The newest installation from the Oh Boy Project (makers of the Flower Boy franchise) takes us all the way back to ancient Silla, when a nervous queen regent hatched a plan to build a loyal force of soldiers to protect a young king. The premiere sets the stage for a fun yet nerve-wracking adventure, as our heroes and heroine attempt to navigate a world where social status is everything. There’s a lot of information to cover and a lot of characters to introduce, so let’s jump right in!
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Our story takes place about 1,500 years ago, during the twelfth year of the reign of King Jinheung. Modern-day Korea was once three kingdoms, of which Silla was the smallest and weakest. The young, insecure king went into hiding, and his mother reigned as regent. It was her idea to gather together a group of beautiful young men in order to empower the throne.
A series of manhwa-like images flash across the screen, giving us glimpses of what’s to come. They stop on a disheveled young man whom we’ll get to know as our hero, MOO-MYUNG (Park Seo-joon), who complains that he’s busy and urges a trio of equally filthy men to go away.
The leader of the trio says that the town can only have one leader, but Moo-myung is perfectly fine letting him have the title. He says that way nobody has to get beat up, and he won’t get in trouble with his father.
But as he turns to go, the oddly coifed loudmouth taunts that his mother didn’t even name him before abandoning him (moo-myung means “nameless”). Moo-myung sighs that he’ll get too relaxed if this keeps up, and he pulls out a many-sided die (used to decide drinking penalties). Moo-myung tosses the die, and shows the trio the result: “Hit the nose.”
Just as the guys start to worry for their faces, Moo-myung suddenly grows dizzy and mutters that they got lucky. He passes out, but just as the guys start to celebrate their victory, they hear a noise and turn to see a man running (and tripping, and falling) towards them.
The attacker, Moo-myung’s buddy MAK MUN (cameo by Lee Kwang-soo) challenges the three to a fight, which he proceeds to lose spectacularly. At some point Moo-myung rouses, and the bullies are worried all over again to see Moo-myung awake.
When he hears they hurt his buddy, all it takes is a loud, “Run!” to send them fleeing. Moo-myung and Mak Mun give chase, following the trio through the woods and to a stream. The three make it across and push the bridge into the water, and bravely dare Moo-myung to come at them.
One of them calls him by his nickname, “Dog-bird,” which sounds very close to the phrase “son of a bitch.” Moo-myung shows the bullies exactly why he’s said to be like a bird, by jumping and flyyying through the air, across the chasm to their side. Whoa.
We move to the palace, where QUEEN REGENT JISO (Kim Ji-soo), King Jinheung’s mother, is being dressed for the day. She goes to the jailhouse, where a man sits in a cell, looking as though he’s been there quite some time.
The prisoner is WI HWA-GONG (Sung Dong-il), who was the late king’s close friend. He chuckles that he and the king didn’t end on good terms — he ended up in jail because of his inappropriate relationship with one of the king’s concubines.
The queen asks if he’s unhappy with the country of Silla, and Hwa-gong agrees that he’s not happy in a place where the queen kicked out her own son, and is so greedy she refuses to give up her regency, even after ten years.
Queen Regent Jiso asks if he’s considered her offer, and Hwa-gong actually yawns in her face. She explains that she wants to create a group of royal bodyguards, and Hwa-gong lazily agrees that it’s a good idea, since all the private soldiers have been snapped up by the officials.
He asks where she plans to get these guards, and she says that her plan is to recruit the children of the officials. She wants Hwa-gong to train them, so that they will be loyal to the king and Silla.
Hwa-gong laughs again, refusing to do anything for the queen. That is, until she asks, “Do you not want me to give up the regency?” Queen Regent Jiso says that if he performs the duty successfully, she will give up the throne.
Moo-myung and Mak Mun sit overlooking the city, making plans to enter the capital. It’s a dangerous prospect — people like them, being from the lowest-born class, aren’t exactly welcome in the city, and face death of they’re caught. But Mak Mun explains that his family all lived there together once, he and his parents and sister.
He shows Moo-myung his necklace, which is wooden with a small engraved teardrop, and says that the necklace will help him identify himself once he finds his father. Moo-myung thinks it sounds silly but offers to help his friend, adding that he wants to go to the capital city anyway.
Mak Mun is impressed with Moo-myung’s bravado, but Moo-myung says that when you have nothing, there’s nothing to fear. Then he remembers something and runs off, with Mak Mun right on his heels.
They end up at a nearby house, relieved to find the owner away from home. They stop for a drink, but just as Moo-myung raises the gourd to his lips, an arrow thunks into the post right beside his face. He screams that the shooter nearly killed him, and the shooter says that it’s his fate to live and die here, where his mother abandoned him.
He lets fly another arrow at Moo-myung, and complains that he’s not paying his taxes. Moo-myung screams that he has a good reason, but the shooter just loads up another arrow, and Moo-myung leaps high into the air to avoid being hit. He’s struck anyway, but fortunately it’s a blunt arrow and Moo-myung is only knocked out.
Over at the palace, a secret message from someone named Pa Oh is brought to Queen Regent Jiso. It states that he will be arriving late that night, and she’s furious that he would dare without her permission. Her bodyguard Hyun Chu meets him at the gate that night, allowing Pa Oh and his masked companion onto the grounds.
As the new arrivals pass into the palace silently, the guard with Hyun Chu asks in an awed voice if the masked man is really the king. Hyun Chu simply kills the guard with a single stroke of his sword.
At the same time, Moo-myung and Mak Mun are busily scaling the city wall. Moo-myung makes it over first, and nearly has a heart attack when he sees pikes displaying the heads of those who tried to sneak into the city. Mak Mun’s reaction is louder, and Moo-myung claps a hand over his mouth and reminds him that he wants to live to see his sister.
They steal some clothes to better fit in with the townsfolk, though they’re lucky their open-mouthed gaping at the sights (and pretty ladies) goes unnoticed. They wonder what to do first, and Moo-myung says that of course they should look for Mak Mun’s family.
Elsewhere in the city, a young woman entertains a crowd of fascinated townspeople with a story about a woman who changed her entire appearance just by drawing a mole on her face. HA. The girl, AH RO (Go Ara), holds her audience in thrall with her dramatic murder tale, as nearby a handsome young man listens in.
The young man falls asleep at some point, and wakes later to find the girl and her crowd gone. He asks a passerby where he can find her.
Moo-myung and Mak Mun find their way to a gambling house, and sidle up to a table where a game is in progress. Mak Mun asks if anyone recognizes his necklace, and his confusion when someone mentions other shop names has a scarred gambler pegging him as an out-of-towner.
The game continues, and Moo-myung watches closely as the man handling the dice rigs the game in favor of Scarface. When his opponent begs for another chance, Scarface reveals that a box on the table holds a severed head, and says he’d be happy to take the man’s tiny daughter’s head as payment.
Moo-myung lowers his straw hat to hide his face, and offers to take that bet, with his own neck as payment. Scarface is so delighted that he offers Moo-myung his entire day’s winnings if he loses, but Moo-myung says that his neck will suffice.
They sit to play, and the dice are rolled. Moo-myung makes his call, but when the cheater lifts the cup to move the dice, Moo-myung’s hand whips out and slams the cup back down. He starts to reveal the results, but Scarface holds it down this time, and asks, “Who are you?”
Moo-myung answers him with a sly grin, “Me? I’m Dog-bird.” Scarface knows the nickname and tips Moo-myung’s hat up to see his face, and seems to recognize him. Mak Mun speaks up, demanding the dice be shown, and the gambler offers to let Moo-myung go if he gives up now.
Moo-myung declines and tries to lift the cup again, but the gambler stops him. Moo-myung asks why he’s so nervous to see the dice, asking if perhaps he knows the results. The gambler tips over the table, and Moo-myung and Mak Mun run.
They split up and Moo-myung leads the gamblers through the city streets, showing off his incredible jumping ability again. Finally he loses the gamblers, infuriating the scarred man, who vows to find them no matter what.
Things are much more civilized at a local teahouse, where the owner brews fancy teas for his patrons. He notices a man beckoning him over — it’s Hwa-gong, out of prison and all cleaned up.
Hwa-gong asks merchant Pi Joo-ki about his business, and learns that this shop is just a branch of a larger business. Hwa-gong says that he’s looking for something special, and Joo-ki leers, thinking he wants a woman. But Hwa-gong clarifies that he’s looking for young, beautiful men.
Merchant Joo-ki takes Hwa-gong to a place called Daiseo, one of the trendiest shops in town (and one of the places the gambler directed Mak Mun to look for his family). Joo-ki shows Hwa-gong a room with a hidden peephole in the wall, where he can watch all the goings-on at Daiseo without being seen.
