I’m really getting worse and worse about ‘final thoughts’ post on dramas i don’t cover regularly. The same goes for ‘series review’. Once i put off started writing shortly after watching the finale, i’d keep procrastinating until God knows how long that chances are i’m dropping it altogether in the end. Or i’ll feel compelled to finish what i started…long after i finished the show. Like Moonlight, i finally work on my closing post on Rebel two months after it ended.
Sometimes it happens because i simply have no thoughts, or need more time to formulate them, but in this case, i didn’t feel like it because the happenings in the drama mirrored the real-life political situations at that time that the what-ifs could affect my opinions. Like the notion of sacrificing one for the good of many, an uprising against the current government, and the conspiration between two-faced players to overturn the ruler. These things could befall a good leader, but Yi Yung is such a terrible king that i wonder why no one thinks of dethroning him sooner.
He may be dubbed the worst tyrant in Joseon Dynasty, but here he’s painted as an incredibly layered and pitiful one that sometimes i find myself sympathizing with him. He didn’t start out evil; he grew into a nutcase due to court intrigue. The officials kept criticizing his decisions that he resorted to scare tactic to control and gain their support, which was effective in turning them into yes men if only to spare their lives. To Gil-dong, “violence is a method used by cowards”, but Yi Yung may not know any other way to rule the court. After launching a few purges for those who wronged his family or those who simply crosses him, he targets Gil-dong for outshining him in the people’s eyes and eventually the people themselves for rebelling against him.
“We did not choose to fight.
When they tried to kill us, we chose to live.
Do you not want to live? Do you not want to survive?”
The enmity between these two is coming to head in drama’s last third, starting from the second hearing. I was hoping Gil-dong wouldn’t get busted, but he came in fully ready to out himself to tell on this Sugwidan group whose members The Hongs hunted down in the middle third. Little does he know that the king is one of the top elites and instead of dissolving the group, he uses this opportunity to pull a Gladiator to crush Gil-dong and put an end to the Mighty Child rumor.
I didn’t worry about Gil-dong’s survival because the Mighty Child power shall heal any of his injuries, although the degree of violence and blood shown in these 10 episodes is getting too much. I knew it’s fiction yet couldn’t help thinking about the number of precious lives gone due to the king’s selfish wants. The plot thickens and the stakes get higher, especially as the story finally begins catching up to the opening scenes in episode 1 after 25 episodes, but it’s also hard to watch. Because all our heroes do is going from one fight to another — hence the body count. But worry not, none of The Hongs becomes a casualty. They’re so solid that when one is intact, everyone is as well; when one is hurt, the rest follows suit. There’s no in between. The joy and pain are shared equally every single time.
The peak occurs when Ga-ryung is presented before the gang tied to a stake. However, the scene and presentation look different that i was hoping it wouldn’t end the way it turned out at the outset. From the ‘preview’ shown in episode 1, Gil-dong was surprised to see Ga-ryung there, and once she joined the makeshift family and married her dearest orabeoni, i’d been wondering how she got separated from them. It’s answered as the plot slowly moves in that direction: Ga-ryung believing Gil-dong died post-flogged enters the palace for revenge. I reckoned she would be used as a bait once her connection to the most wanted thief is revealed.
And while that’s true, she’s sold by Nok-su partly to regain King’s trust and partly out of spite. There have been many occasions that could impel her cross to the dark side and she never completely sells her soul… until Ga-ryung becomes her competition in winning the hearts of both important men in her life. Cuz jealousy is a scary thing. There are clear motives and reasons behind her actions, although character-wise, she crosses the line there. She rats Ga-ryung out fully knowing/intending for her and/or Gil-dong to get hurt or even die…to protect her pride. Even then, i still didn’t hate her. She does encourage King’s lavish lifestyle and bloodthirst ruling, but Rebel doesn’t paint her to be utterly evil that i was hoping she could be saved — albeit not necessarily redeemed — at the end.
The character whose redemption i’ve waited for all series long is Mori. Despite serving the bad masters all his life, there’s a trickle of conscience he lets on from time to time, which convinced me he’d turn around sooner or later. All he needs is a little push. Not after a couple more Mighty Childs face-offs, though. I was expecting the epiphany to happen mid-battle, not so late in the game, thanks to Not-Eorini, but i was glad it happened anyway, because it’s so nice to him smile and be with those who are genuinely happy to have him around.
If anything, i was disappointed at how half-baked his arc was. He is one of the more interesting and sympathetic villains in the drama yet one of the least fleshed out. His cute crush on Ga-ryung, for example, was dropped as abruptly as it was introduced, and when i thought he could move on with Not-Eorini, seems like it was purely familial kind? Honestly though, they could make it literally since Not-Eorini once said she was separated from her brother.
There was barely anything significant about his Mighty Child status (Gil-dong hasn’t used or mastered his superpower either) that probably, like what others said, it has more do with what they do with it rather that who has it. Gil-dong uses it to save people, lead them to safety, and bring about the desired change — despite the odds, against the customs. If it’s so, my question regarding the prophecy remains unanswered then?
So yeah, Not-Eorini is Ok-ran, the good girl one. The red herrings are pretty obvious that i wasn’t surprised by the revelation. In fact, i was relieved when the redundant mystery finally ended. I still couldn’t see the point of this setup or why it was dragged on for 9 episodes, the more when she didn’t bring anything to the table. At least her connection to the Sugwidan group could give The Hongs necessary information about it or how to bring it down, but no, she recedes to the background following her memory gain and hardly matters except for the fact that all three of Ahmogae’s children are now reunited.
And Hong Family is only growing. Too good to be true, but everyone makes it to the end alive, which couldn’t really be considered a flaw. There have been many sacrifices made on The Hongs’ team, and every baddie meets their fittingly tragic end, after the final word delivered by either of the brothers. Which is sooo satisfying to watch.
I was never too invested or absorbed in its story till the end, though. Rebel was a great watch yet not an addictive drama. It’s not the series to bingewatch. I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing, but that allowed me to not get too worked up when the baddies dominated the screen or had the upper hand.
The MVPs of the show, however, go to King Yeonsan and his leading lady, Nok-su. It’s rare for villains to be the standout ones, but Kim Ji-suk’s acting was outstanding throughout the drama; he embodied the despicable yet weak persona perfectly well, and each of his volatile moods and changing expressions was never lost on us. Honey Lee commanded every scene she was on like no other, and she was on par with Kim Ji-suk in the rich-emoting department. She hated being told she made the wrong decision the most, but the end, when she was crooning her last song, you could tell she regretted her decision to enter the palace and become the king’s woman.
The good guys did well, too, but paled in comparison. I guess most actors would be inferior to Kim Sang-joong, but Yoon Kyun-sang’s version of the leader was rather dull, which was worsened by the fact he copied Ahmogae’s pet phrase from time to time. While it wasn’t wrong for Gil-dong to follow his father’s steps and keep his legacy alive, doing so (even down to the tone which was so unlike him) only reminded me of Ahmogae and what a formidable leader he was. Even Gil-hyun was more interesting as a character and the lowkey hero. He managed to trick his masters till the very end and actually grew on me as the drama progressed.
Nok-su might be the stronger female lead, but Ga-ryung showed the most character development of all. We practically watched her grew from a girly brat to a resourceful lady then a mature wife and eventually a mother. Chae Soo-bin had her time to shine and flaunt her acting chops after being grossly wasted in her previous sageuk.
That said, i think Rebel is one of the better sageuks in recent years, and the best ensemble-cast period drama in my book. The pace is medium-slow and the plot meanders a bit (to build context), and it doesn’t center around romance, but it’s never boring. There are a lot of characters, but you’ll like each of them. The romance and battles ain’t as grand or epic as i’d like them to be, but they’re still moving. It’s also sprinkled with comedic beats that cracked me up every single time, even when they appear out of nowhere, like in the middle of serious scenes.
Above all, Rebel is filmed with such an assured directing and beautiful cinematography, heightened with sweeping scores and convincing performances. The chemistry between the cast is as natural and heartwarming as it can get. The OSTs are all kind of epic and folkish, and at certain point in the series, i could accurately predict which song would be used. Haha. A good sageuk overall!
Director: Kim Jin-man
Production: MBC, 2017
Cast: Yoon Kyun-sang, Chae Soo-bin, Kim Ji-suk, Honey Lee, Kim Sang-joong, Shim Hee-seob, Park Joon-gyu, Heo Jung-do, Lee Joon-hyuk, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Ho-cheol, Lee Myung-hoon, Kim Byung-ok, Kim Jung-hyun, Lee Soo-min, Park Soo-young, Ahn Nae-sang, Seo Yi-sook, Park Eun-suk
Genre: Historical, Romance, Comedy, K-drama (30 Episodes)