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.
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.)
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.
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)