EPISODE 17 RECAP
Soldiers burst into Hong-joo’s inner chamber, but find it empty. In the fire pit, they recover Hong-joo’s black-magic sword among the ashes.
The king declares Hong-joo’s crimes: abusing her position in the palace, conspiring with Red Cloak to kill citizens, and threatening the royal house with her actions. He has her quarters raided, and brings her before his throne as a captured criminal. Yesss.
Hong-joo bows her head before the king, who prods her to speak. Is she reflecting on her sins?
“Yes,” Hong-joo replies flatly. “I am repenting deeply.”
The king declares that her crimes are too severe to be forgiven, and sentences her to burning at the stake. He’ll do it publicly in full view of the citizens, and reclaim the royal authority she tarnished with her black magic.
Without a drop of emotion in her voice, Hong-joo replies, “Thank you for allowing me to die so grandly.” Oh, burn. (Not literally.)
Jun accompanies Yeon-hee to her room, and she asks if her father will be okay. He replies that Hyun-seo will want for her to only worry about herself right now, and reminds her that there isn’t much time left till the Northern Star disappears.
Yo-gwang bursts in, panicked at the news of Hong-joo’s death sentence. Jun says it’s a good thing, but Yo-gwang informs him that the curse must return to Hong-joo in order for Yeon-hee to be freed of it. Hong-joo can’t die before that.
Alarmed, Jun bursts into the king’s inner chamber, charging past the eunuchs and dropping to the floor to beg for a stay of execution. He explains that Hong-joo must take on Yeon-hee’s curse before dying; otherwise, Yeon-hee will die with it.
The king expresses frustration at having the criminal in his grasp and still being unable to mete out punishment. Jun vows to enable him to do just that, and reminds the king that he freed him of his own curse. He swears to also free Yeon-hee, and begs for the execution to be stayed.
And in her prison cell, Hong-joo smiles. Stop that!
Yeon-hee sleeps fitfully, and a voice calls out to her in her dreams. It’s her birth mother, who sits at her bedside and speaks a warning: “Child, you are in danger.”
Yeon-hee jolts awake, her eyes flashing blue. It’s the queen dowager at her bedside now, asking in concern if she’s unwell. Yeon-hee finally tells her that she doesn’t have much time left; in the ten days until the Northern Star disappears, she must break her curse. If she can’t…
The rest of the sentence hangs in the air. The queen dowager says she cannot lose Yeon-hee to a curse that began with her. Yeon-hee asks for the queen dowager to allow her to spend her remaining time with Jun, and says they will break the curse together.
The queen dowager gives her consent, and urges her to succeed.
The morning finds Jun sleeping in his cave at Cheongbing Temple, and he smiles in his sleep as Yeon-hee calls his name, prodding him awake. She hovers hover him with a smile, and he sleepily pulls her down next to him, opening his eyes briefly to touch her face before closing them to sleep again. Yeon-hee closes her eyes too, to nap with him.
Some time later, Jun wakes up and cuddles again… and takes a long moment to register that it’s Yo-gwang lying next to him. HA. He bolts up with a roar, and Yo-gwang teases him about his sweet dreams, asking if Jun’s disappointed to find the wrong person lying next to him.
Jun grumbles in annoyance, and Yo-gwang prods, “Who were you expecting? Seo-ri? Yeon-hee? Persimmon? The princess?” Cheeky bastard.
Yo-gwang informs Jun that the queen dowager wants to see him, and Jun heads to court. The queen dowager expresses her regret at repaying Jun’s help with harsh words, but while she’s grateful for all he’s done for Yeon-hee, she isn’t pleased at their closeness.
Jun says that he still has work to do, but the queen dowager asks what happens after the curse is lifted—then what? She all but orders him to leave Yeon-hee, and Jun can’t say anything in response.
Poong-yeon takes up his father’s old position as the head Taoist master in the palace, and warns the king that Hong-joo won’t stop plotting even after losing her powers.
When Poong-yeon says he is working to protect the royal family, the king wonders if that’s really true, and tells Poong-yeon that now that he knows Hong-joo’s scheme, Poong-yeon must stop her: “You must not betray me a second time.”
The king and his queen (whom we meet for the first time) announce happy news: The queen is pregnant. The queen dowager is overjoyed at the news, and urges the queen to take extreme care with her condition. The king, curiously, doesn’t look as happy as the queens do.
Yeon-hee joins them, and the king and queen excuse themselves. The queen dowager shares the good news, and Yeon-hee’s pleased to hear it—until she suddenly recalls her dream, with her birth mother warning of danger.
That keeps Yeon-hee so preoccupied that she walks past Jun without noticing. She keeps her worry to herself, but tells him of the impending birth. Jun smiles, replying that all that’s left is for Yeon-hee to light the rest of her candles.
He suggests searching close by for their next wish, which takes the crew to Soon-deuk. But her main wish is to be rich and comfortable, and they deflate. Yo-gwang sighs that he knew it would be pointless asking her.
Jun and Yeon-hee seem to have a conversation with their eyes, and then Jun asks Yo-gwang if he has a wish. Yo-gwang says generously that his only wish is that things work out well and everyone be happy, but his eyes flit a few times to Soon-deuk, and his behavior is a little fidgety. Then a plate of beef is delivered, Yo-gwang and Soon-deuk bicker over the meat, snatching it out of each other’s grasps. Jun and Yeon-hee note the exchange with curiosity.
That night, a masked figure in black—Hyun-seo—slips inside the sleeping queen’s chamber. He sets down a metal urn next to her bed, and a black mist seeps out, ready to strike…
But Yeon-hee storms in and commands him to stop. Marshaling her energy, her eyes flash blue—and with a squeal, the black mist is forced back inside the urn.
Hyun-seo rises, meets Yeon-hee’s eye, and runs out. She chases, catching up to him in the courtyard. But then he turns and starts to advance on her, his eyes flashing. Yeon-hee sends him flying backward, and he gets up from his fall and darts away.
Nearby, a court lady stares in shock at the scene she just witnessed.
Yeon-hee heads to the prisons to confront Hong-joo, holding out her hand threateningly, as though ready to magically strike. But she drops the hand, asking instead what Hong-joo is using Hyun-seo for; she knows Hong-joo is behind his attempt on the queen’s life.
Hong-joo feigns innocence, asking how she could do anything when her powers have been lost. “It seems as though you want to kill me,” Hong-joo notes. “Then do it.”
Yeon-hee supposes that Hong-joo is acting out, knowing she can’t be killed, but warns that one needn’t be strangled or stabbed to be killed: “Just you see. I’ll break this curse and lock you in an even more terrible curse.”
Hong-joo tells her to try: “Let’s see who it is who dies carrying that curse.”
Hong-joo’s shamans go around posting notices around town, blaming the cursed princess for the plague that’s killing the people, warning that a terrible misfortune will befall them if she is not stopped.
The rumors spread quickly, and the queen dowager pleads with the king to put a stop to them immediately. But the court ministers say that talk has already spread too far, and the king declares that the princess will have to endure the talk.
The queen dowager argues that Yeon-hee has nothing to do with the plague, but the king reminds her that he’d warned that this would happen when Yeon-hee entered the palace—they haven’t seen a peaceful day since, and her presence is damaging to the government.
The queen dowager fumes, but the king says the only way to manage the rumors is to wait for them to die down. And if the queen dowager persists in trying anyway, well, that’s up to her. But, he warns, she will have to bear the consequences.
The queen goes to Poong-yeon next, to request that he hold a prayer ceremony in the village to pray for relief from the plague. She intends to have Yeon-hee participate, to show the people that their princess is praying on their behalf.
Poong-yeon seems vaguely reluctant, perhaps not feeling up to the task, but ends up agreeing to it. The queen is grateful.
That night, Poong-yeon finds Yeon-hee in the courtyard and teases her about her anxious face, then assures her not to worry. “I’ll protect you,” he promises.
But then he suddenly falters, and Yeon-hee rushes to his side. It turns out he’s been harboring an injury, inflicted by Hong-joo’s black sword, and Yeon-hee’s brought to tears at the sight of the blackened wound on his chest, oozing dark mist. Wearily, and not at all convincingly, Poong-yeon assures her that it’s getting better, and that he’ll recover.
Jun happens by and watches from the doorway as Yeon-hee dabs at the ugly wound. Poong-yeon says ruefully that he regrets taking Yeon-hee out of her house that day long ago; he’s also sorry for promising to protect her and being unable to. Yeon-hee replies that it was thanks to Poong-yeon that she could see the world for the first time, and that it was the happiest day of her life.
Poong-yeon confesses that he’d almost killed her, trying to win her heart even though he knew he couldn’t do it through magic. He advises her to break her curse and show that he had been foolish: “Then one day, I’ll be able to let you go.” He asks her not to tell him to let go immediately; he’ll need time.
When Poong-yeon returns to his room, Jun is waiting to ask how his condition is. Poong-yeon asks if he’s watching to see if he’ll turn into an evil spirit, and wonders what Jun means to do after the curse is lifted. If Jun intends to stay with Yeon-hee as a lover, Poong-yeon warns that both will be hurt. He also informs Jun of the rites he will perform tomorrow, and advises him to be with Yeon-hee through it, as she will likely be scared.
Masked Hyun-seo robotically kills the prison guards and makes his way to Hong-joo’s cell. She says that she isn’t about to stop just because she’s lost her powers, and that without people’s own wickedness, her black magic would have had no effect. It’s because they’re unwilling to admit their part that they blame black magic: “Now that the black magic is gone, see what they will blame.”
Preparations are made for the ceremony, and the queen dowager impresses upon Yeon-hee the necessity of behaving beyond reproach. Then the royal family heads out to the town square where the rites will be held, with Jun in the princess’ entourage.
As Yeon-hee takes her place next to the king and queen dowager, villagers are surprised to see that she looks completely normal, not some savage mystical thing.
Soon-deuk hears of the princess’ participation in the prayer ceremony and smells a chance to make money. But when she arrives, her jaw drops to see Yeon-hee in the princess’ seat. And there’s Yo-gwang too, assisting Poong-yeon, who begins the ceremony.
Meanwhile, Hyun-seo leads Hong-joo’s shaman army through the forest and into town. An arrow flies through the air toward the ritual table, and mayhem ensues as the shamans charge. Jun darts in front of Yeon-hee protectively, but a shaman manages to get to the king, holding a sword to his throat. The king orders his soldiers to step back.
Suddenly, the shamans whirl and point their bows and arrows toward the villagers. Yeon-hee steps forward as though to intervene, but her mother holds her back warningly.
Hyun-seo steps forward and announces that one move will turn the scene into a sea of blood. “Don’t worry,” Hyun-seo says among the gasps of horror. “Today, I am here to see Heo Jun.” The shamans whirl and train their weapons back toward the royals.
Jun warns Yeon-hee that this is a scheme, and for her not to do anything. But her panic grows as Hyun-seo lifts a hand to signal his shamans to aim.
“Shoot!” Hyun-seo commands.
Immediately, Yeon-hee jumps into action, sending a mighty force blowing over them. The shamans recover and reach for their weapons again, and she blows them back again.
Utter chaos breaks out among the villagers, who scream that the rumors were true. They charge toward her, and soldiers form a line to block the people from the royal party.
Jun takes Yeon-hee’s hand and they slip away from the scene. He leads her through the forest, but she stops and pulls her hand free, telling him to go on without her. When Jun reaches for her again, she sends him flying into a tree, then runs.
While a riot breaks out in the village, Poong-yeon charges into the prison and grabs Hong-joo by the throat, growling that they should have killed her. He demands to know what she’s done to his father.
She replies that Hyun-seo has given his life up in service of great work, and advises Poong-yeon to think of what he can do for the good of the royal family. He refuses to let her sway him, just as a wave of pain hits him. She says that the royal family would just throw him away the minute they have no use for him. Being devoted only makes him more pitiful, she says.
Poong-yeon walks away clutching his chest, and Hong-joo says to herself, “In the end, you will have no choice but to do what I want.”
Yeon-hee goes to Cheongbing Temple and, despite her warning, Jun follows her there.
Beset with an intensified wave of protests against the princess, the king visits Hong-joo in prison and asks what her intentions are. “I no longer have anything to lose,” Hong-joo replies. “It is quite a different situation from Your Majesty, who has much to lose.”
She says that since the royal family always throws people away when they are of no use to them, that is the answer to his current dilemma: Throw away the princess, and rest easy.
The king asks suspiciously if that is her true motive. Hong-joo reminds him of his wish to be a good king, and tells him to think of his unborn child. The people need someone to swear at and blame, she argues. All the king needs to do is turn a blind eye and give up the princess: “The only one who can kill the princess is me. I will take care of everything.”
The dark hiss of temptation sounds (literally) in his ear. The king looks unnerved and turns away, but isn’t immune to her words. “Think carefully,” Hong-joo advises. “Will you give up the princess? Or will you give up the throne?”
Worried over Yeon-hee’s condition, Poong-yeon asks Yo-gwang to find her and Jun.
The queen dowager prostrates herself before the king on Yeon-hee’s behalf, offering to be dethroned herself if only he will not give up the princess.
Poong-yeon is next to beg the king, who just replies, “I don’t want to lose anything.”
The king returns to the prison, his mind made up. “Capture the princess and execute her,” he tells Hong-joo, who smiles.
Yo-gwang arrives at Cheongbing Temple to tell Jun of the bad news: The palace has given Yeon-hee up. Jun is stunned.
He finds Yeon-hee by her altar of candles, and she says in a defeated voice, “I want to run away, to where nobody is.” Jun replies firmly, “Yeon-hee-ya. Let’s run away.” He holds out a hand, and after a moment, she takes it.
Hong-joo leads her shamans to Yeon-hee’s temple, looking surprised to find nobody there. She takes in the burning candles, and her brow furrows to see the five that are still unlit.
