The King's Affection (2021) Post episode 12 thoughts
It is unsettling and in all likelihood an unpopular thing to say but I find the romance the least compelling part of the show given the premise (and perplexing title). Everything else about the drama lies on the spectrum from entertaining malevolence to heartwarming. The romance, however… is very much by the numbers and it doesn’t necessarily play out to the advantage of the male lead who could be a far more interesting addition to the political landscape if he wasn’t held back by the fact that he has to romance the cross-dressing Crown Prince. Jang Ji-un to my mind, was far more striking as the anachronistic disruptive, radical progressive royal tutor who’s not afraid to shake things up than one of three persons obligingly pining for the supposedly impressive Lee Hwi.
Romance in sageuks are always a double-edged sword to me. Love polygons more so. Especially when the ingredient list includes rom com tropes. I don’t hate them but I don’t buy into them easily either. Unlike what drama writers often try to do, (and we’re largely forgiving of bad writing if the chemistry is present) there has to have a certain logic in how relationships progress. I’m not especially bothered about flirtation with questions around the nature of Ji-un’s sexuality because this is what cross-dressing dramas do (I knew what I was signing up for) but the fact that his falling for Lee Hwi also coincides with him taking time out of the political wrangling makes him almost irrelevant. It’s as if he’s a supporting character in his own story that occasionally crosses over. At least that’s my assessment of it after 12 episodes. The show can’t decide if he’s an idealist or an ingenue. Now and again, the drama displays flashes of brilliance in its triangulation of the political landscape but the romance is there to interrupt the very serious stuff in order to widen the appeal.
The reality is that the show projects a bleak vision of a world steeped in feudalism. The ruthless misogynistic infanticide born out of superstition and political avarice was the prelude to a story that positions itself as a merciless fight for the throne. There are bad people doing really bad things not just for power but because they think that they have a god-given right to walk over dead bodies to get to where they need to. It’s the disease of the political class. Something that Grandfather aka Left State Minister seems to have a rather chronic case of. He is incessant about being the kingmaker. It’s almost laughable how everyone is busy self-reflecting over their lesser sins whereas the Old Guy stabs and slashes his way to victory.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded so much if I had a better sense of who Lee Hwi is by now or at least what she’s becoming. Park Eun-bin is certainly pulling out all the stops and acquitting herself admirably in the role but from where I’m looking the individual who is called Lee Hwi is not well-defined and on the whole reactive to circumstances. Maybe that’s deliberate because she didn’t choose to be in the position that she now finds herself and has been operating on survival mode. Did she never device an exit strategy? Did it never occur to her that she would be required to sire an offspring to keep the royal line going? It made no sense for her to rush into marriage at that moment even as a bluff because there are real people with real dilemmas involved. No doubt it was also deployed largely as a set-up for some behind-the-scenes triangulation by key players.
While I may sound critical, I’m still hanging on in there because there’s still entertainment value in how Lee Hwi navigates her own destiny as the prince/princess-that-should-never-have-been and her possible reformist mission. It’s not as if the show showed any signs of greatness right from the start so I don’t delude myself that it would be anything more than a pleasant mid-week distraction.