Imagine trying to achieve something while all your friends secretly block your every move. Then imagine that none of those people are your friends. Then imagine that your goal is saving a country, and those frenemies are a bunch of old fogeys with nothing better to do than make you miserable. Now you’re the king, and suddenly the political conflict holds reason and weight, enough to contend with the twisted triangle of a love story that’s just so much fun to watch.
Sigh. Where has this show been all my life?
SONG OF THE DAY
Conspiracy in the Court OST – “애이불비 (Sad Inside, Happy Outside)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 4 RECAP
Chief throws Sang-gyu a party to celebrate his soon-to-be government position, though our hero is too torn up about Na-young (being an assassin) to enjoy the party.
It turns out Na-young didn’t give the Queen Dowager poison, and the adverse reaction we saw was only due to her allergy to ginseng. The Queen Dowager cuts Na-young some slack for not knowing about it, which probably just saved her life.
However, it seems like Na-young’s intention was to poison the Queen Dowager, only her infusion was tampered with somewhere down the line. Or was it? Now I’m confused.
Lady Jo is certainly a master of ambiguity as she hints that Na-young is being watched at all times – so now she has no idea who is friend or foe, or who’s even on her side.
The king and Minister Lee pit flintlock guns against a bow and arrow, proving that the guns will be able to hold their own. The king’s newly-appointed (and hotly contested) Inspector General Chae Seung-hwan arrives in the meantime, and there seems to be some sort of scheme going on between him and the king.
Since everyone’s going forward with the capital move, a separate Office of Capital Transition is created with all its various positions therein. There are about six ministers named to different positions so it’d be useless to name them all here, but what we do need to know is that Minister Lee (the one who beheaded the king’s attacker last episode) has taken over the position of Minister of Personnel.
Oh, and that Minister Shim we’d seen possibly conspiring with Sang-gyu’s dad to kill the Queen Dowager has been appointed as head councillor for the new office.
The other big issue is one that severely affects Minister Park and Man-oh, since the new Capital Transition Office has been appointed to take care of all market affairs in the capital.
Man-oh is obviously not happy about this, and neither is Minister Park. But he’s as innocent in this as Man-oh, and declares this restructuring the fault of the new Inspector General.
The new policy causing the market to fall into chaos is that exclusive market licenses are no longer needed to do business, which means anyone can take their wares and sell them. The king has done this in an effort to abolish market monopolies, but as we know, Man-oh runs the market monopoly, so this directly affects him in a bad way.
Other officials affected by the new laws go running to Man-oh, and he vows to either find a solution or create one.
Inspector General Chae is obviously on the king’s side, so he admonishes any ministers who run crying to him about the new policies. No wonder why the other higher-ups don’t like him, he doesn’t play around.
Man-oh decides on a solution to gain exclusive proprietary rights, but it includes closing shops in the market on rotation until prices for general goods skyrocket. It’s guaranteed to dent the pockets of noblemen, but it’ll be even worse for the common man who can’t afford to pay more.
His two ajusshi cohorts bring up Man-oh’s hypocrisy in this matter, since he’d just been preaching about using the merchants to help the common people, only now he’ll be using merchants against them. Man-oh knows this more than anyone but sees no other way.
The market chaos has put some of Man-oh’s men in prison, so grinning-man Do-sool tries to bribe Joo-pil to let them go. But our stalwart officer rips up the money and has Do-sool dragged away.
In passing, Do-sool sees a man carrying one of Sang-chun’s signature throwing daggers, which is given to Joo-pil for examination. All they know now is that Sang-chun works for Man-oh.
Man-oh visits Minister Park with the contract that proves the minister had a part in the attack on the king. He doesn’t use it as blackmail but as a sign of trust – he wants the exclusive right to distribute the rare berries (whose doppelgängers Na-young uses for poison) in the palace, and greases Minister Park’s palm with silver for the privilege.
Something tells me he’s only trying to get into the palace to see Na-young. Call it a hunch.
While Sang-gyu arrives at the palace as summoned, Na-young finds her infusions yet again toyed with by a physician working under Lady Han. She’s forced to administer the tea despite her protests, since she doesn’t even know what’s in it. Lady Han’s attitude? “Too bad.”
