Secret Door: Episode 3
With this episode, the story turns into a full-fledged murder mystery, with our prince in the role of dogged truth-seeker. For being a story where we think we know exactly whodunnit and how, there’s actually more doubt and suspicion than I would have expected; characters turn shifty and cryptic, their behaviors shrouded in as-yet-unexplained motives. We may know more than Sun does, but aren’t allowed the privilege of omniscience, which means that we’ll be taken along for the ride as the characters angle for clues and work their way toward answers.
SONG OF THE DAY
Block B – “Secret Door” from the Secret Door OST [ Download ]
EPISODE 3 RECAP
The court gathers to hear the results of the investigation regarding the murder of the crown prince’s best friend, artist Shin Heung-bok. (RIP Seo Joon-young! Sniffle.)
Crown Prince Lee Sun had appointed the police captain as head of the investigation, because he has a reputation for being honest and dogged. That skirts the partisan bickering between the Norons and Sorons, each of whom wants control over the case—particularly the Norons, who ordered the murder. But the seemingly incorruptible Police Captain Hong Kye-hee has a significant Achilles heel, and under political pressure, he rules Heung-bok’s death a suicide.
Sun challenges the results, but Police Captain Hong has done a thorough job. Not only does he have a plausible theory (that Heung-bok broke his neck on his way down), he’s procured false witness testimony to paint Heung-bok as drunk and disorderly that night, and spewing slander of the royal family.
The king is pleased to hear that the police captain did as ordered. Making things worse, he sends in a decree declaring Heung-bok a traitor, in response to the slander charge. As befitting a traitor, Heung-bok is to be decapitated, his assets seized, and his family members made into government slaves.
Sun struggles to absorb all this, and when his council presses him to come to a decision, he orders them to clear out so he can think. He asks politely first, but when they don’t comply, he erupts at them to leave.
Ji-dam hears of Heung-bok’s suicide ruling and is perturbed at the wayward direction of the investigation. She vents to a gisaeng, WOON-SHIM (Park Hyo-joo), saying accusingly that her advice was wrong. Woon-shim had told her that a certain Officer Min Woo-sub was honest, which is why she’d given him her statement. She’d trusted the police to take care of the matter, but now, she’ll have to take matters into her own hands and investigate.
Still, Woon-shim was right about Officer Min, who is outraged at his police captain’s ruling and argues that the investigation was performed inadequately—there was a witness who saw Heung-bok being murdered. Captain Hong counters convincingly that the witness (Ji-dam) could have been faked, and that they could get caught in a Noron-Soron power play—does he want to fall prey to their tricks?
Officer Min holds firm to the duty he was taught: to follow all leads to their conclusions, and only rule once all doubt has been cleared up. He reminds Captain Hong that he was the very person who taught him this. Captain Hong can’t hold his gaze.
Sun reads over Heung-bok’s last message to him, sent the night he died. It makes no sense that he would promise to come see him, and then kill himself. Turning Heung-bok into a traitor posthumously is an added insult.
And so, Sun entreats his father to allow the case to be reinvestigated, insisting that Heung-bok would never kill himself, nor would he slander the royal family. King Yeongjo challenges, “How would you know that?” Sun says that he considered Heung-bok a valued friend, which sends the king into a fit of rage—how could a lowly man like that dare to be friends with the prince?
Yeongjo sneers at Sun, but calms himself and tosses out carelessly, “Fine, do it.” He gives permission to reinvestigate, and Sun lights up with hope. He sets out right away, heading for the bridge where Heung-bok was to meet the book messenger.
The Noron politicians are furious to hear that the case is still open, and Prime Minister Kim Taek charges over to see the king. How will they keep that secret document (the one implicating the Norons and Yeongjo in a deal, presumably to kill the previous king) safe if the investigation keeps going? King Yeongjo’s cavalier attitude angers the prime minister so much that he barks, “Hey! Lee Geum!” Which is about the equivalent of a slap in the face—it’s incredibly ballsy for anybody to use the king’s given name, and Prime Minister Kim is talking down to him in banmal on top of it. He must be feeling pretty secure in their alliance to dare such an offense.
