Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung: Episodes 33-36 Open Thread
The romantic angst takes a backseat this week as our young prince and historian work together to uncover the secrets of the past and make sense of what’s happening in the present. It’s also the penultimate week, which means a lot of lies and facts flying at us from every direction. Good thing we have an inquisitive historian determined to get to the bottom of it. (Note: this is for the previous week’s episodes, the finale week’s Open Thread will post later.)
EPISODES 33-36 WEECAP
Sa-hee and Jin’s private overnight chat leads to an avalanche of petitions to fire her for improper conduct and punish the Office of Royal Decrees for letting their female historians run amok. Jin stops the complaints by claiming that he was the one who liked Song Sa-hee and spent all night trying to seduce her, to no avail. It’s obviously a ridiculous lie to protect Sa-hee (can you imagine Jin begging for kisses?) but the king almost dies of embarrassment to hear that his two sons are embroiled in a very public love triangle. He stops Rim’s wedding preparations and blames Councilor Min for endorsing a problematic bride.
Councilor Min must really be a terrible person because even his daughter, the crown princess, is now worried for Sa-hee. But in true evil genius fashion, Min “forgives” Sa-hee, refusing to release her from his evil employ. Despite her father’s protests, Sa-hee prepares to return to work. But not without hinting that she has dirt on Councilor Min too. In flashback, we see that she promised Jin that she’ll make sure Min doesn’t get his way when it comes to Rim’s marriage. It’s her way of paying for the damage her spying has done.
The happily single Rim celebrates his twentieth birthday outside the palace with his grandmother. He’s confused when their entourage makes a stop at the grave of the deposed king. But what’s more curious is the dowager queen asking Rim to perform funeral rites.
During Rim’s birthday lunch, he announces that he has no intention of marrying. The dowager invites Hae-ryung, still assigned as her historian, to dine with them and convince the prince that he would make a great husband. (Girl, that’s what he’s been trying to tell you!) Cue the most awkward meal in fictional history.
That night, Mo-hwa takes Jae-kyung to the dowager queen. Orabeoni can only kneel in guilt as the dowager reminds him that the late king and everyone in Seoraewon died due to his betrayal. However, she allows him to live and help their cause. For now.
Rim is still bothered about being asked to pay respects to the late king. The same king whose death coincides with his birthday. He asks Hae-ryung about that hushed up part of history, but she only knows the rumors too. That Prince Huiyeong was a heretic who tortured his own people.
The next day, a group of archers ambush the entourage on its way back to the palace. Hae-ryung risks her life to escort Rim to sturdier cover. He notices her hands shaking in fear and holds her close until the attack is suddenly called off. Because they finished what they came to do. Rim has been shot in the back!
The entourage returns to the royal villa to regroup and tend to the wounded. Jin ignores his advisor’s warning and leads a group of soldiers outside the palace to bolster the entourage’s security. Meanwhile, the king rages at Councilor Min for daring to attack the royal family. Councilor Min blames the king for keeping Rim’s lineage a secret. He reveals what his spies have told him about the dowager queen leading the survivors of Seoraewon and taking Rim to his real father’s grave. She’s obviously planning a rebellion and Min is furious that the king is letting her get away with it.
Hae-ryung notices something strange about the arrows used for the attack and returns to the ambush site to look for clues. She reports her findings to Jin and Rim. Based on the injuries of the guards, the type of arrowhead, and the design of the bow, the ambush was targeting Rim, but only to injure, not kill.
Everyone is baffled why an outcast prince disinterested in politics would be the subject of a well-planned raid. Rim tells Jin that the only unusual thing he did lately was perform funeral rites for the deposed king. Jin understands the significance of this and visits the dowager queen to beg her to stop commemorating the late king’s death. He reminds her that his uncle was sentenced to death for high treason. The dowager’s benevolent mask cracks a little bit as she warns Jin that he should stop talking when he doesn’t know the whole story. She then dismisses him, but her remarks and actions raises Jin’s suspicions.
Meanwhile, Rim tells Hae-ryung about another time he was attacked while searching for a book called The Story of Ho Dam. He mentions finding a foundation stone inscribed with Ho Dam and Yeongan’s names, and Hae-ryung recalls that the writer of the variolation guide was a certain Yeongan. Rim also remembers a dream where a king who is not his father calls his name fondly (Rim, not the more formal Dowon) in this exact royal villa.
Rim and Hae-ryung look for the building in his dream and find a locked room. They break in to find a portrait of the late king. The portrait jogs Hae-ryung’s memory of growing up in Seoraewon and meeting the same man who kindly helped her choose books and called himself Master Ho Dam.
The clues are coming together quickly now. Hae-ryung tells Rim that Ho Dam was the late king and Yeongan is most likely her father, the dean of Seoraewon. She reveals that she’s living under a different name after her father died, falsely accused of treason. She’s been living a quiet life because she was told that’s what her father wanted, but she can no longer ignore the connection between her father’s unfair death and the mystery around the late king. Rim and Hae-ryung vow to learn what happened around his birth, in the year of Gyeongo.
