Secret Door: Episode 10
This episode is all about parenthood, and in particular, the fraught territory of the father-son relationship. And yet it’s not even about Yeongjo and Sun’s increasingly conflicted relationship—at least, not directly. Everything’ll lead to that relationship in the end, but on the surface today’s plotlines are about other characters’ parental relationships, which then serve as a mirror for the king-prince dynamic. The reflection is part poignant, part ominous, and part cautionary tale.
SONG OF THE DAY
Achtung & Kim Kyung-ho – “연연” (Attachment) [ Download ]
EPISODE 10 RECAP
Princess Hyegyeong stands up to the king… in that she kneels before the king, prepared to supplicate until he either reopens the prince’s murder investigation or she dies, whichever comes first. More to the point, she has her toddler son, San (future King Jeongjo), wailing at her side. Under her relentless appeals and the mounting pressure, Yeongjo finally comes out to face them.
He softens (thank god) at the sight of his bawling grandson, picking him up and soothing his tears with the promise, “Your grandfather was wrong and will take care of everything, so stop crying.” Hyegyeong secures a further promise that Yeongjo will reopen the investigation, then allows herself a tiny smile of relief.
Yeongjo chides Hyegyeong against directly involving herself in the future; the mother of the nation should be aware of what’s going on, but only quietly. Hyegyeong replies that such a mother of the nation would be derelict in her duty if her limited perspective hindered her from helping the ruler in a fix. Good answer.
Teacher Park and Advisor Chae confer with Sun about the case from his prison cell. They’ve been trying to find witnesses to prove that the murders are a cover-up, but those witnesses keep disappearing. Sun says that they must find the mastermind.
Ji-dam asks Hyegyeong to let her meet with Advisor Chae, wanting to help with the investigation. Hyegyeong tells Ji-dam to let the court handle the investigation; all she need do is testify. But Ji-dam points out that her testimony wouldn’t be necessary if the tribunal were investigating successfully. Hyegyeong sees her point.
Ji-dam is escorted to see the advisor and is allowed a visitation with the prince, who is relieved to see her safe and sound. She even laughingly suggests that this isn’t a bad learning experience for a future ruler, since criminals are his subjects too. She tries to hold back her worry until she’s out of sight, forcing a cheerful face in front of Sun.
Examination of Shadow’s corpse reveals the telltale signs of the assassin’s particular brand of torture. The lacerated fingertips point to an engraving blade, and Ji-dam recognizes it and guesses is the work of the vicious Kim Mu. His exact identity is unknown, but there are rumors that state that Kim Mu is the son of a retired gisaeng, so off they go in search of that woman.
That is in fact where Mu heads—to his now-uninhabited mother’s home. He recalls memories from a better time spent here, when his mother had looked quite happy with his father, Prime Minister Kim. He may have been born to the lowest class, but Mu seems to have enjoyed some comfort as a child.
There’s no time for nostalgia, as Teacher Park’s men arrive at that house moments later. Mu slips away unseen and the mother angle hits a dead end, so Ji-dam suggests that they look into Mu’s father. Ooh. Yes, do that.
The prime minister wants all his loose ends tied, so he orders the capture of Officer Min Woo-sub, the honest policeman whose testimony would contradict their cover-up. Assassins are dispatched to intercept him while Officer Min is being brought in for interrogation, but find their ambush foiled—somehow, officers were expecting them and came with backup.
This is the princess’s doing, and she had both anticipated the attack and circumvented it with a decoy. Tricksy. She deduces that the attempt to interfere proves that the bad guys need to cover up for their actions, and looks forward to the official interrogation tomorrow.
The conspirators realize they were tricked, and Yeongjo advises that there’s not much he can do for the Norons once the court interrogation opens. He suggests that Kim make a deal before it does—sacrifice the assassin in exchange for the document. Not that Prime Minister Kim is any more scrupulous than the king on the whole, but he doesn’t like the plan this time with his son on the line. He clenches his fist quietly.
The prime minister mulls over the choice all night long, barking at his crony when he urges him to get moving on that sacrifice/trade.
