Well, it took me about three or four days, but I finally finished marathoning Ruler: Master of the Mask. When the trailers and posters for this drama first dropped, I was very adamant that it was going to be my sageuk pick of 2017. Not only did it look high budget, it also had a great line up and gorgeous posters. Now that I’ve watched it, I must admit it did fall a bit short of my initial expectations. Watching Ruler is like trying to eat an incredibly thick sandwich. It has all the delicious toppings you could possibly want, but those very same toppings prevent you from being able to open wide enough and take that fulfilling bite. In the end, you have to pull a few things out in order to eat it properly. Consequently, that perfect sandwich you originally envisioned, ends up becoming a little less appetizing than it could have been. Below are my closing thoughts on the show.
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Strong Veteran Performances: Whenever Park Chul Min enters the picture, you know you’ve tuned in for some quality entertainment. To put it simply, the man is just plain funny, but he’s also intense when he needs to be. He’s mastered the craft of acting in sagueks and can pull off pretty much any role you give him. He has a very powerful presence on the screen, and watching him as Woo Bo was no different. He brought in some much needed comedic relief, but also served as a trustworthy guide and mentor to CP Yi Sun, Sun, and Ga Eun. Woo Bo was patient, thoughtful, and intelligent. He always advised the CP to make the morally right decision, and this is what led to a lot of the CP’s successes. Park Chul Min really delivered that warm, quirky, teacher vibe.
On the other side of the equation, we had Heo Jun Ho, who put on a powerful performance as the devious Dae Mok. Heo Jun Ho just has the kind of face that really fits the wicked old man persona well. I like that he didn’t feel the need to yell, nor snarl all of his lines. Some of his most effectively disturbing scenes were those in which he matter of factly ordered the death of others, shrugged off his granddaughters pleas, and manipulated both the fake and real prince into doing what he desired. Heo Jun Ho perfectly captured a series of different emotions through the use of spot on micro expressions, which really made his character come to life. One of his peak moments is the scene in which he brutally slaughters his own granddaughter, Hwa Gun, in a fit of uncontrollable rage. The look of utter disbelief and devastation when he realizes his own granddaughter burned the poppy fields and outsmarted him is an unforgettable moment. Even better, is Dae Mok’s reaction to his son’s abandoning him, because he refused to spare his own family from ruthless punishment.
Impressive Side Characters:
Gon: Man, I really fucking loved Gon. Honestly, from the moment he appeared on my screen, I did. I could tell right away that he loved Hwa Gun. He had that softer look in his eye every time she was with him that just screamed gentle protector. He showcased his silent feelings for her in various ways, sometimes receiving brutal punishment from both her and her grandfather as a result. He lied on her behalf to protect her numerous times, but was eventually forced to trick her later on in order to save her life. Probably one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the drama is when she angrily lashes out at him for this. However, nothing thawed my stone cold heart more than the way he hovered over her dead body with glistening tears in his eyes, reached out his hand, and failed to bring himself to touch hers. It was a tough scene to watch. However, I loved that Gon’s journey didn’t end here. He dedicated himself to her mission even after her death, and ends up joining the right side of the cause. He ends up being an incredible ally to the prince by helping Ga Eun enter the palace at a crucial moment and convincing Hwa Gun’s father to reveal the antidote for the poison.
Mae Chang: If I could wife Mae Chang I totally would. The woman was hot, had a sexy voice, intelligence, and not to mention some bad ass martial arts skills. I love a strong, independent woman. When she first appeared in the drama, she was very mysterious and unreadable. I wasn’t sure where all the side characters and scheming was going at that point, so I wrongly assumed she was going to be bad news. Boy was I pleasantly surprised. Her backstory actually made sense, as well as her motivation to root for the CP. I really enjoyed watching her on screen. It was a great way to incorporate a compelling female side character, without having her be weak and dependent. I love that she had the full package: brains, badass, and beauty. We need more characters like her in future dramas to come.
