Okay, this show cracks me up. I just didn’t know what to expect going in, thinking it’d be Daemul-meets-IRIS, judging from the uninspired promos. They made me yawn, those suckers. But I’m happy to report that The King 2 Hearts is a dark comedy, and pretty damn pitch-perfect at that. On the upside, it’s not what I expected and I laughed the whole way through. On the downside, my dance card’s filling up fast, and I’ve barely gotten through half of March’s premieres. Sigh. Sleep is for the lazy?
Ratings: King leads out of the gate at 16.2% for its premiere.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open on the royal palace, 1989. A teenage boy wakes up in the middle of the night to find the place buzzing with activity. He watches worriedly as he circles the back halls and finally crosses paths with the head advisor EUN KYU-TAE (Lee Soon-jae).
The man bows, “Crown Prince.” The prince asks, scared, “Has war begun?”
But no, it’s the coming down of the Berlin Wall that’s got everyone up at night. The prince, LEE JAE-KANG (later Lee Sung-min) joins his family as they watch the wall come down on television.
Little Bro wakes up, indignant about his gameboy breaking down (remember those?), and Hyung snaps at him that it’s not the time. Mom ushers the little one back to bed as the prince and his father watch the fireworks onscreen.
As we might’ve guessed, petulant little bro is our hero, LEE JAE-HA (later Lee Seung-gi), who’s already an ass before the age of ten. Mom (the queen, played by Yoon Yeo-jung) takes him to school where he hits on the first girl he sees and invites her to the palace for a playdate. Ha.
He runs off looking for his hyung. Jae-kang is busy though, as a couple of boys from his class start pushing him around saying that their familes are the ones who pay for his lavish lifestyle. He holds back his temper, knowing he’s not supposed to fight.
The bully yells at him to lower his eyes, when Jae-ha finds them… and then Lil’ Shrimpy totally attacks like he’s seven feet tall, with a gameboy to the head and a kick to the nuts. This kid cracks me up.
He gets in the middle of the fight, wanting to protect his hyung, and then the bully finally has enough and pushes the kid to the ground. That’s enough to break Jae-kang’s resolve, and fists go flying.
The boys all land in a big scuffle, while one boy hangs back, not knowing what to do. Shaking, he takes a pen out of his pocket… and then stabs Jae-ha with it. Damn, he’s just a kid! Teachers finally come to break it up, and the pen-stabber hides the evidence.
Jae-kang tends to Jae-ha’s wound, assuring him that no one will tell Mom about the fight. “Why’d you even jump in? You’re so little.” Jae-ha: “You were gonna get hurt!” The brotherly love is just the cutest thing.
Jae-ha says hyung can’t get hurt ever, because he’s going to be the future king. Jae-kang says it’s fine, ’cause if anything happens to him, Jae-ha can be king. The little boy gets the heebie jeebies just thinking about it, even at that age, and declares that he does NOT want all that annoying pressure and meddling. Most importantly, his gameboy would be taken away. Hee. So “If you make me be king, *fist in air* you’re dead!”
Jae-kang locks him in the room as punishment for his disloyal thoughts. As Jae-ha pouts, he notices something strange by the window on the other side of the room. It’s a person, tapping quietly on the window. Creepy.
He slowly approaches, as the figure starts to write something into the frost on the window: “I… am… KING.” Alarmed, Jae-ha tries to peer through the letters to see who it is. The boy doesn’t try to hide – it’s the pen-stabber. He looks Jae-ha straight in the eyes with a death glare, as he wipes the window clean. Okay, that’s a pretty effective villain, ’cause I’m creeped out.
Cut to: grown-up Jae-ha, coughing for dear life during army training, 23 years later. Even then, he’s screaming, “Hyuuuung!” like a normal person screams mommy. They have to restrain him just to get him to endure the gas training, but he wriggles free, tears the mask off his superior, flees, and causes a giant ruckus.
He gripes like a child the whole way out, screaming that they’re all going to lose their shirts, he’ll see to that. So, basically he’s the same. Ha.
Meanwhile Hyung has become the new king. As Jae-kang walks through the same memorial hall we saw in the opening, he passes a portrait of his father, now passed. He marches in to a pressure-filled joint meeting between high-ranking generals from both North and South Korea.
