Secret Door: Episode 11
Ack, is it already time to start shattering the prince’s trust in his father? I know that on a basic level this is what the entire show is about, but is it asking for too much to delay the process for as long as humanly possible? What if we run out of tears—what will you do then?
Now that the murder case has been put to rest, the prince actually takes a huge step forward today and shows some promising signs as a future politician. But in this world, every victory comes with blowback, and he’s about to learn the hard way that in trying to win one battle, he may have just incited a political war.
SONG OF THE DAY
Gummy – “갈 곳이 없어” (Nowhere To Go) [ Download ]
EPISODE 11 RECAP
Ji-dam bows before the king, who restores Heung-bok’s name and offers to give her whatever she likes as a reward for helping to solve the murder case. In the presence of Princess Hyegyeong, Yeongjo asks Sun if he wants to take Ji-dam as a consort, and all three heads turn up toward the throne, wide-eyed. Way to put your son on ice there. Thanks, Dad.
Sun answers diplomatically that he doesn’t even give enough time to his family as it is, and can’t handle taking on a consort. Yeongjo laughs and notes that he didn’t really consider Hyegyeong’s feelings, as if he weren’t doing all this on purpose.
He asks Hyegyeong if he upset her, and of course she answers the way she’s supposed to—that the royal house must be prosperous for the nation to be prosperous. Yeongjo is pleased at the answer, and comes down to look them in the eye as he says that a king ought to have many heirs, so that he can weigh his options and choose the one who would rule best. Ouch, the implication isn’t lost on either of them.
Still, Sun argues against making Ji-dam a consort, so Yeongjo lets it drop and tells his eunuch to make sure she’s richly rewarded. He warns Sun to stop playing a police officer and turn his attention to more important matters, and Sun agrees with a pleasant smile.
As they leave the king’s palace with Ji-dam trailing behind them, Hyegyeong says that Sun should consider keeping Ji-dam close as a court lady if he doesn’t want her as a consort, calling her smart and useful. But Sun argues that Ji-dam isn’t fit for court life: “And more importantly, I don’t want to keep her encased within in the walls of this incomparably cruel and relentless palace.”
That turns out to be the most hurtful thing he could possibly say, and Hyegyeong’s face hardens to realize that he cares for Ji-dam so much that he wouldn’t want her to suffer their fate. Hyegyeong returns to her room and admits to her court lady that she didn’t realize he cherished Ji-dam that much.
Sun takes Ji-dam back to her father, who is just relieved to have her back safely. When Sun apologizes for constantly putting her in harm’s way, Dad sends him off with an air of finality, wishing him a long life. Sun points out that it sounds like farewell, and Dad admits that the prospect of seeing the prince again frightens him.
But Sun isn’t about to stop coming by, and tells Ji-dam with a smile to write many good books, and that he’ll see them for only good things now.
As we know, things are hardly over for Sun despite the murder case coming to a close, and he wonders about his father’s sharp reaction when he brought up that traitorous secret document.
Chul-joo meditates in the forest, remembering his old friend Kim Mu. In flashback we see Chul-joo arrive in the final moments before Mu’s execution, and Mu’s last thought was that he didn’t save Chul-joo’s hand because he was a friend, but because he had become Joseon’s greatest swordsman.
Sun finds Chul-joo training in the forest, and Chul-joo calls it a moment of telepathy because he was hoping to see the prince. He tells Sun that he delivered the pipe (and the maengui, hidden inside it) to Teacher Park, but Teacher Park in turn handed it over to someone else to save Sun and Chul-joo.
Sun asks why he’s telling him all of this, and Chul-joo says, “Because someone has to set it right. This filthy world that believes a man can just kill anyone beneath him because of a dirty document that amounts to less than a scrap of paper—doesn’t one person have to rise up and change it?”
The words move Sun deeply, and his eyes glisten with tears. Chul-joo asks, “Will you change it?”
Sun marches back to the palace with determination and has Teacher Park called to see him. Park arrives with a resignation letter at the ready, and Sun tears it up angrily, calling it an attempt to run away. He asks point-blank if Teacher Park handed the maengui over to Prime Minister Kim to save him, and Teacher Park doesn’t even know where to start defending his actions, mostly freaked out that Sun even knows what the maengui is called.
Sun fumes, reminding Teacher Park that he said he was fine to be imprisoned as long as they went after the truth—that’s what all of this was for. Teacher Park asks how he came to know about the maengui, but Sun says he was the one who taught him not to trust anyone, and he intends to follow that advice starting right now.
He intends to get his hands on that document, and tells Teacher Park that he simply needs to be Sun’s horse in that war. Teacher Park trembles in fear and pleads with Sun not to do this, warning him that he isn’t ready to handle it.
Sun gets to the heart of his fear and asks if it’s really what he suspects—is his father party to the treason documented in the maengui? Teacher Park falls silent, and Sun looks wounded as he notes, “Do you know when you are most frugal with your words, Teacher? When you don’t want to lie.” He storms off before Teacher Park has a chance to come up with a reply.
The Noron ministers’ central concern now is keeping the document in their possession so that recent events aren’t repeated, and Prime Minister Kim says not to worry—he plans to bury the thing right under the king’s nose.
Sun asks Court Lady Choi about what happened in 1724, and she looks visibly troubled at the mention of the year. At his prodding, she confirms only the most obvious events, namely that King Gyeongjong died and his brother Yeongjo became king. But she looks downright petrified as she says she can’t say any more and that Sun should refrain from even mentioning the year out loud.
That’s enough to confirm his suspicions that there’s a hell of a lot more to the story, and the more she warns him not to dig, the more he’s convinced he has to. Ack, somebody just tell him the truth so that he listens to your warnings!
He only proves their fears to be warranted when he saunters right into the royal library and asks for the records from 1724. That raises eyebrows left and right, and Sun is told that no records exist from that year because they were all destroyed in a fire ten years ago (the fire Yeongjo set to try and get rid of the maengui in the first place).
Yeongjo immediately gets word that Sun was poking around for records from that year, and looks petrified as it dawns on him that Sun might already know everything. His eunuch vows to have his men watch the prince closely to know for sure.
Sun stands outside the library that went up in flames ten years ago, and remembers seeing it ablaze as a young boy. Prime Minister Kim and Teacher Park were there, and the king had wailed at the loss of their precious history. He wonders now about the true meaning of those tears, and thinks that they could be proof that his father had nothing to do with the maengui or the fire.
Advisor Chae brings the prince another stack of Noron records, and hesitates before asking carefully if Sun is looking for the identity of Juk-pa. He takes out a list of all the nicknames signed to the maengui, all of them identified to Noron officials except for one: Juk-pa.
He asks again what the contents of the document are, and Sun says gravely that he needs a promise from Advisor Chae before he can answer his question. Sun says that he intends to seek out the truth no matter where that road leads (Nooooooooo! It leads to a very bad place!), and asks if Chae will follow him to the end.
Chae kneels as a sign of his commitment, and then asks for the document. Sun’s hand trembles as he takes it from his sleeve and hands it over, and Advisor Chae’s eyes widen as he reads it.
Sun averts his gaze and his voice shakes as he asks what Advisor Chae thinks: “Does the king know of the maengui? Could he be Juk-pa? That won’t be the case, right?” Agh, the hope in his voice…
The worst part is, someone is eavesdropping on their conversation. The spy reports to Prime Minister Kim, who looks shocked that the prince is inquiring into the identity of Juk-pa. Cruuuuuud.
The next morning, Sun calls for a royal tutoring session and changes the topic of study, wanting to discuss the importance of managing a household as taught in a text, and asks the pointed rhetorical question—what happens if a man who can’t manage his own household or control his own son holds a high-ranking government post? (He refers specifically to the top three ministerial posts, of which prime minister is highest.)
Yikes, it’s barbed enough to worry Advisor Chae, who asks after the tutoring session if Sun intends to go directly after Prime Minister Kim Taek. Does he mean to test the king as well? He worries that Sun won’t be able to handle what he’s getting himself into, but Sun clearly has no intention of backing down.
Yeongjo gets word of the prince’s tutoring session and it puts him on edge: “A father who can’t control his own son… is that me, or is that Kim Taek?”
Teacher Park storms in to scold Advisor Chae, lighting into him for letting the prince go for a full-frontal attack on the prime minister. Advisor Chae argues that he didn’t want to stop Sun—he can barely contain the desire to snap the prime minister’s neck with his own hands, and came this far because he doesn’t want to bend the prince’s will to serve his people as the heavens. He asks if he’s this embittered at the injustice, how Sun must feel.
Teacher Park says that’s not enough reason to throw a young soldier out into a war that he’s not prepared to win. Chae thinks there’s nothing to say that the prince won’t win this fight, but Teacher Park contends that Sun and Advisor Chae are both ill-equipped to go up against the likes of Prime Minister Kim.
Chae shuts him down by saying that the arrow has already been fired. Park finally shouts, “And if in trying to stop Kim Taek, you face an even greater enemy?!” He’s not saying it out loud, but he means the king, and Teacher Park is even more terrified when Chae answers curtly that he already knows. Park asks incredulously how he isn’t putting a stop to it, and Chae answers, “Because I’m not you.” Damn.
The prince’s desire to go after Prime Minister Kim has the Soron camp excited, and they begin the process for the prime minister’s impeachment, beginning with official appeals to the prince so that he has a leg to stand on. Sun calls it a good start.
But Prime Minister Kim, though shocked at the power play from Sun, just calmly goes to Yeongjo to say that he ought to put a stop to this, “Or else you’ll have to envision a very different successor to the throne.” Eek. Yeongjo rages at him to get out, leaving both sides rattled.
Prime Minister Kim goes straight to Yeongjo’s pregnant concubine Lady Moon and tells her that she must have a son, because that heir will become the next king of Joseon. He plays the part of the faithful subject and vows his allegiance: “They say that a wise bird chooses a good tree, and that a wise vassal chooses a good lord.” Lady Moon doesn’t hesitate to take him as an ally, and entrusts everything to him.
Princess Hyegyeong hears of the prime minister’s visit to Lady Moon, and surmises what he’s up to—he’s going to shake the royal house and replace the crown prince. She tells her father that they have to get rid of Prime Minister Kim, and at her word, he gathers scholars together to write more official appeals for the prime minister’s impeachment.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kim comes to ask Sun directly if he really thinks he can beat him, and Sun just smiles back at the challenge to say that they won’t know until he tries.
Both sides mount support, and Prime Minister Kim plans to accuse Sun of getting involved in a Soron plot, essentially engaging in factional politics, which they’ll then argue is technically criminal due to Yeongjo’s Tangpyeong Policy (a policy he instituted to curb factionalism in his court).
But Sun surprises Advisor Chae when he says that he intends to protect Prime Minister Kim. Oh, are you messing with him? Yeongjo hears what’s going on and chuckles, a little impressed at his son and wondering what his endgame is.
By now the Soron scholars who have rallied against the prime minister are angered that their cries have gone unanswered, and they kneel in the palace courtyard to begin a demonstration, chanting for the prime minister’s impeachment.
Prime Minister Kim, meanwhile, argues that Yeongjo needs to put a lid on his son once and for all, and take away his regency.
Sun lets the protest go on late into the night, and then goes out to meet the Soron scholars. He makes a show of defending the prime minister’s years of faithful service to the king, but when the Soron leader cries that he’ll die in protest, Sun acts like he’s being forced to give in, and declares that he’ll present their case to the king. You smartypants.
The Soron ministers hear of this and figure that nothing will happen to Prime Minister Kim if it’s in Yeongjo’s hands, but Teacher Park panics. He’s too late to stop Sun, and asks Advisor Chae if he knew all this time—that all of this was meant to test the king.
Yeongjo reads through the appeals, and asks Sun why he brought this matter to him. Sun says that the impeachment of Prime Minister Kim isn’t a matter he’s equipped to handle. He says with extra emphasis, “Since 1724… since the day you ascended, is he not the subject you hold most dear?”
Sun watches for his father’s reaction, and Yeongjo twitches at the mention of the year, reaching characteristically to cover an ear at the utterance of an unpleasant thing. Yeongjo treads carefully, and says that to him, it’s not a matter of which subject he holds dear, but which subject he finds useful at any given time.
He insists that this is a matter that Sun can decide without him, and asks if Prime Minister Kim is of use to him, or not. Sun doesn’t back down in the slightest and presses for an answer—does this mean he can remove the prime minister from office?
At last, Yeongjo tells him he can take the prime minister’s seat away from Kim Taek… but then adds that dismissing him entirely is overkill, and he should just demote him to a useless post. Yeongjo warns that he is the Noron leader after all, and there will be a price to pay. He advises Sun, “Taking the hand of the grim reaper when you need to—that is politics.”
Sun is troubled by his father’s words, but has successfully won the right to fire Kim Taek, which he does immediately. Sun demotes him per his father’s suggestion, and Kim Taek tells Sun that he’s won this round, but he intends to etch this moment deep in his bones to repay later. Great, now I’m terrified that Sun got his way.
Kim Taek is all smiles until Sun walks away, when he opens his shaking hand to reveal blood from clenching his fist so hard.
Sun returns to his palace exhausted, and though Advisor Chae calls this a clear choice from the king to side with Sun over Kim Taek, Sun doesn’t seem as happy or sure.
Yeongjo goes for a late stroll with Teacher Park, and mentions that Sun is digging around for the identity of Juk-pa. He knows now that Sun has to have read the maengui, and asks if Teacher Park was the one who showed it to him. Without having to hear the answer, Yeongjo guesses that Park isn’t the type to act so rashly, figuring that there’s another copy floating around.
Park worries that this is getting out of control, but Yeongjo cuts him off: “Do you know what the biggest problem right now is? That the prince dared to test me.” Yack, I knew that was a mistake!
Yeongjo says that if Sun read that document, his first thought as a son should be to consider his father a victim who was framed. Instead, Sun’s first thought is to suspect his father and use Kim Taek to test him. Teacher Park tries to speak up in defense of Sun, but Yeongjo just laughs manically that if he was given a problem he ought to give an answer.
Yeongjo leans in ominously: “You said I would become a tyrant, didn’t you? I will—to those who challenge me. But to those who follow me, I will be a sage king.” It’s especially chilling because the latter IS what Yeongjo is known as. He laughs as he walks away, leaving Teacher Park disheartened.
Kim Taek wastes no time and sends an assassin after the prince. A man dressed in black steadies his bow with Sun in his sights, and fires off an arrow. It narrowly misses him and the shooter runs, but after the initial shock, Sun realizes that it wasn’t an attempt on his life, but a message.
There’s a scrap of paper tied to the arrow, and he unravels it to find a riddle about the identity of Juk-pa: He is in a picture, but is not pictured. Sun contemplates the clue and gasps, “It can’t be… I know who this is!”
He takes off in a run, and Advisor Chae follows. Sun scrambles to the library as he mutters the clue over and over, and grabs a volume of royal processional paintings.
His terror mounts as he scans page after page, repeating the clue and parsing its meaning: “The person in the pictures, who is not in the pictures. The person who cannot ever be drawn…” We see that in drawing after drawing, the king’s place is always marked, but his figure is never drawn. Because it’s not allowed.
Sun: “It’s the nation’s king, my father!”
He knows! HE KNOWS! This is terrifying, and I feel torn about it—it’s narratively satisfying on the one hand, and other hand… there’s death. I’m totally on Sun’s side, and yet I kind of want to roll him up in bubble wrap and lock him in his room so he stops finding out the truth. This show has the interesting effect of making you simultaneously root for the hero while wishing he’d leave things be. I know, it would be terrible to just let all the massive corruption continue unchecked, and at every turn he’s doing the right thing and being admirably bold—it’s why I love him as a character. But sometimes I just want to scream, Stop poking the bear!
It’s a case of a narrative that uses history to its advantage in a good way to add a meta layer of tension, because we know exactly how dangerous a game Sun is playing. While I’m rooting for him, I can’t be happy at his victory over Prime Minister Kim when I know how it’ll come back on him tenfold. I like that essentially history is being used to turn a court drama into a suspense thriller, by virtue of the fact that we always know more than our hero. Narrative suspense can be tricky in that you run the risk of making your audience frustrated with the hero—in any other story with an open ending, I might be complaining that Sun is still too naïve. But I really enjoy the twist in this drama, where I actively have to war with the part of myself that wants the hero to stop winning battles and learning the truth in favor of staying alive.
I can’t believe Sun dared to test his father so openly, though he meant it in the opposite way that Yeongjo assumes. The problem between father and son is always a matter of perspective—Sun does it to confirm his hopes in his father, wanting more than anything for Yeongjo to prove him right that he isn’t a part of this conspiracy plot. But of course Yeongjo only sees it in the exact reverse, assuming that his son jumped to the worst conclusion about him when he was the powerless puppet ruler (at least at the time of the maengui’s signing), and feels even more victimized to be so grossly misunderstood. It’s a terribly sad case of a person who mistrusts and drives everyone away from him while complaining that no one trusts him and no one will remain by his side.
This rings so true to the Yeongjo of history books, because for all his power and his own personal distaste for his son, he was very sensitive about Sado trusting and defending him when it came to accusations about his involvement in King Gyeongjong’s mysterious death. Yeongjo was known to never tell his son directly what he wanted, but was perennially disappointed when Sado didn’t rise to his father’s defense. At its core, it’s a misunderstanding (you could see how a more communicative father would share this burden with his son and make him an ally from the start), but given the political stakes, it gets blown up into a tragic misunderstanding of epic proportions, and they’ll continue down this path of separation, having started off on the wrong foot. I know that it’s probably time for Sun to start seeing his father for who he truly is, but aaaah, I don’t know if I’m prepared for that heartache.