Writer: Val Kaye Taozen
Picture credit: SBS
Up to this point, Daebak presented the primary conflicts inherent in the story line, notably Yi In-jwa’s all consuming desire for power, revenge and the throne, and introduced most of the major characters. However, Episode 4 becomes a pivotal turning point in Dae-gil’s life. This episode begins to expose the changing nature of a carefree, brash young man, with more than a touch of bravado and naïve innocence. He encounters one difficulty after another that challenge his sense of himself and how this new world in which he resides operates. Having been raised in small towns, he is out of his depth in Hanyang.
As the episode begins, young Gae Ddong contemplates how to turn his one brass coin into a fortune when he sees a beautiful lady on horseback. Stunned, he falls to the ground, his eyes wide and shining, his mouth hanging open. Even the music for this scene fits perfectly. Reminiscent of a movie about a circus or carnival, it suits the comic, almost circus-like antics of our young hero.
Suddenly enthralled with a beautiful woman, he attempts to show off his masculine strength only to end up on his backside in the dirt with a bloodied nose. Following her inside, he is awestruck by the diversity of the games being played. Nevertheless, at In-jwa’s table, stuffing his mouth with food and makgeolli (막걸리), he boldly brags about his gambling expertise only to be embarrassed at his failed attempt to show off. At last, he announces that she’s going to be his wife. He’s decided. He knew it at first sight. The young woman is horrified, but In-jwa only laughs at the brash youngster.
Although the comedy continues when Gae Ddong encounters a very drunken Prince Yeoning, both completely unaware of their familial relationship, an immediately noticeable affinity exists between the two. Even when the equally brash and self-confident Yeoning gives Gae Ddong his first lesson in big city gambling, his self-confident innocence remains unshaken.
That night his mind overflows with delightful mental images of the young woman he met. Enthralled, he follows her around like a puppy the next day. His heart pounds madly when he sees her; he holds a flower for her and gleefully imagines how he will ask her to marry him. Yet, for all his bravado and impishness, when he does have a chance to talk to her, he’s boyishly shy. Still he refuses to stop following along, even after she slices through the bright red flower he offers and threatens him with her sword at his neck. The symbolism of the cut flower is unmistakable but perhaps unconscious. A sign perhaps of what is to come.
In-jwa, meanwhile, sets another plot in motion. This time to snag one more victim of his politically inclined machinations. He goes after Yeoning and nearly succeeds with the unwitting help of Gae Ddong’s jealousy. His small town traits of innocence and naiveté, combined with his mischievous recklessness, cause young Gae Ddong to become nearly naked and embarrassed at the hands of Yeoning. Of course, cheating helped. But those same traits also thwart In-jwa’s plan to humiliate and manipulate Yeoning.
For his part, Yeoning, playing the part of drunken playboy, understands the political stakes at hand if he wishes to inherit the throne. He and his mother quietly conspired to keep him alive and well until that day comes.
Gae Ddong, too, is more than a brash, innocent, country boy, enamored of a young woman and the big city. When his new love is threatened with paddling for engaging in gambling, he displays a naïve but bold chivalry by insisting on receiving her punishment. Warned that 30 paddlings could kill or disable a man, he tosses aside the warning, announcing he doesn’t care, and is led away.
His sense of himself only becomes deeply shaken when his chivalrous act meets scorn from the beautiful woman he loves. Wet and bloody from the paddling, he’s surprised when she hands him his coat and tells him her name, Dam Seo. However, when he again indulges in bravado, she reprimands him on the foolishness of risking his life, telling him he’ll never be anything more than a palanquin carrier.
Rocked by her harsh words, young Gae Ddong begins his painful journey from youthful exuberance and innocence to the man he’s destined to become. He cries out sorrowfully to her retreating back, “I only need one person to acknowledge me. One person. The person who will become my wife.”
He beats his head against the wall at home, then dashes out and jumps into a well. He cries painfully while his father and adopted grandfather look on helplessly. His eyes filled with tears he whimpers, “Why am I Gae Ddong? You said I was a noble. So why? So why am I a simpleton? Why am I no better than a beggar? Why?”
For the first time in his young life, his sense of himself is truly shaken. But it is Man Geum who sets off a chain of events that forever changes Gae Ddong into the harder and wiser Dae-Gil shown at the beginning of Episode 1.
In answering his son’s anguish—by giving him the clothes, genealogy, and name of a noble—Man Geum inadvertently triggers In-jwa’s two decades old promise to kill Man Geum and get his hands on the child. In-jwa selects Hong Mae and her thugs for the task of killing Man Geum, telling her she cannot kill Dae-Gil. In an unexpected twist, In-jwa orders Dam-Seo to kill Dae-Gil.
As Hong Mae’s lackeys start to attack his father, Dae-Gil throws himself at them, only to have Hong Mae thrust a knife into his side. Dae-Gil responds in justifiable righteousness with a powerful punch to her head. Realizing they are no match for Hong Mae’s gang of thugs, the three men run away.
Just as Man-Geum pushes a small boat holding the injured Dae-gil and his grandfather into the river, In-jwa and Dam-Seo arrive on the hillside. Although she raises her bow to shoot, she hesitates. She cannot kill the young man whose innocence broke through the years of cold-hearted training at the hands of In-jwa. Seeing her hesitate, In-jwa abruptly grabs the bow from her hands and shoots, striking Man Geum instead. Dae-gil cries out, trying to save his father but to no avail. As Man-Geum sinks into the water, he repeats one last time, “Dae-Gil, you are my son. No matter what anyone says, you are my son.”
With the close of this episode, one thing is certain. Dae-Gil will never again be that cheerful, mischievous young man. He never again will see life as one happy adventure after another. Heart-wrenching loss yanked him out of innocent boyhood and into a manhood where loss, pain, and danger exist at every turn of a card.