Riddled with spoilers… subtle and not so subtle.
One of the riveting aspects of storytelling in this drama can be seen in the way it deploys events or large gatherings of people as a focal point for multiple themes and happenings to coalesce. The gorgeously filmed second rain ritual is one prime example and the other is the family feast during the Chrysanthemum Festival. It’s not a bad way to get it all told when you’ve got such a limited amount of time but a reasonably large cast.
Despite the ethereal beauty of the rain ritual and the epic downpour that follows, the event itself is perhaps the least significant aspect about the sequence. Crowd reaction is absolutely the key to understanding underlying unease. The drought is broken… hooray… everyone’s ecstatic… but soon it’s merely background noise. Attention shifts to more pressing political matters... So has become the man of the hour. Is So the chosen vessel for this miracle or is it a miracle at all? It could well be a coincidence after all. Or dumb luck. That is the question that plagues Yo and the Queen who’s gunning to put him on the throne. They seek a naturalistic answer because their worldview… her influence mostly… is that no one with a blemish could ever be Heaven’s Will. It would be too much of a paradigm shift for their comfort zone. In their thinking, Heaven in its infinite wisdom, would never be so foolish as to choose an outcast with imperfections. However, it isn’t that either mother or son is especially religious but since success at the ritual altar is imbued with profound implications of supernatural sanction, it has political currency. For So it isn’t about being Fate’s Choice or achieving political clout but about gaining familial and social acceptance. Parental approval and love is the prize he seeks. It is the healing agency that he craves. The success of the ritual potentially affects Su and Uk. It was the opportunity of a lifetime that Uk had gambled on to give them both what they were seeking – Su, her freedom and him, his heart’s desire. This public event although has consequences for national security, the individuals at the centre see it as a means of fulfilling private concerns which may in turn impact other corresponding events.
The family gathering during the Chrysanthemum Festival is yet another example of the narrative dexterity of the director/writer. Superficially, the royals act like a family but lying beneath the levity and apparent goodwill are competing agendas brewing. There’s a plot to poison the Crown Prince that involves Queen Yu (Mummy Dearest) and Princess Yeon Hwa who has thrown her lot in with the enemy. Part of the plan is to make Su the scapegoat. Then there’s So, who’s been told that something’s hatching but he doesn’t have all the details. Aside from all of that is Uk, who’s trying to find a good time to tell the King he wants to marry again but is pre-empted by his status-conscious sister who thinks her brother can do far better for himself.
As the camera pans around the room, the audience sees that the stage is set for another piece of political theatre. Those who need to don their masks. The younger siblings, ignorant of what lies beneath the smiles and laughter, provide the perfect cover as the family indulges in a rare show of harmony with drinking games and poetry recitation.
In a bid to demonstrate his loyalty to the Crown Prince and save Su from the hangman’s noose, So engages in his own sideshow. He offers the Crown Prince three cups of tea as a tribute to prevent him from being poisoned. He fears speaking up because it will implicate Su, who’s serving the tea, as co-conspirator. It’s a nerve wrecking sequence and the camera compounds the tension by moving intermittently amongst the conspirators, the man imbibing the poison, the Crown Prince who responds accordingly and the palace maid who has no idea that she’s being targeted.
Here’s another scene where LJG gives a powerhouse performance. I’m constantly flabbergasted by what I my eyes are telling me at this given moment. The way he staggers inhumanly from the pavilion, stricken with poison trying to maintain mastery over his entire circulatory and nervous system is show-stopping stuff. I don’t imagine any of it was airbrushed by the special effects department… I’m fairly certain it’s all him being the consummate professional that he is.
There is something intrinsically likeable about So that even despite the bloodlust, brashness, and presumption, it’s impossible for me to dislike him. It should raise red flags when he tells Su that she’s his person, or he isn’t the least apologetic about kissing her or dragging her out on a whim or threatening the man she likes but it doesn’t. I feel that I should be more put out by his peremptory attitude but mostly I’m charmed and secretly rooting for him to get the girl. Of course it helps that he’s played by LJG who does a stellar job providing a nuanced portrait of the character but there’s more to it and it’s tied to his personal narrative of literally having nothing to lose.
What he has, I think, is authenticity which is rare enough in our world but must be even rarer still in Goryeo. He’s an existential hero in that he lives passionately as he wrestles with the absurdities of his world that hinder him at every turn. He lives large, eschews labels, feels intensely and loves extremely. More important still, he knows what he wants which isn’t much in the scheme of things… and he wants it fiercely.
His confession to Su is hardly the stuff of Shakespeare or a Tang dynasty poet but what it has going for it is down-to-earth blunt honesty, which we’ve come to expect from his interactions with her. He won’t back down or be fobbed off if he knows he has a sliver of a chance. That aside, it’s not just about her, it’s about him giving himself unconditionally regardless of her attitude. He pulls out the hairpin as a token of his affections and intentions, telling her to chuck it if she finds it distasteful. The beautiful peony hairpin, of course, becomes an important motif in their love narrative signaling the push-pull element of their relationship right to the bitter end.
