Musings: Empire of Gold and “The Art of Loving”

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I was on Vault of Doom this afternoon reading about various dramas including Empire of Gold, but in particular, what it means to understand a work of literature in the original language as compared to the casual and detached consumption of pop-culture. I’m not going to be delusional and think that K-drama supersedes pop-culture, but to acknowledge that there truly is an art form involved with the show that I, as a non-Korean speaker, will most certainly miss, is not that large of a leap in thinking. What does take some grappling is coming to terms with what I see as translation, that which I prod and try to understand, is fundamentally flawed; what I write here and on every episode of the show I’ve covered, is therefore flawed as well.
I guess for the purposes of this blog, it’s fine. This place is a means by which I put my words out in the world for others to judge for themselves with little need to show vast knowledge, or to be given ethos by my audience. Nevertheless, I continuously wonder how I’d feel if I truly had knowledge of Korean, such that the strengths and flaws of a drama that I perceive are not conceived under false pretenses or mediated. Would my views of EoG or other dramas change appreciably? Could it change drastically? Answer to question one: probably. Answer to question two: I hope not.
(I also apologize for the massive mind spill below.)

—◊—

It might be worthwhile starting with a quotation from a very relevant name in the last episode, Erich Fromm.

There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.

I guess it’s rather ironic that the above quotation has little to do with why Erich Fromm was mentioned in episode 18, yet I think this sentence is particularly informative and more relevant to the show than the one actually used when thinking about why and how actions are taken by characters. Fromm stated the above as a basis for explaining that “moral indignation” is merely a discreet mechanism for indulging in envy or hate. However, in Empire of Gold, the revelation is regards to the “phenomenon of destructive feeling”; that revenge based upon “moral indignation” may be the worst kind of revenge, the revenge that will lead to more bloodshed than anything else. Unsurprisingly, it’s that kind revenge continues to fuel the motivations of our main quartet of characters. Episode 17-18 show that over the course of nearly two decades, none have come to recognize that nearly everything they have gone through, all the tears, loss, and pain are a result of one kind of thinking: anger towards the world’s supposed cruelty.

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The Paradox of Motive

This is where the conundrum of Jang Tae-joo comes in. He understands that “a bad world” and “a good world” are selfish constructs; he tells Pil-joo that when one’s life is going well, he believes in a good world, but when things go badly, he believes in an inherently cruel world. Yet when it comes to his war against Sung-jin and the Choi family, he fails to come to the same conclusions. Like the other three characters at the center of the fray, “moral indignation” is probably the biggest motivating factor for everything he does. Otherwise, Tae-joo has no purpose whatsoever; why would he need to hate Sung-jin group? Greed? For a man with Tae-joo’s intellect, greed as a basis of hatred is nothing short of being a royal embarrassment.

All of them, the quartet, feel that winning Sung-jin group will somehow give them everything they’ve lost in life; love, friendship, family, the list could go on. They’ve spent the better part of their lives trying to regain something that’s only fleeting. They’ll live on edge for what is left of those lives, bound to the company and vice because that’s all they have. That’s all they’ll ever have. Tae-joo keeps telling himself that Sung Jin will change from Hell to Heaven once he takes control, especially in the last few episodes. I think that’s he’s just lying to himself, and by extension, Seol-hee. He knows first hand that being at the top only means you have to worry about how you’ll be knocked off, or how your life will change because the “wind starts blowing in a different direction.”

For whom or for what Min-jae, Seo-yoon, and Jung-hee are fighting for are obvious–Park Kyung-soo explicitly describes them through the last 18 episodes. Tae-joo’s motives on the other hand, are clouded; he tells Seo-yoon over and over that one cannot have a “happy dinner table and Sung Jin Group,” while seemingly trying to accomplish just that in his promises to Seol-hee about “conquering Sung Jin and making it heaven.” Could it be that Tae-joo is just like any person—advising one thing and doing something else? Absolutely; Tae-joo is human. However, for someone to continuously stress a philosophy that he doesn’t follow himself is a tad problematic. So what does Tae-joo want for Seol-hee, and what does he want for himself?

Separating these two questions is critical to understanding Tae-joo, because what he wants for himself and what he wants “for Seol-hee” are quite different. I see lots of people confused and annoyed by Jang and his actions, stating that his words are cryptic and his face is totally expressing love Seol-hee (which is apparently a problem because TJ/SY is the promised “OTP”). I’m going to stay away from arguing why the TJ/SY ship (in the manner that international fans are perceiving it) is a detrimental turn of events for Seo-yoon and her development as a feminist character, and focus on the former part. Why is Tae-joo cryptic?

First of all, he’s a guy. Guys are cryptic, and Tae-joo’s personality only begets more of that cryptic behavior. To expect him to be forward with any sort of feelings is as likely as getting a lion to jump through a hoop of fire; it can happen. But is it likely? Not a chance. He has told Seol-hee he adored her once. And when did he tell her this? He told her when he was about to leave the only world he knows—just like Hitler—and even then, it was a backhanded, “surrender to the person you love.” Here is a quotation from Hitler regarding Eva Braun (via this article) that leaves one wondering whether Tae-joo views Seol-hee this way:

Imagine if on top of everything else I had a woman who interfered with my work! In my leisure time I want to have peace .. I could never marry.

Yeah. That’s a little disconcerting.

For Tae-joo, the concept of taking over the “Empire of Gold” may be a just flaccid goal, not a tangible desire. The differences are subtle but important—what he wants is not money, but the power to change the world that comes with money. When his father burned to crisp, he was powerless to do anything about it. Sung Jin was the representation of having the power to move the world he lived in (Korea); the power that could have saved his father’s life. This is evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t blame Sung Jin for being what it is, a corporation, accepting the way of the world and using his abilities to do well under those circumstances. If that were not the case, Tae-joo would not have spent a large part of his life desiring to beat and take over Seo-yoon and Min-jae.

As the years went on, having the power to control Sung Jin quickly became an affirmation of his business prowess rather than a desire to possess; it’s a thrill, a game, to him. Note how he continuously refers to terms used in gaming when discussing plans with Seo-yoon: “We need to pass the preliminaries,” “…when we get to the final stage,” and his consistent references to poker. He possibly takes more joy in competing with Seo-yoon/Min-jae/Jung-hee, than he does having money. It shows in his (annoying) demeanor and his boredom with Eden, which was a fantastic, albeit shady, company on its own.

(Note: I will not be using any of Go Soo‘s or Lee Yo-won‘s facial expressions as proof, because they are untrustworthy. I will stick to the script only.)

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Trust, Companionship, and Friendship

Speculation aside on Tae-joo’s psychological motives, where does Seol-hee come in? Why would have Tae-joo have promised her so much?

Over and over again, we see Tae-joo place great emphasis on friendship and loyalty, which are likely the only two moral standards he has. For example, we see him get genuinely upset by Min-jae’s deflection from him back in episode 11. Tae-joo knows abandonment is inevitable after trying to strike a deal with Min-jae in the early episodes, but it’s interesting to see how he tries to “guilt-trip” Min-jae regardless (see the scene during the 1 Billion/10 Affliates signing ceremony). Despite being a first-class jerk, it’s interesting to note his ability to build relationships, and loyalty. He lures them with cash, but keeps them with compassion (see Pil-joo). He knows what people desire, and when he is in the position of power over someone, he’ll definitely keep them tied to his foot (Dong-hui’s case).

Now we come to Seol-hee. I don’t doubt for a second that he has “loved” her at some point in time (whether he does now is irrelevant). The reason he likes her is simple; she shows unending compassion towards him. Her loyalty is steadfast, but more than that, she sacrifices over and over for him. She receives from him, but she also gives—and gives selflessly. She’s loved him for so long that it’s impossible for him to not love her back, at least a little bit; but for a man like Tae-joo, he’s happy to have someone he can trust fearlessly.

“What is Seol-hee to you?”
“Someone who is like Sung-jae to you. Someone I can smile at and trust.

While he values Choon-ho and Pil-doo for being his true friends, neither of them has cared as much as Seol-hee. She sends him a birthday cake and worries about him from jail—who does that? She didn’t even get angry about Tae-joo’s misdemeanors during the murder incident, and even in the moment, she did whatever she could to protect Tae-joo; like marrying him off to Seo-yoon. Tae-joo is thankful for all of that, and he feels a sense of security with her, familiarity, kinship. She is always “Seol-hee Sunbae.” He will always need to clean up the blood he spilled on her.

