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[Villains] The mad ladies of the palace


Jang Ok-jung, Live By Love

By Peony

As a sageuk fan, I’ve always had a fascination with the inner court where the charming, cunning, vicious ladies of the royal family resided. If what’s represented in historical dramas is anything to go by, the inner court was rife with political struggles, catfights and battles for his majesty’s attention. In short, not an ideal place to live if you craved stability and peace. But in all honesty, I prefer the power dynamics in the palace’s inner court to the Soron-Noron drama between mustache-twirling old fogies in the main court. The inner court was glorious to look at. It was full of colors and style; it was dramatic without being boring. If there was a place where the stuck-up ministers were rendered silent, where not even the king’s word was law, it was in the inner court.


The Crowned Clown

To survive within those walls, one needed a certain amount of wit and brains. Many of the royal consorts were trained since childhood to play their highly-coveted roles, but regardless of their training or their expectations about palace life, happiness was often ephemeral. Despite all the privilege and luxury, who would want to spend each day praying to sire a royal heir, in constant danger of being cut down by another lady or in fear of losing his majesty’s favor? If you didn’t manage to secure your own place, it was inevitable you’d be driven into power-hungry green-eyed madness, sooner or later.

The women of the inner court can be divided into three groups.


The Moon That Embraces the Sun

Queen Dowager/Queen Mother

Ah, the esteemed elder of the inner court, the queen dowager and queen mother was the only person who held a certain level of power over the king. Whenever they were caught concocting evil schemes (at least in some sageuks, sorry, to the kind Mama Queens!) their excuse was mostly; “I’m the mother of the king himself! I only want the best for my son!” If you have an evil queen dowager in your drama, it was quite possible that she would be the last villain to go down. In the end it would be revealed that she was the mastermind of nearly EVERYTHING, all because of the unimaginable power she held.

At least in mega-sageuks that ran 50-plus episodes, you got to see their character development more intimately, and in the end, their wisdom would be borne out. She might turn out to be the tough-loving powerhouse behind the throne, with an unwavering loyalty to her family and even one of your favorite characters. In 20 episode dramas? Not so much. Mostly they end up looking like born-a-villain-die-a-villain caricatures. Oh well. You can’t deny that they’re more fun to hate than those ministers.


The Moon That Embraces the Sun

Queen

More often than not, my heart goes out to this group the most. Queens were usually daughters of wealthy and favored families, separated from their loved ones and married off to a crown prince (or at least betrothed) while still a child. After reaching adulthood, the royal couple might realize that their hearts don’t actually lie in this marital contract. If the king realizes his heart doesn’t belong to his queen, he gets the luxury of chasing the love of his life–but she doesn’t. She might not even care, but everybody around her FORCES her to care, to make babies with a man she doesn’t love. Otherwise, her position would be in constant danger and she’d have to bear with uppity concubines. What’s more, if her family falls out in favor with the king’s family, she’d have to either give up her position or silently watch on as her family suffers, all alone.

It’s enough to make the sweetest and most upright woman turn evil.


Dong Yi

Concubine

The life of a royal concubine could be tough. Concubines typically ranked quite low in the pecking order so life was a constant game of survival–think cutthroat, constant scheming to receive or retain the favor of the king. It also seems like the closer a concubine got to the throne, the more evil she would become. When even a palace maid can rise to be a royal concubine and have her son named crown prince, no one could be sure of their position. I’d say they’re the prettiest group to look at to boot. In order to catch the king’s eye (and also because there’s not much to do in the inner court other than hold unofficial fashion contests), concubines had A+ fashion game and they typically adorned themselves with bright clothing and hairpins. The epic sageuk Dong-yi is one instance of the ways women managed to set themselves apart while staying within the parameters of traditional fashion. The “good” concubine Dong-yi never seemed to waste the treasury funds and wore the same hairpin forever and outfit for days, while the “evil” Jang Hee-bin wore differently shaped phoenix hairpins and outfits every day. There is no shortage of concubines in sageuks, which means gorgeous hanbok and hairpins galore. It’s a bit shallow of me I guess, but you can’t stop me from going all YAAAAY and soaking in the beauty. After all, if you’re going to be evil and mad, do it with style!


