My Dearest (2023) Episodes 18-21
There’s a scene in Episode 19 where two of the king’s courtiers, one at the end of his life, reflect on King Injo’s reign. Choi Myeong-gil is visited by a fretful colleague who poses a question. He wonders if they did the right thing by overthrowing the previous sovereign, Gwanghae to install the then Prince Neungyang as their chosen monarch. He admits that he is fearful and is beginning to second guess himself after the sudden death of the crown prince and the hasty (an unseemly) execution of the crown princess for “cursing her elders”. Injo’s mental state is deteriorating ever more and his paranoia is becoming apparent to his officials although no one dares to object too vociferously to his measures. On hindsight did they do the right thing then making this man king? Gripped with fear the court official desperately seeks an answer. Two conservative Confucian scholars have reached the point where they are forced by circumstances to reconsider their stance about the kind of man they propped up for the top job. Did ideology trump good administrative geopolitical sense? They were his puppet once but he’s now wielding power like the puppet master pulling their strings, compelling them to dance to his tune.
There’s a feeling decades later that Injo wasn’t just an incompetent ruler but an unqualified one. Later events demonstrate that he did not display confident leadership during the establishment of the Qing hegemony but the weaknesses in his personality and health saw him fall prey to the machinations of his concubine, leading to upheaval not just in the palace. As a result the issue of the Joseon captives becomes a touchstone for everything that’s wrong about the waning days of Injo’s reign and those who were instrumental in his ascension. Is it judgment from heaven? Is it man’s hubris under fire? Or is it a criticism of an worldview/ideology that is so pervasive that it divides not only a king from his subjects but a father from his children? Or perhaps it isn’t the system that’s at fault but the misapplication of its tenets in extremis.
Whatever else it might be, the show is certainly an appraisal of a system of governance that was meant to promote social cohesion but in troubled times is reduced to an instrument of discord. The old ways become a hindrance to recovery, rebuilding and reconciliation. In this case, fear of change of a new political reality under a deranged ruler becomes an obstacle to retooling the social fabric.
Jang Cheol is clearly a product of that system. So is Yeon-jun to a lesser extent. The older man clings on to that system to the bitter end because he has been a lifelong proponent of it. For him it cannot be that he has propagated or lived by a lie. Yeon-jun on the other hand torn between loves is in search of his moorings. His own conscience convicts him. The need to maintain ethnic purity in face of an overwhelming invading force is understandable and possibly even admirable. But how far does one go to achieve this? What is the point of the system? Is it to allow for social flourishing or are the people merely cogs and wheels in the machinery slavishly perpetuating traditions and beliefs that at the very least need tweaking around the edges to deal with a new hegemony. Everyone has their blind spots but some are more deadly than others. A man who is willing to sacrifice his children to the gods of tradition/belief comes across as unhinged because a country torn up by war needs the hope of a future generation. Ethnic purity without a future generation is slow death by a thousand cuts. A luxury belief in the face of greater existential threats.
The captives play a metaphorical role in that regard. Broken and beaten they’ve had to adapt accordingly in hope of reaching home. Their own country rejects them repeatedly and they belong nowhere. They are a festering wound that reminds the king and everyone else that the country was never the paradise on earth that we were led to believe in the first two episodes. That’s revealed in Jang-hyeon’s backstory with his father, his sister and the man she loved. The plight of the captives is deliberately positioned to show the best and the worst of Joseon. They’ve rubbed shoulders with the barbarians and are therefore a convenient scapegoat for those who prefer not to be reminded that their country failed to protect its own people.
In this historical recounting of that period, it seems that the deaths of the crown prince and his consort are attributed to the king’s concubine who has intentions of her own regarding the succession issue. History repeats itself. The king caught up in his delusions is blind to it. His paranoia birthed from guilt works against him and horrifying ramifications. He supplanted a better diplomat and tactician. He lives in constant fear that he will be unseated especially when deep down he is aware that his record during the invasion and afterwards hasn’t been stellar. There’s disgruntled chatter all around him. His sense of insecurity overrides all his better judgement. If indeed he had any. The king who talks dismissively about the barbarians descends into barbarism and superstition. He goes on a surreptitious witch-hunt against the captives to prove that there’s a plot against him provoking unnecessary resentment and unrest.
The rebuilding of paradise is a slow and painful process for Jang-hyeon and Gil-chae. No good thing comes without suffering. There was a brief respite in Shenyang when the crown prince and princess were leading the farming project with the captives. Those were good times for all. On hindsight perhaps the crown prince would have been better off remaining in Shenyang with Jang-hyeon building a community with the captives where there were shared benefits. It’s an important lesson the crown prince learnt during his humiliation. A country belongs to everyone who lives there not just the king. People need skin in the game for the nation to flourish. A fact that is lost on the tyrant that Injo gradually monsterizes into while his officials look helplessly on the sidelines. Injo serves as a contrast to Red Heart’s Park Gye-won who plays antagonist to the young sovereign because he cares if Joseon is in safe hands. He understands that his time is over and to step aside so that the king can rule in his own right with an independent minded queen at his side.
Jang-hyeon suffers two instances of amnesia before the conclusion which seems ridiculous even for a K drama. But perhaps it fits thematically. When a people forget their history — the good, the great, warts and all — tragedy is bound to repeat itself. It’s certainly the case that when Jang-hyeon is out of action, the crown prince and princess are helpless against palace intrigue. Moreover the captives are the forgotten people of that period who suffered from the consequences of war and subsequently poor governance back at home. The ungrateful king whose son spent the best years of his life in hostage to the Qing dynasty is trying to forget what he did to said son and the humiliation of what he experienced in the aftermath of the war. For a man who was adamant that the worldview that he held to was correct the shame and guilt of what he did would haunt him for the rest of his reign and life.
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