He takes to the podium and says that twenty-three years ago, his father watched the Berlin wall come down and said that there would come a day when North and South Korean soldiers would fight and train together.
He says that the day has finally arrived, and announces the joint participation of both countries’ soldiers in an international competition, called World Officer Championship (basically they’re entering as one country for an international war game).
One of the Northern generals says he’s got a great candidate for the one female soldier each team is required to have—his daughter. Intro to KIM HANG-AH (Ha Ji-won) who marches down the hall with purpose in an army camp in Pyongyang.
She’s called over to the med ward with an emergency. One of the guys on the war games team has broken his arm, and now they’re out one member. The commanding officer looks at her, “Now, I wonder who could replace him…”
She refuses, saying that she’s done her fair share of this stuff and isn’t going to participate. The general just sighs and starts taking off his jacket, “Fine, I guess I’ll just do it myself… Ow, my back…” She rolls her eyes. Heh.
Time for the big showdown to see who will be on the final team. Hang-ah comes to the mat and mumurs to her opponent that she’s got stuff to do, so let’s go easy, huh? She gains the upper hand quickly, but the guy’s here to WIN, and gets vicious.
He draws some blood, and she’s like, I told you let’s go easy. Her eyes light up, ready for a real fight. They both get in some good punches, but then the fight leaves the mat, and the guy grabs a chair to swing at her.
A chair? Are there no rules to this game? It doesn’t matter though, because she knocks him down in the end, with attitude to spare. The general that pushed her to participate adorably gives her a standing ovation like an overly proud father.
The next day she looks at her face in the mirror, sighing at her cuts and bruises. Today she’s all dressed up and skipping down to the subway in high heels, to meet her girlfriends.
Turns out her friends are there to set her up on a blind date, sighing at her fresh wounds and dark circles. They wonder if her father doesn’t have any good prospects for her to meet, and one of them quips, “Don’t you know, to her father, she’s Hwang Jin-yi.” Ha. Nice meta.
They train her on how to be properly girly on the date, and tell her that today, she WILL get her hands dirty. Rawr. She’s embarrassed, but she does agree that it’s time she stop making comrades.
The date takes her on a walk, and she starts looking down nervously at her hands… Oh, is this what they meant by dirty your hands? Handholding? Hahahaha. That’s cute.
She fidgets trying to inch her hand closer to his… and then when they brush together, she immediately apologizes and pulls away. Oh dear.
But he’s brave enough pick up where she left off, and takes her by the hand. He looks around and then pulls her aside, leaning in for a kiss. She gulps, closes her eyes, romantic music swells, snowflakes fall…
And when he’s thisclose… she instinctively throat-grabs him and shoves him away. HAHAHAHA. And then she’s like, “Well I couldn’t push your face…” She tries to salvage the date, but he says he’ll call and leaves her there.
She sighs and looks down at her own hand, like it betrayed her.
She checks her phone a million times the next day, but of course there’s no call. The general urges her to join the team and she refuses, saying it’s bad enough that the whole country thinks she’s a super scary man-killer (literally, as in killer of men), but does the entire WORLD need to think that of her too?
He’s like, that’s not your problem—the problem is your temper! She pouts that fine, it’s all her fault that while other girls were busy learning how to prettify themselves, she was busy learning how to be a soldier.
General: “So… what you’re saying is, you don’t want to join the team because it’ll interfere with your dating life?” Well when you put it that way… He finally realizes the way to hook her, and promises that in exchange, he will take responsibility for her love life. These two are hilarious.
Next thing you know, she’s on the bus about to cross the 38th parallel. They greet the press and then head down into Seoul, where Hang-ah’s eyes widen to see all her favorite Hallyu stars on billboards. Ha.
She’s especially fond of Jo In-sung, another reference on the meta parade. She breaks into a huge smile at the thought that they could possibly train together (you’re a few months late for that, but I like the way you think).
She sighs to realize that he’s already out of the army. But then she comes across an even bigger billboard of Hyun Bin, and she literally presses her face against the window: “HYUN BINNIE! It’s only been a year since HE went to the army!” LOL.
Her team leader RHEE KANG-SEOK (Jung Man-shik) sighs that she’s got her head in the clouds, but she counters that the marines are plenty impressive enough that Hyun Bin could totally be on the Southern team, youneverknow!
