Gaksital is awesome again, and for that I am greatly relieved. The last couple of episodes had me worried that we were running out of punch—it still had plenty of plot, but there was simply too much laborious maneuvering, with too few character moments to engage my feelings. I enjoy thinking in a drama, but it’s never a good thing when you have to exert serious brainpower just to understand what’s going unfolding a basic level.
So while I suppose setup is necessary, I’m glad we’re finally getting some serious emotional payoffs, with more entanglements to further cloud the waters of our characters’ relationships. Characters try to figure out what how far to go without losing oneself, battle their internal demons, and oh yeah, some external ones too.
SONG OF THE DAY
Monni – “I Know You” [ Download ]
EPISODE 11 RECAP
In his Gaksital guise, Kang-to delivers his “retribution for sins” to the weaselly bank president Jo via a deadly blow to the head. He takes the papers documenting the sale of the Korean marketplace and leaves the building, only to stumble right into Shunji’s trap. Damn, Shunji’s tapping into some major dark side if he’s so easily willing to trade President Jo’s life for Gaksital’s capture. Granted maybe the guy deserved his retribution, but the cold-bloodedness of the trap is a little chilling.
Shunji launches himself and sword at Gaksital, getting so close that he slices Kang-to’s shirt. I know neither can die so early into their rivalry, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for Kang-to, who has always been a hair less skilled with the sword than Shunji. Plus there’s the whole part where Kang-to’s heart isn’t in it to kill Shunji, much like his brother’s frame of mind when fighting him.
Shunji does indeed gain the upper hand, holding sword to throat and keeping Gaksital frozen in place. Until Koiso tries to “help” by shooting at them from afar, missing, and providing just enough distraction for a getaway. Aw, Koiso, you’re MVP on Team Gaksital tonight. Somebody’s getting reamed at the station later…
While Kang-to leaps from rooftop to rooftop, Shunji chases on foot through the streets and loses the trail. But realizes: “The marketplace.”
Sure enough, Gaksital puts in an appearance amid the despairing villagers. He runs through the crowd, stopping only to put the sale documents in the hands of the young rebel hothead, then darts off. He reappears a moment later on a rooftop for his glory shot with moonlit backlighting. Which cracks me up because he’s basically asking for the hero worship, and they’re happy to give it to him.
Shunji arrives just moments too late. Fuming, he fires his gun into the air.
He reports the failed mission to his father with head bowed and apologizes for getting overconfident. Chief Kimura declares that the only way to get Gaksital once and for all is to use “the girl”—a prospect that has Shunji widening his eyes in alarm. Dad clocks his reluctance and angrily draws his sword, telling Shunji he’ll have to strike: Either cut Mok Dan’s neck, or cut her out of his heart. Is there a Door No. 3 I can take?
At Gaksital Central, Kang-to tells Baek Gun about being ambushed, and how Shunji predicted his exact movements. Best for the hero to lie low for the time being.
Damsari continues his constant vigil at Asuka Hotel’s message board, to no avail. Mok Dan’s confused, having expected Gaksital to make contact by now. But Damsari fears that Kang-to’s recent presence at the hotel has kept Gaksital away.
Just then Kang-to enters, and Damsari ducks before he’s seen. Kang-to scans the room, then pins a message to the board—and Damsari sees that his note is addressed to his code name, Choi Tae-gon. Uh-oh. Message has been unintentionally mixed.
Damsari’s comrades are immediately suspicious of a trap, and argue that (1) they must kill Kang-to, and (2) they’ve missed their chance to make contact with Gaksital. But Damsari’s suspicious in a different way: How would Kang-to know he’s trying to meet Gaksital?
His comrade wonders, “Could he… be Gaksital?” Ding ding ding! After all, they’ve got another comrade at the police station who’s undercover for the independence movement. Ooh, I love that they stumble across this possibility right away; the conflict just got a lot more interesting.
The lady comrade suggests that even if it’s a long shot, they should check out the theory. Yes! Check away!
…and then Damsari says with a definitive no that Kang-to is not Gaksital. Aw, Mr. Buzzkill, why you gotta remember now that Kang-to was there in the courthouse taking smiley-face pictures when Gaksital arrived?
Hotheaded Comrade No. 2 argues for killing Kang-to right away. Damsari cools him down with the reminder to be careful with their mission, six years in the planning, but Comrade No. 2 vows to kill him for the sake of their rebellion.
Kang-to walks along the road to the circus, feeling light-hearted for once, having made the decision to help Damsari’s mission. Smiling, whistling, and omo, is that dancing? He clicks his heels together, Singin’ in the Rain style.
Mok Dan strategizes that the best way she can help Gaksital contact them is… to keep Kang-to stuck to her side constantly. If you’re busy, I offer myself for that task. For the independence and all. A patriot’s job is never done.
Looks like Abe has ingratiated himself with the circus folk pretty well, because he engages in an arm-wrestling bout with Shin Nan-da, and most of the circus girls are cheering him on. Kye-soon is Shin Nan-da’s sole supporter, which is enough to tell me to root for Abe, who wins and is adorably puffed-up over his victory. Aw. They may be on opposing teams but both sides are simple-minded and loyal folk, so it makes sense that they’d bond. Better than at the police station, where Abe seems rather like a guppy in a pool of piranhas.
Kang-to smiles at the scene, but registers Mok Dan’s absence and goes in search of her, hilariously arriving in her room just as she’s wondering, “How can I get Lee Kang-to to stick close to me?” You rang?
She complains about all the time he isn’t spending with the circus, asking where the heck he’s spending all his time. I know she’s only thinking of her father’s mission, but awww: Kang-to lights up at the thought that she was curious about his whereabouts, even as she snipes at him irritably.
His new playboy persona directs him to say how he’s so tired from dancing the night away, and he asks if she wants to go with him to see him dance. Ha. The only way she’d want to see you dance is with her gun firing bullets at your feet, loverboy.
He settles back for a nap, then decides he’d like to ensure that she stays with him by handcuffing her to a chair, forcing her to sit next to him. She calls him a mongrel who fraternizes with the enemy, and he asks with a pleasant smile on his face, “So what if I’m a mongrel? I’m going to wipe out the Joseon bastards who killed my mother and my brother.” Although technically I suppose you can’t really blame them for your brother…
Mok Dan fumes while he takes his nap, and madly wonders if this is her one shot to kill Kang-to. She takes her dagger and raises it to strike, but without batting an eyelash Kang-to grabs her arm. He doesn’t seem shocked, but is that… hurt in his eyes? Aw, it’s one thing to be on opposite sides (or pretend to be, at least), but it’s got to be a bit of a blow to know she’d actually kill you.
Frozen in place with his arm holding hers, they stare at each other intently. Just as Shunji arrives and sizes up the tense air. Kang-to lets go of her and merely warns, “Don’t fool around, you’ll get hurt.”
Everyone convenes onstage to hear what Shunji’s here to say. He informs them of Gaksital’s murder of President Jo and warns that anybody protecting the criminal will be punished as well. However! (S)He who reveals the murderer’s identity will be richly rewarded. So step forward now.
Dong-nyun starts to comment on Shunji’s drastic change, but he’s in his hardass mode and socks her in the gut. Whoa. Even Kang-to’s surprised, and when you’ve managed to shock him with your violence, it doesn’t bode well for your character. Mok Dan tells him defiantly that the circus knows nothing of the murder, swearing on the heavens.
Shunji doesn’t believe her and draws his sword angrily: “You still insist you don’t know Gaksital?” She says sarcastically, “Ah, Gaksital. Then you should have asked the question properly—whether I know Gaksital, Joseon’s hero!”
Furious, Shunji growls and slashes with his sword—Mok Dan braces and Kang-to reaches for his gun. But Shunji only cuts off a lock of her hair in warning, and Kang-to quickly reholsters his pistol before Shunji notices.
Mok Dan is handcuffed and taken with the police officers back to the station.
Rie telephones Chairman Ueno to apprise him of her dual failures: capturing Gaksital and losing the marketplace. In light of his threat to disown her, Rie vows to kill herself upon his command, if he wishes it.
But the chairman chuckles and tells Rie that he is sending her a package of her favorite umeboshi. She’s overcome with relief, and he says that he’s still her father: “What father kills his child just because she did not meet his expectations?” Somehow I am not convinced of his paternal affection; rather, it makes me all the more nervous for the other shoe to drop.
The chairman adds a warning, that victory is within their reach, and if she lets that opportunity fly by they’re both as good as dead. They’d better not lose any more of their members.
Rie calls for Chief Kimura, purposely swapping rings for the Kishokai signet. She turns it seal-side-inward so that when she slaps him for his failing, it leaves a cut on his face. It’s a double insult-warning and a nice symbology, of Kishokai literally slapping him in the face. She sneers that he can’t even manage his son, much less the police station he aspires to run.
Kimura vows to catch Gaksital for sure this time; Shunji has already apprehended the girl to use as bait. Instead, however, Rie orders him to find a new income source for Kishokai, to make up for the funds they lost thanks to Gaksital. She’ll step in directly and handle this. Deeemoted.
Rie is surprised to hear that Mok Dan is on 24-hour watch by Kang-to, and that she sometimes prays in the church. Idea!
Mok Dan is cuffed to the torturous-looking restraints in the police station. Kang-to doesn’t relish what he’s expected to do, and after a moment to gather himself, he tells her that expending energy to beat a weak thing like her makes him feel pretty crappy—so just answer his questions, and quickly. Don’t hold in her pain, don’t act brave, just let it all out.
Stepping closer, his words turn to entreaty: “Look me in the eye. Look at me. Don’t you know me? Talk. Even if you say everything you know about Gaksital…” Oof, this kills me. He’s trying to give her permission to reveal what she knows, but there’s no way she can know that; for her it would just be betrayal.
She cuts him off: “Just kill me instead. Do you really think I’d talk?”
Koiso reports to Shunji some puzzling news: army headquarters is keeping a close eye on circus boss Jo and Mok Dan. He refers to the soldiers who pulled rank on him at the circus, whom we know to be undercover independence fighters. The officers had arrested Jo and Mok Dan, and yet the next day they were freed, just like that. Could this have something to do with Damsari?
It’s a tricky situation because messing with headquarters could backfire on them if they handle things badly, and Koiso therefore tells Shunji with great trepidation. He also offers another bit of interesting news: when Shunji pulled his sword on Mok Dan, Kang-to went for his gun.
The wheels start turning in Shunji’s head, who thinks back to Kang-to’s reactions to Mok Dan. Could he… care…?
Shunji enters the interrogation room and sees Kang-to sitting with his head in his hands. Telling. He goes for Mok Dan’s pockets and pats her down until he finds the dagger, and guesses that the boy who gave her the knife is Gaksital. He rages, “WHAT IS HIS NAME?!”
He reads the character engraved on the handle, young [永], and guesses that it’s part of his name. (As we know, Lee Young was Kang-to’s childhood name.) Shunji demands a response and slaps her when she refuses, losing his temper in a serious way that’s a bit alarming. He orders Kang-to, “Torture her until she gives up Gaksital’s name.”
Shunji tosses a whip at Kang-to’s feet. Without giving himself away, there’s nothing he can do but comply; Kang-to picks up the whip while Shunji waits expectantly. Oy, this is all kinds of twisted.
Kang-to whips Mok Dan twice, and at least that is enough to cool Shunji’s anger. He starts to put a halt to it, except… here comes Daddy Dearest. Can’t stop now, and now we’ve got two torturers hating themselves for what they’re doing but compelled to by outside forces. Did I say twisted? No, it’s downright all kinds of fucked up. I kind of love it.
But strangely, Chief Kimura calls a halt to the proceedings. Mok Dan is transferred to jail, woozy from the pain. A nun in the cell rushes to her side in concern… who is Rie, in disguise. Ah, now I see why the torture was deemed unnecessary. Are we in for a round of Good Cop, (literal) Bad Cop?
Rie-nun consoles Mok Dan with comforting words about God watching over them, and how the day will come when their oppressors will be driven off. Smart, smart. She’s simultaneously appealed to Mok Dan’s spiritual side and aligned herself as a resistance supporter.
Kang-to fights his inner demons, shaking in horror that he’d whip Mok Dan to hide his identity from Shunji. Meanwhile, Koiso loves to rub his dilemma in his face, taunting him about being in love with the girl.
Kang-to knocks him down with a kick to the gut, then storms into Shunji’s office to deliver his resignation. At least he has a credible reason: “Do you think I came this far just to keep watch over some girl? Did I come here to torture the girl you love for you? Do you think this is what I gave up my mother and my brother to the empire for?! So this is the payment I get for my loyalty to the empire.”
Lifting his arms sarcastically, Kang-to gives a mocking “Long live the emperor” salute and heads for the door. Shunji stops his exit with a request: “Kang-to-ya. Will you help me?”
Heaving a resigned sigh, he puts his hand on Kang-to’s shoulder in a poignant reminder of their grief-stricken bike scene and concedes that Kang-to is right, and that he can’t do it alone. “Let’s get Gaksital together.” Yay! And uh-oh…
But Kang-to accuses Shun-ji of toying with him and socks him in the face.
Kang-to stops by Mok Dan’s cell and watches her sleeping. He doesn’t notice the nun in the corner, but she notices him. And clocks his emotional reaction to Mok Dan. Uh-oh. Murderous spy just got another reason to get even murderous-er against our heroine.
Kang-to returns to the Asuka Hotel message board and sees his note still pinned up. Why hasn’t it been read?
Comrade No. 2 spies on him, but Kang-to catches his eye. Comrade runs. Kang-to knows suspicious behavior when it stares him in the face and chases. Comrade No. 2 hops into a car with Damsari, driving off and leaving Kang-to behind.
Shunji reports to his father about the army’s surveillance over Mok Dan, and proposes to capture both Damsari and Gaksital in one fell swoop. Chief Kimura orders Mok Dan freed to allow Damsari the opportunity to contact her.
The nun is released from jail. Before she leaves, Rie tells Mok Dan to come find her when she’s released, giving her the name of her church.
Mok Dan is released next. She pointedly refuses to look at Shunji, which troubles him, which troubles me not at all. Sorry, dude, but no sympathy points this time.
As he drives her to the hospital, he asks why she can’t live a simple life—she knows how he feels about her, and he could protect her. Yes, if she weren’t so annoyingly determined to fight for her country and her people, that is. Pesky morals.
Mok Dan orders him to pull over, forcing him to stop by opening her door. “Even though you’re Japanese, because you loved Joseon’s children, I could be your friend. Now to me, you’re just a Japanese.”
She walks out on her own two feet, and I kind of feel compelled to applaud.
Rie arrives at home fuming. Kang-to’s the cause, and she takes out her anger on her faithful bodyguard, slapping him and reminding him of her orders to investigate Kang-to thoroughly. He left out the rather important detail where Kang-to’s in love with that bitch.
Kang-to and Shunji drink together at the club, both feeling glum. Shunji says he’s starting to lose it thanks to Gaksital, and asks for Kang-to’s understanding. Kang-to asks, “You said you couldn’t give up that girl even if she’d been the one to kill your brother. Do you even really love her?” Good question.
Shunji sighs, “I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to catch that bastard and kill him in front of Mok Dan.” So… that’s a no then? ‘Cause viciously breaking the heart of someone you love strikes me as not-love.
Lala takes the stage with her Pips, singing her sultry ballad practically at Kang-to.
Upstairs, Damsari drinks with his co-conspirator and sets off a series of secret nods from waiter to Comrade to undercover agent, who are stationed on the club floor. Oh noes! Is this Operation: Kill Kang-to Because He’s Probably Not Gaksital?
A waiter draws a hidden knife and moves to stab Kang-to from behind, but Lala spots the motion (infatuation has its upsides) and screams a warning. Kang-to ducks in time and fights off his various attackers. With Shunji’s help, the two cops quickly knock down the ambushers, who receive Damsari’s head-signal to flee.
Everybody makes it out but one waiter, who is apprehended. Kang-to recognizes him from the night in the hotel, and he scans the crowd for others. Nobody is left.
They take the waiter-comrade in for a torture session, but he keeps resolutely mum about who he’s working for. Shunji mans the whip this time, and Kang-to stops him to take over. When he’s alone with the captive, he drops the whip and asks for his leader, saying that “somebody” really wants to meet him.
The comrade shoots him a hateful glare and starts singing the independence army song. Kang-to gets increasingly worked up as he demands answers, but there’s no reason for him to be trusted by freedom fighters and the comrade just keeps singing. Finally Kang-to knocks him out with one punch to the head.
When the comrade looks up from his half-conscious state, he sees… Gaksital?! Omo omo. That is one huge motherfucking risk you’re taking. Also, does this mean you keep one of those costumes at the police station? That does not seem the smartest choice, but that aside, this is pretty badass.
He’s got little time to lose because Shunji’s walking through the station at this very moment. Kang-to knocks out a stray officer in the hallway as he runs out carrying the comrade over his shoulder.
But Shunji catches a glimpse of the escape and screams, “Gaksitaaal!” (He might have to work on that. It’s nowhere near as epic as Kang-to’s.)
Shunji pulls his gun and levels it. Straight at Kang-to’s back.
Oh thank goodness the drama is back on track. Of course there are no guarantees that one good episode necessitates a string of more good episodes, but I’m just happy to be reminded of what the show can do when it’s firing on all cylinders. The past week was a bit of a chore in terms of actually caring about the plot, because while I did enjoy where the story’s heading on a cerebral level, the writing focused so heavily on getting the pieces in place that it didn’t leave much room for finessing the emotion of the show.
We’ve been seeing Shunji dip his toe into darker waters, but I like that he’s not diving headfirst all at once. He pulls a cold move, but then he pulls back; he renounces his love of Mok Dan, but can’t quite cut the ties. That makes his descent a lot more interesting to watch, because it feels complex and real, not just a one-note trajectory from good to bad. I love that he’s walking that fine line and having difficulty staying on any one side, often stumbling from one to the other. That makes sense given his history with Kang-to and Mok Dan and also just because he’s human, and humans do that.
Even so, there’s an unmistakable deepening of his dark-side conflict, which we see in Shunji’s bouts with losing control, which are coming at more frequent intervals. As you’ve noted, sometimes he bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenji when he’s pushed too far, when his frustrated desires bubble over his gentle nature and reveal that he’s more than some milquetoast nanny’s boy.
Shunji was always a nice guy, but not because he’s nice to the core—just as Kang-to wasn’t a mean guy due to some unfixable mean streak within him. Shunji’s niceness is part of a dichotomy, and it’s conflict that brings out unexpected aspects of your nature. I appreciate that complexity, a whole damn lot.
The same goes for Kang-to, and this episode in particular, with its two torture scenes, brought to mind the question of intent versus action. Shunji and Kang-to both do some whipping, and they both feel uneasy with the role they’re forced to play, and they’d both probably back down given the opportunity. I don’t love the fact that Kang-to the man took a whip to our heroine, of course, but as a drama character I’m impressed that the drama takes him to that point. Just as Shunji also finds his patience challenged too far—compounded with his frayed emotions at losing Mok Dan’s friendship and sensing Kang-to’s connection to her, even if it’s hardly a rosy/romantic one.
If actions speak louder than words, are they equally culpable for their torture and violent tactics? Some might say yes, but I think here’s a case where intent plays a key role, because I found myself fully with Kang-to’s angst, but lacked any empathy for Shunji’s. Kang-to’s reaction to his actions also sway me toward sympathy, because he’s genuinely horrified with himself and wonders at the need to go that far. He can’t see an alternative to what he did, but at the same time it makes him question the big picture—was it worth it? Was it really the only way? It’s making him challenge the heroic status quo, the blind adherence to the movement, and that I find completely compelling.
Granted, I’m not arguing that this absolves him of any guilt, because I find “Oppa didn’t mean it!” to be pretty much the least persuasive argument ever. Next to “It’s not even that illegal.” But it does set him apart from Shunji, whose outbursts stem from anger and jealousy, striking out when he’s frustrated with something he can’t control. And then he has the nerve to say exasperatedly to Mok Dan, “Why can’t you just live an easy life?” You might as well just say “Why do you make me hurt you?” Shunji’s not exactly in wife-battering territory, but that slope sure looks slippery…
But most of all, my heart breaks for the fractured friendship and is both thrilled that they’re still making efforts to remain friends while fearing for their “Let’s hunt Gaksital together” pact. While it offers Kang-to a measure of safety to be back on the hunt (for himself), it also brings Shunji a lot closer, and as we know, he’s the smart Kimura.