The Secret Romantic Guesthouse: Episodes 17-18 (Final)
Goodbyes are hard, but like tenants at a guesthouse, we always knew our time with the Ihwawon family was temporary. And now it’s coming to a heartfelt, hard-won end. But first, it’s do or die for our characters as they prepare for one final showdown against the tyrannical king and their personal enemies.
With Yoo-ha arrested as Lee Seol, the others regroup at the safe house to plan their next move. Since Yoo-ha has taken San’s place in captivity, San takes his place at Hwa-ryung’s funeral, promising to rescue her son and make everything right again.
Hong-joo, still processing the truth about Shi-yeol, lashes out at him in newly reopened grief. How despicable of him to make her laugh when he was the cause of her sorrow! She thinks her fiancé was innocent, and can’t understand why he died and the “guilty” party still lives. Shi-yeol remains too buried in his own sense of guilt to explain, despite San’s best attempts to absolve him of it.
Meanwhile, Tae-hwa fumes at having lost the Watchman once again. He discovers the mountain temple, where he kills the overseeing monk and kidnaps the young Watchmen-in-training. Just as he’d hoped, that brings Shi-yeol right to his door, but with one condition: Shi-yeol will face him in three days, no less.
In the meantime, a party is to be held at the palace, with Yoo-ha’s execution by dismemberment as the grand climax of the event. San calls on Minister Shin’s army, but he and his friends will have to 1) delay the execution until the army arrives and 2) open the gates from the inside.
That’s where Dan-oh comes in. San tried to send her away to safety with the rest of the Ihwawon family, but Dan-oh couldn’t bring herself to leave. And it’s a good thing, too. Her role is to enter the queen dowager’s chambers in disguise and retrieve the declaration naming Lee Seol as king so they can convince the guards to open the gates. San arranges for her to receive a bow and arrows in case she runs into trouble on the way.
Tae-hwa gets wind of their plot just as the execution is about to commence. The king won’t hear any warnings on this day, however, so Tae-hwa takes his own soldiers to stop the small band of revolutionaries. Shi-yeol sends the others on ahead so he can face Tae-hwa alone one last time, as he was always meant to do. It’s a grim fight, and though Shi-yeol wins, he feels no triumph in it. Tears roll down his face as he internalizes Tae-hwa’s parting shot: “Always remember that this is who you are: a murderer.”
Except it’s not over, because next Shi-yeol has to fight his own mentor, who reveals himself as the king’s Watchman (!). If Shi-yeol doesn’t fulfill his own Watchman duty and kill him, too, he’ll kill Lee Seol and stop the revolt. But Shi-yeol refuses. He’s protecting Lee Seol not as the Watchman, but as his friend — and it’s time for the Watchmen to step out of the picture.
Meanwhile, the revolt succeeds. San saves Yoo-ha, and the king is whisked out of reach. Dan-oh delivers the queen dowager’s declaration, and the army swarms in. San is caught and nearly beheaded by the chief guard, but Dan-oh saves him by shooting the chief guard with one of her arrows.
The king, having finally learned who the real Lee Seol is, challenges San to a final duel, confident San can’t bring himself to kill his own uncle. In doing so, he engineers his own demise. While everyone watches, San disarms the king, who then grabs San’s sword and impales himself on it, sneering that San has ascended to the throne via bloodshed, just like him. But San has other ideas. With the queen dowager’s support, he officially hands the Lee Seol name — and the throne — over to Yoo-ha.
Elsewhere, Shi-yeol frees the younger Watchmen, urging them simply to live. When he stops by Ihwawon for a silent farewell, Hong-joo runs out after him. She plans to resent him for the rest of her life, she warns, so he’d better stay alive to receive that resentment.
Two years later, Shi-yeol hasn’t been seen since. Ihwawon is overflowing with customers (after all, one of its tenants became king!). San and Dan-oh, already married, are preparing to leave Hanyang and travel the world. When they visit Yoo-ha to say their goodbyes, Dan-oh repays the silver he spent to buy back Ihwawon from Tae-hwa. Then they leave the palace in goodwill: Yoo-ha hugs Dan-oh goodbye, and Minister Shin bows to the ground as San walks away.
Yook-ho passes the state exam top of his class, and Yoo-ha appoints him as messenger to his advisory council. Dan-oh frees her faithful maid, who marries Yook-ho (I don’t think I’ve mentioned it, but they’ve had a cute side romance throughout). Ban-ya is restored to her family’s noble status and to her real name, and remains Dan-oh’s close friend.
Shi-yeol’s name keeps coming up in conversation, but though Hong-joo has long since forgiven him, understanding that he was cruelly forced into the Watchman role, she now struggles to forgive herself for having forgiven him. Still, when he’s spotted at the dock about to sail away for good, Hong-joo runs to intercept him.
He freezes when he sees her and tries to pass by, but she grabs his hand. All she needs to hear is that his feelings for her haven’t changed except to grow stronger, and her final reservations melt away. Together, they return home to Ihwawon, where they’re greeted with the warmest of welcomes. Soon, they marry, and Shi-yeol regains his easygoing humor.
And so, the ghost girl lives again, the warrior in the shadows lays down his sword and steps into his own light, those who once burdened themselves with the responsibility to protect their loved ones set off to travel freely, and the man who dreamed of a fairer world begins the work of building that better and brighter tomorrow. And I could not be happier! The Secret Romantic Guesthouse may have had its share of missed opportunities, especially in the second half, but on the whole I’m left with a sense of deep satisfaction.
If I could have changed one thing in this finale, I would have liked for Shi-yeol to look a dying Tae-hwa in the eye and say, “I didn’t kill your son — you did.” But Shi-yeol wasn’t in a place to tell that to himself yet, let alone anyone else, and I don’t think the final fight with his mentor would have been as impactful if he’d already arrived at such a conclusion.
Much as it hurt, I also appreciated that it took both Hong-joo and Shi-yeol time to work through their feelings individually before coming back together. I really thought they might end up dying together and only finding peace in the next life, and I’m so glad that wasn’t the case. With a few exceptions, this show did a great job of subverting expectations in a way that felt right and true to the characters, not just for the sake of fooling the audience (though it certainly had fun fooling us at times!).
And I think that’s what makes this ending so satisfying for me. There weren’t any groundbreaking last-minute reveals, only somewhat surprising answers to a few of our lingering questions. And while several major character arcs concluded in the way I suspected they would, they also concluded in the way I hoped they would. I’m really sad to say goodbye, but I can see myself coming back to Ihwawon for a rewatch before too long. (And you can bet I’ll be checking out Kang Hoon’s next project!)