We’re in our final two hours! I am simultaneously looking forward to the ending tomorrow and a little loath to get there, partly because it’s been a pretty awesome ride that I’ll have to say goodbye to, and partly because I still don’t know how we’re going to get to where we’re going in the time we have left. Today is jam-packed with events, both of the momentous nature and the small meaningful kind—and also moments that are, in line with this drama’s forte, small but feel momentous. Grab a kleenex or two, settle in, and get ready for a roller coaster of emotions. *grabs armrests*
EPISODE 17: “An ending on behalf of a beginning”
All hell breaks loose at the interrogation, moments after the order is given to execute Ra-on. The disguised rebels turn on the soldiers, while Byung-yeon turns his sword on the prince, holding the blade to Yeong’s neck.
Minister Kim orders the soldiers to capture all the rebels, but with Yeong’s life in danger, the panicking king screams at everyone to not take any action. Head Eunuch Han orders everyone to step aside and clear an exit path, because preserving the prince’s life is the priority.
The rebels free Hong Kyung-rae and usher him and Ra-on away. Yeong whispers, “No,” looking on with teary eyes as she leaves with them. Ra-on sends back an anguished look back at Yeong, and then is pulled away.
When they’re safely out of the courtyard, Byung-yeon turns back to the prince and re-brandishes his sword, causing everyone to tense. As he looks at Yeong, one big tear rolls down his cheek, and we flash back to a conversation they’d had recently:
Yeong had stated his intent to find out what Baekwoonhwe, the rebel organization, was all about, and also to figure out what the wall is that is getting between him and his people. Byung-yeon had said that the nation Yeong is trying to make will be over that wall, and had said he wanted to see it. Yeong had replied smilingly, “In order for that to happen, I’ll need your help.”
Now as Byung-yeon holds his blade to Yeong’s neck, he asks him to forgive the offense: “The world that Baekwoonhwe hopes for and the Joseon that you dream of—I believe that they are not different. Over that wall between you and your people, the nation you will make—I wish to see it.” Byung-yeon smiles through his tears, and Yeong’s face takes on an alarmed look.
Then, reinforcements pour in and point arrows at Byung-yeon, who starts to step back. Urgently, Yeong tells him not to retract the sword: “The moment you do, I will lose you.”
Byung-yeon closes his eyes and seems at peace with his fate, but Yeong orders him not to take back his sword. Byung-yeon replies through more tears, “I cannot obey that order—I am sorry.”
Yeong watches in horror as Byung-yeon drops his sword, and immediately is struck in the chest with an arrow. Then another in the leg. Yeong calls for a halt, but a soldier slashes Byung-yeon with his sword, and Byung-yeon topples to the ground, mortally wounded.
Yeong forces his way past the soldiers and kneels by his dying friend, cradling him in his arms and gripping his hand tightly. He tries to force down his sobs and smiles down at Byung-yeon, telling him, “Do not forget. If I only had one person in the world that I could trust, it would still be you.”
Byung-yeon says, “Thank you for trusting me.” He reaches up with his hand as though to wipe Yeong’s tears, but before he can, his hand falls slack and his eyes fall closed.
In a flashback to the lantern festival, we see Byung-yeon at a distance from Yeong and Ra-on, who watch their lantern float up into the air. Byung-yeon sends his own wish up into the sky: In the last moment, that I may be only a friend. Oh god, I’m a mess. A blubbering mess.
The rebels, still dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, lead Hong Kyung-rae to the palace gates, where the guards eye them suspiciously. But Head Eunuch Han arrives to show them an official pass, and the guards open the gate.
The rebels are halfway through when the pursuing soldiers catch up to them, shouting for the rebels to be stopped. Fighting breaks out, and as half of the rebels hold them off, Hong Kyung-rae and Ra-on are led outside. Head Eunuch Han closes the gates on them, saying that he’ll buy them time—and although Ra-on and her father are loath to leave him behind, they’re compelled to hurry away.
The eunuch is slashed across the back as he starts to close the gate, but he marshals the last of his strength to stab a soldier who tries to follow the fugitives. Then he shut the gates closed, and Ra-on and her father witness the scene sorrowfully before they’re whisked away on horseback.
