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Average user rating 4.9
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An Empress’s Dignity: an unexpected journey into makjang

SBS’s Wednesday-Thursday drama An Empress’s Dignity recently aired its final episodes, and it’s time for us to weigh in on this drama. We did an Episode 1-2 recap back in November when the drama premiered, but it got so much attention (for better or worse) during its run that I tuned in part-way through its run and thought a full review was in order.

An Empress’s Dignity was one of those dramas that required a little sitting back to assess it as a finished product. Why? Because watching this drama really was like hopping on a roller coaster, complete with thrills and whiplash. If you watched it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you didn’t, you’re about to read why each of the dizzying 52 episodes was a wild ride — but in the end, left me feeling like I was missing something. And no, I’m not just talking about all the dangling plot lines and abandoned characters.

When first announced, and during the start of production, An Empress’s Dignity didn’t give any signs of the drama it was going to become. Early descriptions said the drama’s setting was a fictional constitutional monarchy, where an imperial family ruled the Korean Empire. Shin Sung-rok was to play the emperor, which seemed completely suitable since he does bedazzling menace so well, and Jang Nara was the heroine and everyday girl who married him. Choi Jin-hyuk was also cast in a lead role as the imperial bodyguard who joins forces with Jang Nara’s character to revenge wrongs done. Revenge, justice, and romance set in an alternate history — what could possibly go wrong?

Well, I suppose it depends how you define a drama “going wrong.” An Empress’s Dignity was well-received; peaking at 17.9% in the ratings, and averaging around 13% for its run. The drama even earned itself a 4-episode extension — which, depending on how you look on it — is either a sign of the drama’s commercial success and popularity, or a total kiss of death for the wrapping up of the plot.

Also, despite on-set injuries to stars Choi Jin-hyuk and Shin Sung-rok and some behind-the-scenes labor union issues with regards to unfair working conditions, the drama saw no substantial negative media storms. Can a show be both successful and a train wreck at the same time? I think An Empress’s Dignity is proof that, yes, “successful” and “train wreck” are not mutually exclusive. A drama can be both, and this one was a doozy of a reminder.

The word “makjang” was thrown around from the very first episode, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did a double take, making sure I really was watching a primetime drama when I tuned into the first few episodes. It smacked of the crazy weekend makjang dramas that I had heard tales of, but never experienced first-hand. Now, with An Empress’s Dignity under my belt, I feel that I have. Can I get some kind of makjang survival award? Or at least a neck brace for my drama whiplash?

I’m normally very forgiving of my dramas and suspend my disbelief easily, especially in the name of a good story with rich, relatable characters. An Empress’s Dignity required a suspension of disbelief like none other with all of its twists, reveals, reversals, fake-outs, plot rewinds, and character appearances and disappearances.

One of the many ways the drama succeeded was through well-balanced episodes and constant plot movement. Each 30-minute episode covered tons of territory. When I think back on where some of the characters were at the start of the drama, then the ups and downs; twists and turns to the point where they finished out the drama, it’s pretty crazy.

Let’s take heroine Oh Sunny (played by Jang Nara) to start, since she was the moral compass of the drama, and the protagonist the viewers were meant to root for and relate to the most. In her exclusive Dramabeans interview, Jang Nara said she chose this drama to portray “an everyday girl going against the nation’s highest authority,” and that she hoped the drama would give hope and courage to its viewers.

Oh Sunny starts off as a naive character with a fangirl crush on Emperor Lee Hyuk, but with each experience witnessed and scandal revealed, slowly realizes the truth of what goes on inside the palace walls. “When I married into the imperial family I thought I hit the jackpot,” she says, “I didn’t know it was a filthy sewer.” Oh Sunny transforms from ditzy musical actress to the pinnacle of dignified badassery. She’s doggedly determined to reveal the truth behind all the murder and mayhem at the palace, and bring everyone to justice.

On the opposite side of the coin is the dowager empress (played by Shin Eun-kyung), whose character arc goes from evil to more evil. For all her hateful rage and lack of humanity, she was also a bit one-dimensional as a villain. Like many of the villains in this drama, she had a comedic side that counterbalanced any serious portrayal of evil, and made her more amusing than menacing.

