THE SHORT VERDICT:
Show starts off fresh and cute with an emphasis on hilarious cross-dressing hijinks, but changes gears abruptly in its second half with an amped up focus on birth secrets and political machinations. Viewers set on a fizzy rom-com might be turned off by this. On the upside, Show manages to retain its emotional core and heartfelt tone through to the end, and it’s not too hard to stay engaged with our main characters, even in the heavier stretches. And as a silver lining, the feel-good cute makes a comeback by Show’s end.
Jang Dong Yoon shines extra in the midst of a solid cast, and is break-out fantastic in his role as the titular Nokdu. His cross-dressing turn as a timid widow is so memorable, that it’s worth tuning in for his performance alone.
Show has its flaws, but is pretty solid, overall.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Even though The Tale of Nokdu turned out to be a more effortful watch than I’d hoped for, I still think it’s a worthwhile watch, if you can adjust your lens somewhat, and manage your expectations accordingly.
Like I mentioned above, Show doesn’t maintain its fun rom-com vibe all the way through its run. By the second half of its run, there’s still a fairly nice amount of focus dedicated to the OTP, but Show’s zippy cheerful tone gives way to a much more serious, somber vibe that’s increasingly served up with bleakness and sadness on the side.
I think it helps if you just don’t think of Show as a rom-com, but more as a romance melodrama. This way, the cute fluff becomes bonus when it shows up, but doesn’t become an expectation. And hopefully, this will also help you avoid feeling disappointed, when The Cute takes a break.
One other thing that I think is helpful to keep in mind, is that Show doesn’t truly hit its stride until the episode 7-8 mark. This was the point when I could honestly say that I was enjoying my watch properly. So give Show a chance, if you dip a toe in, and don’t feel sold right away.
Ah, there’s one other thing that I think would be helpful to know. There are a number of logic stretches in this story world. [SPOILER] For example, in episode 1, Nokdu (Jang Dong Yoon) manages to trail the injured assassin from a deserted island all the way to Hanyang, which is ridiculous, because he’d have to have chased her on boat, at least for the first leg of the journey. How could he have trailed her secretly, if he was in a boat, following her? That would’ve been super obvious, no? [END SPOILER]
My advice is to just close one eye (sometimes both eyes), and just take the logic stretches in stride. There’s no benefit to wrestling with Show’s logic stretches, because Show’s gonna keep on doing it, and your watch experience will be more enjoyable if you’re able to just go with the flow.
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.
STUFF I LIKED
Jang Dong Yoon as Nokdu
Not gonna lie; it was Jang Dong Yoon’s turn as Nokdu that was my bright spot throughout my watch. When Show was fun, Nokdu made it all feel brighter and funner, and when Show started to feel heavy and serious, Nokdu made it worth my while to keep going.
Credit to writer-nim, and to Jang Dong Yoon for his delivery; Nokdu is just a very likable character that I wanted to root for and sympathize with and protect and console, all the way through to the end.
Nokdu is written to be such a loyal, earnest, sincere, genuine person, that it feels like the most natural thing in the world, to care about him and want good things for him. In terms of delivery, this is the literal best I’ve seen of Jang Dong Yoon. To my eyes, he literally disappears into the character of Nokdu; I legit was not able to place Jang Dong Yoon as the person I saw in School 2017 and A Poem A Day. Very impressive indeed.
Jang Dong Yoon’s very convincing and very hilarious cross-dressing turn as a widow is a definite highlight of the show (how does he manage to be so convincing as both as a lady and as a man?), but my favorite Jang Dong Yoon scenes are actually of Nokdu’s more difficult moments. The depth of emotion he brings out each time, really elevated him as an actor, in my eyes.
Here’s a collection of my thoughts and observations of Nokdu, and Jang Dong Yoon’s portrayal of him, during my watch.
E2. I find Show more amusing now that Nokdu is undercover as a woman in the widow village. His adopted feminine mannerisms make me giggle, especially when he’s acting all shy when receiving male attention. What a mind-bender that must be for him, lol.
E3-4. Nokdu struggling to keep it together as a widow, while living in the same room as Dong Joo (Kim So Hyun), is quite funny. They reluctantly help each other out, and it was actually rather touching that Dong Joo, despite all her grumbling about helping him, would ask if she could address him as Unnie. Aw.
E5-6. Nokdu showing up to save Dong Joo, also shows us Nokdu’s fierce loyal streak. He chooses to save Dong Joo instead of carrying out the assassination as promised to the assassin group, even though he knows that not carrying out the mission is going to jeopardize things with the assassins.
E9-10. Nokdu’s flagrant slapping spree when cornered at the palanquin is priceless; I love that he manages to stay in character and basically flummox all the men in attendance, into deference. Nokdu carried himself like a queen in this scene, and I loved it.
E9-10. Nokdu declaring that he loves Yool Moo (Kang Tae Oh), and then planting a kiss on him, in a desperate bid to keep his secret intact in the face of Dong Joo’s drunken truth bombs, is quite the scream. The fallout is quite funny as well, with all the women super upset with Nokdu for laying hands on the most eligible man in their midst. I find it sweet, though, that even though this was all triggered by Dong Joo drunkenly leaking bits of Nokdu’s secret, Nokdu doesn’t blame her for it at all. Nothing he says, and nothing in his eyes or expression, indicates that he’s placing any blame on her for the awkward turn of events. He’s such a decent guy.
E15-16. It’s pretty moving to watch Nokdu fight to protect the widows’ village; it’s clear to see that he’s giving it everything that he’s got, almost like a man left with nothing to lose. In this moment, he doesn’t know whether Dong Joo is dead or alive, and the desperation shows. It’s no wonder Ssook (Jo Soo Hyang) can’t hold his deception as Lady Kim against him, when the truth is quickly revealed in the aftermath.
E19-20. The moment that Nokdu realized with certainty, that he’d just come face-to-face with his mother (Park Min Jung), gave me actual chills. What a mindboggling thing, to meet the Queen and see her face and the sadness in her eyes, and realize that this is the person who gave birth to you. I’m really looking forward to this mother-son reunion, because I want the Queen to not be sad anymore.
E23-24. When Nokdu overhears the King (Jung Joon Ho) telling Yoon Jo (Lee Seung Joon) why he wants his son dead, and why his son shouldn’t have been born in the first place, his stricken, tearful expression, full of shock and hurt, is what makes the scene for me. I don’t much care for the crazy king and his wild declarations, but it’s Nokdu’s deeply personal reaction that make me care.
E25-26. Jang Dong Yoon is fantastic at channeling Nokdu’s sadness, even as Nokdu has to keep on going, amid the heartache. This entire hour, it feels like Nokdu’s sadness and sorrow is written in his gaze. Whatever he’s doing or saying, I can just see and feel his broken heart shining through. He just seems to exhausted and sad. It’s really well done, and I’m duly impressed.
E25-26. Nokdu’s decision to join forces with Yool Moo is a little surprising, as is his declaration that he will personally kill the king. I don’t know if I believe him, because as heartbroken and hurt as Nokdu is, and as much as he wants to save Yoon Jo, I just can’t picture him being able to go through with killing his own father.
E25-26. The stunned look in Nokdu’s eyes, as he comes face to face with Dong Joo and her crossbow, speaks volumes. There’s shock, but there’s also realization, and there’s also a deep sadness; in this moment, he understands how he and Dong Joo are standing on opposite sides of a divide. She has no idea that he’s decided to help overthrow the king, but he knows. And the realization of the futility of their situation is so clear to see, in his eyes. Jang Dong Yoon is really killing it.
Kim So Hyun as Dong Joo
Kim So Hyun is such an experienced actor, that I always expect her to be consistently solid, and she does not disappoint.
I can’t say that her outing as Dong Joo stands out from her other roles, because, to my eyes at least, this felt on par with other things I’ve seen her in, but not particularly elevated or special compared to everything else that she’s done.
What I can say, is that she makes Dong Joo likable and sympathetic as a character, despite Dong Joo’s reflex gruffness and stubborn streak. Over time, we see Dong Joo’s more vulnerable side come to the fore, and Kim So Hyun delivers it all capably.
