This post contains spoilers pertaining to past, present and future episodes. Read at your own risk.
Although I never really bought into the Baek-A and U-Hui romance emotionally, narratively it operated as a metaphor for an evolving theme in this drama regarding the impossibility of love in the palace. It’s certainly one expression of that theme: Two people who should never have met, who should never have fallen in love and were probably doomed from the start. The gulf between them was too wide. There was too much baggage and to make things worse, the entire course of the relationship was clouded by secrets.
So what is it about the palace that makes it such a cesspit of toxic goo that makes it impossible for love to thrive there? As outsiders peering into that fishbowl of dysfunctionality, we watch with our romantic assumptions that love should be able to conquer all… we assume that if there’s enough love (whatever that means) between lovers, then matters should automatically iron themselves out because people who love much deserve (whatever that means) their happily-ever-after.
We may watch too, with our knowledge of fairytales and popular comedic tropes that “true love” should lead to a lifetime of bliss. But what if the opposite is equally true? What if true love doesn’t manifest itself in a happily-ever-after scenario but in heartache and sacrifice? Is their love invalidated by the sheer fact that the pairing cannot grow old together? Does love only result in favourable circumstances, or a state of mind, heart and will regardless of circumstances?
I am not aiming to provide all the answers here :D but they are questions worth considering at least in the context of the drama. For me it all boils down to assumptions.
The palace is a place where people live and interact. It is a space where people make choices about who they want to be and where they want to go. I picture a bustling marketplace but what’s on sale is power. Like every place where trading takes place, someone has something they want, someone makes an offer of a price and negotiation takes place. Everyone and everything has its price. To gain something is to lose something else. Love is no exception. In the right situation it’s an asset, in other situations, it becomes a liability. The game then is to know when it is one or the other.
Taejo is dying. The princes are gathering. The vultures are circling. The throne seems ripe for the taking. The man who built an empire has known for a while that his end is nigh. Lying on his deathbed, accompanied by two friends, all that preoccupies his mind is how transient life is. His impending death compels him to confront the uncertainty of the legacy he leaves behind. Faced with his mortality he wonders too if his life has been wisely spent.
It is wondrous irony that the King who lies in wait for his end is racked with doubt about the future while three of his sons are raring to wrestle the throne away from the Crown Prince. The man who created Goryeo’s throne is vulnerable and almost fearful because the power that was his will be out of his reach forever. The future is no longer his to command or protect. Almost to the bitter end, he is still grasping at every last detail, second-guessing his own decisions. Before he takes his last breath he pines for the only woman he's really loved.
Once again Su is caught in the middle of palace politics and intense sibling rivalries. I’m especially suspicious of the fact that it was Ji Mong who brought her back into the thick of things despite her reluctance to be involved. He could have really done it just because Su does have badass tea making skills that she inherited from Court Lady O. However, as he has a tendency of meddling selectively even when he admonishes others not to, I remain sceptical of his true motives.
On some level Su is tempted by So’s offer of marriage to leave the palace. For a woman who values love and relationships, it goes against the grain to take the plunge just to escape purgatory. I expect that she can’t be too averse to the man who makes the offer either. Whether she likes, loves or somewhere in between him, it must be somewhat flattering to be asked even if she feels the burden of having to make that kind of decision.
Then while she’s making tea for the dying king, he sends her off on a dangerous errand to make contact with the Crown Prince.
In the middle of limping towards her destination, she’s confronted by a thoroughly untrustworthy Uk who is fishing for information. Their conversation about throne grabbing is juxtaposed quite deliberately with the exchange between So and Yeon Hwa. The two women hold polar opposite views regarding the value of the throne. Su see it (understandably) as a death knell to everything especially relationships whereas Yeon Hwa believes that the person who sits in it, owns everything.
Yeon Hwa’s offer to So portends what is to come. A similar offer will be put to him again later but under quite different circumstances. The man who receives the offer on both occasions doesn’t really change his stance (at least willingly) although at this point he is unencumbered by political ambition. All he wants at this time is Su and he has enough nous to know that even if he is King with all the power that the position affords, it is no guarantee that she will give her heart to him even if he takes her forcibly. More importantly, the throne cannot give/buy him love. For him the throne is an object of scorn because his current goals don’t align with what it symbolizes. He’s right of course. When Taejo made the choice to prioritize the safety of the throne, he chose to give up the woman he loved.
Not surprisingly of course Uk is on the same page as Yeon Hwa. “If I must protect what I love, then I need to have the greatest power.”
