Tree With Deep Roots is cinematically stunning and darkly thrilling – a full on assault of the senses, if you will. If this drama were a meal, it would have seven courses with a complimentary dessert just because it’s awesome like that. If this drama were your girlfriend, she’d leave you to watch Song Joong Ki play a tortured young king and Jang Hyuk a Joseon-era murder investigator. If this drama wore clothes, it-…
You know what? The opening episode was good. Let’s just go from there.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open in a currently unspecified year, though background material tells us that we are in the Joseon Dynasty – as we usually are – during the reign of King Sejong, who ruled from the year 1418 to the year 1450.
A royal guard, KANG CHAE-YOON (Jang Hyuk) is counting the amount of steps it takes to get from one side of the royal courtyard to the other for a future assembly. It’s nice to see that Jang Hyuk in a fancy hat, but I still miss that mane of glory from his Chuno days. Sigh.
In a brilliant bit of camerawork/CGI, we see the assembly Chae-yoon has been plotting for literally unfold in front of our eyes. He’s decided that the Sam Do (basically, the Royal Red Carpet that only the King may walk on) is the fastest way to get to KING SEJONG (Han Suk Kyu)… by one hundred and seven steps. That seems like one hundred and six steps too many, Chae-yoon, but good luck all the same.
He stands in line as part of the assembly, and with the untying of his hat we know that Operation: Kill the King is underway. I’m sure that the hat untying can be symbolic, in that Chae-yoon is shedding his oath to protect the King in order to have a killer drama opening instead – but either way, it’s captivating to see the battle scene that follows.
With a roar of a war cry, “Lee Do!” (the name King Sejong was called before he was King Sejong), Chae-yoon leaps onto the red carpet. The Royal Army springs into motion, but no one has the balls of steel Chae-yoon possesses to walk that sacred carpet, and can only toe the edges while they try to fight him off.
Chae-yoon makes it all the way to the throne, distracting MU-HYUL (Jo Jin Woong), Joseon’s best swordsman, with some kind of smoke bomb as he launches toward the King… Only to be shot not once, but twice, through the chest by arrows. Nooo! He’s still ready to persevere, but only gets pelted with more arrows for the trouble, even one straight to the Achilles tendon. Ouch.
Mu-hyul holds a sword to Chae-yoon’s neck, while he can only stare straight forward at King Sejong, blood dripping from his mouth. In a voiceover, we hear him say: “Failed.”
Turns out the assembly was all a scenario that got played in Chae-yoon’s head, and he’s safe and sound where we last saw him. He concludes that the current version of Operation: Kill the King is too risky, and that unless he shortens the distance or becomes faster, he’ll have to wait. The dream wasn’t for nothing, though, and he sketches a map of the palace into his little black book.
As fate would have it, none other than King Sejong comes across his path. Chae-yoon weighs his chances in percentages about making a move to kill Sejong now by using the sword of a nearby guard, but his chances only get smaller upon Mu-hyul’s arrival. We can see the wheels turning in Chae-yoon’s head as it’s a now-or-never decision, but his chances are already less than they were during the imaginary assembly…
And then King Sejong turns around, to ask Chae-yoon for his name. We hear a voiceover of him asking himself “What do I do? What do I do?” as we all sit on the edge of our seats. He’s quiet, glancing at the nearby guard’s sword as though he’s ready to make his move – and we hear him say, in voiceover:
Chae-yoon:“My name… My name is Ddol Bok!”
Insert flashback and collective “aww”. It’s the kid from City Hunter! We cut to a young Chae-yoon, whose earlier name (as a slave, so it seems) was DDOL-BOK (Chae Sang Woo), beating the crap out of another, way bigger kid. He’s trying to get answers as to who made fun of his father – in what proves to be a Ddol-bok Smash! button for him all throughout the episode.
We’ve moved back to the year 1418. According to history, this is the first year of Lee Do, or King Sejong’s, reign as king – with his father (former King Taejong) having abdicated the throne.
