My Country: The New Age: Episode 1
With the influx of bright, cheerful fusion sageuks this year, JTBC and Netflix’s sageuk My Country: The New Age brings some welcome gravitas to my drama-watching line-up. I’m very excited to see two of my favorite dramatic actors face off in this friends-to-enemies tale, set to the historical backdrop of the time when Goryeo was overthrown and became Joseon. The real attraction will be the friendship between two young men from very different social strata, and how they can maintain their loyalty to one another as their world literally falls apart.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Ministers discussed amongst themselves and told the former Grand King, “The people are often in a state of unrest at the beginning if any revolution, so let subjects who have made notable contributions and royal relatives keep their private armies to prevent unfortunate incidents.” And the former Grand King said, “You are absolutely right.”
Day of the First Strife of the Princes, August 1398
A small army gathers, and the leaders discuss whether to go to the palace to kill the king, or to travel to Chwiwoldang and kill the crown prince. YI BANG-WON (Jang Hyuk), fifth son of the king, says that they need Hwi to win this fight, but the others disagree.
A man covered in blood thunders up on horseback, then approaches Bang-won to apologize for being late. He’s SEO HWI (Yang Se-jong), and Bang-won puts him in charge of the army and orders him to go to Chwiwoldang, specifically mentioning that Nam Jeon will be there. He gives Hwi a watchword: sanseong.
Hwi leads the army to Chwiwoldang and orders the attack. NAM JEON (Ahn Nae-sang) waits patiently as Hwi’s forces swarm inside, setting everything on fire and killing anyone they find. Soon, Hwi finds himself staring at a familiar face — NAM SUN-HO, (Woo-Do-hwan), Nam Jeon’s son. Sun-ho says that this is the end of Hwi’s path, but Hwi declares that, rather than let Sun-ho be the end of his path, he’ll kill Sun-ho’s father and take his own life.
Looking down at his sword, which has a ribbon embroidered with a bird tied to the hilt, Sun-ho says hoarsely, “Your blood on top of all the sins I already have to pay for? My father must not die by your sword.” Hwi replies, “I think we are finished.”
The two men stand still as their armies clash. But soon they join the fighting and eventually find themselves face-to-face. They only hesitate for a moment, then Hwi leaps and their swords clash.
Ten years ago, 1388, the year of Wihwado Retreat.
Hwi and Sun-ho’s practice swords clash as they spar on the edge of a cliff. Hwi annoys Sun-ho with his goofy puns and chides Sun-ho for being too serious. They switch to bows and padded arrows as they chase each other through the forest, and HAHA, Sun-ho nails Hwi right in the forehead when he gets too cocky. Twice.
They continue trading arrows and friendly insults, until Hwi shows his skill by leaping into the air and shooting off three arrows at once, hitting Sun-ho with all three. Damn. He orders Sun-ho to surrender, but Sun-ho tackles him instead.
They go for a swim later, and Hwi teases Sun-ho for being mean to a lowborn. Sun-ho sighs that he’s only considered quarter-noble, as his mother was both a concubine and a slave. Hwi counters good-naturedly that he’s still jealous of Sun-ho’s rich father.
On their way back into the city, they wait in line as each person is checked against a wanted poster. They get a glimpse of the face on the poster and joke that the wanted man is quite pretty.
Elsewhere, a woman we’ll get to know as HAN HEE-JAE (Seolhyun) leads a man through a field. Hee-jae muses, “Happiness and pain coexist in life. As much as good things happen, bad things also happen, so be strong and…” She turns and fusses at the man for carrying a sickle she told him to toss away, then does so herself. HA, she actually hits someone, and when he pops up shirtless, the woman recognizes him.
Oops, he’s been canoodling with Hee-jae’s follower’s wife. The husband flies into a rage, but Hee-jae demands payment for her services first, and that payment comes in the form of a secret. The husband warns Hee-jae that they’re both dead if the secret is leaked, then chases a second man away from his wife. Yikes.
Back in the city, Hee-jae contemplates the wanted poster that’s clearly a picture of her, then goes about posting signs demanding that the king stop his plan to conquer Liaodong, a peninsula just west of modern-day South Korea (the posters are the reason she’s wanted).
Platoon leaders are being tested into the military, and Hwi plans to take the test for the rice allotment while Sun-ho sighs that his father expects him to ace the test. Behind them, Hee-jae tsks that the country is falling apart, and they recognize “him” from the wanted posters.
The royal guard come near, so Hee-jae pretends to be talking intently to the boys, but one of the guards grabs her. She kicks the guard right in the jewels (and hee, Sun-ho and Hwi both cover theirs protectively) and runs off calling to Sun-ho and Hwi, “I’ll see you there!”
The guard assumes that Sun-ho and Hwi are the ones who put up the posters, and they suddenly find themselves running for their lives — literally, as there’s a bounty out for the head of whoever is stirring up discontent. They run into Hee-jae again in the market, and Sun-ho goes one way while Hwi and Hee-jae go the opposite way.
Once they’re clear, Hwi orders Hee-jae to explain why she made the guards think they were guilty. She just head-butts him in the nose and takes off again. Hwi corners her in a building where cloth is being dyed, but they hear the guards so Hwi shoves Hee-jae into a tiny storeroom.
Sun-ho is also in trouble — he ends up in a dead-end alley with a pair of guards right behind. He knows they won’t believe him if he says he didn’t put up the posters, and he’ll be tortured if he’s captured, but the guards tell him they’re just going to take his head.
He says he’s innocent, but they don’t care so long as they catch someone. Sun-ho realizes they’ll kill someone else if he escapes, and the guards don’t bother to deny it. Sun-ho tosses aside his weapons and takes the guards on bare-handed, breaking both their arms in mere seconds.
Meanwhile, Hwi and Hee-jae huddle inches apart in the storeroom as guards search the building. Just as a guard is about to open the door, a worker enters the room and distracts him. He leaves when he hears the horn calling him back.
As Hee-jae walks away, Hwi calls out that posters won’t prevent the war, or stop a tyrant king from being a tyrant. She argues that things will only change if they speak out and fight. Hwi counters that nothing will change, but Hee-jae says that that mindset is why lowborns get trodden on by nobles.
She turns to leave, but Hwi sees a shadow and calls out that the guards are still there. Hee-jae walks right into a guard and narrowly avoids his sword. A padded arrow flies past her head and whacks the guard in the face, then another, and Hwi and the guard fight while Hee-jae flings the drying dyed cloth at the guard to confuse him.
A third arrow to the face takes out that guard, but another attacks, and this time Hwi lashes out with his bow and feet. He knocks this one out with an arrow as well, but he ends up with a slash in his upper arm. Hee-jae bandages it with her headband, deliberately pulling it tight when Hwi says it’s fine just to hear him yelp and make a point.
She asks why he helped her when he could have gotten a huge reward for turning her in. Hwi says that putting up posters shouldn’t carry a death penalty, especially when most people can’t even read (Hee-jae tightens his bandage again, ha). Hwi is ready to go their separate ways, but Hee-jae says they need to hide and leads him to Ihwaru gisaeng house, which makes him adorably uncomfortable.
A guard captain, CHIEF PARK (Ji Seung-hyun) sees the blood drops that Hwi tried to hide and orders his men to knock down the door to the gibang. Hee-jae has Hwi dressed as a nobleman, and he watches, mesmerized, as the “man” he thought was helping him is transformed into a beautiful gisaeng.
They’re sitting calmly when Chief Park enters the room and says he’s looking for the ones who put up the posters, then slams his sword point-down into the table. He compares Hee-jae’s face to the wanted poster and orders her to put on a straw hat. Hwi surreptitiously grips a metal chopstick in case he needs a weapon, but a haughty voice chastises Chief Park for making a scene.
It’s Sun-ho, who introduces himself as the nephew of the Second Royal Secretary and son of the head of the Royal Stables. Chief Park catches a glimpse of Hwi and seems to find him familiar, but he apologizes to Sun-ho and leaves. Hwi and Sun-ho exchange relieved smiles, but Sun-ho is startled to see Hee-jae, who invites him to join them.
She says she’s impressed, and he says sheepishly that he learned from his father how to intimidate, threaten, and tattle on those below him in rank. (Hwi: “What about ruining our fun?” Sun-ho: “I was born with that.” Hee.)
Hee-jae says she owes Sun-ho and Hwi, so she offers to teach them their drinking limit. Hwi says shyly that it’s not proper for men and women to drink together, but Hee-jae points out the unfairness of society’s expectations of men and women until they’re bickering again. Sun-ho breaks them up by introducing himself to Hee-jae, and he nudges Hwi to do the same.
After a few drinks, the guys dance while Hee-jae plays music. Outside, owner LADY SEO (Jang Young-nam) is angry that a low-ranked guard came into her gibang carrying a weapon, none of which is allowed. The gisaeng who let Chief Park in apologizes, and she tells Lady Seo that Lord Nam’s son is inside now, which is surprising as he supposedly drowned years ago.
When the party calms down, Sun-ho admits to Hwi and Hee-jae that he’s joining the military because he’s tired of being labeled a concubine’s son and wants to become his own man. He says that Hwi can do the same, and that it’s easiest when the country is in turmoil. He predicts that Goryeo will fall apart, and he plans to be at General Yi Seong-gye’s side and destroy the rotten kingdom.
Hwi doesn’t understand Sun-ho and Hee-jae’s obsession with changing the country — as long as he has food, wherever that food comes from is his “country.” Hee-jae mutters that she regrets drinking with them, sarcastically wishes them luck, and storms out. She runs into Lady Seo, who reminds her of the horrific ways some of her fellow gisaengs have died.
She tells Hee-jae that if she continues putting up posters, she has to leave the gibang, and orders Hee-jae to cut ties with her guests. Hee-jae snaps that she’ll decide what to do with Hwi and Sun-ho, and that her room may be tiny but it was her mother’s, so it’s hers now. Lady Seo has Hee-jae moved out of the room to make her point, sneering that Hee-jae will be dead soon, anyway.
In the morning, Hwi sneaks home and teases his younger sister, YEON (Jo Yi-hyun), for being such a bookworm, and she says he’s the one who should be studying. He wins her forgiveness with a pretty pair of new slippers (bought with money he won off Sun-ho, betting on their mock fights), then loses it again when the shoes are much too big, ha.
He grows serious to see that there’s hardly any rice and they’re running low on Yeon’s medicine. But he’s cheerful again when he brings her medicine and a honey cookie to chase the bitterness.
Chief Park reports to his superior that he didn’t catch the people putting up the subversive posters. He’s told to bring in three “guilty” people by tomorrow or it will cost him three hundred silver ingots. The taunting leaves him fuming, but when his subordinate suggests siding with General Choi and bringing in Lord Nam or Yi Seong-gye for conspiracy, he just tells his man to bring him three people who can’t read or write.
Yeon asks Hwi to take her to the marketplace, and when he offers to steal a hair ornament she likes, she tells him to buy it for her after he passes the military exam. Hwi figures out why she wanted to come here when she maneuvers them close to the testing place and urges him to register.
Sun-ho wanders over and Yeon freaks out — uh-oh, someone has a crush. The guys are fully aware of her crush on Sun-ho, and Hwi acts like he’s barfing in his mouth when Yeon acts all proper with Sun-ho, but Sun-ho is very sweet about it.
When Sun-ho registers for the test, the registrar snickers that he’s a bastard son. Hwi’s registration says that his father was boiled alive, so the registrar denies him entry. Hwi argues that his father was punished, not him, but the registrar sneers, “Dogs give birth to dogs.”
Yeon screams at the top of her lungs at the registrar to take it back. The registrar just laughs, and Yeon suddenly starts to shake and gasps to Hwi, “It’s back.” Her eyes roll back and she falls into a seizure, and Hwi is ready with a stick for her to bite on while Sun-ho holds her legs still.
As he holds his sister, Hwi remembers the day his father, SEO GEOM (cameo by Yoo Oh-sung) was sentenced to death for stealing army rations. He was given the choice to either step into into a hot cauldron with no water, and live as a ghost, or die honorably by taking his own life. If he chose the cauldron, he would be listed as a dead spirit on his family record and his children would be given illegitimate status, but if he takes his own life, his children wouldn’t be socially branded.
Geom had reached for the knife and the honorable death, but he’d hesitated when Hwi screamed. Then he’d lifted the knife, and as his tiny daughter watched, he’d taken his own life. That was when Yeon had her first seizure.
Back in the present, Yeon’s seizure finally ends. Sun-ho informs the haughty registrar that they got to keep their status because of their father’s honorable suicide, but the registrar just asks if his mother is a maid or a gisaeng. Sun-ho almost goes after the jerk, but Hwi urges him not to lose his own chance.
As Hwi piggybacks Yeon home, she asks him if she looked ugly, but he says sweetly that she has the prettiest seizures. Awww. Yeon asks him not to trade the slippers so that she has a reason to live longer and grow into them, and Hwi fights back tears as he agrees.
He tucks Yeon into bed and remembers his father again, who used to teach him swordsmanship with a sense of affectionate fun. Yeon would join in, and it’s obvious that they were a small but very loving family. But now, bitter and angry, Hwi takes his bow and snaps it in half.
Hee-jae visits a pharmacist, which is where she gets a lot of the rumors she deals in. While she’s there, she eavesdrops on Hwi as he promises to pay the pharmacist for Yeon’s medicine after he passes the military exam. The pharmacist refuses, so Hee-jae steps out and offers herself as collateral.
The pharmacist happily agrees, but Hwi hesitates, then takes the medicine anyway. As Hee-jae walks with him, he confesses that he’s not taking the exam and can’t pay, but that he was desperate. She looks surprised, then says she didn’t think he’d pass anyway, and that her plan is to collect interest from him.
Hwi asks how she expects to do that when she doesn’t know anything but his name. She stammers (ha, busted) so he tells her where he lives and that he works at a smithy, promising to pay her back.
Sun-ho’s father makes him stay up late practicing his archery until his hands bleed and his knees buckle, determined that any son of his will pass the military exam with top scores. He says it’s not just for Sun-ho’s sake but also his hyung’s — in fact, he expects Sun-ho to surpass his brother’s achievements.
He tells Sun-ho to rest, but Sun-ho picks up another arrow, aims… and hits a bulls’ eye. He says darkly, “I don’t shoot my arrows for your sake, or for my brother’s. It is only for me. Just for me.” To punctuate his point, he makes a second bulls’ eye.
His father tells him that a hunt will take place at the royal hunting ground, and that Right Chancellor Yi Seong-gye will be participating. He plans to take Sun-ho to impress the man he describes as “the new world,” and he warns him not to forget that he got this chance at his brother’s expense.
Sun-ho invites Hwi to go on the hunt as a “chaser” to flush out game, and Hwi grumbles that he’s not a servant. Sun-ho says that Yi Seong-gye will be there and might give Hwi a position in his private army, since he’s known to hire based on merit and not social status. Hwi finally agrees, but only if Sun-ho pays him well.
On the morning of the hunt, YI SEONG-GYE (Kim Young-chul) cuts an imposing figure, dressed all in black on his snow-white horse, but when Lord Nam greets him formally, he says with a smile not to worry about status today. He’s friendly to Sun-ho and asks to see his bow, then he shocks everyone by offering to let Sun-ho use his bow instead.
Sun-ho makes a minor mistake and has to be told to kneel as he accepts the bow, and it makes him nervous when the hunt begins. He misses a shot then drops an arrow, so Hwi runs over to pick it up and offer a little advice. Yi Seong-gye overhears him, and when Sun-ho hits the next grouse, his “Not bad” is aimed at Hwi, not Sun-ho.
Yi Seong-gye asks if Hwi shoots, and gives him arrows and an iron bow. Yi Seong-gye fires an arrow into a tree to use as a target and Hwi buries his arrow only an inch from Yi Seong-gye’s. His second arrow is farther, but it hits directly in the center of a knot in the tree.
Yi Seong-gye asks if Hwi applied to take the military exam, and Hwi explains that he’s from a low-class family. Yi Seong-gye says, “Who cares?” and snaps an arrow in half. He gives Hwi the point and tells him to show it at the registry, and he’ll be allowed to apply.
Hwi stammers that he’s not worthy, but Yi Seong-gye tells him, “If you pass the exam, it may open up opportunities for those even less fortunate. What is only land becomes a path if you walk on it. Pave the way.”
The hunt resumes, and Sun-ho’s father asks how he expected to stand out when he brought someone better than him with a bow and arrow. Sun-ho says that his father only sees Hwi, but not his own son. He vows not to lose to anyone on the day of the exam: “So do not mock me.”
After the hunt, Yi Seong-gye tells Lord Nam that a father wants his son to surpass him, then feels jealous when he does. He says he felt the same way when Bang-won passed the exam, and that Sun-ho needs to train more, but that he’ll make him a lieutenant if he passes the exam.
He suddenly pulls up his horse and says that he can’t ignore the king’s orders any longer, so he and his army, including Lord Nam, will depart in April. Lord Nam says it will be winter when they reach Liaodong, but Yi Seong-gye tells him, “My war will start and end at Gaegyeong.” (Gaegyeong was the capital city of Goryeo.)
When they’re finally alone, Hwi apologizes to Sun-ho for accidentally stealing his thunder. Sun-ho just tells Hwi that his future begins with that arrowhead, and to apply for the exam.
Hwi goes home to find Lord Nam at his house. He offers Hwi a small fortune for the arrowhead, and to know his place and stay away from Sun-ho. Hwi is offended, but Lord Nam says he’s not asking — he’s issuing an order.
It turns out that Hee-jae isn’t the only spy at Ihwaru… Lady Seo collects information from all of her gisaengs. She gives Hee-jae a note to deliver to Lord Nam, which Hee-jae finds strange as it’s not information she collected, but Lady Seo just tells her to obey.
Hee-jae’s best information isn’t written down — she’s deduced that General Choi Young won’t be leading the army to Liaodong by the fact that his horse, which is always prepared months before he leaves for a conquest, hasn’t been prepared this year. She confirms that this counts as “the 93rd” and reminds Lady Seo that at one hundred, she must keep her promise. Lady Seo asks what Hee-jae plans to do with the secret bottle after ten years, and Hee-jae says, “I will kill the person whose name is in that bottle.” Hmmm, interesting.
Hee-jae takes the letter from Lady Seo to Lord Nam, who gives her a package to take back with her. Hee-jae says that Lady Seo only wants Lord Nam’s kindness and refuses the package, but he insists, so she accepts the package but not the guard escort he offers.
She runs into Sun-ho on her way out, and when he sees the package in her hands, he warns her not to get involved in Lord Nam’s business. She says she’s not, but asks what she should do if she does get involved. Sun-ho tells her to either be Lord Nam’s enemy or his friend, but that if she doesn’t want to do either, “You’ll be the first to die.”
Lightening the mood, Sun-ho leads Hee-jae to see “something fun” at the testing registrar. He explains that the registrar called Hwi’s father a dog… and that Hwi is the son of Seo Geom, the greatest swordsman in Goryeo.
Just then, they spot Hwi striding purposefully through the market. Sun-ho joins him, telling Hee-jae, “He messed with my friend.” Hwi tells Sun-ho to stay out of this, but Sun-ho quips that he has to help Hwi register so he can beat him in the exam. They both break into a run and kick down the doors just as they’re being closed, and when the registrar sees who it is, he asks Hwi if his father climbed out of the cauldron.
Both Hwi and Sun-ho lunge, and are held back by guards. They fight their way free, then through more guards, coming to each other’s rescue multiple times until finally, Hwi limps to the registrar’s table.
He growls, “My father is not a dog. He was the greatest swordsman in Goryeo, Seo Geom. So tell me to get lost again if you dare, you son of a bitch!” And with that, he buries the point of Yi Seong-gye’s arrow in the desk.
Yes, bring on the fighting and the intrigue and the bromance, I’m ready for it all! I love Hwi and Sun-ho’s friendship so much already, and how they stay loyal to each other in situations that would break up less devoted friends. I know that won’t last, at least their friendship appears to break down based on the flash-forward at the top of the episode, but I hope we get to see a lot more of the two friends helping and supporting and fighting for each other first. Still, I anticipate a lot of tears during the course of their story.
I’m going into My Country with well-established actor-crushes on both Yang Se-jong and Woo Do-hwan — I think they’re both incredibly talented and are building solid reputations for themselves as serious actors. I love them already as Hwi and Sun-ho, and the way they’re both bristling under the constraints of their births in different ways. Right now they’re young and idealistic and they see themselves as equals despite their wildly different situations, and I dread seeing them lose that. What most interests me is how Hwi starts out as the easygoing peacemaker and Sun-ho as the hothead with a chip on his shoulder, but in the flash-forward, Sun-ho offered Hwi a way out but Hwi insisted on fighting. Clearly some pretty life-changing things happen to the friends in the ten-year gap, and I have a feeling they’ll all be heartbreaking.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen Seolhyun in anything, and she didn’t have much screen time in this premiere episode. But I thought she did a decent job in Orange Marmalade and she’s starred in several movies since then, and I can see her improvement. I like her character, Hee-jae, especially the way she’s so street-smart while Hwi comes across as pretty innocent. Yet he’s the one who’s jaded, who only cares about providing the next meal for himself and his sister, so I’m looking forward to seeing Hee-jae teach him how to expect more from the unfair society he was born into. I also find Hee-jae’s separate story intriguing — she’s apparently out for revenge, and is trading one hundred pieces of intelligence for the name of someone who… what? Killed her mother, maybe?
Technically, there’s not much in this story so far that I didn’t expect to see, though I do find this time in history interesting. But what I feel makes it worth watching is how the story centers, not on the actual historical figures themselves, but on the people that the historical events will impact. We have three very different characters — one who is noble-born but limited by his mother’s low status, one who comes from a formerly proud family that suffered a tragedy that robbed them of what dignity they had, and one who appears low-born but full of fire and rebellion. I’m here to watch how they stand up against the injustice of a world and do their best to change it, and how their relationships with each other evolve and change with the world around them. I also think that the pacing and writing are wonderful — we got a lot of information with gorgeous use of the “show, don’t tell,” rule… I never felt like the show was taking a break to explain what was happening, yet on the opposite end, nothing flew over my head, either. Based on the excellent acting, the smooth execution, and the compelling friendship between these two young men, I think that My Country has the potential to be an epic story.
- Premiere Watch: Tale of Nokdu, Extraordinary You, My Country: The New Age
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- Yang Se-jong, Woo Do-hwan, Seolhyun prepare for a new world in character stills for JTBC sageuk My Country
- Woo Do-hwan, Seolhyun character teasers for Goryeo drama My Country
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- Woo Do-hwan to join Yang Se-jong in JTBC’s sageuk, My Country