Arthdal Chronicles: Episode 1
The highly anticipated Arthdal Chronicles finally premiered this weekend with a solid introduction and incredible potential to tell an epic story. The hype was real, with the first episode achieving a 6.7% viewership rating — a massive feat for a cable show, even with the tides turning in their favor. It may be too soon to decide if the show deserved the hype, but this first episode makes a convincing case for the enthralling made-up world of Arth — the predecessor to what we know as Gojoseon. It’s a world of fantasy but with familiar themes of conquest, motherhood, and survival. Without further ado, welcome to Arth.
(Disclaimer: One of the fun things about a made-up world is that literally everything is made up, so some names are liberally Romanized. If anyone wanted to learn how to Romanize, just use all the names from this show, and you’ll be trained.)
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Inside a shelter, a mother sleeps with her baby and sweats profusely as she suffers through a nightmare. A nefarious blue snake slithers into the shelter and coils up, ready to strike the baby. Still stuck in her nightmare, the mother screams as the snake widens its mouth to attack. The blue-lipped baby’s eyes glow purple as the snake strikes.
We pan through the mountains as a voice narrates in ancient language: “Humankind that descended from the trees held knives upon controlling fire, opened roads by creating wheels, and settled on land after planting seeds. This is an ancient time before a nation and king, before homo sapiens could dream, before nature’s great pyramids were summitted. The grand lands of our ancient mothers — this place, Arth.”
In the woods, a group of tribesman hunt a mysterious creature that seems to sweep these men of their feet and brutally butcher them. As this unbelievably fast monster kills these men, leaving them with sliced limbs, it becomes clear that these men are not hunting — they’re being hunted.
After the slaughter, only one man remains, and he tries to start a smoke signal. But he freezes when he senses someone behind him. He quickly crawls away and looks back at this creature, who steps on the fire with his bare foot and tells him in an ancient tongue, “The land belongs to everyone.” The human-like creature with blue blood, who we soon learn to be a Neanthal, and clawed fingers prepares to attack.
But then, the Neanthal hears birds behind him and escapes just before arrows spray down from above. The tribe’s reinforcements shoot arrows toward the smoke, and unfortunately, the surviving tribesman gets hit. When the tribe arrives, they curse the Neanthal for slaughtering their men. We learn the name of the survivor, Mookwang, who points the tribe to where the creature ran.
The tribesmen run after the Neanthal who runs away barefoot. We hear the hunting leader, Moobaek, ask in voiceover, “Where did this all go wrong?” Moobaek recalls the origin of this conflict, and we visit this place.
At the summit of White Mountain, SANUNG (Kim Eui-sang), leader of the Saenyeok tribe, stands with his tribe counsel to meet with the Neanthals. Tribesman Moobaek recalls seeing these blue-lipped and blue-blooded Neatals for the first time, wearing skulls on their heads.
The Neanthal leader asks what the humans seek, and Sanung responds through his interpreter, ASA HON (cameo by Chu Ja-hyun) that he wishes to form an alliance. Neanthal Leader questions why they should work together, and MIHOL (Jo Sung-ha), captain of the pirates, responds that they can amass great wealth together.
Neanthal Leader claims that Mother Nature provides everything they need and asks what else they wish for. Moobaek uncovers the rock slab between the two potential allies, and Neanthal Leader recognizes the food: beans, barley, corn, mugwort, and garlic. He asks what this is.
Saenyeok tribe leader Sanung responds that this is agriculture, a sign of human technology. Sanung offers human technology and wisdom in exchange for the Neanthal’s strength and fertile lands. He says that together, their wealth can build a nation that rules over all living things. He offers Neanthal Leader the power to rule.
Sanung claims that large-scale agriculture is required to build a nation, and they need the Neanthal’s land to achieve this. Neanthal Leader responds that the humans need their land, but they don’t need anything from the humans. More importantly, they don’t eat mugwort and garlic. Ha, Neanthal Leader is cheeky.
The Neanthals walk away from the deal, and Moobaek remembers the Neanthal with a tiger head on his back, Raguz, following suit.
The humans return to their base camp after the unsuccessful negotiation, and the tribesmen worry that war against the superior Neanthals awaits, as they need the land to end the Arthdal famine. The interpreter and member of the White Mountain tribe, Asa Hon, insists that they try to convince the Neanthals with gifts, but the Saenyeok tribesmen aren’t keen on negotiating with savages.
Moobaek finds young TAGON (cameo by One), son of Saenyeok tribe leader Sanung, feeding a caged bird. Tagon finds it fascinating that the bird flies over the White Mountain at sunrise and flies back at sunset. When Moobaek breaks the news of the failed negotiation, Tagon calmly asks with a smile, “Does that mean we’re at war now?”
Moobaek narrates that they were indeed at war, but it ended unbelievably quickly. The Arthdal tribe leaders gathered to watch their victory against the Neanthals, and Moobaek recalled the sun rising in the north that morning. The Neanthals were targeted on the day of the annual moon celebration, during which all Neanthals gathered in one location for seven days and nights — a golden opportunity.
After discovering an ailment that only affected horses and Neanthals, the Arthdal tribe leaders ordered for the blankets to be covered in this disease and sent with White Mountain interpreter Asa Hon to offer as gifts to the Neanthals. She was sent in as a sacrifice.
One night, Asa Hon discovered a sick Neanthal mother dying from the blanket disease, with her crying baby wrapped in her arms. Then, the tribesmen urged Asa Hon to escape, as the whole forest would soon catch on fire. We see Tagon and the Arthdal tribesmen launch their fire arrows to below the mountain, and the fire arrows get dropped on the Neanthals via birds that fly back over the mountain at sunset.
The Neanthals die from the illness and the fire, and Tiger Head Raguz only manages to salvage a baby from the slaughter. Asa Hon realizes that she gifted plague blankets and refuses to escape to Arthdal, a place that has now been dishonored by the sinister tribe leaders. Then, the tribesman gets attacked from behind by Raguz, who rips the tribesman’s heart. Gruesome!
Raguz calls the humans demons and starts approaching Asa Hon, but he stops when he sees the Neanthal baby in her arms. Then, he collapses on the ground and coughs up blue blood, stricken by the plague. Asa Hon notices another baby strapped on his back and urges Raguz to come to his senses. She pleads that they must save the babies.
At the edge of the forest fire, the tribesmen shoot arrows at the few remaining Neanthals who try to escape. The tribesmen laugh in enjoyment of this sick murder of their enemies. Moobaek narrates that the Neanthals were much faster and stronger than humans, and they possessed night vision, but humans had fire, swords, and schemes. Humans were determined to fulfill their greed, and most importantly, they had Tagon.
Sanung proudly commends his son’s brilliance, and Tagon humbly accepts the praise. Moobaek reveals in narration that the plot to use the plague, fire, and the sunset birds came from Tagon.
Although the Arthdal tribes were victorious, they feared retaliation from the surviving Neanthals. To combat their fear, the Arthdal tribe leaders became crueler and followed Sanung’s command to hunt down the surviving Neanthals.
We see a quick time lapse that shows a blue light in the sky and a newborn baby, but we’re not sure what this means yet. Moobaek narrates that the war was short, but the hunt was long. The surviving Neanthals were very strong.
Back in the present, Moobaek leads the tribesmen to fight the Neanthal, and we now know that it’s Raguz. In the bushes, Raguz leaves a packet of medicine with his baby before heading out to face his enemies. He fearlessly walks out and impressively avoids all the oncoming arrows. Then, he scales the trees and jumps into the fight, tearing off limbs and ripping out hearts.
Behind a tree, a young Neanthal boy watches this fight and runs off to notify Asa Hon. We now know that the nightmare-stricken mother in the shelter is Asa Hon. In her dream, she desperately holds onto the baby and refuses to hand over the child to the demanding young boy. The young boy warns her that he’ll take the child’s father instead and that Asa Hon will also die if they meet again. The boy advises her to run far away and to not follow the singing person.
Asa Hon jumps awake and can’t believe that she — a human incapable of dreams — just experienced a dream. The young boy’s demand for her baby rings in her ears, and she realizes that her baby is missing. She frantically yells for her baby, EUNSEOM, but she finds him safely in the arms of the Neanthal child, who happily reports that the baby’s fever is gone.
The other Neanthal child arrives at their shelter and reports to Asa Hon that Raguz is fighting the human warriors after hiding their older child. Asa Hon remembers the dream child’s warning that he’ll take the baby’s father instead, and she tells the children that she’s going to fetch her older child.
The Neanthal child tries to stop her from going with her baby because while she’s a human, her baby is an Igutu (half human, half Neanthal). If she gets caught alone, she may be able to survive since the mystic Asa tribe is respected among human tribes. But Asa Hon tells the Neanthal child that human mothers cannot just leave their babies behind and runs off to fetch her oldest.
Meanwhile, Raguz continues to fight against brutal odds. He breaks out of chains and raises Moobaek off the ground in a chokehold. More tribesmen arrive, and an arrow goes through Raguz’s neck. Raguz drops to the ground, and the tribesmen all attack to kill him.
With his last wheezing breaths, Raguz tells the tribesmen that he had a dream last night about the fall of the tribesmen, who will come to kill each other. Then, he dies and collapses in the pool of blue blood.
The human tribesmen couldn’t understand what Raguz told them, and only one picked up that he was talking about a dream. They find the concept of dreams strange and unnecessary, since they’re unaware of their importance. Moobaek checks the arrow that pierced Raguz’s neck and asks who shot it.
The culprit is Tagon, and the warriors all bend down in his presence. Tagon informs the warriors that he will join the Neanthal hunt, per his father’s orders and because he feels responsible. The warriors have heard of Tagon’s sweep of the Igutus and welcome his help for the Neanthal hunt.
Tagon looks around at the slaughtered warriors and rushes toward one man shouting in pain as he nears death. The surrounding men urge the dying man to endure a little longer to deliver his final consciousness to the gods, but they don’t have an officiant or a mystic Asa tribe member in their midst to deliver this message.
The dying man asks Tagon to deliver his final consciousness to his god — Aramun Haesulla, the god of union — and Tagon agrees to do this, despite not having a mystic background. The men look surprised at Tagon’s willingness to communicate with the god, but they follow his orders to chant along. After offering this dying man, Tagon proceeds to slit the man’s throat.
While walking through the woods, Tagon orders the men to find and bring back all the fallen warriors. One of the White Mountain tribesmen likens Tagon to the god of union, particularly his valor and thoughtfulness. Tagon dismisses the concept of ancient gods and reminds the tribesman that he’s just Tagon.
As the warriors search for the fallen, Moobaek warns the White Mountain tribesman not to taunt Tagon. The tribesman presumes that Moobaek must feel threatened by a well-spoken and skilled warrior from the White Mountain tribe. He derisively calls Moobaek the best warrior of the Daekan (the allied human tribes) until the younger warriors grow up.
Tagon and his accompanying warriors discover a baby in the bushes, and the warriors recoil in horror at this Neanthal baby. Tagon cuts the baby’s arm to see the color of the blood, and he identifies the baby as an Igutu. The warriors warn Tagon not to touch the half-breed, since they’re a bad omen, but Tagon picks up the baby anyway.
Asa Hon hides as she searches for her oldest child, and she spots the warriors discovering her baby. As the warriors continue to express disgust for the Igutu baby, Tagon takes his knife and sticks it in a warrior’s chest. Then, he throws his sword at the escaping warrior and kills him.
Asa Hon looks shocked when she recognizes the man carrying the child as Tagon. He walks away humming a tune, and Asa Hon remembers the dream boy warning her not to follow the singing person.
That night, the Neanthal child, Rottib, walks through the forest, using his night vision to look for Asa Hon. He finds Asa Hon on the ground, looking up at Raguz, who’s hanging from a tree. Rottib reaches for Raguz and says his farewell. He worries that Raguz was not delivered to the moon god, but Asa Hon says that Raguz was taken by Aramun Haesulla, the god of union and the one who created their alliance.
Asa Hon recalls the hammer and honeysuckle flowers held by the boy in the dream, and she confirms that she dreamt of Aramun Haesulla. She says that the god threatened to take Raguz if she didn’t give up her children, and Rottib says that it’s just a dream.
But Asa Hon knows that it wasn’t just a dream. She remembers the blue star in the sky when her child was born. In Arthdal legend, the blue star marks the birth of the one who will bring catastrophe. She tells Rottib that she’s been cursed by the god, but Rottib only believes in things he can see. Even if gods existed, Rottib can’t understand why Asa Hon would be cursed.
In tears, Asa Hon tells herself that she’s been cursed because she betrayed her own kind and brought Igutus into the world. She remembers the god’s warning to run far away, as she’ll die the next time they meet. Asa Hon stands up and tells Rottib that she’s going to Iark — a place immune to the power of Arth gods.
Rottib doubts that she can descend the wall that only birds can fly over, but Asa Hon knows that there’s a cave passageway. It’s one cave among thousands, but that’s the only way to save herself and her baby. She thanks Rottib and heads on her way, determined to live.
Asa Hon walks through forests and fields, through rain and neck-deep rivers, until she finally reaches the wall that overlooks Iark. Her only chance of survival is down in Iark, so she searches for the cave that will lead her there. In the caves, baby Eunseom cries, and Asa Hon also cries as she nurses her baby.
Ten years later, the allied Daekan warriors cheer for Tagon in a skull mask as he makes an entrance. He calls out the Saenyeok tribe and White Mountain tribe, and they each cheer for their respective tribes. Then, he calls out the pirates, but he’s met with silence. He jokes about his blunder and says no pirate would be among them. The Daekan warriors laugh.
Tagon tells the Daekan warriors that while they come from different tribes, they are brothers. He boasts that the skull on his head is from the last living Neanthal that they just killed, skinned, and drained of blue blood. He takes off the skull, and we finally meet our grown Tagon (Jang Dong-geun).
Tagon raises his skull, and the warriors fill their glasses for a toast. Tagon remembers the fallen warriors that protected them, who are now with the Arth gods. He toasts to their shining deaths, and the warriors solemnly raise their glasses. Moobaek drinks and think to himself that there is no such thing as a shining death because death is the loss of light.
After drinking out of the skull, Tagon wields his sword and smashes the skull to pieces. He announces the end of their 10-year Neanthal hunt and kicks off their celebration with a hunted pig. The warriors go wild, dancing and cheering for Tagon, who drunkenly dances with the tribesmen.
Then, a woman enters the tent, and the warriors go silent. Tagon recognizes TAEALHA (Kim Ok-bin) — daughter of pirate captain Mihol — but he drunkenly collapses before he can properly greet her.
Taealha dunks Tagon’s head into a barrel of water, and she belatedly realizes that it’s alcohol. Tagon stumbles on the bed with her, and she tells him to come to his senses. She reminds him that the child that he brought back is already 10 years old.
She gives him a letter from the Igutu child, who addresses Tagon as his father. Taealha asks what he plans to do with this Igutu child and warns him that they’re both dead if the Igutu is discovered. Tagon assures her that the Igutu child will shed the blue scales on its back the child is older — scales that Neanthals have for life.
Taealha asks again about his plans, but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he charmingly says that he plans on marrying her. She looks away with a smitten smile but says that she’s sad that they won’t be getting married, since they won’t be in Arthdal anytime soon because Tagon has another mission. She relays the news of an uprising that Tagon’s father — the leader of the allied tribes — has ordered him to suppress.
Tagon doesn’t look pleased by the prospect of another battle, but he obediently accepts his father’s order. Taealha strokes his face and tries to comfort him by saying that Tagon’s father is jealous of him. Tagon asks for more about his father’s plans, and Taealha whispers in his ear, “Iark.”
Leader of the allied tribes Sanung calls for tribe leaders meeting with Mihol of the pirates and Asaron of the White Mountains. Sanung shares that farming the fertile Neanthal lands requires more manpower, and Asaron expresses frustration with the constant cycle of insufficient lands and insufficient people — they will always need more of the other.
Mihol responds that this is cycle of deficiency is how they will grow their nation, as he did. Asaron belittles Mihol’s unsuccessful conquest that landed him in Arth, but Sanung recenters the conversation on their source of people: Iark.
Iark has plenty of Doojeumsaeng (a derogatory word for the Iark people), and Mihol promises that his pirate experts will find a way to descend the great wall. Asaron doubts Mihol’s promise and asks if Sanung will spite his son — who’s spent 10 years fighting for his father — by sending him to Iark. Poor Tagon has not returned to Arthdal in all those years, but Sanung defends his decision to send Tagon, who is the only fit person for the job.
At the Iark wall, a young boy walks through the caves and finds an opening that leads to a narrow walkway along the wall. He carefully walks down the strip, but he missteps and falls down the wall. Somehow, the boy grabs onto an edge and climbs back up to the cave opening.
When the boy resurfaces on the top of the wall, we see blue scales on his back. This is 10-year-old Eunseom, and he runs to his mother (Asa Hon) with a salt rock in his hand. He tells Mom that he found the cave that leads to the salt fields that she desired to see. Mom licks the rock to confirm and hugs her young son in joy.
Asa Hon and Eunseom venture down the cave and finally reach the hot spring lands welcoming them to Iark. As they walk through the hot lands, Mom tells Eunseom that a new world and new people await. Eunseom asks Mom if he isn’t a human, since his blood color is different. Mom tells Eunseom that blood color does not determine if you’re a human — you’re a human if you live among them.
Eunseom nods and tells Mom that his feet are hot. Mom checks her son’s burned feet and tells him to get on her back. As Mom carries Eunseom, she hums a tune and recalls Asamoon’s threat to kill her. She tells the Arth god that she’s safe in a land outside his reach.
When Mom finally reaches a forest at night, she collapses in exhaustion. Eunseom gives her water and then checks her feet, which are severely burned. He runs to grind up flowers to treat her burns, but then, he hears growls. It’s a pack of wolves slowly surrounding them.
Eunseom nervously looks back at Mom, and when the wolves run toward her, his eyes glow purple. Eunseom runs back to defend Mom with super speed, and he hisses at the growling wolves. The veins in his face show his purple blood, and he continues to hiss as the wolf pack alpha emerges from the trees.
The alpha wolf pounces at Eunseom, but a spear knocks it down. Several more spears fly toward the wolves, and they run away as a group of humans arrive. They’re surprised to see Eunseom, whose purple eyes have now vanished, and find it even more curious that he speaks their language.
Eunseom begs for help, and he goes back to grinding the flowers for Mom’s feet. Mom regains consciousness and looks around her. The scene looks vaguely familiar, and she suddenly recognizes the field of flowers and hammer. It’s the dream from Aramoon.
Eunseom runs back to treat Mom’s feet, and the tribe people look alarmed by the injury. A young girl says that Mom must have walked through the Sea of Tears. When Mom gets up, she sees the hammer strapped around the girl’s waist and the honeysuckle flowers in Eunseom’s hand. She can now see both Eunseom’s face and the girl’s face in the dream as Aramoon.
Mom grabs Eunseom and says, “You manipulated me, Aramoon.” Eunseom doesn’t understand Mom, but she’s too overwhelmed and devastated to explain. She weeps and gives crying Eunseom her necklace from Arth. She tells Eunseom, “When your scales shed, return to this place, Aramoon.”
Mom looks at Eunseom and wonders if she brought Aramoon; she looks at the girl and wonders if she was brought to Aramoon. Then, she collapses and goes limp. Eunseom cries by her mother’s dead body and yells in grief.
Years later, Eunseom (ah, there you are Song Joong-ki) stirs in his sleep while other men watch him mutter through his dream. They look confused and fascinated by Eunseom, and they scream in surprise when Eunseom wakes up yelling for Mom. Then, an older tribe man walks in and demands to know if Eunseom just experienced a dream.
The world of Arth and beyond is fascinating, and I’m impressed by this production team’s creation of a mysterious yet fully conceived world. This introduction unravels like an epic legend of ancient times, with just the right information to keep us curious but move the prelude along. Also, the cinematography is beautiful, though I would expect nothing less. I’m excited to see more of the synergy between the writers and director in creating this series, and I fear that I have almost too much faith in them because they’ve separately created some of my all-time favorite shows. They’ve got a damn near perfect team, and on top of that, they could afford a star-studded cast.
While we haven’t gotten our full main cast on board just yet, I’m impressed by the actors who made an appearance in this first episode. Chu Ja-hyun delivered a powerful performance as Asa Hon — a mystic woman of strong convictions and a determined mother with an unrelenting spirit. The tragic mother storyline always gets me, and part of the tragedy is that these talented actors only appear as brief cameos.
The Neanthal cast was particularly impressive with the execution of their ancient language, and they left a very strong impression. The actor for young Tagon also left a strong impression, with his portrayal of an intriguing character, who I can’t quite read yet. Does Tagon have compassion for Igutus, or is he trying to manipulate the Igutu that he saved? Along with Tagon, I’m intrigued by Moobaek, the silent observer and narrator of the introduction. He was our guide through the world of Arth and the history of conflict, and I appreciated how his character was utilized to clarify unfamiliar elements of the Arth world.
The Arth world is not so foreign that I feel disconnected from it, but it also takes patience to understand the players. There are the human tribes — the Saenyeok tribe, White Mountain tribe, and Pirates — that have formed an alliance to build a nation. There are the Neanthals — likened to savages by the human tribes, but the most harmonious with Mother Nature and the land. They’re also the only group capable of dreams. Then, there are the Iark people, who are human but are considered inferior by the human tribes in Arth. Finally, there are the overarching Arth deities, one of which plotted the fateful death of Asa Hon and placement of Igutu Eunseom with the Iaruek people. Although the set-up is a bit convoluted, the information was delivered as clearly as possible, and I commend the production for tackling all of this in their first episode.
As others have mentioned, this set-up is vaguely similar to Game of Thrones (no spoilers please!), but I think it’s mainly the genre that overlaps. This show feels more like a Korean sageuk. The theme of conquest and war are not unfamiliar to the sageuk world — they just happen to be based on history while Arthdal Chronicles is historical fantasy drama, with a strong emphasis on fantasy. I’d like to say that Arthdal feels like a fresh and original take an ancient legend, but again it may be too soon to tell if the rest of this show will feel as fresh. I’m generally optimistic, as this was a promising first episode for a legendary series. I just hope the rest of this show holds to this standard.
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