THE SHORT VERDICT:
At its heart, My Country is a polished, beautifully-shot tale of star-crossed brotherhood, and the search for acceptance, meaning, and self.
Granted, Show has its flaws. Sometimes the logic stretches require more suspension of disbelief than I would like; sometimes the emotional tension feels like it’s stretched out for too long and gets tiring; sometimes Show feels like it’s cycling in place, just a little bit. On the upside, though, Show is filled with strong performances from its cast, knows how to take us on our characters’ emotional journeys, and is scored with a consistently evocative soundtrack that is by turn gloriously epic and plaintively poignant.
If you’re able to roll with Show’s shortcomings, it’s not hard to get sucked into this one.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Show reminds me of Warrior Baek Dong Soo, because both dramas have a star-crossed bromance at their center with a mild love triangle on the side, almost as an afterthought. In both shows, the star-crossed bromance is much more interesting and compelling than the love triangle.
Show also gives me some Chuno vibes, because like Chuno, My Country also has a strong soundtrack that favors epic choral pieces. Once you are able to let go of the thought that the music itself is from a completely different time and genre (I know, this is harder to overlook for some more than others), the music becomes a partner rather than a distraction, helping to lift the watch experience, sometimes to dizzying heights.
Additionally, My Country aims for a sweeping, immersive experience, and sometimes stretches logic in order to accommodate the emotional spotlight and stylistic vibe that it’s going for. That also reminds me of Chuno and Warrior Baek Dong Soo, which both stretched logic in varying degrees, but managed to serve up pretty epic watches that were stirring at a visceral level.
I think if you arm yourself with a viewing lens that favors emotional engagement and keeps a loose grip on the need for logic, you’d be in a pretty good position to enjoy this one.
Personally, I came purely for Jang Hyuk (because I love me some Jang Hyuk, and I was feeling a touch of sageuk fatigue and wasn’t truly in the mood for yet another sageuk), but I stayed for the way Show kept me glued to my screen. I didn’t even feel the length of Show’s 1 hour and 23 minute premiere, which I’d initially found intimidating, but which I hardly noticed in the end, for what an immersive, stirring opening episode it was.
I have a few quibbles with Show’s flaws, which I’ll get to later in this review, but first, let’s start with all the stuff that I thought Show did well.
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 – A MACRO LOOK
Show looks and feels polished
Show achieves a level of polish and refinement in its execution, that causes it to stand out from the average sageuk. It doesn’t strike as being on the same artistic level as Chuno, which I personally consider a masterpiece, but it definitely boasts a sense of elegance and sophistication that makes me feel like a lot of thought and care went into crafting this show and its world.
In sweeter moments, scenes are framed with pretty colors and mood lighting, lending a surreal quality to the scene. And then in battle scenes, everything is chaotic, messy, bloody and guttural; people get killed left and right, and you’re constantly having to dodge getting killed, even as the roar of war is in your ears, and your eyes are blinded with the dust kicked up from the battle. Nicely done indeed.
Additionally, I was, at least in Show’s earlier stretch, very pleased with the pacing. The story moves quickly, but in a way that still enables me to immerse myself in our characters’ journeys. For at least the first half of my watch, I felt that the long episodes packed a punch, and I didn’t actually have any inclination to pause my watch halfway or come back later, despite the length of the episodes. I liked the pacing less later in my watch, but I’ll talk about that later.
The music is immersive
Personally, I really enjoyed the music in this show. I found it evocative and immersive, though, I will say that it might not appeal to everyone.
To my ears, the music adds a fair bit, to Show’s strong theatrical bent. More than an average sageuk, I feel like I’m watching an opera infused with Shakespearean tragedy, with musical scores that are employed more for mood than for historical accuracy. It’s emotional and stirring and speaks to the gut. Sometimes my brain isn’t so cognizant of the details of the elaborate story, but I feel the feels, viscerally. Very well-handled and astutely applied, I thought.
Show emphasizes emotional engagement
It’s important to me, that I’m able to feel for the characters in a show that I’m watching. Sometimes, sageuks invest so much time in portraying court politics that they neglect the emotional engagement aspect of the watch, which is when they tend to lose me.
With My Country, there’s never any doubt that emotional engagement is Show’s main focus. There’s just something deeply emotional about it, that makes it feel epic and stirring. Show is savvy about how to draw one into the emotional landscapes of its characters, and it exerts its energies in that direction, almost relentlessly. I ended up caring enough about our characters, that I was able to look past Show’s shortcomings in other areas.
SPOTLIGHT ON KEY CHARACTERS
Yang Se Jong as Seo Hwi
Is there a male equivalent of a Candy? Because, and I mean this in the nicest way, I feel like Hwi is that. He’s good-hearted, pure, fiercely loyal, and long-suffering to the extreme, with nary an evil bone in his body. Over the course of our story, we see Hwi suffer a great deal, both in variety of circumstance and in depth, and yet, through it all, Hwi doesn’t ever truly lose his moral compass. In fact, he kind of is Show’s moral compass.
Now, that might seem a little too goody-two-shoes to feel true or be engaging, but Yang Se Jong is pitch perfect as Hwi and he makes Hwi come to life with so much open-hearted, vulnerable warmth, that I can’t help caring about his well-being, mental and emotional health, and general survival, even as I gasp and moan at the curve balls that life throws at him.
I liked Hwi and believed in his humanity from beginning to end, and a lot of that credit goes to Yang Se Jong’s wonderfully faceted delivery of Hwi. So impressive, truly.
Here’s a collection of my thoughts about Hwi during my watch.
E2. It was hard to watch Hwi getting beaten so much, and so bloodied up, especially at the scene where he’s being dragged off to the military. I’m so impressed with Yang Se Jong; that scene was delivered with such a strong all-in sort of vibe. I felt like he was literally throwing every fiber of his being into Hwi’s torment, and I winced, when he repeatedly bashed his head in frustration and agony. Augh. Really well done. Now all I want is for Hwi to live a peaceful and happy life, and that has been stolen from him, in the worst way, by his closest friend. Ack. How awful.
E3. Hwi really is a natural leader. When everyone around him is scrambling with no real knowledge of what they’re doing, he barks swift instructions and teaches the men what to do, even as he proves to be a true MVP, taking out enemy soldier after enemy soldier with his bow and arrow. It’s no wonder that the men treat him as their de facto leader, listening to his instructions, rather than taking them directly from their commander.
E3. Hwi’s split-second decision to save his friend, even though it meant injury or even possible death for himself, says a great deal about the way he treats relationships.
E4. The scene where Hwi realized it was Sun Ho (Woo Do Hwan) before him in battle; the scene where Sun Ho told Hwi that Yeon (Jo Yi Hyun) is dead; the disbelief and grief in Hwi’s eyes is painfully palpable, and I feel for him, so much.
E7. Hwi is fast-thinking and shrewd. The way he chose to dispose of the weapons from Bang Won’s (Jang Hyuk) arsenal, by offering them up to the Office of the Inspector General in Bang Won’s name, is pretty brilliant. I’d be impressed, in Bang Won’s place.
E9. It’s awful that Yeon had to die, but I’m thankful that Hwi and Yeon at least had a brief reunion before Show killed her off. It’s not ideal, but I feel like there’s at least some form of closure for them, to be able to reunited as siblings.
