After fifty-one episodes, "Empress Qi" has come to an end. It was a massive work that boasted of brilliant acting, stunning costumes and sets, and ended with tragedy, betrayal, and ultimately, loneliness.
"Empress Qi" was defined by the struggles that innately lie between what is right and the temptation of power. Seung-nyang travels from humble beginnings to becoming the empress of a nation. Along the way, she fought the powers that be, her status, her nationality, the temptation for power, her thirst for revenge, and her yearning for love. In the end, she achieved much, but she lost even more. The ending of this drama did not emphasize that fact enough. It ended with an emphasis on the love triangle rather than on where her long, arduous journey had brought her. A much more fitting ending would've been to have her escape to the Mongol north, leaving her son to lead Yuan with the strong ideals she instilled in him.
Her son was barely mentioned in the final moments of the show, which is bizarre. She ultimately started her revenge to preserve the memory and honor of family. It would've been poetic had she spent time with her son teaching him from her experiences and leaving him to create a better world. This is a fictionalized account of "Empress Qi" and her life. They've softened her role in the attacks on Goryeo and made her a person we can empathize with. Therefore, they should follow through with the ideals she carried with her throughout the show, not end on a flashback of the love triangle. Focusing on the triangle detracts from her journey by minimizing the importance of everything else in her life.
The death toll in this episode was massive. Most of the main characters died, which was to be expected. However, the deaths that were focused on versus the deaths that were mentioned in passing were very unbalanced. A hateful character like Yeom Byung-soo received a fairly long death scene. Admittedly, it carried a moralistic note: Goryeo failed it's people and turned many into monsters. However, a wonderful character who forged a lasting friendship with Seung-nyang, Tal Tal, barely received a mention when killed in battle. His friendship often gave her strength and it was incongruous to have him receive so little fanfare when Byung-soo, who should've died ages ago, had an entire scene devoted to his awful person.
There were also quite a few moralistic endings. The dowager empress represented how people covet power over all else. Golta, the eunuch who served Ta-hwan and headed Eagle House, coveted the security money gives. Neither gave up on their heart's desires until their deaths. Neither did Byung-soo who felt betrayed by Goryeo and therefore entitled to be an opportunistic jerk for the rest of his pitiful life.
As for the drama as a whole, it wavered a lot in quality in terms of the storyline. The beauty of the show, however, was consistent. The camera work was clean and expressive, if a bit heavy-handed in the end. The costumes and sets were beautiful and wonderfully detailed. Most of the choreography for the fight and action scenes were well done and cleanly executed. On several occasions, when actors were involved in the action scenes, the movements were a bit overwrought or clumsily portrayed. I blame it on a lack of time for rehearsal - a casualty of the live shoot system.
The story itself suffered from its attempts to be interesting. Many times characters were suddenly introduced to create intrigue and then awkwardly killed when their usefulness reached an end. The main characters suffered personality shifts that catered to whatever plot thread had been introduced. Seung-nyang ranged from genuinely sincere, to borderline evil. She often mimicked Tanasiri during those evil moments. The story brought her back to her moralistic high ground near the end, which was also strange. She'd been damaged by time, death, betrayal, and pain and her ideals remained unchanged. That is unrealistic. It would've been better to show the change in her.
It would also have been better had the show spent more time with Wang Yoo and Seung-nyang before their capture and subsequent removal to Yuan. They were not a grounded enough couple nor were their ideals and convictions clear enough to guide them through the rest of the show. They were developed partially as time went on, but a more solid grounding would've made later actions much more convincing.
Wang Yoo started off as a very interesting character, acting the fool to trick those who wished to kill him. He was nuanced and fun to watch. Then, he changed into a brooding, quiet man for the rest of the drama who was much too perfect and didn't show much emotion. Only in his final moments did we get to see how he truly felt. Seung-nyang's character did much the same. She admitted her love for her dear ones very late in the game. Before that she was difficult to read. Because these characters engage in so much deception, there needs to be some amount of clarity in their words in action so that we, the viewers, can understand their sincere emotions and differentiate them from the trickery.
Ta-hwan was initially a favorite character. I loved his fallibility and how quickly he grew up with Seung-nyang by his side. But when the show introduced power to him and he began to covet it, his character growth became clumsy. It was further impeded by the insane behavior instigated by drinking and the exacerbation of his neediness. In rare moments, he would show a spark of brilliancy and may a key deduction. Rather than showing that he was clever, it seems like a writing flaw. There were too few of them. Ta-hwan wasn't a great thinker. Instead, he was a passionate man who wanted to prove himself worthy of his crown. It's what makes the fact that he figured out Golta's treachery hard to believe. How did he deduce that betrayal when he missed the others?
The acting was solid across the board. Ha Ji-won is still best in action, but she was commanding in her finery and in verbal political battles. Ji Chang-wook was effective no matter what the script asked of him and he deserves recognition for switching from crazy Ta-hwan to sensitive Ta-hwan in seconds. Jin Lee-han as Tal Tal took a little while to break into his character. He was stiff. But as his friendship with Seung-nyang blossomed, he began to show some nuance. Some of that may have been the writing and the directing, but he most definitely settled into his character.
Some characters in the show seemed completely utilitarian, like the dowager empress and Hudu and El Temur and his son's. Tanasiri and Byung-soo, on the other hand, had some depth. Their backgrounds were better developed and allowed me, if not to like them, then to at least understand their horrific behavior. In a show with so many characters, it's difficult to give them all a thorough backstory, but it's possible to give them one relatable point. For example, the Goryeo maids all suffered from being torn away from their home and supporting Seung-nyang in her fight on their behalf.
"Empress Qi" also employed a few confusing time skips throughout its run. It had two back to back time jumps to show Seung-nyang's rule and her troubles. They should've been combined into one large time jump with some exposition to explain what has happened in the intervening years. It was just choppy the way it was delivered.
This show got to complicated for its own good and tried to keep characters around for much longer than they should've been kept. Had they better woven the story together, it would've been easier to introduce new characters and problems. Instead, they seemed to crop up randomly and without much prelude. Most issues were similar and could've been remedied with better planning. That fault could possibly lie with the show's attempt to keep ratings up by creating random bouts of excitement via betrayal, and intrigue, and death.
"Empress Qi" was entertaining despite all of the issues I have with it. There was definitely some great storytelling, strong acting, and beauty to behold.
Written by Raine from Raine's Dichotomy
Follow on Twitter @raine0211
Journalist, drama lover, and foodie, Lisa enjoys exploring Korea, speaking the language, and soaking in all that dramaland has to offer. Her Korean husband laughs that she knows more than he ever will about dramas and K-pop. Lisa Espinosa can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Empress Qi" Episode 51 (Final)"
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