Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
by Kim Ho-soo
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.
It’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.
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.
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.
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:
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?