In a drama landscape where characters have been traditionally subscribed to a patriarchal way of thinking, and where women – especially women in sageuks – have often been relegated to being pushed around by men who believe they know better, Rookie Historian stands out for daring not only to present a different perspective, but for presenting it as the better way. Say, what?
Make no mistake, Rookie Historian is not a perfect drama by any means. I’ll talk more about why that was the case for me, shortly, but really, for its bold stand alone, I feel like Show deserves some acknowledgement and praise.
For the record, I do think that it’s possible to love this drama. I think it all depends on how well this show lands, for you. So just because I didn’t end up loving this one strongly, doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t love it.
For me personally, I found that I enjoyed this show more in concept than in execution. I liked many of the ideas that Show presented, but because stuff often didn’t land for me with as much oomph as Show likely intended, I found myself enjoying this show in a fairly muted fashion. I rarely found myself strongly emotionally engaged with any character or narrative arc, and that’s a big thing, for me.
That said, Show is prettily packaged, with a bright and sunny color palette, evocative music, and a light, fusion sort of vibe. It even kinda-sorta feels like a cousin of Sungkyunkwan Scandal, with its early scenes set in a Joseon bookstore.
I do think it’s important to note that in this story, the main romance isn’t actually the Main Event. Show’s other narrative arcs related to independence, purpose, and truth, are more the central focus of our story, and I think that knowing that early on, helps to put things in perspective. This way, the narrative restraint used with the main romance would make more sense, I think.
Another thing that I think is important to know, is that Show doesn’t actually stay that light. For much of its second half, even though Show makes an effort to insert moments of levity, our story’s focus definitely becomes more serious, and the overall tone becomes more dramatic as well.
STUFF I LIKED
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, I do like Show’s themes, particularly around the idea of female empowerment. But, I’ll save that for later in the review. For now, I’ll start with touching on characters and relationships.
Shin Se Kyung as Hae Ryung
I really enjoyed Shin Se Kyung as Hae Ryung.
I feel like Shin Se Kyung does particularly well in sageuk, coz I’ve consistently found her appealing in sageuk roles, like her roles in Tree With Deep Roots (I loved this a lot, but never got around to writing a review) and Six Flying Dragons (I didn’t manage to finish this, but I liked Shin Se Kyung in it).
To my untrained eyes and ears, Shin Se Kyung looks beautiful and at-home in sageuk garb, and I feel like she delivers her difficult sageuk lines in a way that feels natural.
Additionally, I like Hae Ryung as a character. Right away from Show’s first episode, I liked that she’s got her own opinions and isn’t afraid to buck the trend. I also like that she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and others, and is articulate and even a little sharp, in expressing her opinions.
Overall, there’s something heartfelt and earnest, yet fearless and audacious about Hae Ryung, and I grew quite affectionate of her during my watch.
Here are just a handful of my thoughts as I watched Hae Ryung. I will talk more about her in the OTP section as well.
E3-4. Hae Ryung doesn’t like the idea of getting married, but she does try to go along with it, and even gifts her brother Jae Gyeong (Gong Jung Hwan) a robe that would remind her of their younger days, so that she won’t hate him too much. This feels sincere and earnest.
E21-22. I like Hae Ryung’s explanation to her brother at the end of the episode, where he asks her to quit working as a historian. Her desire to have meaningful work to do, to feel of value, is something that, I think, would resonate with most of us. And her determination to continue that work, despite the risk, speaks of how much this means to her, as a person. Perhaps not the preservation of history per se, but the belief that she’s doing something of value, and contributing something.
E23-24. It’s great to see the king (Kim Min Sang) turn around so effectively, because of Hae Ryung’s words. I like that her victory is earned not through force or intimidation, but words spoken gracious and kindly. I like that she basically helped him change the way he perceives the historians; not just as people out to record the king’s flaws, but subjects who record the king’s good deeds and behaviors for posterity.
I’d also like to think that the king’s sudden and complete turnaround is less to do with convenient writing, and more to do with the fact that underneath the petty surface, there really is a better man.
