Gaksital: Episode 17
Oh. My. Goooooood.
There’s only one episode this week (and next week, thanks to the Oleeeempics), but thankfully there is plenty of awesome in this episode. There’s even—dare I say it?—awesome enough for TWO. I know! I’m still shaking from all the nerves.
The only question is: How will we make it to next week?!
SONG OF THE DAY
Lena Park – “손해 (損害)” (Damage) [ Download ]
EPISODE 17 RECAP
Kang-to shocks Damsari by shooting his own officer to protect him, which is single-handedly the most satisfying thing about the previous episode. Huzzah! It’s awesome, although the independence comrades don’t see it and view Kang-to as the enemy.
Damsari stops his comrade from shooting Kang-to, but the comrade gets shot in turn by Shunji’s men. It’s chaos as both parties open fire on each other, magically losing the sharp shooting skills of just moments before (heh, I am amused at the convenience of everybody’s aiming prowess). The comrades escape into the woods, but the handcuffed Damsari is slower. Kang-to sizes up the situation and knocks him down with a blow to the neck just in time for Shunji to see.
Ack! And also, phew! I totally understand why this is a smart move on his part but wife-comrade witnesses this too, which makes it nerve-racking. That’s just going to fuel their anti-Kang-to hate even more. It’s good angst and I do love it, but my nails are not benefiting from all this biting.
Shunji eyes Kang-to suspiciously, but his explanation makes sense; Kang-to explains being caught by surprise and sighs that he would’ve been in deep trouble if Shunji hadn’t arrived in time.
Shunji orders Damsari taken back to the police station, but Kang-to balks—standing orders are to transfer him to the prison. Shunji tells him not to let his love for the rebel’s daughter cloud his judgment, but Kang-to throws those words back at him: Don’t cross that line. Director Kono ordered the transfer.
I love the tension this produces, because they’re both operating on ulterior motives that happen to be at odds. Shunji tries to pull rank on Kang-to, but Kang-to’s invoking police procedure to pull rank over Shunji.
They return to the station, where Shunji orders Koiso to keep Kang-to away from Damsari. He leans in close to whisper an addendum, which we don’t get to hear, but it has to do with Mok Dan.
Kang-to reports to Kono, saying that the rebels appear to still have much of their stolen firepower (a fact Kono hasn’t been apprised of till now). Therefore, he argues, it’s especially dangerous to proceed with Damsari’s public execution; the rebels are bound to attempt a rescue, and the public will be in danger from all that firepower.
Kono is shocked: “Public execution?” Aha! Kono spits rage as he calls Shunji in and slaps him across the face for defying his orders: he explicitly denied a public execution. He strips the stars from Shunji’s jacket and orders Kang-to to toss him in jail: He’s under arrest.
Damn. Things just took a turn.
But Shunji seems strangely confident and orders Kang-to to butt out. Did you just pull rank over the guy who outranks you? Shunji refuses to move one step until Kono agrees to the public execution.
Kang-to cuffs Shunji and starts to lead him away. But the phone rings—uh-oh, this can’t be good.
And indeed it isn’t: Governor Wada orders Kono to go forth with the execution. Looks like Kishokai was a little slow getting its political ducks in a row, but they’re there now. So while Kono argues that the public execution is a bad political move, Wada remains firm.
Kang-to looks at Shunji with budding suspicion: How could someone of his rank order around the police director? Ah, and now the distrust runs both ways. He wonders, “Who in the world could be standing behind Shunji?”
The cuffs come off, and Shunji thanks Kono for agreeing to the execution. Can a bow be sarcastic? It sure looks it.
For what it’s worth, Wada thinks Kono’s right to oppose the execution, but he’s never been one to let conscience and logic trump his more prominent traits of greed and cowardice. Especially not with Lala in the room with him, batting her eyelashes and pouting.
Shunji calls Kang-to in and asks directly why he rushed Damsari’s transfer. He admits that the ambush and attack was proof that Kang-to isn’t working in league with Damsari—and yet, the timing was so uncanny with the rebels attempting rescue at the most opportune moment.
Kang-to says he overheard Shunji proposing the public execution, and agreed with Kono’s stance. The empire is already dealing with a disgruntled Korean populace—mishandling the case of such a famous and symbolic man could trigger a much bigger revolution.
Asked if that’s the only reason, Kang-to adds that he couldn’t stand to have Mok Dan witness her father being killed in front of everyone. And despite the governor’s desire to hasten Damsari’s demise, they both know that Damsari has to be tried for the anniversary stunt—they can’t just kill him now arguing that he’d be dead at some point.
Shunji argues differently: Damsari is the “rat poison” that can wipe out everything in one dose—Gaksital and the rampant rumors sweeping the populace.
Kang-to drops by the jail, but notices something amiss and races out as Shunji gets the confirmation call that his instructions have been carried out.
Kang-to can’t find Shunji but deduces that he had Mok Dan removed. First he defies Kono, and now this? “When did Kimura Shunji become so powerful?” Again he wonders at Shunji’s backing, and thinks back to the anniversary party, and the hotel. There was that mysterious swordsman in Room 501: Katsuyama.
Kang-to calls the hotel, but nobody picks up in Room 501. He heads out to check for himself, and picks up the notice of his secret follower Ishida.
Shunji arrives at a hotel room, not noticing that his entry has been seen by Katsuyama. Inside the room is Mok Dan, and he has the nerve to ask how she’s doing, using the name Esther. It’s discordant with how far he’s crossed over to the dark side since he knew her as that name, and she spits in his face. It’s pretty satisfying.
Except… then Shunji tells her of the plans to execute Damsari upon arrival at the prison, so he’s relieved he was able to bring him back—you know, despite Kang-to messing up things by hurrying the transfer. Oh no. You. Didn’t. Are you really spinning yourself into the hero here? Ahhhh, you wily bastard!
She’s stunned. He says in his faux-gentle way, “Surely you didn’t believe Kang-to when he said he was in love with you?” He says that Kono and Kang-to want too much information from Damsari that she’s not safe in jail, nor is her father. Moving her here, he says, is the only thing he could do to help her and her father. Therefore, he entreats her not to escape and to stay here: “That will help your father. I’ll do my best to block the execution. Please, trust me.”
Arg arg arg! I am simultaneously disgusted and impressed with Shunji, and it’s messing with my head!
Mok Dan isn’t so easily swayed, thankfully, and she spits out that she can’t trust him—not when it was people wearing the same uniform who dragged off her mother, jailed both parents, beat them night and day, and dangled her in a well taunting her parents.
She calls them beasts in uniform, and Shunji looks horrified as he tells her earnestly, “Esther, I wore this uniform for you, to protect you, to save you.” She snatches her hands out of his, shaking in rage, but he starts to break down.
Shunji: “You know too, that Gaksital killed my brother. If I catch him, I could take off my uniform right away. I want to take it off! Taking it off immediately and teaching children—that’s how I truly want to live. Please. There’s nothing that I expect from you anymore—after I saw you agreeing to go into that box of nails, I even decided not to ask you who Gaksital is. I just… I want you to be safe, to be by me. Is even that much impossible?”
Well, god and damn. Now I DO believe Shunji’s sincerity, and it’s effing with my head even more. It’s at once both awesome and awful. Mok Dan says disbelievingly that even at this moment her father is in the hands of torturers—how can he tell her to sit tight in safety? She screams, “Am I your toy?!”
It’s not the reaction Shunji wants, and his face contorts in rage. The nice-guy protector turns into the petulant captor as he jumps to his feet and delivers a stunning slap to her face. Dayum. He calls for his subordinate and orders Mok Dan cuffed.
Rie calls Shunji in and tells him coldly that the governor is particularly concerned of another explosion at Damsari’s execution. Reminding him of his repeated failures to catch Gaksital, she warns him to be successful this time.
Business over, Rie sighs, “Shall we talk about personal matters now?” She has not been pleased to hear of Shunji’s hidden hostage situation and declares that since his plan failed, “I must get a return on the fish I caught.” He retorts that she shouldn’t be so quick to declare failure—that plan she thought he set to trap Gaksital was meant to catch Kang-to.
