Ruler–Master of the Mask: Episodes 29-30

Am I dreaming? So much happened in this episode that I’d complain about the whiplash… if I weren’t so pleased. After suffering through a drought of plotless episodes, this show seems to have regained its senses, returning to its main story and unleashing the wrath of our villains on every corner of the plot. After the disappointment of the last few weeks, I didn’t think I’d be happy with a “better late than never,” but you know what? Better late than never.

 
EPISODE 29 RECAP

Ignoring the advice of his friends and advisors, Sun insists that he must go to save Ga-eun, or he’ll never be the same again: “If I cannot even save the woman I love, how can I protect the people of this nation?” They finally allow him to leave in grim silence.

Chung-woon follows him outside without a word, but Sun simply shakes his head and turns around in determination.

Sun arrives at Pyunsoohwe, where Ga-eun sits captive before Dae-mok. Dae-mok notes dryly that despite all his attempts to find and kill Sun, it only took a single girl to bait him. Sun orders him to release her, but instead, Dae-mok orders his men to take her away.

As the men force her to her feet, Sun grabs one by the arm and growls at them to treat her with respect. Ga-eun stares at him with conflicted emotions as she’s dragged away.

Meanwhile, Hyun-seok informs Lee Sun that Dae-mok kidnapped Ga-eun to bait Sun. As Lee Sun frantically prepares to rescue her, Hyun-seok suggests that it might be better to let Dae-mok take care of Sun for him. But Lee Sun refuses, insisting that he cannot allow Ga-eun to be in Dae-mok’s clutches for even a moment.

Back at Pyunsoohwe, Dae-mok and Sun sit outside to talk. Dae-mok points toward a vase with a familiar-looking wildflower, one that Sun gifted him in one of their previous meetings — the one that only blooms in harsh conditions. When Dae-mok asks what kind of flower Sun is, Sun growls that he is a flower that will only bloom once Pyunsoohwe is eradicated.

Dae-mok wonders what Sun hopes to gain by defeating Pyunsoohwe, and Sun responds that he wishes to forge a new era. Dae-mok chuckles at that: “We share the same goal!” Dae-mok notes that Joseon is a poor nation, one where only noble elites can live in comfort, and tells him that Joseon cannot last long under those conditions. He asks Sun to join forces with him, become a mighty king, and raise Joseon into a powerful nation.

Sun mulls over these words before agreeing that they do have the same goal, except for one thing: “You do not take responsibility for the problems you cause.” Sun tells him that as long as he is irresponsible with his power, he has no right to talk about a new era.

But Dae-mok spins the argument right back on him, scoffing that Sun doesn’t have a “right” to the throne, either. At Sun’s confusion, Dae-mok explains the truth: “Your father asked me to assassinate the old king in order to gain the throne. So, you tell me: Who is the true traitor, and who has the true ‘right?’”

Horrified, Sun refuses to accept Dae-mok’s words, until he suddenly remembers that the head eunuch had said he looks like the man who “stole the throne.” As the devastating truth sinks in, Dae-mok begins to laugh evilly.

As Lee Sun races toward Pyunsoohwe on horseback, Ga-eun reflects on how Sun came to save her from Dae-mok. But she has to remind herself that he is her father’s murderer and that he means nothing to her.

Dae-mok tells Sun to join forces with him and marry Hwa-goon so that he can become king. In that way, both of their dreams and futures can be realized. But instead, Sun asks him a question: “Do you know how hunters catch wolves in the north?”

Sun explains that the hunter puts a bloody knife in the ground, attracting the wolf to lick the knife until it eventually cuts its tongue and bleeds to death. Sun tells him that Dae-mok’s offer is like this bloody knife, trying to draw him in with the sweet offer of power.

Sun asks if Dae-mok will kill him now that he’s refused his offer, but Dae-mok tells him that he will torture and kill Ga-eun first before he kills Sun. Before Sun can react, however, Hwa-goon appears and throws herself at Dae-mok’s feet, begging Dae-mok to spare Sun’s life.

