If last week’s set of episodes ended on a cliffhanger, then this week’s episodes of Ruler: Master of the Mask were definitely worth the wait. We get intrigue, deception, a little deeper look into the bigger picture of the politics at play here. Every major player is making power moves, which, presumably, will lead to the climax of placing a new ruler on the throne of Joseon. The question to be answered at this point is: Who exactly is our main villain?

This review contains some spoilers for Episodes 21-24. We kindly ask that readers use spoiler tags in the comments when discussing the episodes that have yet to be reviewed.

Our power players so far are the Crown Prince, the Queen, Dae Mok, and the Chief Eunuch. They each have their own vision for the future of Joseon which involves the person sitting on the throne. Of course, with the Crown Prince as our main character, it would seem odd to list him as a potential villain of the series, but let’s look at his track record.

Several of the Crown Prince’s decisions have been rash ones, including the one that started the initial conflict–ordering the investigation that led to the death of Deputy Magistrate Han. While this wasn’t meant to harm anyone, in the words of the Chief Eunuch, who we will address momentarily, “You can cause someone to die without meaning to.” The Crown Prince’s rashness also led him, in episode 23, to sneak into Dae Mok’s house. There he discovered Hwa Goon’s secret connection to the Pyeonsoo-hwe but also risked exposing himself to Dae Mok in the process. He not only jeopardized a critical partnership, he almost lost his life and his crown.

While this may not be villainous in the traditional sense, his treatment of Lee Seon certainly doesn’t fall under the actions of a hero. As Lee Seon states, while in the throes of a painful near-death experience, the Crown Prince left Lee Seon to the mercy of Dae Mok. He didn’t leave him with any resources or a plan. Lee Seon’s life has been in danger for five years and the Crown Prince spends more time making googly eyes with Ga Eun than trying to rescue Lee Seon, or even reassure the puppet king that he’s going to make it out of this ordeal okay. The Crown Prince’s focus is on only Ga Eun and the throne, possibly in that order.

Ga Eun is an important piece on the game board. The Queen is using her to manipulate Lee Seon into doing her will, as well as furthering her own bid for power. We already know the Queen will stop at nothing to get her hands at the throne, as we’ve recently learned that she assisted in the poisoning of the Crown Prince at birth, along with planning his execution just a few episodes ago.  She is just as cunning and ruthless as Dae Mok, her rival for controlling the power of Joseon. We still don’t know her true motivation yet. She was jealous of the Crown Prince for existing and his concubine mother for doing what she couldn’t. Petty jealousy doesn’t explain her machinations now. Dethroning Lee Seon will leave her as the only eligible ruler of Joseon but then what? She won’t be allowed to rule on her own.

Again, Ga Eun is the piece to be manipulated by the Queen. Her true niece is an unwilling candidate in the selection process for Lee Seon’s betrothed, but by having her brother adopted Ga Eun (and change her name) she is able to have a person she can control become the next queen. If all goes according to her wishes, both Lee Seon and Ga Eun will be under her thumb, and even without the crown she will be behind the biggest decisions of the country. Is this all for power or does she intend to do something to help the people?

We know that Dae Mok doesn’t care about the people. He cares about lining his pockets and keeping the power of the throne under his control by keeping the rulers of Joseon addicted to the flower pills. We watched him crush a pill and let a man die, stating that the rules of the pill are only to distribute them on the first and middle of the month. Even the king is no exception to the rule. Though this is the kind of rule to later come back to bite a person in the butt, it’s always been obvious that Dae Mok is not to be trifled with. He doesn’t care about sacrificing people in order to accomplish his goals. As long as power and wealth are obtained then the means justify the ends.

But is Dae Mok as bad as he really seems? Yes, he’s killed some people but every character has made decisions that has lead to someone’s death. Dae Mok forced the king to allow him to privatize water, but aside from having to pay for the water itself, this isn’t that bad. It allows the water to be centralized, making it easily accessible to older or handicapped people who no longer have to travel directly to the water way to retrieve their own water. Was the water flow manipulated? Yes. That doesn’t negate the effectiveness of the system. Even addicting the past kings to the flower pills isn’t all that bad.

It sounds crazy, but hear me out. The king of any country has full power over that country. He may have advisors, but ultimately the decisions are up to him. Dae Mok uses the Pyeonsoo-hwe to get advantages for himself and his followers, but he also uses the organization to keep the king in line. He makes sure the king has someone to answer to in the case that the ruler makes a bad decision. Dae Mok kills the kings that don’t fall in line, which is what makes things murky, but generally having the powers that be answer to someone isn’t a bad idea. The latest episodes have Dae Mok leaving the majority of the work to Hwa Goon. We know that he doesn’t trust her fully, meaning he’s either plotting even more viciously behind the scenes or waiting to see when she’ll mess up.

Truly though, Dae Mok is the quintessential villain for this drama. He’s killed the king and his concubine, he’s tried to kill our main character, and he’s threatened to replace the Queen. Furthermore, he constantly plays with Lee Seon’s life and has even threatened his family. We know he’s evil and power hungry but there’s still the chance that he could end up helping the Crown Prince’s cause, for no other reason than it will deter the Queen’s plans.

In any political system, there must be checks and balances. When any one person or group gains too much power things start to go awry. The Chief Eunuch has been introduced as that particular system. While he claims to have no particular interest in who sits on the throne, he doesn’t mind getting involved in various political aspects. Together with his daughter Mae Chang, he revealed the Queen’s part in poisoning the Crown Prince in his youth. He had his daughter watch Ga Eun and kept her from taking the Queen the bamboo container holding Lee Seon’s flower pill. Yet he didn’t give the pill to Lee Seon, leaving it to chance that the boy will die. He knows the identity of the Crown Prince but hasn’t revealed it to anyone yet. He knows more about Dae Mok’s operations than anyone else outside of the Pyeonsoo-hwe. We don’t know anything about his motives or his endgame and that makes him the scariest character of them all.

It could be argued that Lee Seon’s jealousy will eventually turn him to the dark side, but I will reject that on the following premise: Lee Seon and Ga Eun had known each other for years before the Crown Prince came and turned their lives upside down. They grew up together. He had several years and moments to confess but he didn’t. He only cares to confess that he has feelings for her because there is another suitor. And his jealousy doesn’t stem from anger that she doesn’t return his feelings. It’s anger at himself for waiting so long. It’s pure pettiness that drives him, not true anger or evil, which in turn will make him a minor inconvenience at least, and a tear-driven plot point of a death at most, but not a true villain.

It’s safe to say that the plotting will continue as the drama heads toward the finale. The epic clash of the titans for the crown and throne of Joseon is edging closer and our main enemy may be not be the villain we were expecting. What do you think readers? Is Dae Mok the ultimate big bad, or is one of our other characters more menacing?

(Images via MBC)