We’re at the end of the line, and that means it’s time to resolve conflicts, wrap up loose ends, answer our questions, give us a satisfying resolution, and leave us with a uplifting feeling of hope that while the drama is over, the characters live on, in that we can be happy with even when we don’t get to witness it ourselves. That’s a fairly tall order, and the big question is whether the drama managed to pull all that off in its final hour. There’s no way to answer that without spoiling everything up front, so let’s just get right to the point, shall we?
EPISODE 18: “Moonlight drawn by clouds”
Late at night at Teacher Dasan’s home, Byung-yeon prepares to leave and peers inside to see Ra-on alone, dozing. He sets off, thinking, “It may be a long journey. But I promise you: I will return to you and the prince.”
Ra-on’s sleep turns fitful as she dreams of that night she’d held a knife to Yeong, which he’d used to cut off his bracelet.
In the palace, Yeong drinks his tonic and thinks of that same moment, when his bracelet fell apart and scattered. The poison hits him, and he falls over.
Ra-on calls out to Yeong in her sleep, and wakes feeling heavy-hearted. She chooses to consider the dream as a happy one, just as she’d once described dreaming of losing her mother: “Because at least I could see you.”
A frantic pounding sounds at the front gate, and it’s Young Master Jung with an urgent summons to bring Teacher Dasan to the palace. Ra-on hears that Yeong has been poisoned and falls to the ground, overcome.
Teacher Dasan and Ra-on (disguised as his assistant) hurry to the palace, where the gate guard asks Ra-on to remove her face mask. She’s saved from discovery by Eunuch Jang, who arrives in a panic to usher them in.
They’re taken to the prince’s chamber, where Yeong lies unconscious, looking like death. Ra-on kneels at his bedside and reaches for his hand, the sight of him bringing her to tears.
Teacher Dasan gets to work and spoons medicine into Yeong’s mouth. Perhaps it works, because Yeong’s eyes flutter open soon thereafter, and they breathe a sigh to see that he’s regained consciousness.
Through his tired eyes, Yeong just barely makes out the blurry image of Ra-on hovering above.
Just then, Ha-yeon is announced, and Ra-on quickly steps aside. Ha-yeon looks at her curiously, but she’s more concerned with the prince’s condition at the moment and hurries to his bedside.
Yeong’s blurry vision sharpens into focus as he makes out Ha-yeon’s face, and is that disappointment on his face? From a distance, Ra-on watches the two of them with sad eyes, and then the door closes in her face, leaving her on the outside.
The queen is worrying over having her baby daughter in Ha-yeon’s care when a court lady informs her that the prince has collapsed from poisoning. Her shock suggests she was unaware of the plan.
Teacher Dasan informs Yeong that the tonic he drank wasn’t poisoned, which is why the court lady who tasted it didn’t fall ill. Instead, the poison had been applied to the surface of the bowl, which is why the princess’s silver ring darkened upon contact. Because Yeong only drank a small amount, he should be able to recover fully. Yeong asks Teacher Dasan to keep his recovery a secret—he looks forward to seeing how happy people will be at his return from the brink.
The tactic has the desired effect, because Eunuch Sung reports to Prime Minister Kim that the palace is swirling with rumors that the prince is dying by the minute.
Ha-yeon thinks back to the masked aide attending to Yeong, unable to shake the suspicion that it was Ra-on. She tells herself that it can’t be, but without much conviction.
Ra-on tends to Yeong as he sleeps, and just as she moves away, his hand reaches out to pull her back. He reaches up to pull off her mask, then smiles to see her face, saying, “So I didn’t see wrong.”
She starts to explain why she’s here, but he just says, “When I opened my eyes, do you know how much I worried that it would not be you here? When I grabbed you, I hesitated for a long while, in case it might not be you.”
Ra-on tells him that she promised Teacher Dasan that she would only stay a few days, and take utmost care to not be recognized, not even by the prince. So now, she requests that he pretend not to know her for just a little while.
Yeong reaches for her hand and draws her sleeve back—revealing that she wears his bracelet, put back together. It makes him smile and hold on tighter, and he agrees, “I will pretend not to know you for a long, long while, so stay by my side. Even if it is just until I am recovered.”
He grasps her hand in his, and reaches up with the other to cradle her face.
And that’s the scene Ha-yeon witnesses from the door, which she quietly closes while holding back tears.
Yeong receives a visit from little Princess Yeongeun and her mother, Royal Consort Park. He asks if Consort Park recalls the day his mother died, recalling how she’d collapsed after taking her medicine, but no poison had been found in it. The incident was suspicious, but ultimately buried.
Yeong finds his poisoning similar to his mother’s death, and believes the same culprit to be behind both incidents. He views this incident as a good opportunity to get to the bottom of his mother’s death, though he sighs that he doesn’t have any proof.
At that, little Yeongeun flicks up her eyes nervously, looking conflicted. (Yasssssss.)
The queen orders Eunuch Sung to sneak her (discarded) baby back to her, and then she accompanies him to hand off the baby to a henchman. The queen warns the eunuch to do a proper job of it this time (as in, disposing of the child).
And then, Yeong’s voice orders them to halt. He turns scathing eyes on the queen, asking if she has ordered the child killed, and orders them to set the baby down, saying that even criminals are full of defenses and protests when accused of crimes. The least they can do is to let the baby do the only thing it knows how to do, cry, before it dies: “In front of the mother who is trying to get rid of her in such a terrible way.”
The queen looks conflicted, but steels herself and tells him to do as he wishes. Yeong warns that this is the last chance he will give her—that it’s the one way that everyone will be able to live.
He asks her to reveal that truth that this is her child, rather than the boy she has claimed. The queen’s face twists with emotion, but she smooths it out before facing the prince, lying, “I have no idea what you are saying.”
Yeong looks shocked at her coldness as she just walks away. But the baby begins to cry, and the queen struggles with herself, trying to ignore the cries.
Princess Yeongeun thinks back to that traumatizing day when she’d seen the court lady killed, and recalls seeing an envelope in the woman’s hands. Ra-on comes upon her and pauses in concern to see her looking distressed.
Ra-on quietly identifies herself, and Yeongeun writes a note asking if Ra-on is here as a doctor’s aide because of the sick prince. Ra-on says she will stay until the prince recovers, and asks if the princess is struggling with something.
Yeongeun asks for a favor, then leads Ra-on to that room where she’d once hidden, now dusty with disuse. She starts looking around for something, remembering that the lady stuffed the envelope underneath the a loose floorboard moments before being killed.
The memory makes Yeongeun tremble and cry, but she forces herself to point a finger toward the floor and eke out a word: “T-there…”
Ra-on feels for the loose floorboard, and finds that long-forgotten letter tucked underneath it. Behind them, a pair of feet quietly leave. Uh-oh.
It’s the prime minister’s underling, who reports back that he saw Ra-on fetching something from underneath the floor. The prime minister orders him to bring Ra-on, dead or alive, and at that, Yoon-sung offers himself for the task.
The prime minister points out that he can’t trust Yoon-sung when he knows he cares for the girl, but Yoon-sung replies that he’d like to test himself and see how strong his feelings are. He admits to feeling upset about her remaining close to the prince, and says that the clan must be powerful in order for him to have what he wants. Please tell me you’re just making the argument your grandfather wants to hear—because on that score, it works, and the prime minister agrees to let Yoon-sung bring her in.
Yeong delivers the old letter to the king, explaining Ra-on’s part in its recovery. The king recognizes the handkerchief inside, stained with blood, and reads the letter before showing it to Yeong.
The letter is from Yeong’s mother, addressed to him, and it sounds as though she expects to die; she tells Yeong that she hopes he will have overcome his sadness when he reads the letter. She also writes, “I have staked my life to protect your seat, not for my son’s power, but for the hope of Joseon—do not forget that.”
Ra-on returns to her old building late that night, and Yoon-sung finds her there. He looks at her with cold eyes and says she must come with him, just as he’s joined by masked assassins. Ra-on registers the threat, but they grab her before she can do anything.
Yoon-sung keeps his face stony, though it flickers when he hears Ra-on cry out in pain. At that, he draws his sword and holds it up to Ra-on’s scared face… and then whirls on his masked assassins.
He grabs Ra-on protectively and turns on his grandfather’s men, dispatching several in quick succession, not stopping even when he’s slashed across the abdomen. Then Ra-on sees that he’s in the direct line of danger, and darts in to block his body with hers.
But Yoon-sung can’t have her hurt, so he whirls them around, keeping Ra-on out of harm’s way… and getting stabbed in the chest instead. He spits up a mouthful of blood.
Still, he has enough strength to resume fighting when the remaining assassins charge him. One aims for Ra-on, and Yoon-sung blocks the sword’s path—by placing his body directly in its path.
The sword digs into his shoulder, and then Yoon-sung grabs the blade with his bare hand and slides his body along the length of the blade, toward the hilt, until he can knock the sword away. Goddamn it Yoon-sung, you’re a badass mofo but you’re hard to watch.
Yoon-sung takes down the last assassin, but by now his body has been battered with multiple injuries, and he collapses. Ra-on rushes to his side and cradles his head in her lap, scared to see that he’s seeping blood at an alarming rate.
Yoon-sung manages to smile as he tells her not to cry: “I do not wish to be remembered as a small man who would make a woman cry.” She can’t believe he’d joke at a time like this, but he continues, “Do not be sad, either.”
She sobs that she’s sorry for always hurting him when he always made her smile. He shakes his head and says, “You are the picture I always wanted to draw.” He says that it’s enough that she is happy in the moment he draws her, and urges her to be happy.
His eyes slowly close, and he falls limp. As the reality of his death sinks in, she sobs over his body.
The queen must have been moved by her crying child after all, because she admits everything to her father, subdued for once rather than agitated. She says she wanted to give birth to a boy, even if through faking it, and had a reason other than the obvious one of providing an heir: She wanted her father’s acknowledgement.
“Even if you weren’t satisfied with me, I am still your blood kin,” she says.
She asks if he ever thought of her as his child, to which he replies that she’s in no place to ask that after trying to kill her own child to protect her position.
She can only laugh at that: “Yes, hearing that, we are indeed related. Able to throw away anyone who becomes a hindrance, or kill. I am just like you.”
The prime minister says coolly that her desire for his approval is not within her reach, as the lowly child of a gisaeng—she ought to just be content with the queen’s seat he created for her. Her face falls, disappointed once more.
Without warning, her doors fly open and the king walks in, followed by Yeong and several soldiers. The king faces the prime minister and demands to know if everything is true. The queen hangs her head, thinking they’re speaking of her baby—but Yeong holds out the recently discovered letter, and the prime minister recognizes it.
A flashback takes us back ten years: The previous queen, Yeong’s mother, faces the prime minister, who warns her of the dangers of being too interested in Western learning. He confronts her with a book that he calls dangerous and heretical, which the queen says she read purely out of curiosity.
The prime minister accuses her of teaching the prince about ruling without accounting for class and rank. She argues that she was merely instructing him to regard every one of his citizens as important, but the prime minister is clearly capable of twisting that around to make it seem she’s inciting an upheaval of social order. So he gives her the choice: be dethroned and make the crown prince the son of a criminal, or to remain blameless and step down of her own accord.
This must all be in the queen’s letter, which the prime minister now reads. But then, a eunuch bursts in with terrible news of Yoon-sung.
A short time later, the prime minister is brought before the court as a criminal. Yeong reads the charges: contempt of royalty in falsifying the queen’s identity, poisoning the prince, and assassinating the former queen and covering it up. He is sentenced, along with the other two Kim ministers, to execution by beheading. The queen, meanwhile, is dethroned for passing off another child as the prince.
As the prime minister is escorted out of his home to meet his fate, he requests one last look at Yoon-sung’s room. As he sits in the empty room, he flashes back to that day long ago, when Yoon-sung and Yeong were boys. He’d watched as they changed back after trading clothes and Yoon-sung had asked if wearing the prince’s robes would make him the prince.
