Under the Queen’s Umbrella: Episodes 5-6
With the Crown Prince deathly ill, there’s nowhere to hide: our heroine must face the consequences before the King. But, her fears are steadily coming true, as a succession crisis looms, and the consorts and court officials begin scheming in double time.
EPISODES 5-6 WEECAP
With the Crown Prince choking on blood, subtlety takes a swan dive. The King’s face is a stone wall as he promises punishment for those who hid his son’s illness — including his queen. Hwa-ryeong is torn from her dying son’s side. Confined to her room, she is forced to transcribe scholarly texts in penance — a task to which she applies herself with haste, furiously scribbling through the night in the hopes of seeing her son again. Elsewhere, news of the Crown Prince’s ailment tears its way through the palace. No one knows anything for definite. His siblings are barred from his side. All his desperate mother can glean is that he is conscious — barely.
Through the wall, Hwa-ryeong and Seongnam whisper. Has the Crown Prince coughed up blood before? No. Reason might suggest it was the illicit herbs Seongnam brought him that prompted the reaction. Still, Hwa-ryeong is certain this can’t be the case: her son was recovering until recently. One thing’s for sure — this is one secret that could spell their death. ROYAL PHYSICIAN KWON (Kim Jae-bum), who administered the medicine, is holding up admirably under both knifepoint and the Dowager Queen’s steely glare. Nonetheless, hiding information in the palace is like trying to juggle water. Sooner or later, something is bound to spill.
Seongnam, unsatisfied with his mother’s assurances, steals his way back to Seochon. Here, his sword meets Master Toji’s throat. He demands the truth: was the medicine tampered with? Master Toji recovers uncannily fast from learning that his patient was the heir to the throne. However, despite some cryptic muttering — what goes around comes around hardly strikes one as a patriotic sentiment — he insists the herbs were harmless.
If Master Toji is on level, then something else poisoned the Crown Prince. There’s only one solution: Hwa-ryeong must mobilize. Luckily, she’s a shrewder political operator than her enemies realize. Using her vast network of palace allies, she ensures that the Crown Prince remains under constant watch. However, passively waiting for news is hardly her style. The situation demands audacity. And what could be a bolder move than walking straight out of the palace? Shedding her finery and bowing her head, she emerges from confinement disguised as a court lady.
Elsewhere, the court officials converge like vultures before carrion. With the Crown Prince deathly ill, many are clamoring for his deposition, followed by a taekhyeon: that is, a test of merit among the princes to determine who deserves the throne. It’s the method by which the current king ascended. Won-hyeong, the Chief State Councilor, sounds out the Minister of War, YOON SOO-GWANG (Jang Hyun-sung), on his thoughts regarding the Crown Prince. Deposition, yea or nay? In the hopes of swaying him to “yea,” he’ll dangle a juicy piece of bait: whoever takes over as Crown Prince will marry the minister’s daughter. At this suggestion, Soo-gwang is like putty in his hands. After all, his daughter, the incorrigible YOON CHEONG-HA is, by all accounts, a matchmaker’s worst nightmare.
She’s also a delightful trouble magnet. Outside the palace, Cheong-ha glimpses Hwa-ryeong sneaking to a meeting. Luckily, she takes her for a noble lady in pursuit of her lover, and is far too gleeful at the prospect to question it. Little does she know, it’s sadder and more urgent: Hwa-ryeong’s secret rendezvous is with the deposed Queen Yoon. If she was expecting sympathy, she’s sorely disappointed; Queen Yoon betrays nothing but grim satisfaction at the thought of the Crown Prince dying. What is it, if not retribution for her own dead children?
It’s mighty suspicious, opines Hwa-ryeong. Divine retribution rarely looks like a poisoning plot. Queen Yoon reluctantly agrees: in exchange for a future favor, she’ll spill all. The Crown Prince’s illness is a similar story to Prince Taein’s death, but not identical. Prince Taein never coughed up blood clots. Instead, he had unexplained wounds on his body. As for the culprit? She confessed to Queen Yoon’s face. The Dowager Queen killed her son — safe in the knowledge that no one could prove it.
Now, just as they did a generation ago, the court officials sit in the traditional posture of all bureaucrats with a bone to pick: kneeling in neat, implacable rows, chanting in dolorous unison. They demand that the Crown Prince be deposed. That a taekhyeon be held to determine his replacement. The King, silent on his throne, in a room devoid of the politicians who put him there, ponders his next move. Here, the Dowager Queen finds him. She urges him to be decisive. He cannot let an ill child sway him.
In the end, someone else is decisive in his stead. Hwa-ryeong comes power-walking through the courtyard in a blaze of glorious fury. With all the righteous indignation of a stateswoman royally peeved, she proceeds to tear every official to rhetorical shreds. The Crown Prince has done nothing wrong, she declares. If there is fault, it lies with them, for failing to protect him. As for the Chief State Councilor? She’ll tell him where he can stick his taekhyeon. Her husband, emerging from his kingly sulk, arrives in time to back her up: her words, he declares, are his.
Before things can go further, however, they’re interrupted by a messenger. The Crown Prince is asking for Hwa-ryeong. Back when he was first sick, he asked her to be strong — to protect those he loved, and know he’d be with her, even as he became the wind. It had broken her heart. She had refused to promise. Not yet; not when it meant accepting his death. Now, when Hwa-ryeong rushes to his bedside to cradle his face one last time, her son is already gone. It’s too late to promise. But she promises anyway.
Hardly has the Crown Prince’s body cooled before the court officials clamor for a taekhyeon. None could be smugger than the Dowager Queen, who listens to her grandchildren (sans, of course, the Grand Princes) spout scholarly principles with pride. Meanwhile, an ugly rumor breaks out across the palace: the Crown Prince was poisoned by his own mother. The King, however, is unswayed; he has newfound faith in his wife. Both mourn together, without blame.
Still, their positions are not equal. Although the King may lock himself up in his grief, refusing to talk of an heir, Hwa-ryeong does not have the luxury of silence. The time has come, she tells her children. They cannot — here, she grips Gyeseong’s hand — continue to live as they did before. One of them must triumph at the taekhyeon. However, her greatest hope, Seongnam, is the most wounded. Crushed by his brother’s death, he contemplates running away. His brother risked everything to bring him to the palace. What’s the point now he’s gone? But he’ll never return to those days in Seochon, where he and the Crown Prince were happy together.
The poisoning rumors are serious as a death sentence for the Crown Princess, MIN HWI-BIN (Han Dong-hee). Call it paranoia, or simply prescience — either way, she’s convinced that her son, WON SON (Seo Woo-jin), is in danger. She seeks sanctuary with her mother-in-law, fleeing to her rooms, where Hwa-ryeong keeps a protective eye on both grandchildren. Meanwhile, her children risk life and limb — well, okay, momentary discomfort — in taekhyeon preparation, as they are subjected to terrifying things like ice baths and academic conversation. Hwa-ryeong and Court Lady Shin exchange amused glances: the children are closer than ever.
Others sense opportunity. The Chief State Councilor takes malicious joy in subjecting Physician Kwon to interrogation — an especially brutal move, considering the poor guy’s been stabbed once already and kept shtum. However, he bites off more than he can chew when he tries to imprison Court Lady Shin. Incandescent with rage, Hwa-ryeong bares her teeth at her tormentor. If he wants information, he can question her personally. She’d just love to see him try.
To nobody’s surprise more than the Won-hyeong’s, it is Consort Hwang who puts an end to his pleasant little power trip. Turns out, Team Treason isn’t quite the unified front they’d like to be; Consort Hwang is something of a loose cannon. She begs Won-hyeong to put an end to his investigation, confessing that she was the one to poison the Crown Prince. But, look, it was only a small poisoning! She hadn’t intended to kill him! Moreover, she had an impressively torture-resistant accomplice. You got it: Physician Kwon.
