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Let’s Talk K-Dramas: The Last Empress

So, “The Last Empress,” sets some classic K-drama fantasy tropes, and then turns them on their head, which I love, but seems to be getting less-than-stellar reviews from some fans. While I feel enthused about everything they’ve done here, quite a few fans are feeling betrayed– which for a show about political intrigue, false heroes, and misplaced trust, just strikes me as delicious.

What have they done? Well, they’ve set up a story that promises *all* the standard fan-girl tropes: a) A Prince that “needs” to be saved, b) An every-girl with the “luck” to meet him, c) Stranger-in-a-strange-land introductions to the palace and “real life,” and d) The prince’s former love interest that’s not happy about being replaced.  All of this is tropes galore, which you can see in just about every romantic series if you swap out the palace for some other setting. Plus they’ve thrown in someone with a hidden-identity, a martial-arts revenge plot, and all kinds of action-y  goodness. Here’s where it really gets fun though.

They’ve made the “prince” a complete scoundrel. I mean like really, really despicable. That former lover? Not so in the past.  Why get a wife? He needs a political scapegoat and alibi for a hit-and-run accident… and oh look, here’s this girl being all starry-eyed over him, who he can use to say he was never, ever, anywhere near that hit-and-run accident. He’ll have to destroy evidence? No problem. The son of the hit-and-run accident victim won’t shut up? Well, our Emperor’s got a shady head of security that can take care of that too.

And I’m really not spoiling anything because all of this gets set up within the first two episodes. Not surprisingly, at least to me, the show also doesn’t have a happy ending. Apparently given the bad reviews, many people thought it should have one. I really wonder how anyone thought that was going to go, given that the series starts with a corpse being exhumed from palace grounds, and then flashes back to “one year earlier.” Um guys? The show started by digging a dead person. How as that ever going to arrive at “Happily Ever After,” between the Empress and… who? The emperor’s certainly not an option.  And the other possible love interest is consumed by revenge to the point of blatant self-destruction.

So yeah, no happy ending here. Shocking.

What the show does do incredibly well is set up all the characters vying for, conniving for– and sometimes outright stealing– the power and prestige that the royal family and the emperor embodies. It sets up the politics and motivations of all of these officials, statesmen, or royals to make their actions believable, no matter how horrible or petty or outrageous they are. It shows so many ugly sides of nature, while still managing to keep us invested in whether the royal family’s corruption will finally be exposed, and whether our empress will manage to navigate these unexpectedly treacherous waters and survive. Which makes this show *super* interesting to me. All those tropes earlier? They’re there as a hook, so the show can flip the audience out of the water and twist their expectations all around.

Ok, ok. Maybe I do see why people are upset. But it’s still well-worth watching.



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