The story of a crown prince named Lee Sun who fights the Pyeonsuhwe society that holds absolute power over the kingdom and also controls the water supply by privatizing it. The drama involves romance, action and court politics as the Crown prince, Lee Sun fights heroically on behalf of the people and Han Ga Eun finds herself falling in love with him instead of avenging the execution of her father at his hands. In “The Emperor: Owner of the Mask,” there is palace intrigue revolving around the true power behind the throne, and a plot twist when the prince switches identities with a commoner. But the overall theme of the show is love, which underlies the romance between a prince and his girl as well as the compassion for the country and people. (Source: MBC) ~~ Adapted from the novel "The Prince and the Pauper" by Mark Twain. Edit Translation
Cast & Credits
If you have to prioritize, watch the first episode and judge for yourself, because some tricks and stretches are telling for the overall quality and worldbuilding. Are you OK with random commoners using Lee last name (and it somehow being an important factor for maliciously choosing a crown prince's substitute)? How about a poison that has to be re-taken every 15 days otherwise the afflicted person will die? Or a poison that makes the survivor immune to all the other poisons in the world? Do you buy the reasoning for hiding crown prince's face behind a mask? Unless you really can't stand prolonged misunderstandings and great love built on lack of communication (or even shared screentime), you'll be OK with the rest.
(And speaking of the setup, I have no idea what were they thinking using prince Sado's name, since it can't even be considered an alternative, rice box-free version of that story. Maybe the writer had something planned but she forgot about it in a meantime? Or wanted to troll us with a prospect of a tragic ending?)
Despite all the plotting, accumulating power and changing teams going on, there's not enough plot to last for 20 hours (and a 5 years long time skip during which 1st female lead regressed and everything interesting apparently just happened to the other three). Some matters, like finding a poppy field, could have been resolved around 1/3 of the show and don't even start me on that jar that no-one bothered to come and get until the very end. Really. There were two quests in total and they were both lying sidelined waiting for a person in charge to get to his or hers grand moment, because everyone else was too busy creating misunderstandings, being a noble idiot or passively looking from behind. Right, they needed to make an antidote too, but that just happened last minute.
To make matters worse, due to the episode getting split in half it wasn't 20 eps but 40 shorter ones. So double the cliffhanger / wet blanket combo and add general lack of fluidity here and there. With that being said, it's not a show to watch for the plot and the overall pacing fits what little character development we see. Except most of it is thrust upon the second leads.
Storytelling is mediocre at best and very predictable in a short term (still engaging on a longer run). You can have a drinking game for everything that happens on cue and every seam that shows through. Expect lots of convenient timing used for the sake of the dramatic effect and main characters doing nothing and getting away with it, because events resolve themselves without them. I'm not even talking about overused hijinks like the main girl coming back from her task all down and changing her mood midsentence, saying to the crowd's relief she suceeded, or that scene when the crown prince was being mourned only to show above someone's shoulder and ask who's dead. And let's ignore that General who fought Jurchens, because he's such a stock character I physically cringed every time he spoke. His lines were like something a kindergartner with a wooden sword would improvise, that kid that gets some episodic part because someone has to do it, and maybe doubles as a tree. Someone on kissasian commented it's like the writer was using a textbook on how to write a segeuk and I fully agree. It's a second rate fanfic writing in a high budget decorations. Easy on eyes and ears, engaging, but only until you take your eyes of it and start looking at the whole picture. With a different cast and lower production value, it'd be unwatchable.
The romance is bland and angsty. They meet, they instantly fall in love, some misunderstandings happen to them [enters 'came from the dead, pretends to be his own lookalike' trope sprawling over the better part of the middle], they separate, they're back and everything is all dandy. The end. The second leads meddle into it, but they never had a chance and weren't even looking for a different options, so there's no thrill. Fill the empty spaces with speeches on the common people suffering under Evil Corp, the legitimacy of power, qualities of a good leader and apologies towards villain who was clearly forced by a circumstances and badly run country to turn evil, poor thing. The show takes itself very seriously, but comes off silly and pompous despite some original concepts thrown at the beginning. I wish writers had a better idea of showing Ga Eun's independence than making her going blindly her way, without consulting people around her and making informative choices. I'm not saying asking for permission, but communicating with a person she supposedly loves that much. I suspect reasons for that are not exposing her trait as much as having her in one place with the second male lead and under his power, and giving the first male lead an opportunity for a dramatic run through a city stopped on crossed halberds. She could be much more than that -- and she was, but it derailed.
WHAT'S IT WORTH WATCHING FOR:
Hm. Let me think. YSH was born to play royals. He's charismatic, commanding and has them dramatic gazes covered. And not forget his deep voice. But we didn't need a 20 episode drama to confirm that. Both he and KSH are wasted in their roles of a sheltered prince taking a responsibility and a trophy girl. A kind, caring, underinformed trophy girl fighting for a justice. With 15 minutes of a heavily reused footage her character had more impact on the story in Goblin than here. Wait, I meant to stay positive. Both leading actors managed to carry their characters thanks to their charisma and breathed some air into subpar writing. Both second leads showed improvement compared to some of their former works. Second female lead comes quite a way from a creep playing with her knife (or was a needle?) and inflicting on herself a wound to match with the one the crown prince got to an independent, succesful woman standing against her family and making great sacrifices. Second male lead shares 1st lead burden and tries to navigate in an unfamiliar environment until he can't take it anymore and breaks apart. Villain is entertaining to watch and not omnipotent (close, but not), but towards the end he's getting out of character (or was he always delusional?). The other villain has a motivation so murky and changable I won't risk a guess what was she actually plotting, but I doubt it was intentional anyway. At some point it looked like we've got a few more secret organisations to stir things up, but keep your hopes low. As soon as they were introduced, they got tossed away. [Looks like that's as far as my positive attitude can get me.]
Rating it anything below 7 is mean towards production team and actors, but the writing really brings it down. You can safely skip that one, but if you feel like watching something light, why not give it a shot and see for yourself. [But don't even a light show need a more convincing romance, if nothing else?]
So, to summon it up, this drama is flashy, cheesy, overly dramatic and sometimes seriously ridiculous. The synopsis for this show is quite scarce, so I'll try to describe some additional facts first.
The king rules over his country. That's how it should be. But in fact, he is only a puppet who is led by Pyunsoo Group, a large hidden organization that has its own trick to control the royal family quite well. The Crown Prince meanwhile has to wear a mask in order to hide his face because of an illness he got when he was born - at least that's what the people and the ministers believe. And because of Pyunsoo Group he is also forced to live outside the palace someday. There he meets Ga Eun who he will fall in love with.
The basic plot is actually quite interesting. That's why it's so sad that it doesn't live up to its potential in the end. It had a steady atmosphere what I liked about this drama, but every now and then it managed to drop one or two ridiculous bombs that were either created by some nonsensical decisions or resulted in some foolish actions.
There were alot of characters who had the potential to something big, but they never rose from their grounds. Same applies for the acting. Though I can't blame half of them because they got some crappy scripts for their roles, the other half of the cast was only average or worse.
As interesting as the beginning was, I never saw an actual improvement of the Crown Prince. He might have become a little smarter, that's all. Same goes for the female lead. At a certain point in the drama, she started to annoy me because so many bad things happened only because of her. It irritated me so much, that almost every decision centered around her. She was either bait or needed protection or whatever. I don't know where it went wrong but her role felt more like a burden than a blessing/support. I admit that I enjoyed some of her scenes with the Crown Prince though. But that's as far as it goes.
At some point I started to favor the second female lead more than the actual one. There was definitely growth in her character while she was one of the most conflicted persons in the story. And although I was skeptical regarding the actress at first, I'm glad that she pulled off her character so well that I even felt sad about her efforts being in vain - though on the other hand she did accomplish some of her wishes in the end.
There are only a few performances I truly enjoyed. The Queen Dowager, the second female lead's father, the female lead's father, Woo Bo (Lee Sun's teacher) and Dae Mok, the head of Pyunsoo Group. Their acting was shining compared to the rest. Yoo Seung Ho had his moments, too, and I enjoyed most of his scenes, but damn, he's one teary guy. His hair is beautiful though...
There is indeed an unhealthy amount of crying. Alot of it. And everyone seems to be a real crybaby, it spreads like a disease. Shedding tears during almost every serious moment.
Did I like something? The clothes, the cinematography, the MUSIC (that score was good~), impressive entrances (esp from Yoo Seung Ho, his royal demeanor was intriguing) and some really good fighting scenes.
Recommendation is debatable and this is definitely not a sageuk for everyone. It's quite predictable, with alot of stereotype characters and some questionable turn of events. Despite that I still felt entertained to a certain degree. There were many moments that kept my interest throughout the whole drama and I wanted to see the finale, even though I already knew how it would probably end~
And Yoo Seung Ho's hair was so beautiful... Did I already mentioned that? Damn, that dude is gorgeous.