I will talk more about Dong Joo in the next section, but for now, here are just a couple of quick observations I had about Dong Joo.
E5-6. Dong Joo has a fierce loyal streak. When she realizes that the gisaeng house’s very existence is under threat for protecting her, she grits her teeth and faces the enemy’s request head-on, even though it’s the last thing she wants to do. And to think that in the moments that she has before the nasty lord comes back, she makes sure to thank Lady Cheon (Yoon Yoo Sun) for saving her and taking care of her all these years. That feels so loyal, and also, so honorable.
E7-8. We finally get some clarity in terms of Dong Joo’s backstory, and I can see why she might potentially want to kill the King. It looks like her family was killed as part of some kind of political coup, and she managed to survive only because she’d been left for dead. Ack. What a horrible thing to happen to anyone, let alone a child. It’s no wonder Dong Joo is haunted by those events.
Nokdu and Dong Joo together
I have to confess, when I first saw Jang Dong Yoon and Kim So Hyun together in episode 1, I wasn’t sure if they had good chemistry. Ha. Show proved me so wrong. It turns out Jang Dong Yoon and Kim So Hyun are very cute together indeed, and there were even times when I thought I felt the air crackle between them.
I found the initial bickering between Nokdu and Dong Joo amusing and entertaining, but what makes this relationship work for me, is how Show makes sure to present these two with a lot of heart. Through the good times and the bad, we are kept connected to Nokdu and Dong Joo’s feelings and any internal struggles they might have, independently, as well as in relation to each other. As a result, the connection between Nokdu and Dong Joo feels organically grown and lived-in, and I felt able to root for their love, because I could believe in their love. That’s a quality that is sometimes lacking in stories about young romance, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth that Show serves up, in this loveline.
I found it enjoyable and meaningful, following Nokdu and Dong Joo on their journey, as they grow closer, become more aware of their feelings for each other, and finally embrace their love.
Here’s a map of my reactions to this couple, as I followed them on their journey.
E5-6. Now that Dong Joo knows that Lady Kim isn’t actually a lady, I’m enjoying her interactions with Nokdu more. There’s bickering and reluctant teamwork, and through that, a growing affection and companionship that feels honest, even though Nokdu lies about being at the village to wait for his lady love, ha.
E5-6. The way Dong Joo takes it upon herself to guard Nokdu at all times, to protect the other ladies from him, is quite amusing. And it gives rise to some forced proximity too, since this means that they end up spending large amounts of time together.
E5-6. The scene of Nokdu teaching Dong Joo to dance feels surreal and dreamlike, it’s so pretty, and his half undone female disguise adds a touch of dissonance to the scene too. But the sudden hyperawareness is pretty great, I have to admit. I didn’t quite want this scene to end.
Also, Nokdu allows more of his male persona to peek through now, when he’s alone with Dong Joo. And the way he looks at her in particular, gives hints of smolder, which definitely amps up the thrill of the watch.
E7-8. I had no idea that when Nokdu told Dong Joo that he was her mother, that he meant it as more than a joke. I rather love that they are now living together as mother and daughter, and I love even more that they address each other as Mother and Daughter even when they’re alone, and even when Nokdu isn’t dressed as a woman. It’s funny, dissonant, and also, really heartwarming. I just love that they’re taking those labels to heart, and forming a relationship, even when they don’t realize it.
E7-8. Credit to Nokdu for putting his life at risk to save Dong Joo, even though she’d kicked him out. Plus, I guess this is another example of Nokdu being able to see Dong Joo’s heart, beneath her harsh words.
In particular I enjoyed watching Nokdu and Dong Joo buying things at the marketplace for their new life together. Nokdu has really gotten to understand Dong Joo, and it shows. When Dong Joo pauses fondly over some chicks but refuses to buy them because she’d grow attached to them, he goes back and buys them anyway, so that Dong Joo can raise the chicks like she really wants to. I really appreciate that about Nokdu; he easily sees beyond the surface, when Dong Joo claims that she doesn’t want to do something, and reads her emotions instead.
E7-8. Because of Nokdu’s persistence, Dong Joo finally faces her memories head-on by getting on the swing. She hadn’t wanted to at first, and I’m sure it had to do with the fear of being confronted by her memories and emotions, but once she took her first tentative swings, she really leaned into it. Instead of staying seated, there’s this moment where I feel as if I can see her dig deep to bite the bullet, and she stands on the swing and embraces the wind in her face and the memories flooding her mind, even amid the tears running down her face. It’s such a powerful moment, and I want to acknowledge both Nokdu and Dong Joo in this. Nokdu, for being the perceptive catalyst who put Dong Joo’s needs first, and Dong Joo, for gathering the courage and strength to face her memories, and thus, take an important step towards setting herself free from the prison of her past trauma.
It’s also pretty great that they’re growing fond of each other, and getting jealous, but in complete denial about it. Every time Nokdu makes an excuse about seeing “his lady” which so far has been code for going off on tasks and other missions that might or might not have to do with the Muweol Corps, Dong Joo’s gets a touch sullen and grumpy. And when she’s convinced herself that she has a perfectly legitimate reason to go to Hanyang too, that has nothing at all to do with Nokdu, Dong Joo brightens up like the sun. And when Nokdu sees Dong Joo at the abandoned house with Yool Moo, he gets all grumpy too, muttering to himself that she lied about coming to Hanyang to buy something from the forge, heh. It’s all very cute.
E7-8. The last scene, where Dong Joo and Nokdu scramble and scuffle in the palanquin, with Dong Joo adamantly working to undress Nokdu, who is horrified and resistant, is just gold. His wide-eyed silent ineffectual pleas are just the perfect foil to her furrowed-brow determined concentration. The random Titanic parody is just bonus. I couldn’t help giggling out loud.
E9-10. Nokdu being all crestfallen and depressed when Dong Joo indicates that she couldn’t have been referring to him as the person she liked, is so cute-sad. Dong Joo’s affecting him a great deal, and he doesn’t even realize it yet. Aw.
E9-10. Aw. More evidence that Nokdu is observant of Dong Joo. Even though she claims not to be afraid of the dark, her behavior, and his memory of her having a bad dream while they were in prison together, makes him decide to defy the rules, and light candles set her mind at ease. How sweet.
E9-10. Omomo. Shirtless, glistening, half-hesitant-half-forthright Nokdu, earnestly searching Dong Joo’s face, is quite melty, I must admit. The fact that he won’t take Dong Joo’s words at face value is quite melty too. It’s not that he doesn’t take no for an answer; he’s observed that Dong Joo’s words and her behavior don’t match up, and he’s earnestly seeking the truth from her, while laying his heart out before her: “I don’t have a lady I like. I like you.” The way he kneels before her and takes her face in his hands to kiss her, is also gentle and melty. Augh. I don’t know how Dong Joo could find it in herself to resist him, given that she likes him too.
E11-12. Discouraged-yet-determined, spurned, lovesick Nokdu is very endearing, I must say. When Dong Joo tells him that he’s mistaken and that she doesn’t like him, his disappointment and dejection is written so clearly in his gaze, and yet, he can’t bear to give up. I’m in two minds about his rueful decision to remain clingy, in hopes that she will eventually like him back, because while I don’t like his attempts at being a dominating-romantic jerk, I find his clingy-ness quite sweet. He’s like a little duckling doing everything he can not to be separated from his precious mama duck, hee. Plus, he cried when she rejected him. Poor baby.
Also, I like that Dong Joo puts Nokdu properly in his place when he tries to he-man his way into her heart. Additionally, I also appreciate that she recognizes that his worst attempt – the insult-dishwashing – was not him, at all. She picks up right away, that he must’ve learned it from someone. She knows her boy well, heh.
E13-14. I like that Nokdu wants to be honest with Dong Joo, and so would rather not tell her anything at all, than lie to her. That’s sweet.
E13-14. The thing about Dong Joo not knowing Nokdu’s name is nicely handled. She realized she didn’t know it when she thought he was in danger, and he won’t tell her, so she asks it of Aeng Doo (Park Da Yeon) before she leaves for Hanyang. And when her own life is in danger at the end of the episode, just as she’s about to pass out, she whispers his name, “Nokdu-ya.” Very meaningful, I thought.
E17-18. Nokdu and Dong Joo have a very comfortable, familiar, bickering sort of rapport, and that familiarity feels warm and easy. I can see why the King looks upon them with a trace of envy.
E17-18. Most of the time, I find Jang Dong Yoon simply cute and puppy-like as Nokdu, but whenever Nokdu and Dong Joo have an up-close-and-personal moment, there’s a sensual quality that surfaces, that makes it hard for me to look away. When Dong Joo applies the bandage to Nokdu’s torso, his gaze doesn’t leave her for a second, as she leans in towards him, then away again, as she wraps the bandage around him, and honestly, that Look makes it seem like he’s two blinks away from closing the gap between them and kissing her, well, everywhere. Cough. It’s all very heady and quite mesmerizing, I have to admit.
E19-20. I do like how forthright Nokdu is now, with his feelings towards Dong Joo. He doesn’t attempt to hide it, and I like how he takes every chance to be closer to her, like how he holds her hand while walking her back, and then when she says it will only be till the end of the road, he pauses, and then remarks that he should walk slower. This, even though she is quite consistent in shooting him down and rebuffing him. I like his simple persistence.
E19-20. Finally, Dong Joo admits through desperate tears, that she likes Nokdu. She’s frustrated and helpless about it, blaming Nokdu for making her want to live, but Nokdu just pulls her in for a kiss. His actions match his words; he really does want to live in the now, heh. And I do rather love that Dong Joo pulls him in for another kiss, the moment he breaks their first kiss. She does like him a whole lot, hee.
E21-22. Despite this show’s darker storylines, I feel like the OTP relationship brings enough earnest youthfulness to the table, to help balance out the dark with its light.
E21-22. I can fully believe Nokdu and Dong Joo as a young couple in love for the first time, uncertain of new things like how to kiss or how to go on dates, but burning with emotion for each other. Nokdu’s nervousness around his new lady love, and his uncertainty on where to take her on dates is all very relatable and understandable.
E21-22. I can totally imagine Nokdu wanting to sleep next to Dong Joo, even if it’ll keep him up all night from having her so nearby. The distant backhug is dutifully chaste, but when Dong Joo turns around to look at him and caress his cheek, Nokdu can’t pretend to be asleep anymore. Declaring for the record, “You were the one who woke me up first,” he leans in to kiss her. Rawr.
E23-24. The scene where Dong Joo, realizing that she loves the son of the king, backhugs Nokdu and weeps, while he holds her hands as he cries, eyes swollen with tears, still reeling from the realization that his father wants him dead, is so full of emotion and pathos. So heart-pinchingly good. I love that these two cleave to each other, in this moment of confusion and heartbreak.
Lee Seung Joon as Yoon Jo [SPOILERS]
I really liked Yoon Jo; he’s such a decent person, and such a good dad to Nokdu, even though Nokdu isn’t his biological son. I already thought he’d gone above and beyond, saving Nokdu and transplanting his own family to a deserted island, in order to keep Nokdu safe. But beyond that, we see Yoon Jo literally protecting Nokdu with his life, and it’s so moving to behold. I loved the bond of closeness between Yoon Jo and Nokdu; this, to me, felt more like a true father-son relationship.
Go Gun Han as Yeon Geun [MINOR SPOILERS]
Yeon Geun’s pain is my entertainment, unfortunately. I feel bad, but it’s honestly very funny to see him so smitten over Lady Kim, completely unaware that Lady Kim is not actually a lady, hur. It’s even funnier later, when Nokdu’s cover as Lady Kim is blown, that Yeon Geun’s still so torn up over Nokdu being his Lady Kim, and still so enamored of Nokdu’s good looks, even as a man. Poor guy, but also, tee hee.
Yeon Geun still being so obsessed with Nokdu is quite hilarious, and his consternation at Dong Joo’s appearance as a rival for Nokdu’s attention is ridiculous but funny.
How sweet of him though, to take Nokdu and his ragtag group under his wing, and give them not only clothes, food and a place to stay, but his family name as well.
He’s such an earnest man who pours out his feelings so sincerely, that I was quite pleased with Yeon Geun’s eventual budding loveline with Virtuous Women Corps member Bok Neo (Hwang Mi Young). So cute.
Park Da Yeon as Aeng Doo
Park Da Yeon is quite brilliant as Aeng Doo, who really comes across as a little ol’ grandmother in a little girl’s body, with occasional flashes of fangirl, heh. From the way that she acts, talks and chides our OTP for bickering over small things, Aeng Doo really was everyone’s tiny surrogate grandma. I also was quite amused by tiny Aeng Doo’s voracious appetite and seemingly insatiable hunger. A fun little addition to our ragtag crew of characters.
The Virtuous Women Corps
Although they don’t enjoy very much screen time, I have a soft spot for the Virtuous Women Corps, played by Yoon Sa Bong, Hwang Mi Young and Yoon Geum Sun Ah. I just loved their earnest, gung-ho attitude when it came to protecting the widows’ village, and it always tickled me, that one of them would often have a hapless victim of a man casually slung over her shoulder. So epic!
STUFF THAT WAS OK
Kang Tae Oh as Yool Moo [SPOILERS]
When we first meet Yool Moo, he seems like quite the perfect gentleman, always being sweet to the ladies a the gisaeng house, and always bringing treats to Dong Joo. His continued thoughtful gestures, despite Dong Joo’s unwelcoming response, made him appear patient and understanding.
So it was quite the surprise, when Show reveals in episodes 11-12, that Yool Moo is not only a prince, but a power-hungry, ruthless and possibly slightly unhinged one, at that. For me, Yool Moo turning out to be a prince wasn’t as much of a surprise as Yool Moo turning out to be scheming, manipulative and cruel. I hadn’t seen that coming. This reveal caused my brain to whirl from trying to process the sheer volume of interactions we’d seen involving sweet Yool Moo, and what this might mean, given his true nature.
It hadn’t seemed as terrible when sweet Yool Moo had discovered Nokdu’s secret, and promised to keep mum about it for Dong Joo’s sake. But, now that we know Yool Moo doesn’t hesitate to kill for his own convenience, it all takes on a dark foreboding, which added a nice amount of dramatic tension.
I personally didn’t find it super believable that Yool Moo had such a cruel hidden underside to his charming flower boy facade, but I wasn’t opposed to Show dishing it out as a narrative twist. However, I do kind of wish Kang Tae Oh’s delivery had more layers. He’s perfectly serviceable when Yool Moo is being either charming or chilling, but I would have liked to have seen some middle ground, where he displays these opposing facets at the same time. I thought that would have made him more interesting.
Jung Joon Ho as King Gwanghae
I ultimately did not end up liking King Gwanghae very much at all, as a character, but I do want to give credit to Jung Joon Ho for a delivery that felt quite pitch perfect, to my eyes.
Over the course of our story, we see King Gwanghae shift from kindly and warm, to more and more unstable and paranoid, and I felt that Jung Joon Ho portrayed the entire spectrum of King Gwanghae’s emotions very well.
Here are a handful of thoughts and observations I had around King Gwanghae, during my watch.
E17-18. Although I still find it farfetched that the King would be going out incognito so often, and keep running into Nokdu and Dong Joo at that, I appreciate the idea behind it: that outside of their contexts, where the King is just an ordinary man, and Dong Joo isn’t out to kill him, and Nokdu isn’t suspicious of him, they all get along just fine. This is when they get to know one another as people, which will undoubtedly inform their views of one another, once the lens shifts into place and they actually know who they’ve been interacting with.
E19-20. I rather like the idea that underneath all the decoration and pomp, the King is shown to be a regular person just like anyone else. I like that Dong Joo’s advice to him strikes a chord, and gives him the push that he needs, to make peace with his estranged Queen, whom he had distanced himself from. That was sweet.
E21-22. I’m beginning to get the idea that the king isn’t very stable, both mentally and emotionally. He doesn’t even realize it until some moments later, when he stabs Minister Heo (Kim Tae Woo). And it doesn’t occur to him until some critical moments later, to call for a physician. It seems like he doesn’t quite have his wits about him, and perhaps isn’t very smart, to be deceived by the people around him. Maybe that’s why his father didn’t want him to be the next king; because he was never fit to rule, to begin with?
We also finally find out why he was so determined to have his son killed; because he wanted to be king, and he didn’t want the shaman’s prediction to come true. He’s right; it’s better that Nokdu never finds out what kind of person he is. He’s kindly only in passing, but when push comes to shove, he’s selfish, self-preserving, and kind of rotten, to the core. Even after the regret of killing his best friend in a moment of anger, he chooses to abandon Minister Heo’s body, because, to him, Minister Heo had abandoned him first. Huh.
E23-24. King Gwanghae really seems very unstable. His attempt to kill Yoon Jo brings on hallucinations of Minister Heo, over and over, until he collapses. He does appear to be quite weak-minded. It’s no wonder his father didn’t want him to be king.
E27-28. The king’s reaction when he learns that his royal guard is actually the son he tried to kill years ago, is admittedly quite disappointing. Considering the bond that has grown between Nokdu and him, I had thought that perhaps he would feel something for the son that he had lost. But if there was any regret or wistfulness in him, it was fleeting, because the king very quickly switched to anger and betrayal, and moved quickly to find and kill Nokdu, for his deception. Talk about heartless and paranoid. Sigh.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
The political stuff
To be honest, I was not much into the political side of our story, even though it forms the entire foundation of our characters’ journeys.
In the beginning, I found the royal backstory quite confusing, because many of the specifics were not yet revealed to us. The royal backstory just felt like a necessary evil, there to give our characters something to focus on. At this point, I found the amount of screen time given to this narrative arc acceptable, though I wasn’t truly interested in it.
In Show’s second half, though, as Show amped up the political stuff and gave more and more screen time to it, I found myself feeling less and less engaged, as a viewer. There was a lot of time spent on scheming and plotting, and even though it was all relevant to our key characters, I found that I had to muster up the attention for it, while trying not to zone out too much.
Definitely not one of my favorite parts of this show.
A QUICK SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
This.. was not one of my favorite penultimate episodes, to be honest.
We start off promisingly, with an emotional, heartfelt promise of forever between Dong Joo and Nokdu, with Dong Joo professing that she can’t live without him, and just wants to live with him always, never mind about their individual backgrounds, and Nokdu declaring that he can’t live without her too, and that yes, they will live together always.
Thereafter, though, it’s just one long battle within the palace, which I found tiring to watch. We do get small reprieves, like when Nokdu has an emotional reunion moment with his mother, and tearfully tells her that he absolutely doesn’t desire the throne. And also, when Yoon Jo has a moment with Hwang Tae, after shielding him from being slashed by a sword, imploring him to be safe, even as he himself starts to go into shock from bleeding out. Ah, and also, the Muweol Corps showing up to support Nokdu, and Ssook addressing Nokdu as Lady Kim was a nice highlight too.
Other than moments like these, though, it was just one long fight, which I eventually found myself zoning out from.
And by the end of the hour, just as my patience is wearing thin, the king appears, quickly and properly brainwashed by a wily Queen Dowager (Oh Ha Nee), who claims that Nokdu is the one planning the revolt. And everyone else remains silent and is therefore complicit. Ugh. Hwang Tae speaks up but he doesn’t count because the king doesn’t believe him either, since he’s Nokdu’s brother.
And thus, we have a frustrating conversation between the king and Nokdu, where the king accuses Nokdu of plotting treason, while poor Nokdu bitterly agrees with him, because he recognizes that the king won’t believe anything he says anyway. Headdesk. What a king. What a dad. Can Nokdu have a truly happy ending, ever, now that he knows that no matter what, his father wants him dead, and only believes the worst of him, despite having come to know him?
In the end, though, it’s a somewhat comforting silver lining that the Muweol Corps continues to defend Nokdu despite orders to drop their weapons, and Nokdu, injured and disheartened, is bundled away by Hwang Tae and Dong Joo.
Still, this was a mostly frustrating hour of drama to watch, which I hope Show will make up for, in its finale.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
In the end Show manages to end on a note that is sweet and solidly satisfying, with appropriate lashings of poignance – but not before wrapping up most of the political plotline.
The queen refuses to leave with Nokdu, in order to guarantee his safety, but she promises that they will meet again. Sniffle. In the meantime, Master Hwang bundles everyone into a boat, before going in search of Nokdu and Dong Joo. As Master Hwang and Dong Joo work together to carry an unconscious Nokdu to a waiting boat, Yool Moo and his men catch up, and so Dong Joo sends Master Hwang ahead with Nokdu, while she basically sacrifices herself and her freedom, by agreeing to go with Yool Moo, if he will accept that Nokdu is dead. And so, Nokdu’s death is faked and King Gwanghae officially stops trying to hunt down his son.
Some time later, an all-recovered Nokdu rescues Dong Joo from Yool Moo’s residence, and Yool Moo, finally realizing the truth of Dong Joo’s words, that sincerity cannot be forced, opts to let them go.
..Which is how we get to see Dong Joo and Nokdu living together on the island with their ragtag found family. Nokdu prides himself of being an honorary member of the Muweol Corps, and continues to rescue widows while dressed as Lady Kim, heh. Yoon Jo, Hwang Tae, the Virtuous Women Corps, and Yeon Geun make up the rest of the gang, and it’s bickering, teasing and warmth all-around, as Nokdu and Dong Joo prepare for their wedding. Dong Joo nags at Nokdu for always spending too much money, but he protests that he wants to give her everything, including everything that she’s lost. Aw. Sweet boy.
The actual wedding is thrown into disarray by stray gusts of strong wind, and everyone is bemused at first, but eventually breaks into peals of laughter. Nonetheless, Nokdu and Dong Joo manage to have a meaningful private moment on their own, exchanging flower rings and solemnly swearing to be with each other through the good times and the bad. Sweetness. Nokdu thoughtfully sends his mother a secret letter, informing her of the joyous news. Aw. How comforting, that he’s found a way to communicate with Mom.
Nine years later, Yool Moo leads another revolt, and is successful this time. He informs King Gwanghae that he, too, was born on 19 November, and so the shaman’s prophecy is coming true, through him. Huh. Ok then. I appreciate the thought, writer-nim, but honestly, I can’t say I care too much about this twist, this late – mostly because I’ve long stopped caring about the political side of this story.
King Gwanghae, with realization and regret in his eyes, asks Yool Moo to let the Queen leave secretly, and Yool Moo agrees. Yool Moo then takes his seat on the throne, remembering King Gwanghae’s words to him, that he will be lonely, and will continue to be lonely. I suppose he was going to be lonely anyway, given the circumstances, so he’s making the best of it by being lonely on the throne?
Yoon Jo receives a letter with the news that the Queen is on her way to the island, and – this is one of my favorite moments of the finale – he and Nokdu have a moment of mourning for King Gwanghae. Nokdu isn’t sure if he wants to cry, and Yoon Jo pulls him close, telling him that it’s ok to cry or not cry, and to just follow his heart, and he will as well, and the two of them then mourn in their own ways, while in the comfort of their shared embrace. What a meaningful, poignant moment.
Finally, we see Nokdu and Dong Joo waiting on the beach in anticipation of his mother’s arrival, and I’m so pleased to be able to see Mom’s expression of wonderment and joy, as she catches sight of her son and daughter-in-law, in the distance.
I can foresee this newly expanded family continue to live, and laugh, and love together, for a long, long time, in the warmth and simplicity of their little island. And of course, I can also imagine Nokdu and Dong Joo continuing to be just as bickery and loving with each other as well, well into their old age. Now that’s an ending that I can definitely get behind. ❤️
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Show loses some of its spark in its second half, but manages to be heartfelt all the way through.
FINAL GRADE: B