid and possibly about to die.
3. When she was grateful to Dal Hyang
In the same episode, a heretofore reported-as-dead Dal Hyang arrives in the nick of time to present the hairpin to Yoon Seo and basically saves her life.
I just love that Yoon Seo thanks Dal Hyang tearfully, not for the hairpin, but for being alive.
I also love Seo Hyun Jin’s delivery in the moment; Yoon Seo comes across as so genuinely, sincerely grateful to Dal Hyang for being alive.
Have I mentioned that I luff her?
Yoo In Young as Mi Ryung / Hyang Sun
All in all, I felt that Yoo In Young was well-cast as Hyang Sun, even though I felt that whenever Hyang Sun was dressed in her hanbok and traditional Joseon braids, that she had too modern a vibe to carry it off convincingly.
Whatever I felt was lacking in this respect, however, was more than made up for by the fact that:
1. Hyang Sun looked beautiful in the Manchu clothing that she wore most of the time, and
2. Yoo In Young played Hyang Sun with exactly the right chilling snide vibe laced with vulnerability and just a bit of crazy. The way she talked was like a languid snake, which, shudder.
For the most part, Hyang Sun came across as a very flawed, fascinating as well as dangerous character, which meant good things for our story. Her presence in the show added dramatic tension, which I consider a good thing.
Hyang Sun’s reasoning and view of the world wasn’t something that I necessarily agreed with, but she remained an interesting character for the most part.
It’s too bad that her characterization was over-simplified in the last stretch in service of moving our story to where the writers wanted it.
Hyang Sun’s flawed reasoning
When we first meet Hyang Sun, we only know that she’d been ordered to kill herself by So Hyeon, and it feels like she has a legitimate grievance to hold against him.
However, when we get the full context around why So Hyeon had ordered her to kill herself, we see that she’d basically brought it upon herself by impersonating Mi Ryung in the first place and killing the real Mi Ryung in order to continue the ruse.
Given the full context, I could understand why So Hyeon felt the best way out of the mess was to order her to kill herself.
But Hyang Sun blamed So Hyeon for what happened to her life, which basically translates into Hyang Sun refusing to take ownership of the poor choices that she’d made. She was the one who killed Mi Ryung, after all. So Hyeon simply chose not to look the other way.
Hyang Sun’s characterization in the later episodes
As flawed as Hyang Sun’s view of the world was, she remained an interesting character until episode 11, where her characterization felt over-simplified and clunky.
From her sudden unguarded confession to So Hyeon to her breakdown in prison, she felt like a completely different person. Coz up to this point, she’d been portrayed as a character too smart to fall for So Hyeon’s trap, and with more mental fortitude than we were shown.
This all served to take me out of the moment, since her character turnaround felt quite jarring, which is too bad.
Kim Sung Min as Yong Gol Dae
I hafta say, I was genuinely surprised by how much I ended up liking Yong Gol Dae as a character.
[MINOR-ISH SPOILER ALERT]
Since he was introduced to our story as an antagonist, I was prepared to think of Yong Gol Dae simply as a Bad Guy all the way through. I was so surprised, though, to find that our writers actually gave him – gasp! – actual room to show us a little of the inner workings of his character.
I was even more surprised when I found myself coming away from the show thinking that Yong Gol Dae’s a good, decent man at heart, who’s worthy of the respect that his men have for him.
Credit to Kim Sung Min for the warm delivery that made this possible, and also, to PD-nim for allowing Yong Gol Dae a number of throwaway character moments that totally added up.
As an aside, I also think Kim Sung Min played Yong Gol Dae with a good amount of manly-man swag, and made him quite the sexy character.
Special Mention: Kim Seo Kyung as Ma Poo Dae
You guys know how I’m always ready to
oogle admire the Pretty, and this show served up some Surprise Pretty in the form of Yong Gol Dae’s righthand man, played by Kim Seo Kyung.
To be honest, I have no idea who Kim Seo Kyung is, this being the first time I’ve set eyes on him, but boy, do I approve of the Pretty.
I dig the strong lean lines of his features, the sexy goatee, the strong brows (of course), his strong gaze, the slight pout of his rosebud lips, and even the buzz cut that he’s wearing. Y’know what, I think he should wear a tan and a buzz cut all the time. Yum.
He didn’t say a whole lot in the show, being a minor character who leans more towards the strong silent type, but he looked wonderful every time he appeared on my screen, and that was enough to make me a gleeful happy camper.
Here’s a screenshot spasm, so you can enjoy the Pretty too. You’re welcome 😉
THE BAND OF BROTHERS
The brotherhood between our 4 boys is definitely a case of the sum being more than its parts. Even though I liked each of our musketeers individually, it was when they were together that I found them most delightful.