E10. Hwi’s grief at Yeon’s death is so deep and guttural, I felt so bad for him, as he sank into despair and shock. Hwi feels like a completely lost soul at this point, almost like an injured puppy who got kicked in the gut while it was down. I’m not surprised that he considered death as a next step for himself; neither am I surprised that he’s made revenge his sole purpose for living. There’s a hardness to Hwi’s gaze after the time-skip which says a lot about what he’s about now, even though he hasn’t said anything much.
E11. Hwi, originally so good and sunny, has been provoked to the point where he lives only for revenge. While Sun Ho seems to have left his heart for dead, Hwi still seems to live with heart, for the people around him. Perhaps Hwi seems purer, because he literally only desires to see Nam Jeon (Ahn Nae Sang) dead. He doesn’t even seem to plan to keep on living, once Nam Jeon dies.
E12. Hwi gaining his revenge on Nam Jeon felt rather empty and underwhelming, which I think is Show’s intention, since Hwi shows no signs of obtaining any satisfaction or relief, from Nam Jeon’s death.
E13. I appreciate the moments of regret that we witness in Hwi, who’s disillusioned and regretful because of the number of people who had to die, in order for him to get his revenge. It seems that Hwi is realizing that revenge isn’t as sweet as he’d imagined, and his heart for the people who died, shows us how humane and compassionate he is.
Woo Do Hwan as Nam Sun Ho
Between our two male leads, Sun Ho is the one painted in shades of gray, rather than a single shade of white, like Hwi, and is therefore more interesting.
Through most of our watch, Show keeps us guessing in terms of what’s really going on in Sun Ho’s mind and heart, and therefore, I found myself feeling quite conflicted about Sun Ho, a lot of the time. Because this is Show’s intention, I consider it a job well done, even though there were times during my watch when I felt aggravated and aggrieved at some of Sun Ho’s actions.
In terms of delivery, I thought Woo Do Hwan did a very solid job overall. I found his delivery of Sun Ho in Show’s earlier episodes less nuanced than in the later episodes, which I thought a pity. I personally wanted Woo Do Hwan to have injected more layers into his delivery of Sun Ho even in the earlier episodes, so that Sun Ho would pop onscreen more.
On the upside, Woo Do Hwan’s delivery of Sun Ho deepens over the course of the show, and I felt like we saw a lot more in terms of shades of nuance, and effective use of micro-expressions. I appreciated that a lot, and felt that Woo Do Hwan really grew into the character of Sun Ho.
Here’s a look at some of my thoughts around Sun Ho, during my watch.
E2. In that moment when Yi Seong Gye (Kim Young Chul) gives Sun Ho the choice to kill the examiner or lose his own life, it feels like Sun Ho makes a key decision to be a bad person. After this, when prodded by his father, he decides to send Hwi to the military.
Credit to Show, I’m glad that at least I can see that he’s struggling with his decision, on the inside. When he stands nearby and sees Hwi being dragged off to the military, all beaten and bloodied and begging so ardently for help for his sister, Sun Ho sobs, engulfed in his own torment. This is the only way he knows to keep Hwi alive, while still obeying his father.
E3. It’s interesting to me that Sun Ho owns the decision to send Hwi off to the army, even though Hee Jae (Seolhyun) asks him pointblank if it’s his father’s doing. He could have easily rationalized that it was all because of his father, but he not only claims full ownership of that decision, he even claims that it was he who asked his father to bribe the examiner. Why? Has Sun Ho decided that he only deserves to be labeled as the Bad Guy, because of what he’s done?
E4. Sometimes I feel like Sun Ho is making himself out to be the baddest guy possible, because he’s punishing himself. In those moments, I feel like he hates himself so much, that he smears his own reputation as thoroughly as possible, to match his own disdain for himself. In these moments, I feel something akin to sorry for him. But then at other times, I want to hate him, because his actions really are that hateful. He has me quite effectively conflicted.
E5. Ugh. I hate that Sun Ho killed the horse, that’s just so cruel. And he talks about it so glibly too. In moments like these, I really dislike him. But in other moments, when he shows a sad gaze despite smiling lips, I feel a little more sympathy for him. I must say, Woo Do Hwan’s delivery has gone up a notch, this episode. I’m finally seeing more layers in his delivery, via micro-expressions. That does make Sun Ho more interesting, and offers glimpses into what lies beneath the glib surface. This is good.
E5. It’s only when Sun Ho is by himself, practicing archery, that he lets loose, momentarily, the frustration he has on the inside; this time, specifically for having stepped in to split Hwi from Yeon, for good. That does say something, if he feels angry that he had to do that.
E6. Sun Ho being so daring as to approach the king directly and claim to know his mind, and offer to take care of things for him; it feels like a huge risk. Is he really risking his life to gamble on the possibility that the king will take to him and appreciate his audacity?
E6. When Sun Ho drinks himself to oblivion, that sadness and defeat in his eyes as he thinks back on his attempt to confess his love for Hee Jae, is quite vivid. And the way he resolutely drinks that last drink himself this time, makes me think that he’s resolving to love only himself now.
E7. The flashback to Sun Ho’s conversation with his mother, where she urged him to become important and make the world a better place for lowlifes like her, tells us a lot about why Sun Ho would want to throw himself into climbing that court ladder. Still, I don’t know if Mom would approve of anything he’s doing right now, honestly.
E8. Sometimes, Sun Ho really appears very ballsy. The way he sneaks into the palace and basically demands to see the king, is so rogue. I almost want to say that he’s cool, but he’s so many shades of gray and he also seems so self-serving, that I just can’t do it.
E10. Sun Ho’s grief at Yeon’s death is deep and heartrending; he looks like he’s lost the only reason he ever had, for living. Therefore I’m not surprised that he chooses to abandon himself to being a killing machine, biding his time until he can lord it over his father, who’s been the source of all his torment. He’s almost like a dead man walking; alive only to ensure that his father receives his retribution. How sad, really.
Seolhyun as Han Hee Jae
To be brutally honest, I did not feel that engaged by, nor invested, in Hee Jae, as a character. Here’s why.
The structure of the story
Part of it has to do with how this story is structured; this is a story that’s pretty much all about the male characters, after all. If it’s not about the star-crossed bromance, it’s about survival at war, or it’s about the princes’ fight for the throne. It’s just not a story where the female characters are given very important things to do, and that’s just how this cookie crumbles.
How Hee Jae is written
Part of it has to do with how Hee Jae is written. Even though Hee Jae is written to have a sense of purpose and agency, she’s often shown more as a helpless bystander than an active participant in the goings-on.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 13, when Hee Jae insists that she’s taking responsibility for her actions, she mostly just stands and watches, while other people fight &/or are cut down by the invading guards at Ihwaru. Her softly spoken words, “It was me. It’s me you want. Slay me instead!” sound weak and ineffectual, and far from commanding. She eventually throws herself in the way of a blade and collapses, but it honestly feels like quite little, in a sea of swords and blood. And, again, she ends up being the damsel in distress who’s rescued by Hwi, who arrives to slaughter all the remaining guards. [END SPOILER]
This is fairly typical of a Hee Jae scene, and so, unfortunately, all the times that Hee Jae is written to speak words that are sharp, shrewd and wise, it all looked like more bluster than substance, to my eyes.
To be fair, Hee Jae is written to be an intelligent woman, and she does demonstrate a sharp ability to analyze the thinking, motives and actions of people.
Although Seolhyun’s delivery isn’t terrible, I did feel like hers was the weak link in our strong cast. I found myself slightly distracted by Seolhyun’s delivery, mostly because of the glossy-lipped, open-mouthed sort of mien that we seem to consistently see from her. Additionally, she doesn’t manage to impart much in the way of layers to Hee Jae’s character, particularly in Show’s very early stretch.
However, credit to Seolhyun, I felt that her delivery improved quite nicely, particularly in Show’s mid-to-late stretch. [SPOILER] As early as episode 5, I felt that I noticed more nuance in Seolhyun’s delivery of Hee Jae, particularly during the scene where Hee Jae realizes that Hwi is alive, standing in front of her, with his sword through the awful general who’d threatened her the night before. The way that she holds it in, even though the emotions are leaking out via the tears in her eyes, is nicely played. [END SPOILER]
By the time we hit Show’s late stretch, I didn’t find myself distracted by Seolhyun’s delivery, and I’d accepted Hee Jae’s secondary role in the story by then, and so, I ended the show with a more positive impression of Seolhyun as Hee Jae, than when I started. That’s.. not bad, right?
Jang Hyuk as Yi Bang Won
To be honest, when I first read that Jang Hyuk would join this cast, not as one of the leads, but as a supporting character, I’d felt disappointed, and even a little indignant. The idea of Jang Hyuk playing second fiddle to younger, less experienced actors with less screen presence and charisma, just didn’t sit well with me.
Ha. I needn’t have worried, because Jang Hyuk turned out to be such a scene stealer that he practically stole the entire show. Every time he showed up on my screen, I felt like I couldn’t look anywhere else but at him; he was that magnetic and arresting. Admittedly, I have a very large soft spot for Jang Hyuk, so your reaction might not be as intense as mine, heh. Objectively speaking, though, Jang Hyuk does a fantastic job of portraying Bang Won.
Whether Bang Won is speaking or not, whether he’s on foot or on horseback (he’s quite glorious on horseback, I say), and whether he’s wielding a sword, or that fan that he handles with so much flash and flourish, Jang Hyuk as Bang Won is commanding, impactful, and quite breathtaking.
Generally speaking, Jang Hyuk plays Bang Won with a languid, restrained sort of power that often hints at a touch of unhinged boldness. There’s a fearless, almost daredevil-like quality about him, that makes him feel as unpredictable as he is powerful. Which, to me, is quite a perfect interpretation of the complex, complicated, morally ambivalent character of Bang Won.
Thanks in large part to Jang Hyuk’s intricate portrayal of Bang Won, I found it impossible to hate Bang Won, even when Bang Won is shown being cruel and ruthless. That’s skillz.
Here’s a collection of my Bang Won thoughts and observations, over the course of my watch.
E4. Jang Hyuk is so mesmerizing as Bang Won, whether he’s riding a horse, or wielding his sword, or having a smirky, languid conversation with his “Mother” (Park Ye Jin), or sardonically standing up to his father. He’s a complete scene stealer, and whenever he’s onscreen, I can’t help but look at him and him alone; he’s that magnetic. The scene where he’s slicing down attackers, with his hair completely undone, is offhandedly magnificent. He looks effortlessly, ruggedly amazing in that mane of glory. Wow.
E8. Jang Hyuk is THE scene stealer in this show. When he turns on his prowling panther gaze, I literally can’t look at anyone but him on my screen. His way of delivering Bang Won’s lines is also very interesting. Sometimes, he plays Bang Won languid and laidback, and other times, he makes it seem like Bang Won is one outburst away from losing his patience, and any restraint he might have towards killing the people in front of him. I find the way he shouts part of his lines, only to then lower his voice to deliver the rest of them, quite arresting, especially when it’s combined with his killer screen presence and charisma. Oof.
And then in quiet scenes where Bang Won doesn’t even say a word, like when the Crown Prince is announced, the studiously still way he holds himself, deliberately not moving a single muscle, says how much he’s holding back, and how carefully. So good.
E11. Bang Won’s last attempt to clarify things with his father, even though the stage is set, says a lot about how desperate he is, to hear something different from his father. He’s grasping at straws to go to the temple to speak with the king, and it’s clear that during their conversation, he’s hoping against hope that the king will say something affirming. How crushing, that the king essentially brushes him off, and he hears the words he’d always wanted to hear – “you did well” – from Hwi instead. The bitterness in his gaze, and the mirthlessness in his laughter, as he orders the destruction of the bridge, is so full of pathos.
E12. Jang Hyuk is quietly magnificent, as always. I appreciate that through this entire starting of a revolution, there’s no actual bloodthirstiness in Bang Won’s gaze. In fact, quite the opposite. It always looks like his gaze is mostly empty and dead, like his heart had died when he realized that his father would never acknowledge him, no matter how hard he tried. At the same time, whenever any emotion flickered in his eyes, it always seemed to lean more towards sadness, and perhaps a touch of wistfulness, like he didn’t prefer that things would come to this.
E12. That moment, when Bang Won answers King Taejo’s query of whether the crown prince’s death is Bang Won’s doing, there’s a quiet anguish that flickers in Bang Won’s gaze, amidst the even emptiness in his eyes, as he gives his father his unruffled response, that King Taejo himself is responsible for the crown prince’s death, by setting up his sons to fight one another.
E13. It’s clear that King Taejo and Bang Won have very complicated feelings towards each other. In the confrontation scene in the throne room, when Bang Won admits that he will continue to kill his brothers, King Taejo threatens to shoot Bang Won with an arrow, and Bang Won invites him to do so by opening his arms wide, but King Taejo can’t bring himself to do it. Despite what King Taejo says, that Bang Won is a monster, it does seem like he has more regard and respect for Bang Won than he would like to admit.
E13. The moment when King Taejo states that the blood shed should have been Bang Won’s, all the fire and life drains from Bang Won’s eyes, and you can literally see tears replace the fire, in that split second. Amazing.
E13. Even though Bang Won does a lot of things that are ruthless and cruel, we also see him display humanity, and that, on a fairly regular basis. I think that’s why it’s hard to hate Bang Won. He could’ve just had Sun Ho killed, but he takes into account how Sun Ho’s actions ended up aiding his cause, and spares his life. Of course, he couches it as Sun Ho not being worthy of being killed, but the fact is, he showed Sun Ho mercy when he could have instead shown him death.
Additionally, Bang Won presents Jang Beom with his slave ownership contract and invites him to burn it, telling him that he is free to leave whenever he wants. Again, Bang Won didn’t have to do that, but chose to do so, and I see it as an act of kindness and mercy.
E16. Despite all the death and destruction that Bang Won is responsible for, it’s hard to hate him, and partly, that’s because he has a set of principles that he abides by, and quite often, those principles are humane. Like how he reminds Tae Ryeong (Kim Jae Young) that it’s not right to slay someone who is unarmed and whose back is to him.
Ahn Nae Sang as Nam Jeon
I just wanted to say that Ahn Nae Sang is pretty darn excellent as Nam Jeon, the villain that I wanted to hate, but eventually, couldn’t quite.
[SPOILER] I hated Nam Jeon for his heartless treatment of his son Sun Ho, and I hated him for the cruel measures he used against Hwi and Yeon, and I also hated his scheming manipulative behavior that was driven by personal greed and ambition. At the same time, Nam Jeon’s description of a country run by subjects is not wrong; it’s an ideal that we embrace today, in our modern world. Also, even in the face of death, Nam Jeon carries himself with calm acceptance, like he’s played all his cards and is prepared to face the consequences of those cards not being as strong a hand as he had hoped. Say what you might about Nam Jeon, he didn’t die a coward, and I have to respect him for that. [END SPOILER]
Have I mentioned that Ahn Nae Sang is excellent?
