Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 8

Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere...

Moon Lovers has an unpleasant habit of showing hard-earned progression in the relationship between Su and So and undermining it in the next instance. As a self-confessed fan of the pairing it’s an exercise in frustration but narratively I can see its design. On hindsight it seems like these are hints and markers indicating that the entity often referred to as Heaven’s Will in these dramas has no interest in accommodating the couple in question and seeing them romance in a hurry. The road they travel on is a path of much resistance, accompanied by seemingly insurmountable odds, possibly providing omens of the grief that is to come. Just when either one is able to savour a moment of personal triumph, another obstacle presents itself. Like an unwelcomed interloper, Heaven's Will/Fate rears its cold, ugly head interfering like a pot plant falling from the top of ten-storey building and landing on top of the old noggin.

I wanted to include the discussion of the birthday unmasking here because of its contrastive juxtaposition with the next unmasking event in this episode. The earlier unmasking is concerned with shame and pride while the one that comes before the rain offering speaks to liberty and triumph.

Yo is a right royal scumbag and that’s hardly news at this point. He nudges, needles and pokes at peoples weaknesses until he gets the reaction that he sadistically finds pleasure in. Manipulating Eun to manipulate Su may seem like a petty sort of manoeuver for a man who aspires for the throne but it has the effect of a wrecking ball running right through a newly built but shaky structure of fraternal goodwill among other things. It's also his way of creating a roadblock to So's attempts to belong. The scar is not the main thing here but So’s pride: A defence mechanism against being mercilessly insulted over the years. Yo knows what the mask and the scar means… it’s an open sore festering away… Making that his target, it’s a declaration of war and So is not someone who can back down from a fight even if it kills him.

Nevertheless psychological warfare is not something So is quite adept at yet. There’s far too much emotional baggage that needs unpacking first. Before the swords are drawn, the game of thrones is firstly a battle of minds. So has proven that he is indeed mighty with the sword but for a man who would be King, he would have to overcome his personal pain and be free of them. Moreover perception of the entire situation is complicated by the realization that he’s in love with Su and his pride born out of the need to hide his wounds cannot stand the thought that she of all people would look on him with pity. It turns out later that So is more hard hit by what he thinks of as Su’s reaction than he is with the humiliation of having his scar exposed. Or maybe it’s a reaction to the humiliation of being humiliated in front of the girl he likes.

For about half the episode So throws an extended temper tantrum and gives Su the silent treatment. It’s rather endearing not just because I don’t have to deal with an angry man-child living in my house but because he’s a someone who doesn’t quite have the tools to process all his newfound emotions. I can only imagine that he last thing he wants most probably is for the girl he likes to treat him like a pathetic lost puppy. For a guy who really wanted to impressed I’m sure he was looking for pity like a hole in the head.

Equally endearing is Su doing her best to mollify an angry 4th Prince. To get back into his good books, she’s cooked up an elaborate scheme with Baek-A. The idea that she’s trying very hard to the point of frustration appeals to me because it tells me that she cares more than a little about her relationship with So and by extension the man himself. Of course it could purely be egotism on her part but I have a much better view of Su than that. In fact, I am someone who thinks that Su already has growing feelings for So and that she revels in this friendly-adversarial relationship with him although she hasn’t worked out the entire mechanics of it yet. Her infatuation of Uk doesn’t, in my opinion, preclude that possibility, as her relationships with these two men aren’t that neat and tidy whatever she herself might think. At the end of the day, she is navigating around some manifestly extraordinary circumstances.

All of Goryeo is in grip of a drought so Damiwon is closed for business. After all, having nice baths and drinking nice tea is a luxury when most of the country are hard pressed trying to get clean water to cook and drink with. This means that Su isn’t as readily accessible for chats and touchy-feelies. They end up meeting, with some help from Chae Ryeong, in the bath cave that leads directly to Damiwon. As far as they’re concerned it’s a nifty idea but for me it’s a perfect metaphor for the kind of relationship that they’re conducting. Su fancies herself in love with Uk and he with her but their conversation in the cave shows a nebulous awareness that she’s treading on thin ice. It isn’t just about precariousness of what they’re engaged in (meeting in secret) but that the notion of waiting is a sensitive one. Note how she tries to comfort him, to make him feel better when she’s the one who’s taken a hit and been demoted to being a palace maid. Obviously she knows he feels a certain measure of guilt over her present condition and so feels guilty about him feeling guilty.

But why should she feel obliged to try so hard? Apart from tying a pretty little bracelet and asking her to never take it off, what has he offered her in return for taking such a large risk? He hasn’t mentioned marriage, only the prospect of things returning to what they were. Which is what? Going back to his residence? To do what? Make soap? To what end? Back to being his late wife’s cousin that he was secretly romancing on the side?

Uk is hedging his bets on the eventual success of the rain offering. When the rain comes pouring down, the King will take the opportunity to perform special acts and one of them involves releasing a maid from service into civilian life. He promises to speak to the King about the matter and obtain special dispensation on her behalf.

All of this, of course, depends entirely on what transpires at the rain offering and the King’s will, variables that Uk has absolutely no control over. But he gives the impression that it’s a done deal because he then promises that he’ll have all the necessary ingredients prepared for her to start making soap again. He’s talking up their little utopia fantasy in part to give her hope but without much substance, it may turn out to be a false hope.

This, I think, is the problem with Su being a 21st century girl. She’s exercising her liberty to have a romance like she would in 21st century Korea except that the guy she’s with isn’t just any kind of guy. He isn’t even just any kind of rich guy or even a chaebol level rich guy. It could be that she’d been watching too many dramas. For a palace maid to be having cave assignations with a prince is highly, highly illegal. The kind of “illegal” that leads to death. It’s not as if she’s merely faced with parental objections along a status divide, the fact is she’s really not in any position to be romancing anyone in particular. She’s not just a nobody at the lower end of the food chain, she’s a nobody that belongs to the King. This entire scenario fits under the category of "palace indiscretion."

Still I can understand how it’s so easy to get suck into their little romance especially when looking at it from 21stcentury lenses. What’s the harm in a little romance? They both glow from being with one another.

I know I’ve done my fair share of Uk bashing in these retrospectives but honestly, what to do, he’s a soft target. While he’s ridiculously handsome, supposedly the cleverest prince of them all, yet he keeps saying and doing things that give me pause. I don’t necessarily question his intelligence but his judgment. He’s ripe for mockery. There’s Eun of course, but he’s very low hanging fruit and more often than not, a plot device in these early days.

However, it isn’t just Uk bashing for its own pleasure but to show the progression of his “greed”… that it began quite early on with his propensity to make empty promises due in part to his own awareness of his powerlessness and in part due to his desperation to cling on to a romance that is fraught with difficulties.

Ji Mong continues to intrigue as he shows a little of his hand in the chess game that is the sovereignty of fate and the free will/machinations of man. It’s clear that he’s pushing for So to be the man of the hour at the rain offering so what does he know that no one else does? He calls himself the set up guy. He has all the pieces in place but for some reason he either respects the freedom of the individual to act or he knows that they will act according to predictable lines. Hence, does he (and by default, the show) subscribe to the belief that character is destiny?

The rain offering is central to this discussion of how free is man in making his own choices and how much of it is fate or some divine hand at work. Are people truly free in their choices? Or do they choose merely according to who they are? The audience knows already that Wang So is to become the fourth ruler of Goryeo. However, how much of that is a fixed point in history and can that be altered? In his present state encumbered by his personal impediments, Wang So seems far removed from the prospect of becoming King. His deep emotional wounds, his facial scar, an outsider in the family dynamics clinging to for dear life to belong, all these are serious challenges that obviously need to be overcome before the throne can be his.

Ji Mong obviously knows this and we have an inkling that it’s the reason why, in science fiction terms, he’s teleported Go Ha Jin, a 21st century woman with her own emotional baggage back a thousand years. The mechanics of how he brings her back with him is never disclosed in detail except it’s somehow related to a solar eclipse. Her personality, her background and even her occupation evidently makes her eminently suited for what Ji Mong is trying to achieve in the long run but the devil, as they say, is in the details. It becomes clearer from this incident that his endgame is to see Wang So fulfill his destiny… ie. to eventually become King. On his own and in the state he is in, he is far from being able to do so. Therefore it seems he needs a nudge in the right direction. Go Ha Jin aka Hae Su is that nudge. She will be that instrument/vehicle to get him there. As to how, that’s the part that’s much more complex, fraught with human foibles. It isn’t just her skills that are required but her the core of who she is. Her empathy, her kindness, her falling in love with him are all means to that end. On a certain level it is irrelevant to Ji Mong whether they live happily ever after although if that looks to come between So and the throne, he will intervene.

“But I am only somebody who sets it up, I cannot force anyone.”

Looking at this from a time travelling-science fiction perspective, this is how I understand the main storyline. In this universe, Wang So has got an impediment and other psychological baggage that prevents him from fulfilling his destiny of becoming King but it cannot be rectified by anything in 1st century Goryeo. Enter Ji Mong, either working for a higher authority or a cosmic busybody who fancies himself a fixit time traveller, goes to the 21st century to find the right element to get the ball rolling: A woman, more specifically a good-hearted makeup artist with simple notions of human equality and personal freedom that will help get Wang So back on the path that he was meant to tread. It could be love, it could be friendship or just a relationship of mutual self-interest. Love, of course would be best because it’s what the shrink ordered for So. That aside, it would create a deep, lifelong bond that would have influence that extend beyond the grave. Nonetheless, Ji Mong’s priority is not to create a fairytale ending but to ensure that history gets back on track.

