This was a show that I just couldn’t not check out, come to think of it.
Second of all, lots of you guys loved this. And your love was so effusive that I felt like I would like this one too (this, when I hadn’t yet seen a single episode, heh. See how persuasive y’all are?)
Now that I’ve emerged on the other side (73 whole episodes!), I have to say that while I don’t think I loved it as intensely as many of you did, I did like this one quite well indeed.
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.
WHAT I LIKED – A BRIEF OVERVIEW
1. I felt engaged right away, from episode 1, even though I was still in the midst of getting my bearings in terms of who’s who. That’s pretty impressive.
2. A lot of time is spent exploring the relationship and power dynamics of the Sheng household, a relatively ordinary family (ie, they’re not royalty, even though they aren’t exactly common folk either). There’s so much delicacy and politicking among the various wives of the household, where almost nothing said can be taken at face value, and it’s quite fascinating to watch.
3. Daylight Entertainment put in a lot of detailed effort to make the rendition of this drama world as authentic and true to the times as possible, famously refusing to use additional lighting during night scenes, and depending on candlelight instead. Yes, this made for some pretty dark nighttime scenes, but this also effectively made me feel like a fly on the wall, watching the goings-on of this world that felt real, but felt light years away.
4. Our cast serves up lots of very solid performances, and together with the writing, this made the characters feel like real people. Over time, I really felt like I was getting to know these people, and I eventually grew fond of them too.
5. Minglan (Zhao Liying) is just the kind of underdog heroine that I can get behind, because beneath her quiet demeanor, she’s quick-witted and her ability to analyze a person &/or situation is razor sharp. I loved watching her come into her own.
WHAT I LIKED LESS – A QUICK LOOK AT WHAT MIGHT MAKE IT HARDER TO ENJOY THIS SHOW
To be fair, besides those of you who loved this show, there were also lots of folks who seemed to have run into a wall with this drama. I personally found my watch an uphill one, on occasion, and here’s a quickish run-down of the various reasons why.
1. It takes some getting used to
Show’s got a strong slice-of-life flavor about it, which is one of its strengths. At the same time, because of the slice-of-life approach to storytelling, it can feel like very small things are being presented as plot points, and if you’re not in the right brain space, this can feel, well, underwhelming. [MINOR SPOILER] For example, in the very early episodes, the issue of coal being embezzled within the Sheng household spans several episodes, and I found it hard to sustain my interest in the mechanics of the whole thing. [END SPOILER]
Additionally, I found it frustrating to see scheming glib-tongued characters get away with framing others for their misdeeds, and good-guy characters extol silence as a virtue, when they are the ones suffering at the hands of said scheming characters. To Show’s credit, the scheming characters eventually get their comeuppance, and also, I can rationalize that the ideal of pious silence is a sign of those times, but it was still trying to watch.
[EARLY-EPISODE SPOILER ALERT] For example, in episode 3, I’d expected Ming Lan’s birth mother (Liu Xiyuan) to die as a result of the manipulation of the second wife (Gao Lu), but this was still tragic to watch. It’s terrible how much scheming went into her death, and how many people were complicit. The worst part was watching them try to conceal their triumph and glee, as they watched Minglan run for dear life, trying to find someone to help her poor mother. [END SPOILER]
2. The transition to adulthood is rather jarring
Personally, I found it quite jarring when all the children suddenly grow up in episode 5.
For one thing, it was hard to figure out who was who, especially since there were so many characters, and I ended up having to look up everyone on this show’s Wikipedia page, just to get a handle on them all.
Another thing was, at this point of the story, the kids have all grown into youths / young adults, but the actors are much older than their screen age. It was distracting for me, to have to try to wrap my brain around the fact that these full-grown men who looked to be around 40 years old, were supposed to be young men in their early twenties.
By around episode 7, though, I’d gotten more used to the older actors, and that helped.
3. The focus shifts
Sometimes Show goes on what feels like a long tangent
Probably because of Show’s slice-of-life nature, sometimes our narrative spotlight would seem to wander, and for no apparent good reason. Of course, the writers knew what they were doing, pulling characters together into the same orbit, but during those tangents, I sometimes found my attention waning.
Essentially, whenever the focus shifted away from the Sheng household shenanigans, I found my interest dip. This turned into a bit of a problem for me, because, as I learned, this story was never all about the Sheng household.
Eventually, court politics take a big chunk of screen time
In Show’s mid-episodes, court politics start to creep into the picture, and by Show’s later stretch, we start to get very large chunks of court machinations and inner palace goings-on. This feels like a huge shift away from the period family drama tone where we started, and so took a bit of getting used to.
The political stuff was admittedly not as interesting to me as the personal and family matters; however, because the political stuff increasingly formed the context within which this family existed, I could rationalize their importance to our characters.
However, I can see how viewers disinterested in court politics would struggle to stick with the show, by this point. My sister dropped out late in the game as well, partly because of this.