SPOTLIGHT ON KEY RELATIONSHIPS
Hwi and Sun Ho
I think I might be a sucker for star-crossed bromances. I was always more interested in the broken brotherhood between Hwi and Sun Ho, than I was in the romance between Hwi and Hee Jae. To me, Hwi and Sun Ho are the true OTP of this story.
With circumstances, personal backgrounds, and individual dilemmas stacked between them, Hwi and Sun Ho, who start our story as the best of besties, soon end up fighting on opposite sides of the political divide. With this chasm between them, and a lifetime of emotional baggage and years of brotherhood and loyalty swirled into the mix, our BroTP is deeply challenged to ever restore their brotherhood, which is one of the big hooks of our story.
Because Hwi is our emotional center and moral compass, and continues to demonstrate care for Sun Ho no matter what has transpired, it’s Sun Ho’s wavering behavior that consistently comes into question. Does Sun Ho still care? Or does he just not care more than he cares about himself? Is this friendship truly dead, or is there hope of a resurrection?
These were questions that I grappled with during my watch, and even though there were times when I felt genuinely frustrated by the state of this BroTP, I must admit that Show did make it worth my while, overall.
Here’s a bit of a sprawling map of my thoughts and reactions to this pair of star-crossed brothers, during my watch.
E1. This was a very effective set-up, particularly for a first episode. Not only do I see the opposing sides that Hwi and Sun Ho end up on, and how much it affects each of them, I also get to feel the strength of their brotherhood in the days prior to the military exam. From training and sparring together, to getting out of scrapes together, to grasping opportunities together, to taking down a whole group of guards together. That underscoring all of this, is a combination of their familial emotional baggage, and a desire to make their mark in the world despite the odds stacked against each of them, just takes it to another level.
I am almost always drawn to an underdog story, and this is double that. Hwi is an underdog for being a so-called low-born, looked down upon for how his father died a criminal, while Sun Ho is looked down on for being born of a concubine. There’s an odd sense of solidarity between them because of this, despite Sun Ho technically being nobility, and this brotherly bond across social mores appeals to me, so much.
E1. Already, we see hints that Hwi is more talented than Sun Ho, and that he’s also more selfless and less calculating than Sun Ho. When Sun Ho tries to stand up for Hwi at the exam registration at the risk of losing his own right to apply, Hwi is quick to tell him to stand down; that it’s right that Sun Ho should go ahead to do what he needs to do, regardless of Hwi himself. But, by and large, Sun Ho is still a good guy, and he tells Hwi to apply, so that they can compete against each other, fair and square. That’s more upstanding than his father, who would rather attempt to intimidate Hwi into giving up his chance to apply.
E2. Here’s the thing; Sun Ho says it himself: he would not die for Hwi. And so, rather than give it all up and denounce his exam honor to protect Hwi, he accepts the path and benefits that the bribe has afforded him, and chooses the next best thing he can do for Hwi, even though he knows that it’s a choice that will cause Hwi to suffer.
Sun Ho is the first to denounce his friendship, and even though I know that he did that under pressure from his father, and he’s struggling on the inside, it’s still true that he would sooner put his own life over Hwi’s. On the other hand, I feel like Hwi would have believed Sun Ho to the death. Even after Sun Ho had benefited from the rigged exam, and had aimed for Hwi’s head, in that final blow, Hwi still thinks of Sun Ho as his friend, and implores the officers to send a message to Sun Ho his friend. When the officer informs him that it’s Sun Ho who put Hwi in this position, the shock is just so great, for Hwi, I almost feel like it might break him.
How far gone this brotherhood has become, in the space of a single episode. From walking out stride for stride, victorious and gleeful at having together secured Hwi a place in the military exam, to now becoming enemies, for all intents and purposes. It hurts, but it hurts so good.
E4. With the flashback to how Sun Ho had helped Hwi bury his father, when the whole world had turned its back on him, I can better understand why Hwi is so doggedly loyal to Sun Ho, and why Hwi continues to trust Sun Ho for as long as he does.
E6. Since I know that Hwi and Sun Ho are actually on opposite sides, it gives me a bit of dissonance, each time I see Sun Ho giving Hwi instructions for his next task. I always have to remember that Sun Ho is basically holding Yeon hostage, in order to have Hwi working for him.
Yet, underneath that animosity, there are often traces of lingering brotherhood. When it’s reported to Sun Ho that Hwi’s been dragged off by Bang Won’s men, he insists on going there to see for himself. And when one of his more senior men tells him to cut Hwi off, Sun Ho practically snarls at him, that he will be the one to decide when and whether Hwi will die. It all looks like a messed up expression of care to my eyes.
E7. That moment when Sun Ho gets angry with Hwi for deviating from the plan, saying that it will cost him dearly, I don’t find it in me to feel sorry for him. Hwi informs him that Sun Ho’s survival is his own business, just like it was on him alone, to survive as part of the advance party to Liaodong. Sun Ho retaliates, saying that every day was hell for him, and that he had to endure mockery and contempt to get to where he is today. Honestly, that earned him no sympathy at all from me, because he put Hwi through so much more, and left him to die – no, went out to kill him, even, with the clean-up party – and now he’s complaining that he has to fight for his own survival just like Hwi did? That is such a privileged double standard; he can send Hwi to fight for his life, but he himself shouldn’t have to? That’s quite contemptible, to my eyes.
Sun Ho bites out that he truly regrets trying to save Hwi, as he leaves. And yet, Hwi murmurs that he sincerely hopes that Sun Ho will survive. Sigh. The inequality in this messed up bromance really bugs me.
E9. This episode is where we see Sun Ho’s most overt demonstrations of care and concern for Hwi and Yeon, since they fell out. When Sun Ho realizes Hwi’s life is in danger, he literally crashes his way into Bang Won’s residence, and the look of horror and concern, when he sees Hwi captured and unconscious, is quite stark. And when he thinks that Hwi is dead, the grief and sorrow are unmistakable as well.
Not only that, when he realizes that Hwi is alive, he does everything he can to help Hwi and Yeon flee safely, even fighting off the royal guards on his own, so that Hwi can run to Yeon. He does care a lot for Hwi and Yeon. It’s just that for him, there are a lot of other mitigating pressures that he feels that he has to bow to.
E13. In the end, the connection between Sun Ho and Hwi is not easily broken. Even with so much death, destruction and betrayal between them, Hwi still cares enough about Sun Ho to seek him out. He blocks Sun Ho’s sword with his own hand when Sun Ho tries to kill himself, and requests that Sun Ho live. And after Hwi leaves, Sun Ho, despite not having anything to live for, chooses to honor that request by dropping his sword. These boys. They do love each other, underneath it all.
Hwi and Hee Jae
Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t really invested in the romantic loveline between Hwi and Hee Jae, nor the love triangle involving Sun Ho. I just felt like the loveline was shoehorned in when it didn’t have to be. I feel like this story would have been strong enough to stand on its own, without the need for a main romance. Plus, this romance wasn’t even at the center of our story. It often felt like a secondary arc, tacked on because it might be too weird for a Korean drama to not have a main loveline.
To be honest, I felt like the developments around this loveline were more jerky and awkward than organic and believable, and I also didn’t feel like there was a great deal of romantic chemistry between Yang Se Jong and Seolhyun.
On the upside, Show doesn’t spend too much time on the loveline, and neither does it drag out the love triangle either; both good things. Additionally, even though I found the loveline awkward in its introduction, I must admit that by the end of our story, I had come around enough to appreciate this couple. Not bad at all.
Here are just a few observations and thoughts around this couple.
E2. The kiss between Hwi and Hee Jae feels a little sudden, since they’ve technically only known each other for only a short time. And he’s badly injured and probably shouldn’t be feeling too romantic. But, I can rationalize that when you have a close brush with death, skinship becomes particularly life-affirming. Plus, Hee Jae does create the moment, with her words defending him. I originally didn’t think Show meant this as a relationship-defining sort of moment, but I was wrong. It was.
E3. It takes some rationalizing for me to buy into the big love between Hwi and Hee Jae that is being portrayed now, with her refusing to forget him and telling Sun Ho that she’s already given her heart to Hwi, and him ready to burn his own hand to retrieve the head scarf that she’d given him. I need to remind myself that she knows who he is, and that amplifies his significance to her manifold, and that in times of turmoil and death, that people hold onto hope and love more fiercely. I have to remind myself that back in the day, women got married to soldiers going off to war, with just as much (or as little) relationship foundation as Hwi and Hee Jae.
E3. I do find it poetic that it’s Hee Jae’s borrowed words from Hwi’s father (a suitably commanding cameo by Yoo Oh Sung) that spurs him on, in a time of despair. But I also can’t help wishing that he knew those words were from his father.
E6. I’m reasonably happy with the way Show is balancing the romance with the rest of the story. Until now, the romance has showed up as a supporting arc rather than a Main Event, and I am pleased with that. And yet, in its minor appearances, I do find the interactions between Hwi and Hee Jae relatively affecting. The way Hee Jae thanks Hwi for being alive; the way a single tear escapes down his cheek as he resolutely walks away; the way Hee Jae agonizes over how much pain and hurt she senses from him; the way Hee Jae pledges to do everything she can, to protect him. I liked it.
E7. The scene where Hee Jae tends to Hwi’s wounds, and they murmur their true feelings to each other while Hee Jae is half asleep is quite touching, though I struggle to believe that Hee Jae would continue in her state of semi-awakeness, the moment Hwi started admitting that he’d missed her deeply and couldn’t forget her. Given that she so dearly wanted to hear this from Hwi, I would’ve thought that she would’ve bolted right awake, to hear that, instead of falling back to sleep. (We get hints in the finale that Hee Jae wasn’t asleep after all, which.. still makes no sense to me, but I rationalize that she was afraid he would clam up if he knew she could hear him.)
E8. While the romance is not a top priority of mine with this story, I appreciate that the care between Hwi and Hee Jae is becoming more overt this episode. They are both allowing themselves to care for the other person, and they’re showing it increasingly, in stages. When Hee Jae comes face to face with the man who killed her mother, Hwi, who’s been evading Hee Jae in every way possible, reaches for her hand, twice, and keeps his gaze trained on her, his worry for her evident. And Hee Jae is doing everything she can to protect him.
The way that Hee Jae, who dearly wants revenge for her mother, refrains from killing Gang Gae (Kim Dae Gon) because she recognizes that Hwi needs him in order to save Yeon, is sacrificial and selfless. Her earnest request, that Hwi not carry his burdens alone, is also spoken from a deep place of love. The embrace they share is significant; this is the first time that Hwi allows himself to hold her back. I feel like this is a big turning point for their relationship.
Hwi and Bang Won
A relationship that I found surprisingly interesting, was the one between Hwi and Bang Won.
From strangers, to eventual allies and beyond, I found the development of the connection between Hwi and Bang Won quite compelling. Show kept me guessing in terms of the actual level of trust between Hwi and Bang Won, for a good long stretch of my watch, and in the meantime, I found that Hwi’s and Bang Won’s very disparate personalities and values created a riveting dissonance on my screen.
Here are a handful of observations about this unlikely pair.
E4. Hwi being sent to be a double agent, to gain Bang Won’s trust and then kill him? OMG, that’s a dangerous mission indeed. Bang Won has already proven himself to be very shrewd, very sharp, and very lethal. It won’t be easy to gain his trust, and it would be even harder to kill him. Plus, there’s that thing where Bang Won is recorded in history to have ascended the throne.
E6. When Bang Won is considering Hwi before him in the wake of the wolf being taken down, it almost seems like a cat playing with a mouse. One moment, he’s all niceties and smiles, and the next, he’s having Hwi clubbed and bound, and dragged back to his residence. Dangerous with a capital D.
Also, dangerously sharp. Bang Won analyzed everything correctly, and his suspicions that Hwi was sent by someone, are spot-on. They shouldn’t have tried to do the fake ambush. Not with Bang Won.
E10. Although Bang Won is a character that is portrayed as ruthless in history, that moment when he saves Hwi from Nam Jeon makes me feel like, ah, it must be good to have Bang Won on your side. There was no pressing reason for Bang Won to do so, since their deal was officially over. But Bang Won steps in and saves him anyway, stating that Hwi is his man, and he threatens Nam Jeon with a terrible death, if he lays a finger on Hwi.
That warms me to Bang Won. Certainly, one could say that Bang Won did it because of the fact that Hwi’s saved his life, and likely because of the fact that he feels connected to him because he learned under Hwi’s father, but.. that just humanizes Bang Won to me even more, that these things matter to him.
E12. I did appreciate Bang Won’s heart behind the gesture, of dealing Nam Jeon the fatal blow. That felt like a moment of genuine consideration for Hwi, and his words are spoken with a matter-of-fact gentleness which I appreciate.
E13. It’s interesting to me that Bang Won seems to value Hwi’s opinion. When they drink together, Bang Won asks Hwi if Hwi thinks he’s taking the right path, and when Bang Won remarks that he is afraid of whether the path he’s taking is the right one, Hwi tells him to hold onto that fear, because it will help him to keep going. It strikes me Bang Won allows himself to be vulnerable before Hwi, admitting his fear to Hwi so candidly. And Hwi answers him with words of wisdom like an equal, rather than a subordinate. There’s a mutual respect between them that I like.
Sun Ho and Nam Jeon
For the record, I did not enjoy Sun Ho’s relationship with his father, but I did find it interesting.
Sun Ho has always longed for his father’s acceptance and approval, but Nam Jeon has never been forthcoming with any indication of either. To my eyes, it is Sun Ho’s desperation to gain his father’s favor, that basically messes up his life, and causes him to go down a path of destruction.
I found this relationship a rather fascinating study, for how its dysfunction affects Sun Ho, and here’s a small collection of thoughts around that.
E2. It really seems like Nam Jeon is raising a snake. I mean, to tell your son that he should learn to threaten instead of shout? It’s little wonder that Sun Ho is turning out to be so messed up. But, he turns around and does exactly what his father instructs; he threatens his father with his knowledge of the exam bribe, and forces his father to allow him to take care of Yeon. I guess he learns fast?
E4. Does Nam Jeon really care about Sun Ho? I’m guessing that he does care, but only to the extent that it serves him. When Yi Seong Gye makes him choose between country and son, he doesn’t hesitate to choose country. But when Sun Ho makes it back alive, he even goes so far as to hug him. It’s a cold, distant hug, but still. From a father who’s always been cold and harsh, this seems like a big deal.
E4. I feel like because Sun Ho is born of a slave, Nam Jeon probably finds him more dispensable.
