Spoilers and all the rest... as usual
It has taken far longer to this point than what I had intended. With this, I feel that my journey with Moon Lovers has properly come to an end. This piece turned out to be a lot shorter than I had originally intended it to be but it's the downside of having left it to hibernate for too long.
No doubt this piece will end up sounding like an apologia for Hae Su and perhaps one is desperately needed, as she’s become the most derided character for her apparently inexplicable/inconsistent actions towards the end. For that I suppose the drama needs to take some responsibility but I think all the elements are there for us to piece everything together in some cogent fashion.
I found that taking sides in the matter of So and Su very unhelpful because it obfuscated the big picture. This tug-of-war wasn’t helped by the rapidity of Episode 19 and how rushed everything felt in the build up to Su’s exit from the palace.
When Su left the palace, all the scheming and plotting against So more or less came to an end. His adversaries had very little ammunition left and he was freer to act against them because he didn’t have “extraneous” baggage to hold him back. She was his weakness because he wanted to protect this beautiful thing in his life that gave him a reason to be something than what he had been labeled to be.
At the end of the day I am convinced that she’s much more courageous than she’s been acknowledged to be. Contrary to what popular opinion (and what I myself had initially thought), I don’t believe she left to save herself but to save the man she loved the most and their child. She understood that she had become a political liability, a pawn in the chess game for the throne. To his credit he had become too obstinate to let her go as once he promised he would never do.
I also tend to think (from what we saw in her final letter to him) that she was afraid that they would end up hating each other and leaving was her way to protect what vestige affection she thought he had left for her. Sadly she left thinking that he had grown to hate her.
It’s become clearer to me with each viewing that Su loved So as much as he loved her. While she may have physically left the palace via a fake marriage, giving the appearance of departure, in actual fact, her hallucinations reveal the true nature of her heart. In her mind she creates a kind of bubble or capsule in which time never passes for them. A place of respite from the hostile world that would never allow them to be happy together, as well as cocooning them from the political machinations that was threatening to tear them apart.
Su left the palace for three reasons: First and foremost, to protect their child. Secondly, to protect So’s kingship and thirdly, to protect their larger than life love.
It is easy to see how lonely So was at the end. After all, the last we see of him in standing in the courtyard of the palace starring alone into the distance. He stuck to his guns right to the end in the way he held on to his memories of Su and not trusting very many people, if any. Su was forever a fixed notion in his existence that drove every part of him including his political formulations.
It’s equally easy to forget that Su was rather incredibly lonely in the palace. She wasn’t allowed to continue at Damiwon and became the trophy mistress that she had been vehemently decrying about. She had been prevented by the political machinery from marrying the man she loved and become caught in a polygamous situation which she swore she’d never get into in order to help him strengthen his position in the court. What’s worse, to protect the man she loved and their child, she married someone else to get out of the palace something she also said she’d never do. She ended up sitting around all day waiting for him. She had no friends in the palace and things were fasting deteriorating between them. Bit by bit, everything that was GHJ disappeared.
This is why I have come to admire Su quite a bit after this retrospective. She demonstrated so much strength and practical sense in what she did. Like Lady O, she gave up what life she had so that the man she loved and their child could live on in relative safety. Remember what she said after she slashed her wrist? Remember what Lady O said in the cave? “I protected what I wanted to protect. It’s right that I should pay the price.” Whatever her flaws, she died as she had lived.
I think she understood all that better than he did and at the end of the day she understood his character much better than he understood hers. So’s loneliness is in part of his own making. If he hadn’t been so pigheaded and opened the first letter he had received, he would have been able to spend time with her in her final moments. But at the end of the day, he is his mother’s son… overwhelming in love and extreme in anger. He had to take some of the responsibility for how things deteriorated at the end. We can see that too with his own son with Yeon Hwa… the mistrust, the unwillingness to have a relationship with the boy, the lack of desire to even try.
