“Hwajung” (“Splendid Politics”) Episodes 5 & 6

Darn you, Joseon-era fashion! I know clothing in the past wasn’t supposed to reflect your individuality. Back in the day, clothes were supposed to identify your class and rank. The more you looked like everyone else, the better.

But although it’s historically accurate to put every government minister in the exact same wispy beard, red robe and skyscraper hat, it’s really tough on the narrative.

During the first two weeks of Splendid Politics, I wasn’t careful about figuring out who was who. I figured it was enough to recognize Prince Gwanghae, the conspiratorial Lady Kim and Lee Yi Cheom, and the cute kids. I knew I should keep track of Lee Deok-Hyeong (aka Haneum), Chief Hong and Mayor Kang, but I’ve consistently confused them with each other. Chief Hong generally wears clothes that are almost the same as Lee Deok-Hyeong’s, and Mayor Kang in his minister’s robe looks like every other minister.

Can you tell who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in these screenshots?

That’s Lee Deok-Hyeong on the left and Mayor Kang on the right. But you can see why I might get them confused.

When Chief Hong and Mayor Kang are accompanied by their sons, it’s easier to recognize them. But get them on their own, talking to other men in beards and hats, and I’m lost.

As a result, I missed some of the impact of the big reveal in episode 6. I should have been shocked to learn that Mayor Kang—father of the precocious Kang In-Woo—is masterminding things behind the scenes. Instead, I was busy googling the pictures of the cast on Asian Wiki and trying to figure out who I was looking at.

The discovery that Mayor Kang has a hidden agenda will make for good drama, though. We haven’t learned that much about In-Woo yet, but he genuinely seems to care about his friendship with Hong Joo-Won. And in these episodes, battle lines were drawn—covertly—between the boys’ fathers. How will In-Woo react when he learns about his father’s political schemes?

Despite my frustration with look-alike courtiers, this week had plenty to hold my interest. To uncap:

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Princess Jeongmyeong escapes

With Prince Yeongchang removed from the palace, the dowager queen begins to worry for herself and her daughter. King Gwanghae officially detains her. She covertly organizes Princess Jeongmyeong’s escape from the palace, believing this is the only way to protect her daughter.

The escape sequence is suspenseful. Just as the princess and her retinue are about to be caught by palace guards in pursuit, Joo-Won, In-Woo and Lee Deok-Hyeong come across them. It’s satisfying to see Haneum (Lee Deok-Hyeong) jump into action. Without understanding the situation, he still takes a stand against Lee Yi Cheom, while sending the boys ahead with the princess.

The teenage Joo-Won is consistently endearing, here more than ever. He promises to the princess that he’ll protect her. (Earlier in the episode, he asked his father if marriage to the princess would allow him to help her and Yeongchang.) This kid is a jewel.

When the princess and her last remaining court ladies make it to the harbor, Lee Yi Cheom and the guards are just behind them. Court Lady Choi makes the princess leave alone in a rowboat. Then, Lady Choi drops a match on the munitions ship at anchor in the harbor, blowing up the entire cargo of gunpowder. The explosion is spectacular. Prince Gwanghae can see the glow on the horizon from the palace. With Lady Choi and another court lady dead in the explosion, it’s natural for everyone to assume the princess was killed as well.

Go, Lady Choi! I liked her and I’m sorry she didn’t make it. She carried herself like a prim “court lady,” but she was tough as nails at the heart of her. The princess escapes thanks to her courage and quick thinking.

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Rumors of prophecy threaten King Gwanghae

Even before the princess escapes and the gunpowder ship explodes, the palace is in an uproar. Someone broke into the throne room at night and hung a fresh sheep’s carcass above the throne. The blood dripping everywhere makes for a gory kind of vandalism.

And the vandal leaves a message mentioning the prophecy in Chief Hong’s office. Until now, only a small number of people knew about the prediction found in a cave next to the corpse of a famous fortune teller.

The king scoffs at the idea that he should be afraid of a prophecy. But the court officials see the prophecy as a weapon that Prince Yeongchang’s supporters (aka the “Westerners,” since they were based in the west of the city) could use against King Gwanghae.

Lady Kim and Lee Yi Cheom—who belong to the “Greater Northern” faction supporting Gwanghae—believe the prophecy should be suppressed.

The precise wording of the prophecy is not as important as its interpretations. Because it talks about the king’s true blood, it seems to say Yeongchang will become ruler. But Lady Kim is the first to realize that the prophecy may refer to Princess Jeongmyeong or her bloodline. Lady Kim tortures the elderly woman who is the royal shaman and extracts the information that Jeongmyeong has an “ominous destiny.”

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Not everyone believes that prophecies will come true. The king is a skeptic, and frankly Lady Kim and Lee Yi Cheom don’t seem like the types to believe in the supernatural. But everyone worries the prophecy could rally the people to oppose Gwanghae.

Lady Kim advises King Gwanghae to destroy the prophecy and kill the prince and princess. When Gwanghae hesitates, Lady Kim presents it to him as a done deal. She tells him that news will come to him of the prince’s death. She and Lee Yi Cheom believe they have succeeded in suppressing the prophecy and killing prince and princess.

The news that Prince Yeongchang suffocated to death is a particularly gruesome detail. And Lady Kim is scarier than ever this week as she cold-bloodedly gets the king to follow her Machiavellian strategies.

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