Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 14

This post contains spoilers. Consider yourself fairly warned. ;)

Despite holding out the promise of blossoming romance, this episode is riddled with relationship issues for Su and So. Even after a time skip of two years, the push and pull is still in play. As this episode exemplifies, there are good reasons for that but more than that, the drama insinuates that the obstacles facing our OTP go much deeper than just external interferences. There are some fundamental flaws in this relationship, which can’t be swept aside so easily. They surely augur some rough terrain ahead.

In my last post I declared that Su and Uk were doomed from the start. If I am to exercise the same level of scrutiny with the alternate pairing that I root for and be the equal opportunity doomsayer that I aspire to be then I must make the same proclamation here for So and Su. I’m not especially gleeful about making it but if as a reviewer I can’t eschew my biases and look at the drama with an open mind, then I’m wasting my time and yours.

There are very good reasons now to believe that So and Su were on the road to heartache even in these earlier days. The signs were there but because we craved a happily-ever-after ending for them, we zoned out even when all the red flags were raised. Episode 14 proves to be quite deceptive because on the surface it persists with the appearance of romantic progression and yet deep digging reveals some serious impediments to consummation.

The birthday scene, which always elicits a chuckle or two from me, points to certain issues in the dynamic. It’s always such a delight when So and Su bicker dryly… and I’m inordinately fond of watching So stewing in jealous displeasure… but that scene does underscore the rumblings of trouble that’s lurking in paradise. While Goryeo isn’t an amenable environment to the kind of love they both crave, it is also true that Goryeo isn’t the only thing that is keeping those two from having their happily-ever-after.

Despite basking in the emotional rewards that were doled out frugally in this episode, this was also the episode, where for the first time, I had the strongest urge urge to give So a good kick in the rear end from Goryeo to Khitan country.

Well, I never thought So was perfect but it’s clear that where relationships are concerned, he’s perennially trapped in his teens.

In a relationship between adults, I would expect adults to communicate with each other like adults. It’s one thing when mum and dad don’t tell kids everything to protect them from things they’re not ready to hear about or have the emotional capacity to handle. But when a man loves a woman enough that he wants to kiss her, marry her and possibly even have babies with her, it’s insanely ludicrous that he should keep such a big secret to himself… which isn’t even much of a secret to begin with… and then compounding the situation by letting her hear it from others first via the palace grapevine. To add insult to injury, he refuses to provide any explanation why he suddenly married the King’s daughter leaving her on her own to imagine the worst.

His rationale for not trying to explain himself appears high-minded but it’s silliness of the slap-able kind. He’s angry for having to put her in the position of having to grin and bear it and yet he’s unwilling to tell her why he won’t “give excuses”. The logic fails me.

I love So warts and all… but honestly, in the way he handled this matter, how was he all that different from Eun?

Su knew exactly what So was up to when they agreed to meet at the prayer pagoda. She was all dressed for the occasion even wearing that pass-the-parcel hairpin which has come to signify the push and pull in their relationship. Clearly she was all giddy in full anticipation of what’s to come. Her disappointment was palpable when first he took his time coming and then he made an awkward show of pretence that he had forgotten what he was going to say. I imagine he must have been trying to cushion the blow that was to come. Whatever it was that was going through that wolf-dog head of his, he made that choice for her. I don’t dispute the decision to marry the princess and that was his to make but the choice to remain with him in spite of had to be Su's.

There were several problems with what went on here. Firstly, by refusing to provide an explanation, he put her in emotional limbo. It was never quite clear to me if it meant the end to their courtship. Was he breaking up with her? Putting a definitive end to their push and pull? I could only assume so. Even the poem he sent her didn't do much by way of clarification. It’s a lovely poem and I understood it as an expression of his disappointment of not being able to be with her as something unexpected came up and threw a spanner in the works.

Secondly, he pre-empted her response thereby giving her no chance to respond to the actual issues and process her feelings accordingly. He knew only too well that she didn’t care to be Wife #2 in a polygamous arrangement. However, despite trying to preserve himself for the one woman, brotherly obligations took precedence over his own desires and political expediency ruled the day. While it was distasteful to his pride to ask her to wait or hang on, in his heart of hearts, I’m certain he desperately wanted her to.

As she had no idea what was being asked of her, she resigned herself to the situation and walked away, believing that this was the end of any conversation about marriage between them.

I tend to think that he shut down the conversation fast because he was in part ashamed that he couldn’t do what he had promised previously. In part he was afraid of hearing her condemnatory response, although his pride and bravado would make a show of it himself. He was obviously hoping to mitigate the damage by not having to refer to the matter explicitly as it was something that she found repulsive.

Thirdly, he led her to believe that she had lost priority in his heart. In effect, she thought she had been dumped not for another woman but for some newly discovered ambition that he was too embarrassed to fess up to. But more than that I think she was hurt that he couldn’t be honest with her and led her on for as long as he did.

Fourthly, his entire approach didn’t work. Obviously he thought he was protecting her. Maybe he thought he was giving her an out even though he probably wasn’t that keen to let her go. What he did, rather than improving matters, made things worse than they needed to be. She was still heartbroken and angry but for all the wrong reasons.

When So once told Baek-A that he wasn’t very good at communicating with others… he wasn’t being unnecessarily modest.

