Under the Queen’s Umbrella: Episodes 7-8
With the threat of assassination looming around every corner, our heroine must resort to desperate measures in search of answers. However, with the Crown Prince’s cause of death established as poisoning, someone has to take the fall. Will it be enemy or ally?
EPISODES 7-8 WEECAP
In a move that is becoming habitual, Hwa-ryeong corners her grandson’s maid and brandishes a needle before her face in the name of answers. Why did she poison the Grand Heir? All she gets is a warning that there are those far more powerful than Hwa-ryeong herself out there. Then, her prisoner goes the way of all Joseon conspirators bent on taking their secrets to the grave: biting her tongue, she bleeds out in an instant.
It’s the beginning of a series of desperate moves. The Crown Princess brandishes a knife to her own neck. If Hwa-ryeong won’t let her leave the palace with her children, then she’ll die right here. Hwa-ryeong, however, rises to the occasion magnificently, with the only persuasive tools at her disposal: she urges her daughter-in-law to stay alive — to take that bravery and use it for her son’s sake.
Elsewhere, the scales are beginning to fall from the King’s eyes. Bitterly, he tells the Dowager Queen that he fears what she’s capable of — after all, supplanting monarchs is her specialty. She gives him some frank, motherly advice: don’t act so innocent. Sure, she killed Prince Taein. But she’d never have gone that far if her son hadn’t wanted a crown.
Speaking of fratricide… there’s further family tension to come. Seongnam, fearing for his mother’s life, confesses to the King that he was the one who gave the Crown Prince medicine from the outside. He’s determined to prove that the herbs were harmless — that his hands aren’t stained with his brother’s blood. The King is aghast. As a father, he begs his son to hide his involvement. Yet, as the head of state, he must give the Grand Prince permission to investigate the death of his heir.
The Dowager Queen has gone to bite off the head of the subordinate who failed to inform her that Hwa-ryeong was meeting with Queen Yoon… Court Lady Shin. Turns out, she’s been in the Dowager Queen’s clutches since the age of seven. But even decades of manipulation won’t wash away her loyalty to Hwa-ryeong; Court Lady Shin flat-out refuses to be used as a weapon against her queen.
It’s not long before the King holds a public hearing regarding the Crown Prince’s murder, with the bloodied Physician Kwon sitting front and center. Finally — after a fortifying tete-a-tete involving tender face-touching and whispered words with his maybe-lover Consort Hwang — he’s ready to speak. And in doing so, causes problems for everyone: he names Hwa-ryeong as the one who commanded him to give the Crown Prince medicine from the outside. Hwa-ryeong hesitates. Of Seongnam, there is no sign. Master Toji has vanished like smoke, and with him, any proof of her innocence. And so, swallowing her hesitance, she too gives a name. The medicine came from — the Crown Princess.
Turmoil. Outrage. Guards are dispatched, finding herbal medicine in the Princess’s chambers — undocumented and mysterious. Her arrest follows swiftly… while Hwa-ryeong’s enemies quickly reassess their estimation of the queen’s ruthlessness.
Still, it’s an absolute doozy of an opportunity to torpedo the balance of power. The Chief State Councilor gleefully whips up the ministers into a homicidal frenzy: soon, all are baying for the Crown Princess’s blood — and her son’s. The King stalks out of the throne room to hack at bamboo stalks in disgust. However, he’s not the only one raging at the actions of a remorseless authority figure: he’s soon stopped short by Seongnam. Seongnam’s sorely disappointed in his father — how could he let a lie stand? But he has a lot to learn about realpolitik. You had your chance, says the King. You squandered it. Truth or lies notwithstanding, it’s too late to shift the narrative.
Hwa-ryeong, meanwhile, hasn’t run out of audacious gambits: in fact, she’s just getting started. First, she drops in on the Dowager Queen — and informs her that she’d better watch her step. Hwa-ryeong now knows that the Dowager Queen was the one who killed Prince Taein. So, if she tries to shine a light on Hwa-ryeong’s secret meetings with Queen Yoon, she’d better be prepared for what else is revealed in the harsh glare of day. As for what happens next… why don’t she, the Dowager Queen, and the Chief State Councilor have a chat?
Hwa-ryeong lays it all on the line. She’s had it with this game they’re playing. So, if they play nice, and spare the Crown Princess, she’ll persuade the King to hold the taekhyeon. As punishment for their crimes, the Crown Princess and her son will be demoted to commoners. Finally, to sweeten the pot — if none of Hwa-ryeong’s children are chosen to become heir to the throne, she’ll step down as queen.
It’s settled. The Crown Princess, Son, and her newborn infant are trussed up in rope and paraded before the gates. Seongnam, no doubt stung by memories of his own banishment, approaches Son, the nephew he’d sworn to protect. It’s all he can do to loosen the bindings that rub at the child’s wrists. Otherwise, he is helpless to watch his family be carted away in the wooden litter of exile. Aside, the Chief State Councilor assures Consort Hwang that their end will be swift and bloody; exile makes assassination so much more expedient!
Joke’s on him: as curtains are drawn across the litter, the Crown Princess has already vanished. Led by a guard into an isolated street, she and her children come face to face with — Hwa-ryeong. As if our heroine would have sacrificed a single member of her family! The accusation, the exile, the escape — it was all planned from the beginning. And although Seongnam doesn’t relish his mother’s methods, he’s willing to do his part to bring them back to the palace. Hwa-ryeong just needs him to perform one task… become Crown Prince.
And so, the long-awaited taekhyeon commences! But not before Hwa-ryeong reminds her king of his duty. The procedure was first invented to select a Crown Prince based on merit — not noble patronage. Her husband ought to honor this tradition.
And so, taking her words to heart, the King ensures the taekhyeon starts with a bang — or rather, a mass abduction. With bags plopped over their heads, the princes are yanked from their daily routines, and dropped into the competition without warning. The first round is a straight-up race: yelling and shoving, the children sprint to their destination — an archery field. Here, amid aim-befuddling winds, they are made to shoot targets. In a flash of brilliance, Seongnam remembers the Crown Prince’s advice: shoot with the wind, not against it. Suddenly, it becomes clear that he received more training anyone realized. In him, his brother’s expertise lives on.
The third task is rather more contentious: armed with an inspector’s seal, the princes must bring back two ex-statesmen who were banished at the start of the King’s regime. They are now being offered political office. Anticipating a riot amongst his conservative ministers, the King hides out among the trees. Hwa-ryeong smiles. This move reminds her of his radical days as Crown Prince. Those men, the King confesses, were good friends to him — despite their differences, he needs their talents. But it is Hwa-ryeong whose friendship and talents he values the most.
The princes have four days to do the impossible — which, as the consorts know, is plenty of time for some good, old-fashioned scheming. And what plentiful schemes! Consort Tae’s son, Bogum, has revealed a ruthless streak: by brazenly requesting the Dowager Queen’s patronage, he’s gained a powerful ally. As such, Consort Tae is gifted the location of Bogum’s quarry. All that remains is to smuggle the info. Meanwhile, Consort Ko has done her own research; she’s ensured her hapless son, SHIMSO (Moon Sung-hyun) — a timid teen who can no more command a horse to trot than he could a kingdom — is armed with a map. Finally, Consort Hwang has dreamed up something especially complicated, involving outside reinforcements.
All of these stratagems are brought to a rattling halt by Hwa-ryeong’s latest ploy. Sweetly, she assures the consorts she’s found a way to occupy their troubled thoughts: embroidery! They’ll all be decorating a panel for the new crown prince… and nobody needs to leave until it’s finished! Isn’t it wonderful? Consort Tae squirms. Consort Hwang stares sullenly at her needles. Hwa-ryeong beams.
Even whilst cooped up at needlepoint, one consort has engineered a deadly sabotage. Seongnam is met with a hail of blows as he’s ambushed by outlaws. Though he’s no slouch at swordplay, it’s only with the help of the royal guard that he escapes alive. Shimso is met with a gentler reception — a training wheels sort of robbery. His own band of brigands are kind enough to cut only his purse, leaving him blinking gormlessly at the side of a mountain. Poor guy. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some can’t even make rampant nepotism work for them.
Seongnam, however, has inherited his father’s penchant for out-of-the-box solutions… and his mother’s for wild improvisation. Uiseong poisons his horse? Tame a wild one on the fly! Tide’s coming in? Gallop through the water! When he reaches the island on which his quarry, PARK GYEONG-WOO (Kim Seung-soo), resides, he finds that Bogum has beaten him to the punch. Luckily, Gyeong-woo is stubborn enough for a dozen dowager queens. He opposed the King’s appointment via taekhyeon — why would he come creeping back after decades of stewing in exile to prove the point? Plus, he can’t take up a ministerial post. He’s blind! He’s happy doing the typical exile thing of teaching arithmetic to ridiculously adorable village children!
Seongnam sizes him up in seconds. He issues a challenge: if he can prove that Gyeong-woo possesses perfectly functioning eyes, Gyeong-woo must give him three days to persuade him to return. Then, he takes a running leap off the cliff. Gyeong-woo, in a move immediately belying his blindness, shouts and runs to him. Point proven — dangling from the cliff by a branch — Seongnam calls up to Bogum. A little help here? Bogum turns his back. It’s not quite Scar from The Lion King on a betrayal scale, but it’s pretty cold.
Later, after Seongnam has presumably scrambled up a cliff, it’s time for some enforced brotherly bonding. Bogum is a straight-laced nerd who’s in bed before nine. Seongnam is a Joseon jock with his mother’s taste for burning the midnight oil. It’s like a buddy comedy, except one of them wouldn’t mind if the other died.
There’s another surprise waiting for Seongnam — this one in the form of a very resourceful minister’s daughter smugly combing the beach for shellfish. Cheong-ha has been on a several-episodes-long campaign to reel in the handsome man who stole (sort of) her beloved (sort of) family (sort of) knife (that part’s true). She even left her father a note to the effect of, “Brb, gone to stalk my future husband whose name I don’t know. Kisses!” Now, elated, she flings herself into Seongnam’s arms. It would all be deeply romantic if he had any recollection of who she is.
Back at the palace, the monarchs catch news of the bandit attacks. An autopsy of the outlaws’ ex-leader proves that he carried a portrait of Seongnam — paired with an order to kill. The King suspects the Chief State Councilor, whose tricks he knows of old. However, as with the Dowager Queen, he’s too enmeshed up in the tangled web of past plots to threaten consequences. The Chief State Councilor remembers what happened to Prince Taein all those years ago… and how the current King stood by and watched him die.
Hwa-ryeong, true to form, is ruthlessly proactive. It’s not long before she has the outlaws’ second-in-command strung upside down above some sharpened bamboo spikes (bloodied for extra dramatic flair). The thug-for-hire quickly blabs. They were hired to rob the princes, not kill them. That order came later… from a woman who wore a frog hairpin and peony perfume.
Hwa-ryeong knows exactly who to blame. She pays the Dowager Queen another visit. Like a filial daughter-in-law, she has come to apologize for her disrespect! She offers up a gift. Like all good gifts, it’s a metaphor. It’s a plant that can be used either as poison or medicine. I won’t take revenge, says Hwa-ryeong. Nonetheless, hurt my children again, and I’ll make you pay.
And thus, with Hwa-ryeong finally on the offensive, we end this week’s episodes! Her fierce, improvisational schemes are a joy to watch. Our heroine is such a glorious wild card, and whilst you can always depend on her cast-iron loyalty to family, everything else is up for grabs. I love how Seongnam’s wild streak manifests in similar chaos — that jump-off-a-cliff gambit was worth about a thousand turn-an-oval-into-two-half-moons lateral thinking tests. This drama is at its best when it showcases its protagonists’ audacity: Hwa-ryeong capitalizing on her rivals thinking she’s hung her daughter-in-law out to dry; Seongnam riding a half-broken steed across the waves; and, of course, Cheong-ha in her entirety.
I hope we delve a little more into the Dowager Queen’s motivations soon, especially what her vision for the nation actually is. One thing this political drama is missing is actual policy disputes! Because of this, its morality occasionally feels a little black and white, although I love that the King’s hands aren’t clean of Prince Taein’s murder. Also, Episode 8 in particular was an absolute basket of delights. It had it all: scheming, betrayal, comedy, chaotic bluffs and disastrous bargains… just excellent, excellent writing. Here’s hoping next week delivers more of the same!