So. Good. SO GOOD.
This episode is a journey into the heart of darkness as far as our hero is concerned, as we watch him struggle to accept that he now has no one to trust and no way to win. His is a dilemma that’s really puzzling because there really aren’t any good solutions for him, and any way out is bound to cause harm to everyone. Considering how he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, what’s a hero to do?
SONG OF THE DAY
Conspiracy in the Court OST – “축원” [ Download ]
EPISODE 5 RECAP
Joo-pil fights valiantly until he’s the last man standing, and shows no fear once Sang-chun enters the fray to take him on.
Man-oh draws his blade from the sidelines as they enter into a one-on-one fight to the death, all while Sang-gyu wanders through the forest in an attempt to find them.
Man-oh’s sword movements mimic (or predict) Sang-chun’s blow for blow, and what we get is this very beautiful, haunting scene where we don’t necessarily see the hits Joo-pil is taking, but we know he’s losing this battle.
As Man-oh stabs the air, Sang-chun stabs Joo-pil straight through the gut. It’s over. (Nooooo!)
As Joo-pil dies, he asks his killer who the poisonous berries were intended for. There’s something oddly respectful in the way Man-oh nods to give Sang-chun his permission, as though they can’t deny a dying man his final answers.
Sang-chun admits that even they don’t know who the berries are for, but that they know it can’t be some mere official. We don’t hear Sang-chun’s answer to Joo-pil’s second question about the identity of the assassin, but we see Joo-pil’s shocked reaction afterward.
He’s still barely clinging to life when Sang-gyu finds him, and it breaks my heart when he chokingly tells his old friend that he now understands why Sang-gyu wouldn’t tell him who the assassin was.
He even feels bad for not knowing enough to have supported Sang-gyu, since he only now realizes what kind of burden he’s been carrying alone. “Never give up,” Joo-pil reassures him.
After promising to always look out for his friend from the afterlife, Joo-pil dies. Sang-gyu devolves into tears as he cries out, “Hyungnim!”
The wounded/dead policemen are brought to the bureau to the sound of crying, while Man-oh’s men are brought back to his tavern as ill-equipped prostitutes find themselves in way over their heads.
And Do-sool grins all the while as he takes in the mayhem. What is UP with this guy, seriously?
Both Sang-gyu and Man-oh deal with their grief separately as they’re faced with the current carnage and the demons of their pasts. They’re not too far apart, these two, except while Sang-gyu chooses to cry, Man-oh drinks in an opium den.
News of the king’s plan to abdicate breaks to Minister Park & Co., though no one has any ideas on how to stop it.
A meeting of the court reveals more discontent amongst the ministers, this time with their adamant refusal to accept the king’s abdication. He’s almost baffled by their behavior as he tells them that their lack of trust is the reason why he’s abdicating at all.
“Have you ever even once considered me as your king and ruler?” he asks the court, and no one answers. Yet as soon as he announces that he’ll move forward with the abdication, they all start clamoring again.
The Queen Dowager makes her position on the abdication clear by leaving the palace completely. She can’t understand why the king can’t achieve what he wants from the throne rather than off it, but he tells her that if he could have done it from the throne, he would have long ago.
She shakes her head at him, “Your views are all that concerns you, so it is not with surprise that I witnessed your every follower turn his back on you.”
With that final burn, she leaves.
Sang-gyu is interrupted from his grieving to be officially questioned – the higher-ups find it all very suspicious that he just happened to be where Joo-pil was when he and his men were killed. Not good.
However, he’s able to stop Man-oh from going to the palace (with the poisonous berries) by arresting him.
Na-young and a fellow court maiden are let out of the palace in order to meet with Man-oh and exchange the berries. Unbeknownst to Na-young, Man-oh has already been arrested.
Her companion tells her to pray for her dreams to come true as they wait in a temple, and you can see Na-young process the word in her head, like she’s forgotten what dreams are.
Her companion seems wistful and resigned: “If you want to escape from this life, all you can do is wait for someone else to take your place.”
Minister Park gets word that his son arrested Man-oh a little late, as we find Man-oh already undergoing questioning.
Man-oh doesn’t need an alibi when the truth offers him more protection as he asks Sang-gyu what it is he should confess. Maybe that he smuggled poison under Sang-gyu’s father’s orders? Or that Sang-gyu’s father organized the assassination attempt on the king?
Sang-gyu doesn’t let any of this affect him as he threatens Man-oh with torture, knowing that he’ll soon confess enough to condemn him. At these dark words, Man-oh all but smirks that Sang-gyu is finally growing up and becoming just as jaded as the rest of them.
