Haechi: Episodes 21-22
This episode goes to some very dark place, both for Yi Geum personally and for the country as a whole. The Saheonbu is out of control, the only sane people are powerless to stop what’s happening, and the ministers refuse to follow the king’s orders. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if they just don’t give up, and support comes from the last place they’d ever expect.
(A heads-up for the tender-hearted — this episode contains a scene depicting violence against a child that can be difficult to watch.)
EPISODE 21: “The limp, the face with smallpox scars”
Yi Geum prepares to face the Saheonbu supreme court, but the proceedings are interrupted by Minister Min, who brings in the little girl who killed Chief Inspector Oh. At the same time, Moon-soo leads his Saheonbu friends to break down the gate to Ji-kwang’s gibang and arrest him for human trafficking, but Yi Tan shocks them by coming out and accusing them of abusing the people.
Yi Tan says that he and Ji-kwang are in business together, selling ginseng to the Qing Dynasty. Moon-soo draws his sword angrily and Jang-dal and Ah-bong remind him that Yi Tan is royal, but he snarls that he doesn’t care.
Byung-joo asks Yi Geum if he recognizes the girl, but Yi Geum can only stare at her in horror. Byung-joo offers to jog Yi Geum’s memory, and he rips the shirt from the girl’s shoulder to reveal her “murder the master” tattoo and accuses Yi Geum of knowing that she’s Chief Inspector Oh’s murderer.
Yi Geum removes his royal robes to cover the girl and tells the others to stop torturing a child. He admits that he saw her the day Chief Inspector Oh was killed, and asks if that’s what they need to hear to make this stop.
As a peasant man with a limp enters the capital, Vice Minister Lee tells the king that things have gotten much worse — Yi Geum is being accused of protecting the murderer. King Kyungjong orders him to send the Imperial Guards to bring the prince to the palace, making it a direct order despite the risk of making the situation much worse.
The building is empty when Moon-soo and the others arrive at the supreme court, so Moon-soo sends Yeo-ji and Jang-dal to the palace while he and Ah-bong head to the inspectors’ room. They find the inspectors planning to attack the camps where the children with “murder the master” tattoos are living, with permission from the chief inspector to kill anyone who gets in their way.
Despite his intense dislike for Moon-soo, Young-han tells him and Ah-bong to come with his team. Moon-soo is horrified at what’s about to happen, even though Hyuk says that the children are also criminals.
Yi Geum paces his cell until Minister Min comes to see him. He says that the children aren’t the only guilty ones, and Minister Min agrees exploitation, high taxes, poverty, and hunger has caused people to become desperate enough to sell their children, and for children to take up murder. He says this will happen as long as status and power exist, and calls Yi Geum naïve for thinking he can change it.
At the camp, Moon-soo and Ah-bong watch in horror as adults and children alike are brutally beaten. Moon-soo tries to scream at them to stop, but his voice is a weak whisper. He shoves an inspector who’s attacking and seriously injuring a young girl, yelling that they’re killing these children without even a trial.
Young-han kicks Moon-soo in the face, but Moon-soo throws his body over the half-conscious girl and takes the blows meant for her, and Ah-bong is also attacked by the officers when he tries to help Moon-soo. They’re overpowered, and Moon-soo screams in agony as the girl is pulled from his arms.
Dal-moon has already heard about Yi Geum by the time Yeo-ji finds him, and he tells her that Yi Geum will be taken to Hanseongbu, the agency in charge of the capital’s administration that’s run by Minister Min. Yeo-ji is shocked that the Saheonbu and Hanseongbu are working together, and Dal-moon confirms that they intend to insult Yi Geum in front of the people.
At the palace, the Soron ministers refuse the king’s order to send the Imperial Guards for Yi Geum. Queen Seonui barges in to say that he can’t give up his loyal officials for the life of one person, even the crown prince.
Byung-joo arrives to take Yi Geum to Hanseongbu without a horse or palanquin for him to ride, and Yi Geum snarls that they’ll also need some rope if they really want to insult him. The people gather to stare at the crown prince as he’s led through the streets on foot, and he can hear them murmuring that this is what they expected from the child of a peasant.
