I would be lying to myself if I said that Secret Door was not my most anticipated drama of the year. Everything about it screamed potential ground-breaking series on the paper: the network (SBS!), the screenwriter (her past works included Hwang Jin-yi and The Immortal Yi Sun-shin!), the director (he worked behind Sign, Ghost, and The Suspicious Housekeeper!), and not to forget, the star-studded cast. But then, the drama suffered low ratings despite the hype surrounding it before it premiered. One can argue that ratings aren’t what they used to represent but there are reasons why the drama turned up being underwhelming than what was expected.
The Back Story
Secret Door is based on a problematic father and son relationship in the history of Joseon and the father, someone who is supposed to protect his child, ended up ordering his own son’s death. Crown Prince Sado’s death put a dent in Yeongjo’s track record of the longest reigning king in Joseon’s history and the death, or political assassination as some people address it, was not without exaggeration and hyperbole attached to the story behind it. Discussing the matter was taboo during Yeongjo’s reign and to avoid people from talking about the incident, plus preserving his father’s honour, Sado’s son Yi San pleaded for Yeongjo to erase all the records prior to Sado’s death. Although the matter was not discussed widely when Yeongjo was alive, nothing could stop people from talking, thus many versions of the events leading to the incident existed, including Sado being a victim in the political machinations of the fighting factions. This prompted Lady Hyegyeong, Sado’s wife, to write a detailed record of Sado’s life from her point of view, tracing how his unhealthy relationship with his father led him to his downfall and ultimately, his demise.
Although Lady Hyegyeong’s memoirs receive mixed response from the historians (since they can be viewed both as priceless documentation of historical events and exaggerated account of those events), her version of Sado’s life adds another layer to the prince’s story and describes the heir’s life from the point of view of someone close to him. The political conflicts, the problematic relationship of the dysfunctional father and son, the illness, and the hints of romance from the history provide a nice balance for a good drama, with right way of brewing the conflicts in the plot lines. Thus, there are many ways how the history can be reinterpreted, but Secret Door might have done a bad move in incorporating the history into the drama.
Where did it go wrong?
The drama started off with the focus on a top-secret-but-not-so-secret document known as The Great Reunification Document, an oath and a physical pact signed by the members of Noron party and co-signed by the reluctant Yeongjo, then the Crown Brother. The oath was a way for Noron to validate their action of killing the sickly Gyeongjong, for the sake of the betterment of the country. Yeongjo was cornered into signing the pact (kill or be killed!) and he rose to the throne as the next king after his half-brother’s death. Although he made it as the king of the country, he was not in total control as Noron held immense power in the court, using Yeongjo’s connection with the previous king’s death through the pact. Yeongjo made it his secret priority to locate the document in order for it to be destroyed and his dedication to see it vanish from this world was to the point that he burned down the entire Secretariat’s Building, losing all the precious documents in possession.
The document was fictional, and this was where the plot started to face some problems. The oath was only known to certain Noron members and Yeongjo himself, but the effect from letting it known to the entire world was something that was hard to understand. In history, Yeongjo was under the suspicion of killing his brother for the throne and there were several uprisings organized by the weaker party Soron, but the attempts were crushed by Yeongjo with the help of his court. Secret Door tried to incorporate the pact into the plot but somehow, the document held little effect and in fact did not deserve the attention and focus it received in the first half of the story.
The big question was to what extent the secret document would cause problems for Yeongjo and the country, should the content was exposed to public? Yeongjo was obsessed with finding and destroying it, but there was no depiction or whatsoever about the power of the document. He was so worried that it might cause him to lose the throne, yet there was no proof of the magnitude of possible destruction that could be caused by the document. The whole thing felt like it was just happening in Yeongjo’s mind, because he was too scared of losing his power. Plus, the emphasis was only on the document instead of the content of the document, something that became a disadvantage to the plot.
Everyone in the drama was so focused on getting their hands on the document and the race extended for a few episodes, which should be utilized to delve into the subject matter in the document, that was Gyeongjong’s death. But alas, the subject was barely touched, with several exceptions: Yeongjo gloating in front of Gyeongjong’s portrait and Yi Seon (Sado)’s short attempt to investigate the matter, for example. There was no attempt to show the importance of the event and how it was tied to Yeongjo: did he really kill his stepbrother? Based on Yeongjo’s reaction, he did, but the drama should have shown the connection, instead of treating it as common knowledge among the fans. Dramas should be able to illustrate the points necessary to the plot instead of ignoring it with the excuse that it was something everyone knows. There are two instances where the viewers lose interest in dramas: either the dramas treat the viewers as dumb by giving out too much clues or being stingy with important clues as they assume that the viewers are aware of them.
The character descriptions on the official website featured some characters associated with the event that happened as a result of the secret document’s content but they had little, or no chance at all, in making their appearances due to the over-emphasis on the document. Even with the sole focus on the oath, it held little, or dare I say no effect at all, to the whole story, except for causing a number of lives to be lost as a result of being associated with the oath. It was not clear whether the document was planned to have a bigger impact, especially on Yi Seon, since he finally found out that his righteous father was not that noble after all. Yi Seon seemed unfazed and did not undergo major changes, even after losing his best friend in the ordeal.
I actually think that it was not that bad, but it was not good either. There were so many possibilities for Yi Seon’s character to be developed and in the hands of Lee Je-hoon, he could even go down the worst route, that was a completely insane Sado. But then, the character was only wrapped in a bubble wrap, presenting him as a righteous man, from the beginning until the end. It was a both bad and good move, but I will talk about it later. I was roped into believing that the younger Yi Seon had the fire in his eyes and the potential to go south (not that south since he was alluded to go crazy in the latter years of his life after showing symptoms of mental illness) if the situation called for it. The phrase in the title – Uigwe’s Murder Case – had so much possibilities to be executed in the drama: the serial murders could happen because of the oath at first but later, it could take place since Sado started to kill people out of rage, but the fire and the potential rage of Yi Seon died down as the episode count increased.
It was like dangling a carrot before the viewers before snatching it away, and the same thing happened to another character, Seo Ji-dam. The character was promoted as a lady detective who worked with Yi Seon to investigate the serial murder case involving his best friend and Kim Yoo-jung was chosen to star in the first adult role for her. However, another problem ensued when Ji-dam was hinted to be Bing-ae, the object of Sado’s affection according to Lady Hyegyeong’s memoirs. That was enough for divided opinions among the viewers, with the age gap of the actors being the reason of debate. Lee Je-hoon is 30 playing 20, while Kim Yoo-jung was playing a girl her age, 15. It would be uncomfortable for Kim Yoo-jung to act out more daring scenes should the script called for it, thus she was suddenly reduced to a childhood version of the character and Yoon So-hee took over as the adult Ji-dam in the second half of the drama. But then, the change was actually unnecessary and Ji-dam ended up being no more than a supporting character. It seemed like everything was done haphazardly without proper planning and almost erratic. “The actress is too young? Change her with an older actress! No more comments requesting love lines? Let’s nix the romance!” Then what’s the use of including the character as the main one?
The secret document, the murder cases, and the purge of Soron party were pivotal to the changes in Yi Seon after the time jump in the second half of Secret Door. Looking at the big picture, the secret document did have a significant role, in which it contributed to the latter two. Together, these three contributed to the subtle changes in Yi Seon. He was initially a Crown Prince living in his own ideal bubble despite being a regent for six years. He came off as a little too ideal for a future king and also too fearless. He was too daring in his acts and it won’t be too much of a surprise if he was viewed as reckless. After witnessing how the citizens lost their lives without the noblemen blinking an eye, Yi Seon changed into a compassionate prince even at the cost of losing his crown and status. This was where the bad and good move made its appearance. By making him an extremely softhearted man, some viewed him as being too ideal and senseless, just like how the noblemen and the Royal Family saw Yi Seon as. On the other hand, his kind self, who put his people before his own life, touched the hearts of some viewers, just like how the commoners reacted to his actions.
