Editor: Val Kaye Taozen and Tabby
Picture credit: SBS
Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both, before we commit ourselves to either. ~ Aesop
Episode 8 kicks off by showing a vigorous yet heartwarming scene. Following the glorious victory that sets him and his fellow slaves free from the evil salt flat owner, Dae Gil immediately gets into his training days under Mentor Kim Chae Gun. This guy, dubbed Joseon’s Number One Swordsman, apparently has a more fun dimension to his personality rather than being simply a strict, dull hero. The way he treats Dae Gil somehow looks like a father training his own son: with some discipline and yet affection.
Kim Chae Gun sets specific targets for Dae Gil to achieve in order for them to be able to leave the mountain and start off on the ‘revenge’ journey. Feeling so much pressure from these targets, Dae Gil asks to his new mentor how many people are stronger than he, to which Kim Chae Gun answers that there are none in Joseon. However, he suddenly remembers one person, whom he describes as somebody ‘not his equal yet, but nipping at his heels’ (in other words, his close competitor). He’s a Hercules-like man named Hwang Jin Ki (Han Jung Soo). According to Kim Chae Gun, this person, who could kill a tiger with his bare hands, used to be a royal guard. Upon hearing this, Dae Gil asks whether he can also catch a tiger with his bare hands, clearly still attempting to measure his mentor’s true capacity. Adding a touch of levity to the scene, Kim Chae Gun replies by saying he can control a tiger with his just his stare.
The scene suddenly shifts to the contrasting view of Dam Seo’s beautiful hand dropping some coins into a beggar’s bowl in front of two pairs of small dirty feet. The older beggar girl thanks her while longingly staring at Dam Seo’s beautiful shoes. Dam Seo guiltily notices but does nothing more. Meanwhile, Yi In Jwa is meeting with a prominent minister, presenting him with a box full of gold bars and many other riches, while asking for a favor related to the Uigeumbu (Royal Investigation Bureau). This favor concerns his plan to free the rebel Hwang Jin Ki from prison.
It appears that Yi In Jwa’s plan to get Hwang Jin Ki onto his team is not a recent one. As soon as he sees Yi In Jwa, Hwang Jin Ki kneels before him and expresses his gratitude for Yi In Jwa’s help in taking care of his mother’s funeral while he was imprisoned. The big guy also voices his willingness to fulfill whatever Yi In Jwa wants him to do. In Jwa wastes little time telling him his ultimate task: to catch and behead Joseon’s greatest swordsman, Kim Chae Gun.
Meanwhile, in the forest, Dae Gil trains hard day and night under the supervision of Kim Chae Gun yet still fails to hit the target accurately. While reflecting upon his failure, he asks Kim Chae Gun whether a man can escape a flying arrow shot at him from a close distance—something that Yi In Jwa did. Instead of answering, Kim Chae Gun tells Dae Gil to shoot at him and delivers another important lesson: the power of watching the eyes of an opponent or, as he puts it later, the gaze, because the eyes first signal the opponent’s move.
Afterwards in the hut, Kim Chae Gun figures out that Dae Gil’s goal to be his disciple is still as shallow as cutting Yi In Jwa’s throat. He explains, however, his reason for agreeing to take Dae Gil as his disciple. A single fighter, he says, cannot defeat someone like Yi In Jwa. But earlier at the Demon’s house, Dae Gil told him that he wasn’t fighting alone. There were his fellow slaves fighting together with him. Kim Chae Gun ends their discussion by saying something that makes Dae Gil reconsider his whole intention: “You’ve already learned a lesson that can’t ever be bought. But are you still thinking this way? Find a greater purpose and become a great tiger. ”
Back at the palace, news of the prison break reaches Prince Yeoning. In a letter left after Hwang Jin Ki's prison-break, Yi In Jwa requests a meeting with the prince. Yeoning leaves the palace to meet him, tailed by Dam Seo. On the way, a crowd, witnessing a public punishment, distracts Dam Seo. The beggar girl she saw the day before was executed for stealing a pair of shoes, which are now worn by her wailing younger sister. Seeing this tragic injustice, the cold looking swordswoman finally breaks down and cries.
As soon as Yeoning sees Yi In Jwa, he asks why he freed Hwang Jin Ki from prison. Yi In Jwa begins his infamous psychological warfare to intimidate Yeoning. He reveals that on three separate occasions during his walk from the palace, the Prince could have been assassinated. The young prince responds boldly, saying that In Jwa can’t kill him because of the one person they both fear: the King. Provoked by Yeoning’s response, Yi In Jwa suggests settling matters with a sword fight. The equally provoked Yeoning agrees. They proceed to choose their swords. There are five types of sword in identical sheaths, from the most powerful King’s Sword to the weakest one, a wooden sword. When they draw, Yeoning takes the King’s Sword while Yi In Jwa the wooden.
In an obviously parallel scene, Dae Gil takes up a new challenge—using a real sword to spar wit his mentor who uses a wooden sword. So, the two brothers are having their respective ‘battles.' Too bad the two young tiger brothers—despite their determination to win—have to lose to their opponents this time. Nevertheless, both learn the same important lesson: it’s the skills that matter. The two princes bitterly snarl the name they despise the most: Yi In Jwa.
After Yi In Jwa’s his final humiliating remark that Yeoning is still not worthy of using the King’s Sword, he orders Dam Seo to escort the prince back to the palace. Dam Seo, obviously still upset about the beggar girl’s tragic death, vents her anger on Yeoning, blaming him for not paying enough attention to the suffering people. In a flashback, Yeoning sees the crowd gathering around the dead girl, but he doesn't care enough to stop.
So, Yeoning—who already feels devastated over his loss to Yi In Jwa—stops by the field where he orders a decent funeral for the dead girl. He also apologizes, with tears in his eyes, to the girl’s younger sister and softly promises a better future for her. Upon seeing this, Dam Seo tries to express her gratitude for the prince’s unexpected kindness. However, it’s still uncertain whether Dam Seo expresses sincerity. Yi In Jwa previously told her to try manipulating Yeoning as a means to enter the palace. When she boldly requests a visit to the royal Palace, Prince Yeoning grants her wish.
The next day, Prince Yeoning accompanies the prettily dressed Dam Seo on her tour around the royal palace. When they finally reach the area nearby Lady Choi’s pavilion, Yeoning says they should go back since Dam Seo has been there anyway. Dam Seo, on the other hand, seems to have another plan in mind. She says that she’d like to meet Lady Choi to pay her respects. After a friendly welcome, Lady Choi asks Yeoning to leave her alone with their guest. Soon after he leaves, the friendly gestures of the two ladies change. They begin an intense conversation, in which Dam Seo reveals her true identity and her conviction that her father’s tragic death was by the King’s order.
After Lady Choi learns this, she suggests that Dam Seo might think this way because she’s only heard Yi In Jwa’s side of the story. She asks further if Dam Seo has any proof, to which the girl answers that she actually doesn’t. Lady Choi tries to get Dam Seo to rethink her conviction regarding her father’s death. Guessing that Dam Seo might not be a naturally bad person, though it’s clear that the young lady holds a personal grudge against the king, Lady Choi says: “Just because one is raised by a beast, it does not mean he or she must become one.” Correctly predicting that Dam Seo does not sufficiently know what she’s doing, Lady Choi decides to send her off to see the king herself.
When they arrive near the pavilion, King Sukjong is spending time with Prince Yeonryeong (Sukjong’s 6th son and reputedly his favorite). Yeoning offers the chance for her to have a personal audience with the king. Dam Seo hesitates. She remembers Yi In Jwa’s warning that she should only look at the King from afar in order to recognize him and not to do anything further. However, Yeoning insists.
When the King asks her name, Dam Seo makes one up, which surprises Yeoning. Blunt as he is, Sukjong says that the young lady reminds him of a military officer named Kim Yi Soo whom he used to value greatly. Kim Yi Soo had a daughter named Dam Seo, he continues. The young lady starts shaking in a combination of anxiety, fear, and anger. In her distress, Dam Seo fails to notice that the King moved directly in front of her. When she looks up into his smiling face at a very close distance, Lady Choi’s words replay in her head. Indeed, her breath catches in her throat. The King tries to be friendly and takes her trembling hands. Sukjong silently feels her hands and smiles meaningfully, stating that Yeoning and Dam Seo are a good match. When he leaves, Yeoning tries to confirm his father’s suspicion about Dam Seo’s real identity. He even pushes on by saying directly that Yi In Jwa has fooled her all these years. Unfortunately, the young lady does not want to hear anything she does not want to believe and insists on keeping her conviction. Yeoning can only sigh while watching the young lady take her leave.
Back at Yi In Jwa’s place, the shaken Dam Seo breaks into tears while telling her Master about her conflicted feelings after all the recent happenings. She then asks for In Jwa’s permission to set in motion their plan of revenge before she becomes even more confused. Yi In Jwa asks whether she is able to do it on her own. Dam Seo nods. To her surprise, Yi In Jwa tells her to do whatever she wants to do.
In the other part of Joseon, Dae Gil continues to practice his gambling skills on his own. He keeps in mind all the wise words of his mentor Kim Chae Gun: “When you’re holding a gambling card, you bet everything on that one card. When you’re holding a sword, you put your fate in that sword. All that you can trust is that one card in your hand… the sword. That’s all you have.” Kim Chae Gun also tells him the three most important things he should remember be it in gambling or in fighting: controlling one's breath, reading eyes, and having courage.
As Dae Gil’s martial art skills have improved, Kim Chae Gun looks very satisfied. However, since Dae Gil still has to beat him, it’s not yet the end of their training. Nevertheless, he gives Dae Gil a reward by taking him down the mountain to the nearby town for some sightseeing and, apparently, serious shopping. Poor Dae Gil ends up carrying all the things his mentor bought. Even so, he seems to equally enjoy their outing, until he sees a poster with Kim Chae Gun’s face and description glued on the wall…as one of the most wanted criminals.
Back in the hut, Kim Chae Gun notices Dae Gil’s restlessness and tells Dae Gil to say what he has to say. Dae Gil shows him the poster and asks about Kim Chae Gun’s real identity. Kim Chae Gun reveals that he used to be a Royal Guard but turned into a rebel because he couldn’t stand the unfair and corrupted government. He even declares he intends to kill the king and warns Dae Gil not to try to stop him.
At almost the same time in the palace, the officials are in an uproar. Somebody sent a death threat to the King. The Crown Prince Regent holds an internal meeting with his younger brother and all the important officials to discuss the incident. The King unexpectedly interrupts the meeting and scoffs at his ministers’ lack of courage. When the Crown Prince Regent states that he intends to gather the armies and the commanders to ensure King Sukjong’s safety, the king refuses immediately. Instead, he stares particularly at Prince Yeoning.
Prince Yeoning refuses King Sukjong’s command to protect him personally. Sukjong then reminds Yeoning of his own statement previously that he’d rather hold a sword to smooth the way for his father’s reign than succeeding to the throne himself. Ignoring Yeoning’s plea, Sukjong presents Yeoning with the ‘Saingeom’ (the special sword used by the royal family and selected royal guards, with Chinese/ Hanja inscriptions and zodiac symbols carved on it). Still, Yeoning lacks enough confidence to wield the sword to which Sukjong responds, “If you do not have confidence to wield that sword and protect me, you will not be able to protect anything, even yourself.” Yeoning stands up, still trembling in fear and anxiety; yet his eyes show determination.
Dam Seo, dressed in all black, picks her bow up. When Yi In Jwa asks her whether she is ready, she only nods with her usual cold expression and determined eyes. Back in the palace, Prince Yeoning walks out of his father’s chamber, looking a little bit numb. With his father’s words ringing through his head, he finally draws the royal sword.
“What if I stop you? What will you do if I stop you?” asks the naïve Dae Gil.
Then comes the possibly worst scenario no one wants to see: Kim Chae Gun gives a firm answer while grabbing his sword. “Then one of us will die.”
Some personal thoughts:
This episode is brought to us in another intense mood. A lot of details and information are presented to the viewers and one of these, which I particularly noticed, is the notion of ‘truth.’ Our female lead character, Dam Seo, eventually sees the other side of the coin through meeting the royal family personally. Yet, amidst her growing confusion and doubt, she’s not willing to take a good look at that other side before steadily committing to the side she’s always been presented with, namely Yi In Jwa’s side. On the other hand, Dae Gil, despite his being naïve and such, still tries to challenge Kim Chae Gun’s version of truth. He does not even know nor has he met the King in person, but still he thinks about defending the King’s side.
Each truth has two sides… or even more. In the end, which side(s) of the truth should we commit ourselves to? The one we only want to (make) believe? Or the one we have discovered ourselves? That will remain a question whose answer we might hopefully find throughout the course of this drama.
In addition, the other issue that is also prominently presented in this episode is everyone’s personal hatred of the King. Based on history, Sukjong’s reign was not a politically peaceful one at all, regardless of the fact that he improved his people’s prosperity. (Please refer to this brilliantly written piece on Sukjong’s history posted previously in The Eels Family blog, link at here ). While he might have ruled with a rather bloody strategy, it’s not too fair to point a finger only at Sukjong when it comes to the damage mostly done by his greedy officials. Thus, it brings us back to Episode 5, when Sukjong converses with his two princes about the mythical beast with 100 eyes and 1000 ears that regulates the rain (note: rain was a very important thing for the agricultural Joseon society).
“… Instead of being thankful for the rain, people always feared it… So the beast could no longer endure it. On the rainy day, it came out of the well and swallowed them up in one bite. Killing the beast meant the skies would dry up. To let the beast live, they feared future troubles. What should they have done with this beast?” ~ King Sukjong, ‘Daebak Episode 5’
He, himself, knows the answer better than anyone else. No matter how good the vague answers given by his two princes may sound, most people would opt to kill the beast. So far, we have Yi In Jwa and his affiliates and, now, Kim Chae Gun. Yet, if the question were reversed to “What should the beast do now that people want to kill him?”—What would be Sukjong’s answer? This, too, will be something I would expect to see later on in the drama. I cannot wait for the next episode of the daebak drama of the year.