First Impressions: “The Last Empress” Premiere Is A Wild Ride Of Suspense And Seduction

It’s 2018, but year 121 of the Korean Empire: present-day South Korea is ruled by a constitutional monarchy, and an ordinary musical actress becomes the bride of the Emperor — and finds herself wrapped up in the power struggles and dark secrets of the royal family.

This unique premise of SBS’s new Wednesday-Thursday drama “The Last Empress” sounded promising: the political intrigue of a historical drama, set in a higher-stakes modern era? Sign me up! Thankfully, “The Last Empress” did not disappoint: the drama nailed its opening this week, managing to be thrilling, dark, sexy, and still surprisingly funny all at once. It also struck the difficult balance of being fast-paced yet remarkably easy to follow, making for an addictively fun watch. For more thoughts on the first four episodes, read on!

Warning: the rest of this article contains some spoilers for Episodes 1-4.

“The Last Empress” sets its stage by first introducing us to the woman who’s running the show: the Empress Dowager (Shin Eun Kyung).

She’s a controlling, power-hungry woman who, in just four thirty-minute episodes, has ordered secret murders, slapped another woman across the face, and proven to have an extensive network of spy cameras set up in the palace. Very mysterious.

And while the manipulative, evil queen dowager is a familiar archetype in historical K-dramas, “The Last Empress” switches this trope up with how it portrays her son, the Emperor (Shin Sung Rok).

Where most dramas would use the evil mother as a plot device to make us feel sorry for her son, “The Last Empress” doesn’t ask us for any sympathy towards Emperor Lee Hyuk. He’s entitled, self-centered, and treats people as props, as demonstrated by his uncomfortably aggressive tendencies towards his personal assistant, Min Yoo Ra (Lee Elijah):

“The Last Empress” goes all in on the shock factor, and aside from strangling his secretary, the Emperor makes things interesting when he accidentally hits a woman with his car, who, unbeknownst to him, is actually Yoo Ra’s adoptive mother. But far from being upset about this, Yoo Ra is pretty okay with it, considering only minutes before the accident she had been trying to kill the woman herself.

Yoo Ra does this in an attempt to prevent her adoptive mother from revealing the romantic nature of Yoo Ra’s relationship with the Emperor; a steamy affair that offers the sinister sort of chemistry that is only possible between two morally despicable people.

Yoo Ra is clearly infatuated with Hyuk, but also oddly manipulative of him, so that it is not entirely clear what her motives are: does she want him? Or just the power that he embodies? Her immense narcissism is matched only by that of Hyuk himself, who has no qualms about throwing people away if it means protecting himself — including Yoo Ra, when he decides that she knows too much about his hit-and-run.

When she hears of Hyuk’s betrayal, Yoo Ra goes to the extreme, pretending to attempt suicide in order to curry sympathy from the Emperor. It’s horribly manipulative, but he’s a horrible person too, which makes her deliciously diabolical in a way that we almost like: it will be fun to watch the drama peel back her layers of motives and vendettas in the coming weeks.

The dead eyes say it all!

To add to Hyuk and Yoo Ra’s problems, Na Wang Sik (Tae Hang Ho, later played by Choi Jin Hyuk), the hit-and-run victim’s son, knows that the Emperor is behind his mother’s death, and is determined to avenge her.

This is all pretty dark stuff, but thankfully “The Last Empress” brings in Oh Sunny (Jang Nara), a musical actress who, true to her name, brightens up the mood. I didn’t think I would be laughing out loud at this drama, but Sunny’s comedic moments are both unexpected and organic enough that they don’t feel over-the-top, offering the perfect break from the more sinister parts of the drama.

Sunny falls short of being a compelling character so far, largely because she comes dangerously close to the trope of the clumsy, plucky, frustratingly useless K-drama “heroine.” But it seems likely that “The Last Empress” will make better use of her than this, because she’ll have to have a little more of an edge if she’s going to help take down this rotten royal family once she gets in the palace, as the show’s synopsis suggests. Plus it would be a shame for the drama to waste this character when Jang Nara is so fantastic, and has the ability to add whole new levels of emotion to the more serious scenes, from her own near-drowning to the attempt on the Emperor’s life in Episode 1.

Final thoughts

“The Last Empress” put a lot on the table for the first week, and did so with surprising style in terms of pace and clarity. I do hope that the drama will zoom out of the palace a bit, and spend some time fleshing out the unique setting it has created. What is society like in Korea as a modern-day constitutional monarchy? We heard about a prime minister who is supposed to have the political power and saw a reporter get beat up for making negative insinuations about the royal family; I want more details about the politics and society of this alternate universe!

The drama also made an interesting choice in starting off by introducing us to its villains in more depth than its heroes, spending surprisingly little screen time with main characters Sunny and Na Wang Sik this week. This may serve the show well by making things even more interesting when these two finally arrive in the palace, because now we know exactly what they’ll be up against, and it’s a whole lot of bad. When it comes to its villains, “The Last Empress” does tend towards the overdramatic. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not hooked on scenes like an Emperor dragging a body out from under his truck, or a bitter Empress Dowager rage-eating clementines while watching her son get it on with his secretary via secret spy cameras.

That being said, I don’t think this is a drama that will be showing us much character depth or providing meaningful commentary on life or love; it seems like the characters are all pretty much set on their paths, and “The Last Empress” will be more of a makjang drama about unraveling their motives than watching them change and grow. But I was glued to my screen for the entirety of these episodes, so if that means more fast-paced suspense with plot twist after plot twist, then count me in!

Start watching “The Last Empress”:

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Hey Soompiers, are you watching “The Last Empress”? What do you think of the drama so far? Let us know in the comments!

hgordon stays up way too late on weeknights marathoning K-dramas and trying to keep up with the latest K-pop releases.

Currently watching: “The Last Empress” and “Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter“.
All-time favorite dramas: “Scarlet Heart: Goryeo,” “Goblin,” and “Hwayugi.”
Looking forward to: Death Song.”

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