Kim reminds the king that they are tied together as co-conspirators, and have been for the past thirty years. He warns, “If we die, you die too.”
No historical court drama would be complete without a secret society of conspirators, and we meet our Noron group as they convene under Prime Minister Kim’s leadership. He declares, “The war begins now.”
The king’s chief eunuch cautions him about the reinvestigation, advising that the king keep working with Prime Minister Kim. Yeongjo merely asks why the eunuch assumes he was against Kim before this: “I do not treat Kim Taek as an enemy. I chose him as the prince’s teacher.” I… am pretty sure I’d want nothing to do with those lessons.
Ji-dam arrives at the bridge, retracing her steps from that night. By the water’s edge where she saw the body land, she finds the wooden booklending tag that fell by the wayside when Heung-bok died and crows to herself for finding the clue. While I find her glee a little off-putting, I suppose I can see how to her, it’s just a riddle to be puzzled out.
Sun leads a team of officers toward the bridge, just missing Ji-dam as she leaves it. The bridge is the starting point of the investigation, and from there Sun sends out his officers to find out as much information as they can. He gives particular instructions to find the book and tag that would have been in Heung-bok’s possession.
One of those items is accounted for, but Ji-dam is hit with a new thought: She has Heung-bok’s tag, but where is the book?
Cut to: the book, being shoved into a secret wall compartment by… Teacher Park Mun-su? Whaaaat. I thought you were one of the good guys! Clearly this drama is telling us there are no such things as obvious good guys, if the nonpartisan Teacher Park is hiding evidence and keeping secrets.
At least our prince is thinking shrewdly, thinking that the book messenger may have seen something that night. Sun sends his eunuch to the secret message drop-off point to leave a note.
That note gets picked up by none other gisaeng Woon-shim—aha! It’s her gibang where the drop-off point is hidden, and as she reads the message, the contents make her gasp in shock. Why is the prince looking for Ji-dam?
Teacher Park Mun-su arrives on the bridge to see Sun, and proceeds to sow seeds of doubt by wondering whether the investigation is a good idea. Sun replies that he’s not doing this out of personal feelings, but because the facts don’t add up—they contradict Captain Hong’s findings, which hint at deeper corruption afoot.
Teacher Park says that if that’s true, then the people who pressured Captain Hong must be quite powerful, as though warning the prince not to court danger. But Sun argues that it doesn’t matter how powerful they are—they must account for their crimes.
Despite my worries about Teacher Park’s murky allegiance, both the king and the prime minister are concerned when they hear that he is helping the prince. (And if they’re concerned, then I am, at least for now, relieved for Sun.) They both suspect that Park must know that the secret document has resurfaced. The prime minister wonders how he knew about it in the first place.
Next, Sun arrives at the police station to look into the investigation records. Honest Officer Min is excited to hear of the reinvestigation, which will give him the opportunity to address the many suspicious points that have been bothering him. But before he can answer the prince’s summons, he is called away with a family emergency—his father has fallen ill.
Only he isn’t actually ill. His father is the prime minister’s crony, and has called his son home to order him to step back from the case. Officer Min is appalled at the thought that his father is interfering in the investigation and refuses to quit. At that, Minister Min pulls out a knife and tells his son to kill him first, and then go. Yeesh. Is it too much to hope for a functional father-son relationship anywhere in this drama?
At the station, Sun reviews a file and gives Captain Hong the chance to speak up with the truth, but the captain sticks to his guns. Sun points out a witness’s statement—from Heung-bok’s longtime artist colleague and friend, Jung-woon—who swore that Heung-bok never had a bad word to say about the royalty. Shouldn’t the investigation have followed up on that? How could Captain Hong assert such confidence in his conclusion when his investigation clearly had huge holes in it?
Sun points out the folly of misjudgment, saying that there’s something that’s even worse—though he leaves the answer for the captain to figure out himself.
Ji-dam slips into Heung-bok’s room at the royal painters’ department to search for that missing book, but doesn’t find it. Could it be in the hands of the murderer, she wonders. Another artist mentions Heung-bok’s closest painter friend Jung-woon, who is in a relationship with a gisaeng. As it happens, Ji-dam knows that gisaeng, and upon returning to the gibang she finds her in tears over her sweetheart.
For the moment, we’ll have to guess at the reason. Jung-woon is currently outside the police station, mustering the nerve to approach. He thinks back to Heung-bok’s words about telling the prince about the document, but the sight of Heung-bok’s coffin has him shrinking back in fear. He leaves quietly.
Captain Hong barges in to see Prime Minister Kim, angry that in succumbing to their demands to falsify the investigation, he’s now in the hot seat. To keep him in line, Prime Minister Kim pulls out those incriminating documents and asks if it’s necessary to read Hong “those dates” again.
Defensively, Captain Hong bursts out that he only made one wrong ruling—it was a mistake to do it and forge the documents. Kim says, “He knows.” The light dawns on Captain Hong slowly—he means the king. And that means that these orders to block the prince’s investigation come from Yeongjo himself.
King Yeongjo summons Teacher Park that evening and advises him to drop things now—surely dropping a dead body into a well was enough of a warning. Teacher Park pleads with the king to set things straight, because one cannot establish power without a firm foundation. The king reminds him that that’s why he asked him to destroy that document ten years ago. “You cannot defeat me,” Yeongjo says.
Still, Teacher Park says that he can tell the prince the truth. The king says cryptically that the wrong person might end up dead, warning, “Power is a sword. If someone interferes, it can slash indiscriminately—it’s a dangerous thing.” He tells Park not to stir up the prince (“If you don’t stop, war comes next”) and to end his “truth game” now.
By the end of the day, the prince’s investigation has gone nowhere. They’ve found no witnesses near the bridge, and have no sign of the book messenger. So Sun gets to work drawing a picture of Ji-dam, his only link to that booklender.
Ji-dam mulls over her dilemma: She has evidence that could be turned over (the tag, the ticket, and their booklending records), but that puts her family’s safety at risk, since their operation is illegal. Her father grumps that she may as well hand over his neck, too.
But they’re in danger either way, because Captain Hong decides that the quickest way to find Ji-dam is to set up more raids. His officers ransack shops that night, creating a huge commotion that gets reported to a worried Woon-shim at the gibang, and a worried warrior Chul-joo at his gang’s home base.
Ji-dam is safe for the moment at home, thinking of artist Jung-woon and his gisaeng sweetheart. Now we see that the gisaeng had been crying because Jung-woon confided his suspicions of Heung-bok’s murder and was afraid that he’d be next.
That’s when officers arrive at Ji-dam’s gate and start pounding, and she darts into the basement to warn her father. Quickly, the workers start clearing out the workshop while the officers start to kick in the gate. They duck into a back room and put up a false front to mask the purpose of the room.
While the officers barge in noisily, Chul-joo and his gang sneak onto the property stealthily, here to rescue Ji-dam. We still don’t quite know his relationship to the family, but any friend of Ji-dam’s is a guy I’m rooting for (which I swear would be true even if Kim Min-jong weren’t the actor playing him).
The officers almost turn away empty-handed, until their leader, Officer Byun, spots the mat covering the hidden trapdoor. Releasing the lever that raises the door, he leads his men down the staircase into the basement. Gulp.
But they only find Ji-dam’s father sitting there, calmly reading a book while Ji-dam and the workers huddle behind the false wall. Dad feigns ignorance of the illegal booklending ring he’s accused of running, and doesn’t give a straight answer about Ji-dam’s whereabouts. This angers Officer Byun, who doesn’t buy his excuse for a second (that he collects rare books) and starts rifling through the volumes on the shelves.
That’s when he notices that the wall feels flimsy and starts to kick at it, while Ji-dam and company push back, trying to bolster the wood. Just when it seems that he might discover the room, a girl calls out for “Father” and joins them, pretending to be Ji-dam. She’s clearly not who they’re looking for, and while Officer Byun remains suspicious, it gets them to back off for now. He calls his men off, leaving Dad with a warning that he’ll get him eventually.
Dressed plainly and accompanied only by his eunuch, Sun visits the gibang and asks to speak with Woon-shim. Showing her the drawing of Ji-dam, he asks after her, speaking of the booklending operation openly. But Woon-shim is rightly cautious and sticks to her “I know nothing” line, even when Sun presses and says that he thinks the gisaengs have been helping Ji-dam.
Woon-shim remains tight-lipped, and for good reason—after sending Sun off, she heads to the next room, which is occupied by Captain Hong. He’s heard enough to suspect that Woon-shim is covering up more than she’s admitting, and warns that she’d better keep his visit here a secret.
Ji-dam’s father thanks Chul-joo for stepping in and saving them from the raid. For the time being, he wants Chul-joo to take in Ji-dam, since being caught would be big trouble. Ji-dam protests but ultimately has to agree, albeit reluctantly.
Woon-shim drops by the house to check in with Dad, and sighs about Ji-dam’s troublemaking ways. Dad is as exasperated with Ji-dam’s activities as everyone, but it’s sweet that he speaks up in her defense—what’s so wrong about wanting to expose the truth of a wrongful death? If there’s a problem, he blames himself, and also the world for not caring about justice or truth. “There’s nothing wrong with our Ji-dam,” he asserts. “Nothing.”
Sun pores over the investigation files and notices that Heung-bok’s sketchpad wasn’t among the items confiscated. He pauses to read over Jung-woon’s testimony.
That’s the name on Ji-dam’s mind too, as she settles into her temporary safehouse in the woods, wondering if he’ll be safe. Then her thoughts turn to the hero of her new story, who’s righteous and good, not shrinking back even in the face of death. The thing he hates most is for one wrongful death to cause another, she explains. “But what about me?” she says in self-reproach. “I’m cowardly, hiding here like this.”
Chul-joo points out that her hero isn’t real, but she replies, “The problem is that the victims are all real.”
First thing the next day, Sun bursts into Captain Hong’s office to take him to task for the surprise raid in the middle of the night. Captain Hong plays innocent, saying that he was merely doing his job, but Sun asks accusingly if he wasn’t really just trying to interfere with his investigation, since the booklender girl is a key witness.
We know that’s exactly what he was doing, but Captain Hong is so careful and clever that he has a credible response at the ready, saying that he is only now hearing about Ji-dam’s relevance to the case. He wonders why the prince is so suspicious of him, as though it’s unwarranted, asking if it’s just because the results of his investigation weren’t what Sun wanted.
There’s enough truth in that to stop Sun short. He returns to the palace with a heavy heart, in time to see the other witnesses being released. Sun is outraged that they haven’t been proven guilty of perjury, exclaiming, “Heung-bokie didn’t go to that well!”
But the official who’s been working alongside him, Chae Je-gong, is the cool-headed logical one and he reminds Sun to refer to the victim appropriately—not by name, but as the subject of their case. Sun asks if Chae is insinuating that he’s lost his objectivity, insisting that there’s no way they could consider that Heung-bok killed himself. But Chae urges him to treat the investigation properly by looking at the facts, not by searching for facts to fit the conclusion he wants.
Sun argues that they should at least investigate the artists who swear Heung-bok never uttered a word against the royals, just as the court artists arrive. But he doesn’t find Jung-woon among them, and is told that Jung-woon hasn’t been seen since Heung-bok’s death, which made him distraught. And if nothing else, that is suspicious enough to make them think Jung-woon knows something—either as witness, or suspect.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Kim is getting the same information, which suggests that Jung-woon also knew about the secret document. He orders his henchman to find Jung-woon before the prince does, declaring him potentially useful. Soon afterward, we see Jung-woon’s gisaeng sweetheart being confronted by a faceless man.
Meanwhile, Teacher Park tracks down Jung-woon to his hiding spot and holds him with a firm, frightening grip. Jung-woon guesses, “It was you, wasn’t it? You killed Heung-bok and threw him into the well, didn’t you?”
Teacher Park readily says yes, and orders Jung-woon to go to the prince directly to report him. “Tell everything you know to the prince,” he instructs. “What happens afterward, leave to me.” Hm, it doesn’t sound like he’s a murderer confessing; is he lying strategically? Teacher Park urges him to hurry lest he find himself in danger.
So Jung-woon drops by the artists’ office and pulls out a drawing—one that Heung-bok had drawn after taking that document. It comes from illustrated court records and depicts a royal palanquin surrounded by armed officials, and as Jung-woon examines the people in it, he decides that they must find out who they are.
As he leaves the building, he’s grabbed by a man who muffles his screams. But then he sees that a trio of assassins is on their way in—he’s just been saved. This is the prince’s man, here to escort him to the palace.
The next day, Jung-woon is brought in for interrogation. King Yeongjo hears of this in dismay, and his rage bubbles forth and he spits out a name: “Park Mun-su!” Teacher Park, meanwhile, looks over the book Heung-bok had been carrying when he died.
Jung-woon trembles as he awaits his questioning. It’s the prince who arrives to head the proceedings, which means that he’ll be safe… for now.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a completely fictionalized plot occupying the center of such a well-known bit of history, because this murder investigation reads (er, watches) like pure fiction, not sageuk. But I’m liking it, and perhaps that’s one way to work around the inherent problem of reimagining such famous historical figures; it’s definitely a reinterpretation, a dramatization with no aspirations to biopic status. The core relationship has been taken straight from the history books and the politics of the time are woven into the intrigue of the drama’s storyline, but it’s pretty clear that this is a fusion piece, and I appreciate that the drama isn’t putting on any pretensions of being otherwise.
That said, there’s also fun in seeing where they did pull from known facts, and how the writer fashioned this drama reality out of the historical context. History purists may balk at this (hi, Dad!) but I have no problems with it—as long as the show isn’t making claims of accuracy, which Secret Door isn’t doing. (The Princess’s Man is another example of doing this well, where real figures and historical events are used as background for a clearly fictional main narrative.)
Teacher Park Mun-su provided an interesting twist this episode, which I was glad to see since I didn’t want to get stuck in a black-and-white depiction of people as being Noron or Soron, just or corrupt, good or bad. There’s enough emotion in his scenes with the king and prince to suspect that he’s ultimately a man of integrity, but he’s certainly not above lying or hiding things to achieve his ends, which puts him into question-mark territory. And while he’s straddling the line dividing the two parties, that doesn’t mean he’s unbiased so much as it means that he’s on both sides, at various points, and we’re left to wonder what that means. Ten years ago, he was the man whom Yeongjo entrusted to destroy the document, and he has been the prince’s teacher all these years. But he’s Soron, and the king has made his pact with the Norons. Will he prove to be a politician in the end? Or perhaps he’s the other extreme, and so idealistic that he’ll put the ideal of the country above all else, including individual people like the king and the prince. Who knows? It’s up in the air, and I’m intrigued.
I wonder how long the drama will keep Ji-dam away from everyone desperate to find her, whether to silence her or reveal what she knows. On one hand, I want Sun to find her right quick, because I have a feeling their meeting and partnership will add a zing to the drama that I’m really anticipating. But on the other hand, once they meet, what happens next feels fairly predictable, and I’d like to preserve some tension while we have it. And Ji-dam, while bright and justice-seeking, is experiencing a conflict that I want her to explore while she remains in hiding, of feeling weak and scared and not at all like the courageous heroes she writes about.
But on the other hand (yes, my third hand), I totally want to see her meeting Sun to see whether he’ll measure up to that heroic ideal, or fall short as well (but in a lovable way!). After all, she did label him the half-wit. That dynamic should be cute.
In any case, we did get less of the father-son conflict in this episode, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as we have the entire drama in which to play that out. It’s pretty much the whole tagline, in fact. So I’ll take this lighter, quickly-paced, zippy storytelling while we have it, because I only have so much heart to break. Gotta save it up for when it really hits.
- Secret Door: Episode 2
- Secret Door: Episode 1
- Secret Door’s enthusiastic press conference
- Secret Door doles out love, punishment, and tragedy
- Hidden tears in Secret Door’s character posters
- Secret Door preview hints at chilling father-son conflict
- Secret Door reveals its king and romantic killer
- Secret Door’s prince in action