Chung Woon: I really enjoyed Chung Woon as a character. His presence was rather minimal for the most part, but I thought he was impactful. The bromance between him and the CP was touching, and I found it honorable that he stepped up and performed the execution of Ga Eun’s father on the CP’s behalf, because he knew the CP would not have had the mental capacity to deal with the aftermath of the execution had he performed it himself. That’s a true friend right there. He also went above and beyond every time the CP would blame himself for the death of Ga Eun’s father, by reminding the CP that it was his (Chung Woon’s) own hands that beheaded the man. I’m sure he felt sick to his stomach with guilt having to say it out loud over and over again, but he knew it was what the CP needed to hear. Finally, I appreciated the fact that, when the CP failed many times to tell Ga Eun the truth about her father’s death, Chung Woon was the one to step up and give her the closure she deserved. I was relieved that Ga Eun didn’t blame him for it. Poor guy got his punishment when Dae Mok sliced the fuck outta his eye. At least he survived. I was so sure they were going to kill him off, so I’ll take what I can get.
Queen Dowager: This woman was quite the force to be reckoned with. While I found the excess amount of scheming characters to be rather annoying, I did appreciate the Queen’s character, because once again, I love a clever and brilliant woman that doesn’t lean on a man to get shit done. Kim Sun Kyung’s performance only elevated the character to greater levels, even if she did look as defeated as I was after a mere five or so episodes. Anyway, I thought the Queen was a magnificent manipulator, and she added some much needed political drama once the whole Dae Mok arc started to get repetitive and dry. It gave us someone else to worry about, but I liked the fact that she wasn’t necessarily on anyone’s side but her own. It made her unpredictable in a way that Dae Mok, Sun, and the CP weren’t. The emotional scene she shares with the CP, where he begs her to join his side and calls her mother was probably one of the most poignant and well acted scenes of the drama. It was incredibly moving and it showcased the complex layers that made up her character. I was thankful that she spoke the truth in the end, at one of the most pivotal moments of the drama. In a sense, she was able to reconcile some of her wrongdoings in a way that Dae Mok never could, but I think the CP letting her get off scot free was a bit of a stretch.
Breathtaking Cinematography: One thing I truly loved about this drama were the visuals. It certainly did not fail to disappoint in this department. There were so many dazzling shots filled with vibrant colors and crisp scenery that just made me want to capture them in order to save them all. I loved that this drama used a rich array of colors and took advantage of the poppy field portion of the plot in order to provide us with some phenomenal shots of stunning poppy flowers. There is a plethora of impressive nature shots in this show. Other magnificent scenes included bird’s eye views of the palace and courtyard, the sun or moonlight sky, inside views of CP Yi Sun’s greenhouse, the working girls dressed in all white at the poppy pill sweat house, and many more. To put it simply, it’s a visually striking drama.
The Costumes/Posters: Of the same vein, the costumes were on another level. Extremely beautiful and well made. Hwa Gun’s outfits in particular were large in number, which I appreciated, and each one was unique and exquisite in design. The wedding scene showcases some extraordinary pieces as well. Ga Eun looks absolutely heavenly in her ceremony gown, as does the Queen Dowager. I love how Chung Woon and Gon got upgraded outfits as well, with purples that popped against the dark blacks they were sporting. The fake prince, Sun also got a few different garbs to wear. He looked like a totally different man in those Kingly robes. My favorite was when he wore the white one during the mourning period of the late king. The gold embellishments matched his gold mask and together made for an excellent combination. It is quite clear that this drama had a good budget to put towards costumes. Similarly, the posters are some of my favorite sageuk posters to date. Posters don’t necessarily impact the drama or story, but I always pay attention to them, because they can often indicate what kind of budget the drama is working with, and can set the tone. Naturally, I do love a good poster, and Ruler: Master of the Mask possesses a fabulous set of promotional posters.
