Ruler–Master of the Mask: Episodes 37-38
As Sun reclaims what’s rightfully his, he struggles to protect his people — and himself — from Dae-mok’s scheming. Thankfully, our king both protects his people and finds his strength through them. I enjoyed these episodes, though I can’t say whether it’s more because they were genuinely enjoyable or because I’m happy to see everything wrap up in a happily-ever-after. Ruler–Master of the Mask may not have been all of our hopes and dreams, but I’ll be glad to live on the few shining moments it did give us as we get ready to say goodbye. Forever.
EPISODE 37 RECAP
Faced with two conflicting kings, the ministers demand that Sun and Lee Sun prove their identities to the court. Sun complies at once, describing a prank he once played on the Minister of Justice as a child. The startled Minister of Justice confirms the truth of the memory, causing a stir among the court. Lee Sun immediately counters with a memory of his own, however, putting them back at square one.
When the second state councilor notes suspiciously that only one of the kings could describe his childhood, however, the chief state councilor (Dae-mok’s advisor) takes matters into his own hands. Knowing that Lee Sun has three moles on the back of his neck, the chief state councilor declares that the true king has three moles on the back of his neck, and asks the court to see which man has those moles. Lee Sun smugly reveals his moles to the ministers, sending them leaning back to Lee Sun’s side.
But the Minister of Inspector General steps up to offer his own test. He describes a time when a young Prince Sun was badly injured playing ball, giving him a cross-shaped scar on his arm. When another minister confirms this memory, Sun pulls back his sleeve to reveal the scar to the court.
The minister moves toward Lee Sun to check his arm as well, but thinking fast, Lee Sun shouts at him not to dare touch his royal robes. The other ministers erupt, arguing over which proof is sufficient.
The chief of the Water Bureau interrupts next, urging the ministers to have the kings remove their masks – even if no one knows the king’s true face, they just might recognize the impostor.
Sun agrees to take off the mask, telling Lee Sun to remove his mask as well. As soon as they do, the chief of the Water Bureau loudly identifies Sun as the chief peddler, causing the ministers to accuse him of impersonating the king.
As the ministers start to order Sun’s arrest, however, Chung-woon steps forth. A minister recognizes Chung-woon as the prince’s bodyguard, surprised that he’s still alive. Sun takes advantage of Chung-woon’s disruption to declare that he is indeed both the chief peddler and the crown prince, and that he was forced to take the guise of the chief peddler five years ago, when Dae-mok murdered his father and placed a false king on the throne.
When the chief state councilor starts to accuse him of lying, Chung-woon steps forward as a witness, confirming Sun’s statement. Lee Sun challenges their claims, noting that there is no record of the king’s murder, but Moo-ha points out that the record could easily be manipulated. The tide seems to turn back to Sun’s side.
Lee Sun, however, has one final trump card. Declaring that the queen dowager must surely know the truth, he summons her to attest to the identity of the true king. The Pyunsoohwe ministers smile at Lee Sun’s brilliant suggestion, while Sun and his team look panicked.
The queen dowager arrives at the court with a look of cold determination, hardly willing to be Lee Sun’s puppet. So when Lee Sun commands her to reveal the “truth” of five years ago to the court, the queen dowager instead corroborates Sun’s claim. To Pyunsoohwe’s shock, she confesses that the late king was indeed murdered by Dae-mok, and that Dae-mok replaced the prince with an impostor.
Saying that she didn’t reveal the truth until now for fear of the violence it would cause, the queen dowager names Sun as the true king. The chief state councilor points out that the queen dowager has never seen the crown prince’s face either, but she tells them that a mother can always recognize her own child. Once again, the tide of ministers shifts to Sun.
This time, Woo Bo steps forth, claiming that there is one more piece of evidence to prove Sun’s identity. The true king, Woo Bo says, is immune to poison because he was poisoned as an infant, although the kingdom was told that he simply suffered from a fever.
The Pyunsoohwe ministers demand to know who could have poisoned the prince. At that, the queen dowager grimly admits that she had joined forces with Dae-mok at the time, and that she was the one who tried to kill him.
Woo Bo goes on to explain that when the true king is poisoned, the character “Sun” appears on his left shoulder. The chief state councilor points out that no such fact is recorded, making Woo Bo’s claim totally groundless. Without evidence, Woo Bo is unable to argue.
Meanwhile, a frustrated Ga-eun searches the greenhouse top to bottom for the jar containing proof of Sun’s royal identity, but Consort Lee seems to have hidden it a little too well. Only when she begins to smash open flowerpots does she spot it in a hidden dark corner.
Clutching it to her chest, she hurries to take it to Sun. When she is stopped by a couple of armed palace guards, Mae-chang comes to her rescue, taking down the guards with some badass moves. She tells Ga-eun to go ahead while she takes care of the guards.
Ga-eun hurries on, but is once again stopped by the guards just before she reaches the ministers’ court. They tell her that the king has forbidden anyone to enter and order her to leave – but this time, it’s Gon who comes to her rescue. He takes them down with some even more badass moves while Ga-eun goes inside.
Just as all seems lost to Sun and Woo Bo’s argument, Ga-eun announces that she has brought evidence to prove the king’s identity. To Lee Sun’s horror and Sun’s relief, Ga-eun steps inside with the pot.
When the ministers demand to know who she is, she explains that she is the late Deputy Minister Han’s daughter, and that she was with Consort Lee the night that the king was murdered. The consort had told her about the pot that holds evidence of the king’s identity.
The queen dowager opens the pot to find a letter written in the king’s handwriting and bearing his royal stamp. Inviting anyone to come check for themselves, she reads the letter out loud: “When the crown prince ingests poison, the character ‘Sun’ appears on his left shoulder. That person is the true king of Joseon.”
With that, the chief eunuch hurries to bring some poison to carry out the final test. The queen dowager holds up the cup of poison to the two kings before turning first to Lee Sun, telling him that if he is the true king, he should have no problem drinking.
Trembling, he reaches for the cup. Ga-eun begs him not to drink it, but that only seems to fuel his anger further. He starts to lift the cup to his lips, and this time, Sun grabs his wrist to stop him.
Taking the cup from his hands, Sun drinks the poison himself. He stumbles back in pain, but seems to recover after a few seconds. The queen dowager orders him to reveal his shoulder, and to the ministers’ amazement, the character for “Sun” appears in red.
With no more doubt of who is the true king, the queen dowager orders the guards to arrest the impostor at once. Just as they step forward, however, Lee Sun suddenly bursts into deranged laughter. He shouts at the ministers, demanding to know what has changed: “You have all been bowing your heads to me up until today, have you not?!”
He asks the ministers whether “legitimacy” is more important than their own lives. The chief state councilor steps forward to agree, declaring that the true king is the person that Dae-mok chooses, since Dae-mok is the one who truly controls their lives.
Sun, however, tells them that it’s true that their lives are the most valuable thing they have – but Dae-mok can no longer control them with poison. To the ministers’ shock, he reveals that Dae-mok’s poppy fields have burnt down. At his order, the head eunuch then brings him the copy of Dae-mok’s hit list. Sun shows it to the ministers, explaining that Dae-mok plans to save only a select few loyal followers.
Horrified, the second state councilor turns to the chief state councilor, demanding to know if it’s true. The latter tries to convince him that Sun is lying to interfere with Pyunsoohwe, but Sun tells him that the second state councilor himself is on the hit list: “You were crucial to Pyunsoohwe’s early development, but trying to make your daughter the queen was a heavy blow to your perceived loyalty. Kill.” Damn, that’s cold.
Now realizing that his life is on the line, the second state councilor confronts the chief of the Water Bureau next, asking if the field truly did burn down. The chief nervously starts to answer before hightailing it out of there.
When Sun gravely explains that Dae-mok only plans to save seventy-five followers and that the rest will die in five days, the Minister of War falls to Sun’s feet and asks if his name, too, is on the list. Soon, all of the ministers clamor for Sun’s attention, begging to know whether they are on the list as well. Lee Sun watches the pathetic display with a cynical smile.
At that moment, the queen dowager screams at the ministers to quiet down. Reminding them that she, too, has been poisoned, she tells them that there is only one way for survival: “Return the true king to the throne, and entrust him with our lives.”
The queen dowager asks Sun if he will save them, and Sun readily agrees: “I will create an antidote, and save everyone.” At his words, the ministers all bow down to Sun, swearing to enthrone the true king.
She then orders the guards to arrest Lee Sun. As he’s dragged away, kicking and screaming, he shouts that everyone will die with him anyway, since Dae-mok is the only one who knows how to make the antidote.
But just before the door closes, he catches sight of Ga-eun’s expression, watching him with hopeless sorrow.
EPISODE 38 RECAP
Lee Sun is thrown into jail, still screaming at the injustice. But when he recalls Ga-eun’s expression, he begins to sob in despair of his fate.
At Pyunsoohwe, the chief of the Water Bureau hurries to tell Dae-mok the news: All of the ministers know that Dae-mok no longer has any poppy flowers, and have even seen his death list. Worst of all, the ministers have all agreed to reinstate Sun as king.
Realizing that the palace guards will likely come to arrest him soon, Dae-mok orders the chief to gather all of their forces and prevent anyone from entering Pyunsoohwe.
Meanwhile, Sun returns to his throne and immediately gets to work. He orders all of the palace doctors to work together to make an antidote within the next five days, and then declares that he will replace the current system with a merit system.
As such, he dismisses the chief state councilor, the second state councilor, and the Minister of War for the crimes of working for Pyunsoohwe. He instead appoints Woo Bo to be his new chief state councilor, and appoints the Minister of General Inspector and Moo-ha to the Ministry of Justice. Finally, he asks Chung-woon to continue protecting him. They gladly accept his command.
Sun then orders his royal forces, led by Moo-ha, to capture Dae-mok. The chief of the Water Bureau frantically reports to Dae-mok that they are hopelessly outnumbered. In response, Dae-mok simply tells him to tell the royal forces that Pyunsoohwe will destroy all of their antidotes if they don’t back off.
The chief is confused, wondering why Sun would care whether the antidote is destroyed, since only Pyunsoohwe’s members would be affected. But Dae-mok simply tells him that Sun is that type of person, and that although he acts mighty now, he’ll crumble in a few days once he realizes he cannot make the antidote: “Then, he’ll come groveling to me.”
Moo-ha hurries to report Dae-mok’s threat of destroying the antidote. Chung-woon and the new Chief of Justice (the former Chief of Inspector General) urge him not to show Dae-mok any mercy, but Sun insists that he cannot allow any of his subjects – Pyunsoohwe or not – to die. Instead of arresting Dae-mok, Sun orders Moo-ha to surround Pyunsoohwe to prevent Dae-mok from escaping.
That night, Sun goes to pay Lee Sun a visit in prison. Lee Sun is aggressive, demanding to know if he’s come to rub his defeat in his face. He screams that this is all Sun’s fault – but Sun agrees sadly that it’s true. Weathering all of Lee Sun’s fury, Sun promises to develop an antidote and release Lee Sun soon.
Lee Sun, however, is near deranged with suspicion and fury. He refuses to believe Sun, certain that he was using him – but Sun swears that he’s always considered Lee Sun a friend. Even as Sun leaves, Lee Sun screams after him, calling him a hypocrite and a liar.
As Sun leaves the prison, Lee Sun’s mother, accompanied by Kko-mool and Ga-eun, immediately prostrate themselves at his feet. She begs him to save her son’s life, swearing to take any punishment, but Sun gently assures her that he would never harm a friend or his mother.
They all thank him for his mercy, and Sun smiles before noticing the cuts on Ga-eun’s hands from breaking open the pots in the greenhouse. He takes her to a private place to treat her wounds and fuss over her.
Ga-eun then thanks him for saving Lee Sun’s life. He laughs, wondering if she really thought he’d hurt Lee Sun, before promising never to bring sorrow to them again.
Meanwhile, Lee Sun’s mother and Kko-mool go to visit Lee Sun in prison. He immediately turns his back to them, screaming at them to go away. Lee Sun’s mother sobs in sorrow before she finally gets up to leave.
Little Kko-mool, however, bounces back to give him directions to their house: “It’s really easy to find. You have to come see me and Mom, okay? We’ll wait for you.” Oh gosh, that’s precious. Only when Kko-mool leaves does Lee Sun start to cry, defenseless and ashamed.
Woo Bo, Mae-chang, and Ga-eun spend all night trying to figure out the antidote, but are left only with failures by morning. A disappointed Sun asks them to keep trying.
Meanwhile, the ministers in prison and the queen dowager start to show symptoms of the poison, becoming more and more desperate for the antidote. At Pyunsoohwe, still surrounded by royal forces, Dae-mok looks at his inventory of antidotes, waiting.
When another day passes, an increasingly desperate Sun tells Chung-woon and the Minister of Justice that he must go see Dae-mok and get the antidote. He releases the chief state councilor from prison to deliver the message to meet to Dae-mok.
Later that day, Dae-mok and Sun meet, each accompanied by their troops. Dae-mok asks why he wants to save those who betrayed him, and Sun explains that they are still his subjects.
But Dae-mok just laughs at that. Throwing a bunch of flower petals into his teacup, Dae-mok tells him that it seems he’s unprepared to be king: “To open a new world, you must abandon what is inside and pour it again, or change your cup entirely.” He throws the tea, flower petals and all, to the ground. “This is your opportunity to change your cup,” Dae-mok tells him.
But Sun says that a ruler has a responsibility to the lives of all of his people. He tells Dae-mok that he has no right to talk when he is the cause of their suffering, and demands the recipe for the poison antidote. Only then, Sun says, will he spare Dae-mok’s life.
Dae-mok, however, points out that once he fails to find an antidote, the people will abandon him. Knowing this, Dae-mok refuses to give up the antidote recipe unless Sun gives up the throne. At a standstill, they glower at each other.
Meanwhile, the search for an antidote is still as futile as ever. Woo Bo reports to Sun that they’ve tried everything they can think of, but to no avail. Worse still, Ga-eun adds, they’re running out of poppy flowers to use for experimentation. Gon watches their struggle from the sidelines in silence before slipping away.
At Pyunsoohwe, Dae-mok orders the chief of the Water Bureau to spread a rumor among Joseon’s water deliverers that the king is attempting to disband the Water Bureau. The chief state councilor realizes that Dae-mok is attempting to start a rebellion, which will create violence and anger against the king. Dae-mok smiles, wondering how long Sun will be able to hold onto his love for the people when they hate him in return.
Hwa-goon’s father spends his day drinking in sorrow, mourning his daughter’s loss. When Gon appears behind him, Hwa-goon’s father offers him a drink, but Gon remains silent as ever. He sighs that Gon never says a word: “Even when the woman you loved died for another man.”
Hwa-goon’s father asks whether it truly doesn’t anger him. To his surprise, Gon responds that even as she died, she looked happy at having been able to help the king. “All she ever wanted was to protect him,” Gon says. Recalling Hwa-goon’s expression as she died in his arms, Hwa-goon’s father realizes that he’s right.
Gon then falls to his knees to request the antidote recipe from him. Telling him that the king only has two days, Gon reminds him that it’s what Hwa-goon would have wanted.
So that night, Hwa-goon’s father goes to see Sun at the palace, telling him that he knows the recipe for the antidote. At Sun’s shock, he explains that even Dae-mok doesn’t know that he knows how to make it. Hwa-goon’s father agrees to give it up on one condition.
Sun agrees, prepared to do anything for his people.
Aw, Gon! Surprisingly, Gon seems to have achieved the most character development throughout this drama – and only in these final moments did I realize how much I enjoyed watching him grow. I’m glad that the show addressed, even indirectly, his romantic feelings for Hwa-goon, because it does add a lot of depth to his character as an unfeeling, dutiful guard to a citizen with purpose and room to change. He probably spoke more words in the last five minutes than he did through the show’s entire run, and I found his speech convincing and well-done, and probably only as effective as it was because of his established character as an obedient servant thus far.
The fact that the plot picked up so rapidly in these last few weeks has made it hard for me to hate Ruler—Master of the Mask as much as find it unfortunate. With details like Gon’s character development, Lee Sun’s relationship with Kko-mool, and Lee Sun’s surprisingly discomforting expressions of cynicism against the king and the system, I found moments that I really enjoyed in these episodes – at the bare minimum, enough to aleviate my raw disappointment for the aspects that weren’t so well done (cough Ga-eun’s character cough).
I don’t think this show was necessarily bad, especially when looking at it from a holistic perspective – that is, the cinematography, the performances, the music, etc. Though the writing left much to be desired, I think that realizing that the writers are newbies makes this show less an overambitious failure and more of a serviceable starting point for them to learn from their mistakes. Plenty of the show worked fine, just not great; it seems that they bit off a little more than they could chew in their idealism, perhaps blinded by the epic concept and unable to look at it from a big picture perspective. Writing is a learning process, however, so I can only hope that the writers will take this opportunity to learn.
I’m most disappointed that the principal idealistic questions that I was excited about – the relationship between the servant Lee Sun and king Sun, the duty of the mask, the question of finding yourself beneath societal obligations – remain totally unanswered. By the end, it became clear that the fast pace that was such a boon in its early run became a bane to the show, because it resulted in constantly generating new story threads where there really didn’t need to be new threads, creating a mess with too many plates to juggle effectively.
If only the show recognized that its initial episodes carried plenty of potential for emotionally weighty character investigation, I can’t even imagine what a masterpiece the concept could have created, and what a challenge in acting it would have presented the actors, pushing them to give more personalized, dynamic performances. But the fact is that the show is coming to an end, and it’s time to say goodbye. It may have abandoned its idealistic questions, but at the very least, it seems that the production team plans to neatly tie up the key plot questions and give us closure there. I’ll at least look forward to seeing Dae-mok’s face when he falls off his throne of darkness and runs out of tea.
- 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
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- Vows made, virtues rejected in Ruler–Master of the Mask’s character posters
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- 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