Hong-joo requests the aid of the king’s soldiers in catching Yeon-hee, who’s on the run with Jun. The king bristles, informing her darkly that this doesn’t mean he trusts her or agrees with her will.
So Hong-joo goes after his Achilles’ heel, telling him that the people will turn against him if they can’t turn on the princess—because he’s not a proper king from the direct royal lineage, he has been unable to govern properly, and the people are suffering for it. She adds that the drought, famine, and plague are evidence of Heaven abandoning the king.
Provoked, the king orders her to shut up. Hong-joo tells him those are the words of the people before the princess’ return. Now, though, none of those wagging fingers are pointed at the king; they blame the cursed princess for those troubles. “Why are you hesitating?” she presses. “If you get rid of the princess who is the cause of the plague and famine, the people will revere you as a good king.”
The magic words. The king assents to deploying his soldiers, and tells Hong-joo to capture the princess at all costs. Hong-joo adds that if she captures the princess, she wants the king to order Poong-yeon to execute her.
So the king commands Poong-yeon to use his spiritual fire on Yeon-hee, and Poong-yeon begs him to rescind the order. The king kneels to look his old friend in the eye, supposing that it will make Poong-yeon hate him forever.
Still, it’s something he can’t help, the king says, and he asks for Poong-yeon’s help in escaping the scorn that has dogged him all his life—to take this opportunity to be acknowledged as true king.
Poong-yeon asks, “If you turn all that scorn onto the princess, will you truly be the king you hope to be?”
The king concedes the point, but doesn’t take back the order: When Hong-joo captures the princess, the king will order Poong-yeon to burn her, and he will have to obey. If Poong-yeon refuses, the king will kill him with his own hand. The king says this with a stricken face, and Poong-yeon sheds a tear.
Hong-joo flips through the Mauigeumseo, and knows that there’s something missing from it. She asks Hyun-seo what he’s hiding, and leans in close to whisper in his ear, “You can no longer reject me. I no longer wish to show my back to you, either.”
His eyes flash, and he asks robotically what she wants. She requests the ending to the Mauigeumseo, and directs him to bring to her what he’s hidden. Obediently, Hyun-seo turns and walks away.
You’ve got to hand it to her, Hong-joo knows how to hit where it hurts—or, on the flipside, how to seduce a person’s heart just so. She’s a master manipulator, and that’s one of the aspects of her character I’d found most fascinating, particularly in the earlier parts of the drama before everyone became wise to her true nature.
In fact, I hadn’t realized how much I’d enjoyed and missed that knack for emotional manipulation until it came out in full force today; with her powers stripped, that’s all she has left. But, as it turns out, with Hong-joo that silver tongue is well-nigh a superpower in itself. When she’s whispering into ears and playing Iago, I find the scenes more fraught with tension than when she’s casting evil spells—it makes the struggle emotional (rather than magical) and human and therefore more gripping.
I wonder if we will see more exploration of Hong-joo’s backstory, because I still sort of want more from her; I know we’ve seen where her resentment of royalty comes from and understand why she wants to rule over them, but I find her more interesting when she’s desperately scrabbling to save herself or turn the tables. I suppose everyone’s more interesting when they’re the underdog, and she’s no exception, even though I don’t want her to prevail. But I do like seeing her brought low and fighting dirty; she’s like a cockroach that way—fascinating, nearly indestructible, and repulsive.
But I suppose that would shift the focus even more heavily on Hong-joo, an utterly effective villain whom I nevertheless don’t want to spend that much more time on. I don’t begrudge the time we’ve spent on her, but her dominance puts Yeon-hee constantly in the victim’s seat, and Jun in the righteous protector, and I would rather Yeon-hee and Jun be more active in their own fates. I find myself thirsty for scenes with them; I’m constantly on the edge of my seat to make progress on the candles and to spend more meaningful time together, instead of all this angstfully together-but-separated business.
Not to say I don’t think it’s a valid conflict; it makes a lot of sense, and I don’t even hate the queen dowager for wanting to separate them, because in her worldview, it’s a relationship that has no business happening. It’s ungrateful and she knows it, but she’s a mother raising a princess, and I get her perspective. It’s similar to the king, whose flip-flopping could be frustrating but whose reasoning I completely understand. It’s a character I find realistic and weak and therefore an unpredictable wild card; I don’t like him for changing sides all the time but I think he’s wonderfully acted and his reasons are presented credibly, which makes me feel for him even when I want to knock some sense into him.
But for the sake of the plot I’m glad we’ve taken Jun and Yeon-hee out of the palace again, back to a world where their interactions are governed only by themselves, where they get to be real and simple with each other. It also turns them into underdogs again, and pits them a race against time—and Hong-joo—to break the curse. I want to see them being resourceful and resilient again, and fine, also sweet and cuddly. They can be all those things! They’re not mutually exclusive!