There was a lot of set up in Episode 3 for future conflicts and developments, but on its own, the episode lacked momentum and a sense of pay-off. There was a lot of build-up, particularly regarding Tagon’s subsequent fate, but there was no narrative climax within the episode, which also made it more difficult at times to watch and follow.
I am less invested in the Tagon storyline because we haven’t gotten to know him as a character. While we know he’s capable and scheming, he really has been rather distant, except for the short exchange we saw between him and Taealha in Episode 1 about the Igutu boy he adopted – which we still haven’t seen yet. More time has been spent showing us how people around respond to him, rather than helping us to understand him or his motivations. So when we learn that his future potentially hangs in the balance, that has much less impact – also since he has been shown to be largely cruel thus far and defiantly stepping beyond boundaries like performing the Ollimsani though he is not sanctioned to.
I was much more invested in Eunseom’s continued quest to understand his identity which received two major hits in this episode – first, he learns he is an Igutu, which is a mix between Sarum and Neanthals; then he realises that he cannot find out more about his Neanthal identity because they have all been eliminated (or have they, really?). Ironically, just as he discovers his roots, he realises he needs to cover up his identity with the help of the woman at the farm, Chaeeun. She warns him that he needs to cover up his identity or else he will die or kill more people – interesting. With the help of some commonplace clothing and lip pigment, he manages to disguise himself and finally enter Arthdal.
While that aspect of understanding his roots and establishing a sense of belonging has suffered, what has grown for Eunseom is how discovery of his abilities and strengths and how to use them to his advantage – something that he never had an opportunity to find out while living with his mother and with the Wahan tribe. That is a childlike delight in him as he discovers how he can use his memory to his advantage, which is nicely complemented by his playful internal monologue that we gain insight into.
While I did feel the narrative energy flagged in this episode, we do see the overall storyline deepening as the powerplay between the tribes takes centre stage. Often I find that political powerplay, if not handled well, becomes a show’s downfall because in general, Kdrama fanatics are less keen on such aspects. Many shows have suffered because of over-emphasis on powerplay, whether it is political or corporate. At this moment, Arthdal still manages to keep it engaging because there’s a strong element of cleverness in how the manipulation is engaged. Asa Ron, Tagon’s father, seems to think he is in control and gaining an edge over Sanung, who similarly refuses to fall into the ‘trap’ of punishing his song. However, we know that Tagon has a bigger plan, which Taealha is aware of, and she has manipulated Asa Ron to put the chess pieces in place.
Going even deeper than the political powerplay is the mythical/spiritual world of Arthdal, which the mother figures in the show keep watch over as the men engaged in their powerplay. In this episode, we are introduced to Asa Sakan, the mother of the White Mountain, who acts as the guardian of the mystical world to remind Sanung that communication with the gods is not something to be taken lightly. This is a sentiment echoed by Mother Choseol as she looks at the huge lift that Tagon has created to transport people up the Great Black Wall. This layering of the story certainly adds depth to the story and makes it more intriguing and engaging to watch.
With all the set up done in Episode 3, I’m all ready to be swept away in more excitement in Episode 4. When the episodes are so long, there must be key payoff events within each episode to keep the narrative momentum. Let’s hope the remaining episodes manage to keep that momentum strong, while still building up its world and its characters.