Alchemy of Souls: Episodes 5-6
This week on Alchemy of Souls, our hero faces disillusionment and doubt — and his assassin mentor’s tough-love attitude might not be enough to pull him out of the doldrums. However, as backstories collide and jealousies abound, it’s not long before they’re both thrown back into the action.
EPISODES 5-6 WEECAP
We begin by revisiting the worst day of Mu-deok’s life. As a child, she hid whilst her village burned. Now, we learn why: her father, a constellation recorder of Songrim, seemingly went berserk, and was cut down remorselessly by the four families. Why, remains to be seen. One thing’s clear: the man who offered power to the grieving toddler was our villain, Jin Mu.
In the present, our heroes arrive at Danhyanggok, only to find that it’s not quite the desolate wasteland Mu-deok knows and mourns. There’s a wood cabin and a well-stocked campsite, allowing Wook to indulge in cottagecore fantasies, rhapsodizing over the bath, the food… the fact that Mu-deok clearly brought him here to live a cozy domestic life with lots of children. (Cue murderglare.)
Later, whilst they sleep — Wook chivalrously roughing it on the floor — they receive a guest. It’s the humbly-clad man from the last episode and Gwigu in its new doggy host, bent on dispatching the soul-shifter within. Looming over Mu-deok, the man summons a deadly spike of energy. Yet, he changes his tune upon learning a great soul inhabits this body, noting that by all rights, she should be petrified and running rampant. Something makes her special.
No time to dwell: behind him stands Wook, sword aloft, defending his master! He’s absurdly outmatched; the stranger leaves him battered and mud-streaked — just when the poor guy got the chance to bathe, too.
Back at the cabin, our heroine dreams. In a magical haze, she comes face to face with the original Mu-deok. In the morning, she discovers Wook and the hitherto-belligerent stranger cheerfully sharing breakfast. Turns out she’s lost time: last night, she interrupted their fight, but has no recollection of seeing either of them.
The stranger waves this off — too blithely — and introduces himself as MASTER LEE (Im Chul-soo), a traveling herbalist. Master Lee lives up to his title: as he casually uses his vast powers to dry laundry, it’s clear he commands all three magical arts.
Wook, suddenly aware he could have been killed, sips his tea in mild horror — to Lee’s alarm. You’d have thought past experience would have cured him of drinking suspicious concoctions, but alas, no: he’s accidentally downed a pot of libido-lowering potion. Honestly, that one’s on Wook. There’s purpose to this: Lee’s training involves absolute chastity, and he’s willing to teach Wook. Mu-deok’s glee falls on deaf ears; Wook will do anything for magical mastery, but he won’t do that.
In Cheonbugwan, Jin checks the records for a particular star chart: a fake, replacing the one cast on Wook’s birthday, concealing how he was born under the King’s Star. He’s interrupted by Mu, who’s here to gloat about Songrim taking responsibility for Wook’s duel. However, Jin has the upper hand; the infiltrator in Songrim worked as a constellation-recorder, and his mages wait outside to investigate.
This would be fine by Mu, if not for the mouldering corpse in Cheonbugwan’s secret room. An occupational hazard of employing soul-shifters. He smuggles it away in a carriage, but not without pursuit from Yul and Dang-gu, who arrive just in time to discover an empty coffin and a piece of planted evidence: Wook’s lost spirit plaque. Nothing for it; the two must interrogate Wook in Danhyanggok — where there’s trouble in paradise.
Wook’s having a great time fishing with his new buddy Master Lee. Mu-deok sees this for what it is: avoidance. Her solution leaves a little to be desired, being as it’s to go full murder-mode and brandish a chopping knife in his face, calling him useless. Wook’s having none of it. He’s happy with his life here. If she’s not, she can leave. With a single, parting insult – coward – she takes him at his word and exits.
Meanwhile, the Jin family approach Wook’s housekeeper with an unexpected proposal of marriage to Cho-yeon. The Jins have a ridiculously powerful plaque at their disposal, allowing them to countermand the King’s orders. Wook’s would-be in-laws could save him from the upcoming duel.
Mu-deok has other concerns: spreading rumors of Wook’s mastery of Ryusu to psyche out Won. She soon encounters trouble, as Mu’s henchmen attempt to abduct her. It’s only by throwing herself on the mercy of the passing Prince — who recognises her as “Filthy Mu-deok” — that she escapes. Later, as Mu-deok doles out insincere flattery, Won is amused. Charmed, even. Playfully, he plies her with cup after cup of the cinnamon wine she clearly hates.
Outside, there’s considerable kerfuffle about a corpse. Wook and Master Lee, having returned in search of Mu-deok, witness the body from Cheonbugwan washed ashore. Wook flees to avoid the authorities, but Master Lee has other methods: summoning a rainbow as distraction, he absconds with the body. Like a cat dropping a dead bird on its owner’s doorstep, he greets his former student, Yeom, with a wheelbarrow full of corpse.
Wook, meanwhile, bundles a drunk Mu-deok back to Danhyanggok. They arrive in time to greet Dang-gu and Yul — the latter of whom has vivid memories of frolicking there with Naksu. The difference between the ruthless assassin and the current disheveled Mu-deok couldn’t be greater, but as she drunkenly slumps into his arms, Yul can’t take his eyes off her.
The next morning, Wook finds a sober Mu-deok staring up at a huge tree. It’s the tree in the story she told Wook — the one where she’s a bird’s egg, protected by him. As Naksu, she could climb it. But, to stand at the top with no foothold, one must master Chisu. Wook, well aware of what he’s promising, says that whilst he’s an unmotivated pupil, he is at least willing to take her to the top of this tree. They trade looks. It’s not much, but it’s enough.
If Episode 5 stars Wook’s dwindling motivation, Episode 6 is all about relationships, and we begin with insight into Yul and Mu-deok’s. As children, Yul was smitten, whereas Naksu had a family feud to consider, rejecting him utterly once she learned he was a Seo. Now, they bicker over breakfast, until Yul offers his — inept — help with the cooking, resulting in a snappish lesson in vegetable-chopping from Mu-deok. The results are surprisingly edible, and Dang-gu is quick to comment on how nicely they’re getting on. Almost like teacher and student…
This ignites burning jealousy in Wook, who berates his master for cheating on him — by teaching another pupil, that is! His blustered declaration that Mu-deok must be with – that is, uh, teach – only him is met with squinty-eyed disdain, although not outright rejection. Still, Wook’s patience is stretched to its limit when Yul, recalling Naksu’s fondness for the tallest tree in Danhyanggok, offers to help Mu-deok climb it. That’s their thing! Mu-deok wisely refuses; Wook can’t control his grin.
When Wook’s friends leave, his training begins. Mu-deok prioritizes survival: the only spell that’ll help him stand a chance against Won is Tansu: the ability to flick a water droplet with a blade as it explodes into energy. However, Mu-deok’s abrasive pedagogical methods (she mostly trains by way of insults) fail to inspire her insecurity-prone pupil. Plus, she’s distracted. She contemplates throwing Yul’s bird whistle into the fire. Doesn’t.
As for Wook, he’s struggling to the point of exhaustion with his uncontrollable arm. There’s a nerve-wracking near miss when he accidentally lashes out at Mu-deok, sword outstretched. Like Jin last time, she stands stock still; unlike last time, he diverts the blow. But the work’s taking its toll. Wook’s arm is red and infected from forcing his energy, and the rot could kill him.
Mu-deok tends to his injury, but Wook’s bitter — his master, he decides, doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. (Then again, would it really be Alchemy of Souls if Mu-deok didn’t put our hero in mortal peril once per episode?) The tension that’s been simmering boils over. Turns out what’s really bugging Wook is how he nearly hurt Mu-deok in training.
