Despite my disappointment in yesterday’s episode, I was looking forward to what today would bring us, hopeful that it would do what this show does best in drawing meaning and emotion out of small, heartfelt moments and displays of interpersonal care.
We get a little bit of that, but I’m sorry to report that my hopes were not to be realized and what we have is mostly rebel political hour, which is at least a plot driver. I do wish that plot being driven were somehow more exciting or moving, but okay, at least it moved. We are not standing in the same place we were yesterday. That lining is a little silver-colored.
EPISODE 16: “The world you dream of”
And now for the return of Hong Kyung-rae. He appears before Ra-on’s mother for the first time in a decade, to her utter shock.
A bit later, the news reaches the king’s ears that the leader of the peasant rebellion has been alive all these years.
Hong Kyung-rae urges Mom to run away quickly, a fear proven accurate moments later when soldiers approaches the house. He grabs Mom’s hand and leads her away, but there are more soldiers coming from the other direction, trapping them on the grounds. They huddle around a corner, but the soldiers sense their presence and advance slowly.
Hong Kyung-rae sees that they’re about to be discovered and instructs his wife to stay absolutely put. She realizes what he means to do and begs him not to do it.
But he steps forward anyway to confront the soldiers, who come at him with swords swinging. He’s unarmed, but deftly evades blows and snatches a weapon away from a soldier, and manages to get one in a stranglehold.
When the fight throws them outside, however, he’s surrounded and outnumbered. Ra-on’s mother chokes back her horror as her husband is cornered.
The king is so shocked by news of Hong Kyung-rae’s capture that he accuses his officer of joking. Hearing that he has been hiding all these years and preparing a new rebellion is too much for the king, who has a panic attack and collapses.
Head Eunuch Han is just as stunned by the news, having believed his old colleague dead.
On his way to his wedding, Yeong hears that his father has collapsed and changes direction.
Ra-on returns home to signs of chaos and a mother stricken with shock. Mom mumbles that Ra-on’s father was taken away, gasping that he was alive all this time. Ra-on tries to soothe her mother while wrestling with her own turmoil over the news.
Hong Kyung-rae is transported through the city, sparking a hubbub among the people. Head Eunuch Han is dismayed that the friend he’d so dearly wanted to see again showed up in these circumstances and vows, “Even if I have to risk my life, I will make sure he escapes.” Byung-yeon looks at him in alarm.
Ra-on lets the rebels take her and her mother under their protection, and makes a request of Eunuch Han. He roundly rejects her proposition to see her father in the palace prison, but Ra-on pleads to be allowed to see the father she never knew.
The king is a paranoid wreck, and mutters that it wasn’t a dream but reality when he saw Hong Kyung-rae in his bedchamber the other night. The king looks fairly pathetic, but Yeong can only watch his father rambling before his ministers. Prime Minister Kim suggests that the king hold a special interrogation of the criminal, where they can sentence him to beheading.
Yeong balks at the idea of making the king interrogate the criminal given his weakened state, but the Kims are savvy at pushing the king’s buttons. The King rashly insists on proceeding with the interrogation, leaving Yeong and Head Eunuch Han dismayed.
That night, Ra-on takes on the disguise of a palace soldier to sneak into the palace, and is surprised when Byung-yeon shows up in a similar disguise to accompany her there.
Yeong heads to the prison as well, determined to ask Hong Kyung-rae his questions face to face.
Ra-on arrives first, and Byung-yeon stands guard while she approaches her father’s cell. He sits facing away from her, and Ra-on takes a long moment working up her nerve to speak to him. Before she can, Byung-yeon hears footsteps and alerts her to the danger.
Ra-on drops something into her father’s cell, and after she leaves, Hong Kyung-rae looks over to see the handkerchief embroidered with Mom’s favorite egret flower.
Ra-on and Byung-yeon leave the prison just moments before Yeong shows up on his way inside. Despite their disguises, they tense to see Minister Kim and his cronies heading straight toward them. Thankfully they can take cover behind two other guards passing by, enabling them to pass without close scrutiny.
Minister Kim takes a second look, however, observing Ra-on as she hurries on. He may sense familiarity but doesn’t quite make the connection.
In the prison, Yeong addresses Hong Kyung-rae, asking for confirmation on his identity and whether his family knows of his capture. Hong says he has no family. Yeong points out that Hong wants to get rid of the king, and asks if that makes Yeong a target. He says, “Because of you, I lost something precious.”
