*a Wang Yoo–Seung Nyang centric review*
At last…! Our 6-month long journey with Empress Ki has come to an end. It was indeed a crazy ride! Empress Ki is memorable and special to me since it’s the first K-drama with the most no. of episodes among those that I’ve watched and completed. Moreover, it’s also the first K-drama that disappointed me big time! (I’ll explain later.) Nevertheless, I smiled, I giggled, I laughed, I swooned, I fell in love, I cried, I got frustrated, I cursed my screen, until I had to send it off with a long sigh of disappointment as most things turned out the most absurd way. On the other hand, somehow I smiled in tears to see Empress Ki sign off with a bittersweet ending.
I personally think that Empress Ki is both the best and the worst (sageuk) drama that I’ve watched. It has both the best and the worst elements a drama could have. In fact, Empress Ki was so good when it was just starting that it was like an enthralling bestseller. Robust cast, interesting story, fast-paced, colorful and eye-popping costumes and far-reaching set pieces. It managed to establish a strong foundation that it hooked a large group of loyal viewers, both domestically and internationally, including me since the beginning. Its viewership ratings speak for the drama as no.1 on its time slot for 26 consecutive weeks, but none of the ratings really skyrocketed. It wasn’t able to reach the 30% margin, still very far from Dae Jang Geum’s 57.8% and Queen Seon Deok’s 44.7%, which are MBC’s pride, or even Giant’s 40.1%, a drama penned by the same writers. It was still a success nonetheless, though the reason why it failed to reach 30% was apparent. As I was saying, I really enjoyed the start of the drama, at least up to the first half. I even got so addicted to it. However, useless scenes popped up out of the drama, and it became so inconsistent, different from the promising introduction that it’d offered until it officially jumped the crazy shark. Thus, Empress Ki went downhill in a speed of light. I’d already invested so much in it for me to step back, but there was another reason why I couldn’t drop it apart from being a staunch fan of Ha Ji Won, this heterogeneous man:
To be honest, if it were not for Wang Yoo, I would have stopped watching the drama. It turned into a huge disappointment that even my love for Ha Ji Won couldn’t save it in my eyes. I started the journey with Seung Nyang alone, rooting for her all the way until she became a different somebody, a sick character, that my love for her eventually became like, dislike, up to the point hate, which was a letdown. As my love for Seung Nyang faded away, my love for Wang Yoo shone even brighter. Then, I realized that I was watching the drama because of him and him only. Honestly, to me, Empress Ki ended the moment Seung Nyang and Wang Yoo resolved to go on their separate paths because it was all a crap after that. Thanks to Wang Yoo’s existence, I was able to withstand all the disappointments fed into the drama.
Review — SPOILERS!!!
A love triangle in which one doesn’t equal the other and isn’t worthy to be the rival of the other is no love triangle at all. Both ends of the stick must stand up on their own, so as the competition will likely heat up. Such cases are a hardworking, diligent police commander and an idealistic, passionate rebel group leader (*cough* Damo *cough*) and a wealthy, arrogant playboy and a reserved man (*cough* Something Happened in Bali *cough*), wherein you’ll have to think twice which-of-the-two because both can stand up on their own merits, hence, it’s hard to pick one over the other.
Empress Ki’s love triangle involves two kings, one country fighting for its freedom from the other and one woman stuck between the two kings and the two countries. The love story in this drama unfolds against the backdrop of what could have been an epic love triangle. But a man vs. boy showdown and abrupt changes on the script midway turned the supposed epic love triangle into zilch class.
I’ve embarked for Wang Yoo-Seung Nyang ship since the first teaser was unveiled, and I’m glad I did. As I watched the drama, their similarities paved the way for me to root for them both and individually despite all the impediments to their relationship and goals. I admired their deep passion in doing what they could for their people. Crown Prince Wang Yoo, who was deprived of his own palace and throne, and Seung Nyang The Jackal, who had nothing but orders from her master, even with nothing at all, they silently made an effort to do what they could for the benefit of the country and its people. They both wanted to free their country Goryeo from Yuan oppression. They both wanted to stop the practice of sending Goryeo girls to Yuan as slaves and concubines. And as warriors, they could stand anything except injustice.
