Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 17-18

As usual this post contains episode spoilers past, present and future.

For me Ep. 17 signals the beginning of the end for Hae Su’s stint in Goryeo. It struck me forcibly the first time and subsequently how the drama is quick to elucidate that Su’s purpose in Goryeo is limited to helping So ascend the throne in a bloodless coup. Despite all her experiences of the palace and misgivings regarding that “terrifying seat”, she helps expedite matters, in part to keep things civilized and in part to put a quick end to their separation. But expediting matters regarding his ascension doesn’t facilitate their romance and it’s clear that while getting throne would be easy, hanging on to it will be far more problematic.

Once So grabs the throne and becomes Gwangjong, every single thing that comes afterwards is designed to force his hand with regards to maintaining his rule. He is challenged at every point to give something up… to play the zero-sum game. It’s a game he adamantly refuses to play, obstinately holding on to everything he had previously gained. On a certain level, it’s an admirable position to take considering it’s an uphill wall with no end in sight. Again we see him as the quintessential existential hero.

At the end of 16, So declared that he wanted to have both the girl and the throne. This was contrary to his father’s lifelong mantra which mattered little when he did not have eyes for the throne. When the resolution to attain the throne emerged, he was quite prepared to move on and put his relationship with Su aside to protect her and to make his move under the cover of subterfuge. It was also clear that to gain the support of the Great General, he had to prove he was serious about overthrowing the incumbent ruler. Furthermore, So may have also believed that this was the end for the two of them knowing Su’s aversion to the throne and that he had to live by the mantra his father had built his kingdom on.

At the same time while maintaining his distance for as long as was possible, he was pining for Su. At the back of his mind it probably made no sense to him that someone who was so instrumental in instilling so much confidence in him was no longer a part of his life. Could he feasibly become King without her? After all, didn’t he tell others that she was someone he could never abandon and that “without her he was nothing.”

Even before consummating their relationship he realized he couldn’t do without her so he breaks and gives in to her pleas. In a way, he’s right… he could never be King without her but what he doesn’t understand is that all of that would come at a very high price. And… he would never be able to give her the kind of life she craves with him within the confines of the palace.

It was brazen of him to eschew long standing political orthodoxy. Raising his fist to the universe. Certainly I wondered if things would go his way. Now 2 episodes later, it appears that that declaration was pure defiance against the sovereignty of fate and it was always going to be a lost cause. Apparently Father's been right all along... no one can have both. Something's got to give.

One of the great myths of our time... perhaps the great lie... is that a person can have everything. I think it is the great lie often told to women... that they can have everything. A career, kids, marriage blah blah blah. In one sense it's true that women in modern contexts have more choices today than their grandmothers ever did but the reality is that no one can have everything. At least not all at the same time. Trying to have everything has brought about incredible stress to women in our day with the demands of child raising and keeping to a job pulling us in a hundred directions. And I say that from painful experience.

For Moon Lovers to espouse the zero sum game so vividly and so consistently to its bitter conclusion… is for me… dare I say it, rather courageous.

While the show was airing, many of us identified fate's hand in pushing Su and So together while pulling them apart. There is also a sense with this push and pull that inherent in love is a kind of greed. To love is to be greedy... in that it is all consuming in its focus on the object of one's affections. When So only cared about Su, he could be the devoted suitor with no thought for anything else. Which suited Su very well because that’s the kind of relationship she was looking for. But now that he is King as well as the ardent lover, he cannot be considerate of all her sensitivities lest he be thought weak. He has to make hard choices with larger considerations at play.

We saw that first with Uk. When he fell in love with Su, he was greedy enough to set aside his usual consideration for his wife and openly show his regard for Su (as open as a guy like Uk is capable of being). It should have been a hint to us and to him that the trajectory he was embarking on was potentially destructive but those were the early days. It's rather telling also that Uk has continued to be the primary instrument of disrupting So and Su’s relationship.

So and Su have both been mugged by reality and have been confronted with the zero sum game. It was put to them that So had to choose… the throne or the woman, although for Su it was probably more the man she was supporting than the throne. I suppose she made his job a lot easier by pulling out first but she chose him over her own desire for personal happiness. There didn't seem to be any room for a middle ground. It was this or that, and it did make sense for the throne to come first because history must run its course. Sadly of course, Su has no real place in it except as a bystander not as a player.