E27-28. Haha. Hae Ryung’s reaction to the story of Rapunzel, compared to the reaction of everyone else, reminds me of how I react to many modern C-drama romances, compared to everyone else. While everyone else is swooning and spazzing, I’m over here, furrowing my brow, going, “But that doesn’t make any sense?” Lol.
Cha Eun Woo as Rim / Prince Dowon
It’s no secret that Cha Eun Woo’s delivery is.. uh, not one of this drama’s strengths. He’s very pretty to look at, but I have to admit that his delivery of Prince Dowon, particularly in the early episodes, was not great.
I liked him quite well in My ID is Gangnam Beauty, but I think that was more a case of the role working with and not against his acting limitations. Here, there’s more that’s demanded from him, and his acting being on the greener side does show. That being said, I did think that his performance improved over the course of the show, and there were several scenes where I was genuinely impressed with his delivery.
Even though I can’t say that Cha Eun Woo injected a great deal of nuance into his delivery of Prince Dowon, I do feel that he managed to make the character his own, by the end.
I found Prince Dowon to be an ultimately sympathetic character, and I found that the more I learned about him, the more I accepted him for who he was, exaggerated reaction faces and all.
Here’s a quick look at my thoughts around Dowon and Cha Eun Woo’s delivery of him, during my watch.
E3-4. Putting aside Cha Eun Woo’s limited delivery, I do find Rim to be a rather likable character. He went in to the book signing to catch the imposter without even considering that he’d be outed as the real Mae Hwa. And then, he automatically cleaved to Hae Ryung, when they spent a bit of time running away together. He trusts people quickly, I feel like, and that makes me feel like he’s quite innocent and pure-hearted.
E3-4. Aw, it turns out that Dowon was writing to pass the time. When the king orders that he not be allowed to read or write anymore, he’s crestfallen, but he obeys, to protect the father-son relationship they have. And he does so, by earnestly trying to learn music instead – even though he does seem talentless at it, heh. There’s something very innocent and sincere about that.
E13-14. I liked the righteous regality rising up in Prince Dowon, when he decides to forge his own way into Pyongyang despite the dissuasion of the deceitful governors.
E15-16. Although Dowon is quite the fish out of water, having been cooped up in the palace all his life, he does have natural leadership qualities. His instinct is to protect the people, and when he opens his mind to the variolation treatment, he chooses to use himself as a test subject, in order to set the people’s minds at ease, and to give them something to believe in. When he does so, you can see Dowon start to breathe more easily, and smile more, and basically blossom in the fruit of what he’s sown. It’s quite touching.
E17-18. I guess it says something about how hard Dowon finds it to live in the palace, if he asks the Empress Dowager (Kim Yeo Jin) to help him leave, even though his heart is clearly with Hae Ryung.
E35-36. The scene where Dowon asks the king if he’s ever thought of Dowon as a son, or felt any affection for him, is really quite nicely done. It’s more poignant than I expected Cha Eun Woo to be capable of delivering, and I’m suitably impressed. In this moment, Dowon’s complex mix of emotions – the hope, fear, confusion, denial and uncertainty – are written in his eyes, and it’s quite affecting indeed.
I do feel sorry for Dowon. He’s basically been rejected all his life, by the man he thought of as his father. And because his father had the power to do so, he was pretty much banished to a corner of the palace grounds, not to be seen nor heard. To have lived your whole life like that, and not known any different; how deep that rejection must have cut. Sob.
Hae Ryung and Rim / Prince Dowon together
In a drama space where the OTP relationship is often the thing that takes centerstage, it was a little surprising to me, that Show chose to position the OTP relationship as somewhat taking a backseat to other, bigger matters.
But, this isn’t the reason that I didn’t feel strongly for this OTP. I think my lack of emotional connection with the OTP, had less to do with the writing and the narrative positioning of the OTP, and more to do with the actual execution. What I mean is, I think it had more to do with how the actors were directed, static frozen-in-time kisses and all, as well as the fact that I found Cha Eun Woo’s limited ability to deliver, a weak link in the presentation of the OTP relationship. Additionally, the chemistry between Cha Eun Woo and Shin Se Kyung appeared rather flat, to my eyes.
