An Empress’s Dignity: Episodes 1-2
An Empress’s Dignity (alternatively, and ominously, titled The Last Empress) scores major points for its unique universe, with the gorgeous imperial backdrop of a fictional constitutional monarchy in modern-day Korea setting the stage for a young actress whose life is about to change forever when she catches the eye of the Emperor. But the palace is teeming with all kinds of plotting and scheming, and little does she know just how dangerous her life is about to become.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Police rush in to the imperial palace and begin to dig up the garden as a large collection of reporters forms nearby trying to catch a glimpse of what’s going on inside.
The police pull a human skeleton out of the dig-site with a distinctive necklace around its neck, which apparently belong to the recently crowned empress.
One year prior, a large gathering welcomes back EMPEROR LEE HYUK (Shin Sung-rok) from a diplomatic mission in Africa, where Emperor Lee boasts he successfully negotiated the release of Korean hostages.
One reporter, though, gives Emperor Lee a hard time, questioning why both he and his mother, DOWAGER EMPRESS KANG (Shin Eun-kyung) were involved in negotiations but the prime minister was not. The reporter even claims that Dowager Empress Kang is the true power in the country.
Emperor Lee argues that the royal family does not participate in politics, though the empress dowager suggests that the prime minister end the press conference abruptly, and he dutifully obeys. Meanwhile Emperor Lee signals for a member of his staff to take care of the out-of-line reporter.
Emperor Lee and the dowager empress leave together, and he informs his mother that he instructed his personal secretary to redecorate his chambers while they were in Africa. Strangely, the dowager empress looks upset at this revelation.
At the palace, SECRETARY MIN YOO-RA (Lee Elijah) finishes the redecoration, and finds several hidden cameras installed in the room to keep track of Emperor Lee. Secretary Min searches the dowager empress’s room and finds that she is the one who installed the cameras.
Elsewhere, actress OH SUNNY (Jang Na-ra) prepares for the opening of her new musical, which is her first leading role. Sunny even goes around town with posters, hoping to attract viewers to come see the show.
At the palace, Dowager Empress Kang is not pleased with the new décor, and orders Secretary Min to return it to the exact same state as before. The dowager empress insists on micro-managing everything at the palace before resting after the trip.
When she finally does retire to her room, she notices something out of place. She’s told that Secretary Min was inside earlier, though the dowager empress remains unaware that the hidden cameras were found.
Meanwhile, a hulking man is escorted out of the place by security. His name is NA WANG-SHIK (Tae Hang-ho), and he sends the guards flying with ease after they get him outside. Wang-shik notices a recruitment poster for the imperial guard, but scoffs at the requirement that applicants be under 140 kilos.
As Wang-shik turns to leave, Sunny runs directly into him and topples over backwards. Sunny starts to yell at him but backs off after taking in his full size, and instead rushes past to enter the palace. Wang-shik is shocked when the guards let her pass when he wasn’t allowed in.
Inside the palace, Emperor Lee hosts a luncheon with several invited members of the public. The luncheon is essentially a glorified photo-op, which becomes clear when Emperor Lee pauses for a photo with a wheelchair-bound man and fusses over him tenderly — only to wipe the caring smile off his face as soon as the photos are taken.
Just then, Sunny, who is one of the invited guests, bursts into the room. She is completely in awe of Emperor Lee, so much so that she trips over a cart and ends up rolling through the room before crashing into a table and splattering a large cake all over her face.
Flashback to several years ago, as Sunny performs in front of Emperor Lee, she falls off the stage and lands directly in the emperor’s arms. In the present, she shows Emperor Lee the photos from that day, and he tells her that he remembers it clearly.
Meanwhile, the reporter from earlier is ambushed in the parking lot by Emperor Lee’s aide, who injects him with a microchip that can track everything the reporter says and does.
At the luncheon, Sunny earnestly invites Emperor Lee to come watch her new show, and he tells her he’ll try to make time for it. At the same time, Secretary Min is called out of the room to deal with Wang-shik, who remains outside the palace.
Wang-shik greets Secretary Min like an old friend, though she doesn’t quite return his warm greeting. She quiets him down and drags him away from the palace to avoid making a scene, unhappy that he came to the palace to find her.
Wang-shik and Secretary Min are apparently a couple, and he threatens to end any man who Secretary Min cheats with. She plays it off that she’s just working, but when he kisses her goodbye she looks grossed out by him.
Inside the luncheon, Sunny asks for a selfie with Emperor Lee, but this triggers the “disabled” man to jump out of his wheelchair and signal three other attendees to take the entire room hostage at gunpoint. The ruse over, the formerly wheelchair-using man holds a knife to Emperor Lee’s throat.
