As usual this post contains a myriad of spoilers for past, present and future episodes.
From this episode it’s much clearer that Su and So embark on parallel trajectories after something of a detour. Both now reside in the palace partly as refugees in a broad sense but mostly as outsiders, trying to fit in but generally made to feel their place in this status-conscious dog eat dog environment. Here we are privy to their respective journeys to negotiate their way in the palace and how they fit into the bigger political landscape.
This is one of my favourite episodes in the entire drama. Not only is it pivotal to the overall storyline and poses a minor game changer, it provides a preamble to the dynamics of the sibling relationships and pave the way for the major threads to intersect. The episode also signals a shift in a number of recurring themes such as scars, masks, sibling rivalry and spotlights an uncomfortable reminder that the game of thrones is never very far away.
Eun’s birthday celebrations might be his to enjoy but not much of it is actually about him. It’s a vehicle that sets the stage for sibling tensions already brewing beneath the surface. It’s a dysfunctional family unit trying to play together but not everyone cares to play nice. Clearly Wang Yo under the tutelage of Mummy Dearest has never heard the saying, ”the family that plays together stays together.” Play together they do but even then the battle lines are already clearly drawn with brothers aligning themselves in very specific ways.
Uk continues to cocoon Su in their private fairytale. He's not unaware of the insurmountable problems in maintaining this relationship but he can’t give up this rare sliver of happiness that he’s basking in. Like a giddy schoolgirl, starry-eyed Su wallows in the glow of the thought of being in love but it’s a dangerous game that they’re both playing considering her current status and his of course. Again there’s nothing especially substantially specific about Uk’s so-called promises. In fact, he doesn’t promise anything concrete but demands a lifetime commitment. Scratch the cute and the swoon factor, and all that’s underneath is a hollow iceberg. Still the swoon factor is strong with this one and very hard to resist. A hapless Su navigating the lost art of literacy is star struck by the elegance and the charisma and falls prey to the pretty words hook, line and sinker. He is undoubtedly a character right out of one of her childhood fairytales.
The cheesy side of this romance primarily serves to highlight the unreality of it. It’s a smart strategy on his part to try and ensure that she is tethered to him for as long as possible with the gifting of the bracelet and the baggage that goes along with that. However, as far as hastening the consummation of the relationship, it’s all quiet on the home front. Which I imagine is quite deliberate. After living such a stodgy existence, entertaining a secret, proscribed relationship must have more than a little appeal. But it’s pre-empting the external objections that is most tricky. Within this kind of context, it’s easier to make promises than to fulfill them. It’s easier to romance a palace maid in secret than to tell mum and dad that you want to marry her. It’s much easier to bind a bracelet to a scarred palace maid than to deal with the social and political fallout from being with her.
Lip service allows him to have his romance in his cocoon without reality getting in the way. In this fashion, his powerlessness as a prince doesn’t rankle quite as much. He is not reminded of what he lacks when he doesn’t have to deliver immediately. He can play to his heart's content without dealing with pressing realities. But it’s a nice little game only if there’s no competition… no alternative on offer.
There’s an instructive contrast early on in the episode, following on from the previous one. Apparently So hangs around waiting for Su to emerge as she reports in on her first day at Damiwon. A bubbly, overly optimistic Su chuffed about how Damiwon is such a good fit is rebuked in no uncertain terms by an angry, highly concerned So. His “You could have died.” is a much-needed cold, wet blast of reality to her seemingly endless, effervescent chatter.
“If the wound had been any deeper, you would have died!”
No one can accuse So of not getting down to brass tacks.
In an instant, the mood changes. Su is now forcibly directed to deal with the 300kg elephant in the room.
Her voice dips and softens. “But I’m not dead, am I?” Attempting feebly to provide an optimistic spin while acknowledging the charge.
So ever the voice of reason retorts in response, “How is it to live with a scar on your body… did it even cross you mind?”
In this entire exchange, So brings his brand of raw honesty to the table. In this palace, there is no place for any kind of irrational optimism. His words to her are stripped bare of sentimentality and yet dripping with grave concern. He’s the right man for the job because of his own experience as a scarred outcast forcing Su to deal with the potentially horrifying ramifications of her fateful decision. A decision she made in desperation to protect what measure of choice she had left. Incidentally So made a similar gesture for his own liberty in the first episode when he entered Songak for the first time slashing the horse that had carried him from Shinju.
