“The king loved the court maid; but did the court maid love the king?”
MBC’s historical drama 옷소매 붉은 끝동 The Red Sleeve greeted the viewers with this tagline when the promotional poster was first unveiled. Shocking, unconventional, and unprecedented. 왕은 궁녀를 사랑했다. 궁녀는 왕을 사랑했을까? It was as if the drama was throwing a question, asking and challenging the viewers into following the journey of the said king and the court maid. Thus, begin the journey of an epic love story; a heart-wrenching tale that took place more than two hundred years ago.
The tagline was simple, yet it surely reeled people in with the curiosity to find out the answer to that question. One’s heart cannot help to flutter at the thought of watching a love story unfolds, yet there is also the possibility of watching it crumble or coming off short; with anticipation and expectations, come doubts and worries. Thus, as a viewer, I started the drama with bated breath, with anticipation, and also with doubt. There was also the possibility of it maintaining the good flow until the end, yet there was also the possibility of it being mangled and ruined towards the end. Such was the doubt and worry of me, a mere viewer who was about to be transfixed and enthralled for the next three months (and counting).
The story began with a light and cheery atmosphere (with a taste of horror) as we saw the younger counterparts of the leads in their respective realms: Seong Deok-im among her fellow trainee court maids (saenggaksi) and Yi San among his Crown Prince tutors. The news of a death in the royal palace shook the initial serenity of the people featured on the screen, as the two leads found themselves encountering each other on the way to officially wait on and secretly visit the passing person. The death was of Lady Yeongbin of the Jeonyi Yi clan, later known as Lady Seonhui as mentioned in the memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. Her chamber was where the two young kids sat as San dwelled on his regret over the harsh words he said to Yeongbin who was his birth grandmother, yet someone he could no longer regard as one.
Their encounter was cut short with a surprise visit by the king himself: San’s grandfather, Yeongjo (Lee Deok-hwa), barged into the chamber despite the custom forbidding him from doing so since Yeongbin was his royal concubine and not the official consort he could mourn for. Together with Deok-im, Yeongjo mused over his memories with Yeongbin; from the early days when he was still a prince who had nothing, to a king who finally had the chance to made her his. After listening to Deok-im’s wish of becoming someone with beautiful handwriting, Yeongjo bestowed her with a book penned by Yeongbin herself, together with the offering of a hopeful aspiration and a wistful premonition.
Deok-im later went back to the court maid’s quarters and encountered Court Lady Jo (Park Ji-young), a powerful leader to the court maids in the entire palace, and a protector of those under her jurisdiction. Yeongbin’s death parade was not simply a procession, but also an exhibition of what could have been for a court maid to be on the receiving end of the king’s grace: a noble in life and death. Still, there lay a long life of heartache, and death in regret for a mother who lost her children, one of them being the result of her suggestion made in the interest of the nation, her duties towards the throne above her position as a mother.
When Deok-im was still in doubt about her duty as someone who was attached to the Crown Prince’s palace, the situation was shaken again, this time thanks to the people who would not let San live in peace. Right when Yeongjo’s trust in those who were associated with his late son Crown Prince Sado was still fragile, San’s enemies grabbed the opportunity to draw a wedge between the grandfather and the grandson. This was also the moment Deok-im made up her mind to be of help to her master the Crown Prince no matter how trivial it would be, and the moment San found a place to lean on in Hong Deok-ro, his only friend in the palace full of enemies hiding in every corner. Despite that, San never forgets the comfort and solace offered by the young trainee court maid he saw in Youngbin’s chamber, despite never seeing her around again.
Fast forward to a few years later, where Deok-im (Lee Se-young) grew up to be a bright court maid still in training, while San (Lee Junho) became a grown-up version of his younger shrewd self. The transition between childhood and adulthood presented another doubt to me: would Deok-im turn out to be too bubbly? Or San coming out too strongly as a haughty and pompous Crown Prince. Yes, I like to doubt and judge everything, but this time around, I am so glad to have my doubt cleared as early as in the second episode, where they met again as adults.
At the hands of Lee Se-young and Lee Junho, Deok-im and San showed how much they had grown throughout the years: her being the bright and bubbly court maid who was almost fearless, him being the prim and pensive Crown Prince who invoked fear from people around him, except for…Deok-im. Strangely enough, their first face-to-face encounter ended up with a misunderstanding, which continued into a string of bickering and nattering under the guise of a hot-blooded Royal Tutor and a strong-worded trainee court maid. No strings attached, yet a thread of fate slowly formed between them.
