Under the Queen’s Umbrella: Episodes 15-16 (Final)
Endgame approaches as our heroine fights to reveal the truth of her son’s murder. All the evidence is in place, but the Dowager Queen will stop at nothing to conceal it. The battle for the King’s soul — and, in turn, the nation — is underway, and no scheme will be left unturned in the process!
EPISODES 15-16 WEECAP
Hwa-ryeong faces her son’s murderer, with only one question on her lips. Why? Was it for revenge? Not at first, no. Initially, it was an opportunity: Ik-hyeon sabotaged the Crown Prince’s treatment in order to deduce what killed his brother, Taein. Now, Hwa-ryeong’s grief only reminds him of his mother’s pain. His apology is a flat, perfunctory thing: he cannot regret avenging his brothers. Hwa-ryeong recoils in disgust. He will pay for this. But, not yet. Before her guards can do anything, Ik-hyeon flees.
The same cannot be said for Master Toji, who is speedily arrested along with his co-conspirators. Swallowing her grief, Hwa-ryeong pleads with the King, who is bullishly insistent that Physician Kwon cannot be the missing Prince Ik-hyeon. He demands to see Physician Kwon dead before the day is out. It’s clear he’s concerned with saving his own skin. When he visits a defiant Master Toji in prison, he reveals as much. Taein’s murder — and his own complicity — has cast a decades-long shadow over his reign. How, asks Master Toji, does he think history will remember him? As hero — or usurper?
Hwa-ryeong’s options are narrowing; without Ik-hyeon’s testimony, the former Crown Princess and Grand Heir will forever remain in exile. Still, she has one last card to play — albeit through gritted teeth. She spills all to the Dowager Queen. Physician Kwon is Prince Ik-hyeon, she informs her nonplussed mother-in-law, and he’s out for revenge. Hwa-ryeong has Taein’s autopsy report, which she will use to reveal the truth of his murder. However, she’s willing to trade that report for Physician Kwon — alive. For once, the Dowager Queen finds herself hopelessly outplayed.
Meanwhile, Cheong-ha is suffering from a mysterious ailment. Close examination from a physician reveals that ailment to be… pregnancy. It comes with a nasty side order of fatigue, courtesy of her heart condition. Seongnam, by now as besotted with his new wife as he rightfully ought to be, recites poetry to her as she sleeps. Here, he discovers Cheong-ha’s super secret to-do list. Take a stroll with him. Wish upon a shooting star with him. Have seven children with him. Add a few more doodled love-hearts and glitter, and you’d have my old notebooks from junior high!
By the time Cheong-ha wakes, the Dowager Queen’s latest scheme has reached a boil. Turns out, the palace is roiling with dodgy physicians: it doesn’t take much to get to Cheong-ha’s. False alarm, he announces! It was all a cruel misdiagnosis — Cheong-ha’s pulse confused him, owing to her childhood heart disease. Despite Hwa-ryeong’s fierce defense of her daughter-in-law, the Dowager Queen now has leverage: if she goes public with the Crown Princess’ condition, it could lead to her deposition. The question is, what’s Cheong-ha’s safety worth to Hwa-ryeong? The Dowager Queen has an idea. It starts with ‘a’, ends with ‘-utopsy report.’ Trapped, Hwa-ryeong is forced to relinquish the document.
Elsewhere, Ik-hyeon finds refuge with Uiseong — and it only takes a little blackmail to convince him to help. That’s practically affection! Lying low, father and secret son have a heart to heart. Ignorant of his own parentage, Uiseong asks Ik-hyeon if he has a family. It’s with wistful resignation that he answers yes. He has a mother. A son. A woman who might have been his wife, under different circumstances. With uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, Uiseong promises that when he is king, he will grant Ik-hyeon one wish. Ik-hyeon meets his eyes gently. There’s a house where he and his family used to live. He would like to reclaim it for his mother — and son.
It’s not long before Ik-hyeon’s on the move again, ushered through the palace alleyways by the Chief State Councilor. After being threatened by the Dowager Queen, his reluctant ally is plotting a double-cross. Blithely, the Chief State Councilor tells Ik-hyeon to continue without him. Alas, he’s talking to the man who stone cold fed his friend poison, swearing it’d save him. When armed guards surround Ik-hyeon, he’s prepared: seizing the Chief State Councilor by the throat, he drags him into the darkness. Merciless, he drives a knife into the heart of the man who killed his brothers. Adieu, you conniving little man, and a thousand failed schemes sing thee to thy rest.
Scarcely has the Chief State Councilor choked out his last when Ik-hyeon confronts his final nemesis: the Dowager Queen. She sits silent behind a screen. It doesn’t matter — Ik-hyeon’s got years worth of vitriol to vent. How does it feel, he crows, to know that he impregnated her son’s concubine? Slicing at the screen, he comes face to face with… Court Lady Nam. Then, as he recoils — Consort Hwang. Peering out the window, he realizes the room is surrounded. Face crumpling into tears, Consort Hwang clutches at the remnants her dignity. Tightly, she asks if he’s really Ik-hyeon. Did he ever care for her — even a little? Ik-hyeon’s response is nasty as all hell: Consort Hwang was a means to plant his eggs in another bird’s nest. Now, her father is dead by his hand.
There’s a struggle. Out of the shadows comes Uiseong. Consort Hwang breathes out a single word — no — as Uiseong rushes forward, running Ik-hyeon through with a sword. Ik-hyeon sinks to the ground. He has just enough strength to reach for Uiseong, telling him that he is his father. All he asks is that Uiseong survive.
Across the palace, Hwa-ryeong comes running, in time to witness the Dowager Queen throw the autopsy report onto a fire. It’s over, the Dowager Queen tells her. She sent Uiseong after Ik-hyeon — and by now, he’ll have killed his own father.
Actually, it’s far from over. With multiple voices in his ear, the King must decide which version of the truth to tell. The Dowager Queen can’t understand why he won’t execute Uiseong: sure, he thought the boy was his firstborn and all, but has he considered that she doesn’t care? As for Taein’s death… if he opens up that can of worms, it’ll threaten his own legitimacy. Gyeong-woo has similar qualms. The King has been a sage ruler. Revealing his sketchy rise to power will put this legacy at risk. Only Seongnam is determined not to give the King an easy out. He knows his father has the historical notes passed down to him by Gyeong-woo. Only he can see justice done.
In this final round, it’s all to play for — and the Dowager Queen’s moves are getting desperate. She orders Cheong-ha’s physician to tamper with her medicine, scuppering her chances of conceiving a child. Then, warming to her theme, she holds an audience with the King, notifying him of Muan’s indiscretion — the secret baby he had with a commoner. However, Muan surprises everyone — not the least, Cho-wol herself — by announcing his intention to marry her. As Hwa-ryeong points out, it isn’t forbidden. Just unprecedented.
Then, the masterstroke. Hwa-ryeong ushers in Cheong-ha’s physician. Turns out, unlike practically every other doctor in the palace, he actually cares about medical ethics. The brave guy confesses that the Dowager Queen ordered him to poison Cheong-ha. On the advice of Hwa-ryeong, he lied about the Crown Princess’ condition. Cheong-ha is pregnant — and her heart disease shouldn’t trouble her, as long as she’s careful.
Spitting mad, the Dowager Queen turns on Hwa-ryeong: does she think she can change the world by revealing the truth? Perhaps not, says Hwa-ryeong. Still, she intends to help the King reach the right decision. And indeed, she does. Master Toji, she tells the King, has agreed to testify. Hwa-ryeong knows how hard this is — how every day since Taein’s death has been a battle for survival. However, now, it’s time to relinquish that burden. He has all the proof — and the power — he needs to right multiple wrongs.
The balance tips. Later, the King informs the Dowager Queen that he intends to reveal the truth… even if it means punishing his own mother. As he turns to leave, the Dowager Queen calls after him. He doesn’t stop. For the first time, we see her resolve tremble. It turns out, the tough-as-nails schemer we’ve come to know and loath is indeed capable of tears. Proof positive that Kim Hae-sook is a powerhouse: when the Dowager Queen gives a fragile smile, reminiscing about the meals she used to share with her son, I feel half inclined to squeeze out a tear myself.
The King’s announcement produces the expected kerfuffle from his ministers: literally nobody wants this. Equally, nobody can stop him. And so, the truth of Prince Taein’s murder is finally spoken aloud. Queen Yoon, Lady Min and the former Grand Heir are to be reinstated. As for the King’s own legacy — that, he will leave to history.
Meanwhile, in the gloom of the palace cells, Seongnam speaks to Master Toji. Was he truly in league with Ik-hyeon when he wrote a prescription for the Crown Prince? No, says Master Toji, as he is escorted out, presumably to his death. His treatment was harmless. He only ever sought to do good.
You did well by your brother, Hwa-ryeong tells Seongnam. Now, it is time for them both to let him go. All at once, the princely mask Seongnam has cultivated — cracks. He smiles at his mother through tears. Later, he will embrace his nephew, welcoming him back from exile. Hwa-ryeong watches, remembering her eldest son’s last words. She too smiles.
As for the Dowager Queen — the King intends to keep her confined to her quarters. However, his mother has no intention of letting anyone else write her ending. When Court Lady Nam comes to check on her mistress, she falls to her knees in anguish. There, in her usual seat, is the Dowager Queen: clad in her wedding clothes, eyes closed in death.
Three months later, the palace is peaceful. Seongnam is making up for lost time by being outrageously in love with Cheong-ha — almost as outrageously as she’s in love with him. He’s working down her to-do list. The two take romantic strolls, canoodle by moonlight, and merrily argue over whether their first child will be a girl or a boy. The ever-irrepressible Cheong-ha has plenty of work on her hands; she’s agreed to help Hwa-ryeong with her women’s shelter. Meanwhile, Seongnam plans for the day that he will restore the throne to his nephew.
It’s not all sunshine and kisses by moonlight. Uiseong and Consort Hwang are whiling away the hours in exile — under the ever-watchful eye of Hwa-ryeong. Still, for all that he’s a slimy little schemer, Uiseong loves his mother dearly. They take solace in each other. There’s less solace for the grieving Queen Yoon: only the thought of Uiseong, her grandson, sustains her.
Consort Tae sees Bogum regularly, even now that he’s left the palace. Consort Ko is delighted to learn that Shimso’s wife is pregnant. And all the consorts love visits from Muan, who has nominally also left to care for his daughter, but stays so frequently he might as well still live there.
Meanwhile, Gyeseong has made an important discovery: being closeted in the royal palace… really sucks. Tenderly clutching Hwa-ryeong’s hands, Gyeseong tells her that there’s a world outside the palace, where they can be who they really are. For all that Hwa-reong longs to hold on, she realizes that Gyeseong cannot hide behind her forever. And so, knowing they intend to leave for good, Gyeseong embraces their brothers at the palace gate. In possibly the most moving two seconds of the entire drama, Hwa-ryeong holds Gyeseong’s portrait and cradles it close.
Of course, Hwa-ryeong’s children still being — well, themselves — every day brings chaos. We end with our Queen furiously sprinting through the palace in order to prevent Ilyeong jumping off the roof in a homemade hang glider. Except — there’s one last shot. Hwa-ryeong treads slowly through the rain across the courtyard. Silently, Seongnam catches up to her. He shelters her under his umbrella.
Folks, these last two episodes had moments of thrilling intensity; in particular, the confrontation between Ik-hyeon, Consort Hwang, and Uiseong put me through the emotional wringer. Often, this show goes light on the traditional Joseon drama elements, but the coup plotline really relished in it. Meanwhile, watching Hwa-ryeong and the Dowager Queen face off in that biting, no-holds-barred way of theirs is always a treat, especially with those hints of much-awaited nuance to the Dowager Queen. Hwa-ryeong isn’t a character I’ll forget in a hurry: her gentle yet relentless compassion, her determination to be a shield to her loved ones, and that indomitable way she strides through the palace halls will stick with me for a while.
One thing that really characterized this show was its ambition, especially in juggling an outrageously broad cast of characters. Sometimes, this backfired, such as the underwritten nature of Gyeseong’s plotline, or the lack of complexity we got in our villains. However, mostly it led to a series of beautiful mini-narratives within the greater whole: the detailed vignettes about mothers and sons; the deep intrigue of Ik-hyeon’s revenge tragedy; the charmingly understated romance between Cheong-ha and Seongnam; and the nuanced portrayal of the King as a well-intentioned yet eminently corruptible politician. This drama contained so much! Inevitably, that means there are threads I wish had been picked up further, and relationships I wish had been expanded, but I am largely delighted with what we got. Here’s to you, Hwa-ryeong!