And now it’s time for Episode 2 of Moon Lovers, which I know aired yesterday, and there’s a whole third episode sitting here waiting for me to get to it. I’m recapping like the wind, I swear! A really slow, tired wind with joint problems.
The second episode was a lot more action-packed than the first, since we could move past most of the introductions (even though I’m still working to keep all the princes and bloodline loyalties straight in my goldfish-memory brain). I do wonder if there was a better way, conceptually, to start this series in a way that could still introduce everyone properly and have more plot happen off the bat. I think there probably are other approaches, but barring a whole rehaul of format and gazillions of flashbacks and other devices, I think it’s just inevitable that it would take a little while to settle in. So let’s start settling.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Hae Su (or to be more accurate, 21st-century Ha-jin, who’s decided to live as Hae Su) is rescued from a fall off a ridge by Wang So, the fourth imperial prince of Goryeo, as he charges by on horseback. Well, I suppose it was his fault she almost fell, so it’s the least he could do.
Su stares up at So with wide eyes, clinging tightly as he continues riding for a bit before halting the horse. She’s transfixed, looking intently into his face, and he glances back at her… before dumping her onto the ground in a heap. Heh.
Glaring, she stops him to chastise him for his rudeness. He’s taken aback at her forthrightness, but responds by purposely rearing his horse up on its hind legs to scare her. She falls down and he rides on with a smirk, leaving her fuming in his wake.
Su exclaims the she ought to report him to the police, but a bystander lets her know that he was the notorious fourth prince—it’s a lucky thing she survived the encounter.
Su’s maid Chae-ryung comes running up to tell her that Princess Yeonhwa is looking for her.
Currently, the princess is with her brothers, or at least the six of them that get along; So is absent. The meeting is for the princes to prepare for the upcoming ceremony, held on the last day of the year to chase out evil spirits from the palace. The others take this opportunity to complain about how difficult it is to get along with So, who’s moody and scary.
Which is, of course, the moment So chooses to step inside, and the princes snap to attention, tensing with worry. The only one who looks happy to see So is Princess Yeonhwa, who (historical spoiler alert!) is both his half-sister and future wife. She lives here with eighth prince Wook (her full brother), and invites So to stay in this house while he’s in the city, which Wook agrees with.
But shifty-looking third prince Yo interjects, telling Wook not to try too hard with So: “He’s understands the language of beasts better than people.”
The others stiffen at the barb, but So just replies, “Ah, that’s why I understand my hyungnim’s [Yo’s] words so well.” Nice burn.
The maids enter with snacks, which is also Su’s cue to join the gathering, although she does her best to hang back out of sight. Her skulking behind a pillar gets the attention of tenth prince Eun, who gets in her face and tries to place why she’s so familiar, while she goes cross-eyed and prays that he won’t figure it out.
Eun makes the connection, though, and asks if she was the peeping tom at the baths. Su blurts a denial, and accidentally knocks down a maid carrying a tray, sending plateware crashing to the ground.
Faced with the princess’s anger and a roomful of staring princes, Su runs out in mortification.
Thirteenth prince Baek-ah comments that Su has changed; she used to be quite modest and careful. Wook merely replies that he was never that close with her and wouldn’t know. (Or so you say—I’ve got my eye on you.) Princess Yeonhwa supposes that Eun was mistaken, since it would have been impossible for Su to get entry to their royal bath.
Su calms her racing heart and tells herself to hang in there, then spots Eun stepping outside—he’s still convinced he recognizes her correctly and goes searching for her.
Su initially ducks for cover, but then sees Eun stopping to peer through a tear in the door. He doesn’t find Su there, but he sure doesn’t stop watching the maid undress.
Then maid girl Chae-ryung sees him and screams, sending Eun running, only to be blocked by a stern-faced Su. Eun insists, rather unconvincingly, that he’s innocent of the slave’s accusation, and Chae-ryung can’t be absolutely sure it was him.
But Su retorts that she saw it clearly, and scolds the prince like an ajumma schooling an errant schoolboy. She orders him to apologize, which Eun can’t even fathom doing—a prince, bowing to a slave?
He storms off, and Su chases him to insist he apologize, grabbing at his cloak. He shoves her off, and when she crashes to the ground, that just pisses Su off more. She trips Eun, then engages in a full-on hair-grabbing tussle.
The sounds of their yelping reach the other princes indoors, and they get up to take a look. All but So, who remains disinterested.
By the time the princes get outside, the fight has progressed to headlocks (his) and biting (hers). Eun knocks her down, she kicks him over, and then she climbs on top of him and smacks him repeatedly. Eun warns that she won’t escape unscathed, but Su is caught up in her fury, calling him a sexual harasser.
He mocks her openly, and then Su delivers the final blow: a mighty head-butt that stuns everyone watching. She rolls up her sleeve and pulls back to deliver a doozy of a slap—only this time, a hand grabs her wrist.
It’s So, who seems amused while she gapes in surprise. Eun tries to charge at Su, but Wook intervenes, warning him that there are many eyes watching. Eun flounces off in a pet.
Su finally wrenches her hand free of So’s grasp, then follows him to have more words. She demands an apology from him, too, for his rudeness. He asks who she is to demand that—what is her social status, that she could treat royalty so roughly?
It’s not an argument she finds persuasive: “So if I’m a slave you’d ignore me, but apologize if I were a princess?” She declares that she’ll get her apology from him, and also “that little kid prince” too.
So nods along, as though conceding—but then he leans way down to look her eye to eye, warning that after he apologizes to her, “You’ll have to die. And you’ll be okay with that?”
He starts to say the words, “I’m sor¬—” but Su exclaims, “Unni!” and uses the arrival of her cousin, Lady Hae, to cut him off.
She then accompanies Lady Hae to the temple for prayer, and Lady Hae tells her that no matter the reason, she laid a hand on an imperial prince—she won’t be able to escape punishment. It’s even possible that Wook will face punishment considering she’s in his care.
Lady Hae wonders how Su could have changed so much, and explains that this is where mothers come to pray for their children. She doesn’t have children, but indicates her tower of prayer stones and explains that these are on behalf of Su.
Lady Hae explains having decided to look after Su, who’d lost her own mother, as a mother would. But on a day like this, she fears her efforts and affection have been insufficient, and feels ashamed thinking that Su’s mother is watching.
At that, Su starts to cry, thinking of her own mother. Lady Hae envelops her in a hug, and asks tearfully what she is to do with her. She tells Su to get along well here, if only for her mother’s sake, and that makes Su cry harder.
Su sits outside the temple for a long while, thinking of how she’s causing trouble for people who take care of her. She wonders if there’s a way to go back and asks Chae-ryung after that man she’d seen earlier (Astronomer Choi)—she recognized his face as the homeless man on the pier, the only link to her time.
Su considers the bathing springs, but Chae-ryung shudders at the thought, warning her against returning to the site where she almost died.
Astronomer Choi examines Eun’s black eye while ninth prince Won and thirteenth prince Baek-ah snicker in amusement. Eun fumes over the audacity of the girl who’d dare raise a hand to royalty, but Won teases him about his “fateful meeting.”
Baek-ah fans the flames, saying that a woman wouldn’t bother raising a hand to him if she were uninterested. Clueless Eun actually seems to believe that, and asks follow-up questions while his brothers try not to laugh.
They clam up when So enters the building, and watch curiously as he makes his way to a room, shoving aside a court lady to force his way in. So wears a smile of anticipation on his face as he enters the room…
But it fades when he sees that his mother, Queen Sinmyeongsunseong, is sitting with his two full brothers, third prince Yo and fourteenth prince Jung. Ouch, that’s got to hurt, considering that she treats him with indifference at best.
So joins them anyway, and his mother consciously refuses to look at him. Younger brother Jung fills the silence by talking about So’s recent improvements in martial arts. At that, the queen asks if he’s really been learning martial arts, and So replies that he hasn’t. The queen supposes that his adoptive family in Shinju would have no reason to do that.
Yo chimes in with the rumor of a dog-wolf appearing in the city, clearly aimed at So. So just replies levelly, “He’s said to be from Shinju, isn’t he?”
The queen calls the visit to a close, and So can barely mask his disappointment, saying that it’s been two years since they’ve seen each other. The queen merely says it’s out of consideration for his adoptive mother, but So replies that he intends to stay longer this time, and asks to stay with his brothers at the family’s private residence.
It’s almost painful to watch So alternate between hope and disappointment, continuing to try for his mother’s affection despite the constant rejections. The queen balks at his suggestion, declaring So a member of the Shinju Kang clan; his return to his birth family would cause strife between the two clans.
So chokes back his bitterness, saying, “They said I was sent as an adopted son, but hostage was right.”
Yo mocks his use of “hostage,” as though So is being overly dramatic, and the queen asks, “How could I use you as hostage?” So replies, “When you say that, I must believe you.” Then he reaches into his cloak to give his mother a present.
But Jung beats him to the punch, presenting her with a lovely hairpin that she fawns over. Stunned and hurt, So keeps the hairpin he’d brought her tucked in his cloak.
He excuses himself to leave, and Yo throws a parting shot at his back, remarking that it’s quite an embarrassment to see a prince so pathetic. So doesn’t react as he exits, not even when he finds his other half-brothers eavesdropping in the hallway.
After his departure, the queen tells her other two sons to make sure So is sent back after the ceremony, calling soldiers if necessary.
Then Jung shares an interesting rumor he’s heard, that the queen herself was the cause of So’s disfigurement. He says it like it’s unbelievable, but Yo rebukes Jung sharply for repeating groundless rumors.
On his way out, So is stopped by Astronomer Choi, who suggests he bathe before the rites and has a servant escort him away.
That night, Su makes her way alone to the bathing pools in search of a link to that man she’d seen. She supposes seeing him could have even been a divine sign, and hopes that means there’s a way for her to return home. With her prince-hitting punishment hanging over her head, she’s motivated to leave Goryeo as soon as possible.
Once in the bathing pool, So removes his mask (oh thank god, I’ve been dying for that thing to come off), and we see the multitude of scars all over his back and torso. He stares into the still water… and then rears back when Su bursts out of the pool.
She comes up gasping, and as she locks eyes with So, they both freeze. After a beat, he claps a hand over his scarred eye, looking ashamed.
“Did you see?” he asks hesitantly. Su just stares in shock, speechless, and So grabs her throat and bellows, “I asked if you saw!”
She begs for mercy, and when he orders her to forget him, she nods jerkily. So grabs his mask and clothes and leaves the pool—and misses seeing that the hairpin he bought for his mother falls to the ground.
Su spots it and takes it with her, then takes the long walk back home. By the time she arrives, the whole household is outside waiting for her, which stuns her.
Lady Hae chides her for leaving without a word, leaving the whole family to worry. The word “family” sticks with Su, and she realizes, “I’ve… come home.”
Later, Su asks her maid Chae-ryung about the fourth prince, and Chae-ryung freaks out just at the mention of him, urging Su to avoid him at all costs if she were to run into him—his cruelty is famous.
Chae-ryung describes his background as we see an exhausted, bloody So making his way down rocky terrain, to the men who wait down below. They’re his adoptive family members from the Kang clan, and the leader seems both awed and disappointed that So didn’t die—they forced him to battle wolves for sport, and he’d supposedly killed all the wolves in Shinju.
Chae-ryung adds that So is said to kill people, too—especially those who see the scar on his face. Alarmed, Su realizes that she really did just escape death. She’s also surprised to be told that So’s royal status is what enables him to travel freely, because people here can’t stand to look upon people with disfigured faces. Su grumbles to herself that the tendency to give the upper classes preferential treatment hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
So’s mother, Queen Sinmyeongsunseong, bathes alone and thinks back to a recent conversation she’d had with her eldest son, Yo. They’ve been biding their time for a while, and they feel the need to speed things up because of the recent rumors that the king may abdicate the throne to Crown Prince Mu. The queen says that the upcoming ceremony is their best chance at eliminating Mu, and Yo assures her not to worry.
On the day of the ceremony to chase out evil spirits, the palace bustles with preparations. Queen Sinmyeongsunseong is elaborately dressed and adorned, and comments that she will shine the brightest in the palace today.
She encounters another royal consort in the courtryard, Queen Sinjeong, mother to Wook and Princess Yeonhwa. (Queen Sinmyeongsunseong is the third consort, while Queen Sinjeong is the fourth.) With her and the princess is daughter-in-law Lady Hae.
The queens exchange pleasantries, and Queen Sinmyeongsunseong invites the princess to visit her for a chat sometime. They maintain smiles until Queen Sinmyeongsunseong moves on, at which point Princess Yeonhwa’s face darkens.
The princess dislikes the idea of her mother having to deal with Queen Sinmyeongsunseong all alone in the palace, and wishes her brother Wook would bring his mother into the private residence. At that, Lady Hae cautions her to watch her words in the palace.
Queen Sinjeong agrees, and advises her daughter “to forget it all.” The princess asks bitterly, “How can I forget that grudge?”
Queen Sinjeong wonders why Su wasn’t brought along with her, and Lady Hae replies that Su has been making many mistakes in the wake of her accident, and she thought it best to leave her behind.
The princes do one last run-through of their sword-dance, and Crown Prince Mu beams in approval. Tenth prince Eun asks Wook if Su will be here today (now that the idea is planted that she likes him), and that question gets him roundly teased by his brothers, who joke about him getting another black eye to match his first. It brings a smile to everyone’s face, even So’s—although the second he sees Wook noticing, the smile fades.
Meanwhile, shifty-looking Yo looks over at a line of black-clad men arriving for their part in the ritual, wearing demon masks.
But Crown Prince Mu is working his counterplay, and secretly exchanges costumes with So.
Meanwhile, Su and Chae-ryung head out into the city to enjoy the festivities there, admiring the dancing and lights.
At the palace, So takes the lead position as the ceremony begins, though everybody else believes him to be Mu. In this ritual, he plays the part of the leader in driving out the demons from the palace, with princes providing backup.
The performance is a mix of martial arts and dance, and Queen Sinjeong compliments “Mu” for his skilled showing. (This is not a surprise, since Mu has a military background, though notably, So does not—despite his reputation for savagery, his lack of official fighting training has been noted.)
Then it’s time for the demon-masked men to join the performance, and So takes them on in an impressive choreographed display. Masked Yo joins So as they drive out the demons, reciting an incantation together.
But suddenly, more masked men fly in from above, and immediately the king and Astronomer Choi know that this wasn’t part of the planned ritual. The demons draw their swords to attack So, and Astronomer Choi sounds the call to protect the king.
Soldiers rush the king’s platform to guard him, and by now the princes realize something’s amiss. So—still masked—takes on an army of demons, and Wook is the first to charge into the fray to help. The other princes follow suit, evening the numbers.
At one point Yo exchanges a glance with the demon he’s pretending to fight, then maneuvers their swords and points it at So—to the eye, it would look like an accidental stabbing. The sword slices So’s arm and he goes down, and then a demon swoops in for the kill.
But a masked prince jumps in at the last second and defends So—ah, the real Mu—and the demons sense defeat and scatter. Yo orders the soldiers to catch the assassins, and the king hurries to check on his son. The mask comes off, and he’s stunned to see So’s face instead of Mu’s.
Immediately, the king demands to know where Mu is, and ouch, there’s such a look of hurt on So’s face as he registers his father’s priorities, and how he doesn’t figure in them. Mu reveals himself, the king relaxes, and the queen realizes her plot was foiled.
So says he will catch the culprits and runs off alone. Mu grabs his sword to follow, but his father stops him.
So heads into the city streets, spotting the assassins traveling on rooftops, and chases. The pursuit leads him through the city streets, and at one point Su spots him while taking a break from sight-seeing.
Curiosity compels her to follow, even as the chase takes So into the woods. What. Why are you going into the woods?! Don’t be that idiot!
So catches up with the assassins and engages in a swordfight with one of them. They face off in a fierce clash, while Su wanders into a different area of the woods. There, she happens upon a meeting of the other assassins as they meet with their leader—Prince Yo—and bow before him with heads bowed. And then, at his command, Yo’s guards kill the failed assassins.
Su stares in horror and quietly retreats, but lets out a tiny gasp… and Yo hears it. When he whirls around, however, she’s gone.
Back to So, who demands to know whom the assassin is working for. He offers a deal to spare the assassin’s life in exchange for the name, and the assassin wavers, uncertain.
And just as he starts to lower his sword, Su comes running up, gasping about the scene she just witnessed. Gack!
So obviously, the assassin now grabs Su hostage, and holds his sword to her throat.
But So just tells him to go ahead and kill her, to the assassin’s shock. “Or should I do it?” So asks.
He raises his sword and points it at Su’s face, and as one blade digs into her neck, she begs to be saved. So smirks that one woman means nothing to him and presses the assassin for a name.
Once more the assassin wavers, loosening his grip, and So feels victory in his grasp… but Su sees the blade moving away from her neck and bites the assassin’s hand, shoving him away. I think this is the definition of digging your own grave.
The assassin moves to kill her anyway, and So starts to react, but a dagger flies in and embeds itself in the assassin’s head. It’s Wook, arriving in the nick of time.
Except, it’s not good timing for So, who’s just been robbed of answers. He grabs Su angrily, raging at her for ruining things. His sword presses close to her neck.
But Wook holds his sword to So’s neck and tells him to let her go. In one quick move, So whirls to clash swords with Wook, and replies that he won’t.
This episode was more satisfying than the first, although I found the premiere episode entertaining and adequate for its purposes. (Although maybe “adequate” is part of the problem, when we were promised glorious. I suspect that the undercurrent of disappointment I’m hearing has a lot to do with elevated expectations, that killer of dramaland fun. Perhaps it’s not the only reason, but surely it’s a big one.) We got to see more of the princes we cared about (So), and it was easier to relegate the lesser princes to background territory, offering moments of levity while the primary princes did the dramatic lifting.
I also liked the way the show had Su slowly seeing this world as more of a permanent place to live, even as she’s still searching for a way out. I still find her reaction to being dropped in Goryeo to not quite ring true, but aside from that point, I like the moment she realizes that her actions have consequences for the people here, who have been very nice in looking after her, and that for now, this is the closest thing to family she has. (I don’t think my feeling of disconnect has to do with time constraints—i.e., needing to set up story quickly—because I recall that the heroine in Splish Splash Love got that across in even less time. It’s all about taking some care to establish tone and emotional connection, and I feel like we’re skipping some of that here.)
And don’t get me started on the frustrating foolishness of her wandering into a forest at night alone while men were clearly fighting to the death. At that point I had to throw up my hands and think that if she died, it would be her own damn fault. I appreciate that she has spunk, and doesn’t let social rank cow her into deference, mostly because that means nothing to her. I like that version of Su, who is driven more by what’s right than what’s expected of her. But the end of this episode was an annoyance, and the show had better smarten her up from here on out, y’hear me?!
By contrast, I think the show’s doing a marvelous job with So, or maybe that’s Lee Jun-ki’s work. Probably a combination of the two. It’s partly to do with the way the story is setting up his background and affection-starved life, but also owes much to his diverse range of expressions and microexpressions. The scene with the queen and her two other sons is a prime example of this, because there was so much emotion going on there and I could track every single thread—So longing to see his mother, feeling hope at her reaction and disappointment at her lack of one, being hurt and her continued rejections, and forcing nonchalance to act like none of this affects him.
It also provides a meaty basis for the adult he’s grown into, who can commit savage acts without flinching. I can’t say I love the way he treats our heroine, but I do like that the drama is humanizing him and providing the explanation without necessarily romanticizing his brutishness. At least, I really hope they don’t take it in that direction; so far, I feel hopeful about the portrayal. And his reaction when she caught him in his most vulnerable state was a lovely moment—not lovely that he tried to strangle her, of course, but that we saw him drawing back first, and then lashing out to cover up. It’s pretty telling of his M.O. all around.
I’m not sure I’m feeling all of the princes, and while we have plenty of time for each one to get his own moment in the spotlight, I think it’s a four-man show with four bridesmaids. Which, really, is fine by me, so long as the conflict remains interesting. Yo’s scheming is familiar strife, but I hope we have more than that as a source of conflict; I find Wook the more interesting potential source of clashing. He’s the most civil and friendly, but he’s also the one I’d peg as the smartest and likely to play his cards close to the vest. I wouldn’t take my eye of him… not that I’d want to.