As the rest of the palace rushes to the aid of the Emperor, Wang-shik manages to sneak his way in to the grounds in the confusion.
Inside, the fake-disabled hostage-taker questions what happened to his brother, who used to work at the palace before mysteriously disappearing several years ago. The man asks Sunny to record the emperor’s confession on her phone, though he doesn’t seem to actually know what happened.
Outside the room, Secretary Min begs for the security team to break into the room to help, but they refuse to take the risk until Dowager Empress Kang shows up and berates them for their cowardice and they start trying to break the barricade.
As the assailants are distracted by the commotion at the door, Sunny signals to the emperor that she’s going to blind the knife-wielder with the flash on her phone. The emperor uses the opportunity to free himself from the attacker.
But the attacker grabs a nearby gun from one of the fallen guards, and takes aim at the emperor just as the door is breached by security. Sunny springs into action and tackles the Emperor, sending both of them flying through the wall and into the pond below just as the attacker fires.
Wang-shik stands right beside the pond outside and sees the pair fall in together, and several guards leap in to rescue the emperor, accidentally knocking Wang-shik in as well.
The guards all focus solely on saving the emperor, so Wang-shik takes it upon himself to help Sunny, who pulls off Wang-shik’s locket in the murky struggle underwater, but manages to grab hold of him as he drags her out of the pond.
Out of the water, Secretary Min revives the emperor with CPR, and thanks to Wang-shik, Sunny is saved as well.
In the palace, the dowager empress reams out Secretary Min for allowing such an event to take place. But when the dowager’s assistant informs them that the knife-wielder was the older brother of a former palace guard who went missing 7 years ago, the dowager empress’s fury turns to shock.
Dowager Empress Kang removes Secretary Min from the room, just in time for Emperor Lee to wake up and he questions his mother about what happened to the guard back then, seemingly unaware himself, and insists on personally investigating.
But the pair are interrupted by Emperor Lee’s grandmother, the grand dowager empress, frantic over what just happened to her grandson, and his sister, who seems annoyed Emperor Lee didn’t get shot. Grandma, of course, uses this opportunity to lecture Emperor Lee for not marrying or having children yet. Pfft.
Elsewhere, a bunch of thugs harass Wang-shik’s mother over all the physical damage he caused them recently, but Wang-shik shows up and starts fighting all the thugs off, and they all get scared and flee.
Afterward, mom scolds Wang-shik for scaring off her customers, and he promises that he is done getting into fights now. As they’re chatting, a young boy sees Wang-shik and runs over to hug him.
Meanwhile, Sunny ponders Wang-shik’s locket, which contains a photo of his family, including his mom, the young boy, and Secretary Min, though Sunny is unsure how to return it since nobody at the palace seems to know who Wang-shik is.
Dowager Empress Kang arrives in the infirmary to offer a monetary gift to the other luncheon attendees caught in the crossfire of the attack. Sunny is delighted to get a reward for her suffering, but she wilts when the remaining attendees decline the gift, and Sunny falls in line and refuses the payment as well.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Back at home, Sunny recaps the events at the palace to her father and sister. Dad is mostly worried about whether she got monetary compensation for her troubles, and gets mad when she says she declined it.
Just then, Dad gets a text and scurries off to “attend evening service,” leaving his restaurant empty in the middle of the evening, and both of his daughters eye him suspiciously.
Evening service, it turns out, is an underground yut nori game where Dad is gambling away his life savings. As they play, the lights go out and an apparent raid starts, but it’s actually his daughters who are there to drag him out.
When they return to the restaurant, a knife pins a bloody note on the door, threatening to cut off Dad’s hand if he doesn’t pay off his debt to his loan shark by morning. The ladies are not pleased with their father’s gambling, but Sunny promises to try to help her father out.
Meanwhile, in the police station, the knife-wielder is interrogated by police, but a suspicious lady slips something into his coffee and he keels over dead. The woman is the dowager empress’s aide, who quickly reports back to the dowager empress about what happened.
Inside the palace, Secretary Min informs Emperor Lee of the assailant’s fate. When Secretary Min voices her suspicions about the dowager empress’s involvement, and the hidden cameras in the emperor’s room, he loses control and starts to strangle her for speaking harshly about his mother.
But when Secretary Min produces the picture of the dowager empress’s surveillance setup, he realizes she might be telling the truth and relents.
Later, Emperor Lee wanders into his bath and rips the stitches on his neck, allowing the blood to flow freely before immersing himself in the water to try to kill himself.
The dowager empress notices this on her surveillance feed and dashes to his room to save him, but Emperor Lee miraculously opens the door for her, bandage still in place and wondering why his mother would be so worked up.
Emperor Lee takes the opportunity to inquire about the assailant, and when his mother is not surprised that he died at the station, it raises his suspicions of her further.
On her way out, the dowager empress runs into Secretary Min, and she fires the secretary on the spot, telling her to never return.
Meanwhile, Emperor Lee angrily wonders why his mother had him under surveillance, and decides to go out for the night to unwind. He heads to a gambling establishment and drunkenly starts tossing large sums of money around.
After he leaves the club, he runs into Secretary Min waiting for him outside. She informs him that the dowager empress fired her, and that she just wants to thank him for everything.
But Emperor Lee says his mother does not have the authority to fire her, and the pair drive off to an imperial family residence for the night. Inside, they passionately kiss, slowly discarding articles of clothing along the way.
The next morning Emperor Lee wakes up, annoyed that Secretary Min kept him there so long when the palace must be in an uproar at his absence, but she calmly reveals that she scheduled him for training in the mountains this morning, so nobody will be expecting him back for hours.
But Secretary Min gets a call from “Mom” and she heads over to Wang-shik’s mom’s restaurant in response. Turns out Wang-shik’s mom took her in and raised her like a daughter.
Secretary Min tells Mom that she’s breaking up with Wang-shik, and pleads to stop pestering her so she can move on with her life. But Mom counters by asking what she plans to do with the young boy from earlier, who is actually Secretary Min’s son, but she intends to cut him out of her life too. Wow.
Mom is furious with Secretary Min, and follows her back to the vacation home. Secretary Min arrives and she and Emperor Lee immediately begin another round of lovemaking.
But this time Secretary Min makes sure the dowager empress can hear what’s going on by stealthily taking a call from her as they make out. The dowager empress is enraged by what she hears and orders the palace guards to find the emperor immediately.
Meanwhile, Wang-shik’s mom stumbles on the pair at the vacation home, and Secretary Min spots her peeking in. Wang-shik, in the meantime, finds his mother’s phone on the ground in the restaurant and heads out to search for her.
Secretary Min chases Wang-shik’s mom off the premises, and Mom rightfully lays into her for trying to abandon her kid just because of the emperor. Secretary Min warns that Mom can never tell anyone about what she saw, but Mom brushes her off.
Emperor Lee finally rouses from his sleep and starts searching for Secretary Min with his truck, while Secretary Min continues to chase Mom through the woods.
But Mom refuses to listen to Secretary Min’s pleas, so she grabs a rock and bashes Mom in the back of the skull. Mom refuses to stay down, though, and despite the head wound she wanders straight into the road in front of her, right into the path of Emperor Lee’s truck.
Emperor Lee smashes into her, and Mom crumples underneath the truck. Emperor Lee looks more annoyed than anything, and exits to survey the scene, but when he hears Wang-shik yelling for his mother nearby, he freezes like a deer caught in the headlights.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a sucker for Shin Sung-rok in villainous roles, and it’s no different thus far. The crazy thing is, he hasn’t actually done anything overtly villainous yet (as running over Wang-shik’s mom is essentially an accident), but Shin Sung-rok is so good at being bad that he’s already killing it as a villain. His facial expressions throughout the whole luncheon scene, especially the disdain on his face as soon as the photo-op finished, were impeccable. I have no doubt he’s going to turn in another fantastic performance here.
But I’m a little more worried about the rest of the drama at this point. Aside from the Dowager Empress Kang (who is delightfully terrible), I can’t help but feel the rest of the characters have been a little too campy for my tastes. Like Secretary Min abandoning her own child over a one-night stand is just all sorts of makjang.
Add to that a few sloppy bits of camera-work, particularly on shots on the road where you can plainly see where the roads are being blocked off for the filming, and there’s a recipe for some hate-watching here if they don’t reign it in a little. That’s not to say we’re at Goodbye Mr. Black levels of awful here, but there’s enough to raise my eyebrows going forward.
And I’m not overly optimistic they’re planning to turn it around, as I’m pretty sure this drama is supposed to be starring Choi Jin-hyuk as Wang-shik, not Tae Hang-ho, and I struggle to see how they’re going to make a realistic transition between the two actors there. Maybe that’s supposed to be part of the comedic style of the show? Either way, I’m mostly here because Shin Sung-rok is, for my money, the best villainous actor on TV, and I just hope the pieces surrounding him hold together well enough to keep things watchable throughout. Pretty please?