Ah Ro has several jobs, and she asks one of her employers for her overdue pay. He severely underpays her, accusing her of drinking the alcohol she was supposed to be selling. She objects, and he tells her that no matter how high-ranking her father may be, if her mother is low-born, then so is she.
He tells her to leave, but Ah Ro decides that if she’s going to be accused, she may as well be guilty. She drinks an entire jar of expensive alcohol in one go, and she’s instantly drunk, and slurs that she’ll take three pots total, one for each month she wasn’t paid.
Ah Ro staggers down the street, yelling at the ground to stop being so close, hee. She spots a couple of children stealing from a vendor and tries to chase them, but ends up going more sideways than forward, and bumps right into Moo-myung. He grabs her in his arms as she goes down, and her shoe goes flying as they end up in an accidentally romantic pose.
Moo-myung and Ah Ro look at each other curiously for a long moment… and then Moo-myung dumps Ah Ro in the dirt. HAHA. He starts to walk away, but Ah Ro grabs his pants and begs him to get her shoe. He tries to refuse, but she latches on and starts wailing about how it’s her only pair of shoes, and she can’t walk without them, but just as he looks like he’s going to cave, he sees riders approaching and wrenches his foot away.
Ah Ro drunkenly manages to stand, and something compels Moo-myung to stop and turn back. He sees Ah Ro right in the path of the riders, and runs back to swing her out of the way. They land in that exact same romantic pose again, Ah Ro in Moo-myung’s arms, and Ah Ro wonders if she’s seeing things because she drank on an empty stomach.
Moo-myung asks if she’s okay, and Ah Ro breathes that he’s handsome. She gives him a big loopy smile, and he looks nervous and says that he can’t help it if she’s not okay. And then he drops her on the ground again. PFFT. Ah Ro sits up, grumbling that it’s not that big a deal to hand her her shoe, and then Moo-myung tosses it and accidentally whacks her in the head. HAHAHA, whoops.
Ah Ro goes on her wobbly way, finally collapsing outside a healer’s home. The healer, AHN JI-GONG (Choi Won-young) is inside patching up a wounded homeless man. He asks the homeless man about “that child,” but the homeless man says that it wasn’t him. Ji-gong tries not to look too upset, and the homeless man assures him that after ten years of searching, he’s sure to find the person he’s looking for soon.
We rejoin the young man who was listening to Ah Ro’s story, now dressed in royal robes as he enters the throne room. He’s King Jinheung, given name SAMMAEKJONG (Park Hyung-shik), just come back from his decade-long exile.
He stares at his throne, and hears his mother’s voice behind him, asking why he came here. We flash back to eleven years prior, when his uncle, King Beopheung, had been killed while defending his palace against invaders. Now-Queen Regent Jiso had wielded a sword herself, intent on protecting her small son Sammaekjong. She’d called for Pa Oh, then begged him to protect the dowager queen no matter what.
But now she seems cold and suspicious, and she asks Sammaekjong if he came because he doesn’t trust her, calling it strange that he’s here. He says that it’s more strange if he’s not here, but his mother retorts that there are still many people who want to kill him.
Sammaekjong says dryly that he’s spent a lot of time around the wrong people, and now he’s growing suspicious of everyone. Queen Regent Jiso asks if he’s suspecting her of trying to steal his throne, but he says that trust isn’t important — he’s just here to see if his throne is doing well.
Queen Regent Jiso spits that she’s the one who’ll decide when he comes back (to reclaim his throne). Until then, he’s to live as if he’s dead.
A pair of high-ranking officials discuss the fact that the palace was unguarded the previous night, and that someone entered during that time. One is sure it’s the young king, while the other says that he’ll have the guards be on the lookout for an assassin.
That night, the young king sits alone in a room outside the palace, staring morosely at the dragon-head bracelet he wears on his wrist. Outside, Mak Mun waits for Moo-myung, and happens to spot a black-clad figure sneaking into the building.
The man in black finds the king’s bedroom, and plunges his sword into the body lying on the bed. Thank goodness it was a decoy — Sammaekjong was hiding behind a screen, and he easily neutralizes the assassin with lightning-fast punches, all the while noting that he’s not good with his beat-up sword, and that he had to drink to garner courage for this job.
He asks the assassin how much his life is worth, and the assassin squeaks out that he was offered three bags of rice. Sammaekjong laughs at that, and calls out to Pa Oh. But it’s the queen’s man Hyun Chu who appears, and he quickly cuts down the assassin.
Sammaekjong isn’t happy that Hyun Chu killed the man, who didn’t even know who he was. Hyun Chu says that it’s the queen regent’s command that anyone who sees Sammaekjong’s face must die, and Sammaekjong storms out angrily.
He steps outside, and ends up face-to-face with a very surprised Mak Mun. Unfortunately, Hyun Chu follows him and calls him “Your Majesty,” but Sammaekjong throws up an arm to stop Chu from killing Mak Mun for knowing who he is. Mak Mun runs, and Hyun Chu follows him on horseback.
It looks like Mak Mun is done for, but a hand reaches out and grabs him to crouch behind a wall — it’s Moo-myung. Hyun Chu rides off in the wrong direction, and Mak Mun stammers that he just saw the king.
Moo-myung thinks it’s ridiculous that the king would stay outside the palace, and suggests that maybe what Mak Mun heard wasn’t Your Majesty, but should I hit you? (The words sound similar.) He smacks Mak Mun, then tells him to hand over his necklace — his height makes him stand out, so Moo-myung offers to find out more about it.
Moo-myung spends the next day asking local vendors about the necklace, with no luck. At one point he realizes he’s in the same spot where he caught the drunk Ah Ro, and smiles when he remembers her calling him handsome.
That evening, Mak Mun stands open-mouthed in front of what appears to be a nightclub. As he gapes at all the pretty people, he spots Ah Ro walking past him, but it’s not her face that fixates him — it’s the wooden necklace peeking out of her collar. He tries to follow Ah Ro into the nightclub, but the bouncers stop him at the door.
This club is obviously The Place To Be, with music and entertainment and gorgeous clubbers dressed to the nines. One man makes a stir when he enters the room with his entourage… he’s BAN-RYU (Do Ji-han), and the ladies swoon just to see him walk by.
But he’s eclipsed by another grand entrance, this time by SU-HO (Min-ho), who elicits a similar swoony response in the females in the room. Su-ho complains when he spots Ban-ryu here, then preens when one girl comments that he’s much better-looking than the other guy.
A group of ladies are brought to a storeroom, and squeal excitedly when Ah Ro is revealed, here to tell them a dramatic story. Sammaekjong is also in the building, though he’s alone in a private room, brooding into his wine. He listens in as Ah Ro recites her torrid romance, and we see that in another room, Su-ho and his buddies are also listening intently.
Ban-ryu’s friends can also hear her from their private room, though he’s distinctly uninterested. He sends the loudest of them to get more alcohol, reminding him loftily that his father is the lowest-ranked of the four of them. It makes the guy seethe, but he goes to get the drinks.
Moo-myung, meanwhile, has found his way to the merchant Joo-ki, and asks him about Mak Mun’s necklace. Joo-ki thinks it looks familiar, and he wonders to himself whether Moo-myung is ugly, the way he hides his face under his hat.
He’s proven quite wrong when he tells Moo-myung to leave the necklace with him, and Moo-myung tips up his hat to reveal the pretty. Moo-myung says he can’t leave the necklace since it’s not his, and holds it up for Joo-ki to take a close look.
Determined to talk to Ah Ro about her necklace, Mak Mun sneaks in the back way and finds her still in the middle of her story. When he sees the necklace, he’s even more sure that it’s a match to his own. He tries to wave to Ah Ro to get her attention, and accidentally knocks the tray of alcohol out of someone’s hand as he walks past.
It’s the guy sent by haughty Ban-ryu, who demands to see Mak Mun’s identification, since he’s clearly not from around here. Mak Mun tries to push his way out, but his antagonist escalates the fight.
Ah Ro reaches the naughty part of her story (and HA, her heroine is named Na-jung), entertaining both her female and unseen male audiences. In the main room, Mak Mun gets beaten to a pulp, and Su-ho runs out, annoyed at the disturbance.
Both groups come out — Ban-ryu’s and Su-ho’s — and tempers flare, and everyone rushes out to see the impending fight. Ah Ro loses her audience, and a door opens behind her. Sammaekjong walks in and the candles go out, and Ah Ro turns to see him standing very close. She slams her eyes shut and asks nervously who he is, then clutches herself as if she’s afraid he’s going to attack her.
Sammaekjong sighs that it’s only been four days, and tells Ah Ro to open her eyes. She asks why, and he says, “Because it’s dark. And no one is here. And I like you.” Well, hello then.
Then he reaches out to grab her waist and pull her closer. Ah Ro’s eyes fly open, and he asks what happens next. According to her story, this is the point where the hero rips open the heroine’s bodice.
