Episode 57 – Laying out the chess pieces!
Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. Today we are discussing episode 57 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. We are your hosts – Karen and Cathy.
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Today’s episode is going to be more plot driven as our main character is positioning herself back as a worthy opponent in the palace. She is gathering intel and retaliating where possible.
We left off the last episode with our main character 甄嬛, who has returned to the palace with a vengeance, coming back from a visit to the Empress Dowager with her good friend 沈眉庄。 As they were speaking, a eunuch carrying 甄嬛 on a litter slips. Luckily nothing happens to 甄嬛 but as 甄嬛 is pregnant, if a serious fall happened due to this slip, 甄嬛 and her child could have been seriously injured. This is the second day of her return to the imperial harem and she is already experiencing threats to her life.
What a fun way for things to start her life back in the place.
甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 returned to 甄嬛”s new palace, 永寿宫 where they analyze what happened. Someone mixed in slippery 鹅卵石 or a type of cobblestone into the ground. Through plot exposition, we learn that the stones in the roads have all been carefully selected to prevent slips. Therefore, to have these stones appear means someone did this on purpose. The desired result, of course, is to try to hurt 甄嬛. 甄嬛 asks her eunuch, 小允子 to speak to someone to thoroughly examine the moss on one of the stones they picked up. She’s looking for some identifiable hint of who did this. She is much less forgiving now on those who hurt her.
Later that night, when the emperor comes to visit her. 甄嬛, from my perspective, knows how to manipulate? That’s kind of a strong word. Nudge perhaps is more appropriate. Nudge the emperor into learning what happened to her and defending her. She’s in bed, with her hair down. When the Emperor arrives, she plays up the sad girl, needing her husband’s protection, not saying much about what happened but instead, going straight in for a hug, 浣碧, 甄嬛’s maid explains what happens, and the Emperor immediately figures out that someone is trying to harm 甄嬛。 He tries to punish the eunuchs carrying 甄嬛 who caused her to slip but 甄嬛 interjects to prevent those eunuchs from being punished. Her soft words and focus on her child further highlights her caring and forgiving nature to the emperor. He agrees not to punish anyone at the moment.
Let’s take a step back to look at how much 甄嬛 has matured now she’s back at the palace. She knows very well that someone tried to harm her but understands that those poor eunuchs aren’t to blame. That is true to her character. BUT, she told her own eunuch to pick up the cobblestones in order to further examine those stones and find the culprit. When the emperor comes, she doesn’t tell him to punish anyone. Instead, she focuses on the fact that she is a victim. The emperor, surely, will be on her side because of what happened. If she asked the eunuchs to be punished, the emperor may think that the punishment will resolve the issue and be less focused on who harmed 甄嬛. In the past, 甄嬛 might have just let it go in an effort to not cause drama. This new 甄嬛 is not going to allow that. As she said herself, if you attack me, don’t blame me if I can’t allow you to exist here. She’s learned that she needs absolute proof before acting.
Her retaliation strategy takes fruit rather quickly. Her eunuch shares that the moss from the stone comes from a specific type of tree from the 蜀 area of China, which is more or less modern day 四川. The only person who likes to grow this type of tree as a Chinese bonsai, is 欣贵人。
Who is this 欣贵人? 欣贵人 is one of the first women we’ve met in the imperial harem. She, along with 敬妃 were in the very first court greeting with the Empress all the way back at the beginning of the drama. She was a victim of the Empress’s schemes and had a miscarriage right when we were first introduced to her. She isn’t particularly favored by the emperor but also does not make too much fuss. She is one of the older women now in the palace.
Currently she lives with 祺嫔, who is firmly a member of the Empress’s group. When 甄嬛 hears that this rock is probably from 欣贵人, she sighs that it’s unfortunate for 欣贵人. She’s been with the emperor for many years but is still only a noble lady whereas other people who have been in the palace for a shorter period of time have surpassed her in title. 甄嬛 doesn’t know if 欣贵人 is now also a part of the Empress’s group or not. She clearly has motives to work with the Empress, but 甄嬛 cannot be sure.