Elsewhere, a man is being tortured and interrogated (oops, are they one in the same?) by JO MAL-SAENG (Lee Jae Young) about Ddol-bok’s master and the King’s father-in-law, Chancellor Shim. We’ve started to get our political maneuvering into play, but we don’t have the full picture yet. All we know is the tortured man is both shocked and hurt to hear that these orders are coming straight from His Highness.
In stark contrast, the slaves at the very house of the Chancellor of the Hour are having a good ol’ time. Interrupting them is a well-meaning fellow slave who gets taken advantage of because of an apparent mental handicap. Before one of the slaves can quip that Ddol-bok will get them all for this stunt, Ddol-bok bursts onto the scene – in our first bit of comedy for the hour – and sets to beating the men who put makeup on his father’s face.
All the ruckus gets them dragged before the brother of the currently absent Chancellor Shim. Ddol-bok boldly defends his father, Suk-sam, and wins the impromptu debate – but the offending party, Gul-sang, refuses the terms and causes another fight to break out with the hot-tempered Ddol-bok.
Afterward, father and son share a touching moment by a stream. Ddol-bok washes the makeup off and tries to teach his father how to defend himself in the future. It’s here where we learn that Suk-sam wasn’t always this way, as he fell from a hill trying to protect his son. Now the roles are reversed and his son is protecting him. The way they are together is adorable city.
Ddol-bok spends a leisurely afternoon with another slave girl we’ve seen earlier in the episode – her father was the one that caused all the trouble earlier. I might be very wrong about this as she’s not been officially named yet, but this seems to be a young SO-YI (KIM HYUN SOO).
They’re your typical Cute Children, and have an Extra Cute Word Game. They even exchange stolen gifts, which is sweet and sad all at once. She’s made a small bag out of pilfered pieces of silk from her mistress, and he’s stolen her a partially-broken container of rouge. He even helps her apply some to her face – and she returns the favor. Aww. Wait, we’re in kdramaland. Surely this kind of adorable happiness cannot last long.
Aaand it doesn’t. The two little lovebirds return to their master’s home to find chaos, with his slaves trying to defend the homestead and getting beaten for it by Royal Troops. Ddol-bok enters the fray and saves his father, escaping with him and young So-yi(?) to a house in the woods. In order to keep his father from returning to the house, Ddol-bok binds his hands and feet.
After a brief interjection with the Queen, we cut from the torture of the captured Chancellor’s brother to former KING TAEJONG (Baek Yoon Shik), enjoying a quiet day of fishing with the Royal Court. He’s the first one to catch something and everyone makes a big to-do. How much do you want to bet that no one else baited their hooks? He’d updated on the state of the interrogations, and it becomes clear that though he’s abdicated the throne, he still hasn’t quite relinquished his power.
Mu-hyul makes it past official LEE SHIN-JUK (well-beloved Ahn Suk Hwan) into a grandiose, beautiful, and busy room to see none other than LEE DO, aka a young KING SEJONG (Song Joong Ki). He’s absorbed, almost to the point of obsession, with a floor-sized 33×33 game of sudoku. I can’t even play the kind that comes in the weekly newspaper.
The sudoku seems to be Lee Do’s way of coping, though we can see him trembling from his shoulders to his hands. Aww. When the Queen comes, as if knowing what she’s going to ask, he begins to name the men his father has had executed. In turn, she berates him for falling into his games whenever serious things happen, and begs him to save her father’s life. He’s the King of Joseon. Can he not even save a life?
Cut to: a flashback montage of Lee Do not saving lives. He remembers each one he had to watch as a young prince and how everyone asked for help while he could help no one.
Spurred by these haunting memories, he can only dejectedly tell the Queen: “I cannot save him. I cannot do anything.”
Cut to: Lee Do doing exactly what he said he couldn’t do. During the court proceedings where the fate of the traitors is decided, it’s pretty clear who wears the real kingly pants out of this father and son duo – and it isn’t the current king.
He’s more or less coerced by his father to give the seal of approval to Chancellor Shim’s grim fate, and the two kings’ conflict comes to a head in the Sudoku Room (that’s what I’m calling it for now, anyway). These actors chew up the scenery, and it’s clear that Lee Do is still under his father’s thumb as much as he doesn’t want to be. The Sudoku Room scene serves to show us the differing ideals between them – Taejong is trying to get Lee Do to see things in the singular way that he does by ‘solving’ the sudoku puzzle with only the number one. He says that the King is number one, and the only one with the power. Everything else is unnecessary.
Though told by his father to stay out of it, Lee Do embarks on Mission: Save Shim-won and sends a girl from the palace with a secrete missive. She’s meant to take it to a slave of Shim-won’s that Lee Do trusts, but because of the police presence surrounding the house the letter ends up in the hands of Ddol-bok, his father, and that yet-unnamed-girl-I’m-sure-is-young-So-yi. They’re left with the task of delivering the letter, and while Ddol-bok is initially distrustful he believes the young So-yi can read from their earlier gift exchange. He asks her to check the letter’s contents against what the girl says, and she hesitantly agrees. They’re reassured that if they deliver this to their master all will be well and their fathers will be saved, thanks to the King.
Ddol-bok volunteers to go, but in a touching moment, his dad uses the skills his son taught him earlier in the episode to take the dangerous mission of letter delivery himself. He runs through the night without stopping, and catches up to his master’s caravan.
Too little, too late – Shim-won’s reaction tells us that all is not well with this letter, and in a brief flashback we see why: Jo Mal-saeng had intercepted the court girl sent to deliver Lee Do’s letter and pulled a bait-and-switch. Whether the real letter would have helped or not is debatable, since royal troops come to surround the caravan moments later. Without knowing any better, Ddol-bok’s father admits to being the letter carrier and receives a bloody and horrible blow to the head for it. I had a feeling this was coming, but it’s still heartbreaking to see.
Lee Do hears the bad news from Mu-hyul, while Taejong hears the good news from Jo Mal-saeng, who hands over the original letter. Seems like someone hasn’t turned his king switch into the ‘off’ position.
Ddol-bok’s father, Suk-sam, isn’t dead – yet. He’s getting there, while Shim-won sits as a prisoner and lots of horrible torture implements are readied. Suk-sam cries about his son who he might never see again and Shim-won takes pity, using the precious time he has left on this world to demand a piece of paper so that he can write to Ddol-bok on Suk-sam’s behalf. The actor playing Shim Won doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s established himself as an upright man with integrity, honor, and care for others. He’s dignified as he accepts the bowl of Execution Poison, and as he drinks it, we see Suk-sam holding the paper that Shim-won wrote for him.
Lee Do, no stranger to uptake, knows that the letters were switched as soon as he hears about Shim-won’s fate. At least he doesn’t live in a land of denial where his father is perfect, and as Taejong is still scheming with Jo Mal-saeng, all Lee Do has to do is stand outside to overhear proof that his father betrayed his trust.
He takes a long moment deciding whether to go in or not. Deciding against it, he can only walk away hanging his head.
Chancellor Shim’s family and slaves are being carted through the street like animals. Since the belief existed that being a traitor must be contagious, no one from Shim-won’s household is excluded from the promise of a future and probably horrible death. Thus far our two children have been able to avoid detection, but upon seeing her dad being pulled along in the procession, DAM (previously referred to as ‘young So-yi’, but she has a name now!) is unable to hold back. Ddol-bok tries to drag her back, but they both end up captured and thrown into prison with the rest of the slaves.
Meanwhile, the Queen goes to visit a deeply brooding Lee Do. Where before she had been pleading, asking a question we were all wondering with her: can’t he, as King, do anything?, now she’s taken on a more somber air befitting the execution of her father. She only knows of the letter her father actually received and not the actual letter Lee Do tried to send. In her eyes, Lee Do has betrayed both her and her father.
Ddol-bok is in prison when his dying father is unceremoniously thrown in. There have been a few moments in this episode where Suk-sam has shown real clarity in his eyes, and this is the finest yet – but sadder, since he’s about to shuffle the mortal coil.
