THE SHORT VERDICT:
A well-plotted, solid story from start to finish, The Crowned Clown is a show that has quite a bit to offer. The palace intrigue isn’t always the most compelling, but on the upside, there’s a real king, a fake king, a forbidden romance, all the complications that arise from it all, a touch of levity to lighten things from time to time, and a stirring OST to score it all.
Our main cast is excellent all-around, but it’s Yeo Jin Goo who knocks it out of the ballpark and then some, playing both king and clown. I’ve always considered Yeo Jin Goo an excellent actor, but Yeo Jin Goo has never been more amazing to my eyes, than in this show. Some minor lens adjustments are necessary, but once you’ve got that down, Show is such a good ride.
Meaty enough to chew on, yet affecting enough to deeply engage the heart.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Even after a pretty solid 12 years of regular drama consumption, I don’t consider myself a sageuk connoisseur.
I enjoy a good sageuk, and have been known to sometimes get pretty deeply sucked into a saguek on occasion (like Chuno, The Princess’ Man, and The King Loves, to name a few), but I’m no expert on them, and therefore, I’m no purist either. I just wanted to put that out there right upfront, because with this show, I feel like beyond the viewing lens, personal context counts, too.
It’s completely possible that a sageuk purist might find fault with this show and how it weaves its story; I personally was pretty happy with how writer-nim chose to craft this story, and I think with the right lens (which I’ll talk about shortly), it’s very possible to enjoy this one.
I also wanted to say that this one leans on the intense side of things. It’s not light, fluffy or fusion in the vein of Moonlight Drawn By Clouds or Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that right after episode 1, I was ready and eager to see more. This one felt intense and strong right away, and I felt rather hooked, right away too. Very happily for me, that feeling of being sucked in and ready to see more lasted me all the way through to the end.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS [VERY VAGUE SPOILERS]
I will talk about this in a more detailed and specific manner later in this review, but for now, let me just say that it really helps to think of this show as having two acts, with Act I lasting from episode 1 to 8, and then Act II running from episode 9 to 16.
Essentially, there seems to be a fair amount of viewer discontent with Something that happens in episode 8, and the main complaint is that after this Something happens, a lot of dramatic tension is lost, and Show becomes a lot more like a regular sageuk from episode 9 onwards, and therefore feels a lot less interesting to watch.
I get where these viewers are coming from, and personally, I agree that there is some loss of dramatic tension. At the same time, I found that by adjusting my lens to regard Act I as almost a standalone story, and Act II as almost a sequel, it helped a great deal. Additionally, I found that by trying to understand writer-nim’s approach and Show’s construct from a more macro level, I appreciated the direction of Show’s narrative a lot more.
I’ll share more of my thoughts on this in my spotlights on episodes 8 and 14, later in this review.
As with any sageuk, we have a pretty sprawling cast in this show, and it’s not quite possible for me to talk about all our characters. Instead, I’ll be shining the spotlight on a handful of key characters. Let me just say upfront, though, that all the actors did solid jobs of their roles. The baddies are the kind that you’d love to hate, and as with just about every sageuk I’ve seen, our baddies’ motivations are even rather.. understandable, to some extent. A job well done to all, I say.
Yeo Jin Goo as Lee Heon / Ha Seon
Yeo Jin Goo
You guys. Yeo Jin Goo is flippin’ amazing in this. I mean, I fully expected Yeo Jin Goo to be excellent, because he’s always excellent, but he blew me away, right in the very first scene. Just, so much intensity as Crown Prince Lee Heon, that I felt like I could already see in his expression, just how complicated his feelings are, towards his father (cameo by Jang Hyuk! ❤ Eee!) and the throne.
From beginning to end, Yeo Jin Goo continues to blow it out of the water; he’s just head and shoulders above other actors his age, I think. From the big expressions to the micro ones, to the entire way he carries his body, to the way he uses his voice, you can tell that Ha Seon and Lee Heon are two different people.
Yeo Jin Goo literally has two completely different sets of everything, from body language to micro-expressions, so that each of these characters is separate and unique. [MINOR SPOILER] For example, the scene in episode 1, where Lee Heon first sees Ha Seon, and gets him to try on his robe, and then gets him to try saying the words, “You fool!” is so good. When Lee Heon flares up, “You fool! Can’t you play your role properly?!,” Ha Seon immediately repeats the same two sentences with the exact tone of voice, but still manages to sound like a different person parroting Lee Heon. Wow. [END SPOILER] I mean. I’ve admired other actors for playing dual characters before, like fairly recently in Are You Human Too?, but Yeo Jin Goo really is in the elite leagues on this. Seriously, how is he only 22?!?
From just episode 1 alone, I was already getting an idea of just how demanding it is for Yeo Jin Goo to play these two roles. It’s always demanding playing dual roles, but this is a saguek, and saguek is infamously more demanding than a modern show, with costuming, court dialogue, and having to contend with harsh weather conditions while in costume.