The beauty of this discussion is two-fold. First, it’s about her and her powerlessness. In her powerlessness, she was able to make one final choice to survive her way, without relying on anyone. As none of the princes could save her, she had to save herself in the only way she could. Secondly, it shows in a backhanded way how deeply So cares about Su. (“You foolish girl!”) His words may sound harsh and accusatory but his heart is definitely in the right place. He is shocked at the extent she would go to safeguard her liberty… even to the point of putting her own life at risk. It’s clear that he’s made her personal safety his concern. (“Don’t do this again. I won’t forgive you.”) It is to her credit that she’s able to see beyond that mask. (“I’m not a lone, so it doesn’t matter… With Your Highness around, why would I be alone?”
So knows only too well what it means to be an outsider in a palace obsessed with rank and appearance. The newly-formed scar, the demotion to palace maid… they are nothing to laugh or sing about in Goryeo. No matter how much optimism she casts on her present condition, the reality is that she is more powerless than she ever was and she will now be an object of scorn as well.
As a 21stcentury woman, a scar is the least of her concerns especially if it’s largely hidden but for a prince, who desperately wants to be loved, a scarred face is a curse for life, the bane of his existence. The mask is no mere gimmickry. For the 4th Prince it symbolizes a life in darkness, the pain of familial rejection and his lifelong struggle with his inner demons. And yet, it will be the mechanism by which he surrenders to the influence of love in his life.
So is eager to adapt to the palace and its civilizing influence. In part it fulfills his need to belong and in part to shed his bestial reputation while undergoing the process of regaining his humanity, as it were. Although being part of family is the key reason for wanting to remain in Songak, there is a sense where he continues to be positioned in the periphery (the birthday feast and the lake pavilion concert) even in largely family events. Ironically Su is far better able to “fit in” than So is but maybe it helps that she’s prettier...
Since the show completed its first run, I’ve come to see the birthday concert by the lake pavillion in a different light. Once upon a time it seemed to me to be a light-hearted diversion shoe-horned just for the sake of a bit of light cheese but now taken as part of a longer trajectory, it’s becomes a significant moment not just because it’s when So realizes that he is in love with Su. In this gathering it’s a moment we see a collective love for Su of which So is a part of. It’s telling as the camera pans around and focuses on the smiling expressions of each prince as they respond to her simple, unfettered optimism and positive contribution to the family dynamic. The singing, of course, is the catalyst not an end. She’s a woman in love and greatly beloved… She’s friends with 5 out of 7 princes… all must be well with the world. What more could a girl want?
Tragically this overflow of deep affection (whatever form they end up taking) will become a millstone round her neck. While they all move on to play the game of thrones, she will be trapped in this time capsule until her death. She will vociferously refuse to pick sides or get caught up in the turning of brother against brother… probably to her own emotional detriment. Her attachment to each of them will be her lifelong burden and yet she will be the hand of restraint on the almighty King Gwangjong. The price will be her freedom and her love. She will gain everything and throw it all away… to keep the peace. In Bradleyian terms, it is her fatal flaw. Admirable in her steadfastness but monumentally frustrating for never wanting to take sides much to the confusion of the one who ends up being the great love of her life.
Yeon Hwa continues to be Su’s consistent character opposite and maybe potential rival in love although Yeon Hwa doesn’t really do love in the way that we understand it. Girl wants to get married but has a tough time meeting the right guy. She’s still smarting and losing sleep about being thrown out of the palace that one time so getting married is about making sure that never happens again. She’s looking for her sugar daddy but even when he brings the sugar, she feels sick in her gut and hankers for meat.
Marrying for survival is not especially objectionable if that’s the context one lives in but YH, despite all her yapping, she isn’t just aiming to marry for survival. She’s eyeing the top job in no uncertain terms. She comes across as being complicated and even gives the impression of being intelligent but her best qualities are really audacity and manipulation.
While I have some sympathy for her plight as a woman in Goryeo not having too many options, at the end of the day she’s a bit of a one-note diva princess. And quite frankly a first class spoilt brat. The reality is, let’s face it, nobody in Goryeo has endless choice options, not even the King. But she’s still a princess and while she can be demoted or exiled or killed, a person that has servants at her beck and call is still better off than the average peasant. There are times when the temptation to say, “Suck it up princess.” is quite overwhelming.
This episode also sees the introduction of the Great General Pak Su Gyeong and his bear-hunting daughter. The Great General as it turns out is something of a mentor to our dark prince in his exile. He offers our dark prince a timely word of advice about the ultimate home truth regarding Songak… the game of thrones has only one winner. The winner takes all and there’s no room for consolation prizes.
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.