Tree With Deep Roots premiered last week with ratings in single digits. Its first two episodes drew 9.2% and 8.2%, respectively. (Source: TNmS) It was not a surprising result considering it had to contend against the finale of The Princess’s Man, but even so, it’s really unfortunate because Tree With Deep Roots started out so strong. And in particular, one actor’s acting talent was on fire like I’ve never seen him before.
King Sejong the Great is regarded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) rulers in Korean history, being honored posthumously with the title of “the Great” and his face gracing the current South Korean 10,000 won (equivalent to $10) bill. During his 32-year reign, King Sejong is credited with supporting science and technological advances, strengthening the military, and presiding over the invention of Hangul, the Korean alphabet.
Until the introduction of Hangul, Koreans relied on the use of Chinese characters (Hanja) to read and write. Due to the complex nature of the Chinese characters and the difficulties of transcribing them into the Korean language, only those in the ruling class who had the luxury of spending much time in learning could actually afford to learn to read and write. The invention of Hangul allowed anyone to become literate in a matter of days.
King Sejong’s birth name was Yi Do. (King Sejong was his temple name, the name given to the kings after their passing.) Born as the third son of King Taejong (birth name: Yi Bangwon), Sejong became the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. His predecessor and father, King Taejong, helped his own father, Yi Seong-gye (later known as King Taejo), to overthrow the crumbling Goryeo Dynasty and establish a new one, Joseon. However, when Taejo selected another son as the crown prince to succeed him, Taejong led the Strife of Princes to get rid of his opponents, including the statesman, Jeong Dojeon, and his half-brother/crown prince.
Disillusioned at seeing his sons kill each other for power, King Taejo soon abdicated and crowned another son, Yi Bang-gwa, as the new king (later known as King Jeongjong). However, afraid of his brother, King Jeongjong too abdicated his throne within his first year and crowned Yi Bangwon/King Taejong as the third king of the Joseon Dynasty.
King Taejong believed in absolute power of the monarchy, and for this purpose, he killed and got rid of anyone who may compromise his absolute authority, including even his followers and his in-laws. This is the historical context in which Tree With Deep Roots begins.
Palace guard KANG CHAE-YOON (Jang Hyuk) creeps into the palace late at night and counts the steps he will have to take from where he stands to reach where the king will be sitting during the morning and congratulatory assemblies. He envisions the path he will have to take and the guards he will have to fight off before he reaches his final obstacle, MU-HYOOL (Jo Jin Woong), King Sejong’s personal guard and Joseon’s greatest swordsman. Chae-yoon imagines blinding Mu-hyool with a pack of powder and then leaping into the air to stab the king. But before he can succeed, the archers guarding the palace arrive and shoot their arrows at him.
His plan as it stands will likely fail, until he can become faster or shorten the distance between himself and the king. Chae-yoon resolves to wait on making his attack until he can raise his success rate. He clenches his teeth as he whispers, “Yi Do.”
But on his way back, who should he encounter but KING SEJONG (Han Suk Kyu) himself? Stunned, Chae-yoon forgets to bow before the king. And when he does bow, he becomes so engrossed with the possibility of making his attack now that he fails to answer the king’s question. Just five steps away, with only six guards surrounding the king and no Mu-hyool, the chance of success is good. Unfortunately, Chae-yoon realizes he doesn’t have a sword with him, and just then, Mu-hyool also arrives. Once again, Chae-yoon decides to postpone the attack for another day.
Upon seeing Chae-yoon on the ground, Mu-hyool recognizes him and explains to the king that he is the man sent by General Kim Jongseo. (And for those who watched The Princess’s Man, yup, that would be Seungyu’s father!) The king turns to walk away, leaving Chae-yoon still bowing on the ground. But he suddenly pauses and turns to ask Chae-yoon for his name.
Chae-yoon: (in his head) My name is… my name is…
We flash back many years to 1418, the first year of Sejong’s reign as the king.
A man by the name of Kang Sang-in is getting tortured during an interrogation, even as he insists that Prime Minister, Shim On, is innocent. His interrogators, Park Eun and Jo Malsaeng, explain that it is the will of the abdicated king (King Taejong) that Shim On is found guilty, whether or not he actually is.
(HISTORICAL NOTE: Kang Sang-in, Park Eun, and Jo Malsaeng were all real-life historical figures. As followers of King Taejong, they had contributed to helping him successfully gain the throne. But after King Sejong took the throne, Kang Sang-in was found guilty of attempting to stir discord between the father and son by reporting directly and solely to King Sejong and not to the abdicated King Taejong.)
Prime Minister Shim On is King Sejong’s father-in-law. His household has many servants and they greatly respect him. Among his servants are SEOK-SAM (Jung Suk Yong) and his son, DDOL-BOK (who later grows up to be Kang Chae-yoon).
Seok-sam injured his head after falling down a hill while trying to save his son’s life. As a consequence of that accident, he has become mentally handicapped. The other servants at Shim On’s household, particularly Geol-sang, often tease Seok-sam and call him a dimwit. Ddol-bok refuses to stand to watch others tease his father, and does not hesitate to beat up anyone who dares bully his father, including the much older Geol-sang.
Geol-sang’s daughter, DAM, is Ddol-bok’s friend. She feels upset that her father bullies Seok-sam for it upsets Ddol-bok, hinting at that she might have a crush on Ddol-bok as well. In fact, she always sides with Ddol-bok and Seok-sam whenever there is a discord between them and her father.
After another fight in which Ddol-bok beats up Geol-sang for teasing his father, Shim On’s younger brother, Shim Jung, listens to their story and punishes Geol-sang by sending him on an errand.
That evening, Dam gives Ddol-bok a small pouch she made using the leftover patches of silk remaining from a dress for the lady of the house. Ddol-bok notes that there is a writing embroidered on the pouch.
Ddol-bok: Wow, you can read this complicated-looking writing, Dam?
Dam: (proudly) Of course! When I see something just once, whether it is a writing or a drawing, I memorize it!
Ddol-bok: That’s right. You’re really amazing!
Dam explains that the character she meant to embroider on the pouch is one for “Luck,” but she could not complete it because she ran out of thread.
Ddol-bok: Wow, Dam, you’re really, really amazing! You totally seem like a yangban (nobleman). No, you seem even smarter than them!
Dam: (excitedly) Really?!
Ddol-bok explains that he too stole something to give to Dam and hands her a case of rouge (red makeup to apply to the lips and the cheeks). They smile as they apply the rouge to each other’s face.
When they return home after exchanging their gifts, they find that their master’s home is surrounded by soldiers. The servants of the house try to stop their path, but are beaten. Ddol-bok finds his father getting beaten as well, and helps him escape. Dam’s father, Geol-sang, was fortunately not in because he had already left for his errand. So the three of them- Seok-sam, Ddol-bok, and Dam- all run away and hide out.
Meanwhile, the soldiers push their way into the house with the declaration that they’re here to arrest Shim Jung. It is the royal command.
The next day, the abdicated king, TAEJONG (Baek Yoon Shik) is informed on the status of the “interrogation.” After undergoing torture, Kang Sang-in has named names, including Park Seub and Queen’s uncle, Shim Jung. However, none of them has yet mentioned who Taejong is truly after – Shim On. Jo Malsaeng reassures Taejong that it won’t be long until they do.
Young Sejong (SONG JOONG KI), fully aware that his father is making another political move, trembles in fear and retreats to the library. Whenever this happens, he immerses himself to trying to solve difficult mathematics problems involving magic squares.
In frustration, the Queen rushes into the library and pleads for Sejong to act and save her father and uncle.
Sejong: I’m afraid.
Queen Soheon: So, what does this magic square do for you? What does it solve for you to do this whenever something like this happens? Is this magic square more important to you than my father? He’s the king’s father-in-law. He’s my father, and Your Majesty’s father-in-law! Kang Sang-in has already named my uncle. Who else is left for my uncle to name? As soon as my father returns, he’ll surely be apprehended. As soon as he returns, he’ll be executed by poisoning… Please save him. Please save my father. Is there truly nothing you can do? Please, please save him!
Sejong flashes back to all the past executions committed/ordered by his father, and the helplessness he felt as the others pleaded to him to save them. And in particular, he remembers the words told to him by a young man. “You can do nothing.” Sejong repeats those words to his queen.
Before the court, Sejong is pressured to stamp a decree ordering the execution of those already arrested for the high treason of the attempt to create a strife between the king and his father (and not a mere execution, but one involving death by dismemberment), and the arrest of Shim On as soon as he returns from Ming Dynasty. After helplessly stamping the decree, Sejong returns to his library in defeat, only to find his father waiting for him.
Taejong rebukes his son for his “addiction” to magic squares, and then proceeds to volunteer to help solve it for him.
Taejong: A problem in which the numbers in all rows, all columns, and both diagonals sum to the same constant is called a magic square?
Sejong: Yes, Your Majesty.
Taejong: I’ve never done it, but it’s too simple. It’s too easy. (He removes all the blocks, but for one in the middle.) See? Every column, every row, every diagonals – it adds up to one! Using this method, even a 33×33 magic square is easy to solve. Just throw everything away except for one number. No matter how many numbers there are, you can solve them all. You can’t even solve the 33×33 magic square problem, but the world matters involve hundred thousands. Humans can’t live for 100 years or 200 years. When will you ever solve it like that? (Pointing to his finished product.) This is the King’s way! That’s power. Get rid of what you don’t need or what gets in your way! Centralize power to one. That’s me – Lee Bangwon!
Well, Sejong decides to do something. He calls for his trusted men, Mu-hyool and Lee Shin-juk, but learns that they’re all gone as they’ve been called by Taejong. His last resort is to have a young palace maid leave the palace unsuspectingly under the premise that her mother is ill. Instead, she is to deliver his message to Shim On’s trusted servant, who is to hurriedly relay the message to Shim On before the soldiers can get to him first.
At Shim On’s residence, chaos continues to ensue as the soldiers hold everyone, including the servants, captive inside the house. Geol-sang returns from his errand to look for his daughter, and is taken into custody as well. In such circumstances, the palace maid cannot get inside the house. She finds Dam calling for her dad, and together, they return to Ddol-bok’s hideout. She gives Sejong’s letter to them, and tells them to deliver the message to Shim On.
Ddol-bok is wary in trusting her, and so he has Dam read the letter to confirm that the letter is really what the palace maid says it is. Dam looks over the letter, and hesitantly confirms the message.
Reassured, Ddol-bok wants to go and deliver the message himself, but Seok-sam quickly snatches the letter away. Realizing that this is a dangerous mission, he insists that he’ll deliver the letter himself. It is only right that the father protects his son. And so Ddol-bok and Dam are forced to wait as Seok-sam runs all night and all day until he finally catches up to Shim On and his entourage.
Seok-sam successfully hands the letter to Shim On, explaining that he has been sent by His Majesty. However, when Shim On opens the letter and reads it, his hands start to tremble. The letter contains an order to take up arms for a rebellion. And just then, the soldiers arrive for Shim On’s arrest, while he still has the incriminating letter in his hands.
In fact, the girl was a mole planted by Taejong’s man, Jo Malsaeng. And before delivering Sejong’s letter, she had swapped it with one planted by him, per Taejong’s order.
One of the soldiers asks what is the letter that Shim On is holding and who is it from. Seok-sam innocently raises his arm and before Shim On can stop him, he proudly explains that it was he who delivered the message from His Majesty. The soldier quickly signals to his man, and his man applies a deadly blow to Seok-sam’s head.
Back in the palace, King Sejong learns that Shim On was arrested and that it was his father who swapped the letters. And as Taejong reads Sejong’s original letter, he disapproves, expressing concern over how his “soft-hearted” son would rule the country as its king. As for Shim On, Taejong knows that he would choose to die in silence to protect Sejong rather than deny any involvement with a rebellion or mention Sejong’s name as the “origin” of the letter. (This is also why Seok-sam, as the messenger, had to be killed.)
And Taejong was right. Shim On silently drinks the poison without a word. But before he does so, he sees Seok-sam crying that he has something to tell his son, Ddol-bok, even as he bleeds to death. Being a compassionate master, Shim On requests for a paper and ink, and writes on Seok-sam’s behalf his last will to his son.
Meanwhile, all the servants of Shim On’s household are dragged to prison. When Ddol-bok and Dam run up to Geol-sang as he gets dragged away, they too get captured and thrown into prison.
In prison, Ddol-bok asks Dam whether she really read the letter properly.
Ddol-bok: Tell me! Did you really read it properly? Did the letter really tell him to stay away? You, you didn’t know, did you? You can’t read, can you?! It’s your fault! If you read it wrong, then it’s your fault. Because of you, everyone will die!
Geol-sang defends his daughter, and shouts that they’ve all been tricked. The servants in prison wonder why they have to all die. And just then, Seok-sam gets thrown into the same cell.
He’s already half-dead, but as he sees Ddol-bok, he reaches out his hand and hands his son his will before taking his final breath.
In shock, Ddol-bok calls after his dad. And then in tears, he shakes his lifeless father as he repeatedly screams, “Who did this to you?! Tell me, who did this to you?!”
And at the same time, Queen Soheon enters her husband’s room. In tears, she tells the silent King Sejong, “Without saying a single word, he [Shim On] passed away. Why would he have done that? Who would it have been for? It’s for you, Your Majesty. It’s because of you, Your Majesty. Because he didn’t want to be a burden to you, he chose to die. It was you who killed him.”
What a strong start to this drama! I love the little details about this drama. For instance, in a drama about the mystery leading up to the invention of Hangul, how appropriate is it that the protagonists are unable to avoid a conflict because they cannot read?
The first episode stayed pretty true to history, although it was an interesting interpretation of King Sejong’s beginning as king and his relationship with his father, King Taejong. And speaking of those two kings, it was expected that Baek Yoon Shik would deliver. But what an awesome, awesome performance by Song Joong Ki! I must admit. Even during Sungkyunkwan Scandal, I did not think of him much more than a pretty face. But in his subtle delivery of the fear, nervousness, and frustration of the young Sejong, I saw the birth of a truly talented young actor. In fact, his performance of the young King Sejong was the most impressive performance I’ve seen (at least in the last 5 years or so) by a young actor in his age category. And even if it’s just for that, I think everyone should check out Tree With Deep Roots. Watch out! Song Joong Ki will be a force to be reckoned with in the future!