My Dearest: Episodes 5-6
Our OTP has collided with one another in the deadliest of circumstances. It’s not long before war will break them apart again. For a moment, though, there’s room to breathe… and perhaps to re-litigate precisely where our heroine looked when war broke out!
What do you do when the woman of your dreams calls you “husband” across a battlefield? You mock her mercilessly, of course! Unfortunately, Jang-hyun pokes at Gil-chae’s pride a little too vigorously. Mortified, Gil-chae deals the lowest blow she can muster, claiming she’d mistaken him for Yeon-joon — and, boy, does that one land. Jang-hyun goes sullen and silent. Still, he’s also got some inkling of what it cost her to get this far: her discarded dagger is crusted over with blood. I’m proud of you, he says — dead sincere, and utterly non-judgemental.
The mountainside meetup draws to a close; Jang-hyun and his fellows set off for Mt. Gwanggyo, where the Joseon soldiers seek to rescue the king. It is with grim resignation, and the dawning horror that this is his life now, that Jang-hyun has sworn to prevent Yeon-joon from throwing himself on the Qing army’s swords. It’s no small task. When Yeon-joon’s not passionately monologuing about how proper it is to die for one’s king, he’s squeezing his eyes shut and windmilling his sword about at random. Still, Jang-hyun manages to shield him to the point where the worst he gets is lightly stabbed.
Also suffering because of other people’s idealism? Yeah, that’d be Gil-chae. When your best friend is determined to nurse wounded soldiers, it’s really hard to tell her “I hate manual labor in all forms.” In short, our poor girl is forced to help people, out of the goodness of her own heart, or something equally gross! Still, she’s kind of getting into it. When a boy grips her hand and deliriously calls her mother, she sighs and plays along. Granted, she drops him pretty fast when a new group of soldiers burst into the camp. But it’s the thought that counts.
Jang-hyun’s eyes anchor to her across the crowd. She meets his gaze. Then, she spots the injured Yeon-joon. As she flounces past him without a word, our hero regards her sadly — his own wound dripping, neglected. Oh, my heart. He needn’t worry, though: like a moth to a flame, Gil-chae returns, to yell at him for slacking in his bodyguard duties. Accusations are made. Jondaemal is dropped. Our OTP is gearing up for a truly embarrassing row, right up until Gil-chae spots that Jang-hyun is bleeding — at which point, medical instinct and tightly-repressed feelings kick in. He’d better not slink away before she bandages him! (She’s getting pretty good at this bandaging thing.)
As Jang-hyun watches her leave, the ever-empathetic Eun-ae sneaks in for a quiet word. Gil-chae, she insists, looked at you when news of war broke out. Sunshine breaks across Jang-hyun’s face, because wow has our guy got it bad. When he confronts Gil-chae about it, she gives him a guilty, hand-in-the-cookie-jar glance, and snaps that there’s no law against looking at people. Be that as it may, it’s enough to give Jang-hyun hope.
And so, later, he approaches Gil-chae with a proposal. No, not that kind — not quite. The difference, he declares, between the character for “lover” and “stranger” is one stroke: “some.” Why not spend “some” time together? Get to know one another, decide how they feel… in order words, date? He’s several centuries too early for this kind of talk, and Gil-chae is loudly scandalized. Still, the two keep falling into each other’s orbit. When the women have to cross a stream back to camp, Jang-hyun offers to carry each one over. Gil-chae is last, and deeply disgruntled about it. What’s the difference, she insists, between spending “some” time with me, and all those other women? Scooping her up, Jang-hyun replies, with glorious sincerity: my heart. Gil-chae is stunned. She can’t help but get distracted by the closeness. Despite herself, she reaches out to touch his cheek.
This fragile peace can’t last. Soon, all soldiers are called back for a suicidal last stand. Jang-hyun cringes: dulce et decorum est is so not his style. But who says they have to fight head-on? Under Jang-hyun’s leadership, a small troop are dragged into the Qing camp disguised as corpses, launching a spectacular ambush. For the first time, Joseon carries the day! Alas, hot on the heels of victory comes crushing news: due to lack of supplies, the army is being dismissed. Unfortunately for our reluctant hero, it’s not quite game over. One soldier, a palace eunuch, is adamant that they sneak into the king’s fortress to give news of the recent victory… and guess who gets guilt-tripped into tagging along?
Poor Jang-hyun. Never has a fan-toting smuggler with a heart of gold been forced to suffer quite so many situations. Case in point: he fast becomes embroiled in a royal scheme. The first thing CROWN PRINCE SO-HYUN (Kim Mu-joon) does is fling a tray at Jang-hyun’s head for his lack of deference. As Jang-hyun quietly bleeds, the second thing he does is demand his help. For reasons unknown, the Khan is in Joseon — and they need an expert to figure out why.
Upon hearing this, Ryang-eum makes his usual plea to Jang-hyun: screw politics — let’s bail! (Ideally, hand in hand, into the sunset. But he’s not picky.) However, Jang-hyun has promises to keep. When he and Gil-chae parted, she was furious. Why, after all his pretty words, would he abandon her? In the hopes of getting her to understand, he’d made a vow. Gil-chae, he urged, must flee to Ganghwa-do: the island where the grand heir is protected. But by the light of the moon, he swore, he would meet her there. And so, now, Gil-chae huddles amongst refugees in an island cave, turning over his words in her head. Meanwhile, Jang-hyun and Ryang-eum prepare to pull off their deadliest ruse yet: infiltrating the Qing army.
The plan is simple — and thus unbelievably risky. Dressed as a servant, Ryang-eum will sing, attracting the attention of the Khan. This part works flawlessly. But soon after, our heroes are whisked away by his far-more-skeptical general. As they’re strung up and interrogated, it becomes clear that Ryang-eum can endure anything… besides seeing Jang-hyun hurt. And so they go about hurting him. By the time the questioning is over, his feet are a mess of blood, and everyone’s backstories — true or false — are stripped bare.
Jang-hyun claims to have been born as a Joseon slave; the mistreatment he suffered taught him to hate his home. This has the ring of plausibility to it — after all, there’s been foreshadowing aplenty. Ryang-eum’s story is signed and sealed with a disturbing flashback. His mother was a nomadic Jurchen; his father, from Joseon. After losing both parents, he too was enslaved at a government office. Branded and abused by an evil man, he was rescued by Jang-hyun. And if they don’t believe him? He’ll bite his tongue and die right now — then, who’ll sing for the Khan? As the soldiers leave, he collapses weeping at Jang-hyun’s bloodied feet. Jang-hyun… smiles. You did well, he says.
Though the general remains suspicious, our heroes — sans an indeterminate number of toenails — are in the clear. From within the camp, they bear witness to increasingly fraught negotiations with Joseon. KING INJO (Kim Jong-tae), faced with fast-dwindling forces and even faster-dwindling provisions, agrees to accept the Khan as his ruler — though not before openly weeping in front of the court. But this is just the first demand. The Khan refuses further diplomacy until King Injo leaves his fortress. Prince So-hyun begs his father to comply, but is met with a kingly wall of disdain. This last humiliation, he utterly refuses.
Jang-hyun has little truck with royalty, but he does note that the Qing seem oddly impatient. Ryang-eum’s appointments to sing for the Khan have been suspended. All of this points to a problem from within. Sure enough — a smallpox epidemic is tearing its way through camp.
Still, the Khan is adamant that neither illness, nor a stubborn king, will stop him now. Not when he’s risked everything for this. And so, he makes his gamble: he’ll send troops to Ganghwa-do, the “safest place in Joseon.” What follows is horrific. Women struggle to outrun soldiers, throwing themselves from the cliff side rather than be raped and murdered. But the Joseon government is almost as cruel: when reinforcements arrive, it is only to rescue the crown prince’s son. Ordinary villagers are thrown away from the boat, and left screaming.
Still, amid the horror, Gil-chae spots opportunity. There’s a man riding on the beach with a baby in his arms — the grand heir! An arrow catches him, sending him sprawling. Our girl doesn’t hesitate: she snatches up the baby from the sand. Dodging arrows, she sprints to the shore, in time to breathlessly demand passage. The soldiers consider — and, when she stubbornly brandishes the infant, they agree. Bang Doo, Eun-ae, and Gil-chae squeeze into the boat. But as Jong Jong climbs in, an arm grabs her. It’s a woman, helpless and desperate, begging them to take her baby too. Gil-chae moves fast. Out comes the dagger. Mercy is a distant memory: she plunges it into the woman’s arm, again and again, until her hold loosens. As the boat departs, the Qing army corner the desperate crowd.
Gil-chae hardly notices the dagger slip from her hands; it’s pocketed by a Qing soldier. Later, the same man returns to the the Khan’s camp — bloodstained, and convulsing from smallpox. Here, Jang-hyun spots the trophy and seizes him by the throat, demanding to know where he found it. The answer is punctuated by a sputter of blood: from a girl who may or may not have died. Jang-hyun is so distraught that he forgets the cardinal rules of lockdown… wash your hands, stay masked, and uh, don’t let anyone cough in your face. Ryang-eum is terrified for him — Jang-hyun seems hellbent on dying in hundreds of inventive ways. Nothing can stop him from volunteering to sail to Ganghwa-do.
The women struggle to keep pace with their rescuers, knowing one thing for certain: they’re expendable. Bang Doo is ordered to breastfeed the grand heir, leaving nothing for her own child. Once she’s done, the soldiers order them to take another route, where a boat is waiting. Gil-chae narrows her eyes. If anyone is equipped to spot a self-interested ploy, it’s our heroine. But there’s little they can do other than walk… right into the path of more invaders. They’ve been set up as bait.
They scramble to hide, but the baby’s cries betray them. Luckily, hidden in the troop is Jang-hyun, who volunteers to scout around. But as he approaches, he keels over and coughs. There’s blood on his hand. As he spots Gil-chae, he starts forward — then, with an expression that outright pulverizes my heart, realizes he can’t. He’ll infect her. He can only watch as she leaves, unaware that he fulfilled his promise.
When he turns back, it’s the general’s face he sees. He launches himself at him, using every improvised weapon he can grasp — his scarf, his sword, a nearby rock. Gil-chae hears shouts and glances back, but it’s all too confused; she keeps running. A moment later, it clicks: that half-discernible face beneath the hood. Jang-hyun’s promise. Telling her friends to go on, she darts back towards the fight. Meanwhile, Jang-hyun now faces a dozen warriors. The jig is up. Ever-prepared to go out in style, he rips off his hat to reveal his Joseon topknot — before launching into battle. He’s a marvel with a sword: enemies drop around him like stones. But a wave of dizziness engulfs him as the smallpox takes its revenge. Wounded, and flagging, he launches himself at his last attacker.
I didn’t think I could love Gil-chae more until she… well, um, until she stabbed an innocent woman to protect her maid. There’s probably no accounting for taste, but I just love that this series won’t cut corners: it’s a horrific situation, and our heroine can’t stay naive or blameless. Moreover, another, more thoughtless series would have chosen to have Jong Jong abandoned on the island, or Bang Doo die in childbirth. Instead, although these women have minor roles, their humanity is acknowledged. I’m even tentatively impressed by the depth they’re bringing to Ryang-eum: although his (implied) queerness exists only to make him tragic — which is annoying — he’s got a lot of guts, and I care a great deal about him.
As for Jang-hyun — good grief, the man suffers so beautifully! Over and over again, he’s done nothing but bleed for Gil-chae. Then again, who wouldn’t give a few toenails for the sake of causing Gil-chae to do her deer-in-the-headlights, dammit-you-caught-me expression when she’s called on the fact that she cares? Jang-hyun truly loves her for who she is: her ruthlessness, her ridiculousness, and her not-so-hidden depths. Meanwhile, Gil-chae is slowly beginning to see him. First, it was truly looking at him — and facing her own attraction — when he carried her over the stream. Now, it’s recognizing him, face hidden, mid-combat, on the strength of trust alone. And that’s the crux of it: dirty, unkempt, disguised… no matter what, our OTP sees one another. If it all ends in, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” I’ll cry for days!