Overall Rating: A (it’s so painful not to give this an A+ but I have to have established standards or something)
Subtitles: Viki subtitles for this were very good, though there was a decent amount of English spoken and the English subs didn’t always match the English being spoken which was a bit puzzling to me. (As an aside, I understand why non-native English speakers appear in these small English speaking roles in K Dramas but I wish so badly that the writers who choose to have English speaking characters and scenes would get a native speaker to like… edit their lines or review the scenes because sometimes it’s a bit painful to listen to).
Brief Synopsis: In an alternate reality where the political situation between North and South Korea remains about the same but South Korea is a constitutional monarchy, the Korean royal family becomes the target of the unbalanced leader of a global military-industrial complex when they begin to take steps towards achieving peace between the North and the South. In the crossfire is the Crown Prince, an irresponsible playboy who finds that he will need to step it up big time in order to protect his family, fiancee, and country. Watch it on Viki here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: It is overall a happy ending in that no additional tragedies occur in the last like, episode. But we do lose some beloved characters along the way so it can’t be classified as a fully warm and fuzzy end.
Characters: King 2 Hearts had a phenomenal set of characters. I know I say this about like…. every show (K DRAMA CHARACTERS ARE THE BEST, OK?) but this was a somewhat more serious show than many I have watched with side crcs having to deliver intense and emotional scenes more often than comedy and everyone rocked it (except for most/all English speaking characters who I universally did not love). OK, the guy who played the team leader for the American team during the WOC was not terrible, and John Mayer’s right hand guy was also not terrible. The others were maybe decent actors but their lines were rough enough that I had a hard time with them. More in the low points below.
OTHERWISE I was fully impressed and in love with the way everything was done in this masterful piece. I’m gonna talk a bit about our lead four and then spend a little time with the side characters, space/time permitting (who am I kidding, the character section of my Hwayugi post is a novel).
Our titular character, the King 2 Hearts, as it were, was Crown Prince/later King Lee Jae Ha (Lee Seung Gi). Jae Ha is the younger brother of the current King at the opening of the show and is pretty fond of the few responsibilities on his shoulders. He is materialistic and selfish and sometimes painfully dense and superior. He’s a major jerk to his WOC teammates, especially his countrymen, and even when it seems like he is being nice to Kim Hang Ah (Ha Ji Won) he comes around on the other end as a ruthless asshat. For real for real you hate his character in the beginning–it’s real hard to not, even when Lee Seung Gi turns his charms on. But as he’s caught off guard by having human emotions and then is forced into the role of King following his brother’s tragic death he goes on a MAJOR growth arc. I LOVED how this character was written. His transformation was believable because it didn’t happen overnight–he still stumbled plenty along the way, but got back up stronger and stronger each time. And even when he got his crap together he still felt like the same person and had his impish charms hanging out in the corner. We get enough grit from him in the brief moments its required in the first few episodes that his strength later is also in character–it was all just brilliantly done. I continue to be super impressed by Lee Seung Gi–every single moment he’s on screen he is fully the character he is playing and his body language and mico-expressions pull you in and tell you exactly what he is thinking and feeling in all situations. Like it’s really impressive and it’s wonderful to watch.
Kim Hang Ah was an interesting female lead, honestly. I haven’t seen this type of character before and I was into her as a concept. Because Ha Ji Won played her you knew she was going to be a badass who could throw moves, and you first meet her as an elite North Korean solider doing exactly that. When she scares the living crap out of Lee Jae Ha in their first scene together it’s pure gold. But Hang Ah is more than martial arts ability and pure grit–she is a girl who really wants to fall in love and live a normal life. Her shifts between the Soldier Kim and the Hang Ah fishing for a hubby are initially entertaining but become heart breaking when she starts to fall for Jae Ha who is still just an immature jerk who will hurt her at every opportunity. But when they do get engaged and she tries to fit in to the mold expected of her as a future royal her sweet and honest nature was really moving, and I loved that the writers never forgot who she was or where she came from. She was an incredibly loyal and trustworthy character who was also always willing to stand up for herself and to fight for what she believed in, even if it put her at odds with her future husband/lover/best friend. Honestly I just loved the whole range of her character and the agency she had in the narrative itself. I was a little weirded out by the speech pattern Ha Ji Won used for her–I think part of it was the character having a North Korean accent and then trying to speak in a South Korean accent but too often it felt like she was over-emoting with her speech. I got used to it pretty quickly and accepted it as part of who she was but it was definitely A Thing.