The were a lot of good things about this drama and I cannot deny it, since the good things were what made me stick through and thin with the drama until the end. The cast is one of the best things, because Secret Door secured a star-studded cast for both the main lineup and the supporting characters. Han Suk-kyu and Lee Je-hoon previously worked together for the movie My Paparoti. This might have something to do with them being in a production together before, but I noticed that Yi Seon’s movement and way of talking resembled Yeongjo a bit. Lee Je-hoon probably had the understanding of how Han Suk-kyu would bring his character to life and he brought Yeongjo’s influence into his portrayal of Yi Seon. Although the father and the son were very different from each other, it was easy to believe that they were somehow related by blood. These two characters and the actors themselves are very interesting subjects for character studies.
The character Yeongjo here was different from the portrayals of the king before. Erratic and obsessed with the throne, sometimes Yeongjo appeared like a maniac. If not, how to explain his tendency to lash out on others and even drawing the knife in front of his retainers’ faces whenever they seemed to be threatening him? Han Suk-kyu brought no trace of the kind and friendly Sejong in his previous drama; instead, he played the multifaceted Yeongjo a little too well that it was hard to decipher his true emotions when he showed any, other than his wrath. It would be scary to see him in his angry mode, but the king was actually more terrifying when he did nothing at all, because that meant he was in deep thinking, ready to strike his opponents. It was an ongoing question for me throughout the series, whether Yeongjo was a friend or a fiend to Yi Seon. His initial reactions suggested that he might not mind after all to lose his only son, although he would have to encounter the same thing as his stepbrother, who was forced to accept the heir chosen by the ruling party.
But then, Yeongjo in the drama was not as ruthless as what Lady Hyegyeong suggested through her writings. Despite his tendencies to scold Yi Seon when the latter tried to come against him, Yeongjo was a nurturing father. This was hinted in several scenes, in which Yeongjo affectionately taught his son how to play the political games like a future king should. He wanted to hand over the throne to Yi Seon naturally (meaning after his death) and wished that his son would quit fooling off with the commoners and butting heads with the already-angry Noron. Yeongjo did threaten Yi Seon a few times, a move that might seem ruthless to some, but towards the end, it was visible how much he treasured Yi Seon. He was willing to get married to a new queen 51 years younger than him so that Yi Seon would not have any future rival for the throne. He tried to spare Yi Seon’s life by suggesting for the Crown Prince to be deposed, but he was driven into a corner and forced to give up on his own son’s life. His reign, although a long one, did not seem to be a happy one for him.
Yeongjo was neither good nor bad, and so was Yi Seon. His character was a reckless and erratic at one glance, though with less emotions compared to his father, but he was also a man with inner conflicts at hand. The prince was frustrating to reason with at first, but once the story followed his journey closely, it was hard to ignore the reason why he chose the difficult route, siding with the lowly commoners with his own life at stake. It was not blind and reckless of him; instead, it was his overly compassionate self that made it difficult for him to ignore the plight of his people. He could had waited until he became the king, but he could not stop thinking about the hardships his people had to endure while he waited calmly in his palace until Yeongjo’s death for him to take over the throne. If Yeongjo was quite selfish, Yi Seon was very selfless.
It wasn’t until the end that Yi Seon realized the magnitude of the damage of his selfless act. While he did prove himself to be a capable ruler to his people, he unintentionally jeopardized the safety of people around him, including his immediate family members. His tunnel vision made him lacking in the filial piety department, where he failed to serve his father (and even died before him!) and became a bad example for his own son, Yi San. Yi Seon took the difficult route, sacrificing himself in order to save Yi San. He knew he put his family in a dangerous spot and paid it with an expensive price that was his own life. Jusr like Yeongjo, he was someone who I wanted to hate but his actions made it hard not to love him.
