The Last Empress is set in a fictional South Korea which operates under a constitutional monarchy. It follows a musical actress (Jang Na Ra) who marries the emperor (Shin Sung Rok) and becomes involved in the palace power struggle and a mysterious murder. Then there’s a palace bodyguard (Choi Jin Hyuk) who is out for revenge against the emperor.
I knew ahead of time that I was diving into some serious makjang with The Last Empress. And within a couple episodes, it was already all kinds of crazy! There was scheming, murder, cover ups, revenge, seduction, amazing body transformations, and lots more. And I was there for all of it! The Last Empress also boasted a star cast that I completely loved with Jang Na Ra, Shin Sung Rok, and Choi Jin Huk.
Jang Na Ra plays the musical actress Oh Sunny. She’s incredibly sweet with a bright personality. She also has had a long time crush on the Emperor. So when he suddenly takes an interest in her, it’s like a dream come true. Little does she know, the Emperor is hiding many secrets.
This was a fantastic role for Jang Na Ra. At first, the character of Sunny is so cheerful and innocent. And Jang Na Ra just fits so nicely with that. But Sunny is in for a rude awakening when she finds herself in the middle of the palace power struggle.
She then has to adapt if she wants to survive. We see her transform into a formidable opponent with her own plans of serving justice for all of the wrongs she and those she cared for have suffered. Jang Na Ra was just fantastic!
Shin Sung Rok is the Emperor Lee Hyuk. He has little concern for those around him and is willing to do whatever needs to be done to maintain his power. In his mind, because he is the Emperor, he can do no wrong. And that even includes murder.
Of course, Shin Sung Rok just embodies roles like this. He is a joy to watch as he fully immerses himself in the over-the-top villainous role of Lee Hyuk. He’s selfish, dramatic, and a touch crazy. He does some seriously terrible things, but there is a heart buried somewhere underneath. I really couldn’t imagine anyone else playing this character. Another wonderful performance from Shin Sung Rok!
Choi Jin Hyuk plays Na Wang Shik/Chun Woo Bin. He becomes a palace bodyguard in order to exact revenge upon the Emperor for murdering his mother. He goes through a lot to get into the palace and then slowly works on getting close to the Emperor.
This was a good role for Choi Jin Hyuk. His character doesn’t stand out as much as Sunny or the Emperor, but he delivers a compelling performance. I also really enjoyed seeing him in a more action-oriented role.
Lee Elijah is Lee Hyuk’s secretary and lover Min Yu Ra. She always has a plan to further her agenda by manipulating the situation to her advantage. She has positioned herself close to the Emperor, and she will do anything to stay there.
I wasn’t too familiar with Lee Elijah as I had only seen her in a supporting role before this. But she was wonderful as the conniving lover who was willing to throw everyone away so that she could have power.
We also have yet another major villain in the form of Shin Eun Kyung as Lee Hyuk’s mother, Empress Dowager Kang. She too is constantly working to better her position and will do anything to those who get in her way be it by manipulation, torture, or murder. She’s even worse than her son with pretty much no redeeming qualities.
And Shin Eun Kyung was just wonderful in this role! She went all in and fully embraced the character. She also makes some truly great faces and really just made me laugh so many times because of how over-the-top she was. She’s the kind of villain you love to hate.
There’s a host of other interesting characters that range from villains to good guys. There’s the lovable Grand Empress Dowager (Park Won Sook), the scheming nanny Kang Hee (Yoon So Yi), Wang Shik’s mentor Byun (Kim Myung Soo), the dramatic and always out-of-the-loop Princess Soo Jin (Lee Hee Jin), Prince Lee Yoon (Oh Seung Yoon) who wants nothing to do with the royal family, and the cutest little girl Ah Ri (Oh Ah Rin) who is constantly looking to garner the favor of those in power by using her adorable charm and lots of flattery (and she was absolutely fantastic!). This is some group!
The Last Empress definitely isn’t going to be a drama that is for everyone. It is crazy makjang from start to finish. It’s over-the-top and over-dramatic in every way. And there are plenty of convenient plot devices, cliches, and loopholes. But if you just go with the flow, the craziness is quite thrilling. This is the kind of show you just have to roll with and not think too deeply about. Just enjoy the crazy!
The pacing of the drama is swift with one new development after another. There really isn’t any down time as our characters are constantly dealing with new trouble and trying to adjust…and make it out alive. Things were so messy and twisted that I was always excited to see what new crazy and angsty goodness was about to head my way!
Oh, and don’t trust anyone in the palace. Practically everyone has an agenda, including some you wouldn’t suspect. With so many villains running around and plotting, I found that there were many times where I would end up rooting for one villain over another.
That’s always a strange occurrence since they are out there doing horrible deeds too, but sometimes they were the only people who could one up the other villain. It’s quite odd to get excited when someone foils another’s plans and then that someone runs off and immediately does something just as terrible like killing someone! It’s confusing in a very fun kind of way 🙂
I loved getting to experience the mixture of a historical and modern drama in The Last Empress. We get all the intrigue of a historical in a modern day setting. We also get some gorgeous costumes. Shin Sung Rok was looking particularly dapper in his elegant suits and royal robes.