Yeongjo’s eunuch worries that this move would put the maengui document back into the hands of the Norons. Yeongjo reasons that it’s still better than either Sun or the Sorons getting it—the time has passed for them to seek the best or second-best: “Avoiding the worst is our answer.”
Prime Minister Kim doesn’t look ready to cave yet, though. He meets with Mu regarding the captive, Chul-joo, which results in Mu sharpening his torture knife.
Our team only now learns of the blood tie between the prime minister and Mu, which provides another lead in where to search. Teacher Park returns home to find a “gift” left anonymously for him. It’s a box containing a severed hand (ack! Chul-joo!) and a note, which sends Teacher Park beelining for a meeting with Prime Minister Kim. No more dithering around: it’s time for a deal. Mu, in exchange for the document and Chul-joo’s life.
Prime Minister Kim agrees so easily that Park asks if he can really sacrifice his son. Kim says mildly, “To get that document, I could hand over even more.” Teacher Park can only say, “You are quite something, both you and the king.”
The Noron cronies make another deal: Minister Min presents the princess’s father, Hong Bong-han, with a letter informing him where he can arrest the murderer. Hong would get to claim credit, but there’s a quid pro quo, and Min wants certain records expunged. Gotta tie up loose ends.
Sun is shocked to hear of the relationship between the prime minister and the assassin, particularly at the implication that a father would order his son to be his hit man. It makes me sad every time he’s shocked at a father’s cruelty, but maybe it’s for the best that he keep his own faith for as long as possible.
Prime Minister Kim isn’t without a heart, limited though it may be, and hurries to give his son a warning before the authorities come to arrest him. He urges Mu to escape, saying that even if he wasn’t able to be a father in name to him, he wants to at least keep him alive.
He sends Mu off running with the entreaty to stay safe, just before officers burst in. They chase Mu through the woods, and despite a strong defensive showing, Mu gets shot down.
So Mu is arrested and dragged through the village, where his father pretends not to notice. His capture fulfills the first part of the deal, so Teacher Park hands over the maengui, and Prime Minister Kim in turn points him in the direction of Chul-joo—alive, but badly injured. Also holding a bloody stump of a hand! *sob*
Sun is released from prison, and there’s a lovely moment when he steps out of his cell and is a little surprised, but in a pleasant way, to see Hyegyeong awaiting to hand him his dragon robes. She tells him he endured a lot, but he just says that it was nothing compared to the trouble she suffered, and this moment of understanding makes both Hyegyeong and his faithful court lady happy.
Hyegyeong even gives a lot of credit to Ji-dam and praises her hard work, looking quite pleased with her contribution. Sun thanks her with a special smile, and now Hyegyeong looks uneasy to see how glowingly Ji-dam receives it.
Now it occurs to Sun that Mu’s capture happened too easily. His suspicions flare when he’s told that the tip came from an anonymous informant.
Sun arrives at the tribunal for Mu’s interrogation, and Yeongjo greets him with the admonition that if he’d just put someone reliable in charge of the interrogation, he wouldn’t have had to suffer. Yeesh. Yeongjo is such a master manipulator that you think he almost believes the revisions he makes to history.
Mu is brought in, and readily admits to the charges of murder. Asked for a reason, he states that he was given the order, but refuses to state whose orders they were. It’s almost amusing to me that everyone here knows that Prime Minister Kim was the one, but because these proceedings are primarily formalities, they’re bound by procedure.
We see in flashback that Prime Minister Kim had made arrangements to keep the questioning short. Since torture is a commonly applied method of interrogation, surely it wouldn’t be difficult to have an “accident.” And no doubt the sham of an interrogation would proceed just like that, with Yeongjo agreeing to torture right away, if only Sun weren’t here.
He speaks up and approaches Mu, directing him to reveal who he was working for. Sun crouches to meet him at eye level, explaining that he knows who that person is and saying indignantly, “One must not do this to one’s own son,” sparking a flicker of emotion across Mu’s face. Sun asks, “Is this something a person can do to another person?”
He advises Mu to think it over carefully, offering to spare his life if Mu reveals who it was. Everybody tenses as Mu speaks: “The person who ordered me to kill Kang Pil-jae [Shadow] is…”
But then, Prime Minister Kim interjects, “Me.” Omo. Is this for real? If this is another dream sequence fakeout, Imma throw something.
Mu looks up in shock as his father joins him on the straw mat, kneeling before the court. Prime Minister Kim reveals that Mu is his son, surprising more with his honesty than with the actual truth, and takes responsibility for all the crimes.
But that just spurs Mu to burst out that his father isn’t guilty, and that he’s only confessing out of paternal protectiveness. Aw, now this is sweet. Is it twisted to think that this sadistic criminal duo is the healthiest example of father-son kinship in this drama?
So then the court demands to know who the true mastermind was if not Daddy Dearest, and Mu gives a name: Chun Seung-se, a longtime associate of Shadow’s. Fyi, in case you’re keeping track of all the dead bodies in this drama, Chun is actually Shadow’s lackey who was killed by Shadow in an earlier episode. Convenient to pin the blame on a dead guy, though.
Sun smells bullshit, but Yeongjo is happy to call it a day and close this interrogation. Furthermore, Mu has cobbled together an alternate story that’s believable, or at least not easily refuted—that Chun ordered the hits on the artists, then ordered Shadow killed so he could monopolize the market. (But Shadow killed Chun first.)
Sun asks why Mu would carry out a hit when the client had already died, but Mu replies that he wanted the document. And that word has everyone on alert, and ministers demand to know where the document is now. Mu answers that Shadow never gave up the answer despite all the torture.
Even though he’s convinced this is false, there’s nowhere for Sun to take the interrogation. As Yeongjo and Sun return to the palace, Yeongjo talks lightly of the case, writing it off as some gang turf war that merits no further attention. He informs Sun that he’ll be handling the rest of the investigation; he argues that it’s improper for Sun to be involved since he was at one point a suspect.
With difficulty, Sun agrees. He also agrees when his father tells him to stop working directly on cases like this and turn his attention to other matters of state.
But as his father turns away, a thought strikes Sun and he recalls the contents of the maengui. He asks sharply what the document is about that it would put lives on the line, and Yeongjo’s temper flares. He yells at Sun to let closed cases rest and orders him out.
Teacher Park has a lot to explain for when he comes empty-handed to his Soron colleagues, who furiously demand to know where the document is. They argue amongst themselves, but the hotheaded one who wants to take it public is silenced by the stern leader, who warns him of the ramifications.
Advisor Chae has seen the second page of the copied maengui containing signatures, but not the first page that has all the damning information. Now he asks Sun for the full explanation, having deduced that he’s being kept in the dark about something important. He guesses that the document that was mentioned at court today is the same document Heung-bok copied and left in the pages of Ji-dam’s novel.
Sun says that he’ll tell him everything once he’s more certain of the facts, just as he receives words that the court lady who stole his dagger has been apprehended. She’s beaten bloody and ordered to declare whose orders she was taking; she gives Shadow’s name, Kang Pil-jae.
Crooked Officer Byun is similarly tortured and questioned about Pil-jae’s orders to kill Heung-bok and cover up the investigation. He knows he’s being caught as scapegoat to protect those at the top, but a direct threat to his family makes him sign the confession.
In light of the newest “revelations” about the case, War Minister Hong and Minister Min submit their resignations to the king, humbly accepting blame for not doing their jobs properly. (So the explanation is that they failed in their duties, rather than contributed to active corruption.) Yeongjo just dismisses the resignations and tells them to return to their posts, making up for their lapses by working harder.
Minister Min sits his son, our idealistic good cop Min Woo-sub, down for a stern talk about not doing things that’ll make himself a target. The world is tougher than he thinks, Dad warns.
Sun reads the final report concluding the investigation, and has to grudgingly recognize that the cover-up is perfect. The bad guys have managed to absolve all of their players of criminal guilt and filled in all the gaps tighter than even a mystery novel.
Suddenly, he rises and makes his way to the prisons, going directly to Mu’s cell. He sits right down next to him and says that he was in Mu’s place directly before him, to which Mu shrugs that it’s his lot in life in having a cruel father. Sun replies, “I don’t think you’re in a position to tell me that.” No kidding, to an epic degree.
Sun asks what Mu knows of his father, and why he would perjure himself for him. He sees the flicker of emotion in Mu’s eyes and says that the eyes never lie, then urges him to tell the truth even now. Mu scoffs, asking if he means he should divulge that his father used him to further political ends, then abandoned him once he became useless. Sun is stunned, asking how he behaved as he did even knowing this.
Mu replies simply, “Because he’s my father.” Ack! Nooooo, that is a lesson I don’t want you teaching Sun!
Sun doesn’t buy it, and says that Mu killed numerous innocent people, all of whom were someone’s father or brother or son, and that he did it for a man who’s only concerned with saving his own neck. He’s not worth Mu’s heart-stirring sacrifice.
Sun entreats Mu to confess the truth, for the sake of those who died unjustly and those who may yet die in the future. Mu is unmoved, saying that no matter how the prince appeals to him, he’s still only got one answer.
Incredulously, Sun asks, “Are you saying that ultimately you will choose to die for your father—in place of your father?” Mu says that he’ll be dying for his crimes, and the father part is just to take some memories with him. That is, after all, the man who openly claimed him as son despite the rest of the world fearing and shunning him. “If I did not have even those memories of that father, my road to the afterworld would be quite lonely, wouldn’t it?”
Sun leaves that encounter deep in thought, thinking to himself: “Father and son. Mother and child. Brother and sister. And friend. Through them, living is warm, but also at times contradictory.”
Sun has a cute play session with his son, baby San (Jeongjo), as a smiling Hyegyeong watches. He worries briefly that the baby seems warm and is suffering from the other night, but Hyegyeong assures him that he’s fine. Still, Sun requests that even if the same thing were to befall him in the future, or worse, he doesn’t want his son involved. The boy will be a prince one day, and as a prince he will be forced to endure many difficult things—and here Sun looks a bit choked up, thinking of his own life—and thus, he asks Hyegyeong that they not add to those troubles.
He adds that he’d like to delay the boy discovering that these difficult trials are his fate to endure, for as long as possible. Hyegyeong agrees, her protests quieted for now, and the father-son play session resumes.
Yeongjo mockingly asks whether Teacher Park is happy with the results, having decided to save one gangster instead of a critical document. Park answers, “What I wanted to save more than Na Chul-joo was Your Highness.”
He reminds the king that he’d said the document was for the good of the people, needed to protect and rule over them, but now Park knows that the people are no concern of Yeongjo’s. What he wants is to stay on his throne and be an absolute ruler—but that kind of power must be kept in check.
Yeongjo asks if that’s why he gave the document to the prime minister, so as to keep the king in check. Park answers, “It is better that a bad man checks your power than nobody.” He begs the king to check himself, because if he doesn’t, he’s well on his way to becoming a tyrant. Wow. Those are strong words, and I fear for Park—he means this in the best way possible, but Yeongjo is the furthest thing from a receptive listener.
As Mu is dragged to the town center for a public execution, Sun asks Advisor Chae about the possibility of Prime Minister Kim being the mastermind behind everything. If that’s true, then did he calculate his son’s sincerity into his plans?
Okay, I rescind anything positive I ever said about Prime Minister Kim’s fatherly affections. He shares the truth with his Noron cronies, who are shocked that he went with such an extreme plan—what if Mu surprised him by confessing the truth? The prime minister just says that the low-born are weak to affection.
Poor low-born scapegoat. As he awaits the executioner’s blade, he sees Chul-joo arriving at the edge of the crowd… and he has his hand still on? Wait. Was that a trick? Is there a secret trick stuck in here somewhere?!
Chul-joo sends a teary-eyed smile and waves at his old friend. Mu hopes that his truth wasn’t part of the calculation, and maybe that’s enough, that he retains his hope through the end. It’s his last thought before he’s cut down.
Sun wonders what it means to be a father and a son, replaying all the little moments we’ve seen between them, as Yeongjo offers him advice and guides him with small, affectionate gestures. He asks his advisor, though in a rhetorical way, “Do you have memories of your father. And if not, what memories do you wish you had?”
Sun returns to the library to continue his private investigation of the names signed on the maengui. He goes through the files, connecting the nicknames with their real owners, seeing that every name on the list is a Noron. Everyone but one, who he has been unidentified: Who is Juk-pa?
Now that they’ve remembered that Sun is a father, we’re directing the father-son conflict directly, and it makes for a tense shift in direction to have Sun actively addressing it. It’s one thing for us to see Yeongjo manipulating everyone around him and directing his son to his whim, while the son remains trusting and blind, but Sun has some growing up to do now that he sees what his father is capable of. Actually, I don’t think he sees fully the extent of Yeongjo’s brilliance or madness (they’re linked, I think), but with the discovery of the damning document, he’s starting to get an inkling that his father’s not acting in Sun’s best interests.
I don’t think he suspects Yeongjo of going quite as far as to gaslight him, but I both am eager for him to have his eyes fully opened and afraid for what that’ll do to him. He must harbor some suspicion of his father being the last name, Juk-pa, on the document, but while there’s doubt, there’s also hope. I fully expect the revelation to crush him, which means he’s not quite ready to see his father for who he is.
By the way, I’m not reading Yeongjo as a traditional villain, nor do I think this drama is going so far as to vilify his character posthumously. The drama is making him into a rich, complex, human character and I find that way more interesting than going with a straightforward interpretation. If anything, it’s the Sado role that’s being flattened by being depicted as noble and sweet, and normally I’d be grumbling about that. It bothers me less than it might normally, however, perhaps because twisted is the conventional interpretation, so is portraying him as good really just a twist anyway?
In any case, we’re heading into the second half and Sun’s starting to see his father differently, but as I said, I see more hope in him than doubt. It’s why his comment to Hyegyeong struck me as particularly poignant, of wanting to preserve his son’s innocence and keep him from knowing his burden for as long as possible. You could argue that perhaps Sun could feel hoodwinked for having kept up his faith for as long as he had—isn’t that a natural response when realizing we’ve been deceived, to wish we’d opened our eyes sooner? Yet he would have it be otherwise, because the truth is a heavy burden, and not one he would inflict upon a tender soul until it became absolutely necessary.
That family scene was probably my favorite of the episode, and shows us hints of a growing rapport between Sun and Hyegyeong, which I love and want to see a lot more of. In fact, it makes me dissatisfied with the earlier setup of bringing in Ji-dam to be Bingae (who was historically one of Sado’s consorts, and reportedly one he was crazy in love with), because now I just want the drama to ditch that story and focus on the lonely prince and princess struggling against the conflict of their feelings, their ideological differences, and the warring political leaders who stand behind them hoping to manipulate them to their own ends.
So I feel like making Ji-dam a love interest is narratively a simplistic and “easy” choice (they’re so perfect for each other! The tinkling romantic music tells me so!) but I also resist that pairing for a more meta reason, which is that I find Kim Yoo-jung simply unconvincing. I’ll voice an unpopular opinion in saying that I think she’s been a bit hyped for her abilities, probably because she was such a standout in her child roles—good for a child, which may lead to the assumption that she’d be good in adult roles. But she’s playing this role so one-dimensionally (and yes, that’s maybe half a problem of writing, but it’s also a problem of performance), and in scenes with every other cast member, who is knocking it out of the park, she rings false.
I generally argue in favor of preserving the narrative OTP because a story should stand structurally, and if a plot is built to lead to a certain resolution, then by all means, I want that to play out. But I just find every other relationship much more stirring, while I feel the prince-and-novelist romance forced by music cues and rosy mood lighting. I wonder if the drama kept us from seeing Sun’s child because it would have felt wrong to introduce a romance with Ji-dam while reminding us that Sun was a married father. So they gave us the lonely prince with the cold wife and duty-driven, loveless marriage, finding a warm kindred spirit to fall for. Only now, I see something meaningful and stirring in the family he already has, and watching him struggle to make that work would be, methinks, the thing a hero would do.