A roaring threat against the lives of people nearby and inside the palace sent San on a hunting spree, despite the effort people around him made to stop him from doing so. Only Deok-im (who was unaware of his real identity, of course) praised him for doing what should be done, although it was not without dire consequences. The tiger got caught, but San was also caught in a trap laid by his enemies, that was invoking the dragon’s wrath. Deok-im was also dragged into the whole ordeal while lending a hand in asking for forgiveness on the behalf of her master, but soon the issue settled itself with Yeongjo’s decision to put it aside. Deok-im’s small face-on effort provided a ripple effect as compared to Deok-ro’s grand attempt in settling it under the table, but the ripple also brought in the end to the façade; she found out that the Royal Tutor she knew was the Crown Prince all along.
Things got complicated between them; so many words being said, yet so many words left unsaid. They somehow cleared the misunderstanding (albeit begrudgingly), but it was not easy for Deok-im to escape what fate had in store for her: she was roped into being a chambermaid, waiting on San closely although he already warned her not to appear before him again. Her simple life further got tangled up with her old ties to her benefactor – who was no other than San’s birth mother Crown Prince Hye, widely known to the modern world as Lady Hyegyeong – and the new ties to San, leading to her catching the ire of Princess Hwawan, who wanted to mess with San even for the littlest reason she could find.
Lady Hyegyeong’s order sent Deok-im straight into the crocodile’s mouth (Deok-ro the big croc), but it was San who spared her life despite her conflicting action as compared to the loyalty she took pride in. Still, it was also the moment San declared that she was different to him compared to others, even Deok-ro was incomparable to this young trainee court maid coming out of nowhere and turned out unannounced at the secret gathering of San’s closest and closet aides as the newest member of the session. She was unparalleled, she was exceptional. She was…special.
The declaration definitely did not escape the eagle eyes of Deok-ro, who wanted to pry into their everything. Yet, the only thing he cared for was San and only San, not even Deok-im could compare. To him, Deok-im was only a manipulated variable that could turn into a constant variable. He did not realize that Deok-im herself was a working experiment and not simply a variable in another person’s life; she is very alive herself, with her own thought, will, and heart. Still, she was still very much bound to her duties and rules of the palace, despite the feelings stirring deep inside her. The same applied to San, whose duties and position ruled above his own growing feelings towards the one and only person with whom he shared his special moment in the library. Deok-im’s official entrance into the world of court ladies was marred with the bitter and harsh reality that was the gap and difference between her and the man; a court lady and her future king.
San’s secret rendezvous reached the ears of Yeongjo through very reliable sources, sending San into yet another whirlwind of doubts and potential distrusts from his one and only protector. He was cornered and left by himself in the darkness, but there was also Deok-im who dared to step in and light a light in the dark room; she swore her allegiance and officially declared herself as the protector to his dreams, in a coming-of-age ceremony exclusive to the two of them. Deok-im became a set of working limbs to San’s limited movement for the time being, irking the supposedly hands and feet of San, Deok-ro. Thanks to Deok-im’s different approach in addressing the issue at hand, lending the hand of the Queen (Jang Hee-jin), the matter was resolved without any huge hurdle. Still, it came with a price that was San’s realization: the throne would neither fall into his lap nor be handed over to him on a gold platter. There was still a long, long way for him to reach his ultimate goal.
Deok-im’s relationship with San only grew deeper thanks to Deok-ro’s attempt at interfering, but it was also at the expense of her realizing that the situation was not that stable for everyone involved: for her, for him, and even for people around them. Deok-im’s loyalty still lied with San, but that was also the very reason why she avoided addressing the very issue at bay, with regard to her own feelings towards him. The Queen wanted Deok-im to stay by her side, while Court Lady Jo wished for Deok-im to become San’s concubine for the sake of the well-being of the court ladies. Lucky for Deok-im, she still had the choice to make, and that was how she decided to nip her feelings in the bud before it bloomed further. Unfortunately, it was the opposite in San’s case, where his feelings had blossomed into full-fledged spring blooms in his heart. Hearts set ablaze; jealousy turned into a fit of rage.
Deok-im stood still despite being shaken by San’s flurry of feelings, but a new gust of wind in the palace brought about a new change in the form of a sticky situation, this time dragging Deok-im into the mess. Yeongjo’s early bout of dementia sent the court into bewilderment and disbelief in the background, but people were quick to grasp at anything so that they could get a hold of something out of it, no matter how small it would be. Deok-im’s undisturbed connection to Yeongbin was unearthed when a ploy to catch someone else ended up catching her. It was also when every single connection leading to Deok-im was tested, and a long-time hidden group was unveiled. Of course, Deok-im escaped unscathed, but then, it was also the time for San to be on the receiving end of the heat. In the midst of everything, Deok-im and San realized that their connection went way back to their real first encounter in Yeongbin’s chamber; to San, it was a much-welcomed addition to their relationship, while to Deok-im, it was just a mere coincidence in her fellowship.
Yeongjo’s deteriorating condition left San’s position to grow even more perilous under the watching eyes of his enemies. Chances were taken with stakes at risk, as both Deok-im and Deok-ro scrambled to protect San with all their might in their very own ways. Despite that, San’s heart only grew towards Deok-im, leaving Deok-ro in exasperation, thinking that he was growing less important in San’s eyes. Still, the situation did not allow San to keep pursuing his heart as he needed to focus at his effort to continue being in the good books of his forgetful grandfather. Again, he fell victim to lurking enemies, this time being dragged into a life-or-death situation. As San was left by himself to shoulder the grave and dire situation, Deok-im was forced to face her own feelings; the very feelings she was supposed to nip in the bud had been blooming despite her resistance.
Deok-im was then presented with a lucky streak that could help San to escape the ordeal he was in for once and all, but even luck needed a proper channel for it to be delivered to the intended person. Hence, the Queen became the channel for her to deliver a message from the past for Yeongjo and San, from the person who used to stand between them: Crown Prince Sado. The confused Yeongjo, who could not discern the present from the past, found his footing thanks to the message, but it was also a sign for the old sun to let go of his glory to give way to the new sun to rise.
Soon after, the sky changed: San, who had weathered everything under the sun, had become the sun himself. Deok-im, who wanted to resist changes, found herself facing every single thing that could possibly change: the person she yearned for became the king, and the person she used to be was slowly disappearing. Despite that, she remained steadfast and confident that her goal to live in peace would never change. She slowly became a constant in San’s life, but deep beneath, San wanted her to be more than that; what he craved from her was not loyalty and comradeship, but rather family and companionship.
Underneath the serious exterior, San and Deok-im still maintained a cordial relationship, but Deok-im soon realized that San’s realm had changed immensely and he was no longer the person she met in the library years ago. He was now a king with so many responsibilities, so many decisions, so many…concerns. She was no longer his equal, but was she even one from the very beginning? He who had everything, yet he was also the one who could not afford to give his everything to her. Deok-im did not want to lose herself, but ironically, she was already doing so in the process. It was as if she was a candle with the intention of standing in her position to light up the world for her master without moving a budge, yet in the process, she was burning and waxing herself. Loyalty burns and reality hurts. Still, Deok-im was adamant in her decision and served San with the unchanging heart of her, until she was forced to make a choice between having faith in San or acting according to her own belief.
The choice she made resulted in her expulsion from the palace, away from the job she took pride in, and far from the people she did not want to lose in the first place. Despite that, Deok-im started anew with the intention of living the life of her choice, until she was hit with the reality that the so-called new life was also the path carved by San for her. Deok-im’s pride was probably shattered, which brought her back to the palace to find her original position in the first place. But then, everything had changed, from her master to her line of work, and even her own self. She was holding on to the last straw left in herself that was in the form of her heart, thought, and will, but even with that, she was also afraid of losing another thing dear to her: San.
Thus, Deok-im made the choice herself, this time without any external pressure from anyone. She embraced San with her everything, but she was also human who craved to be on the receiving end of everything San could offer her. When the realization hit, she decided to keep a piece of her to herself, that was her thought. No one could fathom her real feelings as she refrained from translating it into words, but she showed them loud and clear through her actions. Deok-im’s actions did speak louder than her words, as they had always been.
