The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 20 (Final)
Finally, the finale! The show sure has poured on the speed in the last several episodes. hurtling us toward conclusions and endings, both happy and sad. Whether or not the show’s ratio on that latter point is satisfactory is up to you to decide.
The show bowed out with series high ratings of 42.2%, crushing the (nonexistent) competition. (To be fair, there was basically no competition, with a Drama Special on one rival station and a Salaryman special on the other.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Wheesung – “눈물길” (Tear ducts) from The Moon That Embraces the Sun’s OST.
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FINAL EPISODE RECAP
The brothers face off over their drawn swords, surrounded by rebels. In flashback, we see that Minister Yoon had demanded that Yang-myung be the one to kill the king, in order to convince everybody this wasn’t a trick. Yang-myung had agreed.
Now, Minister Yoon shouts at Yang-myung to finish the deed without hesitation. The brothers stay frozen in place while everybody watches, waiting for him to make his move.
Another flashback takes us to a previous confrontation, when Hwon had given his brother the opportunity to attack him and Yang-myung hadn’t taken it.
Yang-myung’s words had sounded cryptic then, but make sense now: this was a test to determine how Yang-myung would act the next time he challenged Hwon’s life.
Ergo, both brothers know in advance that Yang-myung won’t do it. So do we, for that matter, and the suddenness of Yang-myung’s flip-flop (and subsequent flop-flip?) means that none of this carries the dramatic impact it ought (oh, what could have been). But points for trying.
So now, Yang-myung raises his sword and sounds a battle cry… then whirls and strikes down one of the minister-rebels instead. This gives Hwon the chance to race to safety alongside his brother.
More flashbackery shows us that this was all planned by Hwon, who had predicted that Yang-myung would be approached by the traitors, and given him the instructions to go along with the plot. Everything had been Hwon’s idea, to crush the rebels once and for all, for the safety of the nation and, specifically, Yeon-woo.
Minister Yoon leads the charge to advance anyway, since they’ve got numbers on their side. Until, that is, a surprise contingent of troops swarms in, having waited for their moment to catch the insurgents off-guard. Tide turned.
The king’s troops shut the gates, ensuring that the swift battle be confined in the small courtyard. Hwon orders the “hunt” to begin.
The fight commences, with Woon and Yang-myung joining the fray together. Minister Yoon holds his own and demands the deaths of the king and prince.
Without needing to be told, Bo-kyung already knows that her father and her husband are battling it out. No matter which way the wind blows, she’s doomed; as she walks despondently through the empty palace dragging a white cloth, she knows she is about to be deposed. She thinks sadly, “From the day I first saw you, all I wanted was one thing: your heart.”
She comes to her destination and starts tying the cloth to a tree. She has decided that she will die a queen, still Hwon’s woman, before others strip her of that title. Aw. Suicide can be a storytelling crutch for many a melodramatic finale, but there’s a sad logic to her actions.
One by one, the lesser ministers in the Council of Evil go down. Yang-myung declares that he’s got the roster of traitors: “Take it from me if you can.” No, don’t tempt Fate! I have a bad feeling about this.
Minister Yoon is literally the last man standing, and he sees all his men lying dead around him. Now it’s Hwon’s turn to raise his weapon, and he sends an arrow flying into his leg. It’s not a fatal injury, and Minister Yoon charges the king anyway. Yang-myung cuts him down, delivering the deathblow, and the brothers smile in relief that all is done.
Except no, it’s not quite done. A rebel staggers to his feet behind Yang-myung’s back — ack, you can’t kill him now, when he’s safe! Hwon sees the danger and calls out a warning as the traitor grabs a spear.
Yang-myung sees the threat, who’s gathering his strength to attack… and then turns his back to the rebel. WHAT? You could just walk away, and you’re giving him a clear shot?
He faces the king, who looks at him in dawning horror, and thinks, “Please forgive my foolish choice. The heavens can only contain one sun. Now I will be the cause of no more chaos.”
Yang-myung drops his sword and awaits his fate. Arrrrrghasldkfjaldkjfalkjfas. Hulk angry, keyboard smash.
The spear flies through his abdomen, and Hwon screams, “Hyungnim!”
Nok-young and Jan-shil look up at the sky to see two suns converging. Just in case the metaphor wasn’t clear enough and you spent twenty episodes not getting it. The moment the suns meet, we also see one moon being swallowed up, symbolizing the death of Bo-kyung.
Woon cradles Yang-myung in his last moments while Hwon cries at his side. Yang-myung is smiling to the last, joking with his dying gulps that he’s gotten tired of playing the profligate. He tells Hwon not to cry: “I am fine.” He takes out the book of names and hands them over.
Yang-myung: “Once, I resented you for having everything. And so, I even desired your throne. But my friends and you, my brother, were too precious to me, to take that place from you. Be a strong ruler, and protect this nation’s people alongside her. I will watch over you from that place.”
Yang-myung looks up at the sky, now thinking inwardly that he will meet his father soon — not as king, but as a parent. If he has regrets, it’s for the mother he leaves behind. His last memory is of young Yeon-woo, and then he dies.
Hwon begs his brother to open his eyes, sobbing that it’s a royal order.
Yeon-woo is taken to a house where she will be safe, and steps inside the gate. Who should cross her path but her mother, who recognizes her on sight. Yeon-woo bursts into tears, and confirms that she’s really alive.
They hold each other and sob, which brings Yeom outside to check on his mother. His reaction is more contained, although it’s not a surprise to him because he was prepared for this by Seol.
Yeom has told his mother the gist of Min-hwa’s involvement, and she laments the dilemma of Min-hwa’s wrongdoing with her place in this family, and her unborn child to boot.
Yeon-woo leaves her mother to rest and finds Yeom outside, but he refuses to look at her. She understands that he blames himself, and tells him not to — that so doing would just make her blame herself for staying alive. Oh good lord, you wonder duo of noble idiocy. Then again, I suppose it’s an argument that works, since they’re equals on this front.
Yeom says he’s wronged her horribly, and that everything is his fault. (Which… totally doesn’t compute. Is he blaming himself for being so pretty that Min-hwa couldn’t help but be forced to dark sorcery to have him? That just takes “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” to new extremes, yeah?)
Yeon-woo just asks for him to be pleased that she’s here and living, and he hugs her, thanking her for being alive. She thanks him for the same.
At the sound of a visitor, Min-hwa insists she won’t eat, thinking it’s her lady in waiting, only to realize Yeon-woo stands there. Yeon-woo asks if she has decided to die along with her baby, and Min-hwa asks if that’s what Yeon-woo would like; it makes no sense to her that Yeon-woo would want her to live. Yeon-woo concedes that Min-hwa consoled her mother over the years, and has given her brother a child.
If Yeon-woo’s excessively good response is cause for frustration, at least there’s consolation in the fact that she doesn’t sound happy about it. Min-hwa can’t understand it and tells her to fly at her in a rage, or grab her hair, or do something — then, at least she could beg for forgiveness.
Yeon-woo fires back angrily, “Do you need my forgiveness? Fine, I’ll give it.” She says she’ll do it for Yeom and Hwon, who have been hurt by Min-hwa’s actions and have begged her forgiveness and suffered in Min-hwa’s place: “But live. Beg for that forgiveness, and atone for your sin yourself. Not through the king or my brother, but you yourself.”
Well, that’s actually pretty satisfying, as far as conflicted smackdowns go. Chastened, Min-hwa starts to eat and says, “Thank you… for living.” Yeon-woo replies, “Give me a reason to say the same.”
That night, Woon imagines Yang-myung coming to see him, healthy and joking. It’s not a crazy vision; Woon speaks to him as a ghost, asking how it feels on the other side. Yang-myung answers that he likes not having to fake smiles anymore, or pretend to enjoy drinking, or be a danger to the king. Most of all, he can carry a torch for Yeon-woo to his heart’s content.
Woon asks a question he’s often had to answer: “Do you still consider me your friend, even now?” Yang-myung replies, “Of course. All this while, and from now on as well, you are my friend.”
Another body lies silently in the palace: Bo-kyung, who has been discovered and laid in her chamber. There’s a rope burn around her neck and her ladies sob.
Hwon comes to her bedside and closes her eyes, then staggers out of the queen’s quarters with a heavy heart. Yeon-woo meets him in the courtyard and comforts him as he cries.
Hwon presides over his court — with some conspicuously empty seats — and outlines the path to recovery. Fitting punishments will be doled out to the guilty, while the falsely accused will be cleared.
This includes punishment for Princess Min-hwa, who will lose her status and be made a government slave after giving birth. Yeom is culpable by association, and as punishment he will be divorced and “demoted,” taking back his previous status before marrying into royalty. At least silver lining isn’t hard to find there, since the so-called punishment effectively gives back his clipped wings.
Nok-young is given special consideration for saving the princess’s life, and will leave Seongsucheong following the upcoming memorial rites. Jan-shil wants to follow her, but Nok-young tells her to remain behind and watch over Seongsucheong.
