Under the Queen’s Umbrella: Episodes 11-12
The king has made the call: it’s up to the scholars to select the new crown prince. Trouble is, with a whole new host of people to bribe, it’s open season on the scheming front. The dowager queen won’t be outdone at her own game — and our heroine risks losing everything.
EPISODES 11-12 WEECAP
As dozens of Confucian scholars ponder over who will be the next Crown Prince, a single locked door proves insufficient against the corruption of the court. The Dowager Queen and the Chief State Councilor are furiously scheming, in opposite directions. The former smuggles a flurry of bribes out on Bogum’s behalf, only to find that the Chief State Councilor has arrested her minions for corruption. Consort Tae retaliates by leaking information about Uiseong’s assaults against the palace servants. Opinions in the hall fluctuate — whilst rumors of their secret deliberations flow like water from a leaky teapot.
One thing’s clear: with Uiseong and Bogum’s supporters at war, something’s got to give. Thus, Consort Hwang and the Chief State Councilor swallow their considerable pride, kneeling before the Dowager Queen. Won’t she join with them once more? The Dowager Queen hems, haws, and feigns reluctance until Consort Hwang bites the bullet and offers her what she really wants: if Uiseong wins, she’ll forfeit the queenship to her mother-in-law.
The Dowager Queen is all sweetness and lethality when she meets with Bogum and Consort Tae. Remember, she asks, how Consort Tae agreed to do anything for her? The two listen, powerless, as the Dowager Queen explains that Bogum was never a contender. Not really. He was just there to help her squeeze her allies for favors. Now, it’s the end of the line. Despite Consort Tae’s tears, and Bogum’s fierce stoicism, there’s nothing they can do. Bogum must unhook his nametag from the taekhyeon roster.
Hwa-ryeong, of course, was anticipating this — now is her cue to act. Secret notes have been streaming in thick and fast from the scholars’ hall; so far, she’s turned a blind eye, for the sake of the maids who smuggled them. Now, she receives permission from the King to approach the hall.
Hwa-ryeong strides silently through the ranks of scholars. At every desk, she uncovers a note promising bribery. When she finally speaks, it is with all the gravitas of a head of state — and the unimpeachable authority of a mother who isn’t mad… just disappointed. She’d thought they were better than this. The scholars watch in agony as she holds the notes aloft — before dropping them onto a nearby fire. She turns to leave. This flawless performance is topped by one last twist: when she reports back to the King, she claims she found no evidence of corruption.
Her confidence is not misplaced. Public shaming did the trick. One by one, the scholars throw the remaining bribes on the fire. They refuse any more contact with the outside — even food — until their selection is made.
Later, Hwa-ryeong tackles another question: how do you solve a problem like Consort Tae? Well, first of all, you slap her back down to the rank of maid. Consort Tae is ordered to scrub, slop, and toil for hours on end — plenty of time to ruminate on the consequences of betrayal. But our heroine, ever-merciful, only lets her suffer for long enough to remember how much she really, truly hates needlework. Later, much like Consort Ko, she receives a lesson from the Hwa-ryeong School of Royal Parenting. It’s all very well to want her son to achieve great things, Hwa-ryeong says — but, Consort Tae’s greed caused Bogum great pain. Motherhood is difficult; she struggles too. Still, for all his maturity, Bogum is a child — and he’s been putting on a brave face for too long. It’s time Consort Tae cleaned herself up and comforted him.
Bogum, alone and hurting, can’t look at his mother. Nonetheless, when she hugs him, he finally lets himself cling to her and cry. Privately, to Court Lady Shin, Hwa-ryeong admits that back when her King fell for her personal maid, she cried a few tears of her own. Still, at the end of the day, how do you solve a problem like Consort Tae? Accept that she makes you smile.
The scholars reach their decision. In one last bid of desperation, the Chief State Councilor insists that Seongnam’s legitimacy be tested before the results are announced. After all, if — as rumor suggests — he isn’t the King’s true son, he couldn’t possibly inherit.
Stiff with rage, Hwa-ryeong submits Seongnam to a paternity test. However, instead of using the Chief State Councilor’s ridiculously rigged blood test, she proposes her own method. The King has an unusual protrusion of bone behind his ear — a genetic trait that all his sons should share. Hwa-ryeong invites the Dowager Queen to prod a series of princely ears: all four of her sons, plus Uiseong. The Dowager Queen is forced to confirm that Seongnam does indeed share this trait. Why is she backed into a corner? Because Consort Hwang looks like a cat that’s been sprayed with a water bottle. The Dowager Queen remains expressionless, but it’s easy to deduce that Uiseong’s ear is — well — insufficiently bony.
Hwa-ryeong, however, has more to say. It’s time to reveal the secret behind Seongnam’s exile. Long ago, the Dowager Queen claimed Seongnam was improperly conceived during the mourning period for the late King. This was a lie — and Hwa-ryeong will be forever ashamed of not standing up for her son. In private, it’s all she can do to apologize to Seongnam, knowing that Consort Tae and Consort Ko were not the only ones who failed their children. However, Seongnam forgives her readily. He knows how much she always cared.
The next day, Hwa-ryeong revisits another deep regret. The late Crown Prince’s rooms are opened for the first time in weeks. Quietly, she touches the hem of his robe. It’s time to let go. When she emerges, it is to congratulate her eldest living son… for Seongnam has been announced as the new Crown Prince.
Later, the King has great fun bartering with one of his own subjects — because, frankly, Gyeong-woo couldn’t give a damn about being Minister for Taxation. There’s one role he does want: Seoyeongwan — chief tutor to the Crown Prince. What’s more, he’s willing to work two jobs to do it. (Rather him than me… ye gods, the marking load alone!) Meanwhile, Uiseong announces he’s leaving the palace — though, with his mother and grandfather already brainstorming regicide, it’s more like an evil gap year than anything.
Another day, another scheme: the politicians of the palace turn to the matter of the Crown Princess. The question is, can Hwa-ryeong find Seongnam an eligible bachelorette who isn’t in the pocket of the Dowager Queen? It’s tough going: snooping around the market reveals that too many of the palace’s hot young singles are liable to sneer at retail workers — a clear red flag! Soon, however, she stumbles on the perfect candidate… in the unlikely form of a girl causing a ruckus in a public street. Cheong-ha is a hurricane in human form, but she has a heart of gold: Hwa-ryeong watches her defend a divorced woman being cheated by a sexist stallholder.
A Joseon proto-feminist after her own heart! Hwa-ryeong ushers Cheong-ha into an earnest chat about family law, and a little-known legal clause by which women can shield themselves against divorce. When Cheong-ha declares that she has no interest in marrying the Crown Prince — she’s already in love with another man — Hwa-ryeong is prepared to give up gracefully. Luckily, Cheong-ha is also in the very normal habit of carting around a large portrait of her crush… the Crown Prince. Still, if she wants to win him, Hwa-ryeong advises, she mustn’t let on that she knows him. Princesses don’t roam around with young men on distant islands.
Cheong-ha joyfully flings herself at her father, imploring him to let her be Crown Princess. She’ll be good, she promises! She won’t stomp about! She won’t chatter in banmal to all and sundry! She won’t — oh, oops, he’s in an audience with the Dowager Queen. Ah well! Turns out, the Dowager Queen has been looking for precisely someone of Cheong-ha’s unruly mold — to undermine Seongnam.
Seongnam, for his part, has been crushing it as Crown Prince. This involves various unofficial duties like verbally jousting with the Dowager Queen, and outsmarting the Chief State Councilor. He’s taken a leaf from Bogum’s book, and keeps a tight grip on any and all facial expressions, aiming for princely serenity even with his mother. Still, on occasion, he’ll peak at the seashell Cheong-ha gave him as keepsake. If they meet again, she told him, they can consider it fate.
Love is in the air elsewhere, and Muan’s considerably louder about it. In fact, Gyeseong and Ilyoung have been forced to hear him gush about Cho-wol so many times that they can recite his passionate speeches along with him. When they first met, Cho-wol was determined to stay Muan’s friend, not his lover — but only because she knew that this would keep him in her life. Now that things have changed between them, Muan has high hopes… that are scuppered entirely when he discovers that she’s fled.
Meanwhile, a plot brews. Ham-seok, the rebel in chains, is poisoned with ice-cold efficiency by Physician Kwon. He returns to the fold of Master Toji’s rebellion — before meeting with Consort Hwang. She needs to know precisely what he used to poison the Crown Prince.
Hwa-ryeong is equally determined to locate the missing physician — for the same reason. For now, though, she must begin the delicate process of championing Cheong-ha without cluing in the Dowager Queen. When three prospective brides are interviewed, Hwa-ryeong throws Cheong-ha a curveball question, making it look as if she’s picking on her. It’s about divorce laws — and she’s certain Cheong-ha has the answer. This sells the ruse: when Cheong-ha is selected, even Seongnam remarks that the Minister of War’s daughter is a pawn of the Dowager Queen. In actuality, Hwa-ryeong saw Minister Yoon and his wife in secret. The latter is disillusioned with the decidedly dodgy Dowager Queen. He’s willing to take a chance on Hwa-ryeong, provided she looks out for his daughter.
There’s a long, long curriculum ahead of Cheong-ha and Seongnam before they have a hope of meeting. Seongnam must memorize volumes’ worth of Confucian sex ed. Cheong-ha must learn to… step daintily without breaking into a stampede. With the Power-Walking Queen herself as mentor, she’s in good company. Hwa-ryeong even offers her the same exam cribsheet she gave her own children — proof positive that Cheong-ha is now sheltered under the queen’s umbrella.
The day of the wedding dawns. Seongnam approaches with grim dignity — Cheong-ha, with barely-suppressed delight. It’s only now that Seongnam recognizes the girl from the island. Surprise modulates into stern resolve: he’s sure she’s the Dowager Queen’s ally. They are escorted to the bedchamber. Cheong-ha meets his eyes and smiles. Coolly, Seongnam walks out.
Meanwhile, at the palace gate, a woman approaches with a baby in her arms. Cho-wol has returned — and she’s here to find the father of the child.
Hers and Muan’s child? If so, it’ll be interesting to see how Hwa-ryeong handles it. Will she put her money where her mouth is and protect the vulnerable Cho-wol, or will she choose to be a hypocrite for the sake of her sons? What I love about this show is how committed it is to exploring parenting. At times, it wears its Joseon setting lightly, using it to color conflicts between characters whilst bringing in slightly more modern debates about parenthood. How do you shield your children from the metaphorical rain? At what point do you let them walk into the storm? Even the simplest characters in this drama become more complex the moment the show reminds us they are parents. Minister Yoon is your standard political schemer, right up until his daughter’s welfare comes into play — then, he seems more human. Watching Consort Tae break down and admit she struggles, only for her to try her best to be a comforting presence for Bogum, was unbelievably moving.
I love that we’re seeing how Hwa-ryeong handles being a mother to adult children, especially her changing relationship with Seongnam. He’s not the rebellious child she had to cajole into minding his lessons; he’s a political figure in his own right — they’re family, but also allies. Those tearful smiles they traded when he said he turned out better for having lived outside the palace all but broke me. It was a beautiful moment of understanding and respect: there was a conspiratorial element that reminded me of her relationship to the late Crown Prince, but it was recognizably its own dynamic. Sooner rather than later, she’ll face a changing dynamic with Muan, too — and he, like Seongnam, must learn what adult responsibilities look like. I look forward to what next week brings!