Thank goodness this finale was good. When this cycle of dramas started with all the buzz projects and high-concept plots and big stars, who knew that this would be the show to stick? At least for me. I was certainly hoping Mandate of Heaven would be good, in the way that I hope all shows are good, but it surprised me by being solidly funny, sweet, rewarding and at times suspenseful. And it kept it up the whole way through, which is no mean feat.
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FINAL EPISODE RECAP
Jung-hwan is poisoned by the assassin’s dagger, which takes a good year off my life. But Won whips out a vial of antidote and feeds it to Jung-hwan, pouring the rest over the wound. Aha, smart trick for the doctor to always carry it around (this is the same antidote Do-saeng used to cure the prince).
The bandits see that Kim has been felled, and realize to their chagrin that they’re too late to do him in themselves. They recognize Mu-myung as the guy responsible for the bandit village slaughter, and vow to at least get him. Geo-chil orders So-baek to remain behind, which makes me laugh—has that ever worked? The men dash off, and So-baek takes all of two seconds to decide she’s going too.
Keok-jung and Geo-chil catch up to the assassin and engage in a fight. Injuries are inflicted on all sides, which is an improvement from previous battles where Mu-myung was the only one drawing any blood. They even manage to knock him down on his ass, but he’s quick to rebound.
So-baek flies into the mix, and Mu-myung kicks her into a tree. On her way down, she slams her head onto a rock and gets knocked out cold. Eek! The bandits abandon the fight to rush to her side. So-baek’s head is bloody and her father sobs.
They rush to Won’s home carrying the two patients, Jung-hwan and So-baek. Jung-hwan says in his characteristic understated way that he’s totally fine, and that all he needs is Woo-young at his side. Of course the dude can be smooth at a time like this.
Won has been ignoring his slashed arm in light of more pressing concerns, and leaves Jung-hwan to his sister’s care to check on So-baek. The men are afraid to face the possibility that she might not wake up, and while Won’s reaction doesn’t promise a lot of hope, he takes out his needles and starts treatment.
Woo-young panics when Jung-hwan’s eyes roll up in his head, and tries to check whether his heart is beating. Don’t die! As her head lies on his chest, his hand moves up to cradle her face, thank god, and he says that it’s still beating.
“It would have stopped, but the reason it kept beating is because you are here. It felt too sorry for you…” Ha, classic gallows humor from Jung-hwan. He doesn’t get to finish, though, because Woo-young cuts him off with a kiss.
She tells him not to strain himself talking: “I know how you feel, so just don’t die.” Less talking, more smooching!
The queen dowager fumes to hear of Kim’s death. At least the meddling Jung-hwan got stabbed with a poisoned dagger, she smirks—and I don’t envy her court lady for having to deliver the next bit, because I’m pretty sure every time the queen hears “Actually, that Choi Won guy stepped in,” I think she pops a blood vessel. Or maybe kills kittens.
Da-in delivers the daily tonic to Lee Ho, and it does not make me happy to see that (1) the candle is burning, and (2) a eunuch sways and coughs, looking ill. Bah! Stupid evil queen.
Lee Ho is relieved to hear that Won used antidote to treat Jung-hwan, then adds that Won was injured and requests that Da-in check on him. That’s sweet. I mean, I’m sure Lee Ho wants to know he’s fine, but we all know it’s for her sake.
Given Da-in’s resolve to stay away, she struggles with the decision of whether to go. I understand her reluctance, but I sure do hope she can suck it up because Won could use all the medical assistance he can get. He continues to treat So-baek, who’s still unconscious, while ignoring his own untreated injury.
Da-in paces in front of the house, and eventually just leaves. Arrrrg.
Gyeongwon confronts his mother with two candles: one from his chamber, and one from the king’s. He notes that all the candles sent to the king were marked on the bottom, realizing that she wasn’t sincere about her gift. Oh, honey. It’s sweet that you ever thought so.
He demands to know what dastardly deeds she’s planning against the king, crying that he doesn’t want his mother becoming a murderer. Oh, I think that ship has sailed, little man. It earns him a slap and his mother warns menacingly that he’d best do as she bids.
His face still imprinted with her hand mark, Gyeongwon goes to his brother to beg to be stripped of his royal status and evicted from the palace. Being a prince here is like hell, he says.
Lee Ho is shocked, but he sees the slap mark and puts two and two together. Gyeongwon says earnestly that he wishes to live and die as a commoner—one with a warm and caring family, even if that means being hungry. He grows increasingly agitated and claps his hands over his ears at the very title of prince.
Da-in monitors the prince’s condition, deducing that this is the result of excessive psychological stress. Hearing that the queen dowager has summoned him, Gyeongwon bolts upright and hides behind his brother, which, aww. He cries that he’s more afraid of her than he is the grim reaper, and begs again to be evicted.
The eunuch tells the queen dowager that Gyeongwon resisted the summons and advises that she give him space… though that turns out to not really be much of an option since he’s already gone.
Da-in takes Gyeongwon to Won’s house, which warms my heart because Won’s makeshift + real family really is the anti-palace. This is Lee Ho’s doing, and he declines to tell the queen dowager where he sent the sickly prince for his convalescence. She’s offended, but Lee Ho informs her that it was Gyeongwon’s wish to be sent without her knowledge.
Da-in tries to leave as soon as she can, but she can’t ignore Won’s bleeding arm and insists on having a look. She nags him for not taking proper care of himself, and he thoroughly enjoys the attention, half-teasing that she could come back to him if she’s so worried. He adds, “I think it was good that I got hurt. I am able to see you like this, and hear you worrying over me.”
By morning, Jung-hwan is awake and on his feet. (YAY!) He doesn’t look entirely healthy, but since staggering is a lot better than wheezing half to death, I’ll take it. He tells the sleeping Woo-young to dream of him.
Jung-hwan reports to work, where his corrupt boss cackles at his conundrum. Jung-hwan killed Kim while in the line of duty, but the other side can argue that he’s a murderer who took the law into his own hands. Jung-hwan’s position is thus endangered, but he submits himself to a full investigation.
Da-in updates the king on his brother’s condition. Hearing that Won needed medical care, Lee Ho instructs her to keep checking in on him. Ha, is the king playing matchmaker?
And then… his eunuch keels over. Gahh! I want to run in and ninja-kick those candles, dammit.
Da-in confers with Won about the suspicious circumstances of the eunuch’s death. It’s a particular red flag because this eunuch was always at Lee Ho’s side, who has been subject to more than his share of poison plots.
Gyeongwon—who is under increasing strain and suffering nightmares—overhears the exchange and looks even more haunted. Spill! I wish he’d talk, if only for his own sanity, which looks like it’s on the brink.
Won and Da-in examine the dead body, and coupled with the eunuch’s recent ailments, Won arrives at the conclusion: lead poisoning. It’s extra troubling because the king has already experienced some unexplained stomachaches as well.
So when Da-in delivers the king’s nightly medicine, she looks around for anything that could be the source of the lead poison. She notices the candles, but they don’t spark an immediate suspicion.
The queen dowager is pleased to hear of the eunuch’s death, since that means the king is next. She’s still frustrated at being outmaneuvered away from her son, though, and wants to call in Mu-myung. It’s too risky to bring him to her, so she orders her court lady to deliver a message.
Won mulls over the clues, trying to narrow down the source of the poison. What would affect somebody who was always with you physically, but who didn’t eat your food?
Just then, he hears the children fighting, and that provides the link. Rang protests while clutching a candle protectively, while a shaking, cowering Gyeongwon insists she throw it away. Ding-ding-ding.
He gets Da-in to sneak a candle out of the king’s room, though she says dubiously that it looks like a regular scented candle. Won starts shaving the wax down, and it becomes apparent that the wax was mixed with lead, and the scent added to cover any smell.
Now Won understands that Gyeongwon must have known, hence the prince’s guilt and his request to be evicted from royalty. Won instructs Da-in to discontinue the candles’ usage immediately.
Jung-hwan is on alert for suspicious movement from the queen dowager, and sees her court lady heading out on her secret message delivery. Bingo.
So-baek wakes up, and there’s much rejoicing from her father and Keok-jung. She recognizes them and can speak, but looks blankly at Won: “Who is this?”
It’s a concern that her head trauma has had some lasting effects, but neither Won nor Geo-chil is that worried about it. Won says he must not have been important enough to be remembered, which I suppose is way better than only forgetting the MOST important thing in your life. Ahem. Geo-chil adds that it’s better this way, since it was hard watching her in tears over Won anyway.
Jung-hwan follows the court lady out to her rendezvous point, watching as Mu-myung leaps down to meet her from a tree. What are you, a monkey? She delivers the letter—that’s good, that’s proof—but then someone leaps in to interfere.
It’s Do-moon, out for some justice. I wouldn’t say our pretty monkey boy is getting worse at fighting, but his opponents are getting better, so this time Do-moon escapes getting sliced to shreds.
Into the fray leaps Jung-hwan, who never could turn down a battle (or a heroic jumping-into-action shot), and the swordfight lands in another three-way clash. But this time Jung-hwan gets a piece of Mu-myung, whose blood is drawn first. And second.
Jung-hwan gets knocked back (he’s still recovering, after all) and Do-moon goes in for the kill. But at the last second, Jung-hwan yells for him to stop. Urg! I know Mu-myung is more valuable alive than dead, but damn it makes for an unsatisfying end to a fight.
Jung-hwan argues that he’s the only way to corner the queen dowager for her crimes… just as Mu-myung grabs the blade with his bare hands and thrusts it through his own belly. Accck! With his last breath, he grits out, “The peony flower will never die.”
Jung-hwan is frustrated with Do-moon’s hotheaded intervention, because they’ve traded one death for another, and now they’ve lost their ammo against the queen dowager. Poor, despairing Do-moon—always wanting to do the loyal thing, but not sharp enough to see the bigger picture.
Jung-hwan tells Won resignedly that they’ve lost their last possibility of pinning down the queen dowager (which for him also means keeping his job). But Won says that all’s not lost yet. Ooh, another plan.
The queen dowager is shaken to hear of Mu-myung’s death, then again to learn that the candles have been removed from the king’s chambers. At first furious that her son must have cracked, the queen dowager then realizes the connection: Da-in removed the candles, therefore Da-in must be the one harboring Gyeongwon.
The queen dowager summons her to thank her for looking after Gyeongwon, all sweetness and light. It’s a bit bold of Da-in, but she tells the queen mother that she’s the source of her son’s troubles and needs to show him maternal affection—that’s all he wants, not the bloodthirsty ambition that scares him silly.
The queen dowager accepts this all and thanks Da-in, then invites her to eat the spread she prepared specially for her. It’s clear to both that the food is poisoned, but at this point the queen isn’t even bothering to sneak it. She orders Da-in to partake.
Da-in declines, which isn’t really an option. The queen dowager calls her ladies to force feed it to her, and they try to shove it down her throat.
Thankfully, they’re interrupted by Lee Ho, who enters Jung-hwan and Won in tow. The queen dowager says simply that she was scolding Da-in for being disobedient, which nobody believes. Jung-hwan throws a couple candles at her feet, presenting her with evidence of her crime, and the king orders the case investigated.
The queen dowager sees that she isn’t going to get out of this by feigning innocence, so she makes an appeal: “I did it because I wished to live.” For what it’s worth, I do believe her desperation is real; it just fails to stir sympathy in me since she’s so devious.
Lee Ho doesn’t look moved either, and takes the drink she tried to feed Da-in. He holds it out to the queen and tells her to drink.
She falls to her knees and begs for her life, clutching his robes. She won’t harbor any more designs on the throne, and if he’ll spare her life she’ll live in quiet obscurity till old age.
Lee Ho drops the bowl, a tacit acceptance of her deal.
Da-in is badly shaken by the ordeal, and Won comforts her as she trembles in the aftermath. She confesses that more than the thought that she was facing death, what scared her was the idea of never seeing him or Rang again.
Won just quietly offers his open hand, and she takes it. He promises not to let go.
So-baek recovers enough that it’s time for the bandits to leave, though she still looks at the family with a blank expression. Rang’s sad that she doesn’t remember her, but Geo-chil assures her that So-baek remembers all the important stuff in her heart, if not in her head. Which was always kinda true of her anyway, come to think of it.
Won gives Keok-jung medicine and offers more should they need it, and Keok-jung offers help if they need it. Rang tells them to not steal or fight anymore, assuring them that her friend the king promised to make the world better so they wouldn’t be forced to do bad things anymore. So Geo-chil promises too, and Rang sends him off with a kiss on the forehead.
Won decides it would be nice to take a trip back to Tortoise Boulder with Lee Ho, for old time’s sake, and they smile to think of the memories they have of being boyhood friends here. Won starts to answer the king’s question about returning to his position as palace doctor, but Lee Ho speaks first, saying he doesn’t have to answer that.
Lee Ho spares Won from having to give his refusal, teasing that Won took so long to answer that now he doesn’t want him anymore.
But he adds that he has realized Won isn’t someone he ought to tie down and claim for himself. He tells him to continue his work and attend to many more people outside the palace, saying that it’s his mandate of heaven. Won agrees to live his life not by the king’s order but by heaven’s.
And so, when we check back in a short while later, Won has a thriving practice—working alongside Da-in—where he treats common folk and chides them for worrying about the medical bill more than the urgency of their health. In walk Woo-young (pregnant!) and Jung-hwan, whom Rang now calls Uncle.
Rang’s health is all better now, and adorably, Jung-hwan calls Won “hyungnim.” He still works in the palace, but he has left the police department to guard the king personally.
As the drama closes on our happy couple, Won thinks to Da-in that he’s content to live this way forever, without wanting anything more. She corrects him by saying that’s wanting quite a lot, since living happily is no easy feat.
All in all, a satisfying end to a satisfying drama.
This drama didn’t turn out to be the drama I’d expected, and there were a few bobbles along the way, but as a whole I’d call it a successful show. It knew what it was, it was carefully planned (which you could see from how things were established well in advance and planted so that they’d come into fruition later down the line), and it maintained that level of quality throughout.
There were certainly flaws, some minor and some… less minor (which I’ll get to in a sec)… but the main reason I’m so satisfied with Mandate of Heaven is because it was rock-solid in its consistency. It didn’t have wild swings from extreme to extreme, it didn’t lose its way, it didn’t drop plot threads in our laps and yank them away willy-nilly, it didn’t feel lost or meandering. The flip-side of that was that it didn’t perhaps make my heart pound or inspire emotional outbursts, either, so it lacked that crack factor.
Not that there weren’t some giddy moments and couples with adorable chemistry. It’s too bad they weren’t with the main couple, but I was so with the Jung-hwan and Woo-young ship (and the Keok-jung & So-baek loveline) that the stalwart, noble, honorable (and boring) romance between Won and Da-in didn’t upset me. I just treated it as one more expected plot point.
I do think that the director and cinematography are to be praised for keeping the feel of the show cohesive and consistent. At times the camera work highlighted the best moments of a scene, and at times it even elevated the show in what would have otherwise been a pedestrian moment. Maybe it’s an unfair advantage, or maybe that’s the mark of a smart director. Hey, if you can use all the weapons in your arsenal, why wouldn’t you?
It’s a bit of a shame that the show’s weakest link was probably its lead star, which isn’t unheard of but wasn’t something I expected of this show, since I generally have liked Lee Dong-wook and think he can be pretty good in restrained roles. Unfortunately, he never learned to tame the wild eyes and hasn’t hit upon the knack of Dramatic! Acting! that doesn’t feel like it’s, well, upper-cased and punctuated with exclamation marks. The character was better than the acting, I think, since there were some really great moments for Won, particularly as he grew out of his antagonism for the crown prince and embraced him as friend. True, he was kind of too perfect to be interesting, but the smarty-pants did happen to be a wuss, so there were nice touches in there.
It’s the same issue for Song Ji-hyo, who is again an actress I’ve liked in other stuff who I found dull here. But to look at that glass half-full, it was nice to put the two dull lovebirds together so that I could file them away as plot necessities whose romance I had no issue with intellectually, and save my excitement for the actors who had charisma and chemistry. Like Song Jong-ho and Im Seul-ong.
I was actually surprised at how much I liked Im Seul-ong in this, not because I disliked him but because the only other time I’ve seen him act (Personal Taste) was in a role that was basically buffoonish comic relief. I did hear he auditioned properly to win this role, and I believe he earned it because he completely won me over and elevated the prince’s role from mere tragic wallpaper to feeling real pathos for his loneliness, his idealistic struggles, and his future beyond this drama. You could say that this was bolstered by the writing of the character more than the acting, only then I’d have to point you to Exhibit A: Lee Dong-wook, who proves that that’s not enough. So yay for him.
The wrap-up hit all the important beats for me, so I leave the show content. There’s a tinge of bittersweetness to knowing the history beyond the end date of this show, and it’s not something you can quite escape in dramas like this where you can only show so many hopeful and happy scenes without contradicting trufax.
On the other hand, Mandate of Heaven is an example of a drama fusing history with narrative in smart and effective ways. The term fusion often gets thrown around a lot when I think the show really means period or fantasy, but it’s not always appropriate. I appreciate that this drama told its story and made its characters their own people, while working with the basic framework of stuff we can’t change. Like the fact that Lee Ho (King Injong) had a contentious relationship with his stepmother and was sickly and had a relatively short reign. But in the context of this story, we don’t need to address that stuff, because this Lee Ho has walked this character path and this is where his arc resolves.
Speaking of characters with arcs, I really enjoyed how everyone in this this show felt like their own people, each with his/her own full life beyond what we saw onscreen. Whether secondary, evil, awesome or annoying, I got the sense that the characters had whole personalities and were driven by personal motivations, and not, say, merely by the dictates of the story. That’s something that should happen in every drama, but sadly doesn’t. So credit where it’s due.
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 19
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 18
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 17
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 16
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 15
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 14
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 13
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 12
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 11
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 10
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 9
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 8
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 7
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 6
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 5
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 4
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 3
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 2
- Mandate of Heaven: Episode 1