Queen for Seven Days (7일의 왕비) is a gem among a plethora of Korean historical dramas. It is a sophisticated drama that tells its story in a manner that is emotionally engaging, visually appealing, and intellectually satisfying. Although the drama isn’t considered a hit in Korea, it can be argued that it is one of the most compelling sageuk/ historical period dramas in recent years. I rarely write drama reviews since there are already so many writers/bloggers out there who give their critiques; however, Queen for Seven Days tackles so many interesting elements and themes that I think it is worth unpacking several of them. (Note: this review contains spoilers.)
- Park Min-young as Shin Chae-kyung/ Queen Dangyeong
- Yeon Woo-jin as Lee Yeok/ Grand Prince Jinseong/ King Jungjong
- Lee Dong-gun as Lee Yoong/ King Yeonsangun
Aside from the beautiful visuals and cinematography, Queen for Seven Days has a well-written script. The story is able to strike a balance between politics, romance, and history. Certainly there are deviations from actual history (this is still historical fiction after all), but the critical facts, or at least, what is known about the historical figures, are kept in tact, which gives the story a defined framework in which to maneuver. The pacing of the story just right – not too slow or too fast, which makes the series tight-knit. Misunderstandings are addressed quickly instead of being dragged on for several episodes. They create enough tension in the storyline, but do not leave viewers frustrated with the characters’ actions. In fact, how the characters resolve their misunderstandings adds an element of surprise to the show. Personally, that is part of the reason why I became more engaged with the story and characters.
Another strength of Queen for Seven Days is its well-developed characters and stellar cast. The three lead actors portrayed multidimensional characters that are brilliant individually, but when they are together in a scene, they create a palpable energy that serves as the undercurrent of the show. The transition from childhood to adulthood was also done well. The young actors, Park Si-eun and Baek Seung-hwan, did such a wonderful job in showcasing their characters’ personalities and conveying the budding love between Chae-kyung and Yeok that when Park Min-young and Yeon Woo-jin took over, the story did not feel out-of-place. It truly felt like the viewers saw them grow up. This is a show where I really enjoyed the young actors’ performance and was torn between wanting to see more of them and seeing the adults and a more mature Chae-kyung and Yeok.
Chae-kyung is a very likeable character. It is refreshing to encounter a dignified female lead who retains a certain level of innocence and grace while also being smart and perceptive. I’ve seen shows where female characters were either one or the other, which makes them infuriating at times. Chae-kyung is decisive, assertive, and straightforward without seeming too reckless.
Perhaps Chae-kyung’s most admirable traits are her faith in Yeok and faithfulness to her family and values. Several times throughout the series – before Chae-kyung and Yeok’s marriage and throughout their married life – Chae-kyung remembers Yeonsangun’s bitter words that are intended to destroy her relationship with Yeok. While each moment could have led her to succumb to her doubt and ultimately distrust Yeok, she instead chooses to patiently wait for Yeok to explain himself. One of her lines captures her attitude well: “It’s not a lie just because the truth arrives late” (episode 12). When others might impetuously act upon their suspicions and doubt, Chae-kyung believes and seeks the truth. This is quite impressive since each character in the story is a source of suspicion and is like a lion that is ready to pounce at any moment. (This scenario makes me remember a lot of the Psalms ).
Yeok is also interesting in his development from a prince who chose to stay out of politics and turn a blind eye to injustice to one who eventually is forced into the fight for the throne and right the wrongs of the court. Unlike Chae-kyung who wants to expose the truth to protect Yeok from Yeonsangun, Yeok tries to protect her with lies. In one scene, he thinks to himself, “I’m sorry that lies are the only weapons I have to protect you” (episode 11). His words are reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s quote: “In wartime truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” One can surmise that lies can never overpower the truth, even if at first it seems as though one can get away with lying. What is fascinating about Yeok’s character arc is that this tension between truth and lies, honesty and deceit, ambition and contentment finds respite at best, but not full closure. Until the very end, Yeok finds himself in the middle of this struggle and has to maneuver his way through the corruption and power plays, but most importantly, he has to continuously fight his inner demons.
Arguably the most complex character in the series is Yeonsangun. He is clever, skilled in politics, manipulative, ruthless, jealous, possessive of his ‘people,’ and also lonely. There are occasions when he is shown to have the capability to be a wise ruler, but his constant suspicion of people causes him to make decisions that harm them instead (and that is an understatement). He is drawn to Chae-kyung, who is his wife’s niece by the way, for her sincerity and warmth. Not surprisingly, he sees Yeok as a rival in both power and love.
Some viewers have criticized this depiction of Yeonsangun as being too romanticized. While I understand where those critiques are coming from, I don’t find it too illogical or improbable to see someone who showed signs of ‘goodness’ descend to paranoia and violence. Tragic, yes, but it is not impossible. In fact, the way that the story depicted Yeonsangun’s humanity and subsequent loss of humanity is one of the highlights of the series.
There is an assumption that all people who are born into this world are good; however, there is also the possibility that people are born evil, but have the capacity to choose goodness. Many people are probably not comfortable with the latter suggestion. As Malcolm Muggeridge said, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” In other words, all people have the capacity to act depraved and commit the worst possible acts. Yeonsangun’s arc is but one example of the clashing desires of the human heart, the constant struggle between good and evil.
**Major spoilers (from episode 14 to the last episode)**
Another scene that provides keen insight into the human heart is the revelation of the secret order. The late king’s secret order had been a major source of conflict between the brothers. Yeok used the secret order to first claim his right to be the king. Then he immediately abdicated the throne (episode 14). When Yeok gave up the throne, rather than satisfaction, Yeonsangun felt a sense of defeat and anger instead. Yeonsangun’s dissatisfaction with Yeok’s decision underscores the fickleness of the human heart. To illustrate it another way, we work hard to acquire something that we think will give us satisfaction (e.g. power, money, a promotion, a dream vacation, etc.). When we achieve it, there is a sense of accomplishment, but also emptiness because it has already been achieved. And so we strive for another goal. What we think will satisfy ends up stirring other desires instead. Our ultimate satisfaction becomes a moving target. It is no wonder then that characters like Yeonsangun lose their way.
I am pleased with the way in which the secret order was utilized in the story. It was a powerful force and tool that broke many relationships so when it was finally revealed and tossed aside by Yeok, it made it seem that the characters saw mountains when it was a molehill. This is one of those moments when the story surprised me in a good way. Consequently, it gave a sense of liberation for Yeok. Yeok’s decision was admirable. He realized that being the king is not what he truly wanted. To give up power and show mercy is more courageous than to fight for the throne and think that by acquiring it, he will become a wise and righteous ruler. Of course, not everyone is pleased with his decision and it seems selfish of him to give up the throne when so many people were placing their hopes on him. Either way, Yeok would have to sacrifice a lot to acquire what he believes matters most to him.
Of course, the story would not be complete without a romance that strives to overcome all obstacles. I marvel at how well the story transitions from lighthearted moments to heavy drama and vice versa. At the heart of these transitions are the shared moments between Chae-kyung and Yeok. For some viewers, the story seems to go by too quickly because the lovers are not given enough happy moments. As much as I would like for them to have a peaceful life in the countryside, I find their ability to stay strong amid political traps and dangers to be more compelling and is a testament to their strength as a couple. Chae-kyung and Yeok complement each other really well. The story makes the point through a prophecy that they are destined to protect one another. Usually in dramas, the man does most of the protecting, but in this case, Chae-kyung and Yeok both carry their weight (e.g. episode 13).
Each moment that they share cements the foundation of their relationship. It is their shared moments and promises that gave them purpose and reason to persevere so that even when they eventually parted, those moments were strong enough to carry them through their lives. Indeed, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ).
Ultimately, it is the message of love and endurance that rings loudly in the series. Earlier I mentioned that throughout the series the tension between truth and lies, honesty and deceit, ambition and contentment only finds respite and not full closure. The series does eventually resolve this and its answer is that life’s struggles come to an end in death. However, it isn’t senseless death or suicide that gives closure; rather, it is a life that endured hardships that will eventually find its rest.
In one of the most peaceful and beautifully shot, not to mention tearful, scenes, Yeok finds true rest when he returns ‘home’ and passes away in Chae-kyung’s arms after 38 years of separation. Although the series makes it clear that Chae-kyung is Yeok’s home, the ending also sends a stark message of how this life is a journey where we fulfill our duty and purpose until we reach our true home. And hopefully, in the end, we will hear words similar to what Chae-kyung says: “I am very proud of you. You did very well (for enduring).” To fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith determine whether a life has been well-lived.
I’ll remember Queen for Seven Days as a story that understands the meaning of love in the deepest sense – that unconditional love has only one condition: sacrifice. There are plenty of star-crossed lovers in history, fine arts, and world literature, but the stories that linger are the ones where the lovers choose to part because they understand there is a greater and nobler purpose for their separation than in their union and that separation does not deny the existence of their love for one another.