Even so, I did like the concept of this OTP relationship, generally speaking. And even though I never did squee along, I could appreciate what Show was doing with the OTP.
All that being said, like I alluded to before in this review, I do think it’s possible to love this OTP. For example, if you’re a fan of Cha Eun Woo, you’d most likely be more able to embrace his delivery of Dowon. Also, chemistry is a very subjective thing. So if you’re able to see chemistry where I failed to see it, you’d also be more likely to feel for this OTP.
Here’s a somewhat meandering look into my thoughts about this OTP, during my watch.
E7-8. I thought Rim’s identity would be kept from Hae Ryung for longer, and I also didn’t quite expect him to reveal his identity to the potential killer. Guess Rim’s not trained in fight skills? It was rather amusing though, to see Rim and Hae Ryung bickering as he punished her while in disguise, and it was also nice to see Hae Ryung feel good about their potential friendship, upon returning home.
E9-10. It’s poignant that Rim quietly gives Hae Ryung the space to cry, when she comes to his quarters and then can’t hold the tears back. I feel that this comes from a place of empathy than anything else; it feels like Rim’s experienced lots of sadness and disappointment and loneliness in his life, and he knows from experience, that sometimes you just need to be able to cry.
Even though Hae Ryung had hoped that Rim wasn’t Prince Dowon, because that affected the budding friendship that she foresaw between them, it does look like these two will become friends anyway. I rather like that.
E11-12. I can rationalize in my head that Prince Dowon has been so lonely that having Hae Ryung suddenly show up in his life can be a very heady experience for him. Plus, I also rationalize that he’s been looking forward to her visits greatly. Plus she also did save him prior.
Somehow, though, his sudden smitten state when it comes to her strikes me as kind of abrupt. But, once I accept that he just is smitten with her, then it’s rather amusing and cute. It’s nice that he wants to help her with her work, and worries for her, to the extent that he’d disguise himself as a clerk and happily be dragged off by mistake and put to work – because it allows him to be around her, and it also helps her.
E13-14. Hae Ryung volunteering to go to smallpox-infested Pyongyang – it seems that she volunteers because she knows that Prince Dowon is going?
E13-14. There are moments in this episode that make me perk up, like the little cute moments when Prince Dowon gets all flustered that Hae Ryung was “sort of” married before, and when he exclaimed that the man couldn’t have dumped her because “he has eyes,” lol.
E15-16. Dowon’s goofy smitten smiles are quite funny to me. I mean, I don’t find Cha Eun Woo’s smitten faces that believable, to be honest, but just the concept of Dowon being a dork for Hae Ryung amuses me, and Cha Eun Woo does have a nice collection of dorky expressions.
The way Dowon smuggles boiled pork to Hae Ryung, the minute he lays eyes on the treat, is also quite amusing.
E17-18. Dowon waking up to find Hae Ryung asleep on his arm is tropey but cute. What’s cuter is how he obsesses over how nice she smells, when talking to his eunuch (Sung Ji Roo) and ladies in waiting.
E17-18. Dowon’s so-called slick power move is promptly foiled by Hae Ryung, but I like his heartfelt blurted-out confession much more. He sounds so much more sincere, when he tells her honestly that he doesn’t dislike having her near him, and then requests that she doesn’t distance herself from him as she’d promised to do as penance.
E17-18. His jealousy over her imagined fangirling over buff nekkid palace guards is amusing, lol. But his blurted out honest “I was worried” is heartfelt and sweet, as he shelters her from the rain.
E19-20. Hae Ryung is quite the bold, confident girl. I mean, not only does she articulate that she’s well aware that she’s pretty, having her own mirror at home, she offers to hold hands with Dowon. Dowon’s feelings for her are pretty obvious, since he can’t hide a thing and his face tells her everything, but instead of pretending not to pick up on it, she reciprocates even when his own actions get stuck. She’s gloriously, matter-of-factly bold, and I dig it.
