Review – Queen Seon Duk
THE GREAT QUEEN SEON DUK
If this show wasn’t so long, it might be the greatest thing to ever come out of South Korea. Of course, if it wasn’t so long it might not be so darned epic and unforgettable. Curse you, conundrums! This show can be effectively divided into two sections: Pre-Queen and Post-Queen. Half of the show depicts the young life of Deokman and her struggle to raise herself to royal status. The second half is what happens when she gets it.
In my opinion, everyone should watch this show. Wait til you have the flu and a few days off work, if you must. But watch it. The “Mishil” music is still played in current dramas as a gag reference all the time. It’s a staple of K-World.
Overall Rating: 10/10 – near perfection period-piece epic with romance, action, betrayal, friendship, rivalry, political intrigue, and unforgettable characters – it’s a massive commitment of time that will ultimately leave you deeply satisfied and possibly traumatized for life.
Now come cozy up beside me and let’s talk about why this show completely rocks my socks, shall we?
———————— MASSIVE SPOILERS & RATINGS FOLLOW ————————–
Pacing: 7/10 – though the plot is ever progressing, this is one long, long, long show. With lots of sitting around tables discussing plans and conspiracies (think of the Sopranos… switch strip clubs and restaurants with palaces and pagodas)
Romance: 9/10 (two beautiful, touching, heartbreaking romances here. Does not get perfect 10 only because I demand quality smooching and this show does not deliver)
Comedy: 5/10 (this is not a comedy! Though there are plenty of humorous moments and hysterical scenes that you’ll probably rewind a few times, you would be very hard pressed to call QSD funny)
Action: 10/10 (awesome action sequences – from training to war to showdowns)
Main Character Female 1: 10/10 (Deokman/Seon Duk… a feisty and fiercely loyal cross-dressing youth turned to calculating, wig-wearing, stressed out Queen. An outstanding performance.)
Main Character Female 2: 10/10 (Mishil! Be afraid. Be very afraid. Hypnotic micro-emotions, sociopathic ambition that cuts off heads rather than step on shoulders to get to the top. An Arctic cold, brilliant villain you won’t ever forget)
Main Character Male 1: 10/10 (Kim Yu-Sin. The struggling warrior at Deokman’s side from beginning to end. The quiet reserve! The dignity! The powerful expressions!)
Main Character Male 2: 10/10 (Bidam. Oh, Bidam. The most kick-ass, complicated piece of work to cross a K-Drama to date. Die hard romantic, possible sociopath, mommy issues, trust issues and an epic fighting monster machine of a man.
Side Characters: 10/10 (excellent array of memorable characters)
Re-Watch Factor: 10/10 (though you’ll probably pick your favorite eps and watch them until they’re burned into your brain)
X-Factor: Bidam. Hands down. Runner up: Mishil.
This show takes its time, immersing you completely in Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, including all of the royalty, politicians, gentle women, soldiers, criminals, friends, merchants and peasants within. There are tons of characters in this show. More than any other show I can think of. And you’ll get to know them all – their quirks and what makes them tick. You may not remember their names, but you’ll recognize them immediately and their place in the plot. The costumes are extravagant and also helpful in identifying characters and status. The action sequences are intense, bloody and awesome. The romances were all devastatingly emotional. Good God, the looks exchanged between these people will blow your mind – which is good because this show is G-Rated in the bedroom… you won’t even get a good kiss out of it. And you say it’s romantic? Oh yes. Oh, sweet Lord, definitely yes.
As my first period-piece drama, I have never been sorry that it was this show that introduced me to Korean history and politics. But more than anything else, this is an exploration of the nature of the human animal: what drives people, what brings people together, what keeps them together or ultimately tears them apart… why do we do the crazy things we do? You’ll find out and be deeply satisfied with the answers, even if you can’t possibly relate to all them personally. I felt this story educated me on humanity. It left a deep impression and despite its length, it’s one of my staple K-Dramas that I’ll start babbling about like a starstruck fangirl when people ask me why I watch all these foreign television programs.
This show also requires a viewer warning. The first episode, in particular, can throw off viewers – a lot of unknown people are running across the screen and a lot of dramatic things are happening but you’re not entirely sure why. But stick it out. This is the birth of our main characters and the start of the domino chain of events that links everyone and everything together (if only to knock them all down, poor souls). By episode three or four you’ll be hooked and the plot will clear itself up. If you aren’t hooked by then – stop watching immediately and don’t waste hours of your life. It’s just not for you. Maybe come back again in a few years and try again – it won’t be any more dated, it’s already set in the seventh century. Or, perhaps, skip ahead to part two where they introduce us to Bidam…
Did someone call for a kick ass intervention to a weighted down melodrama?
Bidam is the X-Factor for this show. This is the reason a show stands out, breaks the mold, takes the cake, mesmerizes you like a cobra snake under the lure of fluted song and has you loosing sleep obsessing over it. For Queen Seon Duk, the X-Factor is clearly Bidam. Though I concede Milshil is a strong runner up.
Bidam, Bidam, Bidam.
Bidam appears late in the game, around the 20th episode or so. The show is very, very serious by now. Lots of grand schemes and powerful relationships and major stakes are near the critical breaking point. We, as viewers, are emotionally exhausted but glued to the screen. Cue Bidam. He walks silently out of a cave, yawns and then disappears. I think everyone in the universe who has seen this show remembers being startled by this scene. “Who the hell was that? Who dares interrupt our quiet moment with our main characters?!” At this point, we’re so tightly wrapped up in multiple story lines that the appearance of a new face is unnerving. And yet with that goofy smile and laisse faire saunter we’re already grateful this dude magically appeared.
What? Smiles? How dare you bring your pretty white teeth into this serious melodrama!
Bidam is oblivious to the problems and ordeals of our characters. He teases them over chicken wings and disregards their serious faces and tension-filled-bodies. What’s it to him, anyways? And suddenly we’re allowed to take a step back from the intense drama and exhale at last. A window is opened, fresh air is let in, and the world of the show expands allowing in new characters with new agendas, new backgrounds and new personalities. Queen Seon Duk has entered Part II.
Relaxing in utopia after fighting off a small army?… Just another day in Shilla.
Bidam will never know Deokman as Yu-Sin knew her. He will never connect with her friends or her previous gains and losses. Instead, he meets her at this critical point in her life when she’s cast out of the world she knew, unsure of the future and her place in it, and allowing herself to consider the possibility being a woman for the first time post-puberty. She’s a bucket of confusion and has no idea where or what her place in the world is. In short, she’s a mess. Just like Bidam.
I love that he imprinted on her like a baby duck. He took her struggles, her ambition, her desires and her personal vendettas and embraced them all as his own. The man was destined for drama, after all, and life had been so predictable and empty of late, what with the plague and being largely hated and ignored by his sole companion at the time. He needed something – anything – to inspire him to break out of his dismal existence and attempt to live. And then Deokman pops up with her cute blue soldier uniform and suicidal tendencies and the wheels of fate start aligning. The second he saw the barely restrained fire in her eyes he was lost. She wants to be the King of the World? Count him in. That’s sounds just unreasonable and crazy enough that he feels comfortable signing up.
But who in the world is Bidam?
He’s the son of Mishil and the late King. You remember, right? From the very first episode twenty hours ago that featured a mysterious woman dropping a baby on the floor and walking away, not even turning back once (establishing her as the cold, cold bitch we will grow to love and fear). Bidam, tossed like an empty beer can only to be picked up and spirited away by the greatest swordsman in the land. He’s the guy who was secretly raised to be King but spooked off his teacher by slaughtering a few dozen people in his youth. Oops! After that the course of his life is altered, becoming less preparation and more prevention. Swordsman sees him as a monstrous creature that must be carefully kept in check, devoid of human empathy. Well, you raise a boy like a wolf and you get chewed pillows. (let’s just say the tension between the master swordsman & Bidam is so tense it’s gonna take BOTH their blades to hack through it – and when they finally have their epic showdown in episode 37… holy shit… just brace yourself). Bidam grows up a mess. He’s been trained in martial arts but not in human compassion or love. So, we have a non-stoppable sword-slinging killing machine on the loose with no moral compass and no leader.