At that, Hong replies that when the heavens appoint a leader, it’s for the benefit of the people, not for a person to use for his own selfish interests. Yeong asks if that’s what the rebel group thinks. Hong answers, “I think there’s an error in that thinking. A leader who is for the people is not put there by the heavens. A leader who is for the people should be put there by the people themselves.”
Byung-yeon takes Ra-on back to his quarters for the night, since it’s too risky to smuggle her out right now. She tells him he’s done a lot for her tonight, and takes a look around the familiar surroundings… just as the prince steps into the room behind her.
Yeong asks Byung-yeon if he brought her here, and Byung-yeon apologizes.
Minister Kim eventually makes the connection between the palace guard and Ra-on, and tells his cronies that he saw her. The prime minister orders her caught before Hong’s interrogation begins. They suspect she’ll still be on the palace grounds, given the security, and the prime minister muses that he’d like to see the prince’s face upon witnessing that father-daughter reunion.
Yeong leads Ra-on through a back door to a quiet upstairs room, and tells her that she can hide here if she needs cover; it’s well-hidden, but he knows it because his mother sometimes used this space.
He checks that Ra-on is okay, and offers to create an opportunity for her to slip inside the prison during a changing of the guard. “People you miss should be met,” he says. She’s moved by his thoughtfulness.
The next day, prison security is ratcheted up even higher, with wanted posters featuring Ra-on’s face posted all over. Eunuchs Do Ki and Sung-yeol see the poster as they pass by, and gape in disbelief—not only is their buddy related to a traitor, but now he’s a she.
Ha-yeon is shocked first at Ra-on’s true identity, then at the realization that the prince’s beloved eunuch was a woman.
Head Eunuch Han informs Byung-yeon of the plan to break Hong Kyung-rae out of prison in two days, which will involve rebels in disguise and an underground passage, with Eunuch Hong taking the fugitives outside the palace. Byung-yeon nods in understanding, and Eunuch Hong urges him to protect Ra-on well.
Yeong is surprised to find Ha-yeon waiting for him in his room, and she explains that despite their wedding being interrupted, she was treated as the crown princess and allowed in. He apologizes for making her wait but suggests she return another time, not up for a talk right now.
Ha-yeon notices that he’s no longer wearing his bracelet and asks if he took it off. Yeong answers, “I have merely put it somewhere else momentarily.” Ha-yeon recalls the superstition about the pair of bracelets and how their wearers are bound to reunite, saying that the merchants are quite good at inventing stories.
Yeong answers, “It is probably because they understand the hearts of people who know it is a lie but wish to believe it anyway.” Judging from her disappointed reaction, Ha-yeon seems to understand what this means.
A bit later, she puts more pieces together, recalling Ra-on (as a eunuch) wearing the counterpart bracelet, and also Yeong’s admission that there was a woman he loved. Finally, she makes the realization that Ra-on is the woman the prince loves.
With Yeong’s help, Ra-on returns to the prison, initially acting the part of an ordinary prison guard. But her father has already deduced the truth, despite not exchanging words yesterday, and he calls her name. He says ruefully that he didn’t give her that name intending her to life such a hard life, and apologizes. Ra-on asks when he intended to show himself to her, and he says, “I don’t know. Maybe when the day came that you would not have to act as a man.”
She says tearfully, “Even if the world did not change, as my father by my side, you could have been a great strength to me.” But he sees it differently, not wanting to live in such a corrupt world where he would subject his wife and child to difficulties and be able to do so little about it. “I wanted to change it,” he says, “into a world that was just a little better for you to live in.”
She wishes she had at least known he was alive all these years: “I would have missed you greatly, and called out for you many times.” Her father hangs his head, looking down at his handkerchief, a tear running down his cheek.
Yeong watches the exchange from a distance, then escorts Ra-on back out of the prison. Neither sees that they’ve been spotted by Eunuch Sung, who hurries off to inform the queen.
He’s so rushed that he charges right into Yoon-sung, who’s on his way to visit. Yoon-sung watches curiously as the eunuch excuses himself and beelines for the queen.
Eunuch Sung tells her excitedly that he’s found Ra-on, and the queen lights up in delight. He adds that she was on her way toward the building where she used to live, and in the company of the prince. The queen decides she’ll have to see this for herself.
