My Dearest: Episodes 7-8
As war winds to a close, Joseon is left battered and shaken. Still, there’s one place where the party doesn’t stop: Hanyang! Here, our heroines are eager to recover their old lives — whilst our OTP is thrown, quite explosively, together once more…
Gil-chae races through the forest, just as Jang-hyun keels into the dirt. Half-awake, he watches as the woman he loves looks straight past him. Another fighter enters the fray. It’s the Joseon soldier who would have sent her to her death; conscience-stricken, he’s back to rescue her. Jang-hyun tussles with smallpox for consciousness — and finally, loses. Elsewhere, miles away, another battle is lost: as negotiations draw to a hopeless close, Joseon surrenders. The king and crown prince weep in each other’s arms, consumed by the humiliation of how history will judge them — whilst knowing this might be the last time they see one another.
Gil-chae and her friends trudge home, still half-disbelieving. Neunggun-ri is a hollow shell, stripped of its inhabitants. Our heroine wanders through the grove, smiling faintly as she remembers flashing her ankles, and parading amongst the scholars like a queen. Now, her father is too traumatized to recognize her face. Eun-ae has it even worse: her own father was tortured and killed by invaders. Still, amid grief, there’s a glimmer of hope — Yeon-joon, now a government official, has sent for her from Hanyang. Gil-chae immediately plasters on a brave face, preparing to say goodbye. But Eun-ae firmly dismisses such nonsense. As if she’d leave without her best friend!
As our heroines made their modest way to Hanyang, Jang-hyun tosses and sweats. His friends had found him half-dead on the island’s shore. Now, Goo Jam frets by his bedside, whilst Ryang-eum grips his hand and refuses to give up. As he sleeps, Jang-hyun is haunted by the same memory as ever: a child kneeling in the rain, crying for his father. Suddenly, the rain clears, and he meets Gil-chae’s frank expression. You’d better not leave me again, she scolds. When you smile, he replies, I can hear spring flowers bloom.
The real Gil-chae absolutely refuses to pine in his absence. She’s doing fine, okay? And if her daily excursions bring her to Ryang-eum’s gisaeng house — a truly scandalous establishment, by the way! — then what of it? That’s between her, her deeply offended moral sensibilities, and also sometimes Jong Jong! But it isn’t a) proof that she misses Jang-hyun, or b) anyone else’s business — got it, Eun-ae?
It takes a while for the newly-recovered Jang-hyun to brave a visit. No amount of fan-fluttering can mask his guilt over having sent Gil-chae and her friends to an island death trap. Still, reasoning that faint heart never won fair lady (unless you’re Yeon-joon, because life is unfair), he plunges ahead. He almost misses Gil-chae, who’s busy scouring the city for him. But, in the courtyard, a voice says you’re alive! in a tone so accusatory it can only belong to one person. Gil-chae marches up to him, spitting mad. Does he know the hell she went through? “Meet me in Ganghwa-do,” her foot!
Still, she adds, tentatively, I was rescued. Someone fought seventeen soldiers for me. (Jang-hyun averts his eyes.) Of course, it couldn’t have been a man as faithless as you… right? She takes a deliberate step into his space. (Jang-hyun looks positively dumbfounded.) I’ve been wondering, she murmurs. Don’t you get cold… fanning yourself in the winter? And lo, Jang-hyun reels back, bellowing out a retort with dignity at which one can only marvel: I have… a higher body temperature than most! Later, Goo Jam gives voice to the question on all our lips (besides the one about the fan): why not tell Gil-chae he saved her? Because, Jang-hyun replies — painfully empty of bravado — it embarrasses me.
Alas, the future is nothing if not rife with embarrassment. If there’s one thing our OTP excels at, it’s making everyone else perplexed and slightly uncomfortable. At dinner, Jang-hyun pokes slightly-too-satisfied fun at Yeon-joon’s lack of soldierly nous. Equally graceless, Gil-chae leaps to his defense. Oblivious, Yeon-joon laughs at the joke. Eun-ae ignores all of them, merrily taking advantage of Jang-hyun’s plentiful alcohol cabinet.
Afterwards, Gil-chae and Yeon-joon hang back in the dark. Roundabout and obtuse, Yeon-joon brings up Soon-yak’s dying words, tiptoeing around whether or not he has feelings for Gil-chae. But, he insists, you’re like a child fussing over a toy she can’t have. Gil-chae, rattled by this hit-and-run not-quite-confession, pleads with him to be frank: does he like her? Did he ever? Yeon-joon, by way of response, tugs away from her and flees. He runs smack into Jang-hyun, who has been listening with mounting disgust. You’re naive and irresolute, he sneers, making women bear the burdens you’re too cowardly to share. I know your type — and under any other circumstances, I’d snap your neck.
Spectacular verbal beatdowns notwithstanding, our hero is depressed. If Gil-chae’s still hung up on Yeon-joon, there’s nothing for him in Hanyang. The crown prince is being sent as hostage for the Khan, and in a fit of despair, Jang-hyun agrees to join as an interpreter. Still, there’s time for one last, desperate word with Gil-chae. And so quietly, eyes averted, he is as honest with her as he can bear. If I return alive, he says, then let’s talk. If marriage is the only way to make a certain woman mine… well, I’m open to negotiation.
Gil-chae is plunged into turmoil. Even admiring her own face in the mirror fails to provide consolation — a surefire sign the world is in chaos. She races after Jang-hyun, insisting she has something urgent to say. Namely… uh… right, yes, how dare he expect her to wait for him! Laughingly, Jang-hyun deploys Exhibit A: the ribbon Gil-chae left with him. She makes a grab for it. There follows a very undignified scramble for possession of the evidence, ending in both of them toppling into the grass.
There’s a hushed moment’s intimacy. With infinite gentleness, Jang-hyun leans in. Gil-chae’s eyes fall closed. All of a sudden, he ducks away, laughing — was she really going to let him kiss her? Gil-chae sputters with rage: how very dare he! He’s a dirtbag, a cad, and if he died, she’d — Jang-hyun interrupts her mid-diatribe, tugging her into a kiss. Punch-drunk, she lets it happen. As he pulls back, she gazes at him, speechless. You don’t love me yet, he admits. But don’t forget this moment.
Gauntlet thrown, Jang-hyun knows better than to stay. If there’s one thing that makes Gil-chae seethe, it’s losing out on the last word. Besides, she’s beginning to seriously rethink the identity of her dream man. And so, commandeering a horse (and its hapless rider), she gallops smack into a crowd of Qing soldiers, heedless of anything but seeing Jang-hyun again. What follows is total emotional carnage. Jang-hyun rails at Gil-chae for flinging herself into peril, whilst Gil-chae stumbles over the best way to phrase, “my prophetic dream sequences say we ought to make out.” Somehow, this emerges as, “Buy me a new pair of shoes.”
Unfortunately, Jang-hyun, master of expertly-targeted character assassinations, has reverted to what he does best. I bet it hurts your pride to want someone like me, he snaps. You think you’re so pure — whilst chasing after a married man. Stung, she slaps him. He hardly flinches. She tells him to go die. He tugs her back. If you can promise to forget Yeon-joon, he urges, then I won’t go. Lie, if you must. But bare of all pretense, Gil-chae can only give the truth: it’s not that easy. Jang-hyun holds her face in his hands, and softly intones, you’re so cruel. Then, having shattered both their hearts — and my own, to boot — he promises to return with shoes.
Later, Gil-chae receives another, inevitable blow: Yeon-joon asks Eun-ae to marry him. But Eun-ae has her own demons to face. One, the trauma of her near sexual assault. And two, the even deeper trauma of her upbringing. She’s terrified that showing even a scrap of skin to another man means she’s irrevocably tainted. When she confides in Gil-chae, however, her support is unwavering. Nothing happened in those woods, she insists. Besides, you’re the one that Yeon-joon wants. Nobody deserves him more than you. And she really does mean it — even at the wedding itself, she manages to drum up a smile. Somehow, she realizes, this doesn’t hurt her.
Dragged across the border as hostage, the crown prince is dealt humiliation upon humiliation. Jang-hyun reflects that it’s all very sad, and also entirely not his problem. He’s far too busy becoming disgustingly rich. As interpreter, his position is deliciously exploitable — he can trade banned goods like tobacco and ginseng with impunity. It’s not long before he’s the go-to guy for everything off the market. One day he supplies weapons to the Khan; the next, it’s bamboo medicine for the crown princess.
Alas, success comes at a price. All too soon, he and Ryang-eum are spotted by their former Qing commander, GENERAL YONG GOL-DAE (Choi Young-woo). A man of short temper and pronounced homicidal tendencies, General Yong is keen to exact revenge on the spies who got the better of him. But, as Jang-hyun points out, how can they be spies? If they were, that would mean he failed the Khan in letting them go free! General Yong’s eyes narrow. He’s got him there. Still, he declares, he fondly awaits the day when he’s able to tear out their eyes and tongues. Nice fellow, that general.
Jang-hyun’s downfall follows swiftly after. Word hits the Joseon faction that Jung Myung-soo, a Qing interpreter, is guilty of embezzling silver. Jang-hyun quickly warns the crown prince to keep quiet: Myung-soo has friends in high places. But the damage has already been dealt. In strides General Yong, declaring that Myung-soo was framed by the Joseon courtier Jung Noe-kyung — and all who worked with him must die. It’s a simple matter to ensure that Jang-hyun gets caught in the crossfire. Our hero is arrested faster than you can say, “due process is for suckers.”
Jang-hyun’s not the only one on the wrong side of a cell. Yeon-joon may also have bitten off more than he can chew. In his defense, back home, people loved his long, pompous speeches! The same, alas, cannot be said of the king. Fired up by idealism, Yeon-joon decides that what his ruler needs in these troubled times is a long lecture about his moral failings. The king, eyes a-gleam with sadism, tells Yeon-joon that he’s impressed by his courage. He’s the perfect man to lead a diplomatic mission to Qing! Yeon-joon panics, refuses… and is immediately arrested. Consequently, Eun-ae and her household are stripped of both home and property.
Worse follows for Gil-chae. The Joseon delegation from Qing have returned; peering on tiptoes, she stands in the crowd, awaiting Jang-hyun. He’s conspicuously absent. Frantic, she turns to another diplomat, only to be told that he was executed. Sure enough, she is given a box containing his possessions… including the ribbon that he swore he’d carry till he died. That night, Gil-chae sleeps with his jacket clutched to her chest. She dreams of the beach — of her husband, smiling at her from the shore. Finally, and far too late, the glare recedes. Jang-hyun’s face emerges. She clings to him and weeps.
Pride cast to the winds, she carries his jacket to a cliff-side, with her friends behind her. If a wife holds her husband’s clothing and calls out his name three times, there’s a chance he’ll return. The jacket billows in the air. When they were on the run from invaders, he had draped it over her as she slept. Now, without a trace of embarrassment, she cries out his name, willing him to still be alive. And sure enough, miles away, in a distant throne room — Jang-hyun, very much breathing, kneels helpless before the Khan.
Folks, I am slain. Cause of death: two beautiful idiots kissing in a field. All the promotional pictures have been building up to this moment, and damn if it didn’t deliver! What’s lovely about these episodes — and these actors — is how visible it is when everyone’s masks begin to crumble. The first time Jang-hyun is reunited with Gil-chae, you can pinpoint the moment he decides to plaster on a glib face — and that second of delay before he manages. The fan is back (and this may be controversial, but I love it!); however it scarcely qualifies as a shield anymore. Gil-chae’s hilarious patronizing smile is also back in action, but we get a million different micro-expressions of puzzlement, uncertainty, and oops-I-really-did-not-think-this-through. When they were at war, all social performances were suspended; now, they’re battered from disuse.
I love how war has left every character off-balance and struggling to cope, in both obvious and more subtle ways. Yeon-joon, accustomed to being a big fish in a small pond, completely misjudges his place in the social order. Jang-hyun gets too ambitious and underestimates his enemies. Eun-ae wants so badly to fall back into the role of the ideal wife, but she must hide pieces of herself on pain of death. Gil-chae longs for the days when she was carefree, vain and adored, but she’s learned and changed far too much. She’s caught between knowing she’s older and wiser — whilst simultaneously being told that she needs to grow up. Nobody fits in fully anymore, despite yearning for normalcy and peace. Bring on the final episodes of Part 1 — I suspect we’re building up to something even more spectacular!