Alchemy of Souls: Episodes 11-12
Our heroes face their toughest challenge yet: defining what their relationship means to them. But, what’s a mage to do when his assassin master is intent on emotional self-sabotage? Meanwhile, there’s a corpse in Songrim, and it’s not going to investigate itself…
EPISODES 11-12 WEECAP
After the tenderest moment yet between our leads, the backlash is inevitable. Mu-deok recoils, urging Wook to forget about her “letter,” and how hard she would fight just to see him. She can’t exactly unsend it, though. And Wook, having learned how to read invisible writing, has gotten far too good at reading his master.
He steps close. Calls her name. To her horror, Mu-deok realizes she has fallen in love.
Frightened, she steers them back to safer metaphorical ground. It seems, she snaps, that Wook has been foolish enough to poison himself — and she is the only antidote. But, she doesn’t bank on Wook unashamedly listing his symptoms. From morning to night, he thinks about her constantly. He won’t let her make light of his feelings.
Fast on the heels of one confession comes another. Dang-gu discovers Yul’s bird whistle in Mu-deok’s bag, and — delightful meddler that he is — uses it to engineer a rendezvous. Meeting Mu-deok at their usual spot, a place I like to call the Bridge of Romantic Longing, Yul returns the keepsake. He’s already half-convinced that Mu-deok loves Wook, but it’s now or never. He calls her usual bluff, insisting that if she really is in love with him, she ought to try harder to make him believe it.
It’s a bold move. Mu-deok dives in with an obligatory “I love you,” but Yul’s not playing around. If she truly were in love, he says, she’d struggle to say it even once. I like you. That’s what he should have told the girl he gave the whistle. As Mu-deok processes this, he tells her that if she ever needs help, she knows where to find him. It’s one heck of a mic drop.
Meanwhile, Wook, despite his much-vaunted Mu-deok-deciphering skills, has made a translation error. Thanks to Dang-gu spilling to beans about the bird whistle, he’s convinced that his own love is unrequited. In ever-relatable Wook fashion, he drowns his sorrows in angry naps and unproductivity — much to Mu-deok’s distaste. Even fluttering her eyelashes at him — revealing a hitherto-undiscovered talent for aegyo — does nothing besides embarrass them both. Wook storms back home, taking refuge in his one true love: the bathtub.
Across town, Jin visits Ho-gyeong, concerned by her growing intimacy with Mu. Talk turns to Bu-yeon. Ho-gyeong reveals that she was pregnant for thirteen months before her daughter was born on a day the Gwanju pronounced blessed. A brief flashback tells a different story: the pregnant Ho-gyeong begged Jang Gang to save her baby’s life with the ice stone.
It’s this devotion that Mu is determined to exploit. Experienced Bu-yeon imitator, So-yi, is exactly the bait he requires. Trouble is, he needs her to prove she can play blind.
So-yi knows failure means death. Mu sends pottery shards whistling through the air to slice at her face — even pausing, terrifyingly, before her open eye. No reaction. Finally, he wheels around and swings his sword at her neck, slicing her hair to shoulder length. So-yi remains unmoved. Having survived the audition from hell, she’s cast as Jin Bu-yeon.
At Songrim, Mu-deok ponders what new peril she must engineer to snap Wook out of his funk. Inspiration comes in the form of Prince Won, sitting rakishly in a tree. He’s here to brag about his newfound laundry skills — turns out, rice paste is a great treatment for ink stains! — and grumble over Wook, whose poor swordsmanship remains a point of bitterness. Mu-deok, sensing opportunity, proposes a bet.
Ironically, Wook’s doing fine; after a loving pep talk from Do-joo, he’s fired up and raring to go. It’s therefore even more jarring when he walks into the Songrim training center only to be set upon by a man with a sword — and to be told he just lost his first duel. Mu-deok’s bet is devastating: if Wook fails to defeat at least one of ten mages, she’ll give Won her jade egg charm.
Wook doesn’t mind being flung into danger, but he draws the line at this cavalier treatment of his symbolic not-wedding-ring! The row that follows is their ugliest since Danhyanggok. Mu-deok insists that putting her most precious belonging — and their relationship — on the line was her only means of motivating him. Savagely, Wook says he regrets giving her the jade at all.
How the tables have turned since last week: while our heroes refuse to hear one another, Master Lee has finally found his voice with Do-joo. Scarf-clad and earnest, he surprises her with a bunch of flowers. The fact that Do-joo has a secret admirer is disturbing news for a jealous Jin, but good news for Daeho’s florists as he immediately buys up half their stock. Do-joo is left with extreme emotional whiplash, about sixty billion flowers, and still no apology for their fight.