Sounds fun, right? It is.
Some people just look hot covered in blood splatter.
And he’s funny as hell. His childlike delight in life and the present moment is the perfect compliment to everyone else’s grandiose problems and predicaments. They have history and rules and all these expectations of behavior and assigned roles that they can barely breath in. And Bidam just skips along spotting shapes in the clouds and randomly slaughtering anyone he chooses, even if five minutes ago he was on their side. Cause Bidam doesn’t have a side. Not until he has Deokman.
His casual approach to everyone sets him apart and makes him both despised and sought out amongst others. Formal speech? Nah. Respect according to ranking? Don’t think so. Allegiances to flags or households or ideals? Nope. Desire for money, fame and power? Not until he’s trying to impress his lady… who ends up being Queen. And that’s tricky shit, impressing a Queen. Suddenly Bidam has to get in the game and scrub up his resume. But anyone who knows him even a little bit knows perfectly well he’s not playing fair. He’s lurking in the back alleys and making deals and threatening people and double-crossing everyone because none of it really matters too much to him. He’s just interested in getting from Point A (unable to hook up with his honey) to Point B (five star dating material for royalty). And maybe we all love him despite his devious nature because he sees it like it is. More often than not, politics is just a game pretending to have fair rules and noble guidelines. Bidam isn’t buying it. We aren’t really buying it either, though God love Queen Seon Duk when she starts babbling about the soul of the country and its people – I felt like raising the Shilla flag and observing a moment of silence.
Bidam upgrades from this guy… to this guy.
Bidam didn’t fall head over heels with Deokman/Seon Duk right away. I mean, for a while he thought she was a dude. Then he fell in love with the idea of overthrowing the government, compelled by her passionate ambition. Then I think the more he got separated from the life he knew before and attempted to acclimate to palace-living, the more Seon Duk seemed like the only stable ground. He’d made her the sun, the moon, the anchor and the compass to his daily life. And she needed him. For Bidam I think that was the final straw that broke the shell around his heart. No one had ever needed him before. No one had ever relied on him, praised him, or trusted him. What else could he do but devote himself utterly to this woman? The poor, doomed bastard.
Standing in the way of budding true love is Milshil (and just about everyone else), who Bidam discovers is the woman who gave birth to him and immediately left him for dead. Infants don’t match her hanbok, thank you very much. And yet he just can’t help himself. He reaches out to her in the cutest, saddest, most pathetic and heartbreaking ways. Milshil of course calls him on it every time, not in the least bit afraid to hurt his feelings and crush his soul. This woman has a gaping black hole where her maternal instincts should be.
Mishil – the face of evil
But overtime, sonny-boy grows on her as she sees more and more of her own nature reflected in his devilish grin and blood thirsty hands. Ironically, as he struggles to earn his place beside the Queen he’s sealing his own doom by becoming powerful enough to be a useful pawn in the ever present struggles between the kingdom’s divided factions. Milshil’s people use Bidam’s weakness against him. His only weakness. The deep-rooted insecurity that has fueled his entire life.
MASSIVE SPOILER TIME… so stop reading, cause I’m basically going through the end of this show now…
And just like that, all of the dominos that we’ve set up over all these episodes start to crash down, knocking piece by piece of the plot into place for the ultimate, traumatizing ending of the show.
It’s buck-shot to the belly painfully sad.
Why? Cause he does win the Queen’s heart.
