Whoo! Jang Geun-Suk’s comeback drama is finally here!!
Jackpot, also known as Daebak, is a fusion saguek (a historical drama with some liberties taken) set during the reign of King Sukjong through King Yeungjo that tells the epic story of a fictional illegitimate prince Baek Dae-Gil, the gambling “king” of Joseon, who goes against his brother, King Yeungjo.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen a good saguek and Jackpot definitely looks like it has the makings to be a very immersive, exciting high stakes drama! Jackpot is only 24 episodes which is totes awesome-sauce since most historic dramas are dauntingly 50-plus. The first two episodes are a prologue, or backstory, of Prince Dae-Gil’s birth and the tension revolving around the unwanted prince’s arrival. (Spoilers ahead!)
Jackpot – First Impressions (Episodes 1 & 2)
The story starts out with Baek Dae-Gil meeting with Lee In-Jwa, a nobleman who just incited a revolt in 1728 against the king. The men have words, Dae-Gil warning In-Jwa to stop using the suffering citizens as his excuse for attempting to take the throne. Dae-Gil tells In-Jwa to kill him on the spot if he wants to stop him. Dae-Gil’s one bodyguard faces off against In-Jwa’s two men, exchanging swordplay in the snow. Ahh, it is so gorgeously shot, the snowflakes falling off the warriors’ hats, the swords slicing between the Dae-Gil and In-Jwa, neither flinching an eye. I loooove it.
The next scene jumps back in time a couple decades to 1693. In a gambling house we meet Bok-Soon, a hardworking, longsuffering wife who finds her husband once again gambling away their money. Her hubby, Baek Man-Geum, is an older man with noble blood but has sunk into poverty and horrible debt from his gambling addiction. Sadly, Bok-Soon slaves away her life working endless jobs just to keep food on the table while Man-Geum simply makes empty promises.
Bok-Soon ends up meeting Lee In-Jwa who offers her a bunch of money if she’ll go back to the palace (she used to be a maid of Queen Inhyeon, until the queen was executed and her maids were sold off). All he wants is for her to put a lotus leaf on Inhyeon’s shoes. King Sukjong spies Bok-Soon doing this and is immediately interested in the palace maid who still honors the dead queen’s memory.
Afterwards, we see the king playing archery with royal guard Kim Yi-Soo, who really hates the king (he has flashbacks of someone he loved dying, which I’m guessing was the king’s fault?) but of course he can’t really do anything about it.
The super serious king shows interest in the lowest palace maid, Bok-Soon, but she won’t let him get too close. He wants to know why and she honestly tells him – she’s married. So the king decides to do something about that.
The king goes to the gambling den that Baek Man-Geum haunts. Man-Geum is told by Hong-Mae, the charismatic female den owner, that the disguised king is an easy gambling target. So Man-Geum plays a bunch of games with the king, not realizing the king is baiting him with tricks of his sleeve. When Man-Geum loses the thousands of coins that he won merely seconds ago, he becomes frantic. He offers his wife’s rings but the king isn’t interested in cheap rings. So Man-Geum bets his wife against the king… yeah, for reals. The king wins the bet (a game of guessing how many cups a bottle of alcohol can fill) and sadly Bok-Soon is there listening to the whole thing. She always knew Man-Geum was a loser but she never thought this bad.
Bok-Soon goes to the palace and becomes the king’s woman. Man-Geum is beside himself, especially when he learns that the king was the gambler he faced. Realizing he’d been played, he begs an audience with the king and makes a bet against him that it will rain that night. He wins and has a great scene screaming under the falling raindrops that he won against the king. But the idiot doesn’t realize he didn’t win where it counts – because Bok-Soon tells him their relationship is over. She’s going to stay with the king, not a gambler who sold her away.
Six months later, Bok-Soon, now Lady Choi (sukbin Choe), gives birth to a prince. Good news right? Except everyone’s gossiping about the likelihood of a healthy baby being born so prematurely. Is it really the king’s baby?
Queen Jang (Jang Ok-Jung) isn’t happy about another son being born and makes not so subtly threats to poor Lady Choi. Desperate to save the baby’s life, Choi has Kim Yi-Soo take her son and give him to Man-Geum (telling him that he was born after six months, thus implying that he must be Man-Geum’s son). She then buries a baby who died in a plague to convince everyone her son is dead.
The king learns about this and sends his eunuch assassins to kill the baby to bury this whole incident. Wow, he’s such a great king, much less a dad. Meanwhile, Lee In-Jwa sends his own man to find the baby (because he deduced that Bok-Soon would send the baby to Man-Geum) and bring him alive. So a fight erupts over the baby between lone warrior and masked eunuchs. The eunuchs end up thinking they killed the baby by throwing a dagger at it (seriously?? Why is a baby being attacked here?) but the baby survives.
The king finds out that Yi-Soo helped Lady Choi hide the baby and that makes him mad. Yet he knows there’s something bigger going on here and tells Yi-Soo to deliver the guy who he’s working for or he’ll kill Yi-Soo’s daughter. Wow, king, you just get better and better.
The man behind Yi-Soo is of course Lee In-Jwa, who apparently saved his life at some point. In-Jwa, as usual, knows what’s coming and they duke it out with arrows in an amazingly shot scene in a gorgeous bamboo forest. In-Jwa wins but he’s devastated at having to kill Yi-Soo and promises to care for his girl, Dam-Seo.
Man-Geum is happy until a fortune-teller points out that the baby has “noble” features. Man-Geum suddenly realizes that Bok-Soon is duping him; this kid is really the king’s son. So he throws the baby into a lake. (NOOOO!!) but the baby incredulously survives. Okay, wut is going on with this baby?
Lee In-Jwa gets ahold of the baby and then sends for Lady Choi to PUNISH her for not obeying him and trying to hide her baby from his plan (I’m assuming he wanted this babe to be his puppet king tool). So In-Jwa puts the baby on a rock and readies his bow and arrow (WHHAAATTTT???). He tells Lady Choi that if doesn’t pick up a special card from a deck within three tries, he’ll shoot arrows at the baby. Of course, Lady Choi is practically dying as she keeps pulling wrong cards and screaming for In-Jwa to spare her kid. And then Man-Geum shows up. He says he’s going to pull out the last card and save the baby. In which case, Man-Geum warns In-Jwa that he better not come after his kid ever again.
So I’m just gonna go ahead and address the elephant in the room and ask WHY does the baby have to be in jeopardy for the whole of episode 2? I acknowledge that historically people did really evil things and would kill royal children… but I don’t necessarily want to watch baby Dae-Gil constantly being in mortal danger. Not to mention that I hate In-Jwa and Man-Geum and the king utterly. They all tried to kill a child!
Which is where I have a problem with Man-Geum coming back to rescue Dae-Gil. The show has an interesting way of making us utterly loathe him as he makes his wife suffer for years and then sells her for a gambling debt (oh and drops her kid in a river), yet I feel like there’s still an attempt to make him a somewhat sympathetic character. Yet I don’t feel any sympathy for him. Lol.
Oh man, visually, this drama is stunning! The winter scene at the beginning, the rain scene as Man-Geum shrieks to the heavens over his win against the king – every scene is just really gorgeously shot. The story itself is engaging with a prologue that shows how everything began yet leaves a sense of mystery to it. Exactly what the king’s motivations are I’m not entirely sure or even Lady Choi, though hers seem to be merely survival.
We only glimpsed Dae-Gil for a few minutes at the beginning but it was enough of a hook to make me excited for more. It’s been a little awhile since Jang Geun-Seuk has done a drama (3 yrs) and I definitely feel like this could be an excellent role for him. One of my favorite things about Jang Geun-Seuk is how his very boyish looks contrast with that deep voice of his; it never fails to surprise me.
The supporting cast is loaded with fantastic actors, my favorite being Choi Min-Soo as the stoic, mysterious, somber-faced king. He’s so charismatically dangerous looking even as a dude who really just sits in a chair. You can’t ignore the underlying intensity that Min-Soo brings, especially in his unnerving stares. Yoon Jin-Seo is heartbreakingly empathetic as a woman whose suffered countless tragedies and yet is hardworking and unassuming. It’s difficult to watch how she’s been manipulated by everyone in her life – Man-Geum, In-Jwa and King Sukjong.
I’m really pumped for all that’s too come – as I’m seeing Dam-Seo will most likely follow a path of vengeance for the death of her father. In-Jwa promised to raise her and I’m certain he’ll make her remember every day that the king is to blame for her father’s tragic demise. I’m stoked for when Yeo Jin-Goo will hit the screen as the young King Yeongjo. He’s an up and rising star (Orange Marmalade, The Moon Embracing the Sun) and I think he’ll bring a lot to the role.
I’m also fascinated by the whole historical aspect. One thing I find so fun about sagueks is how many different drama versions there are and how many stories can be told about the same characters. Much like watching a movie about Queen Elizabeth I, where Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, is the selfish cousin who defies her; and then watching another movie about Mary Stuart where she’s the saint and Elizabeth is the cruel monarch that kills her – there are so many different sides to a story. In Jackpot, we have another story about the famous King Sukjong and his concubine Lady Choi. You can find Lady Choi’s story also in Dong-Yi, where she’s the kind and innocent heroine and in Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love where she’s a conniving woman after power. Her tale is fascinating in itself as she was the lowliest of palace maids, practically a slave. No women of that position were ever elevated so highly by a king.
What’s interesting in this story is that Dae-Gil is a what-if story come to life; what if Lady Choi’s first son hadn’t died as a baby but had been taken out of the palace to live? Lady Choi will later on give birth to Prince Yeoning – who would become King Yeongjo – making Dae-Gil and Yeongjo full brothers. Dang, I’m loving where this is going. Here’s hoping Jackpot delivers a solid drama!