Mirror of the Witch: Episode 1
Well. *unclenches hands from armrests* That was certainly intense. I didn’t expect JTBC’s new fantasy-historical drama Mirror of the Witch to be quite so dark, but I’ve gotta say, it’s really working. The promos did give it a good mystical flair, and it was definitely coming across very fairytale-esque. But after this premiere, it’s starting to feel more like a creepy horror movie and I love it. With absolutely stunning cinematography, gripping characters and the atmospheric music to match, this drama’s already managed to get me under its spell.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A narrator describes the harsh conditions Joseon is currently suffering, with the sun’s powers having been in decline for many years. The people have been encased in darkness, hitting them with despair and disease. And the royal family’s power is slowly going downhill. (The sun is common symbolism for the king.)
Our narrator is the head Taoist master of a Taoist temple, CHOI HYUN-SEO (Lee Sung-jae), who prays for an end to the misfortune, as well as for insight to the king’s rightful path. He prays for a new sun that will again shine its light for the royal family and its people.
Hyun-seo is called by the queen (Jang Hee-jin), who’s in a rather cheerful mood. She had a dream the previous night of a dark shadow big enough to cover the entire sky entering her belly. The queen interprets this as a birth dream and grins from ear-to-ear, hoping this is a sign she could finally be pregnant.
Hyun-seo’s gaze wavers at her mention of this dark shadow, but he remains silent. The physician checking the queen’s condition sadly reports that she is not with child. The queen’s face falls, while everyone else in the room exchanges uneasy looks.
Some shamans out in the courtyard gossip over the queen’s issues with getting pregnant, noting that the queen dowager is in fits over this. Suddenly, one shaman rises and looks up at the sky, transfixed by something nobody else can see. The others whisper that she’s at it again, just as a light flashes in her eyes—and then lightning strikes and the sky opens up in a downpour.
The queen dowager has a talk with the queen and King Myeongjong, shooting them with questions on whether or not they slept together precisely how she instructed. The royal couple are practically shaking, afraid to say anything. The queen dowager snipes at Myeongjong for leaving the queen’s chambers so soon and insists on sitting in to watch next time to make sure they get the deed done.
But in a small voice, Myeongjong says, “Please stop this already.” He lets it all out, despite his wife’s protests, and demands that his mother stop treating him like a child. He’s supposed to be the ruler, but her constant interference has made everyone see him as a mere puppet king. She’s not protecting his position; she’s only protecting her own. And with that, he storms out.
The queen wordlessly bows and follows. The queen dowager watches them leave with fire in her eyes. She commands a eunuch to summon someone named Hong-joo immediately.
The eunuch goes out during the storm and arrives at a hut. He calls out for her, a little hesitant to get too close to the door. Eventually, a hand comes out of the darkness—good lord, that gave me chills—to slowly reveal the shaman, HONG-JOO (Yeom Jung-Ah).
At court, King Myeongjong discusses state matters with his council, only to have the queen dowager speak up to contradict his orders, literally ruling from over his shoulder. With a resigned sigh, he gives in to his mother’s wishes. Again.
The court session is interrupted by the arrival of shaman Hong-joo, who ignores the officials’ demands to leave at once. The queen dowager quiets them all by retorting she summoned her. King Myeongjong fidgets nervously on his throne, clearly uncomfortable with this shaman’s presence.
The queen dowager and Hong-joo continue their conversation in private quarters. She begins to explain why she called, but Hong-joo stops her short and simply reassures her: She’ll get her that heir, no matter what it takes.
Hong-joo enters the queen’s room and to their dismay, orders all of her maids and court ladies out. Hong-joo states that the order comes from the queen dowager, and the court ladies file out reluctantly. Then Hong-joo has the queen restrained and stripped, and places a talisman on the front of her skirt.
Without warning, Hong-joo has her henchwomen whip her the queen over and over, claiming to be ridding her of bad energy. The queen is struck repeatedly until her garments are completely stained in blood. The whipping finally stops when Hong-joo sees the burn marks that have appeared on the talisman.
Hong-joo delivers the verdict to the queen dowager: The queen is barren. Even so, Hong-joo knows of a way to work around this complication, and the queen dowager asks in alarm if she’s thinking of that.
Hong-joo is, and acknowledges that the spell is risky, leaving the decision to the queen dowager. The dowager considers this, and finally decides that the top priority is getting an heir to the throne. Hong-joo smiles.
