Unfortunately the somewhat garish visual style of the premiere episode(s) was back this week. But that was what I expected, so it’s baked in at this point. I still think that look is ill-matched to the material but at least the whole proposition doesn’t come off looking cheap. The Apothecary Diaries is a bit of an unorthodox series to me in general, and not in an unappealing way. It tends to amble rather than race wherever it’s going, and this episode was no exception. In fact there was really no payoff at all, unless you count that twist towards the end.
For starters, we have Matsutake mushrooms, one of the great delicacies of Japan (they have them in China too, obviously). This serve as a bonding device between Maomao and the “quack doctor” (I’m assuming that consuming something she harvested on palace grounds would be considered a crime). Here we get the tie-in to the cliffhanger last week as a eunuch comes in claiming to have been cursed. Maomao immediately diagnoses the rash on his hands as just that, a rash, caused by some material on the wooden tablets he was burning as trash (which flames spectacularly). But to herself she notes that this is odd, and they might perhaps be some sort of code.
Interestingly, this seeming MacGuffin is largely ignored for the rest of the episode, as the focus turns towards the upcoming garden party with the Emperor. All four top concubines will be in attendance (including two we’ve barely seen so far), and all ladies in waiting are expected to attend. This of course includes Maomao, who has absolutely no interest but can’t get out of it. Her immediate reaction is to sew pockets into her underwear for warmers, but the other ladies have their own ideas about preparing her for the event (though everyone including Jinshi does come begging for warmers of their own).
The big bomb dropped here, to be sure, is the freckles. The ladies in waiting are determined to get Maomao in makeup (among other things), including covering her freckles. But this blows her cover, as it turns out the freckles are makeup. When Jinshi asks for an explanation, Maomao tells him that she did it to make herself less attractive to men unsatisfied (for various reasons) after their visit to the brothels. I think she looked cute with the freckles, but that’s beside the point.
Jinshi’s reaction to this revelation seemed very much genuine (which is not a mode we’ve seen from him). I read it as a man sheltered enough that the reality of life outside the bubble truly shocks him. I would suppose this is the last we see of the freckles, as there’s no need to maintain the ruse (unless Maomao wants to avoid the attention of the Emperor). Does it truly change the dynamic between she and Jinshi? That remains to be seen. Also of note is that the rashes and such on Maomao’s arms from her experimentation may be about to bring her some unwanted attention as the MacGuffin is tied back into the plot.