She gets up to go straightaway, and runs into Yoon-sung outside her door. He explains that he’s delivering tea from his grandfather, but also insists on speaking with her first, ignoring her impatience to leave. She tries to push past him, but he whispers into her ear that his talk has to do with that baby she smuggled out of the palace recently—and that certainly gets her attention.
So the queen returns to her chamber, and struggles to keep calm as Yoon-sung addresses what she’s done. He warns her to forget what she’s just heard about Ra-on being in the palace, and to not speak a word of it to anyone.
A bit hysterically, the queen asks what he’ll do if she does tell, saying that nobody would believe his outlandish story about swapped babies. She’s outraged that he would dare blackmail her when he doesn’t even have evidence.
“And if that child did not die but is alive?” Yoon-sung asks. “Then will the story change?” The queen’s eyes widen in horror. Yoon-sung holds her gaze levelly.
Ra-on and Yeong sit in their hideaway, and she says regretfully that she didn’t want to make more trouble for him. He tells her not to say that: “Before you and I knew even each other, our fates had already been entangled. So do not be sorry, or hurt.”
Ra-on points out that it’s late and asks if he doesn’t need to return to his palace. Reluctant to leave, Yeong says that the night is cloudy and moonless: “How can I walk that dark path alone? So I will just stay a little longer, then go.”
They hold each other’s gazes for amoment, until she looks back down and Yeong says, “Several times a day, I imagine what might have been if we had met in different circumstances. At least while we are here right now, where nobody knows, let’s look at each other without thinking about it. Ra-on-ah.”
At her name, Ra-on looks up at him. And like that, they sit there for long moments staring into each other’s eyes. Yeong’s face softens and he smiles, saying, “Tonight, I think I will sleep deeply for the first time in a long while.”
The king sits alone at his desk in his dark room, and a shadowy silhouette appears in the door. This must be a dream: Hong Kyung-rae appears with sword in hand, zooming supernaturally toward the king and raising his weapon with a roar. The blade slashes downward, and the king gasps awake in a cold sweat.
He rocks back and forth and screams for the prime minister to be summoned, his panic spurring him to move up Hong’s interrogation.
This is a concern for the rebels, who’d planned on having more time before the jailbreak. Once Hong Kyung-rae is moved for the special investigation, it will be much harder to break him out. Head Eunuch Han tells Byung-yeon that he was one who had their mole killed in prison, and that despite working together for years, emotions are a luxury when considering the cause. Their priority now is to break out their leader from prison.
Eunuch Han tells Byung-yeon to have Ra-on dress in disguise and wait in front of the palace gates, so that both can be smuggled out together.
Yeong visits Hong Kyung-rae before his interrogation, and asks him to clarify his earlier statement about a leader being appointed by the people—did he mean that he wanted a puppet king who would listen to the people’s appeals? Hong says no.
Yeong states that he also wants politics to be for the people, but doesn’t see how the people could choose a king to rule over them. Hong Kyung-rae explains that what he and his followers want is not merely a politics that is for the people, but by the people. Royals must consider themselves the sun, he says, selected by the heavens—absolute and shining. But what he wants is different: a king of the people who considers himself equal to the people. That is to say, a king who is a person.
Yeong takes this in, and Hong notes the irony of a person who dreams of being a person.
Yeong asks, “But why do you think that getting rid of the king is the only method?” Hong answers, “Because there is no king who can lay everything down on his own. You and I, noblemen and butchers, girls and boys, traitor’s children and king’s descendants. If you were to become king, could you allow for them to be equals?”
That’s a lot for Yeong to chew on, and he remains pensive. As guards arrive to transport Hong, Yeong says, “A leader established by the people is not the only one who considers the people precious. How could someone who considers each and every citizen precious ever denigrate them as dogs or pigs?”
Yeong declares, “The world I dream of and the world you dream of are not different. The only thing is how far we are from it now. I will come see you after the interrogation. It’s possible we may be able to find it without shedding blood—that path where we match our steps, heading toward the world we both dream of.” Damn, he’s good with the inspiring speeches. Hong’s face remains impassive, but I dearly hope the words make an impression.
It’s time for the king’s special interrogation, and the mood is grave as the relevant parties make their way there—the king, his entourage, the Kim faction, the rest of the ministers, Yeong.
Still in her prison garb, Ra-on waits at the appointed spot… and then is grabbed from behind. Gack! Again?