On this point, I’m of the opinion that he knows her heart better than she knows her own. He senses a deep bond between them… a unique empathy, which could easily turn into something more if it hasn’t already. She’s not just someone who gives him comfort but someone who listens and empathizes. It’s not something he would let go of without a fight (hence the threat to kill the man she likes) because he’s found his treasure… a rare thing that’s the right fit for him. A man who has nothing has found his something.
Nevertheless, even though he uses terminology that smacks of exerting ownership, it can also mean belonging. Hence, when he says “you are my person”, he is also saying that they belong together… a match… a wandering soul that’s the missing part of him that’s been found. I guess in modern terms, we would call it “soul mate”.
That’s why he cannot (or refuses to) make that distinction between friendship and love. If they indeed belong to each other than it doesn’t matter much what the labels are if the bond exists. Also, it’s clear that So is very much black and white on these sorts of things… and frankly, who can blame him when he hasn’t been given the right kind of direction growing up.
Despite all his shortcomings as a potential lover as well as the lack of elegance in his speech, he makes good on his grand declarations and proves in no uncertain terms what he means when he says Su is “my person”. He is willing to go to the extent of laying his life down for her. It helps me to understand too why So never caught on to the fact that Uk was Su’s secret love. I don’t think it is even within his nature to even conceive that a man who loves a woman could ever turn his back on her and abandon her when she needs him most. Where relationships are concerned, he is an all or nothing guy.
It’s not hard to see why Su is reluctant to throw the hairpin away even when she’s finally offered a proposal of marriage from the other guy. She’s not one to cast people aside easily anyway, especially someone who’s had as much emotional baggage as he has. I imagine she’s also wavering because her relationship with So is not as simple as the label “friendship” might suggest. Despite his uncouth ways, his sincerity is undeniable. She knows him well enough to know that much. On top of that, he seems to know what she needed when she had the mother of all panic attacks. Sure, he dragged her out on a whim but the sea air was precisely the pit stop they had to have to take stock and recover a little of their earlier camaraderie.
What do we make of the visions of future So as seen by Su? At the time of airing, there was much speculation about what they meant. I suggested in my previous post that it was divine intervention to keep Su at a reasonable distance from So as he’s “destined” for “bigger” things. It isn’t just because she saw a vision of So killing Eun but she saw him as Gwangjong the brother-killing King of history. Dumping those images right in front of her in quick succession scared the living daylights out of her. She had barely gotten over the first and then came the second. She’s knows from history that Gwangjong was a bloody monarch from his political purges so the second image played into that knowledge and refuelled the fear. In light of that, the thought that she might be the one to set him on his present trajectory must have terrified and stricken her. That he would change from being the “good guy” to some mindless killing machine would certainly be a huge… happily-ever-after romance killer.
All throughout the drama establishes and reiterates several characteristics about Su:
· Su hates people changing on her so she remains steadfast to prevent that.
· She can’t help but meddle in things if she thinks she can make a difference.
· She believes in individual freedom and the expression of it
· Su values relationships to the point where she cannot jettison people around her even if it would be pragmatic to do so.
· She sees herself as some kind of self-appointed mediator
· She doesn’t want the brothers fighting amongst themselves especially over her.
· She ‘s caught between So and his brothers for her entire stopover in Goryeo.
It would, therefore, be a huge understatement that Su doesn’t really fit into the palace dynamics. Yes, she might shake things up but at the end of the day, it’s a huge burden on her rather fragile shoulders.
Not only does a single event in this drama have multiple meanings for different characters, there are multiple consequences that create a domino effect. For instance, So is seen by Jeong taking Su out of the palace and that adds to the ongoing tension between those full brothers. Furthermore, it lights the fire under Uk who finally broaches the subject of marriage now for definite fear of losing Su. But before he can get a definitive answer out of Su, Court Lady O barges into their tryst. Uk, who’s my residence Prince Almost, doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for but it doesn’t stop him making plans, which aren’t greeted with enthusiasm by Yeon Hwa who promptly makes her own move to bolster her own position.
Yeah, no one can say this show doesn’t move at breakneck speed.
Of course the wicked don’t rest and since they’re always trying to gain more power, there’s always some new scheme in the wings. Whether it’s trying to cause a schism between the Crown Prince and the 4thPrince or poison the Crown Prince outright, it’s relentless. Innocents like So, Su and even Uk are caught in the crossfire even when they’re not especially interested in the power games. Whatever good that’s done gets undone in the next instance.
Sadly, all of Su’s well-intentioned good-doing have flow on effects that are used against her. We have been fairly warned: There is no escaping the toxic nature of the palace and the fight for supremacy over the throne.
This retrospective is based on the SBS broadcast version. Subtitles for this episode can be found at Darksmurf Subs.