It’s a wonder what a good backstory can do. Choi Young began the series an enigmatic character, though not unexpected, since he’s Warrior Action Man. But it does a lot in making us care for the hero if we’re given some context for how he ended up the way he did, and why he seems to have a deathwish.

We finally get a glimpse of that and it’s great—so much that I sort of wish that were our drama. No, I really wish that were our drama. But alas, one cameo from Choi Min-soo is all we’re gonna get. I guess that’s the upside to being the people who made Sandglass (among many); you get to call Choi Min-soo and see if he feels like stopping by to deliver a dose of awesome.

 
EPISODE 4 RECAP

Baddie Ki Chul starts digging around about this Woodalchi—who is Choi Young? His minion says he’s the son of an official and the one man the king trusts, even quoting Gongmin’s words verbatim. Well now I’m worried that Choi Young’s “trap” is just giving away more information than gaining.

Ki Chul wonders how the son of an important family became a lowly warrior (it would have been lowering his station in life to take up the sword), and the minion says his father died when Choi Young was sixteen, and he voluntarily chose the path of a warrior.

But the where gives Ki Chul pause: Choi Young was trained at Jeokwoldae, a super-secret elusive organization. Oooooh… please tell me there will be flashbacks to black ops warrior training days.

Ki Chul is actually impressed. He declares, “I must have him.” He’s not a ham sandwich! Practically salivating, he says that Jeokwoldae is something he’s only ever heard talk of—having one such warrior on his side would be very valuable.

Well I’m thinking this is a better trap than the other thing. Ki Chul orders the minion to offer Choi Young anything he wants to bring him over to the dark side. What, no cookies? Dark side always has cookies.

And then we cut to… a dream? A memory? In any case it’s beautiful. I love it when this show goes to an animated sequence.

Choi Young finds himself standing in the middle of a frozen lake in full armor. He scans his surroundings, and then finds a man sitting on the ice, calmly fishing. They recognize each other.

He turns to Choi Young: “Have you not found it yet?”

Back to Choi Young, either sleeping or deep in thought, and then he doubles over from the pain in his belly. Second-in-command Choong-seok reports that he’s rounded up as many men as he could—but restricted to only the trustworthy, he only managed to recruit fewer than a hundred warriors.

Choong-seok asks if Ki Chul would really dare to attack the king and queen in the palace, and Choi Young says he wouldn’t have thought so… until he met Ki Chul in person. Choong-seok: “And after you met him?”

Choi Young: “He was… really scary.” Choong-seok and Dae-man: Errrrrrrr? Clearly not a thing their leader says about anybody, ever. He says that if Ki Chul goes after the king, the first to shed blood will be the Woodalchi. “And I’d like to refrain from that kind of dog’s death.”

Choong-seok gets fired up, asking how they can let a man like that live, but Choi Young tells him to save his energy—there’s no telling how long they’ll have to spend sleepless nights on watch.

Dae-man sees his leader wincing from the pain and tries to bring up what the doctor said, but Choi Young cuts him off: “Shut your mouth. You heard—the men we can trust in all of Goryeo don’t even amount to a hundred. What would happen if the man who has to lead them collapses?”

But that’s what we’re saying! He slumps down to the ground and adds that more importantly, if he collapses now, his final opportunity will disappear. To what? Put down the sword?

Eun-soo chatters away as she changes her clothes, about what it could mean if she’s not dreaming. How could she be in Goryeo? Stargate? A wormhole?

She comes out from behind the screen wearing just the under-layer of clothes, and Jang Bin must be used to her now, because he just calmly deadpans that she’s come out in her underwear. Ha.

She says she’s not into the layered look, but complies and puts on the appropriate amount of clothing. Still talking a mile a minute, she says that there are theories about time travel and such, but “I hate sci-fi and fantasy.”

She’s startled by the indignant mute girl, who Jang Bin introduces as Deoki, the resident herb/medicine expert. I like this girl, and especially like her with Eun-soo. She brings a tray of herbs for Choi Young, and Eun-soo curiously picks one up. You just know it’s going to end up being a disc of poop or something, but she puts it in her mouth anyway, which just cracks me up.

Jang Bin wonders if she doesn’t use herbs like this in heaven—isn’t she a disciple of Hwata? She’s like, Hwata who? She realizes the reference and says no, times have changed and she’s more a disciple of Hippocrates.

The king calls for her and she marvels at the riches, fixating on a vase. She asks the eunuch where she could buy one of these, figuring that a Goryeo-era vase would be cheap in, well Goryeo. Pfft. I love that the first thing she does in any situation is size up the money.

She bows to the king and apologizes that she’s never really met a royal before so she doesn’t know the proper way to address him. He figures he’s never met someone from heaven before, so she should just do what’s comfortable, which suits her just fine.

Princess Noguk walks down the hall with Choi Young and the court ladies in tow, and she asks if everyone in the kingdom wants the king and queen to die. He says no and refrains from answering any further, saying that he knows nothing of politics as a warrior.

He asks her a question in turn—when did she learn their language? She’s only been married to the king for two years, not long enough to have picked it up this well. She asks if he’s implying distaste at a Yuan person speaking Goryeo’s language.

She says it was eight years ago, when she saw a Goryeo person, and learned the language so that she could speak to him. Innnnteresting.

She asks again about who wants them dead and he answers that it’s just one man. She guesses right away that he means Ki Chul—she heard that his power is like a typhoon, and theirs a candle in comparison.

She turns to him, “And if that man kills us and becomes king, you will become his Woodalchi.” He says yes, if he doesn’t die first. “Is that why you’re trying to die? This king or that king, you risk your life for those you do not wish to—have you grown weary and chosen to die?”

She gets up and puts a hand on his shoulder to stop him from standing. And then… she raises her hand to his forehead. Omo! Are you in love with the bodyguard? If this is going to be Sandglass in reverse, I’m so down.

He addresses her with alarm but she says he’s burning up but refusing treatment. He asks her to remove her hand. She lingers for a moment and then lowers her hand, “Don’t die. That’s a royal order from your queen.”

Omomomo! And to top it off, all this is in plain sight of court lady Choi, who I’m pretty convinced is Choi Young’s mother (just a guess).

Meanwhile, the king asks Eun-soo if she’ll stay and develop the study of medicine for the kingdom, but she balks at that, saying she has to return. Advisor Jo reminds her (way too gleefully) that the door to heaven is now closed, and there’s no telling when and if it might reopen.

She yells that he shouldn’t talk that way, and I just love how appalled he is at the way she speaks to him. She says she’ll forget about all the kidnapping and all that, if they just send her back home, maybe with a vase or a painting or two. Heh.

The king tells her that this country is under the thumb of Yuan and needs her help, but she just counters that all politicians talk this way—that the citizens are this or that, but you’re the only one who can change things.

He tells her of this kingdom’s struggles under Yuan’s domination, and at the mention of the kings before him, Eun-soo cocks her head in recognition. She’s like, that’s the late-Goryeo era… and starts to recite the grade-school song she learned to remember the kings in order.

It’s mostly full of blanks, but she gets to him: “That makes you King Gongmin?!” She says that’s how the history goes, and then gasps, “Then that’s Princess Noguk?!” She claps in awe, “You guys are totally famous!”

She remembers that Gongmin was a good artist and says she’s seen his paintings, next to Choi Young’s shrine. Advisor Jo cackles, “Woodalchi? How could HE have a shrine in heaven?”

Eun-soo stammers, “The man who kidnapped me… the psycho I stabbed… is WHO?!”

Choi Young consults Jang Bin about the bloody evidence found at the crime scene, and asks if he can test it to find out anything from the blood. When he returns to headquarters, his men have some bad news.

