Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 11

This post is rife with spoilers, read at your own risk.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this is the episode that I’ve been waiting to write about. There is no doubt that this is the best, and single most important episode in the entire drama. It bookends one epoch, signalling the end of one phase in Hae Su’s misadventures in Goryeo, and acts as a bridge to the next phase. The execution of said transition is brutal to say the least but powerful and poignant. The collateral fallout is devastating. Narratively it creates a template for what is to come.

While adjusting my teacher hat, I came up with 3 Ps that incorporate what I consider to be the major themes running through the episode that feed into the ongoing arc. To simplify things I’ve reduced everything to the following: power, priorities, and paying the price.

At the heart of this episode is the notion that power has a life of its own that function outside of rank/status. This entity called powerdoesn’t remain in the hands of single person or group of persons. It is in a constant state of flux changing hands according to circumstances or choices made by those who play the game. No one has complete ascendancy over it, not even the King. In fact, in specific instances, the King’s hands clearly are tied… and even he cannot wield absolute power in imposing his will on a whim for fear of tipping the balance too much one way or another.

Taejo knows full well that there are things he can and cannot do. Politics is a complex game of checks and balances… the juggling of seeming, tokenism and action. The presence of the clans is a double-edged sword as we’ve seen… they can stem the power of the King to prevent tyranny but in the wrong hands they can become the tool of interest groups. A savvy ruler wants respect for maintaining the shared values of his society in order to consolidate his position and maintain stability for his reign. However, that can also easily be used as a pressure point to force the King’s hand in situations where he sees no benefit.

For all kinds of reasons, mainly personal ones, Taejo really wants Prince Mu (the Crown Prince) to be his successor. Even while he has a myriad of sons to choose from and with all the pressure of the clans brought to bear on him, he is adamant that Mu ascends the throne at any cost. Even at the cost of justice… because he has chosen to prioritize that goal above all else. Doing so means having to choose from a whole spectrum of evils. Deaths may result as a result of that priority but they would be considered the lesser evil when compared to not installing, in this case, Mu as King. That is the priority and the goal and he will stand his ground even if innocents become scapegoats… and even if the woman he loves becomes the sacrificial lamb.

So while the King has an initial array of choices at his fingertips, once he has made his choice, he is bound by it politically. The power that was in his hands shifts elsewhere as he treads carefully on this self-limiting trajectory. He has in effect rendered himself powerless to deviate from this course.

Clearly the King cannot do just anything he wants or have anything he wants. Taejo’s philosophy stipulating that anyone who desires to hold on to the throne has to abandon people is one that reverberates right through the drama and nowhere is it more vividly illustrated than in this weighty episode. To cast one’s eye on the top job requires the contender to set his sights above ordinary desires for something bigger than himself. The King isn’t just a man, he is the leader of a nation, a rallying cry, a symbol of a people’s hopes. He sets the agenda. He cannot indulge himself in things we mere mortals take for granted because his eye has to be on the bigger picture all the time. The throne is a narrow and lonely spot. It gives no place for trivial concerns like personal happiness, petty ambition or even political survival. Anyone who tries to negotiate on that level will be crushed under the weight of its demands.

Taejo understands this to some degree although no one else in his family seems to because they end up fighting for it primarily on personal grounds. When power for its own sake becomes the rationale behind attaining the throne, it eats into the soul and corrupts malignly.

It’s no understatement to say that the show takes a bleak view of the throne primarily because us mortals are generally incapable of thinking beyond our own petty concerns. The grave miscarriage of justice following the tea poisoning is a reflection of power used poorly even if Taejo himself believes he is doing it for “the greater good.” His greater good is to obstinately keep Prince Mu as Crown Prince… a deeply personal choice even for the best of reasons, can have devastating consequences when the balance of power shifts. In this instance the Crown Prince is accused of poisoning the 4thPrince.

Much ink has been spilt (or pixels burnt) over Uk’s betrayal of Su and his rationale for doing so. While I’d agree that he prioritized his family over Su, I wouldn’t say that he did it because he cared about them more than he loved her. My contention is that he gave her up because at that moment in time he experienced another bout of powerlessnessin a situation orchestrated in part by Yeon Hwa. It was then he realized that Su had become a liability and not an asset. The truth was, she was always a liability but it took for her to be a suspect in a crime for him to be slapped with that realization. He chose family because after doing a cost-benefit analysis, he came to the pragmatic conclusion that the clan was in a better position to empower him than she was. Keeping her by his side was in the long run going to cost him more than it was going to benefit him. Since Uk is someone who plays it safe, it’s a no brainer as to what his choices would be. In fact, abandoning Su is consistent with the core of who he is and it’s a highly logical decision for a man who takes the path of least resistance.