With all these schemes afoot, it’s little wonder that some are feeling left behind. Consort Tae is increasingly miffed that no one seems to think her son could hack it as an heir. It takes the worldly SPECIAL COURT LADY PARK (Lee So-hee) and a few teacups as visual aids to explain that without noble backing, Bogum’s chances are slim. As a former maid without a machiavellian bone in her body, Consort Tae can’t afford to go toe to toe with the likes of Consort Hwang. But oh, if only she could! Then, maybe her son will forgive her for her humble origins.
Good thing she’s got a secret weapon. Yesterday, she overheard the fact that Hwa-ryeong gave the Crown Prince medicine from outside the palace. Armed with this nugget of information — and some perhaps overly ambitious advice from Special Court Lady Park — she orchestrates a tete-a-tete with the Minister of War. She’ll give him proof of the queen’s misdeeds… but only if he lends Bogum his support.
Meanwhile, the Chief State Councilor is still partaking in the most popular court pastime — i.e. rampant scheming — only a little more subtly, and with a lot more violence. To wit: he lines up all the witnesses to Physician Kwon’s treatment of the Crown Prince, immediately stabs one… and coaches the others on what to say. This done, he initiates a public trial. The Crown Prince was treated with medicine of dubious origins. This, his (trembling) witnesses can attest. The question is, who gave Physician Kwon the order?
Hwa-ryeong is flawlessly scathing. She had no motive to kill her son. She can’t say the same for the Chief State Councilor. But yes, her son was poisoned — exactly like Prince Taein before him.
After the trial, incensed, the Dowager Queen rounds on Hwa-ryeong. How dare she dredge up the past like this? But oh, Hwa-ryeong dares. Right here, right now, she’s no longer afraid of her murderous mother-in-law. For the second time, Hwa-ryeong all but snarls as they get right up in each other’s faces — but the Dowager Queen gets the last word. She has an unexpected weapon in her arsenal of political blackmail: she knows Hwa-ryeong has been meeting with Queen Yoon. She won’t hesitate to destroy her.
Back in her rooms, Hwa-ryeong pastes on a smile and tries to coax her grandson into eating. However, it doesn’t take long for things to strain and crack. Hwa-ryeong sifts through the little Grand Heir’s drawings — only to pause at one. It’s of him and his nursemaid. Apparently, they’re playing their “secret game.”
Secret game? Hwa-ryeong squints at the picture. One adult figure is holding a needle to the smaller figure’s leg. Sure enough — Son has a series of pockmark scars on his thigh. Shrieking in horror, Hwa-ryeong springs to action, shaking the child and commanding him to spit out the food that he has long since swallowed. Behind them, the silver spoon blackens — a sure sign of poison.
How the plot thickens, folks! With scheme upon scheme no matter which way you turn, this is some high-quality palace plotting, and I am here for it. Kim Hye-soo is a hurricane in human form: I was blown away more times than I can count. Although I adore it when Hwa-ryeong throws her authority, what truly sticks out for me are those moments of tenderness with her children — whether she’s fiercely shielding them from oncoming danger, or lovingly subjecting them to horrible baths. Political power, maternal love, and agency are all bound up in one with this character — never once do the writers suggest there’s any contradiction between her identity as mother and her indomitable will as a stateswoman. Neither overshadows the other, and nor do the two clash. It’s incredibly refreshing to see.
Another thing I enjoy about this drama is how it’s steadily exploring each female character as a political actor, with genuine strengths and weaknesses. Hwa-ryeong is brave, whip-smart, and capable, but she underestimates the duplicity of others — it strikes me that she’s still in shock, having realized how much danger she’s in. She never saw it coming. She still hasn’t quite learned to expect the worst. Consort Hwang is a would-be kingmaker, but she’s prone to impulsiveness: it may come back to haunt her if she alienates her powerful allies. Special Court Lady Park seems much more savvy than the naive Consort Tae — but then, how much of that is hubris? How much can any of them predict the lengths to which the others will go? I can’t wait to see how this tangled web unravels.