Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50
This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.
So now we come to the real test of strength over the border logs. The Chinese delegation is blackmailing the Jangs and upping the ante with the King (Ji Jin Hee). Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) sits in the middle with the real logs. If the Chinese gained access, they could confirm their suspicions that the King has been secretly rearming and rebuilding military strength both in physical fortifications and the disposition of troops. Because of the Chinese blackmail, Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon) and Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) are all fired up to steal the logs back from Dong Yi. They assume she has hidden them well so they cover all the bases, arranging to search every possible hiding place. As with many of their plans, this involves the death of many minions.
This raises an important issue about the way the plot is constructed. We can accept life was cheap in Korea in the seventeenth century, but I would prefer to see some consequences to criminal activity. For example, let’s go back to an earlier episode when the Treasury official and his family were killed by assassins as they helped Dong Yi escape. His long-time friend, Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), was not seen to investigate. Indeed, only the burning of the Treasury was featured in later episodes. None of the associated deaths were mentioned again. I accept the plot cannot spread too wide. This would distract from the primary focus of the show. But since Dong Yi comes to prominence because she’s an effective investigator, there should be more on how the policing system works. Given the arson at the Treasury buildings, the deaths of so many other people must have been noticed and could have informed the King of the wider conspiracy. When making choices about what to include in the plot, we could do without all the subplots involving the Music Director’s family. In particular, the rivalry between Lady Yoon (Choi Ran) mother of Lady Jang and Jang Hee-Jae, and Lady Park (Lee Suk) is little better than comic relief.
Anyway, the plan involving the border logs is ingenious on both sides. The Jangs will attract all eyes to the banquet given to placate the Chinese delegation while their agents search everywhere. By appearing to threaten Dong Yi, they believe Chief Seo will move his troops to protect her. Later, if there’s any fall-out with the Chinese, the South faction can offer the Chinese money to finance their campaign against Mongolia and produce “peace in our time”. The treason will be converted into victory. So we see Dong Yi and her “merry men” playing the fool and leaving the logs to be found. I’m unhappy with this plot device of suddenly changing the point of view. Showing us the “good guys” acting dumb and falling into the trap, followed by an extended reveal showing how this acting trapped all the conspirators is unfair. That said, bringing back the combination of ginger and vinegar from the investigation that saved Lady Jang earlier in the series is a really nice “touch”. It shows the scriptwriting team prepared to exploit irony. So this incriminates the faction in the Surveillance Bureau that carried out the search of Dong Yi’s residence and shows Queen Jang touched the logs.
It’s always a problem when the King may still have feelings for his Queen. If you are going to accuse her of crimes, there must be very good proof. What makes this all the more interesting is to see a slight shift in focus from Chief Seo to Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon). Trusted by the King to protect Dong Yi, he’s adding to the general brain power while prepared to put himself in physical danger. Better still, he’s not prepared to respect anyone on the basis of their status. He deals with people as he finds them which is refreshing and explains why he gets on with Dong Yi. However, he was exiled because he was a vocal supporter of Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun) and there’s increasing triumphalism in his behaviour which rather takes the edge of his “nice guy” image.
Not unnaturally, as the evidence emerges, the South faction abandon the Queen and persuade all those already arrested to blame the Queen for ordering them to commit all relevant crimes. They reason the Queen will be untouchable as the mother of the heir so, although her family will be disgraced and a few will be executed, she will be safe without them having to put themselves at risk in trying to defend her. When the Queen goes to the King and confesses her leadership role, this is a moment of sadness. Although the King feels betrayed, there’s a sense of mutual failure. The Queen failed to trust to King to hold her safe and, when Jang Hee-Jae became more aggressive, she resorted to lies. He trusted his Queen and failed to see through the lies.
The show then polarises the debate about the nature of power. Lady Jang believes in realpolitik. Perhaps, in an ideal world, society would be a meritocracy with the best rising to positions of power. But, in this Joseon court, those seeking power use every means at their disposal to get it. Once they have it, they use every possible means to hold on to it. There’s no place for ethics or morality in this world. On the other side of the fence, Dong Yi feels terrible guilt that she’s responsible for exposing all this corruption and criminality. No matter she was only defending herself, she finds this aspect of power deeply troubling. She’s the voice of altruism and virtue. To her, power is not something desirable in itself and, once you have access to it, you should only use it when the results will be morally acceptable.
Well, after much soul-searching, the King decides to use his power to clean house. There has always been corruption at the heart of government so, starting with the lower officials, the King orders a purge of most of those in the South faction. Queen Jang is demoted. Queen Inhyeon is restored. The wheel has turned and virtue is rewarded.
For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics
Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself: