With our characters already established and the vibe of the series shifting between romance, comedy and drama, Rookie Historian returns this week with a surprising change of tone, one that sees a much more serious threat come to the foreground of the series. Rich in historical culture, Rookie Historian delivers a sombre and poignant slice of Korean history that sees Prince Lee pushed out of his comfort zone and the true horrors of smallpox shown for all to see.
As reports of smallpox outbreaks begin to stir in the capital, we begin this week’s episode of Rookie Historian with the Ministers suggesting sending someone from the royal palace to calm the people down. Believing this to be a suicide mission, they all vehemently decline until the King decides on the perfect candidate to send – Prince Lee. Volunteering for historical duties, Goo steps up and decides to travel with him upon hearing the news. After lying to the ministers saying she’s had smallpox before, her family expresses concerns over her trip as she packs up to leave.
The news about Prince Lee inevitably doesn’t go down well with the Queen though who confronts the King and vows hell to pay if anyone hurts the Prince. She decides to send Mo-Hwa along for the ride and after saying their goodbyes, the group set out for Pyongyang, where Prince Lee gets a little jealous over Goo flirting with Officer Min about the reasons he’s come along for the trip.
Eventually they make it to Haeju where Sam-Bo lends a helping hand to Prince Lee with traditional customs. After exchanging pleasantries, the ministers there tell him that the situation in Pyongyang is subsiding but Officer Min remains suspicious.
Bringing Goo along for the ride, Prince Lee sneaks out to admire the ocean. He tells her it’s the first time he’s ever visited a beach and he wanted to enjoy it with someone he likes, that person being her. Taking a break from the stressful duties of work, they both admire the beautiful tranquility of the beach before heading back to the palace. Once there, Goo runs into an old acquaintance – Scholar Lee. He arrives in Haeju with a message for Lee – they’ve all been deceived by the Governors as the smallpox outbreak is worse than they all feared.
Deciding to find out if the rumours are really true, Prince Lee and Goo both ride to the outbreak epicenter but are refused entry by masked guards. Instead, they decide to go in by foot and happen upon a group of opportunistic businessmen looking to profit from the disaster. After leaving their company with a few choice words, Goo and Prince Lee find a Mother and child hiding out from the authorities in a ramshackle house in the woods, potentially infected with smallpox.
When Prince Lee returns to the palace soon after, he confronts Governor Jang over his false report who tries to spin it into the people making up rumours. He berates the man and makes sure Officer Min records this down in the history books. Against the advice of all involved, Prince Lee heads into the smallpox-infected area and sees the devastation first-hand. People cower in the streets, white smoke curls into the sky and the sickly smell of death clings to every corner of the town. As they explore deeper, Prince Lee happens upon a familiar face where the episode ends on another tantalizing cliffhanger.
With a distinct lack of comedy this week and much more emphasis on historical world building, Rookie Historian gives us a taste of just what it can conjure up in contrast to the humour and romance in the show. It’s quite the change tonally too given last week I spent a lot of the recap writing about the romance blossoming. It’s a nice curve ball if I’m honest and given how established all these characters are now, it works surprisingly well here.
Given Goo is the main character of the show, interestingly this episode focuses far more exclusively on Prince Lee. Even this early in the series’ 20 (or 40 if you’re watching this in Korea) episode run, the writers appear to be building the Prince up to be an empathetic face to take the crown from the current regime and make drastic changes to the country for the benefit of Korea. Admittedly, I don’t know an awful lot about the Joseon Dynasty but its cultural effect is obviously well documented.
Quite what will happen next remains to be seen but for now Rookie Historian delivers a really solid episode, one that adds the threat of smallpox to proceedings and boasts a good dose of plot development in the process. While there are still snippets of romance and humour here, it’s very much all about the historical drama and for that alone, Rookie Historian deserves props for delivering one of its best episodes.
Expect A Full Season Write Up When This Season Concludes!