Well, this is the end. Such an emotional rollercoaster this drama has been from start to finish. The drama took a very different path from what I was expecting and I’m certainly left with questions. I admit the show has its share of faults and I have a quite a few bones to pick with the writers, but overall I was satisfied with the finished product. Although the journey was a long and strenuous one, I do feel that it was worth the pain and suffering. Here are my final thoughts on Scarlet Heart Ryeo. [Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Inconsistent/Unbelievable Character Behavior: One of the main issues I had with this drama was the lack of consistency among character personalities. Hae Soo starts out strong, brash, determined and independent, but by the middle they have her so timid that all of those beginning qualities are overridden and lost. She does have some moments of fear mixed into the first few episodes, but her reckless side is showcased much more in her ability to confront Yeonhwa, her brawl with Wang Eun, and perhaps most of all, her confrontations with Wang So. Nothing rustled my jimmies more than when she basically manhandled Wang So—who by the way was still a total stranger and a completely unpredictable one at that— while he was covered in blood and having a major meltdown. But then there was the time she decided it was a good idea to chase after him while he’s hunting down the assassins who were working under Wang Yo to kill the Crown Prince Moo. Or the time when she didn’t clean up the mess Wang Eun and Soon Deok made at the Damiwon when they were supposed to be in hiding. Instead, she gazes at the little oragami animals without the slightest concern, and they’re ultimately what tips Yeonhwa and everyone else off about their location.
The other major character with this problem was Wang So. The whole time he’s courting Hae Soo, she begs him not to harm his brothers or be cruel. He constantly promises her that he won’t become this way, and based off of his actions sixteen or so episodes into the drama, it’s very believable that he is too intelligent and noble to back out of that promise. This is especially evident when he thinks he killed Wang Yo and is so devastated to the point where he can barely confess it to her. There is also the scene where he’s forced to kill Wang Eun and you can see the horror and conflict on his face before he finally caves in to fulfill his dying brother’s final wish. So of course I was baffled and bewildered about an episode or two later when he’s angrily shouting “Kill them all!” and “Exile Wang Jung!” and “Treason is punishable by death!” and “I killed the hawk so I could frame Wook!” all with evil laughter and smirks that made it highly unbelievable that he could go through such a radical change that quickly especially after the writers had set him up as the type that would never succumb to power and paranoia the way Wang Wook and Wang Yo did.
Terrible Time Jumps = Patchy Plot: Probably the show’s biggest achilles heel. There were many time jumps and not a single one of them was utilized properly. There was more character development and plot movement happening off screen rather than on screen which made for a lot of confusion and not to mention frustration. King Tae Jo’s death basically launches the drama into a game of musical chairs as we watch King after King kick the bucket until we finally come to Wang So (Gwangjong). And when we get there, it’s a huge race to make him plummet from fan favorite underdog to a tragic anti-hero-like figure all within a two-episode span. I’d argue that there was a lot of time and focus wasted on Wang Wook’s arc in the first eight or so episodes that caused the more important arc of Wang So’s Kingship and transition into Gwangjong to be rushed and therefore suffer from lack of believability and quality. Not to mention the short lived romance and relationship development between Hae Soo and Wang So that resulted as a consequence of lost time. My biggest complaint is that we never got to really see how their relationship progressed because most of it took place during these large unfathomable time skips. This made watching the 2 minute romantic scenes between them all the more difficult to swallow because there was so much explanation and bonding missing from the story.
Shoddy Camera Work: When you start to see every individual pore and chin hair on an actress’ face, it’s time to zoom out. Apparently, that’s a concept not yet understood by the Scarlet Heart Ryeo PDs. I get that the cast was gorgeous, but I don’t even want to see Lee Jun Ki up that close and personal. As beautiful as the man is, there’s just a point where it gets to be too much and detracts from the moment rather than aiding it. There were literally points where I could see up his nostrils. Not cute. Facial expressions are huge in dramas with great emotional scale such as this one, so I get why we would need some up close shots to capture the feeling, but this was just excessive, and at most points, for useless reasons. But the offense doesn’t end there. In one scene, they do a panorama so that the background is spinning to show the passage of time and I literally got so dizzy that I thought I was on a cruise ship during a category five hurricane. I had to pause and close my eyes for a moment. No Joke. But there’s another scene in particular that miffed me the most and everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about before I even say it. The scene Hae Soo and Wang So share in the boat on the lake together has to be the biggest faux pas of them all. That scene had the potential to be breathtaking but instead we have the sun gleaming so bright that I can barely make out the expressions on Lee Jun Ki and IU’s faces. I practically went blind trying to squint my way through the scene in order to see what was actually going on. They really missed the mark on that one. Not sure how they looked over that footage and thought it was a good idea not to re-shoot the scene.
