And so it ends, as our ragtag team of dreamers try to deliver the king’s secret will to the last person they can trust, in a finale filled with blood, guts, glory, tears, and hope. That last thing most of all.
Looking back, I’m still floored by how awe-inspiring this drama was from start to finish, that it had something to say and said it well, and that it used history not just as a starting point but as a painstakingly-detailed canvas on which to paint its characters and conflicts in fine, layered brush strokes.
It’s been a fun ride going back in time to discover this gem. Thanks for going along with me.
FINAL EPISODE RECAP
Sang-gyu and Minister Lee go running to Na-young’s rescue only to find her released from her torture session, alive. Phew.
This is bad news for Minister Shim, who wanted Na-young dead to frame the Queen Dowager for her murder. He knows that she must have struck a deal with the queen.
Na-young reassures a worried Sang-gyu that the Queen Dowager cannot kill her before enlisting his help to find the king’s secret will. They go to his corpse first and find that one of his gold ceremonial pins has eroded, which means that he died from severe mercury poisoning.
The king had told her she would find the missing half of the will inside the country he loved, Joseon, and Na-young smartly deduces that it’s behind the atlas the king kept.
Sure enough, right behind Joseon’s place on the map does she find the sheath to her silver dagger. The one her father gave her before he died, the one she carries close to her heart to cut her with every breath. That past is behind her now since she can safely sheathe the blade. (Literally and figuratively. Who’da thought?)
Even though the king’s death means that Man-oh’s business will boom (now that there won’t be a capital move), he can’t focus on anything but saving Na-young. And that makes the ever-grinning Do-sool angry.
While Sang-gyu’s dad gains favor with the Queen Dowager, Na-young finds the secret will hidden in the dagger sheath. Sang-gyu reads it and immediately wants to burn it, knowing that ministers of the Shipa party (those who were against Crown Prince Sado’s execution, and thus on the side of our king, Sado’s son) won’t stay loyal now that the king is dead. There’s no one to carry out the will.
There’s only Inspector General Chae who would still care, but Sang-gyu’s determined to burn the will so that Na-young won’t seek him out and end up in any more danger. Sang-gyu: “It’s time for you to live for yourself. That is what everyone else in the world does.”
Man-oh and a small contingent of men gain access to the palace under the guise of bringing supplies for the king’s funeral. Something’s strange about all this.
Meanwhile, Minister Lee sighs that the king’s wishes will die with him, and wonders if the Inspector General is the only loyalist left.
Sang-gyu gives the results of his investigation to the Queen Dowager and the Court… and claims that the king wasn’t murdered? (They’re keeping with history at least, since there exists no official record where King Jeongjo was murdered, hence all the conspiracy theories.)
Minister Shim, thinking all hope is lost, joins his fellow turncoats in pledging loyalty to the Queen Dowager, bringing Man-oh with him to do the same. He has some information the queen seems to want…
Which turns out to be the blackmail he had on Minister Park. (You know, the whole bit where he paid that guy to try and assassinate the king.)
Minister Shim makes sure Sang-gyu’s father is aware they know his secret, but instead of turning him over to be executed for treason he offers a different solution: If Minister Park steps down and returns to his hometown, he and his family will be spared.
Under the Queen Dowager’s orders, Man-oh double-crosses his former master, Lady Jo, and has her stabbed without even blinking. Up until the moment of her death Lady Jo is in sheer disbelief that the queen would ever do such a thing to her.
And Do-sool, finally fed up with Man-oh and his personal flights of fancy, betrays him to Lady Han while revealing his whole scheme to rescue Na-young. This isn’t good, since no one knew Man-oh had any ties to Na-young previously, and my guess is that he wanted to keep it that way.
While Man-oh sneaks Lady Jo’s body through the palace, Sang-gyu confronts his father now that he’s found out he left his post. Turns out Daddy did it so his son wouldn’t ever be implicated in covering up his involvement, though he stares wistfully at the palace walls as he vows to return someday.
Turns out Man-oh snuck in jars of oil as explosives earlier, and he has his men set fire to the building Na-young is held in. But he has Lady Jo’s body… Ah, this is his rescue scheme. He wants to fake Na-young’s death.
The Queen Dowager is informed of Man-oh’s plot to save Na-young, but its through gritted teeth that she decides to just let them be.
Na-young finds herself in the middle of a burning building, though Man-oh is there to catch her once she passes out from smoke inhalation. His loyal bodyguard Sang-chun is there to help, and as they try to escape the building with her, Sang-gyu is busy fighting his way inside to save her.
He finds Lady Jo inside dressed in Na-young’s clothes… and the poor woman is still alive. Yikes. Sang-gyu proves his good heart as he throws her over his shoulder to rescue her even as he continues to search the burning building for Na-young.
He doesn’t find her since Man-oh has already escaped out the back door, but he does bring Lady Jo out to safety. Unfortunately, she dies outside.
Minister Lee knows very well that Lady Jo isn’t Na-young, but declares that Na-young has died anyway, now that they have a scapegoat body.
The real Na-young is safely with Man-oh, even though he forbids her from carrying out the king’s final will by visiting the Inspector General. He stresses how different they are from noblemen and how the noble class can’t be trusted, which prompts Na-young to bring up Man-oh’s hypocrisy. He’s become more and more like the noblemen he purports to hate.
He’s heard this before, from the Port Chief and others, and it’s definitely a sore spot for him. She knows that his intentions are more than what his actions amount to, but admits that it won’t look that way to most people. (And he knows from experience that it doesn’t.)
So she wants to bring about the change they all want in her own way, and asks for his support while resident betrayer Do-sool eavesdrops in secret.
Sang-gyu decides to go along with the idea that Na-young is dead and doesn’t correct his father in thinking so. His father is dejected now that he’s lost his position, and warns his son that he won’t be free of the Queen Dowager just because he resigned from his post.
“No matter how much you try to avoid or ignore it, you will never be able to escape from the grasp of power. That is what politics is all about,” Minister Park sighs.
That night, Na-young’s guards (or are they her captors now?) meet their end at the hands of Do-sool and his men. What could he want with her?
Wol-hyang is responsible for Sang-gyu leaving the palace in one piece, having bribed Minister Shim. She offers her body as a form of payment, but the minister declines, happy enough that the king is dead and things are returning to their rightful place.
However, Wol-hyang doesn’t believe in this statement, since too much has changed for her.
Lady Han reveals herself to be behind Na-young’s newfound freedom as she gives Man-oh a warning – either he does as the Queen Dowager wants and escorts Na-young and Sang-gyu to the Inspector General safely, or he loses everything. (She knew Na-young was alive, but I wonder why she’s letting Na-young go on this mission?)
Wol-hyang finally meets with Na-young, the latter of whom feels sort of bad for taking Sang-gyu away. Wol-hyang isn’t too upset since Sang-gyu owes his life to Na-young, but asks her to stop Sang-gyu from going with her to see the Inspector General.
But Sang-gyu chooses this time to jump in on the conversation, adding that he won’t be going. And neither will Na-young.
He pleads with Na-young to just let Man-oh deliver the message, telling her that she’s already done enough to fulfill the king’s wishes. It’s not like anyone’s forcing her.
“If I was not forced to do so, I would have never done it,” Na-young says in tears. She admits to wanting a normal life like every other girl, but also knows just how many lives she’s ruined because of all the killing she’s done. She won’t allow herself happiness because she doesn’t feel like she deserves it.
Sang-gyu still refuses to take her, which is when Man-oh makes a dashing entrance to claim that he’ll escort her. When Sang-gyu asks if he’s ready to abandon all his success for such a foolish endeavor, Man-oh replies, “I can start anew anytime I wish. However, what Na-young needs at this very moment is my support.” Aww.
Na-young won’t be swayed on staying, though she admits that she’s happy Sang-gyu won’t be coming with her, because surviving and achieving one’s dreams takes courage.
With that, Sang-gyu and Na-young part ways, possibly for the last time.
Minister Park gives Sang-gyu his mother’s slave register, in essence freeing her so that they can leave the capital and live respectably. He knows how much Sang-gyu detested his quest for power but notes that he’d once detested the same thing about his own father, before he ended up with responsibilities and became the spitting image of the father he decried so often.
“Try to become a father yourself, and the same thing will likely happen to you,” his father tells him. “No matter how much this world changes, that is one of life’s unquestionable truths.” I guess this is goodbye for them, too.
His mother is elated now that she’s free and rich, since Daddy Dearest gave them gold to live on. Sang-gyu can’t help but wonder how happy all the rest of the slaves would be to have the same opportunity, but Mom couldn’t care less. She’s just happy that they can live a decent life now, everyone else be damned.
Do-sool works behind Man-oh’s back to turn the market against him, since he could be labeled with treason for harboring Na-young. They instead go to the former Chief of Mercantile Affairs, the one who Man-oh once had arrested, to lead the way.
So they get Chief to agree to arrest him for hiding a criminal. Do-sool looks happy, but then again, that’s just his face.
Wol-hyang lends Na-young clothes for the journey ahead, even though she knows Sang-gyu will follow her despite his words. Na-young doesn’t think the same and asks Wol-hyang to take care of him in her stead.
Man-oh is happy just to be escorting Na-young, until they’re waylaid by policemen who’ve come to arrest them. He and Sang-chun fight and kill many of the officers, but when they get cornered, Sang-gyu arrives with horses to help them escape.
Yay! And aww, because Wol-hyang knows she’s been left behind.
Even the court ladies don’t know why the Queen Dowager would let Na-young escape, and she doesn’t care enough to elaborate.
The court, specifically Minister Shim, try to piece the clues together themselves to little avail. They know where everyone is headed (the Inspector General) and they know that Minister Lee is missing too. They also know that only the Inspector General can mobilize the king’s elite troops… come on guys, isn’t knowing stuff like, your job?
Sang-gyu and Na-young show the king’s secret will to the Inspector General, who then asks if there was anyone in the palace still loyal to the king, as he’d predicted would be found out when he died. Na-young replies that no one in the palace remains loyal…
Which is right when Minister Lee barges in to demand that Na-young be killed for poisoning the king, regardless of whether she carried the secret will or not.
Meanwhile, Man-oh cottons onto the fact that the Queen Dowager let them escape. He just doesn’t know why.
Sang-gyu tries to defend Na-young in pointing out that Minister Lee is the one who hired the physician that dealt in the poison, so he had some knowledge of the conspiracy.
Minister Lee seems eager to kill both of them in order to protect himself, and readies his sword to make the killing blow…
But at the last moment he turns around and slices through the Inspector General instead. Whoa. What? Why?
Ah, so Minister Lee has been pulling one on everyone. He killed the Inspector General in order to kill the last loyal subject of the king, because he never agreed with the king taxing noblemen. (That’s what it always comes down to, death and taxes.)
Na-young notices a familiar insignia on Minister Lee’s sleeve… and oohhh! HE’S the Masked Man! The leader of the secret sect! It wasn’t Lady Jo or the Queen Dowager at all, it was him all this time! He was behind the king’s poisoning! How could I have gotten it so wrong?
He prepares to have the king’s personal general (the one we thought was loyal) kill Sang-gyu and Na-young, only they’re saved at the last moment by Man-oh and Sang-chun. Phew.
They escape, barely, but the king’s secret troops start barreling toward them. Eek. The general betrayed the king’s order to activate them.
Sang-chun and the rest of Man-oh’s men stay behind to buy some time for their escape. But they’ve got swords against guns, and are killed without much of a fight.
Sang-chun manages to escape with a bullet in his arm, but the whole army follows him. And soon the army is chasing Sang-gyu & Co. down on horseback, with our heroes(?) only having a slight lead. And no guns, which the troops behind them are firing. Eek.
Alas, poor Sang-chun sustains what can only be a fatal shot to the back, but he keeps on riding. They make it to some cover and somehow manage to escape the troops. (I know, I don’t quite see how this happened either.)
Na-young wants to return to the capital to report Minister Lee’s treason, even though they don’t know who could possibly listen. For once, Man-oh is for her running away while Sang-gyu urges her to stay the course. Huh. Has someone else started to believe in a New Joseon?
She wants to go back in order to preserve the king’s vision of Joseon, knowing that it will never be achieved if Minister Lee has his way.
Either way, they have to flee into the forest on foot, which is where Sang-chun says his goodbyes since he won’t live much longer. He tells Man-oh that it was all worth it just knowing him (ah, the bromance) and turns to Na-young: “Whatever hopes they might be, may you fulfill them.” Aww.
Sang-chun stays behind to face the army single-handedly, and fights valiantly, taking many of them down despite being wounded.
Even when multiple soldiers stab him through he fights on, his eyes bloody and red, until he dies at last.
Man-oh leads the escape through a field of tall grass, and things are looking pretty good until their escape route is cut off by Do-sool and a number of men. Ever grinning, he tells Man-oh that they finally achieved their wishes, and the people are finally eating thanks to their efforts.
So it’s because of that that he can’t understand why Man-oh would do something so jeopardizing to their cause, and doesn’t plan to let him go this time.
Man-oh turns back to Na-young just to stare at her, as though he’s drinking her in for the last time. Her eyes brim with tears when she realizes this is a farewell, though neither of them exchange words as Man-oh orders Sang-gyu to escape with her while he holds Do-sool back.
Do-sool mocks his unending love for Na-young as something he can take with him to hell, to which Man-oh replis, “There is something you’re not aware of… the fact that this damned love of mine is the brightest light shining on my path.” Aww. Did Na-young even hear that?
Man-oh draws his sword to fight against the soldiers, though he doesn’t have enough skill to win against Do-sool, who wounds him instantly.
But Man-oh wounds him right back, and lethally so. However, he’s cut down in the aftermath, and Do-sool manages to grin even before dying. I guess he’s happy he’s not going alone.
As death starts to close in on Man-oh, he thinks back to the happiest time in his life, when Na-young had congratulated him for rising above his lot to become an interpreter. Nooo.
Sang-gyu and Na-young run alone through the hills until the elite guard passes them and blocks their path. They’re far too outnumbered, and it’s even worse when the soldiers raise their guns like a firing squad, aiming at our defenseless couple.
They run, and though they make it far, Na-young is shot in the back. She begs Sang-gyu to rest, and he holds her as she takes in her last shuddering breaths.
Na-young: “I want to live. I, too, want to survive along with you. May you survive… and live to see a better world.”
She dies in Sang-gyu’s arms as the soldiers look on from afar.
As he stands slowly, we hear him in voiceover: “What did it take to bring us back together again? And now you leave me this way? Why does everyone leave my side? Is it because of hopes we shall never fulfill in life?”
He draws his sword as he prepares to face the soldiers, despite knowing that there’s no hope. Maybe that’s the point.
“Then… only in death shall I fulfill them,” we hear him continue, as he takes down a few soldiers on horseback as he sustains sword and bullet wounds.
The soldiers finally get out of his reach in order to line up, guns drawn… and they fire. Each shot tears through him until he falls in a bloody heap, with just enough life left in him to reach out toward Na-young’s body… but he can’t reach her.
“Now no one shall ever stop me from fulfilling those dreams,” Sang-gyu’s last voiceover goes, as he breathes his last and dies only feet away from his love.
And then, a familiar silhouette stumbles across the horizon toward them – it’s Man-oh, having barely survived the other battle.
His voiceover accompanies him as he carries Na-young’s body over to Sang-gyu’s so he can join their hands in death, the woman he devoted his life to and the man she devoted hers to. This is breaking my heart.
He tells us that he buried their hopes along with their bodies (making it sound as if he survived) and that, if trees should one day grow from that soil, “I shall forever remember that woman and her beloved, and maybe one day, let new hopes capture my soul.”
Man-oh holds Na-young’s body and lets out a fierce, frightening cry of grief.
Court life resumes normally, with Minister Lee claiming to the Queen Dowager that he never found the king’s secret will. Minister Shim is given the newly-vacated Inspector General seat and hushes any of his cohorts who claim that rumors are circulating that the king was killed by mercury poisoning.
It’s of no matter, according to Minister Shim, since he’s sure time will erase the truth until it vanishes into history. “That will be the end of it,” he claims, as the camera hones in on the one young minister who isn’t going along with all the other sheep. Maybe he’s the one who keeps the truth alive through his generation.
We see Minister Park looking up, and as he rises the shot pans out… enough to see the noose he’s prepared.
Wol-hyang spreads their ashes while Man-oh stands by with tears in his eyes. He plans to leave Joseon and offers to take her with him, but she refuses as she places a hand over her stomach, where Sang-gyu’s child is. She wants him to grow up to see the world his father wanted so badly.
And she hopes that if it doesn’t happen in her son’s lifetime, it will happen in the next generation, to her son’s children, and so on.
“It’s futile,” Man-oh laments.
“It is just what I hope for,” Wol-hyang admits.
As the metaphorical curtains draw to a close, we hear snippets of everyone’s hopes throughout the series, including the king’s and Na-young’s last hopes for Joseon.
This is an odd position to find myself in, since half the fun in writing a final episode recap is getting to point out what was wrong with it. (How many times have good series totally derailed in the final episode? Too many, I say.) Maybe this speaks to the meticulous planning behind this show and the fact that it was pre-produced and thus immune to the live-shoot system, but this finale was… kind of perfect. Sure, I can find some things wrong with it, but when the whole was as good as this it almost seems like a disservice to nitpick just for the sake of it.
For a drama that’s about failed hopes and dreams, and one which ends with failed hopes and dreams, the final product was surprisingly not as bleak as one would think. Each character sendoff was right in its own way, and I like that each of the characters we cared about got their own moment of glory before they died, or lived, as was Man-oh’s case. It didn’t feel gratuitous even as we faced battle scene after battle scene, because we were watching the culmination of all the conflicts we’d seen building up to that point. And it’s not like we could have resolved any of these problems diplomatically. Even great diplomacy can only get you so far.
Man-oh’s unrequited love for Na-young comprises only one of the many failed hopes and dreams of this series, which I have to mention here just because I found it so sweet and endearing throughout. Sure, he had some warped perspectives on how to return things to the past and his affection didn’t always jive with Na-young’s best interests, but it’s kind of hard not to like a guy who sacrifices everything for a girl who he knows doesn’t (and won’t ever) love him back. That final moment where he put her body next to Sang-gyu’s and joined their hands? Kills me. What a commanding performance by Lee Chun-hee, who brought bucketfuls of lovelorn intensity to his role. Props to everyone, really. For a mostly green younger cast, all the performances were solid.
The issues this show tackled were grand and far-reaching, but none more than the limits of the human will. No one in this show lacked desire to achieve their dreams, and it’s sobering to see a series tackle the idea of hope in order to tell us what we already know but may not want to always acknowledge; that sometimes, no matter how much you wish for something or how hard you work for it, you might never achieve it.
There’s silver lining there in that desert of hopelessness, and it’s the fact that our characters weren’t only living for themselves or even just for their own generation. They strove instead to create a better world for generations to come, and if they just so happened to help their own, that’d just be icing on the cake. But that doesn’t mean everyone was willing to just go quietly into the night, always ready to sacrifice for the greater good – like Na-young said as she was dying, “I want to live.” But even so, she wanted to see her hopes come to fruition more than anything, and as we saw, she was willing to die for them.
Na-young underwent the biggest overt change through the series, while Sang-gyu had the more introspective journey coupled with small changes that were almost disproportionate to the huge impact they made. I’ve said before that his journey seemed to mirror the king’s in that they both hit the same brick wall of hopelessness, with both of them coming to the point where they had to wonder if their efforts were even worth it. Even though both faced death, neither of them saw death as an endpoint. Not in a “I’ll come back to haunt the living!” sort of way, but that they both made peace with the fact that they tried their best and that their will would survive.
It’s that sense of giving-in-yet-never-giving-up that drove this drama, because we had characters who were all too aware of the constrictions society placed upon them, yet they were never content to just lie back and take it. And even if they had to, they weren’t going to like it. Even though the message of the show seems dark at first glance, really, it’s still a message of hope and one that speaks to us even through the passage of time: Never give up. Never stop fighting. Never stop trying.