For those unfamiliar with the show, The Last Empress could be described as a light, PG-13, scaled-down version of "Game of Thrones". In broad terms, you get a group of people (mostly women) fighting for the throne of Korea. Alliances are forged and broken; friends turn into foes and foes may become reluctant allies. In the end, characters evolve alongside the story, giving it a fluid pace that never drags.
But if that general gist left you confused, perhaps the following synopsis will give you a better idea of the kind of story you can expect.
It's 2018 and Korea is a constitutional monarchy led by Emperor Lee Hyuk and his family. Used to a loose and irresponsible way of living, Lee Hyuk gets into an accident which results in someone's death. Rather than face the consequences, Lee Hyuk covers up the crime with the help of a trusted ally.
Assuming everything's dealt with, Lee Hyuk is surprised when a man starts loudly clamouring for justice. That thorn on his side is Na Wang Sik, a hurting man unwilling to stop until justice is served. But his trust in the law gives Wang Sik a harsh wake-up call. Knowing only he can do what needs to be done, he sets out on a mission of revenge.
Actress Oh Sunny, meanwhile, has been trying to make a career out of her passion. As destiny would have it, the Emperor comes in to sweep her off her feet. But little does she know what lies inside his cold heart. And as she's pulled into the Imperial Family's power struggle and swept into Wang Sik's revenge, Oh Sunny will have to figure out a way to outlive and outmanoeuvre those who wish her harm. And while she's at it, she'll be forced to make a decision. She can either escape while she can, or stay to crack open the skeleton closets hidden within the Palace's walls.
If the premise hasn't convinced you, let's look at five reasons why you might want to give this drama a chance. I'll add some things to consider (flaws, doubts and everything in between) to paint a better picture of the good and the bad the drama offers. For those who dislike spoilers, I'll hide additional information which may clarify some points but might also give away key plot-points.
While this point may be irrelevant to some, I felt the need to highlight it because the drama's main setting (the palace) is quite pleasing. Although I've seen shows with better cinematography, there are a few things this drama offers that you'll want to keep an eye on:
Mirrors & reflection are used as motifs within the narrative with great success. So watch out for those scenes. Remember that, in this drama, mirrors (water and reflective glass as well) are treated as "windows into a characters' soul". So when a character is about to reveal or change in an important way, a mirror might be present. It's also important to add that a mirror can also symbolize a crisis of identity, especially because most of the characters you'll meet are actually hiding behind a mask.
Grouping and dividing visual cues are seamlessly integrated into the narrative to offer insight into the interpersonal relationship between the characters. If you'd like to learn more about these, check out my Popular Cues Found in K-dramas article. That way you'll be able to keep track on with whom a character's loyalties lie.
The Dutch angle (tilted camera) is prevalent when it comes to externalizing the war waging inside some of the characters; the Emperor chief among them. Think of the camera as a character's state of mind. If it tilts, it means he or she is having a "mental breakdown" or they are struggling to come to terms with something. I'll cover the dutch angle in more detail in an upcoming article (Popular Cues Found in K-dramas, Part 3).
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If there's one thing this drama sets out to prove, is that things can change in the blink of an eye. Or as one character eloquently put it...
"As you know, the power in the palace can change in a moment. So eat while you can and enjoy it while it lasts. Since you never know when it might end."
Min Yu Ra to Seo Kang Hee, episode 43
Humans are complex creatures. We trust when someone's kind and lash out when someone's mean. If someone betrays our trust, we become colder, more careful and wiser. If someone helps us, we grow vulnerable, kinder and warmer...
So it stands to reason that relationships should change as characters face revelations, betrayals, and strife. The Last Empress doesn't just excel at building mutual alliances, but also at building showdowns and delivering epic backstabs.
Since I want to avoid spoilers, I'll leave you with these last words: you'll probably enjoy the showdown between the antagonists much more than those against the leads. Though that's not to say that Oh Sunny doesn't get to show she's not to be trifled with (more on this later on).
╮("╯_╰)╭ THINGS TO CONSIDER ╮(╯_╰")╭
The romance plays a significant role in this drama without feeling forced and, best of all, it's not only complex but dynamic. Meaning, it was an interesting part of the narrative which shifted and changed as the plot progressed.
Furthermore, the show earned extra points because it didn't depict the romance as only nice, warm and innocent. Instead, it sometimes leaned into its darker side, embracing lust and possessiveness, which made it crueler and grittier. The saying "relationships are messy" seems the perfect choice of motto for this show.
Additionally, this is one of the few shows where I didn't mind the love triangles/squares since they contributed to the plot in important ways. Like in real life, the characters' relationships towards one another evolved organically as the characters made decisions and faced consequences.
Despite the many different love triangles (and trust me, there were many!), I'm only going to focus on the one between our main protagonists. But before that, I should briefly introduce our male leads in more detail, shouldn't I? (Since Oh Sunny gets a section further down this article, I'll omit her for now.)
NA WANG SIK
THE BODYGUARD, CHUN WOO BIN
Na Wang Sik is a good-hearted man who, betrayed by those he trusted, sets off on a path of revenge. With patience, effort, and ingenuity, he becomes the Emperor's bodyguard and, beyond that, a close friend and confidant.
Lee Hyuk is a man weighted down by inner demons who allow him little to no real respite. Though he craves power, he does so for self-preservation more than ambition. Because if he has power, then who would dare to hurt him?
Yet behind Chun Woo Bin's carefully constructed loyalty, lies Na Wang Sik's rising wrath.
"You're in the palm of my hand now, got that?"
And the more secrets he discovers inside the palace, the angrier he becomes. But... will his thirst for blood override his gentle heart?
Yet an ever-present feeling of inadequacy has set him on a self-destructive and down-spiralling path.
"I am obligated to protect the Imperial Family!"
Emotionally stunted due to his harsh upbringing, the outlet of his pain and vulnerability result in outbursts of violence and cruelty.
When the time comes to act, who will he become? Will he stay true to his character as he fights to ensure justice? Or will he become a reflection of the monsters he's trying to tear down?
But should someone who is hurting be given a free pass and be absolved of all his crimes? Can regret pave the way for redemption? And, perhaps most importantly... can a tiger really change his stripes?
THEIR ROLE IN THE RELATIONSHIP
THE SHINING KNIGHT
THE BROKEN MAN
Wang Sik takes the role of a knight in shining armor. He's kind, gentle and protective of Oh Sunny. Every time he's pushed or forced to hurt her, he's consumed by guilt and struggles to swallow his remorse.
Lee Hyuk takes the role of a broken man who craves love and companionship. He's aggressive yet childish; hostile yet eager when it comes to dealing with his emotions. Though he dislikes Oh Sunny at first, he has a change of heart later on.
For him, Oh Sunny is a friend, a moral compass and the only person who could make him step off the train of vengeance and walk the path of justice.
For him, Oh Sunny becomes a light in the dark. She's the only person he believes isn't trying to take advantage of him and represents an opportunity at a new beginning.
╮("╯_╰)╭ THINGS TO CONSIDER ╮(╯_╰")╭
Probably one of my favorite things about this show has been the number of powerful women actively involved in the plot. It's rare to see any show (Korean or otherwise) where the ratio of important male to female characters is turned on its head.
That's not to say that there aren't any male characters, because there are. But rather, we are getting a story where important female characters outnumber the males. And these characters aren't just there to decorate the scene! Instead, the writer has fleshed them out as complex and autonomous human beings. They make decisions, spring into action, weigh consequences and take risks in an effort to accomplish their individual goals and dreams; all of which are unrelated to any male character!
Having raved about that, let's take a brief look at the prominent female characters.
GRAND EMPRESS DOWAGER JO
"If one has committed a crime, one must be punished accordingly."
The woman who takes Empress Sunny under her wing and shows her moral compass is intact. Once she discovers she's been kept in the dark, she will stop at nothing to set things right.
EMPRESS DOWAGER KANG
"I'll teach you a proper lesson, to help you come to your senses."
The woman who doesn't balk at using her own son if it means securing more power. She's someone so sure of herself, she doesn't even think or care to wear a mask to hide her ambitions behind.
EMPRESS OH SUNNY
"I will shatter that arrogance of yours."
The woman who breaks out of the role of pawn imposed by Lee Hyuk, and embraces the Empress within. She's not interested in making ripples, she's here to make waves.
THE PRINCESS' NANNY, SEO KANG HEE
"You made a mistake. You can't get rid of me once I'm no longer useful."
The woman who hides her ambition under the love of her child. She's the dark horse and silent threat, who knows patience, and not speed, is what'll get her the throne.
PRINCESS AH RI
"Does it makes sense that I, a genius, can't understand?"
The girl who, despite her age, has proven she has the wits, courage, and sass to put some of the grown-ups in their place. She's not without her faults, but Ah Ri has proven that she'll never let pride get in her way of learning and reflecting.
THE EMPEROR'S SECRETARY MIN YU RA
"You should've known better. Even I don't know what I'll do."
The woman who, unable to accept her humble beginnings, decides to acquire wealth and power by any means possible. If she must make the ladder she's on with bones for rungs, then so be it.
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As common as a strong or interesting male protagonist is, we all know that's not the same for their female counterparts. One out of every five dramas will boast a complex, interesting, consistent or active female lead. But very rarely will it have all of those things.