As the shamans sleep in their quarters, one tosses and turns—the same girl from earlier. She bolts up in a cold sweat and her eyes flash again, almost as if she’s having some kind of vision.
Hong-joo and Hyun-seo run into each other in the corridor, and it becomes apparent that they’re acquainted; the air is thick with tension between them. He comes to the conclusion that the queen dowager invited her back, and isn’t pleased with the idea that her black magic is in the palace. Hong-joo just smiles.
Hyun-seo looks about ready to toss her out himself when she asks if his wounds have healed, reaching out to his neck. He grabs her arm and warns her to leave. They both walk away and for the first time, Hong-joo’s face seems a bit unreadable.
The young shaman who’d woken up runs to Hong-joo, shouting, “That person! That person is in danger!”
Hyun-seo meets with the queen dowager, asking why she brought Hong-joo back to the palace after promising him she wouldn’t. That was their deal, in exchange for him covering up the events of five years ago.
The queen dowager silences him. She knows Hyun-seo knew all along the queen was barren. And she no longer wants his help. From now on, she’ll be relying on Hong-joo. Hyun-seo doesn’t care what happens to him, as long as that woman leaves too. But the queen dowager has already made up her mind. She commands him to leave the palace and never come back.
The queen dowager gets news that the king has fallen ill and rushes to see him. She’s told that it was acute indigestion, and they were lucky to catch and treat it so quickly.
Hong-joo questions the young shaman, wondering how she knew of the king’s illness before anyone else. The girl doesn’t know herself, explaining that she’d heard a sound and just new, and has had these flashes since childhood.
Hong-joo realizes what the girl doesn’t—that she’s gifted. With a game plan in mind, she informs the queen that she’s barren, which the queen understands is tantamount to a death sentence for her. Hong-joo preys on her fears and offers to help her get pregnant, and while the queen is hesitant, her desperation prods her into agreeing.
We find out our young shaman is named HAE-RAN, and all the other shamans admire the palanquin she’s been granted to use in visiting her mother and younger brother. She has been given fancy new threads and gifts for her family, which she happily accepts. Things are really looking up for her, but I’m not getting a very good feeling here…
And I’m not feeling any better as she journeys further and further away. Her bearers stop in their tracks and exchange some suspicious nods. They head off-course into the woods, where they meet up with Hong-joo’s henchwomen. Once given the okay, they announce they’ve arrived, and Hae-ran steps out to a bag over her head.
She’s taken, to her complete and utter shock, to the queen herself. The queen keeps a passive expression as she commands Hae-ran to sleep with the king to get rid of his bad energy. Hae-ran tries to refuse; as a shaman, she can’t give her body to a man. That gets her a slap. The queen: “He is not just a man. He is the king of Joseon.”
Hae-ran shakes like a leaf, and the queen presses further, mentioning Hae-ran’s mother and brother, offering to look after them for the rest of their lives. But if Hae-ran refuses… the threat hangs ominously in the air.
So that night, Hae-ran is bathed and robed, and the queen issues instructions on how (and how not) to comport herself. She notices Hae-ran’s hands tightly grasping her skirt and pulls them into her own, embracing her. We finally see her expression break into one of guilt.
No one looks at all happy as the king enters and begins to disrobe Hae-ran. Hae-ran sheds a tear as they’re given instructions on how to perform, and a sea of eunuchs sit behind the doors, listening. Even the queen watches, her own heart heavy.
The next morning, the physician checks Hae-ran’s health. The poor girl has no idea what’s going on and simply laughs at the queen’s worried face. She says her own mother looked at her like that whenever she was sick. That strikes a chord within the queen.
In flashback, we see Hong-joo telling the queen her plan to use another woman with very strong powers, and get her pregnant. But the baby would have to come out of the queen’s body.
The physician informs the queen dowager that Hae-ran is indeed pregnant, although Hae-ran herself remains ignorant. The queen gives Hong-joo some of Hae-ran’s belongings, including a lock of hair, leaving the rest to the shaman.
Later, Hong-joo readies to cast her spell, about to toss Hae-ran’s belongings into a fire pit. Before she can, a sword rests on her shoulder—it’s Hyun-seo. He gives her one last chance to stop this before he cuts her down, but she tells him to go ahead—it’s the only way he can stop her.
He raises his sword, preparing to strike, when suddenly a voice commands him to stop. It’s the queen dowager, who orders the guards to capture him. They launch themselves at Hyun-seo, but he’s not about to give up without a fight and deftly dodges their advances, holding his own. Even so, he’s vastly outnumbered and soon finds himself surrounded, swords held to his neck. Hong-joo resumes her spell, and Hyun-seo can only watch helplessly.
The smoke rises and turns charcoal black, forming a dark shadowy entity. It flies across the ceiling, and screeches, flitting past the queen dowager, giving Hyun-seo the opening to escape and chase after it.
The dark shadow finds pregnant Hae-ran’s room, seeping through the walls and under her blanket. It takes her body, jolting her awake. She convulses, desperately clawing at herself as the shadow takes control, causing her hands to blacken and her fingernails to break off.
The shadow lifts her into the air, and Hae-ran goes limp. The shadow exits her, having gotten what it wanted. Hae-ran’s body falls back to the ground with a thud.
Outside, several Taoist masters hear the shadow’s cries and get into position as Hyun-seo throws some kind of device into the sky that summons the moonlight. The Taoist masters take out their shields and use the moonlight to reflect a force field around the queen’s quarters, repelling the shadow.
The shadow’s struggles take a toll on Hong-joo and she coughs up blood. Like Hae-ran, her hands begin to rot, and she casts another spell, moving clouds to cover the moon. Meanwhile, Hong-joo’s army shoots arrows at the Taoist masters, and when the youngest among them (Lee Yi Kyung) goes down, it causes their shields to falter and break into pieces. The force field is disrupted, and the shadow gets through to the queen’s quarters. Hyun-seo is too late to stop it.
The queen is awake in her room, with a talisman attached to her skirt. Just as before, the shadow enters and creeps under her covers, placing Hae-ran’s child inside of her.
Hyun-seo falls to the ground, defeated. As he’s taken prisoner by the guards, he thinks back to the queen’s dream and wonders if this was all supposed to happen. Perhaps he wasn’t capable of blocking it after all.
All was successful—it’s confirmed that the queen is pregnant. But Hong-joo has one last thing to take care of…
Oh, thank goodness, Hae-ran is still alive. She wakes up, and freaks out over the damage the shadow did to her body. She instantly knows: This is the work of black magic.
Hong-joo and her henchwomen come in to kill her, but she won’t go without a fight. She can’t believe Hong-joo would dare to bring black magic within these walls. Hong-joo orders them to kill her, but she manages to get past them.
She runs straight into the queen and begs her to spare her life. If Hae-ran dies, there would be no one to care for her family. Hong-joo appears from behind, telling her not to worry about them, since they’ll be meeting the same fate. Her ladies bring out Hae-ran’s mother and brother and knock them to the ground, killing them right in front of Hae-ran’s eyes.
Enraged, Hae-ran charges Hong-joo with incredible power. The henchwomen try to stop her, but as she glares at them, her powers knock them down. She grabs Hong-by the throat and screams at her to die.
And it really looks like she’s about to finish her off when a knife goes into Hae-ran’s back—driven in by the queen, her hands shaking and covered in Hae-ran’s blood.
It dawns on her that the queen had been in on it the entire time. As Hae-ran starts to fade, her eyes flash again and she hears the sound of a baby… No, two babies crying. She laughs and congratulates the queen for carrying twins.
She crawls up to the queen and angrily spits out that this isn’t the end: The queen will have twins, and they will die once they’re seventeen years old. And even if they do escape death, they’ll be forever cursed, as the people they love and the people who love them will die.
And then, she’s stabbed in the back once more, this time by Hong-joo. Hae-ran falls over, her tears bloody. Dead.
At long last, the queen delivers her baby—the crown prince everyone so badly wanted. She sinks back in relief, but only a moment later, she’s in labor again. The physicians congratulate her on the birth of a princess, but the queen is unsettled. Twins? She commands them to summon Hong-joo right away.
Since Hae-ran’s prediction of the twins came true, the queen worries about the rest of it. Hong-joo confirms that it’s true: The twins are both cursed. There is a solution, but it comes with a price. They can remove the curse from one baby by transferring it to the other and killing it.
The queen gasps at the thought of killing one of her children. Hong-joo calmly explains that it was a crown prince she wanted anyway. She can lose both children, or have her crown prince, if she kills the princess.
So Hong-joo transfers the curse from the crown prince to his sister, and a small red mark etches itself behind her left ear. The queen dowager is disturbingly okay with the princess dying, so long as she has the prince as an heir.
However, there’s a complication: The princess must die by her brother’s hand. Hong-joo does offer a second solution to burn the princess, but this requires the work of a Taoist master like Hyun-seo.
Which is how Hyun-seo is released from prison. Hong-joo informs him of the royal births and presents him with the matter of the curse, telling him to get rid of the cursed child in order for the royal family to flourish. The queen dowager had doubted whether Hyun-seo would kill the baby, but Hong-joo was certain that he would do it for the greater good.
It looks like she was right. The next thing we know, Hyun-seo prepares to perform the ritual, placing the princess inside a cradle of kindling. He takes one long last look at her face and then sets the kindling on fire. The baby can only cry as she’s enveloped by flames.
Hyun-seo turns away as the fire and the baby’s cries continue to grow.
A kite flies high in the sky, flown by a young girl with a very familiar red mark behind her left ear. At long last, we meet the princess (Kim Sae-ron).
Princess: “They say that there isn’t anyone who should never have been born. That’s what my older brother told me. No matter who you are, whether your family’s status was high or low, or whether or not you were born with a disease, everyone will help the world by existing, in one way or another.”
As she narrates that there must be a reason she was born, a flurry of images follow a young man, her brother on horseback. Another man falls off a cliff, but right before he hits the ground, he stops midair. He narrates that he’s never been sad, because he’ll surely find that reason.
Mirror of the Witch has done a pretty fantastic job of building its own world that you really don’t need to understand the historical context it’s placed in, because the key points come out in the characterizations and performances. That’s just good storytelling, not requiring that we know information outside of the drama’s world in order to fully understand it.
That said, I do also think it’s worth knowing the historical backdrop, not just because I find history fascinating but because I actually think this is another aspect of Mirror that is well-done—because while everything about this episode’s central plotline is fictional, the story does fit in nicely with what history has told us of Queen Munjeong, King Myeongjong, et al. The drama makes veiled references to “five years ago” and an unnatural passing, which must be King Injong’s death, putting this episode in 1550 or thereabouts. Injong’s sudden death at 30 years old after nine months of rule has been the source of much speculation over the years, particularly that he was poisoned by his stepmother, Queen Munjeong, who had her eye on the throne for her own son.
Myeongjong thus ascended at the age of 11, and his mother acted as regent, remaining influential after he came of age. Hence his frustration with her domineering nature. If we’re taking “five years ago” to mean Injong’s death, King Myeongjong is around 16 or 17 in this episode. He had one son by his queen, Crown Prince Sunhoe, who is Kim Sae-ron’s twin.
Wow, what a premiere. Let’s get this out of the way—this is undoubtedly a gorgeously shot drama. The breathtaking visuals are quite hypnotic, keeping my eyes glued to the screen even for the more disturbing imagery. I’m sure with the introduction of our main leads, the tone will dial down, but I do hope it keeps some of that magic that first reeled me in.
But, in truth, even if the drama wasn’t so pretty, I would’ve been just as captivated. Thanks to the near-perfect pacing of the episode, there wasn’t one moment where I found myself bored. We can already see that Mirror isn’t at all afraid to get too dark, and I think that makes room for plenty of opportunities. Some scenes seriously had me wincing away, especially when the newborn princess was getting burned alive. I think it’s scenes like this that could be too much for some viewers to handle. Yet, at the same time, it’s the show’s bravery to go that far that has me so engaged. Though the rules of all this black magic may seem a bit convoluted at times, it’s very easy to just fall into the story and go with it.
I guess I’m just so interested in figuring this shaman Hong-joo out. Speaking of, Yeom Jung-ah is totally slaying this role so far. Her cunning smiles give me some major goosebumps, and they only get worse as she gets the royal family deeper and deeper into her black magic. I want to hate her for ruining so many lives, but there’s something about her that tells me she’s not just any drama villain. She actually reminds me a lot of Maleficent, a character I’ve always felt had a rich history rather than just being someone on paper. So I really hope we get a little more backstory on Hong-joo, and specifically, more backstory on her and Choi Hyun-seo.
But really, this story was all about Hae-ran and the children she never got to bear. I pretty much knew her fate from the beginning, but it was still heart-wrenching to see that poor girl go through such hell. And thanks to the mistakes of the people around her, those children will have to suffer. It truly is a premise set for tragedy, but I can’t wait to see how the younger set of characters will fight their way through it. This first episode was pure setup for the princess, but even that tiny glimpse of Yoon Shi-yoon portraying Heo Jun has me excited for our time jump.
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