Other Media Review

Guest Review: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung

This guest review comes to us from Heather Morris! Heather Morris is a cyborg librarian living in North Carolina. She’s a Cool Aunt, a True Crime junkie, an ARMY, and an anxiety-riddled Gemini. You can find her on Twitter @NotThatHeatherM

I’ve recently fallen deep down the rabbit hole of K-dramas available on Netflix. I enjoy them for many of the same reasons I love romance novels. For one thing, you know from the beginning, sometimes even the end of the opening credits, who will end up together. You never have to worry about the if, it’s only a matter of how. For another, there are plenty of common tropes, and half the fun comes from watching how different shows play with formula.

But there’s one drama in particular that has quickly become my favorite. To the point that, even though my to-watch list is about a mile long, I’ve already watched it twice.

It’s called Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung, and I love it so much.

Promotional poster with heroine in profile holding a book looking beautiful and ethereal and so very smartIt’s the early 19th century, and Goo Hae-ryung is an independent woman who can’t seem to find where she fits in the world. Her brother wants her to get married for protection (he’s got secrets – dangerous ones), but she’s a free spirit who isn’t ready to settle down.

When the royal court, under political pressure, allows women to apply to be historians (because female historians would be allowed to go to places in the palace that male historians would not and thus be able to record things previously kept private), she shoots her shot and is accepted as an apprentice.

Prince Dowon Yi Rim has been raised in semi-imprisonment in an isolated part of the palace. Bored and lonely, he turns to writing romantic novels that become an unexpected sensation.

The first time they meet, Hae-ryung, not knowing Rim is a writer or a prince, tells him his book sucks and then scolds him for not speaking to her with the proper respect. He immediately falls in love. I do, too.

File in the dictionary under “meet disaster”:

A lot of plot happens in the twenty episodes of Rookie Historian. The Queen Dowager is at odds with the King, and the court is split into factions. There’s a book uncovering some nefarious deeds of the past; the King tries to ban it, but that doesn’t go well for him. The female historians face hazing and institutional sexism. There’s a smallpox outbreak. There are secret Catholics. There’s a French guy. Everyone has Daddy issues. And, of course, there are plenty of secrets buried in both Hae-ryung’s and Rim’s past which come out, the way secrets tend to do.

But the through-line of all of this is the romance.

And so much adorableness

Prince watching and tilting his head adorably

One of the many, many things I love about this show is that Yi Rim is usually portrayed as the more traditionally “feminine” of the pair. Where Hae-ryung is bold, intelligent, and unapologetically nonconformist, Rim loves romance and poetry, and is gentle and naïve. This is not construed negatively or as something he needs to outgrow. It’s just who he is. Besides, he can still smolder like nobody’s business.

Click for some smolder

Prince smoldering so much smolder with a little smile too - egads

The two of them complement each other so well. He rapturously tells her the story of Rapunzel; she wonders how you can climb someone’s hair without breaking their neck. He attempts seduction by backing her against a wall and staring intensely (I’m pretty sure there’s a rule that this has to happen in every K-drama); she awkwardly ducks under his arm and looks at him like he’s grown three heads. They’re just so dang adorable. And as they grow and change over the course of the series, they make each other better people.

It’s really quite lovely to watch unfold.

Awwwwww

Two characters walking off into some hedges together

While for the most part this is a romantic comedy, the show does get into some really thorny issues. In particular, there’s an ongoing conversation over the role of historians. Can there ever be such a thing as a perfectly impartial recorder of history? (Obviously not, and each historian deals with this differently.) Who gets to control how history is written, and who has access to it? What do the choices we make about what we preserve mean for future generations?

Time and again, the very act of recording history is shown as an act of defiance. At one point, Hae-ryung is arrested for refusing to show the King what she has written. All of her fellow historians go on strike, defying the King’s order and stopping the work of the royal court in its tracks. The resulting conflict is mostly played for laughs, until suddenly it becomes very serious indeed.

Those scenes resonated really strongly with me, perhaps because in the past few years, truth—a concept I used to have more faith in—has suddenly become amorphous and unreliable. In the end, truth and justice win the day. In its own way that’s as much a fantasy as the romance, but, to me, just as necessary.

I do need to offer one specific content warning:

CW/TW - suicide

There’s a flashback scene to a character’s death by suicide, which I found fairly graphic (and disappointing in that a female character’s sole function was to provide tragic backstory for a man).

Promotional poster showing heroine holding her book and prince tipping his hat at someone That’s in episode ten, if you need to skip over it.

The ending of the series also feels a little abrupt. That’s something I’ve noticed with other K-dramas as well; the consequences of big plot events are kind of swept aside with a time jump and some vague assurances that everything’s okay now, really, we promise. But Hae-ryung and Rim do get their HEA, in a way that I didn’t expect, but which was a perfect fit for them.

I loved this story and these characters. I first started it on a whim, but I’m glad that I did, because it hits all my happiness buttons in all the right ways.

And I have a feeling that before long I’ll be back to watch it all over again.


You can find Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung on Netflix. Have you watched it? What did you think? 

Add Your Comment →

  1. 1
    Kit says:
    4+

    Might give them go. I’m not in the mood for plot twists and feel-bad endings. British TV dramas are full of them at the moment, even Sanditon, based on a Jane Austen novel had a downer ending or so I heard (gave up after second episode). Mind you, I have three series of death in paradise to get through first!

  2. 2
    Claire says:
    5+

    I absolutely adored this series, for all the same reasons in your review. Hmmmm, might be time for a rewatch.

  3. 3
    Mrs. Obed Marsh says:
    20+

    I once took a tour of the Gyeongbokgung palace and the tour guide told us about the scrupulous honesty of the palace historians. She shared an anecdote of a Korean king who fell off his horse and injured himself while hunting. The king asked the historian to please not record the incident.

    Guess how the tour guide knew this. Go on, guess.

  4. 4
    Anna A says:
    7+

    I have switched over and only ever watch K-drama since over a year. This is one of the good ones, but there are more, even better ones out there. Both on Netflix and Viki. But give this a watch if you haven’t. Well worth the time. 🙂

  5. 5
    Zuzus says:
    4+

    Pardon my ignorance but are they dubbed, or subtitled?

  6. 6
    No, the Other Anne says:
    6+

    @Zuzus Generally subtitled, in my experience. This is perfect for me, since I use subtitles/closed captions even for my native English-language programs.

  7. 7
    jen_jay says:
    2+

    I loved “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” back in the day. This sounds like my catnip. Thanks for sharing the review. I love SBTB for all the suggestions. 🙂

  8. 8
    Heather M says:
    2+

    @Zuzus, yes, it is subtitled. I haven’t come across any k-dramas that are dubbed, but admittedly I’ve still only seen a handful.

  9. 9
    Snaptrix says:
    2+

    Thanks for this review! I love this drama (in my book, it is an A!). Wonderfully done, highly recommend.
    P.S. I’m currently binging it again 🙂

  10. 10
    Neh says:
    1+

    Anna A
    Recommendations please! Thanks!

  11. 11
    Suep says:
    4+

    I have also just discovered the world of K drama, and it’s beyond awesome, full of crazysauce plots, favourite tropes and all sorts of catnip. If anyone remembers the feeling of reading all the genre books you like in your local library then going to a new bigger library and the feeling of excitement seeing all the new ones and being excited to read them all!! I feel like I have just stumbled upon an entertainment goldmine E.g my first 3 k dramas were – guy who is allergic to humans, falls of a robot (but she is really a women!!) (I am not a robot) Second one was a women who falls for a robot (that a mother made to replace her son) ( Are you human) then 400 year old alien falls for vain actress next door! (My love from a star) all the catnip! ( I obvs love the more fantastical kdramas) Add in beautiful actors, great clothes and a peak at a different culture, and a story that wraps up in 20 epoisdes..my to watch list is getting very long!!

  12. 12
    Wahoo Suze says:
    1+

    I’ve been submersed in Netflix Asian dramas, too. My fave is to find one based on a manga, read the manga and then watch all the different countries’ versions and see how they handled things differently. It’s fascinating to see what the different cultures emphasize and de-emphasize. And they’re just full of all the romance tropes.

    I especially like that most of the time, the dude is totally in love and not only doesn’t try to macho out of it, but shames all his male friends for being single.

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