On top of these expected sageuk-related challenges, one of Yeo Jin Goo’s roles is of the clown, who leaps and dances and basically uses a lot of energy for his performances, and who also jumps walls and runs, when he’s being chased down. Usually all this would be done by a show’s other lead, so that the lead playing king would be able to rest during those scenes. But in this case, Yeo Jin Goo probably has little rest all-around, as they move from court scenes to clown scenes and then back to court scenes again. Just, Wow.
We learn pretty much right away in episode 1, that Lee Heon is a very troubled individual, and as king, he does some very terrible things.
To Show’s credit, Lee Heon is not passed off as a one-note evil character, but is painted in shades of grey. By episode 4, I found myself feeling sorry for Lee Heon, because [SPOILER] he’s so addicted to the opium that he’s losing himself and even hurting himself, and it’s so awful because he never knew he was being manipulated into getting hooked on the opium to begin with. Plus, from the various hints given to us, he’d used to be more kind and humane than the version of him that we first meet, and the thought that a reasonably normal and good person became so unhinged and almost deranged as a result of being drugged without his knowledge, is just heartbreaking. [END SPOILER]
Because our story is mostly told from Ha Seon’s point of view, Lee Heon functions almost like a plot device (albeit a very effective and efficient one), and also, a foil for Ha Seon, who is our real protagonist. In a drama world where the court politics can occasionally lean boring, Lee Heon’s very presence brings excellent dramatic tension to the screen. His dangerous, unhinged aura consistently lifted Show’s vibe to something more edgy and, well, alarming, and that worked really well to keep me interested and engaged.
To writer-nim’s credit, as terrible as Lee Heon’s behavior often was, I could often understand his perspective and reasoning for his often cruel decisions. [SPOILER] For example, in episode 7, Lee Heon overturns decisions made by the court that were overseen by Ha Seon, even though the decisions themselves are sound. He feels that he’s been replaced by Ha Seon, be it in the decisions made or in the relationships with others, like the Queen (Lee Se Young) and he strongly feels the need to assert himself, even if he is undoing good that the court has done. Nobody likes the feeling of being replaced, and I could understand him feeling that way. [END SPOILER]
On a personal note, I got a thrill every time Lee Heon came onscreen, because seeing Lee Heon in his delusional, unhinged state reminded me all over again, just how good Yeo Jin Goo is. I literally saw and felt Lee Heon and Ha Seon as two people, and I might even have been persuaded that Lee Heon was simply played by Yeo Jin Goo’s twin.
Technically, Ha Seon isn’t as riveting to watch as Lee Heon, by virtue of the fact that he’s not unhinged nor on the verge of insanity. Ha Seon leans a lot more conventional, in that he displays all the good traits that one would expect of a story’s hero. That said, I found Ha Seon very likable as our underdog fake king, and I found it easy to root for him, all the way to the end of our story.
I enjoyed watching Ha Seon consistently follow his heart and his moral compass, even if it meant disobeying orders and suggesting things Lee Heon wouldn’t, and therefore acting out of character. I loved too, that his innocent-rogue sort of approach actually secretly pleased the officials who were reprimanding him for it.
From early on in the show, Ha Seon shows himself to have a clear and just approach to things. Although he’s under strict orders, his sense of justice and of right and wrong is strong, and he can’t help but protest things that he deems unfair. This, combined with his partial power due to his resemblance to the king, makes things interesting, and I wanted to see him succeed at being king.
Here’s a sampling of Ha Seon highlights:
E3. I respect Ha Seon’s point of view regarding why he chose not to kill Shin Yi Geom (Choi Kyu Jin); that if he killed him in secret, he would be burying his crime against his sister; that he wants to seek justice in a proper way that would bring his crimes to light.
E3. Ha Seon’s belief that he will almost certainly die in the palace posing as the king, is so poignant. Despite this belief, he’s fighting for justice for the people, and actively protects the Queen. I can’t stop my heart from going out to him.
E4. I like how quick-witted Ha Seon is. Left with only hours till Royal Secretary Lee (Kim Sang Kyung) is supposed to return with the real king, which would mark his own departure from the palace, Ha Seon manages to find a way to save the Queen, just as he’d promised. That’s impressive.
E5. Ha Seon besting Ho Geol (Lee Kyu Han), the self-proclaimed perennial winner of bets, is a fun touch. Ha Seon may be new to politics, but he’s got a few streetwise tricks up his own sleeve, which I dig.
E6. Wow. The way Ha Seon rails at Left State Councillor (Kwon Hae Hyo) for his hypocrisy is so passionate and moving. I can’t help but think he’s got the makings of a good king. And the way he dismisses the Left State Councillor, angrily and curtly, saying that he doesn’t wish to hear anymore, is so full of authority. I would never guess he was not a real king.
E10. Every time Ha Seon gets all regal and righteous, speaking from his heart about protecting the innocent, or helping his people, and Royal Secretary Lee looks on with a bit of stunned surprise in his eyes, it just makes me feel so proud of him. His fiery words are right from his heart, his empathy born of having lived the commoner life, and it’s just moving to see. And I feel really proud of him, for holding himself well and being bold to speak words of righteousness, even without instruction from Royal Secretary Lee. I felt quite emotional this episode, with Ha Seon’s fight to allow Ho Geol’s promotion, and to allow the special state exams, both turning out successful purely on the strength of his passion in action.