At the same time, she’s warm and assuring. When Dowon confesses that he doesn’t feel like he knows anything about her, and that it makes him uneasy, she proceeds to tell him things about herself, to make him feel better. There’s something very gentle and comforting about that.
E21-22. Dowon is cute in how smitten he is, and I appreciate how he tells Hae Ryung that he’ll go with her, no matter what her punishment turns out to be. That’s sweet. It’s just, the swoony isn’t hitting for me. Like when Dowon comes out in a daze from the prison after Hae Ryung’s pecked him on the cheek, with his eyes as round as saucers, and his expression slowly changes to a goofy grin. That moment didn’t pop, for me, unfortunately, although I concede that Cha Eun Woo’s goofy grin in and of itself is rather amusing.
E23-24. Dowon is a dork. To think that he stated the king’s misconduct so bluntly in front of everyone, not because he felt it was the right thing to do, but because he wanted to impress Hae Ryung. I do think it’s funny-sweet of him to trail her around, and bring her food, and make her honey water, after she’s had a lot to drink.
E23-24. It was kind of cute that it was Hae Ryung rescuing Dowon from having to drink too much. I rather enjoy the role reversal, since it’s usually the guy offering to drink on behalf of the girl.
E23-24. Even though Hae Ryung’s been aware of Dowon’s feelings for some time, I guess it’s extra moving, for her to see the poem that he’d written down, was actually a love confession. I found it a lovely callback, and I like how Hae Ryung then quoted the poem right back to Dowon, to confess her own love. And attagirl, Hae Ryung’s the one who moves in for the kiss. Sweet.
E25-26. Pfft. The role reversal is continuing, with Dowon being all shy after the kiss, and Hae Ryung pecking him on the lips, telling him that he ought to get used to things like this. I mean, I like the concept of it, but I also have to admit that it’s starting to get a little old for me.
E27-28. I like that Dowon is making a stand for the sake of the innocent, despite the personal risk that it entails. That Hae Ryung offers to go with him, even though it would likely be a tough scene to witness, is a touching gesture. Like, she will go with him, as far as she can go.
E29-30. Dowon admitting that he felt like Hae Ryung was hiding him, was a rather poignant moment. He’s been hidden away in Nokseodang all his life, so to feel like the woman he loves was also hiding him, must have hit a nerve.
E29-30. The power of love, combined with Dowon’s gradual growth, culminates in him summoning Hae Ryung, and making his plea to the Empress Dowager, to stop the plans for his marriage.
E31-32. It is interesting and unusual that Hae Ryung does not wish to be a Prince’s wife. Then did she have any kind of future in mind, when her relationship started with Dowon? Did she just date him with no thought for tomorrow? I guess she did. But, it’s often hard to think straight when you’re in love, so there’s that.
I guess at the end of it all, Hae Ryung is more pragmatic than Dowon. She admits to herself that it’s not ok with her, that he marry someone else, and she drinks to numb her pain. But she’s also right in pointing out that she and Dowon don’t live in a novel; that running away sounds romantic only when it’s written in a novel (just like climbing someone’s hair only sounds romantic in a fairytale); that given time, it’s possible that she &/or he would regret the choice. I also think she’s speaking the truth when she tells Dowon that he’s not her everything. In fact, I think she’s got a clearer grasp on things, while Dowon is talking in absolutes out of emotion. It’s really not quite possible that she is his everything; he’s just too overwhelmed by emotion to see anything but her, at this point. She’s also emotionally stronger, it seems to me.
E33-34. Both Hae Ryung and Dowon instinctively move to protect the other, when under attack. That says a lot about how they truly feel for each other, beyond the pulled-back decorum.
E35-36. I appreciate that Hae Ryung instinctively empathizes with Dowon. After the king rejects his question, and as Dowon sits alone and fails to fight back the tears, she holds him and cries with him. She doesn’t say a word; no words would do justice in the moment anyway. She just weeps with him. And that’s pretty profound.
E35-36. I do like watching Hae Ryung and Dowon work together as a team; not as lovers, but as comrades with a common goal, to uncover the truth.
