Nirvana in Fire 2: The Wind Blows in Changlin -- Grappling with the ending
(Spoilers galore... enter at own risk)
I've been pondering over the ending of the drama since the end of its broadcast, ruminating over what went wobbly at the end. The first three-quarters of the series was undoubtedly spectacular television in any language and arguably more emotionally gripping than its predecessor (although not as cerebral I would hasten to add) but then something happened on the way to the ending that altered the course of the narrative leaving behind a general feeling of dissatisfaction. Having just finished watching Money Flower in the last day or so has helped me better understand what my problems with NiF 2's resolution were. Rather than being an outright "bad" ending, it came across more as unsatisfying. And in the history of C-drama bad endings, (and there's been a fair number lately) it certainly wasn't the worst. Far from it.
My main (and hopefully final) conclusion after tossing it over at the back of my mind and chatting with people is that the drama doesn't really earn its ending. Why? Because first of all, there is a strong disconnect between the first three quarters and the last quarter of the series. It was as if that final phase of the series became its own separate spin-off in which the main character took a back seat and made cameo appearances while the villain of the piece took centrestage. The moment Pingjing took refuge in Langya Pavilion with his sister-in-law and nephew, his development came to a standstill while he sat on his hands. The shift in focus from the protagonist and then to the antagonist was jarring and ultimately this was arguably the show's biggest narrative mistake especially after investing so much emotional energy in the main character's journey. I suspect that nobody wanted to see the villain having long chats and drinking tea with other antagonists especially when what they really want to see is who they thought the main guy was. It occurs to me that if the show was always trying to say that Pingjing was just the support act, then they really did a confusing job of it.
In the earlier phase where members of the Changlin family are front and centre in the story with glimpses of the villain plotting and scheming in his lair, the drama worked brilliantly as a political cum detective story as the protagonists were navigating their political climate while trying to decipher the puzzle that the primary antagonist was cooking up (often quite literally) behind the scenes. In the final phase, on the other hand, the bad guy plot was revealed rather easily and quickly so it was all about waiting for the right time and implementation.
I don't doubt that the writer always had in mind this vision of Pingjing riding off in the sunset with his lady love free of family responsibilities affirming individual choice and personal freedom. But I didn't go away feeling that he really earned that ending straight after dispatching the coup leaders and doing a little bit of housekeeping. It felt inconsistent to me that the Pingjing that I'd come to know and love would leave behind unfinished business like the taking back of the three provinces from Marquis Mozi of Donghai and a young emperor who needs him more than ever. Even though he might have been bitter with how the royal court treated his family, he was someone although cavalier on the outside was someone who took his responsibilities seriously. Pingzhang said it best. Even though Pingjing on appearance would come across as casual and easygoing, he would deliver the goods at the end. I worry too about the vulnerable Yuanshi who could really use the support I imagine.
I accept to some degree the show's conclusion that Changlin is more than just a family or an army or an individual. It's a spirit or ideal of loyalty and brotherhood that goes beyond blood ties or a formidable fighting force... I understood all of that but this doesn't mean that individuals who embody such ideals don't matter or that being brought up in a family which holds to such values isn't crucial. Of course they are which is why we have a Yuanqi who is fatherless... then motherless... corrupted by his ambition to stand out because he has no anchor and carves out a trajectory that leads him to lose everything in a desperate gamble to be nobody's fool. Then there's the young, still impressionable sovereign who because of family is led astray although not irrevocably. There's hope for him and he has learnt a few painful lessons as the show comes to its conclusion but he needs people he knows and can trust until such time when he can assert his own authority. He's certainly not going to become a great leader of his country just because he saw his mother take her own life in front of him or because he's had a few bumps and bruises dished out to him.
To be fair, the show telegraphed this resolution several episodes earlier when Lin Xi tells Pingjing that she cannot go where he's going despite understanding the fact that he is the son of Changlin and can't leave the young emperor to his own devices. The problem for me is she doesn't really say why. We can only assume that it's because of her mother's bidding or that she's so fearful of losing her independence that she's completely unwilling to compromise at any level except to affirm her love for him. Sadly the show doesn't flesh this out in any great detail or give any justification for her stance except to labour under the presumption that the audience would understand. For me this does the character grave injustice especially because there is nothing prior to and after this conversation that demonstrates why she would cling to her stance so vehemently even in extreme circumstances especially when she fell in love with Pingjing despite all her mother's admonishments. Her rigidity and lack of development in the name of "independence" doesn't in the final analysis sit all that well with me. For a show that prides itself on being somewhat historically realistic... it's even more of a head scratcher.
Perhaps the show was attempting to steer clear of triumphalism or hubris that it avoided taking a strong position on the whole issue of how the Changlin was treated after the death of Xiao Tingsheng. Nonetheless probably the most disappointing aspect of the drama's ending was the lack of an "official" repudiation of Minister Xun Baishui's position on Changlin as a threat. Sure there were moments in the final arc where one could see the consequences of a Jingling with no Changlin presence. Even Yuanshi acknowledged openly to his mother that the coup was only able to occur because there was no Prince Changlin. But then at the end of the show, when Pingjing has his final exchange with Yue Yinchuan, there seems to be a tacit reinforcement of Xun Baishui's belief that Changlin would always be seen as a potential threat to the sovereign especially because Pingjing was able to rally the troops under its banner as readily he did.
I was always critical of Xun Baishui's position not only because it was hypocritical but that it was politically simplistic as well. No one is disputing that there needs to be a balance of power but maintaining a balance of power can only go so far in insuring the stability of the emperor's rule. He wanted a sure-fire guarantee that the sovereign's rule would never be undermined by his subject. Laughably not only was he trying to manipulate the young Yuanshi to sway his reaction to Changlin but his own machinations inevitably created a political/military vacuum that was filled by an opportunist who was planning not only to destabilize the Liang court but to overthrow the young emperor also. It's not that I am naive enough to believe internal threats don't exist but the reality is that they always exist. However that is what good leadership is all about, the ability to maintain that balance without merely ruling purely for survival. Dynasties come and go in a matter of two to three hundred years, what sort of lasting guarantee is Xun Baishui looking for? But of course, ultimately it was about him maintaining the power base of his own clan. And as the rightly demonstrates, when the sovereign is politically weak/naive, he is probably as much of an internal threat as any powerful noble family or more so.
I'm wondering now if the show had been given a bit more time if some of the issues that were problematic at the end could have been resolved more satisfactorily. We can only speculate.
This is what I said elsewhere as well:
I suppose if I had written those last 10-12 episodes, I would have at least put half the focus on Pingjing, the last adult male member of the family, still bitter at how his family was treated, wandering around living among the common people for 3 years and realising after a while the important role that he can play in the country as a whole and there's no running away from that. He could even become an Yi Zhi Mei type character with his band of merry followers while keeping tabs on things in Jingling via Langya Pavilion and old Changlin connections. Perhaps we could have seen him spending some time out in Qian province meeting the people who suffered in the war with Donghai? Just a thought. At the same time, Yuanqi's star would apparently be on the rise like we saw and gradually trying to ingratiate himself with the royal court. I would highlight the parallels and contrasts in their respective journeys while still maintaining the themes of loyalty and brotherhood. Although I liked Yue Yinchuan, I really didn't think his character was a necessary inclusion especially at such a late stage.