Moon Lovers Retrospective Episodes 15-16

This post contains vital information which may be considered spoilers. Be warned.

These two episodes see the beginning and end of Jeongjong’s reign of terror aided and abetted by Wang Uk and Wang Won. The first thing that the newly declared King Jeongjong does is to hold his younger brother hostage and eliminate potential threats wholesale. The relative peace among the palace dwellers that was enjoyed has now come to an abrupt end.

It’s politics as usual that after the rebellion, those loyal to the previous King, are now labelled as “traitors”. Those who don’t kowtow to the new regime are now the enemies of the state purely for backing the “wrong” horse.

King Jeongjong is a ruler who enjoys manipulation in sportive fashion not just for political benefits. It isn’t just about maintaining power that he does it but he takes pleasure in watching others squirm. On a certain level it’s fun watching him push people’s buttons especially with full knowledge that they’re not loyal to him because they love him but because it’s expedient to do so. He’s certainly not deluded on that front. I thought it was fantastic watching Su take him on fearlessly and trying to manipulate him into telling her who was responsible for the mercury poisoning. It was a nice bit of verbal jousting and for him to acknowledge her sass for making indirect threats against him was quite an achievement.

At the end of the day, Yo knows what he is. He is very self-aware and he doesn’t feel the need to rationalize his bad deeds. He knows on some level he’s not likeable and is quite content being the manipulative scumbag that he is reputed to be. On top of that it’s his sense of humour that appeals to me most and a lot of it comes out most wickedly when he becomes King. Apart from toying with his siblings, his other favourite pastime must be needling his mother.

My feeling is that from the time of the rain ritual, Yo realized that he was as much a tool for his mother as anyone else. Except for Jeong perhaps. As he descends into paranoia, Yo realizes that Mummy Dearest is mainly about building her legacy. To coin a phrase: Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to replace you. Mummy is obsessed with perfection and now he’s no longer the perfect Mummy’s boy but a breeding pig to keep the hot seat warm, she is quick to suggest a successor. With his well-placed sense of irony, he suggests So as a possible contender which he expects to be met with disfavor, of course and hopefully put an end to his mother’s meddling at that moment.

In contrast, Uk is a ridiculous excuse for a villain. He’s constantly trying to justify himself especially when he knows that others are on to him. He whines to his mother and sister that he did it all for Hae Su and because of her and yet he has no qualms using her as bait in machinations devised to save his own skin. It’s laughable that he tells himself and his sister that he is on this present trajectory because Su told him that So would be unstoppable in his bid for the throne. Was he trying to convince himself and others that he had good reason for turning into a monster… that he was just protecting everyone around him from So?

It’s a toss up choosing who’s more terrifying. A man who knows he’s the bad guy and knows he’s doing bad things. Or a man who thinks he’s a good man but does bad things because what he does is all for a greater good.

What also becomes more evident to me this time round is that Jeongjong is not his own man. While he might gain some sadistic pleasure playing his younger siblings like chess pieces with Su as leverage, he is still beholden to his uncle, Wang Ryeom Sik. Jeongjong might be the King but WRS is the king-maker putting his weight behind his nephew and calling all the shots especially the proposal to move the capital to present day Pyongyang, a project that So gets roped into overseeing as his “reward” for “dealing with traitors”. These two years, however, give So a cloak for his covert activities and sets the stage for his ascension to the throne.

Apparently it all boils down to trust. There is a school of thought that the core of So and Su’s woes as a couple especially in these episodes is about trust. There is an underlying assumption in Moon Lovers fandom that if only Su had told So about Eun and Seon Deok taking refuge in Damiwon, a tragedy would have been averted.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. It's a certainty I don't share.

Perhaps I’m overly sympathetic with Su’s plight of being perennially trapped between the princes. Sure it’s flattering to be trusted to that degree but it is also a responsibility to bear. A responsibility that easily becomes a burden. At the back of her mind is the vision of So slashing through Eun and obviously that isn’t something she should take lightly.

I contend that the fundamental issue that creates tension between So and Su is how they try desperately to protect each other from knowing things even with the best intentions. It isn’t just Su that keeps information from So, he does it too. Some may call it lying by omission thereby showing a lack of trust. But looking at it from the characters point of view holding back on information is a default for protecting the other from the burden of knowing. Especially taking on the burden of knowing things about the future. Just like Eun coming to Su for help is a huge responsibility with life and death consequences.

I don’t think we understand Su’s position as well as we should even when the writing spells it out. Audiences sometimes think it is simply a matter of A+B=C. However, people aren’t always logical and emotions like guilt and fear often get in the way. What may seem straightforward to some might not be the case for the person on whom everything hinges.

Su is wracked with guilt at the death of Hyejong (formerly Prince Mu). She thinks it’s entirely her fault that the rebels have won because So was emotionally blackmailed into submission. She feels worse that So has become the King’s chief lapdog with the threat of her life hanging over his head.