Eventually, things also get quite dramatic, with hysterics thrown in for good measure
The other reason my sister dropped out, is because things became too melodramatic for her taste, by Show’s later episodes. In her words, it felt like Show had switched writers; the tone just felt so different from Show’s early episodes.
For me personally, sometimes, I found the high drama quite cracky, and I sometimes watched back-to-back episodes, because I was curious to know how our characters would survive. At the same time, I have to confess that the near-constant dramatics and hysterics got to me after a while, and I did feel like Show was getting tiring to watch.
4. Sometimes it gets repetitive
Not gonna lie; sometimes it felt like certain plot devices were used and then reused, so much so that stuff started to feel repetitive and therefore boring, to me. [MINOR SPOILER] For example, Show’s second half is when we see Minglan coming into her own and standing up for herself. I loved that, but, everyone showing up to make things difficult for Minglan in every way possible, did get a little old, I have to admit. [END SPOILER]
5. Sometimes I just don’t get it
I soon learned that many people in this drama world don’t generally speak their minds, and instead, talk in veiled riddles. I have to admit, I often had no clue what they were actually communicating, and for what purpose. It felt obtuse and confusing, and honestly, it made me feel kinda dumb sometimes.
It also made me think, how hard it is to survive in this drama world, where it’s a challenge to understand what other people mean, unless you’re complicated, sharp and very, very shrewd.
A SPOTLIGHT ON OUR KEY PLAYERS
For a 73-episode whopper of a show, there’s a lot to possibly say, and a vast cast of characters to cover as well. It’s just not possible to cover everyone or everything in a single review, so just know that I’ll be touching on as big of a handful as I can, but will inevitably still leave out some characters even though they can be considered rather key to our story.
Zhao Liying as Sheng Minglan
First of all, let me just say that I thought Zhao Liying did very well in the role of Minglan.
In the beginning, when young Minglan morphed into Zhao Liying, I’ll admit that it was hard for me to get used to the change. Not only is Zhao Liying much older than teenaged Minglan is supposed to be, the bangs didn’t do her any favors, making her look much older than her 31 years. To put it bluntly, I found it jarring, because the hair and makeup made Zhao Liying look like she was a woman in her 40s, dressing young and acting young.
However, I eventually got used to it, so that distraction was relatively fleeting, in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, I want to commend Zhao Liying, because I feel that she got the speech patterns and mannerisms of a teenaged Minglan down pat.
I also wanted to say, after Minglan’s marriage, when she no longer wore the bangs, I found that Zhao Liying looked so much more youthful and beautiful.
Overall, I very much enjoyed watching Minglan grow into her own skin, and shed the layers of cautious pretense that she’d taken to wearing, out of self-preservation. Because Minglan wears those defensive pretenses for a good length of time, I have to say that I generally preferred watching mid-to-late episode Minglan, for being a truer representation of herself.
Here’s a quickish collection of my thoughts and observations of Minglan, during my watch.
E5. As expected, Minglan is smart and shrewd, even if she’s not academically inclined. She knows that Molan (Shi Shi) covets the young master Yuan Ruo (Zhu Yilong), and she shrewdly keeps her distance from him, even as he shows interest in her.
E15. Twas pretty satisfying to see Minglan give sharp answers when Molan tried to bully her and talk her into a corner. And then, even more impressive, to see Minglan then smooth things over and even get Molan to say that they are in the same boat because they are not born of the main madam. Impressive.
E16. This was a fun episode, with Minglan surprising everyone with her horseback riding and polo skills. Girl’s got skillz, which is very cool indeed. Seeing Yuan Ruo so shocked and amazed was entertaining. Seeing Molan so annoyed that Yuan Ruo availed himself to play with Ming Lan was quite satisfying. Seeing Ming Lan and her friend so happy when they won the pin back was satisfying too.
E18. ‘Twas very satisfying to see Minglan question Gu Tingye’s mistress Manniang (Li Yixiao) and outwit her soundly. Yesss.
E21. Minglan managing to get rid of all the spy servants without having to lift her own finger, is so shrewd. I feel like there is a lot to learn from the patience, wisdom and shrewdness of the smart women in this show.
E25. Minglan being the brains to solve the family predicament of the divorce impasse, is again proof of how sharp and shrewd she is. And she’s the youngest of the family too.
E33. It’s true that Minglan basically plotted Madam Lin’s death, but in this context, where the law is often not to be relied upon, and in this world, where danger lies everywhere and it’s every man for himself, and lives are taken easily and often, her revenge doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary.
E36. I like how clear Minglan is, about what she will and will not put up with, in marriage. And I do like her insight, that the other person’s greatest weakness is where you must look, because you need to ask yourself if you can live with the weakness for the rest of your life. How wise.
E41. It’s interesting and satisfying to watch how Minglan’s accumulated knowledge and experience combine with her natural sharpness and intelligence, to manage the immediate politics in the Gu Household. She’s impressive. She remains polite and well-mannered, but she doesn’t let the elders have their wily way. Instead, she gains the upper hand by pretending to retreat. She would make an excellent general, I think.
E42. For now, I’m really enjoying watching Minglan come into her own, in the face of everyone’s efforts to corner her. The way she handled the incoming servants from the Gu Household was so sharp and shrewd, while remaining ever so dignified and gracious. I love it. I love that she doesn’t need to lose her cool; I love that her not losing her cool and outsmarting the ones coming after her is frustrating those who want to step all over her; I love that she takes care of it all without looking like she’s ruffled a single feather.
E51. Looks like we’re finally bringing Madam Lin’s murder of Minglan’s mother to light. I see now that Minglan has been wise to wait this long. She’s no longer a powerless young girl with no evidence. She’s now a powerful woman with her own title bestowed by the Emperor (Qin Yan), and she has witness and evidence to prove her case. She holds herself with what I would call.. fiery dignity. I like it.
E58. I love the way Minglan coaches the girls, it reminds me of how Grandmother (Cao Cuifen) used to coach Minglan when she was young. Teaching them to not only read the accounting books, but also analyze the context with sharpness and wisdom. I love it.
E61. Minglan’s words of wisdom to the Empress (Yang Yuting) really turned the situation around. Grandmother has reason to be proud of her.
E72. The moment Rong’er (Ye Xuantong) cries out “Mother!” to Minglan, sealing a kinship and intimacy that Minglan has always hoped for but never pressed for, was so moving, it brought tears to my eyes.
Feng Shaofeng as Gu Tingye / Zhong Huai
To be honest, my affection for Feng Shaofeng in the skin of Gu Tingye was quite the slow burn. This is thanks in part to the writing, and partly due to Feng Shaofeng’s delivery.
First, let’s talk about the delivery. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I found something quite theatrical about Feng Shaofeng’s delivery of Gu Tingye, particularly in his mannerisms. To my eyes, it kinda-sorta looked like he was acting on a Chinese opera stage while everyone else was in front of a camera crew. I found it weird, to be honest, and it took me.. many episodes, to accept that this is just how Gu Tingye is.
Secondly, Show makes him out to be quite the cryptic character. In the first third of the drama, save for the childhood scene where he stepped in to help Minglan, he’s portrayed as a bit of a flippant delinquent. It’s only from the second third of our story onwards, that Show starts to peel away Gu Tingye’s outer reckless, impertinent layers, to reveal the person that he is, underneath.
In the beginning, I didn’t exactly dislike Gu Tingye, but I didn’t quite like him either. By Show’s later episodes, though, I felt like I understood him a lot better, and over time, I even grew rather affectionate of him. That’s quite a turnaround, I’d say.
Because much of my change in perception of Gu Tingye hinges on his relationship with Minglan, I’ll talk more about this later in the review.
Zhu Yilong as Yuan Ruo / Qi Heng
Compared to Feng Shaofeng as Gu Tingye, I feel like my reaction to Zhu Yilong as Yuan Ruo is almost an opposing, contrary sort of trajectory.
For one thing, Yuan Ruo starts off as a pretty appealing character, to me. As we get deeper into our story, though, Yuan Ruo’s appeal also fades, to some degree.
[MODERATE SPOILERS] For instance, he’s extremely earnest and open about his affections for Minglan, and his efforts to woo her – combined with his stubbornness in wanting to marry her – made him rather melty at times. However, his naïveté and petty tendencies eventually come to the fore, when things don’t go the way he desires, and Minglan ends up marrying someone else. [END SPOILERS]
On the issue of delivery, I loved Zhu Yilong’s delivery of Yuan Ruo from the very beginning. I found his interpretation of Yuan Ruo’s emotions very natural and nuanced, and often, just a quick flicker of his eyes and a slight shift in his gaze, made me feel like I could see the turn of emotions going through his heart.
My favorite Yuan Ruo moment, which I felt really showcased Zhu Yilong’s acting ability, is in episode 28.
[SPOILER ALERT] This episode, Zhu Yilong really shines, with the way he brings out Yuan Ruo’s hopelessness and sorrow. That moment when he considers that marriage contract at the House of Yong, tears staining his face, his eyes looking so lost, is really quite affecting. Very nicely done. I felt sorry for the way he feels forced into this situation, of marrying someone else, when his heart is with Minglan. [END SPOILER]
Another favorite Yuan Ruo moment of mine, is in episode 70, not so much for Zhu Yilong’s delivery, but for what the moment means for Yuan Ruo as a character.
[SPOILER ALERT] Yuan Ruo’s wife (Chen Yalan) helping him to visit Minglan, against the wishes of his mother (Chen Jin), is such a highlight of the episode, for me. Yuan Ruo’s always kept her at a distance, but I feel like this is the turning point, where he begins to see her in a whole new light.
The first surprise, is when he realizes that everything she’d said had been a ruse to get him out of the house without his mother’s objection. And the next surprise, is when she demonstrates her ability to think shrewdly and sharply, when discussing Minglan’s case.