Sang-gyu bribes the Royal Doctor yet again in order to see Na-young only to be shocked when he hears she’s left with an infusion, since he knows she’s there to do some assassinating.
Meanwhile, we find the king in a rage after reading countless complaints having to do with his new policy of taxing noblemen for military expenses. He’s more upset that all these supposed scholars care about is their money, with none of them giving a care about helping the people.
Sang-gyu starts running to chase Na-young down, sure that she’s about to poison the king. Even her eyes widen once she realizes that she’s serving the king with something she didn’t even make. Is it poisoned? (I guess it can’t be, otherwise we’d have a pretty short drama.)
Na-young doesn’t know if it’s poisoned or not, and her fear is evident. Though the king was ready to drink it without a second thought, Inspector General Chae warns him against trusting anyone or anything right now so soon after the attack and votes that it be tasted first.
Minister Lee takes on the task as Sang-gyu readies to burst into the throne room. He could not be more obvious in his concern that the king has just been given poison, but when he enters the room it’s too late – the king drank the bowl.
Na-young passes Sang-gyu on her way out without even a glance, leaving Sang-gyu to cover for his sudden entrance.
The king presents him with a decorative sword befitting his new appointment as chief investigator in the recent string of murders, with the main purpose of finding the culprit behind the Minister of Personnel’s murder.
Sang-gyu trembles in hesitation as Na-young’s advice from their past flashes through his mind, along with everyone else who’s ever told him that he’s capable of more than what he is. The only problem is that her goading words are now pushing him toward the inevitable conclusion of catching her.
This is a pivotal moment for Sang-gyu, since it’s both everything he’s ever wanted and his worst nightmare. He can’t turn down the task, but now his enemy is his former lover, and he has ten days to catch her. How’s that for inner conflict?
He confronts Na-young that night to ask her how she could have changed so much. You know, to become a trained killer and all.
Her eyes remain unfocused as she slowly admits, “This world… is not the world I used to know.” Here she admits that she became a slave, noting how much her perspective changed after going from noblewoman to the lowest of the low.
She admits that her memories of him kept her alive through all of it, but to that girl who became a slave, “This world was nothing but a merciless, cruel place.”
There’s nothing Sang-gyu can muster up as a reply, since she claims that she’s now abandoned everything she used to be with empty eyes. He can’t prove any of her misdeeds as it stands, so he lets her walk away.
Man-oh gets wind that Joo-pil might be searching their place now that he has a lead on Sang-chun, so in order to prepare he takes his bodyguard and his private army into the depths of a forest.
Sang-chun is happy to see Man-oh wielding a sword again, though Man-oh quells his hopes that they’ll return to their violent past, citing that the world won’t change if they behead a few noblemen. In order to incite change, they have to use the same methods the noblemen do.
However, he’s not against using a blade entirely, and prepares to send Sang-chun to do some righteous killing.
Minister Park attempts to get Lady Jo to see Man-oh, as he feels Man-oh will be useful to their cause. A cause he doesn’t even know all the details of, since he admits he doesn’t know why he had to help smuggle berries into the palace.
Lady Jo doesn’t give him a reason, but baits him with something he will find useful: Information against the new Inspector General.
Minister Park takes this newfound information straight to the king and the royal court, whose members are all too happy to jump at any small chance to bring down the Inspector General they all hate.
The offense isn’t too large, but the king’s request that the Inspector General’s punishment be deferred until after the capital move goes unheeded. The ministers want him out too badly to make any deals.
The king knows this and fumes in private, admonishing the Inspector General for making any mistake the piranhas could sink their teeth into. He’s more upset because his court works only to oppose him at every turn, and there’s just no escaping it.
In the middle of his rage he’s hit with a dizziness spell, though he refuses to be seen by a doctor because he knows that all the ministers out there are merely waiting for a weakness of his they can exploit. Perhaps sensing that his doom is impending, he asks his most trusted advisors (which include the Inspector General and Minister Lee) to carry on with his reforms should something happen to him.
While most of the ministers praise Minister Park for finding dirt on the Inspector General, one of the ministers isn’t a fan of the rash move and reminds Sang-gyu’s father that they can’t count out the Queen Dowager’s influence just yet.
