Spoilers through episode 20 below…
Our dark horses are beginning to show their strength and their goals. At least — I feel like I’ve got a good handle on Choi now. She’s pretty much lusting after Lee Soon. I’m not sure she necessarily wants the Queen’s seat — but she’d like a bit of that power, I’m betting. Hyun Chi-soo is still shadowy for me. I don’t know what his ultimate goal is. Does he want Ok-jung dead? Alive but out of the palace? He’s the more dangerous threat in that he knows all the players really, really well. Choi’s threat is her willingness to grab any opportunity offered. And they’re getting strong just as Ok-jung is weakening — very nearly to the point of madness.
It’s incredibly painful to watch. There are times Ok-jung almost channels the Queen Mother (not a woman anyone should emulate) and the only relief’s been when she’s managed to pull back in horror at herself (the attack on all the flirtatious court maids, for example). But even that barrier is cracking with her attack on Choi. The madness is growing.
I’m still highly sympathetic towards Ok-jung (I give Kim Tae-hee tons of credit for that), even as she behaves so, so badly. She’s in a position she’s very much not suited for; the seat is too powerful for an unconnected person like herself. And the people she’s aligned with are either evil (her uncle) or none too bright. (A twist I kind of like, actually; after being powerless for so long — and after that attempted coup swept away most of their best and brightest I’d assume — it makes sense that there’s a lot of fumbling in the Southern faction. And that it would frustrate the crap out of Lee Soon.) So she’s by herself, surrounded by enemies… and she’s lost the king’s trust.
If she hadn’t tried to manipulate him several episodes ago, I’m pretty sure Lee Soon would still have her back now. He has to know that the palace is a hard place to exist in, even if you’re trained for it. As an outsider, only there because traditions were forcibly set aside to allow her in, Ok-jung is isolated. If she had let him, I think Lee Soon would have helped her. But she chose to fight on her own and it caused secrets and lies (relationship killers both) between the two of them. (The irony is, I think her goal had been to keep him above the fray; protect him from having to choose between herself and his mother. I don’t think he knows that.)
I wish Lee Soon and Ok-jung could just sit down and have a long, frank talk. But I don’t see that happening. I feel like we’re watching their love for each other die. His killed by his growing distrust of her. Hers swallowed up by her desperation to be loved by him. They’re not really seeing each other now and that’s heartbreaking.
At this point in a drama — only four more episodes to go — we should be heading into the darkest time. This is where the audience should fear that everything is about to go horribly wrong. So it’s not bad storytelling. Yet. I just… Even if it ends tragically (which, of course, it must on some level) I hope it doesn’t end bitterly. But I fear my hope is an empty one. This darkness is dark.