It is often said that Su’s apparent lack of trust comes from a lack of love for So. The argument goes that if she had loved him enough, she would have gone to him immediately with the fact that Eun and Seon Deok had come to her for help. I disagree entirely and would insist that it’s an entirely wrong way of looking at the situation.

I would say it’s the other way around. I would say that it’s because she loves him and fears what he would be forced to do that she hesitates. She is well aware… too aware in fact… that he would do anything for her. Even if it means having to kill a brother in order to protect her. Of course she wants to live and survive like everyone else but not at someone else’s expense. Never at someone else’s expense. Furthermore, she would hate for their love for one another to be used to hurt not only others but each other.

That is the cunning of Jeongjong and Uk’s scheme. It’s so twisted and so corrupting. That’s why Su says it’s so hard to love So freely without politics entering the picture and ruining everything. By now, it’s wickedly clear that love is not immune from evil as long as there are those who see it as a “weakness” and have no compunction to exploit it for their ends.

So knows also that she’s wracked with guilt about putting him in the position that he’s in so he does his best to keep her ignorant as long as he can. But he also realizes it’s not a tenable solution if trust between them must be maintained. I also believe she would have told him too then but at that moment, she sees her vision of So cutting down Eun which sends her into a minor panic attack yet again. The seeming capricious hand of Fate strikes once again to prevent her from acting as her heart would direct her.

One of the lessons from the story of Eun and Seon Deok is seizing the day because one never knows when the end is nigh. Although they were innocent casualties in the game of thrones, the saddest part of that relationship, in my opinion was the wasted time of push and pull between them. Eun took a long time to warm up to his bride and even after over 2 years of marriage, there had been no intimacy between them. Their childlike disposition made their deaths so much more devastating. The talk of future plans… the setting up of a toy shop and teaching martial arts… would ensure that the outpouring of grief over them would go deep. They were in the periphery in the throne fight and yet somehow, inevitably they were drawn into the centre of it against their will.

It’s popular to blame Su for not telling So but no one blames Uk or Yo for putting them all in this horrible position of having to make these untenable choices or Yeon Hwa for betraying her younger brother so that she can avoid being sent to the Khitans. The game of thrones is a zero sum game… it is the motif that keeps emerging... to gain the throne one must be prepared the throw something away.

One of my most compelling reasons for loving Episode 16 is watching Su throwing caution to the wind and desperately seeking So. It used to be because So did all the chasing and she kept up the pretence of being indifferent for what seemed to be the longest time. It was satisfying indeed to see the roles reversed. But now, when I look at her scenes here, she seems so wretched, vulnerable and broken under the respectable cloak of being the elegant court lady of Damiwon. She’d been so careful, so watchful… each and every step… as if treading on thin ice and yet here, she’s stopped being cautious, so openly yearning for the man she had decidedly given her heart to. In her leisure hours when she’s not attending to her duties, she’s in her study tracing his handwritten poem over and over again fully absorbed in its sentiments.

Standing by the lake she confronts him for leaving her for two years with nary a word. Her petulance as she remarks that he has truly forgotten her echoes the scene where So confesses his love for her and she responds by pecking his lips and telling him to “never forget it”.

2 years later, the angst is glorious as she leaps from behind and wraps her slender arms around his waist refusing to let go. He may have forgotten. He may say he has forgotten but she won’t let him forget. With tears flowing down her cheeks she demands to know if he’s been sleeping well and eating properly like a wife who’s been separated from her husband who’s been to the battlefield for too long. This harkens back to a very early episode when a younger So and Su are watching the stars and the snowfall. At that time he tells her he’s leaving Uk’s residence for the palace. There she tells him among other things to sleep well and to eat well.

The first time Su left the palace under the cover of night, was when So dragged her away after a major panic episode and plonks her onto his horse. They make their way to the sea where he tells her that he doesn’t believe her when she says she’s afraid of him. This time round, she sneaks out of the palace to visit a delirious So who’s injury from Yo’s arrow has been infected.

When she tends his wound, she tenderly traces the scars on his back in the same way she traced that scar on his face on that fateful of the second rain ritual. They are precious to her because they are part of the man who has suffered much and suffered for her sake. Rather than blemishes, the scars remind her of how much he loved her and she knew that despite all the pretence to the contrary, he still loves her. Theirs is a case of a forbidden, dangerous love. Everything had been thrown at them to keep them apart and yet the yearning did not cease. If anything, it intensified during the 2-year absence. Although it would be pragmatic and expedient for them to forget each other and move on, they can’t. It is telling that the consummation of their love has to take place outside the palace because what they have cannot exist in the palace or thrive under those conditions. But for two desperate outsiders who care profoundly about love, who can’t conform to Goryeo rules about love, it is a refuge of sorts.

When she asks So if he still loves her in that pleading tone, I am reminded of the occasion when Uk visits her as laundry maid and she asks him, “Do you miss me?” The contrast is as night from day. She is careful and cautious and Uk’s a picture of restraint. Here, as the precursor to consummation, she gets her answer definitively leaving her with little doubt as to what So’s answer is. This man has missed her terribly and cannot let go of her so easily. He as it turns out hasn’t changed his mind about her at all. All of this has the effect of convincing him that he cannot rule without Su.

Obviously she’s never really convinced that he’s fallen out of love with her but she believes that on a certain level that he is angry with her.The man who was willing to stand by her side in the rain cannot so easily abandon her. We know it’s not the full picture because So is leaving to bolster his political aspirations and protect the woman that he loves. He has finally come to the place where he cannot allow himself to be pushed around indefinitely and be used as somebody else’s hunting dog. He is resolved to be King because at the back of his mind, he is powerless to do whatever he really wants and if he has to be a dog, then he’s better off being the top dog calling the shots.

The theme of Wang So being a wolf-dog was one that interested me greatly. I wrote an entire post of it once and I will repost it here.

Canis lupus is the Latin name designated to the subspecies the wild gray wolf and the domestic dog. The wolf has a long history with humans as a predatory figure, which sees it as a figure of fear and derision, danger and destruction. A hunter. The domestic dog, on the other hand, has become to represent loyalty, devotion and unconditional friendship.

These two apparently contradictory strains are brought together to in development of Wang So.

He begins his journey as a hostage in a foreign land tangling with wolves and develops a reputation as being a wolf-killing psychopath. He lives up to the reputation by massacring a temple full of non-speaking monks and sets the place alight. In that instance all his skills as hunter and ruthless predator come to the fore.

Soon the wolf gradually becomes domesticated when he returns home and chooses to stay. He sets aside his bestial instincts, puts away his sword momentarily and takes to book learning.

Despite his willingness to be domesticated, he is never allowed to forget this bestial nature. The scars on his face, insults from his dysfunctional family are constant reminders that he will never truly be one of them. At best he will be a mere dog… a tamed pet or a tool that one uses to undertake thankless tasks… or in the vernacular, do the dirty work.

That’s why he says to Yeon Hwa:
“Rather than a woman of high value, I want one who will treasure me. Someone who would not be concerned about this ugly face of mine.”
On that occasion Yo calls him a “struggling animal”. Then Yeon Hwa says, “How much fun would it be to turn an animal into a human.”

Yo thinks that So has pretensions of being civilized but in reality he’s no better than an animal who is wrestling with his bestial nature at best. This appeals to Yeon Hwa’s need to control and show her dominance in a world where men dominate. Since she cannot gain dominance over men, maybe she can fashion an animal and make him into her image.
When So calls Su out for a night of star-gazing, he uses the call of a wolf/dog… a howl. Wolves howl to locate each other during a storm or unfamiliar territory and to communicate over long distances. Despite herself, Su’s faintly amused, acknowledges that she’s being summoned and soon makes her way to her “mate”. On this occasion we see too that there’s a sense of self-awareness with So as he constantly negotiates with his darker inclinations.

While star gazing, the story he tells Su about jealousy over Jeong as a child shows a clear self-awareness and even fear of his potential dangerous impulses… his hunting tendencies. What moves him is that Su seems to not fear but even understand where these impulses come from. He is convinced that this is truly his “mate for life” and he is ready to confess.
However in that same episode (and episodes subsequent to that) the dog-wolf metaphor has re-emerges as a burden and an impediment to freedom.

"With a leash on my neck like this, am I again becoming a dog to protect my brother? Is this my fate? Turning my back on what I like is making me sick and tired right now... Tell me, how exactly should I break this leash and escape?"

So is a man in love but is not free to love and to act on it. He feels the constant tug and pull to be at the beck and call of the throne. For Mu, he does it willingly as a loyal, devoted dog.
Ji Mong takes the metaphor further…

"Most men in such situations will want to be a dog that bites the owner and takes over the house."

This is a scenario that So doesn’t seriously entertain until he is completely backed into a corner by Yo who uses the “thing he likes” as leverage ie. to tighten the leash.

Yo forgets that though So maybe be his running dog under duress, a wolf still lurks beneath. A wolf that may be defanged momentarily but given time and enough space, the impulses will return.

After being pressed on every side and bullied to be the animal that he wanted to jettison, So once again dons his wolf persona. He becomes the wolf in dog skin for the sake of his own freedom and the freedom of the woman he loves. He assumes a cloak of subservience in order to make his own plans.

It is no coincidence then that Yo calls himself a pig with a lovely sense of irony. Not just any kind of pig but a breeding-pig whose sole purpose is to warm the seat and pass it on to the next suitable contender. This pig, usurper to the throne is nearing the end of his use-by-date… he is slowly losing his grip on reality and even his mother knows that her blemish-free son has serious mental health issues.

This pig maybe building his house of stones but unbeknownst to him, the dog he sends to build that house will turn on him and become his wolf.

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