We’re back for another look at Ruler: Master of the Mask. The drama continues to hit ratings highs as the ties between the Pyeonsoo-hwe and the royal family become closer. We get hit with a tide of emotions in this batch of episodes from all sides, and the character relationships we saw form in the first four episodes get tested in many ways.

This review contains some spoilers for Episodes 5-8. We kindly ask that readers use spoiler tags in the comments when discussing the episodes that have yet to be reviewed.

This 2nd batch of episodes takes us on an emotional roller coaster. Starting off with Crown Prince Lee Seon, we see how the weight of the truth bears on him. He now knows that the people are being denied proper access to water because of the deal made at as his birth. Furthermore, his reckless actions in starting an investigation into Yangsucheong have led to the sentencing and execution of Deputy Magistrate Han (Jeon No-min), the father of Ga Eun, whom he fancies himself in love with.

The Crown Prince is willing to do anything he can to help his people, but he cannot save those closest to him. His favorite eunuch is poisoned, Ga Eun ends up imprisoned, and the one official outside of the palace that he’d come to trust has to die by his hand. He’s made a mess of things because he let his emotions run free instead of ruling from his head. Yes, some of the blame lies with the King for not telling the Crown Prince about Pyeonsoo-hwe and the mask earlier, but the Crown Prince has been in training to take over the throne his whole life. He should know that he cannot simply act on things based on how he feels.

And he certainly feels a lot. We see plenty of tears from the Crown Prince– tears of frustration because he cannot save Deputy Magistrate Han, tears of sorrow for hurting Ga Eun, tears of sadness because of Chun Soo’s death…the waterworks go on and on, yet they don’t feel earned. Don’t get me wrong, Yoo Seung-ho does a wonderful job in emoting. The acting is superb. But for the character itself, it doesn’t feel like the Crown Prince has earned the right to be so upset about the events that have taken place. He’s known Deputy Magistrate Han for a week at most, yet his reaction to the man’s death is almost on par to Ga Eun’s, who has a much stronger connection to him.

The Crown Prince’s wallowing and sadness don’t fit the character. They don’t come across as even feeling. It just comes across as a plot device to make the character seem sympathetic. The Crown Prince shows that he has great potential to be a formidable king when he goes to see Dae Mok, so his breakdowns seem a little silly in comparison. Hopefully in future episodes there will be more of a balance here.

Meanwhile, our commoner Lee Seon shows quite the emotional range as well. Coming off of the rage that was always so close to the surface in the previous episodes, we get a meek and quiet Lee Seon this week. He shows a gentler side to him as he comforts Ga Eun. He also shows his strength after that intense torture scene involving the King. Again, I have to give credit to the incredible acting here because that scene made me uncomfortable. I was worried and afraid and I loved it. Lee Seon showed incredible nerve in volunteering to body double for the Crown Prince.

Furthermore, he withstood the torture in the sense that he didn’t lie about his intentions. He was broken down enough to where he revealed his deepest secret–that he was greedy to learn and be full in peace– but he also showed unwavering loyalty to someone he hardly knew because of trust. Considering he’s now imbibed the flower wine (has he been told he has to eat this flower forever now?), he’s part of the circle forever. Despite his birth he’s showing that bravery and integrity–the traits the King should have been instilling in his son–come from the heart.

Our women in this drama aren’t to be forgotten either. Ga Eun isn’t to be cast aside. She’s dealing with a lot right now, so while I usually roll my eyes at the crying and swooning from K-drama girls, being present at your father’s beheading gives you a pass in my book. That aside, Ga Eun has been presented so far as a clever girl, studying under Woo Bo who was once a palace scholar. She knows something is wrong and when she uncovers the truth…she goes and does the stupidest thing possible and threatens the Crown Prince’s life. Her grief and anger transform her into a proactive character, making her much more interesting than the forced love interest the drama was making her out to be.

Hwa Goon has her own emotional arc as well. She shows tremendous amounts of restraint and cunning, but also vulnerability. We knew she has a separate agenda from her grandfather, but her devotion to the Crown Prince isn’t clear until we see her speak to Gon after they spy on the Crown Prince in the shrine. She tells Gon to the protect the Crown Prince as if he were protecting Hwa Goon herself, a betrayal of Gon’s loyalties to the Pyeonsoo-hwe. She also shows that apart from her cunningness, she is also vindictive. Her grandfather stands in the way of her becoming Crown Princess despite promises made by her father. She knows that the Queen, at least, is on her side, which helps bolster her confidence in her plan to defy her grandfather and win the Crown Prince on her own, making her the strongest female character we have so far.

We see the characters put in tight situations. We see them break down, fight against each other, and realize some hard truths about themselves. We watch people die and feel grief. There is light romance to make us feel happy. There’s the intrigue and danger of the two huge factions of the Pyeonsoo-hwe and the Imperial House fighting against each other to put us at the edge of our seats. All in all, the drama has all the elements of a great story and the actors and actresses do a superb job of eliciting the proper emotions out of us.

There’s a lot going on right now. Crown Prince Lee Seon’s mother has just been poisoned. The Pyeonsoo-hwe discovered the King’s deception and he has been killed by Dae Mok’s hand. The Queen looks to be a part of or collaborating with the Pyeonsoo-hwe. We’re at the height of a major story arc and we’re only 8 episodes in. With the death count piling up and so many more questions to be answered, what are you looking forward to in the next episodes?

(Images via MBC)