THE SHORT VERDICT:
When Show is at its best, it’s pretty darn excellent.
We have gorgeous cinematography, lots of dramatic tension between deliciously gray characters, plot twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat, and excellent deliveries by our cast, to anchor it all.
When Show isn’t at its best, however, it can be rather perplexing and underwhelming.
Stuff doesn’t feel organic, some threads feel dropped, and sometimes, stuff doesn’t actually make sense.
Overall, I’d say that Show is still more solid than not, and more worthwhile than not. But oh, the could’ve beens.
THE LONG VERDICT:
You know how, when someone demonstrates such competence, that you give them more of the benefit of the doubt than most? And so, when they begin to fail you, you don’t actually notice until much later, because you’ve been busy giving them the benefit of the doubt?
That’s.. kinda what happened with me and this show.
Show was so strong from the get-go, that each episode felt like a vortex that transported me into another world, where that other world is all intensity and artistry.
I never really felt like I knew for sure what our characters were really plotting, or what direction Show would take.
It was just so very absorbing, really, and stayed that way, for a good solid 12 episodes.
After episode 12, I started to notice little things that niggled at me, but Show had demonstrated such confidence and competence by then, that I was sure that these little niggling things would be satisfactorily dealt with, by the time I got to Show’s end.
It’s only now that I’ve emerged on the other side, after finishing episode 16, that I can actually see with clarity, that a good chunk of those niggling things were actually weaknesses in the writing.
I’m rather bummed by this, because Show had been so good, for so long, but overall, I’d still say that this was a worthwhile watch.
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.
Overall, I’d say that the OST was very decent and did a solid job of scoring our story, particularly in amping up Show’s more dramatic streaks.
Oddly, though, I can’t say that this OST actually got under my skin.
I suspect that that has more to do with how I didn’t find this story as emotionally engaging as I would have liked (I’ll talk more about that later), than any weaknesses in the score or music direction.
In terms of a favorite track, I’d have to say Track 1, Dimly, because that’s the one that got closest to getting under my skin. I really like the ethereal vibe that this track gives off, and I feel like it added a touch of magic to the experiencing of this drama world.
If you’d prefer to just listen to Dimly on repeat, here it is as well. Just right-click on the video and select “Loop.”
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are few things that I think would be helpful to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of your watch.
1. Our characters are very gray, more often than not
Although Dramaland is serving up more gray characters these days compared to before, I do still find it interesting how Show makes almost all of its characters a shade of gray, including our protagonist, Lee Tae (Lee Joon).
Sometimes, you don’t know whether to root for our protagonist, or whether you even like him, and that’s part of Show’s intent.
I think knowing this ahead of time is helpful.
2. Think politics and power play – not romance
There’s a romance at the center of our story, but unlike other shows like The Red Sleeve, where the romance is the core focus of the narrative, this isn’t the case with this show.
Instead, it’s the politics and power play that takes centerstage. Although the romance gets a decent amount of screen time, I always felt like the romance functioned more as a secondary arc than a primary one.
I think knowing that in advance is helpful too.
STUFF I LIKED
I’m going to do a macro overview of the things I liked and didn’t like so much, in this show, before I do a selective dive into characters and relationships, later in this review.
Show’s very pretty to look at
This show is beautiful to look at.
Perhaps it’s the female directorial eye; some of the scenes, particularly in the early episodes, feel almost surreal; they are that pretty.
I feel like, comparatively speaking, there’s more noticeable artistry in Show’s first half, compared to its second half.
What I mean is, the directing and cinematography, like in terms of framing and lighting, are very solid all the way through to the end. But it’s in the earlier episodes where I remember there being scenes that actually took my breath away.
Here’s a selective spotlight on those extra pretty scenes.
E3. The scene at the marketplace, where Lee Tae and Yoo Jung see each other through the colorful ribbons of fabric.
So, so pretty, and such a great contrast, to the angst of the moment.
E7. The thing that strikes me most, this episode, is how precise the lighting is, and how it’s used to beautiful effect, throughout the episode.
For example, in our opening scene, where Lee Tae unveils Yoo Jung (Kang Han Na), I was fascinated by the red hue washing over everything – until I remembered that this is all taking place while fireworks are going off.
What a great use of that detail, to wash everything over with a fiery hue of red (a foreshadowing of bloodshed to come in our story, perhaps?).
And then, the way the camera zooms in on Lee Tae’s and Yoo Jung’s faces, to show them alternately illuminated by the red light of the fireworks, and then cast into shadows, has such a great effect.
That also makes me think of the light and shadows which will inevitably come into play, now that Yoo Jung expresses that she has decided that she needs to become Queen.
Aside from this, there are also many scenes in the rest of the episode, where I mentally stop for a second, just to take note of the pretty effect of the light and shadows, on our main characters’ faces.
Really beautifully done, I feel.
E7. I think Yoo Jung looks amazing in that red hanbok when she goes to the stables to meet Lee Tae to let him know that the Queen Dowager (Park Ji Yeon) would not be attending as previously communicated.
Gosh, that pop of red, combined with the intense shade blue, is so vibrant and beautiful, that Yoo Jung’s all I can see, when I look at my screen.
E9. The colors are so deep and rich, like the red in Lee Tae’s night robe, in our opening scene, and so artfully contrasted, like it is, against the darkness of the night, with golden light filtering over the scene from nearby lanterns, and causing that red in his robe to look burnished.
Everything is so artfully framed, at the same time. I feel like I can sense the tenderness and care that the cinematographer put into conceptualizing each scene.
It’s all a gorgeous feast for the eyes.
Show is about a fictional king
I realize that I really like the fact that Show chose to make this story about a fictional king.
It really gives Show the freedom to just go ham with all the dramatic developments, without having to worry about upsetting netizens for historical inaccuracy.
Plus, because it’s not based on history, I have absolutely no idea how things are going to turn out, so there’s a built-in element of unpredictability that I really like.
Dramaland should make more sageuks about fictional kings; it’s nice to be kept guessing like this, coz we literally have no idea who’s going to survive this story.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
I have mixed feelings about the writing in this show, which is why I’ve got it in this section.
When the writing felt strong, it was great. Overall, I’d say that the first 12 episodes were pretty deftly written, and I felt like Show had me on the edge of my seat on a regular basis.
However, when the writing didn’t feel strong, which I’d say was more obvious in the last 4 episodes, I found my attention wandering, and my engagement wavering – by a good chunk.
Here’s my attempt to break down what I felt was great about the writing when it was great – and what wasn’t working about the writing, when it wasn’t so great.
When the writing was strong
1. When the politics are successfully given personal undertones
When the writing’s great, is when I felt like the politics and personal stories blended best, so that I felt completely invested in the politics (even though I’m typically less interested in political arcs), because of how the politics affect our characters.
A key example is the queen selection process, which Show delves into between episodes 2 to 4.
I think I can safely say that I’ve never been more invested in a queen selection process in any other show, than this one.
E2. I know in my head, that the selection of the Queen is basically just a manifestation of the fight for political power, with Lee Tae, Park Gye Won (Jang Hyuk) and the Queen Dowager being major players.
But with the romantic relationship between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung in the picture, as well as Minister of War’s daughter Yeon Hee (Heo Sung Tae and Choi Ri) being secretly smitten with the king, to my eyes, this all takes on shades of star-crossed lovers, meshed with a love triangle, meshed with emotional power struggles.
It all comes together in a rather absorbing fashion, because the stakes now feel as emotionally driven, as they feel power-driven. I rather like it, I think.
E4. I basically held my breath all episode, waiting for events to unfold in such a way, that Lee Tae would come face to face with Yoo Jung. That was my personal ask of Show, that we would get there before the episode ended, and Show delivered. Huzzah!
Of course, a lot of stuff leads up to that, and it all felt very momentous and high stakes.
Really well done.
2. When it’s dramatic and intense
When the writing’s great, Show feels convoluted and intense, and dark and delicious, all at the same dramatic time
It’s a high drama sort of vibe, where nothing feels dry and measured, and everything’s kind of amped up and primed for high stakes and high emotions.
I liked that a lot.
Here’s the selective spotlight on some excellently written and executed stretches
Episode 6: The escape plan
E6. I kinda love the escape plan, for how complex it is, requiring Lee Tae to even role play a bit, in ordering Yoo Jung to only attend the feast, if she wears a black veil.
Plus, the way it’s presented, it’s all quite thrilling, with scenes of Yoo Jung in that secret passageway, spliced with scenes of Park Gye Won piecing together the fact that she’s running away, and the feast itself, with Lee Tae looking on ruefully.
I did love the scene in the passageway, where Yoo Jung comes face to face with Ttonggeum (Yoon Seo Ah). There’s so much genuine affection between them, that I’m just happy that they get this quick reunion.
And, even though I knew in my gut, that Yoo Jung would send Ttonggeum in her stead to go with Eunuch Jung, I still held my breath, as Show put all the pieces in place, for the reveal.
By this point, it’s no longer the fact that Yoo Jung stays, but the manner of the reveal, that makes it feel as dramatic as it is, and Show manages it so deftly. I love it.
I love how Eunuch Heo (Cha Soon Bae) is so flummoxed at the realization that the lady whom Eunuch Jung (Ha Do Kwon) is escorting, isn’t Yoo Jung after all.
I also love how Lee Tae’s tentative approach to the veiled lady, turns into tenderness and grief in one, as he sees Yoo Jung there, even though she’s supposed to have run away.
And in response to Lee Tae’s question of what she’s doing there, I do love the quiet determination in Yoo Jung’s answer, “I am your concubine. I will live as your woman. To do that, I will become the Queen.”
That’s so badass, really. She’s basically saying that she’s going to become Queen, because she loves him, and she’s going to do that, with or without his support.
And finally, I love how Park Gye Won is so shrewd, as he surveys the situation, and concludes correctly, that Yoo Jung has decided to become Queen.
The words that he mutters under his breath, are the perfect note on which to end off our episode:
“I offer you my congratulations. Your Highness the Queen.”
Ahhh. It’s all so deliciously dramatic!
Episode 12: The unexpected twist
E12. Woah. What. an. episode. this turned out to be. I honestly never saw that twist coming! 🤯 What bold, deft writing. Such confident execution.
First of all, I hadn’t expected that, when Yoo Jung announces that Lee Tae has awakened, that she’s actually telling the truth, more or less.
I’d thought that Lee Tae was in a fully unconscious state, but as it turns out, he’s been drifting in and out of consciousness, and I’m guessing that it’s this, that gives Yoo Jung the boldness to make that announcement.
I’d actually wondered if the report given by the royal physician, that it was reasonable to expect Lee Tae to awaken soon, had been falsified in order to bolster Yoo Jung’s announcement, but as it turns out, that report had been true.
Park Gye Won and Yoo Jung are effectively on the same side, at least for the time being, because both of them are interested in protecting Lee Tae, and preventing the Queen Dowager from realizing her regent dreams.
However, it’s hard for Yoo Jung to trust Park Gye Won, and understandably so, given his track record, so I really feel for her, when she looks perplexed each time Park Gye Won stands before her, and speaks of keeping Lee Tae safe.
I would be suspicious too, in her shoes. How would she know, for certain, that she can trust Park Gye Won? I can see why she would hedge and hesitate.
At the same time, both Park Gye Won and Minister Jo are convinced that the Queen Dowager couldn’t possibly be acting on her own, and that there must be someone behind her, supporting her – but neither of them knows who that someone might be.
As we see, however, the monk (Oh Seung Hoon) really is the one who’s pushing the Queen Dowager, to go beyond her ordinary boundaries.
When she asks him what to do, she actually looks pained when he reminds her that Park Gye Won is her enemy, and is the who had lied about protecting her.
This indicates to me that without the monk’s pushing, perhaps the Queen Dowager would have chosen a different, less radical path.
As it is, though, with his urging, and his assurance that the King would surely not awaken ever again, the Queen Dowager gains the boldness to make some audacious moves, like threatening the Chief Scholar with the life of his son, right there in her chambers.
She goes very rogue, and I can only imagine the fallout, in coming episodes. Eep.
It’s only on hindsight, that I see that Lee Tae’s recovery outside of the palace, is engineered. First, Eunuch Jung pushes the idea with Yoo Jung, assuring her that he has the troop dispatch token for Jeolla Province.
And then, there’s how the monk urges the Queen Dowager to move the King out of the palace, so that she won’t end up being tainted by his bad luck. Sneaky, but so smart, on hindsight!
I’d originally felt a measure of relief, that Yoo Jung had given Ttonggeum a secret order, so that Ttonggeum would not be found, when Yeon Hee sends men for her, after deciding to act on the Queen Dowager’s order to get rid of Yoo Jung.
BUT. Poor Ttonggeum gets captured by that horrible Chief Eunuch (who’s not even really chief right now, is he?), and ends up getting tortured.
Gah. Poor girl. I’ve always thought that she won’t survive our story, and that she would end up dying in order to protect Yoo Jung, and it kinda seems like this is where her arc is going, right now.
When Yeon Hee reveals what her conditions are, the way Ttonggeum laughs in response, makes me think that she understands that there’s no way for her to survive this, and so she might as well protect Yoo Jung to the very end. Ack. 😬
I’m actually not terribly surprised that Chief Eunuch sends someone after the monk, to “check him out,” ie, try to kill him, since Chief Eunuch’s never been trustworthy anyway.
But still, his audacity to go after the person who’s advising the Queen Dowager, to whom he’s just pledged undying loyalty, is quite galling.
WHAT. A. REVEAL. though, when we realize that the monk is under Eunuch Jung’s protection, and is, in fact, the mysterious Siwol, whom Lee Tae has mentioned in passing, a couple of times.
Which means that the person who’s pulling the puppet strings, in all of the Queen Dowager’s recent regency hijinks, is none other than Lee Tae himself.
Which means that he’d had himself poisoned just enough, to make himself sick, just like his mother had poisoned him all those years ago, to protect him, and then, he’d used his apparent impending death, to influence the Queen Dowager to take steps to incriminate herself.
No wonder the monk could tell the Queen Dowager so many things with such accuracy! That had all been information provided by Eunuch Jung, I’m sure.
