Haechi: Episodes 37-38
Our prince-become-king is at it again, facing a dangerous situation far above his experience and getting in way over his head. He faces his smartest and most cunning enemy yet, one who knows how to use his own people against him. But once again, Yi Geum refuses to do what’s expected of him, and he takes a risk that could either change everythign for the better, or make things much, much worse.
EPISODE 37-38: “A Black Chaos”
In villages all around the country, commoners gather around wells like they do every morning, drawing the day’s water. But today, those who drink the water fall ill almost immediately.
At Yi Tan’s exile hut, Lee In-jwa says that they have no time to waste because panic is spreading through the country as they speak. He tells Yi Tan that if he wants to turn the world upside-down, first you must plunge it into chaos, and in that chaos, people will question the king’s worthiness.
News of the rapidly spreading plague reaches the palace, scaring everyone as nobody knows what’s causing it. It’s already reached the capital city, so Yi Geum calls in the officers of every council for an emergency meeting. While he waits, he wonders how a plague could spread this quickly.
Geon-tae and Storyteller witness soldiers disbursing the crowds in the marketplace, and they learn from Dal-moon that the rumors of plague in the city are true. Dal-moon says that Yi Geum will need to come up with countermeasures, so they hurry to gather as much information as they can.
When the officials arrive, Yi Geum gets right to the point — how can a plague spread across half the country in only three days? He says that stopping the plague is their focus and orders men sent to each affected area to keep sick patients from traveling.
He instructs the ministers from each area to give updated patient counts every fifteen minutes and the office of taxation to prepare enough rice to feed the sick. He reminds them all that quick action is their only hope, and asks their help in stopping the plague as quickly as possible.
Anyone showing symptoms is barred from entering the capital and sent to the nearest infirmary, the Hwalinseo. Queen Inwon is so worried that she declines to eat, but her court lady begs her to take care of her health. One of the maids who brings in the food coughs, but she tells Yeo-ji that it’s just a mild cold.
The Royal Infirmary sends Yi Geum a book they’ve written on plague prevention, but he notes that there are no copies of it in Korean writing. He orders it translated immediately so that the commoners can read it.
Later, Yi Geum summons Minister Min and Chief Justice Jo to tell them privately that Byung-joo and Yi Tan have escaped from exile. He believes it was planned to happen during this epidemic when the country would be in turmoil and Yi Geum, as a new king, would be preoccupied. Minister Min asks if they were expecting an epidemic to break out.
Yi Geum explains that a month ago, an unknown illness broke out in the Cheongju military base, and it was supposedly due to the government office’s quick reaction. But the symptoms are very similar to the current outbreak, leading Yi Geum to believe that it may be the same illness, and that someone may have spread it deliberately to facilitate Yi Tan’s escape.
They discuss the importance of keeping this information from getting out. Yi Geum acknowledges that Chief Justice Jo doesn’t trust him, but he asks him to set aside his feelings and share his wisdom for the sake of the country. Chief Justice Jo is shaken enough that when his followers start whining about Yi Geum again, he tells them all to shut up.
Yi Tan whines ungratefully about being made to walk to freedom, but In-jwa ignores him. Yi Tan asks Byung-joo who the arrogant jerk is, and Byung-joo explains that he’s from a family that fell during King Sukjong’s reign, and a descendant of Prince Im-young, King Sejong’s fourth son. Knowing that In-jwa is a royal softens Yi Tan’s opinion of him a bit.
They reach a rendezvous point and are met by some of In-jwa’s men, who call him “general” and guide them to their mountain base. They find an army in training, who all stop to salute their general as he passes. Yi Tan asks Byung-joo how long this guy has been preparing for a revolt, and Byung-joo says he’s been working on it since the Namin party fell apart, but even Byung-joo didn’t know it was this big.
In-jwa shows them something special — a “movable type” setup, like an early printing press, where he’s printing up a statement to spread to the people. Yi Tan approaches the table and finds a sword at his throat, and In-jwa tells him that in his mountain base, he’s not allowed to do anything without In-jwa’s permission.
Yi Tan starts to toss around his “I’m royal” attitude, but In-jwa says firmly that he’s only someone who used to be royal, but who was downgraded for committing treason. He makes it clear that the only reason Yi Tan is here is because In-jwa needs him to justify his rebellion, so all he has to do is sit still and let In-jwa do everything.
It looks like Yi Tan is about to say something to get them both killed, so Byung-joo drops to his knees and offers his obedience to In-jwa. He says that he’ll risk his life to bring down the king and get revenge.
Yi Tan goes looking for a sword, ranting about In-jwa daring to look down on him. When Byung-joo tries to stop him, he growls at him to go back to licking In-jwa’s feet, but Byung-joo says he only did that so that he can get his revenge. He tells Yi Tan that he has to swallow his pride in order to use In-jwa’s strength and retrieve his throne, and that seems to get through to Yi Tan.
While going over the information they’ve gathered, Dal-moon finds several mentions of wells where the water began tasting strange, including one used by the palace. He sends Storyteller for a list of sick patients, but he tells Geon-tae not to jump to any conclusions yet.
He asks, a little too casually, if Geon-tae has heard any news of Yoon-young. Geon-tae says that he sent flyers out to all the peddlers but nobody has seen her. One eventually does spot Yoon-young leaving a tiny country inn, and he reports the sighting to his partner excitedly.
Under cover of night, In-jwa’s statement is distributed all over the city. Dal-moon reads one, which accuses Yi Geum of murdering King Kyungjong and stealing his throne and blames his guilt for the plague. One statement even manages to make it onto the palace wall.
Minister Min wants to fire the two guards who allowed it to happen, but Yi Geum just sends them into the city to sort out the mess. Minister Min still believes that the plague could be the result of a scheme against him, and Yi Geum says that’s why he won’t fire the guards — because if the people notice signs of treason, the chaos will only get worse.
Queen Inwon falls sick, and Yeo-ji stays by her side to nurse her. Yeo-ji goes looking for the royal physician and finds him talking to Yi Geum, and Yi Geum sees Yeo-ji as a court lady for the first time. Ignoring the fact that there are people all around, he calls her by name and asks why she’s here, and why she entered the palace when he told her many times not to.
He says that he didn’t want her to lose her chance at a normal life, but Yeo-ji says that this is what she chose, that she wanted to support him and be together in the palace more than she wanted a normal life. She tells Yi Geum that she’s especially glad since Moon-soo had to leave, because she can still stay by Yi Geum’s side.
Just as In-jwa intends, the statement gets the commoners worked up, afraid that the plague is punishment for Yi Geum killing his brother. Patients in the infirmaries grow paranoid that the medicine the doctors are giving them might contain the same wolfsbane that Yi Geum gave to King Kyungjong, and they demand to be allowed to leave.
In the three days since the outbreak started, the number of sick people has doubled. Yi Geum knows that if they don’t stop the outbreak, the capital will fall into pandemonium. All over the country people are growing frantic from fear of illness and the scarcity of food.
One of In-jwa’s spies reports the atmosphere in the cities. In-jwa lets Byung-joo read the report, smugly saying that fear is both a powerful tool and easy to use. Byung-joo doesn’t think that Yi Geum will be able to hold out more than three or four more days, and In-jwa says that’s when their work begins. He tells Byung-joo to sit back and watch, but Byung-joo wants a part in making it happen so he can claim some of the rewards.
Moon-soo overhears the rumor that Yi Geum killed King Kyungjong with wolfsbane as he’s having a drink in a pub. He slams his fist on his table and tells the gossipers that they don’t know what they’re talking about, or how hard Yi Geum tried to save King Kyungjong’s life. He spots Byung-joo as he’s leaving the pub, and he hides, wondering how Byung-joo got out of exile, when he should have been executed by now.
He finds Minister Jo and Chief Inspector Lee and tells them what he saw, and they assume that Yi Tan must have escaped as well. They all know about the plague and the accusatory statements, and it seems unlikely that the three crises are unrelated. Moon-soo worries that Yi Geum could be in grave danger.
The rumors are getting more vicious — the latest says that Yi Geum has moved to a temporary palace to save his own skin from the plague. Minister Min orders papers sent out refuting the baseless rumors, but Yi Geum argues that since only nobles read the papers so it won’t settle the commoners. Minister Min says they need to prepare for a riot.
Ja-dong brings Yi Geum a letter from Dal-moon asking to see him as soon as possible. Yi Geum dresses as a noble and goes to Dal-moon’s hideout, and Dal-moon shows him a map of the wells where people who fell ill drank. Dal-moon says that this may not be a plague at all, and Yi Geum finishes his thought — someone may have poisoned the wells. They visit a well and find traces of poison, and Yi Geum vows that he’ll never forgive the person who made the people suffer this way.
The Vice Minister of War (a Soron) goes out alone at night, and meets with several mysterious men. They give him a message from In-jwa, welcoming him to In-jwa’s cause as he changes loyalties.
Hyuk decides to split up the Saheonbu inspectors into groups and send them to assist the police bureau. YH pretends to be getting sick to get out of it and save his own skin, but the other inspectors just tsk at his behavior, believing him a coward.
While Chief Inspector Lee and Minister Jo travel to the capital to warn Yi Geum about Byung-joo, Moon-soo stays behind and tries to catch Byung-joo again. He doesn’t see Byung-joo, but he sees another man leaving the same place this time and seems to find something suspicious about him.
A riot looks more and more likely as the people beg to be allowed out of the city. In the palace, the ministers grow more restless, wanting to act and not just wait and do nothing.
Yi Geum thinks about how his friends left, and how Yeo-ji stayed, but that all of them did it for him. He vows to himself, “For the people who left for me, and for the people who stayed for me, I cannot back down for their sake. I will stay here and fulfill the king’s duty.” He leaves the palace, flanked by a small group of guards.
The people are now swarming the Hwalinseo, wanting to “rescue” their loved ones from the wolfsbane-laced medicine that they erroneously believe is being given to the patients. Just when it looks like a real riot may break out, Yi Geum arrives in person, and the people all stop yelling and pushing, and fall to the ground.
Yi Geum tells the doctors and nurses to help the patients up, and he personally helps a sick elderly man to his feet. He tells the people that he knows how afraid they are of this illness, and all about the terrible notes around the city. He says that, as their king, he will never abandon his people.
He tells them that this illness is not a heavenly punishment, and promises that they will get better. He says that he hopes they have faith in his words, and he tells them that he won’t take a step out of the city, but will stay with his people until the very end.
Once again, Yi Geum averted disaster not by saving himself, but by making himself even more vulnerable and showing the people that he doesn’t consider himself above either the law, or common decency. He put himself on their level and promised to stand by them, even if they weren’t standing by him. The brilliant part is that Yi Geum isn’t faking or doing this for effect — he truly believes, because of his upbringing, that his place is beside the people, not above them. And the people can sense that belief in him and trust him, even when someone else is trying to whip them into a frenzy against him.
The situation of Yeo-ji being in the palace interests me, because I can see both her reasons for wanting to be there and Yi Geum’s reasons for not wanting her there. It’s true that court ladies, once they entered the palace, were considered to be the king’s property and were never allowed to leave the premises again. They were not allowed to marry or have children, and their only hope of any kind of advancement was the rare case of a court lady being promoted to concubine, and the possibility of bearing the king a child and gaining some favor. But their lives were basically over in terms of having any say in what happened to them, so I understand why Yi Geum didn’t want to see Yeo-ji — a strong, vibrant, intelligent woman — reduced to a servant with no future.
But I also understand Yeo-ji’s position — she vowed to protect Yi Geum, and once he became crown prince, the only way for her to do that was to find a way into the palace. As a low-status commoner, her only option was as a court lady. She considers it a fair trade, because she doesn’t think of herself as someone whose future included a husband and children anyway. In Yeo-ji’s mind, she’s traded one form of service for another, with the bonus of being near the man she loves. And she’s right that it was good timing, because Yi Geum just lost his three strongest supporters and his best friend, so her presence in the palace means that he’s not as alone as he thought. Ultimately, I have to come down on Yeo-ji’s side on this one — it was her choice to make, and Yi Geum needs her, so she’s exactly where she should be.
It’s also interesting to me that it’s Yeo-ji’s choice to stay that helped Yi Geum see what it was that he needed to do to reassure his people. His silence (along with In-jwa’s inflammatory statements) was allowing the people to come up with all sorts of incorrect assumptions. It isn’t so much that they want to believe the worst about Yi Geum, because they’ve overwhelmingly supported him in the past, but people who are scared and feel abandoned are easy to control, as In-jwa said. He used their fear of being left behind by their king to create chaos, but Yi Geum did for his people exactly what Yeo-ji did for him — he stayed. He showed his people that they are his first priority, over and above his own safety, and that’s what makes him not just a good king, but a great king.
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