They say that sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination. I’d say that this is true, of this show.
The Rise of Phoenixes is (apparently) quite well-known for its less than ideal ending. That’s why I was reluctant to start this one, too. I mean, who in their right minds would watch a 70-episode show, knowing that it’s unlikely to end well, right?
But bittt assured me that I would fall in love with Chen Kun after watching this show, and that made me quite curious. I’m always ready to be a swooned-out fangirl, eh? Ha. So I dipped my toes into episode 1, became intrigued quite quickly, and then I got properly sucked in. By the time I hit narrative rough spots, I was attached enough to Show’s positives, to keep on going.
In this review, I’m going to attempt to lay it all out for you, so that you can decide whether this one would be worthwhile for you, too.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Ning Yi (Chen Kun) is the 6th prince of the Tiansheng empire, and has spent years being imprisoned in Zongzheng Temple for a crime he did not commit. Upon his release, he’s viewed with suspicion by his royal brothers, as potential competition for the throne. The emperor (Ni Dahong) grants Ning Yi a betrothal to the daughter (Xu Ge) of Colonel Qiu (Lu Yong), but the family does not consider this a favorable match, and tries to secretly switch the bride to Feng Zhiwei (Ni Ni), who is Colonel Qiu’s niece.
OST INSTRUMENTALS: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
I really like this instrumental track from the OST, and I found this video that basically plays it on loop. I thought it’d make a nice accompaniment to this review, so here it is, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
STUFF I LIKED
1. Show is polished and pretty to look at.
Show is expensively produced, and it shows. From the costumes, to the sets, to the lighting and the music, everything feels luxurious and lush. There’s a sense of spaciousness about everything, and our characters feel like they’re living in an actual world with real buildings, rather than on a drama set.
Given the fact that a good number of our characters are royalty, this lavish, well-appointed feel is very much in line with our story.
In particular, I wanted to give this loom in the screenshot below a shout-out; it’s so large, and it actually appears to be authentic and functioning.
2. Our story reminds me a little bit of Nirvana in Fire
..but with potential romance in the mix.
With Ning Yi seeking justice for a brother wrongfully accused of treason, while assisted by a strategist, this does give me some nice Nirvana in Fire vibes. And you guys know how much I loved NIF (hint: A Lot). At the same time, our story has strong lashings of romance, and I can’t deny that this romantic arc was a big hook for me. I do enjoy a good romance, after all.
With these two main arcs combined, this show kinda feels like a more melodramatic cousin of NIF, with lots of high emotion replacing the restraint of NIF. This is a combination I liked a lot.
3. The acting is generally very solid, with some stand-outs.
I found Chen Kun and Ni Ni especially outstanding, which I’ll talk more about later.
4. When Show delivers spots of raw emotion, it is excellent at it.
I kinda wish we’d had more of these emotional scenes, but I think part of what makes these emotional scenes land so well, is the context of continuous restraint that the earlier episodes create. That continuous tamped down emotion, masked by even-keeled decorum, elevates the emotional scenes with the contrast, and the release, much like a bow, long held taut finally being loosed, creates that emotional explosiveness and heft that Show does so well.
Spotlight on Episode 43
The scene in the prison, where Zhiwei asks to be held by her mother (Liu Mintao), unable to hold the tears back, is so heart-wrenching. How awful, to be faced with certain, impending death, knowing that these are the last moments you’ll spend with your mother, with whom you’ve been estranged for so long.
Ni Ni is fantastic; she looks so genuinely devastated, while appearing so fragile and vulnerable, even as she forces a smile amid the tears. I am so impressed with her delivery.
Chen Kun is great as well. The way Ning Yi is putting up a calm and unruffled front, only to be stirred to fiery glares that look like they could burn a hole through Ning Cheng (He Lei), for speaking flippantly about Zhiwei’s impending death.
