Generals may serve kings, but the hero in Gyebaek is doing it for the people. Given the shoddy leadership in the last days of Baekje in this Kdrama, somebody has to.
Our hero, Gyebaek (Lee Seo Jin), is first exposed to loyalty by his father, Moo Jin (Cha In Pyo). Not only does he fend off the unwanted advances of Sa Taek Bi (Oh Yun Soo), the future queen, he also stays loyal to King Moo (Choi Jung Hwan), even to the point of death. However, this unquestioning loyalty to the crown is often undeserved. King Moo keeps putting Moo Jin in impossible situations, situations that he creates due to a combination of his fear of the nobles and desperation to keep the throne. It is for these reasons that he sends Moo Jin to help his Silla-born queen and their son escape (yeah, THAT ends well) at the risk of Moo Jin’s own pregnant wife’s life. When Moo Jin returns years later, he is once again subject to the bad decisions of King Mu and sacrifices himself right in front on Gyebaek.
These events have a profound effect on Gyebaek, as he nurses the grudge of the ages for years. What helps him to break out of it is having to take care of people in his care, first as a Baekje slave in a Silla fortress and later with some peasants in a mountain hideout. Unlike his father, he gets to know the people who are weak, defenseless and often put in peril by the powers-that-be. When his own loyalty to Prince (and later King) Uija (Jo Jae Hyun) becomes almost unbearable to keep, he reimagines himself as a guardian, not of a king, but of a people.
However, Gyebaek comes off as such a good leader and sacrificing servant of the people because selfishness resides at the highest levels in the Kdrama. It wouldn’t be a Kdrama without some backstabbing and conniving by people who want to stop Gyebaek’s selfless acts. We have Sa Taek Bi who seeks to amass and keep power for herself. Not quite as bad as the ultimate royal villain, Mishil (Queen Seondeok), but she does her share. She’s got the requisite hidden, secret, highly trained force that will whack people on her whims, access to nobles with money and power, and the will to wield both at anybody she deems an enemy. We’ve seen this before: she grew up in a political family, so you’re not surprised when she goes to great lengths to keep power.
Like Sa Taek Bi, other people who feel the backhand of power just turn around and become worse than the people who oppressed them. Eun Go (Song Ji Hyo), the love interest of Gyebaek since childhood who also catches Uija’s eye, starts out doing it for the people. A merchant, she acts as a go-between, able to access the palace without being part of the political drama (at least at first). She and Uija plot to kick out the bad guys because they are good guys who want to improve life for everyone in all classes. However, something goes terribly wrong, and once she gets a taste of power she becomes just anotther Sa Taek Bi (just like she said she would!). She’s willing to beat anyone down to make her son Crown Prince (just like Sa Taek Bi!), eliminate those threaten her plans (just like Sa Taek Bi!) and cut all ties in an effort to keep her position (just like, well, you know).
But that’s ok, she’s just the almost/eventual queen. Uija is a whiny king whose crazy jealously and bad decisions bring down Baekje, despite Gyebaek’s best efforts. You might feel sorry for Uija. Seeing his mother murdered and having to grow up with the woman who ordered her death, having to pretend that he’s an idiot to save his skin and dealing with a father who would gladly sacrifice his own son to keep the throne would make anyone a little….not right in the head. Yeah, he has issues, but he makes a pact with Gyebaek, Heung Soo and Sung Choong (two very unorthodox yet very clever advisors) to create a new world where no one suffers. Of course this happens when Uija is down on his luck. What does he have to lose? These guys do all the heavy lifting to get Uija back in the palace and eventually on the throne.
However, there are two problems. One is Uija’s unrequited love for Eun Go. She’s trying to get revenge, and he’s trying to get her. So he does the unthinkable: lies and puts her in a position to be executed and “saves” her by marrying her. All so that he can have her, and presumably, Gyebaek can’t.
The other problem is Uija’s jealousy. Maybe if he did something on his own, he wouldn’t be jealous. But Gyebaek succeeds in protecting Baekje, even when put in harms way by Uija. It makes Uija crazy. Literally. I knew Uija had lost his mind when during a battle with Silla, he kills the daughter of Silla’s eventual king, Chunchu (that’s the wrong guy to mess with. I learned that from watching Queen Seondeok). With his own hands. Just to say he did something. This not only is against the rules of righteous soldiers, it also unnecessarily brings the ire of Chunchu on Baekje. We all know Chunchu isn’t going to rest until he grinds Uija’s bones into dust and burns Baekje down to the ground.
It was interesting to see a man exhibit unbridled jealousy over someone who was once a sworn brother, but it didn’t have to be that way. Uija had more than enough people trying to tell him he was headed down the wrong path. My favorites are Heung Soo and Sung Choong, or as I like to think of them, Frick and Frack. Heung Soo is mad genius who flouts authority but also has a strong sense of loyalty and feeling for the people. He even swaggers out of the palace after refusing to give the royal robes to Sa Taek Bi’s whiny son. Sung Choong, his more even-tempered counterpart, meets Gyebaek as a Silla captive and sees his potential. Together, they are the best advisers a king could have. They anticipate the enemy as well as the politics of the court.
While they all work to get Uija on the throne, it’s Sung Choong and Heung Soo who see first hand how Uija gets out of control. They try, but there is nothing they can do to stop him. Sadly for Sung Choong, he grapples with Eun Go and loses. If that isn’t bad enough, what is worse is Heung Soo’s reaction. He is just broken when his best friend is murdered. He goes all-out to show that Eun Go was behind it, but when Uija finds out, he does nothing to her. This woman not only breaks the sworn pact, she is also a traitor. In her desire to get her son on the throne, she spills Baekje troop movements to tells Yushin (yes, Queen Seondeok’s Yushin!) in Silla. Heung Soo mourns Sung Choong’s death, but he never gets over his disillusionment over Uija’s failure to act. He writes a strategy book and withdraws from public life.
Ultimately, Uija becomes the last king of Baekje because of his failure to work out his personal issues, and Gyebaek goes down as a hero of Baekje. Given who he hangs out with, I’m not surprised.