I’m back with yet another sageuk drama post 🙂
That i would be this fascinated by sageuk is something unthinkable for my younger self when i got into K-dramas more than a decade ago. I did enjoy a couple of them, namely Dae Jang Geum and Dong Yi, but their respective length also made me reluctant to check out other titles in the ensuing years, regardless of the positive reviews. Also because political intrigues wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Fast forward to 2019 and i could safely say that sageuk is probably the genre that i’m drawn to and sticking with till the end the easiest. Despite the stock characters, same old conflict, convoluted power-play, slow pace, and predictable ending. Even if my complaints will likely be the same across the board.
My biggest pet peeve of The Crowned Clown so far, however, gets to do with its broadcasting network, tvN, which loves extending each episode runtime way beyond the sixty-minute mark. Fortunately, the storytelling and conflict building are handled quite well in the drama’s first half that the 75-minute episodes didn’t feel that long or tedious (yet).
Yes, power struggle is still the central conflict and the villains remain one-dimensional, but the premise is quite fresh, as there are two jeonhas on the throne, albeit one at a time. The plot development however felt quite familiar and it took me two episodes to look it up and realize why: The Crowned Clown is a drama adaptation of Masquerade film! And although i usually eschew remakes or adaptations especially if i have checked out the original, or opt for the shorter version of the two (like i did with The Beauty Inside) for efficiency purposes, this drama offers a different approach to the same idea that it remains an engaging watch even if i have watched the movie. Furthermore, it goes on a different route from the movie that calling it a drama adaptation may not feel entirely correct.
In this drama, a lowly subject named Ha-seon (Yeo Jin-goo) has a spitting image of the reigning king, Lee Heon. The discovery of which leads him to be put on the throne as the king’s double to basically die in his stead, since the young king has faced many assassination attempts, which takes a huge toll on his mental health. While it’s practically impossible to refuse a king’s order, Ha-seon initially agrees to do it for the hefty compensation but later on commits to it to avenge his sister, upon learning that he needs power to crush his adversaries. This means Ha-seon and Haksan or the Chief Royal Secretary Lee Kyu (Kim Sang-kyung) have a common enemy: Left State Councillor Shin Chi-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) — although it is his son Ha-seon is after — and puts them on the same side, unlike Heon who seems to favor and listen to the other side more.
Despite Shin Chi-soo’s greed for dominance (he has his niece installed as the royal consort in order to bear the future crown prince), he isn’t the one behind the hit orders. He may be slowly killing Heon by having the Chief Court Lady Kim (Min Ji-a) drug him, but it is the Queen Dowager’s side (Jang Young-nam) who wants him dead then and there. With enemies in disguise closing in on him on all sides, in addition to the pressure to assert authority as the new king, it’s understandable why he’s losing it.
The first few episodes focus on the adjustment phase, which is always the funniest in role-swap setting but is also riddled with blunders (e.g. Ha-seon chirpily greenlights Shin Chi-soo’s demand to behead Queen’s father because he’s told to approve any requests) due to negligence and lack of briefing from Haksan or Eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang; he reprises his role as the king’s eunuch!), where he has to fool everybody.
His experience playing the king in his street performances helps ease into the role though he has yet to adopt Heon’s lofty mannerism to put on a convincing impersonation. Despite the obviously different disposition, no one questions it and instead attributes it to Heon’s capricious tendencies. Which is both relieving and sad, as it suggests no one in the palace is close enough to him to realize the switch. Not even the Queen (Yoo So-woon played by Lee Se-young). And despite Haksan’s warning for Ha-seon to steer clear of the internal court, especially the queen, their paths keep on crossing and their bond begins to grow the more they discover each other’s warmth and sincerity.
That the clown manages to keep his facade without much issue is a good thing, but i can’t help wanting someone to figure it out, especially the queen before the oppositions get wind of it. Because i’m conflicted about the budding fondness between the fake king and the queen — him eyeing someone else’s wife and her opening up to a stranger thinking her husband has reverted to his warmer crown prince self — the more when this becomes the drive behind Ha-seon’s return to palace and desire to gain more power and eventually become the real king.
I was frankly disappointed that his love for the queen (instead of say, the corrupt officials or the people) is what fueled this resolve. Yes, he must feel wronged for receiving a death sentence after complying to the king’s order, and it’s frustrating to see Heon overturn the breakthroughs made by Ha-seon and Haksan just because they weren’t his idea, but Heon didn’t return scarier and angrier for no reason. First off, he is the rightful king. Secondly, imagine being restrained against your wish (even if it is to save him from himself) then learning that your puppet is not only making critical decisions without your knowledge/permission but also courting your significant other…
By then, we’ve sympathized and rooted for the clown who’s shown potential and ability to be a wiser ruler than the king himself, but that’s because he’s gotten more screentime and chance to show his humanity and moral compass while all we saw from the real one are his manic behaviors and slow descent into lunacy. Which i think is a biased representation of the characters. We don’t get much backstory of Heon prior to ascending the throne, though from the snippets we’ve seen, he wasn’t a contemptible person. Even during his reign, albeit some heartless executions he ordered (i still can’t believe he had his young brother poisoned; i mean, he’s just a kid!), he doesn’t appear to be a bad sovereign, much less a tyrant. The nation isn’t in turmoil either, and he actually dreams of a powerful nation, so his current state is arguably due to misguidance and trusting the wrong people.
His complete trust in Shin Chi-soo above his father-in-law or his loyalest subject Haksan is puzzling, and so is his decision to have the queen poisoned (for unknowingly warming up to another man notwithstanding), but the most mysterious of all is the drastic decline of his health, mentally and physically. He stepped away from the assassination scares looking all well but his health deteriorates quickly during his time-out. If it’s the effects of drugs, then i cannot not blame Haksan for not getting him properly treated. The less sane and sound he becomes, however, the more i pity and root for him to get back on his feet, but after seeing how weak he’s gotten after his brief return to the palace to the point of barely able to lift a spoon to eat, i wonder if it’s too late…
…and then the ending of episode 8 happened.
I know the moment Ha-seon declares his ambition to be the real king and Haksan promises to support and protect him, it means Heon will have to die. But i didn’t expect it to happen this fast, barely at the midway point, without any duels between the two same-faced men. And definitely not in Haksan’s hands. Hurt and pain are palpable in his eyes whenever he looks at Heon, and i could see him abandon him eventually despite his steadfast loyalty, but to betray him like this by personally pouring the laced drink on his birthday, after hearing that he deems him a father figure… oof. That scene was just heartbreaking to watch. And no reasons can excuse his single-handed regicide, not even his great dream for the people and nation.
Because Heon is the more interesting and layered character compared to Ha-seon, and i was just starting to see Yeo Jin-goo’s distinct portrayal of the two. Because it’s sort of a bait-and-switch from the plot that gave us two dragons. Because this makes Haksan, and Ha-seon by extension, as the nation’s traitor(s) and it’s hard to foresee a happy ending for either or both of them.
Also because having Haksan behind Ha-seon is exactly like Shin Chi-soo behind Heon: they’re making the decisions for and instead of their respective king whom agrees with them almost 100%. The former is done in positive way, but the essence is still the same. Thankfully, Ha-seon ain’t a foolish puppet. He’s made slightly different yet arguably much better decisions than what’s instructed, so while his growth in his position of power is something to look forward to, i am wary of the kind of sacrifices he will have to make to keep it.
But for now, i don’t really feel any excitement for the upcoming episodes. That ending left me empty… and i don’t think i can see Haksan the same way again… and we’re just halfway through the drama.