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.
- An Empress’s Dignity: Episodes 1-2
- Premiere Watch: An Empress’s Dignity, Red Moon Blue Sun, SKY Castle, Priest
- An imperial wedding for An Empress’s Dignity
- Mailman Choi Jin-hyuk and Christmas-fairy Jang Nara for An Empress’s Dignity
- Royal strife in SBS’s An Empress’s Dignity
- Choi Jin-hyuk to costar opposite Jang Nara in An Empress’s Dignity
- Lee Elijah becomes villainess for An Empress’s Dignity
- Jang Nara up to play actress-turned-empress in An Empress’s Dignity