Human beings have a rather morbid fascination with watching a series of disastrous events play out in front of them – so long as they can remain safely removed on the sidelines as members of the audience. That’s mostly how I felt watching the 2018/2019 K-Drama The Last Empress. Set in a reimagined modern-day South Korea under the rule of a royal family, this drama throws every absurd plot device in the kitchen sink at its viewers over the course of its run. The term “makjang” was invented to describe a story like this. And, regretfully, I kind of enjoyed it.
Korean Name: 황후의 품격
Genre: Melodrama, romance, mystery-thriller
Number of Episodes: 52 episodes
Episode Length: 30 minutes
Recommended For: Viewers seeking a fast-paced story of court intrigue, romantic hijinks, murder, and makjang galore
NOT Recommended For: Someone looking for a logical, reasonable, or realistic sequence of events
Jang Na Ra as Oh Sunny
Choi Jin Hyuk as Na Wang Sik / Cheon Woo Bin
Lee Elijah as Min Yoo Ra
Shin Sung Rok as Lee Hyuk
In a modern day South Korea ruled by a beloved imperial family, most citizens are unaware of the corruption lurking behind the palace walls – a deceit that extends to the inexplicable death of the late Empress So Hyeon. Aspiring musical actress Oh Sunny is a longstanding fan of the Emperor, Lee Hyuk. When one day she is given the opportunity to visit the palace and attend a luncheon with him, she invites him to one of her performances. To her astonishment and delight, he not only attends, but proposes to her onstage – which she readily accepts.
To Sunny, it seems like a dream come true. In actuality, it is Lee Hyuk’s alibi and a scheme concocted by the royal family and their closest confidants to cover the death of a woman in Buchido caused by the emperor’s recklessness, and the ruthlessness of his lover and royal secretary Min Yoo Ra. Unbeknownst to Emperor Lee Hyuk, the woman he killed was Yoo Ra’s adoptive mother and the actual mother of Yoo Ra’s boyfriend Na Wang Sik. Wang Sik, having pieced together the clues to ascertain Lee Hyuk’s guilt, vows to take revenge on him. After faking his death at the hands of the emperor’s guards, Wang Shik undergoes a complete transformation to become virtually unrecognizable. Less than a year later, he enters the imperial palace as a royal bodyguard under the name of Cheon Woo Bin. Here, Wang Sik sets his plan in motion to ruin the emperor’s life as he did for Wang Sik’s mother, all the while growing unexpectedly close to Empress Oh Sunny. Sunny, meanwhile, slowly begins to uncover just how rotten the core of the imperial palace is and begins her quest for justice not only as a slighted wife, but a woman who refuses to play along with the corruption of the Emperor’s family.
I have to come into this review from a place of total honesty – from the lens of a critical viewer as well as someone just looking for a bit of mindless entertainment. This drama is not good. Not in the strictest sense of the word, where the finer elements of composition and story-telling and just simple logic belong. But this drama is endlessly entertaining. So as much as I admit the story itself is absurd, it is absurd in a way that led me to have way too much fun while watching the majority of the production.
I realized as I was writing the synopsis for this review just how ludicrous this all sounds. After all, the bare amount of plot I recapped as a summary occurs in only the first four or so episodes. Four of fifty-two. There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, so bring out your suitcases and let’s look at what makes The Last Empress such a compelling train wreck. A word to the wise, however: this drama really did crash and burn in the final stretch. Really.
Somewhere next to the definition of “makjang” in some romanized English Koreaboo dictionary, there is a picture of The Last Empress‘s promotional posters. This drama is absurd – no way around it. It’s unpredictable, and often illogical, and every turn is another death or another betrayal or another sudden inexplicable alliance. And that’s mostly what made it so fun to watch. Episodes fly by, and the pace stays lightening fast until the four episode extension becomes obvious – but that’s an issue I’ll address later.
I actually really like the idea of using a modern day setting but modifying the political environment to present a just slightly different world, in the way The Last Empress changes South Korea’s republic to a constitutional monarchy. It’s innovative, and allows for all the political drama and beautiful costumes of a sageuk alongside the convenience of modern technology. And, you know, female characters that are actually allowed to do things without cross-dressing as a man. Love that.
