What an intense follow up to an already intense first episode. We’re still so early in the series for performances to already take my breath away, but that only gives the show extra brownie points. There’s a great blend of style and substance going on here as we get to delve deeper into what it’s like to be a young king and what it’s like to be a young slave without a master. We’re seeing the first stages of a good mystery unfold right before our eyes, and the directing and pacing (so far) seem steady and assured. And the colors! The cinematography! Living in Joseon never looked so good.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Suk-sam has passed on while in prison, and when a guard comes in to clear the dead body the rest of the riled slaves make a prison break. Everyone is trying to get out while the royal family wants to get in, with Queen Soheon wishing to go see her mother and Lee Do still in shock that he can do nothing as King.
Queen Soheon arrives at the prison gates in time to see the chaos of the escaped prisoners attempting to fight off the guards. It’s a harrowing sight, with most of the prisoners getting viciously beaten and killed right before her eyes.
Dam’s father, Gul-sang, manages to get Ddol-bok to escape with him and his daughter, but not before she grabs Suk-sam’s written will and puts it into the bag she previously gifted to Ddol-bok.
The trio make it through the fray and to the wall, where Gul-sang helps Ddol-bok over and then his daughter. He’s stabbed in the back by a guard before he can make the same climb. As soon as a guard threatens Dam, Ddol-bok launches into the fight to save her and sends her off without him. She escapes it to the other side while he goes to her dying father, who can only gurgle out his last wish: for Ddol-bok to take care of Dam.
As she’s escaping, Dam runs straight into Queen Soheon. The Queen recognizes her (most likely from Dam being her father’s slave) and even calls her by name. When Soheon and entourage spot guards running their way, she makes a brave call and swoops Dam under her skirt to hide her. She has a short exchange with the guards (they’re forced to back down when she’s revealed as the Queen), and Dam ends up fainting in the middle of it – but at least she’s safe.
Lee Do has arrived in disguise at the prison just in time to see the prison break go to a whole new level, with more mass-scale carnage and killings. Mu-hyul urges him to leave now before he can be caught by his father, but he’s remembering again how his wife asked him to save her father, and he couldn’t. Faced once again with being able to do nothing, he sees a boy running toward him – it’s Ddol-bok – and he flashes back to a recollection of another boy on horseback, saying: “You cannot do anything.”
Ddol-bok pushes Lee Do out of the way in his quest to escape, and Lee Do is suddenly filled with the urge and conviction that he must save that child. Perhaps he’s finally become tired of being powerless and wants to latch on to this task – or perhaps it’s because Ddol-bok reminds him of the boy in the flashback.
Mu-hyul knocks Ddol-bok unconscious and they take him to a hut in the woods. Unfortunately they never heard Former King Taejong and his entire entourage (on horseback, even) arrive from behind, and Lee Do has now been officially caught unawares by daddy dearest. Taejong demands the death of Ddol-bok on the grounds that he’s the son of the slave who delivered a letter to a traitor, but this scene seems more about the power play between father and son than anything else.
Lee Do is trying his best, but still ends up too meek to face off against his intimidating father. Until…
We go from powerless Lee Do to a completely different, and completely awesome Lee Do. He musters up all his power to stand off against his father in an absolute showdown. He tells his father, flat-out, that being former King is not King, and that he is the King of Joseon. It’s the first time we’re seeing Lee Do come into his power, even as his father doesn’t even flinch as he mentions all of the uncles and family Taejong has had killed, namely one traitor, Jung Do-jun.
He calls his father out on killing Jung Do-jun (and many others) only for power, and Taejong defends himself by saying that because he did all the dirty work, this is HIS Joseon. He’s earned it. Lee Do replies, “My Joseon is different! It will be different!”
The only problem is, he doesn’t know exactly how it will be different. With Lee Do now on the ropes, Taejong orders his men to go kill Ddol-bok, and Lee Do literally throws down the gauntlet (his personal sword) between them. Taejong will have to kill him first if he wants to get to Ddol-bok now.
Lee Do: “If you want to kill that child… just like you killed my uncles, and my comrades, kill me right here.”
That privilege doesn’t come free – Taejong calls him on the bluff, and in the best moment of the night Lee Do calls to Mu-hyul, relying upon his oath to kill anyone who harms the King, even if that means his own father.
After a very charged moment, Lee Do wins this round. It’s only after his father is gone that he literally collapses from nerves. Whether Taejong is proud of his son or not remains to be seen, but there is a compliment he gives in that even Confucius couldn’t convince him – only power does. But then he swiftly orders all the royal army brought to him, so…
In the hut in the woods, Ddol-bok is crying to a royal guard he gave a concussion to about who is responsible for the death of his father. Lee Do overhears everything. Even when Ddol-bok says he must kill the King for giving the orders to kill his father, who was only a fool who had the bad luck of delivering the wrong letter at the wrong time, Lee Do takes it in stride.
It’s clear that it’s not Ddol-bok’s declaration to kill him that wounds Lee Do the most, but the whole story itself. Lee Do feels the weight of Ddol-bok’s words, and his resolve to save Ddol-bok only grows stronger. Unlike all the times where Lee Do felt powerless, he now declares Ddol-bok as the first subject that he’s saved with an adorable smile on his face. He was a King for a moment, and he is so proud – especially in the face of the recourse he knows is to come from his father.
Ddol-bok wakes up in an unfamiliar environment on high alert. He takes his pillow as a weapon when he goes outside and is met with a woman who attempts to ease his concerns. This is Ban Chon, she says – the village of the slaves that serve Sungkyunkwan University. She doesn’t know what brought him here, but no one cares – that’s one of the perks. Another perk is that the royal army can’t enter the village without the King’s command.
Former King Taejong has assembled the royal army, which Lee Do hears of with little surprise – he knows that this is the price for last night. He’s not unprepared either, as Taejong has the royal army but Lee Do has the royal stamp, commanding sword, and the various other brands of command. Still, Taejong seems to have something up his sleeve by having a lunchbox prepared for Lee Do… only without any lunch.
Lee Do’s following flashback is one we’ve seen before – a young boy riding away on a horse saying that Lee Do can’t do anything. The paper he’s reading is written by that same child, JUNG KI-JOON. To what purpose we have yet to see.
Husband and wife share a tender moment, as Queen Soheon has heard about the events second-hand. She’s come to get answers from the King, asking him if he had anything to do with the prison break, whether he saw his father the night before, and then asking if all that is why he brought the Royal Stamp, along with the various other necessary royal accoutrements.
He doesn’t lie, and answers yes to all her questions. She’s fearful for him, and he only says that he’s going to ‘stop’ because he doesn’t have an answer or a plan for his Joseon. He asks her if she’s afraid of losing her position as Queen as a light (yet darkly humored) joke, and they connect for the first time since her father’s execution.
They’re interrupted by an official carrying a wrapped gift from Former King Taejong himself. The air is tense as we flash back to another official, who has always been on Taejong’s side, protesting against sending an empty box to Lee Do. He even cautions the Former King with a story of an emperor who sent an empty lunchbox. The moral of the story: people died.
The shock registers on everyone’s faces in the sudoku room at the sight of the empty box and we find out why – it’s an order for suicide. Taken literally, it means “do not eat”. Former King Taejong has thrown down a gauntlet of his own, working around Lee Do’s earlier defense with Mu-hyul in directly ordering his son to commit suicide. Even Lee Do wonders if what he did the night before is truly worth something like this.
Back in Ban Chon, two unknown slaves meet with a scholar. He takes them inside the temple and reveals a previously-hidden package wrapped in purple – they are charged with delivering it to a blacksmith named Lee Yun-do. However, while attempting to escape the village at night they’re caught and delivered to the woman who earlier welcomed Ddol-bok into the village. A name for her isn’t specified (yet), so I’ll just call her the leader for now.
She recognizes the symbol on the journal and hides her reaction when Ddol-bok is brought into the middle of the circle with the two previously-captured slaves. He has to be gagged because he can’t stop screaming, and let me tell you, thank goodness for small favors.
First things first: the fate of the two slaves. She lectures them on how Ban Chon has survived the bloodshed of the years since Joseon was started (at this point the Joseon Dynasty was still relatively new). Ban Chon even survived the night Taejong killed Jung Do-jun by sacrificing the two slaves that had been involved – one who told Taejong where Jung Do Jun was, and one who reported to Jung Do-jun that Taejong had taken the army. We’ve heard Jung Do-jun mentioned earlier by Lee Do as a bone of contention he has with his father – and historically this is accurate, as Jung Do-jun was killed in a first-offensive coup by Taejong in 1398, before Taejong officially became the ruler we see now.
So, the first rule of Ban Chon is: you don’t meddle in the King’s affairs. The second rule of Ban Chon is: you don’t judge what’s right or wrong (the two men believe that Jung Do-jun was killed without cause). The leader demonstrates this by burning the journal of Jung Do-jun that was inside the package and ordering the two men to commit suicide. One does, and one tries not to – and gets killed anyway. Ddol-bok can only look on as the two bodies are hauled off and he’s the only one left in the circle.
Ddol-bok is young and fearless, and though the leader seems to be kinder as she deals with Ddol-bok and tells him not to be afraid (that’s going to be difficult, considering the murder-suicide that just happened), his flippant attitude and way of speaking to her is clearly disrespectful. He presses on, answering her question of who he is and what brought him here with his own question – namely, who did bring him here? She’s in a better position to know than he is, so I’m siding with Ddol-bok on this one.
His bad temper ends up getting a blade held to his throat – and even then, he doesn’t stop with his challenges. He even goes so far as to dare the man to kill him. We know that Ddol-bok has a terrible temper and that he’s been through a lot, but what really adds some nice texture to his fearless display is the fact that he loses control of his bladder – and everyone sees. Ddol-bok is probably aware, but he doesn’t let it show and doesn’t break his brave facade.
It seems as though Ddol-bok is about to be killed, but the leader puts a stop to it. We see in flash back who did bring Ddol-bok, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us – it was none other than Mu-hyul, acting under Lee Do’s orders. He tells the leader that Ddol-bok has anger problems (after his last twenty-four hours, understandable) and that she can make him calm and as her servant. But, if she can’t control him, Mu-hyul tells her to just kill him without hesitation.
Ddol-bok definitely doesn’t seem any calmer, but she does hesitate. For what reasons we aren’t exactly sure – maybe it’s pity or instinct on her part – but she spares his life. Ddol-bok can only offer a smirk in return.
Lee Do is left to contemplate the empty lunch box while Taejong watches over an assembly for the army in full battle regalia. Mu-hyul goes into the sudoku room and kneels before Lee Do, pleading with him to ask his father for forgiveness. He says that he’s lived only by the sword and doesn’t understand politics, but:
Mu-hyul: “If this were a fight, I think this is the time you take a step backwards.”
This sparks something in Lee Do, who thinks about stepping back and waiting for the right time to strike – only he doesn’t have an answer. All he has are his useless games…
Ding! A realization comes to him as he looks over all his math games (note: the real term for his math game is the ‘Lo Shu Square’, but for ease of use we’ll call it sudoku), as he sees that the shape of the lunch box is exactly like sudoku. Mu-hyul isn’t following, but Lee Do is on a roll and brings all the court maids into the room. He’s figured out how to solve the puzzle using the pattern of the lunch box. Well, when life gives you lemons (or an order for suicide)…
He begins with the small 9×9 grid, using the diamond shape of the lunch box as a guide. I’m not a math person at all so I can’t quite tell you how it works, only that it does and it looks amazing. The very act of solving it is shot and edited so well we feel almost as accomplished as Lee Do by the end.
As opposed to his father ‘solving’ the game by removing all numbers but the number one, Lee Do has found his own way. Where his father said he should have all the power for himself, Lee Do has found the meaning of the lunch box and his own plan. Before going to see his father, he sends a slightly bewildered Mu-hyul to retrieve all the royal things (stamp, seal, and brand) that he’d taken earlier.
Lee Do enters the courtyard where his father and the royal army are assembled, practicing war formations and archery. They’ve just launched a volley of arrows at the targets situated right by the main door, and everyone halts as Lee Do enters. Only resolve paints Lee Do’s features before he begins a glorious walk forward, and the battle of wills between him and his father is back in full strength.
The archers refuse to fire when Taejong gives his first command, and so he takes it upon himself to take charge of the launching flag – and Lee Do never stops walking forward. Taejong waves the flag and gives the order to fire.
Wow, what a way to end an episode. Sometimes it’s silly to base a cliffhanger off something we know inherently can’t happen (we know Sejong is a main character in this story, thus he can’t die here), but this show weaves its tale in such a way that it seems like it still could happen. It’s beautiful visual imagery packed on top of beautiful visual imagery, but I don’t feel like we’re getting style-over-substance here. When you have a good director, a good script, and a good cinematographer – style and substance can come together to just enhance the experience, like they do in this drama. It’s wonderful.
This episode really belonged to Song Joong Ki, who just owned his scenes as a king who’s finally found his spine. The scene where he first stands up to his father literally had me rooting and cheering as he went from his meek, reverent voice to his Official King Voice. He’s proven himself an actor to me now, as that scene and all the scenes that followed in this episode took major acting chops – and he delivered again and again. I’m only sad because I know we’ll have to see him go, but at least he’s made an impact while he was here.
Following Ddol-bok’s story, in comparison, was just a little more tedious to me. A lot of intense things happened to Ddol-bok during the episode, and we know he’s survived this far by being a tough kid, but I’ve never been quite so tired of seeing the whites of an actor’s eyes before. He’s constantly angry and constantly on guard (save one interlude where he marvels at the slave village), thus his eyes are always wide-open. I don’t know if this is an attempt to mimic Jang Hyuk’s intensity, but the kid had some heavy scenes to play and he still did them well, so this is really a minor point.
I haven’t been worrying at all about what this drama does or does not directly take from history since it’s based off a fictional novel (which to me makes for more fun), but it is fun to see some true historical facts taken into the narrative, like Jung Do-jun’s death by Taejong. I’m guessing that all these players are being set up now for our future political conspiracies, and at this rate, I can only be excited for what’s in store. And I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but: can we have more math, please? It’s just so darn pretty.
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- Tree With Deep Roots’ posters, teasers, stills
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