IU as Go Ha Jin/Hae Soo: I’m going to start with a disclaimer so I can avoid being burned at the stake, if possible. I am a big fan of IU. She is a very talented singer, sweet personality, stunning to look at, and I am convinced that she tries her best in all that she does. This was my first time seeing her as an actress, and she may very well be amazing in her other roles. That being said, her performance of Hae Soo fell flat at times for me, especially in comparison to Lee Jun Ki. Part of this is due to the fact that she is still a rookie and she was matched with a well seasoned sageuk veteran, which is intimidating and hard to live up to. I never expected her to be on his level, that just wouldn’t be fair nor realistic. And I believe IU held her own in some really crucial moments, which makes me feel that part of the problem was also the complex mess that was her character: Hae Soo. Hae Soo is a difficult one to flesh out and like I’ve mentioned above, that is definitely a symptom of the muddled writing that birthed her into the drama world. There were a lot of inconsistencies and inaccuracies that contributed to the convoluted nature of her character. So, if we had a hard time figuring out Hae Soo, I’m sure IU did too. When a character doesn’t have a solid foundation, it’s extremely hard to become that character and bring it to screen in a compelling manner. IU had her work cut out for her, but I wouldn’t say she floundered. I found her performance in the second half of the drama much more convincing and invested than in the first half. There were a few moments where I felt she couldn’t fully deliver the different tones of emotion required of her, but that’s to be expected of a singer-turned-actress. She definitely surprised me at other moments, and one moment she seemed to shine in particular, and what I’d consider her turn around, was the episode of Lady Oh’s death.
Lee Jun Ki as 4th Prince Wang So: Once again, Lee Jun Ki does here what he does best. Most of us know this isn’t his first rodeo in the Historical drama department. Lee Jun Ki is unique in that he has the power to turn any lackluster drama plot into one that is gripping and meaningful. We saw it before with Scholar Who Walks the Night and we see it again here. He lays the groundwork and foundation necessary to keep viewers holding on, and he makes any character believable and empathetic to the audience. I’d argue that this is perhaps one of his best works yet due to the complicated nature of Wang So. Lee Jun Ki was forced to display such a wide range of emotions while limited to the use of one eye for about half the drama. Although he noted the difficulties and anxieties he had about filming with a mask, Jun Ki was absolutely excellent at communicating Wang So’s feelings through his facial features. I’ve always felt Lee Jun Ki’s greatest ability was his vast range of emotion and his unwavering ability to communicate them poignantly through his eyes and body language. His delivery of Wang So couldn’t have been any better than it was, as he was able to capture the gravity of each situation and deliver the many layers of grief, anger, betrayal, and loneliness that Wang So experienced throughout his life. Wang So was such a likable character, with such propelling force behind him that made you want to root for him up until the very end. I loved his playful nature once he opened up to Hae Soo, but I also loved his determination to do what he thought was right. He refused to be manipulated and was probably the most clever brother out of them all when it came to figuring out the tricks and trades of the palace. Sadly, he let his emotion become the driving factor behind most of his decisions in the end, which catapulted him into the predicted Kingship full of blood and death. By the end, however, he seems to have figured out many of his flaws (albeit too late) and will hopefully have a chance to meet Hae Soo in the future.
Mostly Outstanding Soundtrack: Most of the instrumental soundtrack was beautiful and well fitted for the respective scenes. My only complaint would be a few of the songs used in the beginning episodes because they were clearly pop songs that were ill fitted for the time and place that the setting required. I get that they were used because the tone of the drama towards the beginning was more lighthearted, and therefore required more upbeat music, but I always have an issue with pop songs being used in Historical dramas. Ballads on the other hand can be hit or miss for me. Unfortunately most of the ballads missed the mark for me and became extra grating every time I heard them playing, but a few were extremely well done. In particular, I enjoyed Lee Hi’s “My Love,” Im Sun Hye’s “Will Be Back,” and Jung Seung Hwan’s “Wind.” My favorite out of the three would be Im Sun Hye’s track because it was so haunting and really encompassed the emotion that went into each of the death scenes. The instrumental/orchestral pieces, were where the soundtrack really made the scenes come alive. My favorite track, though I loved them all, would have to be “Wing of Goryeo“. From the chilling chanting at the beginning to the clashing violins and soft piano, this song really embodied the highs, lows, tensions, emotions, and turmoil that plagued the Goryeo era during Hae Soo’s time there. It’s honestly one of the best orchestral pieces I’ve ever heard in a drama to date. I really recommend you listen to it because it’s absolutely stunning.