And wow do the women really run the show in this drama. Sunny begins the series as naive and trusting, blind to the debauchery of the royal palace and completely infatuated with Emperor Lee Hyuk. By its conclusion, she’s a verifiable force of nature and able to stand her ground against the worst of the bunch. She’s clever to boot, and able to use the people around her in a way that doesn’t come off as manipulative, but more like she is leading people to her side. And I love that she never lets her past feelings for Lee Hyuk sway her. In fact, romance in general never factors into her driving motivation. Her motive is always a search for justice, never revenge, and it makes it so easy to root for her as the heroine.
This also makes it easy to hate the main antagonists, because they are just so heinous in comparison to Sunny. Be it the Empress Dowager, the Emperor’s mistress Min Yoo Ra, or the nanny Seo Kang Hee who is much more than a nanny – this drama is led by powerful women. By comparison, the men in this drama look a lot more like pawns to be moved at whim by the women that hold them in their grip, and that was a refreshing dynamic to see in a K-Drama. I can see how some people may take issue with the amount of woman-on-woman backstabbing and manipulation occurring in this drama, but I personally enjoyed watching a collection of intelligent and motivated woman (though some having motivations of questionable morality) doing the most. Seeing the Emperor unknowingly become a chess piece pushed around by his mother, wife, and many mistresses was admittedly a lot of fun.
The Last Empress is not a drama without the budding seeds of a romance, however. Unfortunately, I actually think it suffers for it. It’s quite clear from the beginning that Emperor Lee Hyuk is not the love interest to root for, which might lead you to believe that Na Wang Shik is the “good guy” or the “right man” for Sunny.
Wrong. He’s not nearly as sympathetic a character as he should be, given the traumatic events of his mother’s death at the hands of the royal family. His driving need for revenge twists him in a way that leads him to hurt those around him, both physically and emotionally. He shows a remarkable lack of guilt for these misdeeds, and no amount of small acts of chivalry bestowed upon Sunny is going to convince me they make a good match. I like them as allies working towards a common goal. But don’t try to convince me to ship her with a man who tried to kill her at the orders of the Emperor.
In fact, during one of the classic “romantic moments we had together” flashback montages where Sunny is remembering all of the times Wang Shik protected her, one Viki commenter asked: “Will they show the scene of him pushing her off the cliff?” And I had to really laugh because it’s an absolutely valid – and overlooked – question. I didn’t feel their chemistry – maybe because Sunny was a married woman (albeit to a terrible husband) or maybe because Na Wang Shik’s romantic interest in her seemed so contrary to his character and agenda in the palace. He’s there for revenge: cold, hard, brutal revenge. The fact that he’d take the time to get invested in a potential loveline with the woman who married his sworn enemy seems… unlikely. I do think the “bodyguard falls for the person they are assigned to protect” trope is a fun, if somewhat overused, dynamic. So I won’t begrudge the drama for trying to go this route. But it doesn’t work with what we are shown of Na Wang Shik as a person, and ultimately came across as unnecessary to the events of the drama itself.
But I don’t actually take that much issue with the romance in the story, as it doesn’t define what’s most important to our heroine Sunny’s motivations and actions. It’s more of a b-plot to a much bigger conflict, and that worked for the pacing and the development of the story in the best way possible. The Last Empress only started to lose its stride when the four-episode extension near the end of the drama becomes obvious.
I actually really hate when K-Dramas get episode extensions because more often than not that means copious amount of flashbacks and a very menial case of miscommunication thrown in to fill out the extra hours of runtime. Other times, a random sideplot is tacked on right before the finale with the sudden introduction of a new character or two. In any case, it’s usually very easy to tell that this was not organically part of the initial storyline, and this holds true for the extension that was applied to The Last Empress. Thankfully, I can’t really say that the pacing suffered for it, or that we as the audience had to suffer through extra flashbacks. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing I can say about the episode extension.
The biggest problem with the additional four episodes added to the drama was the resulting scheduling issues. The extension created a dilemma where Choi Jin Hyuk was unable to appear because he would be out of the country at a fan meeting. This led to his character being essentially written out the finale – the climax of the show. It was like watching Park Haejin disappear from Cheese in the Trap despite being the main lead all over again. Except in this case, it was horribly apparent it was a scheduling constraint because the writers tried their damnedest to convince the audience that the body double they used as a substitute for Choi Jin Hyuk was the real Na Wang Shik. It was an effort done in vain, and only managed to destroy his character’s credibility and fundamental purpose in the show. Without revealing too many spoilers, Na Wang Shik’s endgame makes his entire character arc seem so incredibly pointless – and all of his struggles in vain.
But even outside the obvious issues surrounding the actor’s availability for the finale, the writing itself didn’t live up to all of the scheming and wild twists and turns that comprised the bulk of the drama otherwise. I very rarely say a story’s ending can ruin the entire work as a whole, because if there was some enjoyment that was had prior to the ending, a goal has been accomplished. The Last Empress‘s conclusion destroys the impact of the 50+ episodes that preceded it, point blank.
You can’t solve all your problems with press-conferences and pre-arranged bombings. I really wanted a stronger finale, not only one that featured a satisfying conclusion for all of the main leads, but one that was at least surprising or dramatic in the way Sunny would finally expose all of the royal family’s crimes. I wasn’t even asking for clever – just interesting. The fact that her plan is so easily foiled, and her actual exposé (SPOILERS) occurs through reporters eavesdropping on a conversation between the empress and nanny that conveniently spelled out all of their misdeeds was cheap storytelling. Even worse, it was a boring wrap-up to a drama that was anything but that. I felt so detached from most of these characters by the end of the story, be it because they disappeared without a warning entirely like Na Wang Shik or their character had a complete and inexplicable reversal like Min Yoo Ra. Don’t even try to tell me Dong Shik would welcome her back into his life as a mother figure after she ignored him his entire childhood and then kidnapped and terrorized him in the palace to use for leverage. Children are trusting, not stupid.
Ah Ri and Oh Sunny had the only real logical and satisfying conclusion in the entire drama. I like that Sunny’s endgame was her finding her own strength and power as a woman – no love interest required. And Ah Ri was realistically traumatized by the events of the palace and her family’s disgrace. And yet she still had the resilience to live happily with the people around her who did love her unconditionally and treat her like the child she is – not a pawn. Ah Ri’s lingering attachment to her birth mother was completely understandable, and more than a little heartbreaking to see. The woman birthed her, and then served her for Ah Ri’s entire life. Even if she was being manipulated all the while, that’s not something easily forgotten. And that affection can’t be erased.
Speaking of affection… I’ll admit there was one last aspect of the finale I enjoyed. That being the prince and Oh Hello’s happy ending. We stan the only non-toxic romantic relationship in the entire drama, yes we do.
Oh Sunny is the definition of character development. It was so satisfying to watch a gullible girl evolve into a woman hardened by tragedy but resilient enough to come out stronger on the other side. I love love love the “naïve character learns to become cunning and manipulative” trope. While it may not be the kindest form of character development, it is one of the most interesting to watch play out. And Sunny’s schemes are always for a greater good – be it justice for her mother, or the late Empress Grand Empress Dowager, or any of the countless people wronged by the imperial family. Her motivation comes from a moral place, something she is clearly very conscious of with her actions. It was nice to see that Sunny’s character arc was neither defined, nor really driven, by her two potential love interests. Let’s not forget that both of these men attempted to kill her. Which isn’t the most romantic of gestures in my book. Or any book, really.
Na Wang Shik, despite being the lesser of two evils, was surprisingly bland to me – both as a love interest and just a character in general. His single motivation throughout the drama is revenge, and he pushes and crosses all kinds of moral boundaries throughout the drama to get there. I don’t have much to say about him otherwise, because I feel so apathetic towards his character. That ending really just soured any kind of lasting impact he might have had on the events of the story.
As far as romantic interests go, I did feel that Sunny had more chemistry with Emperor Lee Hyuk. I won’t say that the Emperor was the right man for her though. Not by a long shot. In fact, my feelings for Emperor Lee Hyuk can entirely be summed up as:
I hesitate to call Lee Hyuk a nuanced character, as the word “nuance” doesn’t belong in a hundred foot radius of this drama. But he is at least a complex one – a man with motives, regrets, and a very warped conscience that is uniquely his own. As conscious I am of the traumatic childhood that twisted his perception of the world, that doesn’t absolve him of his many crimes – and his refusal to change until the very bitter end.
He’s an adulterer two times over, a murder accomplice, and an attempted murderer more times than I can count. The fact that he didn’t actually succeed in killing all the people he tried to is no merit to his morality. He is just incompetent, or picks people to do his dirty work that aren’t nearly as loyal as he believes. The Last Empress tries to hide this sometimes with his “cute” antics and the way he fawns over Sunny as he eventually falls for her. But it’s like a bad aftertaste that never quite disappears. Lee Hyuk is not a good person. His redemption arc, if you can call it that, is not a valid one. But did I have fun watching it regardless? Yes.
I actually really enjoyed Seo Kang Hee as an unexpected, and then unexpectedly competent, antagonist as well. I love that she was introduced first as this very unassuming background character, only to be revealed as someone who commits some of the most heinous crimes in the entire drama. Morally gray mothers who act selfishly, and often harmfully, out of unselfish desires for their children is something I just love seeing played out. She’s not a good person by any means, but I am always fascinated to see bad things done with mostly good intentions. It’s not so much power that she wants, but a future for her daughter Ah Ri, and she’ll claw her way to the top to get that. I kind of have to respect her drive, even if I can’t condone all the betrayal and conniving she does along the way.
Kang Hee’s character is actually the perfect foil for both the Empress Dowager and Min Yoo Ra, who both use (read: abuse) and manipulate their own children out of a completely selfish desire for power and control. Min Yoo Ra refuses to acknowledge her own son as her flesh and blood for most of the drama (something I take a major issue with, considering the “happy family” ending she got despite this). And the Empress Dowager outright tries to murder both of her sons. If that’s not a stunning display of maternal affection, I don’t know what is.
But let’s talk about Min Yoo Ra. She’s a woman who spends most of the drama as an antagonist and undergoes one of the biggest reversals of the entire cast by the end. And honestly, Min Yoo Ra’s character arc is an absolute catastrophe. The writers’ decision to haphazardly shove into one of the final episodes the true reason she was so determined to gain power in the palace was to take revenge on the imperial family after being sexually assaulted by one of their staff was stomach-churning. There is something incredibly distasteful about making a rape victim into a heartless woman willing to murder her own adopted mother out of motivation to stay in the palace and seek her personal revenge. I would have preferred the writers leave Yoo Ra as just a selfish, cunning woman instead of trying to create what I assume was meant to be a sympathetic backstory. It just didn’t sit right with me, and felt more like an afterthought than careful plotting.
As for the Empress Dowager… where do I even start? She’s easily the most unlikeable character in the entire drama, and one of the only characters without a single shred of redeemability. She’s also, however, inconsistent. Despite being consistently selfish, power-hungry, greedy, and all other manner of negative adjectives – we’re somehow supposed to believe she cared for her family in her own twisted way. But even the writers couldn’t escape their bad writing of her character with an attempt at self-awareness. (Major spoilers ahead!) Some of Lee Hyuk’s last words to his horrified mother after she realizes she fatally shot him and not Na Wang Shik is along the lines of “Why are you so shocked? You tried to kill me before.” And it’s absolutely true. The Empress Dowager tried to murder both of her sons in cold blood, so her reaction to his death seemed so out of character and a blatant attempt at some added tension during the climax of the drama. I just wasn’t convinced.
I’ve seen a number of Jang Nara’s dramas in the past, one of which being my second favorite K-Drama of all time I Remember You. That being said, I’ve never quite been so invested in her performance as I was with The Last Empress. She did an absolutely fantastic job of playing a character that was putting on a naïve front to the other members of the royal household – an actress playing an actress, if you will. The fact that she was able to do this so convincingly earns her all the kudos from me. It truly felt like I was watching a woman become more and more disillusioned, and yet also more comfortable with her own power as an individual. I think Jang Nara’s performance was one of the biggest selling points of the story as a whole, and certainly one of the key parts that kept me watching.
Choi Jin Hyuk was perfectly fine as Na Wang Shik, Cheon Woo Bin – whatever name you want to call him. Both characters acted essentially the same, despite one supposed to have been a secret identity, so there’s that. I will say that it’s laughable the writers tried to pass him off as Tae Hang Ho but thinner. Both actors are decent, but their interpretation of Na Wang Shik felt very different onscreen between the first four episodes and the bulk of the show. Particularly the portrayal of Na Wang Shik’s despair over the death of his mother. Once again, a good performance from both actors, but it wasn’t the same performance. And I suppose that’s to be expected.
I like Shin Sung Rok in antagonist roles that are a little less blatant as Lee Hyuk. He shines in ambiguously villainous roles like his character in Liar Game, but the Emperor in The Last Empress was a little too campy-evil to bring that same kind of sinister feeling. I did wholly enjoy his performance, however, and watching his character toy the line between murderous megalomaniac and jealous petty husband required an acting range that Sung Rok fully committed to. He also had some moments I somewhat reluctantly admit were rather cute. So here’s to hoping he stops getting typecast in these villain roles for all eternity.
Beyond our three main leads were a handful of really great performances as well. Shin Eun Kyung, who I loved in The Village: Achiara’s Secret, was the suitably evil, conniving mother-in-law character. I didn’t connect as much with her acting here, maybe because I hated her character, maybe because I found her temper tantrums so unbelievable. It was almost comically over-the-top and I oftentimes found her more annoying than intimidating. But she was at least believably annoying, and some of her less manic moments I found to be very good.
I think the child actress who played Ah Ri deserves a special mention too. For someone so young, she brought a lot of poise and emotion to a character that experienced nearly as much growth as Sunny did throughout the drama. And I commend this little girl for that. She’s definitely going places.
I’m still somewhat undecided as to how I feel about Lee Elijah’s performance as Min Yoo Ra. There are moments where I think she was excellent, and other times I wanted to laugh at how forced her seductress, “other woman” persona was.
Perhaps the most questionable performance of all comes in the form of Lee Hee Jin as Princess Sojin. She hails from the Lee Sung Kyung as Baek In Ha school of acting. That is to say, her character was just so absurd I’m not sure it could have come off as convincing if it was given to a Daesang award-winning actress. There’s just something so grating about watching a grown woman throw childish tantrums decked in luxury items, and that’s mostly all that Lee Hee Jin was expected to do throughout the drama.
Oddly enough, despite all the flaws in the actual writing of The Last Empress, the soundtrack of the drama was a very well-produced collection of music. It’s been a while since I’ve actually looked up a K-Drama OST after hearing it play at the end of an episode just to hear more, but I’m happy to announce Gaho’s “Not Over” was that song for me.
The instrumental swells in all the right places to turn the song from generic to dynamic, and Gaho’s voice is the perfect accompaniment. He’s young – only 21 years old – and has only recently become active in the music industry so I really am looking forward to hearing more of his voice in future drama soundtracks.
I also want to give an honorable mention to Jimin’s “Low Voice.” It’s admittedly a little reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” but just way too catchy for me to really care. Regardless, Jimin’s voice is beautiful, and underutilized, so I was happy to hear her tackle one of the original songs for this drama.
It’s rare that I find just one OST in a K-Drama I put on repeat, and even more uncommon to come across two in the same drama. As a whole, the soundtrack of The Last Empress did the most to make up for other major technical issues in this drama. For all my complaints, you won’t find any from me grumbling about the music at least.
For all the drama’s faults in telling a plausible or tangentially realistic story, the more technical aspects of the show are remarkably good. The set and costume design bring to life the opulence of the royal family, while forays out into the “real world” of modern day South Korea remind the audience with current fashion and technology that this is not actually a period drama. The actual filming of scenes highlights the atmospheric setting of the sprawling expanse of the palace, with wide shots that take the time to illustrate its size and complexity.
And the fight scenes aren’t played up and over-choreographed. Rather, they feel like a genuine interaction between trained individuals, instead of two actors back-flipping across a set. That’s something I always look for, and appreciate, in dramas because the over-the-top Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fighting style always pulls me from my immersion in a story with how ludicrous it looks. We had enough ludicrous in The Last Empress without fight choreography to worry about.
If you're looking for a mindless, fast-moving escape from realism to sit through, "The Last Empress" might be the drama for you. Only be warned of the messy finale and an unsatisfying ending for some of the characters with the story's conclusion.