Su also knew that So was lying at the prayer pagoda when he said he had forgotten what he was about to confess but she thought he had suddenly gotten cold feet and told him to take his time. In that sequence of double-talk between them she was also trying to tell him that he didn't have hold back any longer and she was ready to move to the next level with him. Unfortunately he didn't think he deserved to move to the next level with her. People in adult relationships talk things through not cocoon each other from harsh realities or think that they can do so with no long-term consequences. Notice too that when Su finally got her explanation she voluntarily admitted that she had given Jeong refuge at her place. When that drainpipe got unclogged, their ability to communicate honestly and freely returned.

Many fans berate Su in Ep. 15-16 for not trusting So enough. But I think a similar criticism can be leveled against So for not trusting Su to understand his predicament. Especially not long after having such an empathetic conversation under the stars about sibling rivalry. The fact that Su has proven repeatedly that she can be understanding of all his ugly deeds and thoughts should have encouraged him to be much more frank with her from the start.

Of course fear of losing her was the determining factor behind the silliness in this episode.

There’s a parallel occurrence of this with Eun and Seon Deok. Eun is gradually falling for his wife and seeing her with Jeong arouses the green-eyed monster and so instead of being honest with her and himself, he lashes out at her like the emotionally stunted, hormonally charged teenager that we know him to be. Jealousy reveals the true state of his heart that is hidden beneath the pretence of indifference.

As much as I despair over Jeong’s stupidity in the curious affair of him taking refuge in Damiwon in the middle of the night, we do have to be thankful that his actions here, did light the fire under So’s bottom and got him to react in a way that led Su to open up to him again. In this case, jealousy made him abandon his pride and face up to the woman he loved with his heart.

Ironically, Su romantically involves herself with two quite different men. One is overburdened with self-justification and the other refuses to even try and give an explanation because in his mind only a worthless man would try to excuse himself when he can’t give the woman he loves what she wants. Both loathe their powerlessness but they deal with it very differently.

It’s the main reason why So is such a wonderful character to me. In spite of the suffering he’s been through, he never positions himself as a victim even though he probably has more of a “right” to do so than anyone else. The world that he grew up in has never made it easy for him to claim his birthright but he lives large and without excuses. But that pride which keeps him standing tall has another side. It also operates as a defensive mechanism that keeps people at bay.

Watching this episode again I come away wondering why anyone would think that Su wasn’t in love with So. If anything, we see such a clear indication of the murmurs of her heart. It’s obvious to me not only that she loves him enough to put aside her revulsion to polygamy but also she wants him to know it in the clearest way possible. As long as he’s true to her, she will not change her mind about him.

I don’t think she ever doubts that he loves her. That’s never the issue. Note her first question to him when they have their confrontation that’s long overdue:

What’s the reason for suddenly getting married? Really, like what others are saying, is it greed for the throne that’s making you do this?

She’s enough of a realist to know that the marriage is most likely about political expediency. At the back of her mind, she’s fully aware that the throne could come between them at anytime but her heart is constantly drawn towards him in spite of everything she knows about the future.

As she traces over his brush strokes, she grieves over what she thinks cannot be. For a moment, she had cast aside her own fears, given herself to the luxury of being in love. She had surrendered to her feelings in the simple hope that things would work out better than her visions and Lady O had portended.

This is how much she loves him… that she would set aside her own fear of the throne for his sake. Even when they make-up and kiss, the fight for the throne continues to loom large in the background but she now knows that she can’t continue in Goryeo without being by his side.

Incidentally I do love So’s writing. Although it isn’t as exquisite and elegant as Uk’s, there’s a wildness in the brush strokes that befits his personality. It stabs me in the heart every time that Su chose to model her Hanja handwriting after his especially knowing what comes later. It’s so gut-wrenching to think that even something as simple as that would be one of many barriers keeping them apart right to the bitter end.

Jeong, I will admit is no favourite of mine in this series. Maybe it’s the way he’s written… maybe it’s how he’s utilized as some kind of gap filler. But he’s a simple-minded fellow our 14th Prince. It’s also this irrational prejudice that he has against So that boggles my mind. Some of it obviously comes from Mummy Dearest’s influence and some of it I suspect comes from So taking Su out of the palace at the end of Ep. 9 on a whim. I’m sure hanging out with Uk doesn’t help. However, it is instructive here how he is set up as a potential rival in love.

Still it irks me that he comes in late and takes refuge in Damiwon putting Su on the spot. I don’t even see the point of Jeong hiding from So even with a curfew. Why did he even bother coming back if he was already so late? Should have stayed on with Mummy Dearest and Brother Yo.

That’s why I say and keep saying that for a bunch of fellows who say that they love her, they seem rather inconsiderate of her position in the palace, the pressure she’s under and then to use her to mitigate their own issues (Eun, Jeong, Uk, Mu and even So). It’s one reason among others why she couldn’t love freely, with all these brothers making demands on her big-hearted disposition. Even with the best of intentions, they became a huge, ever-increasing burden on her fragile shoulders… all except Baek-A who understood her predicament best.

Su called herself a referee but what she was in actual fact… was the rope in a tug-of-war being pulled in multiple directions.

This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.