THE SHORT VERDICT:
Warrior Baek Dong Soo is an odd creature of a show that just adds up to way more than the sum of its parts.
Show’s got flaws galore – it’s not all that well-written, logic fails abound, pacing is uneven in spots, and the ending, uh, leaves a lot to be desired – but in spite of it all, somehow, it works (for the most part). It managed to keep my attention, creep under my skin, and eventually worm its way into my heart, when I wasn’t looking.
In the end, this show grabbed my heart way more than I’d expected – and I’m not just talking about the easy-on-the-eyes male leads either.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
THE LONG VERDICT:
WHAT’S HELPFUL TO KNOW
It’s almost always helpful to manage expectations, and I think that applies to Warrior Baek Dong Soo more than most shows. Here’s a handy list of things to keep in mind, to help maximize your enjoyment of this show:
1. Don’t expect a history lesson.
Heck, don’t even expect logic. This is not just a fusion sageuk, it’s a fusion sageuk based on a manhwa. I only stumbled on that tidbit on it being based on a manhwa when I was 25 episodes into my watch, and the realization made me go, “OH. Well, THAT explains why the logic stretches so fantastically. Y’know, this would’ve been really useful information, like, 25 episodes ago!” Which is why I’m telling you now. You’re welcome. 😉
2. Think of it as Poetry, not Prose.
There are many times that the character motivations make no sense and we don’t get answers – satisfying or otherwise – as to why our characters choose to behave in various ways. It helps to just think of it as all being in service of making this show one big, indulgent expression of poetry. It’s beautiful, it’s emotional, and sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense.
A pretty good minorish example of not a lot of sense-making in the show, is in episode 5 when Dae Po (Park Won Sang) sacrifices his life in a losing duel with Chun (Choi Min Soo), in order to buy time for Crown Prince Sado (Oh Man Suk) to get away.
Instead of running away, Sado lingers until Dae Po’s almost dead before he finally leaves. Which makes no sense, and makes Dae Po’s sacrifice not very worthwhile. Also, by that time, Dae Po’s way too weak to actually stop Chun, yet Chun keeps on fighting Dae Po instead of going after Sado, who is his real target.
Another, more major, example of the lack of logic is in episode 13, in the aftermath of Sado’s death. Woon apologizes tearfully to all the people whose deaths he helped cause. Dong Soo, delirious with disbelief and rage, draws his sword on Woon. Ji Sun puts herself in harm’s way and gets herself stabbed by Dong Soo’s sword in a not-very-plausible attempt to save Woon.
Dong Soo puts her on his back and takes off running to get help for her, but she pleads with him that she wants to go back to Sado’s body. So Dong Soo brings a badly injured Ji Sun BACK to where she got stabbed, so that she can cling to Sado’s body, WHILE a broody injured Woon sits nearby. And all Dong Soo can do is sob and ask her not to die.
The entire scene is extremely dysfunctional and illogical, so much so that it would probably actually hurt your brain to try and rationalize the multiple times in the scene the characters behave in bemusing ways. Just accepting it as poetry that doesn’t need to make sense, helps a lot.
3. Our story is made up of several acts.
I lost count, but it’s something like 5. And the various acts sometimes have little to do with each other. This means that at times, the story seems to shift gears quite abruptly, and leaves certain – sometimes long-running – arcs behind. It helps to keep the different acts in mind, so that you don’t feel like you’re getting drama whiplash.
4. Think bromance, not romance.
A loveline is introduced fairly early in the show, but don’t put too much thought into it, because:
(a) Neither does writer-nim. We don’t get much screentime dedicated to the lovelines, and the romance doesn’t resonate through most of the show; and
(b) Our supposed leading lady Ji Sun is played by Shin Hyun Bin, who is quite possibly the most wooden actress I have ever seen. She’s literally expressionless through most of the show. Which, really, is a blessing in disguise. Because the scenes where she was required to emote were, quite frankly, really painful to watch. For her, expressionless worked better.
Basically, she’s there so that both our male leads can fall in love with her (never mind why they’re so in love with her; they just are), to create an added layer of angst for our star-crossed bromance, which does seem to be the point of this show.
5. Dae Ung is a cockroach
Park Chul Min’s character of Dae Ung is one of the most annoying characters in the show. Dae Ung isn’t a major baddie in the show, but he’s hateful, vengeful, and obnoxious enough that I honestly couldn’t wait for someone to put him out of his misery (ok, more like my misery, but that’s just a technicality, right?).
It kinda helps, if you just think of him as a resilient cockroach that will. not. die.
The consolation is that he eventually does. Just, don’t get your hopes up too early, is all.
Despite the political machinations, the lack of logic and the uneven pacing through much of the show, there was enough to keep me sufficiently engaged and invested through to the end.
Mostly, I came to care about our characters and their relationships. Of course, that includes the bromantic tension between Woon and Dong Soo, as well as their personal growth journeys. It didn’t hurt that Show’s quite lovely to look at a lot of the time. Plus, the OST is strong, stirring and evocative too.
Here are shout-outs to my personal list of favorites in the show.
Park Joon Gyu as Sa Mo
Although he’s a moderately secondary sort of character, I really liked Sa Mo.
I loved that he’s such a loyal kinda guy, and that he easily gives big chunks of his life, for that loyalty.
Like in the beginning of the show, when baby Dong Soo inadvertently ends up in his care. Sa Mo doesn’t even think twice, and simply dedicates himself to raising him. And later, when the warrior camp commander Dae Po dies, Sa Mo simply takes it on himself to train all the remaining boys. Which, really, are both processes that take years.
Such big, time-consuming, and arguably life-changing tasks, all done so simply and thoroughly, just because he was there and the tasks had belonged to his hyungs. I just love that simple, matter-of-fact, jovial loyalty about Sa Mo.
Choi Min Soo as Chun
Hands-down, Choi Min Soo steals the show as Chun, aka Sky Lord.
As a character, Chun took a while to grow on me. With his Jack-Sparrow-pirate-esque sort of styling, he looked rather out of place, even in this odd fusion sageuk world. Plus, his casual brand of cruelty made him as repulsive as he was fascinating. I found it hard to like him, but I found it hard to look away too, whenever he was on my screen.
As I progressed deeper into the show, I found Chun more and more intriguing. Before I even knew it, I was often rooting for him. Which was a bit of a mind-bender for me, since Chun was technically one of the baddies in our drama world.
I particularly loved the fatherly instincts Chun had towards Jin Joo (Yoon So Yi), and how he continued to treat her like a daughter even when he realized that Ji (Yoon Ji Min) had lied about Jin Joo being his daughter.
I felt rather indifferent about Chun’s longstanding love for Ji, since it doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but I was completely and utterly riveted by Chun’s grief after Ji’s death in episode 19. Chun’s reaction to Ji’s death is animalistic, guttural and viscerally affecting.
It’s impossible to watch the scene and not feel something for Chun, basically. Mad, mad props to Choi Min Soo, who kills it.
In the end, I felt sorry for Chun in the way that he died; he was hunted down and shot at, while he was too wounded to defend himself. The way Lord Hong’s men cornered him and killed him felt opportunistic and unfair. But, I did love that Chun protected Jin Joo to his dying breath. So moving to behold, really; he literally made me cry.
What a mesmerizing antihero; so truly complicated, so fascinating, and who inspires such conflicted feelings. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Chun deserved his own show.
Gwang Taek & Chun
All series long, I found Chun’s frenemy-ship with Sword Saint Gwang Taek (Jun Kwang Ryul) oddly fascinating. Essentially, they shared the kind of relationship where one moment they’d be sharing drinks, and the next moment, they’d be making promises – not threats, but smiling promises – to kill each other.
In the end, though, I found myself oddly moved by the mutual respect between these two men. On opposite sides of the fence all their lives, and both at the top of their respective worlds; pitted against each other by their different paths, and yet, they respect each other through it all.
Their eventual duel seems rather pointless on the surface, but on a more visceral level, I felt like this is something that they’ve pledged to do in their lives. Each time they’d let each other off in the past, it had been with this in mind: that one day, they would pit themselves against each other, to the death.
In episode 23, when the time has come, they go about it with quiet, considerate kinship. Because it is the last day of one of their lives, they spend it fishing, eating, and drinking, in quiet companionship. Chun even asks about Gwang Taek’s health. Mid-duel, Chun even asks Gwang Taek if he’d like to rest, and it’s not lip service either. I feel convinced that if Gwang Taek had said yes, that Chun would have allowed for a break. I get the sense that had Chun known about Gwang Taek’s health condition, that he would not have wanted to pursue the duel. That would probably have sullied the battleground, in his mind.
I was also really quite struck with how lost Chun seems, after Gwang Taek’s death. When he goes on a furious rampage to Lord Hong’s chambers because he thought Lord Hong’s archer had killed Gwang Taek, that was his loyalty to Gwang Taek speaking.
Chun’s sadness over Gwang Taek’s death is one of those paradoxes of the martial arts world. You feel the need to defeat your biggest competitor, but when that’s done, there is a sense of loss.
That moment mid-duel, when Chun thanks Gwang Taek for having made his life colorful and interesting, and Gwang Taek thanks him back, encapsulates in its simplest form, what these men meant to each other. It’s a poignant moment for them, as they articulate their thanks, even as one of them is going to die, and this relationship is going to come to an inevitable end. Sadness.
Ji Chang Wook as Dong Soo
Ji Chang Wook does a solid job of being the titular Baek Dong Soo, and in particular, I felt like he and Yeo Jin Goo did a good job of integrating their deliveries of Dong Soo; I actually felt like they were the same character, which is a very impressive achievement.
As a character, Dong Soo does chart a significant amount of growth, from being quite the impulsive hothead and blockhead, to eventually becoming the more mature, wiser, and more controlled warrior that he was meant to be. In my mind, Dong Soo reaches the perfect balance between the old and the new, at about the episode 26 mark. By that point, not only is Dong Soo an extremely skilled fighter, he’s also regained some of his ‘tude and sass amid the newfound discipline, and this made him quite the pleasure to watch. Personally, I do wish that we could’ve seen more of this final version of Dong Soo.
Through it all, Dong Soo remains a character with a lot of faith and a lot of heart, and that’s what endears him to me. I love that even when the evidence speaks otherwise, it doesn’t prevent Dong Soo from believing in the ones whom he loves.
Yoo Seung Ho as Woon
Aside from Chun, Woon is arguably the most complex character in the show, which is why I actually found Woon a more intriguing character than our hero Dong Soo.
Ok, I’ll admit that at first, I just put down Woon’s seemingly odd behavior as being part of Show’s general lack of logic, and I just sat back and admired the Pretty. [SPOILER] I didn’t try too hard to understand why Woon was going around occasionally stabbing his friends, only to come back to treat and save them, like he does in episode 12. [END SPOILER]
Coz man, is Yoo Seung Ho amazing to look at, in this show. Just his mesmerizing gaze is enough to floor me, but combined with the mane of glory, the regular half-smirk, the occasional guyliner and the glowering intent, he was absolutely, gloriously beautiful, and I was toast. Lookie:
So. Gorgeous. *flails*
As I got deeper into the show, though, the pieces started to come together in my head, and I began to appreciate Woon’s dilemma.
With his own father ferociously beating it into him all his life, that he has the destiny of a killer, and no one to tell him any different, Woon can’t help but be conditioned to believe that he is a killer, and that he has no choice but to follow his destiny to the dark side. In the midst of daily beatings by his own father, in contrast, Chun accepts him as he is, killer destiny and all, and doesn’t try to change him. We all want to be accepted for who we are, after all, and I believe that’s what drove Woon to follow Chun that fateful night.
In spite of his “destiny,” Woon loves the friends that he comes to know, and his instinct to protect them is strong. At the same time, he feels like he can’t escape the assassin life that he’s committed himself to, given Heuksa Chorong’s propensity to kill its own people if necessary. To further complicate things, having done a whole bunch of morally questionable things while under Chun’s command, Woon also feels too burdened by guilt to allow himself redemption.
Which, really, is how Woon arrives at his complicated shadow game, of being an assassin by day, and a hero by night. He probably feels like this is the only way to go forward, to abide by what’s expected of him as an assassin (and often with Ji Sun’s safety held as a threat over him), and then, when no one is looking, to do what he can, to keep the right people alive.
Essentially, that’s how Woon ends up being the unsung hero who ensures the failure of the coup in episode 28. Yet, through it all, Woon harbors a deep desire to leave his assassin path, and go back to his friends; a desire that I really wanted him to be able to fulfill.
All in all, Woon is complex and intriguing, underneath his stoic silence, and that’s what makes him more interesting than Dong Soo, much of the time.
Dong Soo & Woon
These two boys were the main event for me, in this drama, and boy, did they tug at my heartstrings.
Dong Soo and Woon are set up to mirror the relationship between Gwang Taek and Chun, straddling the same side of light or dark that their own master represents. I liked the mirror effect, because I felt that it added depth and dimension to the relationship between Dong Soo and Woon.
At the same time, the relationship between Dong Soo and Woon is inherently different than that between their masters, because for a long stretch in their youth, Dong Soo and Woon lived and breathed on the same side. Ok, technically, Woon wasn’t quite on the same side, since he was there undercover, but really, they shared the same experiences, had the same friends, and walked the same path, for years, literally, as they grew up together in the warrior training camp.
They became comrades, friends, and brothers. The bond that formed between them is subtle, but strong, and goes on to be the foundation of all of their interactions, even when they face each other on opposing sides.
Perhaps the thing that lingers most in my mind, is the star-crossed quality of their bromance. Like Gwang Taek and Chun before them, they seem doomed to always be on opposite sides. Yet, through it all, they continue to care for each other in their own ways, with a profound depth that belies their relatively limited time together after Woon goes to Heuksa Chorong.
When Dong Soo and Woon do cross paths, there is a sparky, crackling chemistry between them, whether they’re talking with each other, or fighting each other. In a narrative that littered their relationship with circumstances ripe for misunderstanding, I did love that they continued to have faith in each other.
One of my most favorite Dong Soo-Woon moments, is in episode 28, when Woon comes to Dong Soo’s aid when Dong Soo’s strength starts to fail in his epic one-to-many fight. Finally, they are fighting – not each other – but together, on the same side, united against a common enemy.
Umph. That in itself was really satisfying to watch, but the way the fight ends moves me even more.
When soldiers with guns arrive on the scene and start shooting, both Dong Soo and Woon take cover behind their (now-dead) human shields. As they kneel on the ground and contemplate the situation, Dong Soo exhales, “Now we finally really might die.”
Without batting an eye, Woon shoots back, “Then let’s die together.” And means it.
It blows my mind a little, just how readily Woon would die with Dong Soo. Theirs really is a friendship that they will see to the death, and I find that very moving indeed.
Also, I love the little detail, that Dong Soo is so in tune with Woon that he can basically feel Woon’s presence, like he does later in the same episode. I also love the brief conversation these two share post-fight, where Dong Soo apologizes for having doubted Woon, for a bit, and thanks him for returning to the Woon that he knows. There is so much unspoken bromantic love in that moment, and I love it.
Another favorite moment of mine is in the beginning of episode 29, where Dong Soo and Woon walk together in the fields, and talk openly and honestly with each other.
I just love that they can speak freely with each other, and that Woon can admit to Dong Soo that he’s regretted his choice daily.
Even more, I love that Dong Soo tells Woon that he doesn’t have to bear the responsibility for everything. It just feels like such a loving, liberating thing to say, and quite probably, is exactly what Woon needs to hear as well.
I loved these two together, and wanted them to always be together, on the same side, forever and ever. Which brings me to the ending of this show.
[MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
Ok, I’m gonna just put it out there: I did not like the ending of this show.
What I didn’t like about it
First of all, I hated that Cho Rip (Choi Jae Hwan) suddenly brought up the extermination of Heuksa Chorong to Prince Heir (Hong Jong Hyun), because it felt sudden and random. There had been no build-up to this point, so even though it technically made sense for Cho Rip to advise the extermination of Heuksa Chorong as an organization, I felt blindsided by this development.
Second, I hated that Woon is presented as the one who had killed Sado. Cho Rip tells Prince Heir so (why?!?), and later in the episode, when Prince Heir levels the question at Woon, Woon admits to it too. Like seriously, WHYYY??? I don’t understand why Woon has to be painted as the one who killed Sado, when he wasn’t.
Third, I was extremely frustrated by the way events developed, to bring us to the final fight between Dong Soo and Woon. Ok, I get that the writers were gunning for a tragic fighting finish for our star-crossed bromance, but seriously, the entire process was a disastrous culmination of multiple counts of miscommunication and over-plotting. It made me want to throw things at my screen, to see Dong Soo and Woon trying to reach out to each other, and then have the admittedly protective well-meaning murderous intent of a lovesick gisaeng sidekick get in the way and basically ruin everything. Argh.
It also felt so wrong, that Woon died being so misunderstood; that the people around him basically believed that he’d not only killed Sado, but that he’d attacked and practically killed Cho Rip too. Did people even know that he singlehandedly prevented the coup from succeeding? Plus, Woon ultimately didn’t overcome his killer destiny despite how much he’d wanted to, and despite how much Show had been repeating the theme for episodes on end. Double Arggghh.
Worse, upon Woon’s death and a short scene of Dong Soo being mournful in response, the show abruptly switches gears, and focuses on happy-ever-after upon happy-ever-after, as it blithely pairs up every possible couple in its drama world. The sudden deluge of happy-ever-afters, served up immediately after Woon’s death, feels extremely jarring and inappropriate. And that’s not even counting that supposed-to-be-cute-but-really-NOT thing about how women shouldn’t carry swords.
I also didn’t care for the final scene of Dong Soo riding off into the sunset with Ji Sun, since she’d barely featured in the entire story, especially after she’d had the map burned off her back. Plus, it’s not like the romance was ever the point of the story, right?
If we’d had to go tragic with the ending, then I think a more apt note on which to end, would’ve been Dong Soo looking into the sunset, speaking in voiceover to Woon, saying something along the lines of “I will live enough for the both of us,” or “You will always be the Woon I know,” or something. I think that would’ve placated me at least a little bit.
What I would’ve preferred
So there are a couple of possible endings that I would’ve preferred. Yes, it’s not that hard to think of alternatives, when I dislike the ending this much.
The easiest ending, would be to pretend that episode 29 never happened. Ending it at episode 28 would’ve worked pretty well, and ended us on an uplifting note, of Dong Soo and Woon finally being on the same side again.
Alternatively, since Woon was working to exterminate Heuksa Chorong anyway, couldn’t they have all worked together to make it happen? Plus, he’d already singlehandedly ensured the failure of the coup and the attempt on the Prince Heir’s life, which puts him in the right place to keep on working with Prince Heir’s people. Right?
If that’s too boring, then along with planning the extermination of Heuksa Chorong, they should’ve worked together to fake Woon’s death, so that he could be reborn and live a new life with Dong Soo and his other friends, like he’d always wanted all along.
I mean, couldn’t Dong Soo have pretended to kill him, the way Woon pretended to kill Cho Rip? Then it could’ve gone down in history that Woon had died, when in reality he’d started a new, happier life. Defy your destiny and all that, right? And then Woon could’ve been Dong Soo’s secret adviser, using his smarts and his skills to help him go down in history as the amazing Warrior Baek Dong Soo, all while they continue to meet and tease and talk in the secret wilderness, like this:
Man, I would’ve loved an ending like that. Too bad writer-nim didn’t feel the same way.
In my imagination, though, that’s totally what happened. So there.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Extremely flawed, but gets under your skin anyway.
FINAL GRADE: B-
This is a good MV not only for those who want to revisit the show. For those who haven’t seen the show, this can be a pretty safe watch too, coz without much context to go on, it shouldn’t be very spoilery, while still giving a good flavor for the show.
A Spotlight on the Bromance
Ok, so this MV does take some liberties with the editing and in how it presents the bromance, but OMG, it’s So. Good. Honestly, it gave me chills. Be warned that it’s MAJORLY spoilery, if you haven’t seen the show.
A Spotlight on Woon
As a character who not only mesmerized me but made my heart bleed, I couldn’t not feature an MV in Woon’s honor.