E11. Sun Ho is driven at first by the desire for approval by his father, and, faced by scorn and disappointment, he chooses to go his own way. Sun Ho says that he is determined to kill his father, who’s been the source of his torment, but I do wonder if he has it in him, to actually do something so depraved.
E12. What is Show’s intention of having Nam Jeon’s dying words to Sun Ho be words of approval? At first glance, I feel like possibly this is the very amped up version of Asian parents being harsh with their offspring in order to push them to pursue excellence, but.. I don’t buy it, because even though an Asian parent might do that, it’s typically out of care. And we don’t see a flicker of genuine care for his son, in all the time that we’ve spent with Nam Jeon.
Was it supposed to be a change of heart, brought on by the fresh perspective of a dying man? Like, now that he’s about to die, his ambition is meaningless now, and he finally sees that Sun Ho isn’t such a bad son after all. Hm. That would be more plausible than my first theory. Except that to the very end, Nam Jeon never expressed any regret for his ambition. So this is still a bit half-baked, for me.
Hwi and his found family of brothers
I love the friendship between Hwi and Chi Do, Jung Beom and Moon Bok (Ji Seung Hyun, Lee Yoo Joon, and In Gyo Jin). They’re such a ragtag bunch, and Jung Beom and Moon Bok are always squabbling, but the warmth and care that flows among them is unmistakable. I just love how fiercely loyal they are to one another, and how they would literally pledge their lives to supporting and protecting one another.
In a story landscape where Hwi often is faced with obstacle after obstacle, I was just so comforted and glad that he had his found family of brothers to support him and make him smile. They just warmed my heart, so much. ❤️
E3. Chi Do turns out to be an old ally / student / officer under Hwi’s father’s command. How unexpected, and also, how intriguing. It makes me want to go back and rewatch earlier scenes, to see if there were clues that he was looking out for Hwi. It does make his purposeful oversight of Hwi and Sun Ho’s presence at the marketplace, and his subsequent saving of Sun Ho with his enigmatic words that he’s not on Sun Ho’s side, much more understandable. He was always on Hwi’s side. It boggles my mind a bit, that he’s asked to be part of the advance party, for the sole purpose of protecting Hwi, all because of loyalty to Hwi’s father. Wow.
E5. Hwi and his three musketeers make a great team, and I’m so pleased to see Chi Do smile and say that he likes living with them. Aw. If only the court machinations wouldn’t get in the way of these boys living together always.
E6. I do love that Hwi’s three musketeers simply will not allow him to keep things from them, and insist first that he tells them everything, and then insist that they will help him through it all. I love how Chi Do puts it: “It doesn’t matter if we die alone, but we will survive together.” Aw. The brotherhood. I love it.
Bang Won and Nam Jeon
I came to realize that in a sageuk of this weighty nature, screen presence is more critical than ever, and it’s really the veteran, seasoned actors who are bringing the sizzle to the screen. It’s clear that the younger actors are doing their very best, and their deliveries are all very decent and solid, but there just isn’t the same sense of gravitas, which burns up my screen.
And so, some of my favorite moments during my watch, were of Bang Won and Nam Jeon sharing the screen.
In this scene from episode 7 (above), when Bang Won and Nam Jeon have that cloak-and-dagger confrontation in front of the court, their words are even, and their animosity kept to a simmer, but the tension between them practically crackles, because of how much weight Jang Hyuk and Ahn Nae Sang are each pulling, as they say their lines. It’s like watching two heavyweight boxers circle each other in the ring, ready and able to duke it out.
Moon Bok and Hwa Wol
In a tension-filled narrative where we are often kept on the edge of our seats for long stretches at a time, I found Moon Bok’s enduring crush on Hwa Wol (Hong Ji Yoon) amusing, and a much-needed spot of levity. For me, I found it even cuter when Hwa Wol eventually comes around, and she can’t help swooning a little at him too. Hee.
[SPOILER] My favorite moment for this couple, though, has to be the scene in episode 13, when Moon Bok takes all his precious items and money out of his safe, to ask for Hwa Wol’s freedom from Ihwaru. It’s such a deep gesture, given how he’s constantly obsessed with saving money. Valuing her freedom over his money, is love indeed. And how cute, that Hwa Wol is the one who puts the ring on his finger, asking that they live together. Aw! [END SPOILER]
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
Like I alluded to earlier in this review, there are a number of things I didn’t appreciate so much, in this show. Show’s list of shortcomings is relatively short, but I have to admit that it did affect my overall ability to enjoy my watch, and resulted in Show’s final grade being bumped down, in the end.
Show assumes viewer familiarity with the historical context
Show does this thing where it assumes that you as the viewer have sufficient knowledge of this portion of Korean history, and therefore doesn’t bother to explain some things.
For example, key historical figures Poeun and Sambong are regularly mentioned during our story, but we never see them. Viewers new to sageuk would be confused, I think, because these people and their significance are never explained in the drama.
Additionally, I found Show’s general handling of Sambong’s existence decidedly odd. Poeun’s death happens offscreen, which is fine, but I thought it was decidedly weird that Sambong, who’s supposed to be alive and kicking through our entire story, and who is a key figure in this portion of Korean history, is never shown onscreen. I’m no expert in Korean history, but I know at least, that in Six Flying Dragons, which focuses on the same period of history, Sambong is important enough, to be listed as the character next in importance only to Bang Won.
Now mind you, it’s not that Sambong doesn’t feature in our story. He’s mentioned on a regular basis, and is even supposed to share a drink with Nam Jeon in episode 12. We just never see his face. I just found it all quite bizarre.
Show can feel tiring to watch
As much as I loved the dramatic tension that Show keeps up, I have to confess that at points, I found the High Melodrama tone of this show wearing on me, just a smidge.
I conclude that there’s a certain amount of resilience and stamina needed to enjoy this drama. The tension is kept up fairly consistently, and there are threats, schemes and angst on every side. Occasionally, I did feel like Show was pulling the tension so tight that at moments, I felt like I’d reached the end of my capacity for dramatic tension in a single serve, and had to pause the episode to let my mind wander elsewhere.
Maybe your appetite for dramatic tension is greater than mine, so it might not be a problem for you?
Show feels repetitive in the final stretch
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I did feel like Show was repeating itself a little bit, in the final stretch. By the episode 14 mark, we’ve covered a fair amount of ground, and have caught up to where we find our characters in the opening flash forward scene of episode 1, and then some. There’s a measure of resolution achieved in episode 14, and subsequently, it felt to me like Show then rehashed the whole revenge theme, to keep things going till episode 16.
I didn’t like that so much, and felt that maybe Show might have benefited from having fewer episodes, if that would have tightened up the story.
After Nam Jeon’s death, there’s nothing to keep Sun Ho going anymore, and so Show introduces a fresh revenge arc for Sun Ho, on Bang Won.
I guess I just find it all kind of repetitive.. all the veiled threats, with princes circling each other like Cheshire cats, people getting impaled and then surviving, revenge getting accomplished, and counter-revenge therefore getting kicked into motion. It just didn’t feel very fresh anymore, to my eyes.
Add on the fact that I find it unbelievable that Sun Ho is still even alive at this point (more on that next) – I find all the machinations in episode 14, with people pretending to have gone soft and dull in their fight skills in order to bait one another, quite pointless.
There are logic stretches – and they increase in the final stretch
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, Show takes some, uh, artistic liberties with logic. It shows up less in the earlier episodes, but becomes an increasing presence in later episodes. I found that I needed to suspend disbelief a lot more than I’d originally bargained for, and unfortunately, this eroded my opinion of the quality of Show’s writing.