Dae-mok refuses, but when Hwa-goon begins to beg with even more desperation, Dae-mok agrees to give her one last chance to convince him to accept her offer. “But if it doesn’t work,” he warns, “you may never ask me to spare his life again.” Dae-mok leaves the two alone.

Alone with Sun, Hwa-goon asks him to take Pyunsoohwe instead of trying to destroy it, telling him that he can use Pyunsoohwe’s power and money to transform Joseon. Swearing to remain by his side and help him, she begs him to join Dae-mok and become king.

Smiling gently, Sun refuses, telling her that he already loves someone else and cannot take advantage of her sincerity. Hwa-goon begs him to understand: “I am not asking to become the queen, or to become your woman,” she cries. “I simply want to give you all that I have.” But Sun smiles and tells her that he knows, and that’s exactly why he cannot accept.

Defeated, Hwa-goon tells him that Dae-mok will not let him go. At that moment, Hwa-goon’s father interrupts with Dae-mok’s henchmen to take Sun away, and Hwa-goon can only watch helplessly.

Hwa-goon storms into Ga-eun’s room and slaps Ga-eun across the face, blaming her for Sun’s impending death. Ga-eun is shocked at the news that Sun will die, but when she calls Sun her father’s murderer, Hwa-goon stares at her in pure hatred. “You truly know nothing,” Hwa-goon bites. She tells Ga-eun to live the rest of her life thinking that Sun killed her father, and storms out without explaining the whole truth. Ga-eun stares after her in shock and confusion.

Hwa-goon then hurries to Dae-mok, falling to her knees to beg one last time, but Dae-mok has had enough. Ordering his son to prepare the initiation ceremony, he declares that if Sun refuses the ceremony, he will be killed.

Distraught, Hwa-goon sits with her father, who tries to comfort her. He tells her that he knows the antidote to Pyunsoohwe’s poison, and tells Hwa-goon to trust him.

Meanwhile, a deeply disturbed Sun reflects on Dae-mok telling him that his late father forced his way to the throne.

Chung-woon slips into Pyunsoohwe to rescue Ga-eun on Sun’s orders. They manage to get to the gates, but Ga-eun stops him at the last moment, saying that she cannot escape alone and that she must stay and talk to Sun.

He falters, conflicted as to what to do. In flashback, we see that Sun had asked Chung-woon to rescue Ga-eun while he surrendered himself to Dae-mok. Sun had noted that it would be difficult for him to leave Pyunsoohwe alive, but they could at least use the opportunity to save Ga-eun.

Chung-woon insists to Ga-eun that he’ll go rescue Sun after getting Ga-eun to safety, but Ga-eun stops him to ask her vital question: “Who killed my father?” Shocked at the question, Chung-woon finally drops to his knees. “I killed Deputy Magistrate Han.” As Ga-eun cries in shock, Chung-woon confesses that Sun did his best to save her father and asks for her forgiveness.

Lee Sun meets with Dae-mok, begging for Ga-eun’s release. But Dae-mok informs him that he’s too late: Sun already came to rescue her in exchange for his initiation into Pyunsoohwe. Realizing that this means that he is about to be dethroned, Lee Sun drops to his knees and begs him not to abandon him.

Dae-mok’s men bring Sun to Dae-mok and Lee Sun. Sun stares at Lee Sun in confusion, but before he can say anything, Dae-mok informs Sun that Lee Sun has sworn his loyalty to Pyunsoohwe in exchange for Ga-eun. Dae-mok sits back, asking Sun if he agrees to Lee Sun’s conditions.

When Sun refuses to answer, Lee Sun demands to know if Ga-eun’s safety is less important to him than letting Ga-eun be with him. Suddenly, Dae-mok cuts them both off to inform them that Ga-eun has already been caught trying to escape.

Sure enough, Chung-woon and Ga-eun are caught by the Water Bureau chief and his men. As the chief reveals a bloody, beat-up Chung-woon, Dae-mok informs a horrified Sun that he already knew Sun was stalling for time while Chung-woon attempted to rescue her. As Dae-mok strikes Chung-woon to the ground, he tells Sun that his stubbornness will cost him Chung-woon’s life.

Just as Dae-mok lifts a sword to slay Chung-woon, however, Sun screams Dae-mok’s name and crawls to his feet, swearing to do as he’s told. He bows his head as he sobs in defeat, begging him to spare Chung-woon and Ga-eun’s lives. Dae-mok smiles and agrees to release Ga-eun after the initiation ceremony.

 
EPISODE 30 RECAP

Lee Sun barges into Ga-eun’s room without his mask, telling her that he’s come to release her. Ga-eun is surprised to see him, but she tells him that they must save the crown prince first.

Enraged, Lee Sun reminds her that the crown prince murdered her father. When Ga-eun explains that Sun was not the one who killed him, however, Lee Sun falls back in shock. Tearily, Ga-eun begs him to help her save Sun, and he finally agrees, asking her to trust him.

As Lee Sun goes back outside, he sees Dae-mok, who smiles slyly at him.

Lee Sun visits the queen dowager that night, telling her that Dae-mok has abducted Ga-eun and that he wants to join forces with her to oppose Dae-mok. Pleased, the queen dowager promises to save Ga-eun at all costs, and Lee Sun swears to trust and depend on her from now on.

The next morning, Lee Sun announces to his advisors that the queen dowager has selected Yeon-joo, the Minister of War’s daughter, as the next queen, and orders preparations for the royal wedding. Woo Bo and Moo-ha look on grimly, but note gratefully that at least Pyunsoohwe’s candidate will not gain the throne.

At Pyunsoohwe, Hwa-goon brings Sun some food and reminds him of the initiation tomorrow. Sun asks for news about Chung-woon, and Hwa-goon tells him that she doesn’t know where he is, but that Dae-mok has probably blinded him. Damn. She tells him that many things will change tomorrow, but she swears to obtain an antidote for him no matter what.

Meanwhile, Dae-mok summons Gon in private. He tells him that he does not forgive traitors: “Even if that traitor is my granddaughter.” Dae-mok tells Gon to choose his actions wisely, and Gon listens in silence, understanding his meaning.

That night, Gon tells Hwa-goon that he knows where the possible location of the antidote. He tells her that if they set out now, they can make it in time for the initiation tomorrow. Trusting him, Hwa-goon agrees to leave immediately.

The next morning, Pyunsoohwe drags both Sun and Ga-eun to the secret cave in the woods for the initiation. As the cloaked Pyunsoohwe elders stand as witnesses, we see Lee Sun standing among them, watching the ceremony.

Dae-mok prepares the poppy wine, explaining that Sun must drink it twice a month from now on or die. As Dae-mok holds the cup out to him, the chief of the Water Bureau draws his sword to Ga-eun’s throat. Glaring at Dae-mok, Sun finally takes the cup.

Watching in horror, Ga-eun begs him not to drink, especially not for her sake. Sobbing, she insists that she will always despise him for killing her father, but Sun only smiles at her, apologizing for causing her father’s death. He asks Dae-mok to promise to release her once he drinks the poison.

As Sun lifts the cup to his lips, however, Ga-eun screams that she knows he didn’t kill her father. Dae-mok tells him to drink unless he wants to see her die – and finally, Sun gives her one last look before drinking the poison.

As the poison takes over Sun’s body, Dae-mok orders him to state his name – but before he can, he begins to cough up blood. Oh shit. As Sun collapses in agony, Dae-mok informs him that he served him three poppy pills instead of one – a lethal dosage. As he collapses, Sun realizes that this was Dae-mok’s plan all along. Telling him that Joseon is a pit of despair, Dae-mok sweeps Sun aside as he falls to the ground.