San was a king before he was a husband; the nation’s father before he was his children’s parent. His duties prevailed over everything, even his own family. He who put the country’s happiness over his own did not even get to enjoy his bliss for too long, as they were taken away from him way too soon. His children passed away one after another, and then Deok-im followed after them together with their unborn child. San was left alone alongside the memories he made with Deok-im, and the promises he made with her. He mourned for his loss, but he could not afford to do so any longer, for he was a king before he was a husband, and Deok-im was a subject before she was his wife.
He worked tirelessly to make his dreams come true, and the words of affirmation he heard from his subjects felt like a pat on his back for doing a good job holding on and pushing through. Thus, he had no regret when he had to let go of everything, in order for him to reunite with the person he could not yearn with his whole heart and soul in life; at least, he was truly hers in death, and nothing else mattered at that moment.
With all the initial doubts and worries I had for the drama, I have to admit that The Red Sleeve had exceeded my expectations and the ending was perfect for someone who spent most of her time wondering how they would end this story. Personally, I found the drama generally satisfying, although there were a few things that could have been done better. Alas, perfection is difficult to achieve, but the most important thing is the aspiration to go for that perfection.
A show about King Jeongjo would not be complete without the presence of Yeongjo and Crown Prince Sado, the two very defining figures in his life who would also be the reasons for so many things he did during his reign as the king. Having watched a number of dramas and movies featuring the three of them – Yeongjo, Sado, and Jeongjo – I had a number of concerns (those darn concerns I swear to God, really…) on how they would deal with the history of Yeongjo and Sado in this drama. Some would hate Yeongjo for being the cruel father who killed his own son, while Sado’s shadow might be too imposing on Jeongjo should he was to be portrayed strongly in this drama. However, I loved the approach they took on both Yeongjo and Sado in The Red Sleeve.
Unlike in the other shows featuring Yeongjo at the height of his reign when he put Sado in a rice chest, Yeongjo here was an affectionate grandfather who wanted to protect his grandson with whatever he could in his very own way, yet his insecurities still made his temper flare once in a while, sometimes hurting San in the process. One might find Yeongjo’s repetitive outburst of temper annoying to deal with at times, but one might need to understand where he came from.
Throughout my years of watching dramas and reading the history of Yeongjo, there are just way too many emotions one can have towards the longest-reigning king of Joseon, who initially had no chance of becoming king or whatsoever in the first place. The throne was not served on a silver platter and presented to him on the day of his birth; in fact, being born as the younger step-brother of the future king – to a concubine of humble origin on top of that – only made him a mere half-blood prince in the eyes of people around him. At that time, Yeongjo, then Prince Yeoning, probably never thought that he would later ascend to the throne; but then, Gyeongjong’s health issues and the absence of an heir opened the path towards kingship for Prince Yeoning.
Still, standing at the opposite end against Gyeongjong in everything – being the healthy person, of a suitable age to take over the throne, and finding support from Noron against Gyeongjong’s Soron – did not only become an advantage to him but also put him at a disadvantage. Being next in line to the throne did not guarantee a cushioned position for Yeoning, since being caught in a crossfire between factional fights of Noron and Soron made his position rocky. Losing his supporters in the hands of his political rivals, he finally rose to the throne at the expense of Gyeongjong’s frail health and eventual death, but not without the suspicion that he played dirty tricks in order to get rid of the king. Even after he ruled as Yeongjo, the talk about him being the one responsible for Gyeongjong’s death continued to haunt him throughout his reign.
Yeongjo’s harsh youth made him even more sensitive, so one could only imagine how taxing it was for someone like Crown Prince Sado, who probably had issues from the beginning, to cater to his father’s every need and switching mood. It was also the same with Jeongjo, but in Jeongjo’s case, he was the eyewitness to everything unfolding between Yeongjo and Sado, and the fallout between them. If anything, he was the very person who would not be blamed for being the most affected with the whole ordeal, yet the young heir pushed himself through to grow up through everything, emerging as the much-sought successor everyone was anticipating for.
In the drama’s context, San was like a duck who appeared calm and collected on the surface but paddling like hell underneath the pond. He did everything to become the model Crown Prince Yeongjo had wished for, meeting the expectations Yeongjo once had for his father Sado; something Yeongjo himself did not have the luxury of having when he was younger. San only lived his entire life grooming himself to be the future king and nothing else. He was born into the destined path towards kingship, and he devoted himself to preparing for his future role.
San had everything at his back and order, but he could not have everything; he was not even allowed the luxury of making choices all the time. However, when it comes to his heart, he allowed himself to make choices for Deok-im: he chose to open his heart for her, he chose to pursue his feelings for her, he chose to express his yearning for her, he chose to act on his heart for her, he chose to respect her decisions, and he chose to go against his nature just for her. If there was something out of ordinary in San’s life, it had to be his every decision when it comes to Deok-im.
I’m actually glad that the drama did not impose too much of Sado’s existence onto San. This was, after all, a story of his love, so it would be out of place for the shadow of his father to be heavily cast upon him. Yet, one cannot possibly tell the story of Jeongjo without mentioning Sado, just like how Yeongjo could not be ignored when it comes to the lives of Sado and Jeongjo. They come in a set; like it or hate it, there are bound to be mentions of each other. But then, I really love how the drama made Yeongjo’s guilt a very clear indication of how much Sado’s existence weighed in between him and San, and it all fell out in the open as Yeongjo crumbled under the pressure of his inability to make any decision due to his dementia-induced confusion. The way he reminisced the fateful day and the calamity that followed after, and the way the drama brought in Crown Prince Sado for that final bow…such a magnificent touch there.
I was actually scared for Deok-im’s character. There were way too many times female characters get butchered in the latter half of shows for the sake of ~love~ and I was afraid that they would push Deok-im down that path of destruction too, but I was relieved they redeemed themselves. I was this close to throwing a wet blanket over everything, flexing my brain muscles, and cracking my fingers for a good (or great) roast should they decide to reduce her to an obedient concubine just for the sake of showing ~love prevails over everything~ but they did not, so I was good.
There was this one news article in Korean reviewing The Red Sleeve around the halftime of the whole run, which compared the two characters of Lady Seong in the two dramas featuring the love story of her and Jeongjo: Song-yeon in Yi San Wind in the Palace was like a supporter to Yi San, while Deok-im was more of a partner to San. I wanted to disagree with that view at first, but after following the drama until the end, I think I have to agree with that description.
While Deok-im and San were never on an equal footing in everything, the moment of them in the library provided an equal starting point for both of them: Deok-im was not afraid of expressing her thoughts, and San did not put on any façade in front of her. This dynamic between them continued well until the end; despite seeing them staying true to their respective roles and positions, there were times when they could speak truthfully and even spew anger towards each other in a fit of rage. Deok-im might be bound to her etiquette as a court lady serving her master and San to his virtue as a master ruling over his chambermaid, but they could express their thoughts freely in front of each other when there was the need for it.
The slight gripe I had towards Deok-im’s character was also tied to the introduction of the secret underground court maid organization run by Court Lady Jo. I guess they needed something powerful and something meaningful since Park Ji-young was assuming the role of Court Lady Jo, and it would be such a waste to have such an amazing actress onboard only to relegate her to an ordinary Head Court Lady. They tried, but they did not make the best use of the organization. There was the potential to turn it into something bigger and with more impact, but they faltered and left the organization as a huge corpse of red herring. The organization took a chunk of airtime and reduced Deok-im’s screentime, only to have it nixed without even having the potential of properly tying Deok-im to it. I am not saying that they should make Deok-im an assassin or something (that would be stretching it thin and everyone would RIOT), but there was the potential and they did not go for it.
Ladies of the palace were a joy to watch in this drama. Court Lady Seo (Jang Hye-jin) was one adorable lady and it was a great thing she was Deok-im’s teacher for life. Without her mother on her side, Deok-im relied on her mother figure Court Lady Seo a lot; Seo seemed to be able to read Deok-im’s every thought despite her disciple saying nothing about it. It was also Court Lady Seo who first put in words the question everyone had wanted to ask Deok-im: why she did not want to be a concubine? She became an existence that was like an anchor to Deok-im’s shaking lifeboat in the ocean of life and ordeals. Not only to Deok-im, she also dished out words of wisdom towards San when the time called for it. If there was a realistic mother figure in this drama, then it would be no other than Court Lady Seo.
Lady Hyegyeong (Kang Mal-geum) was like a voice of reason for San. Her presence sometimes came off as a chilling wind and at times a calming breeze, but there was no doubt that she meant well for her son, the only person she could afford to protect with all her might after failing to do the same thing with her late husband. Her words might come off as harsh, but they were things that San needed to hear at that very moment. She had been watching from the side how a Crown Prince fell into abyss in front of her very eyes, so she knew it way too well how to and how not to behave in front of a king named Yeongjo. I have to say that the best life advisor San had was no other than his own mother, Lady Hyegyeong; the Crown Prince Hye, wife of Crown Prince Sado.
Queen Jeongsun (Jang Hee-jin) had long been painted as a villain in the modern interpretations of the history when it came to her relationship with her legal grandson Jeongjo. However, in The Red Sleeve, she became an icon of unfortunate women in the palace, brought into the royal family against their own accord, sitting in a position so high with yet so little real power in hand. At first, she was only the young Queen married to the king who was 41 years older than her. She was rendered powerless without any child, plus there was also Princess Hwawan (Seo Hyo-rim), whose jealousy nature did not allow her to share her father’s affection with anyone else, not even with his own wife. Her display of authority was made possible thanks to Deok-im and also San, and she slowly built her power base. Still, even when she became the Dowager, the sole person who could afford to argue with the king, she could not even visit her dead brother and mourned for him, for the custom prohibited her from doing so. Life was splendid inside the palace, but it did operate as a prison; once you enter the place, it would not be easy for you to escape from there.
Hong Deok-ro (Kang Hoon) was pitiful in his own way. Sure, he was calculative right from the very beginning (at such a young age too!), but one could not just help but to feel bad when it dawned on him that he was never considered San’s person, despite his countless attempts to prove himself. Maybe it was because he did not put his heart into it? Because his heart lied somewhere else, namely his borderless ambition? His world around San was built on lies and deceit; bit by bit, he carved the path for San to walk towards the throne, at the same time preparing himself for the moment the sun would rise from the East Palace. Although his position beside San was rocking due to Deok-im’s presence, his seat in the court was already set in stone with every step he took in securing the path for San. True enough, he became the most powerful courtier in Joseon and flourished under San’s reign, but his glory was short-lived due to his pompous ambition and outrageous behaviour. In the end, it was a situation where being pushed away was his only option, marking the end of his era.
I also found it ironic how the court maid squad of Deok-im was the epitome of change around her, despite her utmost effort to maintain her position among them and assure herself that nothing would change. Kyung-hee, the voice of reason in the group, would dish out the truth no matter how bitter it was. Despite her bluntness and sharp tongue, she meant well for everyone involved, especially her closest friends. She was not afraid to state that everything, including them, would change. Bok-yeon, on the other hand, was the person who was directly affected by the said change, when she was forced to leave the palace and bid goodbye to her old job and the constant companionship of her friends. She did make her comeback, but with the change happening to Deok-ro, which in return hurt Kyung-hee, also pushed Bok-yeon to change as well.
Yeong-hee was like the calming balm of the little group, the anchor which kept them afloat. She would be seen listening attentively to her friends talking without saying anything, but when the situation called for it, she could emerge as the soothing voice (as opposed to Kyung-hee’s scathing one) reasoning and comforting them, especially Deok-im. Together, the four of them were precious and they completed each other; but then, they were also like floating flower petals in a pond, which were bound to move and scatter away with the littlest ripple of any slight movement in the water, let alone a wave of choice like what happened to Deok-im. She wanted to hold on tight to them, but her destiny had written for her not to be staying with them, but to be on the move towards something else.
I was slightly on the fence when it comes to the characters mentioned in passing: those whose faces we could never see on the screen, but we were made aware that they existed in the background of the story. The most glaring one was no other than San’s supposedly consort, the one he had married ever since he was only 11, Queen Hyoui. I kept wondering if the drama would be featuring her later in the story, but in the end, they went with the invisible men approach; she was there, but she would never make an appearance physically. The same approach was being applied to the key figures important to the story after San’s ascension to the throne, namely Kim Kwi-ju (Queen Jeongsun’s brother) and Prince Eunjeon (San’s brother); their presence was much needed for the plot, but they were only reduced to those people mentioned in passing. But then, I realized that even without the three characters’ physical presence, their existence was already huge to those who were aware of their ties to the characters onscreen. Perhaps, with their physical appearance, it might bring over a different kind of wave to the characters portrayed on the screen. Maybe, it was a better and much-needed solution, especially for a drama that was originally slated to run for only 16 episodes.