Here’s a quick rundown of the logic stretches that I noticed during my watch.
E4. I couldn’t help but notice small things, like how Sung Rok wakes up from blacking out, but doesn’t seem too badly injured, with no visible serious wounds, even after being badly slashed to the point of blacking out; Sung Rok suddenly having use of a homing pigeon, in the middle of nowhere, where his entire troop had been killed; how Hwi and Sun Ho can have an extended confrontational conversation while standing in a burning hut (seriously!); how Hwi’s companions didn’t interrupt said conversation, even though they, too, were standing in the midst of the fire; how Sun Ho then had another extended conversation with Sung Rok, in the same burning building.
It all adds up and my brain starts to niggle at me about why this show is stretching logic as much as it does. It also messes with my ability to appreciate the artistic merits of those storytelling decisions. As in, I can’t quite appreciate the poetry of extended fiery conversations, when my brain is screaming, “Surely they should speed this up, they’re standing in the middle of a fire?” Also, how would Hwi know which chamber is Yeon’s, in Nam Jeon’s house, that he can leave her flower shoes outside her room?
E5. The time-skip is 4 years, so it seems that Hwi’s done nothing with the mission that Sun Ho gave him at the end of episode 3. That really is kind of odd.
E7. Why were the weapons in Bang Won’s arsenal of such poor quality? Will we ever get an answer?
E10. Why couldn’t the guard guy Gyeol (Jang Do Ha), who’s supposed to be in possession of really good fight skills, and is standing right there with Hee Jae when Yeon is attacked, have done something to at least attempt to help save Yeon? This way, it just seems like he and Hee Jae stood there without making any move to help. Which is just really hard to believe.
E12. I also find it implausible that Sun Ho survives being impaled by Hwi’s sword. Everyone else in this battle is killed by so much less; Nam Jeon himself dies from a mere slash wound. But Sun Ho, who was literally impaled by a sword, survives? That’s a stretch.
E13. Sun Ho and Sung Rok riding off to take over the Jurchen army by slaying their leaders, is just quite far-fetched. I mean, Sun Ho is in pain just from riding the horse, so he’s clearly not healed from his very serious wound. And he’s running around, infiltrating an army famous for being brutal and sharp? It’s quite unbelievable that 1, Sun Ho and Sung Rok are able to speak the language of the Jurchen army, and that 2, the Jurchen army was so easily overpowered.
E13. The whole idea of Sun Ho taking revenge on Bang Won for killing his father is kind of weak, to me. For most of our story, Sun Ho has vowed to kill Nam Jeon himself, and after completely humiliating him, at that. And now, just because of one sentence of approval spoken with Nam Jeon’s dying breath, and a suggestion by Bang Gan that he ought to pay back this blood debt to Bang Won, he’s literally rising above what should’ve been a fatal wound, to raise an army to kill Bang Won? I’m finding this quite a stretch, honestly.
E14. It makes no sense that Hwi’s supposedly rotting on the inside because of the very strong poison that he’s been exposed to, and the even stronger medicine that he’s taking, to handle the pain. How then can he survive a two-year time skip, and still be in good fighting form? That makes no sense whatsoever. Show keeps flip-flopping over this. One moment, Hwi’s a dead man walking, and the next, he’s a practically invincible fighting machine. I find this really hard to swallow.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
Hm. Ok, so Sun Ho runs his sword through Hwi not to kill him, but to stop him from interfering, and in a sense, to keep him out of harm’s way. Well, more harm’s way. And his words make sense, in that he hates the world that he lives in because it tramples on people like him, and since he can’t change it, he’s set on destroying it. I can buy that. Hwi still cares for Sun Ho, though. Even after being badly injured by Sun Ho, he still vows to save him.
I must say, though, Show takes the suspension of disbelief one step further this episode. Last episode, I was smirking at how Sun Ho would survive being impaled by a sword. But this episode, Show goes one step further. Not only does Hwi survive the same injury, he’s able to stay on his feet, and ride a horse, and fight in a coup, and seek Hee Jae out and talk with her and encourage her and hug her, and then seek Sun Ho out and bring him medicine to treat him. This, not forgetting the poison that’s still in Hwi, that’s supposedly rotting his insides. Hwi later reveals that he’s taking numbing medicine that’s so strong that Sun Ho’s blade would have only felt like a tickle. Whatever. Even if you can’t feel anything, your body can’t function like normal for so long after you’ve been impaled by a sword. Seriously.
However. Looking past the unreasonable amount of suspension of disbelief required, this episode does deliver some powerful moments.
Hwi and Sun Ho finally have some moments of truce, and I felt moved by the moment when Hwi apologizes to Sun Ho for being so absorbed his own anger that he hadn’t been able to see Sun Ho’s pain. That’s a selfless and gracious thing to say, especially since Sun Ho had been the same to Hwi. I also liked seeing them work together in the library together, looking for information on Hwi’s father’s death. Since it’s mostly been Hwi reaching out to Sun Ho all this time, it feels like a milestone, to see Sun Ho insisting on getting involved, even though he says that it’s only for Yeon’s sake.
Later, the way Sun Ho chooses to barge into Bang Won’s residence to kill him for framing Hwi’s father is so moving, because he clearly sees it as a suicide mission, when he asks Chi Do to take care of Hwi. And when Sun Ho is about to be killed by Bang Won, Hwi intervenes, saying that he will forget everything, and begs Bang Won for Sun Ho’s life. We may have seen a lot of mixed messages between these two throughout the show, but this cements just how much each of them treasures the other. I couldn’t help but be moved by this demonstration of selfless brotherhood.
Also, to my mind, Yi Seong Gye is not to be trusted. Bang Gan may have been the one to execute the coup, but it was Yi Seong Gye who urged him to do so, albeit obliquely. And Bang Won may have been the one to handle Seo Geom’s framing and death, but at that time, Bang Won was acting in service of his father’s revolution, and Seo Geom knew it. Seo Geom said it himself, that Yi Seong Gye was using his son to kill him. And yet, Yi Seong Gye points at Bang Won as the one behind Seo Geom’s death, and wants to position himself as the righteous one to bring him to justice. How scheming and coldblooded and manipulative, and against his own sons.
Sung Rok finally dies, despite formerly seeming like a cat with nine lives, the way he kept surviving multiple serious wounds. What I found poignant, was how he went with Sun Ho despite knowing how dangerous it was, and how he made it a point to tell Sun Ho that it hadn’t been that bad, being by his side. Sung Rok also says that he’s telling Sun Ho this, because he feels like it might be his only chance to say it. Which means that he knew there was a good chance he would die. That’s so loyal. The way Sun Ho cannot help but stop to weep for a while, over his body, even as Hwi struggles to help him leave, is quite heartbreaking. It feels like Sun Ho is mourning not only the loss of a right hand man, but the loss of the only friend in the world that he’d allowed to be at his side.
In terms of Bang Won being the one to cause Seo Geom’s death, I’d been accidentally spoiled of this twist, so I wasn’t shocked by it, when I saw it unfold on my screen. At the same time, I can see Bang Won’s logic in how he handled Seo Geom. He and Yi Seong Gye had wanted Seo Geom on their side for the uprising that they were planning, and Seo Geom had refused. And in this context, practically speaking, if Seo Geom was not with them, he was against them, and thus they needed to get rid of him. So it wasn’t personal; it was coldly calculated, just like Bang Won’s systematic killing off of his brothers. It’s tragic, but I can believe that Bang Won would have acted as such.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Coming into this show, I had every expectation that Hwi and Sun Ho would not survive the finale. I was less concerned with whether or not they would survive (coz I knew they wouldn’t), and more concerned with whether or not Show would deliver a wrap-up that was narratively sound and emotionally satisfying. All in all, I would say that Show delivered.
