Empire of Gold is not the kind of drama I normally watch, because my relationship with dramas are of as much detachment as possible; shows like Cyrano or basically my entire list of “Dramas I’ve Watched” reflect how little commitment I put into watching dramas of higher caliber—or at least dramas that are not all air. For me, the drama watching experience amounts to the thrill of being in a community of people that are collectively enjoying a particular media. It’s why I listen to K-pop, read Manga, or watch Anime. The community engages me.
Empire of Gold on the other hand, is not a drama easily discussed in a format that I am most used to, nor is it a drama enjoyed by most. (I admit to liking my “boardroom” dramas.) It’s a drama that is interesting not for the events that propel plot but for the mere fact that it carries so much gravitas via characterization. I am as annoyed to watch this drama as I am absolutely thrilled because what I focus on is the pragmatic decisions each character makes as opposed to the emotional driving forces. I get angry when they do something stupid, I show content when they do something right. It’s as though I’m some omnipresent existence that intellectually is invested in my drama pawns. Does that mean I’m interested in their justifications? Nah. I only care about the repercussions.
This narrative approach may lead people to finding Empire of Gold lacking heart, but that’s exactly why I watch it. It’s a drama that’s built on heavy-handedness, placing all of the characters in quasi-unnatural states, a convoluted and unrealistic mess of revenge and ambition, fear and distrust that just may end up having more truth to it than we may realize.
In particular, what stands out about the main character, Tae-joo, is that he’s emotionally casted within the framework of a caricature, and Go Soo plays him as such. Whether this puppeteering is a result of limited acting range or a deliberate act of artfulness, viewing Tae-joo this way enhances the irony of Tae-joo’s personal tragedy: Tae-joo pursues the thing that destroyed his life to the ends of the earth. “If you can’t beat them, join them” is a phrase that could not hold more true in this drama. However, don’t mistake my indication of “tragedy” to actually imply a tragedy. It could easily be a misnomer, as for now, whether Tae-joo’s choices are wrong or right is solely left to the moral deliberations of the viewer. The show itself has said nothing on the matter.
I’m not trying to dig up meaning as though Empire of Gold is a literary masterpiece; calling the drama a reflection of society’s anger and vigilance towards the privileged would be like calling a square a circle. Nevertheless, there something that is enthralling about the show, a quality that surpasses the off-putting nature of makjang and contrived political/corporate intrigue. I find myself invested in Jang Tae-joo’s story because he’s not a hero. He’s a tarnished man who has nothing left but the desire to fulfill is own thirst for monetary self-sufficiency and greed under the guise of upholding the dreams of his family and revenge for his father (it’s utter BS, really). Tae-joo is flawed, and it’s for that reason I care. He’s sporadic and impulsive, and willing to sacrifice his own dignity for monetary gain—a rather twisted perspective when considering his personal circumstances. He goes back to the woman who betrayed him for the sake of winning an economic game. He puts his own life on the line for the chance to exploit the already squalid corporate battleground. If any of that is truly sane, the sky must be falling.
Despite my interest in Tae-joo’s flaws, it’s not enough to be of questionable character in order to draw me in. No, it’s those first ten glorious minutes that beckon me to this show and keep me here. A fever for finding out why and how he got to where he was at that moment, how anti-hero could only slide on a slippery slope to greater evils yet feel his actions just. I seek to answer the question of whether Tae-joo is inherently bad, if President Choi Min-jae (Sohn Hyun-joo) is no more morally ambiguous than Tae-joo, or if Choi Se0-yoon (Lee Yo-won), is best described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Innocence does not exist in Empire of Gold, and every key player is as stained as the next—has as many skeletons in the closet as the rest, is as self-preserving as the rest. For once, the main women have an equal stake in this power struggle instead of being the useless (and banal) observer. Choi Seo-yoon is clearly a woman of power and gracefully ruthless, episode 1 and 2 are enough to see that. I’d even say that she’s probably the one who has the most at stake in game of corporate poker. I would have also added Jang Shin-young‘s Yoon Seul-hee to this list of “empowered women,” but thinking back to those fateful first ten minutes, I remember why I didn’t. For Seul-hee, all it took was a cruel kiss Tae-joo to bring her to her knees. Ugh.
I don’t blame Seul-hee for freaking out and acting in terror, but to defend the man out of love that he clearly doesn’t have for her back? That ‘s stupidity. But I guess that for every woman or man with a good head on his/her shoulders, there’s going to be one who doesn’t. It’s a pretty accurate protrayal of life (until you realize that never really happens with male characters). You do something out of stupidity, it’s going to eventually bite you back.
Nevertheless, let’s hope she I’m mistaken and that there’s more going on that what meets the eye. Will Seul-hee turn around and exact revenge to bring Tae-joo to his knees? What will Seo-yoon try to accomplish by marrying Tae-joo? Provided that these women don’t turn into mere chess pieces in the end, color me intrigued to find out.
In any case, Empire of Gold has become a inexplicable, strange form of K-drama crack. I just hope the thrill is maintained till the end because anticipation derived from ten minutes can only carry one so far. Pacing has certainly improved from episode 1, but it’s still not great. I’m currently banking on Park Kyung-soo‘s writing skills from The Chaser to pull through and the story to get some grounding. Once it does, I probably have no chance of ever leaving.