Just as they are talking, 祺嫔 and 欣贵人 show up to pay their respects to 甄嬛. 甄嬛 and 祺嫔 have a pointed chat. 甄嬛 calmly puts down 祺嫔‘s father and 祺嫔’s own behavior towards her. Remember, 甄嬛’s father was framed by 祺嫔’s father and thus exiled to 宁古塔. She and her father contributed to 甄嬛’s downfall before she left the palace.
During the conversation 欣贵人 and 祺嫔 start to bicker. 祺嫔 becomes annoyed at what 欣贵人 says and hautily leaves the palace. Quite a rude thing to do since 甄嬛is still there but at least this allows 甄嬛 to speak to 欣贵人 alone. 甄嬛’s current rank is a 妃 or Consort, which outranks 祺嫔’s rank of 嫔。欣贵人 shares that her current living situation is rather bleak. She is constantly belittled by 祺嫔 but cannot do much because 祺嫔 has a higher title than her. 欣贵人 wants to be an owner of her own palace. She’ll work with 甄嬛 for whatever she needs in the future.
甄嬛 at this point is still skeptical of 欣贵人. She doesn’t know if 欣贵人 was the one who tried to harm her earlier so she tests 欣贵人。 甄嬛 has a lovely bonsai brought out of exactly the tree that 欣贵人likes. She mentions that the cobblestones in the bonsai were carefully picked as well. She brought this out in order to gauge 欣贵人’s reaction. If 欣贵人 was guilty of harming 甄嬛, she’d probably be more cagey. Instead, 欣贵人is ecstatic at how beautiful the tree is and how wonderful the moss on the cobblestones are. She’s not abashed at all at being sent this gift and gladly accepts it. This indicates to 甄嬛 that 欣贵人 is perhaps innocent in this scheme.
Um – when in the world did 甄嬛 have time to procure this bonsai? And all these cobblestones? She literally just learned about this right before these ladies showed up. How would she just so happen to have this bonsai? This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
Before letting 欣贵人go, 甄嬛 asks about a red necklace that 祺嫔 is wearing. 欣贵人 shares that this necklace was gifted by the Empress and wears it frequently to show off her favoritism. The most important piece of information, though, is that this necklace produces a faint smell that is quite pleasant. But when 甄嬛 hears this, her reaction is more knowing of the truth behind this necklace.
Later on, when 浣碧 asks about this necklace, 甄嬛 explains that the necklace isn’t just an expensive agate necklace as one would normally assume. It is instead a necklace made of 麝香，or musk. There will be permanent damage to your reproductive capabilities the longer one wears that necklace. This material is very rare so not many people have heard of it and since everyone knows that the Empress was the one who gifted it to 祺嫔， no imperial doctor will tell 祺嫔 the truth so as not to anger the Empress. It looks like even though 祺嫔 seems to be favored by the Empress, the Empress has prevented her from ever becoming pregnant. 祺嫔 is, unfortunately, too stupid to realize this.
Once again, musk or this 麝香 is the most effective birth control. We now have one more woman who is infertile due to close proximity to 麝香。 We’ve said before that 麝香 or this musk is the most important item in this drama! You’ll recall in episode 46 when the Empress first gifted this necklace to 祺嫔， 安陵容 was there. 安陵容 for once in her life was not self conscious of not receiving this gift because she could smell what the necklace was made of. She actually raised her handkerchief to her nose to prevent inhaling too much of the fragrance.
But I must say, how does 甄嬛 so happen to know this information? Maybe from a book?
The focus of this episode really is for us the audience to see each step 甄嬛 starts to take, each trap she begins to set, to build her own faction within the palace, win favor from the Emperor AND the Empress Dowager, and most importantly, one by one remove her enemies.
One main motive for 甄嬛 was to seek revenge on those who wronged her father. In this episode, she begins her attack towards 祺嫔, who’s father dealt the crucial blow against 甄嬛’s father. The first chess piece in her plan is her former maid 佩儿. This maid was sent to 欣贵人’s palace when 甄嬛 left the palace. 甄嬛 learns that it hasn’t been easy for 佩儿 these past 3 years. This poor girl is often beaten, whipped, or yelled at by 祺嫔 due to her association with 甄嬛. 甄嬛 now requests for the girl to be her spy in the palace – to report to her the actions of both 祺嫔 and 欣贵人. This chess piece will be quite fruitful in the future.
One evening, the Emperor chooses to spend the night with 欣贵人 after many months. She, of course is very pleased, but 祺嫔 is quite jealous and annoyed at this. What will this woman do? Well, apparently her “trick” is to scream quite loudly in the middle of the name claiming that she’s suffering from nightmares. She calls out for the Emperor. Her ruckus wakes up the sleeping Emperor and 欣贵人. Knowing 祺嫔’s scheme, 欣贵人 doesn’t say much. Anything she says will be pointless anyways. The Emperor does indeed ditch 欣贵人 for 祺嫔 that night and spends the night over there instead. Ugh, men. Can we all get a collective eye roll?
News of the night’s events travels to 甄嬛 ears the next morning. She’s eating breakfast with her quote on quote son, the 4th prince.
The first reaction the boy has upon hearing this is to say “蠢货” or idiot. His mother is surprised at his response. He calmly explains – Why mother, this is a perfect opportunity for you to establish your reputation in the Palace! She immediately understands his meaning. She calmly orders her eunuch to send a bowl of 糙米薏仁汤 or Brown Rice Job’s Tears soup to the suffering 祺嫔. Yes, I know what the heck is Job’s Tears. It’s a type of grain that’s a popular ingredient in congees or soups. The 4th prince says that the soup doesn’t need to be cooked thoroughly, just lightly boiled is fine. And, make sure to bring huge bowls. They instruct the eunuch to go when the Emperor is there so 祺嫔 wouldn’t dare think to NOT drink it.
Hey! What do you know! This works! The eunuch arrives with the soup and cleverly says that the Imperial Doctors recommended this remedy. The Emperor agrees and sort of forces 祺嫔 to drink this soup.
祺嫔 of course doesn’t want to drink it. This soup is made with brown rice and Job’s tears! Yes, there are medicinal properties to this but the soup is also made with coarse grains. These are usually reserved for servants and livestock, not fit for a dainty concubine. It also definitely isn’t very tasty. Under the watchful eye of the Emperor, 祺嫔 unwillingly gulps down several bowls of this.
For 祺嫔, she can’t say no.
This little scheme doesn’t fool the Emperor. He immediately goes to 甄嬛’s palace to figure out her reasoning. 甄嬛 gives a very appropriate response – if the Emperor continues to “fall” for these petty tricks, then everyone else in the Imperial Harem will do the same. There will be no peace in the Harem and it will give the Emperor a bad reputation. Women like 欣贵人 who haven’t done anything wrong will feel shunned while women like 祺嫔 will continue with these antics. The Emperor sheepishly agrees!
Look at that. Just with this one little punishment, 甄嬛 has staked her ground in the palace. On her walk with her friend 沈眉庄, 沈眉庄 tells her that she is receiving praises from even the Empress Dowager.
Out in the garden, 祺嫔 is huffing and puffing about her bad luck. I personally can’t help but chuckle. She starts bad mouthing 甄嬛. The stuff she says is quite hilarious. Such as who does she think she is? She couldn’t keep still in that stupid temple. I’m going to show her. That whole diatribe was overhead by none other than 甄嬛.
甄嬛 smirks and loudly pronounces – I don’t know how powerful you are but you should learn what the phrase – there are eyes and ears everywhere – means. 祺嫔 frantically looks around trying to a) find where 甄嬛 is and b) hide from her. I died laughing, she’s like stumbling around in those flower pot bottom shoes.
甄嬛 basically sashays away. The 4th Prince is confused and asks his mother – why aren’t you mad? 甄嬛 responds with a life lesson that I really need to go by. She says – Don’t waste your time and energy on worthless people or things. I’m actually quite impressed with this 4th prince. He was the one who immediately understood how to use 祺嫔’s nightmares against her. Let’s keep a close eye on this boy.
A side plot that will continue to ferment is exactly how 甄嬛 handles the situation with 敬妃 and her firstborn daughter, the princess 胧月. Throughout the episode, we continue to see cracks forming between the friendly 敬妃 and 甄嬛. 敬妃 loves 胧月 but knows 甄嬛 is her actual mother. They will have to part but she doesn’t want to.
