Writer: Val Kaye Taozen
Editor: Tabby Cat
Photos credit: SBS
Injwa’s great revolution has failed. Prince Mil Poong-goon deserted after seeing how Injwa treated the people he keeps saying his revolution is for. Park Pil-hyun was thwarted by Man-geum in Jeonju, and Chae-gun put an end to the traitor Jeong. Even Hwang Jin-ki turned against him, once Jin-ki finally realized that Injwa’s Great Cause was for himself, not for the people. Even his peasant army dropped their blades, rather than harm Dae-gil, and kneeled down before the King’s army.
Injwa has finally lost; yet, he still refuses to believe he’s been beaten.
After Injwa is tied up, Dae-gil, still bleeding from his gunshot wounds, stumbles towards Yeongjo and his army. After a few weary steps, he bows to Yeongjo and passes out. Seol-im and Grandpa, fearing the worst, rush to Dae-gil’s prone form to see if he’s still alive.
Dae-gil, still unconscious, relives the short battle and awakens in pain. Nevertheless, he manages to get up and dressed. Outside, he’s greeted by all the people he saved. Meanwhile, Yeongjo, meeting with Prince Mil Poong-goon, grants clemency as he promised Dae-gil but charges the Prince to never show his face in the capital city again.
Injwa, garbed as a prisoner and tied in ropes, returns to the palace with Yeongjo’s army where he’s imprisoned alone. Yeongjo meets with his ministers and tells them he’s not made a decision about what to do with Injwa. The Soron ministers, afraid In Jwa will tell of their collaboration with him, call for his immediate death. With a slight, cold smile, Yeonjo shows them the heads of the other two major rebel traitors, Jeong and Park. The Soron ministers flinch and become even more frightened.
Back in Hanyang, Dae-gil’s family and friends re-unite, and Dae-gil learns the fate of Jeong and Park. Meanwhile, the Soron ministers ponder what to do about Injwa. Since they’ve not been arrested, they know he hasn’t told Yeongjo everything. However, Yeongjo confronts Injwa, tied to a chair, to give him a choice, he can either give up the names of the cabinet members who helped him and commit suicide or he will be dismembered in public. Injwa replies that Yeongjo indeed has become a monster to which Yeongjo says he takes the name as a compliment, that his fondest wish is to become a monster with a 100 eyes and a 1000 ears. As he slams a knife into the table before Injwa, he says Injwa has until the morning to make his decision.
Dressed in his Cavalry uniform, Dae-gil sits before Yeongjo, arguing that to kill Injwa this way prevents Yeongjo from finding Injwa’s accomplices among the ministers. Sounding very much like his late father, Yeongjo replies that he will crush any rebellion that rises up again, adding that the traitorous ministers will make their move that night against Injwa.
As the Soron ministers to discuss killing Injwa, Chae-gun meets Jin-ki. They fight…but it is a sword fight Jin-ki wants to lose. He sadly cries, “I came to receive my punishment. The taste of the sword is just icing.” Moments after the swordfight resumes, Chae-gun’s swords stabs him in the side. When Jin-ki asks why Chae-gun didn’t kill him, Chae-gun replies that he needs to spend his life atoning to Jin-ki. With that, he pulls his sword from Jin-ki’s body, telling him to live the rest of his life in reflection for what he’s done. Jin-ki, tearfully, says, “Thank you, Songnim (Brother).” Returning to Dae-gil’s home, Chae-gun says Jin-ki probably left to go far away, never to be seen again.
Out of the palace in a public area, Injwa’s arms and legs are tied separately to long ropes, the ends of which are tied to four bulls. One bull for each limb. Regardless of his situation, he still refuses to accept any responsibility for the harm and deaths he’s caused. He shouts that he alone is the savior of the rotten, corrupt country and that they need him to make the country prosper and to create a government for the people, regardless of their status. He demands to know, in standing up in rebellion to create this vision, why he must die. Shouting even louder, he says they need him more than a hundred or a thousand others. As the four bulls are pulled forward, Injwa screams he will not die. The Soron ministers look on in disgust and leave. Dae-gil looks a bit sickened.
The head Soron minister agrees to the Dowager Queen’s plan. Moo Myung is released from his prison cell and told their plan must not fail. In his room, Yeongjo’s table is set by a palace matron he doesn’t recognize. He demands she taste the food again. Dropping to her knees, she says she’s committed a great sin and fearfully runs from the room, only to be cut down outside by Moo Myung and several other Soron guards. They burst into the room where Yeongjo’s faithful guard cuts them down…all except Moo Myung. In a fatal move, the ever-faithful guard is mortally stabbed by Moo Myung. But just as Myung makes ready to stab Yeongjo, saying he’s doing it for Injwa, the twin eunuchs appear and stab him in the back. While his ever-faithful guard apologizes, Myung, in his death throes, says Yeongjo will live alone for the rest of his life and die lonely.
Hearing those words, Yeongjo becomes frightened. Both the Dowager Queen and Soron ministers anxiously await news of their traitorous plan. Rushing across the palace [Why the heck doesn’t he flat out run instead of speed walk?] to the Crown Prince’s residence, he discovers he’s too late. His beloved son, Haeng, lies dead. The matron, who fed him poison, commits suicide as Yeongjo drops to the floor in complete shock. He cries out his son’s name, tears rolling down his face.
Yeongjo confronts the Dowager Queen, demanding to know why she killed his son. She defiantly replies that now he knows how she felt on the night her husband died. He wants to kill her. He raises the sword to strike her, only to throw it down with a howl. He commands she be exiled and not allowed to move one step from her residence on pain of death.
Having quelled the various plots against him, Yeongjo orders the Secretariat to bring all the recent records to him. One by one, he yanks out every page mentioning Injwa and the Rebellion. As he strips the pages away, he says to himself that he wants to remove every trace of Injwa from history.
Dae-gil returns to the village to be happily greeted by Seol-im, Grandpa, and the rest of the village. Meanwhile, Yeongjo sits in despair, his spoonful of rice quivering in his hand, as he recalls the night his son died. He reminds himself he has no time to feel sadness when his twin eunuchs arrive at his summons. They tell him that some people still mourn the Crown Prince while others are praising Dae-gil as being better to the people than the King as well as being of royal lineage.
In court, the ministers tell the King that in all eight provinces the people venerate Dae-gil as a king. They want him arrested as a rebel and punished. Yeongjo challenges them: he orders the arrest of Dae-gil, but when they all flinch, he demands, is that not what you wanted? Alone, he reflects back through all the good years with his brother and friend.
Leaving the palace, Yeongjo arrives at Dae-gil’s village, somewhat surprised at seeing a happy, productive community, before Dae-gil greets him. Yeongjo, after a couple of questions, finally says he’s come to kill Dae-gil because he represents a threat to his Crown. Dae-gil replies, “Kill me” and adds that he can’t help what the people say. Yeongjo, barely controlling the pain he feels, asks Dae-gil what is in his heart, does he want the throne. Dae-gil replies honestly. If Yeongjo were not his younger brother, he doesn’t know what he would do. However, even if he overthrow his brother, the people wouldn’t like it. He adds that the people are comforted and admire him because he is one of them, and, in the end, they really don’t want him to become their king.
Standing at the fenced wall to the village, Yeoning asks, as a brother, what Dae-gil will do now. He replies, “I will work when I have to, play when I can, and gamble sometimes.” Yeongjo laughs, “Right. You did have that part of you…. I long for those days.” Sadly, they part.
Back at the village, Grandpa, Man-geum and Seol-im fret that Dae-gil may have disappeared–or gone gambling–to avoid marrying Seol-im the next day. As Hong Mae checks the identification tags of her patrons, sending away those who cannot afford to lose, Yeon-hwa greets her. Together they travel to the village, loaded down with wedding gifts, only to learn that Dae-gil and family will be leaving soon to unknown parts. Meanwhile in the forest, Chae-gun attempts to teach his son all the skills he taught Dae-gil and relates that he once taught a disciple who became a great tiger for the people.
Before writing this recap, I chose to binge watch the entire series all over again. Unlike most dramas, this one told a complex story that remains difficult to grasp in one or two segments at a time…which is partly why some viewers disliked the drama. Daebak requires thinking, analysis, and, if nothing else, curiosity. The lack of simplicity is this drama’s strength and why, despite lower than desired viewer ratings, it will remain among the best of the historic dramas aired.
Initially, I chose to watch this drama because Jang Keun Suk starred in it and, lest I forget, the trailers sounded intriguing. However, from the very first episode, I became entranced. The music and cinematography lent an overall grandeur to the production that pulled me in, while the script demanded I watch what happens next. And the acting by all the cast members was perfection.
Choi Min-soo performs his role with magnificence as King Sukjong, a king who understood the politics of his time and became a Tiger to control his rapacious ministers. Jeon Kwang-Ryeol creates such an evil persona in Yi In Jwa that the viewer keeps hoping he meets his end. He doesn’t grow or develop throughout the series as most of main characters do, but he never becomes boring either. Yeo Jin Goo was admirably cast as young Yeoning grown into King Yeongjo. For someone so young, his acting causes him to appear older as he grows into the Tiger his father was. Yoon Jin-Seo becomes Lady Sukbin, the mother of both Dae-gil and Yeongjo, to the viewer. Sukbin’s weakness grows into a strength that guides her and Yeoning through all the perils they face in the palace. I can’t think of any other actor except Lim Hyeon-Shik that could play Grandpa with such humor and affection. Lee Moon-Sik provides the perfect acting skill as Man-geum. His expressions and mannerisms create Man-geum far more than the script does. Who will ever forget Jeon Soo-Jin as the shaman, Hwanggoo Yeomeom? Never has a villainess seemed more evil. And Ahn Gil-kang remains, as always, a treasure of an actor who really brings Kim Chae-gun to life as both a person and a military man. His charisma shines. Another great find is Kim Ga-eun as Gye Seol-im. Wonderfully humorous without becoming a caricature and, yet, she plays the role believably, showing both equal weakness and strength throughout. And lastly, is Jang Keun Suk. I’ve nothing but praise for his performance as the hapless Gae-ddong, the strong, intense Dae-gil and, finally, the wise, comforting Dae-gil. I’ve watched almost all of his dramas and films to date, and this one by far surpasses all the rest as his best performance. He mastered the role of his evolving character with his physical being as well as his expressions. He truly has become a much better actor as a result of Daebak. He will no longer be considered a “pretty boy” suited to only romances and romantic comedies. He truly proved himself to be a world-class actor. But, then, all the actors, even those with less major roles, played their parts with expertise. And there were many actors who came together in Daebak with lengthy resumes.
In looking back while watching the drama the first time, there were scenes that appeared an enigma. They didn’t seem to fit well; yet, from the much larger perspective of the entire drama, those scenes were necessary and fit the storyline perfectly. In watching Daebak a second time, I found myself continually saying, “Oh, I see now where that scene fits and why it had to be there.” Without those scenes, later events would have been left the viewer confused, knowing something was missing.
I guess if I have one complaint it would be that the drama was advertised as a love story. But Daebak is not an ordinary love story, between a man and a woman; it is a love story between two lost brothers who found each other, fretted over their relationship, became angry with each other and finally discovered their absolute loving trust and affection for each other. And all that amidst a backdrop of intrigue, death, treason, murder and a rebellion that remains the Joseon Dynasty’s largest revolution.
Admittedly, I adored the young Gae-ddong with his evanescent personality, so full of life, joy, innocence, and youthful vigor. I laughed over and over again at his antics, at his joy in living, at his youthful exuberance, at his sudden boldness and simultaneous shyness of his first love, and empathized with his wounded heart when he shouted that he only needed to be accepted by one person…just one person. I sat in dumbfounded silence, watching him lose his beloved father and understanding how he felt.
I watched intently as Gae-ddong suffered brutal attacks on his person by a man whose whole adult life seemed built on angry revenge and false perceptions. I was engrossed as this happy-go-lucky young man slowly over the episodes changed and grew into the Dae-gil of the last episode. He became a phoenix rising from the ashes of his burnt and destroyed past. I developed a real affection for this young man who grew from being a country bumpkin to a Tiger like his biological father to…what…a Lion? A king who takes care of his family--his pride, if you will--and was willing to suffer all the slings and arrows (and bullets) to do so. And all along the way, until almost the end, Injwa clung to a failed vision of Dae-gil as a rebellious Tiger like himself, without ever recognizing that Dae-gil chose to be someone else. In many ways, In Jwa was Dae-gil’s teacher, his scholar as Dae-gil calls him in the first episode, for without In Jwa’s tortures, violence and narcissism, Dae-gil might never have grown into the man he eventually became.
In many ways, both Yeoning and Dae-gil walked parallel paths, almost to the end. While they both sought Injwa’ neck for his many crimes, they both wanted life to be better for regular people. We mustn’t forget Yeoning confronted the court ministers, saying he wanted to end the merchant monopolies, end the harsh punishments for minor crimes, and end torture. Where their paths diverged was Injwa. Yeongjo, like his father, learned the necessities of power in an era rife with corruption whereas Dae-gil learned the simplicity of human compassion and caring. And beyond all else, beyond the pain and sorrows, beyond the contrivances of others, they learned over the years to have faith in each other, even as they chose to walk their separate paths.
Nevertheless, as Yeo Jin Goo remarked, Daebak is a drama engaging psychological warfare…and that it does. From the first moment to the last episode, you see the entire cast waging psychological warfare, either for themselves and their own power or, like our two heroes, to create a better nation for all the people. Regardless of the fact that Daebak is largely based on historic fact, we, the audience, are able to see ourselves in the characters because the drama exposes every human emotion.
Yes, there are places where I wondered what the writer was thinking…and places in the script that I thought were a bit unreal, like Injwa always knowing what was going on or his head nod that tells Myung and Jin-ki to free him when he’s tied up to a pole in the middle of Hanyang. Even his murder of the young prince seemed a bit off kilter. I mean, where were the young prince’s guards!?! But to some extent, these are minor nitpicks in the overall story. And, after all, a writer should be allowed a bit of creative license.
For a drama that was originally written as a 50-part series and cut to less than half that number while telling a story that spans at least 36 years in one of the most turbulent eras in Joseon history, Daebak, The Royal Gambler was masterfully done. I’m sure that if the writer and PD had been given more time, they would have ironed out the kinks in the plot. But they didn’t have the time. From the day the major cast members were set until they started filming, time became their enemy. From the date of the first script reading on February 15 until they finished filming in the early morning hours on June 12, they had only 17 weeks to complete the entire 24 episodes. By way of comparison, in the US, a production of Daebak’s scale probably would have taken up to six months to complete…or maybe longer.
Finally, to understand and fully appreciate this drama, one must understand the war being waged in the first episode. In many ways, the first five minutes of that episode are the alpha and omega of Daebak, The Royal Gambler. The war being waged on the field, the war being waged over the chessboard, the war being waged with swords, and the war being waged with their words all set up the conflict and inevitable end. Even Injwa’s bloodied hand foretells his bloody end.