Sang-gyu knows it too, and his eyes well up with angry tears as he grits out, “It is only from you that I could learn it all.”
So Man-oh pulls out his last card – he still has the would-be kingly assassin’s family, who can prove his involvement with Minister Park. If Man-oh were to end up dead, he’s arranged it so that they’ll go to the state tribunal and spill all that they know, which would effectively damn Minister Park, Sang-gyu, and even Sang-gyu’s poor mother as traitors.
“Are you confident you can do this?” Man-oh taunts. “Are you confident that you can rescue Milady?” We see Sang-gyu’s confidence waning by the second as Man-oh reminds him that he’s too powerless to save Na-young. (If there are any words Sang-gyu hates, it must be those.)
Sang-gyu doesn’t let this scare him away and personally oversees Man-oh’s torture, which includes making him kneel on pottery shards with a weight pressing on his legs.
Sang-gyu even looks him dead in the eye as he’s being tortured, like he’s getting revenge for Joo-pil in that moment. It’s honestly chilling.
However, Man-oh is saved at the last moment by Chief, who we know has been bribed. Sang-gyu is shaking with rage as he accuses Chief of the same, since his superior keeps refuting all the evidence he presents on Man-oh.
Thoroughly scandalized by such an outrageous claim, Chief orders Sang-gyu to leave the bureau and never return. He can deny being bribed all he wants, but it’s kind of hard to maintain his innocence once it’s revealed that Minister Park has been hiding in the room to eavesdrop.
You know that awkward moment when you have to face the guy you just used illegal torture methods on? Probably not, but Sang-gyu gets to experience it as Man-oh wobbles out of the bureau.
He at least gives Sang-gyu the time of day, if only to rub it in his face that Joo-pil would have found his father guilty if left to his investigation – and even then, the shadowy people behind Na-young would have killed him for getting too close to the truth. So this is basically a, “If I didn’t do it, someone else would have.”
Man-oh keeps taunting Sang-gyu about how he won’t be able to rescue Na-young, to which Sang-gyu replies that it’s not like she’d even be with Man-oh once she found out about all his evil deeds.
Again, Man-oh has to school the naive Sang-gyu in reminding him that they’re not all that different, especially with Sang-gyu using illegal torture. Sang-gyu: “I… am nothing like you.”
And Man-oh treats this next line like he’s just gotta break it to Sang-gyu: “Milady herself… is a murderer.” As in, Why did you think she’d reject me for being one, too?
Sang-gyu drops to his knees next to Joo-pil’s body, asking him mournfully, “What do I do? There is nothing left for me to do. I cannot denounce my father, nor can I imprison Milday. I could not even avenge your wrongful death.”
He cries as he asks his beloved hyung to help him, to show him the path he must take. Poor Sang-gyu. His life seriously sucks right now.
Man-oh finally makes it to his meeting, and is surprised that Na-young is the person using the berries he’s been smuggling. Now that she knows he’s the smuggler, she guesses that he was behind Hwang’s death, something Man-oh confesses to as he kneels to ask for forgiveness. He thought he was saving her from Hwang’s influence.
Only when he rises does Na-young see his bleeding knees, so she treats his wounds in the temple.
He tries to convince her to leave everything behind so he can protect her, and promises that he’ll hide her from the world. When she refuses, he blurts out, “If you slay our ruler, I won’t be able to protect you, Milady!”
Her eyes go wide at this, since he’s figured out her end goal. Man-oh pleads with her to renounce it all and trust him to help her.
She refuses again, claiming that the path she must walk is one she can only take alone. Man-oh practically begs her, knowing that he can only try to stop her now, before it’s too late.
Man-oh brings her to her old home, which he’s had renovated to look just like it did the day she left. “The only thing that changed must be me,” Na-young sighs as she takes it all in.
He keeps reminding her that he’ll make everything like it was, that he’s worked all these years to gain the power he needs to help her. Still, it’s not enough – she can’t forget her parents and how wrongfully they died enough to ever live happily.
“Wherever you are and whatever you do, until the end of our days, I will be the one to protect you,” Man-oh says. Aww, poor guy. She’s trying to look out for him when she rejects him, since getting him embroiled in her mess will only mean bad things for him.
In the end, she delivers the poison berries to Lady Jo, who warns her against trusting the court maiden who went with her.
Sang-gyu tries and fails to write an account of all the evidence he has, since doing so would incriminate his father. His men return from their trip to the province Na-young claims she came from, and produce proof of whoever it was behind Na-young’s appointment as a royal physician.
We don’t see who it is though (though it could only be Lady Jo), since bureau officers come again to arrest Sang-gyu. He’s wise enough to conceal the letter before they find him.
His earnest pleas don’t work to get him out of being arrested (they’re still after him for Joo-pil’s murder, of all things) so he surprises everyone when he breaks out his lower register as he brandishes the royal sword the king gave him as proof that he’s carrying out royal orders.
It’s his newfound confidence that saves him, and even his fellow officers note that he’s not the Sang-gyu they once knew. He stares at the sword he just used to secure his release, since it’s both a blessing and a burden to him.
He takes his proof to Lady Jo, since the paper shows that she was behind Na-young’s appointment in the palace. She cottons on to the fact that he’s trying to protect Na-young, otherwise he would have taken that proof (along with evidence that Na-young received the poisonous berries from Man-oh) to the proper authorities.
This is where Sang-gyu falters, since her words are true. “I do not want to see anyone get hurt,” he finally admits, which gets a good laugh out of Lady Jo. Especially when he asks for her to let Na-young go.
He again brandishes the king’s sword as he gives her two days. Otherwise he’ll go to the king directly and spill everything. Er, Sang-gyu. Maybe you shouldn’t reveal your whole hand to people who are in the business of killing other people. Just saying.
Meanwhile, the king makes plans to go bring the Queen Dowager back, and claims he’ll take Na-young with him to care for his health should he faint like last time. Judging by the eye signals Lady Jo is sending her, it might be their golden opportunity to assassinate the king.
I forgot that Sang-gyu at least has one friend in Wol-hyang, but it’s not much use when he won’t open up to her. He blames himself for Joo-pil’s death since he knew who the murderer was and did nothing to help his friend, but Wol-hyang still doesn’t know the murderer is Na-young.
It’s the same song and dance – she tries to get him to stay, while he tells her he’s not worthy of her devotion. Well, at least he knows how she feels, but something tells me she’s not going to stop loving him just ’cause he says so.
We find the king and Na-young traveling by boat that night, and it’s here that we get confirmation the king is King Jeongjo, since he talks about the wrongful death of his father.
(His father, Crown Prince Sado, is a common name in history since he was infamously locked in a box by his father and left there until he died eight days later. While it’s mostly believed he was mentally disturbed, the possibility exists that his execution was part of a political conspiracy. One thing’s for sure – it makes for some good drama.)
He brings up an adage which Na-young had used, that “people cannot live under the same sky as their father’s enemies.” Little does he know that’s why she’s there, since the king is responsible for her father’s death.
But he seems to be referring to her father when he says that there was a man who led him off the destructive path of revenge to make him who he is today. Is he saying this because he possibly recognized her? I wouldn’t put it past him, anyway.
Minister Park advises Sang-gyu to leave town for a while so he can fix things, but his son sees this as a move orchestrated by Lady Jo.
When his son mentions he brought the evidence up with the crazed court lady, Minister Park starts freaking out. It’s clear he’s very afraid of these people, and now fears for his son’s life now that Lady Jo knows he’s onto them.
Now he asks his son to leave town in earnest in order to survive. Sang-gyu’s frustration with his own helplessness reaches a boiling point, and with a fierce cry he embeds the king’s sword into a tree, telling his father that he would’ve left anyway without him having to ask.
While Man-oh is threatened by Lady Han to explain why the chief inspector paid the palace a visit, the king and Na-young continue their journey in disguise. (One villager thinks Na-young is his daughter, which comes as an interesting thought to the king.)
The king brings her to a number of tombs and asks her to pay respects in his stead. He asks where her parents were buried, and while she doesn’t know about her father, she buried her mother herself in the mountains behind their prison. Yikes.
He tells her that the tombs belong to a mentor, an associate, and the man who tried to kill him. (Could one of the graves have her father, then?) He sheds a tear as he addresses the dead men: “The world we so passionately dreamed of is right before us.” As though he’s telling them to hold on just a little longer. It’ll all have been worth it.
Sang-gyu’s mother scolds him for wielding a sword at his father, but Sang-gyu’s too far gone in his self-loathing to care about his father. “Have you ever been treated like a person here?” he asks her, knowing full well the answer.
She doesn’t see it like he does, since his father was able to feed and clothe him all these years. But he pleads with his mother to just run away with him – they might end up hungry wherever they go, but at least they could live like decent people.
She knows something’s wrong with him, and he admits that he doesn’t know what it is himself. But if things keep going on like they are, he’ll lose his mind.
Man-oh is brought before Lady Jo to be killed, since he’s a loose end she doesn’t see a use for any longer. He’s able to save himself by confessing word about the king’s abdication and a prediction that it will bring about a purge.
The only way for them to make it out alive, according to him, is to gain control of the army. The what now? He actually has a PLAN for this?
The king presides over the military drills for his secret elite army, and instructs the Inspector General (who he’s sending away temporarily until he can calm the court) that the army is never to be used if something were to happen to him.
He finally sees the Queen Dowager and tells her that he’ll bring his elite army to the capital to strike some fear into the hearts of the ministers. She’s against this idea because she thinks it’ll be interpreted as a revenge scheme for his father, but the king just wants to restore order.
Should things go wrong, however, he will do what needs to be done and kill those who must be killed.
“History shall judge my legacy with fairness,” he says.
Lady Jo confronts Na-young on how she knows Sang-gyu, since he threatened to confess their schemes. She denies having a past with him in order to (hopefully) spare his life, and gets ordered outside. Uh oh.
Except… Lady Jo is letting her and that other court maiden go free? Huh? Something seems really off about this, considering Lady Jo’s ‘friendly’ demeanor.
Na-young is wary, but her companion doesn’t think twice and heads off for freedom.
There’s a moment where Na-young considers it, but the image of her dead mother strengthens her resolve. She refuses to leave, but there’s something suspicious about Lady Jo’s scheme…
Just as Na-young’s companion is murdered in her palanquin by armed guards before they cruelly toss her off a cliff.
Lady Jo admits to Na-young that her willingness to stay is what saved her life, and uses the recently-killed court maiden as proof that they kill anyone who stops being useful.
Na-young’s identity is compromised as is, but Lady Jo has a fix for that. All Na-young has to do… is kill Sang-gyu.
Oh, man. ANOTHER huge dilemma. This drama certainly has no dearth of tough choices, does it?
I found myself really sympathizing with Sang-gyu this episode, even though he spent most of it up to his chin in inner turmoil. He had so many moments where he was just anxious, and we could see it written all over his face and in his body language. I’ve never seen a character manage to stay so worried and lost without it getting old fast, but it’s not like I can figuratively tell Sang-gyu to just suck it up because I really can’t think of a solution for his problems. So his angst, to me, was genuinely warranted.
I appreciate that as an audience we were trusted with figuring out why he’s slowly losing his mind, instead of being barraged with voiceovers to make sure we KNOW why he’s in so much pain. There was more of an impact to his silent suffering that way, something that even Joo-pil recognized and felt sorry for, because the secrets Sang-gyu keeps are so volatile that he can’t even confide in anyone lest he put them in danger. What’s worse is that the only person who was ever on his side (that could help him, anyway) is dead. And Sang-gyu’s not exactly wrong in shouldering some of the blame for that.
But if we add that to all the other things weighing him down, it almost seems like a miracle that he’s still functional. If I had to tally up Sang-gyu’s Self-Blame-O-Meter, it would go like this: Blame for Na-young’s current state (having been unable to protect her), blame for Joo-pil’s death, blame for his mother’s life of servitude (no matter how thankful she is for it), blame for his father’s involvement in the crimes, blame for being unable to fulfill the king’s wishes, blame for being undeserving of Wol-hyang’s feelings, and blame for being made a coward by his own helplessness.
Phew. Did I miss anything? Sang-gyu’s trapped by everyone’s fears about his fears, in that he’s let fear paralyze his decision-making just like his father warned him not to do. (Funny how those things turn out.) He had a small breakthrough in his dogged resolve to torture Man-oh, and it was an awesome moment for Sang-gyu when he used his whole body to hold back tears as he told Man-oh that HE was the cause of his lost innocence. And he’s right; the old Sang-gyu is gone, and I doubt we’ll see him again.
Now the question is whether the new Sang-gyu will manage to own up to his problems and choose a side, or whether he’ll just run away. What we’re seeing now is a darker version of Sang-gyu, but at his heart he’s still naive, considering that he went to a person as dangerous as Lady Jo without keeping an ace in the hole. That’s something that Man-oh would have done, and something that he did do to save his life. It makes me actively worried for Sang-gyu since he now has no one on his side, and no one that’s even working on the side of GOOD, for that matter. How will he ever survive or win against baddies that are alarmingly merciless?
Maybe there’s no winning in this game. Maybe it’s just like the king says, and all anyone can ever do is pick between the lesser of two evils.