What struck me about Uk the second time I watched 17 was how he saw himself as some kind of arbiter of fairness. He just couldn’t accept what he thought was the injustice of one being able to have it all. As everyone knows I'm hardly a fan of Uk but he did have a point. If he had to give up the girl to pursue the throne, why shouldn't So have to as well. Therefore to make a statement about the injustice that he had to suffer, he forced So to make a zero sum choice. A choice that So was recalcitrant about making... one he fought kicking and screaming... one he didn't want Su to make so he refused to talk to her about it.

It may have been a false choice on some level but with the Chunju clan scratching at his doorstep, it was clear that trying to hang on to girl and throne was a much bigger challenge than he had been ready for.

I wish Su had said why she chose So despite his suddenly becoming ambitious for the throne. I know she didn’t want Uk to think that he was the lesser man so she blathered on unconvincingly about him not having the king’s star. But… he was the lesser man! That was true. :D To be fair, he was a man much more tethered to convention. He saw the writing on the wall and he acted accordingly. Not necessarily a particularly wicked man… but his personality was ill-suited to being with Su. Maybe she just didn’t want to say that she loved So a lot more which may have been something of a slap in the face. Still, it would have been probably closer to the truth. ;)

Yeon Hwa put the same kind of zero sum option to Su. "We can co-exist", she said. Well, we know that she had no intention of co-existing but it was a negotiation tactic. Apparently she wants it all too... the throne, the man and his love but she plays her cards close to her chest. However, even if she has won the first round, winning the second and subsequent rounds is not going to be as easy.

It's clear to me that the recent turn of events has awoken a sleeping dragon. Or to use the show's own metaphor, a napping wolf. Time and time again we see that people underestimate So, not only as a warrior but as a political opponent. Backing him into corners and tightening nooses round his neck aren't really that great in the long run. I think we're definitely witnessing his evolution as a politician in the way he triangulates with his adversaries. In a way I fear for them because they've unleashed a powerful weapon that they will have no control over. I imagine that once he starts, there's not stopping him. But frankly, I have a really tough time feeling sorry for any of them because they have brought this largely upon themselves.

I remember watching a well-made fan video where the editor claimed that Su changed So. I, however, tend to think that she tamed him rather than changed him. She certainly brought out his best qualities and put his “wilder” instincts in check. As I’ve said elsewhere, when he’s with Su, he’s an adorable little cub but provoke him long enough, the wolf returns.

We also see that while So did gain some albeit small measure of happiness with Su, his mummy issues would continue to dog him to the bitter end. Not all of it comes from his inability to move on from the past because Queen Yu with the aid of the Jeong does actively take steps to hamper his kingship right at the start. He desire for acceptance from her and his family does run deep but it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

I will preface what I say next by insisting that I’m not friend of Queen Yu’s or even of Jeong but I support Su’s attempts to bring some measure of reconciliation even if the results do not end up recommending that particular course of action. Why? I am certain it wasn’t entirely for Jeong’s benefit. In fact, I’m sure it isn’t the primary reason for her defiance of the King’s orders.

It was definitely for So’s sake that she informed Jeong that his mother was dying so that So would have no regrets in future about how things transpired here. In part, Su cares deeply about the princes and wants the brothers to stay brothers but more than that, she knows how much more it will hurt So when the anger dissipates and realizes eventually how much he regrets his actions here.

So made Su his confidant once by telling her years earlier how jealous he was of Jeong growing up, enjoying the lavished affection of their mother. Their mother created divisions in that family by playing favourites and So lived with the stigma of being rejected. Even then he’s always wanted acceptance and love from his family. He may resent Jeong and his mother for plotting against him but in his heart of hearts, they are still family. For going against him, Jeong is banished not executed.

Su knows this only too well. She understands So better than he understands her. Whatever he does now in a fit of rage… righteous or unrighteous… he will regret it. Just as he was so broken up over having to fight and kill Yo even as his elder brother had committed treason. He reached out to her for comfort and sobbed bitterly believing that he had a killed a full brother. Not just any brother but one that mistreated him, despised him and was ready to kill him if needed. Whatever their relationship had been, So always craved that familial bond that eluded him his entire life.

I think Su knows that So’s heart is tender towards his family no matter what outside appearances may indicate and in this instance attempts to mitigate the consequences of actions meted in a fit of fury. I imagine when once So cools down and reflects on the situation, he will be weighed down by regret and guilt.

I imagine my view on this isn’t the popular one but it makes the most sense to me in light of everything that’s transpired. Su chose So despite everything she knows about the Gwangjong of history. She was willing to sacrifice her greatest desire for his sake. She doesn’t have much power in the palace and court affairs. She can’t even marry him and be his queen. But what she can do is try her utmost to protect his heart. Whatever king So becomes, she hopes that he will always have the heart that loves his family.

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