Annnnnd we’re back!
Character motivations this round are explained with stark, gritty, terrifying backstories which prove that excessive pain can serve a narrative purpose, even when it causes us to shy away from the screen in horror. This episode isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you can get past some of the more traumatizing scenes, there’s just as much awe-inducing attention to detail as there was in the first episode. And now, with the introduction of our core and very complicated love line, the story’s just kicked it up a huge notch. (Along with that whole possible-plot-to-kill-the-king-thing.)
This is a world that really feels alive, where the streets live and breathe and the class divide feels all the more apparent and heartrending. It’s no surprise that I’m still loving this show despite the recap hiatus, but this episode made me glad to be back.
Note: I’m working off the director’s cut for the recaps, so for those only familiar with the broadcast version, there might be some unfamiliar scenes. (And if there are, let me know! I’m interested to see what exactly was cut for broadcast.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Conspiracy in the Court OST – Joo – “초연 (Premiere)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 2 RECAP
The sounds of screaming in the gibang (gisaeng house) lead Sang-gyu and Joo-pil to the bodies of one dead gisaeng and the Minister of Personnel, killed in the same manner as all their other cases of late: Poison.
Joo-pil takes charge of the situation and orders that no one leave the gibang until they find the assassin, a thought which has Minister Park scoffing, “Does that imply that you believe the culprit is among us?”
The gibang’s madam, Wol-hyang, diffuses the escalating situation between the put-out ministers being forced to stay and the dogged Joo-pil by suggesting that they find the gisaeng who last served the minister, since she’s disappeared.
Man-oh seems to realize that the missing gisaeng is Na-young, and runs into trouble when he lands in Sang-gyu’s path, since the latter is on a mission to catch the murderer once and for all. It’s clear these two know each other, as much as it’s clear that they have no affection for each other whatsoever as they share a terse exchange.
It all boils down to both of them looking down on the other – Sang-gyu looks down on Man-oh for (what he sees as) pandering to the upper class, while Man-oh thinks him a spoiled prince who knows nothing of the world.
Man-oh runs his own mini-investigation by finding out that a moneylender named Master Han rented the room in which the Minister of Personnel was entertained before he died, and that he used Hwang (Na-young’s murder tutor) to pay them. Interesting. I wonder if this is the same moneylender that Na-young poisoned.
Na-young isn’t out of the woods yet, since she’s still trying to escape the closed gibang. Sang-gyu is on a desperate search for her, and she lets her guard down when she recognizes him and unconsciously tries to get closer, snapping a twig under her feet in the process.
Alerted by the sound, Sang-gyu chases after her shadow.
They play a dangerous game of hide and seek, and Na-young trembles as she grabs her hairpin, ready to stab him if necessary… yet she hesitates. She doesn’t want to do it.
Still, she readies to attack when he stops outside her door, though both of them are saved at the last moment when his attention is called away. Na-young can’t help but reach out toward his silhouette through the screen.
A mysterious hand clasps over her mouth from inside, pulling her to safety before Sang-gyu can finally open the door. He finds no one inside.
And her savior is revealed to be… Man-oh? Those are some skills, to sneak up on a trained assassin like that.
He bows formally to her and introduces himself with the title he would have been called in her household, Yang Seobang (Servant Yang), and she recognizes him immediately. “To find you…” he begins happily, “there is no place in the eight provinces I did not visit.” Aww.
The sound of men approaching stops the exchange, and Man-oh covers for her escape. Hwang pulls her to safety later.
The sight of Sang-gyu sends Na-young into a flashback of a cute encounter they’d had at a library, where Sang-gyu tried to act all gallant by holding up a swaying stack of books for her only to have them fall. Typical for him.
It’s clear that he’d gone to the library just to see her, and the attraction was mutual. We see other bits of their romantic past, mostly of them taking strolls among beautiful scenery or him teaching her how to ride a horse. How sweet, they were really in love.
They shared intellectual discussions about the progress in the Western world, both of them marveling at the fact that such a thing as “elected” officials existed there as well as machines to make clothing.
