Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Cathy, and this is Karen. Today we are discussing episode 15 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace.
Ugh – this is not an episode that I enjoy. Why? Bad things happen to our heroines…specifically 沈眉庄. [karen will talk too] This is more of a plot explanation episode because quite a lot happens. There isn’t as much history here but we’ll get more of that in the next episode.
The episode starts off innocently enough. The Emperor 雍正 is still at 甄嬛’s place. He actually wants to promote her to the next level of 嫔 or Imperial Concubine. That’s one step higher than 贵人, or Noble Lady which is what 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 are right now. But it’s too early because she hasn’t given him a child so he’ll have to wait. It’s all lovey dovey. Still don’t get this couple.
The Emperor 雍正 and 甄嬛 head over to see 沈眉庄 and they bump into 安陵容 who tags along. It’s an absolute party. Literally everyone is there – the Empress 皇后, 华妃, 曹贵人, you name it.
There’s some innocent sniping between 华妃 and 甄嬛 before the Emperor 雍正 leaves with the whole retinue. Everyone gets to the courtyard, only to see a sneaky figure running away to the shadows. She is promptly captured and brought to the Emperor for questioning.
It’s 沈眉庄’s maid 茯苓 and it looks like she’s stole something. 沈眉庄 doesn’t have a clue as to why 茯苓 is stealing. Something’s fishy. Sure enough, who goes to grab the bag? 曹贵人.
What’s in the bag – some bloody sheets. Everyone’s confused – why would there be bloody sheets? Unless 沈眉庄 is on her period? But 沈眉庄 is pregnant! What is happening?
沈眉庄 is extremely upset and wants to punish 茯苓. 茯苓 immediately yells and says “You told me to get rid of this!” This is a shocking piece of news! Did 沈眉庄 lie about her pregnancy? Look at the shot of 华妃 in the background – she’s smirking.
The Emperor 雍正 calls for an Imperial Doctor. The usual doctor that 沈眉庄 uses 刘畚 is not on duty tonight but they get another doctor. He comes to diagnose 沈眉庄 and declares that she is NOT pregnant! How is that possible? This doctor acknowledges that he’s not a gynecologist and asks to summon Doctor Jiang. He walks in and nods to 颂芝 who is 华妃’s head maid. They are definitely in on something.
Doctor Jiang also declares that 沈眉庄 is not pregnant. Remember this Doctor Jiang also gave 沈眉庄 some prescriptions in an earlier episode. Now he’s saying that he did give her a prescription to delay her monthly cycle. This is just getting worse and worse for 沈眉庄. She kneels on the floor, crying that she’s been wrongly accused.
The Emperor 雍正 is done. He orders 沈眉庄’s normal doctor 刘畚 to come but the eunuchs report that he’s fled. Now with no witness, 沈眉庄 is toast. 刘畚 and 沈眉庄 came from the same area and 沈眉庄 was the one who recommended that he become her primary doctor. There’s no way to get out of this situation. 甄嬛 tries to put in a word for 沈眉庄 but is stopped by the Emperor. 齐妃 another consort, almost accuses 甄嬛 too due to her closeness with 沈眉庄, and is angrily stopped by the Emperor.
雍正 is livid and angrily grabs the hairpin that he gifted her out of her coiffure. 甄嬛 and 安陵容 try to appeal for 沈眉庄. Even the Empress does to but 雍正 has made up his mind. 沈眉庄 is to be stripped of her title of 惠贵人 or Noble Lady and demoted to 答应 or 2nd Class Female Attendant. She is to be imprisoned in her palace and cannot leave unless summoned by the Emperor. No can visit without permission. The Emperor orders the capture of the Imperial Doctor 刘畚. The maid 茯苓 is to be killed.
With this, 沈眉庄 faints. 曹贵人 and 华妃 exchange knowing glances. 安陵容 rushes back to her quarters and orders all of the baby clothes she made to be burned. She doesn’t want anything to do with this. If others hear about this, she will also be punished.
We then have a scene of that missing Imperial Doctor 刘畚. He’s waiting for his contact to give him money to run away. But obviously it’s not going to be that easy. The contact tries to kill him but 刘畚 flees the scene.
The next scene answers the conundrum on who sent 刘畚 in the first place. 华妃. She sent 刘畚 and 茯苓. That’s plotting. This started several episodes ago in episode 12! Before 华妃 was even back in favor! I’ll applaud her for this – obviously she had help, most likely from 曹贵人.
The rest of the episode revolves around how 甄嬛 tries to protect herself from the fallout of this fake pregnancy scandal. Everyone knows that 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 are close friends and therefore, most wondering if the two were plotting this together. The servants, seeing the downfall of 沈眉庄 treat 甄嬛 and 安陵容 very poorly, giving them the worst flowers or amenities, and in the case of 安陵容，simply taking away a lot of decorations, which is quite humiliating.
甄嬛 is trying to see if she can talk to 皇上,but is refused at the door and has to endure a humiliating interaction with 华妃 as she walks out of the palace, having just been with 皇上.
In her quiet room，now stripped of most comforts and decorations, we see that 沈眉庄 is being consoled by a kind 敬嫔。 You’ll recall that 敬嫔 is the head of the palace where 沈眉庄lives. As we see here, she is looking after 沈眉庄 and urging her to eat. We also notice that 沈眉庄, now demoted to only a 答应, wears much simpler clothing and hairstyles.
敬嫔 takes one of her hair accessories, which is made of silver, and uses it as a test for poison of 沈眉庄’s food. Luckily, she did because a plate of vegetables turned her accessory black – which means the food was poisoned, The two ladies are justifiably upset and deduce that 华妃 was only one powerful enough to be able to do this. It’s clear that 华妃 hates 沈眉庄 and will do anything to get her killed. Fortunately, they were able to save themselves this time. And we see that 敬嫔 so far is a kind hearted person. She’s been kind to 甄嬛 and will continue to play a larger role in the palace.
甄嬛 is pacing back and forth trying to figure out what to do because she is not being given the opportunity to speak to the emperor.. With 甄嬛 worried sick about what to do to help shen mei zhuang, her head maid, 瑾汐 suggests that 甄嬛 speak to 芳若。 Who is this 芳若. 芳若 is a maid who serves the emperor. She has direct access to him and therefore, is a powerful ally. 芳若 is also the maid who taught 甄嬛 about court etiquette when they were first entering the palace, so they have some connection.
So, what does 甄嬛 do? She grabs an expensive looking bracelet off her person and stuffs it in her maid, 瑾汐’s hand and says to give this to 芳若 and ask her to help look after 沈眉庄。 After all, money will and can solve most issues. AND – here is the interesting part – 甄嬛 says to grab make up from her cabinet and give it to 芳若 to help draw eyebrows and says that having light eyebrows in front of the emperor is not pretty.
And indeed, later on in the episode, we see this 芳若姑姑， this middle aged maid, serving tea to the emperor and he actually does a double take on her eyebrows. He asks, your eyebrows are styled in the 远山黛 style? 芳若 says yes, and that she helped the previous empress/wife, 纯元皇后 draw this 远山黛 eyebrow style and therefore knows how to draw it herself.
The emperor does not say a word, but ends up going to see 甄嬛 that night.
We see that 芳若 is incredibly smart – she does not outright do anything to help 甄嬛，except for the eyebrows. What is interesting is that she doesn’t even mention that the new make up was from 甄嬛. She instead, purposefully mentions 纯元皇后， the emperor’s first wife, which leads him to go see 甄嬛. This part is particularly interesting. This connection with 纯元皇后 is a very important theme throughout the drama and we have already seen hints of it here and there but here is a brief instance we see this connection surfacing again.
For those of you wondering what 远山黛 is, I also didn’t know what it was and was only introduced to it through this drama. Apparently, it is a style of drawing your eyebrows that was named since ancient times, at least from the han dynasty, so 2000 years ago. We’ve talked about the han dynasty a couple of times already. There isn’t much significance here of this eyebrow style in this drama beyond the fact that it is related to 纯元皇后。
The episode ends with 皇上 coming to visit 甄嬛 and she, surprisingly, or smartly, steers away from trying to beg 皇上 for help. Instead, she discusses very simple and trivial matters with him. He clearly appreciates this and stays the night, leaving 华妃 to an empty bed. The next day, he even punishes the head eunuch of 内务府, the Imperial Household department, for having given dying flowers and poor ornaments and decorations to 甄嬛’s place. This eunuch, is actually a distant relative of 华妃 and when she hears the news from 皇后, she tries to get him released from punishment, but of course 皇后 won’t have it. She’s placed her own guy on the job. The ladies are snickering at 华妃 for this turn of events and 华妃 is understandably upset because she lost a pretty powerful ally in 后宫。 Having someone run 内务府 is huge. There are many corruption opportunities there which now she will not be able to fully utilize because she doesn’t have a relationship with the head eunuch.
Another couple of observations
The cracks between 沈眉庄 and 安陵容 are more clearly being shown. 安陵容suffers because of her association with 沈眉庄 and she’s becoming more and more upset.
Something else that is important is that, though 皇上 is upset about the fake pregnancy, I think he’s probably more disappointed that 沈眉庄 didn’t do enough due diligence on the matter and was so easily manipulated by people to fall for such a scheme. He could easily have executed her, or banished her to 冷宫。 Remember, a few episodes ago, we recall that lying to the emperor is punishable by death. It is his biggest taboo. He probably believes that 沈眉庄 didn’t know she was being fooled which is why she wasn’t executed but has to put on a show and give her this punishment. He is cold hearted and she is absolutely heartbroken but in the grand scheme of things, I think it could have been way worse for her. This is also why 皇上 was so quick to go back to 甄嬛 and believe that 甄嬛 didn’t have anything to do with the fake pregnancy plot. Something about the two of them gave 皇上 the impression that these two could be more or less trusted.
Thank you so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed discussing it! As always, if you have any questions/comments, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you with us in the next episode.