Chief Royal Guard Kang Tae-ho, the mood maker. Ah, how could I begin to describe this man? His presence might seem like a jester in the midst of the serious atmosphere, yet I could not ignore the gnawing feeling of him being a split image of San. Being the closest person who served San in every situation, Tae-ho was like two peas in a pod with San; they would move together, and he would move according to San’s direction. Sure, he might be a bit forgetful (that goldfish memory of his…), but he was dependable. It was just that he was a bit tactless too and stayed that way until the end, without being enlightened all of a sudden just for the sake of the story. It was just his nature to be slow-witted. Tae-ho was also the one whom San turned to every single time when he needed relationship advice (despite being of little help) and this could not be simply a coincidence. Maybe…Tae-ho was a symbol of San’s dimness when it comes to how he perceived Deok-im’s feelings towards him.
Which brings me to the closing remark of mine, in which I cannot help but mention the ending of the drama.
“The king loved the court maid; but did the court maid love the king?”
Just like how the drama threw this very question at the viewers in the very beginning, the drama itself was an exclusive journey for each and every viewer in their own quest for the answer to this question. There were doubts, there were worries, and there were red herrings. Not everything got laid out and presented in loud and clear words; sometimes, action speaks louder than words, but there are people who only want to believe what they can hear, not only what they can see. There are also people who see subtleties as something more important than being obvious about it, but there are also people who want something to be noticeable as proof to them. Such was the case of San and Deok-im from the beginning until the end.
San was groomed to be a king through and through. It was flowing in his veins and engraved in his bones. He was nurtured to be a sage king through the Confucian books and ancient texts, where it was stated that every course of action from the king would have an effect on the people around him. There is bound to be a result from his every decision, and the result, at that time of his, was mostly measurable from the written reports of his courtiers and the words he heard from them and the citizens themselves. San was raised to see the outcome of his effort through obvious channels, which might have resulted in him being someone who was not being keen on subtleties and nuances, like what he stated early on in the series.
On the other hand, Deok-im was the opposite; ever since she was young, she was submitted to the role of someone who had to keep her thoughts to herself. Such was the fate of the women of her era, relegated to the innermost place even within her own vicinity. Being a court maid, she was told that no one was curious about her heart, thought, and will. The most important thing was for her to do her job carefully and diligently, with utmost sincerity and loyalty towards her master. The world back then was not ready for women to be in the outer realm, for it was dictated in Confucian teachings that women’s place was in the hidden realm behind their husbands’ duties out and beyond. Hence, Deok-im was groomed to live in subtleties and make use of nuances, instead of showing her heart obviously for everyone to see.
That was how these two rolled throughout the story. San was direct and obvious in everything he did when it came to his heart, while Deok-im was prudent and discreet in her every action, including her feelings towards San. Deep down, both of them were well aware of each other’s feelings, for they were both bright children and intelligent adults. But then, they yearned for the very thing they could never have from the other person in life: San for a verbal confession from Deok-im, and Deok-im a complete devotion as a man from San. It was impossible, yet they made do with what they had. San continuously ponder and wonder about Deok-im’s verbal confession, yet he was also the very person who understood it very well that Deok-im would never do so. Deok-im repeatedly wished for San to give her his everything, but she was very aware from the very beginning that she would never be able to make him completely hers. They were so different, but that was also what made them compatible, like two puzzle pieces who fit perfectly for each other, since they were made for and found each other, despite being together for a very short moment.
So, to answer the question after watching The Red Sleeve:
“The king loved the court maid; but did the court maid love the king?”
Yes, the court maid loved the king, but she loved him in her own way. That might be the reason she was the one and only; the sole person San personally chose in a life he did not have much say in everything. The reason she was the precious person to him, enough for him to go against his nature; the same reason he was as precious to her, enough for her to make the toughest choice in her life.
Each and every viewer is free to deduce their own conclusion after they are done with the drama. After all, this is a journey intended for a solo quest and individual interpretation. Feel free to state your views, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Now, the time has come for me to let it go, albeit with a heavy heart.
It’s time to let go.
Forever letting it go, for it to lie in the deepest crevice of my heart.
The Red Sleeve, where the moment became forever.