He tells her to stop with the frivolous things, only to do a double take at the sight of a girl group dancing on another billboard. His jaw drops, “Wh-wh-what is that?” She’s like, “That’s called dancing.” So funny.
They arrive at the palace to meet the king, and get stopped by some testy security guards, who refuse to let the third member on their team, KWONG YOUNG-BAE (Choi Kwon), inside because of a metal shunt in his toe.
Hang-ah’s pride refuses to let her back down, and she tells Young-bae to scratch or bite his toe until he gets to the metal, since they don’t trust them. She stares down the security lady like she’s about to fight, but thankfully royal aide Eun Kyu-tae arrives to apologize for the sensitivity and leads them in.
The king greets them all, and Hang-ah’s father introduces her proudly as his daughter. She’s very official in front of the king, but then she whispers to her daddy like a little girl. She asks when they’ll meet the rest of the team, and Jae-kang says they’ll meet tomorrow.
He asks her to take good care to train one of them, who’s going to be trouble. Yeah, I’ll say.
Trouble’s on his way out of army training as they speak, ecstatic to finally get out of hell. Did he just do a Charlie-Chaplin-heel-kick on his way out? Pffft.
He greets the room full of generals and the king’s entrance is announced. Everyone salutes Jae-kang, while Jae-ha does a silly wink-salute at his hyung, who smiles back. The king decorates Jae-ha with his stars (which are entirely ceremonial) and Jae-kang pats Little Bro’s face warmly.
Awwwwww. I WUB the brotherly love. So much.
They ride away together, and Jae-kang congratulates him on completing army duty. Jae-ha’s just busy thinking about all the girls he’s going to see now that he’s back in the land of the living, and leans back in comfort.
But Jae-kang looks over at him with concern, because home isn’t exactly where they’re going…
He gets woken up by Eun Kyu-tae, who tells him to watch the monitor in the car. Jae-ha wonders where they are and sleepily watches as the announcement airs on the news: that crown prince Lee Jae-ha will be a member of the North-South WOC team.
“W-who? Lee Jae-ha who? ME?” Ha. Passive-aggressive much, Jae-kang? You couldn’t just tell him yourself? Inside, Jae-ha confronts his hyung with an angry sigh.
He pleads that this is inhumane, to rope in a guy who just got released from the army a few hours ago. But hyung’s got an ironclad contract signed by Jae-ha on his way out earlier, which of course he never took the time to read.
Jae-ha stops short of hitting him with said contract, and asks, “Is this some kind of North-South peace PR thing?” Jae-kang doesn’t even hesitate: “Yes. So let me use you a little, okay?”
Jae-ha’s defense cracks me up—he tells his hyung that throughout history, princes have always tried to usurp the throne, killing their brothers for political power. But HE always protected his hyung, had his back, never once tried to kill him or anything. HA.
Jae-kang reminds him that he doesn’t want to be king, which doesn’t seem to matter to Jae-ha right now. He asks why hyung is so obsessed with WOC anyway—is it because of Dad?
Jae-kang reminds him that yes, this is their father’s legacy and his dream for reunification. But Jae-ha asks why he, why they have to be the ones to see it through.
Jae-ha: Because you’re the king? Yes, we are the royal family. Not even in the Joseon era, but in the 21st century. Do you know what that means? It means we’re puppets.
He says that their duty is to smile for the cameras like good little mannequins and nothing else. Jae-kang looks up at him, angry and heartbroken at his words.
Hang-ah gets interviewed for the WOC team, with generals from both sides conducting the interview. The southern general notes that she’s special forces, which means assassin is her trade—isn’t that a different skill set from war?
Her commanding officer sticks up for her, getting into a funny little tiff with the southern general over who’s older, but she assures them that she does teach her soldiers to be assassins, but that’s just her day job, and she’s still a soldier.
And she’s like, besides, it’s been ages since I’ve assassinated anyone. Pwahahaha. That’s… reassuring?
She tells them she can barely remember her assassin training anyway, and if she does a bad job here, they can just go ahead and fire her, no sweat. Her sense of humor puts them at ease, and she’s cleared.