Ga-eun shoves away the sword and rushes to Sun’s side, cradling his head in her arms. Sun reaches up to stroke her cheek, stammering a final confession: “I have loved you from the first moment we met.”

His hand drops to the ground, and Ga-eun screams in denial. Pyunsoohwe shoves her aside and drags Sun’s dead body away, unceremoniously throwing his unburied body in an empty field.

Hwa-goon returns to Pyunsoohwe with Gon, where her father is waiting for her. He tells her that the initiation has already ended, and that Sun is nowhere to be seen. Horrified, Hwa-goon hurries to the empty cave to confirm for herself that the ceremony has indeed ended.

Enraged, Hwa-goon turns to Gon. “How dare you lie to me!” she screams. Gon tells her that he had to lie to protect her from harm. Hwa-goon asks if Dae-mok killed the crown prince, and at his affirmation, she grabs Gon’s sword out of his sheath and swings it at him, stopping just inches from his throat. Gon doesn’t even flinch, and she orders him to find the crown prince at once or she will kill him.

The palace holds a banquet to celebrate the royal wedding announcement. While both the queen dowager and the Minister of War are giddy with excitement, the Inspector General notes to Woo Bo that Sun still hasn’t returned. Frustrated, the Inspector General gets up for some air.

At that moment, Lee Sun invites Woo Bo and Moo-ha to a drink at the front of the room, thanking him for their help in the selection process. As Lee Sun pours the drink, he reminds Woo Bo of the “advice” he gave him previously. Woo Bo flashes back to when Lee Sun had told him that he didn’t want Woo Bo to get hurt, asking him not to go any further, and understands his meaning.

So when Lee Sun purposely knocks the cup out of Woo Bo’s hands, blaming Woo Bo for being too drunk to hold his cup properly, Woo Bo immediately plays along. Acting like a messy drunkard, Woo Bo begs Lee Sun for his forgiveness. In return, Lee Sun shouts that he will refrain from punishment on this celebratory day, but orders them out immediately.

As Moo-ha pulls Woo Bo outside, they run into the Inspector General, who asks why they left so early. Moo-ha begins to complain that Woo Bo got too drunk, but realizes that Woo Bo is actually stone cold sober. Woo Bo explains to them that they shouldn’t return to the banquet: “I have a bad feeling.”

Sure enough, inside, Lee Sun secretly switches the wine with another before asking the court to share a drink with him. They gladly oblige, and each member of the banquet takes a cup of Lee Sun’s wine.

When the queen dowager finishes her cup, however, she turns to Lee Sun to note that he hasn’t touched his. Sensing something suspicious, she turns to see that none of the Pyunsoohwe members of the group have taken their drinks, either. Oh boy.

Before she can say anything, however, Dae-mok suddenly barges in. The queen dowager begins to protest, when suddenly, she clutches her heart in pain – followed by the rest of the room, sans Lee Sun and the Pyunsoohwe members.

Dae-mok announces that everyone has just taken a dose of poppy wine, and notes that they must take the antidote he gives them twice a month from now on in order to live. The Minister of War falls to his knees, begging Dae-mok to spare his life.

The queen dowager screams at Lee Sun and Dae-mok in pain and fury for daring to betray her, but they simply brush her aside as her court lady takes her away.

We flash back to see Lee Sun agreeing to cooperate with Dae-mok to save Ga-eun’s life, and also that Lee Sun had attended Sun’s initiation/execution in disguise. After the initiation, Dae-mok had told Lee Sun that he was now the true king.

Back at the banquet, Lee Sun gives Dae-mok a bow of respect, and Dae-mok grins.

Later that day, Lee Sun makes an announcement: The queen dowager is to be confined to the west wing of the palace for the crime of attempting nepotism to gain power. He also promotes the chief of the Water Bureau to the chief of the Supply Office, giving him the right to mint coins.

