Episodes 17 and 18 of Hwajung (aka Splendid Politics) deliver the pay-off we’ve awaited since early in the series. The Queen Mother’s arrest forces the princess to reveal her identity.
After last week’s episodes, which occasionally got bogged down in MIBTIR (Men in Beards Talking in Rooms), it was a good change of pace. The focus here is melodrama rather than politics—or rather, the melodrama and politics are better interwoven, in scenes such as Gwanghae and Jeongmyeong’s “reunion” (below).
The princess continues to have more chemistry with In-Woo than with Joo-Won. Hear that, producers? Although K-drama tradition says the first lead always gets the “girl,” don’t forget the power of surprise. Several years ago during the airing of melodrama Queen of Reversals, audiences clamored for the heroine to end up with second lead Park Shi-Hoo, leading to an unexpected ending. Consider me officially clamoring for In-Woo.
At the center of these episodes is Gyosan’s fabricated treason plot.
The poet and schemer uses Jeongmyeong’s bracelet to lure the Queen Mother to a rendezvous with her supporters. Gyosan supplies a fake letter from the Queen Mother, claiming that the Gwanghae has no right to the throne. And as soon as the Queen Mother is arrested, Mayor Kang and Gyosan start spreading around bribe money to their own supporters. Kang’s people will demand the Queen Mother’s execution.
Gyosan plans to bring down the king after the Queen Mother is executed. He’ll produce evidence saying the Gwanghae fabricated the “treason plot” as an excuse to get rid of his late father’s wife. (Formally, she’s his mother because her title is Queen Mother, but in reality, Gwanghae is the son of a concubine.)
Gwanghae is suspicious from the beginning. Not believing the treason plot could be real, Gwanghae tries to get an explanation from the Queen Mother. When he learns she was tricked by a keepsake that once belonged to Jeongmyeong, he starts to put together the puzzle pieces. With a little more information, he might be able to figure out who Hwa Yi is, but Joo-Won refuses to give the king any hints.
Joo-Won himself has a lot of questions in these episodes, because In-Woo refuses to explain anything about Hwa Yi. In-Woo tells Joo-Won that he shouldn’t know the truth, because he’s loyal to the king (above). In-Woo tells Hwa Yi the same thing—they can’t trust Joo-Won.
Joo-Won still isn’t putting the puzzle pieces together himself. He has to ask Hwa Yi, and at the end of episode 17 she finally reveals her identity to Joo-Won (above).
The princess is less decisive and more frustrated in these episodes than we’ve seen her before. She’s tried her best to reach her mother, but instead she accidentally put her in danger. I can see why she’s starting to lose her pluck.
Perhaps the most striking scene this week is when In-Woo stops the princess from running after her mother and the soldiers arresting her. It’s the first time since she left Japan that we’ve seen her lose control of her emotions (below).
Even though she denies her identity to In-Woo, he’s more sure than ever that Hwa Yi is Jeongmyeong. Seeing her cry, he recognizes the girl from a decade ago and can’t believe he didn’t know it was her at once. He’s the right person to protect her from her own recklessness in episode 17. He bluntly tells her no one will believe her if she reveals her identity at that moment (below).
But why does the princess deny her identity to In-Woo in the opening scene of episode 17?
My impression is she’s so accustomed to being Hwa Yi that she doesn’t want to lose the disguise. For ten years, she’s had this identity as the resourceful, scrappy working guy. Becoming the princess again means returning to that world where “there are no children” and “no one is innocent,” as Gwanghae said. It also means giving up the freedom to walk in the streets. She wishes she could have a few more days as Hwa Yi and she wants to make her own decision about when to take off the disguise.
Also, when she yells at In-Woo for caring so much about some dead princess, I think for one moment she’s afraid he and Joo-Won care about dead Princess Jeongmyeong more than about the living Hwa Yi. (Not true, of course.) But this isn’t a melodrama. We’ve missed the chance for Hwa Yi and the princess to be love rivals to each other.
In-Woo has a better idea than Joo-Won what’s going on, because he knows Gyosan and his father are allies. He doesn’t tell Hwa Yi that he’s betraying his father. But we see him seeking out his father’s enemies for the first time, visiting a meeting attended by Joo-Won’s father Councillor Hong. The princess’s reappearance is spurring him to take more of an interest in something beyond wine, women and song.
For In-Woo, the reappearance of the princess is an opportunity to openly fight for her, whereas ten years ago he held back because Joo-Won was first to fall for her. He’s up front about planning to protect her this time. He doesn’t intend to let Joo-Won win and he thinks he’s got first dibs (above).
For Joo-Won, the princess’s return means conflicted loyalties (above—yes, that’s Joo-Won’s conflicted loyalties face—I tried to find shots where he looks more expressive but to no avail). What if she really does intend to destroy the king?
Joo-Won does show great insight by visiting the king directly after the king’s reunion with the princess. Gwanghae is stunned to see Jeongmyeong, but knows he has to hide her from his scheming courtiers who tried to kill her last time. Joo-Won comes at just the right moment to read the king’s mind and protect her.
At the moment, Joo-Won can make protecting the princess his “job,” because Gwanghae doesn’t want to hurt her. But In-Woo is probably right that the princess won’t forgive Gwanghae. Their swords will be at each other’s throats, as he says (below). And he fears he and Joo-Won will soon be fighting as well, over the princess.
And what is Gwanghae thinking after his initial shock?
I believe he’s grateful she survived, because he once cared for his little half-sister (below). But he knows her return will start renewed intrigues, because of the prophecy that her bloodline will inherit the throne. In fact, now that she has returned from Japan with smelting knowledge and her new name, “Fire Flower,” she is the person the prophecy referred to: one who controls fire.
Gwanghae delivers a master stroke at his enemies in episode 18 when he decides not to execute the Queen Mother (below). First, he tricks his courtiers into loudly declaring their concern for him; then he announces his decision. When they object, he uses their own strength against them. With their great care for him, he says, why should he fear showing mercy and letting the Queen Mother live? His position as king is clearly stable.
Though he’s an ambiguous character, I’m rooting for him when he establishes his control of the situation in scenes like this. It’s when he’s weak that I worry most about bloodshed breaking out.
With Gyosan’s failure to have the Queen Mother executed, Mayor Kang appears set to leave town till things die down. Gyosan will probably have to pay the price for his failure, though.
Only a couple things were unclear in these episodes. First, why did Mayor Kang detain In-Woo after Lee Yi-Cheom visits seeking Hwa Yi? It might make sense for Mayor Kang to lock his son up all the time, since In-Woo defies him, but why at that moment? (Perhaps simply because it provided an excuse for a good sword fight, below.)
And what is Hwa Yi’s larger plan for hurting the king? She has offered her life to the king, in exchange for the king’s saving her mother. But since Gwanghae doesn’t really want to kill her—or so it seems—what will she do next? How was she planning to get revenge on him?
I’m not sure what to make of the love triangle developing in the center of the story. All three of these characters are compelling and interesting on their own. But the princess doesn’t trust anyone. She doesn’t have any room for the past in her heart, she tells Joo-Won (below). I can imagine her breaking the hearts of both these guys.
Episode 18 ends with Joo-Won getting injured protecting Hwa Yi, which will give her another chance to see that he’s loyal to her, even though he couldn’t protect her ten years ago. But I wish In-Woo had been there. He’s good with a sword and wouldn’t have been injured in the first place. Joo-Won gets points for raw courage but I’d put my money on In-Woo as the better protector, at least when assassins are concerned.
And In-Woo’s quick to see the angles, quick to understand the various schemes taking place around him. Living with his father has made him wary. He’s already thinking ahead about conflicts to come, while Joo-Won is still trying to understand the present situation.
No denying it: I’m firmly Team In-Woo. But now that Jeongmyeong is reunited with her mother (above), we’ll enter into Act II of the story, less splendid sulfur and more splendid politics. (I’ll miss the sulfur.) With dozens of episodes to go, there’s plenty of time for these characters to grow—and time for the princess to start trusting others. If she gets interested in Joo-Won, I’m willing to try suspending disbelief. Until now, though, Jeongmyeong seems to see Joo-Won merely as a helpful boy. She feels pity for him (below), but not much else. Poor guy.
Come on, Joo-Won, get some game! And come on, In-Woo, think of a plan for Jeongmyeong to outwit everyone! Nothing shows you care like a cunning plan for revenge. ♥