His son is hesitant to approach him, suffering from disbelief at seeing his father this way. He is pulled down to his father, who hands him the letter Shim-won wrote for him.
In a nicely juxtaposed scene we see Suk-sam’s passing without a word, just as the Queen is relating how her father passed without a word. Her tearful words echo Ddol-bok’s feelings, as he angrily demands to know who is responsible for his father’s death. The Queen finally tells Lee Do:
Queen Soheon: “It was you who killed him.”
Sometimes bad things can come from calling dramas early, but this first episode is a veritable powerhouse of performances. I’m a little less worried than usual about this drama’s story and pacing since they’re basing it off a novel of the same name, which means that the writers know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there (usually, maybe, hopefully). That shouldn’t surprise us, since this is coming from the Queen Seon Deok team (with many other impressive credibilities), but I’ve never seen Queen Seon Deok (it’s going to happen one of these days). I couldn’t base all my future hopes and dreams for a drama just on that name.
But I *can* base all my future hopes and dreams on this episode!
I liked Sungkyunkwan Scandal just fine, and found Song Joong Ki a delight and pretty to look at. But I admit, I was really in this drama for Jang Hyuk, who I really fell in love with after giving a hell of a performance in Chuno. That drama had its flaws, but he gave the performance of a lifetime as the lovelorn and tortured slave hunter. That sort of act is hard to follow up, but I have full faith in him and am excited for what’s in store.
That being said… SONG JOONG KI.
Who knew he had it in him?! I brought up Sungkyunkwan Scandal earlier to prove I was not a rabid fangirl of his before this drama aired. I was excited to see Song Joong Ki, sure, but I didn’t really know what I was in for. He is BRILLIANT. His scenes with Baek Yoon Shik, playing his father and the former king, literally put me on the edge of my seat every time. There’s something about the inner struggles of a king lost in the shadow of his predecessor that Song Joong Ki displays as narrative information just in his facial expressions alone. I never felt like he was mugging for the camera, either.
He probably wouldn’t have all the moral crises he’s having if he were like his father, but he isn’t. And that’s the beauty of the conflict. His father intended to raise a Mini Me King and got Song Joong Ki instead. I can’t *wait* to see how this plays out!
But then when I think about it, I *can* wait to see how this plays out. Normally when I see child actors of our future stars on the screen my general thought is: “Alright, let’s grow up as soon as possible.” But Tree With Deep Roots is smart. It knows I want to see Ddol-bok grow up into Chae-yoon, and therefore be Jang Hyuk… but it also knows I don’t want Song Joong Ki to ever grow up, and become Han Suk Kyu (I’m sure he’s going to be fabulous, though). They’re unfortunately mutually exclusive, so my trust is in the production team.
Now, on to the purely superficial stuff: this drama is gorgeous. If I had to name my favorite visual aspect, it would definitely be the color palette. Jewel tones abound in this lush environment, and it has the look and feel of a big-budget film. The Sudoku Room is a technical marvel in and of itself and the director knows it, because we get plenty of wide-angle shots. It’s a feast for the senses. None of the costumes look hokey (that risk comes with any costumed drama) and everything seems well planned and choreographed (so far), with a solid and talented cast.
That being said, we’re in a 24 episode drama, and at least the first four episodes are used to set the table. This drama is selling itself as a political conspiracy/murder mystery, so I have a feeling things are going to get a lot more complicated here on out – and maybe darker. Ooo! Fun. We’re at the peak of sageuk season and I had been waiting for a drama to really captivate me since the void left by City Hunter. But there is one aspect of Tree With Deep Roots that sets it above and beyond most other dramas I’ve watched this year – it is downright thrilling.
If this is what we can expect for the rest of the run, then bring it on, Tree.
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- Song Joong-ki cast as a young king in sageuk drama
- Shin Se-kyung, Jang Hyuk in new sageuk
- Queen Seon-deok team reunites on new drama