The King Loves: Episodes 1-2
Newest sageuk offering The King Loves is off to a strong start, with breathtaking cinematography and a beautiful, talented cast that brings Goryeo to life. We’ve got a brash prince, his best friend, and a fiery young woman who is sure to make their lives very complicated — add in the usual conflicts that come with palace life, and you have the makings of a memorable, touching journey.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A sweeping panorama of the kingdom of Goryeo closes in on the palace as a narrator recounts that the child born to the king and a Yuan princess became the crown prince at the age of three. The palace was his only world, and the narrator adds, “I was always by myself.”
A eunuch enters the crown prince’s chambers with a robe and the message that the king and princess are looking for him, but there’s no one there.
Cut to: Two men galloping across the stunning countryside on horseback as the prince continues his story: “At the age of twelve, I met my friend. My friend told me this: ‘There’s a world outside of the palace. People are living in that world. Won’t you come with me?’ He grabbed my hand.”
Dressed simply, the two men enter a courtyard and witness a spirited game of bokyeokgu (polo on foot). A young woman (Yoon-ah) dressed in pants and a tunic spins as she scores a point, and the two men stare at her, transfixed.
When the ball lands near them, the crown prince, WANG WON (Im Siwan), traps it with his foot. The woman approaches, and the prince’s companion, WANG RIN (Hong Jong-hyun), explains that they came to see Dongangeosa (the pen name of a famous civil servant from the late 13th century), while the prince adds that they’re in a hurry.
She directs them to the reception hall in case the teacher is in the mood for guests, but the prince insists that he can’t wait. They drop to informal speech and begin to argue, but Won ultimately dismisses her because she’s a woman.
She tries to take the ball, but Won kicks her stick away. Angered, she grabs him by the collar and shoves him against a tree. When he pushes her away, she swings at him and pins him against the tree a second time.
There’s something familiar about the move, and Won looks at her quizzically and asks, “Don’t you know me?” When she tosses him aside, it’s Won’s turn to pin her against the tree and he tells her, “We’ve met before. I know you.”
Won’s narration continues: “This is the story of me, who came to love you more than myself.”
In a flashback, we see a boy entering a mew as large as a stable as he cuts the tether on the nearest falcon.
Outside, KING CHUNGRYEOL enters the courtyard where a hunting party awaits, ready for his falcon. When the boy cuts the last falcon loose, it flies into the sky, and as it sweeps over the palace, a eunuch points out that it belongs to the king.
As it turns out, the boy who freed the falcon is none other than a young Crown Prince Won, and he runs out happily to announce that he released all of the falcons. He reasons that if the king doesn’t go hunting, the people won’t resent him.
Sensing the king’s anger, Won’s mother, PRINCESS WONSUNG (a Yuan princess and daughter of Kublai Khan, also known as Queen Jangmok of Goryeo), intercedes to explain that the prince got that idea from her. Because the king burns the people’s fields and takes their chickens and dogs as falcon feed, the princess claims that she was worried the people would come to resent him.
The king masks his anger and observes that Won has devoted a lot of thought to the people. He opens his arms and Won steps out of reach, just as the princess grasps for him, The king explains with a bemused smile, “Won, those people are my people.”
With a pointed look at the princess, the king calls the crown prince a mixed breed, on account of his mother being from Yuan. He pats his son’s horrified face as a boy about Won’s age witnesses the tense exchange.
The king whistles for his falcon, and as it lands on his outstretched arm, Won looks at his father with pained eyes.
Later, Won stands alone on the royal dais and roughly dismisses his eunuchs.
Hearing someone approach, Won turns to face the boy from earlier. The boy offers Won taffy as a remedy for tears, but Won denies any such thing, even as a tear travels down his face. Helpfully, the boy adds that it works for anger as well.
Won demands to know the boy’s identity, and he introduces himself as Wang Rin, the third son of the minister of defense. Won asks if common people live in his village, and Rin tells him that common people live everywhere except the palace.
Won’s eunuchs panic when he disappears, and two guards watch the commotion from atop a roof. Won makes his way to a corner of the grounds, where Rin waits with a change of clothes. When Won doesn’t take them, Rin explains that he won’t get far dressed in his royal robes.
Won has never had to change his own clothes, so Rin tries to help as the prince holds out his arms. Won complains about Rin’s attempts and snatches for the robe, and the boys pull the clothes back and forth as they bicker, all under the watchful gaze of the guards above.
Won races through the marketplace with Rin close behind, all smiles and laughter. When Won snatches taffy from a vendor, Rin tosses coins to the irate man, and the boys agree to a race before Won tears off.
The race ends when Won collides with two men and a handcart. One of them grabs Won, and when Rin pushes him away, the men grab him. The boys notice a spear poking out from the cart and when the men turn to hide it, the boys use the chance to get away.
Won and Rin talk about what they just saw, and Won wonders why common people would have so many weapons. Rin suggests that they send for help, but Won doesn’t want to miss out on the fun and runs off with an impish grin.
The men with the cart deliver the weapons and are invited to join the raid on merchant EUN YOUNG-BAEK’S traveling party. One protests that Eun Young-baek’s guards are stronger than the king’s, but the gang leader explains that their experts will handle the fight.
When one of the cart pullers declines, his partner turns him around to join the gang after he hears that one roll of silk amounts to a year’s worth of food. Won and Rin listen from a hidden spot, and Rin guesses that Eun Young-baek must be Minister Eun.
A heavily guarded palanquin makes its way through the woods and a young girl throws open a door to point to a spot in the distance. She asks her mother if she can check on some seeds that she planted the year before, and a voice breaks in that the only child and daughter of Minister Eun is named EUN SAN (future Yoon-ah).
The source of the voice is SONG IN, a scholar and advisor to the king. He explains to his companion, WANG JEON, Rin’s second eldest brother, that once San turns thirteen, her marriage ban will begin. (The ban on girls aged thirteen to twenty allowed them to be sent to Yuan as tributes or for political marriages to royalty.)
Song In expects Minister Eun to marry off his daughter in the next year, and Jeon asks if their plan will improve his chances (presumably, he means to marry San). Song In reminds him that his advice has never been wrong.
As the gang of thieves get ready to raid the Eun Caravan, Rin mentions wanting to report the incident to the local officials, but Won objects. He wants to see Eun Young-baek’s guards in action and reassures Rin that his two bodyguards can handle the thieves.
San exits the carriage and excitedly tells her maid, BI-YEON, about their excursion. Her mother sends four guards with them and hands her daughter a cape. Song In’s voiceover explains that each year, Minister Eun’s wife visits her family. As San smiles at her mother, he adds that today, they are expected to return.
The thieves make their way through the woods while Jeon leads his party on horseback. Song In outlines the plot: An attack on the caravan will allow Jeon to “rescue” San, but he cautions, “Eliminate everyone and everything that might shed suspicion on you. The fewer survivors there are, the better.”
As San runs through the woods, she tosses her cape and hair ornament to Bi-yeon.
After Won and Rin find a spot to hide, Rin nods to one of Won’s bodyguards just as Minister Eun’s party comes into sight. When the thieves charge, the cautious weapons dealer holds his partner back and suggests that they hide and watch.
Won marvels at the caravan guards’ skills until a ninja star strikes one, and a thrown dagger finds the palanquin. Masked fighters suddenly descend through stalks of bamboo, and Won and Rin look on helplessly as Minister Eun’s guards begin to fall.
Won stands up and orders his bodyguards to help the caravan guards, but they can’t leave Won. When Won makes a move towards the fight, one of his bodyguards pulls him back.
Minister Eun’s head guardsman fights off one of the masked fighters, and his sword cuts open the masked fighter’s sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a red snake on his arm. The masked fighter finishes off the guard with a flourish, and when the man’s body falls against the carriage, the doors fall open.
The tattooed fighter is the leader of this band of assassins, and he peers into the carriage and asks San’s terrified mother, “Why isn’t your daughter here?” When she sees the tattoo, he draws his sword, and we cut to a spreading bloodstain on the side of the palanquin that confirms the worst.
Meanwhile, the masked fighters race through the woods to find San as a light snow begins to fall.
As San babbles on about the wild ginseng she found, the masked fighters approach her party, and the leader zeroes in on the girl with the cape and hair ornament. The guards run the girls to a clearing before they face the masked fighters, though the leader hangs back.
Won’s party surveys the tragic scene as San’s mother weakly calls for her daughter. The bodyguards set the injured woman before Won, and she grabs his hand and asks him to save her daughter, San. Tears fall as she begs, “Please deliver my message to her.” We don’t hear what that message is.
In the bamboo grove, the masked leader enters the fight to kill the last of the guards easily. Maid Bi-yeon falls to her knees, but San picks up a bloodied sword and offers money if the attackers will spare them. The leader turns to one of his men to inquire, “Not yet?” (Hm, what is he waiting for?)
When San’s eyes fall on leader’s tattoo, he announces, “These eyes saw something they shouldn’t have seen,” and raises his sword. But Bi-yeon leaps in front of San and takes the blow meant for her.
San falls at her maid’s side as the leader raises his sword again. In spite of her sobs, San looks her attacker in the eye.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
One of the masked fighters announces, “Someone’s coming,” and they retreat just before Wang Jeon appears. (So that’s who they were waiting for.) Jeon asks San if she’s Minister Eun’s daughter, but when he sees that Bi-yeon is dressed like the daughter of the household, he assumes she’s San and rushes to her side instead.
The two weapons dealers witness the scene, and the cautious one recognizes Jeon as the second son of the minister of defense. When he sees the leader of the masked fighters nod at Jeon, he realizes that they are on the same team.
At the same time, Jeon whisks Bi-yeon away and leaves San surrounded by the bodies of her guards.
Jeon arrives at Minister Eun’s house and announces, “The daughter of his house is very injured! She needs a doctor!” Minister Eun takes the girl from Jeon, confused when he realizes that it’s not his daughter, but Bi-yeon.
lies explains that he happened upon the attack while out hunting, claiming that he was too late to save Minister Eun’s wife.
Minister Eun passes Bi-yeon to his servants and opens the palanquin, where San clings to her mother’s body. While she sobs, Jeon bows and introduces himself, “My name is Wang Jeon. We’ve met before. Do you remember me?”
Won and Rin watch as the bodies are returned to Minister Eun’s household. When Rin reminds Won that the daughter and her maid survived, he’s eager to pass along her mother’s last words. Rin offers to relay the message, but a regretful Won insists, “I’ll do it. That’s the least I can do.”
Once Minister Eun sees that Bi-yeon is cared for, he joins his real daughter. San regrets that because of her, the guards were split up, and there weren’t enough men to save her mother. Minister Eun asks his attendant if he reviewed the scene of the tragedy, and is told that by the time Jeon arrived, all of their people, plus the thieves, were already dead.
Minister Eun can’t think of anyone in the kingdom who could defeat his men, causing him to Jeon’s claim that his party was able to defeat the thieves who got the better of his highly skilled guards. San insists that they weren’t ordinary thieves because they ignored her offer of money — their intent was to kill.
While Jeon waits in the Eun household, Minister Eun asks San if Jeon thought Bi-yeon was his daughter. She confirms his theory and explains that Bi-yeon was dressed in her clothes. He asks if Bi-yeon was targeted because of those clothes, but San explains that the attack had been meant for her, but Bi-yeon jumped in the way.
Minister Eun understands the seriousness of the situation and devises a plot of his own. The injured (and scarred) Bi-yeon will assume San’s identity and his attendant, GOO YOUNG, will both assure the household’s silence and spread the false story throughout the city. Minister Eun tells him to make it known that because of the injury, his daughter will never reveal her bare face in public again.
As if the day hasn’t been tragic enough, Minister Eun gently explains to San that he must send her away: “If someone manipulated the thieves to orchestrate such a thing, you must go far away until we figure out who did this and why.”
Minister Eun’s tears finally fall as he orders San not to call him “Father” anymore. He caresses San’s face and calls his daughter by her name one last time as he embraces the sobbing girl.
Atop a wall, Rin asks Won to wait while he scouts out the Eun household. Won sees San and jumps into the garden, but he slips and falls. When he looks up, San is gone, but she sneaks up from behind to ask, “Who are you?”
Won whirls around and puts his hands up when he sees that San is armed with a large stick. She thinks that he’s one of the thieves from earlier, but Won explains that he has another reason for sneaking onto the property.
When San calls out for help, Won blurts out that he’s brought her mother’s last words. San drops the stick in shock as Won explains, “I was there in the mountains today. I met the madam before she drew her last breath, and she asked me to relay her last words to her daughter.”
San swings at Won, grabs him by the collar, and shoves him against a tree, in a move we now know to be familiar. Won removes her hands from his clothes and notices her bloodstained sleeves. San demands to know what business Won had in the mountains, but he only admits that he didn’t help the party because he was scared.
Thinking that she’s the maid, Won asks if her lady can meet him, but San just shakes her head, so he agrees to tell her as long as she relays the message. Won holds San’s hands and recites, “Don’t bear a grudge against anyone. Always be your usual smiling self, and run about your life. That is your mother’s wish.” Won helps San repeat the message, but she’s too heartbroken to get through it.
Rin joins the pair and admits that he met her mother that day as well. San asks Rin if her mother suffered, and when he answers no, she turns to Won, who also shakes his head.
When San drops to the ground, both boys reach out, but it’s Won who comforts her as Rin places his hand behind his back. Won pats San’s arm while Rin watches over them, and the tragic day finally comes to an end.
We return to the grown Won who has San pinned against a tree as he confesses that they’ve met before. He’s pleased when she admits that she knows him too, but is unprepared when she twists his arm and drops him to the ground.
Rin laughs and comes to the prince’s aid, but Won threatens to replace him with a new bodyguard. Rin protests that he was ordered to stay still, but Won huffs that he should’ve known the order was null when he got pinned to the ground. Their bickering ends when Rin points to San as she approaches the teacher they’ve been searching for.
Won and Rin kneel before a man while San attends as an intermediary. When Won asks the man if he’s Teacher LEE SEUNG-HYU, San insults him for not offering his name first as etiquette dictates. Won questions her accusation that he’s a “punk,” so San claims that that’s what Teacher Lee said (even though he didn’t say anything).
Won introduces himself and Rin using fake names, and San insults their manners again before again claiming that the words came from Teacher Lee, ha. Rin explains, “My friend came here with much difficulty because there is something he desperately wants to know.”
San explains that Teacher Lee holds a lecture for guests every full moon, and Won wonders why a legendary teacher can’t hear or speak. “Don’t tell me this wench lectures for you too?” Won asks, referring to San. San accuses Won of a lack of maturity and decency, and this time, she takes credit for the insult.
Rin makes progress when he gets San to admit that the teacher helps those who can pass his tests. Teacher Lee finally speaks then, and proposes they play a game of bokyeokgu.
Teacher Lee cradles a moldy, old-looking jug while San and Won negotiate the details of the test in the courtyard. When she learns that he’s never played the game, San fairly proposes that Won just needs to score one point before she scores five in order to win. Won scoffs at the suggestion since she’s just a girl, but Rin steps in and accepts the terms for him.
While Teacher Lee pours himself a drink from the antique jug, the game begins. Won pushes San out of the way, which earns her a point because it was a foul, and San shows off her skill as she balances the ball on the end of her stick right in front of Won’s face. She offers to go easy if Won begs, but he protests that he’s never asked a woman for a favor, so she scores another point.
The teacher is more interested in his beverage than the game, as San bumps Won with her backside and knocks him out of the way to score a point. (How’s that not a foul?)
With the score at 4-0, Rin covers his eyes in shame and then offers encouragement with a clenched “fighting!” fist. Ha.
Won and San get in each other’s faces as they fight for the last point of the game. They both charge the ball, sending it shooting toward Teacher Lee… but it breaks his precious jug of wine instead.
Teacher Lee grieves for his treasured wine as he walks away. San is subdued as she explains that an old friend sends exactly twelve ladlefuls of that wine each year, and teacher rations it carefully and enjoys it especially on spirited days like today.
Won believes if he can replace the wine he will get his answer, so he asks Teacher Lee for a few days to get it. The teacher addresses San as So-ah, and explains that because he has no wine for breakfast, she can’t play in future games of bokyeokgu.
Won promises to replace the wine in time for breakfast, and Teacher Lee happily agrees that if he succeeds, he will listen to his question. Teacher Lee also agrees to allow San to participate in the bokyeokgu games if she can replace the wine by breakfast time.
Won tells Rin that the special wine must be in the royal brewery, but Rin reminds him that it takes two days to travel to the palace and back. In that case, Won decides that their only option is to steal the wine from San after she acquires it.
They both look in her direction as she prepares to leave the compound. San is warned that only one member of their community can reach the mountain where the wine is stored, and since she accompanied that member once before, she’s determined to go on her own this time.
As San begins her journey, she’s aware that Won and Rin are behind her and surprises them to ask what they’re up to. Won pretends that they have business of their own, so she encourages them to go ahead of her, then. When Won struggles to scramble over a boulder, he finally just asks how much money San wants for the wine.
San scolds him for the cavalier use of his parents’ money. Won lets out a laugh at her attitude but looks to Rin in desperation, and Rin’s the one who asks where the wine is. In answer, San points to an enormous, looming clifftop.
San explains only one member of their school is trained enough to make the climb up that mountain, and Won observes that a real man wouldn’t send a woman on such a dangerous journey, therefore, they’ll accompany her on her journey.
Rin assures San that they’re dependable, but she peers around his shoulder at Won and declares that she has no confidence in Won’s dependability. Hilariously, Rin gestures to himself and says that she can count on him, negotiating to take one cupful of wine if they acquire it together. At this, She accepts Rin’s proposal (ignoring Won) and urges the men to keep up.
Two young men watch the trio from a higher vantage point. They decide there’s no point in trying to stop them and ultimately decide to follow the trio, since that’s what their teachers (the crown prince’s bodyguards) would have done.
A lone, hooded figure with a dove perched on his shoulder watches the entire party head for the mountain. When he pulls off his mask, his sleeve doesn’t quite cover a tattoo of the red snake. Ah, so he’s the masked assassin who attacked the caravan.
The trio reaches an ancient bridge suspended over a deep canyon. Rin checks the integrity of the planks, which are basically toothpicks. Won decides to take the lead, but while he strategizes with Rin, San starts across the bridge.
Won overtakes her and pushes her aside to take the lead, but San pushes him aside to retake the first spot. Rin watches as they tussle, causing San’s bag to go flying over the edge, along with her food.
Won looks away guiltily when San glares at him, but he can’t help himself and complains, “That’s why I told you guys to be careful.” San lunges at Won, and they shove each other around as Rin hangs onto the ropes for dear life.
But at last, Won and San finally come to their senses, and they all continue on their way.
When they get about halfway across the bridge, a rope snaps behind them, and San falls back onto Rin. Won turns around and sees the two of them frozen in place. Eventually, San pulls away, allowing a very stiff and uncomfortable Rin to breathe again.
When San sneezes, they all turn around in time to see a second rope start to break. They run, but only Won makes it to the other side before it snaps. The bridge falls as San and Rin just barely manage to hang on.
Won grabs San’s hand and pulls as Rin pushes her up from behind. Won finally manages to pull San to safety, and she lands on top of him as he falls on his back.
Now it’s Rin’s turn to watch as San and Won find themselves dangerously close, and Won narrates, “Yes, that’s right. This is the story of how I came to love you more than I loved myself.”
So much took place in these first two episodes, but I’m going to start off by saying that there is an element of timelessness to this drama that holds much promise. From the sweeping panoramic cinematography to the opening narration, it almost feels like a fairytale. And in its first hour, the story already contains the classic elements of intrigue, betrayal, loneliness, sacrifice, friendship, and of course, the promise of an epic love story.
With two sets of leads, we were able to witness Won, Rin, and San as youths, and years later as adults. I’m sure it can be tricky to match the junior actors to the senior ones, but I have to credit the casting and direction for providing what felt like a seamless transition. The seeds of who these characters are began with the junior actors, and those traits only came into sharper focus as we saw the senior actors take over. Based on the intensity of the early scenes with San, there’s a lot to look forward to.
As long as we’re talking about the senior lead actors, the chemistry between Im Shi-wan, Yoon-ah, and Hong Jong-hyun is off the charts. Im Shi-wan has that disarming smile, Yoon-ah delivers a feisty personality, and Hong Jong-hyun pulls off the strong-but-silent persona perfectly. At this point, with all the bickering between Won and San, the sparks are flying all over the place, but there’s that slow simmer between Rin and San. This triangle is going to be a tough one.
Even though the story is in the earliest stage, there is quite a bit to work with, and it has me thinking about all kinds of possibilities. Won’s claim that he came to love someone more than himself doesn’t point to an obvious conclusion. Won’s entire life changed when he met Rin, so there’s that brotherly relationship to consider. San is special because as we know, her mother entrusted her to Won with her last breath.
Sometimes loving someone means letting them go, just like Minister Eun had to do to keep San safe, so perhaps there’s a precedent in place. I’m convinced that Won will learn to put San first, but for now, it’s hard to see how: She’s stubborn, competitive, combative, and short-tempered, at least where Won is concerned. So far, they bring out the worst in one another, but I’m looking forward to a real connection between San and the two men who just re-entered her life.
- Premiere Watch: School 2017, The King Loves, Man Who Dies to Live, Reunited Worlds
- A house and friendship divided in The King Loves
- Tension in a garden of flowers for The King Loves
- Assassin-filled forests and masked dances in The King Loves
- Main writer behind The King Loves revealed to be Song Ji-nah
- The King Loves to play in azalea-filled forests
- Yoon-ah steals the hearts of two best friends in The King Loves
- Im Shi-wan as a young prince for MBC’s The King Loves