For Uk, Su was, largely in vulgar terms, a happy distraction in his burdensome existence. Sure she was a breath of fresh air, in his dreary life where everyone, according to him, wanted a piece of him. She could offer him comfort and respite but she was increasingly a repeated reminder to him of his own inabilityto act in his context. Even though his feelings for her were reciprocated, she became more out of reach with each passing day as newer developments would arise. All he could do over and over again was to ask her to wait, to grin and bear it.

The terms of their relationship was always nebulous and the foundations on which they stood were shaky. The empty promises were a cover for his powerlessness to affect change and Su fed into that by tip-toeing around or glossing over the unspoken challenges in their relationship. The seeds of the dysfunction had already been laid at the start when he tried to woo her in secret while his wife was still alive. I don’t doubt that Uk wanted Su and had strong feelings but at the end of the day, he didn’t want her enough to burn all his bridges for her.

It does surprise me that so many continue to romanticize Su’s relationship with Uk when it was fraught with issues right from the start. But maybe I shouldn’t be because the visuals were very attractive and they gave the appearance of outward compatibility even when the foundations were weak.

Throwing Su under the bus wasn’t, in my opinion, the worst thing that Uk did although the betrayal was painful to watch. It’s the miscarriage of justice that made my heart bleed. He had the power to do right but he cast that aside for political expediency. There was a cost for doing that as there is for everything. It set him on the path to soul destruction. However it wasn’t just him, everyone else too. For the King it was losing the woman he loved. Everyone knew that Su and Court Lady O couldn’t have done what they were accused of but they were either powerless to act or they rendered themselves powerless because it didn’t mesh with their long-term goals. Su and Court Lady O were expendable in the scheme of things because everything related to the fight for the throne had priority over all else.

When So fell in love with Su, for the first time in his life he found his bearings. I don’t think he changed at his core per se but he found something he could be passionate about. His world became larger because of her and he was able to set aside his pain. She became his priority because there was nothing else he lived for, nothing else to lose. It seems obvious to say that he loved Su more than Uk but I phrase it as… he loved her differently to Uk. This is integral to what he says when he said to her, “you are my person”. For him Su became his life… his raison d’etre. It’s why he could so easily drink the poisoned tea to protect her because he didn’t see it as some kind of great sacrifice, but the natural overflow of how important she was to him that he would risk all in such fashion. More than an asset, she was his everything. There was nothing else in his life he had to weigh her up against because there was literally nothing. Even if there were, it wouldn’t matter because she had been his compass out of purgatory.

There are two great scenes in this episode that I love above all others in the entire series: The prison scene where he visits her after she’s been tortured and the iconic raincoat scene at the end. Most days I have a hard time picking which one I love more but if pressed I would say that the prison scene wins out for dialogue. In my opinion it is the most romantic scene I’ve ever seen in a K drama. Two people who are so obviously in tune with each other and care so much for one another, trying to be strong for each other under incredibly harrowing circumstances by side-stepping the elephant in the room with a bit of friendly repartee. So, at a loss for words takes a shot at gallows humour in self-deprecating fashion and of course, Su will have none of it. Physically she’s a complete mess but she hasn’t lost her wits one bit. She’s on to him about the poisoned tea but he deflects it with an indifference that cloaks his own powerlessness. He’s not about to brag when he failed to protect her so the bravado comes out in full force. It’s not in his nature to give cold comfort and he takes a passing shot before leaving. His bluntly affectionate “such a nag” parallels their earlier conversation on the boat when she gives him choice words about the meaning of life.

This scene encapsulates to me why I love this pairing so much and why I consider it one of my favourite pairings in fiction. One never feels that we’re watching a fairy tale with them. It’s raw, profound and grounded in reality. She’s a blood soaked mess from being tortured and he’s just recovered from drinking unhealthy amounts of poison. They’ve teetered on the edge of death and her fate is uncertain at this point and yet none of that matters when the two of them are in that space together. That’s how magical that banter came across to me.

Contrast that with Uk’s visit to the same cell earlier, it’s an entirely different story. He reaches to touch her hand and withdraws abruptly when she asks anxiously about the 4thPrince. She mistakes his jealousy for bad news and thinks the worst. His enthusiasm for her dims and his tone takes a more sharpish edge. For the first time in their relationship he deals with the facts and lays them all down but the scene ends with yet another promise that he would never carry through.

A famous Latin saying struck me while I was watching Moon Lovers the first time around… as Su and So were doing their best to navigate through shark-infested waters. “Fortune favours the bold.” I looked it up to check if I had it right and discovered that it’s a popular motto adopted by branches of the military around the world and used on the coats of arms of various clans and families.

As a man, So is deeply complex. As a lover, he is a force of nature. Despite coming up against obstacles, he never stops moving. His drive to protect Su could arguably be said to be inhuman. Even when his pleading falls on deaf ears, when others have given up, he is here, there and everywhere for her. Even when fortune doesn’t seem to favour him or the woman he loves, it doesn’t deter him one whit. He’s been a fighter from young by necessity and it’s his default position. The lack of power doesn’t limit him, if anything it makes him all the more determined to press ahead, causing him to dig his heels in further. He proves he’s the quintessential existential hero who creates his own opportunities by scaling the brick walls even if he can’t see the top of them.

The fact that he’s been an outsider for much of his life empowers him. He’s not held back by rules in the way the others have been. For the woman he loves, “impossible” doesn’t exist in his vocabulary. The pampered princes may have lived a better life growing up but they were living in gilded cages. His strength comes from not knowing what the limitations are or being a prisoner of them.

It wasn’t my intention to pen a love song to Wang So but after looking back on all that I’ve just written it feels that I have done just that. :D

He is a remarkable character that shines in adversity. What did not kill him in his younger days certainly made him stronger. But it is the strength of his love for Su that shines especially when the man she was about to marry hid from her in those desperate moments. That’s why when she sits in the rain pleading desperately for justice for Court Lady O, he’s the only one who can and will stand with her. Also he was quite prepared to, with the right evidence to throw his own mother under the bus if it meant saving Su.

Aside from So, it is the women who really shine here. I really loved the final interaction between Court Lady O and Su where the former dishes out final words of motherly wisdom. It was wonderful acting by the ladies. As a whole, LJE was a revelation in this episode. Moreover, the last conversation between them in the secret passage sets the stage for how her own relationship with So will unfold. As long as the throne remains a coveted position, its effects will linger and the cycle of betrayal and destruction will continue.

“I also protected what I wanted to protect. I must pay the proper price. I have no regrets.” (Lady O echoes what Su says after she slashes her wrist to prevent marriage to the King)

“Be alert about everything. You can’t trust anyone completely. Every moment, and every step you take, you have to tread with fear like you’re on thin ice. You mustn’t live your life like me.”

Those were Court Lady O’s last words to Su as the hangman’s noose awaited her. Words of caution that would stay with Su for the rest of her time in Goryeo. Although it looked like she had lost everything, this valiant woman took what little power that was afforded her to save Su. She was dying anyway… she had nothing to lose and she used her own life to protect the girl that reminded her of what she once was. She had made peace with everything. The tragedy was not that this woman died or had to die to save Su but that truth was the real casualty in all of this. The truth never came out. Everyone had their suspicions but as per usual the culprits got away with murder. The two women, uneasy bedfellows who masterminded the entire episode would walk parallel trajectories because of where their choices would lead them.

Even though I’m no friend of Yeon Hwa, she did something useful here and that was to remind Uk that in his heart of hearts, he hates being powerless and that he had always set his sights much, much higher. But despite her later protestations, she unleashed a monster that even she herself had no control over.

At the end during the rain scene we saw how powerless the men were not only to protect Su but to protect themselves. All they could do was standby and watch helplessly. Of course there was only one man who did more than standby and watch her but even for that he would pay the price.

Choices and consequences is the name of the game. Clearly everyone has to pay a price for the choices they make. On some level they are quite aware of that but how far is anyone willing to go? What about the law of unintended consequences? Some choices may require payment for the term of their natural lives.