As I said, Seung Nyang was the only character I’d rooted for in the beginning until I came to love Wang Yoo, too. Another reason why I loved Wang Yoo and Seung Nyang was because of the unexpected depth that they had. It might sound like a fantasy, but they could express their feelings in dreams, and they could speak with their eyes. I don’t like words and grand actions, which is why I was mesmerized by the vast range of connection that they had. Two of my favorite scenes from the first 10 episodes include:
- They were tied up to a pole back-to-back, she asked if he was disappointed that she had been deceiving him about her gender, he was not but was clearly troubled for he couldn’t protect her. After that, when they were forced to be separated, how they grabbed each other’s hand, how they promised to stay alive for each other, he promised that he’d come back for her, and she said that she’d wait for him, how they cried in front of their nemesis, how their hands were loath to part, how she called out her Jeonha and how he screamed out Seung Nyang ah, without letting their eyes off each other… All those spoke volumes.
- He showed up in her dream when she was in total despair, reminding her that their people should always come first, that they were more important than her personal vendetta. She couldn’t help it and asked him if he couldn’t see her heart filled with despair. That’s when he said that he’d missed her, he’d missed her so much.
Technically, Empress Ki is about broken promises. Perhaps Wang Yoo and Seung Nyang’s love wasn’t really meant to be because no matter how hard they both tried, it just never worked. Whenever they were together, something was bound to happen that’d pull the two apart from each other. It wasn’t what they’d hoped for. Ostensibly, it was Seung Nyang who broke all the promises because of her fate which had been attached to Wang Yoo’s, that’s why he was also greatly affected by the catastrophe.
- “I will go anywhere if it means following Your Majesty. Even if it’s for a thousand years or ten thousand years, I will always be waiting.”
- “Even if Your Majesty abandons me, I will always be by Your Majesty’s side until the end.”
- “You and I will be here in Goryeo together someday.”
- “For us to spend our lives together. For us to die at the same moment. And be together forever. That’s my prayer.”
At least at some point in time, Wang Yoo and Seung Nyang had the happiest days of their lives. They fell in love and made the people around them feel that love in spite of their struggles in exile. Those moments are what I’ll always treasure as precious memories of the couple. Since the beginning, I’d come to terms with the fact that they’d be separated because Seung Nyang would have to be Empress Ki, wife of the Emperor. I thought it’d be something worth looking forward to, she married the Emperor while still in love with the King, but the drama just failed to emphasize that part.
It was Seung Nyang who let go of Wang Yoo’s hands and abandoned the beautiful dreams that they’d once shared. It was her choice to go on her own path where heartbreak and tears were abundant. She wished for Wang Yoo to move on from her, but on the contrary, he even somehow helped her move on. To Wang Yoo (and even to me), Seung Nyang died long ago. But that didn’t change the fact that he loved her and always. He’d always be there to guide her like a guardian angel and to save her like a hero. That was how a man like him loved.
When I said that to me the drama ended after Seung Nyang and Wang Yoo said their goodbyes, that was true. Because right after that, everything was rubbish that I even wondered if that was still the same drama that I’d known. Seung Nyang, the character that I’d rooted for in the beginning, was a huge letdown. She didn’t become the iron lady that she was supposed to be. I never liked Ta Hwan ever since because I believed that what Seung Nyang needed was a man that would love her, not a boy that would ask her to wipe his ass for him. But Ta Hwan had become worse than ever that I got fed up with his scenes alone and even those with Seung Nyang. It came to the point when I thought I was only watching it because I was a masochist. But I thanked the drama gods for leaving Wang Yoo and Taltal as the remaining sane characters in the drama.
One failure done by the drama was that it’d described the heroine as an iron lady in the introduction but didn’t manage to live up to it. Seung Nyang entered the palace for revenge but ended up as a babysitter to the Emperor most of the time. The abrupt changes on the script wanted to make believe that she loved such a man, when in fact, there was no sign that she’d ever loved him in the first half of the drama. She seemed to forget that Ta Hwan had deemed her father guilty and how she’d wanted to kill him when she’d first entered the palace as a servant. There was an inconsistency between her expressed attitudes and her actual behavior. Seung Nyang’s character development into the cunning Lady Ki up to the dark Empress Ki was a total failure because the drama ended without even just a glimpse of the said dark Empress Ki.
She grabbed the hands of the weak Ta Hwan because he was a tool that’d fix her position in the palace. She abandoned Wang Yoo because he couldn’t offer her the power that she needed at that time but still used him in any means possible. She protected Ayu not only because she was afraid of losing him, too, like what had happened to Byul, but more so because he was the one keeping her position in the palace. She carelessly sent the sick Maha away even after knowing that he was her long lost son when she could have had him by her side because he might cause a destruction in her goal in becoming the Empress. I knew that Seung Nyang’s intention of sending Maha away was for his own good, but the way it was carried out would give one a wrong interpretation. The execution of Maha’s death made her look like an irresponsible, thoughtless mother as while her son was dying she was busy babysitting her Emperor.