With Hwi’s rescue of Sun Ho and ending his alliance with Bang Won, we get a bit of narrative breathing space before the final showdown, and I’m satisfied with how Show uses this pocket of time. Hwi and Hee Jae have a simple date in the marketplace; Sun Ho visits Sung Rok’s grave and quietly thanks him for everything; Hwi and Sun Ho reconcile, and embrace their friendship again.
However, it isn’t long before Bang Won breaks the temporary truce that Hwi extracts from him, and sends men after Hwi and his friends. They manage to fend off the attackers, but there’s a sense of unease running undercurrent, even as our gang of friends smile at one another and promise to feast together again, in a year’s time.
Still, it’s gratifying to see Hwi and Sun Ho share something as simple as eating at the same dinner table together, no longer brandishing their swords at each other. We even get to see them share a quiet conversation after dinner, where Sun Ho muses that he’d never realized that he had any other option than the worst and second worst ones, and Hwi tells him that he can live an easier life from now on, and even ribs Sun Ho about smiling more. Aw.
With an almost-certain suicide mission ahead of him, Hwi has a final moment with Hee Jae, and I can honestly say that I found this the most affecting scene of this couple, of all the moments they’ve shared over the course of our story.
How overwhelming it must be, to know that this is very likely the very last time you will see each other; how precious those few moments are, and how inadequate those few words are, that they are able to share. Hwi and Hee Jae both know that this is more than likely goodbye forever, and they fight back the tears in their eyes, as they pledge their futures to each other anyway. He promises to come back to her, and she promises to wait for him.. words that feel full of sorrow, and yet still with a valiant sliver of hope against hope, that they might be able to fulfill this promise to each other. Gulp.
Sun Ho refuses to allow Hwi to go alone, and in a pretty fantastic and fitting callback to episode 1, they end up storming the palace gates together. I do very much appreciate that before they do, they each admit to being at least a little bit scared, as they should be, because this is almost guaranteed to be a suicide mission, and they know it. This underscores the entire storming of the palace gates with a great deal of poignance, and the appearance of Chi Do, Jung Beom and Moon Bok to back them up and help pave the way, just amplifies the pathos even further.
When Chi Do yells after the closed gates for Hwi to come back alive, it feels almost exactly like the moment when Hwi and Hee Jae promise to see each other again; there’s so little possibility of the words coming true, but the words are spoken anyway, and with an almost feverish fervor, like if they wish it hard enough, and believe it fiercely enough, it will come true. The tears in the friends’ eyes, as they look upon the closed palace gates, speak of so much love, mixed with fear and hope. My heart.
Hwi and Sun Ho fight their way through the courtyard, before Sun Ho urges Hwi to go ahead without him. The friends exchange a long, charged look, and they both seem to understand that this is likely goodbye as well; that Sun Ho will be unlikely to survive while fighting off the guards alone, but it’s also the only way for Hwi to gain the audience that he needs, with Bang Won. Augh.
Hwi turns to go to Bang Won, and as expected, it isn’t long before Sun Ho gets mortally wounded by multiple spears thrust into his body. Meanwhile, Hwi confronts Bang Won, and asks him why he broke his promise. Bang Won answers that to achieve a country for the abandoned, he needs the throne, and any sacrifice that leads him to the throne, is his to endure. Hwi puts his sword to Bang Won’s throat and demands that Bang Won revoke his kill order. Bang Won warns him that even so, Hwi will have to die. Hwi accepts, and Bang Won announces his order revoked.
Hwi drops his sword and returns to a dying Sun Ho’s side, with Bang Won’s men close behind him, poised to attack. Our friends share an extended moment of farewell, which I like to think was afforded them by Bang Won’s mercy, rather than by spotty writing involving suspended long drawn-out moments in time.
After a droll quip about the worth of his life, Sun Ho tells Hwi that he owes Hwi his life, and this is him paying Hwi back the debt, and then he adds through ragged breaths, “I.. only looked too far ahead and too high up. When I finally I looked back behind me, I saw you and Yeon. My country… was just one step behind me. If only I had known that sooner.” Oof. So much futility in that last sentence.
Sun Ho tells Hwi that he’s exhausted, and for all the sleepless nights he’s suffered, he’s going to sleep like a baby now. Hwi tells him to rest, and that he will join him soon. With his last breath, Sun Ho ekes out, “I missed you.. so.. much.” Ack.
In the throne room, we see Bang Won in what appears to be a moment of meditation. He lets out a muted sigh, and then, with tears gathering in degrees in his eyes, he laughs, mirthlessly and bitterly, and murmurs to himself the words that he’d always yearned to hear from his father, “You did well.” As the final tears fall, we can see him visibly steeling himself, to rule as king. What a fittingly complicated, lonely moment of victory, for a complicated, conflicted man.
As the palace gates open for more guards to enter, Hee Jae, who’s made her way there, catches sight of Hwi through the open gates, holding Sun Ho’s lifeless body, and himself the target of multiple archers, poised to shoot. They gaze at each other, their eyes full of tears, and full of love, like they’re trying to drink in the sight of each other as deeply as possible, to fuel them for the forever that’s ahead of them. Hwi smiles a smile that’s full of gratitude, and it feels like he’s saying to Hee Jae, “Thank you for everything; thank you for loving me; I’m so glad that I got to see you again.” Augh. We don’t see the arrows make contact, but we hear the snap of the bows.
Finally, we see Hwi’s lifeless body riddled with arrows, his arm still on Sun Ho’s, as Sun Ho’s head lies cradled on his chest. How tragic and how fittingly bittersweet, that these two soulmates, are finally at rest, with and in each other, having fought side by side for what they believed was truly important, and defended each other with everything they had, until their last breaths. Augh. How heartrending and beautiful and moving and tragic, in one.
One year time skip later, we see Hee Jae, Chi Do, Jung Beom, Moon Bok, Hwa Wol and their baby girl together at an idyllic waterfall, having a meal together, just as they’d promised. Amid the bickering, Hwi’s name comes up, and Hee Jae, with tears in her eyes, muses in voiceover: “We all have a country we wish to protect. Even though we break, snap, and crumble, we can’t give up on our nation. It is because that nation is equal to our lives.”
Although Hee Jae’s country remark feels kind of shoehorned in to wrap up the drama, I appreciate that Show has by this point, made it clear that the “country” that Hee Jae speaks of, refers to friends and family, rather than a nation with a government. It’s taken some of our characters their whole lives to come to this realization, but it’s moving and poetic, that upon this realization, they did not at all hesitate to give their lives to protect the “country” that they’d chosen. And I’d like to think that in the afterlife, Hwi and Sun Ho are together and happy, and at peace at last, even as they continue to watch over the friends whom they’ve left behind.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A stirring, emotional and poignant watch, if you can look past the logic stretches.
FINAL GRADE: B++
Someone made an absolutely fantastic MV in honor of Bang Won and his magnificence, and I just had to add it to this review, because it’s too good not to share. He’s just so mesmerizing in this, I felt hypnotized the whole way through! ❤️ Enjoy: