Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung: Episodes 21-24 Open Thread
Our rookie historian bravely faces the consequences of the life she has chosen for herself, coming up against her most terrifying foe in the palace so far. The good news is that she has far more allies now than she did when she first entered the palace, and although the historians might have to literally risk their lives to stand on their principles, at least going through adversity together is a bonding experience like no other. And it doesn’t hurt that a certain prince has personally dedicated himself to her well-being and comfort.
EPISODES 21-24 WEECAP
Not only is Hae-ryung arrested for refusing to tell the king what she overheard him saying to Councilor Min, this sets off a full-scale war between the king and the Office of Royal Decrees, because it’s unprecedented and illegal for a king to read the historians’ records, and they’re not having it.
That doesn’t stop the king from sending officials from the Secretariat to confiscate them anyway, which leads to a hilariously wimpy, over-the top fistfight in the historians’ courtyard that even the apprentices get in on. (Except Woo-won, who is quietly a badass. Of course he is.)
Hours later, the historians battered and barricaded in their inner sanctum, Yang gives a rousing speech about not giving in to the king because it will undo hundreds of years of effort from their predecessors, who fought for more access to the court despite harsh and despotic monarchs.
The male historians are all moved to tears in a sweet but funny moment, except Woo-won, who sighs long-sufferingly. The female historians are embarrassed for—or of—them, haha. (I’m with mary: Yang is totally the mom and Woo-won the dad of this group.)
Meanwhile, Rim sneaks into Hae-ryung’s cell with blankets and the Joseon version of a Lunchbox of Love, vowing that he’ll be her neighbor if she’s exiled, or help her run away if she needs to. She’s touched, and they nearly kiss, interrupted by an ill-timed yell from Sam-bo. She gives him a shy kiss on the cheek anyway, sending Rim into a paroxysm of joy.
The next day, Woo-won enacts the ultimate petition: he lays an ax before him and asks the king to either rescind his order to see the records, or take Woo-won’s head in forfeit. He declares loudly that the king has no right to the historians’ records, which prompts the king to try to actually use the ax on him. (Balls of steel, this one.)
From behind him comes an eerie sound, as the scholars of Sunkyunkwan approach all in white, engaging in the Wailing Protest, their ranks beautiful and mighty. The historians join in, renewed in their resolve. The king, enraged but already at his wit’s end from floods of irate petitions, realizes that he can’t deal with an uprising from the scholar class and gives in, rescinding the order and releasing Hae-ryung.
She returns home to a sobbing Seol-geum and a stoic Jae-kyung, who implores her to quit now before something worse happens, promising to let her do whatever she wants in return. Hae-ryung tells him that she’s always been jealous of the fact that he had a place to go in the morning, and now she does too—a way to be useful, a place she belongs. She promises to take responsibility for the consequences, whatever they may be.
Those consequences come before the rising of the sun. Hae-ryung is ordered to attend the king constantly, following him and recording every single thing he does, including witnessing the expulsion of the Royal Poop—and overseeing its transport.
She refuses to give in and shows up every day at 4am. The other historians are powerless to stop Hae-ryung from being made into an example, and Woo-won especially feels terrible, apologizing to Hae-ryung and providing helpful advice.
This psychological warfare goes on until the king can no longer keep up with his own ruthless schedule, and bluntly asks Hae-ryung to name her price in exchange for destroying what she wrote that day. She confesses that she heard and wrote nothing. She points out that if an excellent historian is one who doesn’t fear the king, then an excellent king knows to fear historians. She praises him for rescinding his wrongful order, and for attempting to communicate with an apprentice female historian instead of threatening her into submission—and reminds him that historians exist not only to point out the king’s flaws, but to record wise and excellent deeds like these for posterity. Smart woman.
This cools the king’s anger, and he writes a truly stunning letter to the Office of Royal Decrees acknowledging his wrongdoing and allowing them free reign in the palace with his backing. Hae-ryung returns to her colleagues a hero, and they go out on the town to drink and be merry.
Rim, who has been stalking watching over Hae-ryung the last few days, is caught muttering jealously by some latecomers, who drag “Clerk Yi” along with them, forcing him to drink strong liquor, to Hae-ryung’s worry and Woo-won’s absolute horror. Rim enjoys himself though, and when she walks him back to Nokseodong, Hae-ryung tipsily explores his room.
She discovers the poem he had planned to give her much earlier, tears gathering in her eyes. She quotes it back to him: “I hope you live for a long time and be the owner of my heart.” Then she kisses him.
This week’s episodes gave us the most serious stakes yet, with historians explicitly risking their lives in order to protect what they see as their duty to the kingdom and its people. I really enjoy how this show portrays history as an ongoing process and Joseon as an evolving political system rather than something monolithic and fixed in time, which is what we often get in historical fiction. There is a sense both that the historians feel the weight of creating history with their own hands, and of them being the heirs of hundreds of years of scholarship and precedent. They understand that their ability to literally oversee and judge the king in the eyes of untold future generations is a hard-won privilege and one that could be taken away at any time, for of course the law itself has limited meaning when you live under an absolute monarchy.
I love that we got to see the historians grapple with the very real implications of this. I cheered when they brought the entire workings of the court to a standstill with their boycott; their last stand at the Office of Royal Decrees was as moving as it was hilarious. And that moment when they joined the scholars in chanting “Aigo, aigo” was so powerful it gave me chills.
Not to mention, the battle of wills between the king and the historians was so unusual and refreshing to see. Joseon’s structure of government was so strictly top-down that sageuks set in that era by necessity use the king as the ultimate big gun, because no one can realistically go against him except by using trickery and manipulation. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, Hae-ryung’s honesty, fearlessness and her creative way of approaching a problem mean that she destroys the tropes that many a drama is built on by simply existing. It never occurs to her to keep quiet about the truth, or to not speak up for justice; not because she’s naive, but because she doesn’t want to disappoint herself by betraying her principles. God I love her.
And she’s the same when it comes to matters of the heart. Sam-bo’s hilariously awful courting advice isn’t as disastrous as it should be, because neither Hae-ryung nor Rim has the inclination (or the ability) to be anything other than transparent about their feelings. I was sort of crushed when Rim’s gift of the poem got interrupted by the king a few episodes ago, but I’m glad that she found it now, when they already have an unspoken understanding, and all that’s left is to put their love into words. I’ve found her unconvincing in romance before, but Shin Se-kyung’s acting in that last scene had me actually holding my breath.
And how tickled am I that while Hae-ryung was going toe-to-toe with the king and winning, it was Rim who pined for her and brought her food as a good supportive love interest does? I love that Hae-ryung continues to be the heroine of her own story, bluntly declaring her intentions and going after she wants, while Rim swoons over her gestures of affection and giddily dreams of marrying her and living happily ever after. His rash but bold enumeration of the king’s faults in order to impress her shows that he knows what she values, too, and is willing to step up to be the man she needs.
Jin was far less of a presence in these episodes, except for his somewhat baffling outing with Sa-hee. It was a sweet interlude, but after what we found out about the crown princess last week, it makes me sad to see these two sort-of flirting outside the palace. It has me wondering what the endgame is for Sa-hee, whom I’ve grown to really like despite her shady connections; she deserves more than a spot as one of Jin’s concubines, entwined in poisonous court machinations for the rest of her life—speaking of which, whatever the dowager queen is planning had better not cause some kind of tragic fate to arise between Rim and Jin. Because none of us will survive that intact.
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