Furthermore, the writers made Seung Nyang look like a cheap woman. She had been raped by her husband, then a moment later, we saw her feeling anxious about his worsening condition as if nothing had happened. She was banished to the temple, ordered by her husband, as a punishment for a crime she’d done for the well-being of the country that had been oppressing her own. Yet, she even prayed for him there at the temple. That husband of hers was moved by her sincere prayers, took her back, and they made up. She simply forgave him without thinking of her pride. She lost her woman’s pride because of that. Looking back, the palace servant Seung Nyang had more guts than Lady Ki ever had.
Seung Nyang managed to oust everyone and everything that blocked her stairway to power, including Yeon Chul, Tanashiri, Bayan, Baek Ahn and Empress Dowager Hwang, who all looked down upon her Goryeo lineage, with the help of the people who were useful to her advantage. Her revenge had been partially completed. She then finally reached her goal, which was to become the Yuan Empress, the highest and the most powerful woman in nation. But in the end, did she look happy? Did her gains worth more than her losses?
The making of the heroine might have turned into a fiasco, but as always, the hero saved the drama in my eyes. Wang Yoo might have lost everything, his throne, the only woman he loved and even his son, but he remained who he was and lived his life with honor and dignity. From a powerless young man, who’d witnessed the hardships of his people, to a dethroned King of a powerless country, he did his best to treat his people with compassion. He was someone who’d rather starve than enjoy his meal while seeing his people suffer from starvation. He had all the characteristics a King should be—brave, humble, kind, righteous and a pillar of strength. He was humble enough to judge himself a failure and blame his inability as the cause of the country’s downfall. It wasn’t his cup of tea to look for a scapegoat for all that went wrong. He was a leader who treated his subordinates as his equal. For that, it earned him loyal followers who were willing to die in his place.
Even Wang Yoo’s political enemies couldn’t deny his strength and abilities. For one, Yeon Chul acknowledged him as an equal or perhaps more than that. It came from himself that he’d encountered countless fierce men on the battlefield but not someone like Wang Yoo with such a heart and pride. Baek Ahn, also, thought of Wang Yoo in high regard. He clashed swords with him on the battlefield as an equal and was always chary of fighting with him. Even Taltal, who was both wise and sagacious, learned to respect Wang Yoo for he saw it himself that he was a man of honor. They couldn’t find any flaw in him which they could use against him, not the fact that he was from Goryeo. Not only that, even Tanashiri and the palace servants were smitten with his charisma the moment they first saw him, yet he seemed unmindful of that. Yeon Bi Soo, too, who’d once attempted to kill him, became a loyal follower and gradually fell in love with him. Those people saw what kind of a person he was that they couldn’t help but admired him for that.
As a man, Wang Yoo accepted his fate with Seung Nyang. He never once blamed her for her decisions and even told her to go on without shedding a single drop of tear, without looking back, without regrets. In fact, he paved the way for her to move on as much as it hurt him to be separated from her. What he offered was selfless love, to love her in any means possible without asking to be loved in return. He didn’t ask her to stay by his side for him to love her for he had his own ways of loving her from a distance, one of which was silently protecting her. Protecting and saving Seung Nyang was like a duty and a promise that Wang Yoo never broke. He helped and saved her countless times, but he didn’t want to be credited for his actions. He was like her shadow, but she never noticed it because she was too busy babysitting her Emperor. There were times when I wanted Wang Yoo to stop helping Seung Nyang and see what Ta Hwan could do for her for she’d chosen him, but I knew Wang Yoo wouldn’t stop because to him it was the least he could do for his love for her. I hated it that he had to suffer just to save the girl, that he sometimes looked like a martyr, but then, maybe that was one of the reasons why I adored him.
Life goes on… even if he had nothing left. He didn’t let any adversity stop him from seeking justice and fighting for what was right. He didn’t only live for himself, he lived for his people. It might be too heroic, but that was indeed remarkable. He didn’t get a chance to live the kind of life he’d dreamed with the only woman he loved, but he surely had a sad but beautiful love with her.
Final — SPOILERS!!!
