It’s love at first sight! Not to mention a genuinely pleasant surprise – all the expected elements are present, with swashbuckling action, stylistic flourish and comedy, bromance and a sprinkling of romance, but what I hadn’t expected was how well all these aspects were executed as a cohesive whole. The show is campy without veering into the realm of cheesy slapstick; its dramatic moments are as often played for laughs as it is meant to provide impact, but it’s never cringeworthy.
For those who might be worried about the “idol factor,” Jung Yong Hwa is a revelation here, conveying just the right amount of earnest naiveté and youthful exuberance to be endearing. I’m firmly behind his character’s story and can’t wait for more of the action.
(Also, apologies to those who were waiting for these recaps – real life chose the worst time possible to intrude, but I’ll do my best to catch up.)
EPISODE 01 – “The First Meeting”
The story opens in 1780, the 4th year of the reign of King Jeongjo, in the Qing Dynasty capital city of Yeon Kyung (modern Beijing). Yeon Ahm Park Ji Won, ambassador to Qing China, happens across an old volume while browsing a library in the Forbidden City – turning its pages, he reads the title aloud: “The Memoirs of Park Dal Hyang.” The contents pique Yeon Ahm’s curiosity and he asks his colleague whether he knows of this Park Dal Hyang, a close confidante of Crown Prince Sohyeon and an army general during the reign of King Seokjong.
It turns out that no such general by this name had existed, but Yeon Ahm’s intuition tells him that the events in the memoirs are true. The narration confirms this as we see an elderly armoured man writing in a candle-lit tent – it is General Park Dal Hyang in his later years, who wrote under a pseudonym to protect the secrets he committed to text. The ensuing tale is based on Yeon Ahm’s transcript of the memoirs and tells the story of the legendary warrior Park Dal Hyang and his comrades.
As with many other tales of heroes, though, we have to jump back in time to when it all began – in this case it’s 1636, the 14th year of King Injo. In a scene rather reminiscent of classic wuxia series, a 22-year-old Park Dal Hyang (Jung Yong Hwa) leaps and twists in the air as he practices his martial arts in the face of the sun – at the edge of a rugged cliff overlooking the sea, of course – the wind ruffling his flowing hair. Pfft.
Country lad Dal Hyang gives his parents a last greeting before leaving his hometown of Goseong, Kangwon province and heading to Hanyang to take the military service exam. Dad gives him a letter instead of money – Dal Hyang should speak to the Minister of Taxation, who’s guaranteed to take him under his wing since Dad is the minister’s maternal cousin’s brother-in-law’s uncle’s nephew.
Dal Hyang’s full of naïve faith in Dad’s words and assures Mum that he’d be well taken care of, but Mum doesn’t look the least bit impressed (in fact, she mutters under her breath that Dad’s claim to have gone to Hanyang is a load of crap, HA). She tucks a pouch of coins into his packs and watches tearfully as he rides off, wondering whether the horse will last all the way to the capital. When Dad walks up to join her with a blithe comment that the horse could run all the way to the Ming Empire, though, Mum turns on him in a rage: “Do you even know how old that horse is?! It was born the same year as Dal Hyang!” LOL.
Dal Hyang’s exciting adventure is complete with its own cheerfully heroic theme music and goes about as well as expected, as the hilariously dry narration and animated countdown of his remaining distance in li to Hanyang outlines for us:
- Firstly, the 22-year-old horse who shares Dal Hyang’s birthday unsurprisingly collapses after 4 days – Dal Hyang spends the next 10 days nursing him (10 days behind schedule)
- Then Dal Hyang is stuck in Pyeongchang for 20 days due to road blockage from heavy rain – he’s left to shelter forlornly with his horse as he counts the lost time on his fingers, ha (30 days behind schedule)
- Finally resuming his journey, he rides up the mountain… only to be told that there’s a man-eating tiger on the loose. Trying to ride through anyway doesn’t do the trick, since the horse is firmly against the idea… and so it is the looooong way around for our hero (35 days behind)
And thus, two months after leaving his hometown on a journey that epitomizes the nightmares of travel, he finally arrives in Hanyang the night before the exam, noticeably the worse for wear with dust and mud staining his face and clothing. Hahaha.
His bad day isn’t over yet, because not only is the Minister of Taxation himself away for the next 10 days, but the guest rooms of his house are actually open to (and currently fully occupied by) crowds of exam hopefuls. Dal Hyang is left to wander through the streets looking for board and doesn’t notice that a thief’s eyeing the coin pouch he’d naively carried in plain sight until the man cuts his purse. The pouch is knocked flying into the air when Dal Hyang whips around and the coins scatter over the ground – to be snatched and grabbed by greedy bystanders.
Poor Dal Hyang only manages to salvage a few remaining coins from beneath a man’s foot, which turns out to be barely enough for a shared room at nearby lodgings; the uppity landlord is charging exorbitant prices, knowing that there’s a line of desperate examinees. His stomach empty because he doesn’t have enough coin left for food, Dal Hyang finally reaches the height of disillusionment as the truth hits that his father has clearly never been to Hanyang before. LOL.
And still his bad day continues – armed thugs invade in the middle of the night, promptly leaving after brutally beating one of Dal Hyang’s roommates to a bloody pulp. The third man in the room informs Dal Hyang that the thugs are hirelings by rich noblemen who seek to remove potential rivals in the civil service exams so that their children will pass. Unable to stomach the injustice, Dal Hyang grabs his sword and gives chase.
The thugs scatter in the dark streets and Dal Hyang turns a corner that takes him right into the path of three riders, who rein in with surprised stares when he throws his arms wide to bar their way. Their stares turn outright baffled when Dal Hyang asks with excruciating politeness whether he could please borrow one of their horses – he’s in a hurry to chase down those thugs.
The rider in purple (whom we know is Ahn Min Seo, played by Jung Hae In) attempts to refuse, but Dal Hyang just says that he’ll explain later and hops right into the saddle with him. PFFT.
The other two look amused as the first splutters in surprise, but the mood quickly turns serious when Dal Hyang explains that the men he’s chasing are thugs hired to beat up students and prevent them from taking the exam. He’s so incensed that he’s not above tossing out a brash challenge for them to remain behind if they’re scared – just lend him a horse. The leader (again, we know that this is Lee Jin Wook as Crown Prince Sohyeon) merely asks the direction the men went before leading the rest in pursuit.
The riders corner the group of hirelings just as they’re about to head to their next target and the crown prince and his right-hand man, Heo Seung Po (Yang Dong Geun), identify themselves as officers of the law and demand to know who sent them. The hirelings scatter at that and the riders give chase – Dal Hyang, still riding with Min Seo, launches himself athletically off the back of the horse onto the second storey of a building ahead, holding his own against two men in close combat before a violent tussle with one sends them both through the railing and the fast way to ground level. Luckily, Dal Hyang lands on top of the other man… which, ouch.
Elsewhere, Seung Po makes short work of a group of hirelings with a staff while Prince Sohyeon takes care of several others with masterly flicks of his whip and Min Seo smoothly takes down another two. The report that Dal Hyang defeated two men on his own earns him an assessing glance from Prince Sohyeon.
The criminals are soon hauled off by the police, making Dal Hyang question the speed at which the process was handled – are they officers? Seung Po’s vague non-answer that it is something along those lines confuses Dal Hyang, but Prince Sohyeon interrupts to confirm that Dal Hyang is taking part in the military exam and wishes him well – with his talent, it’s more than enough for him to pass easily. Dal Hyang replies, unabashed, that he too has confidence in his own skill. Heh.
Dal Hyang stops the trio as they’re about to leave, asking for an introduction, and Prince Sohyeon answers, “The Three Musketeers.” They ride off, leaving a bemused Dal Hyang staring after them. Min Seo asks why they’re the three musketeers as they’re riding off, and Prince Sohyeon says blandly: “I don’t know either. The words popped out as I was making something up suddenly – how am I to know what they mean?” Pfft.
The newly-dubbed three musketeers arrive at a gisaeng house and head inside, though Min Seo stops to examine a letter tucked into his saddle. He realizes that Dal Hyang must have dropped it when he clambered unceremoniously on his horse earlier, but a glance at the contents make his eyes widen.
Inside the gisaeng house, the prince and Seung Po make their way upstairs to the strains of a fusion version of Crayon Pop’s smash hit “Bar Bar Bar.” LOL, that’s priceless. Seung Po stands guard outside the room (trying to score with uninterested gisaeng all the while) as Prince Sohyeon conducts his secret meeting with a Ming Chinese informant, who reveals that it’s chaos in Ming China as the invading Manchurians continue their devastation of the Ming military – with the exception of eight fortresses on the Great Wall, the rest have already fallen and army commanders are scrambling to save their own lives, recognizing the inevitable doom of the Ming dynasty. (On a side note, I am so pleasantly surprised to find that they actually hired someone fluent in Chinese to play the part – usually the Chinese lines spoken by Korean actors are unintelligible at best.)
Outside, Min Seo distracts Seung Po from his fixed attention on the gambling tables and shows him Dal Hyang’s letter, asking for advice on how to proceed. Seung Po lets out a comical grimace at the letter’s contents and immediately decides to seek out Dal Hyang.
Dal Hyang is busy cleaning up after a rather eventful night, all the while contemplating what “the three musketeers” could mean – does it mean they’re three people who’re good with guns? Hah. He realises belatedly that his letter is missing; a search of his room reveals only the one that his father gave him. When he comes back out, he narrowly dodges an arrow that thunks into the wooden support beam where his head had been. He finds a message tied to the arrow shaft.
Prince Sohyeon is reading the letter in question with a nary a change of expression as Seung Po comments that they brought it to him because it’s a type of treason. A young woman’s voice narrates: “You know that my feelings are the same as yours, don’t you? I swear it – I will never marry another man. If it is not you, I will probably die as an old maid while waiting or shave my head and become a Buddhist monk. I will wait for the day we meet again, after you have passed the exam. If you ask for my father, Kang Seok Gi, when you come to Hanyang, someone will direct you to my home. Yoon Seo.”
Prince Sohyeon eyes Seung Po pointedly, noting that he appears to find the situation amusing. Seung Po keeps a straight face and feigns innocence, assuring the prince that he’s really very, very serious about this matter. Ha.
With perfect timing, Dal Hyang bursts into the room just as they agree on the necessity of investigating him – the earlier message-by-arrow was a summons from Seung Po, who tactfully leaves them to their private discussion. Dal Hyang is effusive in his protests over his personal letter being read and demands its return, but a quelling look and word from Prince Sohyeon has him obeying the instructions to take a seat, haha.
Outside on guard duty, Min Seo disapproves of the steps Seung Po’s taken, but the latter is thoroughly amused at the turn of events and laughs that he really wants to see the prince overcome with jealousy for once. Things don’t appear to be looking up for Dal Hyang any time soon, do they?
Prince Sohyeon maintains their cover of being associated with the judicial office, informing Dal Hyang that he suspects treason after reading the contents of his letter – he’ll have to answer his questions if he wants to prove his innocence. A bewildered Dal Hyang is forced to admit that he hasn’t met Yoon Seo since she left after a brief two-month stay in his hometown 5 years ago. What’s so wrong about intending to find her and ask for her hand in marriage after he’d passed his military exam? The next question from Prince Sohyeon finally silences his protests, however: “Did you not know that Minister Kang Seok Gi’s daughter, Yoon Seo, was already married?” And not just married – she’s become the crown princess.
The information is most certainly new to Dal Hyang, whose devastation is painfully evident. When Prince Sohyeon marvels that there are people unaware of this news, Dal Hyang answers brokenly that his village is so remote in the mountains that no one would know. “Why did I work so hard?” Then he breaks down in tears, to the stunned amazement of Prince Sohyeon.
Seung Po, attempting to eavesdrop outside the door, receives a door in the face as Prince Sohyeon exits with a frown and instructs him to order some drinks. At Seung Po’s question, Prince Sohyeon admits grudgingly that he’s stuck in the awkward situation of feeling sorry for his rival in love – sorry enough that he’ll be buying him a consolation drink instead. LOL.
At the palace, the crown princess and lady in question (Seo Hyun Jin) is reading before bed and is startled when the crown prince’s presence is announced at such a late hour. Prince Sohyeon jumps right to the point – does she know Park Dal Hyang?
Her jaw hilariously drops wide open, which Prince Sohyeon takes as confirmation that Dal Hyang was telling the truth. He sounds rather amused as he lays out Park Dal Hyang’s sad tale for her – the lad had travelled to Hanyang to take the military exam in the hopes of passing and asking for her hand in marriage, but upon discovering that she had already become the crown princess, he is now in despair and on the verge of giving up the examination and thus ruin his life. The princess’ excuses are flimsy and Prince Sohyeon calls her out on it, noting offhandedly that she sounded much more daring in the contents of the letter. And then he pulls out the actual letter and places it on the table in front of her.