Sometimes, if she's lucky, she gets stuck in a support role that contributes something of real importance to a story. At other times, the writer will reduce her to a cheerleading role with very little to offer. If she's truly unlucky, she'll be little more than eye-candy.
Whether the problem lies with not giving her a "sense of agency" or because her contribution serves only to help the male lead (which typically includes being his: healer, moral compass, damsel in distress, and/or trophy), a female lead is rarely given a chance to grow --let alone pose a real threat to the antagonist!
Oh Sunny, however, is all that and more. Which is why I'm including her at the biggest reason why you should watch this show.
But what makes Oh Sunny a strong protagonist? Let's briefly analyze her character through four parameters that'll allow us to measure how strong a protagonist is.
SENSE OF AGENCY
This parameter relates to how important or impactful her character is within the story.
The mere fact that the show would change drastically without Oh Sunny's involvement and contributions prove she is indispensable.
She may have been pulled into the story as a pawn for others to use and benefit from. But Oh Sunny demonstrated that she not only deserves the title of Empress, but she's not afraid to earn it!
She may have been brought into this war by someone else, but she definitely chose to stay and fight.
Oh Sunny is not a passive character. Yes, things do happen to her, but she reacts and makes choices rather than wait for other characters to get her out of a pinch.
She then goes further and steps up to the occasion, showing she's not afraid to take charge.
Even better, she learns from her mistakes and has shown a remarkable capacity to think on her feet and adapt to her situation.
BALANCE & CONSISTENCY
For a character to be relatable, it needs to have a balance of strengths and weaknesses, which is the case with Oh Sunny.
She's not perfect. Far from it, she makes mistakes, stumbles, falls and gets up. She's kind but unforgiving; idealistic but harsh; vulnerable but strong. For every virtue, she has a flaw.
However, a list on paper may be disproven by actions and this is where consistency comes into play.
Consistency is achieved when what we're "told" match what we're "shown".
In the case of Oh Sunny, she has shown steady consistency. Even her acting skills are implemented into the narrative when it matters. Her naivety made her an easy mark, but her self-judgment and reflection made her shed that innocence and grow a hard shell.
But credit where credit is due, I thank the writer who never forgot to have Oh Sunny use all of the assets/skills in her arsenal to pull herself out of a bind.
Character growth is a staple of a good writer. Like in real life, events, experiences, mistakes, and consequences help shape the person we become.
The easiest way to figure out if a character has grown is to compare who they were and how they acted in the first episode to who they became on the last.
In that regard, Oh Sunny excels. Her growth was organic. Things happened to her and who she was changed as a result.
Events and people who caused her pain left psychological scars on her, which in turn, shifted her from a naïve and soft character into someone more cynical and harsh.
That's not to say that she strayed from her nature, which is to be kind and justice oriented. But rather that she learned to be careful with her trust and to sharpen her claws when her enemies venture near.
╮("╯_╰)╭ THINGS TO CONSIDER ╮(╯_╰")╭
Unfortunately, I think the extension did this drama more harm than good. Choi Jin Hyuk's absence was not only glaringly obvious, but it also played a role in the disappointingly anti-climatic last couple of episodes. It almost felt like an entirely different show, to be honest.
But while the show had its flaws, I'm still rating it with an 8/10 because it is a good watch overall. A one time watch, mind you, but an entertaining one nonetheless. Although, full disclosure, I gave the show brownie points due to the superb integration of artistic motifs (the mirrors, the usage of colors and the Dutch angle) that really added weight to the narrative.
In short, if you enjoy a strong female protagonist surrounded by other strong and ambitious female characters, then you'll definitely in for a treat. If, however, you're looking for a romance-centric show, this might not be a show you'll enjoy.
Btw, for those who have seen the drama, there's an alternate ending that got released on youtube and which you can find here. Personally, I prefer the ending, but it's a cute video nonetheless. A heads up, when you switch on the subtitles, pick the "Indonesian" option, as that one has the English subs.
Thank you for reading this article!
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments down below.
Here are some questions to get a conversation started:
FOR THOSE WHO'VE WATCHED THE DRAMA:
- Did you enjoy it?
- Who was your favorite character and why?
- Which character did you hate the most?
- Who do you think had the most growth?
- Did you enjoy the love triangle(s)? Was there someone you rooted for?
- Do you agree with my take on the show? And if so, why or why not?
- Is my rating fair? What rating did you give the show?
- Have you watched the alternate ending? Which ending do you prefer?
FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T WATCHED THE DRAMA:
- Has this article helped you make a decision? Why or why not?
- What part are you most looking forward to?