UNEASY LIES THE HEAD THAT WEARS A CROWN
The drama mainly focuses on the conflict between King Yeong Jo (Han Suk Kyu) and his son, Lee Sun (Lee Je Hoon), later known as Crown Prince Sado. Taking liberties with the recorded history, the drama speculates that a conspiracy plot between the warring Noron and Soron factions was linked with sealing Sado’s fate.
Considering it’s one of the biggest Joseon era scandal, I was highly interested in this version of the story because of the “what if” factor. Having said that, I was surprised and dismayed by how the drama decided to handle the story. I think there are two stories to tell here: the conspiracy version versus what’s written in the official record. Unfortunately, the drama just focuses on the conspiracy version and taking a fictional take over this story. While the story is definitely compelling, I don’t think that drama explores it as much as it could have been explored. For the purpose of this review, we’ll focus on the drama’s version of the story.
However, the most powerful thing about this drama are the performances. I guess that’s pretty much what I expected when I saw the cast line up. I really enjoyed Han Suk Kyu and Lee Je Hoon’s chemistry when they were in Paparoti and their Machiavellian push and pull is very captivating to watch in this drama as well.
I didn’t doubt that Han Suk Kyu could pull off a powerful performance but I loved his attention to the minute nuances of his character. Often seen as a wise and kind king in previous dramatic works, Secret Door’s King Yeong Jo had some interesting character quirks. From obsessively washing out his ear whenever he was overwhelmed by the criticisms he faced or stuffing himself with food to enhance his dominant presence, Han Suk Kyu highlighted his characters demeanor and insecurities in line with the plot.
In addition, the drama also made comparisons between the young King Yeong Jo, previously known as Yeoning-gun before his coronation, and Sun. Although we see a father who is trying to groom his son into becoming a tough and wise ruler, we also see that beneath the surface, they are both insecure and unable to deal with pressure from the both factions.
The Norons use their influence to dethrone Yeong Jo’s older brother and place him there as their puppet. As a result, Yeong Jo lives in constant fear that the treasonous plot would come to light therefore putting his position as a monarch in jeopardy.
Yeong Jo already feels unworthy of the role as king and yet makes Sun feel like he needs to prove that he’s ready to lead after Yeong Jo. Sun continuously tries to please his father by establishing his own policies which is thwarted by Yeong Jo at every turn. Their relationship is so ruthless and calculating that it reminds me how father/son relationships are depicted in Shakespeare’s works such as King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare would have had a field day writing about these two.
The writer also makes some interesting choices in portraying Lee Sun. I was far more intrigued by his depiction in the first half as we often saw him losing his temper or being caught at the scene of a murder. As historical accounts depicted Lee Sun as being mentally unstable and violent, it felt important to see Lee Sun being mistakenly characterized as such and therefore skewing popular opinion for his execution.
However, in the second half, we saw Lee Sun more as a family man and fighting to support the cause of the common man. In fact, the drama starts to go downhill when Lee Sun decides to burn the secret document implicating his father treasonous acts against the previous king. His resolve to appear as if he is playing by the rules limited the scope of his character. I was dismayed that the drama felt an incessant need to paint Lee Sun as a sympathetic character as it felt like overkill. Viewers have always known that the execution scene was looming in the background and reinforcing Lee Sun’s innocence only made the ending less climactic. Rather, I wished the drama had his character teetering between the line of good and not so good as that is what humanizes him. Plus, it would have further illustrated how people could have conflicting perspectives on his character.
Also in the first half, I enjoyed watching the relationship between Lee Sun and Seo Ji Dam (Kim Yoo Jung). Beyond romance, there was something pure and honest about their relationship which was a great relief since Lee Sun was surrounded by people who were deceiving him, even if they were allies. Unlike these other allies, there were no other agendas that interfered with their relationship as both Sun and Ji Dam were both seeking out truth and justice.
That chemistry just gets lost in the second half with Yoon So Hee taking over as the adult Ji Dam. The most disappointing thing about her character is that it’s hard to find a trace of the passionate Ji Dam that we fell in love with. Sure, she’s lost a lot including her faith in Lee Sun but instead of heightening the suspense of that lost confidante, she’s merely portrayed as a subdued character. It just left me scratching my head over what her character was supposed to serve. More than anything, she becomes a nuisance as Lee Sun has to keep hiding her from their enemies.
On the flip side, while I was at first dismayed to see Park Eun Bin as Lee Sun’s wife, Lady Hye Kyung because she was thorough unimpressive in Operation Proposal, I found that she was incredibly convincing in this finely constructed multi-layered role. On one level, she’s the daughter of a Noron official. She doesn’t willfully thwart her husband but her support for Lee Sun is based on the standing of her family and the subsistence of their royal position. She slowly comes to understand him throughout the drama, does her job in dispelling unfavorable rumors, all the while opposing the choices he makes because she wants to play things safe. It’s a very meaty role for Park Eun Bin and I think she does a great job in juggling the dilemma her character faces.
The drama takes advantage of its powerful cast and it’s great to watch the varied performances. These veteran actors could sit back and relax but they’re not afraid to risk with how they play their characters. It was eerie to watch King Yeong Jo and Leader of the Noron faction, Kim Taek (Kim Chang Wan), cajole and blackmail each other through a veil of calm pleasantries. It made the scene in which King Yeong Jo throw the chess pieces all the more shocking.
However, I still can’t help feeling that with all of its strengths the drama doesn’t quite push the bar far enough to make a good drama great. It certainly does have the potential. The conspiracy aspect is the most interesting thing about this tale and it was Lee Sun’s character assassination that leads to his execution. Weaving the truth and the fiction together would have made this drama much more than your typical mystery sageuk.