The story heats up and there’s a lot more of everything in Episode 3—more blood, more intrigue, more confused feelings, and more all-around action. The intensity gets dialed up a notch, too, with tension built into many of the interactions today. And while I still find my interest mostly in the main three characters, I’m ready now to enjoy branching off with the lesser princes and side relationships too. I know the bromance is fanservice, but isn’t the definition of fanservice that I don’t care about that?
EPISODE 3 RECAP
Following the assassination attempt at the palace and the chase through the forest, fourth prince Wang So faces off against his half-brother (and eighth prince) Wook, holding Hae Su in a threatening grip—she caused him to miss out on vital information about the assassins, and he’s furious.
Wook keeps his cool and says that Su has nothing to do with this matter. She asks So to believe that she merely lost her way, but he says darkly that he has no reason to, since he doesn’t know her.
Wook slowly drops his sword to the ground, and reasons that they can find proof of Su’s guilt once the soldiers arrive. Until they do, Wook asks So to let her go.
So grudgingly lowers his sword and shoves Su aside, and she hurries to Wook’s side. Wook asks in concern whether she’s okay.
Su stammers that people were killed nearby, and that they were dressed like the dead assassin, wearing similar demon costumes. The princes exchange alarmed looks.
At the palace, Crown Prince Mu is feeling regret, thinking that he shouldn’t have had So take his place in the ceremony. Astronomer Choi tells him that So took this opportunity for himself, so it’s not something Mu should feel guilty about. But Mu replies that using his younger brother’s desperation for his own benefit is a sin. Aw, I like you. You seem nice.
In the forest, So and Wook lead soldiers to the spot where Su saw the assassins die—only, now the area’s empty. So asks suspiciously how dead bodies could have disappeared and demands answers of Su that she doesn’t have, such as who the culprit was. At least Wook finds clues in the surroundings—blood spatters and sword cuts—and he deduces that the same person who mobilized the assassins also killed them.
Now So turns his frustration on Wook for killing their last witness, although Wook holds firm and says he couldn’t let harm come to Su. He suggests taking care of So’s injured arm, but So flings off his hand, shoots a dark glance at Su, and stalks off.
Su slumps to the ground, sapped of energy, and then starts to cry. Wook looks increasingly uncomfortable at her tears, while she sobs that So is always threatening to kill her when all she wanted to do was return what he dropped (the hairpin he’d bought his mother).
Wook offers a meager pat on the shoulder, but Su hilariously yanks him down by the cloak, worrying what will happen to her. Wook finds her cute in that moment and holds her closer, soothingly.
The scheming Queen Sinmyeongsunseong fumes in her bath, thinking of her failed plot to get rid of Crown Prince Mu. She blames So for ruining everything, and tells her son, third prince Yo, that he was supposed to be named crown prince today.
Yo informs his mother that he took care of the loose ends, and that none of the conspirators are alive. The queen says that at least King Taejo won’t be attempting any abdications for the near future; she’ll find some satisfaction in that.
Yo suspects that Astronomer Choi has a hand in this, and possibly has a hidden connection to So. The queen realizes So was indeed learning martial arts, but is puzzled as to how—it’s not something his adopted family, the Kang clan, would have enabled.
The queen declares that they must find out who So has been meeting, and thinks that if Astronomer Choi is involved, so might be the king. Yo says that their spy in Shinju has reported that nobody ever came to see So.
The queen advises Yo to be even more vigilant, so that they can uncover So’s motivations—then they’ll be able to get rid of him, or make him loyal to their side. “Do not forget,” she tells Yo. “Goryeo must belong to my son.” (But So is your son too…)
Back at Wook’s home, So regards the gash in his arm, and flinches when Princess Yeonhwa starts to tend to it, despite his initial protest. She asks when he’ll leave Shinju and come live in the capital like the other princes. Despite the fact that this is exactly what he’s fighting to do at the moment, So replies that he’s not like the others, and that he’s comfortable living his life fighting mountain animals.
Princess Yeonhwa smiles, saying that he’s gotten better at hiding his true feelings. She’s got him there.
Then she leans closer to wipe his face gently, and he tenses. There’s definitely something here, and I get the sense that the interest is greater on her end, though he doesn’t exactly refuse it. (Meanwhile, I have to tell myself, Historical accuracy, blah blah blah, since she’s his half-sister and all. Also the mother of his children! Maybe I’ll pretend there’s a convenient birth secret involved that history never knew about.)
So abruptly stands up, calling an end to their momentary closeness. But he does tell her, “I did wonder what kind of woman you grew up to be.”
Su’s neck cut from the assassin’s sword has Lady Hae newly worried, and she asks why Su went into the forest in the first place. Wook surreptitiously shakes his head at Su, so she just says she lost her way. Wook says that the assassin had been out for Crown Prince Mu’s life, so they should just be glad that Su is safe, and Su agrees wholeheartedly, declaring herself exceedingly lucky. She goes so cutely overboard that Wook can’t hide a smile.
After sending Su off to rest, Lady Hae thanks her husband for his help, apologizing for always adding to his burdens. Wook assures his wife that he’s never thought of Su as a burden, even adding that he finds her delightful.
That wording takes her aback, but he explains that theirs is a serious, heavy household, and people are always telling him of their troubles. “But Su is not like that,” he says. “She struggles to do everything on her own strength, and I find that appearance delightful. I feel like I can breathe. And it makes me look forward to seeing her.”
He seems so pleased that Lady Hae is startled, but all she can do is force a smile and say that she’s thankful that he cares for Su.
On her way back to her room, Su freezes to see So sitting out in the courtyard, then tries to hurry past him. He orders her to stop, then shoots one look at the maid to get her to leave them alone.
Su starts to blabber nervously, insisting that she didn’t see anything else in the woods, and that she already told him everything. So advances on her slowly, grabbing her face and ordering her to remember more.
Wook steps in shoves So’s hand away from Su with difficulty, but as Su falls back, she remembers one more detail: The assassins’ leader was wearing fur.
Instantly, So recalls that Yo had worn fur during the ritual ceremony, and it looks like Wook comes to the same conclusion. So orders her to erase what she saw in the woods, and Wook concurs, for her own safety.
Su excuses herself with a surly look at So, but he stops her departure to warns her not to show herself before him again.
At that, Su faces him and asks, “What did I do wrong?” With growing indignation, she points out that he’s the one who threatened to kill her: “Am I supposed to just do nothing? I should do whatever I can to live, and you’re telling me to die like a dog?”
She calls after him, “Is it a crime to want to live?” So clenches his jaw, but leaves without a word. Su watches him go, then blurts, “That jerk!” Ha.
Wook sees Su to her room and advises her to sleep with the candles lit, in case her ordeal gives her nightmares. She asks after his condition, since he killed someone because of her; she worries that he might suffer post-traumatic stress or nightmares.
Wook is surprised that she’d ask, and tells her that it wouldn’t do for him to struggle after every time this happened. She gapes, asking if he’s killed before, then cuts herself off at hearing the tactless question. He answers anyway, explaining that he was eleven when he first took a life, protecting his mother and sister.
“But I didn’t have nightmares,” he says. “I protected my family with my own hands, which made me happy. I was proud.” Tellingly, he almost struggles to say the words, even as he adds that a prince ought to be able to handle that much.
“But you keep remembering,” Su says. “You can’t forget, so how can the heart be easy? It’s obvious you’re suppressing it.”
He calls that a weight he must endure. Brightening, Su tells him she won’t be clingy, so he needn’t worry—she won’t add to his burden, so he can live a little more lightly. She says cheerfully, “So you don’t have to worry about me! I can take care of myself.”
He laughs that in place of her lost memory, she’s found blustery overconfidence. Wook also tries to sound out the strange word she’d used, asking what “stress” is. Heh, another word slip.
King Taejo discusses the attempted assassination with So, Crown Prince Mu, and his astronomer. The bold act suggests a mighty power, and their next step is to find clues that may lead them to the culprit.
The king asks So after his injury, and it’s rather heartbreaking to see how startled So is at the small show of concern. He replies that it was not serious, and he tended to it.
The king asks why So would take Mu’s place in the ceremony, risking his own life. So answers that fifteen years ago, Mu saved his life—so now, he intends to stay in the city while ferreting out the perpetrator.
The king gives his approval, and instructs Astronomer Choi to inform the Shinju family that So’s return will be delayed. It takes a lot for So to tamp down his happy reaction, but it’s there, just a flicker of it. Yay!
The princes gather again, and talk turns to So’s unexpected martial arts skills. Third prince Yo scoffs that he must have picked it up from battling wild animals, but fourteenth prince Jung thinks that his level of skill indicates proper teaching. Yo counters that So’s adoptive family would never have allowed it when they’re essentially holding him hostage—he’s important politically as a prince, but they’d hardly encourage empowering him when they’d rather have him under their thumb.
Wook asks Yo if he chased any of the culprits last night, watching carefully as Yo replies that he did, but took the wrong path. Both princes are careful with their words as Wook searches for any slips and Yo makes sure he doesn’t make any.
The king happens by and stops to greet his sons, but frowns to see the bruise on tenth prince Eun’s face. When Eun nervously mentions a fight, the king is outraged—who would dare lay a hand on royalty?
The next thing we know, Su is pacing anxiously at home, awaiting the king’s punishment. She alternates between imagining the worst, like getting her limbs cut off, and assuring herself that nothing bad will happen.
Eun comes galloping in, chipper as can be, and announces that his father took one look at his face and ordered the offender flogged. Su narrows her eyes, supposing he left out all mention of his own wrongdoing, and he retorts that he’s not so small-minded as that. He explains how he finagled forgiveness out of the king—by asking how if a girl who hit a prince were to be punished, what happens to the prince who got hit by a girl?
I suppose it’s an effective argument in such patriarchal times, and Eun puffs up in pride at coming up with a solution. Su can only manage a sarcastic thanks and turns to leave.
Eun stops her, intent on saying something else, only to mumble and fidget, suddenly shy. Su registers his nervous posture and stalling and wonders, “Could it be… that he’s fallen for me? You’re the first woman to treat me like this, that sort of thing?”
Eun finally starts to speak, and says exactly those lines: “You’re the first woman to treat me like that.” Su marvels at the longevity of that pick-up line, HA.
Eun adds that it was the first time he was able to fight freely, since everyone always just let him hit them—it was never a proper fight. “It was fun,” he declares. Su wryly tells him to come by when he wants to fight, and he asks excitedly if that means he can visit whenever he wants. She retorts that it’s the least she can do, and he calls after her, “Today’s our first day!” Ha, some things never change.
In the city, thirteenth prince Baek-ah draws scenes of the city from a tavern, then hears a commotion as people run to watch a fight. Not one to miss out, he heads over to get a look.
Baek-ah stands at the edge of the crowd drawing while two men fight, and the younger fighter whirls and kicks with skill, knocking out his older opponent. Aha, it’s Prince Jung, and he roars in victory… just as the two brothers lock eyes.
Jung’s not supposed to be out of the palace in street garb (or fighting, at that) and pesters Baek-ah to let this go, making ineffectual grabs for the sketchbook containing pictures of his fight. He tries bargaining first, and then switches to threats of exposing Baek-ah too.
Baek-ah argues that his trip is approved, then kicks Jung away. Jung fakes grave pain to draw his brother closer, then runs off floating with Baek-ah’s sketchbook.
Baek-ah pays a visit to Lady Hae, and they reminisce on the good old days, having been quite close. Baek-ah says he blames Wook for not giving his wife more of his heart, while Lady Hae chides him for his familiar address (he uses a term meaning noona). He counters that he knew her as noona before she became his sister-in-law.
Baek-ah sees Su across the yard, where she’s practicing her best sageuk speech. Okay, that’s cute. They laugh, and Baek-ah notes how completely Su has changed.
Lady Hae agrees, though she’s pleased with how much more thoughtful Su is lately. Baek-ah balks when Lady Hae says he and Su are similar, but she explains that they’re both free at heart, say unexpected things, like fun things, and hate to lose.
She adds that Baek-ah’s real noona is Su, not herself. He tells her not to say that, his tone turning slightly serious as he adds, “You know how I feel about you.”
So and Crown Prince Mu start their investigation with an examination of the dead assassin corpses. They find something alarming in one mouth and confirm that the rest are the same: The tongues have been cut out.
They can’t imagine who would cut out their own tongue as a show of fealty, and mull over the mystery. Then Astronomer Choi speculates that it’s possible that the assassins hadn’t cut out their tongues for this purpose, but were already lacking them.
Apparently, there are renounced monks who get their tongues cut out for their sin, and as Choi explains this, So envisions Yo carrying it out.
There aren’t people who could harbor so many denounced monks without drawing notice, and Mu orders Astronomer Choi to look into who donated to temples.
The next thing we know, So is charging at Yo and accusing him of being the mastermind. Yo challenges him to show proof, and So reminds him that he killed all his assassins. Yo doesn’t betray much when he’s accused, but when So asks if their mother is behind this, his face freezes and he can’t quite pull off the indifferent act. But So seems to have his answer.
Su finds Lady Hae preparing clothing and goods to be sent along as donations to the village. Wook customarily delivers them on his own, but Su suggests that Lady Hae accompany him and take the opportunity to spend the day with him. Lady Hae has never thought to do so, but Su urges her, and offers to make her up prettily for the occasion.
As Su makes up Lady Hae’s face, she tells her of a “dream” she had where she sold cosmetics. We see that she’s talking of her modern-day life, when she worked for a cosmetics company, and Su explains that she felt important and needed when helping her friend look her best.
But then, her friend went and met her boyfriend behind her back. Su sighs about the betrayal, and how they’d stolen everything from her, and still she couldn’t manage to confront them properly about it.
Lady Hae advises her to quickly forget nightmares like that, and Su muses, “Who knows, maybe it was that side that was the bad dream.” When she finishes, she holds up the mirror, and Lady Hae is astonished at her transformation—her formerly pale, wan face looks blooming and healthy.
It’s a family affair in the village, as Su and Lady Hae join Prince Wook in the alms-giving. Su hands out treats to the children, then chases down a boy who takes one from someone else and scolds him for his behavior. She sees Wook smiling at her and waves, and without thinking he waves back, before catching himself and awkwardly swatting at the air instead. Oh, you.
A bit later, Wook joins Su at the apothecary, surprised at her familiarity with medicinal herbs. She says she’s used them to make soap that brightens and beautifies the skin and offers to make some for his wife.
He receives medicine for Lady Hae, and also a salve for Su’s cut. She does such a poor job at dressing her neck cut that Wook takes over, sitting close and brushing her hair aside.
There’s a loaded moment as they stare at each other, and another when he leans close to dab at her neck. Su grows shy and quiet, sitting there looking like she’s doing her best to contain her feelings.
Lady Hae is weak and asleep by the time they arrive home, and Wook carries her to bed while Su helps settle her in. As they smooth the blankets over her, Wook’s and Su’s hands touch—just briefly, just their pinky fingers, but it makes them freeze in awareness. Su is the first to pull back, and she quickly hurries out.
Wook finishes tucking his wife into bed and watches her sleep, but his gaze turns toward the door, after Su.
Su’s rattled at the touch, and heads to the temple to pray at Lady Hae’s tower of stones. She prays to her mother not to cry over her, because she’s doing well, and then admits, “My heart is wavering. I tell myself I shouldn’t, but… it makes me tremble.”
The next day, So find out that a group of renounced monks are hidden away at a temple hideout, and races there. Mu also makes his way with soldiers in tow, but So arrives way ahead of the rest, finding the temple atop a steep, rocky hillside.
Inside, the rundown place seems abandoned, but we’re given the sensation that there are unseen eyes on him. So closes his eyes and concentrates.
Suddenly, a man flies at him. So reacts swiftly, knocking aside the incoming dagger with his sword, whirling to avoid being impaled by a spear. He quickly cuts down the two men who come at him, but in seconds he’s surrounded by more.
So asks for their leader, and when he gets no response, wonders if there’s nobody here capable of speech. One man grunts and charges him, but So slashes his throat readily, and demands to know who’s in charge.
Then a full-scale swordfight breaks out, and So holds his own easily in a crowd of at least twenty. The scene grows bloodier and bloodier, and So displays remarkable dexterity with both the long sword and short dagger. Definitely not something you just pick up while fighting wolves. So is so brutal and efficient that in no time, the last man falls. Damn, that was like a Tarantino movie.
Bodies litter the ground, with So the last one standing. Suddenly, the doors blow off a nearby building and a monk steps out, bowing to So.
So asks if he is the one responsible here, and the monk replies that these men had their tongues ripped in punishment for their grave sins; he looked after them. So replies, “Then all I have to do is get rid of you.” The monk asks who he’s doing this for, then adds meaningfully, “Does your mother know?”
So smiles dangerously, noting that this is a place of no speech, yet there’s someone here with a lot of words. He raises his sword, hardens his face, and strikes.
The monk deflects his first blow, but So takes him down with a series of quick slashes, and then a blade through the gut. As the man gurgles, So leans in to say, “You’ve lived mooching off the queen, so die for her sake.”
He walks out and staggers away, covered in blood, while the temple burns behind him. When Mu and his soldiers arrive, the building is ablaze. Mu wonders what could have happened and orders his men to retrieve any survivors.
That night, Queen Sinmyeongsunseong awakens in bed as a figure approaches—So, carrying the sword that’s still dripping blood. She shrinks back as he steps forward out of the shadows and smiles.
Okay, so all that blood and killing was a little much, but I don’t suppose I mind because I felt the energy really tick up when So went wild on those monk-assassins. I thought he’d need to keep some alive for questioning (lack of tongues notwithstanding) so I wasn’t expecting full-on slaughter, but it was cool in the way that Tarantino is cool; the deaths are somewhat stylized and mostly there to highlight how badass So is.
Then if that weren’t enough of a statement, we got that sunset moment with So strutting out of there like a mofo, with the temple burning behind him. It was a strong moment, beautifully shot, and had an edge that I really liked. I’m not actually sure I can count on the show to be that dark going forward, since it isn’t that on the whole (plus I just know Episode 4 will disappoint me just because there’s no way he kills his mother and that’s what I really want)—but I’ll take the bits of darkness when I can get ’em.
Character-wise, I was happy with today’s developments, giving us either movement or insight about several different relationships: So and Su, naturally, as well as Su and Wook, but also So and the princess (as unsettling as I find it), and young Baek-ah and his noona dynamic with Lady Hae. I can’t tell yet whether Baek-ah’s feelings are romantic or protective in a brotherly way, or maybe it’s a lot of things mixed up in one, but I’m glad for Lady Hae’s sake that someone clearly loves her and thinks that her husband should pay her more attention.
I agree with that sentiment in the sense that Wook is a decent guy (I hope?) who respects his wife and cares for her, and also because my modern sensibilities are apparently still old-fashioned in their view of monogamy and fidelity. And even if Wook isn’t too conflicted (he appears to be somewhat conflicted), it ought to be a moral dilemma for Su, whose sensibilities are as modern as mine.
Of course, then you have chemistry futzing with everything and confusing the matter, since theirs is fairly sizzling, in a way that conveys more sexual tension than, say, the hero and heroine. (Theirs is the more conventional opposites-attract, love-hate, contentions dynamic—more external fireworks, but much less repression.) Not that either is better than the other; with all these princes hovering around, I’m sure we’re gonna be able to enjoy allllll of the chemistries.
The reception to this drama has been a titch cooler than I’d anticipated, and I don’t think this show is as bad as the worst of its criticism, although perhaps there are grains of truth in there. I find it entertaining and engaging (now that the heavy introductions are out of the way), though admittedly I’m still waiting for something fresh or exciting to come from the story, and I wonder if I’ll be waiting for ages. Perhaps I’ll be better served by not expecting freshness, and being fine with it as a beautifully produced, gorgeously shot version of a show I’ve seen many times before.
One thing I noticed particularly in this episode was that there was a lot of style in action; the director’s flair was on full display, and when it works, it can be exciting and thrilling. However, that didn’t preclude some jumpy narrative cuts, and moments of confusion when I didn’t register that we’d switched scenes, or wasn’t sure if something was a legitimate scene or a flashback/fantasy moment because the scene change had been so abrupt. That can be a directorial flaw but I’d also put it at the writer’s hands, since it’s her job to structure scenes so that the logic flows fluidly. Trust me, I’m paying a heckuva lot of attention to details with multiple rewinds, and if I have trouble figuring out the flow, it’s no longer my problem. Style isn’t solely good or solely bad—too little makes for ugly dramas, and too much can feel empty—but as long as it comes backed up with some meat, I’m all about it. Today it worked well (the previous episodes were a little less successful at matching content to the style, I thought), and I hope the drama keeps it up as we continue.