Recently in a podcast that I shared with drama-watching friends, I speculated that a happily-ever-after was in sight. Well, true to form we did get a happy ending although it wasn't entirely the happy ending I had hoped for. In terms of C drama endings it wasn't the best or worst and unlike The Legend of Yunxi, there's little doubt in my mind that the main characters managed to stay alive, after thwarting the plans of the show's so-called primary antagonist. It's not the completely satisfying happy ending that I hoped for (because that would require another episode or two at the very least to tie up everything properly and not the rushed manner that we saw) but the finale did reflect some of the show's big themes. It was also obvious to me in the final episodes that much was lost from removing 8 episodes and nowhere was that clearer than in the last one.
Overall this was a moderately light, entertaining watch with a much greater emphasis on romance than palace politics or martial arts elements. Consequently there would be pros and cons to that. I had rather enjoyed the superhero elements and the intense palace machinations from Yunxi which was largely absent from this. When all is said and done, this drama chose to put its focus on family dynamics and marriage. Ruyi Pavilion at its core is about family and the presence of Ruyi Lou, the intelligence network, reinforces that fact along with the rest of the narrative. The moral of the story it seems is that families aren't born but forged and maintained when trust and affection can blossom in fertile ground.
Of course that's not to say that there were no bleak moments in the show or that the leads were in a constant state of marital bliss until the final act. Far from it. The wedding night sequences in Episode 20 and 21 bears testimony to that. Married life for them is seldom a bed of roses (which is a fairly accurate depiction of the institution) and there were plenty of lessons for the main pairing to take on board as they learn to be family through the little things and the big ones. Moreover Episode 36 was a painful watch as a lack of knowledge and trust turned one against the other because of the machinations of others.
It bears repeating that one of the perennial highlights of the drama is the chemistry of the leads Zhang Zhehan and Ju Jingyi. No doubt the show capitalizes on that as it should because it has to be the show's biggest selling point. Their interactions seem so uniquely organic and effortless. From their acerbic bickering to sweet moments of marital intimacy, they fit hand in glove. Moreover, their visuals as a romantic pairing really does seem like a match made in heaven. It's a collaboration that I believe, should be routinely exploited.
The role of fate in the movements of the leads persist all throughout the drama. If falling in love and marriage are inevitable to some degree, how can they hope to course correct? Or if the dreams are merely warnings, then perhaps they are a call to action. A call to the leads perhaps to be proactively agents of their short and precarious existence. Like the Yunxi couple, they might be living on borrowed time or they are urged on by unseen powers acting via the night-time premonitions to spur them to fight for their long-term survival.
It does seem to me that whatever the foreboding dreams are meant to be, some things are fixed. Under any circumstances, it seems that Xu Jin and Fu Rong are meant to be husband and wife. They're inevitably drawn to each other. But what's different seems to be the terms on which the marriage is conducted. Being the primary and only consort is a bone of contention and the role of the Duchess of Xinhe, Cui Wan, in their lives appears to be another. The threat of her coming between the two of them might on some level be real is not really a serious one.
Ultimately whatever external threats come their way from third parties or the demands of other commitments or obligations, the biggest threat to their union comes from their own insecurities about each other... whether or not they allow external factors to keep them apart in the long run. They will be tried and sorely tested. Will their love for each other be strong enough to overcome the obligatory slings and arrows aimed their way?
For me, the most impressive figure in all of this is the indomitable Xu Jin or Prince Su in a more expressive performance by Zhang Zhehan. Episode 31, a veritable tribute to the character, demonstrates his inhuman perseverance and husband's steadfastness. It represents to me all that is noble and true about the character. There is a poignant and memorable moment at Qing Feng stockade when he takes his final stand against his numerous opponents, his face stained by streaks of blood and his body completely wearied by his overnight exertions to ensure that the woman he loves gets away safely. That scene completely encapsulates the measure of the man. Time and time again he proves himself to be the heroic archetype who has tirelessly overcome obstacles from within and without, all in the name of love and duty. He shows himself to be the master of his own fate whatever else the premonitions seem to be saying to him. The question foremost in his mind is this... is he really destined for a premature demise as has been seemingly foreseen by Fu Rong.
Despite his incredible feats of bravery, Xu Jin is entirely flesh and blood. The show reminds us all too often that despite the unflappable exterior he puts on show, the pain of being misunderstood and psychologically hurt cuts deeper than the sword of any enemy. Twice we see him drowning his sorrows in alcohol when the woman he believes should know better doubts him.
A little less convincing although a fun and bold character nevertheless is Fu Rong. She is undoubtedly a good-hearted but inveterate busybody who despite her "middle class" upbringing is driven to interfere in matters outside of her skill set. Much of the drama sees her stumbling into one dangerous misadventure after another and needing to be rescued. Luckily for her, the people around her can see her good intentions which often means that she gets away with a slap on the wrist. While she has a naturally mischievous streak, she isn't mischievous for the its own sake. Having bad dreams about what appears to be possible future events can do that to a person who doesn't always know what to make of them. Besides her instincts are often correct. Except when they aren't.
At the back of their minds, the leads are mindful of the perils that are ever around them. It does appear that this might be a source of the recurring instances of mistrust after the first wedding night that rear its ugly head. In trying to protect each other they play the old but tiresome game of noble idiocy with the usual frustrations arising out of a needless push and pull.
