Secret Royal Investigator: Episode 1
After a long sageuk dry spell, Secret Royal Investigator is here to offer a light mystery comedy about an investigator trio embarking on a royal mission. The goal of the royal mission to provide crucial information for the king, but the premiere promises a heavy dose of comedy and hijinks as the dysfunctional trio attempts to fulfill their duty. The first episode introduces our leads, an unmotivated civil servant and a gisaeng under cover, and gives us a taste of the hilarity and contention to come.
Note: This is a first episode recap only.
In the night, a trader from the mountains delivers a box full of gold to the governor, who gleefully marvels at the riches. The trader shares the that the laborers suffer through harsh work conditions and illness, but governor dismisses responsibility for the prison laborers. The trader accuses the governor of being a corrupt official and reveals himself as a secret royal investigator.
The investigative unit surrounds the corrupt governor, and investigator Park Cheol-kyu demands to know what the gold was used for. Before he gets an answer, masked bandits attack the investigative unit, and the investigator is killed by the lead bandit.
One month later, Prime Minister Kim advises the king to disband the secret royal investigative unit because of their failed secrecy and rumors of accepting bribes. The king defends the investigators as his eyes and ears on the ground, and he knows that the investigators have saved struggling citizens from corrupt officials.
The prime minister mentions the rumored death of investigator Park Cheol-kyu and pleads that the king no longer send innocent investigators on death missions. Chief Royal Secretary JANG TAE-SEUNG (Ahn Nae-sang) notes the importance of these missions despite the danger and shares that he sent someone to gather more information, per the king’s orders.
A group of government officials gather to gamble, and we meet Sung Yi-kyum (L a.k.a. Kim Myung-soo) betting all of his earnings against Eunuch Kim, who wins the game. Yi-kyum begs for a sliver of his money back, but Eunuch Kim refuses. When asked about his strategy, Eunuch Kim responds that he lost his fear when he lost his manhood (lol), and his peers accept this with sympathy.
Another eunuch interrupts their conversation and shares the news of advisor and secret royal investigator Park Cheol-kyu’s absence. With no news from him in over a month, the eunuch suspects that he’s dead. Yi-kyum seems to have a fond memory of Investigator Park and reacts angrily at the implication.
When Yi-kyum returns home, he’s met by his servant PARK CHOON-SAM (Lee Yi-kyung), who offers a new erotic novel with a fresh plot. Yi-kyum initially seems uninterested, but looks intrigued when Choon-sam suggests that the story, a romance between a court lady and multiple eunuchs, would be popular among eunuchs.
Seeking a profit, Yi-kyum secretly meets with Eunuch Kim and offers a preview of the novel. Eunuch Kim flips through the novel and is clearly aroused. They strike a deal for the novels, and Yi-kyum looks satisfied by the transaction.
The prime minister meets with his siding ministers at the gisaeng house, and they urge him to prevent the continuation of the secret royal investigative unit. Though he agrees, Prime Minister Kim decides to wait for his opponents to tire themselves out before making his move. As a special treat, he’s offered a performance by HONG DA-IN (Kwon Nara).
Known for her irresistible beauty, Da-in captivates the audience with her performance and introduces herself to the prime minister. They’re interrupted by a ruckus from a drunk scholar demanding to meet with Da-in, and she excuses herself to deal with the disturbance.
Just the drunk scholar is thrown out, Yi-kyum and his fellow civil servant colleagues arrive at the gisaeng house. The drunk man throws a tantrum about his love for Da-in and threatens to stab himself if she doesn’t accept him. Unfazed by the drunken threat, Da-in tells him to go ahead and stab himself.
With one look at Da-in, Yi-kyum is mesmerized by her beauty, but he manages to snap out of his admiration when the drunk man seems committed to stabbing himself. He intervenes by kicking the man with surprising skill, and he confronts Da-in about determining the fate of another’s life.
Da-in rebuts his accusation by arguing that Yi-kyum assumed that authority by stopping someone from killing himself. Yi-kyum is offended by Da-in’s retort and presumes from her boldness that she’s backed by a powerful person. Da-in acknowledges this and doesn’t share specifics, but she makes it known that she’s supported by someone more powerful that Yi-kyum.
While drinking with his colleagues, Yi-kyum remains fixated on the insulting conversation with Da-in and demands to meet her immediately. Da-in continues to serve the prime minister and notes his conversation about illegally buying slaves from the slave market. Their conversation is interrupted by Yi-kyum, who bursts into the room looking for Da-in.
When Yi-kyum notices the high officials in the room, he pretends that he dropped by to respectfully acknowledge their presence, and before he can leave, Da-in suggests that they pour him a drink. Stuck in an uncomfortable situation, Yi-kyum accepts a drink, but his discomfort doesn’t stop there. Da-in whispers a suggestion to the prime minister, and Yi-kyum ends up performing a (fusion) dance.
After a mortifying night entertaining the high officials, Yi-kyum bows respectfully as the prime minister leaves, and Da-in wishes him a good evening. Aggravated by Da-in’s brazen attitude, Yi-kyum tries to pick a fight with her. Practiced in her trade, Da-in takes his arm and escorts him out of the house. She promises to entertain him all night the next time he visits and send him off.
Da-in unclips her gisaeng hair and heads out in the night to meet with Secretary Jang. We learn that Da-in is working as an undercover gisaeng, and she reports her findings about Prime Minister Kim’s interest in the slave market. She shares that further details were lost when Yi-kyum interrupted them and promises to share more information when Prime Minister Kim visits again.
After her report, Da-in reminds Secretary Jang about her payment, and he offers a smaller payment because her report wasn’t substantive. Da-in argues that the substance should not determine her payment and successfully negotiates full payment for her task. Secretary Jang and Da-in seem to have a close friendly relationship, though we’re not privy to their background yet.
A guard returns from the search for secret royal investigator Park Cheol-kyu and brings back a journal. In the records, the king reads about civilians’ hardship to pay the high taxes, resulting in children being sold into slavery. Park Cheol-kyu writes urgently that the oppression must be stopped, and the king orders Secretary Jang to assign a new secret royal investigator, someone without any connection to government officials.
When Yi-kyum reunites with his colleagues the next day, they ask about his night with Da-in. He’s annoyed by his memory of the night, but his colleagues all look to him with anticipation. Noticing their excitement, he simply shares that Da-in is on a different level, leaving the rest up to their interpretation.
Da-in enters the store of an artist and seeks the artist’s alternative skill of finding people. She’s looking for someone who worked at Seonjeonkwan, the government office in charge of the king’s orders, ten years ago. The artist charges a steep price of 50 nyang for the task and explains that the task requires looking through private government records. Da-in reluctantly agrees and makes an initial payment, promising the rest when he delivers the information.
Secretary Jang cannot identify a single candidate for the investigator role, and his military guard suggests that they remain patient in their search, as they may find the person in an unexpected place. As they retreat for the night, Secretary Jang and his guard notice a lit administrative office and decide to investigate who’s working late.
It’s Yi-kyum and his gambling colleagues, and they discuss the news about the chief royal secretary searching for a new royal investigator. Yi-kyum doubts that he’ll be selected because Secretary Jang only chooses upright and inflexible people, and Secretary Jang overhears this. At last, Yi-kyum wins his bet against Eunuch Kim, and Secretary Jang emerges to congratulate him and orders for the gamblers to be detained.
Secretary Jang receives a briefing on Yi-kyum, the son of a chief censor from the Royal Office of Censors who resigned ten years ago and became a teacher in his hometown. Based on the timing of the resignation, Secretary Jang suspects that it may be related to Prince Hwiyoung. He also learns that Yi-kyum has a younger half-brother, a lower ranking official. Secretary Jang notes that he’s found his investigator candidate.
Behind bars, the gamblers blame Yi-kyum for introducing them to this vice, and Yi-kyum turns the blame on Eunuch Kim for winning all of their money. Yi-kyum is escorted away to meet with Secretary Jang, and he acknowledges his wrongdoing. With no connections, he also accepts any punishment, and to his surprise, Secretary Jang assigns him as a secret royal agent.
Secretary Jang reports this assignment to the king and justifies his confusing selection to the king. For the civil service exam, Yi-kyum’s response, a sharp criticism of corrupt officials, moved Secretary Jang and received high marks from the king. The reason for Yi-kyum’s changed motivations are unclear, but Secretary Jang argues that Yi-kyum is their best option.
The king meets imprisoned Yi-kyum and officially assigns him as a secret royal investigator. He claims that he’s caged up just like Yi-kyum, isolated from the world outside of the palace. The king knows that the ministers hide the realities of his nation, and he only trusts Secretary Jang and the investigators to be his eyes and ears.
Yi-kyum doubts his ability to fulfill this large task but cannot deny the king’s assignment. Secretary Jang gives him three days to prepare and hands him Park Cheol-kyu’s journal to read in advance. When he returns home, Yi-kyum opens up the journal and reads an entry about Cheol-kyu setting aside his mission to meet with a gisaeng named Sa-wol.
In the royal court, Secretary Jang runs into Prime Minister Kim, who asks him about identifying a new investigator. Secretary Jang feigns a struggle, and Prime Minister Kim criticizes the court’s priority on assigning an investigator while the citizens are suffering. Unbothered by Prime Minister Kim’s criticism, Secretary Jang notes that he must have lots of time to think about the citizens while visiting the gisaeng house.
Da-in visits the artist for an update on her request, and she’s surrounded by royal guards for her illegal request to gather information from secured records. She’s dragged away and imprisoned, but with a bribe and her beauty, she manages to convince a guard to notify Secretary Jang of her imprisonment.
Secretary Jang bails her out and scolds her for her bold request for royal records. With a tone of disappointment, Secretary Jang orders her to follow him.
After spending all day drinking away his disbelief about being the secret royal investigator, Yi-kyum throws a drunken fit at the owner lady. She threatens to report him, and Yi-kyum warns her that she should know who he is. He ushers her closer and then says that his identity is a secret. Pfft. Before he causes more trouble, Choon-sam gathers him and carries him home.
On piggyback, Yi-kyum thanks Choon-sam for always providing for him, and Choon-sam expresses gratitude for a lifelong loyalty to his owner. Yi-kyum seems comforted by the loyalty and then shares that he’s been delegated the role of secret royal investigator.
Shocked by this news, Choon-sam drops Yi-kyum and smiles widely in excitement at his new status. Contradicting his previous statement about his loyalty, Choon-sam is ecstatic to be free from slavery and join the secret royal investigative unit. He says that Soon-ae would have been proud to hear this news, and Yi-kyum sobers up at the mention of Soo-ae. Before Yi-kyum can chase his now former servant down, they’re captured and dragged away.
Secretary Jang scolds Da-in for her dangerous search for royal records, and she responds that she wants to find the truth behind her parents’ deaths. As punishment and for her safety, Secretary Jang assigns her to the secret royal investigative unit and says that she is an essential part of the unit. In return, she asks for information on the Seonjeonkwan official she’s searching for.
Blinded by the hood on their heads, captured Yi-kyum and Choon-sam scope out their environment. Yi-kyum guides crybaby Choon-sam to get up and gradually feel their way to the door. They manage to escape the storage room and yell into the void about being secret royal investigators.
Turns out, they’re captured in Secretary Jang’s home, and Da-in witnesses this commotion on her way out. Secretary Jang assures her that these two are not part of the secret royal investigative unit and sees her out. As Da-in leaves, someone follows her to the gisaeng house.
Secretary Jang chastises Yi-kyum for publicly announcing his royal investigator title and putting the king’s life at risk. Yi-kyum apologizes for his critical mistake, and loyal Choon-sam offers to receive the punishment in his owner’s place. Secretary Jang considers this a firm warning and informs them that another member will be joining them for their departure tomorrow morning.
The follower observes Da-in entering the gisaeng house and reports this to Prime Minister Kim. Convinced that Da-in is Secretary Jang’s spy, Prime Minister Kim orders her capture the next morning.
The prime minister’s son barges into the gisaeng house the next morning and demands for all the gisaengs to be dragged out. He notices a suspicious person, cross-dressed Da-in, rushing out the back door, and he follows her. When approached, Da-in denies any knowledge of the gisaeng they’re looking for, but he immediately identifies her. Da-in pokes him in the eyes and escapes.
At the palace, Yi-kyum receives the secret royal investigator badge and the written mission. He’s also informed that someone will be waiting for him at the gate, a companion named Hong Da-in. When Yi-kyum and Choon-sam reach the gate, Da-in is nowhere in sight. She’s under pursuit by the prime minister’s men, and she arrives late to meet Yi-kyum.
Out of breath, Da-in introduces herself and immediately recognizes Yi-kyum. After a moment, Yi-kyum recognizes Da-in from the gisaeng house, and they’re both astonished by their unexpected partnership. But they barely have any time to process their shock, with the prime minister’s men running straight toward them.
This was a fun and delightful watch, a welcome break from the heaviness of some of the other shows I’ve been watching lately. Plot-wise and tonally, the show fits right into the mystery comedy sageuk genre, and I think we’ll get a show that’s reliably humorous and cute. Even with the general levity, the show still feels grounded in a grander mission of serving the king, and the individual mysteries — the death of Da-in’s parents and Yi-kyum’s turn to trivial habits — provides purpose to the entertainment.
I’m a fan of Lee Yi-kyung and Kwon Nara, and their acting here is fun to watch. They’re both playing characters that accentuate their strengths, and I like Kwon Nara’s Da-in a lot. While the focus on her radiating beauty is a bit overdone, I like that her visual appearance is her least interesting trait. Da-in is a self-sufficient and intelligent character, and she has a personal mystery that builds an interesting backstory. I also like Yi-kyum and his cheekiness, but Da-in wins as the better and better-acted character. Yi-kyum’s unwarranted haughtiness is a fun twist to the hero paradigm, but the character outshines the actor. Unlike the other two in the investigative trio, I can tell that L is acting, or at least trying. It’s not terrible, just noticeable relative to his acting partners. I’m sure he’ll warm up to the role and step up his game, but he’s clearly the weakest link here.
The show feels relatively low stakes, and I will likely tune in for a few more episodes to suss out the story and the chemistry of this investigative trio. With a straightforward plot, the actors will carry the show, and I’m hopeful that the weakest link won’t determine the collective the entertainment value. I think the show has all the right pieces for an enjoyable watch and a good chuckle, so I’m willing to bet a few beans in the drama gamble. Please be good!
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