Park Eun-bin was the blooming flower among the male cast. Although the drama moved towards the male-centric politics plot, her Princess Hyegyeong character was beautifully written despite having shorter screen time compared to others. She came off as a ruthless and cold wife of Yi Seon, but the revelation of her layered character and the subtle emotions at play made Hyegyeong a character you would want to root for. She was commanding and more level-headed compared to Yi Seon, not to mention that she could pull the strings and made things work in her favour if she wanted to, as demonstrated in several scenes. I did not mind the lack of romance because hey, Yi Seon was already busy running here and there helping his people and it would be quite a stretch to include his love life! But Hyegyeong’s one-sided love was kind of sad to watch. From the iron lady whose purpose(s) of her life was to assist her husband as the future queen, she was willing to give up her position just to see her son Yi San become the next king. She was like the female version Yeongjo, of course being less temperamental. No wonder her father tried to imagine what could have happened if she was born a baby boy, because she could achieve so much more.
Chae Je-gong, played by Choi Won-young, was a character on the good side and he was bound to be loved rather than hated. He stayed true to his character, being Yi Seon’s faithful man from the start until the end. He followed the Crown Prince around when Yi Seon was trying to investigate the murder but he also knew when to interfere and offer his advice to the prince. His frankness and his loyalty towards Yi Seon made it hard for him to reject the offer from Yeongjo and he ended up being Yeongjo’s right hand man in the effort to save his master. That did not mean his loyalty changed and he continued to persuade the prince into reducing his dangerous activities, a gesture that made him someone who nagged a lot at Yi Seon. Advisor Chae’s conflicted self was apparent when he learned Yi Seon’s risky acts but he could not say no, because he knew Yi Seon’s reasons to commit such actions. Maybe if there was a title for him, it could be Loyal Chae.
The supporting characters were engaging and they were fun to hate and love. Na Chul-joo (Kim Min-jong), Kim Sung-ik (Son Byung-ho), Min Baek-sang (Uhm Hyo-sub), Kim Taek (Kim Chang-wan), Park Moon-su (Lee Won-jong), Hong Bong-han (Kim Myung-gook), Hong Gye-hee (Jang Hyun-sung). Kim Sang-ro (Kim Ha-gyun), Lee Jong-sung (Jeon Guk-hwan), and Kang Pil-jae (Kim Tae-hoon), just to name a few. They are the familiar faces seen in various dramas but their experience made their appearances, though short, meaningful and contributed to the whole plot. Some of them got a proper closure (even bloody ones) but several of them disappeared into the thin air.
Facts distortion issues seem like normal occurrences for historical dramas but Secret Door actually fared well in the department, probably due to the ‘playing on the safe side’ practice. Most of the plot stayed as close as possible to the historical facts when it came to the real events. Creative liberties were made use in creating the characters, for instance omitting the unnecessary ones as practiced by many of the historical dramas before this. The fictional parts mainly lied in the character of the commoners. Although the cause Yi Seon worked tirelessly to the point of being framed as raising a rebel group was just a fictional twist but the way it contributed to his downfall just like in the history was commendable, not to mention the effect it had on Yeongjo and Yi Seon’s relationship: although it ended badly in other people’s eyes, these two had reached a mutual agreement and sending Yi Seon to the afterlife was the best choice for them, and for everyone involved.
One of the things I really liked was the epilogue. Yi Seon did lost the fight because he died early but his dream was realized through his son, Yi San. To be exact, Crown Prince Sado’s dream lived on, both literally and figuratively. It could had been better with other possibilities of the middle plots but for this one, it could not be better. Yi Seon’s ardent wish and the world he imagined was shown to us, and I could not be more grateful for that.
I really liked Secret Door but the potential it had made me feel regretful over what it could have been, but there is no use of crying over what had been done. The story was decent and I was still relieved that it did not go down the unimaginable route. It was an enjoyable ride despite some bumps here and there and for the record, I did cry a few times while watching the series. It was a good indicator that the drama got to me emotionally and I was overall satisfied, except for the few things I mentioned above.
Last but not least, the million-Won question: where did you think the Secret Door was?
(Photos from ONE TV Asia)