I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep covering Hwajung, as I have to admit that Falling in Love with Soon Jung is taking more of my interest lately. But things are happening in Hwajung – things that are moving out of Gwanghae’s control.
The treason plot escalates in episode 5, with Gwanghae being swayed into investigating his stepmother and sending his half-brother away. He ends up dismissing the officials who disagree with his plans for investigation, including Lee Deok Hyung, so they all have to return to their hometowns. During the move, Deok Hyung discovers a book that someone had snuck into his horse’s saddle, and it’s a medical book with a note suggesting that the late king was poisoned slowly to death. This does not help his impression of Gwanghae, whom he now believes was too impatient and orchestrated the death.
In reality, it’s Lee Yi Cheom and Gae Shi who have been pulling all the strings, manipulating even the king to be part of their plan unwittingly. Gae Shi also suggests that he needs to get rid of the Queen Dowager and Jungmyung, just like he did to Yeongchang, but Gwanghae isn’t ready to do that yet. He’s actually furious that they’d suggest it. However, there’s a growing unease over Jungmyung’s position when people discover the seer’s original predictions of a rightful heir to the throne who will bear the strongest bloodline. Officials and the Queen Dowager alike realize around the same time that the prediction is actually referring to Jungmyung – not Yeongchang or Gwanghae! Yi Cheom wants to “handle” the matter by getting rid of the younger royals, knowing that if the opposing faction or the public got hold of this they would revolt against Gwanghae. But Gwanghae refuses to buy into the predictions and nonsense; just like he didn’t believe that a king’s face foretold his effectiveness and destiny.
Jungmyung is scared too because she heard another shaman tell her mother that she’s an ominous person who will bring bloodshed to her family, but Queen Dowager assures her that the seer had predicted she’ll actually be a great person. And because of that, she arranges for Jungmyung to escape. Deok Hyung, Joo Won, and In Woo come across a scene where Yi Cheom’s soldiers are trying to arrest the princess during her escape, and the kids help her runaway from the guards. Joo Won, the romantic, tells her to remember his name because he vows to protect her in the future.
Gae Shi then goes to inform the king to be prepared for the deaths of his siblings, which invokes his rage because he did not authorize this. It’s actually scary to see how a court lady, who seems like she has no power whatsoever, can wield greater power and influence over Gwanghae. However, that plan will fail: Jungmyung’s faithful court lady gets her to escape on a boat first and then blows up the port (with Lee Yi Cheom’s ever approaching soldiers) with the gunpowder in another boat docked there. Too bad Lee Yi Cheom doesn’t die though. But the explosion is heard around the world – even the palace hears it and the Queen Dowager fears the safety of her daughter.
Gwanghae gallops over, and fears that his own sister is dead on this boat. He’s not the only one who thinks she’s dead – even Joo Won thinks it too. It’s to Gwanghae’s credit though that he actually bawls in grief on the burning boat, but sadly no one will ever see his sadness. And then the following morning we discover that Yeongchang was suffocated to death in an overheated room. So in Gae Shi’s mind, the only one left to deal with is the Queen Dowager. Gwanghae is so pissed off that Gae Shi shows no remorse and doesn’t even show him proper respect anymore, and he threatens to kill her and blame her for Yeongchang and Jungmyung’s deaths. But her reasoning is that she did what he would have to do in the future anyways to protect the throne, so she doesn’t care what he does. The thing is – Gwanghae never saw the prediction or the princess as a threat. Someone else probably did. And he manipulated Gae Shi into getting rid of these threats so that he could get the throne easily from Gwanghae.
Unfortunately Deok Hyung and Queen Dowager – and everyone not involved really – now believe that Gwanghae ordered them to be killed. And even if he denied it, no one would believe it.
