This post contains spoilers about episodes before and after.
I was going to put 12 and 13 together but after re-watching 12 I thought better of it. There's just too much going on in one episode.
It seems to baffle many that Hae Su would even consider rejecting So out of hand after all his incredible declarations of steadfastness and love from the previous episode. There’s an underlying assumption I imagine that she’s an empty headed candy girl who is incapable of recognize the quality of the man under her nose and that she’s somehow a first class idiot to hold lingering feelings for the coward that walked away from her. According to this line of thought, it’s supposed to be easy for someone who has experienced brutality of how the palace troubleshoots to plunge from one relationship to another with relative ease. Perhaps I’m caricaturing things a tad but that’s the logic I’m left with.
So is an easy character to love. Much of our sympathies in this drama lies with him. Although he may be abrupt at times, clumsy with his words, he is a man of action through and through. It’s an attractive quality but it shouldn’t mean that a woman should be obliged to throw her lot in with him after experiencing ten degrees of trauma.
Su’s rejection of So at this point is much bigger than the man himself. It’s a general repudiation of what the palace is and all that it stands for. She wants to forget it all. Someone she cared about, someone who was a mentor and mother-figure to her made the ultimate sacrifice for her. It’s hardly surprising then that she wants to forget it all and put it all behind her. She is quite aware too that So has had to give up his freedom and his desire to live in the palace because of her. More than that, however, she knows herself that getting involved with So is political dynamite and the safest cause of action is to stay away. It’s a view seemingly shared by the King who sends her off to the far ends of the palace to be a water maid at the Gyobang.
I think it’s important from time to time to stand back from the romance in this show and look at the show from the point of view of politics. The obstacles exist not just for storytelling purposes but because it’s been established that they exist because of the cultural context they're located in.
We receive confirmation in Ep. 20 of course that she’s liked him for a very long time so it wasn’t the lack of liking that held her back for as long as it did.
I think it’s much clearer to me this time round that in essence So and Uk want the same thing. They both want the girl but the way they choose to get there is quite different. Uk acts out of his own sense of powerlessness but So acts out of his own sense of liberty. Certainly they are both powerless in the sense that they are subject to the whims of others… Uk with the demands of family, So with his parents but So never allows the external restrictions to override his internal sense of self. Circumstances don’t determine who he is and he seldom feels the need to play the victim card. When Su fobs him off, he’s not deterred but tacitly acknowledges that she needs time to recover from recent tragedy and attempts to strike a bargain with the King for her freedom.
Uk does what he does because he sees himself as the perpetual victim. Even when he finally makes the effort to secretly see Su (after some pushing by Jeong), it’s all about him. It’s about his feeling powerless, about him feeling guilty and bad that she’s in the state that she’s in. We get the usual dose of “I, I, I… excuses, excuses, excuses.”
It’s amusing that in one scene Uk tells Jeong that no one can go against the King if they want to survive in the palace but then So does exactly that when he returns from being an envoy and gets away with it. In fact, much to General Pak’s surprise, he earns his father’s pride and respect for doing so.
Uk craves safety and legitimacy within the status quo. It never seems to occur to him that he can rewrite the rules. He wants to have Su in relative safety. He wants the throne without getting his hands dirty. The brilliant line “the traitor that kills the traitor is a hero” uttered by him encapsulates the way he thinks perfectly. That’s why in almost every instance he’s left watching in the sidelines and playing second fiddle to just about all his siblings despite purportedly being the smartest and most accomplished one. I have no doubt his upbringing has played a large part in that. I can well imagine the tension of wanting to do illegitimate things while maintaining the veneer of being blameless.
Sadly I reached the limits of my patience for Uk in this episode. Despite his less than commendable actions in the previous episode, it was still possible on some level to sympathize with the kind of untenable position he was in and why he made the choices that he did. At the very least he had enough decency left to be embarrassed about his own incompetence. But at this point, I directed a rare outburst at my iPad followed by an uncontrollable urge to throttle him.
Clearly he was provoked by jealousy and fear when he accused So of putting Su in the position she’s in but in the final analysis he’s the guy with the big picture. He had all the pieces of the puzzle in his grasp. He knew exactly who pulled the strings and the rationale for it. This knowledge could have saved a lot of lives. Furthermore, this was one of those rare occasions that he did have real power in his hands because he had quite literally, all the evidence at his fingertips. His refusal here to take responsibility for any of it is no doubt posturing. Still, to blame So who was largely a pawn in this situation… that boy Uk is just asking to be hated. I’m in no doubt that it was also Trash Talking 101… to verbally excoriate one’s adversary when his morale must be at its lowest. With no leg to stand on for his own craven behaviour, tactically he had to stoop this low. But of course, So is riding on a wave of confidence. After all, he’s taken the King down a peg or two, how hard can a weasel brother be? Even if So doesn’t have all the facts, he knows that 1) Uk could have done a lot more and 2) Uk turned his back on Su. He hits bullseye when he tells Uk that he should turn just his back on Su just as he always has. Ouch!