They ask if she’s met everyone on the team, and she says yes, except for one. The southern general says the last one just arrived: “He’s kind of… high up. He’s the crown prince, the king’s brother.” Her eyes glaze over.
Jae-ha is still busy trying to convince his hyung that this is not their duty. Jae-kang agrees that sure, they’re figurehead positions who live off of taxpayers—so shouldn’t they DO something in return?
Jae-ha: “I did. I went to the army.” Um… everyone has to do that, which hyung points out. Jae-ha: “I’m every woman’s hopes and dreams.” Modest, are we? Jae-kang: “That was in your twenties. You have a new nickname now: Over-the-hill Bachelor Nuisance of a Prince.”
Stammering, he starts grasping at straws, “There are plenty of men who think of me as a role model, you know!” Jae-kang tosses a report at him: “Fifty-two percent of men in the country think you ought to be ousted from the palace.” Ha. He’s got an answer for everything.
This time Jae-kang takes a hard line, and tells Jae-ha to name one thing he’s done for this country. If he doesn’t want to do this, then he can go ahead and leave the palace, and he walks out.
Jae-ha stands outside, chastened, as Eun Kyu-tae reads him the royal orders for Jae-ha to be kicked out of the palace and cut off. “Or… you could join the WOC training.” That’s pretty much all it takes for Jae-ha to meekly agree. Eun Kyu-tae smiles, and says that his own son will be on the team, so he can ask him for lots of help.
Suddenly the door opens up and a stern voice commands him to attention. He’s ordered inside, where the son in question, EUN SHI-KYUNG (Jo Jung-seok), is waiting.
Jae-ha asks if he’s the royal secretary’s son, and asks for a knife, because he thinks if he cuts his finger he can get out of training like it’s P.E. class or something. But Shi-kyung is all business and just stands at attention.
Jae-ha turns back, and then sees the gun in Shi-kyung’s holster. “A gun… Okay, let’s go with a gun. Can you shoot me right here, juuuuust barely hitting the finger?” This guy takes laziness to new heights.
Playing along, Shi-kyung takes the gun out. Jae-ha flinches immediately, deciding the gun is a bad idea. But Shi-kyung points the gun straight at his heart. Jae-ha asks what he’s doing, and then challenges him to shoot if he’s got the guts.
He laughs, taking the gun away, saying, “This is how you shoot…” as he pulls the trigger right in Shi-kyung’s face. Holy crap. Jae-ha’s arm reels back, and he’s startled more than anyone.
The shot rings out and everyone gets up with a start. He didn’t aim at his head, thank goodness, but there’s a giant bullet hole in the door just past Shi-kyung’s face. Jae-ha freaks out at the live-ammo weapon, more concerned with the fact that it was once pointed at him.
He screams, “Were you actually trying to kill me?” Guards run in to check on them, weapons drawn, but Shi-kyung covers, saying that he did the shooting. Jae-ha tells them they were just messing around, but gets in Shi-kyung’s face.
He growls, “Does your father know you’re whack job? It’s too bad for you, because my vindictiveness knows no bounds. You. Are. Dead.”
Shi-kyung doesn’t flinch, and even smiles in return. He says that Jae-ha is somewhat different than advertised, and tells the officers to take him to the dorms. He leaves Jae-ha fuming impotently, “Who is that asshole?”
He swears all the way to his room, where he finds his name along with his roommie’s on the door: Rhee Kang-seok. He opens the door to find Kang-seok shirtless and having his own Ninja-Assassin moment, replete with knife-throwing.
Jae-ha wordlessly closes the door and takes off running down the hall. Hahaha.
Cue fish-eye conversation between Jae-ha and the southern general, where he insists that he cannot room with that guy, showing a clear prejudice towards the North. He asks why Shi-kyung gets his own room, arguing that they can’t have those kinds of titles here, like Team Leader and Crown Prince.
The general says that it’s regulation, and says that to be fair, the two team leaders could share a room… but the North team leader is a woman.
Jae-ha suddenly lights up: “A woman? There’s… a woman here?”
Hang-ah gets told about the room situation and has a fit, but her commander thinks they might kill two birds with one stone that way, since he promised to find her a husband and all that. She’s not having any of that.