Nok-young performs rites for the recently departed, assuring them that she will take them on to the hereafter. She prays for heaven to wash clean the evil from this land, and offers up her own body — an instrument in so many sins — as the sacrificial offering for this last spell. (It sort of makes you wonder at all the grief that would’ve been spared if she just refused to cast the first spell, doesn’t it? I mean, what was to stop her from lying and just saying, “Sorry queenie, that’s not possible”?)
She prays for the remaining sun and moon to see happiness and light, and falls to the ground. Dead.
With order restored, it’s time for another wedding ceremony as Yeon-woo is made the new queen. On their wedding night, Hwon practically twitches in impatience and interrupts the court lady — who’s pouring wine slooooooowly — telling everybody they’re dismissed. Rawr.
The court lady reaches to help him out of his robes, but he rears back and warns her away: “The queen hasn’t even touched this body yet!” He declares that the queen will attend to him (I’m sure she will; waggles eyebrows) and orders them out.
He holds out a hand to Yeon-woo, then pulls her toward himself, sliding her across the floor. That’s a pretty slick move for a virgin king. Then he whirls her to the bedding, landing on top of her, in an echo of that night he discovered her as his sleep-aid amulet. He repeats the same words: “Who are you? What is your true identity?”
Yeon-woo replies, “I am your woman, the mother of this nation, Heo Yeon-woo.”
Fade to black…
…and when we reopen, several years have passed.
At the palace, two young boys run around the courtyard together — cousin princes, from the look of it. Yeon-woo sits with her brother, now wearing the robes of a government official. One son is his, and the other one hers.
She tells Yeom that Min-hwa has been granted a status change, raised from the lowest class to commoner status. The king has deemed her punishment fulfilled and released her from servitude. Yeom looks troubled at the news, but Yeon-woo tells him that if his continued resistance toward Min-hwa is out of lingering regret for Yeon-woo, he can stop feeling guilty. Furthermore, the child needs his mother.
To underscore that point, the prince trips and falls, and Yeon-woo hurries to check that he’s fine. His cousin looks sad (I’m going with sad; it’s hard to tell the acting of kiddos this young) and envious over the example of motherly affection.
The king joins the party and the prince totters off happily with Woon to learn swordfighting. Yeom’s boy says he likes books better than fighting, prompting a comment on apples not falling far from trees.
Hwon says that the prince is a lot like Yang-myung, given his interest in swordsmanship and his fondness for Woon. Yeom replies that you could say the prince resembles Hwon, too, in that.
As Yeom leaves the palace, he asks his son if he misses his mother; it’s something the boy has tried to hide, but Yeon-woo’s words have made Yeom attentive.
A group of shamans happens across their path, and Jan-shil recognizes him, asking if he knows Seol. She explains that Seol asks her the same question every day: “Is he happy? He must be happy, he must.” Yeom looks pensive at the question, thinking it over.
That night, Yeon-woo surprises Hwon with one of his games: She has hidden a gift in this room for him. The word “gift” strikes a chord, though, and he immediately gets up with a nervous gulp and excuses himself. His departure makes his court ladies wonder — he’s usually so insistent on being with the queen that he won’t leave until he’s called away. Could he have finally tired of her? Does he perhaps have another woman hidden away in his quarters?
In his own chamber, he asks if preparations are complete, and sure enough, a woman steps out of his secret room: his gayageum teacher. She’s here to prepare him for a surprise performance on Yeon-woo’s birthday, ha. Hwon boasts that he’s a fast learner and will be a quick study, then hilariously struggles to follow along. I think Hyung-sun’s expression says it all.
Frustrated, he shoves the gayageum away and blames it for sucking. Hyung-sun offers to check the validity of the instrument, then demonstrates his own amazing proficiency on it. He determines that the problem doesn’t lie with the gayageum, rubbing in the fact that he learned by watching the king’s lessons. Haha. Thoroughly schooled, Hwon pouts, “Face the wall.”
Yeom and his son walk hand in hand down the road, not seeing Min-hwa peering around the corner. In tears, she watches her men walking away before continuing on her own way.
To her surprise, she finds Yeom and her son standing in her path. To explain her unwanted presence, she tells him that the king has lifted her slave status, but now she has nowhere to go: “I wanted to see you one last time…”
The boy guesses that she’s his mother, and her spirits lift. Out of respect for Yeom’s feelings, she keeps her distance and promises not to come looking for them anymore. She keeps her head bowed and meekly asks forgiveness for this transgression.
Yeom watches tearily as she turns to leave, and then runs after her. As he back-hugs her, she says that she thought he wouldn’t forgive her. He says he meant not to, if anything as self-punishment: “But now, I want to be happy.” Family hug.
Hilariously, the king steadily practices his musical skills in his spare moments, taking a meeting with a puzzled Hong Kyu-tae (now a minister) while working his air-gayageum. That cracks me up.
Hwon’s preoccupation with his wife’s birthday present leaves Yeon-woo bored and alone, until she’s finally taken to Hidden Moon for the performance.
Hwon awaits with his gayageum and wishes her a happy birthday, then proceeds with a relatively proficient performance that Yeon-woo finds moving. All goes well until Hwon breaks a string, and Yeon-woo hurries to his side to check on his hand… at which point a gayageum continues playing, elsewhere. Omg, did you just pull a Singin’ in the Rain? Is Hyung-sun hidden in some room, rockin’ out?
Thoroughly busted, Yeon-woo levels him with a mock-reproving look, while he looks like an errant schoolboy with his hand in the cookie jar. He asks if she’s disappointed at this weak gift, and she says no, she enjoyed it.
He offers a different gift instead, and she teases, “Will you send flower petals from the rooftop?” He laughs that Hyung-sun’s too old to climb roofs these days. Good thing he has something even better.
And yes, as we pull away, we find Hyung-sun indeed around the corner, playing his little heart out.
And the juggernaut comes to an end. How’s that for a way to tie up loose ends, nice and neat? Regardless of whether they were tied in logical ways, that is. The point is: they’re tied, all right?
I suppose how you feel about the drama’s finale depends on what you wanted out of it: A return to its heyday of feel-good warmth? A sudden upswing in storytelling skill to do the premise justice? A happy romantic ending for Hwon and Yeon-woo? A happy ending for everyone? Retribution for all the evils perpetrated and a return to “order”?
Some of those things, we got. Others were a pipe dream. It was a pretty bloodthirsty wrap-up with a high body count, especially counting yesterday’s deaths. That’s not surprising given the gravity of crimes and conflicts we’re dealing with, but it does feel a bit like people got killed off because that was the easiest way to tie off that loose end, rather than necessarily working with our story. (And we’ve established that narrative integrity isn’t exactly this drama’s high point.) In that regard, the final body count sort of proves the skewed focus of the drama all along, because Hwon and Yeon-woo are the only ones who get their happy ever after, and the others die.
It proves (lest we forget) that this has always been, first and foremost, a romance drama. In fact, it’s basically only a romance drama. The other stuff — court plots, family strife, struggles with power — are just incidental to the love story. As such, they’re used as story tools, picked up and dropped when convenient, without having a life of their own. That’s a shame, because if any of the characters outside of Hwon and Yeon-woo had purpose beyond their function in Hwon and Yeon-woo’s story, they could have been lovely and interesting.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the character of Yang-myung. I’m deeply dissatisfied with the way he went out, even though I recognize that it makes a lot of sense for him to die. His life would always endanger Hwon’s (although I’ll argue that it’s no reason to kill yourself), so I get his stupidly noble decision to spare his brother more strife. And I was predicting that he probably would sacrifice himself; thus, death in itself isn’t the issue. It’s the fatalistic, offer-myself-up-to-fate way he faced his attacker that drove me a little bit insane.
It’s something of a no-win situation to begin with, because if he’d been taken by surprise, that would’ve been horrible. And yet for him to march into the face of death willingly? Urgggg, I just hate that he gave up, and worse, the drama then had the audacity to tell us he’s happy with this because he can stop pretending to be happy when he’s not. Or, yunno, you could’ve just become an emotionally honest person WHO’S ALIVE. In this case I would have preferred the extremely cliched, unoriginal scenario where he takes the deathblow saving his brother, because at least there it’s a choice that isn’t quite so much like suicide.
But, as we know, Yang-myung isn’t really an autonomous character so much as he is a narrative puppet to the whims of Storyline Hwon and Yeon-woo — so he is easily sacrificed, right? Just as long as we camouflage the death in the trappings of glory and sacrifice. Ugh, stupid moon-sun metaphor.
Another example of a wasted character: Seol. I’ll hand it to the show for knowing how to wring out the pathos of a moment in a purely technical sense, because I found myself crying over her death despite having no particular opinion of her character. In fact, that goes for the entire finale, because this is a drama that has long ceased to have any emotional grip on me, and yet I found the tearful moments appropriately tear-inducing, and was surprised at how much I cried along with the characters. Even though I could really not care much less about them as characters.
I feel like Seol got her heroic death as an afterthought, because what else were they going to do with her? Sure, let’s give her an ending that’s completely out of step with her place in the story, if that means we wring a few extra tears out of the audience. (I say this having wanted for Seol to play more of a role all drama long and being disappointed at her lack of presence or significance.)
Bo-kyung, too, got knocked off because the story needed the queen out of the picture and death was a convenient way to do it. Like Yang-myung, death was the only way to remove her as a threat to our characters, because even if she had been merely deposed, she would always be a threat who might garner support from more rebels. So yes, it makes sense. On the other hand, it feels like a cop-out to just wipe out all our opponents; in that, you’re not really solving problems. You’re just benefiting from happy coincidence. But of all the deaths, I’ll give the drama some credit for giving Bo-kyung a compelling logic for her actions, as her last way of asserting herself in a situation where she had no power. She could at least choose to die the queen, and not a dishonored usurper.
I do have to say the drama drives me batty with its shit-for-brains approach to women characters, though, which has been a problem all the way through. The ending only solidifies the problematic approach to the ladies, who are depicted as pawns or slaves to love. Every single woman has reduced her own identity to its association with a man. That she does so of her own accord makes it more infuriating. You have a queen, a princess, a noblewoman-turned-princess, a (supposedly) badass warrior — and each woman defines herself in relation to a man. I want to scream at them to have a little agency, to be better than that.
Even the smart-as-a-whip Yeon-woo — who as a thirteen-year-old railed against the injustice of the class-based social order — in the end just sat around, willing to leave her fate in the hands of others, until her man stepped in solved the problem, all, There ya go, little lady, I fixed it fer ya.
All that said, I thought the finale was true to the spirit of the show. It wasn’t going to miraculously turn a corner and start making perfect logical sense, but our good guys prevailed (although some in death), and our baddies saw the business end of the pointy stick. The drama was never at the top of the narrative game — or even the acting, or production-quality games, for that matter — but sometimes you have to give props to something that can capture attentions. Regardless of whether it was for the “right” reasons, Moon/Sun had a certain something that had the nation tuning in, eager to see how things ended up for our characters. You can’t quantify that kind of magnetic pull. Or maybe you can, and its name is 42.2%.
URG. What the frack, drama? WHY DID YANG-MYUNG HAVE TO DIE? It wasn’t even a heroic death, or a strategic one. I thought that if he were fated to die, it’d be motivated by a last big heroic deed to protect his brother. But to just lay down his sword? I get the basic concept (repeated ad nauseum) of there-can’t-be-two-suns-in-the-sky, but it’s kind of moot when you’ve already conquered all the baddies. They’re all defeated. Time to party. Not time to die. You could go live your life as a wanderer and have all the friends you want, or have no friends and tell all your problems to rocks! Whatever! Gah. I’m fine with death if it’s properly motivated, but this was just senseless.
I think my biggest problem with this drama is that all our main characters were entirely reactive, passive characters, always one step behind and reacting to whatever happened to them. It took twenty episodes of build-up to have the king orchestrate one really big coup-reversal, but there was so much more that both he and Yeon-woo could have done to actively change their fates. It just wasn’t a priority for this drama, which consistently drove me crazy.
Overall they took one flimsy premise and then tried to stretch it for twenty episodes, instead of building a complex world with layered characters and trusting that new conflicts would drive the story forward. We basically knew exactly what would happen with the central story from day one, and it never once deviated from that path. I was behind the main couple, but their journey never really gripped me or swept me up in an epic way. And I wanted it to, really.
Perhaps when everything is left to Fate and the players given so little agency, it’s hard to root for them because they just remain in the same place for so long. I actually think the reason everyone praises the childhood portion of this drama compared to the adult years has little to do with the actors, and more to do with the characters. They were young, idealistic, and had wide-open possibilities. They spoke their minds and wanted to change the world. Of course we rooted for them.
But they quickly grew up into dutiful, passive adults who time and again let other people decide how their lives would be. Yang-myung giving up like that was just the nail in the coffin for me. Yes, Hwon turned it around in the end, but it doesn’t make up for the drama hours I spent watching him be a shell of his former spunky prince. Had THAT been the central focus of the drama, it might’ve helped to ground the conflict in something a little meatier than restoring the princess bride to her rightful place.
It was undeniably a very beautiful show to look at, and there were adorable moments of lightness and cute that made the episodes themselves very easy to watch and enjoyable. I had a good time, so I certainly don’t hate the drama or have any horrible grudge against it. I just wanted more from it, because the story had potential to be much more complex. But it chose to stay on the surface, which means I consumed it much like cotton candy – it was sweet and colorful, but disappeared into thin air.
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 19
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 18
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 17
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 16
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 15
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 14
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 13
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 12
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 11
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 10
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 9
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 8
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 7
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 6
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 5
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 4
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 3
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 2
- The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 1