This drama is packed with great stuff—romance, political intrigue, comedy, action, and frankly some of the best non-asian actors I've seen in a kdrama. (Most of them aren't actually good actors, but most "foreign" actors I've seen in kdramas have been terrible, and these actors are somewhat decent. . . mostly.)
One of my favorite aspects of this drama is Ha Ji Won's character Kim Hang Ah. She's a tough-as-nails North Korean drill sergeant who has to deal with South Korea's crown prince/Peter Pan/playboy Lee Jae Ha (in a world where South Korea has a nominal monarchy). Are we surprised that Ha Ji Won is playing a tough chick? Not in the least, because she's awesome at it, but this girl has a squishy center.
Hang Ah just wants to be loved. She's a hard-core patriot, but wants a man who can deal with her tough side and still find the more feminine aspects of her nature. Those men who are brave enough to come near her soon find out that she has a hard time letting go of her military training, and so has a hard time expressing her romantic side or allowing any kind of skinship. At first, her changes between uber-military chick and fuzzy bunny were a little off-putting for me, but I soon came to love the complexities of her character that were represented by both sides, as well as Ha Ji Won's ability to consolidate them into facets of her being instead of the bipolar mess it could have been. She's not a wilting violet—she goes so far as to inform the prince that for years she's been training soldiers to assassinate him on sight—but she's still a woman, and one capable of feeling and expressing great love if given the right opportunity.
Enter Lee Jae Ha, a man who has carefully avoided every responsibility that has come his way and delights in the fact that his older brother is the king. I'm going to admit here that I was never convinced that Jae Ha was over 30. Lee Seung Ki did an excellent job, but he's too young and has too much of a baby face (complete with adorable dimples!) to effectively play someone six years older than he is. But I just tried to ignore that aspect as much as I could. Anyway, he gets tricked by his brother into training for an international military competition to which North and South Korea are sending a combined team, with the northern half being led by Hang Ah, natch. It is suddenly her task to make him a viable opponent in this competition with top officers from all over the world, and this is a man who used his title to get out of every difficult training exercise during his military stint. Did anyone else have the song "I'll Make a Man out of You" running through their head during the first half of this series?
I was a little surprised when their relationship started to take on a softer aspect after Hang Ah confides to Jae Ha her difficulties in finding a husband. It seemed way too sudden and easy for him to be all caring and affectionate. No way, he can't have just softened so much towards her in five minutes, right? Right. In typical kdrama man-boy fashion, it was all an act to get back at her, but it does get things started. I also love the way their relationship does progress once it gets going. Each one plays a game of cat-and-mouse, but neither one is truly the cat or the mouse throughout, and I like the political tensions between North and South that are rampant in their courtship. I love how Jae Ha is forced to transform from a boy who shies away from any serious commitment and responsiblity to a man who will go to any lengths (even crossing forcefully into North Korea) for the woman he loves and will do his utmost to protect his country. And I love how fiercely Hang Ah comes to love Jae Ah in return, without giving up who she is.
The second leads—adorable! Stuffy captain of the guards Eun Shi Kuyng vs. free spirit young Princess Lee Jae Shin, a woman itching at the role and restrictions placed on her by her social position. At times their story even overshadows the OTP, and their chemistry is sizzling! I love how the growth of the princess and Shi Kyung is built through all the hardships they face.
Of course, there are the requisite kidnapping, unplanned pregnancy, imminent warfare, and creepy villains (BonBon, with her drug-laced chocolates and menacing craziness, for one), but most of these tropes are played to good effect in the series. (I said most.) The last two episodes made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. I know they wanted to stir everyone up into a frenzy, but it was unneccessary in my opinion.
Overall Rating: 9 out of 10
Other things I love about this drama:
The fact that they use the Black Keys song "Lonely Boy". And the fact that they use it appropriately, when Jae Ah returns home to the south alone, but not yet realizing that he is a lonely boy.
and basically all of Hang Ah's trousseau.
The fact that I just used the word trousseau unironically.
The OST, especially this song