Under the Queen's Umbrella (2022) Episodes 3-10
Hell hath known no fury like a mother provoked. Indeed Kim Hye-soo’s titular consort shows what she’s made of in this immersive sageuk that demonstrates plenty of writing weight underpinning its plot. Unlike what I had initially thought, this is a drama with political meat once it goes beyond petty harem wrangling. While it doesn’t lack political heft, the heart of this show is undoubtedly in the family dynamics. A mother and her children. And genuine brotherly affection. The queen is presented as the mother of all mothers. She not only epitomises motherhood in terms of how she fiercely protects her own sons in defiance of sinister forces but she exemplifies to the other women especially those within the royal harem, how to be a “true” mother in her wisdom and grace. She is not only the archetypical mother but the quintessential teacher. More than anything else a good mother is a teacher. It’s no wonder the king (Choi Won-young) selected her as his official first wife — a fact that’s obvious once the show hits its stride. He has plenty of women to keep him warm at night and ensure there are no lack of contenders for the throne but there’s only one he trusts with what’s on his mind. Much more than his own mother, the queen is his true ally because they actually have shared beliefs about good government.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that ultimately all court stories are about a contest for the throne. Even when there’s already someone occupying it, there will always be a push from some quarter to make power plays for the top job. To rock the boat because their guy has to be the one running the place. It isn’t about the position per se but about control and the right to make wide-ranging decisions at a time when the scope for individual freedom was limited. The selection of the crown prince is the mechanism here by which the power plays find their arena. The takhyeon (the process of selecting the crown prince regardless of his birth status) purports to be a meritocratic process but is still subject like all forms of assessment to some degree of human bias whether informed by politics or ideology. Of course in this instance, the interventions are far more egregious.
The queen’s tumultuous relationship with the queen dowager is one of the focal points precisely because they have shared goals. They both want to put the best candidate up for the job but have completely different ideas of what that looks like. Neither are ideological. Both are desperately trying to protect their sons. The battle of wits between them is a contest of wills. At the end of the day the question is whose will will prevail in the end. Similarly there are also Consort Hwang and Consort Tae to consider. All these women are positioned as mothers first and foremost. Their claims seem equally valid so why are we for instance rooting for Prince Seongnam and not Prince Uiseong or Prince Bogeum? It’s a fair question which speaks to one of the show’s themes about what real leadership looks like. As the takhyeon proves, in reality a level playing field doesn’t actually exist. Talents and inclinations are not distributed evenly. Children come packaged with varying degrees of intelligence, creativity, ambition and interests. There are also factors related to biology and upbringing. We all know this and yet the push for children to aim for prestige career paths continues unabated especially in certain parts of the world.
It is the case that not everyone is equal to the task of being crown prince. The former crown prince is a tough act to follow. Except for his poor health, he seemed well-qualified in every other respect. Intelligent, capable, virtuous and caring.
Having said that I’m not completely convinced that the Queen Dowager is all about her son, the king. The fact that she got her hands dirty so that her son could be in line for the throne and the fact that she’s hedging her bets with Consorts Hwang and Tae tells me that it’s about control. She’s the one who has to call the shots. Otherwise she would take into account that her machinations could end up destabilising the court or even play into the hands of others who would threaten the king’s position. It certainly the case that she dislikes the current queen because the latter refuses to dance to her tune. The Queen Dowager is not at all sympathetic to the queen’s perspective as mother and her desire to protect her children to the bitter end, even risking her own position. The antagonism is palpable. There’s no negotiation or accommodation to be had.
So yes, there’s a shared moral code governing the interactions of the characters so that it’s clear which characters are the “baddies” not just because they are the queen’s opponents in this fight for dominance or survival.
I’m not yet certain what to make of the conspiracy to unseat Lee Ho from outside the palace. It seems to confuse the issues somewhat but it’s probably some kind of retribution for what the Queen Dowager did all those years ago. In terms of storytelling it makes for more plot complication as the various factions piggyback on each other’s schemes to win the day. As a whole I don’t think much of these kinds of conspiracies unless the ruling monarch is particularly fatuous and highly incompetent. There’s no good reason for treason here regardless of how Lee Ho ascended the throne.
The reason why I root for Seongnam to be the next crown prince isn’t necessarily about his personal integrity and intelligence but because he has the bigger picture in mind. That’s what good leaders have — the ability to take the broader view. And the fact that he is his mother’s son, in every sense. It is the great irony of the show to my mind that the prince that the Queen Dowager detests the most is the one who would be king.