With its star-studded cast and promise of fun and hijinks, Hwarang: The Beginning caught the attention of a few of us here at Seoulbeats. Leesha and Qing kick off the review of the series by discussing what attracted them to the show, some of their expectations, and how the first four episodes pan out.

This review contains some spoilers for Episodes 1-4. We kindly ask that readers use spoiler tags in the comments when discussing the episodes that have yet to be reviewed.

Leesha: I was drawn to this drama for V (BTS) firstly. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a drama, especially while it was on air, but between V and Minho (SHINee) I thought I’d give it a try (I’ve never seen Minho act, and idol actors intrigue me). I do enjoy historical dramas, so that was another plus for this. I purposely didn’t look at any of the previews because it seemed like they all started six or seven months ago and all it did was make the show seem further away. Lucky for me, that gave me a chance to go into the drama without any expectations, except for one: the scheming court lady, which has already been provided for me.

Qing: It’s my first time watching a drama on air—I’m wary because I’ve heard so many instances of good dramas crashing and burning in the second half, or even in the last quarter. Even being pre-produced doesn’t guarantee quality.

I was drawn in by the producers’ promise of a story of youths who were not afraid to fight for what they believed in, and who came to form ​the ​center of a weak kingdom tied down by an oppressive bone ranking system. This reminded me of a recent, excellent article on the “Sewol generation” rising to challenge the status quo. ​The striking​ parallels ​between the social issues and youths of both periods made me wonder if there could be ​a socio-political unconscious at work in this drama.

I came in expecting a good dose of comedy and fun from the previews, so I was surprised by the dark places the show took us in the first two episodes. It wasn’t afraid to bare the ugly truths of the bone ranking system at the outset. Unfortunately, the captions explaining the bone ranks flashed by quickly and weren’t translated, but some research yields the basics: the aristocracy comprises the highest-ranking sacred bones (those with pure royal blood), the true bones (nobility with royal blood), and the fourth, fifth and sixth head ranks (determined by family ties and the land owned). Anyone not in these ranks are commoners, and there is no movement between the ranks; one’s rank is strictly determined by lineage.

The oppressiveness of the system is fleshed out through a few incidents: the dismissive way Queen Dowager Jiso’s (Kim Ji-soo) bodyguard, Hyun-chu (Lee Kwan-hoon​)​, slays the gatekeeper who witnessed Sammaekjong (Hyungsik) entering the city; Park Ban-ryu (Do Ji-han) ordering his friend Kang-sung ​(Jang Se-hyun)​ to fetch wine because he is of a lower rank; Kang-sung then taking out his anger on Mak-moon (Lee Kwang-soo) by beating him to a pulp; and finally, Mak-moon’s tragic death.

Moo-myung (Park Seo-joon) sums up the utter injustice of the system: “If it’s not a crime to kill peasants in the capital, is crossing the city wall that heinous a crime?” He says this without realising the true reason Mak-moon died is because he saw the King’s face, but either reason reveals how little value is placed on the lives of commoners.

Leesha: I can see already that the ranking system is going to become a tool that’s only used when it’s advantageous for someone. Ban-ryu doesn’t mind hanging out with Kang-sung until he needs something. It’s fine to gossip with Ah-ro (Go Ara) and listen to her stories, but she’s always reminded that she’s a half-breed. The same with Dan-se (Kim Hyun-joon). He’s qualified enough to be rounded up with the other boys during the fight, but not qualified enough to be considered for the Hwarang (in his own words).

I see the deaths of the gatekeeper and Mak-moon differently, as something separate from the ranking system. The Empress Dowager was quite direct in her edict: Kill anyone who sees the King’s face. The gatekeeper made the mistake of mentioning how he never thought he’d see the King again. Mak-moon heard the King be addressed by his honorific. They knew without a shadow of a doubt they’d seen the King and therefore had to be killed. Otherwise they could have gossiped and told—as Mak-moon immediately did—and the King’s identity would have been revealed, putting the Empress Dowager’s work to keep him secret this long to waste. Also, this rule could come into play later as a way to execute one or more of her opposition by saying they glimpsed the King’s face. So far, the King hasn’t had the opportunity to put anyone truly important at risk, so of course only commoners have been affected.

In terms of overall setup, I found the first two and second two episodes were complete opposites. The first two were more action-driven, with Moo-myung and Mak-moon getting into fights and climbing over the wall. Even Ah-ro’s storytelling made it feel like something was happening. There’s the huge scene inside Okta, which you already mentioned, and the fight between Moo-myung and Sammaekjong in the carpenter’s shop in Episode 2. Then Episodes 3 and 4 happened where there was more character introduction and political intrigue than true interaction, though there were some big reveals.

How is the story coming along for you?

Qing: Given how much the drama has to cover, I was initially concerned that there would be too much action packed in from the start, or a messy attempt to introduce all of the main cast. Fortunately, the exposition in Episodes 1 and 2 was paced in a way to help us empathise with Moo-myung and Sammaekjong’s struggles, both tied to overarching socio-political problems.

This was highlighted most strikingly in the scene at the carpenter’s shop. The way the two men are hedged in by door after door is indicative of their respective constrained positions: on a more literal level, they are trapped in confrontation, but on a symbolic level, Moo-myung is marginalised by his low social status, while Sammaekjong is trapped by his vulnerability towards assassins and his mother’s stronghold on the power that should be his. The symbolic meaning of this setting becomes clear when Sammaekjong says, “In this world, there are doors people like you should never open”, to which Moo-myung responds, “Do you think it is okay to have doors that people cannot open?”

