Alchemy of Souls: Episode 2
Tensions are running high in this jam-packed episode of Alchemy of Souls. Our male lead is determined to persuade the bloodthirsty assassin he hero-worships to take him on as pupil, whilst our heroine fights the urge to stab everybody and leave. Both are struggling with the physical and magical limitations placed on them, but maybe they’re in a position to help each other – provided they can survive each other’s schemes for long enough.
EPISODE 2 WEECAP
We open in flashback-land! Turns out the mage from last episode was, indeed, Wook’s father, JANG GANG. Emerging from his wife’s deathbed with their newborn son, he’s tormented by the thought that it was the king who fathered his child.
So, he does the only reasonable thing: storms out to the courtyard in full view of all his mage buddies, and performs a ritual to permanently block the baby’s energy gate, and thus his magic. Y’know, as you do.
As an adolescent, Wook tearfully swears he’ll find a master to change his fate. Then, he’ll take his father’s sword – a cruel reminder of the power he cannot wield – and break it in two. Holy generational trauma, people.
Back in the present, things are only marginally less dysfunctional. In the aftermath of the attack on Songrim, Wook’s deadset on persuading Mu-deok to be his master. Mu-deok’s equally intent on stabbing him and making a break for it. Still, they’re forced to stick together as everyone at Songrim is ordered to gather at the training center. The attackers, a grim-faced Jin announces, allies of the soul-shifting assassin Naksu, broke into Songrim via a spy on the inside.
To draw them out, he’s enlisted the aid of noble scion JIN CHO-YEON (Arin), who has brought a family heirloom. This deceptively fragile jar contains Gwigu, a ferocious dog spirit. Apparently, soul-shifting leaves a gap between soul and body, through which evil energy emerges, and thus Gwigu can sniff out those who would otherwise go unnoticed. Mu-deok, the soul-shifter currently going unnoticed, is understandably fearful.
Things get tense as Gwigu inches ever closer to our heroine, who tells Wook to feign ignorance if she’s caught — not, she adds, out of loyalty, but because it’s her duty. However, Wook steps valiantly before Mu-deok to shield her from its gaze. It’s pretty big of him, considering how many times she’s threatened to kill him this evening.
Luckily, Gwigu launches itself at a plain-looking man behind Mu-deok: turns out, he’s the spy! It’s grim watching him steadily turn to stone and be cut down by Songrim’s fighters; for Mu-deok, it’s a reminder of her probable fate.
The four young heirs from Daeho’s noble families — known as the “four seasons” — gather post-attack, but the meeting has all the awkward energy of a bad high school reunion. Turns out Cho-yeon is Wook’s ex-fiancee, and things get snide as they trade jibes about Wook’s latest training fiasco.
As for Mu-deok — for the umpteenth time, the poor woman tries and fails to leg it. Wook stops her, determined to convince her to be his master, even as he ends up at the business end of her trademark death glare. Somewhere along the way, they get sidetracked gazing into one another’s eyes (okay, fine, it’s to check whether or not Mu-deok’s tell-tale blue irises are visible), but this cute interlude is drawn to an abrupt halt as Gwigu reappears. It’s out for blood — specifically, Mu-deok’s.
Our assassin does what she does best: nopes out and flees. Meanwhile, Wook proves himself a hero by unflinchingly facing the worst monster of all: the ridicule of his peers.
In the training room, Wook’s ex-fiancee and her entire entourage watch in horror as Wook stands shameless amongst the shards of the Gwigu pot, which he’s “accidentally” dropped. Meanwhile, Mu-deok looks up in relief from where Gwigu, almost certainly about to kill her, has now disappeared.
The situation may be farcical, but Wook’s punishment is very real. After an excruciating public dressing-down from Jin, he’s ordered to sit and repent in the courtyard, unmoving and unspeaking. This is more severe than it sounds. Once, subjected to similar punishment, Wook nearly died from chill, as his energy gate is barely open enough to protect him from the elements. Learning this gives Mu-deok pause — she’s no stranger to bodies and their limitations.
So, she gives him all a hardened murderer is capable of giving to the first person who ever meant her help, not harm: a promise not to kill him. And, a farewell. Having stolen his spirit plaque for safe passage, she plans to disappear. Wook can only watch in devastated silence as the person on whom he’d pinned his hopes bows and departs.
What follows for Mu-deok is a mixture of horrible consequences and frightening good fortune. Armed with the plaque, she returns to the gisaeng house, intending to sell it, but she’s overheard by an acquisitive eavesdropper, who steals the piece for herself.
We move to the shady organization to which Mu-deok belonged as Naksu. A cloaked leader addresses his followers, promising soul-swapped bodies to all who sacrifice themselves for him. As he leaves, it’s revealed he is JIN MU (Jo Jae-yoon), assistant Gwanju to the new king (a title seemingly tantamount to Second Head Mage). His archers stand outside, and proceed to massacre the mooks within.
The purpose of this becomes clear when word spreads that Jin Mu has brought the bodies of Naksu’s accomplices to the palace, sparing no one for interrogation. Jin is in a political pickle; Songrim’s reputation has never looked shakier, with a broken barrier and a shattered Jin heirloom as black marks on their record. Mu, conversely, is up for promotion to replace the current Gwanju (Jang Gang) — poor Wook being an nonviable successor, owing to his magical inability.
All that’s left for Mu is to tie up the loose ends. Namely, Naksu. Mu-deok, still desperate to reunite with her organization, survives the assassin he sends to silence her only by chance: the gisaeng who stole the spirit plaque is mistaken for Naksu, and is summarily dispatched. Shaken by this betrayal, Mu-deok returns to the city… to witness her old body burn. Naksu has been publicly cremated.
As if the dread of watching yourself incinerated wasn’t enough, it brings up heavy memories for Mu-deok. As a child, she watched her whole family die in a fire, after which a mysterious stranger offered her the opportunity for power if she came with him. Now, over the flames consuming the promise of all those years’ training, Mu-deok meets the eyes of Wook.
He’s been busy. Leveraging his influence as son of the Gwanju, he has recovered Naksu’s sword, hoping that it’ll restore her body’s power. However, Mu-deok’s triumph is short lived: although the sword recognizes its owner, her new, fun-sized muscles are insufficient to unsheathe it.
Cue the utter horror of both. Wook puts it blisteringly: they’re both useless. He must resign himself to his powerlessness, and she, to an ordinary life as Mu-deok. To this, Mu-deok responds that she’d rather die.
Wook’s reply is scathing, but she proves sincere. At the ledge above Lake Gyeongcheondaeho where her organization drops its dead soul-shifters, she steels herself — and jumps.
Naturally, this is not where it ends. The surge of energy the lake provides is enough to allow Mu-deok to unsheathe her sword and temporarily regain what was lost. Trouble is, it doesn’t stick. As she explains to an anguished Wook – who has rushed to find her after realizing the impact of his words – she needs a powerful mage to release the energy within her.
Far from being useless, it looks like our heroes can help each other. But, not without a characteristically wild gambit from Mu-deok. At Sejukwon infirmary, Wook mourns that all he can offer her are some eye drops to conceal her blue irises. That’s not true, she replies. I want you to be my Lake Gyeongcheondaeho. Also, I’ve poisoned your tea, and this is going to hurt.
It’s a desperate gamble that ties her fate irrevocably to his, but if he survives, she promises to be his master. As Wook quietly asphyxiates, Mu-deok explains to the harried leaders of Songrim and Sejukwon that he will die in six hours. The only way to save him is to open up his energy gate and expel the poison.
At first, it looks like this death-defying scheme will end in, well, death, making this the shortest-lived Hong sisters drama ever written. However, even as Mu-deok is being tortured for information, HEO YEOM (Lee Do-kyung), head of Sejukwon, can’t bear to see Wook die, and performs the ritual to unlock his energy gate.
The episode ends on a gorgeous high note. As a recovered Wook cradles Mu-deok, half-unconscious from torture, in his arms, she calls him pupil — and he too addresses her by her proper title. The one who almost got them both killed. His crazy master. All the while, my heart pretty much explodes with the force of a thousand feelings.
Alchemy of Souls has been barreling through the action, and I’m largely loving it. This show’s frenetic ambition is its strength, and I adore spending time in its intricate fantasy world. Admittedly, at points, important emotional beats – notably, Mu-deok’s despair on being unable to unsheathe her sword – are sped-run less convincingly. I’m also sad that the original Mu-deok, whose soul was unceremoniously shunted aside, remains unmourned by the narrative. That said, this drama is finding its feet, and the pitch-perfect acting and off-the-charts chemistry between our two leads propels it forward beautifully.
What I love about Wook is that his arrogance never tips into dismissal where Mu-deok is concerned; he’ll hold his own, but his respect for her is ironclad. As for Mu-deok… well, what’s not to love? From her quizzical head tilts to her utter inability to be normal about eating chicken, she is captivating. I’m hopelessly invested in this couple. Normally, I’m unmoved by the falling-unconscious-on-your-love-interest’s-shoulder trope. This time? I got chills. Even after only two episodes, it felt earned. So, bring on Episode 3!