Ji Mong is undoubtedly embroiling Go Ha Jin in a Machiavellian game in which there’s no guarantee that things will end well for her in Goryeo. How she achieves it, he’s not too concerned but he is confident that she will be able to do it in her own indomitable style. Love will come with its complications – people will get hurt, people will die, some will leave, anomalies will emerge -- but in his calculations, it will effectively take a gifted prince with zero self-esteem to the throne and he will become a great king… certainly one of the greatest in the Goryeo dynasty because he fell in love with a woman with anachronistic notions of freedom and equality.

It may be that I’m simplifying the situation somewhat but I believe this is the best way to think about the journey and the destination. Prince Wang So who hides behind the scar needs a boost to his morale but he won’t get it from anyone in Goryeo where he’s shunned, despised and mocked. Only an outsider who still believes in his humanity and him deserving a second chance can hold his hand through this hurdle... and give him a reason to be King.

Whatever kind of hand the divine component has in all of this, the human instrumentality is never far away. Ji Mong is not the only person plotting and instigating, Queen Yu and Prince Yo are also working behind the scenes to make the rain ritual work in their interest. It is the Queen and So who realize that far from being an act that invokes the supernatural for aid, the rain ritual is a political stunt to appease the superstitious commoners that their aristocratic leaders are doing something to deal with the drought. On a certain level the one who leads the ritual is something of a show pony but if rain does come as a result of his exertions, it will empower him and boost his chances of ascending the throne. It’s political theatre at its most egregious. A wonderfully constructed three-ring spectacle: The scheming, the seeming and the doing.

The madness of course does have method that runs deep as seen in the conversation between Ji Mong and So in the observatory. A little pep talk as it were but it also gives insight into So’s open wound lurking beneath the mask. He’s been living with the pain of being abandoned, living worse than a butcher’s son. Born as a prince whose birthright has been cast aside and disdained, a prince who is grappling with his own existence while being marginalized by his own family. Ji Mong knows So is destined for greater things but this is a major hurdle that he needs to overcome to become the man he is capable of being. The beauty of it is that he won’t have to do it alone.

The four times we see So unmasked, Su is present. In the first, he’s preparing for a ritual soak in Damiwon when she emerges from out of the water. The second, at Eun’s birthday celebration and the third, she proactively comes to him with the promise that she will unmask him. The pattern is that she is integral to his healing. I won’t say that she changes him because at his core he doesn’t change but she’s definitely the primary agent of healing in his life.

This third unmasking is a crucial moment not just in So’s journey to the throne but also in their relationship. So, who had been craving for some kind of affection most of his life is now receiving genuine care. It may not be romantic love but for a man dying of thirst, it’s pouring rain to a parched soul. Su might think she’s doing a good deed to restore dignity and boost the confidence of someone she cares about but So feels loved and with characteristic intensity he knows he’s found something to be passionate about, something to give his life to.

To some degree he is right. It signals a change in the dynamic of their relationship. It has gone beyond trust. The moment she laid her hands on his face, there was intimacy too. She encroached his personal space and touched his wound, not to rub into mercilessly but to cover it up and bring healing. When he leans over into her space for a kiss, it is a response to their newfound intimacy but he knows from the way her body stiffens that she’s not ready yet.

However, she is not untouched by this gesture. Aside from being overwhelmed, she is deeply affected to the point she wavers as evidenced by her clutching of her wrist and then moving to the bracelet... as if to remind herself that she's spoken for. From a type of bickering empathy their relationship has advanced into something quite intimate.

This is why their conversations always come across as being substantive and meaningful. There's an empathetic bond that runs deep. When she visits him in his boat, they talk about the meaning of life as is often their habit. She is his willing confidante even when he snaps behind a gruff façade. In return he offers her a healthy dose of reality. So understands that life is hard in a way none of the other princes do or have. Uk may have experienced a major setback but nothing to the point where he is denigrated as something less than human. So, on the other hand, has had to wrestle with life on an ontological level as exemplified by the bestial tags that’s dogged him his entire life. To her credit Su understands and brings empathy to the table. She realizes the masked scar is the symbol of his lack of confidence in his own existence that has kept him in darkness and in the periphery of the world he wants to be a part of.

When So says that she’s his person. It’s an all-encompassing term. We moderns may balk at it because it smacks of obsession and/or possession but for him, as we’ll come to see, it means trust, steadfastness, responsibility, care and even self-sacrifice.

However, Heaven/Fate acts in other mysterious ways to intervene in this blossoming relationship. Perhaps it’s not time yet. Perhaps they are not meant to be. Perhaps there is a long journey ahead that needs to be undertaken before consummation can occur. In that moment of triumph when their eyes meet across the courtyard, Su sees a vision of So as the bloody monarch, Gwangjong and it shakes her to the core.

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