Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People: Episode 22
Oh man, these Rebel writers are bloodthirsty like you won’t believe. It’s all the gore I enjoy in Game of Thrones brought to me in K-drama format. Halfway through watching this episode, I was like, Do you know you’re on public television? And then I immediately thought, Please don’t realize it anytime soon, because the savage viewer in me is fascinated by all the violence. I know it’s horrible, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes from the screen.
EPISODE 22 RECAP
A broken and battered Gil-dong is strung up to a post in the public square outside the palace gates. Taking pity on him, one of the Eorini girls holds a gourd of water to his lips while her internal dialogue says that she thinks it’s the most pitiful thing in the world to see someone dying of thirst. The other Eorini girl looks on with huge eyes and hurries her friend to leave.
Meanwhile in the palace, Mistress Jo tells Yeonsangun about the letter that his mother, the deposed Queen Yun, had left behind to a select group of noblemen, including the late Master Jo. The queen had written about how she wanted to hold Yeonsangun in her arms again, and the king weeps openly when he hears this about his mother.
Scholar Song (who introduced Mistress Jo to Yeonsangun) takes this opportunity to implant the idea that Yeonsangun’s father, the former king, was not the major deciding factor who wanted his mother deposed. He tells the king that the ones who are really responsible are the noblemen who influenced the former king to take such actions, and Yeonsangun’s eyes grow dark with fury.
Back at home and satisfied with his progress with the king, Scholar Song talks to Gil-hyun about the next actions to come. He also remarks about the strange coincidence that Gil-dong’s father was the one who burned the deposed queen’s letter. Gil-hyun keeps silent about his father, although he now realizes what danger they’re all in.
When Ga-ryung finally reaches Gil-dong after hearing about what has been happening to him, the king arrives in a rage about Amogae. He tells Gil-dong, who can barely open his eyes to look up at him, that his father went against social order by killing his master, but the real reason that Yeonsangun is angry is because Amogae burned his mother’s letter. Taking a nearby soldier’s sword, Yeonsangun readies to kill Gil-dong, saying that he will purge Gil-dong’s inherited insolence against those who are his betters.
Just in time, Gil-hyun comes to beg the king to let him kill Gil-dong, giving the reason that it’s beneath Yeonsangun to personally execute a lowly thief. With tears in his eyes, Gil-hyun volunteers to kill his own brother and brings up the sword. Then, the king calms down from his rage and decides that a better way to kill Gil-dong is to let him suffer in thirst and hunger. He leaves.
Ga-ryung then approaches the post where Gil-dong has collapsed. She comes near him, and frantic with tears, she tries to pull at the ropes stringing him up. But she’s taken away by soldiers to a jail, along with all the other people who took pity on Gil-dong and tried to give him water.
During a private audience, Gil-hyun suggests to Yeonsangun that he put Gil-dong in a cell instead of keeping him in the public’s eye, because if he doesn’t die, the people might think that he’s the Mighty Child again. Thinking on this idea, Yeonsangun agrees, and soon, soldiers take down Gil-dong’s limp body from the public post and carry him on a stretcher. He’s so motionless that most of the people surmise that he’s dead, and when Ga-ryung is told that Hong Gil-dong has died, her world turns dark.
But of course, he’s still alive, although orders from the king prevent anyone from giving him food or water. So as soon as he hears that his brother has been moved, Gil-hyun rushes to the cell to see Gil-dong. Bribing the guard with a pouch full of coins, Gil-hyun asks the guard to look over his brother, pretending that it’s for a hidden purpose of the king’s.
In his throne room, Yeonsangun begins his second round of terror: He states that his human hunting did cross the line, but he asks whether his courtiers are also not crossing the line by not giving him the proper respect he’s due. He punishes the Minister of Protocol for spilling wine on his robes, citing that he has disrespected Yeonsangun and thus, he’s betrayed the nation by his actions. However, the nobles gossip that the real reason behind the Minister of Protocol’s imprisonment, torture, and beheading was that he was the one who delivered the official poison that killed Yeonsangun’s mother, the deposed queen.
They also have heard that Yeonsangun called two of his father’s favorite concubines recently, and we see the gruesome scene laid out. The former king’s concubines lay in bloody white bags that are still wriggling while Yeonsangun surveys his handiwork with a wooden staff in his hands. His retinue looks terrified as they promise that this will be kept under wraps, but Yeonsangun tells them not to worry—he wants this rumor to be spread widely so that his subjects understand how angry he is.
He brings in two of his half-brothers, the ones who are the sons of the two women in the bags, just barely breathing. He hands them wooden sticks and orders them to beat their own mothers to death. He threatens them by saying if they don’t kill these witches who slandered his mother, he will kill them himself.
Despite this incredible personal violence, Yeonsangun’s rage is not satisfied, and he goes on a rampant killing spree against all the officials who had any hand in his mother’s dethronement. He tells his court to find all the people who were complicit, orders executions to the nth degree of those families, and parades their severed heads throughout the country to show an example of how traitors will be treated.
All the nobles seem horrified, but Scholar Song is happy that the people who took him from power are being punished through the king’s purge. He gathers Choongwongoon, Jeong-hak, and Mistress Jo, and tells them that they must now prove their loyalty to the king.
Choongwongoon meets with Yeonsangun and offers him Mori, because he has the same powers as Gil-dong. But Yeonsangun says it’s unnecessary and instead makes Mori an official in his government. When Mori is freed from prison, Choongwongoon is waiting for him outside, but instead of giving him a welcome, the royal slaps him for going against his orders to kill Gil-dong. Mori confesses that he only did so because Gil-dong spared his life once, and he promises to serve Choongwongoon loyally from now on.
Mori’s official position is the head of the task force that evicts commoners in order to make room for the expansion of the king’s hunting grounds. Under his orders, people are beaten and children are orphaned, and all the while, Gil-dong rots in prison.
From time to time, Yeonsangun visits Gil-dong to gloat and engage in in some introspection—the king tells his prisoner that many people think that he’s this way because he lost his mother when he was young. But even before his mother’s death, he thought that violence was the best way to rule and impose order.
In a different cell, the Hong brothers are all imprisoned together and suffering, but when they hear a rumor that Gil-dong has awakened, they rejoice. Nok-soo also hears the rumor from the Eorini girls and rushes to see him. When Yeonsangun finally gets ahold of the news, Nok-soo is already there, watching Gil-dong’s staggered steps with horror.
Gleeful, Yeonsangun takes his bow and begins aiming it at Gil-dong, who has retained just enough of his reflexes to avoid the arrows. Yeonsangun laughs at this new amusement and says that instead of hunting tigers, he’ll take sport in hunting Gil-dong. Nok-soo clutches her mouth, trying to hold in her tears as she watches her current lover firing arrows at her one and only past love.
Afterward, Nok-soo visits Gil-dong’s cell by herself while he eats gruel with his hands. She wipes his mouth lovingly, and he calls her Gong-hwa, but she tells him that Gong-hwa died when he left. She promises to help him go free if he survives, but as she leaves, she tells him that they are now strangers.
Yeonsangun gets the idea in his head to show Gil-dong’s mangled state to the Hong brothers in order to add an emotional element to the physical misery he already is enduring. The next day, the Hong band are laboring in the fields when a new face arrives from far away, being prodded by soldiers. At first they don’t recognize the man that’s being whipped until oblivion because he’s so bloody, pitiful, and lame. But when they realize it’s Gil-dong, they try to go toward him, and Ilchung tells Gil-dong to stand up.
It’s a plea and a command at the same time for him to show them that he’s still their “Great Elder,” but Gil-dong can’t manage it with all the soldiers continuously beating him. With tears in his eyes, Ilchung shouts at the soldiers not to touch Gil-dong, but they just turn on him and start beating all of the prisoners. The Hong brothers are taken away, and Gil-dong can’t do anything to stop it. Mori oversees all of this because it’s his soldiers who are beating Gil-dong and his friends.
The Hong brothers sit in a circle later in prison and cry as they think about Gil-dong’s reduced state. Segul begins talking, saying that the man on the field couldn’t possibly be Gil-dong, because the Great Elder can’t stand it when others touch his people, and that man couldn’t do anything about them being beaten. Everyone sheds tears as they think about Gil-dong.
During one of the court sessions, a dog scampers into the throne room and leaps up onto the king’s dais. Yeonsangun pets him fondly while the nobles mutter that it’s unseemly, but then the king brings up the matter of a boar that wandered into the palace gardens, and of rumors that leaked out into the public. Scared, the nobles immediately call for Yeonsangun to punish the ones among them who spread the rumors regarding the inner workings of the palace.
On a power high, Yeonsangun demands for more women to become part of his musical harem, and no one can say anything despite the dwindling treasury and lack of trained musicians. Ga-ryung, seeing the crowds of women entering the palace to become part of the king’s troupe, asks why they’re going. Outside the gates, she promises to avenge Gil-dong if it really was the king that killed him.
There aren’t enough gisaengs to fill his musical troupe, and Yeonsangun becomes visibly upset. But then Nok-soo suggests that they take anyone trained in the musical arts—be it peasant, gisaeng, or noblewoman—because everyone is the king’s servant. Taking a liking to this idea, Yeonsangun regards Nok-soo fondly and immediately commands for all women to be eligible for his troupe.
Later, Eunuch Kim confronts Nok-soo, demanding why she is adding to the king’s wayward direction and not chiding him from committing extreme actions. Nok-soo scoffs at his naivety and trust in Yeonsangun’s good will—she tells him to beware, because they also have no guarantee of living through the king’s reign. As she walks away, she repeats her mantra that she needs to live in order to save “that person” (presumably referring to Gil-dong).
The large festive banquet for the king is in session, and Nok-soo prepares her girls to perform. In the expansive palace courtyard, they begin a beautifully choreographed drum dance that moves with quick energy. Yeonsangun watches the performance with immense pleasure, drumming his fingers and bouncing his head to every note. Completely enthralled in the beat and Nok-soo’s seductive motions, he declares them the sound of Joseon, when suddenly a scream breaks out.
Committing a treasonous act or terror, someone has bloodied the royal robes. Instead of directing his anger at the person who actually did the deed, and perhaps out of fear, Yeonsangun begins beating the eunuch who found the robes and even demands that he be imprisoned. No one knows who the culprit is, but the scene cuts to Gil-dong and company. Now, Yeonsangun grows paranoid that every little misstep is a trap and a prank by a disloyal follower. Gil-hyun vows in his head that Yeonsangun should be afraid that the ones closest to him will betray him, hinting that he may possibly be the one behind the small accidents that are happening to the king.
At night, Yeonsangun lays his head on Nok-soo’s lap, worrying in a fetal pose about whether his recent misfortunes are due to the heavens’ anger. She pats him like a mother does to her child and asks why he should worry when he is the son of heaven, and he is instantly reassured.
Yeonsangun engages in a hunt and brings Nok-soo with him, but instead of deer, Gil-dong is the main target. He aims the first arrow to land near Gil-dong’s feet just to strike fear into him. Nok-soo tries to keep an impassive face, but she can’t help but grimace at the scene. Once he realizes that the king might actually kill him, Gil-dong starts hobbling away on his crippled limbs. He stumbles through the branches of the forest, tripping over logs and slipping on leaves.
Then he hears the two Eorini girls who are talking about the king, crying that they are afraid of their ruler. Other musical troupe members next to them are gossiping about how the king has been singling out the pregnant gisaeng. They wonder why, but then the girls spot Gil-dong behind him, who keeps on saying “Eorini, Eorini” because he has recognized Eorini’s voice.
But then, a net falls over his head—it’s Yeonsangun who laughs at how easy it was to catch this “Mighty Child,” but Gil-dong is still looking desperately toward the girls, one of whom is his dearly beloved sister. As Yeonsangun kneels down to be on Gil-dong’s level, he says that he’ll show Gil-dong how the country is being efficiently run under his rule.
So a soldier takes Gil-dong to witness firsthand the terrors that the king is imposing on his countrymen to enact “order.” Gil-dong is helpless as he watches people being evicted, families being torn apart, and properties being destroyed by the king’s soldiers. During his inner monologue, Gil-dong confesses to Gil-hyun that he’s done his fair share of violence in his life as a gangster, but seeing these people now, he feels only deep sorrow where he felt only endless rage before.
Alone in his cell, in the dark of night, Gil-dong thinks about all of Yeonsangun’s deeds as well as his father’s intended purpose for him to become the king’s general and makes a resolution. He resolves to become the king himself, and like that, his health seems to be restored. He stands up straight, his lame leg straightening as he faces the moonlight.
Let me state for the record that I think Yeonsangun is one sadistic psychopath. That being said, the way his downward spiral is being portrayed—so raw and historically accurate in its violent details—is absolutely fascinating. All those beheadings, beatings, and evictions actually happened under Yeonsangun’s reign of terror, but so often, sageuks only hint at the real-life violence that occurred in history. The scene where he’s sitting on the steps with a maddened glint in his eyes, looking down at the two bloodied bags containing his father’s mistresses, was the most graphic in my opinion. It was the first time we saw him personally involved in the violence, and I thought the motivations that led him to that point were so complex and interesting.
I don’t want to make too many cliche Freudian judgements, but the fact that hearing about his mother from a complete stranger like Mistress Jo brings tears to his eyes makes it look like most of Yeonsangun’s anger is rooted in his unhappy childhood. He grew up with an absent father whose approval he sought but never received fully, a tragically deceased mother, and probably some competitive siblings who wanted the throne themselves. Although he said to Gil-dong that his violence is not necessarily a result of his motherless childhood, his insecurities that lead him to his violent actions are deeply tied to his inferiority complex that’s due to growing up without a stable and supportive emotional network.
The main reason for his purges, both this one and the one before where he deemed Kim Il-son a traitor, are because he couldn’t stand other people disrespecting his family, whether it be his mother or his grandfather, whom he views to be an extension of himself. Yet, he had almost no qualms about exiling his relative Choongwongoon, who had been ingratiating himself to Yeonsangun since childhood. So his views on loyalty to family seem to conflict and are only utilized when it suits his egotistical purposes to do so. Yeonsangun views himself as above all others because he’s been taught that from a young age, but he still suffers from bouts of paranoia and insecurity regarding the Mighty One. Because he hasn’t learned a healthy way to manage his negative emotions, he couldn’t channel his fear properly after seeing his royal robes in a bloody mess, and so he ended up punishing an innocent man, someone who had been loyal to him.
Clearly, Yeonsangun is not fit to be king, and now people are starting to realize it. But how did Gil-dong make a leap from understanding that fact to wanting take the throne himself? Technically in the last scene where Gil-dong sits in his cell and stares up at the moon, his internal dialogue is asking his father: “How about I become the one who gives the sword [instead of the one taking it]?” I just interpreted it as Gil-dong making the resolution to become more powerful than Yeonsangun in order to avenge himself and the sufferings of the people. However, the desire for a commoner, and a slave’s son at that, to become king is almost unthinkable, especially during that time period where Yeonsangun’s beliefs that the king had a divine right to rule was widely established. Perhaps Gil-dong’s knowledge that he is a Mighty Child gives him the confidence that the heavens have also chosen him, perhaps for the purpose of becoming king.
But I may be reading too much into things because, in contrast to Yeonsangun, I get the feeling that Gil-dong is a simple character. Not in a bad way, but just that his internal reasons for taking action are not as complex. He sees evil, so he punishes it. He sees suffering, so he tries to find a way to stop it. Hopefully, he’ll get started on phase one of his action plan soon, because I don’t know how many more orphaned children I can take without bursting into tears myself.
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