Little Yeong, now wearing the egret-adorned hat, replies no—but it allows them to understand each other better. Little Yoon-sung asks Yeong how he’d felt wearing his clothes, and Yeong says that his friend’s clothes had felt just as heavy as his own. So it was Yoon-sung who would die young all along, and Yeong who bore the traits of a good king.
The prime minister finds a pistol among Yoon-sung’s things. Moments later, a gunshot rings out.
Yeong carries his mother’s handkerchief out to the field, remembering how she had wished for him to see the people in lower classes, and to protect each and every citizen as his own. She’d asked him then to promise to be that kind of king, and he reaffirms that vow now.
Next, it’s Ra-on who is brought before the court as a criminal, kneeling before Yeong as he reads out her charge—which he follows by acknowledging her contribution to restoring honor to the royal family. He pardons her for all of her crimes.
Ha-yeon makes a request of the king, which he finds difficult to understand: She wishes to step down as crown princess, even if, according to law, she is prohibited from marrying for the rest of her life. Ha-yeon explains that she knew Yeong didn’t care for her, but had hoped he might open his heart to her eventually.
“However, I was unable to offer the least bit of comfort to the prince’s weary heart,” she says, “and I blamed myself and hated myself for it. I realized how foolish I had been. Rather than being a foolish princess who is a burden to the prince, so that I may live alone but honestly, please grant your permission.”
A short while later, Ha-yeon makes her way through the city streets, on her way to the ferry. She flings off her head covering and breathes in the air.
We hear the king’s voice delivering his decision: He will revoke the entire princess selection, thereby freeing her of the requirement to remain unmarried for the rest of her life. He hopes she will find a man who will treasure her and urges her to live happily.
One year later.
The king is announced, and a red-robed figure makes his way into the throne room—Yeong, now king, taking his position before his council. Among the lesser officials is Young Master Jung, while Teacher Dasan is there in minister’s robes.
Yeong makes his way to the throne, but pauses in front of the lofty seat. Changing his mind, he turns and sits down right on the top step, in front of the throne, butt on floor. The ministers murmur amongst themselves and Teacher Dasan asks why he is sitting there.
Yeong replies that he will continue to do so: “The highs and lows between me and my people, the distance between me and you—I hope that you will understand my wish to be one step closer.”
Eunuch Jang beams with pride, Teacher Dasan quirks up a smile, and the rest of the ministers bow a bit uncertainly.
Over in the eunuch department, Head Eunuch Jang delivers the speech about responsibility and honor to the newest class of rookies. Do Ki and Sung-yeol observe the new faces… and take a closer look at one of the rookies. Wait, is that…?
Pwahaha, it’s Kim Seul-gi, looking suspiciously pretty and delicate-featured in the sea of male faces. (Best cameo reference ever.) They both feel that strange sense of déjà vu, and then Kim Seul-gi looks over and shoots them a wink.
As Princess Myeongeun takes a walk, a eunuch hands her a red rose, which she takes with some confusion. More eunuchs line her path, as do court ladies, each holding out a rose.
Once she’s amassed a large bouquet, she comes to Young Master Jung at the end of the line, who kneels before her and starts to say that she now has ninety-nine flowers. Myeongeun cuts him off to get to the punchline first, that she’s the last flower. Aw, Young Master Jung drops the rose he’d been holding behind his back—his punchline had been different—and tells her she’s right, and asks her to marry him.
She’s touched, but concerned that marrying her would prevent his career from reaching its full heights (a princess’s husband would find himself restricted in many ways). He tells her that walking with her would make every path flower-lined, and outshining any path to career success.
“All I need is you,” he says, “Myeongeun-ah.” He kisses her, and their audience cheers.
Out in the city, Byung-yeon and Hong Kyung-rae watch from a distance as Yeong, disguised as a simple nobleman, walks among the people and gets invited to play a game.
Byung-yeon references a saying about drawing clouds to make the moonlight shine, and smiles as he watches Yeong among his people. He says, “Rather than a sun that shines alone, he’s a ruler who shines brightly when among his people, like the moonlight—I believe the king is that kind of person.”
Hong Kyung-rae notes, “So you will remain as a cloud, on behalf of the king. Is that what you mean?” They smile.
In a bookshop, Ra-on puts out a new book on display: The cover bears a face that looks like Yeong, and the title is “Moonlight Drawn By Clouds.” It’s snatched off its perch immediately, and Yeong sighs that she’s been so busy writing her supposed masterpiece that he’s barely seen her.
She’s a bit sheepish about putting his face on the cover, but asks for his understanding, since a book’s cover can affect its sales. Yeong leans down to meet her at eye level, and warns that he’ll be seeking repayment, and Ra-on shyly covers her lips with her hands and asks, “Here?” Hee.
He laughs at her assumption, saying that he meant a percentage of the sale price. Ha.
Holding hands as they walk through a field of flowers, Yeong asks what the book is about. Ra-on describes a prince of a far-off land, with beautiful looks and a bad temper. He pouts at that, but she continues that the prince undergoes all sorts of trials to emerge as a good king.
“Have you written of your hopes?” he asks. Ra-on shakes her head, saying, “No. I have merely taken a peek at the world you are making.”
He takes her hands, and asks, “Then who are you?” Ra-on guesses, “In the nation you will make, that first citizen?” Yeong shakes his head; that’s not what he’s thinking of.
Ra-on thinks again. “The one who came to you in the appearance of a eunuch, your first sweetheart?” That’s not it either, so she asks, “Then who am I?”
He replies, “You are the Ra-on who filled my world to the brim.”
She smiles happily, and he swoops in to kiss her.
Ahh, so we get our happy ending after all, and everything worked out, more or less, with ends tied neatly and history blatantly flouted. (That giant disclaimer at the top of the episode about this show being different from history was a pretty big tip-off that the ending would be upbeat, but I wasn’t expecting a tragedy, so I didn’t mind not having that element of surprise.) Not everything was happy, of course, considering how Yoon-sung died, but on the whole the episode fulfilled its role as a finale and provided closure to most of the big plot conflicts. It even managed to tie in points from early episodes, which contributed to the feeling of an ending that had been set up well in advance, so that it felt like an extension of logic and not like a late-game attempt to make everything end happily.
I’m fine with having Yoon-sung die at the end, and if he had to go, then it makes sense that he would go down to protect Ra-on. I appreciate that his good nature won out—perhaps he was lying to his grandfather about testing his feelings, or perhaps he really was testing himself, but in either scenario Yoon-sung was true to himself and died fighting for his convictions, which eases the sting a bit. It was also the least the show could do to have him die in Ra-on’s arms, able to confess a bit of his heart while wishing her well.
It’s just, that stupid fight. That stupid, needless fight that didn’t have to happen, that didn’t make sense in the context of the plot, that felt like it was choreographed and shot and edited before it was properly written. COME ON, those men are under his command! Even if they wouldn’t have acted against the prime minister’s orders, there were a gajillion ways Yoon-sung could have taken advantage of the situation, could have sent them away, could have thwarted them on a goose chase, could have brought a horse and run away with Ra-on, could have warned her ahead of time, et ceteraaaa. And that was the best you could do? The last time I saw a death that pointless was when that dude in Moon/Sun literally threw himself in the path of an incoming spear because of fate or whatever. I get that narratively, the death makes sense, and may even be a necessity. I just really wish the writing had actually done that necessity justice. I thought Yoon-sung deserved better.
But as for things I loved: While it was convenient for Ha-yeon to be the one to bow out of the marriage and free Yeong without making anybody a bad guy, I appreciate that she wasn’t shown to be doing it out of a broken heart, or a sense of selflessness or martyrdom. Ultimately it was a choice to honor herself above a one-sided love that she saw was never going to be returned, to allow herself to live with a freer heart, even if that would limit the life she could lead as an unmarriageable young woman. Heck, at least it would be better than being locked into a miserable life as an unhappy married woman, to be able to choose herself. Kelly Taylor would approve. Of course, this show does love to have cakes and eat them too, so she ended up even freer than she’d hoped, with the king releasing her from the princess trappings entirely.