Eunuch Jang and Yoon-sung intercept the palace servant who’s wheeling out Byung-yeon’s corpse, and bribe him into leaving the body with them (as a criminal, he wouldn’t get a full burial). Yoon-sung breaks down in tears as he looks down on his friend, grasping his bloody hand…
And then, that hand ever so slightly twitches. Omo omo. Yoon-sung registers the motion with shock, then hope.
One month later.
The prince’s retinue gathers outside his door in the morning, awaiting permission to enter… which they don’t receive because the prince is not in his chambers. He’s outside the palace, having left his dragon robes behind.
Currently, Yeong sits stone-faced in a gisaeng house, watching a gisaeng dance while another pours him a drink. She notes that it’s his first time in this establishment, but Yeong’s reply is cavalier—he doesn’t remember, since he’s often drunk these days.
At the palace, the king confirms with a displeased court that the prince has missed yet another session. The prime minister argues that he is taking his regency too lightly and indicates the stack of scrolls in front of him, which are calls for dethronement. The king dismisses that prospect, but Minister Dumb pipes up that it’s necessary, and that he poses a danger to the state.
At that, Minister Jo retorts that the prince did not endanger the state, and accuses the ministers of linking the prince to Baekwoonhwe’s actions without any proof, and inciting the scholars at every chance. The prime minister presses on, though, insisting that the prince has lost all support and spends more time at gisaeng establishments than at his official duties. He argues that it’s time to dethrone the crown prince and name a new one, in order to set the government aright.
Dumb and Dumber chime in, and the rest of the ministers join the plea. Minister Jo is vastly outnumbered, and the king looks cornered. (Not that that’s difficult, as he seems to have taken up residence in that corner.)
As Yeong leaves the gisaeng house, he hears a familiar voice and turns to see the queen’s eunuch, Eunuch Sung, heading inside. Hm. That gets him thinking.
The prime minister visits the queen to inquire after the baby prince, and she answers a bit nervously that he’s in fine health. The prime minister is pleased, and says that he will soon be made the new heir. The pronouncement excites the queen, although her reaction is dimmed by the memory of Yoon-sung’s threat: that her discarded daughter is still alive.
Byung-yeon is alive, thank goodness, though not quite recovered from his brush with death. Yeong visits his friend and watches him sleep, wondering when Byung-yeon will finally be able to answer his greeting.
Yeong sits there for a bit, then tucks him in and leaves—and moments later, Byung-yeon’s eyes briefly open.
He’s been entrusted to Teacher Dasan’s care, and Yeong asks if he will be okay. Teacher Dasan says that the injuries are healing, and supposes that his prolonged sleep means that Byung-yeon is merely preparing himself to see Yeong.
Yeong asks if he has heard from Ra-on, but Teacher Dasan has not. He asks if Yeong is disappointed, and Yeong says no: Thanks to Teacher Dasan, he’s been keeping busy playing a game of “catch the tail.” It sounds like he’s on a hunt to find a lead (“tail”) that’ll take him to the head, and he explains that he’s keeping a close eye on all the comings and goings at the Kim clan: movement of money, land documents, people.
Teacher Dasan reminds him that merely stepping on a tail doesn’t mean the hunt is over, and that the prey can always cut the tail off to run away. Yeong takes in that warning, then says that he is making good progress with his preparations and advises Teacher Dasan to prepare to “fill a large hole” in the political scene.
Trembling in fear, Eunuch Sung reports to the queen that Yoon-sung is likely telling the truth about the discarded princess, having gone to the gibang to confirm the story in person. The queen is fraught with panic.
Yeong encounters Prime Minister Kim in passing, who tells him that being dethroned needn’t be a terrible thing, and that there are princes who have enjoyed life afterward. Yeong plays along, and says that it sounds appealing, but for one thing that holds him back: “You, Prime Minister. With you left in government, I do not think I will be able to leave it.”
Ra-on surprises Teacher Dasan by dropping by, having heard that Byung-yeon is here. She’s relieved to hear that he’s improving despite not having woken yet, and speaks to him in a cheerful voice, urging him to wake before too much time has passed.