That small moment, where his gaze flicks at her in surprise, is, I feel, the moment when he probably realizes for the first time, that his wife might be pretty awesome after all. I like that a lot. [END SPOILER]
Cao Cuifen as Grandmother / Old Mrs. Sheng
Omigosh, I freaking loved Cao Cuifen as Grandmother. She is arguably my favorite character in this entire drama world.
I loved how sharp and wise Grandmother always is. She consistently sees through all the bull and is always very clear-cut in terms of what is the best course of action. Grandmother is so shrewd and strategic in her thoughts and actions, that she really would’ve made a great general, no exaggeration. Watching Grandmother in action, I always felt like there was a lot to be learned from her, particularly in the area of strategic thinking.
More than that, I love how compassionate she is towards Minglan. There’s always such a softness in her face, when she’s with Minglan, and I never tired of seeing them together – which I’ll talk about next.
A QUICK SPOTLIGHT ON THE MAIN LOVELINES
Grandmother & Minglan
It wouldn’t be an overstatement at all, to say that the relationship between Grandmother and Minglan was my favorite loveline in this show. There is deep, deep love between the two, and even though we don’t get a great deal of screen time unpacking the relationship between them, every scene they share is precious and affecting in the best way. I love it, so much.
One of my favorite motifs in this show, is of Grandmother holding Minglan. We see it again and again, where Grandmother hugs Minglan to herself, to comfort her, assure her and defend her. In a story world where hugs are not often given, and where Grandmother is an authority figure that strikes respectful awe in most, this stood out to me as extra, extra special.
It was also gratifying to witness Grandmother teaching and coaching Minglan on the ways of the world, in order to equip her to survive and live well, on her own. It felt heartwarming, but also, educational, to witness.
Here’s a collection of my favorite moments between Grandmother and Minglan.
E4. The scene where Minglan is on the boat and Grandmother holds her and cries out, “Minglan has someone who loves her!” is so moving. Literal tears to my eyes.
E33. One of the things that really touches me in this show, are the scenes of Grandmother embracing Minglan and holding her to herself. When she was a small child who’d lost her mother; when she’d been heartbroken by the news of Yuan Ruo’s marriage; and now, when she admits that she’d planned the trap that had led to Madam Lin’s death. Grandmother embraces her and empathizes with her pain, each time.
E40. The scene where Minglan tells Grandmother that she can’t bear to part with her, and Gran, holding back her tears, tells her that she feels likewise, brought actual tears to my eyes. Such a poignant, bittersweet moment.
E40. Aw man. Gran’s tearful outburst on Minglan’s wedding day, as she stops Minglan, grasps her hands and tells her to be well, just made me cry. I wish Minglan and Gran could live together for always.
E41. How lovely, to see the joy with which Grandmother welcomes Minglan back. Such a big hug, with so much warmth and tenderness.
E52. I do love that Gran knows Minglan well, and hurries over because she knows that anything to do with Madam Lin will rile Minglan up like no other.
E59. Woof. Every time Grandmother is active in Ming Lan’s narrative, my attention picks right up. I think that’s my favorite thing in this series: watching Grandmother protecting Ming Lan, while teaching her to see the world more critically and clearly.
E64. So glad Grandmother is awake and will be ok. The reunion between her and Minglan legit brought tears to my eyes. So much emotion between these two. I luff them together, so much. ❤️
Minglan & Yuan Ruo
It’s rare for a drama to introduce a loveline for the female lead, other than the one with her One True Love, and I appreciate that Show bucks the drama trend, to show us something closer to real life. Coz it’s true – and probable – that first loves don’t always end up together for the long haul.
However, largely because I already knew who romantic endgame was for Minglan, just from looking at Show’s poster, I found myself somewhat detached from the developments of this loveline, and also, rather unable to root for the success of this young love. Coz, how do you root for a love that you know is already doomed to fail, right?
Additionally, I found the portrayal of Minglan’s reciprocal feelings a little sudden, since she’d been studiously avoiding Yuan Ruo prior.
However, I appreciate the insights that this loveline gives us, regarding both these characters.
E16. Yuan Ruo is so keen to connect with Minglan that he’s blithely oblivious to social mores, which makes Ming Lan’s clearly uncomfortable. His happiness at seeing her drowns out her efforts to get him to behave with more decorum. Also, his own joy outweighs her protests, which feels like a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it’s rather swoony that he doesn’t care about anything but letting her know how he feels. On the other hand, shouldn’t he put her preferences and feelings first? And, he seems pretty undiscerning and immature, to not be aware of the obstacles that would be in the way of a union between them.
E17. Yuan Ruo is pretty naive.. He seems to truly believe that he can marry Minglan and have her as his main wife, while Minglan, though younger than he, is much more astute, and knows full well that his mother would never allow it.