甄嬛 stops by her old friend 端妃’s palace. She is currently raising the princess 温仪 after her mother died. 端妃 offers some advice – don’t rush this. Unfortunately 甄嬛 doesn’t quite follow this advice. The next time she sees her daughter, she immediately calls for 胧月. Of course the child doesn’t respond. The meeting once again turns sour much to the discomfort of everyone on the scene.
On the walk back to her palace, 甄嬛 is already in a dour mood but is stopped by an unwelcome guest. 安陵容. This is such a brilliant conversation.Let’s unpack this scene. 安陵容 is her usual self – such a snake but I love the framing of this scene and 甄嬛’s reactions.
安陵容 starts off by congratulating 甄嬛 but then says some of the most backhanded things. She says, I thought dear sister you would be lonely at the temple for the rest of time. I always thought of you. Who would have thought times would change and you would be pregnant once more.
甄嬛 strikes back with her own compliments.. Nothing is never perfect. There’s always something that’s not quite right. Just like you my dear sister. You are an Imperial Concubine and run your own palace, but I believe even you aren’t always happy.
安陵容 next tries to attack 甄嬛 by mocking her about her daughter’s 胧月’s situation. How do you feel about your own daughter becoming someone else’s. This is quite low-brow. 甄嬛 knows exactly what 安陵容 is trying to do but doesn’t fall for it. She instead continues to point out 安陵容’s lack of children.
Seeing this attack doesn’t work, 安陵容 next turns the topic to the recent incident of the eunuch slipping on the cobblestone. 甄嬛 responds with 欣贵人 has been in the palace for a while. 安陵容 however tries to direct the suspicion towards 祺嫔. This part is absolutely fantastic, 甄嬛 places one finger on her temple, in sort of a mocking way and asks – what beef do I have with her? Whatever her father did was to my father. 甄嬛 let’s 安陵容 continue to talk. 甄嬛’s stance here though is probably one of my favorites in the entire drama. She is such a badass with her side eye looking at 安陵容。甄嬛 is no longer pretending to be friends with 安陵容. She knows that her former friend is nothing but a backstabber.
The episode ends on a surprising note. 安陵容 warns 甄嬛 to be careful. She takes out a perfume satchel she claims was gifted by 欣贵人. 甄嬛 takes one whiff turns around and coldly states, I understand your meaning.
The thing is, they’re trying to frame 欣贵人 for wanting to harm 甄嬛. We’ll see if that’s ultimately true.
There isn’t much on the culture front today so let’s analyze a few of the encounters and 甄嬛’s reaction to them.
First is of course that not so subtle attempt at her life with the cobblestones. The drama never explicitly tells us who actually did this so let’s go through the suspects one by one.
The first person is 欣贵人. All obvious clues point to her. 1st. She enjoys the bonsai from 四川, the cobblestone goes with the bonsai. 2nd. She’s lives in 储秀宫 where 甄嬛 was passing which makes it easy to place those cobblestones there. 3rd, which I think is quite shaky, she’s only a noble lady and might want to remove 甄嬛 to further her position in the imperial harem. In my mind though, there’s no actual motive. These signs are too obvious. Everyone will think it’s her. She also seemed quite genuine in her reactions when 甄嬛 was testing her. I’m going to say that she most likely wasn’t the culprit
The next person is obviously 祺嫔. She lives in 储秀宫. She hates 甄嬛 and has enough money and power put the cobblestone on the streets. She would know of 欣贵人’s hobbies. It wouldn’t be hard to place these cobblestones on the ground and have the signs point to 欣贵人. She seems to be the culprit as per general consensus.
The third person that I’m putting forth is actually 安陵容. Why? Well, she’s cunning enough to frame either 欣贵人 or 祺嫔 for doing this. She’s disliked 祺嫔 for a while, as evident through what the maid 佩儿 revealed.
Finally, I want to go more in depth on the last conversation between zhen huan and anlingrong.
That’s it for this episode!
Thank you for listening. We’re just seeing 甄嬛 slowly lay out the chess pieces for her board. She had a small victory but will this continue? Let’s find out!