And the way Ning Yi rides up to deliver the edict, he looks like he’s literally about to burst from the effort of holding himself together, is so affecting.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
1. The cast is sprawling, which is confusing, especially at first.
I found it the sprawling cast a bit bewildering, because there are so many characters in our drama world that it’s hard to remember who’s who and related to whom and how, but revisiting the beginning, and looking up the characters, helped a lot to keep our many characters straight in my head, and to therefore have a general idea of what was going on in our story.
2. The story is more meandering than I would like.
At 70 episodes, our story tends to wander and ramble, and this made me feel the length of this drama quite acutely. I felt like certain arcs could have been shaved down or cut out completely, to make for a tighter story.
For example, in episodes 12 and 13, I thought the way Zhiwei ended up in Qingming Academy could have been handled more simply.
If she hadn’t run away and gotten herself into trouble and just listened to Ning Yi, it would’ve taken 2 seconds for her to be placed in Qingming Academy, and without her having to use her favor from Ziyan (Zhao Lixin). Instead, there’s all this drama with Ning Yan (Tong Shao) trying to kill her, and then all the princes gathering in the middle of nowhere with their horses and men, basically jostling for the upper hand, with Ning Yan trying to kill Zhiwei, Ning Yi trying to save her, and Ning Sheng (Shi An) trying to get Ning Yan back to the Crown Prince (Hai Yitian). This felt a little tiresome and unnecessary.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
1. The political intrigue feels a bit one-note, after some time.
[MACRO SPOILER] Essentially, everyone takes turns aiming for the throne, and after a cycle or two, of various princes stepping up to the plate to be our story’s Big Bad, I started to find this a little repetitive. [END SPOILER]
2. Character development can be inconsistent and disjointed in spots.
[MINOR SPOILER] For example, Ning Yi is portrayed as quite weak and sickly in general, but sometimes, we see him spring into action, either by leading a war, or engaging in sword fights. While it’s nice to see him be strong rather than sickly, this did strike me as rather inconsistent.
Show does a similar thing with several characters, and this made the writing feel inconsistent, I felt. [END SPOILER]
3. Pacing is uneven, which makes the overall narrative feel a bit disjointed in spots.
Sometimes this show feels really slow, and then sometimes, a lot happens in one episode. When Show is interesting, I want to slurp up episodes back-to-back. But when it’s slow, I can’t muster up the interest to watch more than a single episode at a time.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 21, suddenly the Crown Prince goes from being investigated, to incriminated, to being sentenced to life in confinement at the temple – only to then prepare a coup. All that, in the space of one episode, when the episodes that had come before, had moved like molasses. 😛 [END SPOILER]
PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS OF MY WATCH
Chen Kun as Ning Yi
I really enjoyed Chen Kun’s outing as Ning Yi.
Did I love everything about his interpretation of Ning Yi? Well, no. There were certain scenes where his interpretation didn’t really work for me, to be honest. By and large, though, I found Chen Kun’s delivery of Ning Yi faceted and quite arresting.
Some people might find Chen Kun’s delivery of Ning Yi too theatrical, but I thought the theatrical quality, combined with Chen Kun’s very detailed delivery, made Ning Yi interesting, causing him to really stand out.
Given Ning Yi’s characterization in multiple shades of gray, he’s not a character that can be easily categorized as good or bad. He’s.. complicated. Sometimes, I feel drawn to him; sometimes, I feel sorry for him; and sometimes, I find him fascinating and almost repulsive.
[SPOILER] For example, in episodes 2 and 3, the way Ning Yi carries himself is so deliberate and languid, but it dances between being graceful, and being oily. When he’s talking strategy and philosophy with Ziyan, he appears righteous and shrewd, and then when he’s in the thick of executing his strategy, he comes across as slippery and duplicitous. [END SPOILER]
Because Ning Yi is characterized as someone who’s ambiguous and morally gray, but at the same time, places a great deal of emphasis on personal relationships, I often found myself uncertain of how much to trust his displays of emotion. Which tears were real, and which tears were crocodile tears, shed only as part of his strategy? It’s unsettling as it is fascinating, and I couldn’t look away.
