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The Red Sleeve (2021) Episode 11
While I’m rather surprised by the negative comments about the most recent episode, I have my own issues about where the narrative has been headed. Again, I hasten to add that this is not a bad show and the leads especially Lee Se-young are pulling out all the stops. What Episode 11 revealed were some inherent weaknesses in the script which aren’t deal breakers per se but if the show persists with that mode of operation, they could be. Certainly for me, it keeps Red Sleeve from being a great drama.
Part of the problem for me is also ironically what makes this show watchable for so many and that’s the expanded role of Sung Deok-im. To make her a much more prominent (and busier) figure than she probably was historically while selling her as a romantic partner for a crown prince, the show has had to make all kinds of storytelling choices which have resulted in a double-edged quality that’s now coming to the fore. The script is obligated to put her in every single political situation somehow to the point that she’s practically a conduit for the figurative “upstairs and downstairs” occurrences within the palace. Realistically she can’t be that involved in court politics as a court lady but they’ve created a likeable eloquent resourceful female lead that’s frantically protecting the crown prince and everybody else because his hands are regularly bound for one reason or another and the old king’s mental state is deteriorating fast. There’s very little rest for the crown prince because his enemies don’t. Lurching from one crisis to another works for a show like this in a way it doesn’t for Idol: The Coup but it seems to be a sort of default posture to see Yi San grounded in his room like he’s a repeat offender, delinquent teenager rather than the future king of Joseon.
The show, it seems to me, is doing too good a job selling Deok-im’s qualities as Yi San’s favourite future consort. While he gets the house arrest treatment, she darts frantically from one location to another trying to find a “get-out-of-jail” card for Yi San. He can’t do a lot for himself when he’s locked up and his dukdeojo co-conspirators seem pretty unhelpful unless they’re promoting something that looks unseemly like treason. Hong Deok-ro is as convincing as a used-car salesman selling a lemon that’s still as sour despite the sugarcoating. So it’s Deok-im to the rescue. Again.
The women in the show have an inordinate amount of power. Just because. Arguably too much. It has the effect of making the men a bit useless. Some with a particular political bent might be happy but I don’t think it’s good storytelling. I don’t know why the second state councillor is even in the show when he barely registers a blip on the evil people radar. I’m not sure why he takes orders from Court Lady Jo either although there are hints of him crushing on her. Maybe?
When I read comments that Episode 11 came across fillery, it occurred to me that what viewers might be saying is that Yi San finds himself in a pickle once again and has to be saved by the Queen and Deok-im again. It was fine the one time but more than that sees the testing of people’s patience. The criticism isn’t just about wanting the romance to find consummation yesterday but the implication could be that the romance is probably the most interesting part of the show and the political side of things isn’t necessarily holding viewers’ attention.
I also don’t find Deok-im’s repeated rejection of Yi San convincing. I understand the perspective but it’s not believable for a woman of her time to be holding such radical ideas. To someone like Hong Deok-ro she’s doing far more than she needs to just to ingratiate herself or protect her own interests. There’s also far too much touchy feely between them for her just to be compassionate or pragmatic. Is her life as a court lady that good that she’s in any kind of position to be waxing political about individual rights? Is she that free? Maybe she’s labouring under the illusion that she’s freer than she is. I can’t imagine that she’s in any position to be fussy about sharing if she’s a court lady. Whatever the historical Sung Deok-im’s reasons were for keeping Yi San at bay, I doubt “sharing” was foremost in her thoughts especially at a time when polygamy was common practice by the upper echelons of that society.
What I did like about the episode (aside from the scant romantic interactions), however, was the contrast between the two most interesting male figures in the show. The conniving ambitious Hong Deok-ro and the family loyal Yi San, the prince who would be king. Although Hong Deok-ro is a villain, he’s not one in the usual sense. While he doesn’t actively work against Yi San as say Court Lady Jo, he is only supportive of Yi San in so far as it suits his agenda to do so. Even from a young age, he is already scheming to be someone who is indispensable. He grounds the show like nobody else quite frankly. Everyone else is living in a fairy tale but he is a cold-blooded realist. He’s in a hurry to get to the top and can’t understand why Yi San is dithering when the opportunity avails itself. Yi San is beholden to family ties but Deok-ro wouldn’t mind using them to get what he wants. It is very interesting in light of what else I’ve said that Hong Deok-ro is probably the only male character who refuses quite vehemently to play second fiddle to a woman. He will make nice with them if it serves but everyone’s a tool for him including his little sister.
Not a nice human being. But in this story, he’s a villain we have to have.