Cruel Palace

 
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Ah the inner court! I wonder why anyone would want to lead a life where every step needs to be a calculated move whether you are the Daebi Mama, the Queen or the Concubine. I am just fresh of watching the 50 plus episode of Empress Ki so I absolutely understand what you mean! The inner court is a dangerous place and I rather be a peasant than to be a part of the palace hehe.

Great writeup!

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Empress Ki was the epitome of ugly inner court drama. Ugh. It was so painful to watch.
Glad you enjoyed it!

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ooooOOO this is interesting! and if I may add, the evil power-hungry court ladies can also make the cut!
These are the ladies in waiting for the aforementioned Queens and concubines as well as the King and Princes.
Some vie to become concubines and raise their status.
Some are from the families of the high ranking nobles and ensure that what the nobles want, happens in the palace and keep them at their high statuses.
Court ladies (at least the highest ranking ones) have a certain power inside the palace and the evil ones sure make good (hehe bad) use of it!
My first introduction to them was in my first drama ever: Dae Jang Geum

They are in charge of everything from food to clothing to more for the royal family and can 'easily' make something go amiss!

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Aaand the list would've grown longer and bigger!
I thought I had to cut it down somewhere and drew the line at royalty. That's why😅. After all, court ladies don't wear pretty hanboks and hairpins no!

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haha yes! So many interesting sageuk characters!

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Dae Jang Geum and Emperor of the Sea are perfect shows for starting to watch sageuks. One learns nearly everything one should about class and power in one go.

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What an interesting post.
It reminds me that I need to get back to The Story of Minglan. Though not royal it was interesting to see the power dynamics of the women of the household and how they had to always be on their toes.

I'm watching Goong right now and am fascinated by the hair pieces.

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I looked it up; Story of Minglan and it slightly reminded me of DREAM OF RED CHAMBERS. Those aristocratic families...having so much kids they have to be numbered, intermarriage..a whole new kind of drama is going in the inner quarters of the mansion, house run by a capable, jelous, cunning matriarch...oh yes. Chinese novels and dramas take this to a whole new level. There Royal inner courts must've been hell!
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Hairpins will never fail to fascinate me too!🤣

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The murderous monstrous queen from Scarlet Heart Ryeo!

Grumble, grumble, still can’t believe I live watched it to the end!

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@hebang FlyingTool,
Manseh, Queen YooShouldn't'veHadKids! She was such a piece of work. But you have to give her brownie points for raising Wang Yo to have such a discerning eye for coordinating his accessories with Mom's. ;-)

I live-watched MOON LOVERS: SCARRED HEART to the bitter end, too. Utter masochism -- with extra added vertigo. For me the saving grace was Lee Joon-gi, along with the occasional deeply-moving interludes, such as the deaths of Lady Hae, Court Lady Oh, and Warrior Princess Park Soon-duk -- and Wang So's rainy Batman scene.

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Those scenes, especially, were the hook, line, and sinker. Thought to myself, WOW! They do know what they’re doing, it’ll get really good really soon now...

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@hebang FlyingTool,
Yup, those scenes reeled me in, too. My appreciation for beautiful cinematography resulted in my being hoist by my own petard. LOL!

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Oh yes. The unforgettable Queen SMS.
I was going for a slightly sympathetic vibe, and that woman was unforgivable. That's why I didn't include her😄.

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@peony,
Queen Hwangbo, mother of Wang Wook #1 (Kang Ha-neul) and Hwangbo Yeon-hwa, struck me as a much less nasty piece of work than Queen Yoo, who was bad to the bone. Yeon-hwa, however, seemed to want to be Queen Yoo when she grew up. Her machinations that resulted in the poisoning of Wang So were the pits. I grew to loathe her. The thought that Wang So ended up marrying her grossed me out. Yuck!

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It might be true that 'men marry their mothers' i.e. marry someone very similar to their mom!!! WS had a love-hate relationship with both Queen Yu and Yeon-hwa!!

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@persianrose,
I think you're onto something. Wang So had such a strong sense of self-preservation that it became painful to watch him trying to get along with the frustrating doormat known as Hae Soo. Aigoo! At least I think that's how it went. I seem to have managed to suppress most memories of that character -- but alas, not the sense of aggravation she evoked in me.

Interestingly, Yeon-hwa's counterpart in SHINE OR GO CRAZY was also obnoxious as heck. In LAND OF THE WIND, Koguryeo King Daemushin's consort Yi-ji, daughter of an antagonistic tribal leader, was another obnoxious, traitorous schemer. It made me wonder what was in the water up there. And over in Buyeo in JUMONG, where insecure Princess Won-hoo treats the hero and his Mom, who is now the King's royal concubine, atrociously. Really nasty Inner Court aggression. ;-)

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@pakalanapikake K-dramas specially period dramas are so crafty in making the most detestable female characters... loathsome moms and sisters, sickening best friends, despicable wife, etc. The aggravation some characters evoked in me is so much that I can barely trust anyone in real life!!!
Also, is it so wrong that I liked Yeon-hwa's counterpart in SHINE OR GO CRAZY (aka Lee Ha-nui) more that the main characters!!!

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AAAAA!! Thank you! Thanks a lot!!!
I had so many regrets after sending this, for I thought there were so much errors and I could've written it so much better..so I thought it'd never get posted. It's my 1st published article😊😊.
Thanks for all the corrections, for choosing the most appropriate out of the picture links I send, and re-doing the ending line for better!😘😘😘

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Congratulations!

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Thanks!❤

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You did a great job! Thank you for submitting. 🤗

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*bows down in the Sageuk way*
Thank you.

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Some are really true villains. But I pity a lot of them, they were just pushed by their family to gain power. They are pawns in power game. The King/prince often show as a kind and fair character surrounded by petty women. It doesn't always seem very fair for the women.

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Yay, @peony! Great essay, especially as I've recently watched JANG OK JUNG, LIVING FOR LOVE. Killer fashion sense wasn't the only thing on display in that drama.

Inner Court warfare and espionage is often hair-raising, especially when black magic is involved, as was the case in MIRROR OF THE WITCH / SECRET HEALER. Thank you for including the photo of the wonderful Kim Young-ae from MOON EMBRACING THE SUN. Interestingly, she played another Daebi Yoon who resorted to the black arts in her final sageuk, MOTW. Talk about ruthlessly cutthroat. *shivers*

Jang Young-nam portrayed the scheming Daebi in CROWNED CLOWN, and also Mongol Princess Wonsung / Queen Consort of Goryeo -- the ferociously protective mother of Seja Wang Won -- in THE KING LOVES. That's quite a step up from shaman Court Lady Ari in MOON EMBRACING THE SUN. She's memorable in all of these roles.

At the other end of the spectrum are the queens dowager who somehow remain in power despite their and their advisors' abject incompetence. I'm looking at you, Daebi Shim in GRAND PRINCE. Usurper son Lee Kang and his wife, Yoon Na-gyeom, instigated and abetted by evil uncle Daegun Yang-an, ran circles around her and her clueless "advisor" brother.

And then there are the powerful court ladies. Two memorable ones are FAITH's fearlessly loyal Court Lady Choi (Kim Mi-kyung), who was Choi Young's auntie, and Gwanghaegun's overzealous Court Lady Kim Gae-shi (Kim Yeo-jin) in HWAJUNG / SPLENDID POLITICS.

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Thank you!
Oh I totes forgot there was an evil Daebi mama in MOTW. I actually thought of it when writing this, but the Queen who came to my mind was Jang Hee-jin(?) whose character I quite liked. Amongst the most despicable mini-drama Queen moms Moon Embracing the Sun Daewangdaebi mama(I guess that's the word, I remeber Hwon's eunuch loudly announcing😂) was the worst.
And that pic of Jang Young-nam in CROWNED CLOWN was spectacular I literally had it downloaded until the topic I could use it for arrived lol.
Speaking of Moon,Sun and Jang Young-nam, let's hope Ms. Jeon Mi-sun's soul finds peace☹️.
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Competent Evil Daebis usually get killed or expelled by the end no! Perhaps that lady managed to remain in the position because she was no actual harm?
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One of my fave Daebi mamas is the one in HORSE DOCTOR(probably shows my inexperience 😅), played by Dae Jang-geum's mom. Perhaps that's the reason why, that charming actress turned a dislikable character to something else.
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(*Whispers* I actually name dropped Kim Gae-shi, but she didn't make the cut, along with the 3 other notorious ladies. I understand now it might've looked like unnecessary, pretentious information on display, so it's good😅😁)

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@peony,
Amen to Ms. Jeon Mi-sun resting in peace. I was saddened to read of her passing. Such a great actress.

Heh heh heh. I mentioned Court Lady Kim Gae-shi specifically because Kim Yeo-jin grabbed my attention with her performance. I've kept my eyes peeled for her ever since (and enjoyed her portrayals in CAN YOU HEAR MY HEART?, ANGEL EYES, MOONLIGHT DRAWN BY CLOUDS, SOLOMON'S PERJURY, and TERIUS BEHIND ME). For some strange reason I get her confused with Kim Jung-young, whom I've also liked since her turn as Doc Dong-joo's mom in ROMANTIC DOCTOR, TEACHER KIM. Go figure. -- At any rate, Kim Gae-shi is a memorable badass. She's the one who bumped off Gwanghaegun's little stepbrother by literally turning up the heat. She would do just about anything to protect her boss, plus she was a great strategist in her own right, and an excellent sounding board.

In MIRROR OF THE WITCH -- which in my book is a waaaay better title than SECRET HEALER because it refers to Heo Joon's life's work, The Mirror of Eastern Medicine [Dongui Bogam], as well as a method of repelling bad ch'i and malign entities -- I felt bad for Queen Shim (Jang Hee-jin). She was thoroughly bulldozed by Dowager Queen Mom Yoon into using black magic to conjure up a royal heir. And then when the black magic went sideways, it killed Seja. IIRC, Evil Queen Grandma didn't live to experience firsthand the karmic payback for the suffering she caused... unless some of those black tendrils followed her into the hereafter. Grrr.

Yeah, the really evil Daebis usually end up executed -- or dethroned and permanently shipped off to a temple to contemplate their sins if for some reason they cannot be given Ye Olde Bowl of Joseon Poison. Daebi in GRAND PRINCE wasn't actually evil, she just didn't give #2 Prince Kang enough love and attention because Wonja was so sickly his whole life. But she allowed cute little love bug #3 Prince Hwi to stay in the palace after he should have moved out like his brother. Mom's inconsistency led to unnecessary pain and suffering for the whole kingdom, but IMHO, the harshness of royal child-rearing practices was even more to blame. To cut her some slack, she was widowed, and had her hands full as #1 Prince's Regent. Too bad she didn't have a Kim Gae-shi of her own to thwart Evil Uncle -- and ride herd on Prince Kang. ;-)

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Me too metoo! Mix up the exact too actresses lol.
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Plus MIRROR OF THE WITCH is such a poetical and romantic title! It perfectly gives off the goth fairy tale vibe and goes with the posters! How can we settle for sonething else hehe?

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Thank you, @peony! I'm so relieved to learn I'm not the only one who confuses them. They're both great character actresses.

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I guess we can all agree that we prefer inner court drama than the main court’s!
Things really goes down there.
You find yourself feeling sorry for most of the women’s and some are just downright evil for the stupidest reasons!
I still can’t watch dong Yi even though I love Han hyo joo because I watched Jang ok Jung; Live for love first and I can’t stand her portrayal in the former, probably because I’m not over Jang ok Jung yet!

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It's reverse for me. While I'm all out for a positive portrayal of Jang Hee-bin since DONG YI has already pushed my mind towards that way, I couldn't watch JOJ LIVE BY LOVE because of the unnecessary and silly negative portrayal of Choi Suk-bin. Hehe.

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@peony, @esther95,

After watching HAECHI, I didn't like the odious way Choi Suk-bin was portrayed in JANG OK-JUNG, either. From the get-go she was depicted as a thief and a liar. It really set my teeth on edge. I couldn't reconcile that image with the vibe I got from Jung Il-woo as her son. IIRC, his mother doesn't even appear in flashbacks in HAECHI. But her lowly origins led Lee Geum to understand and respect his subjects in a way that the high and mighty movers and shakers never could.

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Fun fact: Liking a character also sometimes depends on the actor portraying it and how it was delivered
I can be biased sometimes😅😅
I’ll try and watch Dong Yi just to see how it’ll be!

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@esther95,
You've got that right. A case in point: Kim Ji-suk in REBEL: THIEF WHO STOLE THE PEOPLE, and Lee Dong-gun in SEVEN DAY QUEEN, both portrayed the most reviled tyrant in Korean history sympathetically. Their Yeonsanguns were layered and nuanced, and you could understand how they each went off the rails.

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Yeah, I have to say..part of the reasons that caused JOJ to tank probably was how Choi Suk-bin's character was written, and the actress they got to play the role. I mean, I liked her well enough in AGE OF YOUTH, but I cannot imagine the reason why they assigned such an important role like Lady Choi to such a young, inexperienced actress like her, whose posture and appearance didn't match that of a formidable, known consort either. She never was a worthy opponent to either Inhyun or Ok-jung, and became a butt of joke.
Queen Inhyun actress(who played the Royal Princess in PRINCESS' MAN, sadly not much in the field), could've nailed the role of Lady Choi, on the other hand.
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Don't worry, in Dong-yi, each one of the trio are lovable and relatable and well-played! At least for me😊.

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I watched both Dong Yi and JOJ and I definitely recommend Dong Yi over JOJ. Imo DY is just better acted and better directed overall. I adore and cheer for everyone in DY (except for the stupid and abhorrent brother and mother of Jang Hee Bin). In JOJ, there are so many glaring hiccups in storytelling and acting that are hard to ignore and made me drop the show several times. I would just watch JOJ for Yoo In Ah (lol!), his performance is the only highlight of JOJ to me.

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@purplefall July 16, 2019 at 11:24 PM

Truth to tell, Yoo Ah-in was a big reason why I kept watching. And the music was gorgeous. ;-)

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@purplefall @pakalanapikake Because Yoo Ah In can do no wrong 😊😁

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"I prefer the power dynamics in the palace’s inner court to the Soron-Noron drama between mustache-twirling old fogies in the main court"
AHAHAHAHAHA So true XD
Great write up Peony! The 3 sections are interesting, more so because it really is the structure of inner palace. And agree on the concubines being the prettiest & most colorful, while the queen may be the grandest of them all.
I haven't seen a lot of sageuks but the 50-eps one definitely display the workings of the inner court in details, my prime fav example: Dae Jang Guem. Nothing like showing the power pay between the ladies in more than one generation.
Currently I'm reading a C-manga, Queen Ling, & man, the ladies of the inner court are the deadliest ones ever.

(And congratulations on getting published dear Peony :-D <3 )

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@fatcat007,

There was plenty of bitchtastic inner court infighting in NIRVANA IN FIRE. It was interesting to watch those distaff power plays, although the Emperor could and did intervene on occasion. And the costuming was out of sight. ;-)

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It's most fun when the dowager/queen/consort has full authority over the harem/inner court to the extent that even the king interfering would be politically impossible/ troublesome. Watching all the mind games & cut throat is simply delicious.

While I may say this, I'm weak to too much conspiracies and tend to watch less of this, but it's admirable regardless.
Nirvana in Fire has received so much positive reviews but I'm still hesitant to watch it hehe

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Oh yes. They literally tended to go on hunger strikes and such if the King/Emperor dared to intervene the inner court's workings. Queen mom mostly, followed by the ministers under her command then the Sunkyunkwan scholars🙄.

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Sometimes the women wield power as they come from families of (sometimes uncomfortable)allies so even if the King doesn't like them, he cannot directly go against them either.
It's a viscous cycle of hunting game where the predator can become prey at any time 😈

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P.S.- Queen Munjeong of DJG would be my all-time favourite Queen. She was so ladylike and so badass at the same time, so unbiased and SO in control, so strict and so kind. Such an interesting personality. She was the true power behind the the throne, whereas Queen mom plays that role in most dramas.
The actress played her to a tee. I would've loved to see her other works, but sadly she's not a known actress just like Hong Ri-na (Choi Geum-young)☹️.

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Yes. She was very good actress 🙂

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Mishil is one of mad ladies I guess. Not mad, she's cool but yeah she's quite mad when I rethink about it.
Court lady choi back then in Jewel in The Palace also broke the scale of madness itself I think. She's only want to survive though, but still..

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They are indeed.
Never forgot about them, both of them are my absolute faves. I just wanted to shed a sympathetic light on the dark and suffocating life led by the ladies in the most coveted positions of the inner court.
For all their problems, Mishil and Lady Choi were never trapped, they had a lot of freedom and were where they always wanted to be. Mishil especially, was a politician, ruler than a mere trapped consort.
I'm pretty sure somebody will definitely write about her this month. Ther's no shortage of Mishil lovers!😄

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very well, *high five*

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HA! I love this post. And yeah, I always do have a soft spot for the Queens. Not so much for the half sister in Scarlet Heart, tho. Not at all, in fact.

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