Overall Rating: A-
Subtitles: I remember being super impressed by these subtitles. Sometimes historicals have some issues based on the archaic language but this one was easy to follow and had a lot of built-in explanations for archaic terms, etc.
Brief Synopsis: At a time when women weren’t allowed into the King’s university on pain of death, a self-taught female scholar enters university in the guise of her brother in an attempt to create a future for herself and her family. Watch on Viki here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: I mean it’s technically a very happy ending if you ship the main couple which I like… don’t really but I recognized they were endgame so it’s fine. Everything is fine. (Really it’s an uplifting story with a very nice ending).
Characters: I have discovered I am a big fan of side characters who are middle aged or older and who are positioned around a cast of young idealists. I was a big fan of pretty much all the adults in this, even the evil ones, and I liked how they were written and the way they interacted with and negotiated with the main characters. This was also a university setting so we had a variety of other students and they were pretty exclusively for comic relief and/or to pile on stigmatization when appropriate. Still loved them, except for the evil ones who we also still loved a little bit because come on, they’re funny!
The main five characters were the Fab Four posse and their primary adversary, the Student Body President.
Very much the main character of this was Kim Yun-Hee (Park Min Young) whose older brother was sickly and father was dead and who had taught herself scribing and been able to make a living off of it while in disguise. Through a series of shenanigans she ends up as the King’s personal choice in the new class at Sungkyunkwan University and has to hide the fact that she’s a woman at all costs. Naturally people find out in various ways as time goes on, but it takes her inner circle/best friend most of the show to find out and also many of the people at the University never do. In some ways this is the most unbelievable plot point because Min Young is adorable as heck and very feminine and at some point the character theoretically menstruates and also needs to like, bathe and stuff, but we’ll leave it. Overall Yun-Hee is extremely smart and determined and brave and cunning and also warm and loving and wonderful–this is the heart and soul of the show and I loved EVERYTHING about her character. Min Young brings an innocent sort of charm to all of her roles and it was absolutely perfect for this one. A+ all around.
Our second lead was Lee Seon Joon (Park Yoo Chun) who was the son of the Left Prime Minister and a very stubborn and determined person with a very not warm personality. Honestly he was a really important character and it was good that he was how he was because that’s how he got stuff done but HOO BOY was he boring/not super likable. He was trustworthy and generally made choices I understood/agreed with but he was a snoozefest as a character. I haven’t seen Yoo Chun in anything else but I didn’t feel he brought much charisma to this role (maybe it wasn’t possible to?). There are naturally moments where you are upset with this character for being a block-headed, cold-hearted fool, but I do have to say his whole journey with accepting his sexuality (which it turns out wasn’t even necessary, lol) was pretty cool and was done well. His quiet but determined face off with his father was also well done but you know he just was so… blah.
UNLIKE Moon Jae Sin (Yoo Ah In) who we all just wanted to be the main crc/love interest. Let’s be real, did anybody not want this? Anyone? I will admit to some bias here because I am a big fan of Ah In and have found him to be phenomenal in everything he’s in, and I may or may not have started this show specifically because of him. HOWEVER, from an objective standpoint this character was also just way more interesting and way more dynamic. He’s grumpy and gruff but also ridiculously warm and sweet with the people he cares about. He brought drama, he brought grit, he brought fighting skills, he brought compassion, he was the full freaking package. PLUS he got to be comedic, with his hiccup problem when he was around women and his general sheepishness when it came to situations he didn’t quite know how to handle. He was also wonderfully protective of our leading lady both before and after discovering she was a she, but not in the bull-headed, “I will control you” way many protective characters tend to be (INCLUDING OUR LEAD HERE!!!). Instead he just had her back at all times and got upset with OTHER people when he felt they put her in unsafe situations. OH YEAH also he was like super determined to revolutionize their society for the better and risked his life for that on a reggie. 10/10 character, bless him.
We also cannot forget Ku Yong Ha (Song Joong Ki), our blessed trickster. Just… gosh this was a great character. Not as much emotional range from him (though we got some), but he was a pure delight. His obsession with fashion was a constant, and super fun addition to every scene he was in. His trickster nature gave him a nice morally neutral setting, but his loyalty to Jae Shin brought him solidly into the “good guys” sphere and when he got there he sure did fight hard to make his friends’ dreams come true (even if he continued to pull tricky crap on them right up until the end, the saucy minx). For real this was one of the most truly delightful characters I’ve ever beheld and Joong Ki brought his natural impish charm to the role with gusto and we all applauded happily the entire time he was present in any scene.