In particular, Ning Yi’s facial expressions were a highlight of my watch, because his expressions keep changing. One moment he’s wincing in pain, the next, he’s leaking a pleased smirk, and then at the drop of a hat, he’s blazingly, startlingly regal. And it all shifts within mere seconds, consistently. I feel like I’m watching a kaleidoscope, and trying to figure out the pictures it’s portraying.
I find him such a fascinating, compelling mix, and I feel that Chen Kun’s intricate interpretation of Ning Yi, seasoned liberally with touches of the theatrical, makes him really pop onscreen.
On the shallow side of things, I think Chen Kun looks great as Ning Yi. I love the piercing gaze and chiseled features. I think the styling really works, on him. I love the top knot on him. I also love the long hair flowing loose on him; I think it makes him look interesting. Sometimes, when the story itself wasn’t grabbing me so much, I found myself just studying his features, and that made everything better, ha. 😅
Ni Ni as Zhiwei
I enjoyed Ni Ni’s delivery of Zhiwei a great deal, and she was definitely a big highlight of my watch as well.
I’d only ever seen Ni Ni before this, in Love and Destiny, and I must say, I much prefer her outing here. Not only is Zhiwei a more layered character, Ni Ni also gets a lot more room to showcase her acting range. I think she does a wonderful job of making Zhiwei really pop, as a character.
I love that Zhiwei is written to be so intelligent that she easily outsmarts most people, whether they are men or women. And I love that she’s kind, good-hearted, and loyal, too. She’s strong inside and out; she bears her burdens (mostly) without complaint, but she also won’t stand being bullied. She’s quick-thinking, and able to hold her own, whether she’s crossdressing as a man, or donning womanly robes. I found her versatile, capable and altogether lovely, and I could totally understand why various men in our story would be so taken with her.
I’d actually expected Zhiwei to be very ladylike all the time, because Ni Ni is so delicately beautiful, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find that when Zhiwei crossdresses as a man, she really comes across like a poised young man. Her speech patterns and entire manner in which she carries herself changes to something more masculine, while managing to remain natural.
And yet, when Zhiwei puts away the manly disguise, she becomes a graceful, elegant lady with a regal bearing about her. I found it quite remarkable and very impressive.
I found Ni Ni extremely versatile in her interpretation of Zhiwei, and I found her delivery spot-on, whether Zhiwei was being playful and cheeky, perplexed and impassioned, or deeply grieved and distressed. I was especially impressed with all of Zhiwei’s crying scenes. Every one of those scenes felt raw and real, and Ni Ni made those tears feel like they’d spilled over from the depths of Zhiwei’s soul.
Episode 51 is when Zhiwei learns the truth of her birth, and this is also when her mother and Feng Hao (Chang Long) die before her very eyes.
Ni Ni’s delivery of Zhiwei’s reaction to everything, is so full of heartbreak, denial, desperation and grief. It’s so good, and feels so raw and true. It doesn’t feel like a performance; she just is Zhiwei, full of palpable emotion, and I feel completely sucked into her pain.
It’s heartrending, agonizing torment, and Ni Ni delivers it all so beautifully and so elegantly. Amazing.
Ning Yi and Zhiwei together
From the very first episode, I had an inkling that Ning Yi and Zhiwei would make a great pair, because they are equally matched in wit and sharpness – and I was absolutely right. They do make a great pair. Their mutual attraction is what makes the early stretch of this drama as engaging as it is; they are each both very quickly intrigued by the other, and the way our story has them dance on each other’s boundaries, vacillating between showing a dumb front because they both have secrets to hide, and revealing lashings of their true selves, is very cracky stuff.
Chen Kun and Ni Ni share excellent chemistry that mostly simmers under the surface of decorum, but when allowed free rein, that chemistry unfolds as something wonderfully rich and deep, and sometimes quite intoxicating too, because of how electric it is.
I was completely absorbed by how Ning Yi and Zhiwei become more and more drawn to each other, and how they care more and more deeply for each other, despite the things that might hold them back on the surface.