Eun Shi Kyung (Cho Jung Seok) was a pretty classic side character as someone who was morally upright and strictly adhered to rules and principles without fail, but there was a heart to him that really brought the character to life. He was an incredible foil to both his bff the King and to his One True Love, the unstable Princess, and he was the subject of a lot of unintentional humor, but his consistency and constancy was super necessary to the dynamic of the story. I loved him a lot.
Princess Lee Jae Shin (Lee Yoon Ji) was a different sort of character and I loved her. She came in as a pretty typical “I am a princess but don’t want to be constricted by my life” character and very quickly took a major U-turn as her character was crippled in a bad accident on the same night that her brother was killed (and by the same people). She did not handle this with grace (thank you @ writers for giving us this character and story) and was deeply traumatized by the whole experience and by the struggles she faced because of her disability. Her anger and fear and grief and frustration were raw and present and a truly important part of the narrative. I loved Lee Yoon Ji in this role and my heart was in my throat almost every time she was on screen.
Shout outs to our parental figures here, from Lead Secretary Eun Gyu Tae (Lee Soon Jae), to the Queen Mother (Youn Yuh Jung), to Hang Ah’s father Kim Nam Il (Lee Do Kyung). I was fascinated by all of their characters and the interplay between their roles as leaders in countries on the brink of war and their role as parents and the way those two were collapsed together for all of them. Secretary Eun was maybe the most interesting of the three as he initially accidentally helped Club M murder his beloved King and then much more consciously worked to cover it up, all the while trying to remain true to his principles and take care of his King and country. The very fatherly dynamic between him and Jae Ha was frustrating at parts, touching at others, and I thought the writers and the actors handled the whole fallout when his betrayal was discovered quite well. His dynamic with Shi Kyung, his actual son, was also done splendidly as the tables slowly shifted from a son desperately trying to please his father to a father desperately wishing he could be a better example for his son. The Queen Mother was no one to sniff at either–initially we meet her as this sort of quiet but dignified older woman who is proud of her eldest child, exasperated with her middle child, and quietly acting as the backbone of the family. Her warmth and understanding towards Hang Ah was beautiful, and the relationship they developed was lovely. I loved that Queen Mother had her own way of doing things and her own thoughts and opinions and chose whether or not to listen to her children when dangerous situations arose. Her poise and bravery during the time when she and Hang Ah were kidnapped together was also lovely, and the scene where she decides to swim across the river was incredibly heart-felt. Of the three I think my favorite overall was Hang Ah’s father Nam Il who was firm in his beliefs and principles but was, overall, just a father who really, really loved his daughter. I loved the connection and relationship between Nam Il and Hang Ah and I loved that the show gave us this really beautiful and heartwarming family dynamic from our North Korean characters.
The other three members of the WOC squad were also fantastic (though it was weird that they got that one guy to fill in for Shi Kyung for the actual WOC competition and we never even met him? did he have lines? he went through hell with them but didn’t get to be a crc??? that was odd to me). Kwon Young Bae (Choi Kwon), Lee Kang Suk (Jeong Man Sik), and Yeom Dong Ha (Kwon Hyun Sang) all brought their own little life to the show and to the group dynamic both in the WOC scenes and in the many parts of the show where both North and South Korean soldiers needed to be present for one crisis or another. Young Bae was, well, bae. Such a sweet little cinnamon roll of a character who brought in some adorable humor and touching emotional moments and also wins an award for his cleverness and grit during the WOC match against the Americans. Kang Suk, bless him, was such a classic hyper masculine Military Man but his ultimate respect was for his female leader and he was willing to grow and learn with Jae Ha despite some of their rougher moments (lives were threatened, yo) and I loved that. Dong Ha gets credit for being the best wingman on TV for that whole mess leading up to Jae Ha and Hang Ah’s engagement (even if he was trying to get them not-together he was still such a loyal bro and they ended up getting married so PROPS). Bless these boys, and the show, for giving us one last scene with them there at the end.
Relationships: Oh so many and I’ve covered most of them above so I’ll just do the romances and the main bromance here.
Let’s start with our bromance because Shi Kyung and Jae Ha was one for the ages. In their first scene together Shi Kyung aims a gun at Jae Ha and Jae Ha ends up shooting said gun, not knowing it was loaded. They’re off to a great start that only gets better when Shi Kyung holds on to his principles for dear life even when it means serving his truly asshole of a Prince. And like really Jae Ha sucks at this point in his character development. But throughout their WOC training Shi Kyung learns a bit about how to stand up for himself and Jae Ha grows fond of Shi Kyung’s steadiness and constancy and names him to the royal guard when they are done. From there the two become reluctant friends and confidants and Shi Kyung is really the first person to believe in Jae Ha and his ability as a King. Jae Ha’s trust in, and affection for, Shi Kyung is in many ways the heart of the show and definitely of the palace life.
Shi Kyung and Jae Shin have a somewhat classic fairytale type of romance, but it really hits the spot. Jae Shin is wild and unruly which draws her to Shi Kyung and his upright constancy. When her accident happens and she starts to lose herself, he is the only person who is willing to push her and give her some tough love to get her on the road to recovery. She is not always grateful for this, but their back and forth continues to bring them closer together. Naturally we get a very sweet scene and a nice kiss before Shi Kyung goes off on the mission that will take his life, and that was mega heartbreaking (though actually I cared more about Jae Ha’s heartbreak than Jae Shin’s there). The final scene with Jae Shin where she talks to Shi Kyung’s ghost was touching and, I felt, a fitting end for their story.
Finally we have our main couple, Jae Ha and Hang Ah. And folks, this was a top romance for me. I did not think it would be based on where it started–I am not classically nuts about the whole “guys is a super ass of a jerk to girl, girl falls for him anyway, turns out he liked her all along isn’t it cute” storyline. It is not my favorite. But this was unique in many ways–yeah Jae Ha sucked at first. The two had a couple nice moments in the WOC training but mostly awful moments (he humiliated her on purpose and let’s not forget when HE SHOT HER and didn’t know the bullet in the gun was a blank). Happily these things, and his cruelty at their engagement meeting, are all addressed in the story and Jae Ha learns to repent and goes to pretty extreme lengths to show the depth of his remorse. By about halfway through the season they have a very sweet, supportive relationship and have agreed to be married. This relationship is tested when a pain point for Hang Ah leads her to push Jae Ha’s buttons and he can’t quite handle it, but they make it through that very major fight as well and come out strong and united. The second half of the season features these two, as a couple, working together towards their common goal, trusting each other, learning to compromise, and leaning on each other. It’s freaking BEAUTIFUL, OK? Like not enough shows allow the couple to be a couple, like a real couple, during the meat of the story. But in this their romance was not the plot, but was rather an early plot point that was critical to the main overall plot. That they loved, trusted, and would do anything for each other was absolutely central to the main story, but the strength of their experiences made them partners against the Big Bad and the general threat of war that hung over their two beloved homelands. Just. A+ story, A+ relationship growth, A+ having a male character be vulnerable with his female partner and able to talk about his feelings, A+ to these two actors for giving this so much life.
High Points: Like, basically all of it. I was fully obsessed with this show from start to finish and binged it with voracity. Like it was a 3 sitting show for me. Normally shows, even the ones I love, have some parts where the pacing slows down and I get just a little bored. Never, ever, ever with this. Such a good and fascinating plot, an interesting villain, wonderful flawed but spirited leads, and a fantastic weaving of characters and storylines to deliver a very satisfying and yet not overly cheery conclusion.
Low Points: The English speaking characters who clearly did not know how to speak English. I am sure these actors are very talented, and I certainly would never want lines in a language I do not speak, but given the globalization of Korean media I hope that we start to move away from this strategy. I enjoyed this show SO SO MUCH but I had to flinch fairly often when the English lines from supposedly native speakers were just incorrect or were spoken in a monotone by someone who clearly did not actually understand the words they were saying. (To be fair this show was from 2012 when the typical audience was not as global). Let me be clear that people writing in and speaking a language that isn’t their native language is a super impressive thing. But for me the incorrect/poorly delivered English lines tended to jolt me out of the immersive experience of the show and that’s like… my only gripe with this show but considering the volume of English and number of English speaking characters it was not nothing.
Final comments: I am like apparently really into the super patriotic K Dramas? Am I a Korean patriot? (I actually love patriotic films in America too so I think those Feels just resonate with me). This one was extra interesting for me to watch as an American woman, though. Not only do Korean soldiers directly interact with American soldiers in this, but a lot of the political drama and discussion, especially in the last couple episodes, revolved around America and America’s involvement with both North and South Korea. Seeing that relationship and the perception of the US as a military power from the perspective of a different country, particularly one that, as the show continuously reminds us, is pretty dang small and not exactly a military power, was really fascinating and in many ways was an incredibly important experience for me. Frankly I think it makes this show a must-watch for any Americans interested in these topics. But that wasn’t even my favorite part of the show, to be honest. I cared SO MUCH about these characters and this story and their growth and their decisions and just. Wow. Highly recommend.