Also: Yeong became king! Obviously we’re in total fantasyland by this point, because he never made it to kinghood in real life, but it’s gratifying to see him actually rule, because the great tragedy was that we knew he’d be an awesome ruler but wouldn’t get the chance. I’m presuming that the whole “fake his death to live with Ra-on while history believes the prince dead” plotline was a popular speculation for the finale, and I was half-expecting to see it in play here—but what would have disappointed about that ending is that Yeong would have had to give up his hopes of being a good king and treasuring his people and turning around Joseon from its path of puppet kings and corrupt puppetmasters. And that idealism and integrity was such a huge part of his character that I didn’t quite want that to be the solution.
Truth be told, I can’t shake my niggling sense of disappointment that the show so thoroughly ignored history, even as I’m glad for the characters’ sake that everything worked out well for them. It’s not enough to anger me or sour my opinion of the show, but it is a distinct disappointment to have the show take all this care to establish the historical basis, work in real-life figures, and then just kind of shrug and say, “Never mind, none of the rest happens in this world.” I’m certainly fine with fantasy sageuks taking liberties with trufax, and don’t expect—or even want—them to be completely accurate. But one of the huge draws of watching sageuks is understanding the broad strokes of history and knowing that there are certain constraints we have to work with—so as we watch the show, it becomes a source of enjoyable angst to worry about how a show will manage to pull out a satisfactory solution when we already know the punchline.
I wanted this show to pull out a clever twist to show us how historical record came to be, while still delivering a happy ending. One way to do that is to fake his death, but they could have also played with the swapped-babies theme and made Yoon-sung the real prince. Or something cleverer that I was hoping really hard the show could figure out. Part of my excitement about this drama was the anticipation about how the drama would accomplish this feat—and then we got there and the drama just decided that the constraint of reality didn’t matter anymore. Maybe that’s my fault for getting my hopes up, but the show was so winning and compelling that I really did believe it had that answer. If they were going to go with this ending, I wish they’d have invented an entirely fictional world from the start, the way The Moon That Embraces the Sun did, because in that case there are no expectations of boundaries, and no disappointments.
But I expect that this will bother different people to differing extents, and some people not at all. If delivering a happy resolution was the main concern, then Moonlight Drawn By Clouds delivered that, and left off at a nice place in the story—there are some open ends, but I feel confident that everyone I care about (except Yoon-sung, sniff) is in a good place and on a good trajectory, so that we can step out of this world feeling contented and hopeful. I don’t have to see Yeong and Ra-on married, for instance, because it’s enough that they’ve cleared out all their obstacles and are in a place where they can openly love. And with Yeong on the throne, we can rest easy that there may never be another peasant’s rebellion, especially with Byung-yeon and Hong Kyung-rae leading the rebels and believing in him to make a better nation.
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds wasn’t a perfect drama, but what I felt at the outset still stands: that this drama was elevated by every one of its parts to feel truly special, even if each of the individual parts might not feel quite as special on their own. Park Bo-gum was one of its biggest assets—and Kim Yoo-jung, of course, because their connection sold that romance, although I do really think Park Bo-gum gave it an extra magic, inhabiting the prince from head to toe and never wasting a moment onscreen. He’s always been a good actor, but he was so consistently and relentlessly wonderful in this show that he’s bound for superstardom now, deservedly.
I’m most grateful to the director for having such a cohesive, well-thought-out approach and knowing how to build emotion through both content and style—this drama was really enhanced by all of its tools, whether it was a well-placed OST track or a beautifully shot scene or a sense of pacing that somehow always knew when to grab my heart, and when to let it breathe again. (I did think it flagged a bit in that last regard toward the end, but its best scenes were so well-crafted that even now they make my breath catch in the same places, every time.) Dramas like this feel like an experience, more than just an entertaining story, and it’s always a joy to come across those, so we can hug them a little tighter while we have them, then let them go feeling full-hearted and contented.