TYPE OF REVIEW : HINDSIGHT REVIEW
For the non-spoilery First Impression Review, click here.
SBS’ Warrior Baek Dong Soo wasn’t the first time a manhwa was turned into a television drama. It also wasn’t the first time a historical and period drama was treated with slick, contemporary production styles. But it did just enough to be an enjoyable (maybe slightly worthwhile) ride with possibly one surprising and unexpected aspect that kept you hooked.
It took me a while to finish the series, not for lack of interest, but while it was a great journey I kind of felt ripped off with the ending. The series was 29 episodes, but it could have just as well ended at episode 28. With the coup plot stopped and the evil Defense Minister and his right hands executed, Baek Dong Soo already accomplished his destiny saving Joseon. Yet here we have an episode 29 that just ruins any happy, fuzzy feelings #28 brought about.
And the reason is that for 28 episodes, the main thread and driving force of the story was the tumultuous relationship between Baek Dong Soo and Yeo Woon/Un. Even with all the political intrigue and non-romance, it always came back to them. From their childhood friendship (played excellently by Yeo Jin Goo and Park Gun Tae) to following in the footsteps of their vastly different mentors to the misunderstandings that strained their bond, the writing was there to make you the most invested in the relationship and bond between Dong Soo and Un.
What you cared about most was not whether or not Joseon would get taken over by greedy officials or foreign powers, not about some back tattoo nor whether some crown prince would survive, not which couple would end up together nor some martial arts textbook. You cared most about watching the tragic friendship and brotherhood of Dong Soo and Un.
And maybe unexpectedly, you could even say the series was really the tragic love story of Dong Soo and Un. Now if the series was on an American cable network, like say Starz or HBO or something and not a Korean broadcast network, maybe that’d be the case.
But the fact that’d you’d be more invested in a possible Joseon-era gay romance (or at the very least, a bromance) is a testament to not only the writing, but even more so the chemistry between Ji Chang Wook and Yoo Seung Ho.
You could see their chemistry as either that of blood brothers, friends and comrades or as something more romantic. It was undeniable how well they played off each other on the series. It was that chemistry that held the show together when other things would fall short. That great connection between the talented actors and between the characters (thanks to the writing) that kept you invested in the series.
Though there were plenty of stories that did interest like Sword Saint Gwang Taek vs Sky Lord Chun or the non-romance (darn) between Dong Soo and Jin Ju, it was that literally tragic journey both Dong Soo and Un took from first meeting to the heartbreaking sacrifice both were willing to make. The writing always looped back to them two, everything that happened during the course of the series was because of or for them.
Which is why the finale fell flat for feeling so forced and unnecessary and dropping what was the main focus of the series until now.
Everyone could’ve lived happily ever after, yet the show decided to just burst that bubble, just because. For building up that Dong Soo-Un connection, it ended too simply. Though that final scene between Dong Soo and Un where both were ready and willing to make that ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their other half was effectively heartbreaking, the happy epilogue afterwards felt out of place and contrived. Maybe even a little insensitive.
You almost just didn’t care after that final scene, especially after the moment Cho Rip (who pretty much erased any good feelings you had for him in the span of 10 minutes) popped up alive and well. And he even got the girl. What!?
The main premise of the series may be of Baek Dong Soo’s ultimate heroic destiny and legacy as “Joseon’s best swordsman” and the show may indeed be centered on him as the title suggests, but it really was about Dong Soo and Un. Both were front and center the entire series. And while Ji Chang Wook continued to prove his worth after his award-winning run on the KBS’ national drama hit Smile, Donghae, it was Yoo Seung Ho who had the meatiest material to work with. And as he’s already proven having started in the business young, he’s got the chops.
On the flip side, the series pretty much fell flat in the romance department. Except for that however-you-want-to-interpret relationship between Dong Soo and Un, you just didn’t feel any connection with any other pairing on the show. The only other stronger romantic/love line was Dong Soo and Jin Ju and it was pretty evident from the get go, it (sadly) wasn’t going to go anywhere. The love line between Un and Ji Sun was stronger too, yet the show seemed so focused on pushing Dong Soo and Ji Sun and with as little material as possible. Not to mention the utter uselessness of Ji Sun as a character for most of the series.
The romance angle grabs the female audience to the TVs, but the series badly developed any kind of romantic angle. The series might have even been better without any of it, instead focusing on being an action-thriller-drama.
In addition to what turned out to be the excellent development of Dong Soo and Un’s relationship, the series did do well with the slick, contemporary action scenes. There was definitely no lack of blood and great swordplay.
There were also other relationships that were worth investing in, though with far too little opportunity to do so such as Jin Ju and both her biological parents and adoptive father, Dong Soo, Un and Cho Rip (before he became an ass), Dong Soo and mentor/guardian Sa Mo, Dong Soo and Un with their respective mentors in Gwang Taek and Chun, and the honorable respect between Gwang Taek and Chun themselves.
But overall, Warrior Baek Dong Soo was a good mix of political intrigue, action, the always trusty underdog story, and even plenty of comedy. The series was definitely not a waste of 29 hours of your life… though maybe I’d skip that last episode save for this scene: