Genre: historical, thriller, romance
Guk In-yeob is the only daughter of a Joseon nobleman, and her beauty and style has her surrounded by plentiful admirers, among them Kim Eun-gi, a young scholar from an important family who’s loved In-yeob since they were young. But one day In-yeob’s father is branded a traitor, causing her family to be forced into ruin, and overnight the city’s most popular young lady becomes a slave. In-yeob has difficulty adjusting from her pampered past to her present life as the lowly maid to her former rival. She learns to survive by her wits and befriends her fellow slaves, including Mumyeong (meaning “nameless”), a mysterious manservant who once saved her when she was still an aristocrat. Although Eun-gi remains devoted to In-yeob, her changed social status becomes an obstacle to his promising future, and meanwhile, she begins to fall for the stoic, level-headed but charismatic Mumyeong, who unbeknownst to all is a warrior on an undercover assignment regarding matters of political import.
REVIEW – with spoilers
This drama starts with really strong episodes but somewhere in the middle it starts to lag, losing its strength in repetition of scenes and themes that we’ve already seen. When a larger plot involving palace intrigue is added, the drama loses its emotional momentum completely. Our heroine In-yeob fights the same battles both romantically and politically. Issues viewers thought to be resolved return with a vengeance – this seriously undermines drama’s strengths, which are the focus on the servants and their everyday life, their suffering and silent rebellion.
In-yeob’s fall from the highest position in society to the very lowest of them gives us a nice dramatic portrayal of the arbitrary rules governing societies. The shock to her whole outlook on life, human rights and laws, and her role in the world, is used to outline the unfairness of the system, especially where it regards women. They are treated as goods the masters and even higher servants can exploit with impunity – they are the lowest on the slave totem pole and ordering them around or even threatening them is the only power male slaves have; of course only as far as the masters allow it. Since human beings in this dynasty are worth less than a horse or a cow, that’s not much to go on. I find it heartbreaking that children of slaves can be sold and the flashback to the American slave trade makes it clear slavery is the same world-wide.
To make one thing clear – some translate the Korean term nobi as servants but their legal status is that of slaves and I prefer translations that don’t obscure this. A more detailed analysis of the Joseon Dynasty society can be found here. I’m also hoping to get my hand on Behead the King by historian Baek Ji-won that explores the ills of the Joseon society like this drama does to a large extent (here). The book sounds amazingly chilling and I’m sure it will sour my enjoyment of sageuk (historical drama) to some extent although I haven’t seen a drama that didn’t point out the cruelties of the social system.
Maids is rightly focused on the plight of women slaves. The murky waters of coerced prostitution for better meals, clothes, and working conditions are especially galling to me. The women do the most backbreaking and tedious work in the large household – from cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. Some servants are forced to become mothers along with their noble owners so they can function as wet nurses. Ugh, when you start to think it can’t get worse, you see how bothersome maids who got pregnant by their masters are sold away or outright murdered, the child included. Sometimes slaves are bribed in working against their friends and family, keeping discord among them and preventing an uprising. Corporal punishment for little infractions is not uncommon. Even the police don’t bother listening to anything slaves say and are far more likely to punish anyone speaking up against their masters – apparently that is a criminal offence too. 😦
The role of high class women in perpetuating this vicious abuse in slavery is shown with no attempt to gloss over their involvement or giving it any justification. In fact, sometimes it is the women who are the most vicious protectors of the abusive system; partially because they fear the loss of their own meagre powers and partially because commanding servants is their only power. In this regard the drama did a fine job showing us both sides of the coin – we see how daughters are bartered away and kept in line, and how much freedom is given to sons, we see the powerlessness of wives when it comes to their husbands and parents. In such a harsh and unyielding system everyone is a victim – even the noble class. Heo Yoon-ok and Lady Heo are examples of those vicious noble ladies and sometimes it seems they live only from pure evil.
Eun-gi in particular strikes you as tragic because he has no chance at all to succeed in his rebellion to marry a slave or even keep her in his life. He may love In-yeob but his inability to let her go and make her life easier makes it harder for her to get used to the harsh system and only sparks further resentment amongst servants. His loyalty is commendable and rare but he takes it to extremes. One of my greatest disappointments with the plot is the continuous break-up between them. I was sick and tired of them having the same conversation again and again with In-yeob having to explain why they can’t be together. It was maddening especially since he went through with marriage to her former friend and new owner Heo Yoon-ok. Can you say messy? Consequently I began to like side characters far more.
We’ve got one happy couple in outspoken and bratty maid Dan-ji and her master’s son Heo Yoon-seo, who’s married to an utterly spoiled and ignorant noble girl due to his father’s political machinations. I didn’t like Yoon-seo for a long time because he always struck me as a selfish and whoring weakling who is needlessly endangering his slave lover but he utterly surprised me; I couldn’t be happier for him and Dan-ji for making it work. They overcome every obstacle and emerge as stronger people. It takes a long time but they manage to get their happy ending.
It’s ironic that being an ordinary citizen is exactly what Heo Yoon-seo desires while In-yeob is obsessed with clearing her father’s name and regaining her noble status. It does not bring her much happiness since she loses her only friend in return – the wonderful Sa-wol. The loyal maid only wishes to stay with her former mistress then marry and leave her slave status behind. She is usually the voice of reason for In-yeob and I adored her so much. Her fate is one of the most unfair and cruel ones in the drama.
In-yeob lands in the Heo household under the watchful eye of Mu-myeong. Now Mu-myeong is a complex character and often functions more as an antihero. He’s a secret agent of the Manwoldang society fighting against the new Joseon dynasty and the one who helped frame In-yeob’s father. He always feels a bit guilty so he helps her with advice but he’s not afraid of dishing out hard truths to her. He’s also the one to remind her time and time again that being alive is the only duty she has towards her parents. He has a strict moral code but he hides it like so many things about him – I liked his slippery nature because it made him absolutely fascinating. The fact most of female servants are a little in love with him tells a lot. When it is decided In-yeob would be his wife (as some sort of punishment for her) he uses that to his advantage to protect her. They eventually become friends, allies, and later on lovers, although the drama does take its sweet time about it (it drove me absolutely mad because there was no reason to delay or downplay the romance and torture us with another repeat of the Eun-gi storyline). The only thing I can’t ever forgive the writers is that they turned him into a lost prince. Yes, the secretive head-servant is a son of a king his organisation is fighting against. I was rolling my eyes so hard… Of course his royal status makes it impossible to marry In-yeob – the stigma of her time as a slave basically makes her a pariah in society. Cue an unsatisfying ending.
So, watch this drama for a truly unique look behind the noble facade of the great houses and a portrayal of slave lives, but don’t expect a great or unforgettable romance.