Overall Rating: A-/B+ (Loved it enough to make it A-, the issues I had with it are usually the issues that make me rate things B+ so??? Here we are).
Subtitles:I remember really liking the Viki subtitles for this—I think they included a lot of helpful explanations, especially when archaic phrases for more common Korean phrases were used and the subs would include the translation and then also the Romanization of the modern term that would generally be used in its place. Top notch. Brief Synopsis: During the Three Kingdoms period, the Queen of Silla hides her son, the uncrowned king, to save him from assassination. That boy grows up believing his mother to be power hungry and constantly struggling with his own identity and status. In an effort to gain control of the country’s most powerful, the Queen enlists their sons are Hwarang and the secret king joins their ranks. Watch it on Viki here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: There is a moment of tragedy in the last 1/3 of the season but the overall ending is definitely happy and very hopeful.
Characters: So this show had a huge cast of characters like so many characters and they were all pretty important overall (mostly because the meat of the story is the 5 roomies + that one guy who ends up in their posse and then Go Ara’s character but they exist in a toxic political atmosphere so it was just… very people heavy. I will do my best to be brief).
Our main character (or is the other on the main crc? unclear) is Sam Maek Jong / Ji Dwi Rang (Park Hyung Sik). He is a king who has spent most of his life in hiding, isolated from pretty much everyone, always a background observer who is talked about poorly and constantly behind his back/in front of his face. Despite being king he has no real power or agency, and he knows this. It makes him bitter and withdrawn, but from the beginning we see him taking an interest in the people around him and talking about what a good king would look like. He struggles a lot with his own self doubts and is very aware of the burden on his shoulders and takes the idea of responsibility for his kingdom very seriously. I really loved the dynamics of his character–the way he oscillated between his more aloof, “If you only knew who I was” nature and his more vulnerable and often warm role as a friend. I was rooting for him from start to finish and he was the heart and soul of the show for me–his struggles with his family and with his crown and with his bros was what kept me watching even during the episodes where I was otherwise bored. I do love Hyung Sik and I was super impressed by him in this role because it was really different from what I’ve seen from him before but he absolutely slayed it–I felt was he was feeling and believed him at every moment.
Our other main character (I guess?) was Moo Myung / Sun Woo Rang (Park Seo Joon) who was initially set up as the foil to Maek Jong. A boy from nothing who grew up in the poor people’s village on the other side of the wall and who lost his only friend in the most painful way, Moo Myung was all grit and righteous anger and revenge. He was a good character overall and his perspective as someone who came from nothing and understood the destitution of the Kingdom was critical to the overall conversation of the show. Otherwise I was not that into him as a character. He was just kind of inexplicably good at everything, everyone tended to like him even though he never did much to make himself likable or warm, and he relied way too much on his anger. I was also SUPER annoyed that he turned out to be a secret Sacred Bone and possible candidacy for the throne–to me it felt like a betrayal of everything he stood for. Like his whole point as a character was to demonstrate that there really was nothing different between the people with bone rank and the people without it, but then SURPRISE he was actually secretly one of them all along. IDK. I will talk more about this plot twist in the relationships section below.
My favorite of the Hwarang roomies, and the most interesting overall (imho), was Ban Ryu Rang (Do Ji Han). Ryu Rang is first introduced as our classic same-generation villain (I have discovered that in historical K Dramas about young idealists vs. politically entrenched adults there tends to be a group of good youngins, one youngin adversary, a group of bad oldies, and 1-2 old allies) and he had all the characteristics of the trope–he was arrogant and unforgiving, quick to jump into fights, reliant on his rank, and beholden to his father’s wishes. The fact that he ended up roomed with our hero group was a fascinating choice to me, and I was actually surprised that they chose to make his character dynamic and give him his own growth and redemption arc. And it was fantastic. Ji Han really slayed this part–like I WAS NOT HIS FAN when the show began. I started to warm towards him when his side romance was introduced and then when we got his back story and started to understand the pressures he was facing and then SAW HIM START TO DEFY HIS OWN FATHER’S WISHES. It was little moments at first, and then he’d backslide, and then we’d make progress again and I was SO ON THAT TRAIN. Watching him and trying to figure out where he was going to fall when all the cards were dealt was fascinating and made a lot of the stuff that I was not as interested in really worth it for me. His bromance with Soo Ho Rang was awesome (I won’t have time to talk about it below) and his general friendship with and eventual loyalty to the whole group was just top notch. A+ to the writing of and execution of this character and his arc.
I also loved Soo Ho Rang’s (Minho) character but there wasn’t as much to him. He was fun, flirty, a little unpredictable, but clearly an early ally. His infatuation with the Queen was an interesting thing for his character but overall did not do much for me in terms of the story or emotional impact. I was never upset when he was on screen but I wasn’t really invested in him either.
Same with Yeo Wool Rang (Jo Yoon Woo). He was a very neutral character, sort of the glue for the group since he was not confrontational or violent or overly emotional and seemed to get along fine with everyone individually. But there was otherwise like…. nothing to him and he did not have a story of his own.
Their surprise and uninvited 6th roommate, Han Sung Rang (V) had a very small arc of his own but it absolutely packed an emotional punch. We meet him originally as this lost, sweet kid who just likes to follow the others around and is obsessed with them and their conviction. He mentions multiple times that he doesn’t believe in anything and wants to know what it feels like to believe in something, and when he finally takes his stand and decides what it is he wants to dedicate his life to it leads directly to his death. Absolutely tragic, and wonderfully done as well– he was not in very many scenes but the build was just enough and the writers and V delivered exactly enough for it to be peak feels.
Our female lead was Ah Ro (Go Ara) and I frankly don’t have much to say about her. I love Go Ara and she brings a charm to every role she’s in, but Ah Ro was very much a nothing character in this story. She did not seem to have any like, goals of her own as a character. She was just a charming person and a capable doctor who happened to be around a lot and our main leads were in love with her and everyone liked her because she was charming and capable. That was… all there was to her. She was not involved in or critical to the main plot in any way. She had very little (if any) agency as a character and all her emotional moments were when her brother/lover was like, kind of mean to her or when the Queen was trying to kill her since the king was into her. Not my favorite female character (can’t even call her a heroine, she was that irrelevant) ever written.
Honestly Queen Jiso (Kim Ji Soo) was a way more interesting and important female character. She is initially presented as somewhat of a villain (and always kind of lives in that world) who is cold-hearted and obsessed with maintaining power. But we get a lot of emotional range from her, learn a lot about her, see her moments of tenderness and humanity, and certainly learn to care for her even if we always would rather her son was on the throne. She was dynamic and real and also had a lot of agency and was heavily important to the Kingdom and the main plot. I was grateful that she was present even if I was actively rooting against her a lot of the time.
Relationships: So this was one of those dramas where I was rooting for the secondary love interest. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the two romance plots in general as really I felt like our leading lady was just not a character so it was hard to be too invested in who she would end up with. The Ah Ro/Moo Myung romance plot just didn’t do much for me? I don’t know if the leads didn’t have much chemistry or if I was just sick of family romances at that point (like yes they weren’t actually brother and sister and they knew that but he swore to live as her brother so like why don’t you just…. do that???) or if I didn’t feel the story did much to build them up. Really was their anything to build them up? They meet, he says he’s her brother, they live together for like 2 days before he heads off to be a Hwarang, they don’t interact much but feel possessive of each other, she’s like, “maybe I don’t want him to be my brother?” and then suddenly they’re risking their lives for each other because #love. I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t like, upset that they ended up together but I didn’t love it and I kind of didn’t care.
I did care a bit about the Ah Ro/ Maek Jung dynamic//secondary love plot because I felt there was a more natural build there and I thought it was sweet how she was the only person he felt relaxed with. I loved when she found out who he was and how she supported him from that point forward and how he tried to protect her (IMPORTANT K DRAMA LESSON: if a man’s mother is after your life, that man, no matter how hard he tries, cannot save you, he just can’t). But even this one at the end of the day was me just caring about Maek Jung and wanting him to have what he wanted. Ah Ro was such a non-entity that I can’t even remember to what extent she seemed to return his affection?
I did love the overall group bromance from the Hwarang roomies and want to spend a minute talking about our Maek Jung/Moo Myung bromance. These two are set up initially as adversaries who literally go on this long run through the city trying to kill each other until one escapes. Then they’re on the same side to save Ah Ro, and then when they become Hwarang roomies they seem to be fine with each other overall. Their sort of cool acceptance of one another turns back into a potentially adversarial relationship when Maek Jung finds out Moo Myung wants to kill the king (aka him) and Moo Myung begins to suspect Maek Jung is the king. But they go through shit and that tension goes away and is replaced by the “But wait Moo Myung is actually a Sacred Bone he may take your throne from you” plot of the last few episodes. This was really dumb to me? After everything they’d been through it felt so stupid and pointless for that conflict to exist, and when it turned out they were working together to take down their enemies I was like, cool good yes but maybe the audience could have known that instead of being confused for 3-4 episodes? I don’t know. I was glad they ended up as allies and friends (I think?) but I was disappointed that their long build of a friendship was treated like it didn’t happen in the last few episodes in an attempt to trick/surprise viewers and it wasn’t my favorite.
High Points: I love me some young idealists working together to make the world a better place. Possibly my favorite plot ever so I appreciated that it was the plot of this one. I loved a lot of our main cast and a lot of the character arcs as well. The visuals in this were stunning.
Low Points: Really didn’t love some of our main characters or the main romance, plus I felt the pacing of this suffered a lot. I had some episodes that enthralled me but plenty that I was legit bored during.
Final comments: Overall an enjoyable show and worth a watch, I think. But it did have its problems and failed to make me fully invested in some of the more important things so it was not a slam dunk.