In the palace grounds in the dead of night, the royal guard Kang Chae Yoon leaps into the air (with the art of 출상술 chul sang sul) over the rooftops and makes his way towards 근정전 geunjeongjeon the Throne Hall in Gyeongbokgung Palace. (This is where the king met important guests and important events were held in the courtyard.)
As he walks the 삼도 samdo – the path leading up to the Hall that is only for the king – he counts the number of steps it takes to get there. How fast can he reach the king? The guards are meant to protect the king. But there is a sinister motive behind Chae Yoon’s plan…
He imagines attempting to assassinate the king here during a ceremony with all the ministers and officials. He seems unstoppable as he leaps up in the air with a dagger. But as the king calmly gazes up at him, two arrows come flying into his chest and he falls to the ground.
Chae Yoon stops dreaming and comes back to the the dark, empty palace courtyard -His plan won’t work like that. He must work out a better plan.
But then all of a sudden the king appears with his entourage. He’s on his way to the Institute of Learning – Jiphyeonjeon. Chae Yoon is taken by surprise. Here’s his chance to assassinate the king! He hesitates before falling to the ground to respectfully bow. But all the while he’s counting the guards around the king. Mu Hyul the bodyguard isn’t there either. This is his chance. Tension.
But he doesn’t have his sword and then Mu Hyul arrives. It’s too late. Chae Yoon makes some excuse about getting lost and the king seems unconcerned and walks away. But then he turns and asks Chae Yoon his name. He hesitates again still looking for a way to get hold of a sword. My name is Dol Bok he says to himself as we go back in time to his childhood.
The year is 1418
Here we find a feisty Dol Bok fighting with a local boy demanding to know who is was that made fun of his dad
Meanwhile, over at the government office Jo Mal Seng is interrogating Kang Sang an official who works for Shim On, the Prime Minister (and King’s father-in-law). He claims that Shim On has done nothing wrong. But it is the king’s father – Yi Bang Won who has ordered the interrogation and he has already decided their fate …
At Shim On’s house, the nobi slaves sing and dance as they work. They are having fun because they know their master is away in China. Dol Bok’s father arrives with alcohol and snacks, but the others easily poke fun at him. They give him red lips and rosy cheeks so he looks like a girl. When Dol Bok sees the state of his father, he flies into a rage and there’s a fight. We can already see Dol Bok’s firey temper.
Dol Bok is ordered to apologise to Dam’s father, Gul Sang, for attacking him. But he insists that Gul Sang should apologise to his father too and address him respectfully as hyeongnim – the respectful term for an elder male. Gul Sang kneels but can’t bring himself to be respectful and simply calls him an idiot! So another fight begins and the nobleman just looks on helplessly.
Dol Bok’s father fell down a cliff trying to save Dol Bok and hurt his head – he must have brain damage. Now Dol Bok tries to train him to be tougher to the other nobi when they tease him. Meanwhile, Dam sees to her father’s bruises but she tells him she is on Dol Bok’s side!
Dam finds Dol Bok at their usual place on the mountain. She cheers him up by giving him raw chestnuts and they play word games together. On the way home Dam gives him a silk pouch she’s embroidered with the Chinese character for luck (pok) on the front.
She proudly tells him that she can read Chinese characters and that she only has to see something once and then she can remember it. But she didn’t have enough thread to finish the character and she draws in the ground how it should really look. But Dol Bok is impressed as nobi can’t usually read any Chinese characters at all.
Dol Bok gives her some yeonji (makeup) he stole for her. They play together putting lipstick on each other. They are laughing as they run home but when they get back there are palace guards at the house. Dol Bok sees his father being attacked and he rushes in to help him. But the queen’s uncle is arrested on the orders of ‘the king’.
At the palace, the queen hears about the arrest. She goes to talk to the king. The noblemen are being tortured while Yi Bang Won sits calmly fishing in the pond at the palace.
Mu Hyul, the king’s bodyguard, arrives to tell the king what has happened to the queen’s family. But the king, Yi Do, is in his study room working on a puzzle – a kind of sudoku. The queen arrives too. But the king seems only to be concentrating on the puzzle. There is nothing he can do for her. He is powerless against his father.
Next at the assembly with the ministers the king sits on the throne and his father sits next to him. But it is Yi Bang Won who does all the talking and makes the decisions. His son, the king, merely puts his stamp on whatever Yi Bang Won wants – this time to order the deaths of the king’s father-in-law, Shim On, and his men for being traitors.
At his study, Yi Do finds his father waiting for him. Yi Bang Won offers to solve the sudoku puzzle for him. Each side of the puzzle should add up to the same number, but Yi Bang Won merely throws all the other numbers away except number 1. This is his way of solving problems – just get rid of everything (everyone) you don’t need!
Number 1 represents the King – Yi Bang Won (King Taejong). Being the king is the most important thing and it doesn’t matter who you have to kill to stay there. He tells his son to carry on with his games and he will continue to rule by himself!
Yi Do wants to help his father-in-law and writes a letter and then calls for Mu Hyul to deliver it. But all the officials and guards have been called to his father. So he has no choice but to get a court girl to help him. (this already feels like a bad idea) He gives her the letter to pass on to someone who will pass the letter to Shim On on his way home from China. But when she arrives at the house, the nobi at Shim On’s house, including Dam’s father, are being arrested.
The court girl tells Dol Bok the letter warns Shim On to stay away as he is being wrongly charged with treason. Dol Bok can’t read the letter so he asks Dam to read it since she said she could read. She ‘confirms’ what it says and now, sure that the letter is legitimate, Dol Bok’s father insists on delivering the letter himself.
Sweaty and tired he finally meets Shim On on the road home. Shim On recognises his nobi and reads the letter. But he’s shocked at what he reads. This is not the reaction we were expecting. Something is wrong …
Sure enough Jo Mal Seng intercepted the letter and changed it. So now the letter shows that Shim On is a traitor. Suddenly Shim On and his men get surrounded by palace guards. Seok Sam gets hit on the head as all the men get arrested.
Shim On knows they are both going to die so he asks for paper to write Seok Sam’s final words for him. Then he calmly drinks his poison.
In the village Dam and Dol Bok see Shim On’s family and nobi arrested and dragged through the village. Dam runs to her father and the two kids get arrested too. So now all the nobi are in a cell.
Dol Bok turns to Dam and tells her it’s her fault that everyone is going to die! She couldn’t really read the letter but pretended that she could – so it’s her fault he says. That’s harsh. But Dam already feels guilty.
Dol Bok’s father is brought back to the cell but he is on his deathbed. He clutches the will for his son written by Shim On but Dol Bok can’t read it of course. The queen tells the king that her father died without complaining or trying to defend himself. She naturally blames Yi Do for her father’s death and at the same time Dol Bok’s father dies in the cell. And Dol Bok will blame Yi Do for his father’s death too …
So we’ve discovered the reason why Chae Yoon has got it in for the king! He must blame him for his father’s death. But what a heartbreaking situation with his childhood friend who didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t read the letter after bragging earlier about understanding that one Chinese character. Now she blames herself too. Not that the actual letter would have helped anyway. It was already too late but they don’t know that.
I like how this scene also shows the difficulties that ordinary illiterate people had before hangul was invented. And how lives will be changed when the new writing system is introduced.
The magnificent cameo performance at the end by sageuk veteran Han In Su as the doomed Prime Minister Shim On reinforces the brutality and warrior mentality of Yi Bangwon.
The power of Yi Bangwon (Baek Yun Sik ) dominates the episode. The relationship between the former king and current king is brilliantly portrayed. And I really get a sense of King Sejong-to-be’s powerlessness. I’m frustrated just watching it. Grrr. Bring on episode 2.