I like that none of them are very much alike at all, that they’re all so different from one another, and yet, get along so well. There’s just something very hodgepodge and endearing about that.
Despite all their macho posturing, when it comes down to it, these boys love one another deeply, and I really enjoy that about their brotherhood.
In episode 10, when So Hyeon, Seung Po and Min Seo believe Dal Hyang to be dead, they stand and cry together at his grave.
All the macho veneer is stripped away in that moment, and all we see is true grief for the loss of their friend. I found their united vulnerability really sweet.
And in episode 12, when under investigation for deceiving the king, Seung Po sneaks a letter to Dal Hyang to warn him, so that Dal Hyang might hide himself and escape.
When Dal Hyang is captured, he willingly lies to protect So Hyeon, even though it means certain execution together with Seung Po and Min Seo.
When they are on the verge of execution and a nervous Seung Po asks Dal Hyang if he regrets opening his mouth, Dal Hyang replies, “Everyone dies eventually. It’s better to die together than alone. I have no regrets.”
These boys truly love one another selflessly, literally with life and limb, and would die for one another without reserve. That’s love, and I liked it a lot.
To be honest, for a good chunk of the show, I mostly rooted for the OTP because I wanted Yoon Seo to be happy, and more than anything, she wanted to be loved by So Hyeon.
[MODERATE SPOILER ALERT]
Considering So Hyeon’s habitual and consistent evasiveness whenever Yoon Seo tried to get closer to him, I actually spent a number of episodes thinking that Yoon Seo deserved better, that she deserved at least someone who could appreciate her.
Therefore, when So Hyeon finally experienced his awakening to Yoon Seo’s awesomeness and his feelings for her, I found it particularly satisfying to watch.
So Hyeon’s awkwardness and wonder about it all, felt like such a gratifying turning of the tables. Instead of avoiding Yoon Seo, So Hyeon began to miss her and actively seek her out. YES.
From this point onwards, I was much more on board with their OTPship as a whole.
As a fantastic bonus, Yoon Seo is so taken aback by her husband’s sudden affection that she is more endearing than ever.
Like here, in her amazement and barely contained shy glee after he kisses her for the first time:
Here’s a screenshot spasm of OTP cuteness, just coz.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
To be honest, I found the finale episode rather uneven and somewhat meandering.
On the upside, we got a really nice reunion moment with our OTP, and eventually, with our boys too.
On the downside, the episode is long, the logic isn’t strong, and it didn’t always feel interesting.
The upside: The OTP reunion
Much as I thought the reunion of the boys was cute, it was the reunion between So Hyeon and Yoon Seo that was the highlight of the episode for me.
Our OTP shares no kisses, but So Hyeon’s tears and cautious hope of Yoon Seo being alive, followed by his relief and happy wonder that the Yoon Seo before him is not a dream but real, topped with the warm, firm, mutual clasping of their hands, is so, so satisfying.
Their connection in this moment felt very real, and I loved it.
Not so interesting
All the parts featuring an increasingly nervous King Injo, and the narration and non-action related to the time skip. This all felt protracted and quite draggy to me.
Not so logical
When the soldiers in pursuit of Hyang Sun shoot her even after she’s been cornered at the edge of a cliff. Since she’s recognized as a key witness to the case being investigated, it would’ve made more sense if they’d at least attempted to capture her alive.
When Hyang Sun shows up alive in the last few minutes of the episode.
Considering that she fell off the cliff while injured, and then had her dead body recovered by soldiers a few days later, Show’s got a lot of explaining to do, in terms of convincing us – or me, at least – how she supposedly survived that fall and passed off some other dead body as her own. Otherwise, I will call logic fail copout.
All in all, logic isn’t always this show’s strength, and when the writing is examined with even a mildly analytical lens, it starts to fall apart.
Still, if we put it in perspective that this is a story told in Dal Hyang’s voice, we can rationalize that Dal Hyang likely inflated this story the way he inflated the stories that he’d told his father. I suppose.
Most importantly, though, the emotional connections and beats within our story are strong enough and have enough eventual payoff that I feel the ride was worth it.
And just as importantly, I like our characters enough to want to tune in to Season 2, if only to see what other hijinks they get up to. Which is not a bad achievement at all for any show, I’d say.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A good spot of fun and brotherhood, with a lovely bit of romance on the side.
FINAL GRADE: B
Here’s a quick trailer for those of you who haven’t seen the show. It gives a nice flavor for the show’s high production values and its swashbuckling sensibility: