Do you enjoy rollercoasters? Coz if you do, The Last Empress might just be the show for you.
At its best, and right out of the gate, Show is a fun romp rife with makjang plot points, logic stretches and murderous intent (it’s all about the lens, which I’ll talk about very shortly). I personally think the extension didn’t do Show any favors, coz Show spins its wheels a fair bit in its later stretch, which is a serious pity. On the upside, Show wraps up in a reasonably solid manner, and I’m emerging on the other side without regretting my watch.
That’s not bad, all things considered.
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 experience of watching this show reminds me of a story from when I was 15 or 16. This was, quite likely, my first lesson about the importance of wearing the right lens.
My English teacher (let’s call her Ms. B) came to class one day, and announced that she owed one of us an apology. Wait, what? Turns out that she’d read one of my classmate’s essays (let’s call her Wendy), and had been so frustrated by the ridiculous plot points in the story, that she’d ravaged the paper with her red pen, and then graded the essay an F.
BUT THEN. Plot twist! Ms. B then told her best friend, another English teacher (let’s call her Ms. C) about it, and Ms. C, after giving the essay a read, looked at Ms. B and said, “But this is brilliant.” That’s when Ms. B adjusted her lens, re-read the whole thing, loved it, and gave Wendy an A instead. Ms. B then proceeded to read the essay to us. It was full of nonsensical plot twists and unexpected surprises, and we all laughed until we literally cried; it was just so good. (At one point, I’m pretty sure a monkey popped out of nowhere and bopped the protagonist on the head with a toy hammer. Ha!)
Afterwards, we all asked Wendy how she’d managed to write such an amazing essay, and Wendy just shrugged, “I dunno. I just wrote whatever I thought of.”
I.. kinda really think The Last Empress is just like that, from the lens needed to enjoy it, to possibly the writing process too, heh.
The best way to watch this show, I think, is to not take it seriously. Stuff happens chockablock, and it literally feels like a rollercoaster. In just the first hour, we have a body count that I quickly lost count of, an Empress Dowager (Shin Eun Kyung) who seems to be power-crazy and literally looks like she will go mad when she’s crossed, an Emperor (Shin Sung Rok) that is cold and slightly unhinged, a lot of hidden stories, an attempted assassination, a torrid encounter – and coming away, I felt like I was only scratching the surface (which I was).
At its best, Show was fabulously OTT and makjang-licious and proud of it, and I was happily eating it up with a spoon.
A SMATTERING OF HIGHLIGHTS
This show is such a crazy rollercoaster that it would’ve been monumental – and also, unenjoyable and ultimately quite pointless – to try and keep track of all the events and analyze everything. So I didn’t. I just sat back and enjoyed Show for what it was, and basically threw all my need for logic, cohesion and consistency out the window – a somewhat freeing experience, come to think of it.
So instead of any kind of plot or character analysis, here’s a sprinkling of my various thoughts on some of Show’s key offerings.
Shin Sung Rok as Lee Hyuk
Even though Shin Sung Rok is listed as this show’s second lead, he basically steals almost every scene he’s in. Word on the street is that he stole a good number of viewers’ hearts too – quite the feat, considering that Lee Hyuk is a character who’s got a trail of blood, bodies and other crimes on his hands. (That’s not a spoiler, coz we learn this about him right away, in Show’s first hour.)
Personally, I felt that Shin Sung Rok was the perfect casting choice, to play our story’s slightly unhinged Emperor. I find it hard to imagine anyone else in this OTT role. I feel like Shin Sung Rok brought a lot of dimension to Lee Hyuk, likely adding a lot of his own ideas into rehearsals and ad-libs, if my little glimpse into some of the behind-the-scenes footage is anything to go by.
[VAGUE SPOILER] Show also does a good job of making Lee Hyuk a more sympathetic character by its later episodes, and even though I sometimes wondered whether Show had forgotten that Lee Hyuk was technically a criminal, Show never actually forgot, which I’m pleased about. [END SPOILER]
Jang Na Ra as Oh Sunny
In a drama world where everything is OTT theatrical and crazy, it’s easy to come off as boring, when you’re playing one of the non-crazy guys – but happily, Jang Na Ra does not.
I personally felt like Jang Na Ra imbued Sunny with a lot of emotion, and this emotion helped to ground the show and make this crazy makjang-fest somewhat emotionally engaging. Sunny acts almost like an emotional barometer for the audience; more often than not, she’s the guide showing us what we as an audience ought to feel, at any given point during our story.
Even though I thought it was in-principle kinda dumb for our characters to keep marching up to their enemies and informing them of what they planned to do (Sunny did this a lot), I did enjoy watching Sunny go from being an innocent pawn in the royal struggle for power, to becoming an Empress made of steelier stuff.
Here’re just two instances where I felt especially pleased with Sunny’s steps forward.
E15-16. It was satisfying to see Sunny fight back this hour, even though she has limited power and understanding. That scene where she marches in on a shirtless Emperor and a fawning Yu Ra, and unleashes all of her pent-up frustration in a wild wave of flailing emotion, throwing food, ice, water, and everything she can lay her hands on, on an incredulous Emperor, was gold.
E17-18. I like the new steely side that we’re seeing of Sunny. The way she takes Yu Ra down when Yu Ra tries to keep her from entering the Emperor’s chambers, is a great one-two punch. First, she unflinchingly retorts that even an Empress in name has way more authority than a mere assistant like her; that’s the law. YES. And then, she feigns surprise that Yu Ra doesn’t know that Ari is the Emperor’s child, and remarks that the Emperor mustn’t trust Yu Ra that much then. DOUBLE YES. So satisfying.
Lee Elijah as Min Yu Ra
Not gonna lie; even though Min Yu Ra is listed as our second female lead character, I often found her more interesting to watch than our female lead Sunny. Yu Ra’s quite a delicious sort of character for how audacious she is, and Lee Elijah does a fantastic job leaning into the crazy, by playing her hyper-breathy and OTT theatrical.
Here’re just a few examples of when I couldn’t help but be impressed by Yu Ra’s ballsy attitude.
E3-4. When she hears that the Emperor wants her killed, Yu Ra goes and wagers her life before the hit can happen, and thus earns his trust and affection. Plus, knowing that the Empress Dowager is watching via hidden surveillance cameras, she goes and seduces the emperor, while looking right into a camera. Girl’s not afraid to play big, and I can’t help but be at least a little bit awed.
E8. How bold and salacious, that Yu Ra would make the moves on the Emperor to seduce him, while he’s having a couples massage with his new Empress.
E11-12. It’s interesting, the way that Yu Ra’s reaction to the car explosion is played. She’s all gaspy and in shock, but she smiles in pleasure. It’s almost like she got an orgasmic high from watching Wang Shik die. It’s sick, but it’s also fascinating.
Choi Jin Hyuk as Na Wang Shik
Remember when I said it’s quite easy to come off as boring when you’re playing one of the non-crazy guys? Uh. I personally think that’s what happened with Choi Jin Hyuk playing Na Wang Shik / Chun Woo Bin. ([SPOILER] I did laugh a great deal when we transitioned from Tae Hang Ho playing Wang Shik, to Choi Jin Hyuk. The power of a haircut! Lols. [END SPOILER])
On the upside, Choi Jin Hyuk looks great, and really looks the part of a strong bodyguard with formidable skills. He’s very lean and very fast on his feet, which are both nice things. On the downside, I do think that Choi Jin Hyuk’s range of expression is more limited than his co-stars. I personally felt his emoting range was quite limited, and so, in certain key scenes where Wang Shik is supposed to be extremely angry, grieved and torn up, I found Choi Jin Hyuk’s delivery a little flat and one-note. This was.. unfortunate.
Another not-great thing is Show’s extension, which went on even though Choi Jin Hyuk was not available for the extra filming the extension required. This was also very unfortunate.
All in all, I felt that Choi Jin Hyuk did decently in his role, though I do wish that he could’ve done better.
Shin Eun Kyung as the Empress Dowager
I found Shin Eun Kyung pretty fantastic as our resident Empress Dowager with dubious intent. The Empress Dowager is power-hungry, manipulative, and quite desperate, underneath it all, and to bring that all to life, Shin Eun Kyung commits to the crazy in a big way. She brings it, whether it’s screeching, crying, hysterics, or murderous looks, and really made the Empress Dowager the kind of character that you love to hate. I enjoyed watching her very much, in all of her dysfunctional glory.
There are many examples of the Empress Dowager’s extreme dysfunction, but here’re just two instances that stood out to me extra.
E25-26. The Empress Dowager being all pleased and proud of her son Lee Hyuk, after he tells her that he “took care of” Yu Ra the night before. She even wants to reward him with a present. For committing murder. Wow.
E49-50. Ordering a hit on one son, and then setting it up so that her other son would be framed for the murder, is quite possibly the most terrible thing a mother could do to her own children. Yikes.
Oh Ah Rin as Ari
Oh Ah Rin is impressively excellent as little Princess Ari, and by Show’s end, I was genuinely convinced that she’s a child actor to watch; I think she’s going to go places.
Given Show’s makjang nature, it’s par for the course that Ari needs to display a wide range of emotions, from haughty-angry, to fake sugary-sweet, to genuinely sad, and Oh Ah Rin delivers on every count. Not only that, she delivers her lines – often difficult royal-speak on adult topics – with aplomb. Very wow.
[SPOILER ALERT] At first, I was somewhat disturbed by the kind of behavior that is required of Oh Ah Rin. Like in episodes 9-10, where she flatters the Empress one second, then turns on her nanny (Yoon So Yi) the next, with stabby words and tantrumy cold shoulders – but then turns on a dime and is syrupy sweet the minute she speaks to the Empress again. I worried that this would have a negative effect on Oh Ah Rin.
By series’ end, however, I’m convinced that Oh Ah Rin’s handling herself just fine, and I was very pleased too, that Ari gets a happy ending at the end of our story. [END SPOILER]
Lee Hyuk’s bromance with Woo Bin [SPOILERS]
Even though Show toys with a number of lovelines in our story, I have to say I was never fully taken with any one of them. I did, however, feel very tickled by Lee Hyuk’s growing affection for his new Chief Guard Chun Woo Bin.
First of all, all the gratuitous competitions in episodes 11-12 between the two men, as Lee Hyuk tests Woo Bin, give us lots of glistening pecs and rippling muscle on our screens. Can’t complain about that.
After that, once Woo Bin is firmly in place as Lee Hyuk’s Chief Guard, the chemical tension between them grows to crackling proportions. It’s amplified to delightful effect, with Lee Hyuk continually referring to Woo Bin as “my man.” Add on all the face-grabbing and intense pleading in episodes 19-20, as he asks Woo Bin to hit him, and I can totally see why people have been making memes of these two, snerk.
As we get deeper into our story, Lee Hyuk clings to Woo Bin more and more, as Woo Bin quickly becomes the only person Lee Hyuk feels he can trust. Show hams it up, making it look like Lee Hyuk’s got a thing for Woo Bin, and I giggle. So funny, even though it’s really more of a one-sided love on Lee Hyuk’s part. Which, aw.
WHEN SHOW WAS LESS FUN TO WATCH
Basically, sometime in Show’s second half, I realized that I just wasn’t having as much fun watching this show anymore. I realized that this boiled down to two main things: when I didn’t jive with Show’s idea of entertaining, and when I felt like Show was spinning its wheels.
Let me break that down a little bit.
When I didn’t jive with Show’s idea of entertaining
While I generally loved Show’s audacious makjang-ness, there were times when the Intended Funny fell flat for me, or when I just wasn’t as entertained as Show probably hoped I would be. Here’re a couple of examples.
Who killed the Grand Empress Dowager?
I was suitably shocked when the Grand Empress Dowager (Park Won Sook) was killed off at the episode 15-16 mark, but I found the subsequent episodes not very fun to watch. I felt like too much time was spent circling around who killed the Grand Empress Dowager. I know it’s supposed to be suspenseful and everything, but it fell kind of flat for me, to be honest.
The treatment of Princess So Jin
I thought Lee Hee Jin was pretty great as Princess So Jin, hamming it up for the camera and everything, but I did feel sorry for the Princess, who’s treated as invisible by her family. To make matters worse, Show has Woo Bin pretending to woo the Princess, which is supposed to be funny, but I felt sad for her because So Jin, as eccentric as she seems, is desperately sincere towards Woo Bin. She believes that he loves her, and would do anything for him. The fact that Woo Bin leads her on for as long as he does, made me uncomfortable.
The shifting tone
In Show’s initial stretch, everything was deliciously makjang and intense, with a sprinkling of comedic moments, which I loved. Later in its run, though, Show becomes more heavily comedic. This was fun for a little while, but I soon found myself wishing for Show to tone down on the comedy and bring the makjang back. The heavy comic touch sat quite weirdly, I thought.
When I felt like Show was spinning its wheels
My watch of this drama reminds me of my experience watching Jane The Virgin.
When I first dived into Jane The Virgin, I found it all fun and fresh, and binge-watched Season 1 in a matter of days. Once I got to the end of Season 1 and went on to sample Season 2, though, I found everything a lot less fresh and fun. It felt like Show was dancing around the same old stuff all over again in Season 2, and I found myself getting bored pretty fast. I never finished Season 2.
While I did finish watching The Last Empress, I hafta say, it was the same feeling with this show. I’d found Show so fresh and fun at first, but by the episode 39-40 mark, I felt like I just wanted it all to end. Not only did I feel like Show was coming up with filler to take up screen time, I also felt a distinct touch of makjang fatigue. All the high-tension, dramatic makjang stuff is hard to take for an extended period of time. I mean, even a person who loves rollercoasters will get fatigued if they spend days on end riding ’em, right?
So for a while, until I hit Show’s penultimate stretch, I was literally hanging in there just to see what would happen. Happily Show managed an uptick in its final few episodes, which I’ll talk about next.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
As early as episode 16, I had this thought: “I feel like by the time we reach the end of our story, everyone will be dead.”
Now that Show’s completed its run after 52 episodes, I can say that I wasn’t that far off, with my prediction. By the time the final credits roll, many key characters are either dead (Na Wang Shik and Lee Hyuk), on death row (the Empress Dowager, Seo Kang Hee, and Team Leader Choi), crazy (Min Yu Ra) or suffering amnesia (Ari).
But first, let’s back up a little bit. There were a couple of things that I liked, in Show’s lead-up to its finale.
First of all, after dancing around the truth behind the death of the Grand Empress Dowager all series long, Show finally reveals the truth, and I must say, I was genuinely surprised by the plot twist. Despite my becoming somewhat jaded by Show’s tricks and twists, Show managed to pull of a plot twist that I was really quite stunned by. I mean, the Grand Empress Dowager killed herself? I never would’ve imagined, seriously. On the other hand, this plot twist doesn’t make 100% sense, really, since she would’ve had a chance to right things with the Imperial Auditors in the morning, if she’d lived. Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised, heh.
Secondly, I rather liked the idea of people who were previously at each other’s throats, coming together to face a common enemy. Yu Ra & Sunny, and Lee Hyuk & Lee Yoon, working together, was nice to see. Yes, the quick turnaround in loyalty didn’t always make sense to me, but Show never always made sense anyway, and after so many hours of people being ready to kill one another for their own gain, it was just nice to see more teamwork in the house.
Thirdly, I was also quite pleased to see a recap of all of Lee Hyuk’s crimes. It’s true that Show – and Shin Sung Rok – worked hard to endear Lee Hyuk to us in its second half, but when you think about it, whatever warmth we’ve seen from him doesn’t excuse him from the terrible things he’s done, and I felt it was right, to set that record straight.
Also, for the record, the body double for Choi Jin Hyuk was very awkward to watch. It was obvious that it wasn’t Choi Jin Hyuk onscreen, and Show’s effort of giving him a heroic death was very diluted and quite wasted, I thought, by the necessary facelessness of it all.
In our story’s final hour, Show wraps up pretty neatly, all things considered, and manages to retain at least some of its signature crazy tone. I mean, Lee Hyuk piercing his chest with the Chief Guard pin is truly bizarre. On a tangent, I personally feel like this must’ve been Shin Sung Rok ad-libbing with delight. “The scripts says Lee Hyuk puts on the Chief Guard pin? What if he puts it on.. but on his body??” – cue gleeful grin. I can totally see that, heh.
In the end, Hyuk dies a fitting death, which would’ve been almost heroic, if he wasn’t also guilty of so many terrible crimes. Sunny puts the Imperial Family out of its misery by abolishing it, and pledges to use her inheritance from the Grand Empress Dowager in service of the victims of the royal family. We see the now-ex-Empress Dowager being bullied in prison, while she presumably awaits her execution. We also see that Yoon and Hel Ro (Oh Seung Yoon and Stephanie Lee) are finally living a normal happy life together. Lastly, and most importantly for me personally, Ari is now a cheerful, normal little girl, and Sunny is simply Mom to her now, which is sweet.
As the camera pans across the various rooms in the palace during a palace tour, I can’t help feel a mix of poignance and irony. Poignance, because of all the lives that have been lost within its walls, and irony, because the dignified tour belies the absolute insanity of the very people whose names are mentioned with respect. Kinda makes me wonder how much we know of the past is the real deal, and how much unexpected crazy might be hidden within the pages of history. Which, you gotta admit, is an interesting question, eh?
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A crazy ride that would’ve been funner, if it’d been shorter.
FINAL GRADE: B