Writer: Tabby Cat
Editor: Valerie Kaye
Picture credit: SBS
Picking up immediately where Episode 1 left off, we watch again as King Sukjong wins the bet in which Bok-Soon is the wager. She is sent to the palace in a palanquin, while Yi In-Jwa makes sure that Baek Man-Geum learns just who it was that won his wife.
Man-Geum rushes to the palace, claiming the game was rigged…and suggesting a new bet. The king agrees and takes what seems to be the losing side of the bet, apparently confident that whatever is decided by the gambling, Bok-Soon will not leave the new security of her life as “a king's woman.” His gamble on her frame of mind turns out to be the more savvy. Man-Geum does win, as predicted. However, when he tells Bok-Soon that she is now free to return to him, she retorts, “I was never free when I lived with you.” Having witnessed him use her as a gambling stake, she no longer hesitates to choose the new life being offered.
Six months later, Bok-Soon, now called Lady Suk-Bin, gives birth to a baby boy. Much gossip spreads around the palace, concerning whether this child is actually premature or, perhaps, if he is the child of a former relationship. Although publicly the king quells rumors, he, too, is troubled by the possibility that the child is not his. Feeling threatened by the gossip and by Royal Consort Jang Ok Jung (Oh Yeon-Ah), Suk-Bin enlists the aid of Kim Yi-Soo to switch her baby with one who has just died. She places her old jade wedding rings around his neck and lets Yi-Soo take him to Man-Geum.
Seeing the rings, Man-Geum takes the child to be his own, but when Yi In-Jwa learns what has happened, he sends an assassin to kill Man-Geum and recover the baby. When the assassin arrives, however, he discovers he is not the only one: the king also sent assassins to kill the baby. As a sword fight ensues among the assassins, a mysterious archer intervenes to save the child. The king's assassins throw a blade which strikes the infant near his heart. Confident that they have carried out their mission, the king’s assassins depart. Little do they know that despite being wounded, the baby is still alive, and for the moment, safe with Man-Geum.
The assassins identify Kim Yi-Soo as the archer and bring him to king for questioning. Sukjong makes it clear that the only way Yi-Soo can save himself and his daughter is by revealing for whom he is actually working and to bring back his head. His mentor, Yi In-Jwa, also questions his loyalty. In a spectacular duel set in a lush bamboo forest, the two face off. Arrows fly between the two, but in the end Yi-Soo proves his allegiance has never wavered. In the final exchange, In-Jwa mortally wounds Yi-Soo while the arrow that strikes In-Jwa proves to have no arrowhead. Not only do they reconcile as Yi-Soo dies, but In-Jwa howls his anger at the Sukjong after promising to raise Yi-Soo’s young daughter, Dam-Seo, whom he clearly plans to inculcate with a spirit of vengeance along the way.
Meanwhile, fellow gambler, Nam Dokkebi (Lim Hyeon-Shik), tells Man-Geum that his son has “noble features” and could even be a future king. Nam Dobbeki throws his dice to suggest a name and comes up with Dae-Gil—meaning “Great Fortune.” Piece by piece, it begins to occur to Man-Geum that this child may not be his after all but the son of the King. Filled with anger, he decides to kill the infant, casting it off into a waterfall. Miraculously, the baby does not die. Dokkebi, who picks up the squalling infant from the water, yells that the child having lived through another deadly experience is further proof of the child’s powerful fate. Nevertheless, having barely escaped one danger, the baby is immediately thrown into another when he is kidnapped by Hong-Mae and taken to Yi In-Jwa.
After Yi-Soo's death, Yi In-Jwa threatened Suk-Bin with her child's death and her own. He instructs her to meet him at the Western Gate that night. When she arrives to plead for the child’s life, he proposes a contest. Five cards lay face down on the table. If she picks the right one in three tries, he will spare the baby; for each wrong selection, he will shoot an arrow at the infant. Tearfully, she begs and pleads for the infant, but to not avail. Forced into choosing as In-Jwa requires, she picks twice - both wrong. As promised, In-Jwa shows off his skill as an archer, shooting close but not quite hitting the mark. Tears streak her face as she reaches out a trembling hand yet again to select the third and final card. Suddenly, Man-Geum appears, stopping Suk-Bin from choosing. Slamming a threshing blade into the table, he insists the third pick be given to him. In an act of defiance, he demands that, if he wins the bet, In-Jwa never bother his child again.
This episode continued all of the high standards set by the first. The scenes are gorgeous and tightly knit; every shot feels deliberate; and all the actors are riveting as they negotiate the continual series of bad options presented to them.
I was particularly fascinated to see the gambling theme continue to be developed but in a less obvious way. Rather than focusing on games of chance in a rowdy establishment, we see the more subtle games King Sukjong and Yi In-Jwa play with people's lives. In this world of personal stakes, Man-Geum, the inveterate gambler, is totally out of his league. He functions off the gullibility of other people, taking advantage of their basic decency. He really seems to believe he is more clever and trickier than those around him. However, when he tries to play the King this way, his shocking naivety is revealed. Because Sukjong never expects the game to be fair, he easily sidesteps the advantages Man-Geum imagines himself to have while, at the same time, never revealing that Man-Geum is actually the one being played. Man-Geum takes on tragi-comic dimensions as he rejoices in his small victory but which the audience can see is, in reality, a much larger loss.
This suggestion, that the real winners always play dirty, raises interesting possibilities going forward. From the very first moments of the drama, the manner in which a victory is obtained is under scrutiny. Over and again, the drama asks, can a good end be secured by foul means? Is a victory at any cost still a victory? If you have to cheat to win, what have you won? These preliminary episodes establish the cutthroat positions of the older generation. I look forward to seeing how the younger generation will line up.