E12. I love when Minister Shin implores Ha Seon to send troops to Ming, and Ha Seon rises up in righteous anger. His words cut to the heart, and are so moving. As a father of this nation, how could he send his sons to their death? Hear, hear. Even more, I love that when Minister Shin is all upset at Ha Seon’s decision to decline the Emperor’s request, that Ha Seon basically dares all the ministers to personally go to war for Ming, if it’s so important to them. The looks on the ministers’ faces are just priceless. Of course they wouldn’t personally go to war. Ha Seon’s cornered them real nice.
I love too, how Ha Seon marches right into the Queen Dowager’s (Jang Young Nam) chambers, and basically blackmails her into accepting So Woon back. He’s so sharp that way. As much as she threatens to reveal the Queen’s sin, he knows that it will be much worse for her, if he reveals that she had demanded his seal while he was away, and that he’d just happened to be attacked too.
E12. It sucks that Gap Soo and Dal Rae (Yoon Kyung Ho and Shin Soo Yun) are caught in this trap that’s been set for Ha Seon. I’m also concerned for what it means, that Minister Shin knows Ha Seon’s true identity. But seriously, the way Ha Seon throws those coins in front of Minister Shin and informs him that he’s the one that Minister Shin had once paid two nyang, is pretty badass.
Lee Se Young as the Queen / So Woon
I’d only ever seen Lee Se Young in bubbly roles before, like in The Best Hit and The Gentlemen of Wolgyesu Tailor Shop, so seeing her be so pitch perfect as our quiet, graceful Queen was quite a lovely revelation.
I thought Lee Se Young was wonderful as the Queen. So gentle, sweet and dignified, and yet, at the same time, passionate and earnest, in how she stands up for what she believes in.
Here are few of my favorite highlights featuring our gentle, dignified Queen.
E2. I found it poignant and bittersweet that when Ha Seon was shivering in shock and fear, and wouldn’t even let the serving ladies clean the blood off him, that it was the Queen who was able to do that for him. This, even though at this point, Ha Seon isn’t actually properly acquainted with her yet. There’s just something very calming about the Queen, which I like very much.
E7. So Woon is really sweet. I love her happy and surprised reaction at how good the humble pork heart and intestine soup tastes, and her sweet reasons for choosing the smallest house if she were to live as a commoner – so that she and Ha Seon would be much closer, and so that they’d have the longest walk to get to it at the end of the alley. How can one not be charmed by her?
E12. I find it fitting, that So Woon would want to mourn Lee Heon for three days, before returning to her chambers. It feels right and in keeping with her honorable character, that she would want to send him off properly, despite their strained non-relationship.
Kim Sang Kyung as Lee Kyu / Royal Secretary Lee
I found Royal Secretary Lee a rather fascinating character. Painted in varying shades of grey, Royal Secretary Lee sometimes comes across almost like one of the bad guys, because of the reprehensible things he’s willing to do, to further his cause. Having someone like him be Ha Seon’s mentor in the palace definitely made things more interesting, because I sometimes wasn’t sure whether to trust him.
It’s only in Show’s later episodes that we gain more concrete insight into Royal Secretary Lee’s mind and motivations, which I’ll talk more about in the late-episode spotlights later in this review.
In the meantime, here are just two early-show impressions of Royal Secretary Lee:
E5. This episode reveals that Royal Secretary Lee’s gone undercover for years, literally, waiting for an opportunity to act on his rebel faction’s ideals. That’s dedication.
E7. Royal Secretary Lee is risking his life to protect Ha Seon, by going back to the palace. That speaks to the kind of person he is, as well as how much Ha Seon has proved himself to him as well, I think.
Jang Kwang as Eunuch Cho
OMG, I LUFF Eunuch Cho!! *hearts in eyes*
He’s just the sweetest, most sincere, most adorable, most endearing marshmallow of a character, and I found myself genuinely looking forward to scenes where Eunuch Cho got a bit of the spotlight.
I’ll talk more about Eunuch Cho later, in relation to his friendship with Ha Seon, but for now, here are two little highlights that I remember fondly.
E7. Eunuch Cho’s deep concern for Ha Seon’s safety is really heartwarming. He’s such a sweetheart. He feels everything very deeply, and his sincerity is so genuine.
E11. Eunuch Cho bashing furniture around, pretending that the King was being violent, is so funny. I couldn’t help giggling out loud. Hee.
Yoon Jong Suk as Officer Jang / Moo Young
Even though Officer Jang is more of a secondary character, I really appreciated his presence on my screen. He’s so quietly stoic and loyal, and as we progress deeper into the show, it becomes clear that there’s a very good heart, a good amount of humanity, and a whole lotta loyalty underneath that reticent surface. I loved seeing more of Officer Jang’s character peek through his restrained royal guard persona, particularly in relation to Ha Seon.
Here are a few of my personal favorite moments involving Officer Jang.
E8. By this point, we can really see how much loyalty and goodwill Officer Jang has for Ha Seon. Officer Jang even gives Ha Seon the chance to kill him, that Ha Seon might live. That’s really deep.
E9. Moo Young being unable to look away from the poster issue, even though he’s resigned and left the palace, is a strong indication of the kind of man he is, and also, the kind of person Ha Seon is, for having this effect on him.
E10. I’m beginning to really enjoy the private interactions between Moo Young and Ha Seon. Moo Young keeps a stoic expression all the time, but it’s still clear that he has a lot of respect and affection for Ha Seon, and is firmly on Ha Seon’s side. The way Ha Seon teases him, “You’ve fallen for me too” is so funny.
Jung Hye Young as Woon Shim
Woon Shim is more of a supporting character, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed her quiet elegance very much. Even when things might be spiraling out of control, Woon Shim always acted with a great deal of grace and restraint. A very lovely presence onscreen, I felt.
Lee Kyu Han as Ho Geol
I found Ho Geol a nicely amusing character, who often provided our story with touches of lightness and humor. [MINOR SPOILER] In particular, I very much enjoyed how smitten Ho Geol becomes, with Ha Seon. The way Ho Geol looks at Ha Seon with hearts in his eyes is really cute, and the way Ho Geol expresses envy in episode 10, that Moo Young gets to spend all day with Ha Seon, is so funny too. [END SPOILER]
Ha Seon and Lee Kyu [VAGUE SPOILERS]
I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the dynamic between Ha Seon and Royal Secretary Lee.
From being a very strained and reluctant partnership where Ha Seon is expected to simply carry out orders made by Royal Secretary Lee, we see this relationship evolve over the course of our story, as Ha Seon finds his footing in the palace.
The ironic thing about Ha Seon’s masquerade as the King, is that even though Royal Secretary Lee lords it over him and is stern with him and gives him orders in private, in front of everyone else, Ha Seon totally has the power to do as he sees fit, because, well, he’s the king. That irony is quite delicious to watch, especially as Royal Secretary Lee seethes with frustration.
Over time, though, that frustration gives way to grudging acknowledgement, when Ha Seon does something smart &/or kingly without being told, and Royal Secretary Lee can’t help but be impressed. I personally found this evolution very satisfying to watch, and I cheered on the inside every time Ha Seon managed to do well as king and impress Royal Secretary Lee.
In the end, I was very moved by where Show eventually took this relationship, which I’ll talk about later, in the spotlight on episode 14.
Ha Seon and So Woon
Even though this is basically Ha Seon’s story, I found Ha Seon’s burgeoning loveline with So Woon a delight to watch. The interactions between this OTP ranged from sweet and cute, to gentle and restrained, to thoughtful and poignant, and I thought it was all quite lovely, all the way through.
One of my personal highlights of watching this show, is seeing how Ha Seon and the Queen fall for each other. Rather than a loveline that’s powered simply by chemical attraction, or suave grand gestures, this loveline has a distinct flavor of grace, restraint and genuine appreciation about it that I enjoyed very much. [VAGUE SPOILERS] The way they are considerate of each other’s positions; the way they realize how much the other person cares; the way they try to protect each other. As I see them think upon each other, I can see how moved they each are, by the other person. Ha Seon instinctively recoils from anyone who makes the Queen uncomfortable, whether it’s the Queen Dowager, his consort or his chief court lady. And the Queen can’t help but treasure every token that comes from him, whether it’s an order for her to stop her daily greetings to the Queen Dowager, or a handful of hazelnuts from the palace grounds. [END SPOILER]
It’s a very sweet blooming of genuine care and affection, and I just really enjoy it a lot.
Here’s a map of my responses to this lovely couple, over the course of their journey.
E3. The scene where Ha Seon helps the Queen to throw wishing stones from the bridge is sweet. He just sincerely wants her to be happy, and that shows not only in how he volunteers to throw the wishing stones for her, but in his own wish, that he wants to see her smile brightly. Aw.
E4. Ha Seon is really thoughtful and sweet. When So Woon trips over the pebbles but claims nothing’s the matter, he doesn’t press further, even as his eyes notice the pebble near her feet. But then, as he turns around to keep walking ahead of her, he quietly kicks all the pebbles out of her way so that there will be nothing to obstruct her path. Aw, he’s such a sweetheart.
E4. So Woon letting her guard down, and starting to feel almost freely toward the king, is very sweet to witness. He’s penetrated past the guarded fence she’s put up around herself, and is succeeding in bringing out the life in her. It’s almost like he’s reviving her from being almost dead, and I do love that idea.
E5. The Queen falling for Ha Seon is sweet to watch. The way she’s been seeking him out and blossoming in his direction, is so pure and innocent. Considering how she thinks that this is Lee Heon, and how she had refused to receive a kiss from him not so long ago, the fact that she’s making the first move and kissing her husband as he sleeps, is huge. And that is all Ha Seon’s doing. It was his warmth, kindness and consideration that moved her.
E9. Oh my. What a sweet confession that Ha Seon makes to So Woon, when he receives her gift. Quoting her very own words when she’d made her confession when she’d believed him to be sleeping, he tells her that he’s in love with her, so much that he feels like his heart would explode, and he wouldn’t even mind it. The tears glinting in his eyes; the tears sheening in hers. Augh. So very sweet.
E9. Hurhur. Beauty is stuck on your face? Ha Seon’s note to So Woon is so flirty. But how sweet, that he leaves a treasure trail of notes for So Woon to find, each telling her sincerely how he feels about her.
E10. It’s really sweet to see So Woon and Ha Seon becoming close and holding hands, and because of that, it hurts all the more, when she discovers that he isn’t her husband. Her shock and horror, his fear and dismay, both of them frozen to the spot, reeling from the impact of the moment of realization. So much pathos.
E11. So Woon’s reaction to finding out that she’s been romancing a man that is not her husband, is understandable and fully in character. Her withdrawal, her decision to leave the palace and remove herself rather than remove him, her choice to visit her father one last time, her belief that her only way forward was death. It all meshes with the upright woman she is, full of integrity, who would rather die than tamp down a guilty conscience. Ha Seon’s reaction is fully in character too. His refusal to depose So Woon, his determination to follow after her and convince her to come back, his conviction that she would visit her father at this time. It all speaks of who he is, and also, of how much he understands So Woon.
E11. Ha Seon standing watch from a distance, just gazing at the house in which So Woon was, was moving to watch. So much intensity and conflicted emotion in his eyes, and he gazed with hope and with worry, in the direction of his Queen. And the way he extended the visit to an overnight one, even when Moo Young reported that he would fetch the Queen in an hour, because it’d been a long while since she’d seen her father. He’s very understanding and considerate of her, and he knows that this is something very important to her, and wants to honor that.
E11. Ha Seon’s instinct to protect her is so keen; in that split second, seeing that arrows were being shot their way, Ha Seon’s reflex is to shield her with his own body. It speaks so deeply of how much he cares for her. He literally treasures her life above his own.
E12. I find So Woon’s turnaround quite nicely done. I find it believable that she would have been determined to die for her sin, and that the one thing that could have jolted her out of her mindset, would be seeing Ha Seon in mortal danger. She truly does love him, which is why she feels the need to pay for her sin, but facing the very real possibility of losing him, right before her eyes, would be the one thing that could persuade her to rethink her decision.
E12. I found it moving to witness Ha Seon and So Woon retracing their steps back to each other, making their acquaintance anew, telling each other their names. Their eyes and hearts are so full, as they now make a new promise to love each other, this time fully sharing in Ha Seon’s secret.
E14. I like how the relationship between Ha Seon and So Woon is developing. I like that with Ha Seon’s understanding, So Woon no longer expresses guilt for not being able to bear him a child, and I like that she doesn’t speak of leaving him in spite of this either. I like that he takes her to the beach, to see the ocean, and then proceeds to make plans to see more stuff with her, with each passing season. I like how he is so matter-of-fact about it; to him, she’s not someone who ought to be confined to the palace – she deserves to see the world. I love that. They are building this relationship as equals, agreeing to share every joy and every pain. When she perceives that the deposition of the Queen Dowager might endanger Ha Seon, she makes the first move to seek out the Queen Dowager. And I love that Ha Seon asks So Woon to help him with reading the reports, a task that Eunuch Cho had been helping him with. To him, she’s not someone that belongs in the inner court and therefore has no business reading court reports. To him, she’s someone who belongs by his side, and I love that he’s willing to learn, and I love that she’s willing to coach and encourage him. It’s lovely. ❤
Ha Seon and Eunuch Cho
Very quickly into my watch, I became enamored with the growing bond between the adorable Eunuch Cho and our earnest clown-king Ha Seon. The gentle growing affection between them is the cutest thing ever, and I loved that in the austere environment of the palace, these two found ways to enjoy each other’s company – and the occasional mild joke.
I never could get enough of this pair of friends, and I’d love a spin-off series focusing on their relationship alone. ❤
Here are some of my favorite moments between these two.
E3. Eunuch Cho really doesn’t want Ha Seon to die and advises him to opt out of the hunt. That comes from a personal place, for sure. And that scene where they share the king’s night snack is really endearing. That shared snack, along with a bit of honest sharing, and a bit of gentle ribbing, is just the thing to water this blossoming bromance.
E8. Eunuch Cho is so tearful and grateful, to see that Ha Seon is alive. It’s really moving to behold.
E9. This episode, the way Eunuch Cho snacks from the same bowl as Ha Seon while they work, is so endearing. He would’ve never shared a similar moment with Lee Heon. And the way Eunuch Cho assures Ha Seon that his knees have never failed him, in predicting the weather, is simply adorable.
E12. The whole thing with the dried persimmons is so cute. Eunuch Cho presenting the case, practically drooling over the persimmons, and then Ha Seon taking a bite, declaring it delicious, then taking another, before asking Eunuch Cho to gift the rest to the Queen. Eunuch Cho looks crushed and gives Ha Seon a reproachful look – which is when Ha Seon calls him back and gives him the other persimmon that he’d taken. Aw. He’d taken that for Eunuch Cho to begin with, and Eunuch Cho beams like the sun, while sinking his teeth into the treat. How cute! ❤
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
There wasn’t a lot that I didn’t like in this show, but here’s the very short list, for the record:
1. [MINOR SPOILER] In episode 2, Royal Secretary Lee lets Ha Seon take on the role of king and gives him instructions to simply approve any time permission is asked of him, and then takes him to task for following exactly those instructions? And only tells him after the fact, that he needs to be wary of the Left State Councillor? Information that would’ve been useful before they let him act as king, no? I thought this was really quite dumb. [END SPOILER]
2. Generally speaking, the politicking and poisoning is pretty old hat for court intrigue, and can be quite boring, to be honest. Whenever Show leaned heavier into the politics, things tended to feel slower and less interesting. The only reason I continued to pay attention to it was because I wanted to know how this all affected Ha Seon. It was Ha Seon’s earnest sincerity and So Woon’s pure heart that kept me interested in the goings-on. I didn’t want them to get hurt, and that kept me going, when I found the politics too dull for my taste.
EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS [SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
The episode 8 beach scene
Yeo Jin Goo is amazing. Lee Heon’s death scene is so brilliantly delivered. There’s so much that he needed to convey: Lee Heon suffering the shakes from his addiction, the shock of realizing he’s been poisoned and is dying, the denial and the determination to live, the pain and agony as he coughs up blood, the strength seeping out of his body, until he’s breathless, unblinking and still. The whole scene gave me shivers.
The shivers also are because of the unusually gentle and caring way death is administered. It’s almost as if Lee Heon had asked to die, and Royal Secretary Lee was carrying out the deed, with love and respect. It’s so dissonant with the betrayal that actually happened. Lee Heon had been invited by the person he trusted most in the world, to visit his favorite beach, where he was promised a birthday toast, which turned into death by poison. What a deception, taking Lee Heon from a happy emotional high, to.. well, pain and death. It’s awful.
I can understand why Royal Secretary Lee felt it was necessary to do this, in the sense that Lee Heon was becoming more and more erratic and dangerous. His determination to overturn sound court orders just to assert himself had lasting consequences, and his threats to kill people were very impulsive and very real. I can see how Royal Secretary Lee was convinced that the safest thing to do would be to eliminate Lee Heon. But.. how awful, still.
The final scene, from the poisoning, to Lee Heon’s death, to Royal Secretary Lee’s tearful final bow to the king that he’d sworn allegiance to, is brilliantly filmed. It’s so.. haunting, as the camera pans away to show that final, silent bow.
This would’ve been a great final scene to the entire series, but it’s still a very impactful final scene to Show’s first act.
Episode 13: So much excellent dramatic tension
This was a great episode. Lots of excellent dramatic tension all the way through, while drawing on different sources for that dramatic tension, so that it feels like we get a good sampling of the different threads in our story. Really well done.
First, I love the twist on how Ha Seon turns the tables on Minister Shin. After kneeling as instructed, and agreeing to Minister Shin’s demand that Ha Seon call for an interrogation, naming Royal Secretary Lee as the criminal, I really wasn’t sure how Ha Seon was going to get the upper hand in the situation. But, right in front of everyone, Ha Seon calls Minister Shin as the criminal instead, and when Minister Shin starts shouting that the king is really a clown, it just looks like Minister Shin is committing treason by insulting the king. And by using language and phrasing that he’s always used in performances in the past, Ha Seon makes sure that Dal Rae recognizes that he’s her brother, and she immediately knows what to say, to corroborate with him. It’s so ballsy and brilliant, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Ha Seon. And he came up with all of this on his own, in the moment, when stuck between a rock and a hard place. Wow.
Then, Ha Seon deals with the case between Gap Soo and Shim Yi Kyung, and manages to be just, and even somewhat merciful, even while getting his revenge. He manages to punish Gap Soo in a merciful way that would put Gap Soo in a safe place, and then teach Shim Yi Kyung a major lesson without actually taking his life. And, he does this while establishing a new law that will protect the common folk in the future as well. That’s some good king-ing, I say.
Afterwards, the reunions between Ha Seon and Gap Soo, and then with Dal Rae are so full of emotion. Gap Soo, so uncertain, and then, so tearfully happy and proud, to know that the king is indeed Ha Seon. And then Dal Rae, so worried and uncertain, eager to leave until she realizes her brother cannot come with her. And finally, there’s Ha Seon, so glad to see his kin, so relieved that he is able to send them so a safe place, yet so torn, because he doesn’t know if he will ever see them again. The final goodbye is truly heart-tugging, with Gap Soo and Dal Rae both being strong and looking happy for Ha Seon’s sake, while Ha Seon looks on, fighting back tears, at what might be his last glimpse of two of the most important people to him in the world. Augh.
Just when I feel like it’s time for a narrative breather, So Woon discovers that the flower tea that she’s been prescribed is actually working to make her infertile. So Woon’s heartbreak; Ha Seon’s concern, followed by his fury, as he tracks down and confronts the culprit: the Queen Dowager. The confrontation between Ha Seon and the Queen Dowager is full of tangible tension; she glibly pushes for So Woon to be deposed; he, barely containing his wrath, shoots back that he will depose the Queen Dowager first. It feels almost like a battle of swords, not wits.
And right when I think we are out of narrative bullets this episode, Show deals out one more. The joy and relief of So Woon’s dad being reinstated is short-lived. Royal Secretary Lee hurries to escort him home, only to find him stabbed to death. Oh my.
Episode 14: A fitting lead-up to the finale
Even though I’d heard whispers that many viewers were upset with this episode, I actually really liked episode 14. Narratively, I felt this was a very good episode, and a fitting lead-in to prepare for Show’s finale.
I think the trick is to look at this entire show from a more macro perspective. Although I felt the loss of Lee Heon after episode 8, it does make narrative sense to me, that we see the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one, in a manner of speaking. I see the first 8 episodes as Act I, where we see Lee Heon and Ha Seon face to face, and sometimes even head to head. The dramatic tension between them is of the crackling variety, and it was great while it lasted. But in order for Ha Seon to fully settle into being king, we need to see how he manages, once Lee Heon is fully out of the picture, and Lee Heon can only be fully out of the picture after his death. In Act II, the focus is all about Ha Seon making the transition from fake king to real king, and in order for that to happen – in order for him to no longer be someone else’s puppet – all the puppet strings need to be cut. Royal Secretary Lee needs to exit the stage, so that Ha Seon no longer has someone telling him what to do, even if he wanted it. He needs to rise to the occasion and make the decisions now, and only by doing so – and surviving – can he truly be king.
Given that this is Show’s trajectory, I actually really like how writer-nim handles these narrative pieces. Lee Heon’s exit in episode 8 was hauntingly surreal, and now in episode 14, the lead-up to Royal Secretary Lee’s exit is handled with a lot of heart.
The confrontation between Ha Seon and Royal Secretary Lee, where Ha Seon asks about, and Royal Secretary Lee admits to the murder of Lee Heon. This scene is just really beautifully played. Royal Secretary Lee, tears starting to form in his eyes in a moment of reckoning, extending a resignation letter, prepares to pay for his sins, and Ha Seon, tears forming in his own eyes, tearing up said resignation letter, extends grace, empathy and acceptance. Royal Secretary Lee is so stunned and so moved, that with tears in his eyes, he thanks Ha Seon, apologizes for not trusting him fully before, and pledging to fully trust and serve Ha Seon thence forward, bows low to the floor, to show his gratitude and respect. In response, Ha Seon bows low to the floor as well, reciprocating fully Royal Secretary Lee’s gratitude and respect. It’s a beautiful moment of mutual regard, and my heart just swelled to witness it. This was such an important scene, truly. It shows us the moment when Royal Secretary Lee changes his perception of Ha Seon. It’s from this moment onwards, that he truly sees and treats Ha Seon as king, and it’s momentous and important in every way.
We also finally get concrete acknowledgement from Royal Secretary Lee to Woon Shim, of his feelings for her. All this time, she’s been silently and graciously supporting him without complaint. She’s been wearing her heart on her sleeve, and does not deny her feelings for him. But he’s the one who’s appeared to be ambivalent, never admitting to having any sort of feelings for her – until this episode. I feel it’s a lovely scene, where he finally asks Woon Shim if she would go to the border with him, if he asked. For Woon Shim, who had always longed to hear words from him indicating that he feels for her the way she feels for him, but who had never allowed herself to hope, this is enough to bring her to overwhelmed tears.
Episode 15: a solid penultimate episode
I found this to be a very solid penultimate episode. Yes, it was an episode dedicated to putting things in place for the finale, but it was well done.
Most notably, we see Royal Secretary Lee’s end, something that I could guess was coming, by virtue of how Ha Seon’s puppet strings need to be cut in order for him to stand on his own feet as king. And if we were to have Royal Secretary Lee bow out, this was a fitting, satisfactory exit. Not only does he get to speak with Ha Seon one last time, indicating in code how he would like Ha Seon to proceed with the matter of the rebellion, and reminding him of what he hopes Ha Seon will do for the nation and his people, but he also manages to take out traitor Jinpyeong (Lee Moo Saeng) with him.
More than the exact mechanics of Royal Secretary Lee’s death, it’s the burgeoning of deep, heartfelt emotion that hits me most. Ha Seon, wholeheartedly determined to save Royal Secretary Lee, and Royal Secretary Lee, moved to tears by his king’s steadfastness and refusal to use Royal Secretary Lee’s invitation to sacrifice him for the greater good. I could feel that Royal Secretary Lee’s final move, triggering his own death by taking a sword to Jinpyeong, was one prompted not only by his allegiance to his nation, but also, by his devotion to Ha Seon. For a man who’s always been driven by his loyalty to his nation over his loyalty to any one person, this is huge.
Another moment worthy of mention, is Ha Seon’s confrontation with the deposed Queen Dowager. I love that he doesn’t cower before her big words, but stands so firm and speaks with so much conviction, on a completely different plane than the Queen Dowager. While she speaks of social status and royal blood, he speaks of heart and behavior, and effectively lifts himself above her level, as he does so. It’s telling, that the deposed Queen Dowager doesn’t act on her threats to him, and instead retreats to her lackeys to put pressure on them instead.