Yi Geum holds his head high, eyes straight ahead, until he sees Yeo-ji in the crowd. Dal-moon warns her not to speak to him or she’ll be arrested, but when she looks as if she might say something anyway, Yi Geum pleads with her to stay quiet.
They encounter the Saheonbu returning to town, and Yi Geum gapes at Moon-soo and Ah-bong who are tied up, bruised, and bleeding. Ah-bong asks why Yi Geum is being treated this way, and Moon-soo is beaten again when he struggles to go to Yi Geum. Byung-joo urges Yi Geum on, and he stumbles in his grief at his friends’ suffering on his behalf.
Yi Tan and Ji-kwang watch the processions, and Yi Tan muses that things are working out very strangely when he hasn’t even enacted his plans yet. Ji-kwang mentions seeing Yi Geum in “a beggar’s den,” and Yi Tan demands to know what he means by that.
News of the “murder the master” group has brought a lot of nobles seeking shelter in the capital, and one of the gate guards complains about it to a humbly-dressed man carrying a tiny kitten. When the man shows his ID naming him as Chief Justice Jo, leader of the Sorons (cameo by Sohn Byung-ho), the guard stammers an apology.
CCJ visits Minister Min, giving him the kitten as a gift. The two talk like old friends, and Chief Justice Jo marvels that Minister Min is still strong even when keeping to the shadows, asking when he plans to take back his position as Noron’s chief.
Minister Min says that their two parties used to be one, the Seoin Party, and he objects to the Sorons’ belief that the king should run the country because one bad king can ruin the kingdom. Chief Justice Jo counters that a group of people can ruin a kingdom just as effectively.
With a sigh, Minister Min admits that the Norons are corrupt, but he says he wants to save the roots of the Norons. Chief Justice Jo warns that if he targets the crown prince, the Sorons will accuse the Norons of treachery. Minister Min asks if the king can handle angry, opinionated nobles, and tells his friend that he should give up the crown prince or the king will be in danger.
In the morning, Chief Justice Jo joins the Soron ministers at the palace, and they’re thrilled to see him. He suggests that they dethrone Yi Geum, saying that it won’t solve all their problems, but if they give in now, it will calm things down and earn them the chance to win later.
The Sorons and Minister Min’s Noron followers arrange for an audience in order to talk with the king. When Minister Lee and his Norons see the two groups being friendly, they interpret it to mean that the Sorons plan to abandon Yi Geum.
Moon-soo’s first thought when he regains consciousness in jail is to ask Ah-bong what happened to Yi Geum. Meanwhile, Yeo-ji creeps around the Hanseongbu buildings trying to find where they locked up the crown prince.
The ministers are concerned when King Kyungjong doesn’t show up for the audience. It turns out, he sneaked out of the palace and went to see Yi Geum, and he grows angry when Yi Geum tells him to listen to the people and dethrone him. He asserts that he is the king, and says that responsibility can only be taken by the one with the right to do so.
King Kyungjong finally joins the ministers and states firmly that he will not allow any petitions to dethrone Yi Geum. Infuriated, Minister Min comes perilously close to accusing King Kyungjong of siding with murderers against the nobles, and even his friend Chief Justice Jo warns him to remember he’s speaking to the king.
King Kyungjong had told Yi Geum to defend his right to be crown prince, so while the king is addressing the ministers, Yi Geum stands in the center of town to talk to the nobles. He states that he discovered that the children who became “master murderers” were only trying to avoid being sold to Qing by human traffickers.
He says that the exploitation and high taxes imposed by the nobility is forcing families to sell their children, and that joining the murderers is the only way they can stay in the country. He asks why they’re imposing such high taxes when the people are already paying to work the nobles’ land, instead of taxing the rich who own the land.
The listening nobles laugh at the suggestion that they should pay taxes, since those people are using their land to make a living. Yi Geum counters that without those who farm the land, the nobles would have nothing to eat or wear. He swears that when he’s king, he’ll make the landowners pay the taxes. This doesn’t please the nobles, but the people listening are moved by his determination to set things right.
Chief Justice Jo asks King Kyungjong why he’s siding with Yi Geum. King Kyungjong reminds him that when he was crown prince, Chief Justice Jo taught him, “A wise man should be ashamed of having nothing to be ashamed of.” He says that politics should help the poor, not make the rich even richer, and that he won’t dethrone a man who knows shame and wants to help the weak.