Rie scoffs, “Did you get any proof that Lee Kang-to is Gaksital?” Shunji replies, “Even just by proving he was not Gaksital, that trap had value.” Oh, where’s the irony fairy to drop irony anvils when you really need it?
Rie wants the girl returned to her, because Shunji still has feelings for her. Calling him blinded by love, she says she has to step in and “help” him out.
Shunji steps in close and warns that if Rie lays a hand on Mok Dan, “You die by my hand.”
This line of questioning takes an interesting turn as they drop to banmal:
Rie: “You’d ruin this grand scheme because of one pathetic Korean girl?”
Shunji: “Grand scheme? Ah, that plan to conquer the Far East and the Pacific? Is that what you’re fighting for?”
Rie: “Isn’t that what you’re putting your life on the line for?”
Shunji: “What a pitiful woman you are.”
Dayum. It’s an intense exchange, with both of them digging behind the other’s facades, questioning motivations and getting under each other’s skin. I love these two characters on their own, but when you put them together there’s such meeting of rich conflict.
Shunji leaves Rie feeling rattled; tears fill her eyes and she loses some of that haughty self-confidence. Interesting.
Kang-to arrives at the hotel to see Shunji leaving it. Too bad he doesn’t notice Ishida following him here as well; Kang-to beelines straight for Room 501. Before he decides what to do there, the door starts to open and he ducks for cover, seeing Rie leaving with bodyguard in tow. What the heck? This sure doesn’t fit into the Lala cover story.
Recalling their first encounter at the club when she kissed him, Kang-to realizes that she approached him with ulterior motive in mind.
Mok Dan sits cuffed in her room, and seizes a moment of distraction to knock down her captor and dart outside the room. She manages a brief evasion from the two guards, but they corner her quickly and draw their guns.
It’s Kang-to who calls the men to halt, and you just know Mok Dan has to be partly relieved and partly pissed off as hell to see him here. He sends her back into the room, leaving her captor waiting outside by saying he almost lost her. At least this gives Ishida nothing incriminating to report, although now they know Kang-to knows about the girl. His call informs Shunji of the development.
Mok Dan glowers at Kang-to for hastening her father’s execution, calling herself crazy for getting her hopes up when he said he’d help Damsari escape. She asks how he can use a person’s desire to live against them, when he’s Korean just like the rest.
Kang-to stares at her with these tortured eyes, saying, “I… thought you had died.” Gasp! Are you… going to reveal yourself?!
“If I’d thought there was even the slightest chance you were alive… I would have recognized you sooner. Boon-ah. Don’t you know me?”
Omo omo omo.
Mok Dan’s eyes widen. He continues, “That knife… the Young who gave you that knife… Don’t you recognize me?” Omg.
A flashback fills us in on their childhood meeting, and how much the knife meant to him, and the time he’d lost it and she’d made herself sick searching in the cold to return it to him. And then, the fateful day when they were ambushed, he’d left the knife with her, and seen her being cut down by their attacker.
They sit there staring at each other, Mok Dan trying to take this in. She’s having a hard time processing, understandably—where, how, do the personas fit?
Mok Dan: “Lee Kang-to… the Lee Kang-to who made my father receive the death penalty is the young master? The imperial policeman who captures independence fighters… is the young master I’d waited for so dearly? The Lee Kang-to who imprisoned and tortured me to catch Gaksital? The Lee Kang-to who tried to kill me in the square is the young master who promised to find me, if I just stayed alive?”
Well, when you put it like that, it just sounds bad. Her reaction is far from pleased; she wonders how this could possibly be. It’s a lie, it has to be. “How could Young Master turn into a person like you?” Oh, that hurts my heart. It’s worse because it’s all true.
She says, “I thought Young Master was Gaksital, the Gaksital who saves Joseon people.”
He tries to explain, but she flinches away and screams at him to leave. He tells her earnestly, “I know now, down to my bones, how wrongly I’ve lived.”
Shunji runs to the door, but stops short as Mok Dan yells, “I told you to leave!” I’m dearly hoping Shunji can only hear the shouting, because Kang-to begs quietly, “Boon-ah, please believe me. I really did try to help your father escape. There’s no time. Please, tell me where I can meet your comrades.”
But she just yells again for him to leave, and this time Shunji enters to enforce that demand. With no choice, Kang-to gets up and walks out.
Ahhhhhh, that scene was so good.
Governor Wada calls in his cronies—which include the count, the newspaperman, and politicians—for an advisory meeting to discuss ways to make the Joseon people fall in line.
They talk as though there’s a magic pill or spell that can be invoked to make all Joseon minds turn into Japanese ones, and propose that the first step is to outlaw the speaking of Korean and instate Japanese as the national language. Also, if anyone supports Damsari or Gaksital, they should be shot on the spot.
The count has been advised by the countess to think of their upward mobility, and to do what he can to secure himself a position of power. So he leaps up and proposes that they subject Damsari to a public execution, and gets others on his bandwagon. You’d think the governor would be happy to have this plan backed, but he argues that it’s inappropriate.
His advisors declare that it’s necessary to deal with the rebels, and they urge him to agree. He allows that since his council is so emphatic, for the sake of public order and as a warning to others, he will consent. Hm, so was Wada just playing hard to get, to make himself the Good Cop? Maybe he’s not a complete idiot after all.
Damsari’s back to the torture dungeon, where Kang-to finds him despite orders that he’s not to enter the room. He releases Damsari from his chains and sits him down.
Thinking of the ambush, Damsari tells Kang-to that he saw him saving the life of the comrade who was trying to kill him. Despite the fact that he serves under the Japanese, he’s Korean too, Damsari notes.
Kang-to informs Damsari of his public execution in four days, and that he’d promised Boon-yi he would help Damsari escape. (Tellingly he calls Damsari “Teacher,” a sign of respect.) But he fears this is too much for him to do alone, and asks for information on where to meet his comrades.
Damsari points out that his comrades would hardly believe him, but Kang-to says he’ll deal with that. During the ambush one of Damsari’s men died: “I want to rescue you, to ensure that life was not taken in vain.”
Damsari just tells him not to make risky, unlikely plans: “I can’t see any more young people dying to save me.” Kang-to says insistently, “They are not just dying for nothing. As you told me, I am breaking eggs against boulders, aren’t I?”
In their hideaway, Damsari’s team brainstorms for ways to rescue him. It’s looking discouraging, but they have an unexpected visitor: Gaksital, who gets an immediate embrace from the young comrade whose face lights up in hope. At least now Gaksital can have a voice, since nobody’s around to recognize Kang-to! (Because really, how well can you formulate a complex secret mission through head-nods and soulful stares?)
Rie fumes as she takes Chief Kimura to task for Shunji’s lingering soft spot for Mok Dan. Kimura protests, saying that that can’t be true; Shunji’s been on the ball lately. Rie isn’t having it: “I will kill that girl.”
Kimura agrees and gets up to leave. But she stops him: “You have to see her being killed first, don’t you?” Oh, you meant NOW. Yeesh. Now we know why she wanted that fish back so badly.
For that purpose, Katsuyama brings an unconscious Mok Dan out of her room, having already knocked out her police guards. It’s a short distance from the hotel to Rie’s room at the gisaeng establishment… but any distance can be intercepted, no? Kang-to pulls up to the hotel, sees Mok Dan being driven away, and follows.
Katsuyama enters with Mok Dan, who comes to groggily. She recognizes Rie, who still addresses her sarcastically as “Sister.”
Rie tells Kimura to report back to Shunji: “You don’t stake your life on something as ever-changing as love, but power.” Then she gives Katsuyama the order: “Kill her.”
Katsuyama raises his sword. Mok Dan closes her eyes. And flying in through the paper walls… is a dagger that lodges in Katsuyama’s arm.
Gaksital bursts through the wall next—seriously, where are you changing your clothes?—and knocks Katsuyama down with a series of hard blows to the head. But Kimura wasn’t a samurai for nothing, and he draws his sword too. En garde.
It’s a quick swordfight that ends with Kang-to knocking Kimura out, but then Rie takes her turn, charging after the fugitives. Katsuyama revives and pursues as well: it’s two swords, one cane, and a damsel in distress.
Rie and Katsuyama stop the fugitives on the bridge, and after a brief halt in action, Kang-to leaps into the air. The men splash into the water, and the ladies have their own one-on-one battle on the bridge.
At least Mok Dan is better at holding her own against one opponent, despite her lack of weapon, and manages to dodge the sword. But she gets knocked down and Kang-to leaps back up to help her… and finds that they’re sandwiched between the baddies with blades.
Kang-to barrels through and gets slashed on the arm to match the slice in his leg, but pushes Mok Dan toward freedom. He waves her away, indicating that she should run, and resumes his fighting stance. Bleeding, he holds them at bay while Mok Dan stands there paralyzed, which I understand even though I’m screaming at her TO RUN ALREADY.
Kang-to knocks Rie down with a blow to the neck, but gets knocked to the ground by Katsuyama. He’s sprawled on the ground as the sword prepares to swing down, and Mok Dan thinks fast (finally!). She flings her/Young’s dagger at Katsuyama, who uses his swing to deflect it.
Kang-to growls at her, “Run away!” He musters up a reserve of strength and launches himself in the air, his blow sending Katsuyama diving into the pond. Oh phew. But all the blood!
Kang-to retrieves Mok Dan’s dagger and escapes, just as Rie gains consciousness and sees his white figure dashing off.
Mok Dan runs into the forest to her message tree, and prays. She waits there for a good long while hoping for a sign of Gaksital, until finally she hears his horse approaching. It trudges toward her slowly, bearing an unconscious rider.
Mok Dan approaches in tears, registering Gaksital’s bloodied, weakened state and whitened face… and removes the mask. Oh. My. God.
It’s Kang-to’s face, of course, pale and stricken. Slowly he comes to his senses and opens his eyes, and looks up into her shocked face. Kaboooom. Mind. Blown.
I’ve said this before and as long as the drama continues it, I’ll continue to praise it: Gaksital doesn’t hold back. It doesn’t pull its punches, and it delivers what we want, usually when we want. At times it was a half-step slower than I wanted, but at other, more important times it’s been much sooner than expected, which is awesome.
Because while I was dying for Mok Dan to figure out the dual identity, I wasn’t actually expecting she would. Not with eleven episodes left! As long as she didn’t find out as the cliffhanger to the second-to-last episode, I was willing to go with a prolonged period of ignorance on her part. Especially if that gave us lots of deliciously angsty scenes like the one in the hotel where she’s spewing anger and hate at Kang-to.
Speaking of which, I absolutely loved her reaction to finding out that Kang-to was her Young Master. I’ve always thought she has been incredibly idealistic, not just about the independence and her principles (which is commendable) but also about Gaksital and Young Master. Even when it was Kang-san behind the mask, she romanticized him beyond his actual self; what she didn’t know about him (and that’s almost everything), she filled in with assumptions and hopes fueled by her own ideological passions. Just as she has demonized Kang-to beyond all reality. I understood it, but I love so much more that she has her own moment of harsh reality.
Admittedly, Kang-to hasn’t perhaps deserved to be cut much slack given his past, but Damsari is wise enough to see something behind his reputation and his past actions, even after Kang-to was the one who caught him and locked him up.
No such gray in-between areas for Mok Dan, who sees the world in stark contrasts. Shunji goes from friend to foe overnight, and Kang-to… well, I appreciate that this revelation shakes up her worldview. It doesn’t fit into her understanding of life, the cosmos, the universe—so maybe this is the start of a new facet of Mok Dan, too. One that’s just a little more world-wise, perhaps, with a little more understanding.
I say this all while finding nothing really wrong with her character—she’s admirably loyal and unbending in her integrity, so it’s not that she needs to lose that. But I find her perspective naive and young, and in this world of complex relationships and twisted loyalties, I welcome a bit more dimension.
Furthermore, I love how this plays out on Kang-to’s side as well, and that Mok Dan had that reaction to him before realizing who he is. The world puts him on that Gaksital pedestal and assumes he’s a noble, sacrificing hero, the stuff of fairy tales or comic books. Then the very same world hurls curses at him and calls him less than human for kowtowing to the overlords, lumping him in with the obsequies of the Count and Countess, only after personal gain.
Thus it was important, I think, for Mok Dan to connect the two opposing halves of his persona and challenge him on it—it’s not how Kang-to can do the things he does, but more to the point, how did sweet Young become morally corrupt and vicious? I can’t wait to see how Mok Dan handles this revelation; she didn’t accept his explanation that he knows he’s lived wrongly, but perhaps this is the proof—the only possible kind—that he’s doing what he can to do penance.
While we’re talking about dimension… how’s Shunji fer ya? I was growling at my screen for the first part of this episode because his two-faced ways were elevating my blood pressure, but as a drama character I have to say I LOVE him. I love to hate him, too, but it’s not a linear path of: Shunji evil —> I wish a pox on him.
Shunji’s descent into the dark side is one of the more realistic, complex paths I’ve seen recently in dramas, or perhaps ever. Usually you see a character struggle a bit to hold on to his goodness, then reach a point of no return and then say the hell with it, after which point he’s just eeeevil. Whereas Shunji, I find incredibly realistic. He doesn’t switch on an evil button in his brain and then conform to the expectations of that archetype. He’s constantly swinging back and forth, sometimes tapping into that earlier sweetness, then letting rage overwhelm his reason as he lashes out, Kimura-style.
Shunji fucks with my brain, but in a good way (narratively speaking), because I never quite know where he stands. And it’s not that you can’t read him, because I did believe his speech about wanting to go back to his teacher self and living a simple life. And I fully believe that he went into the police with only good intentions. So it’s not that I don’t think he’s being honest; it’s that his honesty swings wildly from extreme to extreme as he tries to reconcile all his warring desires.
For instance, Shunji wants to be the hero, and I believe his motivations are sincere. But he’s not noble enough to actually be the hero—he wants his grand gestures to be appreciated, he wants recognition. That’s why he alternately helps Mok Dan and punishes her: He needs her to praise him as he thinks he deserves to be praised, and can’t stand when she doesn’t then respond that way. When she calls him on his crap. It’s a selfish sort of helping hand, where he’s doing it more for his own gratification than for the help it actually does the other person.
Last but not least, I found Rie’s reaction to the confrontation with Shunji particularly telling this episode. They called each other on the excuses they’ve been making for their behavior, but Shunji pokes at the idea that she’s actually harboring a different motivation. Sure, she can spout off about the glory of the empire and the future of Japan’s domination, but pshhhhhh. He cuts right to the heart: What really makes you tick?
This ties into something I only caught onto in this episode. Maybe I’m slow or didn’t pick up on clues before, or maybe this is the first time it bubbled over—when Rie denounces Mok Dan repeatedly, she goes overboard to such an extent that it seemed like there was self-loathing mixed in. Till this point I assumed that she merely held the Korean girl in scorn, plus there’s the jealousy in knowing Kang-to’s in love with her. I don’t think Rie’s attachment to Kang-to (which interestingly is also mixed, love and hate) is that deep, but I could buy that she found it annoying that the pesky girl won his affections without even trying, when Rie had been thinking of him for the last five years.
But Rie’s cutdowns of Mok Dan’s pathetic, lowly, Joseon existence hint at her own insecurity complex. Which, as we know, are rooted in her fears of losing her identity after working so hard to reinvent herself. She hates Joseon for what it did to her parents, but she also fears it for being the dead weight to drag her down with it.
So much good stuff this week.
- Gaksital: Episode 16
- Gaksital: Episode 15
- Gaksital: Episode 14
- Gaksital: Episode 13
- Gaksital: Episode 12
- Gaksital: Episode 11
- Gaksital: Episode 10
- Gaksital: Episode 9
- Gaksital: Episode 8
- Gaksital: Episode 7
- Gaksital: Episode 6
- Gaksital: Episode 5
- Gaksital: Episode 4
- Gaksital: Episode 3
- Gaksital: Episode 2
- Gaksital (Bridal Mask): Episode 1