Gorgeous Cinematography: There are some absolutely breathtaking scenes in this drama, from the princes’ masked choreographed festival scene in the earlier episodes, to the temple burning down, the view of the petal decorated lake and so on. I really loved the burning red sky toward the end when the eclipse happens in the finale, and the lone shot of Wang So looking out towards the palace is particularly breathtaking with the cerulean blue tint that colors the scene. Despite some of the other flawed camera work, I really think they were able to deliver in this aspect.
Compelling Storyline: Although the plot and writing both had their blunders, the bulk of the story still came through loud and clear. It was definitely dramatic and full of angst, and I appreciated that the drama took on a more dark and serious tone toward the second half, because I found the comedic episodes a bit too campy for my taste. There were some fantastically written characters written into the story and I loved how there were several different stories and relationships going on besides the intended main couple of Hae Soo and Wang So. I especially loved how each prince had their own personalities and traits and no two princes were alike. My fear was that there would be many shallow characters that were simply there for they eye candy, but that was not the case at all. From the villains to the heroes, everyone left their own unique mark, even poor Lady Hae, who was the first to meet her maker. There was never a point where I felt the story dragged on in terms of content being boring. There was always something interesting or significant happening in each episode to keep it moving and I felt the overall experience was a gripping and enjoyable one despite it being tragic in tone.
Lady Hae (Myunghee): This woman had to be the most selfless person on the planet. I admired Myunghee’s devotion to both Wang Wook and Hae Soo. Despite the fact that her husband and cousin begin to develop mutual feelings for each other, Myunghee never becomes bitter or spiteful, which could have easily been the case in this predicament. Up until her dying breath, Myunghee only wanted the best for the two people she loved most in her life, and that is beyond honorable.
Court Lady Oh: I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Court Lady Oh when she first appeared, but I soon saw the tough love vibes she was dishing out. She became a mother figure towards Hae Soo and it was so touching to watch their relationship develop over time. They had various little arguments but it was clear that Lady Oh always had Hae Soo’s best interest at heart. Her biggest fear was that Hae Soo would walk the same path as she did, and despite her efforts, Hae Soo eventually does follow a similar path. Her sacrifice for Hae Soo was probably one of the most emotional moments in the drama for me. In fact, her death probably effected me the most because it was not at all what I expected going into the drama. Lady Oh was too good for us all and will always be one of the most memorable characters.
13th Prince Baek Ah: I loved the bromance between Baek Ah and Wang So. I was so grateful that Baek Ah was always there for his brother to provide comfort whenever he needed it most. I viewed Baek Ah as the voice of reason in many situations, especially towards the end when shit hit the fan with Wang So. Baek Ah, like many of the other characters listed here, was selfless and noble. He always made the most just decision and deeply cared for those around him. It made me sad when he had to leave So’s side, but I can’t say I blame him.
14th Prince Wang Jung: Jung honestly deserves all of the awards. He started out a bit bratty, mostly because of his demon mother’s bad influence, but Jung really evolved from immature child to responsible and upright man. He supported Wang So in several key moments, but most importantly, he showed an unfeigned and selfless love for Hae Soo, even though he knew she’d never love him back. Jung spends his life waiting for Soo to come to him, helps her escape the palace, and takes care of her until her dying day. Not only does he treat her honorably, but he does the same with her daughter once she passes away. Jung literally gives up everything in order to protect and care for Hae Soo and risks his life in the process. If that’s not noble, I’m not sure what is.
Chaeryung: I loved Chaeryung the moment she popped on screen. She was so bright and endearing, and that’s why it hurt all the more when I saw her making that grave mistake of doing the bidding of a snake like Wang Won. I was very peeved by Chaeryung at first, but as we find out more of her story by the end, I can’t help but feel pity for her in the same way Soo does. She was blinded by her love, which was unfortunately for a man who didn’t deserve her. What she did was very wrong, and I’m not quite sure I’m completely reconciled with it, but I do empathize with her by the end and I do wish she hadn’t been put to death, especially in such a brutal manner.