In the grand scheme of things, Ning Yi and Zhiwei don’t actually spend a great deal of screen time together, but when they do, it’s so gratifying that it compels me to keep watching, if only to see them share the screen again.
Here’s a hand-dandy collection of some of this couple’s scenes.
E25. “Aren’t you tired? I’m very tired.”
Admittedly, I’d thought that Shaoning’s (Xu Hao) plan to kill Ning Yi in episode 24 is pretty annoying, but that scene where Ning Yi and Zhiwei instinctively work together, is pretty great. They are so in sync, and there is complete trust between them, even though Zhiwei is pushed at Ning Yi with a dagger. That was pretty cool, and we get a lot of sparky tension too, in the moment.
Right afterwards, the scene when Ning Yi and Zhiwei are in close proximity on the floor, after Shaoning’s attack, is rawr-inducingly sexy. The way he trails his nose, maybe-touching her skin; the way he looks at her with meaning; the way his lip curls in pleasure and amusement. Augh. It’s incredibly sensual.
When he asks, “Aren’t you tired? I’m very tired,” I take it to mean that he’s asking if she isn’t tired from the effort of fighting her feelings for him and staying away from him, as he is, in regard to her. It’s all very heady and intoxicating, and I can see why Ning Yi would look so entranced and captivated still, the next day.
E26. Burgeoning hyperawareness
As the hyperawareness between Ning Yi and Zhiwei becomes more obvious, we get a fair number of moments where we see each feeling acutely conscious of the other’s presence and proximity. This scene in episode 26 is a great example.
The way Zhiwei looks in Ning Yi’s direction, when Nanyi (Bai Jingting) is dressing her wound behind the screen, and the way he hovers nearby, his ears clearly trained in her direction, tell us so clearly that she’s concerned for him, and he, for her.
E36. “You are so ugly.”
I found Zhiwei’s ploy of making herself look ugly for her visit to the palace in women’s clothing, audacious, effective and nicely entertaining.
The reason I wanted to highlight this scene, is because I love Ning Yi’s look of amused delight, when he sees her all uglified. I mean. He’s delighted. By her ugliness. That’s so endearing to me. 😍
E41. “You should leave. The farther, the better.”
We don’t get many scenes overtly acknowledging feelings between Ning Yi and Zhiwei, but when we do get them, they’re so good.
The quiet, restrained, tearful intensity between them in this scene, as Zhiwei asks his permission to leave, and he grants that permission, is so full of pent-up emotion. There’s something very sensual about the way these two relate to each other, when they’re in close proximity, and decisions that will affect their relationship are laid on the table. I feel like I could cut the longing between them with a knife; it’s that palpable.
Also, the mutual biting is so off-the-wall and so unique to them. She’d bitten him in fury before, saying things weren’t over between them, and at this agreement on her departure, he bites her back, claiming that he wants to leave a memento, since she’s leaving, but I think there’s an additional layer of meaning, where he’s echoing her words, “Things aren’t over between us.”
E42. “I would rather die.”
After Zhiwei comes clean about her disguise and is thrown into prison to await sentencing, Ning Yi goes to see her, and I found the scene between them so restrained and so moving.
Each of them is willing to sacrifice themselves in order to save the other. Ning Yi’s willing to throw himself under the bus for her, either by naming himself as the father of her (fictitious) unborn baby or the instigator who’d instructed her to go to Qingming Academy in disguise, but she is not willing to let him do either, and would rather die. Oof. Her tears are so raw and so pure.
And although Ning Yi keeps a mostly even sort of composure, it’s clear that he’s very concerned for her. The way he clasps her hands in his, and tells her that as his little raccoon, she must have nine lives, is a poignant callback to his pet name for her, while also being such a plaintive statement of hope.
E43. The marketplace date
Zhiwei trying to tease an admission of sorts from Ning Yi, to explain why he keeps saving her, is more evidence that her feelings for him have grown. Before, she’d been content to pretend to ignore everything, but now, she seems peeved when Ning Yi doesn’t reveal any personal intent, in answer to her question.