When Sam-bo won’t answer Rim’s questions about his past, Rim rushes to the palace to look at the records himself. The dowager is alarmed to hear that Rim traveled alone in that state, so the whole entourage follows after him.
Upon their arrival, the king greets the dowager queen with pleas of ignorance regarding the attack. He sounds almost desperate to not look bad in front of her and we find out why: she’s not her actual son, though it looks like he’s tried his best for years to gain her favor. There’s disgust in the dowager’s face as she blames the king for secretly wanting Rim to die, hence why Councilor Min is left unpunished. She reiterates her threat from twenty years ago that if anything happens to Rim, she’ll kill herself and cast a dark mark on the king’s reign.
And the acting award goes to… the dowager queen! Apparently, Mo-hwa, Jae-kyung, and the survivors of Seoraewon plotted the raid to form a rift between the king and Councilor Min. Sneaky.
Even sneakier is Hae-ryung who uses her brother’s absence to search his room. She spotted him and Mo-hwa talking in the royal villa and remembers that Mo-hwa learned variolation from Seoraewon. Hae-ryung finds old documents regarding a historian, Kim Il-mok, who refused to surrender his sachaek of the deposed king’s activities. Kim Il-mok was eventually executed for high treason.
Jin also starts looking at the palace records for the year of Gyeongo. He’s alarmed when his advisor informs him that Rim requested the same information earlier. Jin rushes to Nokseodang to convince Rim to stop digging up information on their uncle but Rim says he’s actually searching for himself. There are records of their father overthrowing the heretical king, placing his trusted advisors in important positions, and Jin and the queen moving into the palace, but there’s no mention of Rim’s birth at all.
Jin is visibly taken aback, but he recovers quickly and fabricates a memory of waiting for his younger brother to be born. They both know it’s a lie but he begs Rim to believe it anyway. It’s no longer enough though. Rim goes directly to the king. Despite his injury, he’s made to wait, kneeling the whole day and into the night before the king (who’s busy drinking his own problems away) acknowledges him. My heart breaks when Rim’s only question turns out to be, “Have you ever loved me as a son, even for a short moment?” The king dismisses Rim’s nonsense and heads back inside, leaving the question unanswered. Which kind of answers the question.
That night, a group of sneaky people in various palace uniforms leave books all over the place. By morning, everyone from the guards, maids, scribes, even to the councilors are greeted with their own copy of The Story of Ho Dam. The palace tries to do damage control by recalling all the books. Which, if you’ve ever been a teenager, you know is a surefire way to get everyone to read the books in secret. By noon, “all” copies have been retrieved for disposal and no one has “read” the book but everyone seems to know its contents. The king threatens to execute anyone who talks about it but Councilor Min says the king should be strong and punish the distributor, even going so far as to name drop the dowager queen in front of the other ministers.
Jin wonders why a fictional novel would alarm the king so much, so his advisor explains that the Seoraewon in the story actually existed. It’s where the deposed king performed strange rituals and taught Catholicism! *gasp*
As Rim and Hae-ryung read their copies in their respective rooms, we watch The Story of Ho Dam unfold.
Ho Dam was a great king who loved his country but also feared it being left behind by other nations. They needed new knowledge for progress. He and his friend Yeongan established Seoraewon, “a place where dawn arrives.” It’s a school where rich and poor, young and old, men and women studied together. But outside Seoraewon, their strange practices (like performing surgery, or noblemen conversing equally with peasant women) were considered scandalous. Misunderstandings became rumors and rumors came back as truth. Until one night, the members of Seoraewon were seen as traitors and killed on official orders. Ho Dam and Yeongan died. And with them, the dream of changing the country for the better.
Hae-ryung confronts her brother for keeping the whole story a secret. She only knew that her father died unjustly, not that the current government she’s working for are the same people who slandered Seoraewon to gain power under the new king. She knows Jae-kyung is plotting something and wants to help, but Jae-kyung wants to send her away to safety to keep his final promise to her father. (So it was an open secret between them that they’re not truly related?) But Hae-ryung refuses to leave and risk losing the only family she has now. Aww… you’re making it hard for Jae-kyung to finish his suicide mission!
When in doubt, go to the library. Hae-ryung’s research brings up a disgraced but surviving historian from Gyeongo. It’s their only shot at finding Kim Il-mok’s hidden record. Hae-ryung and Rim visit the hermit historian in his hut. He drives them away, tired of Councilor Min’s men harassing him for information. But his drunk, angry act disappears when Hae-ryung says her father was the dean of Seoraewon. The historian wasn’t a member of Seoraewon, though he knows Hae-ryung’s father to be a good professor from Sungkyunkwan and remembers Kim Il-mok as a steadfast workaholic who recorded the late king’s visits to Seoraewon. (Kim Il-mok sounds similar to Woo-won. DON’T DO THIS, SHOW!)
The surviving historian tried to convince Kim Il-mok to save his life and reveal where he hid his sachaek, but Kim warned him that Councilor Min will rewrite history, so he’d rather die to protect his records. On the morning of his execution, he told his fellow historian to go to the island of the green forest to seek the truth. Unfortunately, the surviving historian has been unable to find it all these years.
Rim’s eyes grow wide to hear the final clue and returns to the palace in a hurry, taking Hae-ryung right back to Nokseodang. And wouldn’t you know it? The hanja for his gilded prison spells out “island of the green forest.”
All this plotting on Councilor Min and the dowager queen’s sides in a race to find Kim Il-mok’s sachaek, and here it was inside the palace all along, with a drunk old historian holding on to the final clue.
Makes you wonder how fragile history is, right? In just a single generation, Min and his men have managed to paint good people into savages and traitors. And the only person who can help is stuck, powerless outside the palace. If it weren’t for tenacious survivors like Mo-hwa, Jae-kyung, or the ruthless dowager queen, the records would’ve been scrubbed completely and the truth lost in another generation or two.
Of course, someone could unearth Kim Il-mok’s records during a palace renovation a hundred years later. The truth could’ve been revealed eventually. But that’s a hundred years too late for the surviving members of Seoraewon or the dowager queen. And Rim would’ve lived and died an outcast prince, not knowing why his father hated his guts so much.
Rim really is the Cinderella of this story, complete with an evil stepfather who can neither get rid of him nor love him as a real son. So they’re stuck in a relationship where Rim keeps asking for affection while the king keeps kicking the sad puppy away. But what’s interesting is the reveal that the king is in the same situation with the dowager queen. I’m assuming he’s a concubine’s son, so not 100% legitimate. It would explain why he’s a bit obsessed with being seen by history (and the dowager) as a good ruler. He probably feels like a fake, especially since he started his reign on dubious terms and is practically a puppet for Councilor Min. We’ve seen flashes of him wanting to do the right thing, but he doesn’t have enough strenght of character to follow through. So he’s stuck in a cycle of guilt and self-hate, wanting to be a great king but choosing the easy way out (i.e. relying on Councilor Min’s schemes).
At least Rim has a loving brother in Jin. Though it will be interesting to know where the love for his baby brother ends and the fear for his position as crown prince starts. It’s still unclear how much Jin knows about Rim. Did he take care of Rim out of guilt? Or is he just desperate to cover up the truth for fear of another bloodbath? And now that truth is about to be blown into the open, will he still prioritize his little brother’s safety above all else like he did when he released the Catholics and took Sa-hee out of the bridal race?
While writing the recap, it struck me how obtuse Rim is with his repeated questions about his birth. But I realized that his reactions are pretty normal. You don’t assume you’re adopted just because your parents seem to play favorites. There could be a thousand different reasons for it. It’s great that Rim approaches the growing theory with skepticism because it forces him to keep digging for the truth and counter-checking his sources. Because only when he’s exhausted all other possibilities can he be sure that his conclusion is the right one.
Speaking of birth secrets, I feel confused about Hae-ryung’s character and how she’s been written this week. Her awareness of her father’s tragic end and adoptive relationship with Jae-kyung doesn’t make sense compared to her previous actions. She’s always struck me as a bold character, fighting goons to save a slave boy and risking the wrath of all palace clerks to protest late wages. She’s not the type to stay quiet knowing the great injustice done to her father. BUT if the promise to live a quiet life mattered so much to her, then why become a historian? And a meddling one at that? It feels inconsistent. As if the writer implanted a whole set of memories in her at the last minute to get the revelations coming.
Since @Laica will be doing the final recap, I’ll say goodbye to this gem of a show now. It isn’t perfect (heh, I just complained about the writing of Hae-ryung’s character) but it’s a wonderful homage to history. The people who fight for its accuracy, why they fight for its accuracy, and the dangers when Evil messes with it.
The message resonates a lot with me right now, what with the proliferation of fake news and my feeling of helplessness as we watch proven facts and injustices being overwritten by lies. We’re not official historians, but we can all be Hae-ryungs by refusing to swallow those lies (or even apparent truths!) whole, doing our own research and speaking up when we see villains attempting to twist the truth for nefarious purposes.
It’s ironic that a fusion sageuk would teach us the value of preserving facts, but I love Rookie Historian all the more for it. We’ve all seen how stories are weaponized to peddle lies, so a K-drama that does the exact opposite is a wonderful way of fighting back against the encroaching darkness. Though I’m still waiting for our Hae-ryung to acknowledge that stories do have their place in history. Maybe the impending revolution sparked by her brother’s novel about Ho Dam will finally convince her?
- Premiere Watch: Justice, Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung, Doctor Detective, Class of Lies, Doctor John, Golden Garden
- New posters and stills for Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
- Character posters for sageuk romance Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
- A lonely prince writes romantic novels in Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
- Shin Se-kyung plays trailblazing female historian Gu Hae-ryung in MBC fusion sageuk