Ruler–Master of the Mask: Episodes 25-26
Ruler–Master of the Mask made marked improvements this episode, returning to its initial roots of faster plot development and sudden twists – and while the show still has its unapologetically glaring character faults, I’m impressed at how it manages to keep its viewers invested, at least long enough to watch one more episode. Hopefully we’ll see the show apply the fast pace it’s recently adopted to the rest of its run.
EPISODE 25 RECAP
We flash back to see the queen dowager asking a shocked Ga-eun to become a candidate for the queen selection. Though Ga-eun resists at first, the queen dowager finally convinces her by promising to clear her father’s name if she succeeds.
In the present, Lee Sun hurries to the selection room, where all of the participants lay unconscious or in pain from drinking the poisoned tea. He checks on the queen dowager before hurrying to Ga-eun’s side, where Sun already sits in grim-faced worry.
Lee Sun yells at Sun for not doing his proper job as a guard before ordering the royal physician to tend to Ga-eun. He then dismisses Sun from his duty, telling him that there is nothing more for him to do here. Without a choice, Sun obeys.
The head eunuch escorts Woo Bo to Lee Sun’s quarters, where Ga-eun lays unconscious. Lee Sun begs Woo Bo to save her, and recognizing her symptoms, Woo Bo immediately orders a court lady to fetch some ingredients for medicine.
Outside, Sun stops the court lady to ask about Ga-eun’s condition. Hearing that she’s still unconscious, Sun sighs in dismay, clearly worried but unable to see her.
Concerned for the girl they love, both boys stay up all night – Sun outside by the gates, and Lee Sun next to her bed, tending to her fever. Thanks to Woo Bo’s treatment, she recovers by morning – but when Lee Sun tries to wipe away her sweat, she mutters “Chun-soo” in her delirium. Lee Sun trembles in fury at the name.
When Woo Bo finishes his treatment the next morning, he sees Sun still standing by the gates. Woo Bo assures Sun that Ga-eun has successfully recovered before telling him that he can only let him in to see her once Lee Sun has gone.
When Lee Sun finally leaves, Sun hurries in to Ga-eun’s side. As Sun hangs his head in sorrow, she suddenly awakens and cups his face in her hand. Relieved to see her awake, he asks her never to appear this way to him again: “You can cry, smile, or get angry – but don’t be sick anymore.” She tells him that the worry he feels now must be the same that she felt when she saw him nearly drown.
She tries to sit up, but collapses into his arms instead. As he holds her and strokes her hair, she notes with a smile that he’s always there to help when she’s in danger: “But you always appear with a different identity. A bookseller, a chief peddler, and now an officer. Sometimes, I wonder who you really are.” Sun’s expression becomes grim at the irony, and he cries silent tears as he holds her tightly.
At Pyunsoohwe, the members note that their two queen selection candidates have safely recovered, but are now too afraid to continue their participation.
Meanwhile, Sun, Woo Bo, and officer Moo-ha reflect over the poisoning, noting that there were no casualties, which seems unlike Pyunsoohwe’s style. In fact, Moo-ha notes, Pyunsoohwe gained nothing since they also lost their participants.
Noting that the only reason they were under suspicion was because the queen dowager was poisoned as well, Sun reminds Woo Bo and Moo-ha that the queen lost nothing, and in fact gained something huge.
Hwa-goon shares the same observation with Pyunsoohwe, explaining that the queen must have deliberately ingested poison to avoid suspicion. But, she adds, there’s no worry about losing their candidates – they have someone else who can participate. When Dae-mok wonders who that could be, she just smiles slyly.
That night, the Minister of War meets with the queen dowager, who is still recovering from the poisoning. She orders the Minister of War to tell his daughter to leave no room for failure, especially since she risked her life for this.
In the morning, Sun notes that it’s strange that Pyunsoohwe has lost two contestants but have not yet done anything about it. He notes that at this rate, the queen’s candidate is set to win.
The queen dowager’s selection process continues the next day. She informs the remaining six girls that although it is customary for the royal elders to judge the selection, they are unavailable due to recent events. Instead, the king himself will act as judge. The girls offer Lee Sun a bow of respect.
Before they can begin the test, however, they are interrupted by Hwa-goon, who suddenly offers to help administer the test. At the queen dowager’s indignant shock, Hwa-goon explains that she will judge by right of being the head of Pyunsoohwe. Lee Sun freezes up at hearing Dae-mok’s name before nervously stuttering his approval, much to the queen dowager’s dismay.
Meanwhile, Moo-ha rushes to inform Woo Bo and Sun that the head of Pyunsoohwe has entered the test room as a judge. Horrified by the news, Sun hurries to the test room.
Hwa-goon begins the test by asking the girls about the daily lives of the people. Eventually, only two girls remain: the queen’s niece and Ga-eun. Hwa-goon asks the queen’s niece the price for a sack of rice, and when she can’t answer, Hwa-goon guesses that the Minister of War must shelter her from the outside world.
With Ga-eun’s secret help, however, the queen’s niece manages to give the correct answers. The queen dowager smiles in satisfaction, but an annoyed Hwa-goon finishes the girl’s test with a doozy: “Which is closer: the capital, or the sun?”
Fed up, Ga-eun stands up and throws aside the curtain. She sits down before the judges, explaining that the question is an unfair trap: If the girl had said that the capital was closer, one could say that one can see the sun from here, but not the capital. If the girl had said that the sun was closer, one could say that you can meet someone from the capital, but not someone from the sun.
As Lee Sun and the queen dowager nod in approval, Hwa-goon agrees that it wasn’t a proper question. As an apology, Hwa-goon says that she’ll offer a more clear-cut question: “What is the punishment for falsely using the king’s name?”
The question is clearly targeted at Ga-eun, who sits silently, haunted by memories of her father’s execution. Oblivious to her turmoil, the queen’s niece pipes up brightly that the punishment is execution. Every word is like a knife to Ga-eun as Hwa-goon agrees and elaborates, “The traitor’s head is put on a stick for display, and the people spit at it as they pass.” Ga-eun trembles, tears brimming in her eyes.
Sun arrives at the test site just in time to see Ga-eun leave. Catching sight of him, Hwa-goon approaches him before he can turn away and begs for a chance to speak in private.
Alone in her room, Ga-eun reflects tearily on Hwa-goon’s words until the head eunuch summons her. Informing her that the king has prepared a reward for her completing the selection process, the eunuch leads her to a room with a selection of hair ornaments.
Just as she picks one up, Lee Sun appears behind her and offers to have an even more beautiful ornament made for her by the same craftsman. But Ga-eun turns away, insisting that she’s just fine with the yellow silk offered to all candidates.
To her surprise, however, Lee Sun tells her that he deliberately prepared her silk in yellow. “You like the color yellow, don’t you?” he asks wistfully. She stares at him in confusion, looking a little creeped out. Girl, me too.
Meanwhile, Sun speaks with Hwa-goon in private. She warns him that Pyunsoohwe was not behind the poisoning, but he tells her that he already knew before thanking her for all her help thus far: “But Pyunsoohwe and I cannot coexist,” he says. “Take care of yourself, and goodbye.”
As he turns away, however, Hwa-goon calls out: “Your Highness!” Eyes wide, Sun spins around, demanding to know how long she’s known. She explains that she’s known since they met in the greenhouse five years ago, and that she was the one who saved his life when he fell from the cliff. “Do you want to know why I saved you?” she demands desperately. “Because I like you. Because I love you. It has to be you.”
Tearing up, she tells him that she became the head of Pyunsoohwe under the sole condition that Dae-mok would never hurt Sun again, and she asks how he can reject her for being the head of Pyunsoohwe. “How much more do I have to work for you to turn around and look at me?!” Aw, honey.
Hwa-goon storms away without waiting for his answer. When Chung-woon approaches him, Sun notes that it wasn’t the heavens helping him move forward and survive, but Dae-mok’s granddaughter. In return, Chung-woon grimly reminds him of the implication of Hwa-goon’s words: If it wasn’t Pyunsoohwe that tried to kill him, it must be someone else.
But Sun already has a good idea of who that someone is, and he informs Woo Bo that the queen dowager is the one trying to kill him. To prove it, he explains that the queen knew facts about his attempted murder that night that no one but the culprit could know. When Woo Bo asks what he plans to do now, however, Sun says unexpectedly: “I must help her.” He tells him that the priority right now is to stop Pyunsoohwe.
The Pyunsoohwe members discuss the queen dowager as well, noting that she and her allies have become much quicker and more cunning recently by organizing the selection process before they could even react. Dae-mok suggests that they should “find” the culprit of the poisoning for her, noting that it should be one of the court ladies – and he already has a specific one in mind.
The next morning, the queen dowager begins to announce the three finalists of the queen selection. The chief state councilor barges in before she can, however, declaring that he’s here to arrest the suspect of poisoning. He orders his officers to find the suspect, and they look at the six girls before targeting Ga-eun. As they drag her away, Sun looks on in horror while the queen dowager watches grimly.
EPISODE 26 RECAP
Sun chases after the guards while insisting that Ga-eun is innocent, but the chief state councilor simply orders him aside. Woo Bo steps up, asking the councilor whether he is following Dae-mok’s orders, and he takes the councilor’s silence as an affirmation. Grimly, he holds a furious Sun back while the guards take Ga-eun away.