Yeah, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.
There’s a part of me that’s screaming out to Su, “Run away!” when Uk finally condescends to pay a visit and prattle off his excuses. If it had been me, I’d have chucked some laundry in his face and stormed off to my sleeping quarters. But Su’s nicer than I am and I didn’t have the misfortune of falling in love with Uk. When she sliced through his weasely incoherent rambling with “Did you miss me?” it indicated her need for closure. She did need to know if he genuinely loved her for her own mental health. Even if that relationship couldn’t withstand the onslaught of a full-blown political fracas, she needed the assurance at least that it wasn’t some big con job or elaborate lie. I can’t really fault her for this. She had emotionally invested herself in this relationship and she had to know it hadn't been just talk on his part.
I find Su’s strength of character really shining through here. She’s wounded, frail and world-weary and yet she’s the one who looks at him squarely in the eye and zeroes in on that question. The only question that matters to her: Did you miss me?
He is forced to abandon his excuses albeit momentarily. That of course, means he needs to take cover as his own inadequacies are stripped bare. The lack of power, he says, is the problem and when he gets it… things will get better. She looks at him asking him not to bother because she knows precisely what that means. Now the richness of that ambiguity is interesting. Did she mean that she now knows what the price of trying to love a prince is? Or did she mean that she now knows that he’s someone who bends to whatever the prevailing wind might be? Interesting.
I used to think that So and Uk were set up as contrastive figures to demonstrate who the better man was. But I labored under the misapprehension that it was about who was the better man for Su as I had mistakenly assumed that romance was the key thing and the game of thrones was the backdrop. But by Ep 17 we know that’s definitely not the case at all. In actual fact throne politics has always been the main thing and the romance was the interloper. From everything she said in the voice over, Su was quite clear on that that when sending him off at their favourite hang-out. She rejected him because she knew that getting involved with him would ultimately end in tears. To put it simply, her head’s telling her that getting romantically involved with the future Gwangjong would be disaster (just as Court Lady O had warned) but her heart is nudging her in a different direction.
Like most, I was blinded by So’s earnestness and persistence in his pursuit of Su that I blissfully glossed over the ramifications. Like thousands of women who were watching this, I fell in love with So and his epic love. Su did too, long before she became head of Damiwon but she strenuously fought it because she had an inkling of what the long-term consequences would be based on her experience with Uk and Lady O’s warnings.
Therefore, I’ve come around to the idea that both men are equally problematic for Su not because of who they are per se but where they’re positioned in this battle for the throne. Loving Su is easy but hanging on to her is the tricky part. Neither of them can really give her what she wants as a 21st century woman because she really doesn’t belong in this world. (“I can’t marry just to leave the palace”)
So’s trajectory is different to Uk’s because he starts off being disinterested in the throne but if known history is to run its course, the ambition must emerge at some point. While he is free from ambition and out of the game, he is free to shower her with all the attention in the world, to make her his priority. Uk can’t give her priority as his heart pulls him in different directions and he thinks that gaining the throne will allow him to have it all: security, love, choices etc. However we are also witnessing the darkening of his soul in the interim. Also, it’s an unknown at this point what So will end up being once the ambition for the throne stirs within him.
What is known, however, is that So doesn’t bend easily to the will of others or to circumstances. It’s a great asset when he’s wooing a reluctant party and protecting the woman he loves but it can be a serious handicap politically. Determination and stubbornness are two sides of the same coin.
Rationally, Su is right to fend off So’s overtures even if he says the most ridiculous things to make her waver. But then a dying Taejo tells her this:
“Don’t be so obsessed with the future as to lose what you have now.”
It almost sounds like he’s giving her permission to stay by So’s side! No wonder the poor girl is confused about what she should be doing. One person tells her to stay alert and tread carefully like she’s walking on ice, the other is saying… don’t worry and just go with the flow.
Here’s what I think is going on: Taejo knows that she’s special and credits her with So’s recent burst of confidence. Moreover, Taejo believes that her presence is somehow needed somehow for the throne fight. How much her involvement will affect the unfolding of events is unclear but he has accepted the fact that she will at the very least need to witness what’s to come. Obviously he wants So to fulfill his destiny and he has some idea that she might be the variable to make it so.
When Yeon Hwa says that she loves So, I believe her. In so far as it is something removed from her usual need to manipulate people and circumstances. On paper, they would be a good match if both had equal amounts of ambition. But So craves love and understanding above all else and YH can’t speak to that part of his soul because she’s all about maintaining strength and using people’s weaknesses.
The stage is being set. The players have taken their places. The game is about to begin. Will Su merely be a bystander or will she be caught up in it even if she attempts to distance herself from all of it?
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.