The king arrives to preside over the proceedings, and falters at the sight of Hong Kyung-rae, despite the man being tied up and injured. Prime Minister Kim begins the questions by explaining the charge of treason, and asks Hong to acknowledge it. Hong says he does not.
Prime Minister Kim states that there is a witness who can testify to Hong’s crimes, and the bloodthirsty king demands that the torture begin. Yeong, Eunuch Han, and Byung-yeon wear looks of dismay at this escalation, and this is the moment that Ra-on is brought in, having been caught by royal guards. With horror on her face, she watches her father being branded with a hot iron.
Prime Minister Kim threatens to give the death penalty immediately if Hong continues to lie, and asks if he admits to stirring up a rebellion that cost thousands of lives. At that, Hong says that if they’re equating treason to mean that rebellion, then he does acknowledge it. Moreover, he says that his accomplices are here right now.
This declaration causes alarmed looks all around. Hong declares that they are the people in power who imposed extreme taxes upon the people, then claimed most of that for themselves and fattened their own bellies while watching their people starve. He says that he led those poor people who were sustained by dreams of a new world, but it was the king who destroyed their hopes and livelihoods.
The king leaps up in outrage, but Hong Kyung-rae just cuts him off: “I am confessing.” That’s a satisfying moment, given how long we’ve had to watch this king snivel. Hong requests that those culprits be given the same sentence of execution as he will be given: “At least that much must happen for the blood of thousands of peasants to be repaid.”
Infuriated, the king screams the order to behead Hong instantly, and soldiers comply by drawing their swords. Yeong jumps to his feet and begs the king to rescind his order. All eyes turn to them as Yeong presses his father to calm down, telling him that the sentence can be decided after the interrogation is completed. The king looks around uncertainly, out of his depth.
Prime Minister Kim interjects to say that Yeong has a different reason, and chides him for showing his emotions at an official interrogation of a state criminal. Then he announces that rumors are rampant that the prince has been secretly communicating with the traitor’s daughter.
This is news to many, including the king, who demands an explanation. The prime minister asks Yeong to confirm or deny the rumor.
That’s when the prime minister orders Ra-on brought in. She’s dragged to the center of the proceedings to kneel by her father, and the prime minister identifies her as the daughter in question. Prime Minister Kim demands an answer out of Yeong: Was this the spy, and did he harbor her because he was in love with her?
Hong Kyung-rae insists that the court hold him accountable for his crimes, not her, because he has never properly even met the girl, who has nothing to do with any of this.
Prime Minister Kim tells Yeong to prove that he did not conspire with the rebels—by slashing Ra-on’s throat right now.
All this while, Yeong has remained silent, trapped by his position and unsure how to save anyone. He’s frozen in his dilemma while the king barks at him to act, and when Yeong doesn’t reply, the king orders his men to strike anyway.
As the soldiers swing into action, all time slows down as everyone—Yeong, Byung-yeon, Eunuch Han, Ra-on—looks on helplessly. Sound fades away, and Ra-on thinks, addressing Yeong, “From this moment, do not love me. Please remember me only as a traitor’s daughter. I do not wish to leave you with the terrible anguish of not being able to protect the woman you love.”
Yeong clenches his fist, and Ra-on closes her eyes. The soldier raises his sword…
Yeong grabs for Byung-yeon’s sword to intervene, but he only gets it halfway out its sheath before something else happens—suddenly half of the soldiers turn on their own, cutting them down from behind. Aha, they must be the rebels, and the scene erupts into a loud clash that soon stalls in impasse.
Soldiers and rebels face off, swords drawn. It’s a little difficult knowing who’s on which side, and Yeong looks confused as he tries to make sense of things.
Byung-yeon positions himself in front of the prince protectively, sword drawn and facing the others, but as the impasse stretches on, a flurry of expressions fly across his conflicted face.
Finally, with a reluctant grimace, he whirls around—and holds his sword to Yeong’s neck. Mouths drop in shock.
Byung-yeon orders everybody to stand down if they want to save the prince’s life.
Yeong stares at his friend, struggling to register his betrayal. “Byung-yeon-ah,” he says.
Nooooo, Byung-yeon, don’t you go breaking my heart too! *sniff* *choke* *wails* Life is hard enough without you turning on each other!