Sun hurries to the queen’s quarters to demand for her to release Ga-eun, knowing that Dae-mok has orchestrated this in order to push their candidate in the selection. He tells her that they must rescue Ga-eun before she is tortured by the Department of Justice, but the queen dowager just warns against hastiness and tells him that since Ga-eun is innocent, she will be released soon after the investigation.
Dissatisfied with her answer, Sun meets with Lee Sun in his greenhouse for his help instead. Sun explains that Ga-eun has been framed for the poisoning by the queen dowager, and that the queen drank poison during the selection in order to avoid suspicion. He asks Lee Sun to buy some time, and Lee Sun agrees.
Meanwhile, the Chief State Councilor interrogates Ga-eun, who now sits before the judge in the white garb of a prisoner. Using her father’s crimes against her, they accuse her of poisoning the other candidates so that she would have a chance to become queen despite her traitorous background.
Ga-eun argues right back, faulting their inadequate investigation. Infuriated by her insolence, he orders the officers to begin torturing her until she confesses her sins.
Just before they begin, however, Lee Sun waltzes in and declares that he wishes to interrogate the suspect himself. Ordering the officers to put away their torture devices, Lee Sun notes that he doesn’t want the suspect to lie because she is afraid of the pain.
At Pyunsoohwe, one of the members informs Dae-mok that the king has stepped up to interrogate Ga-eun personally. Dae-mok smiles at the implication, noting that Ga-eun could be a good pawn for them to use to manipulate Lee Sun.
Meanwhile, Sun meets with Mae-chang, asking to see the court ladies’ work records. Mae-chang tells him that the reports for the day of the poisoning have already been given to the Department of Justice, but Sun wants the reports for twenty days prior, when the queen dowager tried to kill him by poison. Sun tells them that the court lady who poisoned his cup is likely the culprit of this poisoning, too.
At this, Mae-chang gets the record book for that day. When she runs into the head eunuch, she tries to hide the book, but he allows her to pass without a word.
Moo-ha then reminds Sun that the councilor won’t simply free Ga-eun even if they find the real culprit and present her to the Department of Justice. But Sun informs them that he doesn’t plan to present the culprit to the court; he will use her to threaten the queen and force her to release Ga-eun.
So Sun meets with the queen dowager that night and tells her that Pyunsoohwe and the chief state councilor are targeting one of her court ladies. When the queen dowager asks why, Sun feigns ignorance and asks if she has any suspicions. The queen, of course, feigns ignorance right back.
After Sun leaves, the queen dowager calls the court lady to her quarters and orders her to leave immediately. The queen dowager even threatens to kill her if she says a word about what she’s done. Just as Court Lady Jang leaves the palace, however, she is stopped by Sun and Chung-woon.
Later that night, Sun meets Lee Sun in the greenhouse, telling him that they have captured the culprit and that Lee Sun can now use her to blackmail the queen for Ga-eun’s release. Lee Sun agrees, determined to rescue Ga-eun.
With Mae-chang’s help, Sun sneaks into the prison that night to see Ga-eun. They hold hands through the cell bars, tearing up as they worry about each other’s safety. Sun tells her regretfully that she would have been much happier had she not met him. Clueless to his true meaning, however, she just tells him that she is happy because he came to see her.
Lee Sun visits the prison just in time to see the two lovebirds fussing over each other, and he trembles in rage. Sitting alone in his room that night, Lee Sun reflects over Sun’s determination to release Ga-eun from the palace, suddenly furious.
Early the next morning, Lee Sun goes to the prison and drapes his robes over Ga-eun’s shivering body. Waking at his touch, she respectfully thanks him for saving her from torture, but he tells her that he would never let the woman he loved be tortured. “I told you before, didn’t I? That I love you,” Lee Sun says.
When Ga-eun grimly tells him that she cannot return his feelings, however, he stands up, fiercely reminding her that as a court lady, she is his woman. In return, Ga-eun explains the reason she became a court lady in the first place: “I thought you had killed my father, and I wanted to take revenge. But if you did not kill him, as you say, then I have no reason to consider you my enemy.”
Lee Sun, however, interprets this to mean that if he is not her enemy, she will leave him for the chief peddler. Furious, he demands to know if she thinks she can be happy with him after she knows the truth before taking his leave.
During breakfast, Lee Sun barges into the queen dowager’s quarters for a private audience and is swift to note that Court Lady Jang tried to leave the palace without permission last night. Rejecting the queen dowager’s offer to take responsibility for the court lady’s punishment, Lee Sun offers to make her a deal instead: release Ga-eun. If the queen dowager says that Ga-eun is innocent, the Department of Justice will be forced to release her.
The queen dowager agrees, but Lee Sun has one more condition. She notes that he’s getting too greedy, but he just smiles in response as he says that this is a condition they both want.
Moo-ha hurries to inform Sun and Woo Bo that the judges made a ruling on the poison case: The poisoning was rules as accidental because a poison leaf accidentally slipped into the tea. Lol. As a result, Ga-eun is now free.
Elated by the news, Sun rushes to the prison to meet Ga-eun upon her release. Taking her by the hands, he tells her that she is now free, both from prison and from her duty as a court lady, and he asks her to come home with him.
Before she can answer, however, the head eunuch interrupts to tell her that she is expected at the queen dowager’s announcement of the queen selection process. To both Ga-eun and Sun’s dismay, the head eunuch leads her away to the king’s quarters, where the announcement is to take place.
Sun walks home, deflated, when suddenly Moo-ha interrupts with urgent news as he hands Sun a scroll. As he reads, his face crumples in fury, and he sprints toward the announcement site.
At the selection, the queen dowager announces that three girls will be selected as the finalists. One of them will become the queen, and the other two will become his concubines.
As the girls await the announcement, Ga-eun turns to see Sun racing toward the site as Moo-ha tries to hold him back. The queen announces the first two names, Yeon-joo (her niece) and Ja-young (Pyunsoohwe’s candidate), before reading the final name: So-yeon (Ga-eun’s fake name). As Ga-eun stares in shock, Sun stares at Lee Sun in fury.
Sun meets with Lee Sun in his room later, demanding to know what he’s done. In return, Lee Sun says calmly that it was the queen dowager’s decision – and besides, he kept his promise by freeing Ga-eun from prison.
Sun: “Ga-eun will become my queen. Do you think I will let her become a lowly concubine?” Furious, Lee Sun basically calls Sun a coward for not even being able to tell Ga-eun that he’s the real crown prince or tell her the truth about his involvement in her father’s murder.
As they glare at each other, a noise from outside the room interrupts them. Shocked, Lee Sun hurries out, asking Hyun-seok if he saw anyone, but Hyun-seok swears he didn’t. Hmm…
Returning to his conversation with Sun, Sun tells him that he will find an antidote for him as soon as possible. But as for Ga-eun, Sun says, “I cannot give her up.” Lee Sun tells him that he will gladly give up the mask and the throne, but regarding Ga-eun: “I cannot give her up, either.” Both boys glare at each other, neither willing to back down.
While these episodes did seem to go faster than previous ones, most of the action and development happened in the subplots rather than the main plot, which has been regrettably missing ever since Hwa-goon made Dae-mok promise not to hurt Sun. As a result, Dae-mok doesn’t threaten Sun at all, which apparently gives him all the time and freedom in the world to devote to… angsting over his girlfriend.
Because Sun is now effectively out of danger, the show has no choice but to use Ga-eun as the source of all conflict, inflicting all sorts of misfortune upon this poor child – poison, heartbreak, second-rate Dae Jang-geum-style tests – in order for the boys to come rescue her. As a result, I feel like Sun and Lee Sun spend less time wondering how they can win back their impoverished nation from an evil water-stealing organization, and more time trying to figure out how to save their crush from whatever crisis she’s gotten herself into this time.
I did enjoy watching Lee Sun and Sun start to work together (for a little bit), and felt proud and sad for Hwa-goon during her unexpectedly heartfelt and genuine confession. But the show never seems to carry the emotional weight from these moments into a greater narrative purpose, as it could; instead, the moment always just fizzles and dies as soon as someone gets jealous, or worse, the show just… forgets it.
Instead of continuously generating new conflicts that just pile up into these less powerful moments, I think that the show’s best bet would be to capitalize on one of the bigger conflicts that it’s been building up – revealing either Sun’s or Lee Sun’s identity to Ga-eun and letting her react to it, whether for better or worse. By now, I just want something to happen with the ingredients we’ve had from the start that are now beginning to rot on the countertop instead of just going in circles.
On an unrelated note, you know what I realized this episode? Pretty much everyone knows who the real crown prince at this point, except for Ga-eun, which means the only thing stopping him from just being the king on the throne (as opposed to a king walking the streets) is his fear of how Ga-eun will react. Dae-mok, Hwa-goon, Pyunsoohwe, Lee Sun, the queen dowager, Woo Bo and Moo-ha – virtually everyone that matters – already knows the identity of the true king; if Sun was just worried about being targeted or killed by his enemies, it’s just as much a problem now as it would be if he were on the throne.
Which means that the only reason he hasn’t just taken the crown and mask out of Lee Sun’s selfish, petty hands is because of his fear of Ga-eun’s opinion of him. Maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but it kind of just feels like the character of Ga-eun is a burden to the plot at present. Please, Ruler, she can be a cool character! I promise, just give her a chance! Let her be!
- 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