Flustered, Mu-deok protests he wasn’t fast enough to do damage. As rebuttal, Wook flicks her on the forehead. Her murderglare is back in full force when she grabs him by the lapel, and the atmosphere is beautifully charged as Wook — clearly no longer affected by the chastity tea — points out there are things he could teach her, too. His suave act falters when Mu-deok steps close, backing him into a chair. She leans in, suggestively… only to jab him in both eyes. This sort of thing is practically their love language.
Speaking of love, Cho-yeon’s preparing for a wedding, and it’s hard to say what delights her more: marrying Wook, or finally getting her mother to talk about something other than Cho-yeon’s missing sister. She’s permitted to take a yin-yang jade artifact from the seemingly limitless Jin family horde and use it to forge rings. However, as she carries it, a figurine magically moves, tripping her — and breaking the jade sphere. It’s unclear what caused this, but my money’s on the creepy mirror in the corner.
When the bridegroom hears the news of his own engagement from Master Lee, he’s understandably bemused. Mu-deok is outright hostile. As they head to the city, she issues an ultimatum: marry Cho-yeon, and she’s out. For now, she’ll wait for him at Chwiseonru.
There’s never a dull moment for Mu-deok: no sooner than she arrives, she’s unwillingly escorted to the palace. To compound matters, she’s mistaken for a gisaeng, and trussed up in finery to the point of unrecognizability. Won’s reason for summoning her, however, isn’t frivolous: he needs her to persuade Wook, whom he has no intention of killing, to marry Cho-yeon and use the Jin family’s power to call off the duel. Mu-deok’s too depressed by the prospect of Wook’s abandonment to engage in their usual repartee. Taking pity, Won offers her employment. Loyal to the last, Filthy Mu-deok refuses.
Wook is no less loyal. Despite Do-joo’s insistence, he’s determined not to marry. Why? Well, you see, there’s this girl who’s like a bird’s egg in a tree… Do-joo’s skepticism is drowned out by my delighted squeal.
Stumbling outside in her ungainly dress, Mu-deok’s accosted by Cho-yeon, who’s found a convenient target to blame for the broken jade. Having heard rumors of Wook’s beloved maid, she’s bent on implicating her rival. Although Mu-deok quickly susses out her ploy, she’s keen to avoid a suspicious Kil-joo lurking in the street, and follows meekly.
The next we hear of Mu-deok is a summons to Wook from the Jins. Apparently, his maid has escaped with the yin-yang jade. Of course, that’s not quite true. In Jinyowon, Mu-deok stands before the mirror, watching her own face smirk back at her. Incurably curious, she steps forward to touch… only to disappear beneath its surface.
This ending screams “HEAVY PLOT AHEAD!” and I’m excited. However, I love that these episodes dwell on the deepening character bonds. Although I’m firmly wedded to our OTP, Yul and Mu-deok’s relationship sheds complex light on Naksu’s backstory. Plus, I’m a sucker for her chemistry with Prince Won, whose expression of a man perpetually in the process of having his day ruined delights me. As for Cho-yeon, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but I adore her girly-girl pertness and endearingly selfish ways. Very much rooting for Dang-gu’s hopeless infatuation; I’m hopelessly infatuated right along with him.
Of course, my first love remains Mu-deok, and her wonderful plethora of expressions: some murderous, some vulnerable, most downright hilarious. As for Wook, his reluctant-hero shtick is catnip to me – he’s hopelessly relatable, although to catch all the nuances of his plunge into insecurity, these episodes benefit from a rewatch. Alchemy of Souls has one major problem, and it’s not a bad one to have: no matter how compelling its supporting cast, the best scenes will always be where our leads are together, doing the blisteringly hot thing where they bicker and test one another. I’m looking forward to seeing where we’re going, but most of all, I look forward to Wook and Mu-deok’s reunion.