Nearby, Dang-gu and Cho-yeon frolic amid the stalls. When Dang-gu confesses his love, it’s refreshingly simple: he’s just a boy, standing in front of a girl to whom he’s fake-engaged, asking her to get real-engaged. She accepts! It’s so cute it ought to be forbidden.
Trouble is, as heirs to their respective families, it sort of is — and when Jin, fresh from his ludicrous flower-amassing gambit, spots them holding hands, it’s game over for Daeho’s least complicated couple. Although Cho-yeon holds out hope for her sister’s reappearance, Dang-gu gets chased out of the room when he asks if Jin has a secret child stashed away who could inherit Songrim… so, he can only assume the answer is no.
Meanwhile, Mu oversees the small matter of building a cult. Cheonbugwan’s secret room hides a multitude of sins: Mu’s allies have achieved grim immortality via the alchemy of souls. One such follower, MASTER KANG (Kim Ik-tae), has brought his unsuspecting pupil (Jang Sung-bum) to Mu for precisely this purpose. The poor man is ripped from his own body into that of his dying master — all while So-yi watches, appalled. She must necessarily be complicit in this.
Misuse of the ice stone runs rampant throughout Daeho’s upper echelons; also complicit is Cho-yeon’s father, JIN WOO-TAK (Joo Seok-tae). The Danju’s influence only grows. Master Lee suspects that Wook, born under the King’s Star, is destined to fix this crisis.
Of course, currently, Wook’s struggling to win a single fight. Mu-deok’s scheme to help him learn from ten formidable magic users is paying dividends — but the eighth defeat is especially ignominious. Just when Wook thinks he’s got the upper hand, he’s flung unceremoniously into a pond, which is a pretty good metaphor for his life, when you think about it. As he stalks away, Mu-deok, who immediately waded into the water herself to help him — also a good metaphor — runs to fetch him a towel.
Arriving at Wook’s room, she finds Yun-ok waiting with snacks. Mu-deok immediately recognizes her as the “egret” Do-joo mentioned — Wook’s preferred suitor. Disheartened, she leaves to find Wook.
…Who, as it turns out, isn’t disheartened at all. In fact, he’s picked up a nifty magical trick from his latest fight! He was so immersed while practicing that he’s still in sopping wet battle gear. Mu-deok beams with pride. They share a prickly, intimate moment where she alternates between doling out stern combat advice and gently toweling him down.
As Wook turns to leave, Mu-deok remembers Yun-ok, and indulges in a moment of selfishness: she grabs him by the sleeve. Wook, though mystified, finds an excuse to stay; he sits her down and sponges the mud from her shoes, fondly lecturing her about working too hard. It’s enough to make your breath catch. There’s soft eye contact! There’s tender wound touching! All may not be entirely forgiven, but they’re well on their way. Meanwhile, poor Yun-ok is left sitting alone again, with nothing but more empty peanut shells to show for her patience.
Elsewhere, Won examines the yin jade. His master, Mu, has alerted him to the fact that it’s one of two, prompting some very enviously furrowed eyebrows. Experimentally, he tries flooding it with magic. It responds.
Pulsing softly to the beat of a heart, it leads him out onto the streets. Back in his room, Wook notices his yang jade glowing too. Rapt, both men follow the magical pull of the relics, which seem to be irresistibly leading them to… one another.
Not to be a killjoy, but I dislike the prevalence of jokes that hinge on how “hilarious” it would be if a romantic moment happened between two men. In any case, when Wook and Won come face to face on a bridge, hearts racing, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved.
Later, news hits Songrim: Master Kang has been assassinated by a group of mysterious assailants! Or, so the story goes. Actually, it’s an excuse to get his old body out of the way — and the apprentice who dwells within it. It’s not the first time Daeho’s family heads have nearly come to blows over a corpse, but this time Jin reacts quickly. He demands that the body be preserved for investigation. Alas, he’s overridden: Ho-gyeong sides with Mu, insisting on immediate cremation.
In the aftermath, Wook overhears an urgent conversation between Jin and Master Lee. Jin has put the pieces together: disposing of soul-shifted bodies must have been Naksu’s purpose. Mu, he suspects, lured her in with the prospect of vengeance for her father — then, when she’d outlived her usefulness, aimed her at Songrim in the hopes that they’d finish her off.
Wook wastes no time. He finds Mu-deok. When she asks after his wounds, he lifts his arms up for perusal — and hugs her. No judgement. Just love, and sympathy.
Teasingly, he tells her that he’s learned something fascinating about the yin-and-yang jade; he’ll show her when he wins hers back. Mu-deok, in a striking moment of vulnerability, asks if he intends to return it to her. He nods. As she adorably enthuses about the prospect of it being a lethal weapon, Wook grins — finally, they’re back to what passes for normal between them.
Jin attends Master Kang’s funeral armed with a scheme. He instructs Yul to examine the corpse for a soul mark, then perform the risky task of channeling his energy to make it run wild. This part proceeds without a hitch: the body is revealed to be completely petrified, much to the mourners’ horror.
Confronting the real Master Kang proves dicier. Jin orders Yul to take him in alive — while Mu, equally quick off the bat, commands that he be killed. In the end, Mu’s mooks succeed before Yul can intervene. The corpse, at least, is taken into Songrim’s custody. The only other casualty is Yul’s peace of mind — he’s tormented by the prospect of fighting a rogue Mu-deok one day.
At the palace, the soul-shifter inhabiting the body of EUNUCH KIM (Jung Ji-soon) approaches Ha-sun with — well, not so much a request as a demand. He’s running out of energy. He wants the ice stone to heal him, but he’ll settle for a new body. This is garnished with a hint of blackmail as he reminds the snarling Queen that he knows her true identity: Shaman Choi.
The next day, Jin receives two visitors, only one of whom is welcome: Do-joo and Mu. Does it count as third-wheeling when you’re only here to stare down your nemesis? Either way, it makes for an ultra tense tea party, especially when Do-joo breaks out her homemade honey biscuits. Jin point blank refuses to let Mu eat one. For Mu, it’s a galling reminder of the drudgery he faced working for the Gwanju. For Do-joo, it’s simply rude! Later she sends Mu-deok to Cheonbugwan with another box of biscuits. Wook opts to follow.
It’s a bad day for a field trip. Mu, incensed by Kim’s presumption — not to mention, furious on the Danju’s behalf, for being forcibly reminded of her humble beginnings as a dan’gol — has turned to his favorite solution: murder. Kim dodges a killing blow, fleeing semi-petrified.
Meanwhile, Wook, displaying characteristic sensitivity in all things Mu-deok, decides she’d appreciate a visit to the constellation-recording chamber in which her father used to work. Unfortunately, there’s little chance for nostalgia; they’re swiftly interrupted by a rampaging soul-shifter — followed by Mu himself.
Playing the bumbling student and his obsequious maid won’t work — they’ve seen too much. Mu hits Wook with a powerful spell, imprisoning him within a magical barrier that, to the captive, feels like a cliff overlooking a roiling sea.
Mu offers Kim a lifeline: he can drain Mu-deok to replenish his energy. Afterwards, Wook’s body is his for the taking.
Mu-deok puts up an admirable fight, but she lacks the strength to fend off a rampaging soul-shifter. As Kim bleeds her of life force, she begins to lose consciousness, murmuring Wook’s name. Wook, calling upon his master for strength, marshals his confidence and leaps free of the illusion…
… Only to realize that Mu-deok doesn’t need help at all. He finds her gripping Kim by the forehead, suffused with eerie light as she leeches his energy away.
Mu-deok falls back, anguished. Is she running wild? She begs for Wook to stay back in case she kills him, but Wook won’t abandon her. He pulls her into a determined hug.
As she is held, Mu-deok’s hand trails into the water basin where constellations are recorded. Tendrils of mysterious light ripple through the air.
If there’s one thing at which Alchemy of Souls excels, it’s in delivering the most emotionally devastating hugs. But, who am I kidding? You know how many things I reckon this show excels at. Here’s one: I love that nothing comes easy for our heroes. Mu-deok’s struggle with her new body is treated more respectfully than a plot gimmick; it affects her profoundly. Her journey involves finding new types of strength, and choosing to rely on someone other than herself. Meanwhile, Wook’s achievements invariably take effort: he’s smart, but he’s not a genius; he lags behind his peers, but he’s learning how tenacious he can be.
To me, this is the show’s defining theme. At the end of the day, it isn’t about being the world’s most powerful mage, or performing feats of incredible strength. It’s about doing your best when the deck’s stacked against you. Alchemy of Souls really gets what adult learning looks like! It’s messy. It’s frustrating. You’re going to spend the day in bed sometimes, taking angry naps and long, depressed baths — none of which invalidates the hard work. And learning how to be intimate with someone? To trust them with your life? That’s a minefield. Still, something tells me our leads will rise to the challenge.