Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung: Episodes 37-40 Open Thread (Final)
Our rookie historian and her prince are gearing up to face the most important—and dangerous—fight of their lives. In their bid for the soul of the nation, Hae-ryung, Rim, and their allies must decide what price they are willing to pay to expose the truth behind what happened twenty years ago. And each of them will have to face the secrets of their own past along the way.
EPISODES 37-40 WEECAP
Rim asks Hae-ryung why she’s so unbothered by the fact that he might not be who she thinks he is. She responds that he’s exactly who she knows he is: a weirdo who writes amazing romances although he knows nothing about women, afraid of tigers but brave before love. He doesn’t pick flowers carelessly, and leaves rice on the windowsills for birds. (Okay, this is the show explicitly spelling out that Rim is the Disney princess in this story, right?)
The royal guard find out that The Story of Ho Dam was spread by the dowager queen’s people, and Councilor Min requests that she be put under guard. Jin protests this when he’s alone with his father, but the king is finally blunt with him: this is all to protect Jin from Rim, the son of the dethroned king and the legitimate heir. If Jin wants to protect his position, he’d better keep his mouth shut.
Once they find historian Kim Il-mok’s historical record hidden at Nokseodang, Rim wants to read it right away even though it’s forbidden—he’s been waiting his whole life to find out why they king hated him, why he had to be locked up. At this, Sam-bo sobs and confesses everything.
Rim goes directly to confront the dowager queen. He asks why she made him live his life hating and blaming himself for being despised by his father, only to find out that the dowager queen exchanged Rim’s life for the throne. He would rather have died, he tells her. He’s sick of everything about palace life, but she tells him she’s going to restore him to the throne. He must endure for her sake, and his dead father’s, just as she did all these long years. Jeez, no pressure, Grandma.
Hae-ryung pulls Woo-won aside at work to ask him under what circumstances the annals can be revised; he says that when the records seem to be biased, historians have added a corrected version and left the judgment to future generations. Hae-ryung tells him what she has found, but Woo-won says they must stay out of it. She accuses him of wanting to protect his father, and says that if he ignores this, she will no longer respect him as a senior.
Reminded why he became a historian in the first place, Woo-won supports Hae-ryung in sharing Kim Il-mok’s daily records with the rest of the historians, who are shocked at its contents. The older historians tell them that at the time people were upset about the king’s acceptance of Western learning and people; things were changing too quickly, and the scholar-officials were uneasy.
The definitive proof was an intercepted letter from the king asking a priest to send his fellows to Joseon to turn it into a Catholic nation—but the historical record tells of a different, innocuous letter. At this evidence of tampering with the historical record, Yang angrily vows to find out the truth and defend the honor of their office.
Woo-won reads Hae-ryung’s petition to the court, revealing that the historians have evidence that the historical record was distorted twenty years ago, and asking for an investigation into who threatened the historians, and who gave in to the demands of power and fabricated the record. Jin refuses, and forbids them to bring any other such petition.
Jae-kyung warns Hae-ryung that she must leave immediately to escape retribution, but she asks him point blank if he took her in out of guilt—she’s figured out that he was the student who falsified that letter from the king. How else could the two of them have escaped, even thrived, when everyone else at Soraewon was slaughtered? She doesn’t resent him though; she knows he’s punished himself enough.
Rim confronts Jin about refusing the petition, but Jin refuses to accept the truth of Rim’s parentage and tells him to go back to doing nothing. Rim refuses, and says he’s going to expose the truth. Jin has him locked up under guard at Nokseodang. Gah, Jin, you’re breaking my heart!
A flashback shows us what happened twenty years ago: Councilor Min kidnapped Jae-kyung and his friend, threatening the former with the latter’s life until he wrote that damning letter. After staging a coup the night of Rim’s birth, Min and Jin’s father confronted the king with the fake letter, but he was unmoved from his determination to create a more free and equal society. Min murdered him in cold blood.
Min has his goons arrest Woo-won. Hae-ryung finds where her brother is holed up with his allies, and refuses to be excluded from their plans any longer. She orchestrates Rim’s escape from his lonely tower, bringing him to their hideout in the city.
Min is planning a celebration to mark the twentieth year of the king’s reign, which is really an excuse to get rid of his enemies. He warns the king and Jin not to be swayed no matter what he does to Rim and the dowager queen. He reminds them that they’re both here because of the decision he made twenty years ago. Well, that’s one euphemism for murder.
Jin finally breaks under the weight of his affection for Rim. He gets Kim Il-mok’s record from Sa-hee, who says Woo-won had her make a copy, and sets Woo-won free.
In the calm before the storm, Rim asks Hae-ryung to stay in one place so that he can write to her when he’s on the run. She tells him there’s no need, because they’ll be together, but he tells her not to give up her life for him. He lived his whole life waiting for her; he can spend the remainder of it waiting to see her again. Damn, son. You just took my whole heart.
D-Day. Jae-kyung kneels before the king and confesses his crime—and Min’s—and pleads that they both be put to death for treason. Min says that anyone who defies the official story is committing treason should be beheaded. The dowager queen pipes up that she’ll be the first to go, then. Hah.
Rim strides up then, declares his true parentage, and says that the king has kept him alive all this time because of his guilt over the unjust dethronement of his brother. The king panics and tells the historians to stop writing, but they ignore him, and Hae-ryung goes and kneels next to Rim and her brother.
A sword is immediately at her throat, but she proclaims:
Even if you slash my throat, our brushes will not stop writing. If I die, another historian will take my place; if you kill that historian, another will take their place. Even if you kill every historian in this land, and take away all the paper and brushes, you won’t be able to stop us. From mouth to mouth, teacher to student, elder to child, history will be told. That is the power of truth.
One by one, the historians kneel alongside and behind her. Jin joins them, and the crowd chants in support of his plea to right past wrongs.
And then, loose ends. Woo-won tells his father he’s betrayed the man he used to be in favor of power, and history will judge him for it. Hae-ryung visits Jae-kyung in jail, and he tells her it’s never been due to guilt—she’s always been his little sister. *sniff* Rim refuses to take his place as the crown prince, to the great displeasure of his grandmother.
Three years later, King Jin is working to bring back Soraewon. Sa-hee teaches children in the countryside.
Hae-ryung and the other two female apprentices have been promoted, and Woo-won completes his mourning and returns to the Office of Royal Decrees.
Rim writes travelogues that barely sell (ha!) and visits his Hae-ryung when he can, to their mutual delight. They’re in no rush to get married. (Sam-bo disapproves and Seol-geum is 100% on board.)
I know this was supposed to be a weecap, but so much happened in finale week, I couldn’t bear to condense it as much as I usually do! And I had to include that badass speech by Hae-ryung to the king, because it encapsulates both her character and this drama so well. It wasn’t a perfect show; I feel like there were some character motivations near the end that didn’t feel quite organic. Mary mentioned last week that it was a weird reveal that Hae-ryung had her memories all along, and I agree; it was also strange that Woo-won was suddenly okay with Sa-hee copying the historical record and giving it to Jin. We also conveniently skipped over the undoubtedly headache-inducing process of Rim abdicating the throne in order for Jin to ascend.
Despite these minor blips, though, these last episodes had so many great moments, and I’m satisfied with the way the story wrapped up. The secret about Soraewon ended up being the theme of almost every episode of this drama: the struggle between power and equality, greed and justice, truth and falsehood. This drama is unique among sageuks because not only does it charmingly upend our notions about history the way that many fusion sageuks do; it makes visible the very seams of history in a way I’ve never seen a drama do before. These historians feel the weight of their duty because they live in a time where writing down what happens carries an explicit responsibility to the nation and its people—past, present, and future—that is heightened by their status as subjects of an absolute monarch who can easily have them executed at any time. Unity in the face of opposition isn’t just a smart strategy, it’s their only road to survival.
Yet the dilemmas they face are relevant to any era. How do you speak truth to power when the very act of raising your voice is dangerous? What do you do when your professional duty as an employee and your moral duty as a human being are at odds? How can you fight back against lies when those lies have become so deeply woven into the fabric of your society that speaking the truth will, at best, make you a laughingstock, and at worst, cost you your freedom or even your life?
These are heavy questions, and Rookie Historian handles them with a grace and thoughtfulness that belies its whimsical tone and wacky humor. It may be more idealistic than the average sageuk, but the writing captures these characters’ pain and joy, their paths toward and away from each other, their individual and collective journeys of self so incredibly well. These concluding episodes belonged to Rim, Hae-ryung and Woo-won, each having to make peace with the legacies of their fathers in their own way, but Shin Se-kyung and Lee Ji-hoon shone particularly brightly in their roles—I think these are my favorite performances from both. All of these characters have made a home in my heart, though. I hate to say goodbye, so I’ll take my cue from Hae-ryung: instead of the end, let’s think of it as turning a page.
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