We also get a sense of the external and inner conflicts of other characters, stemming from the bone ranking system and the political factions. Ah-ro’s explanation to Master Wi-hwa (Sung Dong-il) was a clever way to establish how each of the Hwarang members and their families stand. We learn that the current power struggle is occurring because of the disruption of the original system in which the Park, Seok, and Kim clans took turns on the throne. It also gave a glimpse of the fascinating possibility that the Hwarang, especially Han-sung (V, going by his birth name Kim Tae-hyung), may not share their families’ political allegiances.

That said, the plot dragged on a fair bit in Episodes 3 and 4. There is a lot of ground to cover—we’ve barely seen the other Hwarang members—so it was frustrating to see so much time spent on developing a clichéd love triangle that doesn’t serve the larger story. It’s a likely source of future conflict between Moo-myung and Sammaekjong, but we already have that in the difference between their classes and world views. It doesn’t help that Ah-ro’s character development is equally clichéd—I like her resourcefulness and spunk, but the plot keeps reducing her to a tearful, weak-legged damsel in distress needing rescuing.

Leesha: It’s interesting what you say about being empathetic to Moo-myung, because by the end of the fourth episode I realised that I don’t like him. He’s made very rash decisions that have led to so much violence and death. He doesn’t think things through, just acts. He knows the law and that they can be killed for going over the wall, yet he’s angry with the world for exacting punishment. He sees Sammaekjong and gives no thought for their surroundings or who might be around, just immediately goes on the attack. He wants to kill Hyun-chu on sight and it doesn’t matter that the Empress Dowager, the other bodyguards, and all the innocent villagers are there. He just sees his target and attacks.

It’s only when Master Ahn-ji (Choi Won-young) is put in danger that he even thinks about the consequences to others. He even lashed out at Ah-ro when she was trying to help him learn how to be an aristocrat. Rather than empathy, I find myself angry and annoyed with him for causing so much chaos, drawing so much attention to himself when he knows he could be killed for even being there, and hurting the people who are only trying to help him.

As for Ah-ro, her character is lukewarm for me. Though I’m already over the incessant crying, I do feel like a lot of it was justified this time around. Her father taken by the Empress Dowager while seriously injured? Pass. Falling from a horse that just ran wild through the city? Pass. I did find myself warming to her more when she kept insisting Moo-myung wasn’t her brother. That scene told a lot about her—how she pays attention to even the smallest details, how great of a memory she has, and, most importantly, how much she loved her brother. Her reservations about immediately accepting him gave me hope for her.

Qing: No, I completely agree with you on Moo-myung. I’m rooting for his underdog cause, but not the impulsive, unintelligent way he is going about it. That’s going to be part of his growth—he’s going to have to understand the system before he can break it, and joining the Hwarang is the perfect chance for that.

I like how the other Hwarang boys are likewise awkward in their own ways. Sammaekjong may be king, but he’s petty and helpless when his crush doesn’t look his way. Then there’s Su-ho (Minho) and Ban-ryu, who are cool and distinguished, but are still hot-blooded youths when they’re put together, falling easily into Master Wi-hwa’s trap and sabotaging their fathers’ politicking.

The female characterisations are lacking in comparison. I’ve talked about Ah-ro, but there’s also the ensemble of frivolous, shrieking girls that seem to follow the Hwarang everywhere. Empress Dowager Jiso is shaping up to be quite a complex character, and the flashes of her past with Master Ahn-ji hints at cracks beneath her scheming, composed surface. But with Master Ahn-ji’s revelation that his son was taken away by her and his wife killed, I’m worried the show will make her into an all-out evil character with no psychological depth.

Leesha: I agree that the female characters are lacking depth, though if we’re drawing parallels between the Hwarang and the current generation, wouldn’t we be those shrieking girls following our idols and ready to snipe at anyone who dare comment against them?

I am hoping with the next few episodes, that as the focus shifts more on the Hwarang, we get to see more of how the political system works out with the youth. Though they all seem to be following their fathers’ orders, the instant bromance between Moo-myung and Su-ho is already a change for a better as they are becoming friends despite not being of the same rank (though Su-ho is yet unaware). Su-ho and Ban-ryu’s rivalry seems contrived to me as well, so hopefully a friendship or truce will come about as they train. I’m also interested in how Ah-ro will continue to be involved as we get more into the Hwarang learning their new role.

Qing: By the looks of it, being around beagle Su-ho and puppy Han-sung is going to break down the lonesome vagabond walls around Moo-myung (now taking on Mak-moon’s birth identity, Sun-woo). I can’t wait for the Hwarang co-habitation hijinks to start.

I’m curious about how Yeo-wool (Jo Yoon-woo) will come into the picture, since he wasn’t part of the brawl at the sacred Najeong well. His family is a neutral party, so he’s definitely not joining the Hwarang to support the Empress Dowager or to wrest political power from her.

Going forward, I’m not really expecting the drama to pull anything spectacular, given the fairly conventional setup and characters. But I’d like for the show to maintain the balance between the comic and the serious, and develop in a way that makes me care about some, if not all of the characters. Also, I’d like 16 more servings of bromance, please.

Join the Hwarang: The Beginning tag team in a fortnight for our next review!

(Ancient History Encyclopedia, News 24, Star News, Wikipedia Korea, Images via KBS)