Mandate of Heaven is a drama I’ve been keeping my eye on; it seemed to have that mix of thriller, action, and drama that I’ve been missing from my dramas lately. What I didn’t count on was for it to have a sense of humor, too; the first episode, despite starting off in the thick of the fugitive plot, injects a stream of tongue-in-cheek humor and wit that I found really very refreshing. The directing is another strength, aided by—though not dependent on—the use of that gorgeous camera, while the writing team (relatively new on the scene with credits like Birth of the Rich and a few Drama Specials) manages to balance the tones deftly.
So far I’m a fan of the pacing, which juggles intensity with lightness, and the politics are well-woven into the plotline. They aren’t the focus of the show—Dad’s fight to cure his sick baby girl is—but they’re solidly established as driving factors. Furthermore, I appreciate how the historical backdrop is used to inform the drama without overshadowing it; there are certainly artistic liberties taken, but I feel like this is a show that is mindful of working with the known history and using it to its benefit.
We’re not certain of recapping yet, so for now this is a solo recap; we’ll be monitoring to see whether/when they’ll continue. If I just had more hours in a day…
SONG OF THE DAY
Kwon Soon-kwan – “One More Time” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A chase. The desaturated hues suggest we’re in a flashback (or a flash-forward) as a man clutches a young girl to his chest while running from the royal guard. He’s tired and bloodied, but keeps up the breakneck pace.
The pursuit takes them into the woods where the head officer draws back his bow and arrow, takes aim, and shoots. The arrow lands in our fugitive’s horse, and it goes down. So does he, landing on his bloody back, still cradling the girl to himself.
Looking desperate, the fugitive CHOI WON (Lee Dong-wook) nevertheless adopts a gentle tone as he tells his daughter RANG (Kim Yoo-bin) that they must separate. She shakes her head no, but he promises to come for her. Punctuating the urgency of the moment is the second arrow that flies toward him and lands in Won’s arm.
Dad musters a smile and assures her through gritted teeth that he’s fine. Rang fights tears and asks if holding Dad back will lead to his death, and he nods. So like a brave little trooper, she lets go and turns away.
Intercut between these scenes are glimpses of a woman painting in an elegant hand, smoothly, calmly. At one point her paper is splashed with red ink, bloody and bold. All we see of her are her regal dress, and the flash of a queenly headdress.
Won yanks the arrow out of his arm and resumes running, this time alone. More arrows fly at his head. For now they miss.
Finally he’s surrounded on a clifftop, his back to the edge as he shrinks away like a cornered feral animal.
Hidden under a rock, Rang sobs for her father. In her chambers, the queen surveys her drawing. And standing on the precipice, Won jumps.
His body hurtles toward the river that flows many, many feet below. Fade out.
When we come back, our world is in full color and the tone much brighter. Probably in the past. Today Rang watches other children playing in the water and decides she wants to join them, only to be stopped by a wall of kids. Their mothers don’t want them playing with Rang because she’s always sick, though she insists that she’s all better now—Daddy fixed her.
They scoff (“What, is your father Buddha?”) but she tells them proudly that her father is a highly respected state physician, and even treats the king. “You think he can’t fix me too?” Against such airtight logic as that, the other kids grudgingly accept her presence and Rang beams.
Until a hand darts out and holds her back. It’s disapproving Dad, who narrows his eyes at her. The kids gasp to hear that he did treat royalty, and ask if Rang can play with them now. Rang literally bats her eyes at him, begging him to say yes.
But he sighs no, “Our Rang-ie isn’t all better yet.” She pouts mightily in Dad’s direction.
Palace. In the medical wing, physicians and nurses line up at attention while our head doctor briefs her team about treating the king. “Where’s Da-in?” she asks.
Which is how we get our introduction to our heroine, HONG DA-IN (Song Ji-hyo), currently carrying out an autopsy of a young woman. She’s interrupted by news of the emergency, which sends her racing to intercept the head physician, named… Jang-geum? As in that Jang-geum? (I guess it is; the historical Jang-geum lived through the reign depicted here, King Jungjong’s. I wonder how she feels about being a drama’s tertiary character.)
Da-in shows Jang-geum the royal menu for today, which gives her the hunch that the king’s ailment is digestion related. (Side note: Did we have to have this particular ailment be our intro? It’s just that we’ve had a lot of “hernia” and “enema” and “constipation” and “indigestion” mentioned thus far.)
King Jungjong lies in pain in bed, with his wife QUEEN MUNJEONG (Park Ji-young) at his side. Jang-geum gives the acupuncturist the signal to begin his treatment, only to be interrupted by a young man who bursts in ordering them to stop.
This is Crown Prince LEE HO (Im Seul-ong), future King Injong and son of Jungjong, politically at odds with his stepmother Munjeong. He’s suspicious of the dangerous placement of the needle, and while the acupuncturist is said to be the best in the land, Lee Ho notes that his hand is shaking. The man is escorted out, and Da-in is instructed by the royal ministers in the room—from the queen’s faction—to call Physician Min.
Lee Ho objects. Bring Physician Choi instead. Clearly this is a political conflict, not merely a matter of looking out for daddy’s health. Queen Munjeong looks aggravated at the interference.
The others argue that Physician Choi is not skilled enough with the needle. But the crown prince holds fast and insists.
It’s Choi Won he means, and Da-in finds him in the city to bring him to the palace. Rang, still pouting over Daddy’s interference, runs off with a huffy glare as he’s called away.
Once in the royal bedchamber, it’s Won who protests—he doesn’t dare lay a finger on the king’s body. This just adds fodder for the hostilities to grow between the queen and prince, turning the doctor matter into a political battle.
As it turns out, Physician Min joins them at the last minute and handles the case, and crisis is averted.
Disgruntled Da-in complains to Jang-geum afterward, asking why they called such an poorly skilled, pathetic physician like Won. It’s a good thing today’s illness wasn’t a serious one, she adds.
Won sits dully by himself, lost in a flashback:
He recalls himself as a boy, crying to the young crown prince and begging Lee Ho to save his grandfather—if he does, Won promises to become a doctor and protect the prince forever. So clearly they were once good friends, and Lee Ho retains that old loyalty even now.
Physician Min is MIN DO-SAENG (Philip Choi), and he’s also good friends with our hero. Won thanks his buddy for saving him from an awkward situation, with a hint of forced jokiness that I’m beginning to suspect is Won’s primary defense mechanism.
Do-saeng is the serious one, and he wonders when the prince will stop calling for Won. Won agrees, calling it crazy, and reiterates that curing his daughter’s tuberculosis is his only priority.
Do-saeng reminds him that he’s a palace doctor with obligations to his post, and urges him to take on the position of being the crown prince’s personal physician. It must be the thing everyone wants, but Won’s got no time to think of anything but healing his daughter, and offers to recommend Do-saeng for the job.
Of course, standing right behind them is the crown prince.
Lee Ho tells Won that he could have treated his father today, and instructs him to take his official doctor’s position. Won replies that Do-saeng is skilled enough to handle the job alone, but Lee Ho says forcefully, “It is not that I do not trust Physician Min. It is that I need you.” Bromance heart-tug heyo!
Lee Ho relates the dream he had last night, wherein he saw Won’s grandfather, his former physician. Grandfather’s wish was for Lee Ho to become king safely, and he credits the man for being the reason he’s been able to last so long. The palace is so full of vultures awaiting any opportunity to take his life.
Won cuts him off: “In your dream, did you also happen to see my grandfather’s severed hand?” Yeeeouch. Okay, that’ll put a crimp in any bromantic overtures.
Lee Ho reels a bit, and starts to explain that long-ago incident, but Won puts that wall firmly back in place and asks the prince to pretend he doesn’t exist. He turns to go.
The prince stops him in his tracks with the name of a medical text (Geumgwe buyeongbang)—with that, Won could cure his daughter, couldn’t he? He offers to give it to him.
Won is mightily tempted, though he leaves without a word.
At home, a young lady, CHOI WOO-YOUNG (Kang Byul), is so preoccupied with her beauty regimen that she doesn’t realize that Rang has been out of sight for a while. She freaks out—her brother had ordered her to not let the girl out of her sight.
Won panics to hear that Rang has disappeared and tears through the town shouting her name. By the water he finds a ribbon, and he continues his hunt until he finds Rang sitting by a grave. Aw, Mom’s?
He’s worried about exposing her to the cold air and urges her to come home, but she’s a wee stubborn thing and refuses. He’s always feeding her medicine and sticking her with needles and not letting her play, and she’s tired of it: “I’m going to ask Mom to take me away. I’m just going to die!”
Frustrated, he fires back, “Fine, if that’s what you want then go to your mother!” He storms off and she cries after him, “Daddy I hate you!” But then her cries turn weak and she slumps to the ground, and Won races back to her side.
Rang wakes up while Won is administering more acupuncture needles, wrenches her hand away defiantly, and yanks out the ones already in her feet. Won’s father comes in to offer up his disapproving two cents, in typical gruff dad fashion. He clucks about Rang’s stubbornness (and for taking her mother’s life in childbirth), and also Won’s defiance of the prince’s wishes.
At least the women of the family step in, and sister Woo-young drags him away along with stepmom. Daddy Choi finishes off his tirade by threatening to disown Won if he refuses to marry this year.
And then, Rang coughs up blood. She looks up with scared eyes and says, “I don’t want to go to Mom! I don’t want to die!” He gathers her close as she cries that she’s scared of being sick. She says she lied and doesn’t hate him: “I don’t want to leave you! Even if I have to take needles every day, I want to live with you for a long, long time.” Oh, tears.
Won wipes her tears away and slaps on a smile: “You trust Daddy, right?” She nods, and they cry clutching each other.
That night as Won mulls over the prince’s offer, his apothecary father surprises him with a package of rare deer antlers, which have valuable medicinal properties. Despite all the grumbling and toughness, he really is a softy inside because his main purpose is to drop the hint that the sought-after medical book has made its way back to the royal library.
This news has Won excited the next day as he presides over a troop of young palace boys whose job it is to procure urine for medicinal purposes. Won literally has them lined up, bare-assed, and gives them the order to spray. Ha, and gross. He’s so eager to get book-hunting that he leaves them mid-pee.
It’s not on the shelves, though, and he thinks nothing of marching right up to Da-in, who’s reading here, and rifling through her stack. He grabs one book right out of her hands—accidental hand touch!—but no dice.
Worse yet, Da-in informs him that the book he wants has been banned; sure, it contains helpful medical knowledge, but it also contains drawings of naked women, and we can’t have that. In his frustration Won exclaims that his “entire body has been burning in anticipation” to get his hands on that book, which… totally didn’t come out right, HA.
He has to backtrack and say it wasn’t ’cause of the naked ladies, for realsies, but Da-in has already pegged him for a weirdo. She offers up a barbed comment about some of his past failings, and how that medical book isn’t going to do him any good—she can recommend him an introductory text “for your level.” Ooh, burn.
It’s a blow to his pride, sure, but he shakes it off. Bigger worries to think about, like finding that banned books library.
Queen Munjeong is a crafty woman, keeping vigilant for her moment to strike. She hears that the king has made “a big decision,” and thus when King Jungjong broaches the topic from his sickbed, she supposes he’s thinking of abdicating the throne. She urges him to pass the throne to the crown prince and focus on his health, playing her part of concerned wife to the hilt.
Queen Munjeong seems all onboard this abdication plan although the immediate effect is that it would put her out of power. Perhaps she thinks a new, young king would be within her power to control (or challenge), or perhaps she’s got something else up her sleeve.
On the other hand, Munjeong’s younger brother, Minister Yoon, is up in arms; he rants to a couple of conspirators in a secret meeting that night.
One of the cronies is a rich merchant who happens to be Da-in’s adoptive father, Jang Hong-dal. The other is the leader, the high-ranking Minister Kim Chi-yong. To lend mystery to the affair (or perhaps unintentional humor—potayto, potahto?), shadows of men line the edges of the room; they’re wearing masks and speak in hushed voices. The idea of Lee Ho ascending to the throne has everybody in fits, and there are calls to prevent it.
In a worst-case scenario, armies will have to be called in and blood shed, but there may be one way to prevent that. Minister Kim receives a mysterious vase from Da-in’s father, which he shows to Do-saeng, who reels to see the shriveled bird head inside. He recognizes what this means: poison. Not only that, it’s a particularly rare “poison of all poisons” that doesn’t leave a trace.
Do-saeng must have been groomed by Minister Kim for just this role, yet doesn’t quite have the heart for it and says he can’t do this. Minister Kim just replies that he’ll do it in the end.
Thus in the next meeting of the medical department, Minister Kim announces that Do-saeng will be taking a leave of absence. Do-saeng manages to surprise everyone by naming Won as replacement to take over the prince’s care , which doesn’t seem to have been part of the agreement.
Hilariously, though, Won is so preoccupied with his personal quest for the banned book that he hears nothing of the meeting. He looks up from his inner monologue to find everyone staring at him, and wonders, What?
He isn’t happy to get foisted on the job despite his best efforts, which apparently includes having commissioned a good-luck talisman written by a royal astrologer. He berates the guy for writing him a faulty charm, and the astrologer just says that he and the prince must be Fated To Be. Lol.
The guy unfortunately doesn’t know where the secret banned books library is, but suggests that Do-saeng ought to know—his father was a palace official in charge of repairs, and should be intimately familiar with all the buildings.
So Won sidles up to his buddy that night, and a comment about the prince’s good health has Do-saeng mentioning how Won used to swap chamber pots with the prince (hiding the prince’s loose stools), thus enabling the prince to escape scrutiny for his less-than-robust health. It’s a bit TMI, I suppose, but another sign of the genuine care they had for each other.
Won is surprised that Do-saeng knew about this, but Do-saeng adds that his grandfather had instructed him to be next in line if Won had any issues. He was literally… wait for it… the Number 2 Number 2. (Badum-ching!)
Won isn’t interested in talking about being the prince’s doctor and gets to his point: he needs to know about the banned books library. Do-saeng uses his urgency as leverage, though—if he tells him where it is, will he take on the position?
Do-saeng meets with his sweetheart that night, a court lady named Wol-ha. She’s the reason Minister Kim was so confident he’d cave, because she was bait: If Do-saeng got rid of the queen and prince, he’d be ensured of being with his honey, safely, forever. He reminds himself to think only of their promise to be together, not anything else.
Won sends word home that he won’t be in tonight, so his father sends sister Woo-young to the palace with a change of clothes. Or he would, but she’s busy beautifying, to Rang’s chagrin.
Lee Ho broods, reliving the horrible memory of the day Won’s grandfather had his hand cut off unjustly as a “punishment” for misdeeds. It had been a trumped-up charge, with him being made a sacrifice of political warfare. Lee Ho had been witness to the moment, as had been a distraught Won.
The recollection has Lee Ho in cold sweats, but he insists he’s fine. He instructs his officer to bring him that book from the banned library.
It’s the very same library Won is currently attempting to break into: He scales a wall and slips inside, acting per Do-saeng’s instructions, replete with the code to the primitive keypad entry.
Won exults to find the text just as the prince’s guard is let in. The library official obviously can’t locate the book, and as Won darts off the guard spots movement and gives chase. Uh-oh.
Elsewhere, Da-in is engaged in secret night activities of her own, offering up acupuncture treatment to a sickly palace girl. Aw, so she’s got a bleeding heart on top of that quick wit, sneaking the girl treatments on the sly.
Won runs through the palace grounds, and ducks into a dark building before he’s spotted. And then his hand… finds… something soft. Did he just grab Da-in’s ass?
He muffles her mouth, but she knocks over a book in her shock. The guard enters the room while the other two sweat in silence… only to be saved by a cat, which drops to the ground. The guard assumes that’s what he heard and leaves.
Won sees the sick girl, puts two and two together, and realizes why Da-in was reading in the library. He scolds her for it, though—a sick palace girl is to be sent out of the palace, and she’s actively covering it up and treating her. She counters that saving a life is more important, and points out that he’s just stolen that medical book. Ha, he just lost his moral high ground, didn’t he?
Furthermore, Da-in asks him to think of that palace girl as his daughter—how would he react then? That ensures his silence, at least for now.
As Da-in makes her way back, she passes by the gate where a guard is arguing with a tiny little girl who insists she’s just here to give this bundle to her father. Aw, she is adorable. Also, Auntie Woo-young is a lazy butt.
Da-in smiles to hear Rang call Won the best doctor in the whole palace. Then Rang sneaks by the guard and beelines for Da-in, taking cover in her skirts, which is too adorable. I’m pretty sure she bats her eyes, too.
So Da-in says she knows the girl and will take responsibility for her.
The plot to assassinate Lee Ho gets going as a hunchbacked minion is dispatched by Minister Yoon: Do the prince in tonight.
Won serves Lee Ho dutifully that evening, preparing his medicine for him despite clearly wishing to be anywhere else. Lee Ho muses on whether he may be drinking medicine or poison, but says he’ll accept what Won offers and drink it. And he does.
Now he reminds Won of his question about whether he saw his grandfather’s hand being cut off in his dreams. “Not only do I, I see it every single night. And do you think it’s only the hand? I see the bright red blood spattering in the yard, and hear the blood-curdling screams. I see your grandfather staring at me with those terrifying two eyes.”
The memory is vivid for Won, who tells him to stop, but Lee Ho continues, saying that he can’t stand by anymore and watch him wasting away his talents. Won vows that he will save his daughter’s life, and then leave the palace.
Da-in walks Rang inside, but another physician comes up with an urgent case, leaving Rang alone to get distracted by sparkly lights. She makes her way over to what turns out to be a fuse—lit by Minister Yoon’s hunchbacked minion.
At least the minion appears to have a conscience because he makes a move to grab the girl out of the way. But Da-in comes for her and ushers her away, just as the bomb blast goes off and sends the prince’s quarters into flames.
With the room burning around them, Won yells at the prince to escape. Lee Ho is strangely immobile and has to be dragged along, but then a wall falls and reveals Queen Munjeong, standing there eerily. She joins them in the room to say, “Ho, you will have to die.”
I wasn’t mixed about this premiere at all; I liked it and thought it a very good episode with a lot of strong qualities. It engaged me, made me laugh, and even wrung a tear; any show that can do that in the first hour means it’s tapped into an emotional connection and that’s something I don’t take for granted.
The characters are rich and show potential for some fantastic depth, particularly our secondary leads and antagonists. Not to play down our leads, but I’m used to leads being given meaty stuff to work through; it’s less often that we can chart a character treading down a path of villainy and promising to do so in a compelling and conflicted way. That’s my hope for Philip Choi, playing best friend Do-saeng; he appears to be principled, but as we see, he’s also weak and therefore corruptible. On the other hand, Won is the guy who appears to be flaky and irresponsible, but he’s our drama’s moral center, in stark contrast to his buddy. Him and Da-in, that is, since we can see her integrity from a mile away. I do enjoy that if she’s going to be a heroine who’s good and upright, she’s at least going to do it in a badass, witty way. Here’s where I think you have to credit the actress for giving her that bit of steel.
The queen and the faction of plotting ministers may display less moral gray areas (in that they’ll probably be outright baddies), but I think there’s potential to at least make them compelling baddies. I’d classify Queen Munjeong as a scheming, manipulative backstabber whom I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw, but there’s a dash of twisted about her that makes me take notice. It’s creepy and unnerving (like the way she bathes a subordinate, rather than the other way around), which is a lot more intriguing than straight-up evil. Plus, giving Da-in ties to the plotters’ faction adds an extra kick of interest.
It’s not a perfect show, though it sure looks like one from a purely visual standpoint; man is this drama gorgeous. I found a few moments veering toward the overly broad or comical, sometimes intentionally so and at other times not. I didn’t mind it (and in fact welcomed the humor), but it was definitely noticeable at times, and because the cinematography is so sleek and the introductory segment so dire and high-stakes, some of the slapsticky tendencies stuck out more than they would have in perhaps a differently executed show.
I do quite like Lee Dong-wook and find him hilarious, especially when he’s doing his derp face or landing right in the thick of a comic beat out of a serious one just a second before, but yeah, he could tone down some of his reactions. Song Ji-hyo I thought was good, and considering that I last saw idol star Im Seul-ong being silly and ridiculous in Personal Taste, he was solid here as the prince caught in the middle of a political crossfire. He could tone down some deliveries as well, but as with Lee Dong-wook I’m not worried about him; I trust that they’ll settle into their groove sooner than later.
In fact, my favorite thing thus far is the relationship, both past and present, between Won and Lee Ho. I have a soft spot for royal characters who are moral but weak, as it puts them in the unique position of possessing and lacking power—especially when you consider the hero, who then possesses and lacks power in exactly the reverse way. Put ’em together and you have a potent combination. But the trick is getting them to that place of mutual trust and brotherhood.
In this case the duo has some powerful baggage, and it takes them from one extreme to another. You get the sense they were the tightest friends as children, probably expecting to spend their entire lives together—Won as protector-doctor-friend, and Lee Ho as his sovereign and patient. Again, a great mix of contradictory power relationships. It’s a bromance that’s probably as close to true brotherly love as you can get it, if not for that great trauma and fracturing of trust.
The fact that Lee Ho clearly still holds Won dear just breaks my heart, and I’m just waiting for the turnaround in Won if/when he finally forgives. That in itself is a rich and dynamic throughline to explore—except, oh yeah, this drama also has the whole fugitive angle, with the “Joseon-era Ajusshi” premise to boot. You can’t accuse Mandate of Heaven of not doing shit, because it’s just overflowing with it. Honestly, this first episode was a monster; SO MUCH happened.
Right, the central premise—can’t leave that out! The daddy-daughter stuff is fantastic, buoyed by a warm chemistry between the actors, her precocious charm (and adorable hamster cheeks), and his ability to jump from gravity to joking at the drop of a hat. I love his tic of falling back on that mask of humor, which balances out his desperation in other moments.
Overall, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show progresses; there’s a lot of promising stuff here, and I’m ready for a show to really grab hold of my heart. Fingers crossed.
- Second teaser and character posters for Mandate of Heaven
- Mandate of Heaven’s man on the run
- Lee Dong-wook as doting father in Mandate of Heaven
- First look at KBS’s Mandate of Heaven
- Thriller sageuk Mandate of Heaven adds to its cast
- Lee Dong-wook up for fugitive-thriller-sageuk drama