[Recap] “Secret Door” Episodes 1-2

Secret Door Cast

SBS is offering us another sageuk drama that is promising to be good – “Secret Door: Record of a Murder.” Only a couple episodes in, it’s already vying for the first spot in the Monday-Tuesday slot with “The Night Watchman.”

secret door poster king and son

Background Info:

“Secret Door” tells the sad tale of Prince Sado (born Lee Sun) who was killed by his own father, King Yeongjo. It is still unclear why the king decided to have his own son killed. Some claim it was because Sado was crazy, others because of court intrigues (ain’t that always the case?)—but perhaps it was a bit of both?

This drama has decided to paint one possible version of what went down (with an extra pinch of drama tossed in for viewers’ pleasure).

Brace yourselves, because this show has a lot of moving parts and a ton of characters (I must admit I’ve once or twice gotten a number of the numerous ministers confused with each other). For this reason, this recap will be a little longer, just to help you get more familiar with the plot’s intricacies and all the people involved.

Some of the Main Players:

Secret Door Posters

Prince Lee Sun – Played by Lee Je Hoon, for his first acting gig since coming back from the army. Lee Sun is the crown prince, trying to learn the rules of the game from his strict father, King Yeongjo.

King Yeongjo – Played by Han Seok Kyu. The king (need I say more?) with a really long reign at the time the story starts (30 years), but that doesn’t mean everything’s rosy…

Seo Ji Dam – Played by Kim Yoo Jung. A young author who works for an underground/illegal library/book store. Excellent runner.

Lady Hyegyeong – Played by Park Eun Bin. The crown prince’s wife. She is beautiful, but cold and calculating. Much better at playing the political game than her husband.

Kim Taek – The leader of one of the two political parties. Machiavellian.

Lee Jong Sung – The leader of the other political party.


Episode 1

We start off 30 years prior to our story’s time, when the reigning king is killed and his younger brother, Yeongjo, is forced to sign a pact (the Maenge) with Kim Taek and his party — it’s either that and become a puppet king, or die. Let’s just say he doesn’t have much choice in the matter.

The Maenge

Twenty years later, there’s a large fire that burns the library down, and King Yeongjo jubilates: the Maenge must have burned with it, which means he’s free to do what he wants now!

Present time (aka almost 300 years ago from our present era), we find out the Maenge has actually survived and is now in the hands of the crown prince’s portrait artist, Shin Heung Bok (unbeknownst to anyone else).

Turns out Heung Bok’s not only prince Lee Sun’s portraitist, but also his closest friend and confidant. Together, they roam the streets of the city in search of signs of the illegal activity of book borrowing by the general populace.

In the meantime, a young girl (Ji Dam) scours the city for those signs as well, but she knows where to look for them (inside a small bamboo tube hung around a dog’s neck, inside a rolled up mat, behind a shutter, etc). The crown prince finally finds what he’s looking for under a tile but, having taken his sweet time (of course he would, why would you try to be quick and discrete when performing an illegal activity?) he gets caught by some policemen.

Ji Dam picks up secret library card

Thankfully, Ji Dam sees their problem and, after distracting the guards, steals the bamboo tube from Lee Sun and runs away. Intense pursuits ensue. Ji Dam, with the help of everyone else around, escapes. The prince, however, stops in his tracks when he witnesses the police beating up people for trading books and, unable to hold himself back, he attacks the guards too. It isn’t until Heung Bok stops his rage that they can finally escape as well.

Turns out Ji Dam’s linked to the owner of one of the biggest underground (illegal) libraries, and she herself is a writer. Not just any writer, but a murder mystery novel writer! She’s really giddy, because she’s just received a fan letter (from the crown prince, but she doesn’t know that yet) who says he wants to meet her because he thinks he knows who the culprit is and he just has to read the following novel!

The king, prince Lee Sun and his wife

When the prince returns to the palace, he confronts the ministers, telling them to make the library legal (going against 400 years of tradition, which outrages the ministers, even though they are guilty themselves of buying and reading these illegal books).

To give his son and the ministers a lesson, the king decides to abdicate. According to Lady Hyegyeong, prince Lee Sun’s wife, this is a test for the crown prince to prove himself. Otherwise, one of the king’s concubines is currently pregnant and, if she has a son, that son could supplant Lee Sun.

All the ministers gather in front of the castle, the crown prince included, to pray for the king to change his mind about abdicating the throne. This is something that’s happened a lot over the years, and this kneeling and bowing in the courtyard before the palace’s closed doors can last for days (even if it’s freezing outside)!

Ministers and Lee Sun kneeling in front of palace

While this is going on, Kim Taek finally finds out who has the Maenge: Heung Bok. He sends some of his men to retrieve the precious pact at all costs.

Heung Bok realizes that his secret’s out and tries to warn the prince, but as he’s walking on his own at night with the Maenge, he knows he’s being pursued…

Episode 2

After all the kneeling, the prince finally gets an audience with the king, his father, who blames him for everything—if he hadn’t tried to change the law about the borrowing of books by the general populace, nothing would have happened. The king berates him for the way he’s handled things, telling him that before he seeks to change everything around him, he first needs to make sure he’s the one in power.

Meeting between the king and his son

On his way to meet with the prince to reveal everything about the Maenge, Heung Bok’s killed off and his body is thrown off a bridge. Ji Dam witnesses the whole thing, but, when she gets the guards over, the body’s long gone.

Heung Bok’s body doesn’t take long to get discovered, however, as someone dropped him inside the sacred well on the previous king’s tomb site where King Yeongjo, the prince, and their whole retinue are having a procession.

Discovery of Heung Bok's body

The king is really pissed off. Turns out that eight hours before the body’s discovery, he’d gone to see Kim Taek privately. The latter had shown him the Maenge was back in his possession, which means the king is now back under Kim Taek’s thumb. And when the king tries to rebel, Kim Taek twists the truth a little bit, telling him it was Heung Bok himself who gave him the pact, implicating the prince by association.

The seed of doubt is planted, and the king now believes his son knows about the Maenge and is trying to control him with it too, just as Kim Taek has done. But he won’t stand idly by.

Meeting between the king and his son

All the parties involved know there’s something fishy with Heung Bok’s death and want an investigation, or to cover up the murder as an accident or suicide. And many realize that whatever it is it must be something detrimental to the king and could therefore be used as leverage against him.

Things get trickier because Lee Sun wants to know what happened to his friend and orders Hong Gye Hee, the chief of police, to start a private investigation. Everything proceeds as ordered, and Kim Taek gets nervous. Unfortunately for the prince, the king doesn’t want anyone else to know about the Maenge, so he gives Kim Taek the tools necessary to pressure Hong Gye Hee to close the case as a suicide, which he does.

Ji Dam undercover at police station

But they aren’t counting on Ji Dam who, as any good writer of murder mysteries would do, decides to do a little investigating on her own. After getting saved by some mysterious man, Na Chul Joo, from people who want to kill her for being a witness to Heung Bok’s murder, she gets an undercover job inside the police station.

Besides, the prince is most likely not going to accept Hong Gye Hee’s ruling either!

Lee Sun reads the verdict of suicide

Thoughts and Conjectures

So far, so good. The cinematography is amazing, the acting is great, and the plot is already as convoluted as a massive Gordian knot! Crown Prince Lee Sun’s obviously an idealist who tries really hard to do right by the people while also pleasing his very strict father, and his unwillingness to play the game of politics is bound to get him in trouble.

I don’t know if this is an omen of what’s to come, but it seems to me that Lee Sun can get into violent rages when faced with some tremendous injustices (his friend’s death, the beating up of the book sellers in the marketplace), and I can’t but wonder if this is a way he’ll be shown “losing his mind.”

Evidently, Lee Sun and Ji Dam are going to meet. I’m not quite sure whether it will become a romantic relationship or not. Ordinarily I would say yes, but this drama isn’t like most others (especially since it’s drawn from real events, even if they are taking liberties) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had more as a dongsaeng/oppa relationship.

Either way, I’m sure Lee Sun and Ji Dam are going to find out the truth about the Maenge, spurring the king’s paranoia (which Kim Taek makes sure to stoke regularly) which will lead to the crown prince’s ultimate doom.

What do you think is going to happen?

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  • https://www.facebook.com/jungwon.park JungwonP

    Prince Sado’s name is Lee Sun (Last name is Lee), not Lee Yi-Sun.

    • jombijakka

      Oh, wow. I can’t believe I got confused with the pronunciation of his last name and put the two down together. I did think it was strange that he’d have Yi in his first name when his last name’s already Lee, but I figured perhaps it was something to do with pronunciation (like how in North Korea they pronounce the “L” in Lee but they don’t in the south, but back in those days there was no North vs. South Korea…). Guess I must have been more tired than I thought!
      Thank you for changing it!