And the ladies were decked out in some gorgeous hanboks. It was just really neat how the drama fully embraced being a monarchy by incorporating so many traditional elements that we are used to seeing in a historical.
I was also quite surprised by the early transformation of Wang Shik who was originally played by Tae Hang Ho. After tragedy strikes, he then becomes a fit, fighting machine in the form of Choi Jin Hyuk. And he’s out for some serious revenge!
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There are a lot of interesting relationships at play in The Last Empress. The first is that of Sunny and Lee Hyuk. At first, she is completely enamored with him and so happy to be his wife. But when she sees his true colors, she ends up pitted against him. These two face off many times throughout the drama. I loved the dynamic between them and that she fully stood up to Lee Hyuk’s craziness.
Next is Sunny and Wang Shik. For a long time, they don’t interact much since he is just a bodyguard. But circumstances position them on the same side as they both end up with revenge plans against the Emperor.
Then there is Lee Hyuk and Lee Yoo Ra. These two have a tumultuous relationship that is at times quite steamy and at other times very volatile. They are both involved in some shady happenings together, but they each still have many secrets from each other. And that means trust can quickly break down.
Finally, Lee Hyuk and Wang Shik have a faux brotherly sort of relationship. Wang Shik is out for revenge and has positioned himself right next to Lee Hyuk. So close that Lee Hyuk trusts him with his life. But he’s just being played as Wang Shik waits for just the right moment to make Lee Hyuk pay for his crimes. That’s always fun to see play out!
There’s also sort of a love triangle (sort of but not really, hehe) that develops in the second half of the drama with Lee Hyuk, Sunny, and Wang Shik. It adds in a nice bit of comic relief. Of course, Wang Shik was by far the better man in the triangle just because he was a decent guy (SPOILER: Just forget about that time he pushed her off a cliff. He really didn’t want to, lol. END OF SPOILER).
But admittedly, there were times where Lee Hyuk was quite cute in his petty jealousy and attempts to win over Sunny. He does have a heart deep down, and it does occasionally allow him to act like a human being. (SPOILER: After despising Sunny for so long, it was quite interesting to see him experience a sharp turn around and actually develop feelings for her and want to protect her. He was still very controlling, but he did end up genuinely caring for her in his own way. END OF SPOILER)
He’s a tortured soul who has had a pretty difficult life because of his absolutely horrible mother. So we do get a window into some of his pain. If we can only just get past the fact that he tends to be a selfish and self-absorbed murderer, he’s really not so bad…lol.
Before I go into more spoiler territory, I do want to give a heads up to those considering this drama. First, it seemed that there was a lot of confusion as to who the main male lead was. Many thought that Choi Jin Hyuk was the main lead and love interest. This was never the case. Shin Sung Rok always had top billing and that’s evident throughout the drama. Choi Jin Hyuk still has a lead role though and is an important part of the story. Keep this in mind when going in.
The show was also extended by 4 episodes, and that altered how events went down. Many, many people were very unhappy and thought the way things went ruined the drama. If endings really matter to you, you might want to skip this one because you could be left very disappointed. I personally was fine with it, with a few caveats, but you know I’m more in it for the ride as a whole.
ENDING SPOILERS BELOW
Now for the ending. I know a lot of people were pretty upset over how it went because Choi Jin Hyuk had to leave the drama due to prior commitments. Of course, I was a bit disappointed that Na Wang Shik didn’t get to really savor his revenge or have a proper send off when he died.
But I always thought he wouldn’t make it out alive anyway, so really that is what softened the blow for me, and I think they did the best they could with what they had to work with. It just would have been nice if it was executed better so it could have been more satisfying.
But aside from that, I thought the ending was perfect. The drama was always more the story of Sunny and the Emperor. And at least in the end, the Emperor did finally have that moment where he decided to be different and do something right for a change.
By taking on the identity of the deceased Na Wang Shik, he was able to help expose his mother’s evil deeds. Of course, he loses his life in the process, which is pretty sad. It was a relief for him though as he was ready to never return to the palace and just wanted to die. So he got some justice for his own bad deeds as well as a little redemption which was a fitting end.
And everyone who did wrong, including the Empress Dowager and Kang Hee, got what was coming to them. It was very satisfying. Sunny was also able to play a major part in that and was then able to break free from the palace and leave all of that suffering behind.
She was a strong and determined woman who never gave up. She was able to right the wrongs and put everything in its place. She was a fantastic character. So I was very pleased with how things wrapped up.
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The Last Empress is far from being technically perfect, but it was perfect for me. It delivered deliciously over-the-top melodrama and angst at a thrilling pace that never left me bored because of the intrigue and constant plot developments. Sure, a lot of it is crazy and unrealistic, but so what? That’s why it’s fun! Leaving me completely entertained is all I could ask, and it did that perfectly. It’s makjang at its finest, and for those who like the genre, I wholeheartedly recommend it!
My Rating: 10/10
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