Speaking of Seo-yoon, Tae-joo does say several things that seem like a ruse, but could actually be complicating matters for both parties:

“Choi Min-jae…that man has changed a lot.”
“—I’m the one who has changed…I live comfortably in a big house. Now the hunting dog has turned into a house pet….where I came from, and where I need to go, I forgot that for awhile.”

“Who do you trust?”
“I trust myself, and the person who needs me.”

Seo-yoon is different from Seol-hee. She’s the first woman who could act upon Tae-joo, not always be acted upon. For Seo-yoon, Tae-joo is the first guy she let act upon her. They’ve given up pride for each other, ironically, under the pretext of protecting their own pride. They look at each other straight in the eye, as equals (and “enemies”), knowing that the other is probably one of the few people in the world who could strip him/her of everything.

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The Art of Loving

Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.

Those who have watched episode 18 were probably looking for a Fromm quotation that is closer to this one (from his book The Art of Loving (I’ve read quite a bit of it), where he discusses his philosophy on various kinds of love, from familial to romantic). This quotation basically sums up what Seo-yoon was trying to imply by her discussion with Sung-jae of having “the capacity” to love; love is less about “falling in love” and more about “practicing love.” When Sung-jae notes that “Tae-joo isn’t the guy for her,” she counters (using that quotation) that it’s less about whether he is the “ideal guy” and more about whether she (and he) have the desire, the ability and the will to love each other. She concludes that she doesn’t—thinking back on Seol-hee and Tae-joo’s relationship.

Some find this to be evidence that Seo-yoon loves Tae-joo, others find it proof that Tae-joo and Seol-hee are the end game. I actually interpret it a different way: Seo-yoon believes that she cannot love regardless of whether she tried or not (so far she hasn’t). Why? Because she sees Seol-hee “practicing love” for Tae-joo, and realizes that she cannot do such a thing for anyone. She believes that it’s beyond her to love romantically, and Sung-jae confirms her sentiment by thinking back on Seo-yoon saying that she “only knows of dating from books.”

Honestly though, what Seo-yoon feels for Tae-joo or vice versa in the romantic sense should not be the focal point of the show. What is the focal point is how they’ve changed each other, how they’ve become different people by spending years together (it’s possibly Park Kyung-soo’s reason for using Fromm). Both of them have to keep telling themselves that “it’s a deal,” that they don’t have any connection with each other, that they can never be true friends; the world keeps telling them that they have connected at some level, be it choices in food, indirectly defending each other, displaying ease and patience with each other (“Aren’t you upset?” “Upset? I’ll be upset another day.”).

Even in their cold emotions, I think they have one of the best marriages in the world. They have no false expectations for each other, for they understand each other’s thought processes without letting “feelings” cloud judgement. The way they complete each other’s thoughts is remarkable. It’s like they’re one mind subconsciously—yet at the same time, they’re conscientious of the other’s insecurities, his/her quirks. They see themselves in the other on a constant basis. They help each other…even when they don’t want to (“Why are you telling me this?” “Because I thought you were a friend. Because I made a mistake too.”).

…it [love] requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism…

Maybe what they have is a kind of love.

…Maybe that’s the art of loving.

(SBS, the last screenshot is from Soompi Forums, the rest are mine)

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40 responses to “Musings: Empire of Gold and “The Art of Loving”

  1. Very interesting post. I agree with pretty much everything you said.
    I wish Lee Yo Won and Go Soo displayed some better acting. The script shows us so many complex emotions and hidden meanings, but it really doesn’t come across with the acting. I wonder if the actors are actually grasping what the writer is trying to convey.

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  2. This is a really thoughtful and thought provoking post. I really agree with a lot of what you say here and I think your analysis of TJ is spot on. Also very insightful is the analysis of this as already a good marriage. I would agree with that. But why no passion? Why are SY and TJ so chaste? Not just with each other … That is fine, I am not shipping them particularly but I am bewildered at how repressed they are sexually. One loves her dad and brother only, the other his friends. They are like a couple of child prodigies. Smart and dazzling and competitive. Not like a man and woman in their thirties. Why does it matter? All the other characters are not like this …. Maybe Sung Jae is. WHY???????