Remembrance of those Sacrificed: One thing I thought the show nailed was the significance of others’ sacrifices. The CP did not take this lightly, and I appreciated that he made every effort possible to save all the lives that he could, and considered every life just as important and valuable as another. This point was highlighted when he insisted on saving the little girls from the poison poppy factory, despite several warnings against it. The CP reasons that if he can’t even save the lives of a few children, who are Joseon’s future, than he is not worthy of being king. You could really sense his heartfelt sincerity whenever a person died for the sake of his cause, and he never breezed over the death or looked upon it lightly. There was always a significant sign of his grief. The final episode poignantly expresses this, as three major characters whose deaths aided in his succession as king and defeat of Pyunsoo Group, appear as apparitions. Newly crowned Yi Sun takes a moment to look at each one, and remember their sacrifice and final words, as he expresses his gratitude in a voice over. He begins with Ga Eun’s father, the first to sacrifice himself for the cause, then moves on to Hwa Gun, who was an enormous aid to him in his long term battle with Pyunsoo group. Finally, he ends with Sun, his first friend; an ally who struggled in his challenging position as fake king. Though they had their trials and tribulations, the two end on a positive note, as Sun redeems himself by protecting Ga Eun from danger and thanking Yi Sun for being his first and last friend. I love that he takes this time to pay them gratitude, and that the show allows them a visual presence at the ceremony. Because, they could have gone the shallow route and just had a happy ceremony without even touching upon these tragic deaths. The fact that they’re remembered with smiles on their faces, and we hear voice overs of their encouraging last words to the CP, was a beautiful and well executed tribute to their sacrificial deaths.
Yoo Seung Ho: Listen I love YSH. I’m sure you’re wondering why I don’t have him listed under the excellent category, and that’s a valid question. YSH is talented, and he played this role just fine and quite well. However, this was not his best role, which is probably because the character he was portraying was actually quite limited (see below). I would say YSH’s performance as Yeo Woon in Warrior Baek Dong Soo (2011), was much better than this role, because it was not only meatier, but more challenging, and thus, a better showcase of his skills. That being said, I think that YSH did the best that he could with what he was given. He was extremely dedicated to, and invested in, the role, which made it believable and compelling. His ability to emote is quite strong, and I’m grateful that it was him and not different actor, because it could have been quite drab should that have been the case.
Hwa Gun: I admit that during the first few episodes, I really feared that Hwa Gun was going to become the jealous, sniveling brat, female, antagonist that we all know and hate. In this aspect of the drama, I was pleasantly surprised. Her character was probably the most intelligent of the bunch, save her own grandfather, Dae Mok; a master manipulator who had the art down to a science. Hwa Gun exhibited an array of brilliant qualities, and proved to be her grandfather’s match several times, and most especially when she set fire to his most beloved poppy field. Hwa Gun could have become bitter and made Ga Eun’s life miserable, she could have easily gotten the CP killed by revealing his identity, or choosing not to help him just once out of the many occasions where she assisted him. However, she didn’t do any of those things, and that alone makes her a noteworthy and admirable character. Some might claim that she was, at times, cruel to Ga Eun, but I beg to differ. Every point that Hwa Gun made to Ga Eun about how she was an achilles heel to the CP, and a danger to his life, was true and valid. Ga Eun put the CP in many situations that he would not have been in should he have fallen for Hwa Gun instead. His love for Ga Eun blinded him at times, and caused him trouble in various situations, which is why Hwa Gun chided Ga Eun for not stepping up and realizing that. To me, she was undoubtedly the better match for the CP. Her character had way more flavor, and depth to it than the bland, lead character of Ga Eun. There’s a lot more I could say about Hwa Gun, but I’ll save the rest for the section below where I comment on her death.
Woo Jae’s Turn Around: Listen, Hwa Gun’s old man might not be winning dad of the year award any time soon, but I can’t write him off completely. Hear me out. Clearly, Woo Jae was under the toxic influence of his father. From the start he came off as a weak, clumsy, and ditzy character. He just sort of did what he was told because his own dad scared the shit out of him, and he didn’t know any better, since he’d grown up in the household of pure demon spawn. I’m not excusing the man, I’m simply stating that he obviously was raised without knowing what life without the terror/influence of Dae Mok was like. Moving forward, there were several scenes where he committed wrongs, but clearly with the intention of becoming the next cult leader, and thinking this was going to improve his and his daughter’s life. Furthermore, he wouldn’t let Hwa Gun marry because he was protective of her, and cared for her. So, he made several blunders to be sure, but the man redeems himself by the end of the drama. It may have been extremely late, but hey, better late than never. Let’s break down a few of my favorite scenes where he shows some growth.
The first scene I want to talk about is Hwa Gun’s death. After she burns the poppy field, Woo Jae knows that Dae Mok will not be merciful. He tells his daughter that he will take the blame, and when Dae Mok arrives, he really does follow through on trying to convince Dae Mok that it was he that lit the field ablaze. This is one of the first moments where his love for Hwa Gun really comes to the forefront. Eventually Hwa Gun speaks up and declares that it was her, and then of course, Dae Mok cuts her down like Paul fucking Bunyan. This is when it becomes really obvious that Woo Jae clearly treasured his daughter. The way he looks at Dae Mok is unforgettable. He has the most wounded, outraged look, and he finally sees his father for the beast he really is.
“You are a monster! […] How could you?“
he shouts in a tear-filled fit of disbelief and disgust. It’s an incredibly moving scene. You’re trying to fathom the idea of a grandfather slaughtering his granddaughter in cold blood, but at the same time, it’s not actually all too surprising, since it’s Dae Mok we’re dealing with.
The second scene comes shortly afterward. Woo Jae enters his father’s lair in disheveled attire and a numbed expression.
Woo Jae: Is it worthy of killing your precious granddaughter? Is it worth…more than family? Is Pyunsoo Group that important?
Dae Mok: The poppy field…is the heart of Pyunsoo Group. Even if she is my granddaughter-…
Woo Jae: For once, I hoped you would prioritize family over Pyunsoo Group. You said you gained power to protect those you love. If you have no family to protect, what is the point of having Pyunsoo Group?
Dae Mok: How dare you… attempt to preach at me…
Woo Jae: In the end, you will lose everything that you treasure. You will end up having a tragic and lonely death.
Dae Mok: How dare you…
Woo Jae: This is the end of our relationship. Since the father has abandoned his child, his child will also do the same.
As Woo Jae delivers those final words, he solemnly bows in respect toward a shocked and devastated Dae Mok, who clearly didn’t see this one coming. Woo Jae walks out, leaving his father to cope with the situation alone in his dark and gloomy headquarters. I thought this was a very powerful moment for Woo Jae, most importantly because, it signifies his epiphany: his daughter, who he cherished the most, was lost because he failed to properly prioritize what was important to him. He recognizes that his own father has made this same mistake, by choosing Pyunsoo Group over him and his daughter. Doing so has left them both with no one to protect. Woo Jae sees that his failure to act earlier or Hwa Gun’s behalf has led to her death, and that there is no point in power, if you lose the very reason you sought to obtain it in the first place. The emotion achieved by both actors in the scene was mind blowing, and I thought it was great moment of character growth for Woo Jae.
Finally, I want to briefly mention the scene where Woo Jae is convinced by Gon to hand over the recipe for the antidote. Woo Jae is so grief stricken that he doesn’t think it matters, but Gon talks some sense into him, begging him not to let his own daughter’s death be in vain. Once Woo Jae is moved, he cuts a deal with the CP, offering the antidote on the condition that his father Dae Mok be spared. We all know Dae Mok eventually kills himself, but I found it interesting that he makes this request even after the grisly way his father slaughtered his daughter and abandoned him so easily.
Happy Ending (For the Most Part): Lastly, I must give the drama credit where it’s due. For those who were seeking a happy ending, this drama does do a decent job of tying up loose ends and creating a pretty satisfying ending, in ways that make some of the character deaths a little less painful. For starters, as I mentioned before, those who were lost along the way (Ga Eun’s father, Hwa Gun, and Sun) are remembered by the CP. As an added bonus, we get to remember Sun on a happy note rather than a bitter one. The CP became the rightful king, Dae Mok was no longer a threat, the Queen Dowager backed down, and Ga Eun could finally be together with King Yi Sun. Lastly, Gon, Chung Woon, and Woo Bo became established figures in the palace, which was a nice touch.
Ga Eun: Kim So Hyun is a great actress, and she deserved a much better character than the one she was given. Even though she was working with bottom of the rung writing, she managed to put on the best performance that she could considering the bland material she was provided. Ga Eun started off relatively strong, especially in the first few episodes where she was independent, outspoken, and determined. The scene where the peasants are forced to move to a different town was an excellent showcase of her capabilities, because she helped them build a business and community from the ground up. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and put in the hard work.
However, as the drama progressed, she became more and more bland, less and less personable, and lastly, incredibly dependent on the CP. It was so horrific to watch this happen. While other characters seemed to be progressing and developing at a consistent rate, hers seemed to be back peddling. Another thing that rustled my jimmies was the inconsistency regarding her character’s behavior. In some cases she was incredibly clever, but in others she was so naive that I was ripping my hair out. The girl who was easily manipulated and open to trusting the Queen Dowager was definitely not the same girl who cleverly used the guise of a palace herbal seller to sneak into the greenhouse. Don’t even get me started on the fact that it took her eons to realize Chunsoo/Chief Peddler/CP was indeed the very same Chunsoo who had befriended her and Sun earlier on. How do you not recognize his face and voice? But even more mind boggling was the fact that she couldn’t even recognize the voice of her lifelong, childhood friend, Sun.
Now, they did kind of half-assedly try to give her back some agency toward the latter half of the drama. For example, she saves the CP from drowning after he was poisoned by the Queen Dowager. She is also the one to break open all of the green house pots and successfully find the placenta jar containing the crucial evidence that the CP was truly the real King. However, she isn’t able to get it there safely without the aid of Gon and Mae Chang. These flaws aside, I think my biggest problem with Ga Eun was the fact that she was so plain compared to the other female characters around her. Mae Chang and Hwa Gun were so much more lively and compelling. The two ladies not only showcased extraordinary skills, but had intriguing personalities and developments. In comparison, Ga Eun lacked that complexity. She was the weakest of the female leads in that she had the least autonomy and the most basic (though pure and goodhearted) personality. Sure, she was a sweet and heroic person, but she lacked the character development that could set her apart from the average female heroine.
Dae Mok’s Suicide: Listen……….I’m-…this was….absolutely diabolical. I was speechless. I cannot believe they actually let this old geezer take the easy way out. When I first saw the dude with those bloodshot red eyes I low key thought he was high, but then I knew they were really going to pull a fast one on us, so by the time he coughed up that blood and keeled over I was shaking my damn head with disgust. Whoever came up with that “resolution” needs to be fired. After nineteen and a half tedious hours spent trudging through Dae Mok’s satanic puppet show, he basically gets off scot free. Taking his own life was his way of maintaining control over the final act. He wasn’t going to let the King dictate his future. Some might argue that Dae Mok’s death alone served as a punishment, but if you truly think about it, that’s far from what it was. Dae Mok was old as fuck, probably going to kick the bucket soon anyway (hence why he spent the show trying to foster his son, and later his granddaughter, into becoming an heir to his beloved cult) and never showed any sign of fearing death. The ultimate punishment for Dae Mok wouldn’t be death itself, but rather, death induced by an outward force such as the King. Dae Mok’s whole life (post-tragic background story) revolved around controlling those around him. If the King had beheaded him, jailed him, or had any sort of say about his future, it would make Dae Mok’s blood curdle, because that was his ultimate fear/weakness (the loss of control).
Even more disturbing was the little speech King Yi Sun gave to Dae Mok before he departed into the underworld. Yi Sun APOLOGIZES to Dae Mok and even THANKS him for the trials and tribulations he was put through in trying to defeat Pyunsoo Group. Basically, the king serves up some bullshit, fake deep, nonsense about how Dae Mok essentially molded him into the man he is today, and if it wasn’t for Dae Mok, he wouldn’t have garnered the experiences he needed in order to become a true king of the people. I almost threw up while watching this scene, beat my chest in anger, and tossed my laptop out of the window. Honestly, I cannot believe they tried to force that upon us as if were were just going to swallow it and say, “how noble of him! A true king! Ah, Dae Mok really did do him a favor!” Hell fuckin’ nah. If you actually bought that pitiful act, I feel deeply sorry for you. It was probably one of the campiest most unrealistic scenes I’ve ever had the terror of watching. You’re trying to tell me a young man who’s lost his parents, his old palace commander, his eunuch/friend, his lover’s father, and countless other people to this non-remorseful old bat, is going to stand there calm, composed, and filled with gratitude? I think not, my friends, I think not. And there lies a major issue with Yi Sun’s character, which brings us to our next category.
CP/King Yi Sun: I don’t know where to begin with this one. Listen, it’s not that I didn’t like King Yi Sun. He really was one hell of a likable dude. He was honest, dutiful, brave, warmhearted, and responsible. I think the issues I have with his character arise from the fact that he was almost too good. He pretty much had no flaws whatsoever, which is great, but sadly, that makes for a terribly boring character. You always knew he was going to make the moral decision. You never ever had to worry or fear that he would become bitter or power hungry, because right from the get go, he was an innocent, well intentioned, and pure prince. The drama made it quite clear that there was no intention to tarnish his character.
The problem I have with this is that all heroes, even the best ones, have at least, one flaw. That’s what makes them believable; human. Whether it’s arrogance, mistrust, pride, aggression, etc. Heroes always start out flawed and make a journey towards progression, which is why they end up looking so much more heroic in the end. Now, you could certainly make the argument that the CP was slightly immature in the beginning, and he learns to harness the skills of a King by taking up the several different roles/disguises such as Chief Peddler. But even if that’s your case, it’s not like the CP was immature in the negative sense of the word, where a character makes stupid comments, decisions, or has a flawed point of view. The CP never exhibits those types of behaviors. He is simply sheltered and naive, but I use these terms cautiously, because he never exhibits a sense of superiority, nor does he ever refuse to take advice of those around him. He starts and finishes as the same pious personality that he maintained throughout his trials and tribulations. He never loses sight of his vision, which was a vision that was a pure and righteous as visions can get. While I appreciated not having to worry about him make major moral mistakes, it also made his character bland and it didn’t give YSH much opportunity to showcase his acting.
One thing I will say, as I mentioned earlier, is that he took on several roles/disguises, such as the Chief Peddler. This was the main aspect of his character that I deeply enjoyed. It showed his wit and determination, his ability to adapt, and not to mention, his charm. This allowed for a slow progression toward a King who knew the people of his nation inside and out. It was also nice to see him taking action outside of the palace, rather than inside it.
The OST: I don’t have much to say about the OST because all in all, it wasn’t that memorable. Even though it had no major flaws, I consider it mediocre, because there are many sageuks with excellent and chilling soundtracks that are on a completely different level from this one. To rank this among the best would be blasphemy. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t anything fantastic. Everyone knows I’m very picky about soundtracks, most especially when it comes to sageuks. My focus lies more on the instrumentals, because they are key to elevating and complimenting certain scenes. In this case, I didn’t have any issues with the music aside from the fact that none of the tracks really stuck out to me, and therefore, there was never a point where I was dying to get my hands on a certain track so I could hear it again. The music was fine, just…relatively bland and a tad disappointing.
Myungsoo/L: Some Infinite fans may fight me on this one (I enjoy Infinite’s music a lot btw), but Myungsoo was really hit or miss for me. The tone of voice he used for the majority of the drama was very irksome and grating on the ear. There were way too many occasions where his snarled lines felt too showy. Something about it felt off and forced all at the same time. There were a lot of emotion filled scenes involving his character. Some of them were pretty decent, but others fell flat, or were much too overdone. The numerous exaggerated facial expressions were overkill and a quick turn off. I think he at least captured the essence of the jealous, power hungry, replacement king who was tricked and swallowed whole by the politics of the palace. It was a good effort, but unfortunately, I can’t help but feel a better actor might have elevated this character in a way that would have made the drama more compelling and enjoyable.
Hwa Gun’s Death: One thing I will never be able to forgive this drama for is the fact that they did Hwa Gun so dirty. She was everything I wanted a female lead to be, and the blatant fact that she practically carried the CP for a majority of the drama makes her brutal death all the more agonizing. She deserved so much better than what she was dealt. The CP wouldn’t even have been close to succeeding without her aid. Every single hero would have bit the dust early on had she not found ways to interject and sway her grandfather’s attention toward the wrong direction. I wish they would have at least had her fall for Gon by the end, but unfortunately, she dies before he could reveal his love for her. Perhaps the most upsetting thing about it all, is the fact that she will never live to see the reward of her sacrifices and contributions. So many underserving characters got to live, and yet, Hwa Gun, perhaps the most deserving of them all, has her time cut short.
Despite these things, I would like to mention some positives about this scene. First of all, it was very impactful. Having her own grandfather hack her down like an old tree was shocking, and spoke to how out of touch he was with his original vision. As his son states later on, Dae Mok became too caught up in the entity of Pyunsoo Group, that he lost sight of the fact that its intended purpose was to protect his family. Even more moving, was the fact that Hwa Gun exits with a smile, and no regrets; her final thoughts are for the CP. Sadly, you could tell she wasn’t expecting her grandfather to react any differently than he did. She executed her plan knowing that the outcome would be grim, but bravely followed through with it anyway. This speaks to how valiant and committed her character was. Finally, as I mentioned above, we get to see a different side to her father, who reaches his breaking point after seeing his daughter so savagely chopped down.
Sun’s Crooked Bodyguard/Sun’s Sacrifice: This character was a complete waste of screen time. Completely unnecessary. I have no idea why they decided to have him randomly show up two thirds of the way into the drama only to be seen maybe five or six times so they could use him later as a tool to kill off Sun. Clearly, they felt the need to sacrifice one last member of the trio, and it certainly wasn’t going to be King Yi Sun, nor Ga Eun, so they ended up giving Sun the boot. The problem was, they needed to get rid of him semi-efficiently, and I guess they thought this whole crooked bodyguard story was going to fly. Well…I’m here to let them know: they thought wrong. Probably one of the stupidest deaths I’ve seen play out on a historical drama to date. No one even liked, nor cared about the bodyguard to begin with, so I can see why they thought they could get away with this one. By the time he was thrusting that sword at Ga Eun I was like “who dis????????” and when it finally hit me I was like “o. alright.” So, clearly it wasn’t going to upset anyone if he was a bad guy, because no one even remembered who he was. What was upsetting was seeing Sun go out in one of the tackiest, poorly executed deaths known to man. If they thought it was romantic having him die to protect Yi Sun and Ga Eun, it wasn’t. While I’m glad it allowed for Sun to rekindle and solidify his friendship with King Yi Sun and not go out as a bitter ex-replacement king, the whole scene felt like an afterthought.
Completely Predictable: One of the drama’s major setbacks was its predictability. This was one of those dramas where I’d know exactly what was coming, way before it ever happened. The characters’ personalities were all constructed in ways that made their behavior and actions very textbook, meaning that they all made expected moves. No one deviated from their character type. This basically meant, there’d be no surprises. And that’s exactly how this drama was. Nothing, nothing at all, was surprising for me. You didn’t even have to be a careful watcher to be able to hypothesize what would happen next. But god help you if you were, because that meant you saw all the signs and foreshadowing ahead of time and had to wait thirty minutes until the expected event would play out exactly how you’d imagined it.
For example, if you actually paid attention, you’d know that the Queen Dowager was crooked from the very first episode. They showed her switch out the blood for poison. However, I saw various people voicing their surprise when it was more directly revealed in a much later episode. The whole storyline with the fake prince succumbing to power and greed was also expected, which made it a lot less exciting when it finally started to happen. By the time Sun got around to being nasty and vindictive, I was checking my watch in hopes that the time would pass by more quickly. Every move Dae Mok made was, of course, expected. He’s evil, so he’s going to make the evil decisions. We all knew Ga Eun was going to stupidly enter the palace, and we all knew she was going to be mad pissed at the CP when she found out he was partly to blame for her father’s death. And of course, we all knew it wasn’t going to be the CP who properly explained to her what really happened. There are a number of other events that I could list under the “I saw it coming a mile away” list, but I think you get the point.
