I don’t think I’ve ever been so confused by a show before, though that’s not at all as bad as it sounds. Conspiracy in the Court makes me want to give multiple episodes multiple viewings, because little hints here and there end up informing and changing so much of what we’ve already seen. There are plenty of shows that don’t hold up under close scrutiny, yet here we have a show that all but demands it. It’s fun as a viewer, don’t get me wrong – but it’s also quite taxing, since this isn’t your go-to drama to unwind with after a day’s work. It’s more than that.
And that’s why it’s one of the greats.
EPISODE 7 RECAP
Sang-gyu wakes up somewhat sheepishly next to Wol-hyang after their night together, and she asks to accompany him in his exile. He admits that he might not ever be able to forget Na-young, though she comforts him by claiming she won’t be able to forget a certain man, either. (My guess would be that her special someone is him.)
While the king undergoes another fume treatment, the minister who’s been in cahoots with Lady Jo, MINISTER KANG, frets about Minister Shim (who’s loyal to the king, as it seems) learning about the existence of their organization. He tells Lady Jo that they must deploy their secret troops before they’re found out.
Na-young steps into the candlelit fume chamber where the king rests, his mind clouded from the effects of the vapors. He seems to know what Na-young is there for even as the Queen Dowager arrives to watch.
Meanwhile, Wol-hyang couldn’t look happier as she leaves the gibang with Sang-gyu.
Word reaches Man-oh that the king is bringing his elite troops into the capital, so he prepares to mobilize his own forces in preparation/retaliation.
The king asks Na-young if the poison she’s holding is the same she gave to Sang-gyu, which she denies since Sang-gyu is still alive. It seems like the king is relieved to hear it, but he seems to be straddling the line between life and death as it is so it’s hard to tell.
They both know what she’s there for, and she tearfully admits that she can’t forsake her father to save him. He knows and understands her because he could never forsake his own father either, but he does say that he wanted to show her the new Joseon he was striving for. The same her father wanted, but through differing means.
He also laments that he won’t be able to fulfill her father’s final wish – that all his family be buried with him. Remember when the king had Na-young pay respects to the grave of his “mentor”? He reveals now that it was her father and mother’s graves.
This hits Na-young like a ton of bricks. She asks the king why he didn’t try to stop this poisoning scheme when he knew about it in advance, though he claims that by the time he realized it, he knew his time was almost up anyway.
Now she wants to back out from killing him, but his words stop her. Just like her father entrusted his final wishes to him, he wants to entrust his final wishes to her. We don’t hear what they are quite yet.
Wol-hyang is on cloud nine as she travels with Sang-gyu, and even calls him seobangnim, basically addressing him officially as her boyfriend. He’s not against it, but warns her that he’s not sure what lies ahead of them.
She doesn’t seem to care as long as she’s with him. (I know their happiness can’t last, but how I wish it would. They’re perfect.)
The Royal Doctor seems to be in on the poisoning plot, since he stops the Queen Dowager from intervening. The king drinks the bowl down as Na-young sheds a frightened tear.
“You must…” the king begins, his voice weak. “You must survive at all costs. The dream of a new Joseon…”
He doesn’t get to finish his sentence because he falls over, dead.
Minister Lee learns that the Minister of War (aka Minister Kang, the one who’s been working with Lady Jo) has deployed troops to the capital, though any efforts to find out more are interrupted by the sounds of wailing coming from the palace. All the court is in mourning for their king.
The Queen Dowager makes sure to stress to those grieving that business will go on as usual. She calls for immediate action to appoint a wonsang, or royal substitute, for the twenty-six day buffer period required before the crown prince can take the throne. She’s been at this game too long to be messing around.
Minister Kang is committing treason in letting his troops march on the capital (he’s basically just turned the country’s military against the king), and Minister Lee knows that the life of the crown prince is now in danger. He mobilizes every palace guard available to stand guard outside the prince’s quarters.
There’s no better time than the present to use the king’s secret elite troops, but as the king mandated, only his orders or those of the Inspector General’s can move those troops. Now that the king is dead, they better hope the grief-stricken Inspector General stays alive long enough to agree.
It comes as news to Minister Shim that troops have been deployed to the capital since Minister Kang has disappeared. Only now does he seem to realize that they might have been betrayed.
Na-young uses the mayhem going on in the palace to her advantage and escapes, all thanks to Man-oh securing an exit for her. She finds his loyal bodyguard Sang-chun waiting to take her to safety.
In the meantime, Man-oh is allowed into a secret meeting of Na-young’s organization, and the number of ministers involved is staggering. Even Minister Park is present as they all wait to meet the group’s leader…
…And it’s the Queen Dowager. Whoa. It’s not too surprising when we use the process of elimination, but to know she’s that cold? Whoa.
