In a nutshell: This is a hard drama to sum up. I adored it but, while it did not betray my love, there were some flaws and I cannot ignore them. Fortunately the flaws only appeared in the third act, were mainly swept away by the finale, and left the core love story alone. The drama may have stumbled but it remained true to itself, bringing a new twist to an old tale and introducing us to a woman with a heart strong enough to shake a kingdom and a man strong enough to love her.
The Lovers: The characters were the heart of this drama. They either pulled you into their world, tying you to their struggles and desires, or left you by the roadside picking at plot nits. The bulk of the work rested on the shoulders of Kim Tae-hee and Yoo Ah-in as our main couple, Jang Ok-jung and Crown Prince Lee Soon (later King Sukjong).
It was their initial interest, growing into a palpable attraction, blossoming into a deeply rooted love that made the drama so compelling to watch. And both Kim Tae-hee and Yoo Ah-in did an amazing job creating two characters who were fascinating in their own right, but became something breathtaking together.
That Yoo Ah-in created such a watchable and interesting character was no surprise. He’s an intense actor and well able to show intelligence and sincerity on screen. So that his Lee Soon was believable as a calculating and powerful king, driven to free his throne from serving the nobility’s greed and instead serve the people was not unexpected.
What was unexpected was how readily Kim Tae-hee matched him. She has the reputation of having more beauty than acting skill. This is my first time seeing her, so I can’t comment on that reputation’s accuracy. What I can say is that in this drama, she was a damn good actress. Ok-jung’s struggle against the strictures of her time period, her drive to protect her family and find a meaningful life for herself was made real by Kim Tae-hee. I believed in Ok-jung. Believed in her strongly. And I wanted her to succeed.
And when these two compelling characters came together… this is what the word “chemistry” was invented for. They understood each other and their similar dreams of a life better than the status quo around them. Finding someone equal to their own strength… they got how special that was. They also understood that their being together was a risk and they went into that risk with their eyes wide open. And what a story that made.
The Queen and the Prince: Playing the supporting role for this consuming a love story could have been a thankless task. But again, we were given unexpectedly compelling characters breathed to life by the actors playing them.
Hong Soo-hyun played (eventual) Queen In-hyun. I’ve loved her since The Princess’ Man and she did not disappoint. Her In-hyun was both intelligent and naive, ambitious but also vulnerable. Even at her worst moments it was hard to hate the character. You could see the fear that drove her to sometimes desperate acts of cruelty and that kept her sympathetic, kept her human.
There were also a lot of small yet powerful scenes between In-hyun and Ok-jung — more actually, than between In-hyun and the king. They served to show the differences, but also the deep connection, between the two women. In the end, the greatest tragedy may have been that the two were never quite able to become friends. I suspect it would have been an epic friendship indeed — probably worthy of its very own drama.
Lee Sang-yeob as Prince Dong Pyung was the biggest acting surprise for me. I’d liked him well enough in Nice Guy, but when Dong Pyung first appeared he struck me as a poor man’s Song Joong-ki from his Sungkyungkwan Scandal days. I quickly learned, however, that I was selling both the actor and the character far, far too short.
In the end, Prince Dong Pyung was the heart of the drama with his deep love for and selfless support of both Ok-jung and Lee Soon. It was Dong Pyung’s worry and sympathy for Lee Soon that helped me realize the weight of the crown Lee Soon carried. And it was Dong Pyung’s horror at finding Ok-jung inside the palace that helped me realize how dangerous that place was for a common girl like her. Ostensibly a frivolous playboy, he was Lee Soon’s best secret weapon and Ok-jung’s best secret support and by drama end, I loved him dearly.
The Villains Three: Two of the main villains were awesome. They were both master game players, both greedily ambitious and both incredibly well acted. In a nice twist, they spent most of their time fighting each other, spinning the plot in all kinds of fascinating ways and creating both obstacles and opportunities for Lee Soon and Ok-jung.
Lord Min (Lee Hyo-jung), Queen In-hyun’s father, was a puppet master who felt the kingdom (and the king) should be his to control. He controlled the court, was willing to do anything to make his daughter queen, and preferred his kings docile and obedient — even if he had to beat them to a pulp to get them that way.
Merchant Jang (Sung Dong-il), Ok-jung’s uncle, a cunning and ruthless manipulator in his own right, was a common man who’d clawed his way up to great wealth and influence. He had a blood grudge against Lord Min and was willing to do anything to pull Lord Min down and get his own blood (via his niece) mingling with the crown. (Sung Dong-il was amazing in this role. Never has a smile been more terrifying.)
They were each formidable foes for Lee Soon and Ok-jung to face off against — pushing our lovers to use all their intelligence and wit to bend the board their way. And it made for a intriguing dance: the two villains sparring against each other while also trying to bring their respective would-be puppets under their control.
And then came the third villain. The Queen Mother (Kim Sun-kyung) was, unfortunately, more a screamer than a schemer. The problem was less the actress and more the character as written. As Lee Soon’s bigoted, corrupt and short-sighted mother she had enough power to be dangerous without the need for intelligence. And that leads me to…
The Flaw: The plot was, for the most part, delightful. Intelligent characters taking part in great games of manipulations and conspiracies and intrigue. I adore this sort of setup — chess games of move and counter-move. And I adore the sort of characters needed to play that kind of game. (Tree with Deep Roots is an excellent example of what that type of plot can do.)
Unfortunately, once we entered the inner-palace, the Queen Mother took over as our main foe. And that’s where the drama began to stumble. Her preferred method of attack was one of brute force. None of this was out of character, and her force really was formidable. But it did get boring. For a time there it felt like the drama was lost in the weeds. (If we had do-over button, I’d have loved for this section to have featured more of Queen In-hyun. She would have been more subtle in her attacks and therefore, more interesting. Especially if she kept her not-quite-a-villain status.)
Fortunately, after a few episodes the drama succeeded in pulling itself out of the weeds by refocusing on what hooked the viewers in the first place — Ok-jung and Lee Soon. The plot never quite recaptured its previous levels of intrigue (though it did make an effort and came fairly close). But, by returning to the strong characters that made me care about the story in the first place, it managed to head into a strong and satisfying ending.
The Controversy: Writer Choi Jung-mi took on an incredibly ambitious project for a novice drama writer. (Yes, it was based on her novel, but writing a book and writing a drama script are two very different animals.) And, despite the mid-show stumble, she managed to end it well. I admire her for that.
I also admire her willingness to take on the oft-told story of Queen In-hyun, King Sukjong and concubine Jang Hee Bin (her rank, not her name; her name is lost from what I can tell), and turn it completely on its head. I’m always suspicious when a patriarchal society, which the Joseon period most certainly was, paints a controversial woman as a witch and a whore. Writer Choi shares those suspicions, apparently. And she’s written a story that reexamines the common legend. Reexamination is always a good thing in my book (truth can handle it, after all) as it encourages questioning which encourages thinking.
I liked what it added to the drama in a storytelling vein as well. The known history hung a gleaming, sharp sword over the action, adding tension to every scene. A tension that would have dulled if they’d gone the route of removing the love story entirely from its historic foundation.
In Conclusion: The drama wasn’t perfect. But, unlike dramas that fade away to a whimpering, unsatisfying, or just plain mystifying ending, this one stuck to the story it was trying to tell. Jang Ok-jung very much lived for love and she and Lee Soon fought to build their love despite the odds, and enemies, against them. I grew to love the characters and that carried me through to the end. Not perfect, but very much beloved.