E17. Despite his naïveté, Yuan Ruo’s earnest manner in declaring his affections and intentions to Minglan is quite endearing. His face is so pure and open, and so untainted by the grit of realism. His refrain of calling Minglan a little liar is quite cute too.
E28. It’s terrible and horrifying that the House of Yong would resort to kidnap and threats, to have Yuan Ruo marry their daughter. It’s a tough situation, and given Yuan Ruo’s cautious, softhearted nature, it’s understandable that he wouldn’t feel able to go rogue and threaten them back, as Tingye suggests.
E28. The way Minglan continues to trust Yuan Ruo is touching as well. She believes in him; she chooses to believe that he tried his best and failed, and that he has his painful reasons for letting her down, and she will not blame him nor let her maidservants blame him either. I really like that. It takes a gracious person to be able to think like that, when they’ve just been hurt deeply themselves. Kudos to Minglan. Such maturity, faith, and grace.
Minglan & Gu Tingye
Not gonna lie; this loveline was a hard sell at first, for me.
First of all, as I mentioned earlier in this review, Show was slow to reveal Gu Tingye’s true nature, so I didn’t yet like him, when Show started pushing this loveline. Second of all, Show had put all this effort into teasing out the emotion surrounding Minglan’s loveline with Yuan Ruo, which means that I didn’t feel ready to believe that Minglan would grow feelings for someone else, relatively soon after having her heart broken.
And then third of all, at around the episode 23 mark, Show starts making Minglan and Gu Tingye meet repeatedly, by chance. Serendipitously, Gu Tingye is always nearby when Minglan finds herself in mortal danger, so much so that it becomes completely predictable. By the third time Tingye swooped in to save her, I found myself thinking, “Alright, fine, I geddit, this is supposed to be fate.”
I honestly found myself having a hard time buying into it all, and doubted Show’s ability to persuade me otherwise. Happily, Show surprised me with how well it convinced me of Gu Tingye’s suitability as Minglan’s match, which I’ll talk about in this next section.
E23. How serendipitous, that it’s Gu Tingye who rescues Minglan from the water. But, phew that she and Grandmother are ok.
E24-25. Gu Tingye saves Minglan time and again from bandits.. how considerate, that he guards her and her family from afar, ensuring their safe journey, while traveling rough himself.
E28. Gu Tingye clearly has developed a soft spot of sorts for Minglan. The moment he hears of the marriage between the houses of Qi and Yong, he seeks out Yuan Ruo and tells him there is still hope. The way he tells Yuan Ruo of the kind of effects his decision will have on Minglan’s future, show that he is thoughtful and considerate of Minglan, and that he cares.
E28. The way Gu Tingye goes to Minglan and gently relays the message from Yuan Ruo, is so compassionate and empathetic. I actually really like where we leave this couple-to-be. They have both learned hard lessons in love and loss, and are encouraging each other to stay strong and be well, and to look to the future. That feels so wholesome and pure. They don’t have feelings for each other at this moment, and the moment just feels like one shared between kindred spirits on similar journeys, and I like that.
E35. It gets completely predictable that Gu Tingye will show up to save Minglan whenever she’s in mortal danger, lol.
E38. Woah. I didn’t realize Tingye really was asking for Rulan’s (Zhang Jianing) hand in marriage!
Wait, Tingye really did ALL that stuff, to marry Ming Lan? That.. sucks. He basically ruined her previously perfectly fine marriage prospects, by unearthing the exiled cousin and extracting her from her previously sealed fate, and then sending her to create unrest for Minglan’s prospective marriage. That’s so meddlesome and so underhanded. This does not endear him to me. And it’s upset Gran so much too.
E39. Well-played, Show. I didn’t think that Show would be able to win me over to accept Gu Tingye as Minglan’s husband, nor did I think there was anything he could say that would win her over. But win her over he did, and resoundingly too. By demonstrating that he truly understands and sees her, that he knows all of her sufferings and unhappiness, and telling her that he wishes to set her free from that constricting way of existing, he moves her – and he moves me too. Slow applause.
E40. I really appreciate how Tingye’s emphasis with Minglan is first and foremost, an emotional connection. Honesty and loyalty; the sharing of all of each of their truths; sincerity and appreciativeness with Minglan for her gracious attitude towards his children; trusting her fully with all of his assets; promising to be good to her always.
I mean, I do also love that he went out and got food for her and made sure it was good food, never mind if people concluded that he was cowed by a fierce wife. How perfect: taking care of her physical hunger, then when that’s done, talking to her in the most honest, meaningful way, before moving to consummate their marriage.
E42. I like the couple moments we see between Gu Tingye and Minglan. They really do behave like a real married couple, and I especially appreciate how natural the skinship is. This really is quite possibly the biggest advantage to having our leads be married in real life.
E43-44. Tingye overhearing Minglan’s caution in trusting and depending on him too much, and wanting to draw her into fully trusting him. I appreciate how much he desires a strong and pure connection with her.
E47. It’s nice to see Minglan supporting Gu Tingye, and worrying for him, and having him feel touched by her worry, as if he expected her to only worry for her own safety.
E49. Gu Tingye is so furious at Minglan for saying that it’s easy to agree to him spending the night with Manniang (Li Yixiao). The irony. He wants her to be jealous, but Minglan isn’t, lol.
E50. Tis good to keep a cool head on your shoulders. If not for Minglan’s shrewdness, Tingye would’ve fallen into his stepmother’s trap. I like how she balances him out that way.
E52. I also like that Tingye swoops in and speaks up for Minglan, and everyone has to listen, because he’s now the big powerful guy. I like this dynamic where they mutually look out for each other, all the time.
E52. The way Tingye comforts Minglan and holds her in the carriage on their way home, really speaks of a marriage relationship that is made up of strong bonds. I like it.
E52. The whole concubine thing is rather amusing, with Tingye refusing to sleep with his new concubine, and Minglan blithely leaving him to his own devices. It really says a lot about their relationship; he wants no one but Minglan, and Minglan trusts him to do what’s best.
E54. Tingye being cold to Minglan for a full 2 months, wow. He must really feel that she doesn’t love him.
E56. While it’s true that Tingye and Minglan are sleeping separately, their relationship is much better than what Madam Stepmother thinks. They’re talking quite deeply and honestly, and there is still a clear affection between them. But Minglan just can’t see what Tingye is so upset about, when it comes to whether she gets jealous, and whether she sees him as her Marquis husband, or as Gu Tingye. It’s kind of funny, but it’s also kind of sad.
E58. Tingye’s joy at Minglan’s pregnancy is cute and quite infectious.
E58. The way Minglan supports him to go do the salt inspection even though that would mean she’s left alone while pregnant, is very admirable and sweet.
E70. I appreciate that the decision on whether or not Tingye and Minglan ought to legally separate in order to protect their child, is handled with so much heartfelt emotion. In contrast to their usual dynamic, this time, it’s Tingye who’s working to be logical, for the sake of his family, while Minglan is the one who’s holding her heart in her throat, threatening that she will never accept Tingye again, if he separates from her now. Her growing love for her husband is clear to see, and it’s quite moving to witness.
QUICK SHOUT-OUTS TO THE OTHER CHARACTERS
Liu Jun as Sheng Hong
Dad mostly shows up as the ineffectual, hapless official head of the Sheng household. The truth is, though, he’s basically at the mercy of the women in his life.
At first, I found Dad frustratingly weak, but over time, Show did a solid job of demonstrating that Dad really does care, and he does the best he can, despite his faintheartedness and dull wits. Eventually, I grew rather fond of him, which is why he gets a quick shout-out here.
Liu Lin as Wang Ruofu
I thought Liu Lin did a fantastic job portraying Main Mother. Main Mother is straightforward, hotheaded, and far too simple of mind to do well in a complicated, dog-eat-dog world like this. I loved how naturally Liu Lin portrayed all of these facets of Main Mother; it just looked so effortless, and yet, there was so much expression and nuance in her delivery. Kudos.
Wang Herun as Hualan
As the eldest daughter of the Sheng family, Hualan is married off in Show’s early episodes, and therefore, we don’t see much of her over the course of our story. However, I really enjoyed what I did see of her. Wang Herun is radiant and beautiful as Hualan, and makes her quite incandescent. On top of that, Hualan always has a level, gracious head on her shoulders; an oft-needed voice of reason, in the Sheng household foibles.
Shi Shi as Molan
Molan is just like her mother Madam Lin, and learns to use her wiles to get what she wants. She often lies blithely without the bat of an eyelash, and she does it to make herself look good while making her sisters look bad.
Beyond the daily pouting and underhanded trickery to better her position within the household, hands-down the most interesting arc involving Molan, was her scheme regarding her marriage. The audacity of it all, had me on the edge of my seat.
I mean, to manipulate it such that she would have a chance at a secret rendezvous with young master Liang (Wu Hong), the groom of her choosing, so that she could flirt him into bed, is bold enough, but Molan does this repeatedly, so that she will fall pregnant, so that their families will have no choice but permit their marriage, and in this way, she will be a main wife instead of a concubine.
How brazen, right? But even more brazen, is how Molan and her mother just go for it, trusting that the family will do everything to clean up the mess, if only for the sake of the other daughters’ reputations. What a gamble.
I found the entire arc quite thrilling and riveting.
Beyond the shamelessness of this entire arc, I want to credit Shi Shi for playing Molan with an undercurrent of sadness. That sadness doesn’t surface often, but when it does, it reminds me that Molan really isn’t that happy with herself or her life.
For example, in episode 32, the scene where Mo Lan considers her future, now that Madam Wu has agreed to the marriage, with tears in her eyes and sadness in her gaze, is actually really well done. It tells me that Molan didn’t want to do this; that there is a lot of bitter mixed in with the sweetness of her so-called victory.