And, I’m sure that Eunuch Jung must have made sure that the monk had been safe, during the 10 days that the Queen Dowager had had him bound and abandoned.
All this time, I’d more or less dismissed Lee Tae as lacking in the shrewdness, foresight and power, to actually be of real consequence, in this fight for power within the palace.
But he’s proven me very, very wrong, because his plan, with its related personal risks, has turned out to be quite genius.
There’s no way now, for the Queen Dowager to escape incrimination, because her actions have been witnessed by literally the entire palace.
And all those who’ve pledged their loyalty to her, while she’s prematurely enforced her regency, are clear to see as well.
In this one lethal move, Lee Tae should be able to weed out almost all the people who are disloyal to him.
Like I said, my mind is happily blown. Well done, Lee Tae. Well done indeed. I’m sorry for underestimating you. *slow clap*
When the writing was not so strong
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, I think that the writing is weaker from episode 13 onwards, through to the end of the show.
And, I also think that the weaknesses in the writing become more apparent on hindsight, because that’s when you’re able to see that certain narrative threads were dropped, or when Show doesn’t follow through as well as one might have hoped.
I talk more about this in the spotlights on the penultimate and finale episodes, but for now, here’s a handful of spotlights, which I hope will help to illustrate what I’m trying to say.
1. When Show doesn’t follow through well
E14. Mainly, remember how, at the end of episode 12, I’d been sooo impressed by Lee Tae and his entire plan to poison himself, while being the invisible puppet master being the Queen Dowager’s treasonous actions?
Well, I find myself a lot less impressed now, two episodes later.
It just feels like Lee Tae pulled off that amazing feat – and then missed the timing to actually make something useful out of it.
Instead, he’s been biding his time for what feels like wayyy too long, so much so that by the time he actually takes action to return to the palace, it feels like it’s too late, really.
This might have landed differently, if Show had actually called him out on this, and to Show’s credit, Yoo Jung does confront him about this.
But, the key thing, to me, is that Show itself doesn’t actually judge Lee Tae’s actions as being less than helpful or inspiring.
Show appears to remain neutral about this, and altogether, the effect of this, for me, is that the brilliance of the twist in episode 12 feels undercut, unfortunately.
Also, I have to admit that while I looked forward to the scene of Lee Tae re-entering the palace and facing off with the Queen Dowager, in execution, it was a little underwhelming.
Mostly, I had expected that Lee Tae would have been able to do more, to censure the Queen Dowager for her treasonous acts, but filial piety reigns supreme, and the Queen Dowager is banking on the fact that she’s officially his stepmother, to keep herself safe.
In effect, this felt like an anticlimax, particularly after the jaw-dropping mic-drop of episode 12.
2. When stuff doesn’t really make a lot of sense
E13. I’m glad that Court Lady Eum Jeon (Kang Yeo Jung) manages to get Yoo Jung out of the palace where the bloodbath is taking place, but the fact that she just leaves Yoo Jung there, among those other dead bodies, to wake up alone and vulnerable, strikes me as very shortsighted.
I mean, if they could hatch a plan to get Yoo Jung out of the palace, was there no way to put Yoo Jung in a safer place..?
That scene, where the hired assassins spot her and chase her down, ends on a highly improbable note.
I mean, how could Yoo Jung have outrun them enough, to actually be able to find a hiding place under a house, before the assassins arrived to search the place?
And how would Lee Tae and his men know to find her there, since there are so many other places they could have gone?
This felt like pretty sloppy writing, unfortunately.
3. When Show includes details that don’t feel necessary
E13. I’m in-principle intrigued by the semi-flashback we get at the top of the episode, where we learn that Lee Tae’s mother, Queen Inyoung (Woo Mi Hwa), had poisoned him systematically, so that he would grow a tolerance for it.
That’s really interesting, but.. I’m not actually sure that we needed that as part of the story, to be honest.
Because, even if he hadn’t grown a tolerance for it, I had believed that it had been possible for her to poison him, just enough, so that he would be sick for a spell, and then recover.
By extension, I then also believed that he would be able to do the same, this time, in order to execute his secret plan.
It actually doesn’t make any difference to how feasible I find his plan, to know this bit of backstory, that he’d gone through a season where he’d been systematically poisoned.
Also, I’m guessing that even if he’d developed a tolerance for it, wouldn’t a stronger dose of poison be able to kill him, all the same..? It would just take a stronger dose than average, is all? And that’s not relevant to this current plan..?
I suppose there is an added dimension of pathos, to the idea that a royal would need to suffer through a season of poison-induced sickness, in order to improve his survival odds in the palace. Maybe that was the main point..? 😅
4. When Show uses token characters
Specifically, I’m thinking of Siwol, who lands more as a plot device than an actual character to my eyes.
Show introduces him with a bit of a flourish in episode 12, revealing that the mystical monk who’s been advising the Queen Dowager, is none other than the Siwol whom Lee Tae’s been mentioning off and on, to Eunuch Jung.
The thing is, though, Show never actually attempts to develop Siwol as a character, and we don’t know anything much about him, aside from the fact that Eunuch Jung had saved him, and that he’s now estranged from his birth father, and is eager to please Eunuch Jung and Lee Tae.
On a tangent, I realize that it doesn’t really make sense to me, that in earlier scenes, Lee Tae had told Eunuch Jung that he felt it was time for Siwol to pass the government exam to enter the palace, but Siwol’s birth father apparently is thoroughly convinced of Siwol’s mystical abilities as the Maitreya.
These two things don’t really match up..?
I feel like Siwol would have only had time to either study for the government exams, or build up a reputation as a mystical incarnation of the Maitreya – not both.
Back on topic, because Show doesn’t spend much time or effort to acquaint us with Siwol, I don’t actually understand what he returns to the palace to do, in episode 14, when he’d actually been instructed by Eunuch Jung to leave the capital.
And therefore, when Siwol ends up dying at the hands of the Queen Dowager’s people, I don’t actually feel anything in response to his death.
I feel that if Siwol had been more developed as a character, his death would have made more of a narrative impact than it did.
5. When our characters behave in ways that don’t feel organic
I’ll talk more about this in my spotlights on the penultimate and finale episodes, but broadly speaking, I did feel that in Show’s last stretch, we did see characters behaving in ways that didn’t feel organic to their characterization.
For example, I didn’t quite believe that the Queen Dowager would put herself in a situation where death was almost a certainty – just so that her death would hurt Lee Tae.
Neither does it feel true to Yoo Jung’s characterization, that she would be aggrieved at Lee Tae over Ttonggeum’s death, for such a short time.
This, particularly since Lee Tae conveniently categorizes Ttonggeum’s death as a necessary sacrifice – when his self-poisoning hadn’t accomplished all that much, in the end.
Compared to Show’s earlier stretch, our characters at the end, feel like shadows of their earlier selves, unfortunately.
They were so much more colorful and compelling in our earlier stretch, when they were unabashedly gray.
In our final stretch, they just don’t pop as much, and their actions feel conveniently aligned to the ending that Show wants to serve up.
It feels like Show chickened out, in a manner of speaking.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
Show isn’t as emotional engaging as I would like
I didn’t realize this until around the episode 14 mark, because I’d been too dazzled by Show’s earlier deft use of plot twists.
The thing is, I find that over the course of my watch, I felt less and less emotionally connected from our main characters, with Yoo Jung being the only maybe-exception.
Instead, I found myself going into a more detached spectator sort of space, where I wanted to see what happened next, but my feelings weren’t super invested.
I almost feel bloodthirsty, actually, coz sometimes, while watching these characters, I think, “You’ve brought this upon yourselves, so reap what you’ve sown.” 😈
I think that at least part of the reason for that, is that, except for Yoo Jung, our other key characters are pretty gray. This means that I often don’t agree with what they’re going, or how they’re doing it, because of how gray they are.
And if I don’t agree with that they’re doing, then I’m interested to see how their gray decisions all shake out, and whether they will need to pay a particular price for doing the gray thing that they did.
If that makes sense.
Another part of the reason I feel emotionally detached, is because I find that, except for Yoo Jung, I don’t particularly like any of our key characters. I may find them interesting to varying degrees, but I can’t say I actually like them.
Last but certainly not least, I do think that in focusing on serving up surprise twists and turns, Show got into the habit of not actually giving us insight into why our characters make certain decisions or behave a certain way.
This all came together to make me feel emotionally detached from our characters, and that put a limit on how much I could feel invested, while watching this show.
SPOTLIGHT ON CHARACTERS & RELATIONSHIPS
Lee Joon as Lee Tae
I have to admit that at first, I did find it rather jarring, to see our protagonist display such gray, morally ambiguous behavior.
I think it was just a matter of a lens adjustment for me, since the last few sageuks I watched – like The Red Sleeve and The King’s Affection – had featured kings who had strong righteous streaks in them, even if their situations were complicated.
I just.. wasn’t used to the idea of a morally ambiguous king.
Once I adjusted my lens for it, I did find that Lee Tae being a gray character, gives Lee Joon a great deal of room to showcase his acting range.
We get happy, pure-feeling moments with Lee Tae, but we also get scenes where he feels dark, complex and rather dangerous.
I can see how this role would be a delicious challenge for an actor who’s serious about his craft.
At the same time, I also found myself feelings less and less satisfied with Lee Tae as a character, as I entered the final stretch of my watch.
Overall, I found Lee Tae more interesting at first, and then more frustrating, later in the show.
E1. In my head, I can understand that Lee Tae is basically forced to play Park Gye Won’s game, in order to survive, but I still find that grayness of his character difficult to digest.
For example, when he stages the rescue of Yoo Jung from the prison, it literally entails that dozens of other people be burned to death, just so that he can rescue her. That’s pretty disturbing to me, that he would readily sacrifice so many people, to further his own interests.
But at the same time, I can recognize his desperation to save Yoo Jung. It’s.. complicated, to say the least.
And then there’s how he treats his Queen (Ham Eun Jung), in this episode.
On the one hand, I can understand that he is impatient to get rid of her, because she had been forced on him, for political reasons, and he desires to be connected to a more supportive faction.
On the other hand, am I to understand that he’d had a hand in poisoning her, since he knew that she would die?
And, he’s really pretty cold and cruel, in the way he toys with her feelings, even while she’s so close to death. 😳
E2. I am very fascinated by how Lee Tae’s gone about snagging Yeon Hee’s heart, long before the Queen selection process goes into full swing. It feels very shrewd – but with a rather dangerous flavor to it.
Like, I’m impressed, and also slightly perplexed at how Lee Tae thinks nothing of toying with a young lady’s emotions.
On top of that, I also find myself feeling like I likely wouldn’t want to be caught in a situation where Lee Tae might decide that I’d be useful to him.
That feeling also comes from the confirmation that Lee Tae absolutely had something to do with the previous Queen’s death.
His secret communication system with his trusted eunuch, Eunuch Jung, is quite brilliant.
And again, this takes on dark shades in my mind, due to the heavy hint that Show gives us, that the communication about the Queen’s impending death, likely had been the result brought about by an order by Lee Tae, for Eunuch Jung to cause the Queen’s death.
Most of all, I’m impressed and repulsed all at the same time, with how Lee Tae creates a situation where Minister of War, Minister Jo, catches him in a compromising situation with Yeon Hee.
I’m impressed because he makes it such that Minister Jo looks like he’s the one intruding on the King’s affairs, and I’m repulsed because Lee Tae planned this, knowing that it would result in the deaths of at least a few of his cavalry.
That feels cruel, to me. 😭 Although, I know, I know, it’s par for the course, for royal scheming such as this.
It’s admittedly extremely shrewd and clever of Lee Tae, to dangle this carrot, of being father of the Queen, in front of Minister Jo.
E4. I’d like to give Lee Tae credit where it’s due. Last episode, I’d estimated that he actually had no intention of telling Yoo Jung the truth, but this episode, he muses to Eunuch Jung that he should do exactly that, and let her go, finally.
So.. his intention was genuine, at least.
And, he really is worried about her safety, once he realizes that she had left her home in a hurry, either because she’d been on the run, or because she’d been taken.
I do believe that Lee Tae’s affection for Yoo Jung is true. I just.. don’t know how strong it is, and how his affection for her would stack up against his ambitions for power.
That very conundrum, which essentially pits Lee Tae against himself, in a manner of speaking, should be coming up in future episodes, intrigues me greatly.
E4. The near-miss, when Lee Tae spies Yoo Jung among the candidates, and takes off running, in hopes of seeing her, only to be stopped in his tracks by the Queen Dowager, was breathtakingly epic.
After all, not only is it against palace decorum for the King to want to attend an event without first informing his elders, it is also against palace decorum for the King to run – and Lee Tae totally runs, when he thinks he sees Yoo Jung among the ladies.
Not gonna lie; I had my heart in my throat through the whole thing, because it had seemed so plausible, that Lee Tae would get a glimpse of Yoo Jung, since he’s the King and all, and therefore should be able to break some palace rules if he wants to.
It’s too bad that the Queen Dowager shows up to stop Lee Tae in his tracks.
The impasse during the selection of the queen was also pretty gripping, in that it seemed that there could be no way to arrive at an outcome that would please everyone.
And yet, that’s exactly what Lee Tae does. I’m rather impressed by his solution, actually. If he takes both candidates as his concubines, and then helps Yeon Hee along, there’s a good chance that he’d be able to eventually make her Queen, after the 3 years of mourning are up.
Lee Tae may not have the same foresight that Park Gye Won has, but he does have more wile to him than one might first expect.
E5. When Eunuch Jung points out to him that this is his chance to get rid of Park Gye Won, by using Park Gye Won’s deceit against him, he doesn’t reject the idea outright, even though he realizes – with tears in his eyes – that if he does that, Yoo Jung will die.
This tells me that he might be willing to consider it, even if it means Yoo Jung’s death.
Like, he’d grieve her death, but he’d consider it a necessary evil, to achieve a greater goal. Meaning, the specter of her death wouldn’t actually be a guaranteed deterrent to him. That’s rather disturbing, honestly, especially if I put myself in Yoo Jung’s shoes.
But again, that’s one of the things that makes Lee Tae fascinating to watch. I’m just so curious to know – as Park Gye Won is also curious to know – whether Lee Tae’s feelings will trump his ambition.
E6. Lee Tae’s whole “it’s okay to hurt others as long as Yoo Jung is safe” sort of thinking is playing out quite consistently.
It’s present even in the way Lee Tae orders that Yoo Jung’s punishment would be that all her court ladies and maids be flogged.
E9. The thing that I find interesting about Lee Tae, is that sometimes, like in this opening scene, when he’s telling Yoo Jung that he will find a way to save her, he’s all heartfelt charisma, and it’s quite heart-wobbling to behold.
But then, in the stark light of day, when he actually needs to deal with the complications that Yoo Jung had referred to, he looks quite helpless and lost.
To be fair, I do think that Lee Tae is sincere in the moment, when he says those things to Yoo Jung. But I do also think that he might be rather reckless in making those promises, in that he doesn’t actually have what it takes, to make it happen.
This contrast makes me think of romantic players, who know how to charm someone with their words and their looks of intensity, but who are really nothing much at all, when push comes to shove.
I can’t help wondering if Lee Tae is kinda-sorta all words, in that respect.
E10. Last episode, I’d found Lee Tae and his happy day with the farmers really cringey. This episode, however, I’m mollified that Show frames it a bit better.
I generally like the idea that Lee Tae is now interested to know more about the common people, and their lives, because it is only by knowing, that he can make positive changes to the way they live.
This feels more important that the fleeting joy of feeling like he’s plowing the land alongside the farmers, so I feel much more neutral towards that beat now.
However, when Lee Tae asks Yoo Jung to wait for him to clear her father’s name, I have to confess that my confidence in Lee Tae’s ability to do so, is still very shaky – at best.
E11. Through everything that happens this episode, I keep getting the feeling that Lee Tae is the most helpless and useless one, even though he is the King.
For example, his conversation with Minister Jo, where he first leaves Minister Jo in charge of guarding the palace during his visit to his father’s grave, then ends up accusing Minister Jo of trying to have Yoo Jung killed, it all feels so ineffectual, honestly.
It feels like that’s his biggest move this episode, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything.
And then there’s how he summons Ttonggeum to question her, but that doesn’t achieve anything either.
Instead, Minister Jo takes the matter to Yoo Jung, and begs Yoo Jung to have mercy on Yeon Hee, and then takes the matter to Park Gye Won, urging him to persuade Yoo Jung, before things get out of hand.
Basically, it feels like all our other players are more active in dealing with the situation, than Lee Tae himself. I’m starting to feel less and less confidence in Lee Tae’s ability to not only protect Yoo Jung, but also, to keep himself safe, since he ends up poisoned, this episode.
E14. Like I mentioned earlier, I was not impressed by how Lee Tae doesn’t do a whole lot to follow up with his self-poisoning ploy in episode 12.
Additionally, it’s become clear, this episode, that Lee Tae had kept Yoo Jung in the dark with regards to his scheme.
Now, with Yoo Jung expressing determination to find the person who had poisoned Lee Tae and caused such bloodshed to occur in the palace, Lee Tae looks awkward and ashamed of himself.
Which he totally should, since, like I mentioned, his grand plan doesn’t appear to have been very good or useful so far.
Tellingly, he doesn’t tell Yoo Jung the truth, even when she talks about searching for the truth, so now, he’s willfully keeping information from her, and allowing her to channel her anger towards an unknown Someone, when that someone is actually him.
I feel quite disillusioned by Lee Tae this episode, to the point where I’m ready to take back any praise I gave him before, because I’d thought his grand plan was soo clever.
I also found the demise of the Chief Eunuch rather too macabre for my taste. I would have preferred it if they had punished him openly for his crimes, rather than resort to killing him secretly like this, and with such a slow and awful death too.
It feels unnecessarily cruel, to my eyes, like Lee Tae couldn’t take the true traitor, the Queen Dowager, to task, and instead, lashed out at someone weaker, like the Chief Eunuch, by having him die a slow and lonely death, trapped in that secret passageway.
Let’s just say that this didn’t increase my respect for Lee Tae.
And honestly, what does Lee Tae do, now that he’s back in the palace, and with his ministers again? He raises his voice at his subjects and demands that everyone who’d taken part in the rebellion be arrested.
That’s like dealing with the symptom of a sickness but not the root cause, since he’s not doing anything about the Queen Dowager and her rogue regency, and only looking to punish those who dared cooperate with her demands, when she made them.
It just feels.. cowardly, somehow, that the way Lee Tae thinks to get rid of the Queen Dowager, is to strike a deal with Park Gye Won, that the only way Park Gye Won and his fellow ministers will survive, is to depose the Queen Dowager.
Like, you can’t do it, but you’d kill other people, if they can’t do the same thing you can’t do?
I can’t help it; I just keep having a lower and lower opinion of Lee Tae, through this. 🤔
Kang Han Na as Yoo Jung
In terms of our main characters, Yoo Jung is the only one whom I would categorize as an overtly good character. In that sense, she acts as a bit of a moral compass for our narrative, as well as for our other characters.
Kang Han Na brings Yoo Jung to life with a great deal of ease and charm, and I found myself liking her right away, soon after being introduced to her in episode 1.
She’s self-possessed, confident and appears to be a shrewd businesswoman, on top of everything else.
Plus, she possesses a lovely sparkle that belies the tragedy that she’s experienced in her life; I can’t help but be won over by her, in just a few short minutes.
As our story progresses, I found that I really enjoyed watching Yoo Jung display her shrewdness and her smarts.
Not only is she really strategic in her thinking, she’s also compassionate and people-focused, AND she’s bold in carrying our her plans, on top of it all.
How could I not root for her, right?
E2. I’m intrigued – though not entirely surprised – by the idea that underneath her carefree demeanor, Yoo Jung is very much interested in getting revenge on those who destroyed her family.
(I’d thought that this would make an interesting angle, but Show changes direction with this not too far into our story, which I felt was a possible missed opportunity. It might have been interesting to see a vengeance-driven Yoo Jung, after all.)
E4. Of course Yoo Jung wouldn’t just sit there and simply do whatever Park Gye Won tells her to do, without at least attempting to fight back, and I was pretty impressed by her attempt to get out of his clutches.
What a smart move, to tap on Park Gye Won’s righteous son (Lee Tae Ri), her supposed “cousin,” to rescue her people from being held hostage, along with a letter with instructions for them to flee to Gyeongsang Province, where she will catch up to them.
..Or at least, that’s what she thinks.
E6. Trust Yoo Jung to make the best of the situation, and dress her court ladies’ wounds herself, which in turn must surely increase their loyalty towards her.
The thing is, when Yoo Jung does this, it strikes me as a genuine act of concern with bonus benefits, rather than a strategic move of false niceties, designed to win hearts.
And that, I think, is going to be the X-factor that will win her many hearts, in the long term.
E8. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Yoo Jung planned to use that reveal to Park Gye Won, about her true identity.
That’s a secret that’s wholly disadvantageous, not only to her, but to Lee Tae as well, since he’s the one who had saved her, back then.
I suppose I should have seen it coming, that with the reveal of such a secret, Yoo Jung had been prepared to die, but somehow, it just didn’t occur to me. I’d just assumed that, like most people, she would be interested in ensuring her own survival, even as she schemed her way to victory.
I guess I’m just not that attuned to the sageuk way of life..? 😅
To put things in perspective, however, I’d just like to point out that even Park Gye Won hadn’t figured out that Yoo Jung had been prepared to die, with the reveal of that secret. And, Park Gye Won’s pretty darn formidable, in his own right.
Well. That does make me feel better, about my lack of narrative foresight, heh.
Just like Park Gye Won recalls Yoo Jung’s father saying, she really could have become a minister, if she’d been born a boy. And this episode, she demonstrates that natural talent so well, in how she manages the chess board, using the limited power and influence that is available to her.
Yoo Jung seems to literally see every move that Park Gye Won will make, five steps ahead of where his head is currently at.
That’s really impressive, in and of itself, since Park Gye Won consistently plays his cards so close to his chest. And yet, she seems to be able to read him like an open book.
Of course, that’s not without some testing of hypotheses, and Yoo Jung does exactly that, in observing his actions after she tells him her secret.
The way she draws conclusions and then adjusts her course of action, is nothing short of impressive.
For example, she waits to see if he reports her to the state tribunal for being a traitor’s daughter, and when he doesn’t, she concludes that she is quite valuable to him, and moves accordingly.
Instead of making a deal with him, she chooses to threaten him with not becoming Queen, because that is easily within her power to accomplish.
Not only is his dream of being in control of the Queen’s throne at stake, so is his family’s reputation, since her official identity, is that of his niece. Ooh. Gauntlet, thrown.
Yoo Jung’s so smart, so astute and so brave, and it’s becoming so clear, in each move that she makes.
Plus, there’s the way she singlehandedly comes up with a solution that would satisfy both the royal family AND the scholars, who are on opposite sides when it comes to the bringing forward of the selection of the queen.
That’s so impressive, really, that she, rather than any one of the petitioners, or even Lee Tae himself, is the one to come up with the solution of bringing forward the selection, but delaying the actual coronation, till after the 3-year mourning period is over.
AND, not only that, she is so shrewd in deciding how to put forward that suggestion. Instead of attempting to suggest it herself, she chooses to get Park Gye Won’s son, Park Nam Sang, to broach the subject with the chief scholar instead.
She’s a gifted chess master indeed.
On top of this, the way she gets the Queen Dowager to go to the temple with her, is masterful as well.
The reason stated is perfect: that perhaps the prayers would hasten her recovery, and thus enable the Queen Dowager to return to the palace sooner.
And, the underlying strategy is also perfect: that the Queen Dowager becomes her insurance, because, since they are together, the Queen Dowager would naturally undertake all the same risks that Yoo Jung undertakes, in making that trip to the temple.
So, so, SO clever, truly.
On hindsight, I also wonder if Yoo Jung had even calculated that Park Gye Won would arrive to save the Queen Dowager, thus creating an opportunity for the Queen Dowager to see that she is being excluded from Park Gye Won’s plans – and thus eroding the Queen Dowager’s trust in Park Gye Won?
If that’s true, that is ALSO extremely brilliant.
E8. I found it completely fascinating, to see the way Yoo Jung prepares everything, in anticipation of the Moment of Reckoning, when she falsely accuses Park Gye Won, in front of Lee Tae, of being the one to save a traitor’s daughter.
Even more fascinating, is the way Show reveals it all, layer by layer, because the way it’s done, I feel like so many small twists are unveiled, in quick succession.
Like, when Eunuch Jung is detained by Park Gye Won, and cornered about his involvement in saving Yoo Jung, it feels like Park Gye Won’s about to gain the upper hand, by having Eunuch Jung point the finger at Lee Tae as the one who’d given the order.
But it’s only after this point, that we see Yoo Jung confront Eunuch Jung, and ask him just how far he’s willing to go, to help Lee Tae – and that’s when we see Eunuch Jung point the finger at Park Gye Won instead, saying that he was acting under Park Gye Won’s orders.
Kinda the same deal with the governor (Ryu Seung Soo), where the letter that she sends, turns out to be instructions for him to lodge a report against Park Gye Won, for the same alleged crime.
And the fact that Yoo Jung only arrives in Lee Tae’s study after Park Gye Won’s started to make his accusation to Lee Tae himself, is just breathlessly thrilling.
I can only imagine what a mind-bending moment this must be for Park Gye Won. He starts out making his move to accuse Lee Tae, only to end up being the accused himself – with Yoo Jung willing to put her life on the line, to die with him, in order to take him down.
Woof. That’s high stakes stuff, I feel like it’s all making me slightly dizzy, with how the ante has been upped beyond what I’d bargained for. 😅
E9. I find myself most fascinated by Yoo Jung and the moves that she makes.
The way she responds when Lee Tae makes such a dramatic thing of walking out on Yeon Hee to go to her, is, on the one hand, perfectly gracious and selfless, with the way she gently pushes Lee Tae away, and tells him that just the fact that he came to her, is enough for her.
On the other hand, if I didn’t trust Yoo Jung’s core character as much, I could say that this is a perfectly calculated move, to gain Lee Tae’s favor and sympathy, such that he would pledge to save her, while promising to make her Queen.
And, I have to admit, there’s a small part of my brain that wonders whether this was an outcome that Yoo Jung had been able to foresee, and if this was all part of her plan, to be Queen, as she’d once stated.
Like, if Yoo Jung were a more gray sort of character, and this was all part of her careful and shrewd plan, she’d be bone-chillingly scary, wouldn’t she??
The possibility is very intriguing, and messes with me head, and makes this watch feel extra fascinating.
E10. We get to hear the rest of Yoo Jung’s important secret conversation with Park Gye Won, and I am relieved – and kind of awed – to hear Yoo Jung inform Park Gye Won that she has decided not to seek vengeance on anyone, even though she’s just declared that just about everyone, from Park Gye Won to Lee Tae himself, is her enemy.
And her reason – that it would cost unnecessary bloodshed – feels very much in line with Yoo Jung’s character, as we’ve come to know her thus far.
On that note, I must say that Trent’s analysis of Yoo Jung’s character, that she’s essentially good, but, in order for her to be good in a dangerous place such as a the palace, she needs to also sometimes make decisions that would result in people’s suffering and death, although she does not revel in such cruelty, feels spot-on, to me.
Her decision not to pursue revenge, that it not result in more bloodshed, feels like a noble one, because if she so desired, she would have many reasons to take others to task, for how her family has been destroyed.
The other factor to this, that she does not wish to walk the same path as Park Gye Won himself, makes a lot of sense too. I can see Yoo Jung wanting to set herself apart from the likes of Park Gye Won, rather than identify with him.
E11. How shrewd of Yoo Jung, to take the news that Park Gye Won is retiring to the countryside, to the Queen Dowager herself. That is surely a calculated move, designed to trigger the Queen Dowager into action.
We’re not told specifically what Yoo Jung’s understanding of the relationship between Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager is, but it’s clear that she knows that Park Gye Won is important to the Queen Dowager, and that the Queen Dowager would not wish to have him retire to the faraway countryside.
I love how smart and shrewd Yoo Jung is. She really is able to use the levers that are available to her, to achieve outcomes that should be out of her reach. Love that.
E13. What a contrast Yoo Jung is, to the Queen Dowager.
Where the Queen Dowager is willing to sacrifice just about anyone, in order to solidify her own power, Yoo Jung undertakes great personal risk, in order to try to save Ttonggeum.
The way she enters the royal office, knowing full well that it’s against palace rules, and therefore will easily get her into trouble, says so much about how much she cares about Ttonggeum.
I’m pretty sure that Yoo Jung reveals her pregnancy, in a calculated move, where she rightly predicts that the pregnancy reveal will override any immediate punishment that the Queen Dowager might have meted out to her.
At the same time, just as Park Gye Won says, it is a risky move, because there are many who would see the royal baby as a threat, and who would spare no effort to remove that threat, by scheming to remove Yoo Jung herself.
Yet, Yoo Jung takes the risk anyway, despite fully understanding the possible ramifications, and uses the opportunity to request Ttonggeum’s release.
E14. I love the reunion of Yoo Jung with her court ladies, though. That really was a personal highlight, this episode.
I love how she greets them with a hug, and thanks them for being alive. I love too, that they are just as grateful that she has managed to survive as well.
I also love how she thanks them afterwards, for giving Ttonggeum a suitable resting place, and promises that she will give Ttonggeum a proper funeral.
That’s very poignant as well, and we see all over again, how much Yoo Jung truly values her people.
Lee Tae and Yoo Jung
The relationship between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung is central to the politics of our story, but I have to admit that I never felt truly invested in this loveline.
It’s not because of poor performances, to be clear. Both Lee Joon and Kang Han Na put the appropriate amounts of nuance and feeling into their deliveries of their characters.
Like I mentioned earlier, this loveline feels more like a supporting arc than a primary one, even though it is central to the narrative developments in our story.
For one thing, Show doesn’t invest time in developing this loveline in a way where I could understand the depth of their love for one another, and stand in solidarity with them, in their love.
Another thing is, I mostly felt like this loveline felt imbalanced, with Yoo Jung’s love for Lee Tae always being poured out in greater measure, in order to make up for any sort of shortfall that might be present in the relationship.
I never felt immersed in this love relationship in the way most kdramas want us to feel immersed and swept away by their central lovelines.
And while I don’t believe that Show ever intended for this loveline to be our primary focus, I don’t think that it intended for viewers to feel as neutral and detached from this loveline, as I eventually felt, either.
E1. I was quite taken aback at the way Lee Tae stomped on those eggs, for no good reason at all except to prove Yoo Jung (whom he doesn’t even know at this point!) wrong.
That strikes me as quite the jerk move, filled to the gills with some kind of superiority complex, and doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in Lee Tae’s core character, to be honest.
I’m also not terribly wowed by his decision to marry Yoo Jung, because he’s satisfied with her.
What I mean is, sure, I do think he’s impressed by her and at least likes her a little bit, but there’s really nothing that tells me he actually really likes her.
Therefore, the whole thing about making her his Crown Princess, lands more of a result of his whims and fancies, rather than as a result of him actually liking her and valuing her for who she is.
..Which makes the eventual massacre of her family feel even more horrible, because I can’t help but think that if he’d just minded his own business and never stepped on those eggs to begin with, Yoo Jung’s family might have lived.
And then sure, he saves her and beseeches her to live, as he will too, because he will make it his mission to destroy the people who had brought about the death of his mother.
First of all, she wouldn’t be in this position if not for him, so.. the fated love thing is already a hard-sell from my point of view.
Secondly, it seems that Yoo Jung has no idea that the person who’d saved her, is actually the person who’d indirectly caused her family’s destruction.
So, the idea that she’s now got this long distance love relationship going on with him, without knowing that he’s the reason her family had died, just makes me uncomfortable.
E2. With the context that Lee Tae himself is likely one of the persons on whom Yoo Jung (I think) would want to take revenge (the other being Park Gye Won, since he’d gotten her parents beheaded), all the sweet moments that Lee Tae and Yoo Jung share on her trips to the capital, take on a deeply poignant undercurrent.
It becomes clearer than ever, that Yoo Jung has no idea that the person whom she’s meeting (and whom she loves!), is none other than the King, who, with his sudden interest in her, had gotten her family entangled in a situation which they ultimately couldn’t survive.
And, as we get more context around what’s going on in the court, it becomes clear that while Lee Tae cares about Yoo Jung, he has no plans whatsoever, of marrying her.
Which, if you think about it, makes it very unfair of him, to carry on this romantic relationship with Yoo Jung, while knowing full well that this will basically go nowhere, for her.
If he really cared about her future, shouldn’t he graciously let her go, so that she can find someone else with whom she can settle down and live a normal life?
The fact that he carries on this relationship with her, despite knowing that this involves her investing her emotions on him in a futile manner, tells me that he values his own interests and happiness, more than he does hers.
E3. Even though I think that Lee Tae could do better in leaving Yoo Jung alone, and allowing her to find her way to a normal life, I do believe his emotion, when he talks to Eunuch Jung about how she’d suffered for having met him.
I can believe that he cares deeply for her, in this moment.
Because of this, even though I’d felt that the starting point of their connection had felt rather flimsy, I feel inclined to rationalize that he’s grown truly fond of her over the years, as he’s regularly met her and done what he could, to encourage her and help her overcome the sadness from her personal tragedy.
And, I’m also inclined to rationalize that it’s because Lee Tae cares so deeply for her, he can’t bring himself to cut her out of his life completely, even though he knows that that’s the better option, for her, if he’s not going to pursue this romantic relationship with her.
I honestly don’t think Lee Tae really knows what he’s going to do, with Yoo Jung.
Like, even though he tells her so earnestly, with tears in his eyes, that the next time they meet, he will tell her everything, I’m not sure that he actually plans that they will ever meet again, given his plans.
He has no intention of going out to meet her any longer, on that 15th of the month, like he’d used to, and he has no intention of marrying her, so what occasion could there be, for them to meet?
My gut says that he says these words to her, more to get her to cooperate in the moment, than to actually ever tell her the truth.
I do feel sorry for Yoo Jung, because up to this point, she clearly still cares deeply for him, and has given him the benefit of the doubt many times, and plans to keep on doing so, indefinitely.
Despite the fact that he’s told her that he has someone else to whom he’s betrothed, Yoo Jung’s first instinct is still to protect Lee Tae, when she sees him dressed in common clothes (instead of the silk that he’s typically worn to visit her) and surrounded by suspicious armed men.
Yoo Jung’s heart is firmly in love with Lee Tae.
However, I can’t help but wonder how she will react, when she does find out the truth, that Lee Tae is the very person who started the chain of events that resulted in her family misfortune.
E4. The entire power play around whose chambers Lee Tae would visit that night, really popped for me, which I don’t often say about any kind of power play, so kudos to Show, for playing this so well.
I was pretty much on the edge of my seat, wondering whether Lee Tae would defy the consummation date set by the Astrology Office, or whether he would rise to the bait that Yoo Jung’s throwing out, to see her in her chambers after all.
And what a great reveal, actually, that in doing Park Gye Won’s bidding, to goad the King into coming to her chambers, Yoo Jung is actually actively hoping that he would depose her, for her impudence.
..Which builds everything up to such a great climax, really, so that the moment Lee Tae marches into Yoo Jung’s chambers, eyes blazing and ready to depose her as she wishes, I literally couldn’t breathe.
FINALLY. Lee Tae and Yoo Jung are face to face, and instead of wrath, Lee Tae’s eyes are suddenly full of shock, that Yoo Jung is his concubine, as well as tearful relief, that she’s unharmed and is ok.
On top of that, there’s that whole thing, where he realizes that his identity is now laid bare before her.
And indeed, what a huge shock it must be for Yoo Jung, to realize that the scholar whom she loves, and whose life she’s trying to protect, by following Park Gye Won’s orders, is none other than the King himself.
Ack. I can only imagine how overwhelmed she must feel, right now.
SO MUCH TO UNPACK, in this moment, between the two of them.
E5. It’s interesting to me that Lee Tae looks not only stricken, but also, heartbroken, almost, when he comes face to face with Yoo Jung, like his entire world has ended or something.
I think this goes back to him wanting Yoo Jung to live a normal life outside the palace, but more than that, I feel like this is his fantasy, of being that good scholar in Yoo Jung’s eyes, crumbling before his eyes.. and his anticipation of how she’d feel, in response to his deception.
Also, I do think that there might be a layer of fear, as well. Fear for her safety, since she’s there as Park Gye Won’s chess piece, but probably also fear that he won’t be able to function as heartlessly as he had planned, before he’d known that Park Gye Won’s niece would turn out to be her.
I’m actually slightly surprised at Yoo Jung’s reaction, in the sense that while she absolutely does come across as hurt, shocked and disappointed, I’m a little surprised that she still loves him so much, even as she reproaches him for not having told her, when he’d had the chance to.
I dunno; I’d expected more anger and less forgiveness on Yoo Jung’s part, perhaps.
I think I’d expected her to blame him more, for what had happened to her family. But that doesn’t quite seem to be the case.
In fact, it seems that she’s more hurt than anything else, that Lee Tae’s more focused on the strategic implications of what Park Gye Won knows about her, than the fact that he’d hidden his identity from her.
E6. We see in flashback, that Lee Tae’s intent, with Yoo Jung, is pretty close to my guess, last episode, that sparing her life, was to be his last act of grace – or so he says, because try as he might, he just can’t not care about Yoo Jung’s safety and wellbeing, when it comes down to it.
I actually appreciate that Lee Tae admits to Yoo Jung, that the sad fate of her family has always been a weight on his heart.
It at least tells her (and me) that he recognizes the role that he played, in causing this to happen.
Remarkably, the same doesn’t appear to register in Yoo Jung’s eyes, because she looks genuinely surprised, when Lee Tae talks about not being indebted to her anymore.
From the looks of it, she’d never thought of him being indebted to her, even after coming to know of his identity.
I find this very interesting, because in every other aspect, I find Yoo Jung to be very shrewd and strategic. But when it comes to Lee Tae, she appears to be completely uncalculating.
The way Yoo Jung reaches out to wipe away Lee Tae’s tortured tear, and the way Lee Tae forcibly turns himself away from her touch, is Angsty and with a capital A, and it’s honestly quite delicious to me, right now.
It makes sense that Lee Tae would tell Yoo Jung to leave, and even though it’s quite probable that heads would literally roll if she were to leave, I feel like Lee Tae’s willing to pay that price, if it means securing Yoo Jung’s safety.
E6. While I think that a part of Yoo Jung’s reason for deciding she wants to be Queen might be jealousy, because the way Yeon Hee’s going around blatantly stating to Yoo Jung that she plans to be Queen and doesn’t intend to share her man – and even duplicating that fan! – I do think that Yoo Jung’s main reason, is her heart for Lee Tae.
That scene, where she realizes how lonely it’s been for Lee Tae, living in the palace, and how difficult it must have been for him to keep their bridge dates every 15th of the month, and how he had kept that date, even on the night that his father had died, I feel like her whole heart goes out to Lee Tae.
It feels like she doesn’t really see how she herself has suffered; all she sees is Lee Tae and how he has suffered, and she can’t help but feel for him.
At least, that’s what it looks like to me, when she approaches him on that bridge, and addresses him as “Scholar,” the way she always has.
At this point, I do think that she sincerely intends to leave the palace, because that is his express desire. And therefore, I think that she wants to do as he wishes, even though her heart is torn at the idea of never seeing him again.
E7. It really is such an interesting dynamic, that Lee Tae is the one looking pleadingly at Yoo Jung, wanting her to leave, while Yoo Jung is the one regally standing her ground, stating without irony, that she plans to stay, and she plan on being Queen, in order to live as Lee Tae’s woman.
It’s interesting to me, because Lee Tae, being King, is the one with supposed absolute power, but so far, it looks like Yoo Jung is the one who holds power over him – and it doesn’t even look like she has to try very hard, in order to throw Lee Tae’s mind and heart into disarray.
E7. On Yoo Jung’s side of things, I am half convinced that she really understands the way to Lee Tae’s heart, and is really going to use it to her advantage.
The reason I say half convinced, is because she speaks with such conviction when she’s talking to him and telling him that she loves him, that I can’t even begin to guess where her sincerity ends, and where her scheming begins, or if there’s a separation line between the two, to begin with.
I’m slightly surprised that Lee Tae gives her permission to ride with him, only because it’s such a public display of (admittedly gruff) favor. Like, when the Queen Dowager hears that Yoo Jung gets to ride with Lee Tae, she immediately concludes that they must have a special relationship.
That’s why I was slightly surprised that Lee Tae would allow it.
However, I can largely see why he would allow it, because it’s a rare opportunity for him to speak with Yoo Jung in private, without prying eyes and ears around them, and he really, really wants to persuade her, privately, to leave.
I appreciate that when Yoo Jung tells Lee Tae that she’s decided to live in the palace, his first reaction, is to ask her what she’s hiding from him.
In that, I feel that there’s an innate trust, where he believes that she wouldn’t make such a decision, to angle to become Queen, without a strong and valid reason.
The thing that strikes me about Yoo Jung’s answer, is that she starts out from a point of empathy.
This is something that she’s been very consistent about. Whenever she learns something about Lee Tae that she hadn’t known before, she thinks about what it must have been like, for him.
Right now, it’s about how it must have been so uncomfortable and scary for him to go through that secret tunnel every 15 days, just to meet her. And previously, it had been about how lonely it must have been for him to live in the palace.
I do believe that this is part of Yoo Jung’s nature – ie, she’s not saying this just for show – and I have a feeling that this empathy of hers, will prove to be a key point, in her eventually moving Lee Tae, to make her Queen.
Because, to be honest, at this point, I just can’t see Yoo Jung failing at her mission.
E8. It’s so conflicting, honestly, to see Lee Tae actually take up Yoo Jung’s offer to die for him.
I mean, he doesn’t accept her plan immediately, and even tearfully asks her if this is what she really wants to do, but in the end, doesn’t he essentially accept her plan, in order to get rid of Park Gye Won, and further his interests?
I understand that Yoo Jung is motivated, at least in part, by her love for Lee Tae, but isn’t it troubling, that Lee Tae would accept her expression of love, even though it means that she will die..?
See, this is most likely why I’m not investing much in terms of my personal feelings, into this loveline.
So far, I feel like this loveline is more a supporting character, there to help prop up the scheming and strategizing, which is the true Main Event of our story.
That said, I did feel a measure of gratification, when Lee Tae approaches Yeon Hee on the night of their scheduled consummation – only to be unable to go through with it.
Even more gratifying, is the sight of him then purposefully making his way to Yoo Jung instead.
It’s a pretty picture, as he kisses Yoo Jung on that bridge, saying in voiceover, “Tonight, I will allow it,” as the petals fall and the music swells.
I’m not exactly flailing in a puddle, however, because I can’t help wondering what this means.
Is this him choosing Yoo Jung over Yeon Hee for real? Or is this a one-time deal, where he embraces Yoo Jung now, but allows her to continue with her plan to die, the next day?
E9. I do give credit to Lee Tae, that he tells Yoo Jung the truth so soon, and doesn’t attempt to withhold it from her, even though he surely knows that it would upset her, and even cause her to feel like she wants to distance herself from him.
What a horrible truth for Yoo Jung to learn, that the King had knowingly sacrificed her family, in order to protect his son.
I give so much credit to Yoo Jung, for even having the presence of mind, to want to read about Queen Inyoung, rather than just rage at the unjustness of her loss.
That scene (so beautifully shot) where Lee Tae stands outside Yoo Jung’s bedchamber, and asks what he should do, and Yoo Jung says sadly that if he’d intended to do something about it, he would have done so by now, is so poignant.
I appreciate that Show doesn’t gloss over Yoo Jung’s heartache and angst, not only around what had happened to her parents, but particularly with regards to how this complicates her feelings towards Lee Tae, since he’d been the beneficiary, of their wrongful deaths.
The heartache and angst is brought out clearly in that scene, even though it’s tamped down and restrained.
I’m personally not very taken with Lee Tae and his efforts to bring those farmers into the palace, because while I get that this had been Yoo Jung’s wish from before, that’s a drop in the ocean, when you consider how much she’s suffered because of him.
Show isn’t clear on how Yoo Jung feels about this, but the sense I get, is that it does mollify her somewhat, to see Lee Tae interacting graciously with the farmers.
E10. I find it interesting that Yoo Jung holds back from telling Lee Tae what she knows about the attempt on her life, even though she does seem to trust him.
I am guessing that the reason she doesn’t tell him, is because she doesn’t want to put him in a difficult position. After all, it’s the Queen Dowager who’s made an attempt on her life. If he had to deal with that, it would mean taking his own stepmother to trial.
I’m glad that Lee Tae’s asking some pertinent questions about the whole thing, though, when he speaks with Eunuch Jung. Hopefully Lee Tae will be able to figure out the truth on his own, so that at least he understands why Yoo Jung isn’t opening up to him.
E13. I’m glad that Lee Tae manages to save Yoo Jung, and I’m glad that Yoo Jung gets to see with her own eyes, that Lee Tae is alive and well.
On this point, I’m starting to be rather upset with Lee Tae, for not including Yoo Jung in his plans. Meaning, he could have told her about his plans, but he did not, and that had made her worry for him so much, on top of everything else.
AND, he could have done more, to ensure Yoo Jung’s safety, because surely, he must have known that his plan of poisoning himself, would put Yoo Jung in danger as well – but he did not.
So Yoo Jung might be really glad to see Lee Tae, but I have to admit that I’m rather displeased with Lee Tae right now.
Jang Hyuk as Park Gye Won
I found Park Gye Won to be a fascinating character, from the very beginning.
Park Gye Won wears all the trappings of a faithful and loyal servant to the throne, what with his repeated mantra, that his role is but to advise and thereafter carry out whatever orders the king gives, but he’s so clearly the one with the real power and influence, to whom the king must pay heed – if the king wants to survive.
Plus, I can’t help but say, DANG, Jang Hyuk is giving me Darth Vader vibes in this.
Mainly, it’s to do with how he’s using such deep registers in this voice, and the way he’s speaking, which, curiously, sounds big and booming, yet also restrained and coming from the recesses of his throat, at the same time.
Also, he manages to be riveting, even though the ministerial robes are anything but flattering, on anybody. That says a lot about Jang Hyuk’s personal charisma. I find him magnetic, even when he’s confined to the fuddy-duddy Left Minister duds, heh. 🤩
In terms of narrative significance, Park Gye Won makes for a formidable adversary for Lee Tae, and I found it fascinating to watch him, and learn about what makes him tick.
E1. A lot of this drama’s angst has to do with how powerless the King really is, in the face of his Left State Councilor.
The arc that really brings that out, for me, is the one where Park Gye Won decides that something needs to be done about Lee Tae making Yoo Jung his Crown Princess.
The fact that he’s able to take two inconvenient things – the fact that the Queen is an inconvenient survivor of an enemy family, and the fact that Yoo Jung’s family is from the enemy Sarim faction – and use those two things to cancel each other out, demonstrates just how much power he has – and how little power the king has, in reponse.
It’s tragic that the Queen feels that there is no way forward, except to poison her own son at least a little bit, while taking her own life.
And even then, this card, which is bought at such great price, doesn’t actually seem to hold much water, judging form how Park Gye Won successfully has Yoo Jung’s family beheaded.
We don’t see him do a whole lot, this episode, but what he does do, already results in the deaths of entire families, which makes me think that he’s capable of a lot more, given the appropriate situation and provocation. Which I’m sure will unfold in due time, in our story.
E2. Park Gye Won continues to be sinister in a Darth Vader sort of way, while dressing up his every move as an expression of loyalty to the nation. He’s.. quite the skilled spin doctor, is what I’m thinking.
To think that he’s managed to find a way to spin his decision to make his niece Queen, as an act of loyalty, rather than a personal quest for power.
Also, shout-out to Jang Hyuk, for the way he manages that sword flourish, right before Park Gye Won stabs it into the floor. That looked pretty darn cool, I have to admit.
And, how shrewd is Park Gye Won, to be able to decipher Lee Tae’s secret communication system, that he uses with Eunuch Jung! Park Gye Won is a worthy opponent, alright.
E3. This episode, as Park Gye Won’s plan becomes clearer, I can’t help but marvel at how clever his response is, to Lee Tae’s declaration that he will never see nor touch anyone that Park Gye Won puts on the Queen’s throne.
What cleverer response could there be, but to then get his hands on the only woman in the world whom Lee Tae loves – and then make her Queen?
My goodness. I know I’m supposed to see Park Gye Won as our antagonist, but I can’t help feeling impressed at the shrewdness of this move.
Like, how could Lee Tae stick to his word now, if the Queen whom Park Gye Won puts on the throne, is none other than his beloved? How could he literally not see her at all, if he loves her so much?
I freaking love this conundrum, and cannot wait to see how this all plays out, to be honest.
E4. Park Gye Won turns out to be so much more deadly and well-informed than Yoo Jung had ever bargained for.
I mean, just that beat, where he casually tells his man, who reports that Yoo Jung’s people are traveling to Gyeongsang Province, to continue to watch over them, is so threatening, really.
He’s showing that while she might have found a way to free them from his servant’s quarters, he’s still very much in control of the situation, and can kill them at a moment’s notice. Yikes.
It’s no wonder Yoo Jung immediately reassesses her options and agrees to his demands – at least for now.
E4. I actually really like the way Park Gye Won assesses Lee Tae, this episode.
“Not particularly benevolent, but dauntless. Not wise, but cunning. Not virtuous, but highly patient. I guess one may say that they are the makings of a king as well.”
Such a shrewd and spot-on assessment of Lee Tae, I feel. Which makes Park Gye Won appear even more formidable, since he’s able to read his opponent so well.
E5. There’s a detail that I’m not super clear on, this episode, and that is, why did Park Gye Won’s family allow the aunt who had taken care of the real Aok, participate in the visit to Yoo Jung?
I mean, with Park Gye Won being as shrewd as he is, wouldn’t he have anticipated that the aunt would realize that Yoo Jung isn’t Aok, and likely say something about it?
Or.. had he been counting on her to say something about it, SO THAT the whole question of Yoo Jung’s identity would arise, SO THAT Lee Tae would find himself in a situation where he’d be the one to verify her identity, SO THAT Lee Tae would have to make an overt choice, in terms of whether to cover up Park Gye Won’s deception..?
Because, if Park Gye Won had allowed the aunt to enter the palace, with this entire scenario in mind, then, mannn, he’s more cruel and scary than I’d imagined. This means that he’d expected that the aunt would have to kill herself to protect her family.
Talk about using people like they’re literal chess pieces. 😬
But also, how shrewd and brilliant is he, to foresee all this, and play each move so precisely, such that Lee Tae ends up in the very corner that would pit his love against his ambition – and for Park Gye Won’s benefit.
I’m reluctantly impressed. Park Gye Won is a star manipulator indeed.
I mean, it’s freaking brilliant and ballsy, and in the end, he does read Lee Tae accurately on the fact that Lee Tae would cover up the deception, in order to save Yoo Jung’s life.
E7. I continue to be fascinated by Park Gye Won’s shrewd ruthlessness.
For example, when Minister Jo corners the Chief Eunuch for slandering the royal family, I’m struck by how Park Gye Won turns this into an opportunity for himself, by first getting Minister Jo to spare the Chief Eunuch, and then informing the Chief Eunuch, in that signature whisper-growl of his, that if he’s not useful, he will inevitably become prey.
Which now puts the Chief Eunuch in a position where he believes it’s in his best interest to bring Park Gye Won useful information.
I’m reluctantly impressed by how smoothly Park Gye Won takes this whole thing, and turns the situation into one where the Chief Eunuch, who’s well-positioned to see and hear things, will now be actively looking for ways to be of use to him.
That’s really quite brilliant, isn’t it? Gosh, he fascinates me.
E7. Thanks to Park Gye Won’s scarily brilliant ability to foresee how things will unfold on his chessboard, we actually seem to have some traction, in his plan to expedite the queen selection process, this episode.
I mean, Park Gye Won had to have been able to forecast multiple steps ahead, to see that a small seed, in the form of unrest in the Internal Court, would eventually result in Lee Tae having to personally mete out punishment, which would then rile up first the members of the royal family, and then the scholars, as Lee Tae gets tossed between them.
E8. This episode, we get a bit of insight into what makes Park Gye Won tick, during his conversation with his son Nam Sang.
It’s interesting to me, that he doesn’t see himself as being hungry for power. Rather, he sees himself as a benevolent force who’s protecting the throne, and the interests of the people.
That statement, where he says that Nam Sang’s incorruptible demeanor is not of Nam Sang’s own will, but is what he’s allowed, is quite illuminating, I feel.
He seems to think that because he’s protected the throne, and prevented a tyrant from sitting on it, he’s the one who’s allowed a peaceful environment where people like Nam Sang can have the luxury of choosing to be incorruptible.
It’s a thought-provoking assertion that he makes, that if the King had been a tyrant, Nam Sang would have chosen a different path.
Put that way, it feels like he does make some kind of sense, doesn’t it?
This means that Park Gye Won isn’t inherently evil, despite the cruel, ruthless things he’s done.
Which, again, reinforces the idea that our drama world is made up of gray characters, rather than characters who are outright good or evil.
E9. We’re given more insight into Park Gye Won and what makes him tick, and it’s all very poignant and fascinating, at the same time.
As Show’s hinted at before, Park Gye Won actually believes that he’s doing an important work, in protecting the throne from the grasp of a tyrant King.
And this episode, as he grapples with his hallucination of Yoo Jung’s father Yoo Hak Soo (Jo Seung Yeon), we get some insight, into the horrors that he’s endured, which have turned him into the twisted personality that we see today.
That flashback, of him walking on bloodied paths, while his friends’ decapitated heads hung in macabre display, is illuminating to me.
Because, how much must it mess with your head, to have to walk that path every single day, in order to enter a palace where you’d serve the tyrant who had been the very one who had killed your friends in the first place?
It’s all very dark and twisted, and I can see how this might have caused Park Gye Won to have lost his mind a little bit, as he channeled his determination towards never allowing another tyrant to sit on the throne, even if meant being condemned in history.
In Park Gye Won’s warped point of view, he’s doing an honorable work, even though this work does require his hands to be covered in blood. In his estimation, this bloodshed that’s necessitated by his mission, is the lesser evil.
And, in the scene, Jang Hyuk manages to look fierce and intense, yet pathetic and misguided, all at the same time.
The fact that he actually seems to hallucinate Yoo Hak Soo sitting in his study, makes me feel that Park Gye Won might be more mentally ill than anyone realizes.
E9. I must say that the conundrum that Park Gye Won presents Lee Tae with, is nothing short of brilliant.
He offers Lee Tae the possibility of clearing Yoo Jung’s father’s name, and thus saving her, and even releasing the Bamboo Village folks, but asks that Lee Tae solve the mystery of Queen Inyoung’s death, in order to pave the way for this to happen.
Dang. That’s brilliant, because Queen Inyoung had killed herself to protect Lee Tae; would Lee Tae reveal that now, after having kept it a secret for so many years?
Also, did Park Gye Won actually have that poster put up in Banchon, to accuse himself of the murder, in order to create this conundrum for Lee Tae?
I wouldn’t put it past him, and I must say that I’m completely mesmerized by how completely all in both Park Gye Won and Yoo Jung are, as they play this political game of dare.
E10. It’s such an intriguing outcome, that Yoo Jung’s decision then causes Park Gye Won to pledge himself to the cause of making her Queen.
I mean, yes, it had been his plan to make her Queen – until Yoo Jung had revealed her true identity as Yoo Hak Soo’s daughter.
However, now that he’s tested her a bit, and feels satisfied with her intentions, he’s willing to put aside any reservations he might have, to do with her identity, to make her Queen.
