Okay, so my non-spoilery thoughts: I LOVED IT I LOVED IT I LOVED IT. THE SHOW DIDN’T TANK NEARLY AS MUCH AS I THOUGHT IT WOULD. AND I SHIP SEON-HO AND HWI SO MUCH IT HURTS. (I feel like that was kind of the main ship of the show, tbh.)
A few things you might want to know in order to understand this
The show is set during the change from the Goryeo period to the Joseon dynasty at around 1400. It’s about two friends, Hwi and Seon-Ho, who come into conflict and get swept up into the political maelstrom. Also, Yeon is an angel and is Hwi’s little sister. Hui-Jae is there.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding, Hui-Jae is Hwi’s girlfriend. Oh, and one summary claimed there was a love triangle? And that both Hwi and Seon-Ho loved Hui-Jae? But you watch the show, and the only ‘love triangle’ is that both Hui-Jae and Seon-Ho love Hwi and the whole thing was just a weird moment? (Also, this drama was very queerbait-y. Wow.) There was something…very tentative between Hui-Jae and Seon-Ho, but–thank God–they dropped it really early on in the drama, which is good for us, of course.
Prince Bang-Won is fighting for the throne, and his father Yi Seung-Gye is fighting to keep his throne for as long as possible. Bang-Won and Yi Seung-Gye are both real people, as well as the rest of the royal family. Most of the other characters are made up, except for Sam-Bong and a few others.
All right, so now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start out with the characters. Spoilers from here on out.
Hwi, AKA the stabby idiot (but we love him anyway)
I liked him. He wasn’t my very favorite character, and I feel like he could have been developed a bit more? But he was a decent character. I absolutely love that he ended up apologizing for the things he did wrong. I wouldn’t have liked him NEARLY as much if we hadn’t had that scene. This is why you have characters own up to their mistakes! Not only is it inspiring, it also can be really emotionally resonating and deep and keeps me from hating them. ❤
He’s a bit hard for me to put my finger on, possibly because his characterization tends to jump around depending on what the plot needs. He’s very sweet, yes, but he also has kind of a dark side. For most of the drama, he’s working with Bang-Won, who is planning on killing the sixteen-year-old crown prince? I should mention, in case you don’t realize, that the sixteen-year-old crown prince is Bang-Won’s brother. And it’s a bit hard for me to believe that Hwi can be complicit in that and still be the puppy of the show. I like him a lot, though! If I don’t think too hard about how he gets from one emotional state to the other, we’re fine. And the acting is amazing, as with everyone.
BUT SERIOUSLY, STOP STABBING YOUR BOYFRIEND, HWI. I’m not saying you have to get back together with Little Miss War Crimes, but at the same time, maybe show some hesitation before stabbing the guy who saved your sister?
Seon-Ho, AKA the other stabby idiot, AKA our resident (probably) bisexual disaster, AKA the reason I kept watching this show
I swear I projected so hard onto him. His orientation is never really stated, but I’d say it’s pretty heavily implied that he’s bisexual. Which is to say that IT’S QUEERBAIT, but to be fair they were never clear what his relationship was with Yeon, either. I feel like I really should mind this, but I don’t, and I don’t know why. Queer-baiting drives me up the wall in other shows, but maybe here, it’s…it’s so over-the-top? Like, I’m not really sure if you can interpret Seon-Ho as not being bi. Look, I don’t know why I feel the way I do. All I know is, I can stand this and I couldn’t stand the queer-baiting in Sherlock and I don’t know why. It probably helps a lot that this is a historical drama, while Sherlock was not. I feel like historical shows have more leeway with ambiguous relationships. In Sherlock it was just…Look, these characters know what bisexuality is, everyone is telling them that they look like a couple, and John even admits!! that he has feelings for Sherlock at one point!! and then he just goes on with his life and the show pretends like it never happened. I don’t even ship John and Sherlock, at all, but it makes me really mad and it feels really exploitative of queer viewers. But if you’re working with historical characters and it’s just something that isn’t discussed in the society as much, I think you have more of an explanation as to why the attraction never really gets addressed.
But anyway, I am here for dumb anxious bi goths! Us dumb anxious bi goths have to stick together.
(Seon-Ho is heavily implied to be in love with both Yeon, Hwi’s sister, and also Hwi himself, and I do have to laugh at how ridiculous that is. To be fair though, straight girls get love triangles with two brothers ALL THE TIME.)
He’s such a moron! He just lights up the screen whenever he’s there. He’s a very morally complex character, and you have to guess a lot of his motivations, but like…usually the motivation is there, it’s just not readily apparent. Because the motivation is honestly insane. It’s like a guessing game! My mom’s family was pretty dysfunctional, and I can honestly recognize a lot of the same patterns in Seon-Ho. I know what I always say about how trauma doesn’t excuse a character’s bad behavior, but honestly, Seon-Ho…I get it. It felt real. And his apology to Hwi at the end? LITERAL GOLD. It tied the whole story together. So beautiful. Oh, and you want to know something beautiful and sad and ridiculous? Seon-Ho and Hwi die in each other’s arms. Also, what is it with me loving characters who get stabbed and then stab the other guy as they lay there dying? I mean sure, as far as I can think of it’s just Mordred and Seon-Ho, but that still feels like too many. (Two very big spoilers written in white, select to see.)
Also, towards the beginning of the show, we get a moment were Seon-Ho and the heroine, Hui-Jae, meet, and it goes something like this (not verbatim, obviously):
Hui-Jae: Hello, I–
Seon-Ho: HI I HAVE DADDY ISSUES I LEARNED TO TRAMPLE ON PEOPLE TO GET AHEAD FROM MY FATHER DID I MENTION I HAVE DADDY ISSUES I HATE MY DAD I JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW
Anyway, it’s amazing. BUT YOU NEED TO STOP STABBING YOUR BOYFRIEND, TOO, SEON-HO. YOU DON’T GET A PASS JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL AND PROBABLY BI.
Oh, you know what’s funny? When I started this, I was thinking, ‘well, this whole thing seems pretty bi, but you know, it’s a different time period, and I definitely don’t want to say that all male characters who express affection for each other are probably–‘ and then episode 3 came along and NOPE THIS WAS QUEERBAIT ALL ALONG MY INSTINCTS WERE CORRECT.
Yeon, AKA the only one who’s got it together, AKA a literal ball of sunshine
What a sweetie. She’s living her best Gothic heroine life. So pure.
She is Hwi’s ill little sister who ends up getting used as a pawn by Seon-Ho’s father to make life miserable for everyone. She’s honestly probably the one character in this show who does not have something shady going on on the side? (We love and support our shady characters too, of course.) She’s trapped in this awful situation, but she still is unfailingly kind. I really thought the actor brought a lot of life to this role. She managed to make a relatively minor-ish character really stand out.
I also ship Yeon and Seon-Ho, incidentally. What do you do when you ship one character with two different people? Write two fanfics?
Also, is it just me or is Yeon living out a Gothic heroine trope? The ill girl gets taken in by a charming, nice, and shady young man who isn’t telling her everything, while the man’s father acts shady and displeased in the background. Where am I getting that from? Have you read a Gothic novel like that before?
She did get fridged, though. I really don’t think she needed to die. I get that it’s customary in stories like these for the cute little sister to die in order for the heroes to have something to get revenge over, but I really think you could have taken the plot in way more interesting directions by keeping her alive. It’s why you don’t always follow the cliche! I will say, however, that I am glad that they didn’t kill her off at the beginning of the show. That would have been stupid, and Yeon did stick around long enough to do things and be lovable. I do appreciate that, seeing as how I’ve watched WAY too many historical dramas where the cute little sibling died in episode one for no reason except plot.
Hui-Jae, AKA She Who Is Without Screen Time
She wasn’t horrible, but I wasn’t particularly thrilled with her, either. I feel like her character could have gone in WAY more interesting directions. She was beginning to get really interesting in the early episodes, but it kind of disappointed me that as soon as Hwi came back and joined Bang-Won, she immediately switches camp from the queen to Bang-Won, despite hating Bang-Won before. Like. You can have love interests who have different political leanings!
Also?? She indirectly assists Bang-Won in killing the same kid that she saved ten years earlier?? Wtf?
I think I really would have liked her way more if she had been a side character rather than in love with Hwi. And I’m not saying that as a rabid shipper, I just think that their relationship was underdeveloped and not a lot of time was spent on it anyway. It came together for me a little better in the last episode, though. They got some sweet moments before the end.
The villains–Nam Jeon, AKA the incompetent scumbag, and Bang-Won, AKA Hwi’s cool but evil bro
I kind of like Nam Jeon as a character, to be honest. He’s the worst, absolutely! But he’s also a dumb goth just like his son, and I find the similarities between Nam Jeon and Seon-Ho hilarious. Nam Jeon is just a way worse version of his son. This character is such a scumbag, but he’s so bad at it, and it gets kind of funny. He also has a really interesting dynamic with all the characters. One more thing? I can appreciate that the villain is actually the one spouting ideals closer to the 21st century. That’s a nice change from ‘everyone has historically accurate beliefs except for the hero.’
Okay, and as for Bang-Won: Firstly, I want to say the actor for Bang-Won is PHENOMENAL. He really gave a lot of life to the part. Seriously. All the acting in this show is amazing. I like characters like Bang-Won; he’s ruthless and ultimately doesn’t have a lot of loyalty to those he doesn’t trust, but if you don’t become his enemy, he can be downright kind. And that scene where he started to echo the same things Nam Jeon was saying? Amazing. And I swear that fan he has is its own character. However. However, I do have one problem. Why on EARTH is Hwi with this guy? I get that Hwi was forced to be there at first, but what was keeping him there later?
I do admit that, while it was still up in the air whether Bang-Won would be good or evil, I didn’t really like that at ALL. He’s a great villain, okay? He’s not a great hero. You can’t have him kill a sixteen-year-old and then call him sympathetic.
(Okay, I’ll admit I loved Crowned Clown, and that had a–sympathetic? I guess?–character who killed a child. But Ha Seon (the hero, who was not the child-killer) was forced into an awful situation and didn’t have a lot of people he could trust. It was an interesting moment. It made me think. Here? HWI WHAT WERE YOU THINKING.)
I loved the Jurchen (I think his name was Sung-Rok? Was that his name?). He starts off as just this weird, crazy guy who can survive anything apparently (to be fair, so can all these characters), and he ends up basically becoming Seon-Ho’s surrogate parent. Aww.
I was alright with most of the other side characters, but I will admit that I think Mun-Bok tended to seriously derail the tone. Like we’ve got this grand tragedy going on all around him? And then here he is, not taking anything seriously and being silly. Also, I will say that comic relief characters tend to not be very bearable when you don’t find them funny. I like Park Chi-Do, though!
Flaws and other such unpleasant things
Oh man. The character motivations jumped ALL OVER THE PLACE. Seon-Ho wants to kill Bang-Won for insulting him once? Hwi is with Bang-Won why? Is there no other way for Hwi to get revenge? Wait, why did Hwi and Seon-Ho stab each other again?
The politics could get somewhat all over the place, but it isn’t NEARLY as bad as some other sageuks I could mention. The show did do the bare minimum of focusing on the main characters rather than jumping down the evil minister rabbit hole for twenty minutes an episode, but I also wouldn’t say the politics always make very much sense. This show is no Nirvana in Fire or Crowned Clown. It still managed to keep things interesting, though!
I know I already mentioned the comic relief characters derailing the tone, but I thought I’d mention it again, because it wasn’t fun.
Also, much as I enjoy the shippiness between the two male leads, towards the end of the drama it starts getting really really blatant and just…Hwi, is this emotional cheating? Is that what this is? I honestly wish that, instead of queer-baiting us, they could have just made Hui-Jae Hwi’s friend and then gotten Seon-Ho and Hwi together. Of course they didn’t do that, but I feel like it would have worked better for the story, instead of having Hui-Jae be a bystander in her own show. Either that or get her more involved in the plot!
Favorite Dumb Moments
The whole show, probably. But I’ll compile a list of my favorite hits.
Nam Jeon: You’re trying to fly before you can even jump.
Seon-Ho: That is what all birds do.
*Hwi stabs Seon-Ho*
Seon-Ho: Your sword…still feels affectionate.
This quote keeps me up at night. What does it mean? Do I want to know?
Seon-Ho: Stay still, or your wound will open back up.
Hwi: I can’t believe the one who stabbed me is saying that.
I feel like this kind of sums up their relationship.
And then there was one scene where Hwi!! put meat on Seon-Ho’s rice!! AKA the shippy thing people do in dramas ahhh!! *dies*
Ugh, these morons. I love them.
Anyway, I definitely recommend this show! It has its silly moments, to be sure, but it is so, so good, and the characters are so complex and enjoyable, and the acting is possibly some of the best I’ve seen in a drama. I really do think it’s one of my favorite dramas. It’s out on Netflix, so you can binge-watch it there if you want. (It might be something fun during quarantine, lol.) I honestly think I might rewatch this show eventually. Also, if you know of any history books about Bang-Won, the strife of the princes, etc., hit me up! I’m curious to know more now.