The two teams finally meet over dinner, and Hang-ah greets each with a handshake. Jae-ha saunters in late and sighs when he sees Hang-ah, muttering under his breath that he was stupid to expect a woman.
He passes by without shaking her hand, and she says that it seems like she knows him, since she’s been studying his file. “You have a mole on your butt.” Wut? Are you wearing your see-through pants today?
Jae-ha pauses and whirls around, leaning in close, “How do you know that?” She says she has her ways of finding out, and tells him to sit down, calling him comrade. He takes issue with the term, saying they’ve never met.
She coos in that oh-did-I-hurt-your-wittle-feelings mocking tone that she’s sooo sorry, but that there will be no special treatment for brothers of kings around here. Awesome.
He rolls his eyes, and then just to be an ass, he kicks Shi-kyung’s chair out on his way to the table. Shi-kyung lands on the floor and then covers up for it, embarrassed, while Hang-ah sneaks a glare over at Jae-ha, having seen the whole thing.
They go through introductions, and Jae-ha makes quips the entire time, until Young-bae introduces himself and his base, and Jae-ha mockingly greets him like an old friend, “Oh, your unit sent spies down, and our unit killed twenty of your men! What a coincidence!”
Oh. Shit. Young-bae’s face freezes, and everyone looks over awkwardly, as Jae-ha just smiles and chatters away, asking if they should hug.
Hang-ah calls him out over and over, and he turns to her, exasperated, “Ajumma, stop calling me comrade!” She does it again, and this time the smile disappears from his face: “I’m not going to be your comrade.”
The air is tense, and Hang-ah takes a breath. Finally she smiles and asks where the restroom is.
She has Jae-ha walk her there, which he obliges, patronizing her the whole way. He asks if she can manage on her own inside, but she puts on her puppy eyes and asks him to make sure no one’s inside being a creep.
He goes in and checks the stalls, and turns around to see her locking the door behind her. He barely has a chance to ask what she’s doing, before she knocks him around like a rag doll.
She pins his arms around a mop and then leans in close to say she forgot to introduce herself, giving her name and rank. “What you in the South call special forces.”
She smiles, asking how else would she know about the mole on his ass? She’s been studying this country for years, and teaching what she’s learned. “What do you think I taught?”
She whips him to the ground and pins him down. “Crown Prince Lee Jae-ha: Kill on sight.”
I love it when a drama surprises me, but it always makes me scratch my head when shows get promoted as something they’re not. In any case, I’m happy that it isn’t the super-serious dramafest it was advertised to be. Instead it’s hysterical. I love that the setup is dramatic, but the tone is farce. It’s pretty much what I wanted Myung-wol the Spy to be.
So far the casting is pitch-perfect as well. Though they’re clearly cast to type—no breaking any molds here—but it works for the characters. Ha Ji-won is actually badass (yay) instead of supposedly being so, but also displays quite the penchant for self-deprecating humor. Seung-gi’s played this character many times before (in fact it might be the only character type he’s played), but this tone seems to fit him like a glove. He made me laugh out loud more than a few times, keeping that straight face while being absolutely ridiculous.
I like that she’s a hardass on the outside with a soft underbelly, while he’s the doughy goof on the outside with a hidden courageous side. The kids did a lot to set up the characters in an endearing way—meeting Jae-ha as an adult would’ve been as funny, but not as sweet. The brotherly love from childhood to adulthood is really what hooked me, character-wise, and I like their ideological conflict that carries through to the present day. So far I like the questions the drama is asking of the world it sets up—is a monarchy just an empty puppet, a civil servant, a leader, a waste of taxes? And is reunification an impossible pipe dream? Though they’re secondary to the romance, it’s nice to know that they’re being asked.
It feels like a full world, populated with interesting characters. Already Shi-kyung intrigues me, I like Jae-kang as the king, and ninja-assassin Kang-seok’s going to be a hilarious roommate. For a pilot that has a lot of alternaverse setting up to do, it felt well-paced and securely executed. It helps that the production value is through the roof, because it looks slick and impressive. But what impresses me most is the sense that they’re not afraid to go balls-out for humor, trusting that the universe will be believable no matter how far they push it.
I’ve been burned after good pilots before though, so we’ll see if it can keep me invested, and more importantly, keep me laughing.