Let’s cut to the chase. The problem with all of this stuff being blatantly obvious, is that it makes the drama dull. If you know what’s about to happen, then you have to sit and wait for it to play out, and when it plays out, it’s not impressive, because…well… you knew it was going to happen. If the surprise factor is taken out of a drama, it’s no longer worth watching. You watch something, because you’ve never seen it before, you want to know how the story unfolds, you have to wonder what will happen next episode, and it leaves you wanting more. When a drama is predictable, all of that disappears and suddenly, watching the drama becomes a chore. You sit there asking yourself why you should keep watching when you already know how it will end. Sadly, once it gets to that point, it’s probably time to let the drama go.
Unrealistic Scenes: There’s a whole slew of these. I already mentioned the one above where King Yi Sun showcases some impossible gratitude toward a man who ruined, tortured, and killed countless lives, but let’s talk about a few more shall we? How about the poison situation. Not sure about you, but I found the whole storyline involving Yi Sun’s immunity to poison to be quite…laughable and ridiculous. That doesn’t happen in the real world, and it definitely wouldn’t happen in Joseon when medicine was far from advanced. The little mark that would glow red on his back and disappear when he took in poison was just-… honestly, I can’t even talk about this any further I just want to pretend it didn’t happen. I guess they wanted to throw in a small fantastical element so let’s just roll with it and move on to the fact that Yi Sun had about 94573954 lives in the drama to the point where his near death experiences became a total buzzkill and I found them completely boring and anticlimactic once we reached a certain point. I don’t know why they chose to keep recycling that concept but it was completely implausible. Finally, a personal favorite of mine, was the previously discussed situation with Sun and Yi Sun somehow being unrecognizable to those closest to them; utterly outlandish. Ga Eun was life long childhood friends with Sun. Even if he was wearing a mask, there is absolutely no excuse for her not to recognize his voice. Even worse was Yi Sun/Chunsoo/Chief Peddler pretending that he wasn’t the same Chunsoo who gave Ga Eun the necklace, etc. Not only did she have his voice to go by, but his face too. You’re lying to yourself if you think that was passable. The dude had the exact same face, because it was literally the same person. Unless there was cloning in the Joseon era, there’s no possible explanation for why she couldn’t recognize him and call him out on it, aside from the fact that the writers needed this shitty idea to work in order to keep their story going.
Feels Exhaustingly Long: This show is your average 20 episodes, or 40, if you’re watching it in half segments. Either way, it’s the standard 20 hour drama. In this case, 20 hours ended up feeling like 200 hours. I don’t know what it was, but this drama seemed to drag on forever, and by that I don’t mean that it was boring, but instead that it was very exhausting and tiresome to get through. I think this relates back to the sandwich. There was just SO much going on, and SO much to digest, that it became tedious to the point where you felt you’d been watching it for hours and hours, when in reality you’d only sat through one or two episodes. Usually when I watch a good drama, the time seems to zip by, and it’s over before I know it, leaving me eager for the next episode. This was quite different in that, once I’d finish a half hour segment, I’d need to take a long break and just relax because I had such a headache. As the drama progressed, each episode became more and more cumbersome, for many of the reasons listed above, such as illogical or frustrating decisions. But it was mostly due to the mere fact that the Pyunsoo Group conflict seemed to schlepp on forever, to the point where I was screaming angry expletives at my laptop begging for them to hurry things up and put it to rest. You know something’s amiss when you feel like you’ve spent less time watching Six Flying Dragons (2015), a 50 episode period drama, than you did watching this one.
This was a brutal review, but this drama was hyped from the beginning, hence I expected much from it. It failed to deliver the level of quality I was looking for, however, compared to other dramas, it holds up fairly well. I’d call it average, but it’s a far cry from disastrous. It has some pleasing elements to it, and if you are someone who doesn’t mind predictability, this drama may be of interest to you. Yoo Seung Ho and Kim So Hyun are alluring to watch on screen, but the flat characters they were given in this drama, were a poor showcase of their abilities. This was a drama where the side characters completely eclipsed the leading pair. The show did provide some lovely visuals, strong veteran performances, and a few emotionally gripping scenes. Whether that makes it worth the watch is for you to decide.
Did you watch Ruler: Master of the Mask? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the two minute extended preview here.