Finally our main antagonist character, Ha In Soo (Jeon Tae Soo), was guilty primarily of trying to uphold the status quo. This is, I think, what made him such an interesting villain character. There was nothing naturally evil about him–in fact we see him reigning in his cronies rather often and admonishing them when he feels they have gone too far or done anything dishonorable. He absolutely uses his power to try to get his way, but he also has a sense of honor and moral principles and doesn’t mess with things for the sake of messing. He also does not seem to derive any sense of joy from his opponent’s suffering–indeed he’s just a guy who believes the world is supposed to work exactly the way it’s working and isn’t fond of people who he perceives as a threat to his way of life. And even then his intention is never to kill or hurt, merely to set everything straight and, in one case, get some of the people he thought were the biggest problem out of his beloved school. He’s a deeply understandable antagonist character even if you are rooting against him the whole time and very much want to see him get knocked down a peg or two. I loved the conclusion for his character too, and his decision to surrender when he realized he had lost the power struggle. I was impressed with Tae Soo in this role as well–you felt what he was feeling and were easily able to follow his emotional swings and the pattern of his thoughts. All around excellent.
Relationships: So we need to start with our Yong Ha/Jae Shin bromance as I have heard rumors that this actually won a best couple award? Bless. Look, these two are pure gold. Their on screen chemistry is amazing, their dynamic with Yong Ha’s impishness and Jae Shin’s general gruffness was beautiful, and the loyalty they have for each other is really moving. Like in all situations every time you knew they’d come through for each other, and even if they joked around and Yong Ha took every opportunity to mess with Jae Shin, it was also very clear they always had each other’s backs. Solid friendship, A+ dynamic. Bless these boys. Plus we all know we wanted this to be a bit more than friendship on several occasions. How could you not?
As I think I made it clear above I was not exactly on our main ship with Yun Hee and Seon Joon. Like, I didn’t hate it. They had plenty of cute moments and the struggle Seon Joon went through when he realized his feelings for Yun Hee but still believed she was a he was actually really well done. They read pretty clearly as a young couple with feelings for each other who both had no experience in how to explore and express those feelings but tried anyway. Other than the part where Seon Joon tried to convince Yun Hee to leave the University when he found out she was a woman, there wasn’t anything wrong with the way they interacted with each other either. Like yes Seon Joon tried to marry another woman, but given the time period and the fact that he believed Yun Hee was a guy this whole plot was not like, super upsetting. They had a lot of great moments and had each other’s backs and went through a lot together. I don’t begrudge them their relationship, I just like really did not care about it at any point in the show ever. Mostly because I found Seon Joon soooooooooooooooooooo boring and just didn’t…. get this dynamic at all. I was very indifferent to this the whole way through, but luckily it wasn’t an overwhelming part of the plot.
Yun Hee and Jae Shin is one of the only secondary ships I have gone down on. Like I am often fond of the secondary male love interest and a little bit into the idea of exploring that, but this was a case where I outright wanted these two together, didn’t care about the main couple, and was bummed that the show never made me feel like there was a good reason for the triangle to have ended the way it did. Like Jae Shin supports and cares about Yun Hee so quickly and the two of them have this really sweet chemistry and dynamic with each other and can joke around and make each other laugh but also fully trust each other. Yun Hee learns Jae Shin’s secret early on and protects him. Jae Shin figures out Yun Hee is a woman early on and protects her, and that secret, from EVERYONE including his best friend. When he learns the truth he doesn’t treat her differently except to be more cautious around her out of respect, but otherwise he still believes in her physical and mental abilities and supports her in all of her ideas and endeavors. He views her as a leader and follows her willingly and is sensitive to her mood and feelings and does a good job comforting her when he knows she’s upset. They are cute and comfortable and warm with each other and they are both interesting and dynamic characters and just why could we not have had this story??? WHY???
High Points: THE SPORTS! I have never cared more about sports in my life, for real for real. To be fair the stakes were like super high in these sporting matches, like “lol if you don’t win I’ll reveal you’re a woman and you and your family will die.” But man I was like, IN IT. To be honest that’s what got me hooked in the first half or so of the season. The overarching story was also great, with this concept of a government for the people and politicians working secretly to make that happen while others who wanted to hold onto the status quo fought against them. I loved the emphasis on scholarship and brains over physical battles and warfare (though we certainly still get some action). And I was fond of the vast majority of characters and cast members.
Low Points: Not nuts about our main romance, or our main male lead.
Final comments: This is a really light, fun, bingeable show. It’s very uplifting and heartwarming and the strong themes of friendship and trust were really nice to have around. I don’t think this was the strongest show I’ve seen but it’s definitely a good show and worth a watch if you can put aside the “there’s no way anyone would believe that girl is a man” thing. (Although my husband did bring this up multiple times while I was watching and my argument was always that, since women weren’t allowed, why would anyone, even if they suspect something, really believe she was a woman? I think at the end of the day that’s the key.) If you can get past a boring male lead and boring main romance, this will be your jam. (I have read reviews that people enjoyed the main romance so don’t let me rain on your parade if you are one of those people–as always I love it when people embrace the things they love).