The Red Sleeve (2021) Episode 12
With this episode, Yi San finally transitions over and takes power in late 18th century Joseon. The King is dead. Long live the King.
The crown prince formerly known as Yi San takes on the persona of Jeongjo of Joseon and ascends the throne after many moments of blood, sweat and tears. One might even argue that he’s earned it. He’d been the roving target of a palace-based conspiracy and his predecessor’s growing paranoia. Now the power that was often used against him, has fallen into his hands. The throne is a very big chair but can he fill it and do better?
It’s clear from the extended interactions in the episodes and the flashbacks that Yi San had a complicated love-hate relationship with his grandfather. He never forgave the older man for decreeing his father’s death, and keeping him under a tight leash that bordered on abuse. Nonetheless the late Yeongjo, warts and all was his grandfather, the rightful ruler before succumbing to some kind of neurodegenerative condition. The baggage that overwhelmed the relationship meant that the two could never be close much less confidantes. Yeongjo feared that his grandson would be a chip of the old block and perhaps thought it his duty to ensure by any means necessary to prevent that from happening. Yi San, on the other hand, grew up in the palace with all that dysfunctionality craving for genuine attachment and affection. His words to Deok-im are clear. Not only does he want her as his royal consort but he wants to create a family with her.
The reminder here is that kings are men too. They live with the weight of the world on their shoulders and they love only very carefully. They make mistakes but unlike the rest of us, their errors of judgment exact a far heavier price. A king is a man that’s been given much and much is expected of him.
Exiting the stage around the same time is the resourceful Court Lady Jo whose scheming and plotting have been thwarted by fellow court ladies. Her final interaction with Yeongjo reflects a long-running resentment towards him and a desire to protect her co-conspirators. No doubt she had designs about being a part of the king’s harem and may even have genuine feelings for the monarch. However, the impression I came away with from their final dialogue suggested that while he might have cared, he never entirely trusted her. In all likelihood he feared her intelligence and shrewdness which could have become something of a liability especially if he is the kind of ruler who rules by balance of power as suggested by Jeongjo’s current crop of advisers. Furthermore in an era where women are not encouraged to be outstanding, I can imagine that she would be perceived as a destabilizing influence. From the ambiguous bitter exchange I can’t tell if she genuinely loved the old king. She may have once but he apparently left her high and dry. Perhaps she proved him right. He may have thought that she was inherently untrustworthy and the results speak for themselves. Or perhaps at the end of the day, it might have just been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In contrast, Yi San is enamoured with his favourite court lady and the fact that she’s been maintaining her distance doesn’t deter him in the slightest from wanting her as his consort. It wasn’t a whim of youth then and it isn’t about unfulfilled passion now. The new king wants Sung Deok-im to be the mother of his children… or some of them at least. He is thinking long term and he wants to build something with her in the most intimate as well as public way. She’s not just someone to sleep with (as Hong Deok-ro was egging him to do in an earlier episode) but a constant lifelong companion who will contribute to the future of the dynasty and even royal bloodline.
It is three years after Jeongjo’s ascension. While some things have changed because there’s a new king, some things haven’t. As the show signals its inevitability, the winds of change will make their mark for good or for ill. Whether Deok-im and her closest friends like it, things cannot remain the same forever. It is a requirement of being an adult that cannot cling to the simple pleasures childhood forever. Deok-im has a tough road ahead of her trying to resolve the tension between her feelings for Yi San and her own desire to live a simple, free life.