Oh, Iljimae I’m going to miss you! A more thoughtful and less spoiler-filled review will come, but for now, I need to gush for a moment or two about the character we got to watch grow from a lost, abandoned and angry boy into the hero his people needed.
Last episode totally spoiled below…
This last episode did such a good job bringing home how heavy Iljimae’s charge is. He’s basically set himself up as the defender of the helpless. That he was doing this during a time of deep corruption was hard enough. But after he wakes up from his coma, and learns his country has lost the war… you can feel the weight of every single hurt person settle onto his shoulders.
So while on the one hand it sucks for Wol-hee that he’s gone for nine years — it’s not like he’s rolling in wine, women and song. And she does get the solace of her son and word from the people he’s rescued. (I just realized: Wol-hee takes on his mother’s role for this interim, listening for whatever scraps she can get about what he’s up to.)
And I adored that she created the paper-mill and thereby provided work and income and respectability for all the people Iljimae rescued. That’s why I can’t dismiss Wol-hee as merely the hapless girlfriend. She’s smart and hardworking and stable and whatever Iljimae’s feelings towards her, he needs her. (I actually disagree with the director that Iljimae never really loved her as he’d loved Dal. Or at least, I can agree that his love for her wasn’t as simple and pure as his love for Dal. Which is why he can sacrifice a quiet life with her to fulfill his task. But he still needs her to ground and refuel him and that’s because he does love her.)
But finally, when his work is done (in this life), we see him the most relaxed he’s been since Dal died. His journey is over. He can be a father and husband now.
But… There’s that future-flash we got at the beginning of the series. And Iljimae is woken by a nightmare that he’s not done and over 200 years later he’ll be working the same job, being the mountain ridge in the storm, doing his best to protect the helpless. And we leave with that final shot of him resting in Wol-hee’s lap. Because he’s right. His task isn’t done. Will never be done as long as there’s corruption. But he will also always have Wol-hee, providing what comfort and solace and support she can.
This moves beyond epic into the realm of myth and I adores it so, so much!! More than mere italics can communicate!!!! And I seriously wish I knew more about Buddhism and Eastern myths and such because the series had so many Buddhist monks and I know they’re signaling something but I don’t know what it is. I just recognize a demigod character like Iljimae when I see one.
(Yes, we know his very mortal parentage. But Iljimae has enough gifts — remarkable beauty, incredible fighting skills — to point towards a god being the baby-daddy. In Western myth, anyway. As does his suffering, for that matter. Since probably that god cheated and yes I’m thinking of the usual Zeus vs. Hera shenanigans that plagued Olympus and Ancient Greece.)
But I digress. Though, since I’m digressing, this last episode had a moment where Lee Hyun-woo, playing Cha-dol, really shone. He’d been amusing before, but nothing really jumped out at me that this was an actor to keep an eye on. But this one scene, when he’s working a restaurant as a prisoner of war/slave… there’s a moment where he gets knocked down and he looks up and he’s crying and trying not to and… he looks so exhausted and hopeless. And I started sobbing because I could feel how lost he was. Not that he was even in that bad of a circumstance all things considered, just… this was as good as he was going to have it and he’d lost everything. And then Mr. Bae shows up and Cha-dol’s not lost and he can finally sob out all his pain and… yeah. I tried to tell my husband about it later and couldn’t because I started sobbing again. And this time through I was expecting it… and once more I cried. That was impressive.
(And then I screen-capped it and cried again. Seriously. This scene…)
Ending the digression, I conclude: The Return of Iljimae is awesome. And Jung Il-woo is awesome. And Yoon Jin-seo is awesome. And everyone involved was awesome. Totally worth the re-watch.