Woo Hee: Unfortunately, it took me a long time to open up to Woo Hee’s character. I felt very indifferent towards her for most of the drama, but by the end I began to sympathize with her. I was shocked by her suicide and I’m not so sure she had to go through with it, but I partially understand why she did it. Though she did work as a spy, I never felt her intentions were malicious and I believe the feelings she had for Baek Ah were genuine. It’s a shame she killed herself, because as much as I didn’t like the idea of her suffering, I don’t think Baek Ah deserved to suffer any more than he already did either.
Soon Deok: This woman deserves and award for her devotion, determination, and total badassery. I loved that Soon Deok wasn’t your stereotypical girly girl and that she was ready to kick ass whenever needed. I thought her relationship with Wang Eun was quite tragic and it was grisly of the writers to kill the couple off right as they discovered their mutual love for each other.
Wang So’s Visit to his Mother after Killing the Silent Monks: This scene was heartbreaking but acted out to perfection. It was the perfect display of a son being outcasted and rejected by his mother. Lee Jun Ki really nailed the look of devastation and disbelief at his mother’s coldness and unwillingness to change her heart even after he tells her his story. It’s foreshadows later events, particularly when he’s at his mother’s deathbed, and is very eerie. I almost thought he was going to kill her when he walked in there covered with all that blood.
Courtlady Lady Oh’s Sacrifice: Everything about this scene was agonizing from Hae Soo’s kneeling protest out in the rain, to Wook’s cowardice revealing itself in full, to the King’s regretfulness toward his own actions. When the gong sounds to signal Lady Oh’s death, IU showed some of her best acting yet as she cries out in horror and desperation for her companion and mentor. It’s an undoubtably tragic moment as we watch Lady Oh’s feet dangle mid air, just after she mentions that she would be content even if only remembered by one person, and Im Sung Hye’s chilling song fills the silence.
Wang Eun and Soon Deok’s Deaths: This scene really stands out in my memory because of the facial expressions Wang So made when Wang Eun apologized about the birthday mishap and then proceeded to ask Wang So to kill him. It was mesmerizing in a tragic way, watching LJK’s face tremble in denial as fear, anguish, rage, grief, conflict and disbelief all flashed across his face in a matter of seconds. I love how we saw the transition of these different emotions before he finally begins to laugh but in such a distorted and wounded way and the audience and Hae Soo realize how woefully wrong her original vision had been. It really just pulls at your heartstrings. Definitely a superb show of acting in this scene.
Hae Soo’s Death: Hae Soo’s death was beautifully executed as well. I found it particularly tragic that she dies in Jung’s arms while listening to the song she sang at Wang Eun’s birthday. The flashback to that day is particularly heartbreaking as we are forced to remember how Wang So became enamored with her in that moment, though he might not have yet admitted it to himself then. The cheerfulness of the flashback clashes with the grave circumstances of the current moment which makes listening to the young girl singing the song and watching Hae Soo fade into death all the more agonizing as a tearful Jung tries to come to terms with the situation.
Thoughts on the Ending:
I saw a lot of spoilers before mustering up the energy to watch the final episode that made me extremely angry with the way things had ended. However, when I watched the episode for myself, I had a surprisingly different take on things. A lot of people were unsatisfied and outraged by the ending, so I know I’m of the unpopular opinion when I say I was able to come to terms with, and appreciate the ending that was given to us. I think breaking it down is the best way to explain how I came to recognize its value.
9th Prince Wang Won gets a Long Deserved Punishment: Seriously, the snake of all snakes. The King Cobra. The scum of the earth. A filth enough to gag a maggot. I was so glad that Wang Won was finally caught for the criminal he really was. This weasel always managed to escape punishment, but what bothered me most was his smug attitude and refusal to take responsibility for his actions up until the very end. Even Wang Yo, though evil, was always owning up to whatever his actions were. If he murdered someone, he wanted everyone to know it was him, which to me is better than being a sneak and a coward. What made this moment really satisfying for me was that fact that, even after her death, Soo was able to deliver the punishment she had promised him, which was making him read Chaeryung’s letter. I’m glad Baek Ah followed through with her wishes, because even if Wang Won didn’t give a crap in the end, he still had to suffer through Soo’s punishment before he bit the dust. I thought it was very fitting that he died by poison, something he had a hand in using in order to kill Wang Moo. I felt no pity for this hoodlum.
8th Prince Wang Wook doesn’t Die a Snake: I never thought Wook would change so quickly after Myunghee’s death. I was really surprised at how twisted he became over time, and his sneaky manipulations shocked me with each passing episode. I pretty much lost all hope for Wang Crook once evidence showed he’d broken into Wang Yo’s secret eyeliner collection. But I think the change from bright blue royal garbs to dark navies and crimsons with black tulle layerings over top really solidified his transition from happy-go-lucky to goth punk. All joking aside, the last episode made it clear that Wook was flawed, but not with as much malicious intent as someone like Wang Won. Love, power, greed, and pressure definitely got to his head and turned him into a monster for a while, but the finale shows us that Wook understands his mistakes, is regretful, and is still trying to reconcile with himself. It’s clear that he has regrets, but my favorite detail in the final scenes of Wook were that his memories and flashbacks were of his wife, Myunghee, rather than Soo. Because, if anything, she out of anyone else is most deserving of his apology. We already know he is sorry for Soo, because we got that when they had a brief goodbye before she left the palace. It’s also ironic that he dies from the same illness as Myunghee, but I’m glad we see Wook off with less contempt, because it’s always sad to see a hero fall without any last saving grace.
13th Prince Baek Ah meets Bok Soon: This scene was a bit difficult for me to piece together. At first, I wasn’t sure who’s daughter this little girl was, but I’ve come to the conclusion that she is Wang Wook’s daughter, and the reincarnation of Princess Woo Hee. I say this because, I’m almost 100% positive Baek Ah and Wo Hee never consummated their relationship and he literally says, “You must be Wook’s daughter.” I say reincarnation because we’ve already seen it at play here in this drama, but also because Bok Soon was the same alias Wo Hee used in the forest when she first met Baek Ah and the girl is also in possession of a norigae that is similar to Woo Hee’s. If my assumption about all of this is actually correct, than I think that’s quite a beautiful element to add to the finale.
14th Prince Wang Jung gets to Raise Hae Soo’s Daughter: Though it is sad that Wang So won’t be able to raise his own daughter, this was one area where I was completely in favor of Wang Jung. Hae Soo’s dying words were in fear of her daughter’s future and I’m so glad that Wang Jung stood firm in his promise to Soo to raise the child outside of the palace. I’m more thankful that Wang So ends up honoring this wish, because it was obviously very hard for him to do so, but his actions show his unwavering love and respect for Hae Soo. I’m grateful that Wang So also decided to do away with the exile punishment he had given Wang Jung long ago. Most importantly, I’m extremely happy for Jung because he gets to keep a piece of Soo beside him for the rest of his life. I think he completely deserves this after all the sacrifices and loss he’s gone through in order to show his love and devotion to a Hae Soo that would never quite love him back in the same way.
Queen Hwangbo Yeonhwa will Never find Happiness: I waited twenty episodes in the hopes that this bitch would bite the dust. I have not a single ounce of pity for this conniving piece of demon spawn that haunted literally every nook and cranny of the palace she went. Nothin good came out of Yeonhwa. She, like Wang Won, liked to play the blame game and pin her own miserable failures onto anyone around her. Her selfishness has only won her a life of misery, and it makes me satisfied that she will have to live her life worrying about her future, absent from any kind of love, and forever without happiness.
Haesoo/Ha Jin Maintains her Memories: I’m really glad Ha Jin remembers all that happened because it would be really annoying and disheartening if she hadn’t. It also gives us hope that she will be able to recognize and meet Wang So if he were to appear in the modern world.
Ha Jin Meets Jimong back in the Future: I know people were pissed that Ha Jin meets Jimong instead of Wang So in the modern world, but it’s better than nothing people. At least meeting Jimong, who mentions all this cryptic Goryeo stuff, implies that she may possibly meet Wang So in the future. I did find it odd/funny that Jimong was suddenly no longer a homeless person and suddenly a swanky tour guide who talks about the Goryeo era though. At least he leveled up. I would have been sad if he hadn’t returned too!
King Gwangjong is Determined to find Soo in another Life: Now this is what really convinces me that the two will meet someday in the modern world. Why would they end with something so significant if they didn’t intend for us to believe he meant it? Maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions but if people can come from the Goryeo era back into the modern world and from the modern world back into the Goryeo era, I don’t see why Wang So wouldn’t somehow be able to make his way into Ha Jin’s world some day. No matter what anyone else says, I’m going to believe that they do meet in the future at some point in time.
Overall, despite its chinks in the armor, I believe Scarlet Heart Ryeo was a pretty decent drama. I would recommend it for the gripping story line, the variety of compelling characters, or if anything else, Lee Jun Ki’s superior acting.
Have you watched Scarlet Heart Ryeo? What did you think? If you haven’t, you can check out the seven minute extended preview with english subs here.