Secret Door: Episode 16
Despite being thrown into what seemed like a pit of quicksand leading straight to hell, our hero digs deep to solve the impossible problem, and to keep his soul while doing it. It’s a tall order, and one that nobody expects him to achieve, but while we know to keep the faith, the big question is: How? The answer is at once a nice surprise and perfectly in character. But that’s why he’s our hero.
SONG OF THE DAY
Mate – “너를 떠나” (Leaving you) [ Download ]
EPISODE 16 RECAP
To nobody’s shock but Sun’s, Kim Taek and his Noron cronies have backstabbed him under the guise of helping. The prized ginseng that’s meant to grease the wheels of diplomacy with the Qing envoys turns out to be a putrid, maggot-infested mess—which, naturally, does not go over well.
We see in flashback that Chul-joo had thought up this scheme, to prepare ginseng that appeared fine one day and then quickly rotted. Wouldn’t it have been easier to show the prince one good box of ginseng, and then just prepare the others with rotting merchandise? Bah, I can’t believe I care about the logic of the most boring plot twist ever. Moreover, I can’t believe we’re in a drama about the tragic life of Sado and we’re spending time on ginseng storylines, but whatever.
The Qing envoys are so insulted that they declare the negotiations off, intending to leave Joseon at once. Sun acts quickly, apologizing for the gifts and promising to replace them right away.
When that fails to sway them, he drops to his knees right then in there. Holy shit, that’s a big fucking deal—the whole court drops to the ground at once and cries out in protest that he mustn’t lower himself like this.
Even the offended envoys are taken aback, uneasily regarding the prince as he entreats them to reconsider in the name of peace. Finally the envoys relent, offering to give him a second chance in light of the earnestness of his appeal. He has three days to find a new gift that would move the emperor, because even perfectly good ginseng wouldn’t have cut it.
The prince’s father-in-law asks the envoys for a bit more to go on, since that’s a pretty tall order. But the envoys huff that it’s up to the prince and his people to figure out the gift. No pressure or anything.
But for now the danger has passed, or at least been put on hold. The court sighs in relief, and as one of the envoys leaves the courtyard, he drops a string of beads. Sun notes them with curiosity.
The reaction to Sun skirting the sabotaged ginseng plot is largely incredulous, since Chul-joo and the Norons were confident he would fail right off the bat. But Kim Taek isn’t worried, and chuckles because Sun has leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire.
What that means is that Sun’s act of supplication is a grave offense to Joseon pride, and soon everyone is expressing their outrage that their prince lowered himself to the foreigners.
Yeongjo scolds Sun for his rashness, telling him that a ruler is the face of his country, who mustn’t discard his pride to evade a momentary danger. If his negotiations ultimately fail, that’ll be the last image his people have of him. Yeongjo may be saying this for all the wrong (selfish) reasons, given that he’s just waiting for Sun to fail, but he’s also not wrong in making his points. It’s part of his brilliance.
Sun doesn’t back down in the least, however—f his actions prevent war and protect his people’s lives, he could do even more, he says. Yeongjo merely gives him his ultimatum: Fix this mess, or face dethronement. Okay, at least now you’re being honest about your goals; clearly he was just building up to dethronement.
Bingae is sent to Sun on an errand, and he asks kindly how she’s been managing court life. She was in the yard when he knelt before the envoys and was as shocked as the others, and notes that it’s the cause of much whispering in the court.
She admits to being thrown into confusion over his actions, wondering which side is the real Sun. There’s the wastrel who’s wasted his life by drinking and debauchery, and there’s the man who humbled himself trying to make life better for his people.
Sun asks what reply she wants to hear, and says, “I hope a day will come when I can give you the answer you want.”
A meeting with his statesmen leads to infighting amongst the Norons, who blame each other for the ginseng debacle. Sun says that their new problem is more pressing; they must now find something to move the emperor’s heart if they want to avert war.
His ministers point out that his approach is naive, because even if he found a perfect gift that would speak to the emperor, all the envoys have to do is lie and say it isn’t, and then he’s up the creek. This is just a trap to build up a pretext for the Qing to declare war, and they’re better off agreeing to some of the envoys’ demands, before they demand even more.
Sun answers that if he were to cede and give up their fishing rights to the Qing, that would be tantamount to starving his people, who would lose their livelihoods. Even if this is a trap, he will still try to find an answer—and after he’s tried everything, then he can give up his seat and the fishing rights. But not before.
Kim Taek feigns concern over the bad ginseng, apologizing to Sun for his role in it, wearing a smug smile on his face. Sun answers just as politely that his teacher isn’t to blame, and tells Kim Taek not to worry too much.
He adds warm words of praise, saying that it feels good to have his teacher looking out for him… and then as he walks away, his smile fades and his face turns hard. Phew for that. I had hoped he was wise enough to realize he’d been duped, and it’s wiser still to pretend he doesn’t know it.
He shares his suspicions with the loyal Min Woo-sub, knowing that Kim Taek was the source of the ginseng plot. He tells Woo-sub to have Kim watched secretly, and also needs to confirm something with the underground bookseller, to whom he sends a message via carrier pigeon. Curiously, Bingae is lurking around and hears the name of the man and wonders at it.
The message flies over to that man, who is with Chul-joo. They’re still under the impression that their book-buying client may be aligned to their interests while being unaware that it’s Sun, and the seller cheerfully takes another meeting with him.
This time Sun is here with a question, and pulls out the beads dropped by the Qing envoy. The bookseller identifies them as rosary beads, explaining their use in the Catholic faith, and directs him to a specific text.
Kim Taek sees Sun’s downfall as imminent and turns his attention to their next move: choosing a new king. He muses that Yeongjo is getting old (though he did historically live nearly twenty more years), and is already looking to see who would replace him. If Yeongjo protests, they can just do away with him like they did the previous one. Gyeongjong’s youth stirred suspicions when he died, but nobody would question the death of an old king.
Advisor Chae drops by to see Sun, and word reaches Yeongjo that he’s visiting the prince more often these days. Yeongjo already knows this and isn’t upset to hear it, because he’s been aware that Chae loves the prince and was always with him in spirit, even as he’s working or the king. With the Qing problem being so pressing, Chae will be trying his best to help him.
Yeongjo’s eunuch is surprised at the suggestion that the king wants his son to succeed, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Yeongjo chuckles that Sun’s success would be good for the country, but it’s not possible to win outright. He calls it a game not of winning without sacrifice, but winning while minimizing your losses. If the two sides fight and then strike upon a compromise, it’ll feel like he gave them much more than if he’d just ceded. Add in a few bribes, and everyone leaves happy.
The eunuch asks the million-dollar question: But what about the prince? Will he truly abandon him? Yeongjo doesn’t answer.
Kim Taek is a fast mover, and that night he arranges a secret meeting, bringing his grandson along to meet a royal relative, Lee Gyo. He tells Lee Gyo that he wants him to be the next king, which seems rather ballsy to me. But Kim is a master at this game of royal puppetry and senses the timing is right to strike.
The report of this meeting reaches Sun’s ears, and the implications are immediately clear. But Sun just smiles as he muses that he’s on the verge of being dethroned.
Returning to his secret library, Sun consults with Chae and shows him the rosary, wondering if he can use that to establish a line of connection with the envoys. If he could gain their empathy, perhaps he’d be able to figure out a way to move the emperor.
That thinking spurs an idea, and he wonders if sympathy is his answer. Could he find a way to reach mutual understanding?
He shares his information about Kim Taek planning to enthrone a new ruler, and intends to use Kim’s ambition against him. He’ll have to plan a twist.
His next move is a puzzling one, however, as he heads out to the military training grounds and meets with the general, arranging for a training exercise. That night, he observes as soldiers engage in a bout of training, but amid a loose, festive atmosphere. There’s drinking and revelry, and it all looks rather unseemly. At the center of it all is Sun, drinking along with the best of them.
Hyegyeong is beside herself with anxiety, knowing that there’s only a day left to solve the problem. She wonders what he’s thinking and whether he has a plan, rejecting her father’s desperate suggestion to concede to some of the Qing’s demands for tributes.
Kim Taek is likewise confused to hear of Sun’s detour to the military field, and tries to deduce his motivations. His cronies are hesitant over the theory that Sun may be courting war rather than evading it, but an argument is made that perhaps he was pushed into making an extreme decision. Kim orders Minister Min to look into this.
By this he means to interrogate his son, Woo-sub, for an explanation of Sun’s behavior. Today Woo-sub is more forthcoming, looking quite worried as he says that he doesn’t think the prince intends to negotiate, and that he said that he could keep his crown through “conquest.”
Woo-sub hands over two books that Sun has been writing over the past three years, and they contain an alarming collection of military strategies and descriptions of weaponry. This has to be a scheme, right? I have too much faith in Woo-sub to actually betray, so I’m rather looking forward to seeing how the trap is sprung.
The books are given over to Kim Taek, who reaches the same conclusion that the Mins did: The prince must be preparing for war, and he must be using these failed negotiations to bolster his own pretext for launching one. When asked why he sat on this information so long only to share it now, Woo-sub says morosely that he had thought Sun was just interested intellectually, not that he was amassing practical knowledge.
Armed with this damning evidence, Kim Taek requests a secret meeting with the envoy in the middle of the night, where he hands over the military journals. The envoy is suspicious of Kim’s motives, and Kim presents himself as a noble statesman who only wants peace; right now, Sun is the biggest obstacle in achieving this. Thus they must be rid of him first, and only then can they open negotiations.
Kim Taek employs his final weapon, requesting that the Qing emperor rescind his recognition of the prince’s status. It’s a de facto dethronement from abroad, and it’s a bold move. Kim Taek slides over a huge bribe of silver, and the envoy looks tempted.
That night Sun pores over a Catholic text, copying a passage written in Latin. He calls this his “final weapon.”
The next morning, the envoys request an urgent meeting with the prince, and the air is thick with tension. The lead envoy states his intention to have the emperor revoke recognition of the prince’s status, and asks point-blank whether he did in fact state that conquest would be his way of retaining his crown.
Breaths are held as Sun answers, and then jaws drop on both sides at his confirmation. I’m pretty sure Sun is using “conquest” to mean something else, but there’s really no other way for them to interpret it in this context. Which is the whole point.
Kim Taek, meanwhile, counts his chickens and muses that the prince’s downfall will happen today. The joke’s on him, though, when soldiers appear to accuse him of conspiracy—and they have Lee Gyo, the man he selected to be the next king, in their ranks to attest to it.
Sun begins his explanation, describing a conquest that has nothing to do with claiming Qing territory. He pulls out the Latin text he’d copied and the rosary, admitting he was looking for a way to befriend them. Just the fact that he knows what they are has the secondary envoy (the rosary’s owner) amazed, and the envoys’ distrust gradually eases.
Sun says honestly that he doesn’t know much about these beliefs, but he wants to learn. The conquest he envisions is cultural—a sharing of knowledge between Joseon and Qing, allowing him access to their stores of Western knowledge, science, medicine, and the like. And this cultural exchange would mark their path to peace.
Okay, that’s well and good, but what about those books? Sun shocks them by calling them his gift to the emperor; building up Joseon makes them Qing’s shield against Japanese invasion. The information would in turn bolster the emperor’s own army.
Sun returns the books to the envoys, who are stunned that this valuable information would be given with no strings attached. Sun answers merely that even when he can’t dispatch troops to help the emperor, the book is his way of showing that his heart is with them.
Well played, sir. Well played.
And so, the entire debacle is smoothed over and the envoys inform the king that they agree with the initial terms (without the added demand for troops). I have to say, Yeongjo’s utter shock is gratifying to behold; he practically stutters and has to force himself to appear pleased that his country won’t be thrown into war. The ear-scratch re-emerges as the envoys praise his son to the heavens.
In fact, the envoys are so impressed with the prince that they’re incensed at the idea that one of the king’s own vassals dared to try to depose him. The council is shocked to hear of it and the Norons are quick to declare this a disgrace. Yeongjo blusters in indignation and asks for a name, and the envoys provide it: Kim Taek.
Yeongjo orders the traitor apprehended, and we see Kim bursting into a round of laughter when he realizes he’d fallen into the prince’s trap. There’s a pretty cool shot that begins tight on his face and pulls back to show Kim lying on the floor amidst a mess, in the aftermath of a temper tantrum, as he just laughs and laughs.
Hyegyeong brings their son to Sun’s quarters and gives him instructions on how to congratulate his father for enduring so well and doing such an amazing job. San does, and in return Sun tells his son the same words in praise of Hyegyeong. It’s a really touching moment, to have both spouses showing appreciation for each other—albeit through a messenger, yes, but in the open before a courtyard of witnesses. It’s so gratifying to see how far they’ve come.
Bingae is among the court ladies who hears the exchange, and she looks… something, I can’t tell. (I’m not being snarky; her face doesn’t look pleased, but displeasure is also her resting face, so I’m confused.)
Kim Taek awaits his fate, but even knowing that he’s good and got doesn’t prepare him for the criminal treatment, and he snaps at the guards for calling him one. He barks that he’s the man who put the king on the throne, but that does him no good now and he’s taken away in ropes.
He is brought before Yeongjo, who thinks back to the attempt on his own life that put him at Kim Taek’s mercy all those years ago. Asked to explain his actions, Kim Taek answers that his are the same as the king’s—Sun has not forgotten the old crimes, and is a danger to them. Kim’s method, therefore, was to strike first before being struck down.
Yeongjo chuckles and informs him, “The only one who can cut him down is me. And I am the only one who can make him ruler, or dethrone him.”
Kim Taek warns that Yeongjo will miss him when he’s facing greater peril (against Sun)—and that because he is his father, it’ll hurt him to strike down his son with his own hand. Yeongjo replies that that won’t happen, because he will teach Sun and steer him away from being his political enemy. Aw, now who’s the one sounding naive?
It’s time for judgment, and Yeongjo calls for Kim Taek’s execution. Taking up the sword, he then hands it to son, instructing him to kill the traitor with his own hands and thus protect the royalty: “This is how you protect power.”
For a second it looks like Sun might shrink back, and his father asks if Sun wants him to do it for him. But Sun steps forward to do it, and unsheathes the sword before Kim Taek. He looks both determined and maybe a little sick, but he can’t shrink back now.
He raises the sword, Kim Taek prepares for death, and the entire courtyard flinches and shuts their eyes as the sword swings downward. Slice!
It takes everybody a moment to realize that Kim Taek is still alive, and that the only things cut were his ropes. Sun tells him that he won’t claim his life, and will punish him by stripping him of the post and sending him out of the city.
Rather than gratitude, Kim Taek thunders at Sun for pitying him, insisting that he won’t take it and shouting at him to take his life already.
Sun replies, “That is your method. I have a method of my own.”
Kim can’t understand how Sun could leave him to live—isn’t he afraid that Kim will strike back? You can see his brain nearly melt down when Sun tells him to go ahead and try—because he will just continue to use his methods to stop Kim. (And this, folks, is what we call killing with kindness.)
Yeongjo is equally flabbergasted and asks if Sun really thinks he’s doing a good thing. Sun answers once more about his methods: “It is not a politics of killing, but a politics of saving. This is how I will make my re-entry politics.”
Phew, and for a few reasons. First off, Episode 15 was such a roaring bore that I was afraid that the show was taking a bad fork in the road, because on top of not caring about political gifts and diplomatic negotiations, the drama took us away from Yeongjo, Hyegyeong, and Bingae. And in favor of Kim Taek and some day players? In what universe is that the compelling dramatic choice?
There will always be moments of necessary exposition and setup through any drama’s run, so that alone isn’t the issue. It’s just that Secret Door is a show about Sun and Yeongjo and their psychological interplay, and the political machinations were fascinating (if dry) when they were serving that dynamic. Okay, the plots of Episodes 15 and 16 were ultimately driven by Yeongjo at the top, but he’d outsourced his manipulations to an evil mastermind, and that’s when I outsource my ability to care.
The curious thing about this drama is that I have consistently found it intellectually engaging and well-planned. Politics aren’t usually that enthralling for me in any case, but this drama employs them in an intelligent and thought-out way. It’s just… you know, chess is also a stimulating mind game but one I would never want to watch unfold. And if we can see Secret Door as a brilliantly played chess game, then it’s also one whose ending we already know!
At this point it sort of feels like we’re hanging in there to see the ending more than we are to enjoy the process of arriving there, because Sado’s death is the entire selling point of this show, isn’t it? It’s what sold the idea, and it’s what captured our imaginations, and it’s what we’re moving towards. I love everything the show does to hint at that future—but it doesn’t do that nearly often enough.
Add to that characters who are fascinating and gripping, like Yeongjo and Hyegyeong, who get maybe five minutes of collective screen time per episode. I find myself waiting just for those moments, drinking them up when they arrive, and then am sad when they’re over. Even Bingae, who is a character I really could do without, is at least narratively interesting when she’s onscreen with Sun. But then all she does is look inscrutable, and that doesn’t help when I’m already reaching to find goodwill toward her.
(I think Yoon So-hee is doing a good job in being this new character, but my beef is that she just doesn’t feel like Ji-dam at all. I know she had big life traumas and a character turnaround is the point, but added to the actress swap, I cannot for the life of me connect to this new version of Ji-dam/Bingae. In fact, I’ve been marveling at Lee Je-hoon’s acting with her, because he acts with Bingae like she’s the same person as Ji-dam, and it’s honestly kind of fucking with my mind. Because he believes it, and he’s believable, and yet I can’t believe it.)
So as a result, girlfriday and I have decided to stop recapping this show, even though we really, really hate dropping recaps as a rule. We know there haven’t been many people watching but that isn’t much of a factor in this decision; we’d keep going no matter who was (or wasn’t) watching if we were gung-ho about the project and excited to pursue it. It hurts a little because we aren’t kicking this show to the curb or arguing that it sucks, and the acting remains top-notch. (Without the consistently excellent performances, we really would have bailed sooner; they’re the lifeblood of the show.) It’s just that we’re trying to do what’s best for us and our schedules/interests, and it feels like we need to make the strategic cut here. We do intend to keep watching—there’s that ending!—and will probably weigh in on the finale, so we hope you’ll understand our decision.
- Secret Door: Episode 15
- Secret Door: Episode 14
- Secret Door: Episode 13
- Secret Door: Episode 12
- Secret Door: Episode 11
- Secret Door: Episode 10
- Secret Door: Episode 9
- Secret Door: Episode 8
- Secret Door: Episode 7
- Secret Door: Episode 6
- Secret Door: Episode 5
- Secret Door: Episode 4
- Secret Door: Episode 3
- Secret Door: Episode 2
- Secret Door: Episode 1