Just a few words for the finale:
Wang Yoo and Seung Nyang’s last conversation before she was crowned as the Empress had brought me to tears. It was also their last conversation since Wang Yoo was killed after the coronation. It wasn’t a heart-to-heart talk that I’d been begging for *cause this show was too selfish*, but for some reasons I couldn’t put into words, they made me cry. Prior to this, Seung Nyang had learned from Commander Park that it was Wang Yoo’s idea to keep Maha’s death a secret because he didn’t want the news to trouble her. They didn’t mention their son as they talked, like why she didn’t tell him about it or what exactly had happened, perhaps as a way to avoid the mention of the tragic past.
They talked about King Wang Yoo’s reinstatement. Seung Nyang asked him to stop the practice of using Goryeo for concubines and told him that she knew he was up to the task. Both of them hated that practice, that’s why Crown Prince Wang Yoo had let the captives (one of which was Seung Nyang) escape several years ago and also why Seung Nyang had had to live as a man. It was heartbreaking to see that situation. The woman he loved, who had been dragged to Yuan and became a concubine, was asking him to stop that practice. It was like saying that she wished to be the last Goryeo woman to experience that kind of fate. It was more painful from Wang Yoo’s point of view because he was the King and tried to stop that practice, but in the end still lost the woman he loved to it.
Wang-yoo: Do you still resent me?
Seung-nyang: If it were not for Your Majesty, I wouldn’t be here.
Wang-yoo: From now on, with or without me, you’ll be able to overcome everything. Even though our fate ends here, nevertheless, I have no slightest regret at all. Because I truly loved you. This is the last thing I would like to tell you.
When Byul and Wang Yoo visited Seung Nyang in her dream, it was already a premonition of Wang Yoo’s death since he just left his last message for her. He reached out for her hand, but before she could hold his hand, he and Byul disappeared. *Gahhh, how I loved that they could always meet and communicate in Seung Nyang’s dream!*
Ta Hwan planned to kill Wang Yoo because he wanted to bury Maha’s secret. Anyone who knew that Maha was Wang Yoo and Seung Nyang’s son should die. But did Ta Hwan really think that Wang Yoo would do such a thing (i.e. spill the beans) that could harm Seung Nyang? Maha was dead, there was no evidence at all. Apparently, Ta Hwan just used that as an excuse, when in fact, all he had been wishing for was Wang Yoo’s death even before he found out about Maha.
What’s funny was that Ta Hwan planned to kill 3 persons with no armor, yet he showed up with the whole army and full armor. On a serious note, I was moved by Jeombakyi and Moo Song’s suicidal move just to save their King. They were brave to face death for their lord. I doubt anyone would do the same thing for Ta Hwan as he was a victim of his own eunuch. The loyalty and service of Wang Yoo’s men was unparalleled to anything and was something that Ta Hwan never had and would never have.
Maybe Ta Hwan wasn’t that dumb because he knew who his target was. Just one mention of Nyang-ie ah, Wang Yoo lost his cool and judgment and dropped his sword, making way for Ta Hwan to stab him effortlessly.
Wang-yoo: Seung Nyang has saved me for many times. But you? What have you done for her?
Ta-hwan: Shut up.
Wang-yoo: You said you love her. Then, kill me.
(Ta Hwan drew his sword and stabbed Wang Yoo.)
Ta-hwan: Do you love her that much that you’re willing to die in her place?
Wang-yoo: Dead or alive, I will protect Seung Nyang until the end.
I’d expected Wang Yoo’s death but not like this. It was pointless that he died because of Ta Hwan’s cowardice, insecurities and jealousy. But deep in thought, it was because of Wang Yoo’s true love for Seung Nyang. It had been a question as to which Wang Yoo would choose between Goryeo and Seung Nyang. At that time, that question was finally answered. His death proved his love for Seung Nyang, that her life was more important than his. He did protect her until the very end to the extent of losing his own life in exchange for hers. Even until his last breath, it was still Seung Nyang ah as he slowly closed his eyes. I was so amazed by that sad but beautiful and unselfish love. Wang Yoo wasn’t only a real hero and a true King, he was the MAN!
Seung Nyang arrived way so late. She held Wang Yoo’s hand and placed it on her face, calling him Jeonha again like how she’d called him in her dream. She then recalled what he’d said, “In this world, no one can blame you, not even me. Don’t be sorry. Don’t shed any tears. Continue on your path with dignity. I’ll do the same. No looking back. No hatred. No regrets. I’ll go on my own path.” Seung Nyang blamed herself for all that had happened. She then held Wang Yoo’s dead body in her arms.
“Your Majesty, please forget me and leave in peace. In your next life, please don’t remember a person like me. But I will remember…in the next life…in the next life…all the graciousness that I’ve received from you. I would make the best effort to repay it.” —Seung Nyang
She hugged him in her bosom and broke into tears.
I actually liked Seung Nyang’s final words to Wang Yoo. Though she didn’t acknowledge her love for him (i.e. saying I love you) and her regrets for hurting him (i.e. saying I’m sorry) verbally, her emotions spoke volumes. She didn’t want him to remember her in the next life because she knew she’d hurt him deeply and didn’t wish for him to remember it all. But she said that in the next life, she’d remember him and all his deeds with a promise that she’d do her best to repay in kind. If I were to picture that scenario, in the next life, Wang Yoo wouldn’t have any lingering memories of her for she’d be the one to find him and love him more than he loved her in the previous life. She wouldn’t remind him of the past they’d once shared because it was too painful to remember but instead she’d create new beautiful memories with him. Wang Yoo showed his inexpressible love for her, that’s why given a chance in the next life, it’d be Seung Nyang’s turn to prove herself.
Seeing Seung Nyang grieving for Wang Yoo, I felt her pain and sincerity. But the next scene after that made me realize that it was only like crying over spilled milk. She knew that the Emperor had killed Wang Yoo and even the stupid reason why he’d done such a thing, I supposed. Yet, she ended up babysitting him once again as if nothing had happened at all. She was the Empress, wife of the Emperor, not a babysitter. Seung Nyang managed to avenge the murder of Lady Park and the death of Byul, but she couldn’t even to the same thing to the idiotic man who’d deemed her father guilty and killed her King. It was a shame that this iron lady was incapable of doing such a thing!
Additionally, Empress Ki was no patriot as what she had used to be as Seung Nyang. She ended up a traitor, the same traitor Empress Ki in history.
Epilogue — SPOILERS!!!
The epilogue somehow had saved the drama before I could rate its ending extremely lame.
Back in Episode 4, Wang Yoo looked for Seung Nyang and Ta Hwan and saw them on the shore after enjoying a joyride. Wang Yoo reprimanded Seung Nyang for being so careless with an assassin wandering around the place. Ta Hwan stopped him and said it was his order. Since the other horse ran off, Wang Yoo offered Seung Nyang to ride with him, but Ta Hwan countered and told Seung Nyang to ride with him. After looking at the two back and forth, Seung Nyang chose to ride with Ta Hwan.
The epilogue showed the same scene except that it closed the curtains before Seung Nyang could choose. Yes, we can conclude that it ended with a cliffhanger but with a message behind. I’d always thought that there was something special about that scene the first time I’d seen it in Episode 4, I didn’t expect it’d be related to the ending.
I’m borrowing this analysis from a friend because I agree with what that person said. Originally, since then, it was already given that the time would come when Seung Nyang would choose Ta Hwan over Wang Yoo, but it was actually more than that. Look at the aftermath of choosing Ta Hwan. Seung Nyang had achieved her goal, but in the end, she still lost everything and was left alone in crisis. It was simply implied that choosing Ta Hwan was a wrong choice. The curtains closed before Seung Nyang could choose was like a question left for the viewers to answer. Given a second chance, which would Seung Nyang choose? Would she still choose to stand by Ta Hwan’s side? Would she make the same mistake twice? Most likely she’d choose Wang Yoo, given a second chance, which now leaves an open ending.
Between a man who offered pure, selfless love and treated her like a Queen even if he didn’t have anything and a boy who insisted his selfish love and treated her like a slave when he was the Emperor; between becoming the wife of the man she loved and the Queen of a powerless kingdom occupied by her own people and becoming the wife of the man who loved her and the Empress of a powerful empire surrounded by avaricious people; between happiness and simple life and power and revenge; Seung Nyang was always given a choice, and she always ended up choosing the latter. Her choices were what paved her road. It wasn’t about making the right decision, it was about proving that the decision she’d made was right. Perhaps there were regrets, but she knew she couldn’t go back anymore, so what was the point of keeping those regrets? Moreover, Wang Yoo taught her that Life goes on, to always walk forward with no tears, no turning back and no regrets.
P.S. To me, the hairpin that Wang Yoo gave Seung Nyang when he asked her to become his Queen was perhaps the most valuable item in the drama. Long gone was that token of love, but I’d hoped that I’d see it again nonetheless, even just a glimpse of it before the drama ended. But there was none, even its shadow. So thank you, drama, I just had to assume that Seung Nyang either lost it, kept it or bury it with Wang Yoo and their tragic love.
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