Jungmyung finds herself afloat in the ocean on her own, but she somehow gets rescued by a Japanese pirate ship in time before a storm. She gets locked up like a slave, and is only told this by a fellow Japanese woman who’s going to be sold as a slave to a sulfur mine in Nagasaki. Thank goodness for the fact that China, Korea, and Japan all used Chinese characters for writing! She catches the eye of one merchant, Maruno, who owns sulfur mines, and he finds it interesting that she’s a young “boy” (because she’s dressed as one) and from Joseon. So he purchases her before she gets beat up by others. As she’s kind of young, she ends up in an attic with other children, all of whom are slaves as well and some are from Joseon as well. Turns out Maruno was a Korean slave too but he managed to rise to be a mine owner.
Gwanghae wants to know who brought in a butchered lamb and hung it over the throne as a way of a threat. The fact that it passed through five gates without being stopped means that the puppet master is very powerful and looks down on the king. It’s been hinted at before, but then it’s finally confirmed to be Kang Joo Sun (Jo Sung Ha), In Woo’s father and I believe the mayor of the city. He’s the one who also manipulated Lee Yi Cheom and Gae Shi to act irrationally as a way to bring down the king. And why did he want to bring down the king? Because he thought Gwanghae was acting beyond his role as a king by trying to harness the power of gunpowder for war against the Jurchens. (Speaking of gunpowder, the only way to make it more powerful is if there were more quality sulfur in the mix – and guess who’s working at the sulfur mine??) But when the prediction about the true king in the throne came out, Kang Joo Sun used it to his advantage. He decides to keep Gwanghae in power for a little longer but must now get rid of Lee Deok Hyung. Lee was going to be Kang Joo Sun’s pawn in bringing down Gwanghae but plans have now changed.
So the way to get Lee Deok Hyung down is to make it look like Deok Hyung found out about the blister beetles used to poison the late king (which he does know anyways) and that he is bribing Lee Yi Cheom and Gae Shi with that information.
Gwanghae visits Deok Hyung’s home, and inside he discovers the Royal Medical Autopsy report on his father’s death. As Gwanghae realizes that his father was poisoned to death, a volcano explodes near the sulfur mine where Jungmyung works. What a literal metaphor as these two characters reach an explosive point in their lives where everything changes.
While things are getting really convoluted for the characters, what I like is that it retains some halo of innocence around Gwanghae. He’s conflicted and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity in his crazy court. He’s at least aware of the machinations of his officials and how they’re possibly being manipulated and manipulating him. But unfortunately he’s picking the wrong ones to trust. Cha Seung Won is putting out such a good performance that I fear he’s exhausting himself of all the emotions now. He’s so intense compared to everyone else. I really hope that we can maintain this halo of innocence around him as he watches things crumble helplessly. It reminds me a bit of Jung Kyung Ho’s character in Falling in Love with Soon Jung because the both of them are forced to face the consequences that are to their favor but not achieved in the way they want it to be achieved. The ends don’t justify the means for them, but they’re forced to accept the ends nevertheless and own up to the “means.” At least in Falling in Love with Soon Jung, Jung Kyung Ho’s character has more agency to change his path, while Gwanghae will have a harder time because politics is never kind to those who want to rule honestly.
What’s really crazy is the revelation that the real bad guy is Jo Sung Ha’s character. Lee Yi Cheom is now just a pawn, the dog sent to do the dirty work without realizing it. I also have to stress that I’m really impressed with how Gae Shi is given so much agency in her role as a court lady, and she’s pretty much the strongest female lead in this drama even if she is a puppet. Kim Yeo Jin is such a talented actress and my favorite since Angel Eyes, so I really love that she has this kind of role. However, a person like her has a limited life span in this drama, so I’m afraid she’s going to be killed sometime soon – and probably by Kang Joo Sun.
What’s funny is that this drama is accelerating at quite a quick speed, so I don’t understand why it has to be fifty episodes. I think we could still tell a really solid story in 24 episodes, perhaps 30 tops. I don’t think it needed to be 50 episodes at all because while the political games are splendid and all, it only can go so far before it gets too complicated or too dragging.