The female historians together
One of my favorite things in this show, was seeing the four female historians bonding, bit by bit. They start the show as strangers who find themselves as colleagues, but over time, the friendship among them grows, and I loved it.
[SPOILER] I loved the way they sit up together over drinks and snacks when they’re told to stay up for Gyeongsin in episodes 17-18, and the way they have a picnic together when given the day off. And then later, in episodes 29-30, when the others discover that Hae Ryung is in a relationship with Dowon, the way the girls tease Hae Ryung in private feels just like something besties would do. [END SPOILER]
This wasn’t ever a big narrative arc, but I really enjoyed every hint we got, that the girls were growing closer. <3
Park Ki Woong as Crown Prince Jin
It feels like forever since I last watched Park Ki Woong in anything (the last show I watched him in was 2012’s Gaksital, gasp!), so it was really nice to have him on my screen again. I really liked his portrayal of Crown Prince Jin, and it was a bonus, that I also liked the character as well.
Between the princes, I have to admit that I immediately found Jin more interesting than Rim, as the Crown Prince who looks intimidating, but isn’t above giving his little brother permission to leave the palace for a while – and with a bit of an amused smirk too. When Jin is fiery, he’s fierce, and his expression is hard, and he looks like his gaze could melt arrows, but when he’s not in fiery mode, like when he’s with his little brother, there’s often a softness and warmth in his gaze that I found very appealing.
[SPOILER] I loved the scene in episodes 3-4, where Jin went to visit Rim and told him he was proud of him and that he liked the book he wrote. Aw. After seeing most royal brothers easily out for each other’s blood for the sake of the throne, this feels so wonderfully wholesome and pure.
My favorite narrative angle with Jin, is his relationship with Rim. I just really love that Jin really loves Rim as his brother. In episodes 35-36, even when the evidence is mounting, that Rim might not be his brother, Jin grasps at straws, makes up a story, then, brushing it all aside, states firmly that no matter what, Rim is his brother and part of the family. I like that in this moment, Jin’s main aim, is to assure Rim, more than anything else. That’s such a big brother thing to do. [END SPOILER]
Lee Ji Hoon as Officer Min
I found myself really enjoying Lee Ji Hoon as Officer Min. When we are introduced to him, he mostly comes across as a deadpan stick in the mud who’s more concerned with abiding by rules and guidelines, than with people. However, as Show peels back the layers to reveal Officer Min’s backstory, I found my heart really going out to him, and I couldn’t help but admire him for his resilience and dedication.
Here is a small collection of my thoughts around Officer Min during my watch.
E3-4. I feel like Officer Min is going to have a strong connection with Hae Ryung, once she enters the palace. That scene where she asked about the royal records and questioned the wisdom of the king’s decision, felt like a burgeoning connection of likeminded kindred spirits.
E11-12. The conversation between Officer Min and Hae Ryung, where he tells her that she did nothing wrong, but still needs to learn to bear the consequences of her righteous actions, feels weighty and meaningful in a way that the OTP connection has yet to reach. I enjoyed this conversation.
E19-20. Officer Min’s backstory is revealed this episode, and what a punch to the gut it is. To think that his father (Choi Duk Moon) framed Officer Min’s father-in-law, and caused him to be beheaded, which then led to Officer Min’s wife committing suicide.
This episode, it feels like the dam is unlocked, as Officer Min’s emotions come out in a mass of hurt, fury, sorrow, and betrayal. Lee Ji Hoon delivers such a powerful performance, as Officer Min confronts his father; I feel like I’m glimpsing into the depths of Officer Min’s soul. Really good.
Also, it was just really poignant to see how deeply he loved his wife, running off from Sungkyunkwan to steal an hour just to lay on her lap as she embroidered. Sweet. But with 20/20 hindsight, there’s much bitterness mixed in with the sweet.