Eventually, in Show’s final episodes, Molan’s deceitful ways finally catch up with her, when her hard-won husband rejects her for basically tricking him into marriage.
Overall, I can’t say I liked Molan, but I did find her quite compelling.
Zhang Jianing as Rulan
I didn’t like Rulan much at first, not least because she also bullied Minglan in her own way, always getting Minglan to do chores for her.
[MINOR SPOILER] However, in Show’s mid-episodes, when Rulan falls for Scholar Wen (Zhang Lu), I really liked the new closeness that develops between Minglan and Rulan, where they get together regularly in Rulan’s chamber and talk about boys, heh. How cute!
I loved the cozy sister talk between Minglan and Rulan, as they mused about their impending marriages and shared their feelings and thoughts and fears. The encouragement and shared laughter feels so real and so organic; I truly believe these two sisters care for each other. [END SPOILER]
The chief wily women
There are a number of wily women in this story, to bring the conflict and angst as needed, so if you’re leery of being spoiled by knowing who these characters are, maybe skip this section.
Gao Lu as Lin Qinshuang
When Show first presented Lin Qinshuang as the coquettish, sly, manipulative concubine of the Sheng household, alarm bells started pinging in my head. And it’s true that Lin Qinshuang was a sizable source of trouble for the members of the Sheng family.
The first time my jaw dropped in this show was in episode 4, thanks to Lin Qinshuang. [SPOILER] I was astounded at the gall with which Lin Qinshuang lied that she was innocent and cried for mercy. I mean, she swore to the heavens without blinking an eye that she had nothing to do with Minglan’s mother’s death, when she’d in fact singlehandedly plotted the entire tragedy, and with glee. Wow. [END SPOILER]
As far as villains go in this drama world, though, I found Lin Qinshuang’s behavior something that I could rationalize, even though I couldn’t condone it. Given her lot in life, and given the world into which she was born, she probably felt that this was her best chance at giving her children a boost up the social ladder.
Thankfully, Show doesn’t let her off easy, and Lin Qinshuang does end up paying for her misdeeds. Also, by Show’s end, I came to realize that there are scarier women, than Lin Qinshuang. Shudder.
Li Yixiao as Zhu Manniang
At first glance, Manniang appears to be cut from a similar cloth as Lin Qinshuang: pretty, sly and coquettish, set on using her charms to manipulate her man, so that she can get what she wants. Compared to Lin Qinshuang, though, I found Manniang more cunning, more ruthless, and also, more resilient.
[SPOILER] I could hardly believe that Manniang would be so ruthless as to basically treat her son so poorly while on the run, that the child would die. And then, instead of feeling at all sorry about it, she berates her son when she visits his grave, and also, proceeds to spread lies that Tingye killed their son.
By episode 50, I’d concluded that Manniang is like a cockroach that will not die. In that episode, even armed guards shooing her out of the city and foiling her efforts for food and shelter wouldn’t stop her efforts to malign Gu Tingye.
Credit to Li Yixiao; I really did feel as we got deeper into our story, that Manniang became more and more crazed, delusional and hysterical. [END SPOILER]
Wang Yinan as Lady Qin
Lady Qin is arguably the most lethal among the crafty women in this drama world. Serene, gentle and kindly on the surface, Lady Qin put much effort into scheming for the betterment of her own station as well as that of her son, and also, shockingly, took much pleasure out of successful scheming, even when that scheming often resulted in death and destruction.
[SPOILER] The first time it registered in my head just how dangerous this woman was, was in episode 19, when Show revealed the lengths that Lady Qin had gone to, to expel Tingye from the Gu household. I mean, to have doted on him since young as a loving and indulgent stepmother, so that she would be able to expel him upon her husband’s death, is an impressive level of endurance and patience. Now that is some scary stuff. [END SPOILER]
Credit to Wang Yinan; every time Lady Qin switched between her sweet benign kindly demeanor, to her dark, hardened, scheming one, I always felt a touch startled.
Zhang Yanyan as Wang Ruoyu / Madam Kang
Having only seen Zhang Yanyan play gentle, dignified and demure characters in Nirvana In Fire and The Disguiser, I was suitably astonished at how well she plays the ill-intentioned, spiteful, gossipy Madam Kang who has a bit of a volatile, violent bent.
From outright lies, to coercion, blackmail, and actual attempted murder, Madam Kang does it all, and I believed Zhang Yanyan every step of the way.
Madam Kang turned out to be cruel and inhumane, and I didn’t like her one bit, but at the same time, I couldn’t help marveling at Zhang Yanyan’s ability to portray her so seamlessly.
Ming Lan & Zhang Guifen (Madam Shen)
Minglan is shown to have several close friends over the course of our story, but the one that stood out to me the most, is her unlikely friendship with Madam Shen (Wu Xiaoyu).
[SPOILER] I rather like how their connection started in such a rocky, dramatic manner, but that in the end, Minglan’s sincerity and sensitively-spoken words of wisdom really turned Madam Shen around, and thereafter, they became such close and trusted friends.
Later in the show, when Madam Shen becomes the target of her husband’s concubine’s plot to deprive her of medical help during the delivery of her baby, I thought it was a very good full circle, that Minglan was able to personally stop it, and save her life. This felt to me like a form of closure for Minglan, for the time she’d been unable to save her mother from a similar plot, as a mere child. I found this very meaningful indeed. [END SPOILER]
Minglan and her loyal maids
Even though this dynamic is kept mostly in the background, I really enjoyed Minglan’s positive, trusting relationship with her personal maids.
Here are my two favorite highlights that really showcase the depth of care and emotion in these relationships.
E55. Minglan is a genuinely caring mistress who wouldn’t hold her maid back from marriage for her own comfort. The scene where Minglan talks to Cuiwei (Li Yuanyuan) about her potential marriage match, is so poignant. Both women tear up at the prospect of saying goodbye, and it’s clear to see that this is born of genuine relationship.
E72. Xiaotao (Wang Ziwei), pledging to live and die next to Minglan, and then admitting she was afraid, before telling Minglan, “Let’s go!” is just so heart-swellingly brave. She’s not hesitating even for a moment, even though she is scared, and this is literally a life-or-death situation where she might not live to see another day. That is absolutely a demonstration of deep love.
Xiaotao & Shitou
This is a tiny little tangential arc, but I loved the idea of a loveline between Xiaotao and Shitou (Shen Chi). Because Xiaotao is Minglan’s close personal maid, and Shitou is Gu Tingye’s righthand man, the two often have occasion to hang out together while waiting for their master and mistress.
When Show started giving little hints that Shitou was smitten with Xiaotao, I was thrilled. And I found the scene in episode 52, of Shitou and Xiaotao talking giddily about food, and about what was delicious, absolutely adorable, funny and perfect. ❤️
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Show serves up a twist in its final episode that I wasn’t expecting, to be honest.
Gu Tingye comes back and saves the day, and we find out that everything was one very intricate ruse, where the emperor put up an elaborate act, together with the empress and Gu Tingye, in order to bait the empress dowager to make her move to stage a mutiny.
While that plot twist did suddenly make the emperor appear much more shrewd than he’d ever appeared, I have to admit that it does niggle at me, that this ruse was a high stakes one in which many lives were put in danger, and many lives were also lost. Minglan herself suffered a true shock regarding the probable death of her husband, while she was still weak from childbirth, and the stressful events of the mutiny, with soldiers attacking her home, would have been a lot to bear. After all the drama is over, Minister Sheng remarks casually that if Minglan were to develop any health issues later on, it would be all Gu Tingye’s fault – and I can’t help thinking that potential health issues isn’t that far-fetched an idea, given all that Minglan’s been through.
My mum finished watching this show ahead of me, and when I asked her if it had a happy ending, she said, “Well, I suppose so. All the bad people died.”
..Which they did.
Lady Qin dies in a fire of her own causing, lamenting that she’d never lived as herself for even a day. She’s distraught that all of her scheming for Tingwei has come to naught, and furious that she’s lived this way all for nothing. It’s a dramatic way to die, and I almost feel sorry for her, but.. not quite.
Manniang dies in this last narrative arc as well, getting killed in a bid to murder Gu Tingye’s son, as revenge for her own dead son. Again, I have no sympathy for this woman, who pushes her own daughter down and injures her in her bid to kill an infant, and doesn’t even look back at her injured child, because she’s so set on stabbing the baby. Ugh. That is just insane.
In happier news, one of my favorite moments this finale, is how Show gives us a glimpse of how Yuan Ruo’s heart towards his wife has changed. I’m glad that we see him apologizing to her, for how he’s treated her in the past, and pledging to make it all up to her, going forward into the future. Wifey is gently gracious about it, demurring that he never wronged her, and with soft smiles, this couple walks into their new future, arm in arm. How lovely.
I’m also very pleased to see that, unspoken time skip later, Shitou and Xiaotao are married and expecting their first child together. Woot! I’m just really happy for them, and I’m glad that they get to be together, and even though she’s now married, that Xiaotao still gets to spend time with Minglan, whom she clearly adores.
As Show draws near its final curtain, the Gu household bustles with activity, as the whole family – members of the Sheng household included – works together to restore the Gu ancestral hall that had burned down. Gu Tingye and Minglan rib each other as usual, but also, they share warm smiles, and remark that the days ahead will be happy ones, as they walk back into their home together, hand in hand.
I have to admit, even though there were times when I dragged my feet a little, when Show’s story seemed to ramble on, sometimes with what felt like a lack of strong direction, I’m pleased that I stayed with these characters to the end. They grew on me, in spite of myself, and now, I’m content to see that they’re content, and that all is as well as can be.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Rather long and meandering, but Show’s got enough heart to make it worth the while.
FINAL GRADE: B+
An excellent raw-and-edgy take on the development of the OTP relationship:
An instrumental playlist: