Secret Door: Episode 1
Secret Door is probably my most anticipated drama of the year, so to say I was nervous and excited about its premiere is something of an understatement. The history that this story deals with is so gripping, moving, and morbidly fascinating that once your imagination is grabbed, there’s no letting go.
I’ll get into the specifics of that history in another second, but trufax aside, there’s also an excellent cast to compel your attention, with a solid production team at the helm (the writer wrote Hwang Jini, Immortal Lee Soon-shin, and The Great King Sejong; the PD directed Ghost, Sign, and Suspicious Housekeeper).
So did the premiere live up to my expectations? Casting-wise, absolutely—we’re going to be dealing with some heart-shredding moments of conflict and pathos, and the leads are commanding. Plot-wise, I actually feel it’s a bit early to tell for certain, because this hour is densely packed and swiftly paced, in order to set us up quickly and send us on our way. I think I’m going to like the plot, with its mix of darkness, tension, and even lighthearted touches of humor, but we’re just barely getting started. So without further ado…
SONG OF THE DAY
Thomas Cook – “폭풍 속으로” (Into the storm) [ Download ]
Normally in sageuk dramas, there’s a certain point at which I try to forget how history unfolds in the “future,” so that I can enjoy the drama’s retelling in the now. However, it feels necessary in introducing Secret Door to do the opposite and discuss its famous conclusion up front, because this drama is proceeding with the assumption that we are already familiar with the tragic tale of Crown Prince Sado. The drama is purposely playing with the commonly accepted version of history in order to offer up a twist—and in order to appreciate the twist, we have to first acquaint ourselves with the conventional belief.
Sado was the only (living) son of Joseon’s longest-reigning king, Yeongjo, and father to one of its greatest kings, Jeongjo. He was groomed for greatness from the moment of birth, and his father placed exacting standards upon his only heir. Their relationship was, to put it mildly, fraught with tension, culminating in tragedy when Sado was 27 years old. Yeongjo ordered him to step into a rice chest, a box four feet square. Sado complied, the chest was sealed, and he died in it eight days later.
The big question, of course, is: Why? There are a number of theories surrounding Sado’s execution, some of which paint him as an out-of-control madman, and others that posit that he was merely a political pawn. So was Sado insane and dangerous? Was he the victim of conspiracy? Was Yeongjo manipulated by political foes to force his hand into executing his own son?
There are whole books devoted to these questions, so I’ll only outline the main points briefly here. Yeongjo became king after the death of his brother, King Gyeongjong. The period was marked by fierce factional strife (the Norons versus the Sorons), and Noron-backed Yeongjo was targeted by Soron accusations of having assassinated his brother. The rumors threatened to undermine his legitimacy to the throne, and seems to have been something he was sensitive to throughout his life.
As the son of a secondary concubine (to king Sukjong), Yeongjo was 41 when Sado was born, and poured his hopes into his heir. He wanted Sado to be a king whose legitimacy could not be disputed, vindicating Yeongjo as well, and constantly drilled into Sado lessons emphasizing filial piety. In her memoirs, Sado’s wife attributes his mental decline to an ever-increasing terror of his demanding father, whom Sado was desperate to please but whose immense expectations he was never able to live up to. The more he tried and failed to please his father, the more mistakes he made, and the more Yeongjo grew disgusted of him. Yeongjo was noted as displaying particular favoritism among his children; Sado was his least favored, and often treated with something bordering on contempt.
Sado’s behavior grew more erratic; he began lashing out in violence, including attempts at suicide, and snuck out of the palace on secret trips. These outbursts escalated into killings—of court ladies, doctors, eunuchs—and his wife describes living in daily fear that he might kill her, their son (later King Jeongjo), or anybody who happened to upset him. His episodes were interspersed with chilling interludes of lucidity, and finally things came to a head when Yeongjo heard a rumor—unconfirmed, but speculation puts it as a plan by Sado to kill his father—and was forced to act.
This drama is taking significant liberties with the accepted version of history, and points out that while based on real people, the story has been fictionalized. It’ll be interesting to see just how much poetic license is taken and whether it’ll actively contradict what is known. Although I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never know the full truth.
A note on names, which may already be familiar to sageuk-watchers: The names used to refer to kings are posthumously given, such as Yeongjo and Jeongjo, and would not have been known to the people of their time period. Sado’s name was also given posthumously (meaning prince of mournful thoughts), and his wife was not born Hyegyeong but is commonly referred to as such. The drama uses Sado’s given name, Lee (Yi) Sun, and based on the situation we may use either Sun or Sado, depending on clarity.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open thirty years before our drama’s present day, in the fourth and last year of King Gyeongjong’s reign.
A man is attacked in bed in the middle of the night. It’s future king Yeongjo (currently a prince, played by Han Seok-kyu), and he’s about two seconds from getting his throat sliced by a masked attacker. But it’s the attacker who goes down, cut down from behind.
A calm minister, KIM TAEK (Kim Chang-wan), checks that he is safe, then presents Yeongjo with a document. Yeongjo trembles in fear as the minister gives him his choices: sign or die. A wall of Noron officials sit at his back, and Yeongjo is forced to sign. By doing so, he has made a deal to gain the throne, but at the mercy of the Norons.
We jump ahead to Yeongjo’s twentieth year of rule (ten years before our present day). No longer cowering in fear, Yeongjo is nevertheless a sad sight, slumping drunkenly in front of his throne. He laughs bitterly about that damned document, which has effectively tied his hands—he’s unable to do anything, with the Norons controlling his every move. He’s tried to implement a rule of balanced politics and non-factionalism in his government, to no avail. He orders his official to find that document.
That official is PARK MUN-SU (Lee Won-jong), who reports to the king that the document is in a particular library. Soon that library is on fire, and Yeongjo laughs to himself as it burns to the ground—he’s free, as long as that document burned along with the building.
Now we’re in the present day, in Yeongjo’s thirtieth year of rule. Yeongjo has presumably been able to claim more power in the intervening years, because that Noron minister is pleased to hear of the document’s potential reappearance. Once they get their hands on it, he says, Joseon will once again be the Norons’ world. The hunt is on.
A young scholar overhears men talking about the document possibly being located in a particular building, and sneaks inside. There, he finds it pinned behind a wall hanging.
In the city, two young men walk furtively through the streets, guided by a map. One nervously urges the other to be more stealthy—the authorities have been cracking down on illegal booklenders.
Meanwhile, a young girl navigates her way around the city, collecting secret notes hidden in tubes in various hidey-holes. She’s SEO JI-DAM (Kim Yoo-jung), and the paper tickets bear a stamp reading Seo Family Booklenders. Must be her family. We see a whole network of people passing along books furtively; people have been forced to adopt secret measures to skirt the law.
King Yeongjo takes a morning meeting with the Noron leader, Kim Taek, now prime minister. Kim attempts to direct the king’s attention toward a serious matter but Yeongjo pays little attention and tells him to take it up with the prince-regent instead. (Yeongjo made Sado his prince-regent when Sado was fourteen, ostensibly to give him experience running the government.)
Prime Minister Kim stalks off in a huff, angry at being dismissed so lightly. Yeongjo knows to be wary and instructs his eunuch to keep an eye on him.
The crown prince, LEE SUN (played by Lee Je-hoon), is the one leading his friend to find those booklending tickets, and sighs that it’s not right that it should be so hard to borrow books. He finds the designated container hidden under a tile and, per instructions, tucks his ticket inside. His friend, SHIN HEUNG-BOK (Seo Joon-young), presses him to hurry, but it’s too late—Sun is caught by authorities while holding the secret ticket.
He and Heung-bok freeze, just as Ji-dam appears behind the clueless officials and motions for Sun to throw her the incriminating container. Sun just stares in confusion, and finally she resorts to yelling at them to throw it already, you half-wits.
She grabs the container out of Sun’s hand and makes a break for it. The authorities pursue her, and the two friends run as well. Ji-dam cuts through a gibang courtyard and is aided by clever gisaengs who block the officers’ paths and allow her to escape.
The boys make it to the city streets, but another sight makes them halt in their tracks: The booklending ring has been raided, and officers chase lawbreaking borrowers into the street, where they beat them down. Infuriated at the sight, Sun launches himself into the fray, knocking down officers left and right. One goes for the back of his head, and Heung-bok leaps in to deflect the blow, getting knocked down in the process.
Seeing his friend beaten inspires new fury and Sun leaps at that officer too, and starts punching him in the face. God, I want so much for him to yell Do you know who I am? but his friend jumps in, reminding him what trouble it would cause to have his identity outed. Thankfully the arrival of another man spares them a fight, and he quickly subdues the overzealous officers and urges the prince back to the palace.
Ji-dam makes it safely back home, then enters a hidden basement where her father is overseeing operations for their booklending shop. He recites while writers copy down his words, and she informs him of the raid, muttering about the added complication, thanks to “those half-wits.”
Speaking of whom, Sun races to the palace and hurriedly dresses for his morning greeting to his father, arriving panting and sweating. His proper wife, Lady Hong, aka HYEGYEONG (Park Eun-bin), has been awaiting him and looks annoyed as she says tersely, “You look busy.”
Yeongjo has already been informed of the booklending incident, but he doesn’t betray it as he asks his son why he looks so sweaty this early in the morning. Was he practicing martial arts? Or is he unwell? Sun just deflects nervously.
Princess Hyegyeong leaves the meeting in a huff, shooting Sun an icy glare, and a eunuch complains about his escapade. Sun challenges him—if he wants to know his reasons, then round up every borrowed book in the palace.
Ji-dam reminds her father about her crime novel that was supposed to release today, and Dad grumbles that romance stories are all the rage these days, not police thrillers. She proudly shows him a note to contradict him, which is narrated in Sun’s voice: Your talent is valuable and compelling. I would like to meet. The culprit is the one holding the scythe. If you want to know how I knew this, please come to meet me.
The problem is, there’s no copy ready to give him, and Ji-dam only has the original manuscript. Dad produces a copy and just says gruffly, “It was fun.” Aw, Dad.
One of the Seo Family books is discovered in the prince’s quarters, and Hyegyeong is outraged. On the other hand, Sun presents his decision to his council to legalize the distribution of books among commoners. The officials protest, since only the government possesses the power to publish and distribute.
To make his point, Sun has all the rental books found in the palace brought in—there are towers of them, and it emphasizes his stance that fighting their circulation is a losing battle, since they’re clearly being read widely. They bring people enjoyment, and thus are good books. Ministers argue to just crack down harder, and one barks that they can hardly call smutty love stories like that “good books”—and that’s a dead giveaway.
Sun chuckles, “I see you must have read The Story of Chun-hyang.” HA. (Chun-hyang could be seen as a romance between young lovers—which is how our minister of the right interpreted it—but Sun says it could also be seen as the story of a corrupt governor who coveted another’s wife.)
Then Minister Min protests that other books could inspire rebellious thoughts, and Sun notes, “Ah, are you reading The Story of Hong Gil-dong?” Double ha! Minister Min argues that the writer was a traitor (Hong Gil-dong told of a hero of the people who set up an egalitarian, utopian society, and was seen as an indictment of the government), and Sun asks if everyone who reads of revolution is harboring designs to revolt. Minister Min huffs that it’s possible. Sun’s face hardens and he snaps, “If it is, then our country is wrong.”
Sun declares that he will make book distribution legal and orders the crackdowns to be halted.
The ministers are alarmed. Yeongjo just laughs when he’s informed. So the Noron ministers meet amongst themselves to discuss what is to be done about the prince’s orders.
The Soron ministers meet as well, and their consensus is to back the prince. In so doing, it’s possible that all of the crimes committed by their Noron counterparts may be exposed, particularly in regards to Yeongjo’s ascension. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t appear that the Sorons are any more virtue-motivated than the Norons; they just see this as their opportunity to ride the incoming wave of power by backing the prince (the rising sun), while the Norons side with the king (the setting sun).
But there’s at least one virtue-minded soul among them in Park Mun-su, who asks where the people figure into this new Soron world they envision: “Do they exist at all?” One huffs that the party leaders must stand first for the people to stand, which sounds a lot like trickle-down politics to me.
Prime Minister Kim adds an ominous comment to Park Mun-su about the prince, insinuating that he’s “worried” for his safety—he may find himself in dangerous straits.
Park Mun-su visits the prince next, who greets him warmly as Teacher. He feels pretty good about having won that battle with the council, but Park Mun-su says that he saw a prince win a verbal tiff only to lose in politics. Sun asks uncertainly what he means, and Park replies that he won’t be able to legalize that book distribution. Politics isn’t about winning fights, but persuasion, he says.
Sun argues that this is a simple matter, but his teacher points out that 400 years of national law have been in place for a reason. He ought to confer with the king before making such decisions, lest he be seen as an enemy. At that word Sun leaps up in alarm—that’s a serious charge to make against him.
But this is Teacher Park’s point, which Sun hasn’t seemed to realize. He’s the prince-regent, and he needs to navigate politics more thoughtfully. But Sun argues that it’s the king himself who made him regent, and thus he is carrying out the king’s wishes.
King Yeongjo receives the report that his son’s actions may have overreached, but once again is more distracted with his leisurely pursuits, to his eunuch’s frustration. The thing is, Yeongjo is clearly listening, and he looks sharp even as he ignores his advisors—so what is he thinking?
In his room, the prince sits for a portrait while the artist paints… or so we think, until we see that the man wearing the prince’s clothing is actually best friend Heung-bok, who looks pretty uncomfortable sitting there in royal vestments while Sun kneels with paints.
Sun tosses a brush aside in annoyance, still upset about his teacher’s words, not seeing how such a simple matter of allowing the people to read books could be seen as a threat to his father.
Heung-bok asks to trade back their clothing, but Sun flops down and says he prefers it this way, as these clothes suit him better. “Maybe I was fated to be an artist,” Sun sighs. Heung-bok warns him not to talk like that to other people, lest it sound ungrateful.
Sun asks what his friend’s dream in life is—best artist in Joseon? Heung-bok says he’d just like not to worry about paying for medicine for his ill mother, and to marry his sister off well.
Princess Hyegyeong arrives outside the prince’s quarters and chafes when she’s told that he requested no visitors be admitted, having had a difficult day. The princess sneers, “Are you saying I am someone who interferes with the prince’s rest?” The court lady replies firmly, “Has there been a day when you were not?” Ooh, burn.
Hyegyeong just barges in anyway, and the instant he sees her, Heung-bok falls to the ground in a bow. Sun grimaces, but calmly meets her protests—he knows this is improper, illegal even, but thought to try it for amusement. She confronts him with the borrowed book, and Heung-bok hastily leaves the two to privacy.
Sun informs the princess that she overstepped by entering his quarters without permission. She argues that stopping misdeeds trumps that, and takes issue with not only his reading illegal books but making a state issue of them. For what it’s worth, Hyegyeong doesn’t seem like a gleefully malicious sort, but one who’s overly rigid about principle and frustrated with the prince’s ongoing brushes with trouble.
Sun congratulates her for her political acumen; she must have planted an informant to report on his doings. She challenges, “Is it a crime for me to harbor interest in my husband’s activities?”
He takes issue with that. Grabbing her closer, he asks, “Is your interest in me, or my dragon [royal] robes?” Unnerved, she shakes off his arm and leaves without a word.
Prime Minister Kim confers with another high-ranking official (the crown princess’s father) and reacts immediately at news of an artist, Shin Heung-bok, having been nearby to hear one of his conversations. Ah, this must be in reference to that early scene where the artist heard officials talking and found that document before they did. This is, of course, alarming news.
Prime Minister Kim abruptly leaves his office without notice and tells a crony pointedly that while the Norons had the power to put a king on the throne, they also have the power to take him down.
That afternoon, when Yeongjo is presented with his daily medicine, he notes that Prime Minister Kim has excused himself unexpectedly. The minister presses him multiple times to take the medicine, and Yeongjo toys with him before finally taking up the bowl.
It’s not clear whether they’ve done anything to the medicine, but regardless, Yeongjo is suspicious. He pauses to speak with a new eunuch in his ranks, to whom he offers the tonic instead, eliciting a chorus of horrified protests. Ostensibly it’s because nobody would dare take the king’s medicine, but is there another reason?
Yeongjo flings the medicine in his minister’s face and spits out vulgar curses at him. The minister balks at his language, and Yeongjo asks sneeringly if he’d like to chalk it up to senility—and in light of that, will he argue to remove him from the throne?
Flinging the bowl, Yeongjo barks, “I will abdicate!”
Sun hears of this proclamation with horror, and his advisor suggests that the king was angered by the book-publication issue. He hurries to the king’s palace.
Hyegyeong confers with her father, upset because abdication would be a direct threat to the crown prince’s position (and thus also hers). Especially as Yeongjo has a young concubine who is currently pregnant; a son would render Sun’s heir status precarious. They must strategize a solution, she entreats her father.
The entire courtyard fills with statesmen who bow in supplication to the king. At the very forefront is Sun, who kneels on a straw mat, dressed in plain clothes, and prepares himself.
As he does, his thoughts turn to fifteen years prior, when he was a five-year-old in the palace. His faithful court lady wakes him and carries him on her back as she races toward the king’s palace in the middle of the night, then sets him on a straw mat. Then as now, the courtyard is filled with kneeling officials, who exclaim to the king, “Your Highness, you mustn’t abdicate!”
Little Sun begins to cry, standing alone in front of the palace with its closed doors, and his court lady instructs him to cry louder. “Before your father the king rescinds his abdication, you must not stop your cries,” she says. He cries all through the night and falls asleep, but his court lady adds that he mustn’t stop his appeals for any reason, including sleep or hunger. And so, a few years later a slightly older Sun is led to his place in front of the courtyard to lead the cries.
Again and again, we see Yeongjo threaten abdication—sometimes in rage, sometimes despairingly, sometimes even jokingly. Each time, Sun is alerted and races to lead the appeals. Rain or snow, night or day. And when he nods off, he’s splashed with cold water in the freezing snow, so that he never ceases in his duty.
Today is no different, and the councillors repeat Sun’s entreaties. One minister—Hyegyeong’s father—even beats his own head against the stone ground until it bleeds. But we know that he has a particular interest in appealing this decision.
Prime Minister Kim sends a henchman to recover that lost document from that artist, Heung-bok, and to take his life if necessary.
Heung-bok finds his room ransacked, then hurries to check on the document’s hiding place. It’s hidden inside a blank scroll, the document slipped beneath a panel—or it would be, if his artist colleague hadn’t found it first. The friend is shaking as he reads it, and demands to know what Heung-bok’s role is. He tells him to burn it immediately, or to take it to the police, because hanging on to it can only mean Heung-bok’s death.
Heung-bok insists he’s going to take care of it, and warns his friend fiercely to keep his mouth shut. He’ll take it to the prince directly, he says.
But the prince is occupied at the moment, and Heung-bok is turned away. So he gives Sun’s eunuch a message to deliver, saying it’s about the booklender. But when Heung-bok arrives outside a house, he finds it guarded by strange men, and retreats fearfully.
Heung-bok hides out that night and takes out that document, which he copies into a book. It’s a crime novel from the Seo Family Booklenders, and he’s just added some damning information within its pages. To mark the copy, Heung-bok alters the stamp on the front cover.
King Yeongjo watches the proceedings from inside his palace, and is informed that Prime Minister Kim never returned to his post at the palace since he left it abruptly. This clear breach of protocol can only mean he’s conspiring against him—could it be that document?
His eunuch protests that it was burned with the library, but there’s just enough doubt to leave them wondering. Still, there’s no other reason Prime Minister Kim could dare flout him so boldly.
Prime Minister Kim tells his assassin, “The fight begins now.”
Heung-bok sets out nervously, gripping that book. Ji-dam sets out with another book in hand, ready to deliver it to her reader. And suddenly, Heung-bok senses danger and turns as something rushes at him from behind. His book falls to the ground.
Meanwhile, Sun continues his pleas to his father, begging him not to abdicate. He turns for a look behind him, and what he sees makes his eyes widen in shock.
To be completely honest, I’m so interested in the history of this drama that I’m not entirely sure how much of my enthusiasm for the show is based on purely what the drama showed us, and how much is my excitement to see the drama’s portrayal of what I knew of history. I found the first episode dense with information and was gratified when I could piece together relationships without the drama explicitly telling us who was who, but I do think that any good drama will clarify relationships between its characters regardless of what is known about them in the public domain. In that regard I wonder whether the drama was as accessible to viewers who weren’t aware of the background.
I do think that the drama made a clear point of establishing character efficiently without necessarily compromising complexity. That’s thanks to the cast, because when you have Han Seok-kyu taking on this charismatic but confusing character who seems to be full of hidden motivations, I trust his portrayal—I can’t see what Yeongjo is thinking, but I know he’s thinking something. And while I don’t know yet where he’ll take us with him, already this Yeongjo is fascinating and complicated, showing signs of the brilliant man we know him to have been and also glimpses of that constantly shifting (and dare I say capricious?) personality that is frustrating enough to drive you to madness.
Lee Je-hoon makes me cry no matter what he’s doing, and I love his take on Sado/Sun already—although, let’s be honest, it’s not hard to love him when he’s being portrayed as the well-meaning, caring, and misunderstood dark prince, humanized in a way that the bare facts of history just don’t allow for. (Okay, I’ll be honest and admit that I wish the drama would take the truly dark path of showing Sado’s descent into darkness and possible insanity and still making him a rich, human character, but we’re dealing with broadcast television here. I’d bet money that we’re doing the Jang Ok-jung, Live By Love thing in telling the alternate version where Sado was wrongly maligned.)
Having read the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, it’s interesting to see this take on her character, and while she’s not what I’d pictured from reading the memoirs (even while being conscious of the potential for unreliable narrators and all), I’m intrigued by Park Eun-bin’s portrayal. Her Hyegyeong is cold and antagonistic toward Sun, but not in an unreasonable way, I think. She is liked by Yeongjo and seems to understand the dangers implicit in court life and politics, and perhaps she’d be a warmer wife if her husband weren’t endangering her standing by rocking the boat with his escapades. Particularly when he then explains himself with couched reasons like “It seemed like fun”—understandable in that he doesn’t trust her, but frustrating to her, who takes him at his word. In someone else’s hands perhaps I wouldn’t like her, but Park is 22 years old and this is her tenth sageuk; she’s capable and nuanced, and I trust her to make this interesting.
If nothing else, I will be watching this for the acting showcase it is (and the beautiful cinematography), because these powerhouses are certainly up for the task. And we haven’t even met some of them yet! There’s enough lightness that I don’t anticipate this to be an all-intense, all-intrigue type of drama—we’ll have some comic beats and bromance and bonding to round out the heartache, I think. In any case, I have an optimistic feeling about Secret Door, and I’ll hold on to my hope that the story takes us interesting places.
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