Mr. Queen just ended, and I find my head nearly exploding with thoughts, so here’s my
manifesto review. I NEED to talk about that ending, but I’ll give my general thoughts on the drama before jumping into spoilers. (A note about pronouns: I’ll refer to Bong-hwan as “he”, So-yong as “she”, and So-bong, which is when the two sort of blend together, as “they”, because I feel that’s most accurate. Hopefully that won’t be confusing.)
This uniquely wacky fantasy time-travel fusion sageuk brings together a complex mix of elements, for the most part pulling it off. It weaves together pathos and humor, drama and romance, modern sensibilities and Joseon mores in a way that feels both organic and surprising. It’s a court drama, a fish out of water comedy, and a gender-bending romance all in one. Shin Hye-sun not only steals the show, she is the show, bringing her characters to vibrant and instantly recognizable life. Like Ji Sung in Kill Me, Heal Me, there’s never a moment when she switches from Bong-hwan to So-yong, or vice versa, that it isn’t instantly apparent who’s behind those eyes.
My most consistent feeling throughout the drama was this: I had no idea where the story was going or how it could possibly end well, but I sure was enjoying the ride. Every episode is packed full of funny hijinks and dramatic tension, with all sorts of subplots popping up and resolving as Bong-hwan adjusts to his new life in Joseon, cycling through the stages of grief for his lost self. I agree with the excellent point Paroma made in her video essay, that while Bong-hwan is struggling with his identity crisis in very real ways, the production team chose to play that for comedy without giving enough weight to what he’s lost, possibly forever. There’s a certain lack of empathy for Bong-hwan’s struggles that continues throughout the drama, and leads into my issues with the ending. Perhaps the production team felt that a real, deep exploration of his experience might be too upsetting for viewers who signed up for a goofy body-switching comedy. Although I kinda think anyone who watches a sageuk is already signing up for the “upsetting” part.
Shin Hye-sun’s performance is one for the ages; she is so good as Bong-hwan, whether he’s lamenting his lost “dragon balls” as he tries to enjoy the illicit pleasures of the gisaeng house, whacking himself with flowers trying to get “that woman” out of the body he’s inhabiting, or facing down the Grand Dowager Queen with French food and a steely gaze. And Shin’s dramatic chops are as robust as her comedic ones, playing love, betrayal, anger and grief to a perfect pitch that never tips over into overacting. She can express a multitude of nuances in a single moment, and the drama is endlessly watchable any time she’s onscreen. Her chemistry with Kim Jung-hyun is wonderful, as it transforms from comedic hijinks, to deep antagonism, to reluctant allyship, and eventually to a life-changing bond. Kim Jung-hyun is also very good, as a king who’s lived for years in an invisible cage, fighting to protect his people and his loved ones against stronger and more ruthless enemies.
It was only after I’d completed each episode that I would wonder where exactly this was all going. And the drama doesn’t allow that question the time it deserves—until it gives us a definitive and rather abrupt answer in Episode 20. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but I don’t regret watching it. The journey along the way was so entertaining, so moving and funny, full of hilarious side characters and gorgeous sets and costumes—anchored on this central relationship I was totally invested in. I wouldn’t shy away from recommending it, either, with the caveat that the ending fails to carry through on the drama’s amazing promise.
Mr. Queen is honestly worth watching for Shin Hye-sun’s performance alone. I loved So-bong’s growing bond with court maid Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, their hijinks in the royal kitchen, those epic showdowns with the Grand Dowager Queen (kudos to Bae Jong-ok, who is excellent as always). Really, any interaction Shin Hye-sun had with anyone else sparkled as So-bong shocked everyone in the court with their modern speech, forceful bearing, and general who-gives-a-rat’s-behind attitude. Even the political drama had me invested, which is rare for me—I usually tune out immediately at any talk of court politics, which is why I’m not big on traditional sageuks. I loved the idea of making Cheoljong, a famously foolish puppet king, into someone who was hiding his true self and biding his time for revenge, and that whole storyline was well-done and properly resolved.
A CROSS-CULTURAL LOVE STORY
[Spoilers for Episode 8]
There’s one thing I really loved about this drama that I haven’t seen anyone discussing, though. When So-bong wakes up from their coma, losing Bong-hwan’s internal voice but gaining So-yong’s memories, they reference The Little Mermaid, which some scholars have compared to an immigration narrative. When you move to a new place where you can’t speak the language, as Ariel does when she goes from sea to land, you become like a child in regards to many aspects of daily life (and are often treated as such by others). As they say, the past is a foreign country, one Bong-hwan knows only through books—and being a child of educators helps, since he knows his history. But he certainly isn’t used to the social norms, and feels the whiplash of a 21st century Korean man suddenly being expected to behave like a Joseon queen.
What struck me about So-bong and Cheoljong’s relationship is how much it reminds me of an intercultural marriage. They have a common language (sort of) but their communication is still full of crossed wires and misunderstandings, especially early on. Cheoljong’s “Queen’s Dictionary” is an adorable nod to this—like most couples with different native tongues, they have one language in common, and one that’s a bit tough for the other to understand. So Cheoljong is constantly trying to figure out So-bong’s modern Korean with all its abbreviated terms and English loanwords, and the best thing to come out of this is the epic “No Touch-ie” running joke that honestly never gets old. I loved how they played this dynamic not just for humor, but as a way to show So-bong’s evolving relationship with their environment, with the king but also with Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, the kitchen staff, little Dam-hyang, even Jo Hwa-jin.
BUT THAT ENDING
[Here be major spoilers, beware!]
…Which is why the ending felt like such a bait and switch to me. We see our protagonist go through so much for nineteen episodes, as Bong-hwan becomes So-bong, struggling to escape but then finally accepting their new life as a queen, falling in love with Cheoljong and becoming a true ruler by his side, joining him in rooting out corruption in the court and forming deep and meaningful relationships with so many of the people who surrounded them in the palace. All this only to find out, twenty minutes into the finale, that So-yong was in there all along—and for her to suddenly become the protagonist of this story, after strong implications that she’s dead for at least ten episodes.
To be clear, I’m not mad that Bong-hwan ended up back in the present, as much as I’d have loved to see an ending with So-bong and Cheoljong living happily ever after, disgracing corrupt officials and raising their kids to give zero poops about what anyone at court thinks. But I never imagined that to be possible, given that Bong-hwan’s body would have to remain in a vegetative state indefinitely for him to remain in the past. I wasn’t opposed to a bittersweet ending where he came back to the present, but they should have taken an episode to deal with the repercussions of that choice for Bong-hwan, Cheoljong and So-yong.
The drama leaves us with SO MANY QUESTIONS that it sets up and then completely abandons. Will Cheoljong simply never find out that So-yong isn’t actually the person he fell in love with? That one scene of him looking at the Queen’s Dictionary and wondering if he’s missing something, and So-yong laughing off his question of why she’s suddenly so formal with him, implies that she hasn’t told him, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
More importantly, what about Bong-hwan? What happens to him when he gets back to the future? Not being in jail is not a satisfying ending for the character we’ve been watching and rooting for this entire drama. What about his career as a chef? Does he end up back at the Blue House, more in demand than ever? What about his feelings for Cheoljong? This is a character who was desperate not to die until making sure Cheoljong was okay; whose first thought upon awaking in his own body was the king’s fate, precipitating a mad dash out of the hospital after months in bed. He literally jumped out a window to find out what happened to Cheoljong as quickly as possible.
I needed more than that mad, tearful laugh from Bong-hwan.
Are we supposed to believe that deep connection formed between So-bong and Cheoljong was all So-yong, when it was Bong-hwan’s personality, ideas, talents and decisions that first won Cheoljong’s trust and eventually his love? Bong-hwan is the one who befuddled Cheoljong’s murderous intent toward So-yong, and it was that character that Cheoljong was willing to sacrifice everything for eventually. Sure, So-yong still loves him and maybe she’s picked up swearing and assertiveness from Bong-hwan, but that doesn’t make up for the distasteful implication that she’s going to live a lie for the rest of her life, pretending to be someone she would never have become if not for Bong-hwan inhabiting her body.
What upsets me most is the framing of the finale, which treats Bong-hwan as a secondary character in his own story, and suddenly makes So-yong into the main protagonist. We’re to swallow a brief, pat acknowledgment of Bong-hwan’s altered fate (a cosmic reward for his good deeds?), in which escaping from being framed by his corrupt superior at the Blue House and knowing that he helped make Cheoljong a great king is meant to be enough. The drama spends most of Episode 20 showing us the happy palace life of Cheoljong and So-yong that never would have existed without Bong-hwan. I know I said this, but it bears repeating: Cheoljong was ready to kill her. Her childhood rescue of Cheoljong, and her suicide, did influence Cheoljong’s feelings, but they’d never have come to light without Bong-hwan. Instead, Byung-in, the one person who actually knew and loved So-yong, is dead, and all the relationships she benefits from at the end of the drama were built during Bong-hwan’s stay. It feels cheap, unfair, and unearned. And it raises uncomfortable questions about consent and free will that the drama doesn’t even bother to blink at.
Here’s what the show needed to do to make this ending satisfying (you know I feel strongly about something when I start making lists):
- There should have been indications along the way that So-yong was still in her body, and not just as muscle memory, emotional attachments, and a hard drive easily accessed by Bong-hwan. Even if that was only through dreams, or moments when So-yong rose to consciousness and took over her body’s actions occasionally. Then it would have felt like So-bong took equal parts from both personalities. It might have deepened Bong-hwan’s identity crisis, but at least that way So-yong would have more agency along the way, and more of a hand in her eventual happy ending with Cheoljong.
- So-yong should have told Cheoljong that she’d been sharing space with Bong-hwan, who’s now gone. Not only is it dishonest for her to never confess this, it’s out of character. We didn’t find out much about So-yong, but we do know that she chose to end her life rather than be used as a tool to bring Cheoljong down. Why would she then betray him in such an awful way? This would also give us more of an understanding of what exactly So-yong was experiencing all that time, how much awareness and/or control she had of So-bong’s actions. It would make the happy ending easier to swallow, instead of undermining the romance we (and Choeljong) have been rooting for all these weeks.
- I wanted to see Cheoljong react to this information, process it, understand fully that what So-bong had told him from the beginning about being a man from the future was true, and mourn for the spouse he had fallen in love with. And then begin again with So-yong by his side, slowly building a new relationship on the base of that history between them, eyes open and well aware of who he’s lost and who he has still beside him.
- A good amount of that finale, or an extra episode even, should have been devoted to Bong-hwan’s reintegration into current-day Seoul. This is the one time I actually would’ve loved an extension. From what we’ve seen, Bong-hwan led a shallow and solitary existence before he fell into Joseon—with no real ties to anyone but his parents. He didn’t seem to have friends, and his romantic “relationships” were purely physical. I needed to see his loneliness and grief for the people he left behind in the palace, who became his family. I wanted to see his true feelings about Cheoljong—no one can convince me that wasn’t love, even if he was a little mixed-up from receiving So-yong’s memories and emotions. Seeing Bong-hwan on his own, separate from her, would have clarified for us exactly how much of So-bong was Bong-hwan and how much So-yong. We would have gotten real answers to the questions that have been in the air since So-bong woke up and could no longer hear Bong-hwan in their head.
(Did I just write the outline for a fanfic? Oops)
Ultimately, what stung me about the ending was that after viewing this whole story from Bong-hwan’s eyes, at the last second, he becomes simply the instrument of Cheoljong and So-yong’s happy ending, with no space or empathy given to his own. That’s a bitter bowl of hanyak to swallow, after spending twenty hours with this hilarious, charming, complex and interesting protagonist that I came to love so much. Bong-hwan deserved better, and Shin Hye-sun’s glorious, epic portrayal of him did too.
The show is still worth watching, not only for Shin’s all-time great acting performance, but also because so much of this story was told in semi-episodic plots that tended to resolve and then move into the next one. It loosely wove many separate threads together to make a complex and interesting whole, but which still makes the smaller story arcs and vignettes super satisfying. Court Lady Choi cracked me up endlessly, and I’m so glad she not only survived but got permission to marry the Head Chef, after all the stress the queen put her through.
I even forgave Kim Hwan’s uselessness after that decisive “special mission” he carried out at the end. The comedy is top shelf, and I’m still chuckling over many of those iconic scenes. Kim Jung-hyun was wonderful as a just king acting the fool and secretly biding his time before upending the entire court. I wasn’t too pleased with Prince Young-pyung’s ending, given that he was thirsting for the queen’s blood the entire time, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Hwa-jin’s entire arc as a complex, conflicted second lead.
The villains were enjoyably evil, smart and charismatic enough to keep the main conflict interesting throughout, and their downfalls were delightful. Even Byung-in, who I spent 90% of the show hating, had a moving redemption and a fitting end. The palace felt like a real place full of real people, instead of the artificial and airless environment that some sageuks portray. So the finale doesn’t enrage me the way some others have in the past; I’m just very disappointed by the wasted potential, because this was such an unforced error. The writers had all the tools available to them to stick the landing, and they just—didn’t bother.