Ra-on’s mood gets more pensive as she asks what the palace is like at the first snow of the year, thinking with a heavy heart that it must be quite pretty under a layer of snow. And then, Byung-yeon’s voice cuts in, “It’s beautiful.”
Dryly, he chides her for being as talkative as ever, and Ra-on lights up in relief, overjoyed to have him back. I feel that feel.
Yeong sits outside the building Ra-on and Byung-yeon used to share, recalling the happier times the three of them had spent there. At the sound of footsteps, Yeong looks up in anticipation… and then sees Ha-yeon and deflates.
She asks if he’s disappointed that it’s her, and he replies that he was merely surprised. She admits to nursing hurt feelings recently, after finding out who it is that Yeong loves. She supposes it’s too much to want more after insisting that she’d only become princess as part of a deal, and informs him that she will honor her original intentions.
“I may not be able to console you as she could,” Ha-yeon says, “but I will remain as your helper in keeping your position as crown prince. Because the person who can be at your side through the end is me.”
The queen summons Yoon-sung and asks how much longer he will interfere with her and her son, given that Yeong will be dethroned soon. Yoon-sung says warningly that he has restrained himself thus far because of their blood tie, and adds that he’d thought she’d at least want to see her child once. In a steely voice, he tells her to confess her actions, calling this his last act of mercy.
And outside the door, the prime minister turns around to leave, having heard the exchange.
Yeong receives a report from Young Master Jung, who confirms the capture of the man who organized the attempted assassination plot. Yeong heads out immediately.
The complaints against the prince’s unseemly behavior mount, and the ministers press the king about his removal—although notiably, the prime minister is quieter than usual. Just then, Yeong is announced at court, and when the king asks if it’s true he left the palace incognito again, Yeong readily confirms it. He’s surprisingly flippant in the face of their outrage, saying that the reports are accurate, and that he visited gibangs and gambling dens.
As scandalized murmurs break out, Yeong adds that a good king must listen to what his people are saying; he can’t hear anything by staying in the palace. Therefore, he spent his time listening to the citizens’ words.
Minister Dumb asks if those citizens were gamblers and gisaengs, and Yeong confirms it, asking if there’s a problem. The ministers burst out into another round of appeals to dethrone Yeong, and the king feels as trapped as ever.
But Yeong doesn’t look worried, and says that he understands their concerns, but feels the desire to share some of the interesting tales he has picked up from making the rounds at gibangs and gambling dens.
At the same time, the queen visits the gibang where Yoon-sung took her baby, and asks the madam to see the child. The madam wonders at the queen’s interest before gasping in shock, guessing at their connection.
Then it’s the queen’s turn to be shocked when the madam informs her that the baby was taken away earlier today, by someone claiming to be from the palace.
Yeong scatters drawings of men’s faces on the ground, telling the ministers to look closely to see if any trigger recognition. Minister Dumb asks why all the drawings show men with their eyes closed, and Yeong replies, “Why do you think? Because they are all dead.”
The Kims look particularly worried as Yeong deduces that they were killed to silence them—yet even so, there was a wealth of evidence left behind to connect the dots. He announces that he’s found out who’d gathered the men, paid them off, and organized the attack on him. Minister Dumber stammers that they already know the rebels of Baekwoonhwe to be the culprits, but Yeong snaps that they can just ask for the answers directly.
He calls out for the witness to be brought in. A disheveled prisoner is dragged forward and set before the court, whereupon Yeong asks if the mastermind is in this room. The man looks around at the ministers’ faces, and answers in the affirmative. Haltingly, he points to Dumb and Dumber as the ones in charge.
The royal investigator confirms that the payments doled out to the assassins originated from Minister Dumb, and produces secret ledgers as evidence. Yeong presses the prisoner again to identify who ordered the assassins and blamed their actions on Baekwoonhwe. The prisoner confirms again that it was Dumb and Dumber.
The irate king asks the ministers for a response, and Minister Dumb proclaims his innocence in ever-feebler (and ever-falsetto) exclamations. Yeong orders that they be imprisoned and interrogated, and their full crime exposed.
