It’s an intense first episode, with not a moment wasted—this is an hour jam-packed with action, plot, and emotion. My biggest worry heading into Scholar Who Walks the Night was that it would be a cheesy kind of vampire-fantasy, because vamps (and monsters and ghouls) are tricky that way: Well-handled, they can be the stuff of epic fantasy, but one wrong move (or a bad acting performance, or bad CG effects) could render the same material embarrassing and cringe-worthy.
So how did Scholar fare? I think remarkably well—I won’t deny that there is a lot of acting in this, and by that I mean Big, Emotional Acting, but in the hands of Lee Jun-ki and this director (PD Lee Sung-joon), it works with the story rather than against it. I was caught up in the emotions, twisted up by the conflict, and gripped by the hero’s plight. Fingers crossed that it continues.
SONG OF THE DAY
Horan – “Favorite Nightmare” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A dark night at the palace. A young man narrates the “frightful legend” passed down by the court ladies, which unfolds onscreen as he describes it: On the night of the full moon, on the night the king is to spend with his concubine, “He” appears.
A sinister cloaked man heads toward the concubine’s quarters, his eyes gleaming red. The king’s entourage makes its way to the building, but the intruder gets there first and enters her room. She’s no match for him as he attacks, drinking her blood just in time for the king to see her die.
It’s just a novel plot (or is it?), told from one friend to another as they browse the shelves of a bookshop. Prince JEONGHYEON (Lee Hyun-woo) is quite proud of his story, written under a pen name, but his scholar friend KIM SUNG-YEOL (Lee Jun-ki) teases him about it being nonsense.
The prince suggests a race where the winner is granted a wish, but as he heads off, Sung-yeol notices a strange figure slipping out of view. Then they’re chased by armed riders, and Sung-yeol stops to face off with them, showing off some impressive swordfighting skills despite being outnumbered four to one.
Prince Jeonghyeon turns back and interrupts the fray, ordering everyone to stand down. He recognizes that the attackers are palace soldiers, and deduces that he’s being followed. He asks who made the order.
An older man steps up to declare that it was the king himself. He wants the prince, who has been traveling incognito for the past three days, to return to the palace. He also rebukes Sung-yeol for helping him, but the prince puts on his most thunderous look and gets the man to back down.
The friends finish their race (Sung-yeol wins the bet and the favor), and Prince Jeonghyeon says that he’s thinking to make his next novel a love story. He takes great pleasure in teasing Sung-yeol about how the main character will be a literary scholar like him, setting the stage with a rainy encounter between a man and woman, longtime lovers who spent years apart who are now on the cusp of marriage.
Clearly he’s talking about Sung-yeol, who starts to say defensively that it was only because he had to get out of the rain, and absolutely nothing happened. But finally he concedes to what the prince has been angling for all along—he’ll read and review his book.
The prince lights up in pleasure, and as they return to the palace, he tells Sung-yeol to go ahead and see his sweetheart, Lady Myung-hee.
Myung-hee (Kim So-eun) is currently dealing with an upset pair of guardians, whom she calls Mother and Father; they’ve raised her as an adopted child since her parents died. Mother is bitter at the thought of her daughter becoming a daughter-in-law—because ah, these are Sung-yeol’s parents. Well, you can understand the awkwardness there.
Still, they’ve consented to the couple’s marriage, and when Sung-yeol comes home, the young lovers trade sweet smiles. Mother complains about the stray cat that keeps coming into the yard, and Sung-yeol hurriedly says he’ll handle that. Ha, are you the stray cat?
Outside Myung-hee’s quarters, she finds flowers on the ground and follows their path to where Sung-yeol meows at her from the wall. She warns that the “cat” with bad habits will be shooed away, and Sung-yeol asks suggestively just how bad those habits are. He presents her with a bouquet of flowers, then swoops around to hold and kiss her, asking if that’s what she means.
Myung-hee replies that the cat is worse than that, slipping into her room at night when her wedding is approaching. Sung-yeol is not at all repentant, just exclaiming loudly that he loves her.
At the palace, the mood is much grimmer. The king and Prince Jeonghyeon sit beside the bed of a white-faced concubine sporting two puncture marks in her neck. Dead. Hm, so his novel wasn’t fiction? The king tells Jeonghyeon somberly that he’s out of strength to hang on, and that “He” chose Jeonghyeon, who’ll be the next king.
Sung-yeol reads the prince’s novel that night, illustrated with macabre drawings. What he laughed at earlier in the day now has him looking worried.
“He” returns to the palace that night—he’s called simply GWI (Lee Soo-hyuk), and he hums to himself as he takes a leisurely seat on the king’s throne. Guards burst in to challenge him, but Gwi drawls at them to run while they can.
Jeonghyeon directs the burning of the concubine’s coffin in secret, just as Sung-yeol arrives unexpectedly. He’s guessed most of the story, having read the novel and seen the corpse being smuggled out of the palace bearing wounds in her neck.
Sung-yeol asks the prince to tell him why he’s been scouring bookshops looking for vampire books, and why he’s burning the corpse’s body. Jeonghyeon lies about just wanting to research vampires for his novel, but his tormented appearance is unconvincing.
He offers to tell Sung-yeol the truth after his wedding in a few days, but Sung-yeol presses for the answer now, calling in that favor he won earlier. Why did the prince write this book? Does a bloodsucking monster live in the palace?
The prince doesn’t answer.
The next day, Sung-yeol accompanies the prince as they walk through the forest, and senses an ominous presence. A flash of black zooms by, and Sung-yeol draws his sword to face off against the attacker—but every time he strikes, the sword just goes through the black blur. The man in black flies through the air, darting around tauntingly, and Sung-yeol thinks that there’s no way he could be human.
Sung-yeol closes his eyes, sharpens his senses, and when Man in Black flies at him again, he strikes swiftly. He gets a piece of him this time, but to his horror, the slash in the man’s cheek heals before his eyes. “He’s not human!” Sung-yeol thinks. “Is that what it looks like?” Man in Black asks aloud.
Sung-yeol turns back to collect the prince, urging escape. They run as fast as they can away from the attacker… who appears right in their path from the other side. Sung-yeol instructs the prince to escape first while he holds him off, urging him to be safe.
But then, Prince Jeonghyun shocks him by saying that this man will help him, and asks Sung-yeol to stand down.
In a dark cavern, royal soldiers hang upside-down from the ceiling, dripping their blood into a bowl. Gwi sits on a throne of his own, attended by a eunuch, and drinks from the bowl. Before him stands a scared king, whom Gwi warns that the prince will be his next meal, because it appears Jeonghyeon has no intention of serving him.
The king pleads for more time, saying that the prince will come around, but Gwi reminds the king that it was his ancestor who came to him 200 years ago as the Goryeo dynasty was coming to an end. That king had asked for Gwi’s help in founding a new nation, and promised that his descendants would forever serve Gwi in repayment.
“I made this nation!” Gwi thunders. All those who refuse to serve him will die.
Prince Jeonghyeon and Sung-yeol sit down with the man in black, named Hae-seo, who explains that Gwi is behind the recent concubine deaths. This is something he does periodically when a successor to the throne has yet to be named; in order to assert his demands for obedience, he kills the king’s women before the king’s eyes.
Hae-seo is a vampire too, but not of the same variety as Gwi; he’s a guardian spirit who punishes those who break the rules. But as it was humans who called Gwi forth, Gwi cannot be put away without human cooperation. Thus Hae-seo could do nothing while the king was serving Gwi.
The prince explains that Hae-seo has been working on a secret plan for the past 200 years to defeat Gwi. Hae-seo tells them of the lunar eclipse that will weaken Gwi’s powers in two days, and tells them to return then to enact the plan.
As they head back, Prince Jeonghyeon says with heavy heart that he’s upset to have dumped this on Sung-yeol mere days before his wedding. But Sung-yeol merely repeats the prince’s own words back at him, from when he was nine: “Sung-yeol-ah, I want to create a world of hope for people. Will you do it with me?” Those words have never left him.
Jeonghyeon says that he wrote down the plan to defeat Gwi in his private diary, and that if something should happen to him, Sung-yeol will receive the book and must carry on the mission. Sung-yeol vows fiercely, “That will never happen. I will put my life on the line and protect you, no matter what.”
But as they move away, there Gwi stands, listening in on the conversation.
Gwi goes to vampire hunter Hae-seo next, ripping off an arm before recognizing, with some shock, his old teacher. He thought he’d killed Hae-soo 200 years ago, and is unmoved by his old teacher’s warning to come away with him, because the human realm isn’t for him. Neither are humans as weak as he thinks.
But no, Gwi fully intends to live in the human world, and pulls out his teacher’s special dagger, used to kill countless vampires. He stabs his teacher with it, right in the heart.
Sung-yeol slips into Myung-hee’s room again that night, watching her sleep for a while until she wakes. She notices that he seems heavy-hearted, and Sung-yeol worries that he may not be able to manage his mission for the prince. Myung-hee sweetly tells him to have faith in himself, since he has never failed at something he set out to do. He’s encouraged at her show of faith.
The prince reads alone that night, and Gwi comes upon him suddenly and flings him across the room. Gwi picks up the prince’s book and asks what the names have to do with the plan to eliminate him. When the prince vows to tell him nothing, Gwi all but shrugs, figuring he’ll just kill them all then. He orders his eunuch to start by finding the prince’s friend.
The next day, Sung-yeol overhears that eunuch giving the order to round up those men—as supposed traitors. Sung-yeol races off on his horse in a hurry, and arrives at Hae-seo’s that night. An invisible force grabs him by the ankle, dragging him inside the hut, where he finds a badly injured Hae-seo.
The vampire hunter gasps at Sung-yeol to come closer, and when he does, his fangs grow long and he seizes upon his neck, drinking his blood.
Sung-yeol manages to fight him off, but Hae-seo says with his dying breath that this is the only thing he can do for him—that he’s conferred some of his powers to Sung-yeol, who is the only one who can challenge Gwi now. He mumbles that black clothing will protect him from the light.
Sung-yeol starts to convulse uncontrollably, his body undergoing a change from within, until his eyes flash red. He passes out.
In the morning, Sung-yeol jolts awake painfully as he hears Myung-hee’s voice calling out to him. But she’s not here, and he looks around in horror at his surroundings—there’s a severed arm in the room and a pile of ashes where Hae-seo was lying last night.
He reaches out, but the sunbeam causes his hand to start smoking. He jerks back his arm in pain and tries to collect himself.
Sung-yeol puts his normal clothing on over the black layer and staggers painfully home, his vision blurry and red-tinged. People hurry out of his path in fear, and he hears that three days have passed since he was knocked out.
But worst of all is the news that Prince Jeonghyeon has been accused of conspiracy. Sung-yeol comes to the town square where a crowd has gathered and takes in the gallows, with severed heads mounted on pikes. Above them hang banners announcing their names and crimes.
But the prince isn’t the only one he’s lost: Sung-yeol reads his father’s name in horror and rages wildly. Guards hold him back but he shoves them aside with superhuman strength, howling in grief as his fangs start to grow. He collapses.
When he awakens, he’s prisoner in Gwi’s cave, bound by ropes. He sees children’s bodies littering the ground—royals.
Gwi comes up and examines his neck wound, wondering how it is Sung-yeol survived being bitten. He holds up the little prince’s body and says he must crave his blood. Sung-yeol realizes this must be Gwi and vows to tear him apart with his bare hands.
Gwi is astonished that Sung-yeol rejects blood, and wonders suspiciously if Hae-seo was the one to turn him. Even when Sung-yeol spits in his face, Gwi decides he quite likes Sung-yeol—he’s better than all those weak, puny humans he’s surrounded himself with. If Sung-yeol joins him, Gwi offers to make him king and give him everything.
Sung-yeol says scathingly that Gwi can’t face the sun openly and feeds off people’s blood, and that people may have served him out of necessity but were waiting for the chance to eliminate him. Angrily, Gwi grabs his throat and insists that nothing can destroy him—he’s eliminated all challengers, including the precious prince.
Sung-yeol fires back that it’s not over, and one day the world will be rid of Gwi. Humans will make sure of it. That enrages Gwi, who shoves him aside, knocking him out again.
Myung-hee’s voice wakes him again, but this time she’s here—Gwi has her, knife to throat, and asks, “How does it feel, watching your sweetheart turning into a bloodsucking monster?” He slashes Myung-hee’s arm, then stabs Sung-yeol in the gut.
They both fall, and Gwi addresses Sung-yeol: If he doesn’t drink her blood, he’ll die. He sneers that she won’t give up her life to save a man who’d become a monster, because people are weak. But to his shock, Myung-hee runs herself into the dagger, and Sung-yeol musters his strength to go to her, throwing Gwi against the wall in a burst of energy. The force causes a boulder to land on top of Gwi.
Sung-yeol cradles a dying Myung-hee, who tells him it’s not his fault. She urges him to drink her blood, begging, “You must live. Live, and accomplish your mission.” Crying, she tells him, “I love you.”
The scene fades into a happier one—it’s that rainy day the prince had teased him about. Sung-yeol asks why Myung-hee never says the words “I love you,” and she replies that the words aren’t sufficient to the feelings. She kisses him bashfully, and he kisses her back.
Now she repeats, “I love you.” With a sob, he bites into her neck and drinks her blood, clutching her close until she goes limp in his arms.
Then, we zoom forward 120 years.
The marketplace is bustling, and a young bookseller skips through the streets, saying hello to all the merchants. We know this is a young woman—she’s JO YANG-SUN (Lee Yubi)—but she’s masquerading as a young man, and the villagers are none the wiser.
Yang-sun crows to her hyungnim about finally receiving a message from the scholar she’s been dangling after for ages—they want the noted book-lover as a regular client—and a competitor whines about her monopolizing the customer base.
Yang-sun heads over to a rowdy gibang that night to meet the scholar, arriving outside the door just in time to hear the man inside urging a gisaeng to lift her skirt just a little more. She announces herself loudly and opens the door on a half-dressed young man sketching a half-dressed gisaeng. (We should recognize that he’s Changmin, but for now he’s left unintroduced.)
She’s told she has the wrong room, and Yang-sun excuses herself, saying she knew the scholar wouldn’t be engaged in such activities.
She finds a man waiting outside for her, and as he leads her to the right room, she asks if the rumors are true of the scholar’s interest in royal books; he’s been buying up books left and right. As she’s ushered into the room, she sees a glimpse of the scholar’s face, though it’s mostly covered by a fan, and then a privacy screen is lowered between them.
He’s Sung-yeol, and he asks if it’s true she can locate any book. He asks for Prince Jeonghyeon’s private diary, but she’s unfamiliar with that name. Just then, the injured rodent she’s been keeping in her sleeve escapes and darts under Sung-yeol’s desk. Yang-sun sees it climbing up his leg and accosts him, fumbling all over his body while he sits there stone-faced.
She manages to grab it, then looks up at Sung-yeol’s face. “It’s more beautiful than a woman’s face,” she marvels, staring openly. She laughs that her rodent must like him more than her, and then Sung-yeol realizes that his face is uncovered and throws up an arm to hide it. Confused, Yang-sun imitates his pose, wondering if she smells.
Then she winces in pain—the rodent has bitten her, and a drop of blood oozes from her finger. Sung-yeol’s eyes widen and he fights down his reaction as his fangs start to grow and his eyes turn red.
God, I love Lee Jun-ki. He’s just such a fireball of emotional commitment, which I admire no matter what the project, even when that commitment sometimes bleeds into excess. But he’s always willing to go there for a character, and when you manage that kind of performance smartly, you can wind up with something really very special—it’s intense and moving, and when the actor is that engaged with his role, as a viewer it’s that much more believable to go there with him. And certainly that helps when the “there” in question can sound kinda out there and ridiculous on paper.
I thought the first episode was perfectly paced, keeping us in the “past” timeline long enough to feel things for everyone but moving along so that we could also get a taste of the present-day storyline. I have to admit I’m still emotionally with the past and maybe another episode wouldn’t have hurt, but on the other hand that might have made it really hard to move on since I already really loved those characters and maybe it’s best we don’t get overly attached. The kind of friendship we see betwee Sung-yeol and Prince Jeonghyeon always gets me, and I’ll always cry for the tragic loss of a heartwarming bromance. I didn’t expect to like Myung-hee so much either, given that she was such a fleeting presence, but I suppose that’s why you’re smart and cast someone like Kim So-eun, who makes innocence and sweetness endearing (rather than boring).
For being so straightforward, I find Gwi an interesting villain in that there’s a backstory there, and he’s not just an evil dude who likes to perpetrate evil because it’s his nature. His motivations seem, oddly enough, pretty human (or relatable to human ones)—he wants to wield power and feels contempt for the weak, and despite his insistence on being unbeatable, the fact that he’s so keen to wipe out threats suggests to me that he does feel an underlying vulnerability. Plus, it’s a compelling tidbit to add that the humans brought him about in the first place, which weaves in a whole other thread of responsibility/culpability.
Above all, I knew I was hooked when, as I was watching, I wanted to cry, “Nooooo, stop! You can’t make him a vampire!” I so badly wanted Sung-yeol to have a different story than the one I knew would be the case from Day 1—it’s right there in the title, practically!—but I was half-wishing he could somehow avoid that vampire fate and save his loved ones and beat Gwi, all in the first hour. I kind of hate that he’s doomed to be a vampire, even though that’s totally the appeal of the character. In this world you don’t see vamps as sexy, glamorous alterna-humans who can enjoy perfectly full lives with just a little side condition that causes a few inconveniences.
Instead, I feel the wrench of what this means for him, and to know that he was made one in order to defeat the world’s greatest evil makes the sacrifice a little extra keen. It doesn’t get more epic than that, right?
- From the press conference for Scholar Who Walks the Night
- Lee Jun-ki the scholar walks nights, breaks hearts
- Character stills for Scholar Who Walks the Night
- Red-eyed and book-hunting Scholar Who Walks the Night
- The bloodlust is awakened in Scholar Who Walks the Night
- Lee Hyun-woo sets the stage for Lee Jun-ki’s vampire transformation
- Characters in costume for Scholar Who Walks the Night
- Scholar Who Walks the Night sends both leads to the hospital
- First script read for Scholar Who Walks the Night