I do follow Byung-yeon in this moment, since the show has been building up this internal conflict for a long time, showing Byung-yeon caught between his loyalties to the cause and to his friend. It hurts not only because it’s a betrayal of Yeong, but because we had seen that all series long, when pressed Byung-yeon always chose the prince—not necessarily over the cause, but he seemed to be willing to compromise in the little moments. I do respect that unflinching lack of compromise displayed by men like Hong Kyung-rae and Head Eunuch Han, because great change needs leaders to hold steady and make sacrifices along the way, but I never saw Byung-yeon as that kind of person. I saw him more as the alternate version of Dad that Ra-on and her mother longed for, the man who could believe noble thoughts but live for his family’s happiness.
So it’s a meaningful shift to have him reach that rock-and-a-hard-place moment, and finally have to choose, and I can respect that he picked the cause despite looking a little like he hated himself for it. I do wish the show had spent a little more time building up Byung-yeon’s thought process so that this final switch had a little more narrative momentum, because while I understand intellectually exactly what happened, I didn’t really know why it happened now. It would have landed with more impact if something had happened to demonstrate just why he had to divorce himself from the idea that the prince was his friend; his traitor boss reminded him of that yesterday, but I didn’t really feel why that was true. I wish the show had pitted him in direct ideological conflict with Yeong, or forced his hand a different way that explained why he made this choice in this moment. Basically, if you’re going to rip my heart out, I want you to really do it good and proper—why leave it bruised when you could leave it shredded and bleeding?
(I’m still holding out for a last-minute revelation in the next episode to show us a twist, but for now, there’s nothing to do but go with what the show has shown us. My hope is alive, but knows better than to get too confident.)
I was dearly hoping today’s episode would be the turnaround that I was dying for, but found myself disappointed again by episode’s end. It’s not that the show logic-failed on me, or had characters acting out of character, or went off the rails—nothing so dire as that. But today kind of felt like every Episode 16 of every Joseon fusiony sageuk I’ve seen in the past six or seven years, and as such felt extremely paint-by-numbers: political machinations, claims of treason, noble victims, torture, prison, tribunals and interrogations and gloaty ministers. Basically, it made this drama feel ordinary, without the magic that has made this show so special in prior weeks.
That doesn’t mean this show has suddenly become bad, and as ever, the strong directorial hand really elevates things. The moment when all goes silent as Ra-on braces for death, and the vocals start in without instrumentation—that was a spine-tingly great beat. Any moment that hinged on strong emotional acting was well-executed (even when I didn’t like what was necessarily happening plotwise). Hong Kyung-rae’s righteous defense in the torture chair was another highlight, and part of why it was so effective for me was that it was a melding of the personal and the political, which is the best kind of political. (The rest of the political maneuvering was cold and strategic, and thus less compelling.) And it was definitely encouraging that Yeong found a common ground that nobody else could see, providing hope that where swords and coups and plots fail, his brains might succeed in finding a solution.
But even so, I feel like the dip is distinct and disappointing because the she show has spoiled me by always delivering at least one really rewarding emotional exchange or development per episode. It doesn’t matter if that gratification is happy or sad, since sadness can pull the heartstrings effectively when done well, but today it started feeling like we were spinning our wheels a bit. And I involuntarily laughed out loud when Yeong and Ra-on ran into each other again, despite the epic, tearful, final goodbyes they’d already exchanged multiple times. (Speaking of comical repetition, must we have Ra-on abducted from behind in every other episode? I love this girl as a person, but I am getting mighty exasperated with her role as a character; her narrative purpose has suffered greatly as the show has progressed, and now her narrative function is almost only ever bait, trap, or object of affection. I just want her to do something active again. I would even prefer her doing something careless or dangerous to doing nothing and getting bounced around as plot device, although really, those can’t be our only choices. Resourceful, witty, sly, stealthy, helpful—any of those things are vastly preferable.)
I’m bummed that this week killed some of that extra something special in my heart, because without that bit of magic, I feel like all the little flaws suddenly seem more jarring, more noticeable. There’s a Korean saying about how being in love is like having bean chaff lodged in your eyes, i.e., blinders on to flaws, and I feel like something this week pushed me past the tipping point and shook the bean chaff away, and it’s changed the way I look at the show a bit. I’m still clinging to my hopes as we head into the final week, because we’re so close to the end and I’d rather be optimistic about it reaching a satisfying conclusion. I’m looking forward to that happy ending we’re totally getting next week, where Yeong and Ra-on live blissfully together forever and the bad guys are punished and all of the happy relationships are restored. I will accept no other realities.