“It is what they have that we lack which moves me to learn,” Sang-gyu replied thoughtfully.
So they learned together, with her gifting him with a map of the world (“A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World” drawn by Italian priest Matteo Ricci in 1584), remarkable now because it was composed in Hanja, which Na-young and Sang-gyu could read.
She’d pointed out how small Joseon was in relation to the rest of the world and how they would need to travel to learn. In her excitement for Sang-gyu’s potential she’d held his hand unknowingly, which Sang-gyu took as initiative to hesitantly pull her into an awkward embrace.
We see the seasons pass as they spent them together, as months and months passed in happiness. But it was she who urged him to push further past his own insecurities, and judging by his reluctant expression, this was a common topic between them.
Back in the present, Na-young reports how quickly the Minister of Personnel died with the new poison concoction to Hwang.
A conversation between Man-oh and his lackeys reveals a few things – one, that the moneylender who rented the room was the moneylender Na-young and Hwang killed. (Identity theft!) Only now do they realize that the minister’s death was all a plot by Hwang, while Man-oh tries to reconcile the fact that Na-young might be Hwang’s accomplice.
While an artist attempts to draw a likeness of Na-young’s face from the descriptions of fellow gisaeng, Joo-pil and Sang-gyu are left frustrated over their newly unsolved poisoning case.
Joo-pil puts the pieces together with how the assassinated smuggler knew Sang-gyu, and how Sang-gyu’s father vehemently opposed the Minister of Personnel, now dead. He says in no simple terms that Sang-gyu’s father, Minister Park, is the suspect for the case, and for obvious reasons Sang-gyu doesn’t want to believe it.
Man-oh may be working under Minister Park as a smuggler, but he doesn’t necesarily know everything that’s going on – as evidenced by the hesitant questions he poses to the minister in order to glean more information on Na-young.
It’s all for nothing, since Minister Park has no intention to let him in on the plot.
Sang-gyu pays a visit to Wol-hyang to pretty much apologize that the police swarming about are hampering her business, though she’s content enough to spend time with him. It becomes very clear to us that she likes Sang-gyu, but the poor guy just doesn’t pick up on the hints. All nine of them.
Ha, I like her. When a man announces to Sang-gyu that the moneylender was found dead, she murmurs, “Did my bill follow him to the netherworld?”
Sang-gyu’s on the trail, especially considering the suspicious circumstances: The moneylender died three days ago, yet he rented rooms in the gibang yesterday. We know it was Hwang’s doing, but does he?
He’s trying to find a bill issued to the moneylender, which is sure has the other renter’s name on it (Hwang’s). Unfortunately he’s beaten to the punch by Sang-chun, Man-oh’s lackey, who hides in the rafters while Sang-gyu discovers the hidden shreds of the bill, with Hwang’s name.
Joo-pil has been following him secretly, and there’s a tense moment as Joo-pil enters the office, sword drawn. Only then does Sang-gyu realize Sang-chun is behind him, but that doesn’t stop the masked man from stabbing him in the chest.
Sang-chun retrieves the pieces of the bill, holding Sang-gyu hostage against Joo-pil until he can make an escape.
Joo-pil’s a nice sort and greets Sang-gyu warmly when he regains consciousness, noting how faithfully Wol-hyang tended to him when he was healing.
It’s fun to see these two work on solving the mystery together, and they use the available evidence to conclude that they’re dealing with two culprits – the assassin who killed the smuggler and stole the pieces of the bill, and the ‘Butler Hwang’ that Sang-gyu read from the bill before he was attacked.
Meanwhile, Second Culprit Sang-chun brings the pieces of the bill to Man-oh, who’s using them to try and track down Na-young’s whereabouts. Now that he knows Hwang’s name and his hometown he’s off to find more evidence, though his constantly-smiling companion reminds him to keep their great cause in mind before he goes chasing after a girl. (That almost sounds like a threat.)
Man-oh seems to be buying up land at half price using the threat that the land will become valueless if the capital is moved, only now he and his men need to buy the property rights from nearby port merchants in order to control the Han River. This is all to fulfill their mysterious “great endeavor.”
The only problem is, the port merchants hate Man-oh and his ilk, so it comes as no surprise when Man-oh is greeted with a group of men brandishing clubs when he goes to meet the port’s market manager.
A fight breaks out on the spot, with Sang-chun holding his own against many and protecting Man-oh in the process. The actual owner comes out to stop the fracas since he’s heard of Man-oh as the “valiant and adventuresome market chief,” and at least gives him an audience.
The idea Man-oh presents to the owner is for his peddlers to start working in distribution, so that they can use the Han River to deliver much-needed food to the outer provinces of the capital.
It’s a great idea in theory, as the owner notes, but he doesn’t see how they’ll get the crops when they’re rotting in the cellars of noblemen. This is where Man-oh’s purchasing ploy comes into play – he plans to take control of the silk trade. Considering that only noblemen wear silk, he can spike the prices so that they’ll be forced to sell the food in their cellars.
The owner acknowledges Man-oh’s smart thinking, but knows it won’t be easy. Man-oh repeats the line Na-young once used to change his life: “Unless you first aspire for it, how could any dream come true?”
Joo-pil has portraits drawn of Hwang and Na-young based on witness descriptions in order to post them through town, and though Sang-gyu seems to recognize Na-young’s picture, he quickly decides that it can’t be the girl he knew.
We enter a flashback of when he and Na-young parted, since only he could travel further than the border to realize their dreams.
But before she’d let him disappear from her sight, she’d kissed him goodbye.
She returned home to find her house being torn apart by the police for her father’s supposed treachery. She and her mother were dragged away as criminals, only able to see their executed father’s corpse as the cart carrying him passed them by.
She and her mother had then worked as slaves, brutally used during frigid winters with sticks for shelter. A scene follows that’s so harrowing I had to take some time away to process it. I don’t think I’d ever like to watch it again:
Na-young is forced into silk hanbok as a prostitute, and we see her mother desperately trying to hold her back from the man dragging her into a room. Her mother beats against the door uselessly as Na-young is raped inside, and once the man leaves she sees her daughter half-naked, sobbing as she cuts her chest over and over again with the silver dagger noblewomen carry to protect their dignity. She couldn’t stab herself deep enough to kill herself. That’s… I just can’t.
Like I said, horrifying. It’s done well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a terrible, gut-wrenching thing to see.
Yet Na-young had endured, though her poor mother couldn’t and died from illness.
We later see Na-young raped again, though this time she lies still and apathetic as the man thrusts on top of her. Somehow this is more horrifying than the first, to see absolutely no fight left in her.
Finally in the present again, Hwang does one good thing by bringing Na-young out of her memories before he carries her blindfolded in a palanquin to meet a mysterious figure (is this woman the unmasked Masked Man?) and a retinue of masked noblemen.
Apparently, killing the Minister of Personnel was not what they wanted, so they order Hwang to behead her. He raises the sword with a shaking hand…
And is stopped at the last moment – it was only a test. They wanted to be sure Na-young had no fear of death and are reassured since her expression didn’t change once.
Meanwhile, Sang-gyu and Joo-pil ruminate on the clues they have, deciding that the use of such a rare poison means that murdering the Minister of Personnel wasn’t the assassins’ end goal. So who are they trying to kill?
Minister Park delivers the news of the Personnel Minister’s death to a severe-looking official, who notes that the king’s resolve to move the capital won’t be shaken. “What cannot bend must be broken,” Minister Park replies ominously.
The King is told that there’s no evidence to substantiate the claim that the Personnel Minister was murdered, and sighs in resignation before entering a half-empty court. Apparently a group of officials have gone on strike to protest the King’s appointment of a new Inspector General.
He goes out to meet the protesting throng who accuse him of breaking laws as he pleases by appointing an Inspector General they don’t approve of. The King sees this for what it is – officials opposing him just because they can – and refuses to retract his orders, seemingly disappointed in his courtiers at the same time.
Sang-gyu tries to help his mother carry a heavy load, but she refuses all his aid on the basis that she’s a slave of his father’s household and doesn’t want the same fate for him. Sad.
He confronts his father about the evidence pointing toward him and asks to be told the truth. His father is almost resigned as he tells his son that he himself doesn’t know why the berries were smuggled, because ignorance keeps him alive.
That’s not a good enough answer for Sang-gyu, so he asks his father who received the berries. Minister Park: “Do not try to find out. They are people you cannot do anything about.”
Ooh, now this is sounding like a conspiracy. I thought Minister Park was in on all of this but he might just be another link in the chain.
Using Sang-chun’s help, Man-oh is able to track down where Hwang and Na-young have been living for the past year, and waits until Hwang is gone to call her out. She emerges in her usual mourning white (for her father), wondering how he found her.
We enter another flashback, where it’s revealed that Na-young used to teach Hanja to the household servants. Man-oh followed her advice to put his talents to use and returns to the house in a petty official’s garb, since he passed the test to become an interpreter. She’s so proud of him, and he’s just happy that he pleased her.
His affection for her was evident even then, when he’d cleaned her socks before helping her into her shoes. Back in the present, her smiling face is gone as she reminds him to stop addressing her as “milady” since she’s a government slave.
“Both in the past, now and forever. Milady is all you shall be to me,” he replies.
She’s not of the same mind, and tells him to stop looking for her, a thought which has him scoffing since he moved heaven and earth to find her and lived only for the day where he’d meet her again.
He even confronts her about the assassination, knowing that Hwang is her keeper and that he knew why she was escaping from the gibang. He vows to rescue her from her predicament:
“I spent the rest of my life waiting for this day. I believed… that one day, I would surely meet you again. I pledged to myself I would become Joseon’s most affluent merchant, and I gathered riches wandering the eight provinces, just for your sake. To follow your wishes. On the fateful day we would meet again, I wanted to show you all that I accomplished. Now I have the means to help and protect you, Milady.”
He promises to save her from Hwang, though she insists that she’s not being forced into anything.
Up on the nearby hilltop, loyal follower Sang-chun spies Hwang’s arrival through a telescope, just as Hwang readies to murder Man-oh despite Na-young’s gaze telling him No.
Sang-chun is so badass that he uses the telescope to aim a throwing dagger, but he doesn’t need to use it since Man-oh reassures Hwang that if he waned to ask Na-young about the murder, he wouldn’t have come alone. He gets to live, for now.
Man-oh orders Sang-chun to have men tail Hwang, but he can’t help his overflowing joy: “Still… I finally found her.” He smiles, and tears fill his eyes. Aww.
Hwang confronts Na-young about Man-oh’s visit, and she reassures him that revenge is the only thing occupying her mind as she slowly takes off the top layer of her hanbok to pull her silver dagger from its resting place above her heart.
However, she keeps it there with the blade uncovered, so the front of her hanbok is stained red with blood from where it cuts her with every breath. “This dagger was given to me by my father,” she says. “For every step I take, that dagger pierces my chest.”
Whoa. Even Hwang is taken aback by her resolve.
The King meets with his new Inspector General on the grounds of Na-young’s old home. There’s a generous helping of self-loathing mixed into the King’s words as he recounts how Na-young’s father had once been a mentor to him, and that he couldn’t even be surprised when he was betrayed.
“Am I not the most wretched of monarchs?” The King asks himself as he admits to using his mentor’s treason as a way to restore his crumbling authority, which he knows is still waning.
Sang-gyu comes across them while running a night patrol, and though the King recognizes him from the ambush, Sang-gyu remains unaware of his identity.
Sang-chun tells Man-oh what he’s found on Hwang’s background, though there’s something curious in that he supposedly disappeared five years ago, when Na-young’s father was persecuted.
Now he wonders what their connection is, even as he vows to save Na-young from Hwang.
The King is brought to a secret military drill, where an elite force displays their proficiency in cannon use, explosives, muskets, and various other weapons. Impressive.
Later that night, Man-oh sends assassins to kill Hwang, though he dispatches all of them to pave an escape route for Na-young. He’s badly wounded, but insists that she leave without him and admonishes her when she starts weeping, because she knows he’ll die.
In these last moments we glean more about their relationship – like her, his family had been killed for treason, and he took her in because she resembled his late daughter.
“I could not achieve what my daughter dreamed of, but you must fulfill your father’s wishes. This is the only reason we had to survive in this unmerciful world,” he tells her before sending her off. She’s reluctant to go, and bows formally to him through her tears as a way of saying goodbye.
As Sang-chun and other minions approach Hwang from behind, he admits to himself that he doesn’t know if sending her off alone on the path of vengeance was the right thing to do. (Oh, now you’re considering that?)
He puts up a hell of a fight until it’s down to him and Sang-chun, with both of them nearly matched in skill. The fight goes on until Hwang tries to use his signature Stabbing Needle on Sang-chun, and Sang-chun saves himself by blocking it with his hand… which the needle pierces through completely. Ouch.
That holds Hwang off long enough for the other minions to kill him, and as he dies, Sang-chun asks for him to give Na-young’s location.
“I do not know,” Hwang gasps. “Even your keeper… was in love with her.” He dies, and a tear falls from his eye.
Na-young goes to the address Hwang gave her, which was where he took her blindfolded before – the secret society headed by a woman, who now shows her face to Na-young as she prepares to lead her away.
“Where are we going?” Na-young asks.
“To the royal palace,” the woman replies.
That… was an intense episode. These are certainly long episodes, with this one clocking in at an impressive seventy-seven minutes, but even at that length there hasn’t yet been a stretch where I’ve been bored or disinterested. In fact, that’s almost a problem coming in to recap the show, since every bit of dialogue seems ridiculously important. This isn’t the kind of show to waste moments.
This was also an episode where abnormally long flashbacks didn’t bother me, because they were used within reason to give us a great deal of insight into what Na-young had to face to end up where she is today. It was almost worse to see how happy and idyllic she’d been only hours before her world was turned upside down, and what we saw on the other side was ugly and horrifying, but laced with dramatic purpose. Her first rape, and her subsequent reaction, left me traumatized. The image of a mother crying pitifully outside the room where her daughter is being sexually violated isn’t something I can easily forget, and for a moment I did forget that I was watching a drama, so real did that pain and horror feel to me.
It’s yet another checkmark we can give to a drama showing such narrative strengths, because the overload of pain never felt gratuitous or manipulative. She wasn’t shown as being raped twice just for our pity, but to show the evolution of her psyche, how she became so overloaded with pain and sorrow that she simply shut herself off mentally from whatever was happening to her physically. It doesn’t make her later murders excusable, but for me she remains sympathetic, and I can at the very least understand her.
Man-oh got me firmly in his corner this episode, even if he operates in the same sort of shadows that Na-young does. He acts like her knight in shining armor when he’s really just as dark and twisted himself, just as ready to kill in order to get what he wants as she is. The only difference is that he justifies all his actions, whether he’s working for the common man or devoting his life to Na-young – and they’re not empty justifications, either. When he admitted that he’d only waited until the day he could see her again, I believed him, and my heart bled for him. Nothing wins a character over in our hearts quite as much as one suffering from unrequited love.
So in that sense, even though he IS a pretty dark guy, I believe he could bring Na-young back from the brink. And even if he can’t, I’m excited to see him try, just as I’m excited to see all three of our leads (Na-young, Sang-gyu, Man-oh) clash. They’ve each been so well established separate from each other, and even though Sang-gyu took a bit of a backseat this episode, I’m excited to see him discover Na-young’s new identity. Will he blame himself for not being there to protect her? Will he try to save her like Man-oh, who doesn’t understand what she’s going through, or will he try to understand her? I can’t wait to find out.