Red Heart: Episodes 11-12
Driven to the brink of desperation, the queen dowager commences an insatiable quest for power. While our other players scramble to counter her moves, the seeds of a previously sown plot may already be starting to show their first leaves.
EPISODES 11-12 WEECAP
Resuming from where we left off last week, the queen dowager threatens Gye-won that if he tries to kick her out of the palace again, what will burn next won’t be a mere palanquin, but her.
Elsewhere in the palace, Minister Jo pleads for mercy from Jung, on behalf of his wayward daughter. In the face of Jung’s unsympathetic responses, however, he ultimately reveals that the true mastermind was the queen dowager.
Tae isn’t privy to this information, but he’s determined to uncover the truth himself. Recognizing that Yeon-hee had a part to play in the scheme, regardless of how large or small her role was, Tae seeks her out — and delivers a cold warning that any attempt to harm Jung will be considered treason.
Jung is adamant on revealing the queen dowager’s attempt on her life, and pursuing the appropriate punishment as recompense for her harrowing ordeal. She isn’t mollified by Gye-won’s attempts to reason with her, until he reveals his plan to retire to the countryside, far away from the internal court. In exchange, he urges her to bury this incident.
Jung instead pays the queen dowager a visit under the guise of reassuring her that she won’t escalate the issue, since Gye-won’s chosen to shoulder the repercussions in her stead. That’s news to the queen dowager, who’s shaken by the revelation.
She requests for Gye-won to delay his resignation by three days, so she can collect her thoughts — but it’s actually because the prophetic monk told her that her wish will be fulfilled in three days, and she’s banking on it as her last hope.
Tae leaves the palace for the rain-calling ceremony, and miraculously, it rains. Joy erupts all around, but elsewhere the monk is feverishly chanting, and then all of a sudden Tae coughs up blood and keels over.
A physician’s examination reveals severe damage to Tae’s spleen and stomach, which points to the ingestion of poison. Tae shows no signs of waking up, and it dawns on Gye-won that if the king passes away with no heir, the person that has the power to select the next successor is none other than the queen dowager.
She takes it one step further, however, and announces that she will be taking over as regent until Tae wakes up. Her declaration is met with controversy and murmurs of treason, since Tae is incapacitated but still alive.
The ministers protest by gathering at Tae’s quarters instead of the court, and Gye-won urges the queen dowager to stop before it’s too late. Instead, she counters that she’s discovered a newfound purpose — she will tear down the Joseon that Gye-won worked so hard to build.
Pained tears in his eyes, Gye-won reminds her that she knows better than anyone how much of his life he’s poured into this country. He vows to depose her if she chooses to pose a threat to the foundation of Joseon, making clear his choice of the country over her.
Phew, Tae begins to show signs of stirring, though for the sake of his safety Jung chooses to keep it under wraps for now. To avoid any assassination attempts by the queen dowager, Jung decides to escort Tae out of the palace. The queen dowager is surprisingly amenable to the idea — turns out the monk advised her to move Tae out, so that his death won’t cause bad luck to befall the palace.
Astute as always, Gye-won points out that the queen dowager’s easy agreement indicates laxer security outside the palace. He offers the protection of his servants and the royal stamps, and Jung accepts.
I find it so interesting how the tables have turned; at the beginning of this drama, I’d expected Gye-won and Jung to constantly be on opposing ends of the chess board. Yet now they’ve teamed up against a common enemy, one that threatens what they both hold dear — to one, it’s her beloved man, and to the other, it’s his beloved country.
Gye-won’s abandonment pushes the queen dowager over the edge of the precipice she’s been precariously teetering on, and she spirals even further in her quest to consolidate power. Not only does she coerce the chief scholar to rescind the appeal against her regency by threatening to kill his son right before his eyes, but she also incites Yeon-hee to seize this opportunity and get rid of Jung.
That involves a made-up letter accusing Jung of assuming a false identity, which gives the queen dowager the justification to bar Jung from leaving the palace. Yeon-hee then has Ddong-geum captured, threatening to torture and kill her if she doesn’t confess to penning that letter. Staunchly loyal Ddong-geum refuses to betray Jung, and the next we see her she’s been beaten bloody (but still barely alive).
Gye-won proves his acuity yet again when he recognizes that there must be someone orchestrating this whole scheme behind the queen dowager. He tracks down the monk’s father, who reveals that the son he sold off to gamblers was taken by an unknown man with a large scar on his hand.
That can only point to one man, and it’s Tae’s trusted eunuch, who’s in the midst of saving the monk from assassins. He makes quick work of the attackers, then offers a hand to help the monk up, calling him Si-wol — the hidden card Tae has been talking about.
With his plan unfolding just as he intended, Tae opens his eyes, fully conscious and cognizant.
Yet again, Tae is ahead of the game, and it really goes to show how arduously he’s been preparing and waiting for the right moment to strike. He’s successfully turned Gye-won and the queen dowager against each other, and he now has sufficient justification to oust his opponents on the grounds of treason.
Just as his mother once did, Tae faked a poisoning to reclaim power. I find the parallel quite poignant, as well as how both diverge — the late queen’s actions were born out of desperation, whereas Tae’s strategy is calculated and controlled.
The same can’t be said for the queen dowager, whose descent into the exact tyranny that Gye-won despises was quite painful to watch. She’s been so mired in her hurt and abandonment that it’s turned into vindictive anger, and she’s now determined to rail against all the principles that Gye-won forsook her for.
It’s a tragedy in the making, and while I don’t condone her actions one bit, I do feel for her. She was used as a pawn and pushed into a lonely life, and while her current plight is of her own making, there’s something compellingly human about her simple longing for acknowledgement and love.