We saw this especially with the character of Emperor Lee Hyuk, masterfully played by Shin Sung-rok. He received a lot of well-deserved praise and love for this performance. Shin was somehow able to pull off the fits of rage and murder, along with those of passion and slapstick comedy. He turned on a dime as quickly as the crazy script demanded and he showed us nearly every emotion under the sun, as well as the occasional hissy fit.

While it often felt like he was smashing vases and flipping tables for most of the drama, the emperor actually came to have one of the more interesting storylines and actually became a sympathetic and likable character, despite his many flaws and misdeeds. Despite being “a coward and a moron” (Empress Sunny’s words), he ultimately became the drama’s hero. But why bother to make him adorable, appealing, and hilarious in moments if he was just going to be a psycho again in subsequent scenes? I think this is part of the makjang methodology, where the entertainment value is the first priority.

But his lighter side was also used to signal to the audience that it would be very easy for us to forgive him for his crimes. Because of this, we would be more likely (hopefully!) to buy into the drama’s grand finale where the emperor takes on the persona of the drama’s other hero, Na Wang-shik. He takes on the hero’s persona both literally (through a masquerade), and figuratively, when he fulfills the revenge plot that’s driven most of the show. His act of bravery (or sacrifice, or insanity, or maybe all three) not only brings the drama’s mayhem to an end, but earns the emperor his place as the story’s hero. And that’s a good thing, since the drama forgot it already had a character that was presented as the hero from the get-go: Na Wang-shik.

The character of Na Wang-shik, alias Chun Woo-bin, (played by Choi Jin-hyuk) was positioned as the hero again and again. But the drama so rarely touched on him as a character that it was hard to really call him that. Though his journey to avenge the death of his mother (killed by the Imperial Jeep of Doom) drove the bulk of the story, his entire plot line was eventually dropped. Kind of like the complete non-event that was his death. I’ve talked about killing off heroes before, and my general feeling is, if you’re going to do it, you have to do it with aplomb — not as an afterthought, which is what happened to Na Wang-shik.

Na Wang-shik could have been a compelling character. He had the rich backstory of betrayal by his lover, the tragic death of his mother, and the innocent dongsaeng Dong-shik to protect. He also had no fear of death (thanks to the token bullet embedded in his brain), which is another great attribute for a larger-than-life hero.

He won over the fleet of imperial bodyguards; played Robin Hood to the countless other citizens who were victims of the imperial family, and planned some pretty elaborate heists and rescues… but we missed these great storylines. We were only told about them later, when it was convenient for the plot. Though it’s likely that Choi Jin-hyuk’s inability to participate in the 4 episode extension played a factor, it was almost as if the drama was plotting to dump him all along, and pass on the role of the hero to the emperor.

If that’s true, Na Wang-shik only mattered as a character because he (and later Sunny) was instrumental in making the emperor see the monster he had become. Even if this was his sole purpose, Na Wang-shik deserved a better send off than the one he got. The principal heroic death of the drama was given instead to the character that became heroic — the Emperor — but leaving Na Wang-shik in the dust seemed like the consequence of poor, rushed writing, not a compelling master plan.

An Empress’s Dignity was very good at building dramatic moments, whether they were twists or “who dunnit” reveals. The show was never afraid to utilize the entire arsenal of K-drama tropes: blackmail plots, seductions, secret passageways, and secret (sometimes double) agents. And never to disappoint, by the time the drama had finished we not only got a timely coma, but also the sudden onset of partial amnesia. Thank goodness.

All these elements, and more, were strung together to create a drama. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. From the spunk and fight of the heroine, to the table flipping, slaps, instant coffee PPL, and the incisive portrayals of public sentiment and media manipulation, there was a lot to enjoy. But is it possible to enjoy a drama, and yet be left feeling a little cold when it’s over?

Where the drama fell short for me was in the difference between watching characters on a wild ride, and actually experiencing it with them, through effective character growth or development. With An Empress’s Dignity, there was a metric ton of the former (watching), but not so much of the latter (feeling). I never felt like I got inside any of the characters enough for any real empathy. Instead, I was just watching their story play out from somewhere above the palace, as if I were peering in and watching, you know, a makjang drama.

This is one of the ways in which makjang works though, telling the story by hiding things from us, trying to trick us and pull the rug out from us, and faking us out again and again. At first it’s fun, but after about eighteen hours it gets a little tiring, like the drama that cried wolf. For instance, just how many times could the dowager empress’s crimes be exposed to the nation — only to be covered up yet again and things returned to normal two scenes later?

For all its fake-outs, missed storytelling opportunities, and dropped storylines, one thing is for certain: An Empress’s Dignity was built to be a pager-turner in drama form. From the extreme highs and lows, to the camp and comedy, the audience was surely meant to have as much fun watching the drama as the actors had telling its story.

In the end, I didn’t mind this journey into makjang territory, via the imperial palace, though it was a perilous place to visit. It was a place where people used their children as pawns and where love was a mere tool for political and social gain. In makjang territory, the lust for power trampled all human decency, and every other kimbap roll was spiked with deadly poison. The palace was proof that position and wealth are no guarantee of dignity or character, but sometimes, in a rejoinder to the words of the dowager empress, a pebble can face off against the boulder — and win.

 
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this drama was one helluva ride and definitely not one i thought i'd see in 2018 but i don't regret watching it and had tons of fun seeing other people discussing it so it was worth it

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One unintended side effect of watching this drama was that subconsciously I grew to dislike Shin Sung Rok. I know logically that it is the writing that is at fault, but man, his acting showed the worst that makjang had to offer. I don't think it'll be easy personally to pass off his acting as nuanced in the near future.

Also, I also agree that Choi Jin Hyuk was shafted to the side and even if was able to film for the last 4 episodes, with the way the drama was developing, his death would have played second-fiddle to the Emperor anyway, so in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise that he escaped the indignity. I like to think, with my great bias, that he was granted the opportunity to show the middle finger to the show and do it rightfully.

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I agree! I've liked Shin Sung Rok's dramas in the past but to see his acting in this one was definitively different. Oh, what makjang does to people. The writers were not much help either. Choi Jin Hyuk deserved so much better!

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I caught a handful of episodes courtesy of magnanimous Beanies on Rabb.it who allowed me to ask ignorant questions of the plot and characters. I was probably the annoying family member who walks through the room while everyone is intently watching and says, “Whacha doin?” I loved every second I saw. I didn’t catch the finale, but loved the fan wall gifs and screenshots. Never change, Beanies!

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it was so fun to watch in groups!

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It was the perfect blend of ridiculous that makes for a great group watch.

And you were not the annoying family member.

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It was obviously making fun of makjang, so I promoted it here and other sites. However, by the end it left a bad taste in my mouth. The extended episodes ruined everything. Shin Sung Rok was too outstanding in his role (and I love his acting) and so left Choi Jin hyuk in the dirt. I refuse to watch the extended episodes.

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Let's be clear. This drama was no masterpiece. But everyone was aware of it (including the actors), and once that was out of the way, it was SO DANG FUN. Anything outrageous i could imagine, it would happen in the next few episodes. I loved the random zooms, the over-the-top reactions, the slaps, the table flips, the hissy-fits. SSR (aka RH) and his mom were especially fun to watch.

I do agree with the «feel» part of your review, though. However, I believe watching this show requires a different mind set from the get-go. It should be watched with a brain that's shut down. Don't think, don't feel (Still 17 reference) and just sit back and enjoyyyy (and snark). I was that annoying extra-person in those dramas who unnecessarily points out obvious things and over-reacts to everything and I loved the power it gave me.

With that in mind, I find it pathetic how they treated na wang shik's character, but that only added to my laughs of how ridiculous this show is and how everything changes in a second. (which is technically the pace of this show... so while it felt odd... it felt over-the-top so it worked. not really. but it did cuz it was funny).