Also, I kind of knew that Ha Seon wouldn’t get the letter back, if only because it would be too easy, and Show would likely be looking to create more dramatic tension. But, it’s significant that Seon Hwa Dang (Seo Yoon Ah) wanted to give the letter to Ha Seon instead of her uncle, and that this was purely because of the way he treated her.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
I came into this finale with a distinct sense of wistfulness; I hafta admit, I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this show and its characters. Now that I’ve emerged on the other side, I must say, what a stirring ending. But for a minor time-skip related quibble which I’ll talk about later, I was solidly satisfied with the finale that Show delivered. Yes, it was definitely very bittersweet in spots, but our plot points this hour mostly felt organic and true to the story that Show’s been working to tell, and I appreciated that a lot.
Let me attempt to tackle at least the various major angles.
Royal Secretary Lee literally dies for Ha Seon. That is the ultimate show of loyalty and allegiance. If there was any doubt that he truly regarded Ha Seon as his king, that is erased by his sacrifice.
Show’s treatment of Royal Secretary Lee’s death works kind of like an echo of the mutual bow between him and Ha Seon in episode 15. Royal Secretary Lee demonstrates his loyalty and allegiance by giving up his life, and Ha Seon demonstrates his, by forgoing the chance to humiliate the deposed Queen Dowager and kill Jinpyeong and Minister Shin, in order to give Royal Secretary Lee a proper sendoff. I found this all quite beautiful, even in its sadness.
Later, as Ha Seon moves to deal with Minister Shin, I got chills, a little bit, when the doors close behind Minister Shin, and he’s left to face Ha Seon on his own. Ha Seon will have none of Minister Shin’s grovel-bargaining, and slices him down without a flicker of hesitation. It’s significant to me that when Ha Seon kills Minister Shin, it is purely for his part in killing Royal Secretary Lee. There is no mention of Ha Seon’s personal grudge regarding his sister. I found this quite moving, as we already know how much Dal Rae means to Ha Seon. This tells me that right here, right now, Ha Seon really is acting as king.
Jinpyeong is left to bleed out and die alone, while the Queen Dowager is deposed and ordered to drink poison, which she does, while basically promising that her death will be a curse on Ha Seon’s reputation. With the baddies dutifully dealt with, Ha Seon promises So Woon that he will never become an animal who abuses his power for personal gain, and So Woon assures him that she will always be there for him. Afterwards, we see a montage of Ha Seon’s reign, with a highlight reel of Ha Seon being a wise king who rules for the good of his people. It’s so gratifying to see that Ha Seon, without a drop of royal blood running through his veins, is such a wise and respected king.
I have to admit I was a little surprised at Ha Seon’s decision to abdicate the throne, but I appreciate his perspective, that he never intended to be king forever, and that he also never intended to pass the throne to his own blood. So Woon supports his decision, and together, they make plans to leave the palace; she will go ahead of him after he relieves her of her position as Queen, and he will follow, once the abdication is complete.
I was on board with all of this, even though it meant a heart-tugging goodbye between Ha Seon and Eunuch Cho. I so love that Eunuch Cho actually pleads to be given permission to leave with Ha Seon. AW. How sweet is that, seriously? The love is real between these two, and I was gutted that they were parted. Sob.
I also really loved that Officer Jang ran after Ha Seon, essentially asking him, “Did you think I’d really let you leave without me?” AW. How sweetly moving, that Officer Jang is demonstrating his allegiance to Ha Seon in such a big way. As a royal guard, his allegiance is to the throne, and it’s so significant, that in his eyes, Ha Seon is still his king, even though Ha Seon is leaving the palace.
And then, stuff happened that I just.. didn’t like so much.
I can understand that the ex-Queen Dowager’s followers would seize the chance to attack Ha Seon, but really, why would anyone allow Ha Seon to leave the palace all on his own? And why did Officer Jang have to die while fighting off the attackers? I know he said his dream was to die in the line of duty while protecting the king, but seriously, did Show really have to kill him off? Sob. Bawl. Blubber.
Ha Seon gets felled by two arrows, AND THEN DISAPPEARS FOR TWO YEARS. Why, Show? I just don’t get that.
I mean, yes, Ha Seon and So Woon eventually reunite and walk off into the sunset together, but was this really necessary? I get that writer-nim wanted Ha Seon to disappear within the pages of history, and that’s why we are told that the king deposed the queen, then abdicated, then suddenly passed away. But we’re never told what happened in the two years, and why Ha Seon took so long finding his way back to So Woon (some netizen remarked that Ha Seon went and completed his Military Service, which, snerk). Writer-nim is very, very vague about this, and all Ha Seon says is that he wanted to run like the wind, but his gait was too slow. Uh. What is that supposed to even mean?
Still. I am relieved that Ha Seon is alive, and that he and So Woon are finally reunited, and will now be able to set up that little house at the end of the alley, and take many long walks together, for a long time to come. And our clown, who became king, can now live in the better Joseon that he used his reign to build. I do like that thought very much.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Solid and satisfying with the right lens, but really, worth it for Yeo Jin Goo’s phenomenal performance alone.
FINAL GRADE: A