Being under the metaphorical queen’s umbrella – basking in the generous shade of a monarch’s status – sounds cushy. But anyone who’s watched a palace drama, whether made by South Korea or Hollywood, knows how disadvantageous and indeed dangerous this position can be. Queen Im Hwa-ryeong (Kim Hye-soo), the titular figure of Joseon-era K-drama Under the Queen’s Umbrella, learns this the hard way when her son, the Crown Prince (Bae In-hyuk), falls gravely ill, opening up the arena for a battle over succession – one that threatens the lives of her other four sons.
A crown prince is appointed based on talent and merit, and the eligible offspring of the king’s (Choi Won-young) many concubines pose formidable challenges to Queen Hwa-ryeong’s spoiled younger sons. Hwa-ryeong realises that neglecting the education of her other children – the ‘spares’, so to speak – might have been a deadly oversight. Her strained relationship with her mother-in-law, the Queen Dowager (Kim Hae-sook), doesn’t help matters either. As the Dowager leaps at the opportunity to install her favourite on the throne, Hwa-ryeong must not only empower her sons for a role that their competition has had years to prepare for, but also ensure that they do not pay for their mother’s missteps with their lives.
Veteran actress Kim Hye-soo brings a spectacular nuance to Hwa-ryeong’s quandary. As Queen, she’s poised, graceful, and calculated, but it’s clear how much she loves her children when she frantically rushes her sons to their daily lessons or defies orders from the Queen Dowager to look after the Crown Prince. When backed into a corner and facing the prospect of losing everything, it’s Hwa-ryeong’s uncharacteristic humanity that drives her to make decisions and test her limits.
The writers heap on the tension by consistently showing Hwa-ryeong her possible futures. There’s the cruel Queen Dowager, a surprising turn for ‘The Nation’s Mother’ Kim Hae-sook, whom viewers might have written off as a kind maternal figure. It isn’t her open disapproval of Hwa-ryeong as the stereotypically evil mother-in-law that makes her so formidable. Standing above both politics and personal relations, the Dowager is quick to discard people that no longer serve their purpose, and even quicker to ascertain who to manipulate next.
On the other hand is Queen Yoon (Seo Yi-sook in a special appearance), whose brutal deposition years ago allowed the Queen Dowager, a former concubine, to take the throne. With only one son left to call her own (as the other have either died of illness or been viciously murdered), the sagely Yoon now lives in hiding and struggles to make ends meet – Hwa-ryeong’s worst-case scenario. And if Hwa-ryeong is paralleled in Yoon, the Dowager is mirrored in her favourite, consort Hwang Gwi-in (Ok Ja-yeon). Cool and confident, Hwang makes a delicious foil to the increasingly desperate Hwa-ryeong.
Comparisons between Under The Queen’s Umbrella and modern-day counterparts like Sky Castle are inevitable, as both stories are about the upper echelons of society clamouring to secure perpetual privilege. But where the cattiness and cruelty in Sky Castle were underpinned by a desire to protect one’s own social standing, Under The Queen’s Umbrella is at its heart the test of a mother and her survival instincts.
Framing Hwa-ryeong’s current struggles against the court’s bloodstained history of succession is a clever touch. When the victors and casualties of past battles stay in the picture, they serve to intensify Hwa-ryeong’s internal dilemma: is she willing to compromise her own moral code to ensure the survival of her sons? And with history constantly threatening to repeat itself, what can she do differently to protect herself?
Under The Queen’s Umbrella airs every Saturday and Sunday at 9:10pm KST on tvN and is available for streaming on Netflix in select regions.