The future of Silla depends upon its king, and Ji-dwi and Sun-woo prepare to face off in a battle for the throne. They both dream of a Silla where the people can live freely while the king watches over them, but the decision isn’t up to them. In the end, it’s the Hwarang who will decide which man is the right king to lead their country into the future.
FINAL EPISODE RECAP
Ji-dwi and Sun-woo face off in the throne room, swords to each other’s throats. Sun-woo growls that he’s killed Ji-dwi many times in his mind for causing the death of his only friend, and that he can’t forgive Ji-dwi for that. Sun-woo continues that he never could kill him, because he hoped Ji-dwi wasn’t really the king.
Ji-dwi throws down his sword, and says that if Sun-woo needs to kill him for this to end, then he tells him to do it. But he asks if it really will solve anything, or if Sun-woo will just keep killing while more take the dead’s places. He says that he wants to change Silla with Sun-woo by his side and end the injustices caused by the bone rank system.
Sun-woo stands shaking, then quickly slashes his sword. But instead of cutting Ji-dwi down, the dragon-head bracelet falls to the ground, sliced in two. Ji-dwi asks if this is the end, and Sun-woo answers that they have different paths. Ji-dwi looks deeply sorrowful as he says that the next time they meet, they will be enemies.
Holding court with his royal council cronies, Minister Park says that he needs to change the king. He clarifies that instead of a king, he will put forward a sacred bone scarecrow in the form of Sun-woo. The councilors worry that the queen regent won’t allow it, so Minister Park decides they need to take away everything from her: money, power, and position. He’s unafraid of people branding it a rebellion, because he frankly doesn’t care what the people think.
Ji-dwi sits up late, contemplating his broken bracelet. He calls Pa Oh and orders him to bring Ah Ro to the palace first thing in the morning.
Minister Park is dismayed when he learns of Ji-dwi’s move to secure Ah Ro, having intended to use her as bait to force Sun-woo to go along with his plans. But it turns out that he didn’t need her, because Hwi-kyung shows up on his doorstep with Sun-woo in tow.
Minister Park looks like the cat that ate the canary as the three sit to talk, and Sun-woo says in a hard voice that they need to change the owner of Silla. He tells Minister Park that he will make it happen using the Hwarang, with Minister Park and the royal council to support him.
Ji-dwi approaches Queen Regent Jiso with a request to formally abdicate the throne to him. She agrees, but only if he marries Sookmyung first, and Ji-dwi asks if it’s that difficult for her to see him become king. The queen regent says that only an objective king can hold power — one willing to take even his friend’s life to protect his throne.
Ji-dwi rejects the idea that a king must kill to remain king. But his mother tells him that the Hwarang believe that Sun-woo deserves to be king, after watching him risk his life in Baekje. That taps right into Ji-dwi’s insecurities, but he says firmly that he will make the Hwarang his, whatever it takes.
Sun-woo goes back to Hwa-gong to remind him of his lesson that no path started as a path. He says that he plans to make his own path and refuses to be a piece on someone else’s chess board, quoting another of Hwa-gong’s lessons.
He asks Hwa-gong for his help, but Hwa-gong balks at the idea of aiding a rebellion. Sun-woo says that he needs his help keeping the Hwarang together, adding that he’s confident that Hwa-gong will help because they want the same things. He leaves a letter with Hwa-gong, saying that it outlines what he intends to do, and goes.
Still acting as Queen Regent Jiso’s bodyguard, Su-ho witnesses her attendant Mo-young adding something to the queen regent’s tea. He watches her closely as she pours a cup, but as the queen regent raises the cup to her lips, he takes it from her.
He tells her that he saw Mo-young putting something in the tea, and that he fears it’s poison. She tells her to hand it over and he pours it out, refusing to allow her to drink something unknown. She pours another cup, and this time he takes it and drinks it himself.
Queen Regent Jiso smiles at his loyalty, and tells Su-ho that it’s not a poison whose effects are seen immediately. He asks if she’s been drinking it knowing it was there, and she says she’s suspected it from the beginning.