Meanwhile, Sang-gyu attempts to find out who sponsored Na-young into the palace, as Man-oh tracks down a man who once made all the palace’s garments, now retired.
However, the man was commissioned by a palace eunuch in secret to make royal ceremonial garments – the kind only worn when a new monarch ascends the throne. Curiouser and curiouser.
Joo-pil has men following Man-oh’s every move, and knows he has to tread carefully going forward, since Man-oh and his cohort Minister Park are big prey.
Chief gets to ooh and ahh over Sang-gyu’s fancy new sword (which I’m guessing also acts as proof that he’s doing the king’s work) before giving Sang-gyu what he’s requested – his old B-team of officers to help his investigation. Aww. I’m glad they’re making a reappearance.
Sang-gyu commissions them to follow through on the lead from Na-young’s appointment, since she supposedly had backing from a rural governor. He’s hoping to find the true culprit in all of this, the one pulling the strings: “If I find the culprit, I will at least save your life, Milady.”
He goes to Na-young’s house that evening to find it curiously busy, since Man-oh has purchased the house and has hired men to fix it up.
Man-oh greets Sang-gyu unhappily, and a flashback shows that their issues go way back, since they would frequently argue over which methods were best to change the world. Na-young had to intervene to keep the peace, even though the two men had the same goals. It was just how to achieve those goals that their views differed.
In the present, they get to argue over the methods to again achieve the same goal: Rescuing Na-young. Man-oh comes out of their argument the winner of sorts, since he’s the one least affected as he recognizes that they have at least one thing in common in their love for Na-young.
Man-oh brings up an interesting point, in that he believes Sang-gyu is the one who wanders in shadows while he basks in the light of hope, as though Man-oh is the only idealist left between them. Pfft.
He promises that he will track down the people pulling Na-young’s strings and save her, all while accusing Sang-gyu of what his father once accused him of – being too frightened to take any action at all.
Joo-pil’s spy attempts to steal some of the poisonous berries from Man-oh’s cellar, only to be caught by Sang-chun and the grinning Do-sool.
When the royal court convenes next, the ministers tell the king that they’ll all step down from their positions in protest against the king deferring punishment for the Inspector General.
The king’s frustration with them reaches its boiling point and he completely loses his cool, yelling to the ministers, “For whose sake are you engaging in politics?!” Basically, he calls them out for being so petty over one guy’s impeachment when they’ve got something as big as a capital move on the table.
However, the descent into rage causes the king’s sickness to flare up, and he loses his footing in front of all the vultures. Not good.
While Man-oh is finally granted his wish to do business within the palace walls, Na-young is called to the unconscious king’s side to treat him, since the Royal Doctor’s methods aren’t working. (And he knows it means his head if the king dies.)
She performs a risky acupuncture procedure that brings the king back to consciousness.
Man-oh meets an irate Lady Jo and explains why he didn’t bring the berries with him this trip, since he knows Joo-pil is tailing him. She’s forced to let the issue rest when she hears of the king’s fainting spell and how Na-young brought him back from the brink.
Man-oh overhears, and bides his time until he can save her.
Na-young is introduced to the king as the one who saved him, and the camera focuses ominously on the new infusion she’s prepared. All right, the wind is sort of being knocked out of her poisoning sails if we just keep not poisoning the king, because then I’m going to stop assuming that we are.
The Queen Dowager talks the king out of immediately returning to the ministers and turns on Na-young with a kind demeanor that’s so unlike her. But, as she says, Na-young saved the king. She can only look upon her favorably now.
The king, however, doesn’t seem to rest easy and can’t seem to stop staring at Na-young. He might remember her from her past, considering how close he and her father were.
Joo-pil finds his fellow police officer, the one he sent to tail Man-oh, dead in a river bed. We know who killed him, but does he?
Man-oh brings the king’s secret ceremonial robes to Minister Park & Co., who worry that the king plans on abdicating his throne to the Crown Prince, which means he could sit behind the throne and cleanse the court of ministers like them.
The king breaks the news of his planned abdication to the Queen Dowager, who certainly doesn’t take the news well. He plans to fight the ministers from behind the throne to create a better future for Joseon, causing the Queen Dowager to ask sardonically who this supposed future is for.
“For Joseon’s people,” the king replies, “and for Joseon’s descendants.”
Joo-pil storms into Man-oh’s tavern that night looking for Sang-chun, and ends up arresting Do-sool for torture instead since Man-oh and his bodyguard are gone.
After some vigorous coercing, Do-sool finally confesses Man-oh and Sang-chun’s whereabouts.
Sang-gyu tries to drink away his feelings with Wol-hyang, but it’s not working tonight. He bemoans the fact that money can buy anything these days. “Can the same power and riches erase the wounds inside my soul?”
We know she’s carrying a torch for Sang-gyu, so it’s hard to see her try to convince him to stay when he only wants to go. She’s made her feelings apparent, and perhaps he’s doing the same with his own by leaving her against her wishes.
Joo-pil readies a small contingent of officers to hunt Man-oh down, and denies Sang-gyu a moment of his time as he declares that Sang-gyu isn’t the friend he once knew. Aww, are they breaking up?
He tells Sang-gyu that he’ll lend an ear if he returns to being his old self again (you know, the one who cared about their people’s suffering) before he heads off.
Man-oh is prepared for Joo-pil’s arrival, and they plan to overtake his forces with an ambush.
Joo-pil and his men are met with explosives as Sang-gyu rushes toward them on horseback, but the explosions scare his horse away.
As he tries to get to his friend on foot, their meager forces are all but overtaken by Man-oh’s well-armed men.
Aww, sad. Joo-pil is one of my favorite characters in this show, although his death falls in line with the unwritten rules of dramaland – if there’s someone like the hero who happens to be more stalwart/more competent at getting the bad guys, he’ll usually have to disappear to make way for the hero to find his way. Otherwise he’ll just steal the hero’s thunder.
So while I’m holding out hope that there’s some way he survives this, I just can’t see how. Hopefully his maybe-death will serve to wake Sang-gyu up as to what kind of forces he’s dealing with, because he spent most of this episode being somewhat passive with delayed reactions, if he had them at all. It’s not inorganic to his character since he seems to be the type that needs time to process this whole Assassin Na-young thing, but now that he’s had his time to brood I’m excited to see him take action. Whatever that action may be.
Funnily enough I think both he and Man-oh are approaching this Na-young situation the wrong way, though I think Sang-gyu has more realistic expectations. He may think (read: hope) that Na-young is being used by the Powers That Be, but I don’t think he has any delusions about returning things to the way they were. That accounts for most of his moping this episode – if he had hope, he’d be working toward it. He knows the situation is bleak, ergo he drinks.
Man-oh seems to be stuck in a rut when it comes to putting Na-young up on a pedestal, as we saw from him renovating her house and vowing that he’ll save her from these nefarious forces forcing her to perform evil deeds. Unlike Sang-gyu he thinks there’s something he can save Na-young from, and with that, everything will fall back into its proper, idealized place. What he hasn’t taken into account is that she might just be making her own choices (gasp!), and killing has now become one of them. And there might just be nothing he can do about it.
Something else I appreciate about this show is how the politics are playing out. Most sageuk depict ministers as being against the king and show us that constant back-and-forth, but this is the first sageuk where I can feel and relate to the king’s frustration in dealing with the glib-tongued snakes he has as ministers. They’re masters at saying one thing when they mean another, which is a staple of every royal court in every drama ever, but here they use their words like an excuse to get out of punishment for the really crappy things they’re implying. “We won’t dare to question your wisdom as a ruler, but we’re going on strike because we don’t like how you’re ruling. By the way, you’re looking fine on that throne, Your Majesty. Is that a new beard?”
It’s the same sort of wordplay we see often in politics, but I’ve never felt so attached to the outcome. When the ministers declared they’d be stepping down I was all but yelling at the screen, which I’d guess to be the intended effect considering how the king completely lost his composure. Props to this drama for setting up a political conflict that’s managed to be engaging and worth some emotional investment. You’d think that wouldn’t be so rare in sageuk nowadays, but it is.