She tells all those present that the time has come for Joseon to return to the way King Taejo (the founding king of Joseon) intended, which basically means that they will reestablish Joseon’s royal authority no matter what it takes. Which basically means lots of bloodshed.
Na-young hesitates to go to Sang-chun, even though she knows that happiness could be in her reach (as Sang-gyu told her, staying with Man-oh could give her back some of the life that was stolen from her). She also remembers the king’s final request, and doesn’t know which to choose – until Lady Jo arrives, anyway.
The Royal Doctor is found dead by Minister Lee in the meantime. Was it Na-young who killed him, or Lady Jo?
Na-young finds herself caught between Lady Jo and Sang-chun, and eventually just runs away from both. However, she remains in the palace, which means she’s chosen to ignore Man-oh’s offer.
The Inspector General refuses to deploy the king’s elite troops to meet the treasonous troops, because doing so would only make the situation worse. He wants to handle the matter with diplomacy and purge the court of treasonous ministers, since he knows that the king was murdered.
Minister Lee tries to convince the reticent royal court of the same, especially with the Royal Doctor now dead and the king’s favorite eunuch missing.
The Queen Dowager gets to sit on the king’s throne as she addresses the court, and for obvious reasons she turns down Minister Lee’s request to investigate the king’s passing, claiming that it’s treasonous against the crown prince.
The matter seems well and done with until Na-young forces her way into the meeting and declares that the king was, in fact, murdered.
She even goes on to admit that she was the one who served him the poison, and that the mastermind behind all of it is in the room as they speak. Uh oh. Does she know it’s the Queen Dowager? WAS it the Queen Dowager? Was this the king’s final request?
There are a few stages to what happens next: First, the Queen Dowager tries to completely ignore Na-young’s accusations. She’s got ministers like Sang-gyu’s father and Minister Kang on her side, but reasonable ministers like Minister Shim and Minister Lee call for a fair investigation. (I know, it’s a lot of ministers. Just know that the only two who don’t explicitly serve her are Shim and Lee.)
Second, the Queen Dowager tries to bypass an investigation (which could easily incriminate her) by demanding that Na-young confess the guilty party so that they can be executed on the spot.
Third, Na-young withholds naming the mastermind so that the Fair Ministers can force the Queen Dowager to accept an investigation as long as she has a hand in choosing the chief investigator. She gives them only until that night to sort things out, because she refuses to delay the ceremonial appointment of the new royal substitute.
Minister Shim proves to be a wise old man as he later admits to knowing that the only possible mastermind would be the Queen Dowager, and if Na-young hadn’t cleverly withheld her confession, the old broad could have used the heat of the moment to kill them.
Man-oh heads straight back to the palace once he sees that Na-young didn’t escape, and ends up witnessing a dangerous exchange wherein Lady Jo tries to use whatever means necessary to get Na-young alone and away from her officially appointed guards in order to kill her.
Luckily the official in charge of Na-young’s safety doesn’t bend to Lady Jo’s will, so Na-young is spared for the moment. You can tell Lady Jo is fuming mad, and it’s kind of nice to see.
Man-oh locks eyes with Na-young as she’s led away, but neither of them can say a word.
Lady Jo recognizes him, though she has no idea that he has ties to Na-young. He feigns concern for both of them as he ventures that Na-young could betray both of them if tortured badly enough, but Lady Jo is less concerned since she plans to kill Na-young before the sun sets.
Minister Shim and Minister Lee know that there would have been no stopping the Queen Dowager from killing anyone in her path had Na-young not raised suspicions in Court, but they also know that Na-young’s life is now in danger. And if she goes, so does the truth.
While the other ministers squabble over who to appoint as chief investigator, our Fair Ministers come to the agreement that Sang-gyu would be the perfect man for the job. Even though he’s resigned, they plan to bring him back. (I’m guessing that news of his “death” must have never reached them.)
Man-oh again uses his official’s robes as a disguise to gain an audience with Na-young, under the pretense of putting her in chains. Even with a yoke around her neck, Na-young sits with quietness and dignity, a very picture of calm next to Man-oh’s palpable anxiety.
Na-young can’t offer an explanation that will soothe him, only that she did what she had to do. He swears still that he’ll find a way to save her, and as he’s called away from their brief meeting he fights back tears: “The last few years, not a single day passed where I didn’t think of you. I yearned for you day and night.”
And then, his voice breaks, “Why do you keep ignoring my devotion?” Aww, poor puppy.
He keeps his eyes on her until he passes the threshold, as though he’s worried it’s the last time he’ll ever see her. His last words echo what the king told her: “Survive. You must survive at all costs.”
Minister Park is with the Queen Dowager when Sang-gyu’s candidacy is announced, and he’s the first one to point out that his son is dead. Not that he cares, of course, because he claims his devotion to the queen is much greater.
Both he and Man-oh know Sang-gyu is alive, and that the Queen Dowager thinks everything is fine because the person set to investigate her is a corpse. Minister Park wants it to stay that way, but Man-oh sets off to find Sang-gyu.
Sang-gyu and Wol-hyang seem so happy together as they prepare to board a ship, with him reminding her that he has no idea where they’re headed only for her to reply that the destination doesn’t matter as long as she’s by his side. Cute.
Man-oh finally catches up to him, and entreats him to return to the palace to take up his post as chief investigator so that he can save Na-young before the deadline passes that night. Obviously Sang-gyu isn’t completely for this idea since the woman he loved tried to murder him, though Man-oh tries to convince him that she couldn’t have wanted to murder him.
At Sang-gyu’s insistence that he won’t go back, the proud Man-oh sinks to his knees to beg him. “Are you planning to abandon her?” Man-oh asks. Whether Sang-gyu still loves her or not is inconsequential to him, since he thinks that Sang-gyu should still try to help her if he has the means, regardless of what happened between them.
Man-oh calls Sang-gyu out on pretty much everything, but none more than his cowardice. He blames Sang-gyu for always running away from his problems, which has our hero shaking as he reaffirms to Man-oh: “I will not go back.”
Strangely enough, it’s Wol-hyang who convinces Sang-gyu that he has to go back. Only now does she tell him that though Na-young poisoned him she was the one who saved him, knowing that she was betraying her cause by doing so. (So she did orchestrate his fake death in order to save him, and herself.)
Wol-hyang points this out as evidence of Na-young’s selflessness, especially since she didn’t try to convince him that she wasn’t the villain and instead kept all her feelings to herself. I bet Sang-gyu feels pretty crappy right now.
He at least acknowledges the commitment he made to Wol-hyang as he asks her: “How can I abandon you and leave?” She looks so touched that he’d even ask, or care, and it breaks my heart. She’s awesome.
It comes as a huge surprise and disappointment to Minister Shim that he appointed a dead man as his investigator, and he pretty much calls it quits as Na-young waits for her execution should Sang-gyu not come. Lady Jo gets in a last “How could you betray me?” before Na-young’s time runs out.
Na-young raises her eyes to heaven as her executioner raises his sword, and she tells the late king that she’ll be punished for defying his command in hell. The sword swings down…
…And she’s saved at the last moment by Sang-gyu’s arrival. He’s back from the dead!
This puts Sang-gyu’s father in an awkward position with the Queen Dowager, seeing as how he has to fearfully confess that he lied about his son’s death. It’s bad news for the queen since this means there will actually be an investigation, which she had tried so hard to avoid.
Sang-gyu offers Na-young a bowl of water once they’re alone, which brings back fond memories of the first time they’d met, when she’d withheld water from him while he was tied to a tree.
He frees her from the yoke and asks her why she stayed when she could have fled, to which she replies: “I received orders from His Majesty.”
We flash back to the king’s final words to Na-young, in that his death would reveal the ministers faithful to him and his cause. Cryptically, he also adds that the missing half of what he gave her will reveal a secret order. Is he talking about a will?
He tells her that he hid his final wish inside the country he loved so much, and charges her with spreading that word to whoever will listen.
“You must survive,” the king orders her. “Whatever it takes, survive, and show all our people the dream of a new Joseon your father and I shared for so long.”
He chooses to drink the poison and dies, but not before he takes her hand.
In the present, Sang-gyu all but curses the king for putting such a weight on her shoulders. Even though she now feels she has a duty to find the other half of the king’s will, Sang-gyu couldn’t care less as he admits that he didn’t come back to uncover the truth. In fact, he’s ready to lie that the king wasn’t even poisoned; he’ll do anything to see that she lives.
The problem is, everyone knows what Sang-gyu will do, and it impacts each side differently. It works in the Queen Dowager’s favor for Sang-gyu to protect Na-young, since it means he won’t actually perform the investigation in order to save her.
For the Fair Ministers, it means they’ve got a problem, precisely because Sang-gyu won’t dig up the truth they need to prove the Queen Dowager’s involvement in the king’s murder.
It’s somewhat gratifying to see Lady Jo having to beg for her life with the Queen Dowager, and something tells me that she isn’t just undergoing a loyalty test.
Meanwhile, the Inspector General holds on deploying the king’s elite troops in the hopes that his secret will will be found, even though he’s not even sure one exists.
Sang-gyu and his father have an ideological argument over the ramifications of his return, with Daddy Dearest trying to hold his son responsible for what will inevitably cause him to lose his power.
It’s something Sang-gyu isn’t concerned with since he feels he’s making the more righteous choice, an assumption he bases on a utilitarian moral code. If he’s making the choice for the sake of others and not himself, then it’s inherently better than his father making a selfish choice to keep his personal power.
They stay at this standstill until Mom interrupts, just happy to see that her son is alive.
Wol-hyang has returned to gisaeng life, but she hears distressing news from Minister Shim, since he’s of the mind that Na-young has to die in order for them to prove the Queen Dowager’s villainy. (He’s resorting to framing her for Na-young’s murder now that he thinks Sang-gyu won’t find evidence against her.)
Sensing a change in the political landscape, ministers are fleeing from the Queen Dowager’s side to go to Minister Shim’s. Minister Park is one of these refugees, but he’s denied entry to the Fair Ministers Club.
The Queen Dowager resorts to having Na-young beaten in a straw mat/torture taco to prompt a confession.
The Fair Ministers worry that the torturing is just another way for the Queen Dowager to eventually kill and silence Na-young, so Minister Lee decides to use the capital guard as interim troops to protect her until they know the truth. (But can they get to her in time?)
Na-young uses her audience with the Queen Dowager to tell her that she only stands to gain if she lets Na-young live, since all the ministers would suspect the queen if she silenced Na-young.
But here’s where all the pieces of the queen’s previous conversations come together, as she clucks at Na-young for thinking she’d be cowed by what the court thinks: “I am heaven, looking down on all creation.” She uses the same dragon analogy she once used with the king (where the king is the dragon and the people are just snakes), further solidifying her view that she is above all things, and that Na-young is nothing.
So Na-young pulls out her last card, and blurts that it was Minister Shim who was behind the poisoning. To that effect, she claims that Minister Lee and Inspector General Chae were complicit in it.
I really can’t get one step ahead of this show, and I might even be way behind it. (Are the Fair Ministers not so fair after all?) But that’s part of the fun, since we’ve maintained a breakneck pace so far that doesn’t relent or let us get too comfortable. It’s part of the glory of the short-format drama (when it’s done well), even though this is a story that could actually use more time to be told.
Part of what makes a good reveal… well, good, is whether it’s instantly believable; whether our gut reaction is to think “Of course!” or “Huh?” when the last puzzle piece is shown. In this case, the Queen Dowager’s involvement as the leader of such a shadowy organization did come as a surprise, but when it happened, I thought, “Ah, of course.” That “of course” moment makes or breaks a reveal for me, because it tells us whether the clues have been properly peppered throughout the story to lead to such a conclusion or whether we just got a half-baked fantasy. In this case, we had plenty of clues – so many, in fact, that I’m a little disappointed in myself that it took me until last episode to entertain the thought of her involvement.
More than the romantic love story that our three leads are caught up in, I think it’s Na-young’s story with the king that has served as the real heart and soul of this drama. All of our lead characters share a common trait, in that their dreams were bigger than what they could realistically achieve, and Sang-gyu’s journey mirrored the king’s in that regard. Both men were beaten down by reality time and time again, until it caused the king physical illness and Sang-gyu emotional cowardice. Until the end, the king gave up without ever really giving up, since it was almost like we were just witnessing the extent of what he could achieve by the time he died. No matter how much he wished for a chance to be accepted, nothing he could ever do while he lived could bring that about, and it’s almost as if that realization is what truly did him in.
Whether he was truly sorry for the fate of Na-young’s father is left a little unclear, even though I like that we were shown how much her father’s death has haunted him over the years, while at the same time knowing that none of it was in vain since he’d do it all over again if given the chance. It made his stance impassible, so Na-young’s revenge almost seemed natural and unavoidable… Except for the infinite amount of layers nestled in-between the execution of her plans and the intent behind them, since by the end of it all even she seemed unsure as to who she was really killing for.
In that sense the king atoned by letting Na-young have her revenge, even as he doomed her to more suffering for his sake. But because she came to understand and pity him, she now has new purpose in achieving his last wish. I think it’s exactly because she did come to know him so well that she refuses to budge, since she might feel like she has to atone for killing him even though she felt had to. If not that, maybe she actually believes in the dream he has for Joseon. After all, we knew Na-young as a dreamer before her father’s death – so if the king has re-kindled that spirit inside her, then it’s all come full circle, hasn’t it?