Ruler–Master of the Mask: Episodes 21-22
Our second lead marches up to the plate in these episodes, using his newfound royal power to try to win the lady’s heart. Too bad that it’s so difficult to root for him, because the romance is a tough sell and the characters don’t always make the wisest choices. On the bright side, we’re officially into the second half of this show’s run, so… yay?
EPISODE 21 RECAP
The episode starts in flashback, with a young Prince Sun standing with his father before the throne. The king warns Sun that during his reign, numerous advisors will come to him with differing opinions of what he should do – but no one else can make his decisions for him. In those situations, the king says, he must trust his heart: “That’s what it means to be a king.”
Facing Woo Bo and the General Choi in the present, Sun asserts that he wishes to destroy Pyunsoohwe and avenge his parents. The general smiles triumphantly as Woo Bo sits back in defeat.
Meanwhile at the palace, the queen and the Minister of War revel at the thought of having all of the general’s 40,000 men at their disposal to take down Pyunsoohwe. It seems that no one can stop them now…
…But suddenly, we return to see Sun declare that, while he wishes he could destroy Pyunsoohwe now, he can’t. Summoning the forces at the border would likely win back the throne, he says, but thousands of civilians would lose their lives as a result.
Declaring that he wants to become a king who protects the people, Sun asks the general to return to the border and protect those civilians instead of him. Deeply moved, the general accepts his command with a deep bow, and Woo Bo gazes up at him with respect.
The next morning, General Choi reports to the queen that he will not be summoning his troops. The furious queen demands to know whose command could possibly mean more to him than hers, and to her shock, he replies that it’s the crown prince.
Hearing that her son is alive, the queen wells up with emotion, asking all sorts of questions about his health. To her surprise, however, the general informs her that she’s already been in contact with the prince – he is the chief peddler that has been aiding her efforts against Pyunsoohwe.
After the general leaves, the queen grimly recalls how she’d recognized the prince’s resemblance to a young king. Suddenly infuriated, she hurls a teacup across the room – just as the startled Minister of War walks in. When he rushes to her side in concern, the queen tells him that they must tread carefully from now on: “If things go wrong, our entire household will crumble.”
That night, the queen’s handmaiden orders Ga-eun to deliver some tea to the queen’s guest. When she arrives at the guest’s quarters, however, she’s shocked to find that the guest turns out to be Sun. Expressionless, she lays the tray before him and begins to turn away – but Sun begs her to stay just until he finishes his tea.
When it becomes clear that he’s just stalling for time with her, however, she bites that he still has the habit of harassing court ladies, and takes away his unfinished tea to the kitchens. She begins to weep in solitude when suddenly, she notes something suspicious in the teacup. Lifting it to her nose, she recognizes the odor in horror and rushes back to Sun’s room only to find a dozen men quietly kidnapping a now unconscious Sun on a stretcher.
Panicked, Ga-eun follows them until they reach a cliff overlooking a river. She watches in terror as the men tie Sun to a rock and throw him into the water, where he sinks to the bottom.
As soon as they leave, Ga-eun grabs her knife and jumps over the cliff without hesitation. Cutting away the ropes around his wrist, she grabs him by the arm and starts to swim to the surface… but loses consciousness at the last moment. The two begin to sink back down.
Meanwhile, the agitated queen waits impatiently in her room until the Minister of War drops by again. He tells her that he’s done as she’s ordered, and she finally smiles in satisfaction.
Somehow washed safely ashore, Sun regains consciousness to find Ga-eun passed out beside him. He shakes her awake in desperation, and she begins to weep in relief at the sight of his face. When he reproaches her for risking her life to save him, she cries back: “I was scared that I would never see you again. You are more important to me than life itself.”
At her words, Sun embraces her tightly. They share a long, lingering moment before he leans in to kiss her once, sweetly. He releases her… and then pulls her in for more, this time filled with passion. Omo, I’m blushing.
At the palace, Hyun-seok informs an agitated Lee Sun that Ga-eun has disappeared from the palace. Lee Sun sits in worry, knowing the palace gates will close soon.
Sun carries Ga-eun back to the palace on his back, both admiring the starry night sky. She apologizes for acting so coldly toward him recently, but he tells her that they can discuss the difficult things later.
When they reach the palace gates, Ga-eun and Sun share a long goodbye, telling each other to avoid danger and stay safe. Ga-eun tells him that she couldn’t bear to live if he’s hurt before informing him that Pyunsoohwe is watching him even inside the palace – they were the ones at his door before he was poisoned.
Sun finds this strange, especially since he knows that he was summoned to the palace by the queen. Ga-eun offers to look into it, but before Sun can stop her, they’re interrupted by a guard.
Meanwhile, Hyun-seok informs Lee Sun that Ga-eun still hasn’t returned. Lee Sun decides that she must be in trouble and starts to leave to search for her himself when they’re interrupted by some guards who have something to report.
Lee Sun goes outside, only to see a soaking wet Ga-eun and Sun kneeling before him. The head eunuch explains to Lee Sun that a patrol guard found them outside the palace gates. To everyone’s shock, the eunuch then informs Lee Sun that the punishment for a court lady to have an affair with anyone other than the king is death.
Sun insists that Ga-eun is innocent and begs to be punished in her stead. Ga-eun cuts in to say that Sun only saved her life when she fell into a river, and he’s the one who’s innocent. The back-and-forth only makes Lee Sun angrier, but he suddenly declares to his guards that there’s been a misunderstanding, and that Sun is a loyal servant whom he sent to look for Ga-eun.
They start to relax – until Lee Sun steps forward, wrapping his royal robes around Ga-eun’s shoulders. She turns to Sun in confusion, but Lee Sun only guides her away from him, ordering his eunuch to make sure she is uninjured. Ga-eun gives Sun one last look before following the eunuch away.
Next, Lee Sun turns to Sun, thanking him for helping his “most cherished court lady.” He declares that he will grant him a “reward” of twenty nyang, which Sun accepts with gritted teeth. But Lee Sun notes that if they are caught together again, they will both be punished before he orders the guards to keep silent on the events of the night.
As a shaken Sun leaves the palace, he realizes in shock that Lee Sun must be in love with Ga-eun as well. Chung-woon rushes to his side, and seeing Sun’s face, he wonders what happened.
Later that night, the eunuch assures Lee Sun that Ga-eun is safely recovering in a warm room. In return, Lee Sun tells the eunuch to remember that Ga-eun’s companion was not the chief peddler, but simply a simple patrol guard. Catching his drift, the eunuch agrees.
Alone together, Hyun-seok asks why Lee Sun gives the chief peddler such special treatment, and Lee Sun flashes back to when Prince Sun first protected him from Pyunsoohwe’s men. Lee Sun describes the chief peddler as a friend from back when he was a peasant.
Lee Sun then tells Hyun-seok that the only thing he wants is Ga-eun, not power nor the throne: “But if I can only make her mine by being on the throne, what should I do?” Hyun-seok reminds him that as a court lady, Ga-eun already belongs to him, and he has nothing to worry about. Lee Sun knows he’s correct – but, he thinks sadly to himself, if Sun returns to his rightful place on the throne, Ga-eun will belong to him. Wow, okay.
General Choi drops by the queen’s room to find her weeping beside the Minister of War. The minister informs the confused general that she is mourning the loss of an important servant: Dae-mok has murdered the chief peddler for interfering with his right to mint coins.
General Choi falls to the ground in sorrow, believing Sun to be dead, and the minister leaves to give her and the general a private moment. As the queen breaks down in sobs, a devastated general swears that he will summon his army from the border and take down Dae-mok himself.
EPISODE 22 RECAP
Moo-ha is hard at work at Woo Bo’s house when suddenly, the Inspector General barges in, sobbing and clutching a letter from the general. Moo-ha and Woo Bo read the letter, devastated to hear that the crown prince has died and that the general is heading to the border to gather his troops.
Just as they begin to weep in immediate mourning, Chung-woon and Sun arrive, confused at the news as well as horrified at the general’s sudden change of heart. As Moo-ha and Woo Bo celebrate Sun’s survival, Sun tries to bring the attention back to the real issue: The general is gathering his troops.
Meanwhile, we see General Choi racing to the border on horseback, swearing to avenge the death of the crown prince.
Once everyone has calmed down, Sun rereads the letter to find that the general plans to gather the troops in time for the queen’s birthday celebration.
The Inspector General notes that it’s too late to stop him; even if they reveal that Sun is still alive, the attempted assassination will be enough to convince the general to gather the troops anyway. To avoid war, their only hope is to stop the troops.
So Sun pays a visit to Hwa-goon to ask for her help. Hwa-goon is shocked to hear that Pyunsoohwe tried to kill him again, and further shocked when he informs her that the general is on his way to gather troops to wipe out Pyunsoohwe.
He asks her to help stop the general from attacking Pyunsoohwe, and when Hwa-goon asks why he wants to protect his enemy, Sun explains that he cannot allow innocent civilian lives to be lost. She agrees to help.
The next morning, Hwa-goon confronts Dae-mok for breaking his promise to never try to kill Sun again. He denies having any part in it, however, meaning that the prince must have other enemies.
Trusting him, Hwa-goon requests a Pyunsoohwe meeting to discuss General Choi’s impending attack. At the meeting, Dae-mok asks how she knows about the attack, noting the general’s infamy for never leaving any trails of evidence, and she explains that the merchants gave her the information.
To convince them further, however, Hwa-goon shares further evidence that General Choi secretly has been meeting with the queen in private and made a peace treaty with foreign forces, all pointing to the fact that he has plans to mobilize the troops in secret. The other Pyunsoohwe members agree with her deduction.
Hwa-goon then declares that she already has a plan to stop the forces from mobilizing: cut off the foreign food trade, which will make them feel threatened and belligerent, and will force General Choi to deal with them instead of moving toward the capital.
As Pyunsoohwe’s members whisper at the brilliant plan, Dae-mok grins, impressed and proud. Agreeing to act on Hwa-goon’s plan, Dae-mok orders the chief of the Water Bureau to head to the border and kill the general just in case Hwa-goon’s plan doesn’t work out.
Sun meets with Lee Sun at the palace, writing notes to each other for fear of spies and burning the evidence. Sun informs Lee Sun that he has made measures to stop General Choi from showing up tonight. Then, Sun writes Lee Sun a request to see Ga-eun, as well as a request to keep his identity as crown prince a secret. Lee Sun crumples the note in silent fury before he calls for a eunuch to send Ga-eun into the room.
As soon as Ga-eun arrives, she sees Sun and smiles lovingly before greeting the king. He tells her to take care of herself, reminding her that she must stay healthy in order to serve him properly. Without giving Sun a chance to speak to her, Lee Sun dismisses her before handing Sun another note, this time asking him to talk in private in the greenhouse. (Uh, why couldn’t they just have spoken there from the start?)
So they go to the greenhouse, where Lee Sun explodes at him for daring to ask to see her. Sun stays calm, asking him to take care of Ga-eun for him, but that only angers Lee Sun further. When he insists that his relationship with Ga-eun goes much deeper than his, Sun demands to know if he loves her.
In response, however, Lee Sun only says: “She hates me when I wear this mask. Do you know why? Because she thinks I’m you!” Ouch. Lee Sun pushes him to reveal his identity and the fact that he killed her father. He tells Sun that he will gladly give up the throne when the time comes, “But remember that Ga-eun is not yours.”
Dae-mok sits with Hwa-goon after the meeting, wondering why General Choi is suddenly showing his fangs. Hwa-goon notes that it must be the queen’s doing, but tells him that she has a plan to destroy the queen as well.
Mae-chang meets with the head eunuch to discuss Dae-mok’s attempts on Sun’s life, but he informs her that it was actually the queen who ordered the assassination; she wanted him out of the way in order to control General Choi’s forces. “But she crossed a line this time,” he notes, and decides to prepare a special birthday present for her, one that he wants the crown prince to see as well.
The palace comes alive the next day with preparations for the queen’s birthday celebration. When the queen goes to her room, however, she find an unexpected guest in her seat: Dae-mok, making himself at home. At her entrance, he makes room for her with a good-natured attitude, offering her own seat back to her. Dae-mok explains that he wanted to offer some delicious dishes for her birthday, and directs her attention to three platters before her.
As she watches tensely, he lifts the first platter to reveal a paper scroll. Trembling, the queen opens it to find a message regarding the troops at the border. She tries to laugh it off, but Dae-mok notes pointedly that it’s a shame that General Choi won’t make it in time for the festivities: “I considered making sure he never returned at all, but it might be useful to have a hawk up there.”
The next scroll has a single word: “Woman.” Dae-mok explains that it is natural for a grown man to take a wife, and that the older generation should make room for the younger – a thinly veiled suggestion.
Unlike the first two, however, the last platter holds a bowl of tiger’s blood. He looks down at her and tells her to remember the past before he strolls out.
The queen’s birthday celebration begins that night. Sitting beside her, Lee Sun tells her that a special guest wishes to present his gift to her himself. When she looks up to see who it is, however, she stares in shock to see Sun walking toward her with a box in his hands. The queen and the Minister of War stare at him in horror, which Woo Bo notes.
Shaking, the queen asks why he hasn’t visited recently, and he explains that he was waiting for her invitation. She tells him to visit whenever he wants in the future, and he accepts.
Dressed as a court lady, meanwhile, Mae-chang orders a group of men to be careful with their task so that they succeed.
Ga-eun brings a tray of food to the king, exchanging a secret smile with Sun as she passes by. Guiltily, he thinks to himself that he isn’t the man she believes he is, but her father’s killer. When she arrives at Lee Sun’s side, however, he gives Sun a pointed look before he orders her to stay beside him. She obeys without a choice. Sun watches, jaw tight.
Next, the festivities continue with a puppet show. To the queen’s horror, the story depicts a royal family who only finds an heir in the form of a concubine’s son. The queen becomes jealous that the concubine stole the king’s affections and hates the child. So when the royal family is told to bless the child by writing his name on his body with tiger’s blood, the jealous queen replaces the tiger’s blood with poison.
As the queen watches the show, trembling, we flash back to Sun’s birth. We see the same story unfold. The queen had ordered the Minister of War to exchange the tiger’s blood for poison, putting the prince’s life at risk.
Noting the trembling queen, Woo Bo realizes that this is a true story. He whispers to Sun that it’s true that he was nearly killed as a child, but now they know that it was the queen who tried to kill him. Sun spins around to stare at her in horror.
As the puppet show reaches its climax, the queen stands, panting and traumatized. Lee Sun orders a stop to the show, while the queen, deeply pained, looks up to make eye contact with Sun.
Ugh. I’m trying my hardest to lessen my criticisms, but I cannot avoid talking about the most unfortunately prominent, abrasively offensive part this week’s episodes: the romantic subplot. As if it wasn’t bad enough to totally and unapologetically run Ga-eun’s agency into the ground – as the writers have been doing in the past several episodes – they’ve now made her into an object for trade between the two main male characters, who have come to talk about her as if she’s a cactus with eyelashes, or at least a really pretty rock.
They repeatedly talk about her like a friggin’ object for barter and possession, deciding who should “have” her without once consulting her opinion. I mean, sure, Dramaland has never been a pioneer of feminism – but seeing how subversive a character Ga-eun was in the pilot episodes, I find it mighty hard to believe that the writers don’t know how to write a good female character; they’re just choosing not to because it’s easier. It kind of feels like the show has run out of real conflict, or doesn’t know how to take advantage of them anymore, so it’s turning to tried-and-true methods of generating conflict: two handsome men fighting over an ordinary girl.
Maybe the show is actually trying to make us hate Lee Sun (I honestly can’t tell), but if it is, it should have chosen a more interesting way to do it. I mean, if telling us that “the only ‘thing’ Lee Sun cares about is winning Ga-eun’s heart” was supposed to be some beautifully tragic line to make me sympathize with him, it’s failed utterly. Not only is it riotously disrespectful to this girl he’s supposed to care about, but his desire for her is entirely selfish and inconsistent with his background. I mean… am I seriously supposed to accept that Lee Sun doesn’t give a crap about anything else?
I’m really supposed to accept that Lee Sun is an underdog from a lowly peasant background; has learned firsthand the injustice of the social system; is responsible for a beloved mother and sister whose lives are constantly threatened by an evil organization; and has witnessed his father’s unjust, unavenged murder… and the only thing he needs to be happy is the love of a girl he clearly doesn’t really know? At this point, it’s straight-up exhausting to hear him say anything about anything anymore because I don’t know where it’s going to lead, if anywhere at all. He has no real power to affect the plot, abuses what power he does have by being a petty and obstructive ass, and he treats Ga-eun as an object for possession. Argh!! (*pulls hair*)
But as I said, I’m tired of complaining about this show, so I want to end on a more positive note (or as positive as I can make it). Interestingly, I don’t (usually) hate where we are at the end of each episode – I just hate how we got there. If I think about the end of each episode, we’re always left somewhere interesting and filled with potential. The only problem is that the narrative path to get there is filled with plot holes, imbalanced pacing, and major and minor characters who act in unbelievably unintelligent or unrealistic ways.
Like in this episode: General Choi, who is supposedly famously smart enough to never leave evidence of his work, immediately mobilizes forty thousand men after reading a single dubious letter. Sun, whose entire character is based on his love for the people above all, doesn’t see the irony of a king throwing himself before his servant and begging for death to protect his girlfriend. Woo Bo, former Sungkyunkwan scholar and a master with actual pupils, can derive the history of the royal family by looking at a single expression from the queen, though we can at least give her bald reaction to the puppet show a little credit on that one.
I’m actually finding it harder to be angry at the showrunners as I am sad for them. Maybe they were so pressured by the hype that they were afraid to do anything daring. Maybe they outlined the story with only the big plot points, and made the interns fill in the minute-by-minute gaps. Maybe I’m just making excuses because I’m unwilling to admit defeat. Who knows? Probably not the writers.
- Ruler–Master of the Mask: Episodes 1-2
- Premiere Watch: Individualist Ji-young, Ruler, Suspicious Partner
- The prince casts off his mask to fight for the people in Ruler–Master of the Mask
- Master of the Mask Yoo Seung-ho extends a hand to knife-wielding Kim So-hyun
- Vows made, virtues rejected in Ruler–Master of the Mask’s character posters
- Prince and pauper trade identities in Ruler–Master of the Mask
- A flirty prince and a tragic twist in Ruler–Master of the Mask
- Character stills and extended descriptions for MBC’s Ruler–Master of the Mask