Her request, which leads to the date in the marketplace, is such a nice glimpse of ordinary happiness. This is pretty much the most “ordinary happiness” that this not-a-couple experiences in our story, which is why I wanted to give it a spotlight, despite how short the scene is. They look so blissful together, in this small snippet of freedom.
E47. A love confession
It makes complete sense to me that an epidemic, with its life and death stakes, would force our OTP feelings to the surface. Up to this point, they’ve been more overtly caring and flirtatious with each other. But it’s only now, when Ning Yi’s life is in actual danger, that both of them come to acknowledge and embrace their feelings for each other.
Zhiwei’s deep worry for him, at the expense of her own safety; Ning Yi’s huge effort to appear healthy in front of the doctor, so as not to worry her; her letters to him with multiple hints to keep himself well, and his immediate understanding; it all speaks volumes.
They understand each other so well, and care about each other so deeply. And then, when Zhiwei is allowed to nurse him back to health, the stolen glances and the leaked smiles say a lot about how pleased they are, to see each other.
The part where she insists on feeding him his medicine is so full of nervous awkward body language, it perfectly communicates the hyperawareness that Ning Yi is feeling, and the intent way he looks at her, is completely intoxicating.
Most of all, though, the confession scene gets me by the heart.
The nervous body language, and the humming and hawing, makes Ning Yi feel so perfectly awkward and nervous, but when Zhiwei basically threatens to walk away, his confession comes out in a string of strongly spoken words combined with a sweetly plaintive gaze, that when he was hanging between life and death, he realized that he likes her and only her.
His voice trails off as he talks about why he’d hesitated to say it out loud, but Zhiwei leans in, grabs him by his sleeves, and makes ready to give her response – until they are interrupted by the announcement of a visitor.
But Ning Yi leans in to hear her answer, his cheek on her cheek, his nose brushing her skin, while she quickly whispers, “Me too,” before shooing him to see his visitor. Ning Yi’s dazed, happy, relieved smile is cute, and Zhiwei’s happy tearful smile is heartfelt. Eee! ❤️
E53. “Let’s never meet again.”
The goodbye scene on the bridge is short, and neither Ning Yi nor Zhiwei say very much, but there’s a lot of pathos around Ning Yi and Zhiwei separating. The scene is so full of wistful finality.
Ning Yi’s face, mostly impassive, belying a deep sadness in his gaze; Ning Yi grabbing Zhiwei’s face, dislodging the tears; Zhiwei tearing herself away, saying that they should never meet again. Ack. It’s all feels so deeply emotional and heartbreaking. 💔
E54. “It’s all your fault.”
In episode 54, Zhiwei rushes to see Ning Yi in his carriage when she hears that he’s hurt himself in a fall. The entire scene, where they both bemoan the fact that he’s a prince, is full of raw emotion. There’s a lot of wistfulness expressed between them, and it’s laced with a distinct sense of resignation.
He looks at her with such affection and longing, and even in the midst of her tears, there’s a little bit of coquettishness about her which indicates that she likes him. There’s something so heartbreaking about the fact that Ning Yi leans into the moment to tell her that she’s even prettier when she cries, when they both know that there is no future for them as lovers.
Still, I love the fact that he reaches to hold her hand. There’s something very wistful, yet also hopeful and assuring, in that silent gesture.
E58. “Moving forward and giving up are two different things.”
The scene where Ning Yi and Zhiwei say goodbye before he leaves for Tiansheng, leaving her in Jinshi, is so full of feeling, that’s tamped down by decorum, but still leaks out in sheening tears.
Even though he declines to say much else, Ning Yi’s words to Zhiwei, that going forward and giving up are two different things, combined with his wistful gaze, is quite potent. It literally haunts Zhiwei, to the extent that she nearly loses it on her wedding day. 💔
I realize that aside from our leads, my biggest soft spots are for the key right hand men in our story. Here’s the quick spotlight on each of them.