In that scene where Yeon Hwa says she knows why Su left So was undoubtedly her way of getting a rise out of So while showing deep resentment against her bitterest rival. In her eyes, Su was an upstart who broke all the rules while managing to capture the heart of a future King in such a way that he could never let her go, that he could never love anyone else even when she had long left. Her death did not diminish his love for her in the slightest.
This scene positions YH as the woman who may on the outside seem appeared to have everything she had craved, plotted and schemed for but even though everything was finally in her grasp, she still came up empty. Thinking that if she took possession of the queen’s seat and bore the King a son, she would finally have full control of his heart but no, So doubles down and keeps his distance.
In and amongst all that must be a tale about greed and possession. One may get everything they want but still feel empty at the end of the day because what we think we want isn’t necessarily what satisfies.
I get some satisfaction from knowing that YH couldn’t get everything she wanted either because the only man she genuinely cared about despises her and her son so it a nice bit of poetic justice there. It’s also true, however, that YH couldn’t possibly know why HS left because she didn’t know about the daughter.
However, I think there’ s kernel of truth to what she says. There’s a streak of pride and stubbornness about So that can be frustrating. He is immoveable. On the positive side, he is extremely loyal but on the downside, he can’t understand how anyone can express different types of love to a whole lot of men but still choose to love one more with greater passion. He just doesn’t have this ability to compartmentalize or compromise. In the end Su had to walk away so that he could consolidate his position among the clans. Even if he doesn’t care about YH, Yu is still his son.
This, I think is So’s fatal flaw. His rigidity, pride. If he had let Su go on his terms, he could have been there when she breathed her last. On some level his behaviour was understandable especially knowing his journey and what he had to go through to get to where he finally was. But yes, his mother’s son.
YH whatever her many faults did understand this point. Even if she was not wrong about why Su left the palace, she wasn’t wrong about So’s inherent talent for not making friends.
The bittersweet ending exemplifies to me the greatness of ML. For a show to be so consistent in its characterization is so rare. People don’t change people. People don’t change easily or at all. They may adapt to circumstances but the core of who they are never changes. Love doesn’t conquer all but love can bring hope and new life.
So thought that Su had betrayed him in defending Uk and ultimately for leaving him through marriage with Jeong. For him love meant that she would go along with whatever he did but for her love was about the truth about what was right even if that meant standing up to So in order to protect him from himself. She loved him too much to overlook his flaws for fear that they would eventually destroy him.
What of Jeong? Did he get the girl? I suppose he got to have her as she lived out her remaining days and had the privilege of having her die in her arms. Even while he couldn’t keep the ashes, he got to keep the little girl and raise her. In that regard, his love and loyalty to Su was genuine even if she didn’t care for him in that way. Much as I disliked Jeong earlier on, it occurred to me that he was the right person to send her off. With no agenda and utterly loyal, he would do what she wanted unencumbered by any emotional baggage. The great irony of this situation is that son who was preferred and greatly by the mother "lost" in the love stakes to the brother who was hated and despised by said mother.
History is full of ironies as exemplified by Moon Lovers. The son which was least likely to be king became one of the longest serving kings in the Goryeo era. He struck his enemies ruthlessly, yet he emancipated slaves. The woman he loved left him because she loved him too much to see him destroy himself. Though he was brokenhearted when she left, he gained some measure of strength in holding on to her ideals.
The scene where So finally reads Su's letter is for me the single most powerful scene in the finale. Not far behind is the one where So finally meets his daughter who bears a strong resemblance to her mother. Those two scenes become as it were, post-mortem evidence of Su's love for So. To finally be certain that the woman you loved so desperately, never stopped thinking and wondering about you until the day she died, while preserving a means of protecting the fruit of that love. If only he knew that she was still dreaming of him even having returned to where she came from.
Whatever flaws it may have had, there was something inherently powerful at the core of Moon Lovers. An unfulfilled longing for a love that goes beyond the grave, traversing across time and space. A forbidden love perpetually looking to find a safe place. A home. This was truly a drama meant to grab you by the throat, stab you in the heart, twist the knife in and rip your guts out. On that front, I believe the show succeeded.
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.