The Crowned Clown: Episode 1
tvN’s latest sageuk about a paranoid king and the lookalike clown who sits on his throne pulls no punches when it comes to murder, romance, betrayal and assassination plots, and that’s just the first ten minutes. We’re dropped right into the middle of the action, as the young king struggles to hang onto control of both his country and his sanity. So much is going on that it’s no wonder that the king is going mad, but does his scheme to save his life come too late to save his soul?
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A young crown prince, YI HEON (Yeo Jin-gu), stares at his father’s kingly robes as nearby, the dying king (cameo by Jang Hyuk) gasps to his crying younger son, Yul, that he’s sorry that he won’t see him grow up. The king calls Yi Heon to his bedside, then spits with what little energy he has left that knowing Yi Heon will be taking the throne fills him with rage.
He says that he worries Yi Heon will persecute his younger brother Yul out of resentment for their father. He tells Yi Heon to promise that he’ll protect his brother, but instead, Yi Heon whispers coldly, “Your Majesty, that’s not how you ask for a favor. You should plead in tears and beg until your palms wear out.”
The king weakly pulls himself up to be face-to-face with Yi Heon, and threatens to wait and see how he molds his world… “I will see how you govern your people, you insolent and obnoxious fool.” He loses strength and collapses in Yi Heon’s arms, and Yi Heon clutches his father’s dead body as he fails to hold in his tears.
Yul runs over, wailing, and grabs his brother’s hand, but Yi Heon coldly jerks his hand away. The country mourns as Yi Heon bows formally to the king one last time. Tears stream down his face as he says, “Your Majesty, the throne you protected with your blood and tears is now mine to shield and cherish. May you rest in peace.”
Elsewhere, a troupe of clowns performs for a boisterous crowd of nobles and peasants. They play music and perform acrobatics, as they tell a story about the scariest thing known to man — a buffoon who doesn’t know his roots. A figure dressed in red robes and mask to impersonate the king accuses a peasant of being such a buffoon and orders him taken away and flogged.
They’re recreating a torture that Yi Heon actually ordered to force a man to confess to conspiracy against him. The man is mutilated and bloody when he names Lord Neungchang, Prince Yul’s grandfather, as the ringleader, and Yi Heon orders him arrested immediately.
Of course, Lord Neungchang denies the accusation, and demands to speak to his daughter, the queen dowager. MINISTER SHIN (Kwon Hye-hyo), the Vice Minister of War, refuses the request, and Lord Neungchang accuses him of telling the king lies against him. He threatens to tell Yi Heon that Minister Shin is the true traitor, but he doesn’t even finish his sentence before Minister Shin cuts him down in cold blood.
The tiny prince, Yul, is taken from his screaming mother’s arms on Yi Heon’s order, but the Chief Censor argues that the boy couldn’t possibly have committed high treason. Minister Shin asserts that Yul was on the list of traitors, but the Chief Censor tells Yi Heon that if he punishes his brother, he’ll be harshly criticized. Minister Shin calls for the Chief Censor to be punished along with the traitors, and as his advisers argue over what to do, Yi Heon just sits with no expression whatsoever on his face.
He visits Yul at the prison, and when Yul throws his arms around his big brother, Yi Heon crouches down to speak to him. He displays compassion for the first time as he tells his little brother that he has to send him away for a while, promising to come get him as soon as he can. But as Yul is led away, Yi Heon’s emotionless mask slams down over his face again.
Yul is taken somewhere and fed a hearty meal, but he’s dead before he even finishes eating, the food having been laced with poison. The rest of the supposed traitors are executed, and Yi Heon grants Minister Shin the title of Lord of Goseong as reward for his service to his country.
The troupe of clowns finishes their re-enactment of Yi Heon’s murderous rampage with a wild dance by the red-robed figure. He concludes with a jump high into the air, during which he throws off his mask to reveal… Yi Heon?
But no — this is HA SUN (also played by Yeo Jin-gu), a clown who bears a striking physical resemblance to the young king. The noble enjoying the show remarks that Ha Sun is incredibly handsome considering his lowly status, and thankfully, Ha Sun’s personality appears to be playful and carefree.
The following morning, the noble informs the troupe that he won’t pay them for making fun of the king in his house. He tells them to be grateful he doesn’t report their disrespectful display, and the other clowns have to drag the loudly protesting Ha Sun away.
Ha Sun tries to leave town quietly with the others, but he just can’t do it. He jumps the wall into the noble’s yard, where he smashes several food jars, then leaps back over the wall and tells the other clowns to run. They flee all the way to the river, where they collapse in exhaustion.
Ha Sun has another surprise — he stole a small package of yellow corvina, a fish that’s so expensive even the king rarely gets to eat it. The clowns all share the fish, Ha Sun taking particular care of Dal-lae, the youngest of the group.
Gap-soo, the unofficial leader of the troupe, belatedly starts to worry about the huge trouble they’ll be in if they’re caught, not to mention the fact that they’ve lost their performance space. But Ha Sun says they can just move to a bigger town — Hanyang, the capital.
The other clowns are happy to follow him, though Gap-soo has a tendency to collapse wailing on the ground, ha. When Dal-lae grows too tired to walk, Ha Sun just carries her on his back with a huge smile on his face.
That night, Yi Heon has a nightmare in which his dead brother Yul approaches his bed, clutching his belly and crying for Yi Heon to save him. Nightmare Yul climbs onto Yi Heon’s bed and grabs him, and Yi Heon wakes, shaking with terror.
Being awake isn’t much better — several assassins climb soundlessly into Yi Heon’s bedchamber. Luckily the Chief Royal Secretary, Minister Lee, is there and a vicious fight takes place. The assassins get away, only to find more opposition by the palace guards outside. They’re all killed but two, who are taken prisoner.
Yi Heon comes outside and offers to spare one assassin’s life in exchange for the name of the person who gave the order to kill him. The assassin snarls that Yi Heon killed the king and his rightful heir and stole the throne, and that he plays with his consorts while Minister Shin runs the country.
Yi Heon grabs a guard’s sword and runs the man through, then with crazed eyes and an evil grin, slashes him several more times just to vent his anger. Even his guards look horrified, and Yi Heon orders the other assassin tortured until he confesses everything.
He staggers back to his bedchamber, where he paces, still covered in blood, and rants to Minister Lee that everyone thinks he’s out of his mind and wants to kill him just because he killed Yul. Minister Lee asks him to put down the sword, but Yi Heon brings it to his throat and orders him to kill everyone who’s against him.
Minister Lee says honestly that he can’t make that promise, and Yi Heon begs him to say it even if he can’t do it. What Minister Lee swears to protect Yi Heon with his last breath, but Yi Heon growls that it’s not enough and demands that he find a way to eliminate his enemies and ensure his safety. When Minister Lee promises, Yi Heon collapses, begging Minister Lee to hurry or he really will lose his mind.
Minister Lee goes to Minister Yoo, the queen’s father, who takes the blame for the recent problems, since he didn’t listen to Minister Lee’s warnings and let Minister Shin into the court. They agree that Minister Shin needs to be stopped, and set a date to discuss it with Yi Heon.
During a procession through the city, Yi Heon looks deeply miserable as he’s carried through the streets. Nearby, a nobleman stares malevolently at Yi Heon and growls to one of the guards (who was there the night of the attempted assassination) that he failed.
Ha Sun and the clown troupe have finally made it to Hanyang, and they all gape open-mouthed at the huge gate to the city. They’re scared they won’t be allowed in, but Ha Sun tells them to wait and approaches a nearby gibang to offer to perform the troupe’s show for their guests.
The head gisaeng turns him away despite his adorable begging, but another gisaeng takes notice and laughs when Ha Sun bonks his head on a railing. She chuckles that nobody finds it entertaining to make fun of the king these days, and Ha Sun makes a cute attempt to puff up with indignation.
The gisaeng advises him that jokes about the queen and someone named Sun Hwa-dang are popular lately. Ha Sun asks why, so the gisaeng explains that Hwa-dang is the king’s favorite consort, and that the queen hates her to a staggering degree.
In the palace, QUEEN SO-WOON (Lee Se-young) summons SUN HWA-DANG (Seo Yoon-ah) to her chambers to present her with an ornate jade ornament. Hwa-dang eyes the gift with suspicion, but So-woon says that it’s simply her way of asking Hwa-dang to take good care of the king.
Hwa-dang replies cheekily that it’s such a shame that there are negative rumors about her when she’s such a caring person. So-woon knows about the rumors that she delayed Hwa-dang and Yi Heon’s first night together out of jealousy, but she says she doesn’t care and neither should Hwa-dang.
Hwa-dang politely excuses herself, taking the jade ornament with her, and on her way out she betrays a tiny sneer. She goes straight to Minister Shin, her uncle, to whine that the queen was just pretending to be nice. Minister Shin gives her a talisman meant to help her conceive a son when she spends the night with Yi Heon tonight, and she grins that she’ll do her best.
Minister Shin says that her best isn’t enough, and that if things go wrong, she’ll die. He tells Hwa-dang that her entire reason for being in the palace is to give the king a son, and that it’s also the only way to save herself.
Meanwhile, Queen So-woon confesses to her father that she wishes he would speak casually with her when they’re alone, so he complies. He asks if she’s still uncomfortable with her life as queen, and she admits that living in the palace makes her long for life outside the palace. Minister Yoo assures her that Yi Heon is truly a great man and will make a great king, once the current problems are handled.
Minister Yoo and Minister Lee visit Yi Heon to present him with evidence that Minister Shin has been taking bribes, siphoning tithes sent to the palace from the provinces, and selling government positions. Yi Heon says that he understands their concern, but that Minister Shin can’t be punished unless he commits high treason. Minister Yoo warns that Minister Shin has installed so many of his own people in the court that he could do nearly anything without opposition, and that people even say that there are two kings in the palace.
That comment incites Yi Heon’s rage, and he screams to Minister Yoo that he won’t listen to any more. He says that every minister has acted dishonorably, even Minister Yoo himself, and refuses to hear another word.
That evening, Yi Heon visits Hwa-dang. He asks her about the jade ornament, and she tells him that it’s a gift from the queen, along with the food and drink. He laughs coldly, then offers Hwa-dang a drink and feeds her a morsel of food, asking how it tastes. When she chirps that it was delicious because he gave it to her, he lunges at her.
He forces her mouth open and pours the drink down her throat, screaming for her to drink more since she likes it so much. Hwa-dang finally wrenches away from his grasp, but he grabs her again and rips the ornament off her dress, and opens the pouch to find the talisman inside.
He says that the queen wouldn’t give her a talisman to make her conceive a son, guessing that it came from Minister Shin, her uncle. Hwa-dang begs his forgiveness, but Yi Heon rips up the talisman and pounces on her, snarling that he needs a legitimate heir while her son will be nothing but the child of a concubine.
He storms to the queen’s quarters, where he asks So-woon why a concubine is wearing conception talismans yet she does nothing to try and give him a legitimate son. So-woon argues that she’ll do anything he orders, but that what she believes will move the deities to bless them with an heir is if he becomes merciful and virtuous.
He starts to leave, but So-woon continues that even if he won’t listen to her, he should listen to his people. He grabs her and yanks her close, but his anger drains out of him at the sight of her pleading expression and he leans down to kiss her. At the last second, So-woon turns her face away, and Yi Heon’s face hardens again as she whispers in her ear, “Those who have no idea would say that I have been rejecting you. Who would know that you are the one rejecting me?”
The clown troupe take the gisaeng’s advice to heart and put together a show about the queen and her jealousy of the king’s favorite concubine. Ha Sun plays the queen, complaining about all the other girls flitting around her husband, while Gap-soo as Hwa-dang pleads with the king for protection against his vengeful wife.
They “fight” by bumping bellies, with the queen ending up on her rear, then chase each other around the gibang yard. Dal-lae sits nearby waiting for the show to be over, and the way one of the young nobles eyes her is incredibly disturbing.
One of Yi Heon’s attendants is a spy for Minister Shin, and she reports Yi Heon’s insistence on getting an heir from the queen only. She says that he trusts Minister Yoo too much, so if the queen gave him a son, her family would become too powerful. Minister Shin decides that they can’t allow that to happen, and the easiest way to make sure the king still gets an heir from the queen while preventing So-woon’s family from gaining power is to install a different queen.
Yi Heon makes Minister Shin answer to the charges against him, but he has an explanation for each accusation. Yi Heon is skeptical that all the bribes were only to build him a new palace, but he says that he’ll believe Minister Shin’s loyalty.
Minister Yoo and Minister Lee despair that nothing will stop Minister Shin, but they get an unexpected burst of hope when the captured assassin finally confesses that Minister Shin ordered Yi Heon’s death. Minister Lee wonders when to use this information to best effect, and when Yi Heon promotes Minister Shin to Left State Councilor, Minister Yoo shocks Minister Lee by telling Yi Heon that he wants to report high treason.
He has the assassin dragged into the room and asks him who gave the order to kill the king. Yi Heon tells him that he’ll spare his life if he tells the truth, but instead of accusing Minister Shin as he said he would, the assassin names Minister Yoo as the traitor.
Minister Shin looks triumphant, and in flashback, we see him talking to the assassin in the prison. Minister Yoo bellows that the assassin named Minister Shin before, but the assassin lies that Minister Yoo offered to save his life if he accuses Minister Shin. Minister Yoo kneels before Yi Heon, swearing that he never met this man before yesterday, nor did he order his assassination.
Yi Heon asks for proof that the assassin is lying, but Minister Yoo has no proof. Yi Heon orders Minister Yoo imprisoned for high treason, and Minister Yoo is dragged away, screaming that he was framed.
The queen appeals to Yi Heon, insisting that her father is innocent. Yi Heon says that it’s certain that Minister Yoo conspired to frame Minister Shin, so So-woon gets on her knees and says that she can’t remain queen if her father’s loyalty is questioned. She asks for a chance to clear Minister Yoo’s name, but Yi Heon sneers that if she tries to blackmail him like this again, there will be consequences.
The truth is that the person who ordered the assassination was the queen dowager — little Prince Yul’s mother. She’d worked together with Prince Jin-pyung, next in line for the throne, who’d told the assassin to accuse Minister Yoo if he was caught in exchange for a government position when he becomes king.
Upset by everything that’s gone wrong, Minister Lee gets drunk at the gibang. The gisaeng who laughed at Ha Sun, WOON-SHIM (Jung Hye-young), cuts him off while outside, the clowns cavort in their parody of Queen So-woon and Hwa-dang.
Infuriated by Ha Sun’s disrespectful portrayal of his queen, Minister Lee storms outside to grabs Ha Sun and rip off his queen mask. He freezes in shock when he sees Ha Sun’s face, identical to the king’s, and he tells Woon-shim to lock Ha Sun up in the shed.
In the morning, back at the palace, a eunuch tells Minister Lee that the king is going mad again. He’s terrorizing a young palace maid, convinced that his breakfast was poisoned when she couldn’t taste it for him because it was hot. He forces the porridge into her mouth and throws the rest of it across the room.
He stops when Minister Lee arrives and says that he has something to tell him. Minister Lee reminds Yi Heon of the part in the story “Journey to the West,” where Monkey’s hair transforms into an identical monkey figure, and says that he’s found a monkey’s hair.
Ha Sun sits in the gibang shed until some men blindfold him and carry him away. Minister Lee uncovers him, and it takes Ha Sun a moment to process that he’s in the king’s throne room. He and Yi Heon stare at each other, shocked by their uncanny resemblance to each other.
At a reminder from Minister Lee, Ha Sun remembers to bow to his king. Yi Heon takes off his hat and places it on Ha Sun’s head, then removes his crimson robe and orders Ha Sun to put it on. Terrified, Ha Sun obeys, and Yi Heon stalks around him, assessing his appearance.
He tells Yi Heon to say, “You fool,” when when Ha Sun squeaks out the words weakly, Yi Heon roars at him to say it properly. Drawing on his clowning experience, Ha Sun pulls himself to his full height and perfectly mimics the king’s words and tone.
Yi Heon stares, then bursts into barely-sane laughter.
Well, I’m in. I was drawn into this story about a king on the verge of madness and the lookalike young clown almost immediately, and despite my usual tendency to be confused by first episodes of sageuks (all those ministers look so alike!), the plot isn’t so complicated that I couldn’t easily figure out what’s happening. I like that we were put right down in the middle of the conflict without having to sit through several episodes of backstory first, though I’m intensely curious about what’s made Yi Heon go so completely batshit crazy when several people close to him have said that he used to be a good person. I’m looking forward to finding out what’s made Yi Heon this way, and how poor innocent Ha Sun will survive when he’s about to become the human equivalent of a baby duck thrown into the middle of a ravenous wolf pack.
Speaking of Yi Heon, he’s hard to like, isn’t he? I imagine that growing up in a palace could make a person hard and callous, but I wonder if he became that way because his father was hard on him, or if his father was hard on him because Yi Heon was supposedly heartless? Some interesting almost-throwaway comments were made about Yi Heon, such as that he stole the throne from Yul, the rightful heir, so there seems to be a lot more going on than what we’ve been told, and I’m convinced that the answer to Yi Heon’s slipping mental stability lies somewhere in his recent past. I can see glimpses of sanity in him, when he seems like someone who’s just been pushed to the edge of his breaking point. But he’s letting his fear and paranoia run rampant and committing unforgivable acts already, so I can’t help but wonder if it’s too late for him to be redeemed. I’ll reserve judgment until we learn what’s happened to make him this way.
I found Queen So-woon a really fascinating character, both for herself and for her effect on Yi Heon. She doesn’t seem scared to stand up to him, even knowing how merciless he can be, and she didn’t hesitate to say (respectfully) that Yi Heon’s behavior is probably the reason the gods haven’t given them an heir. But what really interests me is the way Yi Heon changed around her — he was in a blind rage, but the moment he stepped into So-woon’s chambers, the fury left him and he almost looked… wounded? In the face of So-woon’s censure, he basically gave up his entire argument, and when she gave him that pleading look, Yi Heon just seemed deeply sad (side note: that whole scene was masterfully acted by both Yeo Jin-gu and Lee Se-young). To me, Yi Heon and So-woon feel like a couple that loved each other once, and who probably still love each other, but his rage and paranoia have driven them apart so that they can’t connect anymore.
I prefer to go into shows knowing as little as possible, so I was expecting, from the two teasers I saw, for Yi Heon to simply be a young king who fears for his life because he’s overwhelmed by his position and the responsibilities and dangers that come along with it. But in fact, Yi Heon is basically a homicidal psychopath, and at this point I’m not sure that his being assassinated would be such a bad thing for the country. So I’m happy that Ha Sun seems to be a good guy — if recklessly impulsive — who truly cares about others, because he’s a character I can get behind. I’m scared for him… not just for his life as he plays decoy for Yi Heon, but because of the risk that palace life may taint him like it’s tainted Yi Heon.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge fan of Yeo Jin-gu’s since I first saw him the The Moon That Embraces the Sun, and I’ve watched him get better and better as he’s grown up. I haven’t seen everything he’s been in, but he still manages to amaze me with his incredible talent, and this show looks like it will be no different. His characterizations of Yi Heon and Ha Sun are so opposite, there’s no question which one he is at any given time, and I don’t think that will change even once Ha Sun begins to wear the kingly robes. Ha Sun is still very much a boy, playful and mischievous but loving and loyal to a fault, while Yi Heon often has this blank expression but with haunted eyes, and looks on the edge of losing his sanity for good at any moment. Even at the end, when each character had to say the same words with the same tone of voice, there was no question which was which just by the tiny twitches of fear on Ha Sun’s face. I don’t know what may happen to these two by the time this is all over, but wherever they end up, I know that Yeo Jin-gu will break our hearts over and over, times two, before we get there.
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