THE SHORT VERDICT:
A show that doesn’t always manage to maintain the fine balance between the story of its characters and the political backdrop against which said story takes place, but which – in spite of its flaws – manages to kinda get under your skin anyway.
Im Si Wan is excellent as our titular king, while Hong Jong Hyun and Yoona are literally the best I’ve ever seen them. Importantly, the three of them share a solid three-way chemistry, and are enjoyable to watch.
The watch itself proves to be rather uneven, and the ending left me sort of wanting, but, I’d say this one was worthwhile, all the same.
THE LONG VERDICT:
To be perfectly honest, I was going to give this show a wide berth, largely because I’d felt decidedly meh about Yoona after The K2, and didn’t feel up to watching her on my screen again so soon. Not only that, I didn’t find the synopsis particularly appealing; I wasn’t in the mood for a sageuk, let alone “a tragic romance involving love and ambition” (quote from DramaWiki).
But then, I started coming across a substantial amount of fangirl squee over the loveline between Hong Jong Hyun and Yoona. Perhaps even more intriguing than that (to me, at least), was the reported swoon that Hong Jong Hyun was bringing to the table. Given my previously-established soft spot for Hong Jong Hyun, I just couldn’t not check this out.
Which means to say, not only was I late to this party, I had also come across enough spoilers to know how the loveline pans out in this one. Hence, a disclaimer: this most likely colored the way I viewed the loveline development in this show. But, I don’t see this as a bad thing, because I never quite bought into the other possible loveline anyway, which I’ll talk more about later in this review.
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 LOOK AND FEEL OF THIS DRAMA WORLD
This drama world struck me as interesting because it doesn’t fall strictly into any ready category. It possesses a color palette that leans strongly warm and bright, and reminds me of Springtime. The colors pop onscreen, and many of the garments look rich in color and quality. Sure, the long wigs sometimes sat a bit awkwardly, but the costuming consistently felt pretty and on-point. In particular, I felt like Hong Jong Hyun’s wardrobe as Rin was extra beautiful.
Not only that, we even have some English lyrics sprinkled into the very decent, sometimes even earwormy OST. If you clicked “play” on the track above, you might even be listening to some English lyrics right about now.
Put together, these details made me feel like this might be a light fusion sageuk. But, it really isn’t.
It’s true that the characters and relationships take centerstage in this drama world, but it isn’t all that light despite spots of levity. Instead, there are quite a lot of political machinations, and those sometimes even overshadow our characters. There’s a weird minister (Choi Jong Hwan) who’s played over-the-top theatrical for (I assume) comedic effect, but otherwise, the court politics in this world are taken Very Seriously.
Altogether, I found this drama world easy on the eyes and ears, and that definitely contributed to the ease with which I found myself enjoying this show.
OUR KEY CHARACTERS
Even though the political intrigue is laid on pretty thick at times, it is our characters that anchor the story that Show is working to tell. Here, I thought I’d give the spotlight to our 3 main characters.
1. Im Si Wan as Won
For the record, I think Im Si Wan did a absolutely fantastic job as Won. After watching him in this show, I am convinced that he is a gifted actor. So many times, he was able to very believably deliver difficult scenes that demanded complex layers of emotions; he made the emotions pop, often palpably, and I always felt that Won really was living and breathing on my screen. Each time Won exploded with anger, it felt like raw fury spilling out of him, and he literally looked like his head was about to explode. And each time Won struggled with grief and loneliness, the sadness in his eyes was crystal clear.
Also for the record, I often found myself not liking Won very much. In particular, right from episode 1, I found him quite the annoying twat. I thought he was cocky, rude, and condescending, and possessing no real sense of decorum. To some extent, I could rationalize Won’s behavior because he was raised as royalty, and was brought up to believe that he was superior to other people.
Even though he was the Crown Prince, though, Won didn’t come across as very regal nor dignified in my eyes, at least in the beginning, and he often felt a bit like a spoiled brat.
To Show’s credit – and to Im Si Wan’s too – Won did grow on me as a character, in that I soon started to find him a more empathetic character, even though his faults continued to niggle at me. I rationalized that Won would have room enough to grow in our 20 hours of story, and grow he did, though not quite to the extent that I had hoped for.
I guess if I had to distill my response to Won into a single analogy, it would be this:
Most of the time, looking at Won is like looking at a wide-eyed little kid, who’s got a smile on his face, and clear, innocent eyes, who likes to play and hang out with his best friends. Sometimes, though, he spouts the darnedest, most horribly selfish sentences, without seeming to realize the implications of his words. Also, be careful of making him angry, because if he thinks you’re taking his toys away, he can sometimes turn into a hissing, spitting, black-eyed demon who will not hesitate to kill you.
Yes, I know that sounds rather extreme, but in essence, that’s how Won sometimes came across to me. I found him empathetic, particularly when he was going through difficult situations. But, so often, he would say or do stuff that I found so disturbing, that I just couldn’t shake the discomfiture.
Case in point: Choosing between Rin and San
In episodes 9 & 10, both Rin and San (Yoona) are imprisoned, and the king (Jung Bo Suk) tells Won that he will have to choose between Rin and San. The one that Won chooses will live, and the other will die.
I found it very disturbing that Won doesn’t even hesitate over the choice. He swiftly chooses San, and then proceeds to visit Rin in prison to tell him that he’s leaving him in prison in order to save San. I couldn’t get over the fact that he’s been told by the king that the one he doesn’t save will die. Yet, not only is Won cold and selfish enough to choose to put his best friend to death for a woman he’s just barely met, he’s too chicken to actually tell his best friend that death awaits him.
Even worse, while Rin is still in prison awaiting his death, Won proceeds to romance San. He’s hugging her, and holding her, and trying to get her to remember his name, while she’s the one writing to her father, asking for help to save Rin. I had no words; I was so disgusted. Every time the camera panned to his smitten face, I wanted to slap him. How could he even indulge in looking smitten, I wondered, while San herself was desperately looking for ways to save Rin?
Granted, Won did seem to have a plan to save Rin. But it bugged me that he was so smug about the efficacy of his plan, even before his plan had made any headway. He had no guarantee that he would be able to save Rin, and yet continued to romance San. That is what bothered me so much.
Throughout this entire flow of events, Won’s general attitude bugged me as well.
When Won comes across the guard who had manhandled San earlier, Won flies into a very dark rage, and beats him savagely. This was a big red flag for me, because this was a peek at the kind of person Won was, when things didn’t go his way. Not only does he let loose raging fury, he lets it loose on a helpless guard who was simply following orders, instead of directing his attention to the one behind the actual order. I found that both telling and unsettling.
Later, at the end of episode 10, while Rin is still in prison, and San is trying to figure out a way to save him, Won asks her, “How can you think of someone else when you’re with me?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Not only is it such an entitled train of thought, it’s incredibly self-centered as well. After all, she’s trying to save his best friend, from death, and all he thinks about, is why she would think of someone else instead of him. This made me so mad.
Other Won highlights
What I found interesting about Won is that he’s not quite all good, but neither is he all bad. And as terrible as some of his words and behaviors were, I felt like Won really believed he was doing his best, and being true to his moral compass.
Here are a couple of examples of incidents that I found illuminating, in terms of shedding light on Won’s character.
E25-26. Won saying that he should have investigated to find the people who killed San’s mother, the moment he found out that So Hwa was San. Which implies that if So Hwa had had nothing to do with this, that he wouldn’t have felt the need to investigate. I found this very telling, in terms of Won’s sense of justice.
E27-28. Won stops San from attacking Jeon (Yoon Jong Hoon) for his role in masterminding her mother’s death, and when San resists, Won tells her, “If you refuse to listen, I will frame you and lock you up.” Just, wow. How the heck does Won’s mind work, that he can say this to the woman he professes to love? He’s asking her to forget about the justice that she seeks for the wrongful death of her mother, and then threatens her when it looks like she won’t listen.
E33-34. Won not even having the respect and decorum to greet his parents on his wedding day – this smelled like a tantrum rather than a strategic move, to me. After snubbing his bride and his parents, he goes to San and insists that she spend time with him. Really, how unbecoming. And then to cordon off his quarters with threat of death to everyone who tries to enter, including his mother? That’s just too much, seriously.
E35-36. In the wake of his mother’s death and in the face of the plotting surrounding it, Won is overwhelmed by a very complicated mix of emotions, from grief, to regret, to guilt, to suspicion, to rage, to confusion, to jealousy, to betrayal. He feels it all, and Im Si Wan delivers it all, in palpable, exacting fashion.
That said, in terms of Won’s reactions to his situation, I also felt like I was watching a boy throwing a tantrum, except that said boy had guards and soldiers and weapons at his unquestioning command, which amplified the magnitude of the tantrum by about a million times. I felt like if Won would have just exercised more self-control and self-restraint, that certain things could’ve been avoided. Like, if he’d just let San speak, instead of threatening her with death, he would have known that she’d come with the antidote, on Rin’s request. So in that regard at least, it’d be evidence that neither Rin nor San was trying to harm the king.
2. Hong Jong Hyun as Rin
As those of you who follow me on Instagram would already know, I enjoyed Rin very much indeed. ❤️ Whenever I felt Show wasn’t at its best, Rin’s appearance onscreen would make me feel better.
While Hong Jong Hyun’s delivery isn’t as natural or as faceted as Im Si Wan’s, this is definitely the best performance I’ve seen from him to date, and that makes me very happy indeed. When I compare his delivery of Rin with his earlier works, it’s clear that he’s grown significantly as an actor, and I’m rooting for him to keep on doing even better.
Very quickly into my watch, I could see why there were so many Rin fans. He’s silent, observant, skillful, set up to be the protector and savior of both Won and San. Add on Hong Jong Hyun’s good looks, strong brows and broody gaze, and I could literally feel the swoon come on, heh.
I found Rin’s stoic, quiet care and loyalty very attractive. Even though he consistently cedes centerstage to Won, he shines in his own understated way. His reticence feels more like a conscious choice than a personality trait that he can’t overcome; he chooses to place himself on the sidelines because he believes that is where he can best be of assistance and service. There’s just something very attractive about that lack of vanity and that generous, giving spirit.
The Rin scenes that I found most endearing, were the ones where Rin visited his sister Dan (Park Hwan Hee) in the evenings.
In episodes 15-18, Rin visits Dan twice to talk with her. When Dan is put on the tribute list, it’s so like Rin to offer himself as tribute in place of Dan. Such a selfless act, and he assures Dan so gently and comfortingly, that it’s going to be alright; that she doesn’t have to go if she doesn’t want to. He doesn’t breathe a word about his own sacrifice, and instead, focuses on comforting her. Aw.
In episode 18, Rin visits Dan again, after Won proposes a marriage of convenience. I just love this scene for the way Rin talks with Dan. In the quiet stillness of the night, he speaks to her in gentle, measured, thoughtful tones. In his words, there is care and concern, and he never forces his opinion on her. He always asks her what she thinks, what she feels, and he simply tells her that she has a choice. There is an honesty in his voice that makes me feel that he’s speaking from an open heart instead of a guarded one. And in his quiet, gentle way, he comforts her.
His brotherly care and love feels so pure and so sincere; I couldn’t help liking Rin even more, watching him be so quietly gentle and caring towards Dan.
In the spirit of celebrating acting progress and success, I wanted to give a special mention to Hong Jong Hyun’s delivery in episode 37 of a severely injured Rin.
That moment, when Rin surfaces for a moment of semi-lucidity, I truly believe he’s weak and barely able to move, only semi-conscious as he sees San in his line of sight. The barely-audible words, “You are.. in my dream,” are rasped out so hoarsely that I can almost feel the pain it causes him, to speak.
A beautifully restrained interpretation of the scene, I felt.
3. Yoona as San
Yoona was the potential weak link for me in this equation, since I’d felt so underwhelmed by her previous outing in The K2. So it was a nice surprise to find that Yoona is very decent in this. Perhaps it’s because San’s brighter character suits Yoona more than her role in The K2, which had been a lot more dramatic and mopey.
I found San more likable and empathetic than I’d first anticipated. Specifically, I didn’t feel for San simply because of the difficult situation that she was written to have; Yoona’s delivery definitely added to my affection for San as a character. Yoona did a good job of portraying the brave face that San puts forward, and the sadness that she keeps hidden.
Again, I celebrate progress. Yoona isn’t a gifted actress; acting isn’t even her day job. So to see her taking significant steps forward, and delivering a reasonably robust performance that’s tangibly better than the ones that came before, and contributing to the likability of a key character, is satisfying enough for me.
All in all, I found San a pretty interesting, faceted character. She’s a lady of noble birth, but keeps that fact hidden while living like she’s riffraff off the street. She’s emotionally scarred from the trauma of losing her mother and then her entire world as she knew it, from the ambush incident, but in honor of her mother’s last words, she keeps a bright and cheery approach to the life that she does have. She’s too wary to let people close, but at the same time, desperately wishes for the same closeness that she keeps pushing away. Yet, through it all, she does carry gratitude in her heart; gratitude for the love and life that she has had the chance to receive.
In a sense, San is a bundle of contradictions, but, a bundle of contradictions that I found understandable, for the most part.
Given San’s life of necessary isolation, I could understand how she felt drawn to the friendship between Won and Rin, and why she would desire to be part of that friendship. At the same time, because she has experienced deep loneliness, I can understand why she sometimes went the way of self-sacrificing noble idiocy in order to keep Won and Rin together. In her eyes, this friendship was a precious thing that she wanted to protect, that she couldn’t bear to see torn down by external forces.
I think my favorite thing about San is that combination of fearlessness and gratitude that she has. The scene that stands out most in my mind in regards to this, is the scene at the end of episode 38, when San drinks the poisoned tea, knowing that she would likely die. With tears burgeoning in her eyes, she thinks, “I have come across many precious people in my life… which most people cannot even dream of.. I was dearly beloved. That is enough for me.”
That San would hold such gratitude in her heart for the love that she has received, even in the face of death, moved me a great deal.
There was a great deal of love between Won and Rin, but I personally wouldn’t consider this a bromance for the simple fact that this relationship was never a balanced one.
Won, being Rin’s master, always had the upper hand, and could always use his power to get what he wanted. Rin, always the loyal subject, consistently felt obligated to hold himself back in favor of his master. Therefore, even though Won instructs Rin to be his friend, this friendship was always heavily skewed in Won’s favor.
That said, I do appreciate how much trust exists between the two men. In episode 7, when Rin is found in the vicinity after an arrow is shot in the king’s direction, Won doesn’t even doubt Rin for a second. Even when faced with the wrath of his father, and even when he has no clue as to what really happened, he makes up a story to cover for Rin, to ensure Rin’s safety first.
Additionally, in episode 15, when Rin asks Won to stop the marriage proposal between Jeon and San, Won does not need to ask anything further. He has absolute, implicit trust in Rin, and believes wholeheartedly that Rin would not have asked if there had been any other way.
Despite that trust, however, through it all, I felt that Won’s conscience was fighting a losing battle with his innate personality, which has always been given to being self-focused and self-serving.
In episodes 29-30, Show takes pains to show that Won is fully aware of how Rin has been at the losing end of their friendship, that Rin’s given up a lot to be his friend. He’s also fully aware of how he’s taken Rin for granted, choosing San’s pardon over Rin’s when he was given an ultimatum. Yet, just when I thought Won is going to finally put Rin first (like he writes in his letter to San), he uses his promissory ring from San to ask her to come back to him. It really is all about him, all over again.
Show makes the point over and over again, that Won can’t put anyone before himself. Which is why this friendship, though deep and moving in parts, was never a friendship that felt whole and equal, and therefore never one that truly stole my heart.
Even though this show is titled The King Loves, and even though Won expresses his romantic intentions towards San from early on in the show, I was never able to root for this potential couple.
Mostly, this was because of Won’s selfish and controlling personality. Plus, I never got the sense that San felt anything more than platonic affection for him.
There are times that we see San shedding tears for Won, like in episodes 15-16. Here, she even goes back to him and asks to stay by his side. However, I didn’t feel that her request was rooted in romantic love. Rather, I felt that she acted out of a deep sympathy for Won, and wanted to stay by his side as a friend, to cheer him on and help make his life that little bit better with her presence.
On the other hand, we often hear Won speaking about San like she’s a bird that he would like to lock in a cage, so that he can see her everyday. In episode 21, Won states plainly that he would have a large cage built for San, so that she would be near him all the time. When Rin asks, “What if she’s unhappy?” Won blinks and answers, “Why would she be unhappy, in front of me?”
That he can genuinely ask that question just bothers me so much. From his point-of-view, all he can see is his own enjoyment; he doesn’t seem to realize that no one would like to live in a cage.
In episode 34, Won looks upon a sleeping San, and thinks, “If I keep you asleep all the time.. If I do that, would we always live in peace? So please fall fast asleep.. for a long time.” That he wants to keep San asleep so that she can’t shake off his hand when he reaches for hers, disturbs me a great deal.
Perhaps the worst offender, though, is the scene in episode 35 where Won warns San, “I will pretend not to know your feelings for Rin. Give it up as fast as you can. If you do that, Rin will get a chance to live.” Ugh. I hate that in the face of knowing San’s heart for Rin, that Won would resort to wielding his power over her, to force her to turn away from Rin.
All in all, Won’s feelings of affection for San are not driven by a desire to make San happy, but a desire to make himself happy. Royalty or not, that’s just not the way to love someone, and I never felt inclined to root for San to like Won back.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m on Team Rin, in this love triangle, heh. But I have good reasons, I swears! Beyond the fact that Hong Jong Hyun and Yoona share a good amount of sparky chemistry, and that San herself seemed to have feelings for Rin, I was most attracted to the nature of Rin’s love for San.
Unlike Won’s idea of love detailed above, Rin’s love for San was never about possessing her. In fact, for a good long stretch, Rin never even expected or dared hope for reciprocity. All that mattered to him was San’s safety, well-being, and happiness. It didn’t matter to Rin whether she loved him back; it was enough for him to be able to see her face and know that she was alright. That selfless, giving nature of his love really was the kicker for me. I just couldn’t not swoon in the face of such an open-hearted, uncalculating love that sought only to give, and didn’t expect to receive anything in return. ❤️
At the same time, as San’s feelings for Rin became clearer and clearer, it feels so apt, that her love was of a similar nature; she didn’t seek to possess him either.
With so much self-sacrificing, pure-hearted love growing between these two, I couldn’t not root for their happy ending.
Because Rin’s love for San is forbidden – from both his own as well as Won’s point-of-view – the development of this couple’s relationship is all stillness on the surface, while feelings burgeon and swell beneath that surface.