In the main room, Mak Mun is on the ground, his attacker’s foot on his head. The guy crows that it’s not a crime to beat up peasants without passes, “So it’s okay to kill him, right?”
He pulls out his sword to strike, just as something flies through the air and whacks him in the face — it’s Moo-myung’s die, and the crowd parts to allow Moo-myung to make his timely heroic entrance.
He looks mysterious with his face still half-hidden by his hat, and he intones that he thinks life is all about luck. As he raises his hat to show his face, he adds, “But today, you are not lucky.”
The instigator angrily asks who he is, but Moo-myung says he doesn’t need to know and asks Mak Mun if he’s okay. Mak Mun says he is, and Moo-myung replies, “But I’m not okay.”
The attacker swings his sword, while Moo-myung sidesteps and quickly disarms him. Su-ho voices his admiration, and even Ban-ryu looks a little impressed at Moo-myung’s skill.
Moo-myung uses the sword to carve a circle in the floor around himself. He says that if killing low-borns who sneak into the city is his law, then Moo-myung’s law is to beat up any aristocrats who cross this line. He invites him to step across: “I will fight you.”
I’m just going to go ahead and admit, right here at the beginning, that I’m going into this drama incredibly biased to like it. Between my loves for Park Seo-joon and Go Ara, and my extreme fondness for the entire Flower Boy franchise, I had high hopes and high expectations of Hwarang to be at least fun and entertaining. So, I’m happy to report that the first episode didn’t let me down, and I can’t wait to see more.
A lot happened in this premiere, as it set up the backdrop of a shaky kingdom in need of protection for its young, inexperienced king. I felt that was accomplished well, with the gravitas of a sageuk giving the show some weight and heft, without sacrificing the sense of rollicking fun we’ve come to expect from this series. I found the two sides to be well-balanced, without too much of either taking over. And much like the other dramas in the Flower Boy series, Hwarang brings its own unique flavor to the table, and so far I find it to be adventurous and exciting.
One thing the show seems to have done very right so far is the casting — everyone seems well-suited to their roles. I’m already invested in the characters and their struggles, and look forward to learning more about them and watching them as they come together to form the Hwarang. I particularly love how Go Ara seems to have thrown herself fully into the role of Ah Ro, imbuing her with an aura of spunk that gives an edge to the typical Candy characterization and thus making her much more interesting. She doesn’t strike me as your everyday damsel in distress — this is a girl who will handle her own problems, thankyouverymuch, though she’s not above appreciating a handsome face when she sees one.
The men are also intriguing, and I love that they each seem to have their own mystery — Sammaekjong’s true identity, Moo-myung’s parentage, who Ban-ryu and Su-ho are exactly, and why they hate each other so much. Even Mak Mun’s search for his family fascinates me, and I wonder if the kind doctor we caught a glimpse of might be his lost father, especially since Ah Ro seemed pretty comfortable at his place. At this point I’m assuming that Ah Ro is Mak Mun’s sister and the doctor is his father, given that this series usually doesn’t offer too much in the way of serious plot twists — it generally tends to give the audience all the information up front, and the fun is in the character’s journey to discover their own truths. But I’m worried, given that Lee Kwang-soo’s appearance is only a cameo… is something going to happen to him, leaving Moo-myung to solve his friend’s mystery alone?
We didn’t get to see much of Moo-myung and Ah Ro together in this first episode, but I thought their meet-cute was adorably hilarious, and that they had some pretty good chemistry despite the short scene. The problem — if you can even call it a problem — is that I felt that same crackling chemistry between Ah Ro and the prince there at the end. It makes for a much more interesting love triangle if there are sparks with both contenders, and in that sense I think we’re in for some great conflict as Ah Ro tries to decide between her two suitors. Given that both men are flat-out gorgeous and heroically swoony, I’m not sure I envy Ah Ro her choice between the broody prince and the mysterious stranger.
So far, the show gets an optimistic thumbs-up from me. I love the characters, and I’m fascinated by the prevalent class ranking system, and how it informs everyone’s attitudes and actions. I’m guessing this will turn out to be a huge factor once the boys are recruited into the Hwarang, where they’ll be expected to work together despite being from vastly different castes. I’m almost looking forward to the conflict as much as the eventual dropping of prejudice as boys can form a cohesive fighting cadre, because I have a feeling that the conflict among the budding Hwarang is where we’re going to find all the fun.