The Red Sleeve had a solid start but unfortunately wandered off the track towards the end and got lost in its own introspection. For nearly everything I liked about this drama, there was a counterweight of something I didn’t like. I will also admit I went into this with expectations of a sweeping historical romance, as I had heard this was a drama that captured people’s hearts with its love story, but, uhm… well, more on that in the review. Cause there was good and bad there, too, unfortunately.
The story itself was interesting and fresh. Though I am familiar with the fate of Crown Prince Sado, I am less familiar with the story of his son, King Jeongjo. I was captivated by the struggles of this young man, his fierce battle to always appear even tempered, intelligent, and upstanding so as never to be compared with his violent, mentally unstable father. You could really sense the pressure this young royal was under, how practiced his manners were, how he forced himself to endure any hardships with near silence and restraint. Lee Joon-Ho was surprisingly good in this role, for the most part, his bright eyes barely hiding the amount of intense suppressed emotion he carried around inside him.
He was especially charming in the beginning of this show. We got to enjoy one of the most tried-and-true tropes, the prince in disguise, as he sat around the library flirting with our lead female, the palace maid who somehow failed to recognize him as royalty.
These were the best episodes, in my opinion, and where both the lead male and lead female truly shined. At this point in the drama, the script felt focused and on track to deliver a great story of a young man navigating the complexities of politics and the dangers of the royal court while finding a loyal and intelligent woman to stand by his side. The King even says this. Verbatim. Like a thesis statement. That the crown prince will need to find solace and comfort in a woman, someone who can be his rock as he navigates the raging sea of politics. And for about half of the drama, that is the storyline we were given. And it was great.
As a casting director, I can’t say Lee Joon-Ho would have been my first choice for this role, but overall the actor pulled it off. Personally, I think he’s better suited to comedy, maybe, but whatever.
The most emotional aspect he was required to deliver was his conflicted relationship with the King. And he nailed it. You could sense how much he feared and probably despised his grandfather. And with good reason.
For those of you who may not know – Crown Prince Sado was murdered by his father. His death was particularly cruel – as no one wanted to outright murder him – so they shut in a small box until he died from starvation and dehydration. There were a lot of reasons behind Sado’s murder, but the constant criticism and strict disapproval of his father, the King, were certainly culprits. The King, played by Lee Deok-Hwa, was outstanding and captured both the disarming charm of the man as well as his mercurial nature, his fits of rage and suspicion, and his descent into dementia. Would it have been nice to have a little more overview into what exactly transpired between the King and his son Sado? Well… yes. I imagine it’s common knowledge in South Korea and no one needs the refresher course, but for us foreigner viewers I was grateful I had seen several movies and shows about Sado so I knew what was going on.
So that’s the basic plot. The male lead, our crown prince, is doing everything in his power to appease his grandfather the King and stay in his good graces so that he may one day take the throne. Our crown prince has many ideas for improving the country and is eager to step up and rule. Again, this is another area of the show that is both good and bad. Good, cause I understood why he’d been so studious and forced himself to remain stoic and even tempered in order to secure the crown. Bad, cause the show remained quite vague about the specifics of his grand plans of improvement. It was also quite vague about all the political and bloody turmoil that happened after he took the throne. They felt rather skimmed over and when they did take to the front of the stage, the emotional weight was lacking because those characters hadn’t been developed enough for me to care. Where the script chose to focus its attention often meandered and left me, the viewer, quite annoyed by its choices.
Listen, creating a good historical drama is a tough gig. Most sageuk’s end up like this one, with some solid episodes but overall sort of messy. They can’t all be Six Flying Dragons, I guess. For me, this was worth watching but I’ll never rewatch it. And if I am going to be recommending historical dramas, this won’t be near the top of the list.
Overall Rating: 7/10.
To say more is to venture into spoiler territory so come along with me, my friends, further down the page if you want to dig into the female lead and the awkward handling of gender in this tale.
So. Let’s talk about the female lead.
I like this actress but I did not especially enjoy her in this role. Her saucer eyes and big smile are best suited to comedy, in my opinion. She was quite charming as the zombie in the enjoyable train wreck of a show Hwayugi: A Korean Odyssey. In the beginning of this show, when things were more focused on her settling into her job, joking around with her friends, and flirting with the prince in the library, she was excellent. Where she lost me was the second half of the show, when she’s struggling against her desire for freedom and her love of the prince. Honestly, I am not sure she is to blame as I have said the drama wandered away from an enjoyable plotline and took everyone with it.
There was an uncomfortable tonal shift with her character, too. All of a sudden she was very possessive of her supposed freedom – which she has never had being a palace maid. The entire show should have focused on the lives of the maids, as it was the more interesting plotline. It gave us hints of various factions and plotlines involving these ladies, how they had used what limited power they have to control their own worlds and feel useful. Heck, the palace ladies even created an entire secret society to work together to promote whatever agenda caught their fancies. And though the drama did hone in on several of these women to give us aspects of their stories, I never felt emotionally involved in their lives. Because the script writers forgot that you have to develop a character in order for the audience to feel any kind of way about them.
