Sarah and Gaya are back to continue their review of Hwarang: The Beginning! After voicing their concerns over the lack of plot, especially compared to the character development, will the events of episodes 13 to 16 achieve the balance they desire?

Sarah: Of course, right after we were complaining about the lack of plot, they finally give us more plot. With the revelation that the king is among the Hwarang and the heightened tensions between all the main group of boys, they are suddenly thrown together in a life or death situation, and naturally they come together instead of working apart.

Gaya: I loved how the writers set up the character involvement in the mission! With Sook-myung (Seo Ye-ji) taking Ah-ro (Go Ara) along, she sets off a domino effect of volunteering — her aim was to get Sun-woo (Park Seo-joon) to join her retinue, but that also means Su-ho (Shinee‘s Minho) and Ban-ryu (Do Ji-han) volunteer to keep an eye on him, though for different reasons. The Dowager Empress (Kim Ji-soo) isn’t wrong when she says that mother and daughter are alike. I did find the plotline in and of itself a tad sudden, but at least it has a historical precedent to make it more sensical, which already makes it better than the fight club arc.

But back to Baekje: while Ji-dwi (Park Hyung-sik) cares for Ah-ro, too, his joining the retinue also furthers his development as someone who cares for other people, and is willing to take responsibilities upon himself. Though, he has a way to go to become the kind of leader Sun-woo naturally is. Though Ah-ro is again shown as the reason for Sun-woo’s actions, I love his statements that are pointedly aimed at Ji-dwi and his lack of action. Between that and Master Wi’s (Sung Dong-il) sobering lessons, I can totally understand Ji-dwi’s dejection.

However, he also receives support from these same quarters, as well as from Ah-ro. It was so satisfying to see ji-dwi confront Minister Park, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I am hoping for the minister to be dispatched, but I can also understand the drama keeping him around to further complicate matters, as more and more people cotton on to who the real king is.

By the way, I just need to talk about how much I love Ah-ro as a character: she’s plucky, she’s useful, and she knows how to stand her ground! Too often you see heroines who aren’t shy about sticking up for themselves suddenly act lobotomised in the face of unwanted romantic advances, from wrist grabs to much worse. Ah-ro, though, doesn’t take anyone’s crap, is very clear about her feelings, and doesn’t hesitate to call Ji-dwi out. Her consistency in that regard means that Ji-dwi holds her opinion as highly as he does Master Wi-hwa’s and Sun-woo’s, and her answer to his final proposal was exactly what he needed, and probably even wanted, to hear.

My only quibble with our heroine is her bait status, and how she’s constantly being used to lure Sun-woo into action. On the one hand, I understand that these are forces larger than Ah-ro can handle and there isn’t much she can do (yet) in this political game; on the other hand, I feel that this plot device is starting to become overused, and I need the show to find a way to switch things up.

Sarah: I’ve loved Ah-ro from the beginning. I think Go Ara has done a great job of helping her walk the line between being independent and innocent, and she really does hold a lot of power in the character development of the young men around her. I agree that her response to Ji-dwi’s final proposal was exactly what I was hoping she’d say, and exactly what he himself needed to hear.

Between her relationships with Ji-dwi and Sun-woo, and the friendship between the two young men, there’s just so much potential for character growth and we’re definitely starting to see it manifest. I’m so relieved that Ah-ro is still holding up her end of the bargain and challenging both the others to improve themselves. Ah-ro is really the only one character who can enact so much character change, and I’m so glad to see her do so with subtlety and unconscious strength.

I’m also very pleasantly surprised that Ah-ro is still holding as much power as she is while the romance plot is actually fading into the background. Now that the love triangle is essentially over, the plot focus is on the question of who is (or will become) the king, rather than who Ah-ro will end up with, and yet she is holding more plot power than ever. A trend I definitely want to see more of.

Speaking of the king question, what are your opinions on Sun-woo vs Ji-dwi? It seems to me that Ji-dwi has lost his motivation a bit and now Sun-woo may in fact have the ability to take over his real place as King. What do you think of this new possibility?

Gaya: The show has done an excellent job of weaving Ah-ro into the narrative, to the extent that her connection to Hwarang goes way beyond the WAG status that female characters tend to be relegated to. They’ve achieved the same for Sook-myung as well, though with a lesser degree of success due to the shorter timeframe. My only worry is with how the two women are seemingly being set up as rivals with the introduction of the Wonhwa concept. If we’re going down this path then I want to see Ah-ro hold her own and fight back using her wits and resourcefulness.

As for our King, these episodes were where he did lose his motivation and conviction. Although he gets to practise compassion towards his subjects, by allowing them to steal their gifts for the Baekje prince, the expedition shows how much farther he has to go in order to become a king worthy of his people. While he may still be grappling with his feeligns of inadequacy, I appreciate that when push came to shove, he decided to take action and begin revealing himself. And while Sun-woo is the impetus for this course of action, he also plays an important part in leading by example. Ji-dwi has mostly lived under his mother’s regency, and in a sheltered existence on top of that. With no other real-life examples of leadership to draw upon, and no-one brave enough to go up against the king himself, Sun-woo becomes both role model and rival to Ji-dwi.

With regard to a fight over the throne, Sun-woo is more of a puppet used by other parties against Ji-dwi, manipulated using Ah-ro. It will be interesting to see how Sun-woo’s own desire for revenge, his illness, and his ancestry will factor in — only four episodes to go and we still have a fair amount of intrigue and action on our hands!

On the matter of intrigue, I would love to know your thoughts on Ban-ryu’s betrayal. I feel that this was to be expected, since he never actually got the chance to choose whether or not he would sabotage the instruments for the concert — Kang Sung simply beat him to the punch, and made the decision for him. Now, though, he is fully responsible for his actions which I feel will make his turn to the good a bit more earned than before.

Sarah: Ban-ryu’s betrayal disappointed me heartily, which is testament to the amount of empathy he’s garnered as a character so far. He is the one of the Hwarang (besides Ji-dwi and Sun-woo) who I feel is actually caught in the biggest trap. In going against Minister Park’s orders, he would have to give up on both his adoptive father and birth father. For him, I don’t feel money or power is his motivation, it’s family. It was inevitable that he would fall back into the Minister’s clutches, but I still have faith that he will realize what he truly wants and separate himself from them again. Or maybe that choice will also be made for him.

Ban-ryu and Su-ho have both been noticeably maturing since the first episode where they glared at each other and instigated a fist fight in the brothel. While they still have a long ways to go (only four more episodes, why!), they are both showing much more promise and I can see them becoming great men and good king’s advisors in the future.

Similarly, whichever of Ji-dwi and Sun-woo end up claiming the throne, I hope the other will swallow his pride and still work toward their shared goals of bettering the kingdom. Since Sun-woo shook everything up by claiming the title of King while in Baekje, Ji-dwi has realized many things. Not only has he realized how scared he is, but his focus has also changed slightly from bringing his mother down to actually recognizing what is needed to enact the change he wants. Less talk, more action, just like Sun-woo.

Gaya: I really hope that Ban-ryu gets to decide where to place his allegience, anything else would feel like taking the easy way out. This also means that he has to stay alive, because having him die a martyr would be too convenient. And I’ve been able to go without talking about Minho, but I’m just going to quickly say that I think he’s really cute as Su-ho, and his reason for not wanting Ban-ryu and Soo-yeon together was both adorable and refreshingly mature in its insight. It also brought back some of the lightness of the first few episodes, which I have been missing a bit as we near the pointy end of the show.

While these last four episodes had a lot going on, and featured major moments in characters’ arcs, the plot still moved slower than I had anticipated. With so many threads to tie up in these last episodes, here’s hoping the drama can pull it off, and we reach a satisfying conclusion.