Revenge Is Bittersweet: Why We Both Loved And Hated “The Last Empress” Finale

SBS’s “The Last Empress” has given us more twists and turns than we ever thought possible over the last few months, but the epically suspenseful drama has finally come to an end — and not a happy one for all of our characters. While heroism abounded and revenge was served (sort of), the finale of “The Last Empress” was also dissatisfying in many ways (drama extensions are not always a blessing!). Before we say our final goodbye to “The Last Empress,” let’s recap where our characters ended up, and how we feel about it!

Warning: spoilers for Episodes 49-52 below.

As with any good drama, the finale of “The Last Empress” was gratifying in how it highlighted just how far our characters have come. This was especially Lee Hyuk’s (Shin Sung Rok) moment of truth, and the Emperor nailed it. Hyuk’s character arc was never very clear-cut, as he always struggled between the sociopathic terror that his family had raised him into and the good person that Sunny (Jang Nara) inspired him to want to become. Evil as he may have been at times, Hyuk loved and admired Sunny because he recognized what a purely good person she was, and there is some redemption for the Emperor in that.

But Hyuk knew that he could never fully atone for all his sins, and ultimately decided that he should not continue to live. And this internal struggle between good and bad is what made his death so tragic: it was incredibly sad because we have seen glimpses of the upstanding emperor and sweet husband that Hyuk could have become, but because his upbringing was too ingrained in his character, he would never be able to completely transform into that person, and ending his life was the only way he could find peace.

And how fitting that Hyuk ensured that he was killed by his own mother’s hand: he completed Na Wang Sik’s (Choi Jin Hyuk) revenge by allowing himself to be killed but also got his own revenge on the mother who turned him into such a monster.

Thankfully, before we had to say goodbye to Hyuk, we were blessed with a few final gems of royal comedy, to remind us that the Emperor’s quirky antics were hands-down one of the best parts of “The Last Empress.” It’s almost unbelievable that we found ourselves thinking of Hyuk — who we watched commit numerous vile crimes — as cute, but Shin Sung Rok masterfully brought an impressive number of dimensions to this character, managing to make us find Hyuk despicable, pitiful, adorable, and even lovable at the same time.

Unfortunately, our other male lead met a far less fitting end. The drama’s treatment of Na Wang Sik in the finale is without a doubt its biggest flaw, and was also entirely avoidable, as it was because “The Last Empress” added more episodes than originally planned that Choi Jin Hyuk could not appear in the drama’s finale due to scheduling conflicts. And if “The Last Empress” could not have the main male lead in its finale, it could have at least given him a proper farewell. But instead, oddly enough, the drama pretended as if Na Wang Sik had never been a central character in the first place, barely even mentioning him in the final week. All we got was a brief scene, with almost no buildup, of Hyuk in a hospital being told that Wang Sik sacrificed himself to save everyone else.

We could perhaps have forgiven “The Last Empress” for not showing us Wang Sik’s heroically selfless death if we had at least been given some closure about his demise. But there was not a single flashback paying tribute to his brave deeds or stoic kindness; no scenes of those who had grown close to him mourning his death. Sunny sobbed over Hyuk’s body, but she received the news of Wang Sik’s death via phone call with little more emotion than surprise:

This was an inexcusably unceremonious end for a character who we had admired and grieved with and grown to love. Just because you glossed over Wang Sik in the finale doesn’t mean we forgot about him, “The Last Empress”! We see through your trick!

The drama’s extension also caused it to lag a bit in the weeks before the finale, offering some repetitive scenes: the Empress Dowager proclaiming that she hates Sunny, Kang Hee threatening the Empress Dowager, Sunny vowing that she will uncover the truth and take down the rotten royal family…

It felt especially slow in comparison to the delightfully fast pace that the drama maintained for its first half, with characters acting on their every scheme and impulse instead of simply talking about how they were going to do so. “The Last Empress” set a hard precedent for itself by being so outlandishly, wonderfully wild at its outset, and perhaps would have benefitted from revealing some of its major end-game plot twists a little earlier, like the big secret of Chungeum Island, or Min Yoo Ra’s (Lee Elijah) revenge storyline, which was fascinating but would have been much more compelling if we had found out earlier exactly why she had come into the palace in the first place. As it was, her taking a blow to the head to save Sunny was still a touching sacrifice and a fitting end…

Until, bizarrely, Yoo Ra turned out to be still very much alive later, and living happily (with amnesia, of course) with her former fiancé and her son Dong Sik. Sure, it’s nice that Yoo Ra finally gets some peace given the traumas she’s experienced, but she also did prove to be a pretty horrible person. Let’s not forget that she told Wang Sik she hated his mother for taking her into their family simply because the family was poor, and that she helped Hyuk kill her adoptive mother and cover up her death. But sometimes the good die (alas, Wang Sik!) and the not-so-good live — and we’re happy that Dong Sik at least now has a loving mother.

As for Sunny, the Empress came out of the drama rather empty in the romance department; she and Wang Sik never even so much as confessed their feelings for each other. The half-baked romance may not have been what “The Last Empress” promised, but it was almost fitting that Sunny and Wang Sik, both of whom we respected for their incredible focus on their missions, prioritized their end goals over their feelings for each other.

And as much as many of us wanted to see Sunny and Wang Sik get a happy ending together, it was actually very cool that Sunny was solo at the end of the drama — or not entirely solo. Sunny and Princess Ari (Oh Ah Rin) are adorably happy together, and with such a pure and wholesome bond, it was refreshing that the drama decided to focus on this mother-daughter relationship, which was arguably more important to Sunny than her feelings for Wang Sik.

We watched Sunny grow from a naive, ditzy fangirl of the Emperor into an incredibly strong, self-reliant woman who learned to stand up for what is right and even to be a role model for a young girl. For Sunny, the love of her family and her new daughter is enough.

And as for our villain? The evil Empress Dowager (Shin Eun Kyung), the woman responsible for all the pain and suffering our characters have faced, will spend the rest of her life in prison, enduring taunts from the Team Leader she used to abuse.

Justice has been served, and we’re going to miss all the suspense and intrigue, and the wonderful characters, that “The Last Empress” has given us!

Hey Soompiers, how do you feel about the ending of “The Last Empress”? Did it do its characters justice? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Catch the finale of “The Last Empress” here:

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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 Crowned Clown.”
All-time favorite dramas: “Scarlet Heart: Goryeo,” “Goblin,” and “Hwayugi.”
Looking forward to: “Asadal” and “Vagabond.”

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