Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29
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.
The birth of a son to Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) changes everything or changes nothing. It all depends on your point of view. This boy could be the heir to the Joseon throne or he could be the bastard no-one ever talks about. So all the political factions in the court focus on the issue of the succession. Since the Queen Mother has said this child will only be nominated as heir, “Over my dead body”, Lady Jang’s brother Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) whose villainy grows ever more delightful, decides to take her at her word. The plot to poison her is elegant. Nothing on its own is poisonous but, when you take two different medications, they interact. Not surprisingly, such elegance is transparent to Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) and Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), so now it comes down to a question of what price to pay for the truth. Has the Chief of Police the courage to investigate independently? Has the Lady Jang “bought” Dong Yi? As we should expect for Dong Yi, the answer is a sad shake of the head and a tear of disappointment. How could Lady Jang betray such high expectations?
In a way, Lady Jang’s position is rather unfortunate. Her brother was acting in secret. Yet now she knows the plot, her character comes into focus. She always was a tiger playing defence. This was strength with honour. It was what attracted Dong Yi and formed a bond of mutual respect. Except, once you are put into a situation when you must either sacrifice your brother or sacrifice your son’s chances of succession to the throne, it doesn’t help to complain about unfairness. You take the cards you are dealt and make the best of them. The same fighting qualities she displayed when outfacing the Surveillance Bureau in the first narrative arc are back. This time brother and sister aim to use Dong Yi’s investigation as a trap by persuading the identified physician to implicate the Queen. To those who know the facts, it’s an obvious lie, but even the King (Ji Jin Hee) must hesitate when both Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha-Sun) and Lady Jang as the newly promoted Concubine protest their innocence. The real cleverness of the plot to implicate the Queen is that it depends on the investigation unearthing planted evidence and then accepting it at face value. So the physician has connections to the Queen’s family. It appears the family gave him a note representing large sum of money just before the poisonous combination was delivered. Except Dong Yi and the Chief of Police check with the merchant house that was supposed to honour the note and find it a forgery.
The real point of interest lies in the emergence of the Queen. Until now, she’s been very much in the background but, with her moving centre-stage, we see this must have been an arranged marriage, made in the hope she would bear lots of healthy children. Sadly, although she can wear the royal dresses and walk without falling over, she’s about as interesting as wallpaper. Now, in those distant patriarchal times, women would always been been valued more if they were seen and not heard. Passivity would have been a good quality. Except, when you see the King’s impish sense of humour, you can understand why he would seek outside companionship. That he should turn to is Lady Jang is more interesting. She’s a more determined social climber and fits into the plotting and feuding environment, understanding its ways and prepared to fight her corner as necessary. But there’s no joy in either woman. Coming back to Dong Yi, we can see she’s going to win the day. She fits the model the King likes — she makes him laugh just by being herself. She doesn’t have to pretend or act a part like a courtesan. Seeing them together, triggers such naked jealousy in Lady Jang she agrees to kill Dong Yi. She knows the King will dump her in favour of this “force of nature”.
Once we’ve got over Dong Yi being thrown in the river with a rock tied around her legs only to be rescued by Cha Jeon-Soo, played with increasing confidence by Bae Su-Bin, we can observe her as an ace bluffer with no obvious tell when it comes to confronting Jang Hee-Jae. Then the hunt for the money is to continue. Except it all proves too little too late. The Queen Dowager dies and, with all the evidence stacked, the Queen must be dethroned and sent off in disgrace to a humble cottage in the countryside. At least the Queen shows some dignity in defeat. She and her family may have been victimised, but she holds her head up and no-one sees her cry. Later Dong Yi goes to visit her in exile and finds her working the land to grow vegetables. We see the Queen happy and relaxed. She has given up the past and now embraces the quiet life outside the court. This is the first time the Queen has felt real. Up to this point, she has seemed a mere cypher. Now at least she’s a happy cypher.
Through a detour into the world of fortune telling where Lady Jang’s future doesn’t look so good, we get the biter-bit syndrome. To get Dong Yi into trouble, Lady Jang and the Matron of the Surveillance Bureau conspire to have Dong Yi sent to the Treasury which is controlled by the eunuchs. Since they are protected by custom, it’s expected they will beat Dong Yi black and blue and drive her away. They do beat her but not before she discovers a part of the paper trail to prove where the money came from to bribe the physician. It looks as though the evidence will now surface but the King stops the audit.
Continuing the emerging romance, the King uses the musicians as messengers to call Dong Yi to a secret meeting where he explains why he stopped the Surveillance Bureau’s investigation into the Treasury. On another occasion when he’s setting up a meeting, he’s surprised when his personal advisor asks whether he wants to sleep with Dong Yi. This is the reality of the court where it’s almost impossible to do anything without a partisan servant observing it. This is torture for the Lady Jang. It can only mean the King is going to become a real friend to Dong Yi and replace the Lady Jang as confidant. The only hopes for salvation are to destroy all the records held by the Treasury and ensure Dong Yi’s death. Meanwhile Cha Jeon-Soo is given legitimacy by the Chief of Police and continues to spy on Jang Hee-Jae and intercept his mail. They know everything will come to a head when the King goes away on a hunt. During this time, Dong Yi insists on bluffing her way into the Treasury before there is any chance of the records going missing.
On the dread night, Dong Yi is stalked by masked killers as she breaks into the Treasury. First the killers set a fire and then chase her through the streets. A knife strikes her in the shoulder. It’s wonderful melodrama maintaining the interest and excitement of the first section of episodes.
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: