Love Like the Galaxy (2022) Episodes 52-54a Ramblings
I would like to preface this post by saying that in principle I don’t have any problems with characters committing acts of idiocy or self-sabotage to advance a story or even to promote a particular message. However, regardless of what the authorial intentions are I reserve my right as a viewer (and the occasional dabbler in fiction) to make my own judgments regarding the efficacy of plot devices and plot points especially as it impacts on characterization. While I concede that character choices and behaviours are open to more than one interpretation, ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise, can pose storytelling problems.
Take Niaoniao for instance in these episodes. First she’s locked herself up in the gilded cage because she finds making wine preferable to making love and making babies. She looks abjectly miserable doing all that while Qiqi and Yangyang are joyfully making love and making babies back at her parents place. In fact just about everyone at the Marquise Qiuling’s residence is nicely paired up including Second Uncle who’s back in the picture taking Qing Cong as his second wife. Niaoniao is conveniently tucked away refusing to join in the festivities because in her present frame of mind, she can’t be around other people being happy while she’s nursing a broken heart. It’s better so the story goes to be with the empress who is perpetually living with a wounded heart than to be with cheerful people who will remind her what she’s missing out on.
From where I’m looking, the whole thing is mind-boggling. For five years, nobody ventured to kick down her door and demanded that she join the human race. Instead it becomes the-subject-that-shall-not-be-named. So it behooves me to ask — did all the adults in her life think that letting Niaoniao sit around and mope for five years was a good idea? Suddenly for reasons only known to these people, everyone believed that a fifteen year old girl was now well-acquainted with all the facts of life and that a single disappointment should be allowed to fester with no intervention from people who should know better. I have a fifteen-year-old too and even though she’s quite sensible for her age, I would never labour under any assumption that she always knows what’s best for her. If we are going to excuse Niaoniao from her worst excesses because of her age then we should at the very least make the adults in her life partly responsible for how they play out. Certainly in that ten minutes of montage there is little evidence of Niaoniao having much human contact outside of Changqiu Palace. In fact I wouldn’t have known she was having regular chats with Yuan Shanjian all that time if the two of them didn’t make it a point to highlight that just before he mentions marriage to her.
The empress, bless her heart, seems to be completely the worst person for Niaoniao to be around at this time. In more recent days one gets the impression that she’s a glass half-empty person routinely dwelling on her regrets, believing herself to be an obstacle to others and repeatedly second guessing herself. She glances over the proverbial fence and the grass looks greener. On some level I’m sure it garners sympathy but it’s bleak and unhelpful to a young woman who really needs a mother who will act as an objective sounding board, not just take her side. The fatalism that both the empress and Niaoniao share is in dire need of some kind of antidote because after a while “I am A Victim of the Cosmos” does sound like a broken record.
After 5 years of torturing himself in the northwest, Zisheng returns with all kinds of evidence that he’s been torturing himself needlessly on the battlefield. The self-flagellation is hard to watch and frankly gets old after a while especially when it falls on deaf ears. I don’t want him to play the noble idiot and say he accepts her decision to go her own way. I want him to be that confident take-charge Ling Buyi who said all those years earlier that he will never give up on her. I think on some level that’s the Ling Buyi she’s missing desperately and really needs whether she knows it or not. But that Ling Buyi has gone AWOL apparently.
The ambiguity that pervades the final episodes begs the question: Is Zisheng entirely responsible for turning Niaoniao into a walking dark cloud of gloom. On the surface of things “yes” looks to be the answer — Zisheng is the author and continuing culprit of Niaoniao’s misery, that he and he alone should bear that burden. Zisheng certainly thinks so, the empress thinks so from what she says, the emperor thinks so from what he doesn’t say. Mum and dad thinks so too even though Yuanyi insists that they’re not interested in apportioning blame. They know that the two young people are still in love with each other but they’re not exactly bending over backwards about bringing them together as they did in the past. Something’s missing in these interactions and for someone who has been watching religiously it doesn’t compute. Am I over thinking things? In truth I lack certainty. Yes, Zisheng is responsible in so far as he meekly gave up and left her alone for as long as he has but all the other adults, it appears to me, acted equally irresponsibly either because they feel pity or guilt. Those who feel pity weep with her. Those who feel guilty believe that they have no legitimate right to give her counsel because they also abandoned her as a child. Consequently they all think it’s better just to leave her alone and give her time to work it out when eventually she will come to a reasonable conclusion on her own. Rather than being part of the solution, the enablers are a big part the problem. In an effort to validate her feelings of being abandoned they deny her the path towards a solution. To appease their own conscience they all trot out the line that she’s matured when in fact, she as obstinate as ever and merely depressed.
I have similar issues regarding Yuan Shanjian’s role in all this. Through his lips the show insists that he’s a suitor/rival for Niaoniao’s affections but as a character it’s as if he’s been relegated to little more than a footnote or an afterthought in this drama. He was her tutor once and in the way he’s been positioned in this story, that despite offering marriage, it feels like that’s all he is — someone who has a few words of wisdom now and again to nudge the leads along in a particular direction.
Five years is a long time in a young woman’s life. If the people around her aren’t going to counsel her properly in all that time, there will be other truth tellers to do their job for them who will be far less friendly than the mums and the dads. Some will be even outright hostile and they come bearing daggers.
Luo Jitong has been a foil for Niaoniao and vice versa from the start. She’s been in love with Zisheng most of her life and presents what seems to be a defence on his behalf in a series of half delusionary half impassioned utterances. There are hints that we might want to take what she says seriously but it’s always difficult to know what parts in the ravings of a lunatic are worth taking on board. It’s probably rather like reading Nietzsche. Therefore we’re heading into dangerous territory with this. The moment Niaoniao tells Luo Jitong to find a new husband when she returns to the northwest, the latter is triggered and then launches into a tirade about Niaoniao’s lack of love for Zisheng and her cavalier attitude with regards to their engagement. The point she makes about not giving up on the man she loves packs quite a powerful punch — enough to cause some discomfiture. The other notable line about accepting Zisheng’s strengths and weaknesses has a similar effect. The biggest reaction comes when Luo Jitong mentions how suicidal Zisheng has been on the battlefield these five long years.
So why is Luo Jitong inadvertently doing the job that the parental figures should have done? Because it seems to me that the show has to justify the 5 year radio silence somehow but is also fully aware that Niaoniao has to get a move on when her happily-ever-after is within reach. Yes, Luo Jitong is obsessed with Zisheng to the point of insanity but the fact that she’s not willing to give up without a fight might be… I stress “might be”… a nudge in the right direction that Niaoniao needs. If that’s what the show is trying to do… yes, I’m definitely on that crazy carriage… by hook or by crook. Unfortunately no one can be sure how effective all that nudging ends up being because immediately after Zisheng does his big action hero moment saving her from the clutches of the deranged Ms Luo while declaring his eternal love, she promptly gives him the cold shoulder… again.
While I don’t condone Luo Jitong’s murderous impulses I find myself nodding in agreement with some of her talking points. Apparently I don’t have that hard a time separating the messenger from the message. It also occurs to me after some reflection that both women are actually obsessed with Zisheng on some level. One thinks he’s best thing since the invention of flatbreads and the other is fixated on not forgiving him as the biggest villain in her life even though it’s eating her up inside. The truth, I imagine, is probably somewhere along the spectrum. Both women look upon Zisheng with very distinct sets of lenses. One idolizes him and the other finds him an enigma with ulterior motives. I on the other hand, think he’s actually one of the more sensible, selfless characters in the show. If anything, he is selfless to a fault — to the point of noble idiocy.
Indeed, Huo Buyi turns out to be a man of seeming contradictions for those who don’t understand the man at his core which serves the plot well on some level. 5 years earlier he gives up on his lady love because he knows she’s disappointed with how he handled the fallout from his revenge. He believes then he will never be forgiven anyway and has lost his right to be alongside her so he tells everyone within hearing that he has no regrets about abandoning her. This has the desired effect and while he is actually harbouring regrets, he labours under the assumption that she will move on with someone else — the most likely candidate being Yuan Shanjian. However, unknown to her although not unknown to Yuan Shanjian, throughout those years in the northwest, Zisheng goes to the aid of people connected to Niaoniao so that she will have peace of mind. As long as she’s happy, he’s happy. So despite the passage of time, his love for her hasn’t waned in the slightest. When he returns he’s still wearing the shao shang string which he picked up from Episode 12 and is remorsefully dismayed that she hasn’t moved on from him — which would explain the oddly cryptic conversation that transpires between him and the empress.
The other reason I say that Huo Buyi is actually more selfless than he appears is because almost everything he does is for the sake of others. At least with this version of Huo Buyi. Even in his revenge plot, his so-called abandonment of Niaoniao and when he plots against the nice guy crown prince, he does it all with an eye to the bigger picture — for king, country, the people and love. Getting the crown prince into trouble so that he would have to be deposed was always to stabilize the royal court. To his enduring credit, Yuan Shanjian who turns out to be a genuinely intelligent, sensitive human being can see all that which is why he is ready to step aside. He comes to the realization that Huo Buyi’s love for Niaoniao is truly a force of nature which he can’t compete with. The only time Zisheng ever allows himself the luxury of doing anything remotely in the name of self-interest is when he asks for the emperor’s intervention in order to marry Niaoniao.
As people who have followed me for a while know, I’m no fan of noble idiocy even if it is an overused trope. It’s not an idea that I can ever get used to. Often it’s a plot device used to separate couples for no good reason except for the fact that one party thinks that the other party would be better off without them. It denies the other party agency which almost never sits well with me. On top of that I rage against the way most Asian dramas try to separate couples when it’s obvious that a bit of honest communication would change the trajectory in an instant and heartache prevented. Writers might believe that more absence makes the heart grow fonder but that’s not necessarily the case for the audience. Inevitably one party ends up looking less steadfast… less likeable.
The drama is full of contrasts and none so obvious as the emperor’s two wives. It’s certainly amazing that they get on so well but it helps that both are fundamentally decent women who stay out of power plays as much as possible. On the one hand Empress Xuan’s mournful pessimism doesn’t sit comfortably with me whereas the empress formerly known as Consort Yue’s no-nonsense approach to life is humorous and far more relatable. In many ways both women have been handed a raw deal in this threesome but for reasons of personality perhaps the Empress Xuan has never made peace with the arrangement. I’m not convinced that she’s really the unloved tragic figure she paints herself to be especially because she happens to be the poster child for tv harems but everyone has blind spots of one kind or another. Evidently the show wanted to give her a nice send off which is why her deathbed scene went on seemingly forever (about 14 minutes) when I would rather have had more time watching the leads resolving their issues.
It is certainly the case that these three episodes are a frustrating watch because everyone else knows that the leads are two people who love each other and are aware that neither can move on from the other. I imagine the magic 5 years is supposed to be proof of their deep and abiding love. Still it’s painful to watch two people thinking one thing while doing and saying the opposite to each other. Someone really needs to come in at that very moment knock both their heads together and get them to kiss and make up. Where’s Qiqi and Yuanyi when you need them? A slap and kick would do the trick. It’s absolutely the wrong time for Zisheng to play the considerate gentleman. Moreover it just annoys me that the writing picks and chooses when it wants to be realistic just so the audience can be on edge for just one more episode.