When Minister Min hears about Yi Geum’s speech, he orders an announcement sent out to the lecture halls and schools — if the king won’t dethrone Yi Geum voluntarily, then they’ll just force him to do it. He nearly walks right into Yi Geum, who smirks that Minister Min should greet him with respect since he’s still the crown prince.
In private, King Kyungjong is angry with Yi Geum, thinking that he said whatever he wanted because he promised to protect him. Yi Geum says tearfully that he only wanted to say what he’s been wanting badly to say while he’s temporarily the crown prince, and that that moment was enough for him.
Young-han releases Moon-soo and Ah-bong, grumbling that the crown prince is finished so they have no reason to harass his friends. Moon-soo and Ah-bong head to the palace, where there’s a crowd of nobles crying out for the crown prince to be punished.
Yeo-ji is there, and she tells them that Yi Geum brought this on himself. She says she tried to stop him, but when she heard him speaking out on behalf of the people, she was overwhelmed and froze up.
The man with the limp that we saw entering the city sets up a stall in the market as vendors talk about what Yi Geum said, and how he should have kept his mouth shut since now he’ll definitely be dethroned. But the man with the limp says that Yi Geum was right about the nobles living lavishly because of them, while his leg is marred because of his master.
Elsewhere, a woman with smallpox scars who heard Yi Geum’s speech tells the women washing clothes at the river that her father had to sell her as a slave to pay his taxes, since her scars kept her from becoming a gisaeng. She cries at the thought of Yi Geum being dethroned and never helping people like her.
After dark, Vice Minister Lee and Minister Jo look at the complaints from nobles plastered all over the palace walls, and they predict that the king will be forced to dethrone Yi Geum after all. But one letter grabs Vice Minister Lee’s attention — it’s from a commoner, in support of the crown prince, and the writer even attached their ID plate.
By morning, hundreds of commoners are tossing their ID plates into a huge pile by the wall, showing their willingness to put their lives on the line for the first noble to ever speak up for them. Jang-dal and Ah-bong add their plates to the stack, and Moon-soo asks Dal-moon if he had anything to do with this.
Dal-moon breathes reverently, “This is something that cannot be manipulated by anyone. It’s the true thoughts of our people.” They both take our their ID plates and throw them on the pile.
Naturally, Byung-joo and the Saheonbu officials are beside themselves. Byung-joo asks why the Hanseongbu guards aren’t arresting people, and he’s told that the Imperial Guards are protecting them.
The pile of ID plates keeps growing, with people adding stones or pieces of wood with their names painted on them when they don’t have an ID plate. Yeo-ji brings Yi Geum a stone with the name “Kkot-nim” written on it — the girl who killed Chief Inspector Oh had asked her, from her jail cell, to add her name to the pile.
Awww, Kkot-nim had never seen her name in writing before. Yeo-ji had shown Kkot-nim a stone with her own name written on it, and had promised to put it on the pile next to hers. Kkot-nim had also asked Yeo-ji to thank Yi Geum for what he did for her, and he’s moved to tears at the show of support from Kkot-nim and all of the people.
Chief Justice Jo asks Minister Min what he thinks will happen if the people start protesting instead of just making piles of ID plates. Minister Min asks Chief Justice Jo if he’s decided to back Yi Geum because he has the people’s support, and Chief Justice Jo chuckles that at least the Sorons will win, even if it’s a short-lived victory.
He agrees to handle a few things for Minister Min and the Norons, just to keep things civil between the factions. Minister Min says that the crown prince is very unlucky, as this was his only chance to keep his life intact.
After dark, Minister Jo catches Vice Minister Lee putting his ID on top of the now-enormous pile, but he admits that his ID is in there too, and they laugh that at least they can’t report each other. Minister Jo asks permission to join the Prince School, the office in charge of education the crown prince, because he wants to know what kind of person Yi Geum is.
Alone in the palace, Yi Geum recites to himself names and descriptions that he read on stones and ID plates today: Ma-seon, who has a limp… a woman with smallpox scars… a guard with only nine fingers… students, peasants, slaves, and even nobles, all of them putting their hope in the only person who ever offered to help them.
Yoon-young is annoyed with Yi Tan for sitting around doing nothing while Yi Geum is gaining supporters. Yi Tan tells her that he’s trusting in karma these days, and that he prayed for Yi Geum not to be dethroned so that he can personally get rid of him and become king. (Yoon-young suddenly grows frightened, stammering something about Ji-kwang sending Dal-moon to “bring in the beggars,” but the scene is very disjointed and it’s unclear exactly what’s going on.)
Yi Geum leaves to visit Moon-soo, which worries Ja-dong, but Yi Geum assures him that he has the king’s permission. Moon-soo is still recovering from his injuries and apologizes for sitting oddly, but Yi Geum jokes that he’s always been impolite.
Moon-soo sighs in frustration that he thought his problems would be over once he became an inspector, but he gets blocked from all sides. He says that intentions alone don’t accomplish anything, but Yi Geum gently encourages him not to give up.
On his way out, Yi Geum runs into Yeo-ji, and they sit down to talk. Yeo-ji worries that Yi Geum’s life is in danger, and Yi Geum says that competent people often become targets, and after all, he’s smart and handsome as well as being the crown prince.
But Yeo-ji is frustrated that he’s not taking her seriously, and says she wants to become a court lady in the Crown Prince Palace. She thinks it’s just a lot of menial work, but she says she can handle it if it means being close enough to protect him.
Alarmed, Yi Geum says there’s a lot more involved in being a court lady than chores. He sits and takes Yeo-ji’s hands, intending to demonstrate what it means to be a court lady. He pulls her hands closer, saying that this kind of thing can happen, then slowly leans in as if to kiss her.
Well, I wasn’t expecting that after such a wrenching episode, but I guess it was just a matter of time. Yi Geum has been fighting his feelings for Yeo-ji for a long time, and he’s just narrowly escaped losing his position and possibly even his life. It makes sense that he wouldn’t want to keep denying himself, and she left him the perfect opening to explain exactly what a her duties might be if she enters his palace as a court lady. And even though Yeo-ji hasn’t given much indication that she returns Yi Geum’s feelings, she was also leaning into him, so I doubt that she’ll object to this additional “duty.”
This episode was beyond difficult to watch. I knew that things would get very very bad for Yi Geum and his friends, but I wasn’t expecting to see children being beaten and our heroes so helpless to do anything about it. Jung Il-woo and Kwon Yul are so perfectly cast… I could barely even look at their expressions of horror, shock, and betrayal when they saw each other in the street and realized the torture they were each suffering. It’s episodes like these, and acting performances like these, that make me feel very inadequate as a recapper because there’s just no way to describe the visceral emotional reaction they evoke — you just have to see them for yourself.
Speaking of visceral reactions… initially, I felt that the scene at the children’s camp was unnecessarily violent. I even had to take a little break to calm down, and I’m not somebody who usually gets upset at things I know are staged and didn’t actually happen. But after seeing the rest of the episode, I believe it was necessary to show what exactly the common people are suffering at the hands of the noble class, and what exactly it is that Yi Geum and his friends are fighting for. In dramas, which are made for television, often these situations get softened to the point where it feels like the worst thing happening is the nobles sitting around while the peasants work really hard, but that’s not even close to the historical truth. These children are faced with a choice between slavery in another country, or selling themselves as assassins in exchange for a hovel to live in, just to stay in their own country. Seeing the stark truth of what they’re willing to risk (and I don’t fool myself that in reality, it would be much, much worse) really hits home why Yi Geum is so determined to help the common people.
But there was a lot of good in this episode too, and I continue to be impressed with King Kyungjong and how he’s turning into a strong, right-minded king. He sees in Yi Geum the same thing that their father saw — the heart of a man who knows what it is to be powerless, and who wants to use his privilege to help those who have no power of their own. He sees the injustices in the country and wants to fix them, and not, as Minister Min does, use his power to make the already-strong even stronger. Yi Geum still sometimes lacks the confidence in himself to speak out, which showed when he was speechless at the supreme court and again when the king told him to defend his position, and he was almost too afraid to do it. But once he realizes that there’s no other choice, Yi Geum is eloquent and sincere enough to change the minds of those who were previously against him. It almost doesn’t matter whether the Norons or the Sorons support him, because now he’s gained the loyalty of the people — the ones who really matter.
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