Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People: Episode 21
The king reveals his many faces, which paint him as a more erratic and vicious character than the king we previously knew. Though his tragic longing for his mother has evoked sympathy from his loyal followers, his tyrannical tendencies begin to shift sympathies towards our suffering bandits. The Hong Bandit has already managed to steal the people’s hearts, and Yeonsangun better watch out, because Gil-dong is slowly beginning to capture the hearts of those closest to the royal as well.
EPISODE 21 RECAP
We’re reminded of the legend of the Mighty Child, a being rumored to become a great force in the nation if he survives to adulthood. The king overhears conversations in the village about the Hong Bandit possibly being the Mighty Child and walks away disturbed by their adoration of the bandit over the king.
Back in the palace, Yeonsangun asks his trusted advisor Eunuch Kim about the strange tales he gathered from roaming outside the palace walls. He used to tell the king about strange creatures, including the Mighty Child. Eunuch Kim assures the king that these are simply myths that the village people made up, but the king wonders about the origin of the Mighty Child legend and why the citizens believe the Hong Bandit is this absurd legend. He seems to suspect that this myth is true.
Going along with the agreed upon plan, Gil-hyun nervously presents a captured bandit, who introduces himself to the king as Hong Gil-dong. The king walks down to get a better look at the infamous bandit and comments on his rumored strength. Up close, he feels a sense of familiarity, and Gil-dong confirms this. He reveals his other identities — a merchant, the servant “Footstool,” the Hong Bandit — and also adds that he is one of the king’s subjects. He announces that he has brought something for the king.
To milk the cliffhanger, we briefly check in with Nok-soo waiting nervously with Wolhamae and our two Eorini palace maids. Back at the trial, Gil-hyun brings forth the item that Gil-dong brought for the king. The king suspiciously picks up the book: It’s a copy of the Hengrok.
The ministers looks through the copies of the Hengrok and object the horrible deeds committed under the name of social order. Gil-hyun tries to influence the ministers by claiming that Gil-dong did them a favor by punishing the horrible people of the Hengrok. Plus, they can’t discount the bandit’s service in defeating the barbarians. The elderly minister agrees.
As Gil-dong is dragged to his cell, he sees his captured hyungnims and promises to get them out. Later, Gil-hyun visits Gil-dong at his cell and delivers the good news about the ministers’ outrage over the Hengrok. But even though the ministers are positively viewing the bandits, it’s possible for Gil-dong to be subject to punishment for fooling the king as “Footstool.” Gil-dong knows this but decides to trust the king to do what’s right, and if that means that he’ll be imprisoned, then so be it. But if the king doesn’t deliver justice, then Gil-dong will not consider the king his king.
He trusts the king that Gil-hyun loyally serves. Taking his brother’s hand, Gil-dong tears up as he says that their father would have been proud.
Gil-hyun reports to the king about the ministers’ praise of the bandits’ defeat of the barbarians and adds that these bandits have also loyally contributed to the palace treasury and storehouse. The king glances at Eunuch Kim, whose silence confirms these contributions. Gil-hyun suggests that the king punish Gil-dong by handing him a sword so that he might die in battle.
The king meets with Gil-dong privately and asks why he risked his life to get here. Gil-dong explains that he was a merchant, then a gangster, then a thief. As a lowly gangster, he needed to risk his life in order to meet the king at the highest and brightest position. He tells the king of the injustices the people face — people getting their heels cut off out of pride, getting beaten to death, being forced to abandon crops. Giving the king the benefit of the doubt, he asks if the king could not see these people in their low dark place because of his high and bright place.
The next day, the king scrutinizes the Hengrok text and seems exasperated by the injustices. Gil-hyun reports the king’s actions to Gil-dong, and they seem hopeful that the king is indeed a just and good ruler.
Yeonsangun meets with Scholar Song and scolds him for creating the Hengrok. Scholar Song presumed that the king would be happy with a record of the brave actions to preserve social order, but the king clucks his tongue at Song. He wanted for Scholar Song provide the elite with lessons of social order rather than allow them to release their anger. Wait, the king approves of the social hierarchy and order? We focus back on the authors of the text (the two “mok” characters), and one reveals itself to be a code for Lee Yung, which is Yeonsangun’s birth name.
The king shows benevolence for Scholar Song’s Hengrok, since it inadvertently helped capture the bandit. Scholar Song collects the Hengrok and smiles proudly.
Gil-hyun meets with Scholar Song, who beams with pride about Gil-hyun’s contributions in capturing the enemy. Scholar Song presents Gil-hyun with a well-deserved copy of the Hengrok and encourages him to record his accomplishments. He says that Gil-hyun achieved a great feat for them, for the Sugwidan, and for the king by capturing Gil-dong, and Gil-hyun silently realizes that he’s in the presence of his enemy.
Even though it’s against the king’s wishes, Scholar Song plans to continue the Hengrok, which is his greatest accomplishment. He hopes to leave a record for the future, so that people of later generations will reference the record as a guiding text.
Nok-soo grounds the ink stone next to the king and asks him about the bandit, masking her worry in her light tone. He tells her that he’s going to kill the bandit, since the lowly thief overstepped his social boundaries by showing worry for the nation and its people. Nok-soo nervously agrees with the king and suggests an alternative to killing the bandit, hoping to save Gil-dong’s life. She suggests that the king take his strength and insists that it will be amusing, like watching a pathetic tiger without its claws.
The king confronts Eunuch Kim about the alcohol sales during prohibition that supported the palace treasury and implicitly accuses Eunuch Kim for dealing with the bandit. The king uses this leverage to order Eunuch Kim to punish Gil-dong with his own hands.
Under this order, Eunuch Kim visits Gil-dong with a suspicious soup. He delivers the soup, which Gil-dong readily takes and eats right away. As he eats, Eunuch Kim admits that while the king is his only family, he’s always liked Gil-dong. Gil-dong finds his compliments uncharacteristic, and suddenly, his hand begins to shake. He realizes that he’s been fed something terrible and looks to Eunuch Kim, who cries and apologizes. Gil-dong drops the bowl and falls limp.
The king summons Choongwongoon, who’s accompanied by Mori. While Choongwongoon thanks the king endlessly, the king is more focused on Mori. He’s been told about Mori’s strength and asks him to prove it by breaking stone with his bare hands. Mori slams his hand on the stone, but nothing happens. The king is disappointed and doesn’t care for excuses, but Mori tries again with an echoing yell and crushes the stone. The king looks shocked and pleased.
Limp Gil-dong is dragged into another cell, and the king enjoys a stroll with Nok-soo to view the weakened bandit. He says that she was right about the satisfaction in debilitating the bandit instead of killing him, but Nok-soo pays no attention to the king. She looks at Gil-dong with shock, her eyes filled with tears. Gil-dong sees a blurry version of Nok-soo with his drowsy eyes, and he barely mouths her name upon recognition.
The king and Nok-soo settle into their seats, and Choongwongoon gives Mori a pep talk in preparation for his fight. Gil-dong sits in his cell, and he thinks back to his sweet interaction with Ga-ryung. He had picked a strawberry for her by throwing a rock, and she insisted on sharing it with a kiss. In his haze, Gil-dong weakly calls out for Ga-ryung. Eunuch Kim enters his cell and tells Gil-dong that the king will let him live if he survives the fight, so he must win.
The crowd gathers around a stadium, and Gil-dong is dragged out as bait. Gil-hyun looks shocked and asks the king about the hunting viewing that they were summoned to watch. The king laughs and confirms that they’re watching a human hunting. Oh shit, it’s a gladiator fight.
The first hunter comes out swinging a bat, and Gil-dong comes to his senses just in time to avoid the blows and defeat the heavy hitter. The next round of hunters are more nimble fighters, and though they get in some quick jabs, Gil-dong is able to conjure up enough strength to knock them down. The crowd cheers, but the king looks disappointed and calls upon the final hunter.
Mori enters the stadium, and the two Mighty Children face each other. The king calls for the bandits to enter the stadium, and he asks the Hong clan bandits if their loyalty lies with him, or with Gil-dong. They don’t answer, and the king smirks that their allegiance will be clear by the end of the fight. He announces that if Gil-dong wins the fight, the Hong bandits will be slaughtered, but if Gil-dong loses, the bandits will be saved. The Hong bandits yell at Gil-dong that he must win, and Gil-dong seethes, “I must live. I want to live.”
Then the fight begins, and at first the two seem evenly matched, making the king wonder how Gil-dong is still so vigorous. Somehow, Gil-dong gathers his strength and land a forceful kick on Mori’s chest that sends him flying. Gil-dong gets up and tells Mori that he has no reason to fight him, but Mori responds that this is why he hates Gil-dong. Mori takes out his knife and inflicts a cut on Gil-dong’s arm. That’s when one of the eunuchs assures the king that Gil-dong will soon be defeated, since any wound will significantly weaken the bandit.
Mori throws Gil-dong and approaches him with his knife. He grabs Gil-dong and thrusts his arm, ready to deliver the fatal slice. Around them, the crowd yells for Mori to kill Gil-dong, but he suddenly remembers when Gil-dong saved him after killing Heotaehak. Mori decides to drop his knife and kneels in front of the king.
The king is about to erupt in rage, but Nok-soo holds him back. She assures him that the people have witnessed the king’s power, so he doesn’t need to kill Gil-dong. Gil-hyun also advises the king against killing Gil-dong, so the king announces that Gil-dong’s broken body will be showcased in front of the palace and that Mori will be imprisoned for disobedience.
The Hong bandits are brought back into their cell and sit in solemn silence. Then Deputy Governor Eom begins to laugh and admits that he was worried for his life in case Gil-dong won the fight. He scolds himself for wishing for Gil-dong’s death, slapping himself in the face. The rest of the bandits sit in silence, sharing the regretful sentiment.
Gil-dong is tied up in front of the palace, and the villagers comment on his broken body. They mourn that the Hong Bandit is not a Mighty Child and that such thing as a Mighty Child must not exist. At the stake, Gil-dong thinks about his fate as told by the shaman and laughs as he remembers her warning that he would break from living with menace.
Disturbed by the king’s atrocious actions, the ministers gather to decide their course of action. Though they are not always in agreement, they concur that they must check the king for his unacceptable human hunt and for the meager poor state of the nation. Overhearing this conversation, Gil-hyun looks hopeful.
At the king’s court, the ministers decry the king’s call for a human hunt and add that their meager storages reflect poorly on the king’s rule. They ask him to halt his hunting endeavors and focus his efforts on state affairs. The king responds that he finds nothing wrong in hunting for a thief, and he accuses the ministers for scorning him. He proposes that they subject the scornful minister to royal interrogation, but he’s met with a cold response.
The ministers tell the king that he must benevolently accept their criticism. The elderly minister implores the king to accept the ministers’ advice and wisdom instead of looking to the palace maids, troupes, and outsiders to guide his decisions.
Scholar Song hears about the ministers’ complaints and finds offense in being called an outsider. But he enjoys the fact that the ministers have finally revealed their true faces. He vows to show the ministers the power of an outsider.
Gil-dong remains tied to the stake, barely alive, and the villagers cry at the sight of their suffering hero. The father Kim Deok-hyung tries to bring water to Gil-dong (calling him “Great Elder”), but the guards drag him away for this offense. Rumor of the captured Hong Bandit spreads through the village, and Ga-ryung stops a man to clarify this rumor. He confirms that the Hong Bandit is tied at the stake in front of the palace, and Ga-ryung rushes home to urgently pack her things, mumbling to herself that she must save her husband.
Back at the palace, Wolhamae orders our two Eorini palace maids to check if the Hong Bandit is still alive. The ambitious Eorini asks why Nok-soo is so interested in a thief, and Nok-soo snaps back he order. The girls check on the Hong Bandit outside, and they presume that his unmoving body indicates that he’s dead. But then he lifts his head, confirming that he’s alive. The ambitious Eorini looks carefully at Gil-dong’s face, feeding into our who’s-who mystery.
Scholar Song introduces Madam Jo to the king and explains that she holds the memory of a letter written by the dethroned queen before her death. She recites: “I was once a person that received the king’s energy and became the prince’s mother. But a concubine’s slander incited caprice from the heavens with no one to acknowledge this wrong. With those left in the palace suffering an unnatural death, who will protect the prince? I will stand up to protect the price against the immoral groups who threaten him. The crown prince must take the throne and protect the nation, so I will find those who seek to hurt the prince and throw them in the flames of hell. When the crown prince takes the throne, those who derided the prince and the queen will receive severe punishment. So I call upon you all for help…”
In tears, the king stops Madam Jo and suspects that she must be lying to him, since she is reciting the letter without its physical form. Madam Jo insists that she’s telling the truth — that her late husband supported the dethroned queen and that the queen did write this letter. She claims that the queen ended her letter with her signature as Baek-dol’s mother, Lady Yoon. The king seems to recognize this.
Outside the palace, the ambitious Eorini brings water to Gil-dong. Doe-eyed Eorini asks her friend why she gave him water, and she says that it’s pitiful to die thirsty without a sip of water. They head back to the palace, and Gil-dong slowly lifts his heavy eyelids to watch the two palace maids walk away. They each turn back consecutively to glance at Gil-dong, and his mind flashes back to the moment he lost his sister.
Back at the palace, the king cries in recognition of his mother’s signature. He says that Baek-dol was the fetal name that his mother gave him.
Plot twist, the king was actually our enemy! But more specifically, he’s clever and evil enough to be the enemy. I’m a bit amazed at the show for keeping me sympathetic toward one of the most violet and tyrannical kings in history, and while I did enjoy the humanity that the show gave Yeonsangun, I am ready to watch some real antagonism unfold from the king. We were given hints here and there about Yeonsangun’s potential for evil, so I don’t find the antagonism extremely surprising. But the show has kept the king’s instigation pretty implicit, which does make the sudden blatant antagonism feel like a character whiplash. It hasn’t been completely clear why he believes in strict social hierarchy and why he lacks empathy for his people.
The show keeps on circling back to his mother’s tragic death, which is often referenced as the cause of his indignation towards the ministers. But the connection between his indignation and his propensity for strict social order isn’t quite clear. I can assume that the king despises the ministers for elevating their status to teach him how to be king, but extending that to all people just seems like misplaced blame. I don’t find the king’s reason to oppress disobedient people really compelling, but it does invoke vigilante justice.
I found the gladiator scene particularly intriguing, not for the fights and tension between the two Mighty Children, but more for the political tension surrounding the king. Having Nok-soo and Gil-hyun as the king’s most trusted and closest advisors was key to Gil-dong’s survival, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much more influence these two will have while roaming in the belly of the beast.
As much as I hate to see Gil-dong suffering, I’m enjoying Gil-dong’s attempt at his version of vigilante justice, since we’re finally learning more about his thoughts and idealism. We’re learning more about the rationale for his actions, which — like with Yeonsangun — has remained pretty opaque throughout the show. The show is populated with so many fun and great characters that I think we may have lost a lot of the character development time to side stories and simple joys provided by the show. Not that I’m particularly against this, since we’ve been blessed with funny and adorable interactions between our characters. Enjoy the sweet memories while they last, everyone. There’s only so many (so few?) left before our characters go off the deep end.
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