Having endured an incredibly long wait on my Must Watch list, eight-episode fusion sageuk thriller Conspiracy in the Court (also known as Seoul’s Sad Song) premiered in 2007 to lukewarm (read: low) ratings. But, much like fellow short-format ratings disappointment White Christmas, it developed a mania following and garnered plenty of critical acclaim. After only one episode, it isn’t hard to see why.
This was the first full directorial outing for PD Kwak Jung-hwan, who you may know now from a little drama called Chuno. Having obviously loved Chuno to itty-bitty pieces (and all right, Fugitive: Plan B wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened), going back in time through Kwak Jung-hwan’s career is shaping up to be a pretty rewarding experience. Especially here where we have fusion sageuk at its finest, in what can only be described as a flawless first outing. Let the conspiracy begin.
[Note: I'll be covering this as an ongoing recap series once a week, so if you're one of the cool kids who's seen this drama in its entirety already, please refrain from posting spoilers.]
SONG OF THE DAY
Conspiracy in the Court OST – JK Kim Dong-wook – “Parallel Lines” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open in an unspecified year in the Joseon era, as one man heads toward a secret meeting in the dead of night while another lays prone, completely incapacitated by acupuncture needles.
He struggles uselessly, even as his killer places one last needle behind his ear to forcibly unclench his jaw. Poison is poured into his open mouth.
While the man seizes in his death throes, his killer calmly takes notes while the sands of an hourglass mark the time. The only other soul in the room watches passively as all this goes on.
In the meeting room, an inscription in Hanja is brought to the masked scholar at the head. He adds a character to the inscription in stark red ink, and the finished product is held up for all the gathered scholars to see: Bloodshed Will Rescue Our Nation.
The poisoned man finally dies, and the time is marked. This is how we meet LEE NA-YOUNG (Kim Ha-eun), his murderer, as she looks up from her notes with a dark, almost gleeful expression. That’s a hell of a way to make a first impression.
Two officers on the night watch are startled from their routine by news of a murder, one in a recent string of unsolved cases. This one involves the man we just saw poisoned, and officer PARK SANG-GYU (Jin Yi-han) sighs over the lack of exterior wounds or signs of struggle. This sight is not new to him.
His fellow scaredy-cat officers chime in on what they know of the deceased, mostly that he’d sell commoners into slavery. Despite his bleak records, Sang-gyu orders his men to investigate the case fully.
Elsewhere in the city, an old woman cries to her rich master as she clutches her grandchildren, claiming that her family was about to be sold into slavery. The nobleman mentions capital punishment, which makes me think this is somehow linked to the dead moneylender.
On a nearby roof, a masked man assembles a musket and aims it at the nobleman’s head. Is this the same man who wrote Bloodshed?
Sang-gyu’s lackeys are content to leave the case alone, considering the deceased wasn’t even a nobleman. But Sang-gyu wants a fair investigation, and more so than that, he wants to see what a postmortem examination reveals.
But, their bickering is cut short when they hear the telltale sound of musket fire.
It’s coming from the nobleman’s house, where a gunfight has emerged between him and the masked man on the roof. A female slave is accidentally(?) caught in the crossfire.
The masked man begins his escape, dodging bullets from the nobleman’s gun with aerobatic ease. Eventually guns are dropped for swords as the two engage in a tense face-off.
However, the nobleman’s companion he shot manages to continue blowing a “Help! We’re dying!” whistle, causing their would-be assassin to run away once Sang-gyu and his men arrive.
Whistle Man survived the shot due to the Joseon equivalent of a bulletproof vest, and though the nobleman commands Sang-gyu to chase the assassin, he defies orders to tend to the slave woman who was shot.
He’s torn a new one by his superior over it the next day, especially since the nobleman in question was the Minister of Personnel, one of the six chief executive ministers in Joseon. Basically, he ignored a VVIP.
Sang-gyu defends himself by saying that he was only trying to tend to the wounded – and as for the corpse, he requested a postmortem because it resembled a corpse from another recent unsolved case.
Here is where we find out that he’s an illegitimate son, since he’s called out for having half-noble blood. He’s a low-ranking officer of the capital police to boot, even though his superior claims he’s destined for greater things.
Meanwhile, Minister PARK IN-BIN (Kim Eung-soo) interrupts a torture session headed by the Minister of Personnel, as he tries to find out who organized the assassination attempt.
The two are at odds politically, since Personnel Minister is supporting a movement to change the official capital in order to ease the common people’s plight, while Minister Park is against it and thinks the move is only to pull the rug out from under Joseon’s most elite clans.
It seems like the Personnel Minister truly believes that what he’s doing will help the people, since he tells Minister Park that half of Joseon is made from low-borns, and that it’s because their blood flows through his veins that he fights for them. “Is that not honorable blood?” he asks.
Noblemen and commoners alike are engaged in a protest against the capital move outside the palace gates, with official guards blocking their entry.
From a distance away, YANG MAN-OH (Lee Chun-hee) gives alms to a starving child as he asks his companion about whether moving to the capital would really improve the people’s lives.
His companion is more against noblemen in general since the people are starving, but is still against the capital move and thus organizing his merchants in protest.
Man-oh decides to pay a visit to the police bureau to help pave the way for an incoming shipment, and bribes Sang-gyu’s superior to get his ship proper clearance.
We check back in with Na-young as she cites the results of her poisoning study based on the two people she’s killed. Her tutor/partner-in-crime, HWANG (Kim Myung-soo), promises to find a new “specimen” to test their theories.
It’s not really clear what deal Man-oh made, but it seems like Chief is purposefully sending his men away from the port Man-oh will be using. (Or, Man-oh purposefully gave him the wrong port.) Only Sang-gyu seems suspicious of the plan.
Chief leaves a case for Sang-gyu to cover in the meantime, and I love that it’s just him and his B-team left in the bureau. They’re a hoot.
All the merchants have gathered together for a funeral, though one man in particular is using the avenue to announce his candidacy for Chief of Mercantile Affairs.
The would-be candidate is then (surprisingly) arrested by Sang-gyu and cries out Man-oh’s name, something that stops Sang-gyu in his tracks. Both he and Man-oh share a tense acknowledgment of each other’s presence.
Later, Sang-gyu gets word of a smuggling operation going on at their local port, and while he’s ready to rush into the thick of battle, his four men are not.
While Chief’s men go to the decoy Mapo Port and come up with nothing, Sang-gyu’s men go to the actual smuggling port. I love his band of merry men. All they do, the whole way over, is whine and complain. If they were on a roadtrip Sang-gyu would be the one going, “Don’t make me turn this car around!” So fun.
Tt’s even funnier when Sang-gyu & Friends rush up to the smugglers with their chests puffed out… only for the smugglers to totally ignore them. Hah.
Sang-gyu’s all Arrest them! while backing up further… and further… until he’s ordering his men from behind their warm and squishy shield-like bodies. Ahaha. It’s played so straight on Sang-gyu’s part, which makes it that much more hilarious.
The smuggler dispatches of his four men easily, and Sang-gyu is no exception. He might be brave, but he’s a terrible fighter, and gets knocked to the ground easily.
A mysterious man watches from a nearby rooftop as Sang-gyu finally cuts his losses and gives up. Only then does the man come to join the fight.
He’s SEO JOO-PIL (Han Jung-soo), a friend and fellow officer from the capital. He dispatches the smugglers with ease.
From his spot on the ground Sang-gyu notices the spilled contents of a chest – an ingredient for Na-young’s poison. Of course, he doesn’t know that yet.
Man-oh pays a visit to his rival in jail, knowing that he was the one to tip the police off on his shipment. However, that’s not his main offense – it’s his rival’s tax on the common people, who are already starving as is.
His rival’s defense is that he’d sell his consort if it’d make him a penny, and Man-oh doesn’t sympathize, warning him that from now on any merchants as heartless as he is won’t be allowed in the capital.
Sang-gyu nurses a bloody nose while he asks an herbal doctor about the star-shaped herb he found, but the doctor’s explanation doesn’t fit with the herb’s distinct lack of odor.
Joo-pil finds him with his nose in an herb book, and urges his friend to study for the national exam instead. Sang-gyu has no intentions of doing so when he’s the son of a concubine, and is even less interested when Joo-pil talks about aspirations for changing the world. Not because he doesn’t want to, but because he thinks it’s impossible from where he stands.
That isn’t how he used to be, and Joo-pil knows it from time they shared in Qing. Despite Sang-gyu’s jokey exterior, Joo-pil means it when he says, “I can’t vouch for the rest, but I know virtue when I see it.”
Sang-gyu produces the star-shaped herb that doesn’t smell like it should, and Joo-pil volunteers to take him somewhere after seeing it.
Hwang and Na-young, disguised as a man, head through the busy streets until she’s moved by a daughter’s plea for help. Na-young chooses to treat the sick mother, but all the while she’s got her eyes on Hwang, as if every step she takes needs his silent approval.
The woman has arthritis and a leg sore, which Na-young acupunctures open before sucking out the blood and pus with her mouth. I understand that she’s helping, but this is the single grossest thing I’ve ever seen in a drama. And I sat through all of Dr. Jin.
She succeeds in treating the woman, and is immediately apologetic to Hwang, who admonishes her for showing her face in public and risking their mission.
Minister Park seems to be behind the smuggling shipment, with Man-oh operating under him. With the shipment lost, Man-oh promises to retrieve the goods, and specifically mentions a meeting of the Noron party that he won’t be welcome at in order to do so.
Sang-gyu catches Man-oh leaving the house and calls him out for stopping at nothing to gain leadership of the market (he’s specifically referring to the rival Man-oh put in prison).
They seem to have a history when Man-oh claims that his ambitions don’t matter to him, but the ambitions of the people “Milady” cared for do matter. He uses the word naeuri (sir/lord) almost sarcastically, like Sang-gyu hasn’t earned the title.
And when Man-oh leaves, Sang-gyu practically snorts at Man-oh’s use of the word “milady.”
A flashback reveals why: Turns out Sang-gyu is Minister Park’s illegitimate son, and would frequently be brought home drunk. The instance we see has his dad punishing him by tying him up only inches away from a bowl of water. Hah. Genius.
With Minister Park in a meeting with a then-young Na-young’s father, she’s free to “help” Sang-gyu reach his water… by holding it just out of his reach so he can crawl around for it. Double hah.
By the time he finally catches on, she points out that he’s wound himself so many times around the tree that his rope has all but disappeared.
She actually makes her point really well – that the life he lives now, shackled by his own volition, only allows him as much wiggle room as that rope. She’s trying to get him over his “Woe, I’m the son of a concubine” hill, and it works.
Back in the present, Sang-gyu touches the same tree he was once tied to fondly.
A drunk woman is chased from the kitchen and called all sorts of names only to be revealed to be Sang-gyu’s mother. She claims that his father, Minister Park, is a decent person by virtue of him sheltering her just for giving birth to him while people are starving. Er. Well.
It’s obvious Sang-gyu doesn’t think the same, and his expression goes cold.
Using the guise of a physician and his assistant, Hwang and Na-young end up witnessing a moneylender’s transaction with an indebted father, whose daughter he plans to sell into slavery.
The moment the father is kicked out, Na-young springs into action, brandishing a hairpin-like needle as a weapon. She swiftly stabs and kills the attendants in the room before turning on the moneylender.
It becomes obvious that Minister Park doesn’t agree with his son’s position as a petty police officer, but he’s speaking out of concern – he doesn’t want Sang-gyu to have such a low-ranking job when he’s no longer around to take care of him and his drunken mother.
Sang-gyu manages to stutter out that he likes his job, and calls his father “milord” instead of “father.” Obviously, his father doesn’t take that too well.
We find the moneylender incapacitated by Na-young’s acupuncture needles as she prepares to forcefully administer the poison. This time, however, Hwang claims they’ll administer a remedy afterward. So they’re using him as a human experiment? That’s cruel.
The man cries that his daughters will be left alone if he dies, which causes Na-young to hesitate. Hwang jumps all over her for her moment of weakness, and she remedies it by forcing the moneylender to swallow the poison.
Man-oh attempts to find a way to get his smuggler out of prison as he walks the grounds of a dilapidated house he’s intent on buying. The house belonged to a traitor and his family, and the man selling it to him warns him against trying to find the original owner.
He seems suspicious, and rightfully so – a flashback reveals Man-oh to have once been a servant of the household. Na-young’s household, specifically. She’d freed him from a torture taco he’d landed in because he got caught trying to teach noblemen important life lessons.
After being left with some of Na-young’s philosophical musings, Man-oh had asked her what else he could do to change the skewed way of the world.
“And why are you asking me that?” Na-young asked in return. “Unless you first aspire for it, no dream will ever come true.”
Back in the present, Man-oh is visited by a man shrouded in shadows, the one he’d summoned specifically to help with their captured smuggler problem.
The captured smuggler seems to be a friend to both of them, even though Man-oh now orders SANG-CHUN to dispose of him: “Sacrifices are necessary to fulfill our great endeavor.”
Sang-gyu has finally gotten his postmortem wish, but the case is much bigger than he’d initially believed. By using rice placed in the mouths of the corpses, Joo-pil is able to discern that they were each poisoned. The only problem is, the non-poisonous identical twin to the herb that killed them is so precious that it’s only found in the palace.
He’s shocked to find more poisoned corpses already in the capital bureau’s care, which raises the body count considerably. Joo-pil is concerned that if these poisonous lookalikes find their way into the King’s personal herbs, it will mean the Minister of Personnel’s death. Not to mention the actual King’s death, if that’s the aim.
The Minister of Personnel has a lot of enemies, as Joo-pil explains, especially with him being behind the capital move. Sang-gyu connects the dots between the assassination attempt and the smuggling attempt, noting that both instances must have been organized by the same culprit.
However, going to a higher power like the chief magistrate is out of the question due to politics. The magistrate is in a party which directly opposes the Minister of Personnel’s party, and they’d be asking him to persecute his enemy. (Both parties revolve around Prince Sado’s execution, with the Minister being in the party against it.)
To make matters even more complicated, Joo-pil warns Sang-gyu against his superior, because he’s also in the party which opposes the Minister’s. And to make matters even more and more complicated, news arrives that another body has been found.
We find Hwang and Na-young having a heart-to-heart, wherein he tries to sacrifice himself in order to destroy what’s left of her heart. He can’t understand her tendency toward showing mercy, and wants to cure it by having her kill him using a specific acupuncture point.
He reveals his tattoo-covered body (a map of every chi point) and orders her to complete the task in order to prove that she’s worthy. Tears fall from her eyes as she hesitates briefly, before she plunges the needle into his neck. His eyes roll back into his head as he convulses…
…And the body Sang-gyu and Joo-pil find is not him, but the moneylender. Huh. Guess that antidote didn’t work.
Once again, Sang-gyu shows mercy for the dead man even when Joo-pil tells him that he was an uncouth human trafficker. An examination of the body reveals a needle left in his jaw, the very one used to force his mouth open.
He catches on quickly, and realizes that the murderers could have used needles alone to do their killing, but using a ridiculously rare poison instead means that they’re just experimenting.
He runs back to the bureau in order to check on the poisonous herbs, only to find that his men have already been ordered to burn them all by the Chief. Something’s suspicious, and Sang-gyu knows it.
Na-young meets with her mysterious benefactor, the man we’d seen with a covered face in the first scene. She’s passed a vital test, as even though she started down this road to avenge her father, that’s not her end goal.
Hwang is alive, but is able to testify to her resolve in trying to kill him. The Masked Man passes over a gisaeng’s wig and hanbok – now begins her true mission.
Joo-pil and Sang-gyu engage in interrogating the smuggler, and manage to get him talking when they feed him the poison he smuggled while holding the antidote just out of reach. He agrees to confess everything.
Joo-pil’s promises for his safety prove meaningless when the smuggler only manages to eke out that there is a man he serves… right before he gets a knife to the neck.
While his assassin (Na-young in men’s clothing) is chased, Sang-gyu urges him to stay alive with tears in his eyes. (The poison was only a trick.) But when Sang-gyu tries to get a description from the dying man, all he gets is a “Why are you asking me?” in return. The man dies.
Afterward, Na-young transforms herself into a gisaeng.
Man-oh reports to Minister Park that the poison was secured, which means Sang-gyu’s superior is in on the plot. He gets an opportunity to speak at Minister Park’s party and explains his fellow merchants’ concern over the capital move, which the other ministers agree with.
However, the Personnel Minister comes to crash the party, since he and the King for the move. He and Minister Park engage in a debate over whether merchants like Man-oh should be considered one of “the people” the King is fighting for. Hearing these two men mince words is surprisingly fun.
Gisaengs are brought in to entertain, with Na-young in disguise among them. Man-oh seems to recognize her as he’s leaving.
While Man-oh searches through the gisaeng registry to find Na-young, Sang-gyu and Joo-pil arrive at the gibang and are warmly received by the madame, WOL-HYANG.
As for the Personnel Minister, Na-young entertains him in a separate room while Hwang hides behind a screen. Not good.
In another part of the gibang, Joo-pil confesses his suspicions that Minister Park, Sang-gyu’s father, might be the mastermind behind the smuggling and ambush attempt. Sang-gyu refuses to listen, and leaves.
Man-oh spots Na-young sneaking out of the gibang and follows her silently. She’s stopped by the sight of Sang-gyu, and recognition passes over her face before the interlude is interrupted by the sound of screaming. Has the Minister of Personnel been found dead?
Man-oh turns toward the sound, but by the time he turns back, Na-young is gone.
What struck me most about this episode, besides its amazing cinematography and eye for historical detail, was how the characters were painted as products of the world and the times surrounding them. Seeing characters debate the injustice of the class system in sageuk isn’t uncommon, but rarely have I seen it done so well. The internal debates between characters were fascinating, and I haven’t seen political dialogue be so intense since Tree With Deep Roots. (Even though Conspiracy precludes Tree. I’m just watching them out of order.)
Nothing emphasized this more than the debates between the Minister of Personnel and Minister Park. One is not more inherently evil than the other just because he doesn’t want to move the capital, and both presented valid points. And their perspectives are justifiably skewed because of their different upbringings – as we heard out of the Personnel Minister’s mouth, it’s not just noble blood flowing through his veins. That automatically puts him at odds with noblemen seeking to keep their cushy spots.
So while we get to see the political underpinnings of the overarching conflict (what a King wants to do for his people, and whether that will truly save them), it’s brought home in a real way with our three leads. I absolutely adore Jin Yi-han in this role, and he’s afforded plenty of little character moments that allow him to infuse a personal touch. I love that he has such a big heart and wants to be braver than he is, which is a nice change from the usual cool and aloof action hero we might have been expecting.
And I loved that his funny moments were actually funny without being played super jokey, which was a huge bonus for me. Comedy in a sageuk that doesn’t feel like an entirely separate and forced interlude, expertly interwoven into a character’s personality traits and not just because the audience needed some padding? Count me in.
Man-oh still remains a bit of a cipher, even though we get an understanding of his principles through his past. Both men are intricately tied to Na-young in different ways, and I like that she impacted their lives in very meaningful ways just by lending them both a bit of perspective – something which seems to come from her naturally.
She managed to focus Man-oh’s desire to change the world into a less self-destructive (and possibly much more productive) path. His desire to change the world hasn’t changed, but he’s not ending up in a torture taco after every attempt, either. The same goes for Sang-gyu – she woke him up from a meaningless existence he thought he couldn’t escape from because of his birth. She didn’t instigate change in either of them, but instead provided the impetus for them to change themselves.
Now that she’s an assassin with a tiny shred of human compassion still left in her cold black heart, I’m excited to see the political and personal conflicts unfold as well as the role that each of our characters will play in what’s to come. Even if we left the team behind this drama out and just judged how it’s all going to be from what we saw here, we’d still know we’re in for something fantastic.
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