With all the main players in the story introduced and the background laid out in the first two episodes, Episode 3 brings our hero fully into the heart of the ground-shaking political events that are being set into motion – whereas he was previously an unwitting participant, an outsider who found himself caught up in something beyond his understanding, Dal Hyang is now (more or less) officially considered part of the team, for good or ill. More interestingly, the naïve country boy who’d lost his sole (rather simple) reason to join the military before has now been challenged to rediscover his purpose. Passing the exam was the easy part – the question now is what he should do hereon. Turn his back and return to his peaceful existence, or follow the prince and achieve something not just great, but worthwhile?
EPISODE 03 – “Secret Mission”
At Mi Ryung’s warning that Dal Hyang is most likely aligned with the crown prince, who now knows of Ingguldai and Kim Ja Jeom’s negotiations, Ingguldai gives the orders for the archers to shoot. Dal Hyang is left gaping in shock as dozens of arrows arc through the skies – straight down towards him.
Only the rearing of his frightened horse saves him – Dal Hyang is thrown to the ground and quickly scrambles away to relative safety behind a tree. The horse is less lucky, taking several arrows to the chest… but is miraculously (or unbelievably) able to gallop away from the army at the hilltop.
Ingguldai looks puzzled as the horse gallops off, apparently riderless, but then we see that Dal Hyang has actually tucked himself hidden behind the horse’s other flank, keeping his death grip on his reins and saddle. Once they reach the first semblance of tree cover, Dal Hyang flips himself back onto the horse’s back and makes his getaway, shouts of consternation from Ingguldai’s men echoing behind him.
They gain on him pretty quickly, though, and Dal Hyang chops down a tree branch to take down their frontrunners and buy time for him to ride clear. (Wait, so you’re telling me that his sword had broken previously in two swordfights but chopping a much thicker branch is easy?) Sadly, his horse finally dies from its injuries and he’s forced to continue his escape on foot, completely at a loss as to why they want him dead. (This scene totally broke my wee heart – that poor horse! Not the horse!)
Prince Sohyeon had slipped back into his room in the nick of time and his father returns to bed none the wiser, but the princess is there to see the blood streaming from his arm wound. He dismisses her worries coldly, though, and she pauses in the corridor outside, tears running freely.
When Seung Po walks up, he’s not quick enough to hide the bloodstains on his own hand (from his contact with the prince) and the princess demands to know what happened. Seung Po hedges uncomfortably since he can’t refuse the crown princess outright – rock, meet hard place.
The eunuch, meanwhile, is dumbfounded to hear that Mi Ryung is apparently alive. When Sohyeon presses him for confirmation that he had really witnessed her corpse as he’d claimed, the shaken eunuch admits that he’d only heard that her body was buried and thus couldn’t check it. He has trouble believing that the girl’s father would dare to lie, but the prince tells him to visit Mi Ryung’s father the next day and find out what happened.
Outside, Seung Po can only tell the princess that the royal physician cannot be summoned to keep the prince’s injury secret, but he cannot reveal the rest of the details to her. The crown prince’s timely appearance saves Seung Po from further questioning; Sohyeon shrugs off the princess’s queries with the completely unbelievable excuse that it was a joke – the blood was just paint. “Your biggest flaw is that you can’t take jokes. Please reflect on that.” Ouch. At least Seung Po quickly assures her that they’ll be visiting a physician and asks her not to worry before rushing after the leaving prince.
Later, a man is rudely awakened in the darkness of his cottage by Min Seo, who informs him that he has a patient to see to. His protests quickly die on his lips – finding a sword at your throat will do that to you. When Sohyeon appears at the doorway and jokingly asks for the physician to save him from the pain, though, the man sits up and bows in recognition; it looks like he’s acquainted with our prince. Just how many past scrapes has he had to fix for Sohyeon, I wonder?
A furious Ingguldai has gathered with some of his men over Dal Hyang’s fallen horse. He demands from Mi Ryung whether it was the prince, Kim Ja Jeom or their combined forces who were responsible for tricking him. Or… was it Mi Ryung herself? Ingguldai points his sword at her and Scarface (whom we found out at the end of Episode 2 is named No Soo) quickly does the same, putting them at a standstill. With deadly intensity, Ingguldai warns Mi Ryung that he’ll kill her himself if the prince dies from No Soo’s attack and complicates the situation further by starting war.
No Soo assures Mi Ryung that the prince won’t die; he didn’t stab too deeply. He says this with his sword held out alarmingly close to her neck, however, and even Mi Ryung looks the slightest bit unsettled. No Soo adds that if he’d known that it was the crown prince, he would have killed him: “What has this country done for us? It was my chance to finish the royal family.” I had assumed that he was merely Mi Ryung’s bodyguard, but it looks like No Soo has his own vested interest in their involvement.
The house owner is sweeping outside in the courtyard and nearly jumps out of his skin when a half-dead Dal Hyang staggers in, his face several shades darker from the amount of mud and dirt staining it and bits of grass in his dishevelled hair. He’s surprised to find Dal Hyang in that state and says so – wasn’t he at a party last night?
Dal Hyang looks around with a soulless expression (which startles the owner again, LOL) and asks hoarsely: “Was that only last night…? It feels like it was a year ago.” HAHA. Then he continues stumbling to his room, his entire bearing that of a man gravely injured by the lot he’s been given in life. He’d only just collapsed on the floor of his room in exhaustion when he jerks awake again at the sound of quiet footsteps outside his door. Danger?
There’s a servant standing outside, lantern in hand, and he opens the door at the lack of response from Dal Hyang… to find a drawn bow and arrow pointed straight in his face. Dal Hyang’s rumpled state doesn’t make the picture any more reassuring.
Dal Hyang coldly demands to know who he is and who sent him before he shoots and the servant stammers hurriedly that he’s Pan Swe (Lee Kyum), servant of Minister Heo Suk; Heo Seung Po sent him here. Dal Hyang finally relaxes at that and invites him in. Pan Swe is there to deliver a letter from Seung Po and find out whether Dal Hyang is all right – to which Dal Hyang snaps grumpily, “Do I look okay to you? Tell him that I’m not okay, but still alive.” Ha.
In his letter, Seung Po apologizes for his absence in Dal Hyang’s time of need and explains that he was taking care of his friend, who’s “crying like a girl” over a little stab wound. As his voice narrates the letter, we see that the stoic prince is taking his treatment like a champion while Seung Po is the one crying at his side. LOL.
Dal Hyang’s asked to follow Pan Swe to meet the musketeers at Minister Choi Myung Gil’s house – he is their teacher and the head of the Ministry of Taxation. When Dal Hyang arrives, he finds Seung Po and Min Seo being scolded like errant children, their hands clasped in front of them and hands bowed as Choi Myung Gil (Jeon No Min) berates them for failing to protect the prince.
The prince, sitting off to the side, spots Dal Hyang and calls to him, mock blaming him for his injury. Dal Hyang starts to explain, but stops and apologizes earnestly for being unable to do as he’d promised rather than offering what sounded like an excuse. Sohyeon smiles before asks him what happened to the woman and the one-eyed stranger, concluding that they must have met Ingguldai and the envoys when Dal Hyang replies that they had escaped and met up with soldiers. Dal Hyang is astounded, and Sohyeon’s amusement finally draws the minister’s attention… who turns on him instead, telling him to stop laughing and reflect on his mistakes. HA.
The temporary reprieve gives Seung Po and Min Seo time to notice Dal Hyang’s presence – Seung Po begins quietly imitating his nagging teacher while Min Seo and Dal Hyang fail to suppress their smiles. (On a side note, does anyone find it adorable that Min Seo always breaks into a smile at the sight of Dal Hyang?)
Choi Myung Gil breaks off when he spots Dal Hyang, who introduces himself and says that he has a letter from his father for him. Oh, dear, I can feel the second-hand embarrassment already.
Seated in his room, Minister Choi reads the letter as Dal Hyang explains that his father is the minister’s maternal cousin’s brother-in-law’s uncle’s nephew. (Pfft.) Minister Choi feigns recognition and Dal Hyang perks up… until the minister describes his father as very tall and pale: “My father is… very short and very dark.” Cue awkward silence, ha.
The conversation turns to a more serious topic – Minister Choi decides to bring Dal Hyang into their confidence now that he’s irrevocably involved in the matter. The fact is that the country is on the verge of war; the politicians are also concerned only for their own safety instead of working together to save the country. And so, Minister Choi puts the question to Dal Hyang – as a military officer bound to the government, how does he plan to protect the country?
Meanwhile, Kim Ja Jeom is fleeing to Anju on horseback, determined to be out of Hanyang before his unexplained presence in the capital alerts others to his treason.
Seung Po and Min Seo are in the midst of explaining this very deduction to the prince, who comments that Ingguldai must be their priority; what exactly is he planning by attempting to open negotiations with Kim Ja Jeom?
The prince’s eunuch visits Mi Ryung’s father to ask about the circumstances surrounding Mi Ryung’s suicide 5 years ago. Curiously, the father admits that he had not seen her body himself, either – a servant had reported that her body had been buried to spare him its gruesome sight… but the servant had then hung himself several days later. In essence, no one alive has actually seen Mi Ryung’s corpse. The eunuch reports this to the prince, who looks troubled but does not answer when asked what he will do.
Returning to the palace in the early morning, Prince Sohyeon finds that the princess had already left to give her morning greetings to the king without him.
A nervous Yoon Seo stammers her lie to the king’s eunuch that the crown prince is ill and arrives at the door to the king’s chambers alone. At the very last moment, the prince appears at her side, teasing her lightly for her terrible lying and telling her to smile. Her tears at finding him well spill over at that point, though, and the prince orders for the door (which was in the midst of opening at the eunuch’s announcement to the king) to be closed again so that the princess could compose herself. The king looks up in some confusion, ha.
Sohyeon noticeably favours his injured left arm during his bow to the king; it doesn’t go unnoticed, but he easily excuses it as the result of having slept in a strange position. The king is calmer now that it is day and dismisses his fear the night before as unfounded, since the envoys aren’t even here (oops). He complains childishly of loneliness, though, and asks whether they might provide him with a grandchild – are they even trying? That makes the princess burst into tears, leaving the king baffled, and the prince can only offer an awkward smile.
The prince’s eunuch later informs the princess that the prince is fine; his wound was treated and he had visited his teacher’s house afterwards, so there is no need to worry about his condition.
A pensive Dal Hyang wanders through the marketplace and steps aside as a group of soldiers ride through. Looking at them thoughtfully, he flashes back to the challenge that Minister Choi had given him – how will he protect the country? He should find the answer before being officially appointed that day.
That contemplative mood persists even as he takes his place in the last spot in line with the group of new civil servants who will be ushered in that day at the Bangbangui (official ceremony for the new civil servants), but the sight of his name on the list (even in last place) brings a smile to his face and he squares his shoulders.
The four ministers who had been present at Kim Ja Jeom’s meeting last night are quietly panicking in a secluded corner over the prince’s knowledge of their involvement when the prince interrupts them with Minister Choi at his side. He notes, with a chillingly pleasant smile, that he’d had a nightmare where traitors had betrayed the country. It’s a good thing it was just a dream, isn’t it? He leaves Minister Choi to deal with the flustered ministers.
Taking a walk in her palace gardens, the princess hears the distant strains of music coming from the ceremony and declines when her lady-in-waiting asks her whether she’d like to attend. But then she flashes back to a young Dal Hyang’s excited description of the ceremony and his request that she be there to see him when he passes the exam. The memory brings a small smile to her face, and she looks again in the direction of the festivities.
The appearance of the king and crown prince signals the official beginning of the ceremony, as one by one the names of those who’d passed the civil service exams are called to join their places. Dal Hyang’s name is finally called and he takes a deep breath before striding through the doorway to approving smiles from the prince, Seung Po and Min Seo.
It is a proud moment that Yoon Seo, who had arrived just in time to see his entrance, witnesses from where she stood at a distance. She drinks in the sight with a fond smile on her face before she turns to leave. And not a moment too soon, as he stands up from his bow to the king – for his sake, I do hope he has time to put his feelings to rest.
The presence of another figure brings the prince’s enjoyment of the moment to a halt, however. His eunuch directs his attention to the group of women, the family of the examinees, who had clustered at one entrance – there, with a frighteningly piercing stare directed at the prince, stands Mi Ryung. What on earth is she planning? They lock eyes for a long moment before she smirks and turns to leave. The prince orders his eunuch to catch her; they must find out what she’s up to.
And of course he fails to do so – Mi Ryung loses him in the twists and turns of the palace… and runs into the princess when she turns a corner. Uh oh. The confused Yoon Seo asks kindly whether Mi Ryung’s hurt when the latter glares at her, stony and unflinching. The encounter unsettles the princess, who glances back briefly afterwards to find Mi Ryung gone.
That night, Pan Swe appears at Dal Hyang’s room again with another message from Seung Po. Dal Hyang is surprised to find slave ownership papers inside, along with a letter of congratulations from Seung Po, who also informs him that he’ll be gifting him Pan Swe – he’ll need someone to run his errands now that he’s an officer.
Pan Swe is less than impressed when he’s informed that he now has a new master, however, hilariously moaning that he’s ruined – how can Sir Seung Po have sent him when he does so much work for him? He’s determined that it must be some mistake and runs back to check, with unconvincing assurances for Dal Hyang that it’s not that he doesn’t want to serve him, it’s just…
Dal Hyang grins as Pan Swe runs away, but stills as the open door and the lantern light outside brings back the memory of Yoon Seo’s visit the other night. He starts in shock when he realizes that he is not hallucinating; he does have a visitor. But then the crown prince steps out from behind his eunuch’s back, and Dal Hyang sighs minutely.
Dal Hyang’s uncomfortable to find the prince alone in his small room and asks why he hadn’t sent for him instead of coming in person, but the prince explains that he was born outside the palace and enjoys being outside. His father’s ascension to the throne was an accident of fate, as was his becoming the crown prince (Injo was made king as the result of a coup in 1623 to depose Gwanghae, which was led by Kim Ja Jeom). Besides, the prince adds, he’d needed to meet Dal Hyang in secret; even Seung Po and Min Seo are unaware of this.
When asked, Dal Hyang admits that he’s yet unsure what exactly he wants to do as a military officer and Sohyeon dangles a carrot in front of him with the suggestion of a position with the royal guard. He has the power to recommend him; Minister Choi had said that Dal Hyang can be trusted as one of their own and both Seung Po and Min Seo like him. Dal Hyang adorably perks up at the suggestion… only to be sent crashing back down when Sohyeon adds cheerfully: “But I refused.” LOL, he’s a sadist.
Sohyeon jokes that Dal Hyang would be able to meet the crown princess often if he worked for him, which simply wouldn’t do – he’s not the princess’s favourite person lately, so what if the two eloped together? Pfft. He stops joking and reveals that the real reason for his refusal is because he wants to assign Dal Hyang to the Manchu envoy reception. Dal Hyang will be one of the guards for General Ingguldai, putting him in the perfect position to carry out Sohyeon’s special assignment – to find Mi Ryung (who may be going under the name Hyang Sun), and bring her to the prince using any means necessary.
And so, Dal Hyang (looking quite dashing in his military uniform, I must say), finds himself standing amongst the line of officers waiting to meet Ingguldai’s forces at the city entrance. In the mounting tension as the crowd’s hostile whispers are met with the drawn swords of Ingguldai’s men, Dal Hyang joins the rush of Joseon soldiers who form a barrier between the Manchu envoys and the common people, which places him right beside the carriage.
Then the screen of the carriage lifts and Dal Hyang is too stunned to even hide his amazement as Mi Ryung herself looks out. Her eyes widen slightly as she catches sight of him, too… and then she smirks.
Dal Hyang flashes back to Sohyeon’s answer when he’d asked, with surprising perception, whether the matter with Mi Ryung was a personal one or merely official duty. Sohyeon had answered honestly that may be both, but Dal Hyang had persisted, wanting to know what Sohyeon planned to do with her afterwards.
Sohyeon, his face seriously, has a flashback of his own then – in it, we see a young Mi Ryung, bound with rope and sitting on the floor of a shed. She’d cried desperately up at the young prince, “Your Highness, I thought you said you loved me!” But the prince had told her instead: “Commit suicide.” Uhh, what?!
In the present, Sohyeon’s face is pretty grim as he tells Dal Hyang: “I killed her.” And who could argue, after that flashback? Wide-eyed and understandably so, Dal Hyang can only stammer his question – what will he do when he does find her?
Sohyeon resumes his usual half-joking tone, but his vague answer this time is particularly unsettling considering the stakes: “I don’t know. I will have to see her before I know what to do.” With a smile, he adds that only has two options, anyway – either he will kill her again or they’ll fall in love again. Troubled and confused, Dal Hyang wants to know whether he’s joking or not, but Sohyeon declares that question time is over. Time to complete the mission.
Okay, wow. The light tone of the first two episodes has certainly taken a quick turn for the darker, hasn’t it? I must admit that I miss the amount of comedy (despite the fact that there are still some great comedic beats, mostly surrounding Dal Hyang), since it’s one of the reasons I found the start to the drama so enjoyable, but it’s also inevitable now that the story is well on its way. After all, there is nothing light and funny about the political conspiracies surrounding the Second Manchu Invasion and the subsequent fate of King Injo and Crown Prince Sohyeon.
Back to the big reveal regarding the prince and Mi Ryung’s backstory, however – never in my wildest dreams did I expect that. I had expected that from the early character descriptions that Mi Ryung was a scorned woman with her mind set on revenge after their love was thwarted in some way, but now her quest for vengeance makes perfect sense – this is a whole new level of “scorned woman.” Judging from the crown prince’s character, there must be some deeper reason for him to have said such a thing; he doesn’t appear to be the type who does anything without reason. Two possible options are that something had happened to either force his hand (making Mi Ryung an innocent pawn) or Mi Ryung had done something unforgivable enough for the prince to voice that awful order, though the former is far more likely – someone had gone to major trouble to save Mi Ryung and hide what’d happened. I can’t wait to find out why.
Sohyeon’s relationship with the other woman in his life, Yoon Seo, is equally intriguing. Is it out of guilt and residual feelings for Mi Ryung that he had deliberately kept her at a distance so far, or might there be another motivation? The meeting between Yoon Seo and Mi Ryung also makes me worry about Yoon Seo; it is not surprising that Mi Ryung would hate the woman whom she’d probably view as the usurper to her rightful position. She’s enough of a loose cannon to do something serious about it, and we all know what Milady did to Constance in the original Dumas novel…
In a more serious episode where political intrigue take front and center and the action fun takes a back seat (Imma put you on my back seat~ Sorry, I had to), we have more of a spotlight thrown on the main characters and it underscores what I’d felt from the last two weeks – that the characters really do shine, even at this early stage, and the excellent execution of the comedic vs. emotional beats is partly to thank. Yoon Seo has been a real surprise for me; she could easily have been a throwaway “female love interest” role, but instead she’s one of the most sympathetic characters so far. Her rapidly-delivered shopping list of complaints against the crown prince in Episode 2 started off cute and quite funny, but it made the tears and raw emotion that showed through the cracks afterwards that much more startling. The same applies to Dal Hyang, whose naïve earnestness (and the absolute hell he went through in Episode 1) made his situation hilarious, but his later heartbreak over Yoon Seo was more moving as a result. The thread of humour keeps the drama from bogging down, but there is plenty of emotion beneath it to ground the characters and keep them from becoming slapstick.
On Dal Hyang, he’s started off the drama as the innocent simpleton – the sheep in the big city – so it’s not surprising that he hasn’t the depth of Sohyeon. But already he’s been thrown into situations that have forced him to think, to assess the people around him and be wary of danger. He’s a country boy who has to grow up very quickly, but that’s what makes his journey to maturity fascinating to watch and quite different from the usual cynical kdrama heroes we’re used to. Dal Hyang will gain depth as he makes his way from the impulsive young fighter to someone who has wisdom and insight to match his fighting skills. I do hope that he won’t completely lose his starry-eyed innocence, though – it’s rather endearing.