Rin is the epitome of politeness and decorum, but his love for San leaks out in the stolen side glances, the moments of pensive brooding, and the way he fiercely fights to keeps her safe, often from an anonymous distance. The desperation with which Rin fights to keep San’s engagement to Jeon from happening in episodes 13 & 14, speaks volumes about the depth of his care for her.
Through it all, Rin doesn’t see himself as an actual option for San as a future husband. Instead, he positions himself as her safety net. Whenever she is in any sort of danger, whether physical, emotional or political, he does everything in his power to keep her safe – even if it is at the cost of his own safety. And sometimes, while Rin is working to keep San safe, we get bursts of accidental electrifying skinship. Eee!
Compared to Rin, San is more of an enigma with her feelings, but Show gives us enough clues to let us in on the fact that she does, in fact, see Rin in a romantic light.
In episodes 13 & 14, San decides to tell Rin the truth, while keeping it from Won. She says it’s because he’s the impatient type who won’t be able to stay still, but my sense is that she simply trusts Rin more.
A pretty telling moment, when it comes to the state of San’s heart over Rin, is in episode 15. In voiceover, we hear her muse about Won and Rin in turn:
“The person who was always smiling at me… had a sad smile, and it made my heart ache.” … “And the person next to him… would avoid looking at me. When I looked at him, he would always be looking somewhere else. It made my heart ache. Which one of them… made my heart ache more?”
To my ears, it sounds like she’s always been more interested in Rin. She’s the one who’s been trying to catch his eye, and she’s the one who feels sad because every time she looks in his direction, he’s looking elsewhere.
Later, when San realizes that Rin has been following her, Rin says that he was doing so because he was anxious; he was afraid that she would trip, in her daze. As if in reflex, San answers, “I should have tripped. I wanted to see how you would react.”
This, to me, was the most definitive indication of San’s feelings for Rin. The fact that San desired to know how Rin would react if she had tripped, says so much. It’s the equivalent of her saying that she desired to know how Rin felt about her. After all, a woman would only yearn to know how a man felt about her, if she had feelings for him too.
This is why, in my mind, there never was any doubt that San felt the same way towards Rin as he did towards her.
A few favorite RinSan moments.
1. Silent ninja-knight in shining armor
The whole scenario in episode 5, of San going undercover in the tea house and encountering a masked Rin, was fraught with palpable tension. Neither of them could risk being caught; Rin couldn’t risk San seeing his face; San couldn’t risk losing to and therefore being at the mercy of this masked man. There was so much dramatic and interpersonal tension in the air, as Rin and San sparred with each other in a terse fight that somehow also managed to look like an elegant and complicated dance.
Soon enough, the tables are turned, and San finds her masked opponent becoming her masked rescuer, as he hauls her up by the wrist onto the roof, before catching her by the waist. Eee!
I believe his touch would have been firm but gentle, and I feel like she would have been extra curious about this masked man who would not reveal himself to her, and would fight her, but would also touch her with gentleness and care.
I thought this was a great foundation for this next scene I want to highlight.
2. She knows him by his touch
In episode 18, Rin goes to see San regarding the Crown Princess selection tea party, and the two talk on the roof. As they get up to leave, San loses her footing, and Rin catches her and breaks her fall, again catching her by the waist. In that moment, San recognizes him as her masked rescuer from before, from the touch of his hands on her. Eee!
I just freaking love that she knew him by the way he held her. ❤️
3. The attempted escape
In episode 31, Rin and San get a significant amount of time alone together, as they attempt to escape from all the people who are after San’s inheritance from her father.
When she loses her footing on the hill, Rin immediately moves to hold her hand, and despite some awkwardness on San’s part at the close contact, he firmly maintains his grasp and doesn’t let go, all the way down the hill. I found that quite melty.
Also melty, was the way Rin encouraged San to talk about her recently deceased father, offering to listen. San asks if he will listen even if it’s uninteresting, and even if it’s long-winded, and Rin only smiles and assures her that he will. And then he proceeds to do just that, giving her his full attention. I love that she opened up to him when he asked, and I love how he smiled and listened, as she talked. Such a simple thing, but so deeply needed, and so sweetly executed. Aw.
An aside: the kiss
In episode 32, we get the only onscreen kiss that Rin and San share, and I’m sad to say, I found it uncomfortably awkward to watch.
The last time I watched Hong Jong Hyun deliver a kiss scene was in 2014’s web series Her Lovely Heels, and while he was beautiful to look at onscreen, I could only cringe at how uncomfortable he seemed while kissing his leading lady.
Unfortunately, I feel pretty much the same way about his kiss scene with Yoona here. The kiss felt stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t feel at all romantic to me. Plus, San struggles, before she lets her arms fall to her side and just lets Rin kiss her. This didn’t look very reciprocal to me, and the entire scene felt kind of off, to my eyes. I get the significance of the kiss and the logic behind why Rin felt he had to do it, but the execution was all kinds of awkward.
For the record, I (still!) volunteer to help Hong Jong Hyun get more comfortable with the kissing. Ahem. 😉
A spotlight on Won vs. Rin as romantic endgame [SPOILERS]
Show consistently gives us examples of how Rin and Won love differently, and this made it easy for me to figure out who my heart rooted for, as romantic endgame.
Here are just 2 instances of how these two men loved differently.
Example 1: San’s imprisonment
In episodes 9 & 10, when San is framed for murder and taken in for questioning, Won does his best to reason with his father, but doesn’t go so far as to put his own self on the line. Which I suppose is understandable since he’s the Crown Prince and has likely been taught from a young age that his body is not his own.
In contrast, Rin just throws himself into the metaphorical flames in order to save the ones he cares about. He admits to wrongdoing that he hasn’t done, with grave consequences, in order to save both Won and San.
Example 2: San’s father’s death
In episodes 29 & 30, we see the stark difference between how Won and Rin react to San in the wake of her father’s death. Won won’t let her go to her father’s body, and instead, forces her into an embrace with him. I hated watching that. Even in her darkest moment of grief, he wouldn’t give her the space to grieve in her own way.
Rin, on the other hand, is so different. He’s gentle with her, and helps her stand up when she’s been kneeling too long. He encourages her to bring her father home. And when she can’t bring herself to actually write the mourning words on the banner, he is her strength. He holds her hand to steady it, and gently wipes her tears away. But he doesn’t guide her hand to write the words. He gives her the space to do that, when she feels ready. He lets that moment be all hers.
And when she can’t bear to approach the altar, he tells her to take a deep breath, to take her time; that it’s ok to do so. It’s no wonder that San cleaves to him in her raw moment of grief.
Guh. How can one’s heart not lean towards Rin?
With such a sprawling cast, it’s impossible to talk about all the supporting characters. But, here’s a quick shout-out to the few who made my watch better, each in their own way.
1. Jang Young Nam as Queen Jangmok / Princess Won Sung
Jang Young Nam is quite magnificent as Queen Jangmok / Princess Won Sung. In the early episodes, she came across more theatrical than I thought was necessary, but in the middle to later stretch of the show, Jang Young Nam shifted into a more restrained, layered performance that made the Queen a compelling and even rather empathetic character.
Despite the Queen’s own track record of cruelty, I found myself feeling sorry for her as she struggled to do what she thought was best for her son before her own untimely death. Kudos to Jang Young Nam, whose amazing performance made the Queen as fascinating as she was.
2. Park Hwan Hee as Dan
We don’t get very much screen time with Dan, but I found Park Hwan Hee very endearing and sweet as Dan, and I only wanted good things for her.
3. Jang Eui & Jin Gwan (Ki Do Hoon & Bong Jae Ho)
For a good section of the show, Jang Eui and Jin Gwan were just two side characters who happened to pop up regularly because they were Won’s shadow guards. But halfway through my watch, I suddenly realized that I had genuinely grown fond of them.
[SPOILER] In episode 20, when Jang Eui told Rin to go ahead, and then went to block the soldiers alone, I genuinely feared that he would die and not be on my screen anymore. Happily, Jang Eui didn’t die, and both he and Jin Gwan got to pop up regularly on my screen through to the end of the show. A plus point, in my books. 😉 [END SPOILER]
STUFF THAT DIDN’T WORK SO WELL FOR ME
1. The political stuff
I’m generally never too interested in political stories, and the ones that I’ve managed to enjoy have been when the politics are skillfully brought to life by the writer weaving the political machinations very closely with the journeys of characters that I cared about. Case in point: the amazing Nirvana In Fire, where I found myself edge-of-my-seat enthralled by the political machinations.
In this show, Show occasionally managed to achieve that perfect balance, where the politics mattered as much as the characters, and both sides of the coin got sufficient attention and screen time such that everything meshed together as one cohesively interesting whole.
More often than not, however, Show would lean more heavily in one direction. Sometimes, we would get a lot more character focus and not a lot of politics at all. I didn’t mind that, since I was in this primarily for the characters anyway. When Show leaned the other way and put too much focus on the politics and not enough on the characters, however, I found myself zoning out and losing interest.
Every time that happened, I felt like the characters that I was actually interested in, inadvertently got entangled in a web of politicking that I was not interested in. And so, I felt like I was enduring the politicking purely for the sake of the characters whose lives and development I cared about.
For example, in episodes 21 & 22, every time our trio was onscreen, I perked right up, but found it hard to focus on Song In (Oh Min Suk) plotting to get all of Finance Minister Eun’s (Lee Ki Young) assets.
A tangential musing
While watching this show, it occurred to me that the political agendas, and who’s right and who’s wrong, is interestingly confusing. Show sets up the king’s camp to be the baddies against Won, but, from another perspective, they are the ones who have been working to give Goryeo independence from Yuan.
So a loyal subject in either camp would genuinely believe that he or she was doing the right and just thing for the nation. Context really is everything.
2. Oh Min Suk as Song In
Despite my musing above about context, Song In is clearly the bad guy in our story, particularly given his cavalier attitude towards killing innocent people. He’s heartless and cruel, and doesn’t have true loyalty to the king that he claims to serve. Rather, he’s in it for personal gain, and for the power rush.
Aside from the fact that Song In is written to be such an unsavory character, the other reason I didn’t enjoy his character was because of Oh Min Suk’s delivery.
It pains me to say this since I found Oh Min Suk very adorable in We Got Married, but, his delivery of Song In’s craftiness felt rather.. flat. Song In’s unflappable, calm, blasé veneer was supposed to make him seem mysterious and powerful (I think), but in Oh Min Suk’s hands, that calm came across rather toothless, and therefore not very interesting at all.
3. Jung Bo Suk as King Chungnyeol
In a similar vein, I didn’t find the king very interesting either.
Much of the time, we see him being so ineffectual, weak-minded and petulant, that it felt ironic to see people pandering to him as if he really mattered. It was annoying to see how easily he was influenced by the people who whispered lies to him, and it was frustrating that he didn’t seem to have a mind of his own.
There are many things I disliked about the king, but if I had to pick the biggest one, it would be that he only cared about his personal gain. He didn’t actually have the interest of the nation or his people at heart. He only cared about himself, to the exclusion of everyone else, including his own queen and son. I found that trait to be unacceptable and unforgivable, for the monarch of a nation.
[SPOILER] A solid example that is quintessential petty king, is in episode 25. When the king is asked to grant Won a title to enable him to learn how to govern, he first checks whether he has access to his men. When he realizes that he doesn’t, he reluctantly agrees to grant the title – only to then tack on that he will name his maidservant companion Boo Young (Choo Soo Hyun) queen, clearly just to spite Won’s mother. [END SPOILER]
4. Some of the storytelling
The storytelling in this drama mostly trundled along well enough. But, there were enough low points that it made for a watch that felt uneven. To Show’s credit, there were times that the storytelling was pretty excellent as well.
I’m going to highlight a handful of times when Show’s storytelling made me go “huh?” and then, to give Show credit where it’s due, I’ll share an example of when I felt Show really outdid itself with its narrative hook.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
The not-so-great stuff
E2. The whole going into the mountains to get wine thing is kind of out there; what’s even less believable is how Won and San bicker and fight on a precariously flimsy bridge. How do neither of them have the sense to put safety first? Given that both Won and San are supposed to be smart characters, I found this out of character, try-hard, and really dumb.
E8. The random English lyrics and the odd montage of Won, Rin and San playing and blowing flower petals in the wind is very strange. I mean, they are on a time crunch to find the man who tried to assassinate the king, and it felt like an MV interlude was inserted in there, out of nowhere.
E26. San clearly knows that it was Rin’s brother who was involved in her mother’s death. She tells her father so, and also tells Rin so, when he tries to tell her everything he knows. So why does she get so shocked and upset when Rin admits at the investigation that the butterfly emblem belongs to his family? This didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and felt as if Show forgot what it had done prior. I can rationalize that San thought Rin’s brother was involved but didn’t think that he was the mastermind, but again, that doesn’t quite add up to the reaction that was played out at the end of the episode. It felt weird.
E27-40. Bi Yeon (Park Ji Hyun) is repeatedly shown giving all kinds of private household intel to Moo Suk (Park Young Woon), whom she barely knows, and who looks pretty darn suspicious to boot, always dressed in secretive black. She’s repeatedly used as a convenient and very flimsy plot catalyst, and it was very frustrating to watch. I expected someone who had worked with the Eun household for so many years, to have more cow sense. Seriously!
E35-40. It’s odd to see Song In being so sad about Boo Young’s death, coz he never seemed to really care about her before, when she was alive. Every time she fawned over him, he seemed to endure it more than enjoy it. So to see him literally go crazy for her after her death, was just jarring and strange. It felt like a misstep in characterization rather than a deliberate late reveal.
E37-38. With Rin so severely injured, and San so worried about him, I found it hard to believe that she would not only wait outside for Won, leaving Rin alone, but even go so far as to walk Won to the bridge – a tangent that took an awfully long time. It just didn’t feel like an organic decision, to me, for San to spend such a long time outside with Won, when her heart was with Rin, who just happened to be hovering between life and death.
My favorite stretch of storytelling in this show
I love-love-loved episodes 17 & 18 for the excellent amount of dramatic conflict it presented.