I’m fascinated by what he tells his wife, when she expresses concern over this; that he has not been blessed with a worthy King, and therefore he should at least serve a fitting Queen.
This means that he actually finds Yoo Jung more deserving of the title of Queen, than Lee Tae is, of the title of King. Innnteresting.
Does this mean that his loyalty to Yoo Jung will surpass his loyalty to Lee Tae? Or does Park Gye Won truly serve no one but himself, despite his stated noble intentions?
E10. On a shallow note, I’m pretty pleased actually, to have Park Gye Won ride around on horseback himself, and shoot those arrows at the would-be assassins. Because, it gives Jang Hyuk a chance to shine in the active badass sort of space, and my goodness, he’s magnificent. 🤩
The way he rides the horse is so confident and natural, and he possesses such a sense of flourish, when handling the bow and arrow.
The way he releases the arrow from the bow, is with such panache, it almost feels like part of a dance, except it’s not; it’s a lethal arrow that takes down its target immediately.
These are all very quick touches, but I’m very much mesmerized anyway. 😁
E13. I must say that I’m rather impressed that Park Gye Won even lands on the idea, that the person who’s the puppet master behind all of the Queen Dowager’s moves, might be Lee Tae himself.
I mean, most people would dismiss that idea, because Lee Tae has literally been poisoned, and is acknowledged to be in a coma and close to death. I think the fact that Park Gye Won would even entertain the idea, shows that he sees possibilities that others don’t.
In the meantime, Park Gye Won’s gathered enough evidence to conclude that it really is Lee Tae pulling the Queen Dowager’s puppet strings; quite an impressive accomplishment, I say, since it’s such an obtuse possibility in the first place.
Park Gye Won’s delusional tendencies come to the fore again, during his confrontation with Lee Tae.
His insistence that he, with his love for his country, has the right to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, and what makes a proper king of Joseon, is such a twisted misbelief. He’s literally lifted himself above the level of the king, if he truly believes that.
Several of you guys brought up on Patreon, that because Park Gye Won loves his country, he should care about who sits on the throne, and what kind of King rules over Joseon, and that his reason makes more sense than Lee Tae’s reason, which is only his birthright.
For me, I think it all comes down to the fact that I can’t shake the nuance, that Park Gye Won sees this as something that is his to allow or disallow. That, I think, is the key, for me.
He’s not talking about a new system of democracy, where we can argue that he’s ahead of his time.
He’s stating that he’s taken it upon himself to select the kind of King who is worthy to sit on the throne.
Inherent in that statement, is the belief that it is within his power and influence to do so; that he has the power to allow someone to be King, or drag that someone from the throne, if he deems that someone unfit.
Because of this, I do still think of him as delusional on this point, because to my eyes, he does position himself as having power over the throne.
Park Ji Yeon as the Queen Dowager
This was my first time actually taking notice of Park Ji Yeon on my screen, even though I’ve technically seen her in Hospital Playlist 2 and Oh My Ghostess, and I thought she was perfectly, perfectly cast as the Queen Dowager.
For the very beginning, I found the Queen Dowager fascinating, with her languid, genteel manner, that often hints of so much emotional baggage underneath it.
Specifically, I kinda love the elegant, smooth whisper that she adopts when speaking. There’s something utterly, almost insufferably, dignified and sophisticated about it, as if she’s a fairy creature from another world.
Additionally, I found myself more and more interested in our Queen Dowager, the further I got into our story. I’m glad that the narrative gives Park Ji Yeon room to shine, in our later episodes.
E10. Park Gye Won’s wife, Madam Yoon (Seo Yu Jeong), shows uncharacteristic bitterness, when the Queen Dowager remarks that she should serve her niece well, until she becomes Queen.
In her spiel, Madam Yoon bitterly bites out that Yoo Jung will not grow old and die as a wife who is not loved by her husband and as a lady of the palace with no connections or children – which I take to be references to herself (unloved by her husband) and the Queen Dowager (the lady of the palace with no connections).
To which I say, it must suck to be Madam Yoon, as much as it must suck to be the Queen Dowager.
They both want Park Gye Won’s heart, but in the end, they only serve as resources for him, as he pours himself into his personal self-given mission, to protect the throne.
This incident totally adds to the Queen Dowager’s sense of insecurity, because Madam Yoon’s just articulated the Queen Dowager’s worst fears, in a manner of speaking.
Her outburst about the smell of manure and how inconsiderate Yoo Jung is, has nothing to do with the manure, I’m sure.
This is just a symptom of her turning against Yoo Jung, because Yoo Jung’s existence is proving to be a threat to her standing with Park Gye Won.
E11. This episode, it feels like Park Ji Yeon’s chance to shine.
What I mean is, I’ve always felt quite fascinated by the Queen Dowager, but most of the time, she’s been playing more of a secondary role in our story developments.
Now, it finally feels like the Queen Dowager is taking centerstage, at least for now.
While not all of her moves look like they will be successful, it’s just rather thrilling to see her be in the spotlight for an extended period of time, and to see how Park Ji Yeon delivers it all.
We spend this hour unpacking what the Queen Dowager has in mind, from the moment she actively rebels against Park Gye Won’s plan for her to bow out gracefully to Onyang palace, and I found it quite fascinating to watch.
There’s so much hurt that’s part of the Queen Dowager’s decision.
All these years, she’s felt like a mere chess piece of Park Gye Won’s, when what she’d always wanted, was to be his wife, and the love of his life.
How painful that must have been for her, to have had to settle for being a mere resource, when what she’d desired, had been so much more.
This request of his, to remove herself from the palace, feels like the last straw.
Suddenly, she’s no longer willing to satisfy herself with the knowledge that she’s being of help to Park Gye Won.
Suddenly, she’s bristling greatly at the thought that he’s wanted her to simply be a gentle flower that is picked when needed, and discarded when withered.
This entire episode is the Queen Dowager, refusing to be a gentle flower, and refusing to be discarded.
Instead, this is her, reaching for power which no one, least of all Park Gye Won, ever thought she would have.
This is her, choosing to exceed expectations – her own, Park Gye Won’s and everyone else’s – because if she can’t have the love of her life, then, why not take the Joseon that he’s worked to shape for so many years, and swallow it whole?
E11. Even though it’s rather disconcerting to see Lee Tae cough up blood and collapse like that, it truly is thrilling to see Park Ji Yeon’s interpretation of the Queen Dowager’s reaction.
It feels like there are so many layers to her emotions. Her breathy sharp intake of breath; the tiny sheen of tears in her eyes; the hint of a smile about her lips.
It feels like she’s experiencing fear, wonder and pleasure, all at the same time, because of the news of Lee Tae’s collapse.
And then, as she expresses that she should hurry to the King’s Palace, since she’s his mother after all, there’s an underlying current of determination, threaded through with tamped-down glee, in her tone and expression.
As she makes her way to Lee Tae, there’s a vibe of regality, pride and satisfaction that comes off of her, with each stride that she makes. I can just feel her ambition building, with each narrative beat, and I love it.
And then with her breathy whisper, “Your Majesty, your mother is here,” there’s that glimmer of a smile that she allows herself, because she is so pleased to see him in his unconsciousness and reportedly weak and endangered state.
Plus, she makes sure to make the provocative suggestion, that perhaps Park Gye Won believes that Lee Tae will not wake up.
She’s positioning herself to be at direct odds with Park Gye Won, and I am pretty darn sure that this is everything to do with her decision not to be his chess piece any longer.
The Queen Dowager’s announcement, that she will act as regent while Lee Tae is incapacitated, is such a bold, reckless move, that I found it quite thrilling to watch her take steps to claim that power.
The way she keeps bulldozing her way through, even though she doesn’t have the agreement of the court officials, and even though Park Gye Won is outright trying to dissuade her from it, is like watching her throw a tantrum in slow motion, almost.
She simply will not listen to anyone, I think because she’s convinced that the monk’s promise, that she will have her heart’s desire, is coming true. She believes that she’s already on victory ground, and takes her steps almost recklessly, as a result.
That scene of her all dressed in ceremonial attire, to claim her first day as regent, is fascinating to me.
On the one hand, she holds herself with elegance and regality, but on the other hand, there are hints of uncertainty and tremulousness about her, like she’s a teenager playing adult dress-up.
E13. It’s becoming clear that the Queen Dowager resorts to violence whenever things don’t go her way.
Before, there’s how she had tried to have Yoo Jung assassinated, and now, there’s how she plans to have a bloodbath in the palace, where all the people who stand against her, are to be killed by hired assassins.
The fact that she orders all of this in her trademark elegant whisper, makes her appear like some kind of highly dysfunctional, bloodthirsty teenager, who’s old enough to hatch the plan, but not mature enough to fully appreciate the ramifications of what she’s doing.
She feels.. immature and reckless, and therefore highly dangerous.
E14. I still find the Queen Dowager’s breathlessly elegant manner quite captivating, and I do appreciate Park Ji Yeon’s delivery of her tremulousness, as the Queen Dowager begins to realize that she isn’t quite as safe in her plans as she’d originally thought.
Extending the analogy of her as a teenager, this episode feels like that teenager coming to the realization that she’s been caught being bad, and that she will have to pay heavily for her actions.
But, there’s a waiting period before she fully faces the consequences of her actions, and she’s trying to put up a tough front by denying her wrongdoing, but on the inside, she’s growing increasingly antsy, because she knows deep down, that her punishment is impending, and inevitable.
Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager
The relationship between Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager is one of the most fascinating relationships within our drama world.
I legit found the bond between them more compelling than the one between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung, even though Show spends more time on the relationship between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung.
In fact, now that I look back on the show, I realize that Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager don’t actually share that many scenes together.
Despite that, Show manages to bring across to us, as early as episode 2, that there is something between them that goes deeper than their political roles; that these two have a connection that is personal and emotional.
The more we find out about their relationship, the more dysfunctional it appears – but that’s exactly that thing that makes this relationship so compelling to think about.
E2. It’s fascinating to see the hints that Show drops, that there might be some kind of emotional bond between Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager.
It’s not obvious, but little details, like the slight smile that the Queen Dowager smiles, when her court lady reports to her that Park Gye Won had taken strong action against Minister Yoon (Jeon Jin Ki) for daring to speak ill of her, makes me wonder if there is some kind of flirtation going on, between her and Park Gye Won.
E6. We finally get some information and backstory around the connection between the Queen Dowager and Park Gye Won, and what a story it turns out to be!
I mean, I’d picked up on the emotional bond between them, and had suspected that the Queen Dowager had feelings for Park Gye Won, but that still didn’t prepare me for the reveal, that she had been his lover – whom he’d requested to become a concubine, for his political benefit.
Woah. How heartbreaking, from the Queen Dowager’s point of view.
She had loved him enough, to accede to his request, but then had spent all the years since then, pining for him from a distance.
Gah. Park Gye Won is heartless, but also, I can’t help feeling like he’s played a master stroke, in creating a situation where the Queen Dowager is on his side. And now, he’s created a situation where he’s potentially going to have the Queen on his side, too.
He’s ruthless and brilliant, all at the same time. So fascinating!
E7. Aside from his brilliance, Park Gye Won’s cruelty, specifically towards the Queen Dowager, fascinates me too.
This episode, when Yoo Jung makes her pointed request, that he make it possible for the queen selection to be brought forward, the way he approaches the Queen Dowager, to basically ask her to vacate the Internal Court, had me riveted.
For a long, hot second, I seriously thought that he was asking her to die, in order to vacate the Internal Court – because, to my mind, how else would she vacate it, right?
And, it seems that the Queen Dowager takes it in a similar fashion, because she looks so horrified and hurt, before she decides to grant his wish, by throwing herself into the lake.
On a tangent, though, gosh, how gorgeous is the way that scene is filmed, right?? The way Park Gye Won reaches for the Queen Dowager, even as she’s falling backward into the water, and then spins them both around, so that he falls first, is beauuutiful.
I was utterly mesmerized, seriously. 😍
Again, this is one of those times when this show proves to be distractingly beautiful, in the way it’s filmed.
I’m only half joking when I say I don’t know whether I should consider it a negative thing, in some sense, because it distracts me from its narrative, by being this gorgeously filmed. 😅
And then, later in the episode, there’s the way that Park Gye Won watches over an unconscious Queen Dowager, and mutters gently, about whether it’s time for him to say goodbye to her – while tenderly reaching out his hand.. to potentially suffocate her.
DANG. That is really disturbing, when you think about it, isn’t it?
While the Queen Dowager manages to not die, and yet vacate the Internal Court, as he’d requested initially, it’s so clear, from this scene, that he is literally ready to let her die, if it serves his purpose.
And this is the woman whom he allegedly loves..? Wow. That’s mind-bendy stuff.
E8. I find myself growing quite interested in the Queen Dowager’s general thoughts around Park Gye Won and his ambitions.
Thus far, she’s been heartbroken by his emotional distance, but still cooperative in doing whatever he asks, whether it’s becoming the King’s concubine, all those years ago, or vacating the Internal Court, so as to pave the way for the selection of the queen.
However, doubts are starting to grow in her mind, starting with Lee Tae’s visit while she’s allegedly recuperating from her fall into the lake.
Even though they are not on the same side, she can’t deny that Lee Tae has a point, when he suggests that Park Gye Won may not have her back indefinitely, especially since he may soon have control of the Queen and the son she may bear.
And, as viewers, we can corroborate that, since we’ve seen Park Gye Won literally be inches away from suffocating the Queen Dowager to death.
Even though the Queen Dowager doesn’t know that Park Gye Won had been thisclose to killing her, I’m sure that she understands his nature enough, to realize that there is more than a grain of truth, in Lee Tae’s statement.
Subsequent to this planting of the thought, it’s not hard for the Queen Dowager to pick up on other clues that indicate that she should pay heed, to this troublesome thought, that Park Gye Won may dispense with her at some point in the future.
For example, just being there at the temple, allows the Queen Dowager to see that there is something going on between Park Gye Won and Yoo Jung, which he is not telling her.
Just that exclusion alone, would be enough to raise the suspicions of someone as careful and mistrustful, as the Queen Dowager, I’m sure.