She agrees to marry him, she finally confesses she loves him and that tough veneer of hers shows a few cracks of humanity underneath. But he’s still Bidam, even with the titles and high ranking position and engagement ring to royalty. He’s still convinced deep down that he’s unlovable and thus easily deceived by Milshil’s people into a tumultuous revolt. They set up a fake assassination, saying the Queen has turned against him, and he believes it because that feels pretty true, right? I mean, who could love him? But the poor sod doesn’t even go into his rebel uprising with revenge as his goal. Instead, he wants to take the thrown so he can be King and then make Seon Duk his Queen. He thinks they’ll work it out! (oooh, so pitiful) He carries these grand delusions until the puppet-masters all but spell out their evil plans after the utter failure of the uprising, basically making fun of him for being a chump in love.
Que the firing squad to your tender soul.
It gets worse.
The Queen is dying. She knows this. She’d planned to run off with Bidam and leave the palace to its own bullshittery and live her last days in peace with her man. But no, her life is one crappy turn of events after another. Her fiance has just lead a revolt against her. He’s now guilty of treason, punishable by death. They’re screwed. She knows it. And after Bidam’s rebellion plans fail and he discovers he was a patsy, he knows it too.
Bidam goes into mourning black.
So what does he do? He goes on a suicide mission of the grandest nature to see his lady-love one last time. He hacks through battalions of soldiers (who were, until very recently, his own soldiers – like I said, he’s wishy-washy with loyalty). No one can stop him. The corpses just pile up around him. More and more soldiers keep showing up but this one man storm of guilt, remorse and determination just annihilates them all.
It. Is. Awesome.
Meanwhile the Queen waits in the distance, surrounded by the royal guard. Bidam keeps coming. When he’s close enough to see her, he ties his sword to his hand (cause the man’s not immortal – he’s tired, for crying out loud! That’s a lot of hacking) and starts counting down the steps until he can reach her. And the soldiers keep coming. And he keeps killing them. And getting closer. And counting down.
You’re starting to wonder what exactly he’s trying to do. At this point, he’s limping along, one step closer, counting…. counting the steps between him and his true love. Oh, dear God, my heart! He gets about 15 feet away. They make eye contact… and he’s gutted by a sword. Which does the trick, along with the fifteen arrows that also went through him and the countless gashes of his limbs with heavy blades.
Bidam dies – blood gushing down his chin as he whispers something – reaching out to his woman. Tear stream down her face. Bidam’s a bloody mound of deceased badass. The Queen passes out, her body crashing down into the dirt beside Bidam. Oh God, the agony of this scene…
Cue gaping mouth and utter shock.
Later the Queen wakes up, back in her palace, her will to live gone. Bidam is dead. This whole politics business has worn her down to nothing and she’s done. Screw this Queen business. She asks what Bidam’s last words were… what was he trying to tell her? When she finds out, it kills her… she holds out a few more days and serenely dies on a hillside.
So, what the heck did he say?
Her name. Her real name. Just saying her name had become treason the minute she stepped onto the throne. But Bidam didn’t care. The man loved her. He’d already committed treason anyways, why not give her one last gift before he went out in a blaze of glory? He said he’d call her by her name when they were married… and since that was off the table…. Oh sweet baby Buddha… that romantic fool…
And I am a giant pool of slobbering tears on the couch.
All self control gone.
Meltdown of nuclear levels.
Even the cat is alarmed.
I’ve cried over movies before. Steel Magnolias in the graveyard scene. Sophie’s Choice. I’m not immune. But I’ve never cried over a television show. And certainly never fallen into the depths of utter despair and heart-wrenching, gut twisting agony of such a tangled web of love and defeat. I mean, we’re talking 60 plus hours of commitment to these characters and their lives… and to meet such an end! Shakespeare couldn’t have concocted a more tradgic ending than the last episode of Queen Seon Duk.
It was glorious. It was perfect. It wouldn’t have been believable any other way. We’d learned who these characters where, what drove them, what always screwed them up, what kept them going. And the ending just stayed true to their natures. They’re sad, lonely, tragically true natures.
It was the best ending possible to one of the best shows out there.