Woo Bo, Moo-ha, and the Minister of Inspector General step forward in protest, begging him to reconsider, as his decision will allow the circulation of counterfeit money. In response, the Pyunsoohwe members of the court advise Lee Sun to punish those who question him. Lee Sun agrees that their actions are punishable, and declares that Woo Bo and Moo-ha are hereby dismissed from their positions. Damn.

That night, the head eunuch notes to Mae-chang that the queen dowager lost her power in one day, and that Dae-mok has gained total control. Grimly, the head eunuch says that they must come up with a countermeasure, but Mae-chang emptily informs him that the crown prince is dead, and that they have lost all hope.

Lee Sun goes to find Ga-eun at Pyunsoohwe to bring her back to the palace with him. He informs her that Sun truly is dead, the queen dowager is now powerless, and that they live in Pyunsoohwe’s world now. Reaching for her hand, however, he promises that he will always protect her, no matter what.

As the reality sinks in, Ga-eun begins to weep, crying that there was still so much she had to say to Sun. Lee Sun pulls her into his arms as she cries.

Meanwhile, Sun lays motionless in a field, the ink from when he was poisoned as a baby becoming visible.

 
COMMENTS

Oh my gosh! Ruler has returned from a long drought of plotlessness! Lee Sun has gone full villain! Ga-eun knows the truth! Evil Dae-mok is back! I was so pleased with these episodes that I found myself consciously ignoring whatever obvious flaws that are still present – and even though that goes against my integrity as a self-proclaimed drama critic, I can only say that these episodes were oodles of fun. It might well be that the show has been so predictable and boring in recent weeks that any little surprise is like a gulp of fresh air – but watching Lee Sun become more and more manipulative in the second half of this episode was almost cathartic.

It seems to me that Lee Sun’s turn toward villainy was the obvious trajectory from the start, so it’s a little disappointing that it’s come so late in the game. With his unique position as the fake crown prince and a literate, society-hating peasant, he was in the perfect place to act like an obedient dog while also scheming his own conniving plans to get his revenge and to take the girl for himself – but instead, he just remained an obedient dog, inside and out.

Still, I do think that these episodes demonstrated what could have been in a fun way, and there’s no use complaining about the past episodes. While Lee Sun is still a selfish, entitled jerk, he’s a lot more likable as a villain than he was as a potential love interest. His evilness has now made him someone to root for, or at least try to understand, and has given him a direction that his character seemed to be sorely lacking in the past few weeks. I loved Lee Sun’s final scene with Ga-eun, for example, as he held her weeping figure in his arms with that expressionless, unsympathetic look on his face, because it gave him a dimension that wasn’t there before. What is he thinking? Is he going to take control and protect Dae-mok from Ga-eun, or has he simply decided to give in to Dae-mok?

At this point, the flaws are so deeply ingrained into the show’s trajectory that it’s more a matter of how much the flaws are visible than whether they’re there. It almost feels like the quality of this show varies according to the level at which you view it: From a broader, big-picture perspective, the show is a mess, where motivations and relationships are mismatched and frustrating.

Sun’s words at the beginning of this episode, for example (“If I can’t even protect the woman I love, how can I claim to protect a nation?”) was a ridiculous jump in logic that actually made me laugh, but those words are central to his broader character and motivation. It’s impossible to ignore the broader logical failures at this point, but it’s become necessary in order to enjoy the drama at all – and while I find it pretty unfair for a show to demand that abandonment of logic from the viewer, I suppose you can’t have everything.

Based on Ruler—Master of the Mask’s previous track record, there’s no guarantee that the show will carry on the strengths we saw in these episodes – the swift plot development, Lee Sun’s emerging character, and the surprising plot reversals. I’m also wary of crediting Lee Sun’s character too much, since his villainous actions in these episodes weren’t really by his agency, but by Dae-mok’s. It might be too late in the game to expect Lee Sun to make a complete transformation into either a satisfying villain or a satisfying hero – but this show has surprised me before, so I guess I’ll just sit back and watch.

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