Six Flying Dragons: Episode 1
I’m always wary of jumping onboard a long-running drama, because man that is a time commitment, but I did find Six Flying Dragons rather strong in its premiere. This is a drama with a lot of hype going in, and it’s a hype that didn’t really move me since sageuks this long often require such effort to follow, but that said I found this first episode compelling on most fronts: It’s beautifully filmed, well-acted, and paced swiftly.
The drama is a bit dense on the history front, in that there’s a certain baseline of Korean history that Korean audiences are expected to know and is thus not fully explained. That’s not necessarily going to be the case for most of us in the English-speaking audience, and I’ll attempt to lay in the basics of the background, because Six Flying Dragons also takes a bit of creative license in the fictionalization of certain characters and events, and it’s helpful to know what the canon is so we can appreciate where the show is deviating.
It’s been a while since we had all three broadcasters premiering new dramas on the same day, so I was curious to see how the ratings battle would shake out. As it turns out, the combined starpower of Six Flying Dragons’ producers and lead stars sealed the deal and it came out in front with 12.3%, with MBC’s melodrama Dazzling Temptation in second with 8.5% and KBS’s bubbly high school drama Sassy Go Go far back with 2.2%. All the numbers ticked upward for their second episodes, but the rankings remained the same.
SONG OF THE DAY
Han Hee-jung – “오래오래” (A long while) [ Download ]
(I suppose this short summary may contain “spoilers” in the context of this drama, but it’s commonly known history, and many viewers will already know it.)
The drama opens in the twilight years of the nearly-500-year-old Goryeo dynasty, which fell in 1392. (We’re probably in the 1380s or thereabouts.) Goryeo was overthrown by Lee Seong-gye, a general who became Joseon’s first king (known posthumously as Taejo), aided by the influential ideologue and politician Jung Do-jeon, who was instrumental in establishing the new nation and its founding principles.
Taejo’s fifth son, Lee Bang-won, put in a considerable effort to aid his father’s rise, and thus expected to be named his father’s successor. However, Lee Bang-won clashed with Jung Do-jeon and his differing ideals for how to govern the nation; he was therefore unhappy, to put it mildly, when Taejo named a different son as his successor. Lee Bang-won attacked Jung Do-jeon’s side, killing him as well as the heir. Taejo abdicated but crowned another son (Lee Bang-gwa) as the second Joseon king, Jeongjong.
Lee Bang-won later became the third king of Joseon, Taejong, and is remembered for a rather bloody rise to power, which included battling his brothers and killing many of his potential political rivals. He did rule strongly and effectively for eighteen years, and was father to King Sejong, considered the greatest king in Korean history.
Sejong was the king at the center of Tree With Deep Roots, where Taejong was depicted as cruel and demanding; with the same producers behind this drama, we can see Six Flying Dragons as a prequel of sorts to Tree. It’s also worth nothing that the producers had been working on another drama, Unprecedented, which dealt in the same time period and around many of the same characters as this one. But Unprecedented was shelved by MBC, and in the interim KBS put out their well-received drama Jung Do-jeon last year. So in addition to being based on a dramatic and turbulent time in Korean history, interest in the drama also includes meta-level questions such as how this version of Jung Do-jeon or Taejo or Taejong will be portrayed, and how Dragons compares to prior works.
A note on naming conventions: Normally we’d treat drama characters as regular people and call them by first names, but I’m making an exception here with names like Lee Seong-gye and Jung Do-jeon. These are famous people in history and it just feels wrong to shorten them to “Seong-gye” and “Do-jeon,” so we’re preserving the full names. (On the other hand, we’ll refer to Lee Bang-won as Bang-won, because the other characters call him that.)
EPISODE 1 RECAP
On the road toward the capital, we meet one of our main characters—and while the show withholds identification for a while, we can identify him as one of our major players (if only for the fact that it’s Kim Myung-min), JUNG DO-JEON.
Jung Do-jeon swipes food from a peddler, and when confronted, he admits it with a sheepish grin and promises to repay the man later. But his playful demeanor disappears the moment he heads off alone, arriving at a hidden cave in the mountainside.
Inside, he becomes aware of a presence and snaps to alert when he sees the shadowy figure awaiting him. The young man (Yoo Ah-in) speaks earnestly, calling him Teacher and saying he has waited a long time to see him.
Jung Do-jeon eyes him suspiciously, then addresses the other young man hidden in the shadows. Out steps a second unexpected visitor (Byun Yo-han), who calls Jung Do-jeon the man who conned him of his life—a charge Jung refutes, saying he’s never seen him before.
The men engage in a round of “Who are you?” “No, who are you?” before the first man says excitedly that he knows them both. He finally gives his own name: LEE BANG-WON. So this is our future king.
Eight years prior, to Bang-won’s youth. As an impressionable boy, young Bang-won trails excitedly as his older brother chases a man through a field, struggling to capture him. Bang-won jumps in too, although he’s more impediment than help, mistakenly biting his brother instead of the runaway.
From a distance, a stone-faced archer shoots a flat-tipped arrow into the fight, knocking out the target. He joins the younger two, and is greeted enthusiastically by Bang-won, his son, who can’t wait to brag about how he caught the man.
Captions identify the three men: young Lee Bang-won; his brother LEE BANG-GWA (Seo Dong-won); and their father, General LEE SEONG-GYE (Chun Ho-jin). Or, in other words, Joseon’s first three kings, in reverse order.
Bang-won is a cheerful youngster with irrepressible energy, and by nightfall he has transformed the story to paint himself as hero of the day. He’s starry-eyed and full of romantic ideas of warfare, looking up to his father as the epitome of the ideal warrior. But his father eyes him sternly and asks if his son understands what war is. He takes Bang-won to the interrogation site of the caught traitor, an enemy spy whose backer they are trying to identify.
But Lee Seong-gye steps in, telling the traitor that he’s already betrayed him once, and not to betray a second time by revealing his backer. It’s equal parts honorable and harsh, which tells you what kind of man he is. With that, he draws his sword and executes the spy, while Bang-won stares in shock. Lee Seong-gye looks his son squarely in the eye and tells him that this is war, and that war kills people.
Bang-won trembles in the aftermath, and big brother Bang-gwa explains how betrayal is the one thing their father can’t abide, having been betrayed by his sworn brother. As Bang-gwa and his fellow soldier dramatically reenact the tale, Bang-won’s earlier enthusiasm returns at how cool his father is. He vows to become just like him, and to show no mercy toward traitors.
Next we meet their foes, the old guard of the Goryeo dynasty, led by crafty politician LEE IN-GYEOM. He and his cronies receive troubling news (while bathing together, as you do) that Lee Seong-gye is being called to the capital to take an office, which sends them panicking, since this bodes ill for their faction.
Lee Seong-gye receives the royal summons, and the news has Lee In-gyeom’s political rivals abuzz with excitement—bringing the famed general into the political ranks is their answer to preventing war from breaking out. They expect a big reaction from fellow statesman Jung Do-jeon—but Jung surprises them by saying in his absentmindedly bookish way not to trust General Lee too much. One colleague grumbles about Jung having suspect motives, but another argues that it was Jung Do-jeon who previously detected and prevented Lee In-gyeom from carrying out a plot.
Meanwhile, Jung Do-jeon instructs his subordinate to send a letter to the border. “We must stop war,” he says.
Lee Seong-gye makes preparations to head for the capital, and Bang-won insists (and pouts and pouts) that he be allowed to go too, whining that all his big brothers have been but he’s always left behind. His father isn’t about to cave… until Bang-won promises to learn standard Korean wholeheartedly—he’s been an indifferent student thus far, peppering his speech with Mongolian and rural dialect, and the deal seems to sway Dad.
In the capital city of Gaegyeong (present-day Gaeseong), we join a ragtag collection of urchins and orphans, led by a man who instructs them to target people dressed in flashy clothing gaping openly at their surroundings. In other words, easy marks.
Marks just like the slack-jawed, wide-eyed Bang-won and his guard-sidekick Young-kyu, dressed up in their best clothes so the city folk won’t look down on them. They may as well be wearing ROB ME signs.
Among the beggar children are a brother-sister pair: a precocious girl named BOON-YI and her oppa, DDANG-SAE. (Remember them, they’re two of our six dragons.) They’ve come to Gaegyeong in search of their kidnapped mother, and while it’s a daunting task, oppa Ddang-sae plans to search for clues by finding people who know the song their mother sang the day she was taken. It… doesn’t sound like a foolproof plan, and Boon-yi appropriately heaves a sigh. A better lead is the tattoo he saw on the arm of their mother’s captor.
But first, they have to find themselves an easy mark so they can feed themselves for the day. As it happens, Bang-won and his entourage walk by then, sticking out like well-dressed sore thumbs, gawking at curios in the marketplace like obvious tourists.
Bang-won’s eye is caught by a different sight, as he wanders down an alley and is horrified to see piles and piles of rotting corpses. Then, he’s grabbed by an unseen figure.
Bang-won’s bodyguard slips away looking awfully shifty, and hides a message in a secret spot. Ddang-sae notices this and follows, and takes that message after the bodyguard leaves. One look at the seal makes his eyes widen—that’s the mark on his mother’s captor.
Shifty Bodyguard returns to the marketplace, which is when he and sidekick Young-kyu realize that Bang-won is gone. They track him down just as the urchin posse strips him of his finery and jeers mockingly. The two men draw their swords and reclaim young Bang-won, only to be stopped by the urchin siblings: Boon-yi and Ddang-sae accuse the bodyguard of kidnapping their mother, pointing to the image on the letter as proof.
Both Bang-won and Young-kyu recognize the mark as belonging to their enemy, Lee In-gyeom, and realize Shifty is a traitor. Young-kyu swiftly draws his sword against him and a fierce clash ensues, although the bodyguard manages to snatch the incriminating letter and run away. Young-kyu chases, and the urchin crew joins in on the hunt.
Ddang-sae and Bang-won hang back, and hilariously, Boon-yi orders both boys to join in the chase—she seems rather a bloodthirsty sort for such a pint-sized thing. Bang-won reasons that they don’t have to chase when they can deduce where he’s headed—to the recipient of the letter, Lee In-gyeom.
Of course, they don’t know where that is… But the littlest urchin among them, GAB-BOON, pipes up that she knows where that big house is, and Bang-won lights up.
At Lee In-gyeom’s house, his chatty subordinate GIL TAE-MI suggests that they really needn’t worry about Lee Seong-gye, who’s just one man. But Lee In-gyeom is a shrewd old codger, and he understands that you can neutralize a threat by either winning them to your side by fulfilling their ambitions, or by cowing them by utilizing their fears against them. But he doesn’t know Lee Seong-gye’s ambitions or fears, and thus doesn’t know how to deal with the threat he presents.
Little Gab-boon leads the urchin group to Lee In-gyeom’s estate, having had experience sneaking inside to steal food. Boon-yi beelines for the food, and the kids busily stuff their faces, ducking out of sight when a man walks by dragging along a woman, whom they recognize as Gab-boon’s mother. Gah, why does this household keep stealing women?
The children follow and peer into a room, where they see dozens of women nursing piglets. Gack, so you’re kidnapping poor women and forcing them to breastfeed pigs just so you can have delicious meat to eat? That’s a new level of creepy, and the children realize with horror where the meat they’d just eaten came from.
Lee In-gyeom finds the bodyguard’s letter on his desk and is on immediate alert, ordering his men to search the premises and find the intruder who managed to sneak inside. The children scatter, but while Boon-yi and Ddang-sae manage to escape to a storeroom, Bang-won is caught and brought before Lee In-gyeom.
The old man just figures Bang-won for a hungry beggar and orders him turned out. Bang-won sees the hidden letter in the man’s sleeve and glares furiously.
Lee In-gyeom entrusts his subordinate with the secret letter, mentioning the well-known story of General Lee Seong-gye being betrayed by his sworn friend Jo So-saeng. But he adds meaningfully, “That’s the story the world knows,” and smiles nefariously.
Bang-won is fuming mad as he returns to the urchin base, all fired up to sic his father on the villains and get some justice. But he stops short to see Gab-boon sobbing inconsolably—the infant sibling she’s been caring for since her mother was taken has died, robbed of mother’s milk. Goddamn that delicious pork.
It makes Bang-won even more upset, and he vomits up every bit of that meat, sobbing angrily.
General Lee Seong-gye and his entourage arrive in the capital, and are greeted by our villain’s right-hand man Gil Tae-mi. Apparently the simpering, elaborately dressed Gil is known as Goryeo’s best swordsman, which makes for an incongruous sight.
Gil Tae-mi invites the general and his troops to a welcome banquet being thrown in their honor, although from the ominous music that plays, I’m guessing this isn’t going to be a very fun party.
Bang-won informs his father and brothers of the injustices going on under Lee In-gyeom’s roof, and all are appropriately horrified and press Lee Seong-gye to do something about it. But before he can, he receives a visit from a friend, politician-scholar JEONG MONG-JU, who urges him to help prevent war. Ah, so the leading faction is pushing for friendly relations with the Yuan Dynasty, which effectively pits Goryeo against Yuan’s rivals, the Ming. That drags Goryeo into their conflict and right to war—so they need Lee Seong-gye to prevent this.
Lee Seong-gye agrees to defeat Lee In-gyeom and stop war, and vows that he has never lost in battle. Listening from outside the door, Bang-won pumps his fists.
That night, Lee Seong-gye, his sons, and his entourage arrive at Lee In-gyeom’s home for the promised banquet. Bang-won glares at the old man, who recognizes him from the day before and chuckles. Bang-won announces hotly that he’s here to catch the spy, and his father adds that he has heard that a traitor has hidden himself in this house.
Lee In-gyeom feigns total ignorance about this, as well as the charge that he’s holding women here against their will. He laughs that Bang-won must have seen wrong, then leads them inside for the festivities. Bang-won throws the piglet off his plate to the ground, and Lee Seong-gye sits stone-faced as the entertainment continues.
Then a storyteller comes out to recount the story of recent wars in Goryeo history, where land was reclaimed by “traitor dogs.” Most of the partygoers enjoy the dramatic narration, but Lee Seong-gye stiffens in alarm, growing increasingly tense as the story continues, while Lee In-gyeom smirks to know what this story is doing to the general.
The story continues, and a Red Wolf is depicted being betrayed by a Shepherd… wearing the characters that spell “shepherd,” which happen to be the characters that make up the “Lee” in our good general’s name. The Shepherd tells his Red Wolf to surrender or die…
A flashback to 1356 shows us a younger Lee Seong-gye arguing with his father, an officer in the Yuan military who told him to attack his friend, calling him an enemy of Goryeo. Lee Seong-gye had pleaded against the plan, arguing that they’re in the same boat as his friend, but his father had seen opportunity—with Yuan on the decline, this would be their chance to rise to power. His friendship with Jo So-saeng, Dad declares, is trifling compared to what this could mean for them.
And so, a heavyhearted Lee Seong-gye had betrayed his hyungnim, letting in the attacking army and turning bow and arrow on him. Jo So-saeng had noted bitterly, “I did not raise a younger brother, but a dog.” He had called Lee Seong-gye’s lineage a family of dogs who bite their owners.
As he had taken an arrow to the heart, Jo So-saeng had asked, “What has Goryeo done for your family? Everything you have, I gave to you. You all will betray Goryeo in the end. That is the dirty fate of the dog who bites his owner.”
Much of this exchange makes its way to the stage play being performed, and Bang-won notices his father’s stricken reaction. Afterward, Lee In-gyeom speaks privately to Lee Seong-gye, addressing the matter plainly, saying he must have felt bad to have betrayed such a close friend. He says that he’s sure the general had his reasons, but adds pointedly that others might not see eye to eye on that.
Lee In-gyeom says he’s finally starting to understand the general, having previously wondered what drove him to throw himself into battle heroically and protect his people and never show much thirst for politics. “Now I understand,” he says. “It’s because more than anybody else, you cannot forgive yourself. However, why is it that you are now trying to forgive yourself? Why is it now that you are joining politics? Why did you appear now to try to block my path, WHY?!”
Lee Seong-gye wears a morose expression as he asks quietly whether anybody else knows this truth. Lee In-gyeom assures him that only the two of them know. So what will he do about it?
The two men stare each other down for long, tense moments… and then Lee Seong-gye requests, “Please let this go. I beg you.” And he bows his head low.
Around the corner, Bang-won watches aghast as his father, the hero, subjects himself to the enemy.
“The First Dragon: Lee Seong-gye, Joseon’s founder.”
Considering how we’re only one-fiftieth of the way through this drama’s run, it feels pretty premature to be making any big decisions about it, and we can hardly make any guarantees so early on. (Plus the big burning question in my mind is: How the heck is Yoo Ah-in going to film the whole drama when he’s supposed to go to army by the end of the year?)
I have a generally positive impression of the show from where we stand right now, because it feels stylish and assured and the characterizations are rich and interesting. Well, aside from the bad guys on Lee In-gyeom’s side, because in standard sageuk fashion, they seem selfish and avaricious to a simplistic degree. But I suppose that’s less of a concern since I don’t expect Lee In-gyeom to be the primary source of conflict—not when we have a richer conflict between our two headliners, Bang-won and Jung Do-jeon. Not to mention all the strife that’ll arise regarding Lee Seong-gye’s successors and the scramble to grab power.
This show seems to be angling to put a spin on the commonly known history of Taejong/Bang-won, which largely paints him as a bloody, harsh mofo of a conqueror. But you cast Yoo Ah-in and give him puppy-dog eyes as an idealistic child, and, well, I’m curious to see how you’re going to reframe the story of Taejong.
Whenever you have a character whose ending is already known, whose beginnings are depicted in such strong contrast, you’ll be eagerly looking to pick up hints along the way for how he ended up this way. Call it the Anakin Effect, if you will, where I’m enjoying every small detail that might shed some light on the change. For instance, Bang-won looking up to his father as both a war hero and his personal hero, and declaring that he’ll be just like him in punishing betrayers. Or how he’s so righteous at the outset, and convinced that merely telling his father about an injustice will be enough to set all to rights. The disillusionment must be quite a shaping force, I expect.
Furthermore, there’s the whole part where Taejong banished, attacked, and/or trampled over his brothers to claim the throne. Bang-won has warm, loving relationships with his family right now, but how is it that he turns on him. And if he’s not the villain of the piece, how can the show humanize all of the violence to come? Perhaps it’ll paint him as the misunderstood victim, but I’m hoping it’ll do the more interesting character work of having him own up to his darker side and drawing us in with a human portrayal. And with Kim Myung-min as the main rival, I want an equally complex light-and-dark exploration of Jung Do-jeon as well.
In any case, the casting is spot-on thus far, and the show even manages a pretty solid dash of light-hearted humor. I’m surprised at how much I like little Boon-yi (and her sweet but kinda dense oppa Ddang-sae), and if she retains that sassiness as an adult, I could very well really love the main romance between Yoo Ah-in and Shin Se-kyung.
Like I said, it’s early days yet, and much of my hope is hanging on things that have not happened. But as always, I approach with cautious optimism.
- The swords come out for Six Flying Dragons’ posters
- The dragons take flight
- Character teaser roll call for all Six Flying Dragons
- Four Flying Dragons down, two left to go
- Yoo Ah-in takes up the sword in Six Flying Dragons
- Shin Se-kyung reunites with Yoo Ah-in in Six Flying Dragons
- Baek Jin-hee drops Six Flying Dragons
- Six Flying Dragons confirms leads, adds Yoon Kyun-sang
- Baek Jin-hee, Jung Yumi in the mix to join Six Flying Dragons
- Byun Yo-han in talks to join Six Flying Dragons
- Kim Myung-min considers Six Flying Dragons opposite Yoo Ah-in
- Yoo Ah-in courted to headline Six Flying Dragons