This reverberating belief that taking the throne to bolster one’s power base is such a fixation with the Hwangbo siblings when they of all people should understand how erroneous that is. They should have remembered that Court Lady O fell victim to an orchestrated miscarriage despite the fact that the king loved her greatly (or because of it). As a result of this incident, their entire family was made scapegoat and sent into exile.
Perhaps the only lesson they took away from that incident was the power of the throne to affect lives but they failed to grasp the crucial bit where the king with all the power vested on him could not protect the woman he loved. If anything, it was probably that very same throne that caused the unborn child to die.
It has often been said that Yeon Hwa is a pragmatist and she’s a sharp operator trying to survive in an environment hostile to women. There’s no disputing that women get a raw deal here of course but as we’ll see it’s not exactly a friendly environment to men either, especially if one is a brother of the King and perceived as a potential threat. However, these days I see her largely as an “ambitious idealist”, which may sound like an oxymoron. Clearly, she idealizes the throne. It’s the Holy Grail of palace politics. Underpinning that is the belief that the one who takes hold of it, gains absolute power, thereby having it all. Revolutionaries are driven by a similar kind of single-minded idealism. It’s has a blinding effect. Also it’s how they can justify the destruction that they wreak along the way.
Su, I think, is more of a realist than she’s been given credit for. Even by me, I might add. Contrary to what most think, she does have a clear-eyed perspective on what the throne represents especially after losing Court Lady O so ruthlessly. In her eyes the throne means: death, corruption, betrayal and the loss of love. And she wants none of it. Family will end up doing things to each other that they would never otherwise. It helps, of course, that she’s an outsider that’s borne the brunt of all those consequences so she doesn’t have a starry-eyed view that throne power is a panacea to all of life’s ills.
It also takes a certain kind of courage not to succumb to conventional orthodoxy when everyone around you is marinated in it as if it’s the oxygen that they breathe. It may be easier to conform but if it means betraying one’s conscience and principles, it’s may be better to take chances on your own terms.
Ultimately her rejection of Uk comes from her own realization that he is on the path to self-destruction. Already she has witnessed the corruption of his soul as he blithely rationalizes about using her to kill a brother as par for the course -- a pattern that will continue until she leaves the palace. She’s well aware that none of it will end well and she just cannot be a part of that trajectory. For old times sake she sounds him out, giving him a chance to turn from the path he’s on but now that he’s had a taste for the sport, he is loathe to let it go. She is absolutely right when she says he is deceiving himself when he says he is doing it for her. He is doing it because ultimately it does satisfy an itch that he’s harboured for the longest time.
On the other hand, So kills his brother or thinks that he does at this point but Su’s not repulsed. While on the surface it seems like double standards, she recognizes that the difference lies in intent. So did not kill his brother to satisfy a bloodlust… he did it because it was ultimately about survival and it broke his heart that he had to. Uk although he didn’t ultimately kill anyone, was quite prepared to do so and turned against his co-conspirator far too easily and unconscionably.
At the risk of sounding fatalistic, it seems to me that Su and Uk were doomed from the start. Despite living in his residence for a time, she barely knew him. What she knew was the mask. To her he might have changed 180 degrees but the reality is that she fell in love with the side of him that he chose to show the world. He hid his darker impulses from her as he did from everyone else although from time to time they would leak through the façade. It is probably a credit to Lady Hae who acted a restraining force in his life for as a long as it did. Episode 11 opened Su’s eyes to what ambition for the throne does to human beings and now two episodes along, that reality continues to be played out in fairly logical fashion.
I also see a nice little foreshadowing too in their final exchange. Uk is clearly writhing in jealousy because he thinks Su is taking So’s side in the conflict because she has chosen him romantically. Then she says to him rather pointedly:
“Even for a moment, were you ever sure of my feelings for you? Have you ever completely… trusted me?”
In response he says to her, “I will make you come back to me”.
“It will not be easy.”
I can’t help but see an important parallel with what comes later. The questions are never repeated verbatim but the sentiments are echoed in that scene. It is what I call, the curse of the reverse harem. It’s precisely as Lady O predicted. She would be caught between the princes and it would ultimately become her undoing. It strikes me hard that both men expect and demand complete devotion but they fail to understand that the very thing that makes her special… the very quality that they fell for… is the very thing they (and much of the audience) wants her to jettison.
Taejo dies and the reactions of his wives and children are the key thing here. The late, great king shuffling off his mortal coil was just a man in the end… with all the foibles of humanity on his shoulders. To some he was a rival, an obstacle, someone whose loftiness was their ambition. To others he was a father who couldn’t be free to be one. Even though he would be known as the Sage King who founded a dynasty, he couldn’t be the father or husband his family probably needed him to be.
It’s the refrain of the drama playing in the background… No one… not even the king… can have everything.
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.