Bai Jingting as Nanyi
Nanyi really grew on me as a character, because of his selfless, enduring loyalty to Zhiwei. The way that he’s literally willing to dedicate his whole life to protecting her, is very moving stuff. And his key phrase, “Where you are, there I am,” is such a succinct summary of his entire life’s focus. It moves me, that he does all of this so matter-of-factly, never expecting anything in return. ❤️
He Lei as Ning Cheng
I grew to really enjoy Ning Cheng for his unwavering loyalty towards Ning Yi. He’d stayed with Ning Yi in Zongzheng Temple, and then served Ning Yi with indefatigable devotion, regardless of Ning Yi’s station or ambition. To Ning Cheng, it was never about whether Ning Yi would ever take the throne; he just wanted to be true to Ning Yi himself, to the extent that he would literally die for Ning Yi, and I found that very moving indeed.
Hou Yansong as Zhao Yuan
What I really liked about Zhao Yuan, is how sincerely he cares for the emperor and his sons. He’s consistently an affirming presence, and he often speaks up for the various princes in front of the disgruntled, irate emperor, and it’s clear that he does it out of genuine fatherly concern, rather than an actual invested interest in the politics of the fight for the crown. He’s a good egg.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
I’ll be honest; it’s not just Show’s ending that I didn’t like so much – I didn’t care for the whole last 10 episodes.
In the final 10 episodes, everything starts to get really messy and rushed, and quite a bit of stuff doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Most importantly, the dramatic tension in this last stretch feels distinctly manufactured instead of organic. More suspension of disbelief is required than ever, and even with my analytical lens set to its blurriest setting, I still couldn’t quite get into this final stretch.
The whole Dayue arc involving the Prince of An (Yuan Hong) feels hurried and all over the place, kinda like Show had been taking its own sweet time swanning around, and then realized too late, that it had a deadline to meet in serving up a finale, and had started scrambling to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the blender – and then served up the results. 🙄
The narrative itself is choppy, and the transition between scenes and mini-arcs feel abrupt. It almost feels like Show’s writers had to take a bunch of sick days at the end, and a bunch of interns were roped in to cobble together the finale.
For the record, here are some of the things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, during my watch of the last 10 episodes:
1. Why would Lingying suddenly tell Ning Yi that his mother’s alive, when she’d been so afraid to breathe a word to him before?
2. It’s a stretch that Nanyi would be able to talk so much, and so smoothly in his doctor disguise, especially since he’s naturally very reticent and non-verbal.
3. Ning Yi wiping Zhiwei’s memory with acupuncture (who among them has the expertise?), and Prince of An telling her that she’s his wife. And then the whole bomb+flood thing, with water levels rising so fast that people are swimming instead of walking, in a flash. This Titanic scene was really quite unbelievable. And then right away, in the next episode, we’re on dry land again, and everything that happened at Pucheng seems to be behind us. It’s more than a little whiplashy.
4. The sudden appearance of Dacheng’s fourth prince Zhangsun Hong feels like it came out left field, especially since Show’s been emphasizing for a long time, that Zhiwei is the only remnant of Dacheng royalty. Did nobody else know that he existed, or did people like Zong Chen (Xiu Qing) actually know, but lied to Zhiwei that she was the only remnant left? Either way, it’s hard to believe.
And now, Zhangsun Hong is stirring up trouble where there was none. Ning Yi was perfectly happy being a commoner, and Ning Qi (Qu Gaowei) – whose delivery unfortunately deteriorates into shouty petulance, the further into our finale stretch we get – was perfectly happy to let Ning Yi be a commoner, but Zhangsun Hong is set on turning these brothers against each other.
This feels very manufactured, because it’s introduced so late. Zhangsun Hong’s meddling all lands like a not very refined last-resort plot twist, written in to introduce sudden tragedy to our characters, who were otherwise on the road to something akin to a happy-ish ending. The opposite of deus ex machina, if you will.
Plus, Zhangsun Hong doesn’t even seem to have much of a plan, other than turning the princes against each other, and Zhiwei against Ning Yi. This seems small-scale, petty and kinda lame, on the scale of political revolution? 🙄
5. It strikes me as odd that people in this drama world are willing to die, just to point our key characters in the wrong direction. I’d think that people would value their lives more that that. But Zhangsun Hong dies in a set-up, created to make Zhiwei doubt Ning Yi. And Helian Zheng (Zhang Xiaochen) does the same. I find this hard to swallow, and frustrating to watch. Ning Yi and Zhiwei definitely feel like the victims of circumstance, and it’s perplexing to see a smart character like Zhiwei, who’s supposed to know Ning Yi so well, fall for the lies.
6. The emperor comes back from the supposed dead, after Ning Yi ascends the throne, looking not much the worse for wear. This is a definite stretch, especially since he was stabbed deep in the chest with a sword.
So why did I keep watching, even though I felt so dissatisfied by the way our story developed in Show’s last stretch?
Well, I stayed for the emotional beats, plus, I was curious to know how Show would tie up the story, especially for Ning Yi and Zhiwei.
In terms of positives, I did like the scene where Ning Yi comes out from Consort Qing’s (Zhu Rui) quarters where the emperor’s just been assassinated. He carries himself so regally.
When the doors open again and he walks out, his face is wan and there is a hollowness in his eyes, but significantly, he will not deign to answer to the accusations being thrown at him by Ning Qi and Ziyan. It’s like it’s beneath him to incline his ear to the noise.
And when he bellows that he will investigate to find the perpetrator behind the late emperor’s death, he’s absolutely commanding. I feel like he himself is the evidence that the people needed – ie, looking at him and feeling his personal power was enough, that they didn’t need further evidence – to acknowledge him as their new emperor.
The misunderstandings between Ning Yi and Zhiwei are finally cleared, Zhiwei agrees to Ning Yi’s request to be his Empress, and asks for three days to prepare.
However, as Ning Yi sets out to bring her to the palace, we see Zhiwei throw herself off a cliff, saying in voiceover, “Liulang. Forgive me for lying to you. You and I have caused the loss of too many lives. I cannot live with that. If we meet again in our next lifetime, let’s be ordinary people.”
Ning Yi seems to instinctively feel her presence leave the world, and he responds sadly in voiceover,
“Feng Zhiwei. I’m sure you’ve already arrived in the land beyond, where you’ll finally be free. Yet I, even though I’ll live the rest of my life in pain, I can’t end it with a stroke of a sword and follow you there. That’s because you and I still have unfulfilled wishes here on earth. I, Ning Yi, have witnessed too much destruction caused by the perpetual fight for power. Therefore, I will spend the rest of my life making sure that tyranny does not rear its ugly head. There will be no corruption, bribery or negligence. No innocents will be wronged. Only then will I be able to go meet you, Feng Zhiwei.”
Tear. Such a sad end, for a pair of lovers who, if not for the darkness of politics, would have been perfect for each other. 💔
I’ve heard that in the source novel, Zhiwei fakes her death and Ning Yi forsakes the throne in order to be with her, and I’ve also seen some theories hypothesizing that Zhiwei doesn’t die in this story, because Nanyi is shown waiting for her.
As much as I’d like to believe that’s true, I honestly don’t think that’s what Show was going for.
For a series that aired on TV in China, I do believe Show would choose to present the more socially conscious version of events, with Zhiwei being unable to live with her conscience, and Ning Yi putting nation before self, instead of following her in death. A very tragic end for our lovers, to be sure.
However, there is a silver lining in Ning Yi’s words, which suggest that he will reunite with Zhiwei, after he’s accomplished all that he needs to do, to uphold justice and rid the country of corruption. Additionally, there’s also what he’d said earlier, in episode 69, that he doesn’t just want to be with Zhiwei in this lifetime, but in every lifetime, for all of eternity.
And so, if we think of their love as something that is so deep and profound that it could – and would – transcend lifetimes, we can imagine them reuniting once again, sometime in the future, not as embattled royals, but simply, as an ordinary tailor and his little raccoon. ❤️
THE FINAL VERDICT:
An uneven ride that’s made significantly better by some truly excellent performances.
FINAL GRADE: B