She has a coughing fit, and there’s blood in her handkerchief, which alarms Su-ho. He offers to call a doctor, but the queen regent begs him not to, as she’s been having symptoms for a while.
Ji-dwi visits Ah Ro in her palace room, explaining that this is the only way he can keep her next to him. He asks about her arrow wound, but Ah Ro says that she’d heal faster at home.
Ji-dwi seems sorry but says she can’t leave, because she’s here as a hostage to stop Sun-woo from stealing his throne. When Ah Ro says this isn’t like him, Ji-dwi reminds her that he’s his mother’s son. He says coldly that this is her chance to find out who he really is.
Later, he stands outside the Hwarang grounds, preparing to address his former friends. He corrects Sookmyung’s assumption that he’s here to seize the Hwarang, reminding her that they were his to begin with, and says that he needs to take control now before it’s too late.
He seems so different that the Hwarang hardly recognize him, and Yeo-wool notes that he looks cruel now, like his mother. They’re ordered to kneel before their king, and Ji-dwi introduces himself as King Jinheung (and now that he’s officially come out to everyone now, we’ll switch to calling him by his royal name). He says that when he was here, he thought them lazy and weak, spoiled sons of rich families. But now, he states that they will be reborn as strong warriors under the watch of the royal family.
Sun-woo has been conspicuously absent, but he walks out now and calls out to Jinheung. He asks how he’s any different than the Hwarang, saying that he’s also weak and powerless. Jinheung tells him to be respectful, and Sun-woo just barely lowers his head.
King Jinheung announces that in four days, his mother will abdicate, and that he expects the Hwarang to fulfill their obligations as the royal guard. But Sun-woo immediately says that the Hwarang must be free, because only when they can think and act freely will they be able to become a part of Silla’s future.
Jinheung asks if Sun-woo is rebelling against him, and Sun-woo loudly announces that the Hwarang will decide for themselves whether to accept him as their king. He asks if Jinheung has no confidence that they will choose him.
Sun-woo finds Princess Sookmyung waiting for him later, and she tells him that Ah Ro is okay. He says he knows, and apologizes for not being a good man to Sookmyung. She agrees that he hasn’t, and he says that she’s a good woman who should find a man who feels the same about her as she does about him.
Su-ho tells King Jinheung about the queen regent’s poisoned tea, and Jinheung goes straight to his mother’s chambers. He finds Mo-young serving her a cup at that exact moment, and he snatches it and smashes it to the floor. He draws his sword and levels it at Mo-young’s throat, asking, “Is it Park Young-shil?”
He can tell by her frightened gasp that he’s correct, and he calls Pa Oh in and orders him to have Mo-young killed immediately. Her pleas for mercy go unheard, and Pa Oh takes her to her death.
Once they’re alone, King Jinheung drops his sword and falls to his knees in front of his mother. No longer a king, but just a lost little boy, he asks why she drank the tea when she knew it was poisoned. Queen Regent Jiso says that when she found out it was too late, and if she’d refused the tea, they would have just found another method.
Crying now, Jinheung asks why she didn’t just renounce the throne, and she says she tried, but she had something to protect. She tells her son that he needs to be strong in order to fight, and adds that he should not believe in people’s weak hearts. Jinheung breaks down sobbing with his head in his mother’s lap.
King Jinheung gives Hwa-gong his job back in leading and teaching the Hwarang. He addresses them in the lecture hall, saying that he’s heard about their latest difficult task, and adds that he think their decision will create the new shape of Silla. He also says that he believes they are qualified to make that choice.
Hwa-gong says that this could either be considered treason, or their duty. He tells them to make their own choice whether to be a Hwarang who challenges the nation, or continue being a Hwarang unable to decide anything. “Never forget that you are Hwarang. Never forget.”
Jinheung visits Ah Ro again and reminds her of the time she said that she could tell by his eyes that he never gave up on being king. He says that he hopes she was right, and notes that it’s her heart that’s never changed, though his heart is racing.
Ah Ro mentions the queen regent’s abdication later today, and Jinheung asks if she’s worried about him. Ah Ro replies that the throne seems lonely, and that she thinks she’ll sleep less there. Jinheung thanks her, saying that he became stronger because of her.
It’s time for the abdication, and Hwi-kyung stands beside the throne while the royal council wonders why he’s there. The queen regent enters the throne room next, wearing her crown, and seats herself in the smaller chair beside the throne.
Last is King Jinheung, dressed in his formal robes, and he sits on his throne. Meanwhile the Hwarang gather together and, led by Sun-woo, they approach the palace to make their choice.
Minister Kim begins to announce the abdication, but Minister Park’s voice interrupts him with a loud, “Halt!” He steps forward and points at King Jinheung, asking if he thinks that throne belongs to him. He says that the royal council chose to crown another sacred bone as king — Prince Hwi-kyung’s son, Sun-woo.
Right on cue, Sun-woo enters the throne room, followed by the entire Hwarang. They walk up to the throne, and Sun-woo stands glaring at Jinheung. Su-ho joins them, and in a strong voice, Su-ho says, “Today, we Hwarang selected the king for the future. We Hwarang pledge allegiance before His Majesty, who will be honored by his people and make Silla strong.” He drops to a knee, and behind him, the Hwarang all kneel to their king.
Still standing, Sun-woo never takes his eyes off Jinheung as he bellows, “Hwarang, pledge your allegiance for Silla, and the master of Silla with the spirit of Silla!” He draws his sword and raises it high and says, loud and strong, “Your Majesty Jinheung, manse [ten thousand years]!”
The Hwarang all chant after him, “Your Majesty Jinheung, manse!” Hwi-kyung and the queen regent both look surprised, while Minister Park looks confused and befuddled. To his credit, King Jinheung accepts his Hwarang’s tribute with dignity and grace, never betraying how worried he was.
Sun-woo isn’t finished — he suddenly whips his sword to the side, and holds it to Minister Park’s neck. He roars that Minister Park has been plotting treason to kill the king, and says it’s time to accept his punishment. He invites anyone who stands with Minister Park to step forward, but every last councilor bows to their new king.
Knowing he’s been beaten, Minister Park reluctantly lowers his head in respect, and Sun-woo removes his sword. Jinheung steps forward, remembering his plea to Sun-woo to join him in making Silla a better place, and we see the rest of their conversation from that night.
Sun-woo had asked if Jinheung could really make his lofty dreams come true, and Jinheung had said that he has to at least try. Now, Sun-woo tells Jinheung with his eyes that he can change Silla as he always dreamed. The king silently answers that to avoid disappointing Sun-woo, he will take that path to the end. Sun-woo nods, the message heard loud and clear.
Now officially crowned king, Jinheung steps outside and climbs the courtyard steps as his mother looks on proudly. He draws his sword, raises it to the sky, and vows that he, along with his Hwarang, will put the people first to create a powerful and prosperous Silla. The Hwarang roar their approval, and Pa Oh nearly cries with pride.
As Hwa-gong fishes in the Hwarang pond, he thinks back on his conversation with Sun-woo, when he’d asked what type of king he’s thinking of. Sun-woo had said he dreams of a country where the people are happy while the king suffers, where the people don’t worry about the country, but one where the king worries about the people. His words were nearly identical to Jinheung’s, and Hwa-gong chuckles to himself.
After the ceremony, Sun-woo speaks to Hwi-kyung privately to apologize for not telling him his plans sooner. Hwi-kyung says that he respects Sun-woo’s choice, and that he’s proud of him. He adds that his mother would have been proud as well, bringing tears to Sun-woo’s eyes.
King Jinheung thinks back on his time with the Hwarang, the shenanigans and the fights, and how he was always treated like one of the guys. He smiles as he remembers fighting for his people in Baekje, and Sun-woo declaring his loyalty to him as king.
His mother approaches, and says that he really did all this on his own. She says she’s glad it wasn’t too late, and he promises to bear the burden of Silla from now on. His mother asks if he thinks she hated him, and when he doesn’t answer, she smiles ruefully and turns to leave.
Jinheung asks her the same question, if she thinks he hated her. He says that he knows she was protecting both him and Silla, and he vows to protect Silla and his people too, but in his own way. She nods tearfully, finally ready to let her son make his own future.
As Su-ho walks Jiso to her quarters, she collapses, coughing up blood. He calls Ji-gong, who examines her and says she’s on the brink of death. He stands to leave, but she grabs his hand and says she has something to tell him.
Ji-gong wants to leave anyway, but Su-ho stops him. He begs Ji-gong to stay by Jiso’s side, and leaves the room to give them privacy. He sheds a tear, knowing that he’ll never see his queen alive again.
Once they’re alone, Jiso whispers to Ji-gong that she would have rather died at his hands. She asks why he didn’t tell her not to drink the tea, and when he doesn’t answer, she assumes he was worried about her. She gasps that she tried to let him go, but she couldn’t.
Ji-gong says that he tried to hate her, and he even tried to kill her, but he couldn’t. Jiso says that she’s sorry, then her eyes roll back and her hand goes limp. She’s gone.
Ah Ro paces her room through all of this, and finally, Pa Oh comes to see her. He reports that everything went well, and gives her a letter from Jinheung. It reads: “Did you resent me for locking you up here? It was the only choice I could make to protect you from Minister Park. I think I won’t be able to let you go if I see your face, because I think I’ll become greedy again. Go, don’t make him wait too long. Go to him.”
Ah Ro runs to find Sun-woo, and when they see each other, he grabs her in a tight hug. He asks if he was too late, and she shakes her head. He promises never to leave her alone again, and gives her a long, lingering kiss.
Some time later, Ah Ro is back to peddling her stories, this time to Hwa-gong’s assistant, Bu-jae. She attempts to sell him her compilation of the capital’s noblemen, and the money she gets from the sale pays off her debt to Joo-ki. He teases that she’s back in her same place after winning the love of two sacred bones, ha.
The little boy that Joo-ki adopted after his mother was killed in Baekje comes to give Ah Ro a hug, and Joo-ki jealously grabs him and tells Ah Ro to go date if she needs companionship that badly. She whines that she hasn’t seen Sun-woo in a while, even after he promised not to leave her alone, and bellows at Joo-ki in frustration.
Ban-ryu and Soo-yeon have a little clandestine meeting in her home, and Ban-ryu stammers that they shouldn’t keep sneaking around. Soo-yeon worries because Ban-ryu lost his connections when Minister Park was humiliated, so her father opposes Ban-ryu.
But she assures him that he has her love, and pulls him close for a hug — which is, of course, the moment that her father walks into the room. The two lovebirds jump apart, looking guilty as sin, and Ban-ryu actually tests the window for a possible escape route, hee.
Sun-woo reports to King Jinheung that Crown Prince Chang of Baekje is thinking of attacking one of their fortresses. Jinheung complains that they only see each other when there’s a problem these days, and Sun-woo sighs that it will cause issues if another sacred bone spends too much time at the palace.
The king taunts that if he was going to act so cool, he should just go be king then, and Sun-woo jokingly sizes up the throne as if he’s considering the idea. They both laugh, then Jinheung asks if Sun-woo has seen Ah Ro after being gone for six months. Sun-woo’s guilty face says it all.
Ah Ro is sitting outside her house, pouting that she hasn’t even gotten a note from Sun-woo. She barks that he should just end things, but he suddenly pops out of nowhere to grab her in a back hug. Still annoyed, Ah Ro pretends she doesn’t know who he is, but he completely disarms her when he caresses her face and says she’s beautiful.
Without preamble, Sun-woo asks Ah Ro, “Let’s get married.” He says this isn’t working for him because he misses her so much, and her big smile is all the answer he needs. He gives her a teeny kiss, then a long hug, saying again that he’s missed her.
King Jinheung and his loyal Hwarang ride off into their future, a better future for all of Silla.
Surprisingly, I actually really liked the way the show wrapped up its story, particularly the way Sun-woo managed to outwit Minister Park and his nefarious schemes to take over the throne. It was genius to use Minister Park’s plan to flip things on their ear, letting him think he was in charge, because it kept Minister Park out of Sun-woo’s way while he did what he needed to do. It was entirely in keeping with Sun-woo’s established intelligence and character, to keep his cards close to the vest and use his opponents’ overconfidence against them, and I cheered out loud when Sun-woo declared himself and the entire Hwarang to be King Jinheung’s men. Well done, Show, you ended on a high note.
That said, I can’t let everything the show did terribly wrong slip by unnoticed, and the list is a long one. Part of the reason I’m so disappointed is because of episodes like the finale (and Episode 15, which I felt was the best overall), which proved that Hwarang had the ability to tell a compelling, gripping story and use its actors and settings to maximum effect. But it’s this knowledge that makes the bulk of the rest of the drama so lackluster, because when you know you can do better, why let so much time and story slip by and become forgettable?
Sadly, Hwarang was a show that allowed most of its story — the part we actually wanted to see — to happen off-screen, most notably the Hwarang training, and the boys learning to be friends and be loyal to one another rather than towing their parents’ party lines. There were so many stories partially told and then dropped, such as what happened to Dan-se after Han-sung died and how he was suddenly a Hwarang instead of a Nando, and why Han-sung had to die in the first place. Or Yeo-wool’s fascinating backstory, which was just never touched on ever again. Where did Su-ho go after the queen regent died? And then there’s Sun-woo’s illness, since we never knew where it came from and why it only happened in certain circumstances. It’s like the writer had all these great ideas, but had no idea how to tell them, so they just… didn’t. We got great setup, and no follow-through.
And don’t even get me started on the many, many plot holes that were too numerous to be accidental oversights. There were so many of them that it just came across as lazy storytelling, which, in my opinion, is inexcusable in a pre-produced drama. Why did Minister Park have no reaction whatsoever to his vast stores of medicinal herbs being stolen? I don’t even mean a half-hearted reaction — we got nothing, when the man should have been furious that his plans for great wealth were thwarted. And how did Jinheung know that Minister Park had his dragon bracelet? Why did Minister Park and Hwi-kyung get away scot-free with plotting treason? Why did everyone just forget that Sun-woo and Ah Ro were supposed to be brother and sister? We can assume that the rumors of Sun-woo’s true birth made it clear they weren’t related, but as I said before, it’s better if the show tells us clearly rather than make us create conversations that never happened to explain events in the story.
Speaking of Ah Ro, I wish we’d gotten more of the spunky self-sufficient girl we were promised, but instead she served as little more than a very pretty prop to move the boys around, and seemed to be useful for no other reason than to make Sun-woo and Jinheung dislike each other. As if they needed yet another reason. She didn’t even do anything in the final episode other than sit in a room, yet again nothing more than a prop being used to control one or the other. Such a waste of a character, and I’m not even getting into how flat and uninteresting her love line with Sun-woo was. The only reason I wanted them to get together is because Sun-woo wanted it so much, but not because I felt any great need to see them together.
Of course, the untold story I’ll miss the most is the bromance-that-wasn’t, collectively among the entire Hwarang, but specifically between Sun-woo and Jinheung. The show proved that it can do epic bromances, as we saw with Sun-woo and Mak Mun, which really set my expectations high for what was to come between the immature king and the wayward low-born boy. We even got one episode of them kind of being friends, and then it just stagnated and never went anywhere, and before we knew it, they were sniping at each other again with no explanation as to why. It’s tragic, because I know I would have felt Sun-woo’s seeming betrayal of Jinheung in the final episode much more keenly if he and Jinheung were fighting a deep love for each other to argue over who was the best man to lead Silla into the future. But again, the plot felt flat because there just wasn’t much personal emotion behind the characters’ actions. It was all political.
Still, I feel that the actors did their best with what they were given, and the show was certainly beautiful to look at (though Sun-woo’s hair length always bothered me — did they think we wouldn’t notice that putting a headband on made it grow six inches, and taking it off shortened his hair by six inches?). It’s just that by the end, it felt like little more than something pretty to look at. Though, if you can watch it without thinking too hard, it’s actually a pretty entertaining drama. It’s just that it gave us too much filler and not enough meat, which leaves me still feeling hungry even after twenty episodes. But to end things on a high note, I do feel that we saw some pretty great performances in Hwarang, particularly from the male actors, and I wish them much luck and good, strong scripts in their future.