I did understand why the lead female wanted to stay with her friends. It was the only life she’d ever really known and these girls were the only family she had. They understood their world and were able to offer each other comfort and support. Their dreams of having a family or leaving the palace were hopeless, but at least they had each other.
Everything about their situation seemed vastly unfair. These ladies are monitored and controlled in every possible way. The way they dress, eat, speak, and move is all dictated by rigid palace protocol and the price for breaking the rules is often extreme. Worst of all, their lives and livelihood were also dependent on the individuals they served. If someone in the palace was accused of treason or caused a scandal, then their entire household, including their maids and servants, would be cast out along with them. And so it was impossible to feel any sense of real security, as so much of your life was dependent on people that you had no control over.
But here’s the thing… the show dropped the ball, even with this simple concept. One of the maids gets kicked out of the palace because the person she serves is banished. We understand that this is a sad injustice, but it just didn’t show us enough to have any real impact. Later, another maid is sentenced to death because it’s discovered she’s taken a lover (they found this out because she had a miscarriage). We barely get an overview of these intense situations! And these story lines, in particular, felt like a horrible waste. Can you imagine how awful it must have been for the maid who was kicked out of the palace? Where did she go? Was she forced to beg on the streets for food? Did she have anyone to help her? And can you imagine the side love story of the forbidden romance of the maid who got pregnant? It would have been epic and broken our hearts! The maid falling in love with… I dunno… a guard maybe? A cook? Their love growing over the show until they finally risk everything to be together, even if only for a moment? It would have been such an awesome balance to the lead romance, too, which was also fraught and complicated. But no, we just get a single scene of this pitiful maid accepting her death as the leading lady cries.
Listen. Love in historical dramas is almost always complicated and uneven. The past was not kind to women. The patriarchy mixed with the monarchy mixed with legal slavery were a stifling combination for everyone, but especially women. There are so many rules and its very difficult to know which ones you can break in order to survive and which ones will kill you if you do. So I always expect there to be sad stories and horrible shit happening when I sit down to watch a historical drama.
But I don’t expect to be confused.
I understood why he loved her and I also understood that he would probably end up with more than one lady attached to him. Kings weren’t known to be monogamous back in the day. They had wives and concubines and as many children as they could manage. So I understood the leading male. He was surprisingly respectful of our leading females objections, even when she was cruel to him.
And I understood why she was cruel, too. Why she pushed him away. Why she was afraid to move herself deeper into the palace web. But girl… you seemed to be doing just fine out in the world working as a servant to one of the princesses. Why did you come back? If you came back for your man, which by all accounts it seemed that she did, then why were you so withholding? They tried to make a big point out of this towards the end, as the narrative shifted away from romance and focused more on the injustices of romance within the palace system. Our leading female would not tell the leading male that she loved him, even though she did. It was supposed to be a power play or something. The one thing she could hold on to. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to sympathize with her decision but I just didn’t understand it. You married him, had his kids, were sweet and adoring to him… but you couldn’t tell him you love him because… what? He’s supposed to spend his life suspecting that you don’t, that you only married him for… other reasons? That he forced you into it somehow? Is not having confirmation of your love supposed to endear him to you? Is love just a game, with winners and losers? Is our leading male so shallow that he seeks out your affection because he isn’t certain he has it? I found it exasperating.
This type of complicated “hide your feelings for power” storyline worked in Empress Ki, but that’s because it was set up to work. It knew what it’s story was and it stuck to the road. It was infinitely better for it, too.
This relationship was not set up in the same way, so it didn’t feel justified. It just felt… sad.
And then there’s that whole tragic fate of the series of miscarriages. Now, that aspect of the story really broke my heart – but again it felt sort of rushed, too. You couldn’t help but wonder if someone was poisoning the woman. The miscarriages. The deaths of her children. The grief. That’s enough to kill any woman, even one beloved by a king. I was in misery watching their happy ending sink under the weight of all that death and grief.
And then we’re treated to that tragic end scene! They meet in heaven… or it is heaven? Is it just a dream? A delusion? His dying mind seeking wish fulfillment? Geesh. I hated it. I love sad stories, too, but damn…
It seemed like they were not destined to find a lot of happiness in their lives. But who is really happy all the time anyways? I guess at least they had each other. For a while, at least. Its more than most people got back in the day.
Anyways… The Red Sleeve was good. Not great. But good enough that I watched the whole thing. I look forward to seeing the two leads being in other dramas – perhaps ones they are a little more suited to. And hopefully with actors they have a little chemistry with, cause I felt they liked each other… but if you’re gonna give me such a tragic love story, I better feel the burn of their chemistry before you toss me in the fire. Like in Queen for 7 Days.