This is mystery done right, romance done well, characterization handled with aplomb. It still surprises me that each episode can yield so much information about the characters we already know, sometimes reinforcing the traits we’ve associated with them, sometimes turning our perceptions upside down. It makes for an engaging watch, because while we may think we know who is who and who they might work for, we DON’T know just about everything else. We’re definitely leaving a lot of room for some well-placed reveals, and in that sense I’m excited as we head toward the final two episodes. I just wish it didn’t have to end so soon.
EPISODE 6 RECAP
Na-young is given her choice: Kill Sang-gyu, or give up on everything she’s worked for up until now. And judging by Lady Jo’s track record, choosing the latter would mean death.
As the king waits for the Queen Dowager’s return to the palace, Minister Park & Co. fret over news that the king has deployed his elite troops in the capital. They know they’re not on the king’s good side, and worry that a purge will wipe them all out.
The Queen Dowager makes her return, and the king’s words are cryptic. Now that he has Na-young to take care of his health, he’s almost making it sound as if he’s no longer abdicating.
Na-young has a sobering moment when she’s greeted by her former companion’s replacement, with the story being that the now-dead palace maid just went to visit her hometown.
Sang-gyu finds her brooding in the royal pharmacy, and she asks him pointed questions along the lines of, If I leave this place, would you be able to protect me? You’d hope she’s reached a turning point, but this could all be a way to kill Sang-gyu.
Of course, he doesn’t know any better and promises that he’ll do everything in his power to help her.
The Queen Dowager is displeased to hear about the king’s secret truth, since she’s sure that violence will only beget more violence as she compares his court subjects to the fish she’s feeding – they can be controlled if you control the food supply.
Meanwhile, the Royal Doctor gets the king to agree to an experimental treatment for his maladies, while Minister Lee brings news of a protest forming against the new military taxes being imposed on the nobility. No surprise there, nobody ever made friends by taxing them.
Even Minister Lee is against the taxation, especially since the king intends to implement it by force. But the king won’t be swayed, and that’s the end of it.
Sang-gyu’s dad, Minister Park, ends up giving Lady Jo an ultimatum: Either she takes him to her leader, or he turns on her. But he won’t be her puppet anymore.
Sang-gyu goes to the king to get out of the investigation, citing his injured back as a poor excuse. Unfortunately for him the king sees right through him, and once they’re in an unprecedented private meeting, the king calls him out.
He knows Sang-gyu was looking for Minister Lee’s (Na-young’s father) daughter, and knows that his sudden departure from the investigation has something to do with her. He also knows that she’s linked to the murders, but is more interested in whoever is controlling her.
“Do you think your silence will protect her?” the king asks Sang-gyu, who’s trembling in fright.
We cut to Sang-gyu stumbling from the palace with tears in his eyes as the king sits in silence, contemplating what Sang-gyu asked him – namely, why isn’t he curious about who the murderers are after. My guess would be that the king knows very well that he IS the target.
The king seems to be filled with new purpose as he calls on a eunuch to deliver some orders. It looks like the time for diplomacy has ended.
The minister we’ve seen conspiring with Sang-gyu’s dad, Minister Shim, gets secret word that the procedure to heal the king will also leave him unconscious for half a day, which Minister Shim plans to use to his advantage for some unknown purpose.
Na-young tries to convince Lady Jo to not have Sang-gyu killed, but is chided for having a heart instead. If this keeps up, Lady Jo warns her that she won’t be able to avenge her parents.
Man-oh and one of his higher-up pals in Minister Park’s camp wine and dine a group of military officers, who are at first quite scandalized to mingle with the low-born likes of Man-oh.
Our merchant holds his own though, and offers a proposition of sorts to give their starving men food in exchange for their help when he needs it. An agreement is made, though the generals don’t know what favor they’ll have to repay quite yet.
So Man-oh’s stores of food are now going to the generals for bribing, something which the old Port Chief (the one Man-oh won over with promises of helping the people) disagrees with. He tells Man-oh as much, only for him to reply that the collateral damage will only be short term, and he’ll be helping the people soon enough.
However, the Port Chief points out that this kind of rhetoric is exactly what the nobility used to put the common man in his current state. He points out Man-oh’s new silk robes and asks if his principles have changed with his clothing, which, ouch.
Na-young zombie-walks through the market in an attempt to clear her head, but it doesn’t do much good.
Sang-gyu drinks with Wol-hyang and commiserates over his current state, claiming that he no longer cares for the future of Joseon or its people, and that he has plans to leave the capital soon.
All that doom and gloom disappears instantly once Na-young comes to the gibang to see him. Wol-hyang sighs to see Na-young, since she knows that any chance she had with Sang-gyu is now gone.
However, Na-young hasn’t come for a lover’s reunion, as she flat-out tells Sang-gyu that she’s there on orders to kill him. She’s even prepared everything to do so, from acupuncture needles to poison.
Strangely though, Wol-hyang leaves the gibang in secret.
Sang-gyu drinks with Na-young as she tells him how hopeless his attempts at intimidating Lady Jo have been thus far, even telling him that her organization is responsible for all the recent murders. What made him think he could scare them?
He’s sure that the evidence he has against Lady Jo will sway the king, and gets up to seek an audience… only he stumbles. Na-young asks him if he thought he was merely drinking wine. Ohhhhhh no.
She’s got tears in her eyes, but it’s a small comfort when she’s just poisoned our hero. The saddest part about it is that Sang-gyu knows she did it, though he continues to claim that he’s just drunk. Until the bitter end, he won’t acknowledge that she’s a murderer.
Turns out Wol-hyang has gone to Minister Shim in an effort to get him to help Sang-gyu, since Sang-gyu told her that there’s treason going on in the court. So either Minister Shim isn’t a bad guy, or he is and he’s just pretending to be good.
As Sang-gyu trembles from the poison, he asks for Na-young’s hand as he blames himself for endangering her life in going to Lady Jo. He knows she’s trying to avenge her father by slaying the king, but tells her that she’ll never be able to do it because the king is too cunning. He knows who she is already.
What’s worse is that Sang-gyu is almost in awe of just how cunning the king is, since the king ordered him to capture Na-young even knowing how much Sang-gyu loved her. Basically, he’s warning her against entering a fight she can’t win.
“I want to survive,” he tells her as he starts losing consciousness. “But if my survival causes you harm, I would happily die instead.” Well, no one can accuse him of not being devoted enough.
Na-young seems to be barely holding it together as Sang-gyu finally passes out. This can’t be it, right? The poison is just there to paralyze him… right? Right?
Wol-hyang turns around in a dark alleyway to find Na-young standing there as if she just materialized. She’s not going to kill Wol-hyang, is she?
She doesn’t, since we find Wol-hyang crying over Sang-gyu’s unconscious body. (I’m saying unconscious because I refuse to believe he’s dead.)
Na-young sinks down outside, crying.
A thief who’s been caught robbing Man-oh’s food cellars is brought before our merchant, though the man is unapologetic since he did it only to save the hungry. He points to Man-oh as a sell-out, and doesn’t buy his excuses that he’s doing all of this to feed the people, instead claiming that Man-oh’s words are just as empty as the nobility’s.
This is becoming a sore spot for Man-oh, who preaches against The Man only to be constantly accused of becoming The Man. That’s got to suck.
However, Sang-chun comes with word that Sang-gyu has died. Which… what?! No way did they actually kill him. No. Way.
A coffin arrives at Minister Park’s house, and Sang-gyu’s mother wails and wails over her dead son. (No. Way. This is all a fake-out. It has to be.)
I can’t tell if it’s because he’s angry or not, but Minister Park won’t even allow Sang-gyu a spot in his family’s burial grounds. Instead, he’ll get cremated outside the palace gates, a horrifying thought that has Sang-gyu’s mother screaming.
The king gets word of Sang-gyu’s death, and learns that his father had the body cremated quickly. Something seems fishy about that, though that might just be my hopes and dreams talking.
Na-young is told to prepare for the king’s fume treatment, and fishes the poisonous berries out at the clinic to do the job. She’s interrupted by Minister Lee and his minions who have come on the king’s orders to investigate all the herbs in the clinic, which has her hiding the box of poison behind her back. Pretty obviously, I might add.
Word of the king’s treatment reaches Minister Shim, who seems to hesitate at deploying troops during the time the king is unconscious because they need just cause. And political differences don’t really cut it in today’s world. (I like this minister. He speaks sense.)
The box of poison is soon wrestled from Na-young’s hands, though fate is on her side – the minister who takes them sees them only as the preciously rare palgak berries, unaware that there exists a poisonous lookalike.
Man-oh seems to actually be mourning for Sang-gyu through drinking, as he tells Sang-chun that had they been born in another time and place, he and Sang-gyu could have been friends. Aww.
Their impromptu quiet moment is interrupted by the arrival of soldiers.
Lady Jo is rattled since she’s sure she’s lost her poisonous berries, so it’s with some relief that she learns Minister Park switched the berries out before the raid. He has the real box of poison, but withholds it for the moment – after all, he knows she killed his son.
Now he finally has her under his power, since she’ll do anything to get the poison back. The question is, what does he want from her?
The king undergoes his fume treatment and is left alone with Na-young to finish cleaning up his back sores. He solemnly explains why he wanted to be treated in the room of the palace where his father was born, since he spent most of his young life vowing to avenge his death.
He explains that now he wants to bring about a new Joseon to help the common people, and that his desire to do so is too powerful for any sword or sickness to bring him down. Ooohhh. Is this like a declaration of war? He knows who she is, after all.
His loyal eunuch does some snooping in Lady Jo’s(?) quarters, only to be double-crossed by a palace guard and killed. Yikes.
The king speaks like a great wounded beast, like every word is a struggle and the air is thin. He’s aware that there’s no end to the strife between parties or the people’s hunger when both are too absorbed in blaming him for all their woes, just like how he’s aware that he’s lost too many subjects whose only crime was being loyal.
Now he realizes that the Joseon he wanted is more and more becoming like a creature from a dream, and that those against him are victorious not of their own strength, but because he failed in convincing his people.
He’s reached a moment where he realizes that all his efforts are amounting only to death, not because of him, but because that’s how reality goes. In the face of all that, he asks Na-young, “Is my never giving up truly the answer? Na-young-ah, what would you do?”
Tears are in his eyes and hers, and I can only assume that she’s moved by his struggle. She loses yet another chance to assassinate him when the Royal Doctor arrives, and doesn’t even blink when the king collapses on his way out.
Man-oh has been betrayed by the minister who granted him an audience with the army officers, with one of those officers there to either torture or kill him. (Or both.) They know he’s been working with a court lady and demand to know who.
Minister Shim decides against using the army to retake the capital while the king is unconscious, fearing retaliation if the king were to wake up sooner than intended. To him, the costs aren’t worth the risks.
And as it turns out, Man-oh’s near-death experience is YET ANOTHER test of loyalty by Lady Jo, in order to make sure that he wouldn’t spill their secrets. Lordy, woman. People are going to stop taking you seriously if you keep tooling around like this.
Man-oh is content to keep serving Lady Jo (especially when faced with the alternatives) and asks only for her to give him exclusive market licenses after they oppose the capital move.
She agrees, and Man-oh finally asks a favor from the army officer who owes him, and it’s that one of the palace gates be opened in secret.
Minister Park sneaks out to a lavish home where Wol-hyang welcomes him… and is led to where Sang-gyu is lying.
But just then, Sang-gyu stirs. Ah ha! I knew it was all a conspiracy! (Okay, I might’ve doubted it for a little bit.)
The king stirs awake as well, and learns that Na-young is the one who brought him back from the brink.
Sang-gyu tells his father who Na-young is, and it seems that she DID mean to kill him and now thinks he’s dead. He was saved by his father, though just barely.
His father intends to let people think Sang-gyu is dead to save him, even though Sang-gyu refuses to believe that Na-young tried to kill him, or that her father was a traitor.
The Queen Dowager is obviously happy the king seems to be recovering, even though he seems pensive and unsure. He agrees to letting her give Na-young a title and higher rank – after all, she saved the king’s life twice.
Man-oh prepares to go to Qing to buy up supplies while they can, since prices for everything will soon skyrocket. Now that he’s sure there won’t be a capital move, he’s betting all he has on it. (And more importantly, he’s currently disguising himself as a high-ranking official.)
Sang-gyu reads the account of Na-young’s father’s treason (that’s what he wanted from Wol-hyang) and decides that he MUST see Na-young. In order to get Wol-hyang to help him, he claims that it’ll be his last time seeing her.
Man-oh surprises Na-young with a visit, since he was let into the palace with fanfare because of his disguise. He’s paved the way for her escape once she kills the king, and gives a slightly effed up confession of love when he admits that he was happy when he heard she became a slave, because that meant that she could finally be in his reach.
As he swears his undying love for her, Na-young remains distant as she keeps thinking back to the king’s confession during his treatment. Now she admits that she’s no longer sure about the world she wanted.
Man-oh pulls her into an embrace and swears again that he wants nothing but her. She sheds tears but doesn’t pull away, though I’d say it’s more because she’s lost in thought.
Unbeknownst to them, Sang-gyu has seen the whole exchange, and walks away quietly.
Man-oh does this crazy laugh once he leaves the palace, but he doesn’t seem all that happy.
Na-young runs into Sang-gyu outside, and doesn’t seem all that surprised as she registers the fact that he’s not six feet under. That cherry blossom tree that’s always on standby for their scenes comes to shake its petals over our former lovers as Sang-gyu hands over the account of her father’s treason and arrest, claiming that he could find no fault – not the king’s, her father’s, Lady Jo’s, or anyone’s.
He bids her to follow Man-oh’s wishes and save herself, content enough to let her go if it will make her happy: “If he is the one, you might even find everything that time so heartlessly stole from you.”
With that he says his goodbyes, pledging to leave the capital. A tear falls as she watches him go.
Na-young reads the account of her father as Sang-gyu makes one final request of Man-oh: To take care of Na-young.
He even stops by his mother’s house and sees her grieving for him, though he can’t tell her he lives.
Wol-hyang visibly deflates when Sang-gyu tells her that he’ll be leaving the capital tomorrow, though it’s not like she can argue – he’s supposed to be dead, so it’s not like he can stay where people will recognize him.
Still, he laments the toll reality has taken: “Is changing the world even feasible? How can I accomplish what even our ruler failed to?”
He admits that he doesn’t want to spend the night alone, which comes so tentatively from his mouth that Wol-hyang doesn’t know how to react at first. (I wonder if he’s doing this more for himself, or because he knows she’s always loved him.)
“Are you feeling lonely?” Wol-hyang asks.
“More than I have ever been,” Sang-gyu replies, as he places his hand over hers.
Fade to black.
The king is back and stronger than ever as he mandates that he’ll abdicate the throne to the crown prince, and that a hard line is to be taken with anyone who disagrees with his new military taxes.
He only falters once he’s out of the ministers’ sight, and learns that the eunuch he trusted has disappeared. This news hits him hard, and he whispers brokenly, “Who will aid my cause now?”
Minister Shim is surprised to hear that there are court ladies involved in gathering army forces, and guesses that the legends of a secret group tasked with ensuring Joseon’s longevity exists. But, he doesn’t know who runs it.
Lady Jo tells Na-young that the time has come to poison the king, but she’s unaware of the war going on inside Na-young. She sees visions of both the king and her dead father as though she’s choosing from them, and when it comes down to it, she IS having to choose between them.
Minister Park demands to see the leader of Lady Jo’s organization, though she tells him that he’s unable to see him today though he has agreed to meet.
When Minister Park asks why, she tells him that he’ll find out soon enough.
Cut to: The king, as he prepares to rest from his illness.
Could it be the king…? No way. Not a chance.
That could have just been some creative editing, but it got all sorts of ideas spinning in my head. Could the secret orchestrator of all this chaos be the king? And if so, why would he foster a group that works so steadily against him? One that kills off all his supporters? I’m going to stop theorizing on this one because I really do have NO idea, and this show loves to draw out its scenes for maximum thrills. It’s the type to intentionally lead you one way just so it can surprise you with another, so whatever I’m thinking is probably very off the mark. It could be the Queen Dowager for all we know.
That aside, I find Na-young to be a fascinating character both in theory and in practice, though I keep wishing we were allowed to see more of her inner thoughts, or maybe one or two candid conversations from her. She has this air of restraint about her that always makes it seem like she’s holding something back, which makes sense because she does have plenty of secrets to keep.
For the most part, we know what’s going on in her head. We know her motivations and her misgivings, especially now that she’s gotten to know the king better. Or if not better, she’s maybe come to understand him just a little more. Whether that will actually make an impact on her revenge scheme remains to be seen.
The only unfortunate thing is that she’s so removed from everyone else in the show by being holed up in the palace, and even when she comes out, she’s still never frank. Sure, she told Sang-gyu she was going to kill him, but there was still a wall of formality between them that I was hoping would break, especially if she thought those moments would really be his last.
On that note, I wasn’t so surprised that Sang-gyu was alive (we have two episodes left, after all) as much as I was surprised to see that Na-young DID really mean to kill him. It’s hard to tell with this show, as usual, and nothing is quite what it seems. But if she did really think she murdered him, I’m a bit more repulsed than fascinated. I understand her still and even sympathize with her, because no one should have to go through what she did. But am I really rooting for her when she tried to kill our hero? I’m not so sure.
Sang-gyu can be idealistic to a huge, glaring fault, as we saw with his refusal to accept literal truths this episode. At the point where he is faced with (what I can only keep describing as) THE TRUTH and chooses not to believe them, then we’ve sort of entered Delusionaland, haven’t we? Call a spade a spade, I say. If your ex-girlfriend just poisoned you and is watching you die, it’s not betrayal to recognize what’s happening and maybe call her out for it. His devotion was almost sweet, but it also bordered on doing Na-young a disservice. (I guess that if killing your first love doesn’t snap you out of it, though, nothing really will.)
The king has remained one of the most engaging characters in this series, and I’m loving that there really might be more to him than we could even begin to imagine. I’ve so far seen him as a good man who’s had to make some tough choices as a ruler, but we saw hints this episode that he might be more of a manipulative puppet master than an idealistic-yet-impotent ruler. It opens up a whole new level of dimension for him, one which really surprised me with its complexity this round. If he really does know everything and is pulling the strings, what’s his final plan? And if he’s not his own adversary, who is?