Yoon Seo asks whether he’s suspecting her, but Prince Sohyeon replies blandly that he just wants to relay Dal Hyang’s admirably sincere feelings. With that, he stands to leave after adding that she seems to have thrown away her true (bolder) nature when she entered the palace. Is it just me, or does he appear to be having fun at her expense?
A disconsolate Dal Hyang is staring out over the city from his vantage point on a hilltop, noting sadly to his horse (has he heard?) that Yoon Seo is now living in the palace. There she will stay, and he will never be able to see her face again.
He flashes back to the prince’s instructions to him when they parted earlier: “Place first in the civil service examination and prove your innocence.” Prince Sohyeon wasn’t above a bit of threatening to force Dal Hyang to stay, either, because he tells him that leaving to go home will only be a sign of his treasonous thoughts by keeping the crown princess in his heart. He’ll be keeping the letter as evidence – if Dal Hyang doesn’t pass the exam, he’ll just have to report the matter to the crown prince, who isn’t known for his generosity.
Seung Po is happy to go along with the ruse and Min Seo (at a sign from the prince) throws in the tidbit that the princess herself might be in danger if Dal Hyang doesn’t cooperate – her household will be purged! Getting into the flow, Min Seo comments that the crown prince is a violent and jealous sort, making Prince Sohyeon protest: “Violent? Maybe not quite so far as ‘violent.’”
Seung Po deadpans that the crown prince is also a tormentor of the citizens – his heart aches at the thought of the crown princess married to such a man. Prince Sohyeon shoots him a stony glare, heh.
Even naïve and trusting Dal Hyang notes to his horse that there’s something odd about those threats (though the horse offers no insight), but finally sighs and decides to believe their words, if only for the safety of Yoon Seo.
Dal Hyang needn’t have worried that he wouldn’t pass with flying colours, because he aces each portion of the exam – a stunning display of his prowess sees him land 1st place in archery (all bullseyes), 2nd place in mounted spear throwing, 1st place in steel-tipped arrow archery, 1st place in mounted archery and 2nd place in musketry. It’s no surprise that he advances to the final round as the only contestant to pass with honours.
King Injo arrives to preside over the final round, which he names as mounted archery. Just as Dal Hyang’s turn is called, Crown Prince Sohyeon arrives to take his seat beside his father, and Dal Hyang finally realizes his identity to his stunned amazement. He’s so distracted that he pays little attention to the bow and arrow in his grasp… and as he loses his balance, toppling off his horse, the arrow is loosed into the rump of another contestant’s mount. Oh, crap.
Chaos ensues as the horse throws his rider and gallops straight through the roped course, dragging the wooden posts with it as it heads straight towards the king. Eunuchs scramble to protect the cowering king and officials are knocked out of the way of the panicking horse. Prince Sohyeon, however, watches on in visible amusement as he’s flanked by his two bodyguards, Seung Po and Min Seo, eventually letting out a laugh. An irate Dal Hyang glares back, thoroughly unamused.
EPISODE 02: “The Three Musketeers”
The crown princess, Yoon Seo, paces anxiously as she waits for news from the civil service examinations. The report her lady-in-waiting brings her is not want she wants to hear – Park Dal Hyang caused absolute chaos by accidentally hitting a horse with an arrow.
A flashback to the scene from Episode 1 shows the king suffering a cut across the cheek during the terrified scramble away from the stampeding horse. Uh oh. The lady-in-waiting adds that the horse wrecked havoc with the music instruments, too, and the crown prince is unharmed but in a spot of trouble as well – the king chucked a fit when he saw his son chortling away as he surveyed the disaster. Right now, the king’s council is deliberating on whether Park Dal Hyang’s passing of the exam should be cancelled due to the seriousness of the mistake he’d committed.
It looks pretty bad for Dal Hyang as the council members and even the furious King Injo himself appear to be unanimously agreed that he should be failed as an example to future examinees – lack of concentration is dangerous in battle.
Crown Prince Sohyeon stands up then, reminding everyone that Dal Hyang had already passed the test in first place and had more than displayed his capability; it would be unfair to fail him based on one mistake. In addition, it would discourage other contestants from Kangwon province and invite further dissent over regional bias in the civil service exam. His words are persuasive enough that King Injo mulls over those words in silence.
A dejected Dal Hyang awaits news of the outcome in the now-deserted examination site, rain pouring down around him. He’s visibly relieved and grateful when the messenger relays the king’s decision to allow him to pass, though he’ll be ranked in last place and will not receive any stipend or official title. The information that it was the Crown Prince to whom he has to thank for a (relatively) positive outcome leaves him puzzled, however.
That night, Dal Hyang’s first surprised and then amused to find that the haughty landlord has changed his tune – the man is all solicitude, asking Dal Hyang whether his (now private) room is warm enough and assuring him that he’d added extra heating. Ha. The landlord’s there to pass on a letter that two men on horseback had left for Dal Hyang. It turns out to be from the Three Musketeers, with Seung Po’s voiceover introducing himself and Min Seo by their real names and relaying their congratulations for passing the exam as well as apologies for making him lose his first place ranking. If Dal Hyang would be so willing, they should meet tomorrow night for drinks.
There’s a quiet and pensive mood about him as he pushes open the door to his room for a look at the night sky in the midst of writing a letter to his parents, but the arrival of an unexpected caller startles him out of his reverie – it’s Yoon Seo.
He’s floored at the sight of her and stammers out an invitation to come in, but Yoon Seo is almost cold as she declines, preferring to maintain her distance. Keeping her eyes firmly averted from his face, she explains that she’s here because she’d heard that he was still waiting for her – the prince had shown her the letter. She rebukes him for being so naïve, but Dal Hyang lets out a short, sad little laugh and replies that she knows him; that’s how he’s always been.
Yoon Seo asks him not to blame her, as she’d had no choice in being selected as crown princess, and puts a final knife in his heart when she tells him that she’d burnt the letter. His face betrays his pain, but aloud he merely says that she’d done the right thing. Silence falls then as both keep a firm grip on their roiling emotions – she looking away, his eyes fixed on her face.
The lady-in-waiting interrupts the moment with a reminder that they cannot stay and Yoon Seo adds a final request – they will not meet again, so he must erase her from his mind. Dal Hyang agrees, and only then does Yoon Seo turn to look at his face for what must be the last time. “I’m glad… that you have passed the exam. Your parents must be so happy.”
Dal Hyang watches her go, his eyes bright with unshed tears. Continuing his letter to his parents, he adds with forced lightness that there are so many pretty girls in Hanyang that he’s forgotten about Yoon Seo; they shouldn’t consider her their future daughter-in-law anymore. It’s with bittersweet irony that he narrates in the letter: “I’m too happy to sleep tonight. It was really… the best day ever.”
We jump to Uiju, in the province of Pyongan (modern North Korea), where a Manchurian general by the name of Ingguldai (Kim Sung Min – the drama uses the hangul version of his name, Yonggoldae, but we’ll go with original spelling) the Manchu delegates to Joseon. He meets the messengers sent by Joseon minister Kim Ja Jeom with a great deal of suspicion – they convey the message that Kim Ja Jeom wishes to meet with Ingguldai before he makes his official arrival at Hanyang. The leader of the messenger party is Mi Ryung (Yoo In Young), who informs Ingguldai that she will be the middleman in their communications, though she is just a messenger and not working for Kim Ja Jeom.
Back in Hanyang, Seung Po is cheerfully tipsy and enjoying the gaming tables with a gisaeng on his lap while the serious Min Seo waits at a table upstairs. Dal Hyang wanders into the establishment and looks around curiously before catching Min Seo’s eye – the latter smiles in recognition, but Dal Hyang doesn’t look like he’s there to make friends. Sure enough, he brushes aside Min Seo’s offered congratulation toast – he just wants an explanation as to why the Three Musketeers had lied about who they were.
Min Seo explains that it was Seung Po and Prince Sohyeon’s idea; the fact that the prince leaves the palace at night cannot be revealed and they couldn’t refuse his request for help that night, either. Finding the letter afterwards meant that they had to investigate him further. Dal Hyang notes that for bodyguards, they speak to the crown prince more as friends than as subordinates, which draws a chuckle from Min Seo. To Dal Hyang’s astonishment, Min Seo reveals that aside from Seung Po being born irreverent, he is also the son of renowned general Heo Suk, which meant that he was brought up with the crown prince.
Flashbacks show Seung Po and Prince Sohyeon sitting through lessons and sparring together as children. Theirs is a friendship that continued to adulthood, which is why Seung Po can speak to the prince as he does – we’re shown an instance where an adult Seung Po dumps the prince to the ground during a sparring session and the prince responding by throwing a shoe at Seung Po’s fleeing back. LOL.
Dal Hyang marvels at Seung Po’s identity before asking whether Min Seo is also of noble blood. Hardly that – and Dal Hyang’s blatant gaping has Min Seo smiling – it turns out that Min Seo was a young monk who was trained in martial arts and had followed his master into war during the 1st Manchurian invasion in order to protect the prince. The prince sought him out in person at the temple after the war ended, and thus he became the prince’s personal bodyguard.
A drunk Seung Po joins them then and Dal Hyang can’t get a word of protest in edgewise as Seung Po claims cheerfully that they’re friends now; he’ll pay for everything and teach Dal Hyang gambling, too! Ha. When he happily reveals that the letter incident was his plan to get Prince Sohyeon jealous and improve his relationship with the crown princess, though, Dal Hyang sits up with sudden interest: “Is their relationship… distant?”
That cuts through Seung Po’s drunken stupor and he quickly changes the topic to his tragic story of being married to an ugly bride – we see in flashback that a young Seung Po cries all the way through his wedding, heh – who actually gets uglier with each year of marriage. Dal Hyang doesn’t really hear him, though; he’s contemplating with obvious sadness what he’d just learnt about the state of Yoon Seo’s marriage.
Crown Prince Sohyeon is busy studying maps that night and he barely registers the eunuch’s announcement that the princess had returned from her visit to her parents’ house, looking up only when he’s told that she’s actually here in person. He’s ready to bid her a distant goodnight after a brief, polite inquiry after her mother’s health, but Yoon Seo gathers herself to ask why he’d given her Dal Hyang’s letter and even helped him pass the exam after the fiasco. Shouldn’t the natural reaction be to express his doubts in his wife or be angry at Dal Hyang?
The prince just gives her a hilariously good-humoured smile and says that he’s not that small a person. LOL. That finally draws a heated outburst from Yoon Seo, who forgets her wariness – she launches into a verbal tirade where she stresses that his indifference implies his lack of love for her. She slows down at that, rephrasing the question again hesitantly – does he not love her?
Sohyeon, however, treats it as if it’s one great joke and suggests that he act the natural way then; he’ll arrest Dal Hyang and then depose the princess, if that’s what Yoon Seo believes is proof of love. At that, Yoon Seo begins to shout that she’s sick of his jokes and that she knows: “You loved the woman who was chosen before me! But it wasn’t my fault; I didn’t choose to be selected!” It seems that arrow has finally hit home, because the prince’s expression turns serious for the first time.
We flash back to a young Yoon Seo, who’s stunned to be told by her mother that she’s been selected to be crown princess after the original princess-to-be had hung herself. She sheds tears, knowing that she would have to renege on her promise to Dal Hyang.
In the present day, Yoon Seo explains through vexed tears that she didn’t want the marriage either, but she’d come to accept it and is trying her best to make it work. Prince Sohyeon replies blithely that she’s misunderstanding him and that he’d never been too cold – she’s just being too sensitive. And then he gives her a pleasant smile. (Ooookay, you’re a jerk.) Recognizing defeat, Yoon Seo agrees sarcastically that she had been immature and leaves. It’s only in the privacy of her own chambers afterwards that she finally breaks down, sobbing.
At the gisaeng house, Dal Hyang is just being regaled by Seung Po with the story of the mysterious suicide of the prince’s fiancé (why, no one knows, because she and the prince were apparently in love) when Min Seo interrupts their conversation and draws their attention to the arrival of Kim Ja Jeom, who should be miles away at Pyongan rather than in Hanyang.
In a private room, Kim Ja Jeom is meeting several other ministers and informing them of the true intentions of Ingguldai’s party of Manchurian envoys – they’re in Joseon with the goal of establishing their Qing empire and subjugating Joseon, turning it into their empire’s vassal state. He’s decided to that they will have to make a decision on their course of action before the king finds out. That’s alarming news for Seung Po to overhear from where he’s doing a bit of eavesdropping in an adjacent room and he confers immediately with Min Seo.
Dal Hyang is curiously observing the secretive whispering and growing tension from his place at the table when Min Seo returns to request his help as lookout for Seung Po, while Min Seo himself reports this to the prince immediately. He slides his sword to Dal Hyang under the table before he leaves. Feigning a slightly over-exaggerated drunken act, Dal Hyang manoeuvres himself into a position against the upper storey railing where he can keep an eye on movement at ground level as well as Kim Ja Jeom’s two bodyguards.
Meanwhile, Min Seo relays the information to Prince Sohyeon, who decides against alerting the king just yet – he’s extremely sensitive and likely to act rashly should they inform him before obtaining all the facts.
At that moment, the king is troubled by a nightmare in which he is left alone in the woods, stumbling along blindly in search for help only to be confronted by Ingguldai at the head of a Manchurian army. Raising his bow, Ingguldai shoots and the arrow flies straight into the king’s heart.
His loud cries bring the eunuch running to his side with assurances that it was only a nightmare, but the king is thoroughly unsettled, convinced that he is surrounded by enemies on all sides and will be left alone to die. King Injo decides that he absolutely has to have the crown prince attend to him – he’s the only one he can trust, and refuses to hear any of the eunuch’s attempts to reason with him. He looks like one light shove will send him over the edge, frankly.
The eunuch catches Prince Sohyeon just as he’s about to ride off with Min Seo and pleads for him to see the king, who is a bundle of nerves. Sohyeon directs the eunuch to calm him down and hold off his demands until the prince can return, and then rides off towards the gisaeng house. This isn’t going to turn out well, is it?
Two black-hooded figures enter the gisaeng house – it’s Mi Ryung and the mysterious scarred swordsman with the eyepatch. The swordsman looks suspiciously at the loitering Dal Hyang, who hastily masks his scrutiny behind a faked cough over his drink.
In the private room, Kim Ja Jeom is making his plan clear to his group of supporters – the incompetent king is likely to start another disastrous war, so Kim Ja Jeom wants to send Ingguldai a message that part of the government is on his side. What he’s proposing is treason, the magnitude of which stuns Seung Po, who’s still listening next door.
Messengers Mi Ryung and Scarface enter then, ready to take the message back to Ingguldai. But Seung Po accidentally presses on a squeaky board in the wall, alerting Scarface (who flashes back with new understanding to Dal Hyang’s dramatic coughing fit earlier). He angrily accuses Kim Ja Jeom of placing spies on them before kicking down the wall to the adjacent room and revealing Seung Po, who collects himself quickly and draws his sword.
Outside, Dal Hyang realizes that the situation is fast heading south when he hears the crash and rushes to flank Seung Po, his sword also drawn. The noblemen scatter and Seung Po tells Dal Hyang to take care of Scarface – he has to chase after the noblemen so that he can confirm their identities. Seung Po exits the room to find himself thoroughly outnumbered by the noblemen’s bodyguards, but he handles the situation with reasonable aplomb.
Dal Hyang’s left with the more difficult task of fighting Scarface, who is clearly the more experienced fighter of the two; Dal Hyang ends up on the defensive, his skill no match for Scarface, and narrowly escapes being skewered on more than one occasion. What he lacks in technique he makes up for in energy and resourcefulness, however, and manages to fight off his opponent’s attacks using anything he can lay his hands on.
Prince Sohyeon and Min Seo’s arrival is therefore timely – Min Seo heads to aid Seung Po, while Sohyeon appears just in time to block Scarface’s sword from dividing Dal Hyang down the middle. Dal Hyang takes advantage of his opponent’s temporary loss of concentration and places a well-aimed kick into Scarface’s stomach, sending him flying to the floor. The prince hilariously advises that Dal Hyang really should be more careful: “It would be sad to die after passing the exam.” Dal Hyang retorts indignantly that he was perfectly fine without Sohyeon’s help. LOL.
The noblemen have realized by now that the prince is onto their plans, having recognized Seung Po as Sohyeon’s bodyguard, and are in a hurry to flee for their lives. Having left Dal Hyang to finish dealing with Scarface, Sohyeon heads outside in time to see each minister and note their names and positions.
It turns out that Sohyeon might have left Dal Hyang with Scarface a little too soon – Dal Hyang’s sword breaks under the force of a particularly hefty blow and he grabs a nearby table as shield. A strong kick from Scarface splinters the table and sends Dal Hyang flying backwards into a wooden display shelf, however, and it collapses directly on top of the fallen Dal Hyang with a resounding crash. Ouch.
At the sight of Mi Ryung, Sohyeon remembers Dal Hyang’s warning that there is a woman amongst them and rushes to head her off. He grabs her and spins her around just as she’s about to mount her horse… and both freeze in wide-eyed recognition. (Is this his original bride-to-be – the one who killed herself? No way.) They remain in stasis until a shouted warning from Dal Hyang shakes Sohyeon out of the trance. Mi Ryung watches in horror as he turns around, too late, as Scarface’s flashing sword bites deep into his arm. Sohyeon staggers to the ground, his arm streaming with blood, but it doesn’t look like the glassy-eyed look of shock on his face is due to the injury.
Scarface uses the distraction to flee with Mi Ryung, who tells him that he is crazy – does he know the person he’d just stabbed is the crown prince? Meanwhile, Dal Hyang vaults onto a horse and gives chase, a determined glint in his eyes. “You messed with the wrong person today!” HA.
The situation at the palace isn’t looking much better as the eunuch informs the princess that he has no idea what to do, with the king is demanding to see the prince, who has yet to return from outside the palace.
The announcement of the king’s imminent arrival sends them into a panic. There’s no placating the king – he’s in a towering rage over the perceived slight in the crown prince’s lack of response to his father’s summons. The princess rushes to meet the king, stammering out an obvious lie that it was difficult to wake the prince from his drunken sleep, but she’s unable to reply when pressed to answer whether he’s truly inside. Further incensed by the lies, the king barges in…
…to find Sohyeon waiting inside. (He really does have impeccable timing.) The prince confirms the princess’ story that he was deeply asleep, his profuse apologies and solicitous concern finally calming the king. The king voices brokenly that Sohyeon is the only one he trusts and begs him not to make him anxious again before returning to chambers, temporarily appeased.
After his father leaves, the prince’s façade of normality drops and he clutches at his bleeding wound. The sight of blood alarms the princess, but Sohyeon cuts off her concerned protests and dismisses her coldly. He calls in his eunuch instead and asks: “I just saw Mi Ryung. What is going on?”
Dal Hyang is still on Mi Ryung’s tail, riding deep into the woods of the mountainside in pursuit. Mi Ryung and Scarface stop as they crest an open hilltop and Dal Hyang prepares for a final showdown… only to stop dead at the sight of hundreds of cavalrymen and archers led by Ingguldai. Oops.
At Mi Ryung’s words that Dal Hyang is one of the prince’s men and that the prince is now aware of their plans, Ingguldai gives the order to fire. Dal Hyang gapes as hundreds of arrows come arcing down through the skies, directly towards him.
I’m loving what the drama is doing with blending the setup of The Three Musketeers classic with the historical details of the period – we have our band of brothers well on their way to working together to thwart the political machinations of the enemies of the crown, but the fascinating historical events surrounding Crown Prince Sohyeon, King Injo and the Second Manchu Invasion are still intact. It’s a period that’s been oft-dramatized on TV, but the addition of our merry group of musketeers definitely makes the story feel fresh again. And our leads are all doing their part to make this a bromance to remember so far – Jung Yong Hwa, as I’d mentioned, is turning in a wonderfully energetic performance as Park Dal Hyang, Yang Dong Geun and Lee Jin Wook’s hilarious exchanges are some of my favourite parts of these two episodes and Jung Hae In’s serious young musketeer with his brief flashes of dry humour is awesome.
Particularly worth noting is the abundance of comedy that’s been so cleverly woven throughout the story so far – the witty banter and tongue-in-cheek background music choices have been absolutely stellar. How awesome was the unexpected use of a fusion version of kpop track Bar Bar Bar, for example? There are some serious (and fairly tragic) events occurring in this time period and plenty of potential for angst on the romance front, so the constant thread of humour running through keeps things light and fun, which is just the way I like it.
The romance, too, has been surprisingly painless; my greatest worry in the lead-up to the drama’s premiere was the Dal Hyang/Yoon Seo/Sohyeon love triangle, since Korean dramas do have a habit of milking romantic angst for all its worth. And while it is not all sunshine and daisies hereon either, I really appreciate that the reveal of Yoon Seo’s identity as princess, her reunion with Dal Hyang and Dal Hyang and Sohyeon’s “confrontation” was dealt with so swiftly. It effectively sweeps past a lot of the tiresome melodrama by putting all three characters on the same page (just imagine if they’d had Dal Hyang and Sohyeon become fast friends first and then finding out that Yoon Seo stood between them, ugh) – they know where they stand, and both Dal Hyang and Yoon Seo appear to be refreshingly realistic about the situation.
It’s a little early to predict how the rest of the season (and the next two seasons) will unfold, but for now, The Three Musketeers is already at the top of my weekly to-watch list – it’s fast-paced, full of comedy and action with characters that you can root for, which is basically the formula for success as far as I’m concerned.