..Which makes me curious to see how she will adjust her strategy, going forward, once she decides that she can no longer rely on Park Gye Won like she’s used to doing.
E9. This episode feels like a time of reckoning for the Queen Dowager, as she wrestles with the predictions that the monk had made, which had included a prediction that Park Gye Won would eventually turn against her.
It says a lot about how much the Queen Dowager desires to have Park Gye Won’s heart and loyalty, that she refuses to believe the monk, and has him thrown into captivity, for daring to say such a thing.
And yet, the monk’s predictions come true, one by one, like when she learns that her relative will indeed be coming to the capital, or when Park Gye Won comes to her and tells her that he’s testing Yoo Jung.
As the evidence stacks up that the monk isn’t just making stuff up, the Queen Dowager has no choice but to confront the very real possibility, that Park Gye Won is quite possibly going to throw her away.
What a world-tilting thing this is, for her, because she’s lived her whole life trusting in his love for her, even when he’d told her to become the King’s concubine, instead of his wife.
E10. The Queen Dowager is basically becoming more and more desperate, the more the monk’s predictions come true.
Ultimately, the monk predicts that Park Gye Won will turn against the Queen Dowager, and she, as a woman who is hopelessly devoted to Park Gye Won, simply can’t have that.
I feel like she thinks that as long as she can make it such that just one prediction from the monk doesn’t come true, then she’ll manage to avert the ultimate prophecy, that Park Gye Won will end up abandoning her.
I actually feel quite sorry for the Queen Dowager, as her confidence fades and her desperation increases.
She’d entered the palace on Park Gye Won’s word alone, and now, she’s feeling increasingly stuck, because it appears to be unavoidable, that Park Gye Won won’t remain on her side forever, as she’d believed.
She must feel so helpless and betrayed, as her various requests to Park Gye Won get politely turned down.
Like when she outright beseeches Park Gye Won to allow her uncle to be near her, instead of being sent to Jeolla, and he patiently and impassively explains that they can’t afford to do so.
Her expression, full of elegant, barely-restrained tears, indicates that she’s losing hope in Park Gye Won, I feel.
E10. I’m very interested in the conversation that Minister Jo and Park Gye Won have, after the assassination attempt.
For a hot second, I thought that they might actually come to some sort of deal, but they don’t, when Minister Jo puts forward that it’s the Queen Dowager who had sent those people to kill Yoo Jung.
I do think that Minister Jo’s words, advising Park Gye Won to pick a side and not be stuck between the Queen Dowager and Yoo Jung, serve as a catalyst for Park Gye Won to solidify his plans for the Queen Dowager.
After all, it’s very soon after this, that Park Gye Won goes to the Queen Dowager and practically forces her to leave for Onyang Palace.
BUT. Just as I think that the Queen Dowager is going to go along with Park Gye Won’s plans for her yet again, she surprises me by doing the exact opposite.
Woah. The way she literally sets fire to that palanquin, makes a big statement.
The way she looks Park Gye Won right in the eye and breathes in her breathless elegant whisper, “So tell me. Where do you think I will go from here?,” is so compelling.
This is like her throwing down the gauntlet with him, to say that she will not be his chess piece any longer.
Where WILL she go from here??
E11. I’m quite fascinated by the fact that Park Gye Won is willing to retire to the countryside, in order to pay for the Queen Dowager’s trespass.
His feelings for the Queen Dowager really are complex.
Sometimes, it seems like he’s willing to throw her away, or even kill her, if it would further his ambition. And then sometimes, like in this matter, he’s willing to personally pay the price for her sin, in order to protect her.
His relationship with the Queen Dowager really is deep and dysfunctional. So fascinating to witness, really.
E11. The way Park Gye Won looks at her, when she states that she’s gained new purpose; to bring down the Joseon which he’s risked his life to protect, is so full of wistfulness and pathos.
I can feel that it pains him to see the Queen Dowager taking such a dangerous road; he can see that she’s risking her very life, in order to grasp power as regent. And it looks like he doesn’t want to see her get hurt like this.
At the same time, what she’s doing is also something that he simply will not stand for, in principle.
What a powerful moment it is, when, with tears in his eyes, Park Gye Won declares in that booming voice, that if she insists on bringing Joseon down, he will have her deposed.
Augh. The gauntlet’s been mutually thrown between these two, hasn’t it?
E12. I find myself quite taken by how Jang Hyuk plays Park Gye Won’s response to the Queen Dowager’s insistence that the will of fate is upon her, to take hold of the power that has been given to her by men, who have designed the system, by which the Queen Dowager receives power in the King’s absence.
“Your Highness. You will not get your hands on any power so easily. I will stop you.”
The words could have been shouted in that booming voice, and it would have been impactful too, but instead, Jang Hyuk delivers the words with a deep sense of sadness and pathos, and that lands even more powerfully, I think.
Park Gye Won looks genuinely grieved, that things have come to this; that he will have to set himself against the Queen Dowager, whom he had always believed would be on his side.
That lends so much more complexity to the idea that Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager are now on opposite sides.
E13. Finally, we have that chilling scene of all the victims of the bloodbath, installed on the pathway to the palace, under the Queen Dowager’s orders.
It’s a heavy irony, that after all of Park Gye Won’s efforts, to never again allow a tyrant from gaining power and killing innocent people, he’s actually faced with the exact situation that he had hoped to avoid, even swearing on his life.
How terribly paradoxical, that the very person he had placed in the palace, in order to further his ambition to mold worthy, benevolent kings, has turned out to be the kind of tyrant he had sworn to eliminate.
It really makes one wonder, if Park Gye Won could have achieved his dream, by simply not interfering with palace politics..?
Because, if he’d never asked the Queen Dowager to enter the palace as a concubine, she never would have. And then she wouldn’t have been in this position either.
I can see why Park Gye Won would approach the Queen Dowager with his sword drawn; she’s made his worst nightmare come true, after all.
The question, though, is whether he would actually harm her, since he does have feelings for her.
Is his political fixation stronger than his love for her, or is his love stronger? I’m darkly curious to find out.
E14. Even though the Queen Dowager’s clear on the fact that she’s set herself against Park Gye Won, she balks when it comes to actually harming him.
That’s somewhat similar to Park Gye Won’s reaction as well, since he does have a chance to kill her, when his sword is at her neck – but he stops short of actually slaying her.
The tension and relationship between these two is something that I find fascinating to watch.
I’m pretty sure that the Queen Dowager is attached enough to Park Gye Won, that she would struggle to kill him, if push came to shove, but I’m not as certain that Park Gye Won would react similarly.
Given how Park Gye Won later tells the Queen Dowager that he’s deeply grieved that he’d been unable to take her life, and assures the Queen Dowager with deep determination, that he will personally depose her, it does make me wonder if, if given another chance, Park Gye Won would overcome his personal attachment, and actually kill her.
Choi Ri as Yeon Hee
I’m including a quick spotlight on Yeon Hee because I found it interesting how my feelings towards her evolved quite a lot, over the course of my watch.
While I started my watch feeling quite sympathetic towards her, because I felt that she was a victim of her circumstances, I found myself disliking her quite a bit, by the time I reached the final stretch of our story.
Overall, I do think that Yeon Hee was rather underdeveloped as a character, and was included more as a narrative device than anything else.
E5. Through all of this, I do feel like Yeon Hee is going to be a wild card who’s going to need some shrewd controlling.
She’s got all these big feelings for Lee Tae, that it doesn’t take much for her to want to act recklessly.
This episode, Minister Jo manages to redirect her attention to gaining favor with the Queen Dowager, but honestly, if not for his intervention, she would’ve stormed Yoo Jung’s quarters, and there would likely have been a claws-out, hissing catfight.
Suddenly, I feel like Lee Tae may have made a miscalculation, in wanting her on his chessboard, as his Queen. 😅
E9. Although Yeon Hee kicks up a fuss this episode, I have to say that I do have sympathy for her.
She’d been led to believe, by Lee Tae’s calculated words, that he loved her and wanted her as his Queen. That’s why she’d used every means available to her, to convince her father to allow her to be submitted as a candidate.
And yet, now that she’s in the palace, she’s discovering that Lee Tae’s heart really is for Yoo Jung instead, and that there’s a connection between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung that she can’t begin to overcome.
What a horrible thing for her, to finally have Lee Tae before her, on their consummation night – something she’s put her hope in for so long – only for him to almost touch her, and then leave her, with nothing but a quick apology.
To add insult to injury, he leaves her and then goes on a very public search for Yoo Jung, with whom he then spends the night.
Gosh, anyone in Yeon Hee’s place would be losing their minds, I imagine.
It’s not all that surprising, that Yeon Hee would flip over Lee Tae’s gifts in a fit of pique.
And honestly, the fact that Yoo Jung walks in and sagely reminds her that Lee Tae’s gifts are to be treated as Lee Tae himself, is just rubbing salt in her wound.
It’s no wonder that Yeon Hee proceeds to act out, the rest of the episode.
I can see why Yeon Hee would place such importance on uncovering whether or not Yoo Jung is the box seller whom she’d encountered previously.
E10. I can see why Yeon Hee would be as livid as she is.
She’d essentially been lured into the palace by Lee Tae, with a false declaration of affection, and a promise that he would make her Queen, and she’d trusted him and risked everything in order to take him up on that promise – only to now see Yoo Jung be the one who’s chosen to be Queen.
Gosh. Anyone would be furious in her place, I imagine.
Given that Yeon Hee is so emotionally invested in this – since she thinks she loves Lee Tae and all – I can see how she’d get pretty reckless, in her efforts to make things right.
And, given that Yeon Hee’s already extremely angry about the fact that Ttonggeum is reporting back to Yoo Jung, it makes a lot of sense to me, that Yeon Hee would think to trap Ttonggeum, while also scheming to get rid of Yoo Jung.
I bet Yeon Hee doesn’t care what happens to Yoo Jung, as long as Yoo Jung is removed from her line of sight, so I don’t think Yeon Hee actually has any guilt about being complicit in the plot to kill Yoo Jung.
E11. Even though I do feel somewhat sorry for Yeon Hee, because she’s in this situation only because Lee Tae had misled her with what has turned out to be false promises, I do think that Yeon Hee is a loose canon; she’s just not capable of keeping her emotions under control.
When she’s upset, she’s capable of breaking all kinds of palace rules, and I do wonder what she’ll get up to, because her rage at Yoo Jung is surely building.
E13. I find myself growing less sympathetic towards Yeon Hee, as our story progresses.
In the past, I’d felt sorry for her, because she’s in this position only because she’d been manipulated by Lee Tae, and then effectively discarded, when his plans changed.
However, her spitefulness towards Yoo Jung and Ttonggeum is really wearing out any remaining sympathy I had for her.
Even her father, Minister Jo, is disappointed in her meddling, and doesn’t want to get involved any longer, implying that she should pay the price for her own foolishness, because he’s done trying to save her from her own folly.
That’s huge, coming from Minister Jo, who’s always doted on her.
I suppose the combination of her foolish shortsightedness, her refusal to listen to his advice and pleas, and the blanket of political danger that’s covering the entire palace, just makes it difficult and dangerous for him to extend himself in order to deal with her willful “mistakes.”
Yoon Seo Ah as Ttonggeum
I also wanted to give Ttonggeum a quick spotlight, because of how loyal, steadfast and pure-hearted she is, as a character.
Her wholehearted devotion to Yoo Jung is really touching, and I found myself growing a soft spot for her, even though we don’t get a lot of screen time with her.
Kudos to Yoon Seo Ah, for disappearing into the role so well, that I didn’t even recognize her, even though I’d recently seen her in Soundtrack #1, as Park Hyung Sik’s hoobae.
E4. I am quite touched, really, by Ttonggeum’s efforts to track down Yoo Jung, and how far she’d go, to find her way to Yoo Jung’s side, in order to protect her.
The flashback really shows us how Yoo Jung had literally saved Ttonggeum’s life, and been kind to her, when she’d had no one, and I can imagine that Ttonggeum would put her own life on the line to save Yoo Jung, if that’s what it came down to.
I.. hope that that’s not what it comes down to, but now that I’ve said it out loud, I find it hard to believe that Show wouldn’t go there, honestly. 😬
E9. Ttonggeum, bless her heart, is just not shrewd enough to know to quit when she’s ahead. If she’d told Yeon Hee that, no, Lady Park doesn’t look like the box seller, Yeon Hee would’ve left it at that.
But Ttonggeum goes on to spin this elaborate description of utter ugliness to Yeon Hee, such that Yeon Hee gets suspicious.
Ttonggeum means well, but she really could get Yoo Jung into trouble, one of these days.
E13. I’m glad that the Queen Dowager approves Yoo Jung’s request to free Ttonggeum, but honestly, the moment Ttonggeum had been detained for questioning under torture, I’d guessed that she wouldn’t make it out of this alive.
Still, Yoo Jung’s efforts to get to her, don’t feel like a complete loss.
At least this way, Ttonggeum gets to see Yoo Jung one last time, and hear Yoo Jung’s assurance that she hadn’t said anything stupid under torture, and then die in Yoo Jung’s arms.
It’s a sad moment for sure, but I’d like to believe that in Ttonggeum’s dying moments, that scene, where she contentedly lies in Yoo Jung’s lap, is where her soul is.
We don’t know if this is an actual flashback to a memory, or a depiction of the soul realm, of Ttonggeum’s dying moments; I’d like to believe that it’s a bit of both, and that Ttonggeum’s leaving on a peaceful note, because she’s happy to have been Yoo Jung’s person.
Ha Do Kwon as Eunuch Jung
I also just wanted to give Eunuch Jung a quick shout-out.
Even though Show doesn’t actually develop his character much, I liked him for how loyal, steadfast and dependable he was, towards Lee Tae, and then to Yoo Jung as well.
In that sense, I found him to be a rather comforting presence, in our drama world.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
This penultimate episode, things basically shift into place, such that by the time we hit the end, Yoo Jung and Lee Tae are on opposite sides.
Thinking about it, this was inevitable, I feel, if our characters were to remain true to themselves and their characterizations.
Lee Tae’s always been focused on solidifying his authority on the throne, while Yoo Jung’s heart has always been for her family and her people. And, these two things just don’t align, unfortunately.