E23-24. I liked the scene where Officer Min offers Hae Ryung help for the next day in the form of the king’s scheduled agenda, as well as a good soak for her sore fingers, and advice for how to wield her brush for greater effectiveness. I also appreciate that he apologized, because I’ve been thinking that Hae Ryung was instructed to get into the king’s chambers by him. At the same time, I admire Hae Ryung for brushing aside the apology; she has such a deep sense of ownership of her work, that she doesn’t blame him for the order that put her in this position. I like that. These two have such a similar spirit of excellence when it comes to work.
STUFF I LIKED LESS
Show can feel fragmented and uneven [SPOILERS]
Show sometimes feels fragmented
Because we are only served up small fragments of information about the story of Ho Dam, not much of the stuff around this arc makes sense in the first half of the show. Rim’s recurring dream is clearly connected to this, but again, we don’t know what it’s about, and once Hae Ryung is firmly in Rim’s orbit, he stops having the dreams. I personally found this a rather distracting portion of our story that didn’t capture my interest much at all.
It was only in Show’s later episodes, that all the stuff around the story of Ho Dam began to make sense to me, and it turned out to be THE major arc in the story that Show was working to tell. Prior to stuff falling into place, I could only mentally shelve anything that came up, around the Ho Dam stuff. Considering that this turns out to be Show’s biggest narrative arc, this initial confusion didn’t work to Show’s advantage, I felt.
There were occasions where I felt the writing leaned lazy, and the characterization, convenient.
For example, in episode 29-30, the Empress Dowager could’ve easily finished her conversation with Mo Hwa (Jun Ik Ryung), who is about to reveal Hae Ryung’s true identity, but she doesn’t, even though it wouldn’t have taken long, and just recently the Empress Dowager had purposely kept the king waiting, because she’d said it would do him good. Since when did she jump at the king’s bidding, to rush to have an audience, when invited to do so? That’s convenient writing, to make her inconsistent, just to drag out the story.
Another example is in episode 35-36, where Hae Ryung is revealed to have all her memories of her father intact, but, according to her, she’s chosen to pretend that she didn’t know or remember anything, because that was her father’s wish. The thing is, from everything that we’ve learned about Hae Ryung, she’s just not the kind of person who would take such an injustice to her father lying down, even if it were his dying wish. That decision to pretend that she didn’t know or remember anything from the past, doesn’t quite seem organic to her characterization, and therefore, this development, that she actually remembers everything, feels conveniently shoehorned into our narrative in order to facilitate other events.
Show’s idea of humor
You guys know that I often struggle to jive with k-humor in my dramas, and this drama is no different. I found most of the Intended Funny, not that funny at all.
For example, Rim’s eunuch Sam Bong is supposed to be funny and comic, but he’s almost always borderline shouting his lines and contorting his face and flailing his arms, which are all signs that “This is supposed to be funny!” I didn’t find it very funny at all, and also, it got old for me pretty fast.
Here are a couple of more specific examples, of when Show’s idea of funny didn’t work for me.
E25-26. A great deal of time spent on the foreigner (Fabien) running and hiding away this episode, which I wasn’t too crazy about. I’m particularly not crazy about the comic treatment of most of it, and I’m not hot on the foreigner’s delivery, which seems too exaggerated to me. But, it does provide a platform for things, I realize. For one thing, it creates opportunity for dialogue to center on things like equality, beliefs and values. And for another, it looks like it will also give Dowon an opportunity to rise to the occasion, in the next episode. So it’s not useless; I just don’t appreciate the funny.
E29-30. The interrogation, followed by the all-out cat fight, was too exaggerated for my taste. It doesn’t seem realistic to me, that the female historians would get to the point of forgetting respect and decorum. This scene didn’t appeal to me.
However, shout-out to Hae Ryung’s maid Sul Geum, played to perfection by Yang Jo Ah. Yang Jo Ah has the most elastic, varied reaction faces, and she infuses Sul Geum with such a wide-eyed, gossipy-yet-good-natured energy, that I couldn’t help giggling at her antics. I found her quite hilarious, and I find myself genuinely impressed by her comic delivery and timing.
Small logic lapses niggled at me
There are some small leaps in logic in our story, which bothered me somewhat. They weren’t dealbreakers, but I just wanted to put them here, for the record.
For one thing, I want to know how the historians refresh their ink supply as they follow people around and record on the go. In the scene above, Hae Ryung is shown using her brush furiously, as she records her sachaek, but, never shown re-dipping it in any kind of ink pot. What is this, magic?
[SPOILER] And then in episodes 29-30, the leap of the other historian trainees, from thinking of Dowon as Clerk Yi, to realizing he’s Prince Dowon, is sudden and quite unexplained. What clued them in, that he was Prince Dowon? They’d seen him around before, out of the clerk uniform, but never questioned it. And yet, here, suddenly, when it’s convenient to our narrative, they realize that he’s Prince Dowon. I found this a stretch. [END SPOILER]
QUICK THEMATIC SPOTLIGHTS
Where Show falters in characterization and relationship development, it more than makes up for, in the broad spectrum of themes that it chooses to showcase. From female empowerment, to equality, to religious persecution, Show manages a fairly wide scope.
Here, I just want to highlight the two that left the deepest impression on me.
Show’s emphasis on female empowerment [SPOILERS]
I really like Show’s emphasis on female agency and empowerment. In our story, we see 4 rookie historians being chosen when the plan was just for one. And even though they get bullied by disgruntled men when they arrive, they don’t need a man to save them from their situation. It’s Hae Ryung and her bodacious drinking ability and her audacious attitude in challenging the chief bully, that helps the girls overcome this first hurdle. So great.
It’s not an easy journey, though, and Show doesn’t attempt to whitewash the girls’ challenges. While it’s great to see strong female characters forging their way in the palace, the ladies have to contend with so much. After basically fighting for their rights to learn from their sunbaes, they get threatened by court ladies, and disdained by the ministers of the court. Generally, they’re treated like they don’t deserve to be there, and are ordered around like servants. That’s quite a rude awakening for the girls, who are all daughters of noble families.
In episodes 9-10, I found it poignant that the girls talk about looking forward to payday. That’s something that feels fresh in the context of a sageuk, because usually women aren’t shown having jobs. So it’s an extra hard hit in the gut, that our girls don’t get paid, and Hae Ryung gets severely reprimanded for questioning the corruption in the system.
Yet, our ladies fight on, and slowly but surely, earn the trust and respect of their sunbaes, and by Show’s end, earn promotions as well. I loved that their determination to soldier on despite the myriad of obstacles and challenges before them, formed such a large piece of our story, and was front-and-center as much as it was.
Show’s emphasis on truth [SPOILERS]
Throughout our story, we see various historians fighting to protect history as it is recorded, and we even see that some are literally willing to die, than have the history they recorded, be tampered with.
We also spend a reasonably large amount of screen time exploring the duty of a historian. Sometimes, I admit that I found it hard to sustain my interest, when almost the entire hour of screen time was focused on exploring this, like in episodes 21-22.
However, it is thought-provoking to explore why it’s important to the historians to work independently, and preserve the purity of their records. In the end, what they are defending, and putting their lives down for, isn’t history per se. They’re defending the truth, and they’re willing to defend it to the death.
In episodes 35-36, we explore the idea of history being distorted and changed to protect the guilty, and it’s sobering indeed. This is stuff that we have seen happen in the real world, after all. Not to point fingers or dig up old wounds, but just as an example, wasn’t it said that the history books in Japan portrayed the World Wars as a different version of events that painted Japan in a more favorable light? That’s what’s happening here, in our drama world. And the fact that Historian Kim faced his death head-on, because it was the only way he could protect the truth, is so profound. Chills.
Once I got it into my head that this wasn’t just about protecting history, but protecting the truth, I found this theme very meaningful indeed.
QUICK SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
I’m impressed with Cha Eun Woo’s delivery in the scene where Dowon confronts the Empress Dowager, and asks her why she let him live, when his entire life has been spent doubting and hating himself. Augh. That question felt like it came from somewhere deep, and it sent chills down my spine, when I imagined the extent of despair, confusion and hopelessness Dowon must have faced, ever since he was a child. And all that emotion is written quite extensively on Dowon’s face, in this scene. Very nicely done, but also, what an awful life he must have had.