Last point: I loved how powerful the women were in this show. For a makjang, this show was actually quite progressive.

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What @justme said.

That we didn't know what we were getting before the drama aired, was, I believe, a great strategy. Like Sunny, we entered this world expecting one thing, only to find a maelstrom of crazy. Fortunately for us the makjang was not our reality, but boy did it cause some confusion at first.

That the women, whether they be good or evil, were the driving force of the action, is perhaps my favorite thing about The Last Empress. (sorry RH)

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Skipped the last two episodes... But overall, this drama is a crazy ride! So sad they just made Wang-shik disappeared... :((. To be honest, the Empress Dowager is the funniest character with all her evil things running around her head and heart, LoL. I love the fact that she wants to be forever young by having bath from colostrum, LoL.

Loving Sunny and Ari relation.... When the story got so crazy, I'd more invested with mother-daughter relationship...

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Wait what? Colostrum bath!!!!??????!!!!😶🤢😵

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Yep, there were several scenes where the Empress did that, then followed by a massage done by younger men, LoL.

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Aaand the Phoenix hairpin and the side pins on the top screencap are GORGEOUS.
In fact, I want ALL the pins and hanboks worn by Sunny!😍😍😍😍😍😍

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Shin Sung Rok was the MVP. He completely stole the show. I think the show's been great for his career--on Instagram, when the show first started airing, he had less than 80,000 followers but now he has almost 225,000.

Poor Choi Jin Hyuk got shafted. Felt like he got demoted to second male lead partway through the show.

Jang Nara was excellent. I can understand why she took this role. Very different from prior roles. Plus, she looked gorgeous wearing those royal robes.

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I still don't know what to decide. Should I watch it... or not?

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Go for it, but don’t take it seriously 😂

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I swear. I'm just watching it and its just too funny

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Even up to the last extended episodes, this drama was tripping fun. I was watching for Jang Nara and she didn’t disappoint me. Our Queen Sunny was daebak beginning to end. In fact all the actresses were great no matter how crazy their character. I loved the crazy hair pulling cat fights.

Sorry that Choi Jin Hyuk lost his lead spot, but Shin Sung Rok really stole my heart attention. He has always been one of my favorite villain actors but he got rom-com talent. I need him in a comedy again.

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I actually like SSR in comedy more than his villain roles 😅.

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Can't take this drama seriously from the moment Na Wang Sik got a total makeover through dieting.

I followed this drama to the end mainly to see how the Emperor turn from evil to in love to redemption.

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I found out that happened because they were going to have Choi Jin Hyuk wear a fat suit for the first 4 episodes and he thought that was just going to be too unrealistic. Like one of the very first scenes is his character diving into the water to rescue Sunny and he was all, "you want me to swim... in a fat suit with full face prosthetic makeup??" so they had that other actor play his part for the first few episodes. So I actually quit at that point because I just could not handle it and I'm glad I did.

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but his transformation was so RIDICULOUS - that was the selling factor for me, I was all-in at that point!
😜

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The magic haircut! I skimmed through the early eps and the transformation made me double take. How can he change from bulky to chiseled with a haircut? His bone structure was obviously very different 😆

It was a hilarious and memorable scene.

Fun tidbit: a magic haircut was also done in Return when the main actress left the drama and another actress replaces her. But that haircut was dark and nowhere near as glorious as NWS's magic haircut.

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when I heard that choi jin hyuk wasn't going to show in the last 2 eps, I thought writer-him would give him another haircut

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@Mel i thought writernim will do a time jump and show us long haired NWS with his original body size.

NWS's body size is directly proportional to his hair length 🤭

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Well there was a training montage the haircut was just the last piece of it.

*EYE ROLL*

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I loved this drama from the start, but the end made me mad. I wish they had shown more respect for Choi Jin Hyuk's character, just like everyone said. I know he wasn't there to film, but 1) why would they extend when they knew he wasn't available and 2) why wouldn't they even show flashbacks of him in the last 2 eps? He was totally erased.

It makes me sad when dramas I like end badly, because it makes me feel like I don't like the drama and I don't want to recommend it to anyone, even though I enjoyed 95% of it. Sigh.

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it reminded me of Where Stars Land at the end - they showed the back of Lee Je Hoon.... what was that??

the disappearing characters...

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I think Where Stars Land gave me just enough immunity to this ending. Like, since Choi Jin Hyuk didn’t play Na Wang Sik in the beginning, I can accept the stunt double playing his ending as well. I feel bad for CJH just cuz he was deal a poor character that turned out to be the boringest in the entire drama, but when watching I really didn’t miss him much in the last 2 episodes.

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TLE was a very fun ride especially with a group of people. Thank you rabb.it TLE beanies (finger hearts)

I wouldn't have started if not for word of mouth on the beanie wall and also the rabb.it watch. And if one plans to watch it, a different mindset is needed and just shut all logic.

I tried explaining the drama to my sister and friends but I got stumped. It was too ridiculous to retell 🤣.

There are plotholes (why was there 2 necklaces, who forged it?). And the storyline was jarring to say the least. But it makes good television. A drama that can entertain and make you boiling with rage at the same time.

And as @justme and @egads pointed out too..the women are the driving force in TLE. Be it good or bad, the women were the main masterminds. And it was amazing.

Maybe the main outcome of TLE for me was the rediscovery of SSR. I only saw him in 3 dads 1 mum (eons ago) and Trot Lovers. So it was a pleasant surprise to see him acting all ranges of emotion in this. I became a fan. Which is very obvious. Take a peek at my fan wall. Hahaha

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I also really liked the traditional garb. I'm not much a saeguk fan, so it was nice to see traditional garb in a modern set drama.

Jang Nara looked very regal in all her traditional outfits. Same goes to Shin Eun Kyung and even Empress So Hyun.

The traditional wedding was one of the most elaborate and colourful wedding I've seen in a Kdrama. I liked the wedding scene too for all its colours and extravagance. Haha

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I loved this drama unironically, everything about it was unexpectedly wonderful - I couldn't watch the last two episodes, though, because although I was prepared to see Na Wang-shik die, I can't say I was prepared to just not see him at all.

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Empress's Dignity and Return = the same big mess.

Honestly, I was hoping to see Shin Sung Rok in the role of a good emperor and I just see the same crazy character. I hope that he will be more interesting in Vagabond.

At least, the first part of the drama was pretty fun. After it came a nonsense.

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I love your article. I love all your screenshots of my beloved Hyuk, R.I.P, and all those swoonworthy moments of him and Sunny. I love what you wrote about how he became Hero and Villain in the end, fusing both in a lethal 2-in-1 combo, much like those instant coffee sachets that he loved so much, that provided so many laughworthy moments in the drama. Thanks for the memories. I miss the drama so much, and I miss my beloved Hyuk, most of all.

I wrote a fanfic because of my obsession with Hyuk, but it's growing into something else altogether.

I just uploaded Chapter 15: Do Not Look Back.

Check it out here.

https://www.asianfanfics.com/story/view/1386079/oh-sunny-s-diary-lee-hyuk-s-confusing-me

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One of my favorite things about TLE is how unpredictable it was. Not with plot twists (although those were fun too), but you could go from an attempted murder to an anime fight scene and then have a flashback with the Dowager Empress's voice dubbed by a 7 yr old. I love how it was the kind of show where you could just sit back and enjoy the ride, and watching on Rabbit made it even better. I started the drama because of SSR's coffee PPL and stayed well, for him too, but also for the awesome ladies and the way the whole drama was totally aware of how ridiculous it was.

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I just finished watching this drama this week and oh boy. It was definitely entertaining but it was a crazy and ridiculous show.

The way they just wrote Na Wang-shik out of the drama was so poorly done. Here is this character you have been building up as a hero and he just gets killed as an afterthought at the end. His story never really got finished. Clearly the extension caused issues but it was so poorly handled. I didn't care that he died, I just was annoyed it was so badly done. His character also was one of the most boring characters in the drama. We never really got any character development except he is a hero bent on revenge. Also, it was very hard to suspend belief that in just 2 months he lost all that weight, became shredded (those parts I can suspend belief on) and became an expect martial artist and weapons handlers that rivaled those who have trained for years (these parts I can't suspend belief on).

Lee Hyuk was definitely the most interesting character (and like others have said, Shin Sung Rok stole the show). I ran the gamut of emotions with him from hate, to pity, to loving, to hating, to loving. The problems I had with his character was the drama seemed to not know what his character should be. Hero or villain? He was complex but he was shallowly complex and confusing as a character at times.

There were also a lot of weird alliances formed throughout the drama. For example, I never understood why Min Yoo-Ra, Na Wang-Sik and Oh Sunny started working together. The drama told us it was because the Empress Dowager was responsible for separating her from her baby daddy, but it made absolutely no sense. Or why Oh Sunny and Na Wang-Sik was so willing to work with her and even worried about her. Her crimes and villain arc were so easily forgiven and written out of the drama.

The whole ending in general was just ridiculous. A lot of things that happened in the show and the crimes that were committed never really saw a conclusion. And the way the 2 criminals got caught was simply because they were blaming each other and naming their crimes in front of the hidden media (mighty convenient they blabbed it all at that moment). All these plans of revenge and machinations and everything came down to a simple hidden camera scheme.

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i'm pretty sure TLE is case of second lead becoming so popular that they had to make him THE LEAD

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i loved it all except for what happened to choi jin hyuk. but for me it was a very fun ride thru ridiculous done right. it was fun suspending all logic and just watching the actors have a ball with their roles and play them to the utmost! i could almost hear SSR laughing in the background on some of the scenes! they thoroughly enjoyed it and i did too. SSR definitely upped a notch in my awesome actor list!

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This drama without a doubt was one of the most horribly written melodramatic messes I have seen in years. I just usually give up dramas that are this terrible. Don't ask me why I continued. Maybe it's because watching the relatively talented cast ham up each week in this hot mess was actually kind of fun. Jang Nara got to stomp her tiny foot, talk tough and frown a lot in this one. That's a departure from her usual sweet and wounded role. Shin Sung rok showed everyone who's boss by stealing every scene and eventually the entire series. I don't know what this writer has done before but this was just a mess.

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This show was so brazenly ridiculous, and I loved it. I knew from the moment their idea of a make-over scene was to play the Rocky theme and switch out actors it was going to be amazing. You've gotta respect a show that so blatantly throws logic out the window to get the results they want. Even the extension episodes didn't bother me, since I thought they hilariously represented the hot mess that was this show. One of the main actors isn't available for the final episodes? Eh, just leave him out. 😂 (Although I did feel bad for Choi Jin Hyuk...) Some shows aren't meant to be masterpieces--they're just plain fun. I had a blast watching this show.

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Thanks for the recap. This drama sounded kind of interesting, but I watched a few episodes and it was stupid. I hate this kind of thing, and thanks to the review, will never watch it.

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Oh.. i want that makjang survival award too.. 😚😚

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The actors threw themselves gleefully into their roles and they gave us one fun ride.

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hmmmm this looks boring

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The first time I watched this drama, I was so confused what genre it was supposed to be. At one point it was a mystery, then turned romantic, then turned makjang. It was nevertheless very entertaining as long as you do not take it seriously, otherwise you are going to get a headache. Plotlines abandoned everywhere but still people watched it. Why? The cast did very well in their acting. While some people would dislike Shin Sung Rok in this, I actually liked how fast he can change his persona... his character was ridiculously, annoying, evil and lovable all at the same time. I was actually prepared for the Emperor to be killed in a spectacular manner to be redeemed in Sunny's eyes but well....ratings happened I suppose? Na WangShik's character went nowhere which is a shame. I kept on repeating the scene when he was supposed to die because I could not believe that they killed his character just like that. Jang Nara did wonderfully her part as the Last Empress and it was a fitting end to her strong character. Although it was a mess, I still loved watching it and I am going to terribly miss it.

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