The strongest, most consistent and well-developed theme in The Princess’s Man is that of love: whether we love a thing or a person (Prince Suyang loves power while his daughter loves Seung Yoo); whether our love is manifested through a desire for possession or one for companionship (Shin Myun’s affections for Se Ryung devolve into a willingness to own her literally, while Se Ryung again and again affirms that all she wants is to be by Seung Yoo’s side: “I want to be his shadow, and he can be mine”); how love takes root (Se ryung and Seung Yoo fall in love over their disagreements on gender roles and relations while they are engaged while Princess Kyung Hye falls for the Prince Consort well into their marriage); how it affects our bonds with others (Se Ryung’s love causes a deep rift from her family); how it affects the decisions we make (Seung Yoo transition from a tortured ex-noble who doesn’t care about living to someone who very much wants to live is caused by his love for his family and for Se Ryung); how it can carry us through the most difficult of times (Se Ryung’s entire narrative); and most importantly, the things we choose love over, or, to loosely quote our heroine, the things we give up for love.
Other significant themes include the thirst for revenge in pursuit of justice and the lust for and dynamics of the exercise of power. What I’m interested in here, though, is the former. Specifically, I’m interested in how the themes of love and revenge are represented and worked through the character of Seung Yoo, who, at the very end of the series, tells Se Ryung that he doesn’t regret giving up his revenge because he regains her and his heart, by which I assume he means his humanity. The narrative specifically tells us that he chooses love over revenge. But his declaration came as something of a surprise to me, first because it seemed that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, considering that he’d already failed in his revenge, and secondly because in the previous episodes (he takes her from the temple in episode 20) he had already chosen his love for Se Ryung but had continued with his plans for revenge. He takes Se Ryung from the temple and brings her to the gisaeng house, finally choosing stop rejecting her and ignoring his own feelings, but he still continues his plot for revenge: he gathers an army and even makes it all the way to holding a sword at King Sejo’s neck—all this while the two are married. He’d already chosen both love and revenge, and Se Ryung had accepted that. So his prioritizing one over the other at the very end kind of doesn’t make any sense, and feels like something of a cop out to me so that we could have a happy ending.
But the story isn’t simply about the love that these two have for one another. It’s about how they maintain that love despite the fact that her father murdered his family (and countless others) and he in turn wants to kill her father. Their love is in some ways defined by the extreme challenges they face, and their moments together are made all the more tender by the sacrifices they make for one another. What I’m saying is, in order for the theme of love to be properly worked out, the theme of revenge needs to be properly worked out. Revenge is a major part of the story, and The Princess’s Man, while being a romance, is also a revenge drama, like City Hunter originally was, or Can You Hear My Heart. The one is dependent on the other. Unfortunately, because the writers chose to honor historical accuracy, the revenge plot could not really have a satisfying ending because in reality King Sejo does triumph.
They knew this from the beginning, though, so I feel like they should have made the theme of Seung Yoo choosing love over revenge much stronger through the entirety of the show. Even after he gave in to his desires, even after the lovers got married, his relationship to her still should have had some elements of struggle in terms of his need for revenge making him incapable of loving her properly. The truth is he didn’t give up revenge for her, that’s just how things turned out. And I want him to have actively chosen to give it up. To have made that massive sacrifice, ‘cause we all know that Se Ryung made some huge sacrifices for him (and also for her own conscience and dignity) and was willing to be killed by him (more on that later). All along we keep hearing how difficult it must be for Se Ryung to have the man she loves kill her father, but we never hear how difficult it is for Seung Yoo to feel the need to kill the father of the woman he loves, to cause her that pain. The story addresses this somewhat in one scene, when Seung Yoo returns from a battle covered in blood and asks Se Ryung if she isn’t disgusted by the smell of the blood he’s covered in, and he then confides in her that he sometimes can’t tell if he’s a monster or not. The scene shows us the toll his path of revenge is taking on him, and I wish the narrative had kept highlighting that for us.
What bothers me even more about the sudden “love over revenge” ending, though, is the inclusion of King Sejo at the end. Throughout the entire series this murderer, this traitorous, treacherous, treasonous, blood-thirsty, power-lusting, nephew-killing, sociopathic, merciless, meglomaniac BASTARD is presented as the villain of the story. And he is. He’s completely disgusting, and what’s really horrible about him is that he feels justified in everything that he does. Killing his brothers? Check. Killing his nephew? Check. Killing the guy who chose him over his own friends and lying to his daughter? Check and check. Turning said daughter into a slave???? He did it without even batting an eyelash! And then, for some inexplicable reason, the writers choose to show us this asshole all white-haired and bent over with age, seeing his daughter alive and happy with the man he’s made blind and tried to murder countless times, and he smiles. We are made to see the bastard happy. King Sejo, as illustrated in this narrative, does not deserve happiness. Especially not from the sight of seeing his daughter’s love flourishing. Especially not when the hyeongnim who was so loyal to Seung Yoo and everyone else thinks that he’s dead. We couldn’t have a satisfying end to the revenge plot, but this is just adding insult to injury.
Additional thoughts from Malta: Not only did he not actually “choose” Se Ryung over his revenge, it’s Se Ryung’s mother who was the one who allowed him to be alive. She’s the one who chose his fate. He failed in his revenge and he was about to be killed and Se Ryung’s mother saved his life and allowed for them to have a happy ending.
My addition to the addition: So, she’s kind of like the final hero here.
*Park Shi Hoo for High Cut, vol. 61 (edited by ladida)*
[I love the above picture. It reminds me of a Caravaggio, with black being so prominent. It’s the dominant color in the background, and it’s the color of his clothing, and it’s as if he’s disappearing into it or he’s appearing out of it. It adds a liminal aspect to his presence, which could represent the space he inhabits between love and revenge, which I wanted to be more emphasized in the show so that the ending would have more mmph. It also highlights a radical difference in dress our hero undergoes. His sartorial changes match his changes in personality (as well as class): when he was cocky and carefree he wore flowing, colorful robes, and now, weary from all his travails, he wears all black. And isn’t Park Shi Hoo just beautiful?]