I am glad that in the end, Hae Ryung goes about unveiling the recovered daily records of historian Kim in the right way. Instead of reading it herself, or allowing Dowon to read it, she goes through her supervisor at work – and although Officer Min struggles with it momentarily, I’m glad he does the right thing too – and the entire team of historians reads the lost daily record together, and processes it together. This felt momentous and meaningful, to me.
Although I understand why the Crown Prince declines Hae Ryung’s petition, I can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed in him, because he’s always shown himself as righteous, and on the side of justice. That he would decline the petition, knowing that there are deep wrongs that have been committed, is a touch disappointing. But, I can rationalize that he’s doing this to protect his father, and not just his future position as king.
The confrontation between Jae Gyeong and Hae Ryung is emotional and restrained, but the words are weighty. I can’t imagine the dilemma that Hae Ryung is in, realizing that the brother who’s cared for her all these years, is the person who had switched the royal letter which had led to the massacre of her father. I admire Hae Ryung for choosing forgiveness, knowing that Jae Gyeong had been punishing himself all these years.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
In the end, Show delivers a finale that is consistent with its focus and emphasis: our characters make a stand for the truth, even at the risk of their lives. Even though our historians wax lyrical about recording history, beyond that, it’s the truth that they are pledging to protect, and that’s a stand that I can get behind.
Jae Gyeong finally unburdens himself of the guilt that has been crippling him all these years, by making a public confession before the king, at the celebration set up to honor the twentieth year of his reign, of how he had modified the dethroned king’s letter, under orders from Councillor Min. In waves, everyone – from Rim, to all the historians, to most of the ministers present – pleads with the king to right past wrongs.
We aren’t told or shown the specifics, but Councillor Min comes to his end off-screen, while Rim opts to be an ordinary citizen, yielding the crown to Jin. Hae Ryung continues to work as a historian, as do the other lady historians, with the exception of Sa Hee, who we see teaching children in the countryside, away from the capital. Officer Min is also reinstated by King Jin, after his period of mourning is over. Interestingly, we see that King Jin is no longer married to Officer Min’s sister, who seems much more carefree now.
It is admittedly kinda anticlimactic, that after all that build-up, we don’t even see how Councillor Min is defeated, or how he might have attempted to fight back, especially since he’d boldly told the king not to be surprised at what he might do to the Empress Dowager &/or Prince Dowon. We also don’t see what happened to the previous king, and have to assume that he’s probably alive somewhere (since Jin isn’t shown wearing mourning clothes). I feel like Show could have tightened up its story, in order to make room for at least some of these elements on our finale screen.
As for our OTP, we see that Rim and Hae Ryung continue to nurture a loving relationship, with neither seeming to be in a hurry to get married. He writes travelogues (that aren’t selling well, ha), while she continues her work in the palace, which, when I think about it, is just the kind of happy ending that they individually wanted. He’s no longer living a life of confinement; in fact, just the opposite, since he travels anywhere he desires, and focuses his writing on his travels. At the same time, she’s got a job and a place to be, and a way to add value, every day, just as she always wanted. And, she’s not faced with the prospect of being stifled as a prince’s wife either, which is something she explicitly said she didn’t want.
That’s quite the unconventional, progressive tone of this story’s happy ever after, despite its sageuk setting, and I rather like the fresh feel it goes for, where a happy ending doesn’t just mean that the bad guys get punished, but also that people get to pursue the kind of happiness that resonates with them, and them alone. Rim doesn’t have to be a king even though there is an entire group of people who believe that to be his rightful place. And, at age 29, Hae Ryung doesn’t have to get married, unless she wants to.
Is this unrealistic for a sageuk? Absolutely. But, is it also refreshing to see values like truth and progress be championed, and people allowed the freedom to choose the kind of happiness that they want? Also very much yes.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A little uneven, but still quite solidly heartfelt.
FINAL GRADE: B