There’s tension because Won now realizes that Rin and San care for each other. There’s tension with the other two as well; Rin because he desperately wants to go away, for his own sake, and San because now she’s worried about Rin going away.
And now, there’s a conflict where the stakes on both sides feel equally high. Whoever Won chooses as Crown Princess, there’s a big price to pay. If he chooses San, Rin will be sent away. If he chooses Dan, San and her father will be heavily punished – perhaps with death, even – for deceiving the court for their own gain.
Just as interesting to me, was the fact that this pair of episodes were essentially made up of flashbacks (3 days prior, 2 days prior, 1 day prior to the previous episode’s cliffhanger), and yet, the entire hour felt so rich with narrative tension. This was the first time in a long time that I found myself lapping up dramatic tension like it’s the most delicious thing ever.
The stakes were high and believable, the pacing felt tight, and I felt completely invested. Very impressive indeed. ❤️
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
To be brutally honest, I have mixed feelings about the ending.
I guess my problem is that I don’t fully buy that this version of events was the only recourse that our trio had.
While the events of Show’s final hour unfolded on my screen, I couldn’t help feeling more and more bemused at the story logic. With the king’s seal recovered, couldn’t they just say that it had been taken from Song In’s body or something like that? I mean, that’s way closer to the truth than what they actually chose. Why does Rin still have to pretend to be the leader of the anti-Yuan movement, when Song In, the actual leader, is dead? If the anti-Yuan movement is still on-going after Song In’s death (as any political movement worth its salt should), then wouldn’t it make more sense to actually investigate those remnants, than send out the king’s guards to take down a completely fake anti-Yuan leader?
On the other hand, I get the sentiment that writer-nim was going for. I understood the sacrifice that Rin, Won and San were making, believing that what they were doing was for the greater good. Rin, giving up not only his family and his best friend, but even his reputation, by “dying” a traitor. San, giving up everything – her teacher, her friends, and her home – in order to follow Rin. Won, giving up the two people that he cherished the most, and left all alone, in their absence.
To Show’s credit, I felt the pathos of the farewell scenes that we witnessed between our trio, from the one-last-hurrah practice farewell, where honest, heartfelt conversations were had, to the actual farewell on the hillside. And I felt that even in all of this, that these friends weren’t giving up their friendship per se. I believed that they would always hold one another dear in their hearts, even though circumstances dictated that Won would be isolated from Rin and San.
At the same time, I did find myself wondering whether all of this was worth it, with Won ruling for a few years before abdicating in his father’s favor – when his father had just abdicated to him. I almost wanted to laugh, it felt so ludicrous, like neither of them really wanted to be king, and were just pushing that responsibility at each other in turn.
I felt that Show was bittersweet in its final hour, but leaned heavily on the bitter in its final moments. Even while I acknowledged all the selflessness of our characters, I couldn’t help but feel like all 3 of our main characters had been shortchanged, in the way events subsequently unfolded.
I mean, it feels like such an ignominious thing, to let Rin go down in history so dishonorably. And while I agree that Won had matured in that he was finally willing to let San go, he seemed to never quite move on. He wasn’t able to stay in Goryeo because Rin and San were reportedly in Goryeo, and ended up going to Yuan for 10 years. That.. disappoints me, to be honest. If Won had truly continued to grow, he would’ve learned not only to rule Goryeo with wisdom and grace, but also to treat his chosen Queen with care and affection, and neither of those things happened.
At this point, I guess I should clarify that I did, out of curiosity, check out what history itself recorded about Won, and it is true that he reigned for a while before returning the throne to his father. It is also true that he then spent much of his time in China. But, y’know, a whole lotta other details don’t match up – like the fact that he returned the throne to his father because there was intense plotting between his Korean queen and his Mongolian queen – so I feel the details around how and why Won went to Yuan could’ve been managed differently. He didn’t have to be painted in such a.. pathetic sort of light.
And so, considering purely the story that we were given (ie, without considering history), I am left with a slight sense of dissatisfaction with where Show left us. However, I rationalize that perhaps this was never meant to be a satisfying story. Won reminds us in voiceover, “This is the story of me, who loved you more than myself.” Maybe this single selfless act is the pinnacle of what Won is capable of, and that alone is why he tells this story.
As for me, as vaguely disgruntled as I feel towards the political logic and the eventual note on which we end our story, I do appreciate the window we got, to witness the birth and blossoming of friendship and loyalty, among our 3 main characters. Each in their own often flawed and limited way, these 3 cared for and loved one another – whether it was platonically, romantically or somewhere in the confused continuum between the two – and they did the absolute utmost they could for one another, in the best way they knew how. That alone made this worth the watch, for me.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
An uneven journey, but one that feels heartfelt at its core.
FINAL GRADE: B