Yoo Jung’s expression, when Lee Tae confirms her suspicion, that he’d been behind everything, including his own poisoning, and the Queen Dowager’s treasonous acts, is so horrified and heartbroken.
I feel like, in this moment, Yoo Jung already knows that she’ll never be able to look at Lee Tae the same way, ever again. 😢
Particularly since Lee Tae indirectly categorizes Ttonggeum’s death as a necessary sacrifice, when it’s something that pains Yoo Jung so deeply.
And, judging from Lee Tae’s uncomfortable, shamed expression, I feel like this is his fear too, that Yoo Jung won’t look at him the same way again – though he hopes that it wouldn’t be true.
This episode, it seems to me that both Lee Tae and the Queen Dowager are the ones who are stubbornly doing their best to hold onto their positions and rationalizing their reasons for doing so, while Yoo Jung and Park Gye Won are thinking more fluidly about the situation.
The Queen Dowager’s doing her best to hold onto her position as Queen Dowager, even if it’s only by virtue of the technicality, that she’s the King’s stepmother and it would be unfilial of him to depose her.
As for Lee Tae, what strikes me about him is that, even though he’s cognizant of how grieved Yoo Jung is by his actions, he remains very calculated about his moves and his position – almost as if it’s a technical exercise for him that doesn’t carry any emotional weight.
Like in that scene where Park Gye Won goes to see him, to request that he allow things to stay as they are, ie, with the Sarim and the meritorious subjects allowed to keep one another in check, and with the Queen Dowager allowed to remain in her position.
Lee Tae’s response, that Park Gye Won should bring him a life or something that can be traded, or be prepared to sacrifice the Queen Dowager – because either way, he must benefit from this, is the thing that really gave me pause for thought.
The fact that he can be so cold and calculative like this, even while knowing that this whole situation grieves Yoo Jung, brings home all over again for me, just how self-serving and gray Lee Tae is, as a character.
In contrast, Park Gye Won is, at least, deeply emotionally invested in this, and it shows.
The way he thunders to his followers, that he will not be the one to bring Joseon to ruin, by serving a King who murders his own mother, is suitably passionate and intense, and I can see why his followers would be persuaded by his words.
However, I can’t forget Park Gye Won’s personal ties to the Queen Dowager, and that does make me wonder how much of Park Gye Won’s refusal to carry out Lee Tae’s order to assassinate her, comes from his personal affection for her.
When he goes to see her, to ask her to step down on her own, and she asks him his reasons for not killing her as Lee Tae desires, I tend to think that beyond his official answer – that it’s purely because she is the Queen Dowager – there is also his personal attachment to her, which he’s choosing to hide.
When Yoo Jung declares to the Queen Dowager, that she will not allow Lee Tae to go down a similar path as the Queen Dowager, and that she will personally make sure of it, that’s when I started to feel that she would pay any price to ensure it – even if that price was her own life.
The fact that Yoo Jung reveals her identity to her father’s old friend, Left Minister Moon, is also a big indication, since this secret is one that could endanger her life, once revealed.
And in a somewhat similar fashion, I get the feeling that Park Gye Won is going to somehow pay a price that will help to keep the Queen Dowager safe.
I’m not super clear on how exactly he envisions it working out, but the way he requests that Yoo Jung ensure that all the fault lies on him alone, feels like a big clue.
As we close out the episode, the minute Yoo Jung’s father is reinstated by Lee Tae, Park Gye Won reveals Yoo Jung’s identity, and how he had threatened Yoo Jung into entering the palace, and how Lee Tae had condoned it, as King.
Ooh. I can see how he’s planning to use the concept of a King having no shame (ie, fault). If Lee Tae is faultless, then he can’t be blamed for condoning Yoo Jung’s deceit.
On a tangent, though, this thing about the King having no shame really only applies as needed or is convenient, isn’t it? Because, if the King really has no fault, then he’d be able to depose the Queen Dowager and not be blamed for it, right?
I suppose this is where Confucian values trump faultless kings, heh.
Most importantly, though, as we end the episode, Lee Tae makes his position clear to Yoo Jung.
That, if she chooses to stand against him, he will have to eliminate her. Yikes. That does not sound good at all.
But I guess this is why this show is called Bloody Heart..? ❤️🩹
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
To be brutally honest, I wanted to like this finale more than I did.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that this finale was just.. ok, for me.
Coming into this final episode, I honestly wasn’t really sure how Show would choose to conclude its story.
All I knew, was that we would likely lose at least one of our main characters, if not more; this drama’s not called Bloody Heart for nothing, right?
Based on the various available narrative building blocks, I’d say that Show manages to serve up an ending that’s “happier” than the one that I’d imagined in my head, particularly after the ending that we get, in our penultimate episode.
With Lee Tae and Yoo Jung ending that episode and beginning this one on opposite sides, and Lee Tae stating that he would have to eliminate Yoo Jung, I was bracing myself for Yoo Jung’s possible death, actually.
And so, when Yoo Jung doesn’t die, but becomes Queen, despite the grave trespass of deceiving the court, it feels like a happy outcome, but it also feels.. rather inorganic?
We do get a scene of her addressing the Sarim officials and asking for their acceptance, and their cooperation with the meritorious subjects, but after so many episodes of politicking, this feels overly simplistic, honestly.
Also, the thing about the Queen Dowager suddenly acting out against Lee Tae, by requesting to be sent to Onyang Palace – so that she can be assassinated en route, so that Lee Tae will be blamed for her death, feels out of character.
What I mean is, the Queen Dowager has never struck me as actually wanting to die, even at her most miserable.
At this point, we are to believe that she chooses this course of action because she feels backed into a corner by Lee Tae, but that reasoning feels flimsy, when put in context. She feels backed into a corner, so she chooses to die, to spite Lee Tae?
That’s a tough sell, for me.
I would believe that Park Gye Won would go out there to save her, however, since he’s proven time and again that even though he might toy with the idea of killing her, he can’t actually bear the thought of her dying.
And, thanks to the excellent deliveries by Jang Hyuk and Park Ji Yeon, I felt the emotion of the moment, as Park Gye Won muses that he should have let her live the simple life that she’d wanted, in the first place.
There is gentleness and wistfulness in his words, and a deep yearning on both sides, as they both contemplate what could have been, if only they’d chosen differently.
And of course he’d take an arrow – which turns into four – in order to protect her.
I think this is the place in this finale, where I felt the greatest concentration of emotion.
I knew that Park Gye Won was unlikely to survive this story, so it’s not like it came as a surprise, but Jang Hyuk and Park Ji Yeon made the connection between Park Gye Won and the Queen Dowager feel real and packed with a life time of regrets. I felt that.
Eunuch Jung handing over the care of Lee Tae to Yoo Jung feels overly simplistic, because there’s no way that Yoo Jung would be able to perform some of the functions that Eunuch Jung has always done, for Lee Tae. But ok, it’s fine, in concept.
I was glad to see Jang Hyuk one last time, so I wasn’t too fussed about Lee Tae having that conversation with an apparition of a dead Park Gye Won, though it’s not my favorite plot device.
This conversation brings out the different mindsets of both men, in a nutshell. Park Gye Won states that Lee Tae’s subjects help to cover up his faults, and Lee Tae states that he never asked Park Gye Won to cover up his faults.
Essentially, while Park Gye Won tells Lee Tae in this scene that from this point onwards, Lee Tae’s reign is completely his responsibility, I feel that Lee Tae’s reign had always been wholly his own responsibility and nobody else’s.
The mission that Park Gye Won had undertaken, had been one that he’d given himself, and which Lee Tae had never requested.
It feels.. misguided and sad, somehow, that Park Gye Won dedicated his life to something as if it had been his personal calling, when it really didn’t have to be.
Show’s last 20 to 30 minutes feels like a bit of a rushed highlight reel, honestly.
We see Yoo Jung requesting the governor of Bamboo Grove Village to join her in the palace, and Yoo Jung giving birth to a son, and Lee Tae deciding to exile Minister Jo – and Yeon Hee vowing to do everything in her power to bring her father back.
I think Show’s trying to set the scene, that the politics and the tussle for power will continue, long after the final credits stop rolling.
Unfortunately, the effect of the highlight reel treatment on me, was that I zoned out and felt a sharp drop in interest in whatever might happen next, in this world.
As Show wraps up with Yoo Jung’s coronation as Queen, we hear voiceovers by Lee Tae and Yoo Jung, declaring that she is the shimmering blade above his head, who helps him feel the gravity of the throne, but is also his sanctuary, at the same time.
“So I shall walk with you. For you are the sword above my head and my sanctuary. You are my lover, my Queen, and my political rival.”
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this review, by this point, I find myself a lot less emotionally engaged than I’d like to be, so I find myself struggling to feel the momentousness that Show is working to serve up.
However, I do concede that it’s a nice sentiment, and in principle, I like the idea of a partnership that is more faceted than just being about feelings.
It’s not a terrible ending, for sure, though I still mourn the strong, colorful and gripping start of this show, and wonder at the kind of drama we could have had, if Show had managed to maintain those strengths, all the way to the end.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Solid overall, with some excellent performances from its core cast, despite being uneven in its final stretch.
FINAL GRADE: B+
The next drama I’ll be covering on Patreon, in place of Bloody Heart, is Extraordinary Attorney Woo. I’ve taken an initial look, and I’m happy to say that I am really quite charmed, right away. My E1 notes on Extraordinary Attorney Woo can be found here.
Here’s an overview of what I’m covering on Patreon right now (Tier benefits are cumulative)!
Foundation Tier (US$1): Yumi’s Cells 2 + k-ent tidbits + E1 notes of all shows covered on Patreon
Early Access (US$5): Our Blues
Early Access Plus (US$10): +Shining For One Thing [China]
VIP (US$15): +Extraordinary Attorney Woo
VVIP (US$20): +A Dream Of Splendor [China]
Ultimate (US$25): +Alchemy Of Souls
Great review! I hope to eventually check out this drama as it looks appealing to me 🙂
Thank you for this thorough review. I know you know some of my thoughts as we exchanged some of them on Patreon. I agree in general with your review, loved the cinematography, loved the whole cast, etc I was fascinated by the chess/badduk games going on and utterly impressed with how smart Yoo Jung was, feeling a sort of love/hate thing for Lee Tae, fascinated by PGW and mostly moved and fascinated by Queen Dowager. Those two characters relationship was also my favorite aspect (even though I did enjoy the entire drama) As I mentioned on Patreon, I never thought PGW considered suffocating her. I thought he wanted to simply touch her/caress her (something he never allowed himself to do) The way we both read that scene differently certainly colored our perspective about their relationship from then on. I was always on the camp that despite using her, he was always aiming to protect her life. Perhaps my view makes their relationship a tad less twisted and exciting? But its how I read it. Now, from Queen Dowager’s pov, I can see why she may have thought PGW “could” abandon her (kill her?) but as a viewer, to me, it was clear he wouldn’t kill her, ever. One small scene that you didn’t mention in your QD – PGW recap is when PGW told QD that he was testing Yoo Jung as he was considering her fit to be Queen, he was genuinely relieved at the idea that he would be able to “free” the Queen Dowager to live the simple life she desired in the past. In this sense he was dense. He did not realize that being QD was the only thing this woman had left. And that this wasn’t “good news”. PGW looked very sincere in this scene which is why I think he never meant to harm her (in the way you think) Another aspect where our views vary slightly is when it comes to PGWs “greed” or delusion regarding his power over the throne. I agree that PGW had probably lost his mind a bit and that there was arrogance in his idea that “he” could be the “only one” capable of doing what it takes to ensure a bright future for Joseon by choosing or making the future King/Queen. We saw other characters called him out on this (Yoo Jung, his son, etc) but, PGW did not intend to hold all the power himself, otherwise he could’ve made himself King at some point (not unprecedented in history) or keep appointing puppets as he “allegedly” had enough influence to do something like that, but he was genuinely looking for a fit King, and he was much more about ensuring checks and balances than about holding “power” for the sake of it. Lastly, I did love the last “conversation” between PGW and Lee Tae. Remember that it was not a “dialogue” therefore its not reflecting PGWs pov. This is a conversation Lee Tae is having with himself. Lee Tae is telling himself “Now, you are on your own. With your nemesis dead now you have no one to blame but yourself”. Lee Tae was admitting that while he had little power he also had little responsibility in governing. Things were about to get real for him. Lee Tae got what he wanted, almost absolute power right? He was starting to create an imbalance that he was surely going to have to be responsible for. To me, that is what that whole “self reflection” was about. Its Lee Tae’s realizing and accepting what others (not just PGW) had been trying to tell him about holding absolute power. And its probably why after PGWs he felt “lost” but also why he calmed down and ended up accepting he was going to get opposition from his future wife and the Sarim and that was not necessarily a bad thing.
Ah, yes – what could have been…
I am waiting for the drama stars to align so I can watch this. Please Disney, make this available in the US, or at least let Viki have it!
Thanks for tip about Australia VPN. Disney+ in USA is a washout.
Loved the review, especially visual images and description of plot twists..
Thanks, always enjoy the reviews by fangirl
Fangurl – I could only go so far as I am still watching this. It was hard to stop reading. I will finish the drama and comment but yes, the cinematography is gorgeous on this.
phl, where can i watch it? i couldn’t find it anywhere. of course i can not miss jang hyuk and see again lee joon, who’s most impressive in the “grapevine” that we are watching right now. are you watching it?
Eda – it believe it is on Disney+ but not in the US. I think I remember someone saying that they had to set their VPN to Australia. I cannot do VPN so I am watching over on the dark side on my PC. Eda, It really is visually beautiful.
i can only envy you, i can’t get it
and do not know how to go to the “forbidden dark place”. i already got the firestick, but it was just before beez moved and she was hoping to help me with it. but now i’ll have to wait until she comes back. i just do not understand, if it is such a worthy drama, with actors like those, how come other sites do not pick it up. meantime i can only be annoyed.
@Eda – I agree it is a pain, but it all depends on who has purchased distribution rights. I would venture to guess you may see it on Viki one day?