The whole palace is stirring with the rumor that Eun-soo is a divine healer and that she healed the princess and knows the future. And by now the news has escaped the palace walls. Choi Young screams at them that they were supposed to keep quiet, but it was the king’s eunuch who opened his trap.

Court lady Choi leads Eun-soo to her room near the royal hospital. Haha, did she walk out of that meeting with a vase after all? So funny.

But Choi Young comes tearing in and grabs Eun-soo away, leaving court lady Choi yeling, “Young-ah!” Dude, she is totally your mom, or at least a nanny, isn’t she? I didn’t think we’d get anyone calling him by his first name on the show, ever.

He says they have to move her quickly, and he can’t go himself, but will put trusted men beside her. She just asks if his name is really Choi Young and refuses to go anywhere—she’s got the king on her side now, flashing her vase as proof.

Choi Young calls for Deoki in the most exasperated tone and asks if she has anything to tie Eun-soo up with. Deoki’s like, OH YEAH and produces burlap on the spot. He tells her to wrap the doc for transport, and gag her while she’s at it (ha) but Jang Bin interrupts the re-kidnapping to say that the king himself decreed she would stay here as a doctor.

He’s about to argue but his vision starts to blur again, and he collapses at their feet with a thud. Eun-soo drops her vase in shock and it shatters.

Ki Chul’s minion chuckles at the outlandish rumors—a healer from heaven who serves the king, revives the dead and sees the future? Nonsense. Firestarter Hwasuin joins them and says that’s the talk, that the princess’ throat was slashed, but the healer sewed it back together.

She asks if she should bring the doc here or just burn her up, but Ki Chul says it’s time to pay the king a visit. But first… he glances over with an evil glint in his eye…

Back to Choi Young, who wakes up and immediately asks if anyone else knows he collapsed. Jang Bin assures him they’re the only ones who know, and Eun-soo says his wound was inflamed, hence the fever.

Jang Bin goes to get him more medicine, and as Choi Young gets dressed Eun-soo casually mentions that he’s got quite the physique without his clothes on. She says she worried he might have damage elsewhere, but luckily it was just the liver. “Thanks to your well-developed abs.” LOL. Yes, let’s take a moment to give thanks, shall we?

She gets in face to call him by name and asks if he’s the only Choi Young in Goryeo. Then that makes him THE Choi Young, and she tells him he becomes a general later and does big important things.

That finally gets his attention and he asks if she can really see the future in heaven, and she tells him her theory that she didn’t come from heaven, but from the future. She says that means she can’t mess things up now, like say, kill Choi Young, because that’ll screw with the rest of history; she’s seen the movies.

Then suddenly out of nowhere, a bomb comes flying at their heads, and Choi Young ducks her down for cover just in time. He sees Hwasuin standing there with a sneer on her face and eyes his sword, too far to reach.

Jang Bin comes in unaware and Hwasuin attacks. He deflects with his magic fan, giving Choi Young time to leap for his sword.

He rushes after her, and Jang Bin runs over to Eun-soo to make sure she’s okay. She just stammers in shock, “X-men! Powers… X-men…” You sure know a lot of references for a sci-fi hater. Closet trekkie.

Another explosion sends her crouching into Jang Bin’s chest, and Deoki finds them like that, in what looks like a tender embrace. She seethes. Aw, she lurves doc Jang Bin.

Choi Young chases after Hwasuin, cutting off her exit. She evades his sword with ease and says she has a message for him, but he puts his blade to her throat and says there’s nothing he wants to hear from her.

She pouts in protest. Choi Young: “Then die.” I do so like when he’s badass. But she ducks out of reach and flies down the massive wall saying they’ll meet again. She smiles up at him before sauntering away.

Choi Young sits down with the king and explains what they’ve discovered about the bloody note. Using bugs that react differently to human blood, he demonstrates that it’s chicken blood on the note.

That means it was left at the scene after the crime, and made to look like it was written by a victim as he was dying. Gongmin asks what he should do about it and Choi Young says the man responsible will come here of his own accord; that’s what he planted the note for.

Then it’s up to the king to decide whether to acknowledge the falsified note (effectively declaring war) or not (submitting to Ki Chul’s power). Gongmin asks incredulously—sure, the choice is his, but regardless of how it goes, Choi Young has done his duty so he’ll leave?

Eun-soo passes by in the hallway and stops to listen. The king asks if he was so displeased at his order to bring the divine healer, knowing she’d be in danger. But Choi Young replies that he has hoped to leave the palace for a long time.

Gongmin asks for the story, and Choi Young says he needn’t know it. Gongmin: “If you dislike telling the king, then tell me, the person who thinks of you as his only friend.” Awwww. How can you say no to that? Is your heart made of stone?

He begins his tale. Yay, animated sequence! He explains that he wandered after his father died, and Jeokwoldae took him in. [Jeokwoldae = Sliver Moon Corps, marked by the cresent moon on their armor.] The leader became a second father to him and the group his family.

They gathered to vanquish evil and to protect Goryeo, and mostly served as black ops assassins. But no matter how skilled they were, their numbers were few and their enemies were many.

For a while, the name Jeokwoldae struck fear in the enemy’s hearts but those days became a thing of the past as their numbers dwindled by each passing moon. The enemies even intercepted their orders from the king, setting traps and ambushes everywhere they turned.

We watch a sequence where one warrior, a woman, gets trapped. The leader jumps into the fray to rescue her, and loses an arm. The story continues that one day, the king called them to the palace and they went, thinking it was like a dream.

Cut to live-action, still in the flashback. Someone watches through a peephole as Choi Young does an adorable happy dance on his bed in the palace, amazed and giddy and laughing like a tiny child.

He runs over to his comrade (seemingly also his girlfriend) and they join the others. He throws his arm around her and says giddily that the king must have called them here to reward them.

He goes up to his leader, who stands stoically with his one arm behind his back. “Listen and remember.” His deep voice is unmistakable. Choi Min-soo!

He turns to face them and says that this is the king they’ve given their lives to protect. It’s an immense honor and they’re here to represent Jeokwoldae.

They march in, tall and proud… only to find the assembly nothing short of a brothel, where they’re greeted by half-naked dancing girls. Choi Young gapes. His girlfriend doesn’t look pleased. Their leader least of all, who remains stoic until the girls scramble out of his way.

They approach the throne, where the king is drunk and making out with a girl. It’s the farthest from their idea of a king as you can imagine, and horribly crushing. You can just see that this great warrior devoted his life to his country, thinking he was serving a righteous, honorable king, and has pretty much just been struck with lightning.

Still, he bows before the drunken man, who wobbles over and basically treats them like today’s court jesters. He pokes his finger at the crescent moon on the leader’s forehead and takes his sword, marveling if this is it—the famed sword rumored to be given to him by a ghost. Urg, you ass, you can’t just take a warrior’s sword!

He swings it around wildly like a child with a shiny new toy, that is until he sees something shinier. He notices that there’s a woman among them and asks if she’s a warrior too. He says he’s never seen a female warrior before. He circles her, eyeing her up and down so lasciviously it gives me the heebies.

And then… he puts the sword up to her throat: “Take it off.” WHAT THE…

Choi Young looks up in alarm. The king orders her to take off every last layer of clothing. You disgusting son of a bitch. He yells that it’s a royal order, and their leader stands there, frozen, doing nothing. Aaaaaaugh.

She doesn’t know what to do, and finally starts to undo her belt. Choi Young looks away. Trembling, she takes off all her outer layers, but stops at the last. The king demands her to continue and puts the blade to the strap on her undergarments…

Ohgod, please, somebody. Kill him!

The leader FINALLY steps in between them, putting a hand up to block the sword. Thank goodness. You sure did take your time!

He starts to protest and the king reveals what he really thinks of Jeokwoldae—he seethes with jealousy that the people of this nation think more of them than their king. “So the people, more than ME, the king… trust in you, Jeokwoldae Leader.”

He puts the blade to his throat. He asks if they’re the ones who protect the people, not the king. Leader answers no. The king asks again, if they think they can ignore a royal order. Leader says they’ve never disobeyed a royal command.

So, then, just to prove his point, he calls the woman out and commands her to take her clothes off. She comes forward and hesitates, frozen in fear…

The king screams in a bloody rage and lunges at her with the sword…

And their leader steps right in its path, skewering himself to save her. DAMN. Well, now we know where Choi Young learned it. He trembles in shock. The king jumps back in surprise, acting like he didn’t know the sword would be that sharp, and laughing. I hope you die of syphilis. Really painfully.

Choi Young takes a step forward, and his leader yaaaaanks the sword out of his stomach and swings it up to Choi Young’s throat. Goddamn. Bleeding from one eye, he tells Choi Young to back off.

He orders him to offer himself as a servant to the king, to become his shadow and protect the throne. Choi Young shakes with fury, tears brimming in his eyes. He says nothing.

The leader takes a step closer to him and softens his voice. He whispers that it’s the only way to save Jeokwoldae. “Young-ah, look at me. You must protect them.” Augh, it’s so achingly heroic and tragic.

He fights back his tears and answers, “Yes.” The leader’s sword finally comes down. Choi Young sheaths his sword. I love touches like that—so this entire conversation took place with Young about to put his sword through the king’s heart.

They watch through tears as their leader uses his last breath to bow before the king and ask that his debt be forgiven, and offers these warriors to protect the king… and then dies.

They kneel behind him, and then the king laughs and laughs in utter delight.

Back to the present. Both Gongmin and Eun-soo take in the story with shock. The king asks how long it’s been since he became Woodalchi. Seven years. And how many Jeokwoldae are left in the palace. The others were either sent away or killed, and he is the last.

Gongmin: “So because you have no one left to protect, you will leave the palace?” He says yes. Gongmin also deduces that the king who killed his teacher was his own hyung. Oof. “You must’ve hated me from the start, for being his brother.” He doesn’t answer that one.

The king asks what he’ll do if he leaves. Choi Young says there’s the matter of his debt to the doctor first, so he’ll take her back and wait for the door to heaven to reopen. Perhaps he’ll take up fishing—he’s quite good at it. The king asks, “And after that?”

Choi Young: “That’s what I’m looking for… if there’s a reason I must live.”

The king gets up and says he’s still not finished with the task he gave, and tells him to try and recall something, though what we don’t know. He adds for Choi Young not to follow: “I am too ashamed to face you right now.” Aw, you are not your brother, but it says a lot about you that you feel responsible anyway.

Eun-soo watches as he gets through the entire meeting, and then collapses in pain the second the king steps out. She runs in screaming, “Psycho!” and the others come running to help her.

He’s collapsed in shock and she asks for salt water, which she feeds him one mouthful at a time. She slumps down in panic—she has no supplies here and no way to help him.

Back to that dream on the ice. This time he sits next to the man and they fish together. Choi Young, “Father, can’t I just stay here? Just… here…” Dad shuts his eyes and sighs.

Jang Bin does his best to treat him, but can barely feel a pulse. He wonders if Choi Young even has plans to come back…

Court lady Choi tells Eun-soo to prepare for something, which has her arguing back, wondering why. But she’s just told that was the order.

The king’s entourage meets up with the queen’s, and he asks her opinion about which options sounds the least unpleasant to bear—war and possibly death, or stay in their places with their heads bowed in submission to another. She answers that they both kinda suck. Yeah.

He says they’ll have to go with Option 3 then, and she guesses astutely that it must be Advisor Jo’s doing. Gongmin says he’s the only one by his side. She asks after Choi Young (Lady! Don’t be so obvious about your crush!) and then admits that she’s surprised that the king is telling her all of these things.

Gongmin: “Because whether the king goes to belittlement or death, you are the person who must come with me.”

They walk into the hall, and this time the whole council is assembled as the king takes the throne. The queen is also announced, and Gongmin says their journey here was a bit difficult, what with the threat to their lives and all.

He sneers them they can stop pretending it’s the first they’re hearing of it, and declares that all was not lost because heaven sent down a healer to cure the queen and protect them. And then he unveils… Eun-soo, who jumps in her seat to see all these people looking back at her.

The king says that the future of their kingdom is already written in heaven—don’t they want to hear it as well?

They stir with interest, but Ki Chul arrives and everyone bows at his entrance. He saunters right up to the king and says he must’ve heard all sorts of nonsense, having spent so many years away from this land, but he is still this nation’s king.

Ah, so he’s going for the fakey I-got-your-back routine. He roars at the assembly, asking who would dare fill the king’s head with such LIES.

He points a fantastically divaesque finger at Eun-soo. “Are you a monster? You, wearing the guise of a woman! Answer me!”

 
COMMENTS

Man, one day you get kidnapped and you’re a god of medicine, and the next day you’re a shapeshifting demon? She’s like, what’d I DO? If there’s one character I’m totally with in this drama, it’s Eun-soo, because she only ever talks sense, and usually in a really amusing way. I enjoy the way she approaches everything in this world through her contemporary point of view—wanting Goryeo artifacts because they’re worth a lot in her time, equating Jang Bin with a Chief of Staff at a top hospital, asking how large the rooms are like she’s apartment-hunting. She doesn’t fit at all, but that’s why I like her. And despite not being so up on her history (also really funny), she does see the importance of not messing it up, which means she’ll do what she can to course-correct Choi Young. And that, I like a lot.

I completely agree that this show lacks an epic quality that I really, really wanted. And having Choi Min-soo visit was great for the backstory, but also reminded me of Warrior Baek Dong-soo, which made me sad to imagine what this drama could look like with that kinetic direction full of epic, operatic swordfighting. Such cool stuff. But leave it to Choi Min-soo to show up, throw down some gravitas, and die like nobody’s business. It did a lot for Choi Young’s character, and informed so much of what we wondered before—why he seems so disinterested, jaded, cavalier about dying.

I do think it’s risky to start your show with the hero not caring if he lives or dies, and even actively wishing he could just be dead. But the backstory shows us a very different Choi Young, one who’s innocent, possibly in love, hopeful for his future—and the loss of that innocence is a fantastic turn for the character, and makes me care for the first time. As one-shot backstories go, it packs a punch. I do really wish this were a longer arc within the story, and I think this is the downside of this show being everything but the kitchen sink. It decided it had to be all things: time travel, the rise of a king, a warrior’s journey… but you inevitably lose something when you try to be everything. I would have loved to spend a number of episodes in the past with Choi Young and the Jeokwoldae and spend hours getting invested in the young and hopeful warrior… and then get that heartwrenching turn. It’s still heartwrenching (and what a great skin-crawling villain in the former king), but it could have been MORE. Like own-me-and-my-tears more.

Now the queen being in love with Choi Young—that I dig So. Much. All the meaning in one touch, the forbidden feelings… I think I’m going to like this thread of the story a lot. And I like the queen’s relationship with the king just as much, because there’s such rich, interesting conflict there. I pretty much love anytime they share the screen. The king is really coming into his own as well, and I think it helps that he’s played with such layers—at times regal, and then a lost child, a man searching for a friend, but weak to suggestion, always unsure. I actually think in that sense he has the better story arc than the hero does. But I have hope that Choi Young’s backstory was just the beginning of a deeper characterization for the man behind the armor. It’d be nice to see that fire in his eyes in the present too.

 
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