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  3. thank you so much for your thoughts and responses. i really enjoyed your rationale for arranged marriages… and i agree that there does not need to be romance in marriage for it to be counted a good one. but don’t you think that model is hard to sustain in the absence of a large filial network and also in the face of romantic marriage being the socially desirable norm in the world? but even that aside, we need to experience romantic love and/or sexual desire to become like everyone else and i think both TJ and SY are really lacking in desire and that is why they are so ODD. Desire can become a counter force in life and that is what they seem to be missing — something within them that opposes them. Here all the opposition comes from outside — Min Jae, Stepmom, Seol Hee – but what about your own heart leading you astray? That is NECESSARY to understand the self. That is why SY goes to SH — to guage her own heart. the blind quest for power can only be derailed by desire i think and when will TJ feel this? I think, It will make him human. I think, having watched episode 19, SY is already feeling it. now it is TJ’s turn but he may fly in panic before he allows himself to be consumed by desire…

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    • I don’t really know, since I’m obviously not at that part of my life, but I don’t think I like the notion that a lifestyle has to be part of the “norm” to be valid.

      Fromm actually argues that the “romance” based marriages, those of desire at the core, are generally unsustainable. I think I agree with that. You are then marrying pheromones, not a person. You can see that coming to life with divorce rates in the U.S.

      I like my fare share of on-screen sparks, but what TJ and SY actually lack is faith. They are odd because they refuse to trust each other completely, especially when we are brought back to the story.

      I actually think they had a pleasant relationship during those 9 years that we didn’t see. It’s probably why we didnt see it (um, boring!). More importantly, we wouldn’t get a line like “I forgot what I needed to do” from TJ if it were bad. He totally liked the day to day lifestyle, and brainstorming with SY. SY clearly started having doubts too during that time.

      Also, did you see SH freak out at the SJ Chairman office in 20? The reason is probably two fold: One, TJ is a monster that needs to play the game forever like a drug, and two, he uses the same metaphor SY did when she met SH. SH is starting to see the ties between the two she could never cross; SY and TJ are too deep in this mess to ever get out. (Don’t mistake this for romance though.)

      [And you’re most welcome. Thank you for always commenting!]

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  4. i have not seen episode 20 (i cannot seem to find a subtitled version yet) but will tonight. and i absolutely agree with you that romance is not necessary for a good marriage and i do think you can separate the two (romance and marriage) out – no problem. but is romantic desire necessary to life — that is the question that seems to be haunting me and i would argue – SY. TJ and SY have many things going including their incredible intellectual connection (Empire of Gold is the first kdrama I have seen where the sparks between characters fly at the cerebral level and also these characters know each other so well as you rightly point out that they are like a finely-tuned long-married couple) but as you say they lack FAITH in each other and trust. And I think here intimacy – emotional/physical – is important. You trust each other by making yourselves vulnerable and exposing yourselves to each other. Even an arranged marriage has this intimate core. TJ and SY have stayed in a room for 9 years but they do not wear pajamas to bed around each other????!!!! THAT IS CRAZY. You really feel like they would explode if one reached out and touched the other!!! It is amazing how they sit across from each in their room — legs crossed, arms folded, tightly confined to their own spaces. in public, TJ lounges a bit more — leans in to SY, slouches etc as though to show others that he has her but in their room… it is a very different story.

    Why am I going on about this? I really believe TJ wishes to possess SY even if he does not know or admit it. I think this boy from the slums of Shillimdong would like to melt the ice princess of Sung Jin Group and the only way for him to do this, is to own the group. Become like her Dad. Then she will come to him. Does he want SY for her — I do not know. I do not think so. He wants what she represents.

    In other words, TJ is so monstrous because he just cannot separate SY out from Sung Jin.

    I am so grateful to you for discussing this show that I absolutely adore. I have never seen a kdrama quite like it.

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  5. I’m going to be totally honest, I thought that their cerebral (flirting?) dialogue was on fire. It’s the only reason I thought the TJ/SY “ship” worked, even if I didn’t find their romantic relationship critical to the story. Go Soo and Lee Yo-won may not have any palpable chemistry, but boy does their written dialogue! Nothing physical is needed–like you said, when TJ brushed off that lint, it felt like something would explode. If SY and TJ weren’t half-deranged and the storyline less thrilling on its own, I would totally be on the ship.

    But that’s not the case, and I chose to just ignore all of it. If they end up being together in the end, so be it. Both are crazy enough to be together. As for SH, she should listen to her mother. CH is a great guy for her, caring and respectful. I’m not saying that CH should be subservient, but CH cares more about SH as a person than TJ does. TJ is crap. If SY is too difficult for him to possess, then SH is an object he already owns. Awful. The way TJ looks at SH in SJ Group, he was truly a monster then.

    I pity SH. She needs out. (When PD said that he was envious of her, the future wife of the chairman, I lost it. SH doesn’t deserve to be lowered to “spouse of the chairman,” even if I find her irritating.)

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  6. Reblogged this on sulovesdrama and commented:
    Great write-up.
    Too comatose to add further commentary right now… Other than to say this show is deliriously addicting and so hot it blisters.

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  7. OMG — i just say episode 20 and I am tremendously confused. Is SY going to let TJ go? Is SH going to send TJ back to SY? What is TJ going to do? Why was his sweet revenge so short-lived? Why is SY not kicking him out now that her family is standing behind her? Why is she still wanting to share her room with him? Oh… I am in hell. THIS DRAMA ROCKS.

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    • Episode 20 was the first time I looked at TJ and SY and realized they are both incredibly perceptive and stupid at the same time. It reaffirmed a lot of what I said here (TJ loves SH on paper, but doesn’t partake in what love needs) and gave me an opportunity to look at characters in new light.

      SY’s stagnancy, or even regression, is extremely apparent in this episode–though her acceptance of defeat is well done; it’s revealing of how hypocritical she is, and how powerful being of money (not just rich) is. SY has, interestingly enough, taken on TJ’s personality in the process. SH is also dropping some very thoughtful remarks only to cover it up with more passivity.

      What confuses me now is how anything will ever end. If SY can hang on 5 yrs, why not TJ? Why not anyone?

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  8. wow — that is a really interesting observation ….that SY has taken on TJ’s personality. can you say a little bit more about this? i have two differing views as to why TJ cannot hang on. He needs to make good with SH –though I do not believe he loves her. He needs to run away from SY because he is in danger of falling in love with her. I just keep remembering that he did not want to marry her to enter the golden empire… he wanted to go to Phillipines and then his hand was forced. So, why does this mean so much to him now? I know his Dad is a reason but supplanting SH for SY…. that is confusing me. He is protesting too much if you know what I mean….

    I agree …. I have no idea how this will all end…..but boy that will be a sad day!

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    • Yeah, when I watched episode 20 with subtitles, I was alarmed by how TJ words and thoughts felt so much like SY’s character in the beginning, and how SY had taken a lot from TJ’s character. Keep in mind that it’s not all that strong of an argument, but the first two are what really hit me.

      My Observations:
      1. TJ wins the bid for Dae-han the same way SY won HS Steel; using a prominent figure close to the company and a lower price point.
      2. SY believes she can win with the power of money and a broad range of semi-engaged supporters. Just like TJ. She loses.

      3. TJ talks about his goals for SJ Group with context of “avenging his father”–and believes his father’s sweat is worth gold.
      4. SY totally forgot about her father; she just needs TJ gone.

      5. SY makes the observant recognition that the war for SJG is selfish. That her love for SJ is to protect herself.
      6. TJ has genuine faith in protecting SH.

      7. SY has a “congratulations” beer with TJ.
      8. TJ didn’t even think of celebrations or “parting gifts.”

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  9. I think this is really interesting switch that you are noticing. i am really unclear as to what SY wants anymore. she seems both peculiarly detached and attached… i think she feels sorry for herself and that is weighing her down. i am also really unsympathetic to her class snobbery — she should know better. as for his actions… they seem clearer.

    do you think she will do as stepmom says? i think this writer is too good for that but i am not sure….

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    • I make no claim to understand anything with certainty about motive in this show…it’s all speculation. Jumping off your observation:

      9. SY is becoming increasingly cryptic about her desires.
      10. TJ is starting to make more sense.

      Anyway, I was really upset about how she treated TJ like a second-class citizen. Yes, he deserves some of that for being rude and rambunctious. What he doesn’t deserve is to be thought of as lesser, and underestimated. I thought SY of all people, understood that, especially with knowledge of the earlier episodes. She tells MJ that she doesn’t intend to ride TJ anywhere, which is quite telling, yet implies doing such a thing when talking to TJ. Something is telling me she’s hiding her disappointment in herself by pushing the blame on TJ. It’s an interesting moment, because that’s something TJ would do.

      Something I have learned in my short life is that you get most angry at the people in which you invest yourself most; you tell them the truth, be it good or bad. SY and TJ do that a lot, throwing rocks at the other that are absolutely legitimate, asking the other to wake up. Those rocks also hurt the most, because it’s from someone you care about (wittingly or not).

      SH, SJ, they are people TJ and SY love and cherish, but they are for some reason, not letting them flourish. Like SY said, protecting SJ is a selfish pursuit, just like protecting SH is for TJ. Those two are their anchors in life, a constant source of unadulterated love. As Fromm would say, SY and TJ practice “immature love” of loving out of need.

      Despite this, we see both SY and TJ misuse these relationships. SY could have given SJ life before the “point of no return,” but she ignored him. She was quick to throw away her brother at the smallest sign of betrayal without considering his situation. TJ’s *first* reaction after the murder was to frame SH, only afterwards did he regret it. He put himself first…and then did he care about the woman who was devoted to him. SY and TJ put their loves on the line, because they thought them objects, not humans; SH and SJ are no better than toys in their eyes.

      For that, I think both will end up empty handed when it comes to “true love.” Both wasted the people who cared most about them. In all likelihood, the two will probably also waste the one person who could possibly understand him/her from the rotten core to the good one, the other.

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  10. wow — that is a really powerful post. i always looks forward to your posts and this exchange is the most pleasurable part of my day.

    very early on TJ says to SY, “the one closest to you, the one you care for the most in the world, will betray you. i will make that happen.” If he keeps his word…. and we know he always does, that person might be her Dad but he is dead, it could be Sung Jae or in fact, it could be Tae Joo. If that turns out to be true, then what kind of a person betrays the one who loves them most? What a conundrum. In this world, romantic love is impossible. In that sense, the world of EOG resembles the world of my other crack drama earlier this summer…. Mujongdoshi… Cruel City (have you seen it … I would love to hear your reactions if you have)

    You know, I have also been pondering TJ’s relationship to SH. When he is at a very low point and has lost everything after the election, Congressman Kim asks for SH and TJ turns him down and goes over to Min Jae. He will not sell SH for all the gold in the world. Is that love? Or loyalty? Or manliness? Then SH sleeps with Congressman Kim to help TJ and it is then that TJ wows to bring Min Jae and Seo Yoon down. This is his angriest point in the drama. Then he makes SH take the rap for him — is her jail sentence a ritual act of purification so that she can emerge having paid the price for her sins? Is his time with SY also his trial by fire so he can bring SH into the empire of gold so that she never has to sell herself again? Again, what is motivating him … love? loyalty? manliness? He has wowed to wash the blood of her hands…. that is his penance. And his payment.

    What a complicated drama!!!

    And then I heard this very interesting thing in another forum… about Go Soo and the dramas he has been in. I have never seen any so I do not know this first-hand but I believe he always plays an ever-patient, ever-loyal, ever-suffering lover who never ever gives up. Is Tae Joo a new type of role for Go Soo or is Tae Joo in fact of the same lineage. Steadfast – if not to the woman he loves, at least to the woman who he owes.

    How will I make it till next week? May be I should just rewatch older episodes….

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    • If he sold SH, or anyone for that matter, then he would hate himself. TJ is not a man who is so dehumanized that he would prostitute people. He has become a monster, but that’s mostly self-inflicting, and business oriented. Simply, TJ has a conscience–he doesn’t commit crimes against humanity.

      (Speaking of prostitution, what was really weird about JH’s proposition in ep 20 is that she assumed TJ likes SY, and that SY doesn’t like him back; that’s a rather bold assumption to make.)

      He could be the same character, IDK. Only the ending can tell us, because that’s when we will see where his character growth has taken him: forward, backward, or nowhere.

      (I haven’t seen Cruel City yet, but I heard amazing things about it.)

      Like

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