It's hard to say who is the primary villain of the piece. At first glance it seemed to be the third prince and Xu Jin's half brother Xu Mao or Prince Cheng. Together with his mother, Consort Duan and his uncle, Marquis of Xindu their greed sees them embroiled in a whole host of illegal activities from Day 1. As par for the course others are pulled into their web with the help of intel brokered by Ruyi Pavilion and purposeful meddling by the vengeful Prince An, Xu Ping the emperor's half brother. The trio of Mother, Son and Uncle are mainly an avaricious lot. They love having stuff and holding on to it. Their reason for targeting Xu Jin comes from the fact that they see him as an obstacle to accumulating more wealth. But Prince An (Xu Ping) is of a different ilk. He enjoys the life of a leisured carefree scholar who wants revenge and sets his sights squarely on Xu Jin.
About a decade earlier, it was said that Xu Jin knocked over a candle in a temple, started a huge fire and people died. Xu Ping's mother, Consort Dowager Wen who was at that location at the time apparently dies in the fire. Prior to that superstitions regarding the consort who had heterochromia iridum were rife and so attempts were made to keep her out of public eye. Mother and son were separated from a young age. All contact was lost. Xu Ping is made to believe that his mother died in the temple fire although he is suspicious about the circumstances under which it occurred so he directs his ire largely against Xu Jin and to the emperor to a lesser extent.
Both Xu Ping's rationale and strategy for revenge makes little sense even to the most casual observer. From start to finish his scheming remains entirely unconvincing. The joke seems largely on him at every turn except that he does do real damage to innocent bystanders and to the woman he claims to care about the most since his mother's demise. Fu Rong inadvertently bears the brunt of many of his machinations especially because of her association with Xu Jin. His hatred of Xu Jin, by any definition, by any stretch of the imagination seems irrational. It is a blind rage with little understanding of the man or any source of proportion. His scheming is in large part opportunistic. As I've said elsewhere Xu Ping is a one-note manipulator that takes the whole notion of "kill with a borrowed knife" 借刀殺人 to its extreme. The great benefit of deploying this strategy is that he is able to conceal himself and his intentions to everyone for the longest time. Thus retaining the emperor's trust to the bitter end. He reflexively piggybacks on the other people's connivances and while that has some short-term benefits he constantly falls short of his goals. The reality is that riding on the back of other people's conspiracies means a high level of risk and unpredictability. Xu Ping can't be sure to any great extent that things will go his way if he is relying on players and other types of variables that he has no direct control over. People can easily change their minds at the last minute for all kinds of reasons especially if they have no attachment or loyalty to the unknown/unseen so-called mastermind. To the extent that he succeeds, he does so because he is a most unlikely suspect and has the trust of the highest in the land, it surely isn't because he is an especially proficient puppet master working from behind the scenes.
Frankly I think Xu Ping gets off rather lightly for his part in all the mayhem he stirs up. I couldn't but laugh when the Consort Dowager shows up at the end to inform him that she's been alive the entire time. He's certainly no Prince Hamlet (nor was he meant to be) ;) but the biggest laughing stock in the whole of Dayu for beginning with all the wrong assumptions and not cluing in on things a lot quicker. If he had any kind of conscience or half a brain in the first place, he would have twigged in the aftermath of Episode 31 that Xu Jin is not the villain he believed him to be. But I suppose he saw what he wanted to see and once he was on the road to damnation there was no going back. It's a pity that he was not a more likeable character. Even if crossed over to the dark side early on it would have been better if he had been a more fleshed out sympathetic villain. Just being a bestie to Fu Rong didn't help me warm up to him in the slightest, it only made him more two-faced, more sinister in my eyes.
In my view the drama suffers somewhat from trying a little too hard to sprinkle Legend of Yunxi nods all throughout and doing reversals with tropes that the latter did. It did seem to put restraints on what this script was able to achieve on its own merits. I realise that on some level it is a tacit acknowledgment of the reunion factor inherent in the casting and the tragic outcomes of its predecessor that weren't embraced by fans. No doubt it's an attempt also to address some of those issues and give clarity to how the two dramas are doing completely different things.
When the show plays to its strength, it is hilarious and heartwarming. The burden of comedy isn't just on a select few to carry all throughout. Many if not most of the characters find themselves in situations that elicit more than a few laughs. Sometimes even when they're not trying to be funny... like Xu Ping. There's humour to be found also in some of the plots such as when Xu Jin pre-emptively keeps a shortlist of candidates for a primary consort. Or when the irritating and noisy Duchess Xinhe pretends to be blind while staying in the Su household. The duchess is certainly no match for the man and woman of the house and the results are hilarious.
For said duchess, the show is at pains to give her a nice send off (into the arms of a man who likes her for who she is) despite the fact that she's not an especially well-liked character to begin with. I never entirely warmed up to her personally even if she provided plenty of mirthful moments. What it wants to say perhaps that is that she's not a lost cause and despite the tantrum throwing, there's hope for her yet. As long as she's able to let go and move on.
While I liked the other romance that was given full development in concert with the characters' personal arcs, I don't think comparisons are necessary. The pairing there are a different kettle of fish to begin with and there's no concerted, relentless attack on either of them from any adversary. Their role is to support the leads as a loving family should. I'm super fond of Wu Baiqi's arc in particular as he gets adopted into the larger Xu Jin fold first as a subordinate, then a helper and soon afterwards as a younger brother.
Xu Jin's relationship with his mother and his eventual closeness with his younger birth brother was sadly underdeveloped. In a cast of thousands, sacrifices like that I suppose had to be made. Nevertheless it was still deeply moving to witness that gradual bridging between mother and son who were practically strangers at the start and were able to have the kind of relationship she must have craved to have with him over the years of his absence.
To conclude, there's a lot to like about this show and in a year where I haven't liked that many C dramas, this is one that I was able to finish. Certainly I wanted more from it especially in that final act when there was so much cramming going on but overall this was a highly entertaining series that probably has something for everyone.