As usual spoilers galore... read at your own risk.
It occurs to me with each new viewing of the show (whether in part or in whole) that ambiguity plays a fascinating and deliberate role in our engagement with the narrative. I suppose the show could spoon feed us and provide us with explicit rationale for all kinds of attitudes and actions. It would be easier I imagine but less stimulating.
In the hands of masterful and immersive actors like LJG and KHN, ambiguity can lend itself to shifting motivations and demonstrate a whole gamut of emotions in one given moment, especially considering the show’s time constraints.
As I view the progression of the storyline a second time round, I am toying more and more with the idea that the show isn’t about one specific love story or even two over-lapping ones. I’m coming round to the idea especially after re-watching this particular episode that it really is about one woman and her different loves. It’s not that I think she loves all her men equally, with the same intensity and for the same reasons but clearly she is greatly beloved for her selfless, warmhearted inhibition and responds in kind. The role of the younger princes is a lot clearer to me and I don’t actually find their presence here quite as objectionable as I may have previously. I have never really disliked Eun the way many have and begrudged the time spent on him here because I always had an inkling that the puppet show he puts on here is both an expression of how he deals with life and his ongoing perception of his relationship with Su.
A lot has been said about Eun’s immaturity, which has the effect of hitting you between the eyes with pressing immediacy. He is the butt of a lot of the show’s humour and is easily manipulated. The 10th Prince is a simple fellow, stuck perpetually in childhood so it follows that he would use dolls to comfort her. His child-like disposition appeals to her maternal side. A quality, of course that inoculates her from falling for him.
The most fascinating aspect to the abortive attempt to rescue Su from an impending politically expedient marriage is how the princes position themselves in relation to her. Certainly it’s the mechanism by which the storyline attempts to draw Su into the palace web and hinders her growing attachment to Uk but it demonstrates also within the show’s limits, how these men frame their own narrative and how that impacts their problem-solving approach. Furthermore, it is one of those rare demonstrations of unity amongst the princes.
Another thing it does is reiterate the importance of personal freedom even if the demonstration of it smacks of tokenism, is life-endangering and apparently futile. It’s the gesture of resistance that matters. Despite all the goodwill and efforts of the princes, at the end of the day, Su is the one who saves herself… at great personal cost and with long-term ramifications. However, for her it is a price worth paying if it gives her the freedom to choose not to marry someone she doesn’t love. The exercising of choice is what matters.
Uk is the natural leader in this instance as his attachment to her runs deepest at this point in time. In a rare departure from his usual modus operandi, he acts on impulse to help Su escape the clutches of someone rumoured to be a 60-something old fogey with grown up sons. The implication is that he does it for the love of Hae Su. As something spontaneously conceived, it had its appeal but as things turn out, it ends up being a foolhardy enterprise because it goes to the very heart of the king’s rule, his default border protection policy.
It is fair to say that this is the episode where Uk openly declares his own powerlessness for the first time. I suspect that despite his posturing in previous episodes, he has always known his own rather tenuous position in the royal court. When his family was embroiled in an earlier scandal and fell from favour, it took marriage to Lady Hae to recover from the ignominy and through her influence he managed to make a comeback. The dilemma for him is that he has no power of his own to protect Su, much less be with her. All the chatter about her belonging to him, is just that… talk. In a sense he knows he has her heart but to make that relationship a reality is a pipedream.
So although initially a reluctant collaborator is roused to action for Su’s freedom. He is swayed to a large extent by Baek-A’s appeal to his position as spurned underdog, a former hostage, someone whose life has been directed by others in brutal fashion. Therefore, he understands better than anyone else what it means to be without choice, to live at the whims of others. Moreover he senses quite early that Su doesn’t belong in this world. He already has an inkling that she doesn’t belong in the palace and the thought that someone with energy and attitude being compelled to become the 10thor something or other concubine of some rich elderly man repulses him. Once he’s committed to the enterprise, he is willing to fight his way out of it. What ultimately holds him back from drawing his sword and slashing the throat of the nearest guard is respect for her choice. There’s a lovely shot of him at Lady Hae’s funeral first looking distinctly cynical and out of place regarding the entire proceeding but on seeing Su’s loud and genuinely heartfelt sobs, he softens. It’s one of those little hints that show the subtle shifts in his character as he responds to a Goryeo with GHJ in it.
As a musician, artist, and free spirit, Baek-A is a natural kindred spirit around the issue of personal freedom. Su’s drunken tirades of equality and individual liberty resonate with him deeply although he is well aware of the political dynamite of espousing such thoughts. He knows his own powerlessness to help Su out of her predicament but appeals to the only older brother that he respects enough.
Jeong’s first port of call, of course, is Mummy Dearest. At this early stage his identity is still very much tethered to his mother’s influence and dotage of him. He goes to her for help while she’s sipping tea with Lady Hwangbo but she’s not very interested in getting involved. What really interests her is that Uk and Yeon Hwa are keen to be part of the fray. The smirk suggests that they’ve aroused her curiosity and this could be a potentially explosive situation if these kids don’t tread carefully. It’s almost slapstick amusing as one at a time barge into the Queens’ parlour to enlist the aid of either women although it’s not entirely clear to me what Yeon Hwa’s interest in this might be.
The role that Ji Mong plays in this is quite possibly the most intriguing of all. It’s obvious he wants Su in the palace and it doesn’t matter one way or another how it happens. His motives are seldom clear cut. Whether he is Fate’s Hand by design or by choice, we are never told explicitly although the show hints the former. Contrary to what he says about letting Heaven’s Will run its course, it seems to me as if he’s all about making sure that Heaven’s Will does come to pass. Or at the very least give a nudge in the right direction. In addition, Ji Mong feels to me to be another in a long line of obstacles that keep Su away from Uk. Note how he inconveniently and noisily shows up in the daisy field as the two of them believe that the worse is behind them only to burst that bubble. When Ji Mong is loud and yelping unnaturally, he’s always highly suspicious. It’s usually a hint that he’s up to something.
One of the great metaphysical debates has always been the tension between the sovereignty of the divine and the free will of man. I see some of that played out here. I’m not saying it’s explored in any systematic way but there are echoes of this tension throughout the drama. I now wonder if Uk would not have been better off letting go of Su and moving on saving himself and a lot of people a lot of heartache. But then there would be nothing to watch. For a man who is circumspect to the extreme, he was quite determined to hold on to Su even with the knowledge that she’s even more out of reach. Desire, greed might be part of it… but is it just greed? I can’t help wondering if there’s a greater force at work driving him to clutch on in order to bring a whole range of events to pass?
This episode exemplifies to me that Uk’s motives regarding Su are much more complex and murky. His brewing passion seems to be in earnest but he never refers to her near-death experience overtly or what she does to get there. The wrist slashing is an unpleasant activity that he’s much happier about making vague reference to. Rather ambiguously he says that it’s over and it seems he’s referring to the awful prospect of Su being wedded to the king and the context seems to indicate that.
On the other hand, it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of something in his consolation speech because in reality it isn’t really over at all. She may be out of the woods where being married to the king is concerned but there’s still what needs to be done now that she’s defied a royal decree. There are consequences for doing so and it is Court Lady O who refers explicitly to it, not him. All he does is ramble on about how powerless he felt and prayed to his late wife to send Su back to him. “If you had become His Majesty’s woman, I would have never forgiven myself for the rest of my life.” Aside from being somewhat ambiguous as to why he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself, his underlying sentiment is wrapped up with his ineffectiveness to change circumstances.
To me it sounds like his pride has been wounded above all else. The pain of recalling Su’s wrist slashing episode reminds him of his inability to intervene successfully despite promising her that he would take care of her to the end. Despite bragging to So earlier about the people who belonged to him, all the status he enjoyed while his wife was alive was in effect transient and illusory. Now he (Uk) had been made to feel his actual position which, in all honesty, is not much better than So’s… a prince in name but with little power to attain his heart’s desire especially when the king is a crucial part of the equation. Whatever power he had came from his late wife hence the reference to “begging his wife” to preserve Su for him.
Su weeps and says she was afraid that she’d never see him again or say her goodbyes properly. Then he utters another one of his silly hyperboles again, “In future, such a thing will never happen again.” This is worrying especially coming from a man who just confessed to his own powerless state. “I made a mistake once but there won’t ever be a next time.”
He frames the event completely from the point of view of his status. While there’s no denying that the event was out of his control and proved that he had no power to stop it, objectively it was first and foremost about another life hanging in the balance. In his remarks, he positions himself as the focal point of the event not her. It almost seemed like he was the one that almost married the king and felt embarrassed that someone else had to save him from utterly disgracing his manhood. In short, it’s his ego talking. It may be his clumsy way of comforting Su but it’s more bravado than substance providing us a glimpse into his inner life. In her presence, Uk dons his mask of cheerfulness in the pretence that he he sees her entry into the palace as the lesser of many evils but there’s no doubt he knows what he has lost.
Dropping Su off at the palace Uk responds to her emoji from the previous episode with his own. Representing the eyes in his drawing is the ren (人) character, which means person or people. As there are two, I am supposing that he’s referring to the two of them being together. Uk comically raises his hand showing he understands what she communicated in her reply letter. Su appears deeply moved by the gesture and Uk promises to visit everyday.
The emoji motif is something that practically comes and goes but it’s importance for me lies less in how it enhances the Uk-Su relationship. Like many I find it more compelling that it was So that deciphered its meaning and intent. Some say that it is a reflection of his innate shrewdness and others because of his more grounded outlook on life. Undoubtedly there’s truth in both but I like to think that So understands Su a lot more than anyone else in that space about what makes her tick.Both men are fully aware of what makes her attractive. She’s a breath of fresh air as far as Goryeo is concerned so they’re both angry that she’s made her way to the palace in the end. But while Uk sees her as something precious that’s gradually slipping from his grasp, doing and saying anything he thinks will maintain his hold on her in spite of his own powerlessness, So, on the other hand, sees that the very thing that makes her unique is her unfettered self-expression… linked to the unbridled freedom that she enjoys to be herself. The light burns brighter when it is free to burn without the society harsh restraints. He realises that Su’s attractiveness is tied to her need to be free.
So has an inkling that it is in Ji Mong’s scheme to drag Su back to the palace and he’s none too please. The only who is openly displeased in fact… because he knows full well what being in the palace will do to Su.
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles can be found at Darksmurf Subs.