They are dragged out of the room, and then Yeong levels his hard stare on the prime minister. In a flashback, we revisit the conversation when Teacher Dasan had warned Yeong that stepping on a tail would not guarantee a successful hunt. Yeong had asked what he needed to do to prevent his target from cutting tail and running, and Teacher Dasan had replied that a target with an overly large body would be difficult to capture all at once: “First the right arm, and then the left. Until you can cut off the head, you must not let down your guard.”
So now, Yeong trains his eyes on his final target. After the court session is over, he speaks privately with the prime minister to show him another drawing of a face. This time it’s a woman, and Yeong explains that a court lady recently died, having just given birth to a child that disappeared. He asks the prime minister if he isn’t curious to know what happened.
The queen returns to the palace, and is struck with horror to see that Ha-yeon and a court lady have a new baby in their care. Her daughter.
The queen’s hands shake as she receives a visit from Ha-yeon, who tells her that the prince asked one of his court ladies to temporarily watch over the baby. She found the child so cute she’d asked to be allowed to take her for a while, and shows her to the queen, who merely stares, frozen and afraid.
Yeong visits Byung-yeon again, this time awake, albeit too uncomfortable to meet his friend’s gaze squarely. When Yeong asks why Byung-yeon slept so long, Byung-yeon replies, “I must have been too ashamed to face you.”
Yeong reminds him, “You protected me and the woman I love. More than anything, I thank you for returning to us.”
Byung-yeon says that Ra-on sometimes comes to tend to him, and Yeong replies, “When all preparations are complete, I will bring her back to my side. I will make it so she can be as before, laughing, chatting with me, and being happy. I am nearly there.” He suggests that the three of them return to the palace for a drink when the time comes.
The two friends smile at each other, and around the corner, Ra-on listens with a smile on her face.
The prime minister cuts right to the chase when he visits the the queen, asking why she is so intent on enthroning a child who isn’t of royal blood. The queen insists that she gave birth to the child, and the prime minister just tells her that everybody believes that, and must continue to believe it. “If you are unable to do that,” he warns, “you will not be able to avoid death.”
He starts to get up, but for the first time, the queen pulls rank on her father, referring to him formally by title and ordering him to sit. She asks if he thinks he will be safe, because just as he has a tight hold on her lifeline, she has one on his.
She warns that he may have managed to raise her up from her lowly origins as a gisaeng’s daughter, but that is itself a disgrace to the Joseon royal family. (Presumably, he would be punished if that news came to light.)
The prime minister finally looks something less than smug, and he warns her to shut her mouth. The queen tells her father that if he means to mess with her, he had better be prepared to handle the consequences.
That night, as they look up at the moon, Yeong and Yoon-sung reminisce on their childhood together, trading bittersweet recollections: Yoon-sung envied Yeong and always felt that ultimately, he was a vassal, while Yeong was always longing for friends.
Yeong wonders, “Is that why we could only amount to this much? You, Byung-yeon, and me. Why is it that we cannot but fight?” Yoon-sung admits to always wanting to flee his grandfather and his family, “although you may not believe it.”
“I believe you,” Yeong replies, explaining that he has also felt the desire to throw away things he couldn’t. “I will do what I must do,” Yeong adds. Yoon-sung nods, telling him to do what he believes is right.
“But, I worry that you may be hurt,” Yeong says. Yoon-sung says, “I worry too—that I may want to protect my family.” They turn to look each other in the eye, and Yoon-sung continues, “But no matter what happens, there will be no reason to feel sorry—either for you, or for me.”
Prime Minister Kim sits alone in his room, thinking back eight years ago to the day he’d had a face reader look at Yeong from afar, and heard that the prince’s face spoke of an early death. Moreover, one of his companions had an “unusual energy”: a good nature, a strong spirit, and the face of a good king. That boy wore a hat bearing the image of a crane, and we see that he’d been speaking of Yoon-sung.
Now, the prime minister thinks to himself that if the Yi royal lineage is to be disrupted, they may as well put a “proper” owner on the throne. And just then, Yoon-sung arrives in accordance with his summons.
As the court ladies brew medicines in the courtyard, a shifty-looking figure hovers in the background…
That night, Ha-yeon visits a tired Yeong as he sits up reading, and brings him a tonic meant to help with fatigue. The court lady tastes it first, and then Ha-yeon serves it to the prince.
Yeong starts to drink it, just as Ha-yeon looks at her hand and notices something—a discoloration on her silver ring.
Alarmed, she grabs for the bowl and tells him not to drink—but it’s too late. He’s already taken a mouthful.
Across the city, Ra-on thinks of Yeong cutting loose his eternity bracelets, sending its beads scattering everywhere.
As Ra-on touches the spot on her wrist where her bracelet used to be, Yeong’s eyes widen and a pained expression crosses his face.
He starts to keel over slowly, and falls to the ground with a thud. Unconscious.
This show is going to be the death of me. I was an ugly-crying wreck when Byung-yeon died (he didn’t die, technically, but boy did the show kill him off beautifully anyway), and now they’ve gotta go and put Yeong in danger? I don’t believe for a second that he will die this way—there would be rioting if the production killed off Park Bo-gum!—and yet, there’s nothing like a late-game poisoning to remind us all that this was the way that the historical figure died (suspected poisoning at the age of twenty), making everything feel just a bit extra unsettling. Then again, he’s also supposed to have fathered a child by now, so I suppose we can take solace in this drama’s intentional historical inaccuracy.
Byung-yeon’s death scene was an emotional highlight of the episode, and the show did a good job of not making it feel like a cop-out when he didn’t actually die. Or maybe I’m just so relieved that he’s not actually dead that I don’t care why he didn’t die as long as he didn’t. It feels a bit like getting to have our cake and eat it too, because he got his glorious send-off, which felt right, and then also got to survive, which also felt right.
That gorgeous farewell with Yeong was in many ways more stirring than anything a romantic heartbreak could have wrought. It felt earnest and pure, capturing two friends caught between greater forces and unable to do anything about it but to wish in their last moments to be the best friend they could to each other. Personally, I don’t believe that Byung-yeon drew a sword on Yeong as a diversion, or as a noble sacrifice meant to save Ra-on and Yeong; I really do think he was carrying out his role as a member of the rebels. The acting performance, with all its heartbreaking nuances, supports that reading, and doesn’t quite fall in line with the diversion/sacrifice explanation. But even in that moment, I don’t believe he switched allegiances; it seems to me that he was always trying to honor both of his loyalties. He would never have harmed Yeong, and in effect chose to die rather than carry his role in the rebellion any more than was necessary.
That made it feel especially poignant later when Byung-yeon was feeling shame and guilt toward Yeong after his recovery, and Yeong was the one to read protectiveness and sacrifice in Byung-yeon’s actions. I love that Yeong has such strong faith in his friend to believe the best of him regardless of what he said. And when we saw that his most earnest wish was to be a friend in his last moments, it drove home that his loyalty never broke.
Ra-on really took a backseat today, which was a little disappointing, but I suppose we had too many other important storylines to address to cram in everything. I appreciated having an episode more focused on the three friends, because they form such a perfect representation of the conflict at large, but injected with heart and soul, to make their dilemmas and crisscrossing fates and loyalties really come through in the emotion. I actually wish the show had focused a bit more on the three friends throughout the entire show, but at least we have episodes like this one, where they speak openly and communicate. Even if that means they remain on opposite sides, despite their hearts wanting them to be on the same one.
I was relieved to see a return of shrewd Yeong, the one who plays things close to the vest and gets everything prepared quietly while his opponents relax. It was clear (to us, at least) that he wasn’t just carousing out of recklessness, but I like that he used that impression as a tool to gain information without arousing suspicion. And I was thrilled that we saw again how perceptive he was, getting to the baby first and tucking away his trump card before the other side even knew to be worried. Whenever Teacher Dasan is involved, I always find myself breathing a bit easier about wit and smarts winning over pure power.
I’ll admit to being a little nervous as we head into our last hour, because we have a lot of ends to tie up and I (1) want the conflicts resolved to reasonable satisfaction and (2) also want to be able to bask in the satisfaction for longer than a minute as the show ends. But we’ve come this far, so what’s one more hour of putting myself at these producers’ mercies? Here’s my heart, Moonlight, beating and bloody and hopeful—now just don’t break it, please.