Seven Day Queen: Episode 1
And finally we have the last of the spring historical dramas, KBS’s royal love story Seven Day Queen, which premiered today. It’s a lovely, contemplative drama with a strong conflict from the opening minute, and the assured directing makes it really easy to get swept up in the life-and-death stakes. If they can keep this up, it may just fill the hole that Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People left behind for me, and end up becoming my favorite sageuk of the current crop. Fingers crossed.
Ratings-wise, Seven Day Queen hardly made a dent against current ratings leader Ruler–Master of the Mask, which held the lead at 13.6%. Queen premiered in last place with 6.9%, and Suspicious Partner recorded 9.3%.
This story takes place during the reign of Yeonsangun (Lee Yung), famous tyrant king of Joseon who reigned from 1494 to 1506, and was responsible for bloody purges of scholars who opposed him and squandering the nation’s resources on lavish entertainment and sport.
His half-brother Grand Prince Jinseong (Lee Yeok) was a direct descendant of their father King Seongjong and next in line for the throne, and when Yeonsangun was deposed in a coup, his brother Yeok became the eleventh king of Joseon (posthumously known as King Jungjong).
The drama focuses on Jungjong’s first wife, Lady Shin, posthumously known as Queen Dangyeong. Her father was Yeonsangun’s brother-in-law, and therefore opposed to Jungjong’s enthronement; when he led a failed coup attempt against Jungjong, his daughter was deposed and exiled from the palace after having been queen for just seven days. It was the shortest reign of any queen in Joseon history.
Legend has it that Jungjong looked out at a mountain in her direction every day after she left, and when Lady Shin heard of this, she placed her favorite skirt on a boulder on the mountain face to let him know that she was thinking of him too.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
1506, the first year of Jungjong’s reign. A woman is escorted away from the palace, looking pale and defeated, as though she might be walking to her death. Villagers look on in a mix of pity and scorn, wondering how someone couldn’t manage to stay queen for even ten days.
This is SHIN CHAE-KYUNG (Park Min-young), or Lady Shin, the former queen of Joseon. As she walks solemnly ahead, she flashes back to what must have been days or even moments before:
She discovered her father and mother lying in pools of blood, brutally killed. Dressed in her royal robes, she approached the king, LEE YEOK (Yeon Woo-jin), who ran to embrace her tenderly.
She cried in his arms, then pulled out a dagger. She braced herself to thrust the dagger into his back, tears streaming down her face. But she stopped in midair…
Yeok clenched her arm and pulled away, looking heartbroken. Chae-kyung said, trembling, “I should have killed you.”
Tears fell from his eyes, and then we fade back to the present, where the deposed queen arrives at the gallows to be hanged. She looks overhead at a bird flying by and thinks to herself, “If I am reborn, I will never meet you, your majesty.”
We go back seven years earlier, to the fifth year of Yeonsangun’s reign.
Chae-kyung’s father SHIN SU-GEUN (Jang Hyun-sung) narrates that the king has secured royal power against his political opponents (1498 was the year of the first purge of scholars who vocally opposed him). But soon after, a severe drought plagued the land, and people blamed the king’s lack of virtue as the cause.
As he narrates, we see the king, YEONSANGUN, or LEE YUNG (Lee Dong-gun), being dressed for a royal prayer ceremony. As he reaches the courtyard, the king looks up at the blazing sun.
Elsewhere, his half-brother Yeok (Grand Prince Jinseong) makes the same gesture while standing up on a tree limb, to the horror of his eunuchs and ladies in waiting. They urge him to come down, but it’s not until two boys arrive with a stone jar that Yeok leaps down.
He peers into the jar eagerly, which is filled with water and a couple of salamanders. Yeok asks for the tree branch and ceremonial water… and then proceeds to perform his own mock prayer ceremony for rain.
This is the scene that Yeonsangun and his entourage come upon, and from the sharp look on his face, Yeonsangun doesn’t seem amused at the prince playing like he’s the king.
Yeok is the last to notice him and mistakenly starts to greet him as “hyungnim,” remembering halfway to address him properly as the king. Yeonsangun tells Yeok to keep playing his games, and though Yeok tries to protest that he’s not playing, it falls on deaf ears.
Yeonsangun holds court out in the sweltering heat that day, purposely ignoring each of the ministers and making them literally sweat. It’s clear that they all fear him and that he wields absolute power over his court, as he tells them to suffer and feel the same pain that the people do, and orders them not to move a muscle until they solve this drought.
He leaves them all outdoors and later meets with three men inside: Chief Royal Secretary IM SA-HONG, who is the head of the Sogyeokseo, the Taoist rites department (the chief royal secretary is a very high government position, not just any old royal secretary); Minister of the Left Shin Su-geun, who is Chae-kyung’s father; and PARK WON-JONG, a deputy commander of the military headquarters.
It’s Deputy Commander Park who suggests that the king ought to have his brother married, and though Yeonsangun doesn’t seem pleased by the idea, he realizes that Yeok is of age to marry and asks Minister Shin to become Yeok’s father-in-law.
Yeonsangun says he’s heard about the daughter Minister Shin has hidden away, having refused countless marriage offers his family has received. Yeonsangun says with a smirk, “You wouldn’t refuse a marriage offer from the king, would you?” Minister Shin gulps.
His young daughter Chae-kyung, meanwhile, is busy whistling at a donkey in an attempt to coax the poop out of it. This seems like an odd treatment for constipation, but it works like a charm. She gives the farmers instructions on how to use the donkey poop effectively as fertilizer, and the villagers bow to her in gratitude.
Chae-kyung calls a young peasant girl her friend, but after she’s gone, the girl’s mother reminds her that she can’t really consider herself friends with a noble young lady—they must always address her respectfully.
The girl insists that they’re friends, and says that Mom herself called Chae-kyung an ugly duckling who was abandoned by her family to live in this rural village with just a nanny to look after her, and that she’s someone they ought to pity and be kind to.
They don’t realize that Chae-kyung has returned because she forgot something, and has overheard them talking about her. She trudges home in a dour mood, only to be further disappointed by her father’s letter, replying that she can’t come to Hanyang like she asked.
Chae-kyung wails to her nanny, asking why she was even born if they were just going to stow her away in this backwoods village. Nanny has no answer, and awkwardly changes the subject while surreptitiously handing the servant a letter to send back to Chae-kyung’s father.
Back in Hanyang, Chae-kyung’s mother is aghast to hear of the proposed royal marriage for their daughter, when they took such pains to hide her away for this exact reason. Minister Shin doesn’t look any happier about it himself.
Chae-kyung’s soon-to-be husband Yeok is currently being chastised for his little salamander rain ceremony by his mother, QUEEN DOWAGER JASUN (who was King Seongjong’s third wife and is Yeonsangun’s stepmother). Yeok knows the drill: He isn’t supposed to do anything, or see anything, or hear anything.
But he just wanted to do something to help his brother, and help the people, he argues. The queen dowager says that’s the king’s job, not his, and tells him to pick up a needle and thread and embroider something if he really wants to give the king a gift.
Yeok stomps off in a snit, though he turns contemplative when he looks out at a courtyard and remembers being loved by his big brother when they were younger. In the flashback, when Yeonsangun was the crown prince, he had picked up little Yeok and kissed him on the forehead, hugging him with genuine affection.
At the same time, Yeonsangun arrives on the bridge where Yeok was performing his rain ceremony earlier, and it brings up a memory for him as well: The moment he’d come upon their father King Seongjong teaching Yeok that very ritual, without him. He remembers watching them jealously as their father picked up Yeok and praised him proudly.
In the present, Yeonsangun notes with a smirk that Yeok has grown a lot, and then he kicks over the jar of salamanders out of spite.
In a last-ditch effort to get to Hanyang, Chae-kyung boards a small boat dressed as a boy. She’s run away from home, and her nanny belatedly discovers that Chae-kyung has disappeared along with the letter she was planning to send to Minister Shin.
In Hanyang, Yeok pouts and refuses to play with his two buddies, who easily cajole him out of his funk by showing him the racy novel they got their hands on. Yeok is eager to take a peek, so his friends play keep-away with the book, and it ends up flying into the air.
Yeok shoves them out of the way and dives head-first for the book… and crashes noggin-to-noggin right into Chae-kyung, sending them both to the ground. Her first impression of him isn’t very good, seeing as how he refuses to apologize for knocking into her, and then she catches a glimpse of his naughty book.
She manages to grab it first, to his ire, but he isn’t one to lose a fight and says she’s overreacting when they just fell while playing (he of course thinks she’s a boy). “You don’t have any friends, do you?” he taunts, and snatches the book right out of her hands. The three friends skip away in glee, chanting that they’re going to see something fun.
Chae-kyung mutters that they’re a couple of gangsters, though her curiosity is piqued when she hears that fun is about to be had.
It turns out that their idea of fun is sneaking a peek at women bathing in the river, and when Chae-kyung sneaks up behind them to witness the scene, she bellows loudly so that the women can hear her.
They scream and throw rocks at the boys, who in turn chase after Chae-kyung for ruining their fun. Yeok is livid and runs after her, and when he gets close, he leaps to tackle her to the ground, sending them both tumbling down the hill.
They land in each other’s arms, and Chae-kyung’s eyes flutter at the sudden proximity. They look at one another for a beat, and then a bird flies overhead and happens to drop a poop right on Chae-kyung’s cheek. Ew.
Instinctively, she wipes it off and then wipes her hand… on Yeok. Pffft. It takes him a moment to process what she just did, and then he lets out this screeeeeeeam of horror.
She kicks him off the small ledge and goes running, and when Yeok’s friends rescue him, he yells in a rage, “Catch that bird poop!”
She’s fast enough to hide under a boulder before he can catch up to her, and when Yeok yells into the ravine that they’ll meet again because this isn’t over, she mutters to herself that she’d be crazy to see him again.
At the Taoist rites department, close advisor Secretary Im warns Yeonsangun that giving his brother-in-law Shin Su-geun such power through a royal marriage might make him a dangerous foe, if he were to become ambitious. (Interestingly, in this scene Secretary Im refers to Shin Su-geun as the chief royal secretary, and he himself is in a lower position, so they must change ranks later.)
Secretary Im warns the king that having the justification to back up ambition could easily lead to treason, and reminds him of the dying wishes of the late king. He hands Yeonsangun a letter that indicates that his father King Seongjong left behind a secret will.
Flashback to five years ago. Seongjong was on his deathbed when officials urged him to leave behind a will naming Grand Prince Jinseong as his successor. Seongjong called Yeonsangun to his bedside and told him to relinquish the throne to his brother when he came of age: “That child must become king. You… will ruin Joseon.” Ouuuuch. I mean, he was right, but damn.
In the present, Yeonsangun fumes thinking that his father thought him so untrustworthy that he would leave behind a secret will. He asks why Yeok was always favored over him, thinking that it’s because his own mother was deposed, and wonders why he has to worry about a little child.
In the marketplace, Yeok grins when he finds Chae-kyung shopping for gifts, and when he sees her reaching for a clay salamander, he grabs it first. She gapes thinking he followed her all the way here, and the shopkeeper quickly hides the other salamanders and starts hiking up the price since it’s clear they’re going to fight over it.
They go back and forth raising the price like it’s an auction, and Chae-kyung insists that she’s going to buy it as a present for the king. She says she’s the king’s niece, which prompts Yeok to counter that he’s the king’s little brother, and she scoffs, “If you’re the king’s brother, then I’m the queen of Joseon!” Ha.
They’re so busy arguing that they don’t notice another boy sneaking up to steal Chae-kyung’s letter and purse. Yeok is faster to pay and walks away with the salamander, pleased that he got his revenge on Bird Poop and bought a gift for the king at the same time. Chae-kyung belatedly realizes that she’s been pickpocketed, and assumes that stealing her stuff was Yeok’s true motive all this time.
Yeok catches up to his friends and pathetically feigns a limp in order to be carried the rest of the way home. His buddies grumble but they do it anyway, and they’re back to horseplay and laughter in no time.
They turn a corner and run into the king’s entourage, and Yeok’s friends quickly drop to their knees. Yeonsangun sneers at Yeok and notes that around here, he seems to be the king. Yow, them’s fightin’ words.
Yeok quickly counters that he’s just a neighborhood boss, not a king, but Yeonsangun turns his attention on the two friends with this bloodthirsty look in his eyes. He asks if they’d die for their king, which they readily affirm. But then he asks if he and Yeok were both trapped inside a burning house, which of them they’d rescue first.
The boys hesitate, but they’re smart enough to answer that they would save the king first. But when they add that they would then return to the burning house to also save Yeok even if they died trying, Yeonsangun twists their words to mean that they’d dutifully rescue the king, but the one they’d die for is Yeok.
Yeok realizes that this is getting serious and gets down on his knees before the king to defend his friends. But Yeonsangun goes so far as to call it treason, and tells Yeok that if he wants to save his friends’ lives, he’ll have to beat him. He gives Yeok his horse and says that if he can arrive at the palace first, he’ll let Yeok and his friends live. Uhh… why does this seem like a lose-lose proposition?
Yeonsangun gives no warning and takes off on another horse first, and his friends have to scream at Yeok to snap out of it and hurry towards the palace. They tell him to take the shortcut to bypass the marketplace, and Yeok rides for his life, literally.
As they both race through the streets, Yeonsangun thinks back to his father’s dying decree for him to give up the throne to Yeok, and he says to himself, “I can’t give it to him! Tell me to die instead! This is all I have to call mine in this world! How can you take even this away from me?”
The shortcut gives Yeok the advantage, but of course he runs right into Chae-kyung at the worst possible moment, and one whistle from her makes his horse stop in its tracks and toss him off. She thinks he’s a gangster who stole her money and stands in his way, so he pushes her off to get back on his horse.
It’s then that he notices Yeonsangun riding in their direction, headed straight for Chae-kyung and clearly not about to slow down for her sake. She’s going to get trampled, so Yeok dives to get her out of the way just in time. As expected, the move costs him the race.
When Yeok reaches the palace, Yeonsangun draws his sword, prepared to take Yeok’s life in payment. Yeok asks to know the reason he must die, promising to die dutifully if he could just be made to understand why. Yeonsangun just asks why he shouldn’t kill him, and Yeok answers that he’s the king’s brother, which Yeonsangun says is reason number one why he must die.
Yeok defends himself vehemently, but Yeonsangun just finds his confidence insolent. When his friends are brought there, though, Yeok bows his head and says he was wrong, and pleads for them to be spared. The king agrees to spare the friends, and then raises his sword to strike at Yeok, who squeezes his eyes shut and waits for his death…
Yeonsangun hesitates for a beat, remembering how much he loved his little brother when they were young. At that moment, Yeok’s mother the queen dowager arrives and nearly faints, and Yeonsangun lowers his sword.
He looks down at Yeok and muses that the root of his unwavering confidence was the queen dowager and the king, who were always behind him. But Yeok replies that it’s not them, but his brother: “Because the king of this nation, my brother, loves and adores me. That is why I am this confident.” Augh, why can’t you just love each other?
Outside the palace, Chae-kyung sits on a stoop with a heavy sigh. She thinks back to Yeok stealing her money and then saving her from being trampled, and decides that he’s half-nice, half-punk.
The queen dowager tends to Yeok’s wounds and says that Yeonsangun is showing his true colors now that Yeok is old enough to be married. Yeok doesn’t see why getting married should threaten the king, but his mother points out that if a direct descendant of the late king were to marry into a powerful political family, he could use that power to make a play for the throne.
Ever the innocent, Yeok thinks that’s absurd, but his mother warns him that if today has taught him anything, it’s that his brother is the one person he should be wary of. Unfortunately, Yeonsangun has chosen that exact moment to arrive just outside the door with a peace offering of medicines.
His face hardens to hear the queen dowager say that you only need to look at Joseon’s history to see that brothers and nephews kill each other over this power, and that Yeonsangun is no different, and isn’t even Yeok’s full-blood brother at that. She says that marriage is the only way to protect Yeok now.
Yeonsangun interrupts them and announces that Yeok will marry the daughter of Shin Su-geun, the king’s brother-in-law who would have no reason to betray him. He orders Yeok to go live quietly in the countryside and bear no children, and not let the sound of his breathing ever escape the walls of that house.
If he does that, Yeonsangun offers, he’ll spare Yeok’s life. Yeok asks why he has to live that way, adding that he trusts the king. Yeonsangun answers simply that he doesn’t trust Yeok, and tells him to prove his loyalty by dying and being reborn as one of his citizens, and preferably a woman at that.
Once the king leaves, the queen dowager points out that this just proves her right, though Yeok still argues that she doesn’t know his brother like he does. Yeok says he fell off a horse today but barely has a few scratches, and that’s because he learned horse riding from his brother. He asks if the king really does intend to kill him, why wasn’t he killed when he was much younger, when it would’ve been so much easier?
Yeonsangun says he can’t breathe in this palace, filled with people who don’t trust him, and his consort JANG NOK-SOO (Sohn Eun-seo) reminds him that he still has her. She suggests that he sneak out of the palace for a while in an officer’s uniform, and helps him change out of his clothes.
The king escapes the palace on horseback, and Chae-kyung catches a glimpse as he rides past her and recognizes the horse as the one Yeok rode in on. She assumes he’s a gangster too, and chases after him.
Yeok is determined to change the king’s mind and insists on playing him a song. Nok-soo just pretends that the king is resting and lets Yeok play to an empty room, thinking to herself that something so childish would never move someone as ambitious as Yeonsangun.
As he plays, Yeok thinks, “Hyungnim, no matter what anyone says, the fact that I am alive right now is proof that you love me.”
Chae-kyung is nothing if not dogged, and she follows the horse’s tracks all the way into the woods, where she finds Yeonsangun bathing alone in the river. Thinking she’s a threat, he throws a robe over her head and readies his sword to attack.
But she just flails in the water and then looks up at him… and is stunned speechless by his bare abs glistening in the moonlight. HA.
He demands to know who she is and what is the meaning of that look in her eyes, but all she does is dunk her head underwater and hold her breath to hide. So he just leans down and waits for her to run out of air, after which she pops back up, putting them face to face.
What a great opening sequence that was, to give us a glimpse of the devastation that we know is ahead for our characters. Right away we addressed the way the love story played out in history, and set the context and the stakes for our two lovers, destined to become political enemies. I remember how effective this kind of opening was in Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People, where we spent most of the series on our way back to that opening sequence, driven by the narrative curiosity of how two lovers ended up there, and wanting to know how they’d make it out alive and together. The future seems bleak for the deposed queen, but that opener also puts me firmly on her side, and feeling the massive weight of what it means for her to marry into royalty.
I also appreciate seeing our two leads together for just a moment, because the promise of their chemistry is going to keep me hanging in there through the childhood backstory. The teenagers are cute and I actually like their light, youthful meet-cute (little Yeok is pretty adorable), but the opening sequence made me want to skip right ahead to the tears and the tragedy, which is a thing I never thought I’d say. I know we’re only at the start, but this is a story that’s really utilizing its historical “spoilers,” yunno, facts, in an effective way to drive our curiosity about how it’s going to reconcile its ending with history.
I expected Lee Dong-gun to be very good as Yeonsangun, but he totally stole the show today. I like this this portrayal of Yeonsangun a great deal, because he’s actually kind of relatable and sad and charismatic, while also being frightening and unhinged. There’s so much going on with that one character already—his conflicting love for his brother, his debilitating insecurity, and his need for validation. The motivation for his growing jealousy and accompanying suspicion was done so well over the course of the episode, and I can already tell that the brotherly love story will be treated with a lot of care.
I believe that Yeonsangun doesn’t want to kill his brother; that moment when Yeok said he was confident because of his brother’s love, it was so sincere and it seemed to genuinely call up his hyung’s affections. I love that it’s not a one-sided love, and that their childhood memories are genuinely happy for both of them. It’s ultimately what will make their rift sadder, but knowing that a tiny part of Yeonsangun might actually be sending his brother away to protect him out of love is totally making me sympathetic to a crazy despot. Maybe Yeonsangun was just misunderstood, okay? Kidding!
So far the royal conflict between the brothers is more gripping than the present-day love story, but I found it hilarious that the two teenagers couldn’t possibly hate each other more at this point, when they’re about to be married any day now. It’s a cute setup, and imagining them as husband and wife just makes me giggle because they’re both so childish and stubborn, and he’s spoiled on top of it all. Their newlywed diaries are going to be entertaining. I like where we leave things at the end of the first episode, with a solid conflict and a sense that the story knows where it’s going. This makes me feel safe about getting invested in these characters’ lives, because if the emotional payoff is there, I’ll come along for the ride, however tragic the outcome might seem.
- Premiere Watch: My Sassy Girl, Seven Day Queen, Best Hit, Duel
- Arranged marriages and love at first sight for the Seven Day Queen
- Queen for a week, heartbreak to last a lifetime
- Seven Day Queen’s young lovers realize their tragic fates
- Elegant tears and waking forbidden hearts in Seven Day Queen
- Thwarted kisses and rom-com hijinks in Seven Day Queen
- Blood, thorns, and tears in first teaser for Seven Day Queen
- Seven Day Queen team puts in their first four hours at script read