My Dearest (2023) Episodes 11-12
Namgoong Min and Ahn Eun-jin are back in this epic wartime romance and it’s almost as if they never left our consciousness. It continues to be the most engrossing K drama this year even when it’s painful to look at the wretchedness of a people torn apart by anaemic leadership and ruthless (and relentless) invading presence.
These appalling scenes of desolation are a resounding response to those who think that slavery only ever happened at a certain point in history and was only limited to certain countries. The stark reality is that slavery was commonplace all throughout the world since Cain killed Abel. Until recently it was the norm not the exception and frankly we don’t have to look very far or dig into history books to find proof of this. Slavery (though never completely out of sight) has made a horrific comeback with quite a vengeance in the present landscape.
It is timely that these first two episodes delve into the plight of Joseon slaves taken captive as spoils of war. The ordinary folk —- men and women — are pawns in this one-sided chess game between their king and the rapacious Manchurians. Their crown prince has been taken hostage and the common folk become “prisoners of war” when the vast majority were never frontline combatants. It’s all part of the policy of humiliation exacted by the Manchurian despot which demonstrates that they have a finger on the pulse of Joseon. Aligning themselves with the waning Ming dynasty has led the current government of Joseon defenceless against its belligerent neighbours.
The ivory tower nobles can weep over the humiliation and holler in outrage all they want but the peasantry bear the brunt of every decision made their so-called “betters”. It is true that the foreign invaders live up to their “barbarian” moniker in every respect. They are cruel and inhumane. Their predatory appetites seem insatiable. But is a government that is helpless to protect its people because they refuse to adapt to a change of circumstance able to take the moral high ground?
It’s become something of a running gag that nothing in Shenyang can happen without Lee Jang-hyeon. When trouble strikes or when their Manchurian masters make their demands known, the first thought is “Where is Interpreter Lee?” It does reflect the insight that most court officials and nobles are cocooned from the need to do business with the enemy in calculating fashion.
The more I think about Captain Gu Won-moo, Gil-chae’s husband, the more I’m convinced that he’s the interloper in that love triangle. In fact it was he who came between Gil-chae and Jeong-hyeon from that moment he masqueraded as her saviour. Moreover I am persuaded to view their marriage as a farce consequently. One built on a single lie with knock-on effects. A seemingly harmless one to begin with but as time has gone by it has far-reaching consequences. He’s never disabused her of his status as “rescuer” and it suited him for her to think so. But now that she’s really in trouble again, she can’t rely on him to actually come to the rescue because he never was the man she thought he was. She’s been kidnapped by the invaders and rather than springing into action to save his wife, he sees himself as the cuckold consistent with his insecurity and guilt. He is a man who lacks integrity and is inclined to project his own inadequacies on others. Deep down he knows he is in part responsible for separating two lovers. It still weighs on him. This is the price he pays for marrying a woman he knows is in love with someone else. He lacks the humility or virtue to move past that. The guilt and resentment is in all likelihood compounded by the knowledge that he is not the man she thinks he is.
It’s an allegory of sorts for the lot of women in Joseon who are taken captive by the Manchurian invaders. They are raped, sold into prostitution and abused in horrific fashion by their captors. Yet their society are ashamed of them and reject their existence. In truth the plight of these women is a tragic indictment of the failure of the king and his men to protect their most vulnerable — the women, children and the elderly. Those who bear the brunt of the invasion are not only abandoned by their own country but are deemed to be a blight on the landscape. This is the cunning of the Manchu policy of subjugation through division but the Joseon sovereign is too blinded by bitter humiliation to notice or care.
Humility and humiliation. The former is what you do despite yourself. The second is what others do to you against your will. In this show we see both in action. Showing humility is hard. It means listening to counsel which might be hard to handle. It means submitting to the enemy. It might mean getting one’s hands dirty. Literally. Doing menial tasks. It means playing the long game of planning and strategizing in order to live another day. It means admitting you were wrong. It means asking for forgiveness. In Christianity pride is one of the seven deadly sins. It is the source of Lucifer’s downfall and it is the source of far too many man-made disasters.
Hubris is a terrible thing in leadership. People die and a nation perishes. When Yeon-jun leaves the comfort of home in search of Gil-chae he witnesses firsthand the plight of the peasantry in the border regions. The war is not over for them as they scrounge around for scraps trying to survive. This is paralleled by Gil-chae’s desperate bid to dodge the prospect of becoming one of Wangya’s lesser bedfellows. Not only does she have to contend with being a concubine, she has to dodge the jealous ire of one of his wives. Her beauty that she cherished so much in the bloom of youth has become the bane of her existence in this context. To live means to see another day. To live also means that you can be of use to others — to make even one iota of difference seems worth it. In the face of abject misery, everyone needs to find their raison d’etre. In her case, she scars her pretty face to keep herself from being sullied and is dragged to the slave market for her efforts.
Away from the king’s influence and from the shelter of the palace, the crown prince is being nurtured by Jang-hyeon who exhorts the former to survive… and do it with grace. Little by little all his bad habits are being chipped away by the challenges of being between a rock (his father) and a hard place (the Manchurian authorities). He’s out of his depth in most cases and he’s fortunate that Jang-hyeon cares enough to bother dispensing timely counsel. The teachability of the young is heartening because from the looks of things, the current king is living on borrowed time and has a tenuous hold on the leadership of the country. Seeing the horrors resulting from the current arrangement to repatriate captives to Shenyang, the crown prince steps up and embarks on the farming programme imposed by their Manchu masters. The quick-thinking Jang-hyeon does his bit for the captured peasants by encouraging the prince to ransome them as workers for the project. He is a creature born for such times and many lives are better for it.
So what of the romance? The leads are hundreds of miles apart. After a time of grieving for both, they move on. Movements in the political landscape, however, don’t allow them any kind of long-term respite. Gil-chae who is resigned to her fate as the wife of Captain Gu is kidnapped because greedy war collaborators have to find new ways of currying favour to ensure that their new source of income doesn’t run out of steam. She is dragged to Shenyang as if destiny’s calling. There’s no avoiding Jang-hyeon despite her best efforts. He is her rightful life partner, a role usurped by an inferior substitute who nurses his ego by staying at home instead of searching for his wife and protecting her. He fears humiliation far more than he fears the actual possibility that she has been abducted by slavers. He is the anti-Jang-hyeon. The imposter.
There are parallels here with the man in the big chair in the palace. Historically Injo was Gwanghaegun’s replacement by the Western faction who regained their dominance in the royal court. Injo was far less able and talented than his predecessor. On hindsight, though no one dared utter it to his face and certainly not by those who put him on the throne, the fact that his reign was riddled with disasters domestically, it could be interpreted by any who care to that he was not heaven’s choice but an interloper, a harbinger of doom.
The fatalism of the show is ever-present hovering over the setting. Perhaps it isn’t fatalism but the Hand of Heaven at work. A hand that insists that there’s a time and a place for certain things to take place despite the best efforts of men to thwart the inevitable.