‘Queenmaker’ review: a majestically Machiavellian political drama

A cutthroat corporate fixer helps a civil rights lawyer become the mayor of Seoul in this riveting K-drama

If you’re a fan of smart and savage political thrillers like House of Cards or Scandal, then Netflix’s newest K-drama might be right up your alley. Queenmaker stars Kim Hee-ae (The World of the Married) as Hwang Do-hee, a sharp and remorseless “fixer” for powerful South Korean conglomerate Eunsung Group, led by commanding matriarch Chairwoman Son (Seo Yi-sook). As head of their Corporate Strategy Team, she’s spent a decade using crooked tactics to conceal the many misdeeds of the owner’s sociopathic family. From labour rights violations and sexual assaults to physical abuse and murder, the evil stuff Eunsung gets up to makes the Roys from Succession seem wholesome.

Early on, Do-hee comes up against unimpeachable civil rights lawyer Oh Kyung-sook (Life’s Moon So-ri) when she causes a ruckus while protesting the company’s unfair layoffs of temporary workers. Unable to bribe or blackmail her, Do-hee is stumped for once in her career. Nicknamed the “Rhino of Justice”, Kyung-sook is straightforward, relentless and unfailingly moral – traits that have made her a grassroots celebrity among the working class. Despite seeming like natural enemies, the pair eventually team-up when a shocking tragedy caused by the chairwoman’s son-in-law, Baek Jae-min (Ryu Soo-young), sparks a crisis of conscience within Do-hee.

Burdened by guilt, she refuses to be complicit in Eunsung’s latest cover-up. Not only is Do-hee unceremoniously fired, even her terminally ill father is kicked out of hospital at the behest of Eunsung. Upon learning that her former employers are planning to install Jae-min as the next mayor of Seoul, a furious Do-hee reaches out to Kyung-sook to run against him in the coming election. Naturally, the “Rhino” is distrustful of Do-hee’s sudden change of heart and wary of entering politics, but after Do-hee spills the tea about Eunsung’s shadiest secrets and nefarious plans, the crusading Kyung-sook is compelled to make a stand. If she doesn’t stop Eunsung from exploiting the poor and gaining more power, who will?


The initial unease and burgeoning friendship between Do-hee and Kyung-sook is one of Queenmaker’s greatest strengths. They come from contrasting backgrounds and have very different ideologies, but they need each other if they’re to overcome Eunsung, a corporation that has their tendrils tethered to every South Korean institution. As Kyung-sook’s campaign manager, will Do-hee abide by her promise to employ no dishonest tactics? Will Kyung-sook compromise her decency when opponents attack her friends and family? Besides the dramatic tension, the odd couple pairing also brings some unexpected comedy into the mix. Watching Do-hee try to polish and pretty-up the brusque Kyung-sook for her first TV debate is a hoot!

Team “Rhino” might be trying to play clean, but her opponents sure aren’t. Besides Eunsung’s nepo-candidate, our heroes are also up against an experienced and established female liberal named Seo Min-Jung (Love In Contract‘s Jin Kyung). Her policies may be diametrically opposed to Jae-min’s, but she’s secretly just as slimy and corrupt. At every turn, Do-hee and Kyung-sook are at a disadvantage. Their opponents aren’t just armed with bottomless war chests to fund their campaigns – their methods are outrageously unethical, ranging from manufacturing fake news to kidnapping and extortion. Thankfully, Do-hee is a veteran at this game, and her strategic genius is a joy to behold, especially when she uses her powers for good.

The show’s complex political manoeuvrings are absolutely riveting, as our protagonists are repeatedly forced to counter one malicious attack after another, each more Machiavellian than the last. The ways our scrappy underdogs are assaulted by slanderous chicanery also allows Queenmaker to incisively critique how public opinion, special interest groups, mass media, the legal system and religious organisations can be so vulnerable to manipulation by the rich and powerful, particularly in a capitalist society where greed and fear reign. While the series can be a little long (episode runtimes range from 62 to 74 minutes), and its villains can be cartoonishly one-note, it’s easy to overlook Queenmaker’s minor flaws when weighed against its uniformly excellent performances, engrossing plot and jaw-dropping twists.

Queenmaker is available to stream on Netflix now.


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