The Apothecary Diaries: The Threat
May 9, 2024 3:39 PM - Season 1, Episode 4 - Subscribe

An imperial order is not one that can be refused, and so Maomao is assigned to the Crystal Palace to heal the ailing Wise Consort, Lihua - but her ladies in waiting may be the biggest threat to the Consort...

We get to see a bit more into the politics of the Rear Palace - and also why pushing Maomao's buttons tends to not end well for those involved.

We start off the episode in media res, with the staff of the Crystal Pavilion rejecting Maomao's limited diet for Lady Lihua - the group not understanding that their lady's severe heavy metal poisoning means she can't really eat the rich foods they've been feeding her. The thing is, Maomao is at the Crystal Pavilion under imperial order - and we flash back to when she received said order, from the Emperor himself. Having heard of her talents, the Emperor asks Maomao to take care of (read: cure) the Wise Consort, an order that Maomao cannot refuse. The problem is that Lihua's ladies in waiting don't seem to grasp that Maomao is acting with imperial authority, and so her attempts to feed the Wise Consort a limited diet more in line with what her body is actually able to handle are running into a roadblock. At least she has Xiaolan to vent to, and her friend notes that the lead powder has been banned, with supplies confiscated across the Rear Palace - news that makes Maomao happy to hear. Xiaolan also points out that the Emperor personally asking for her skill just shows how awesome Maomao is, though she sees it more of an indictment of the doctor more than anything else.

Returning to the kitchen, Maomao considers the task at hand - Lihua is still suffering from a buildup of poison - that is, lead - in her body, and so she needs to be made to expel it - hence a diet of high fiber porridge and a diuretic, in a form of very basic chelation therapy. Of course, making the food is the easy part - the hard part is dealing with Lihua's attendants, who have no understanding of either what Maomao is doing, or whose authority she's doing it under. Seeing the sumptuous foods they feed her, Maomao notes that while they are nutritious, her body just isn't able to eat something so rich - and they just keep ejecting the apothecary, stymieing her efforts to care for the Wise Consort. Of course, Jinshi is keeping an eye on matters as well, likely knowing the orders that Maomao is under.

With any contact with Lihua refused by her attendants, Maomao is forced to evaluate her from afar - as she notes, beyond the physical issue of her lead poisoning, there's the psychological issue of her son's death, amplified by it being caused by the self-same medicine, compounding her guilt. And with her belief that her life is contingent on the Wise Consort's, Maomao resigns herself to continuing to fruitlessly attempt to care for Lihua - only for Jinshi to step in, noting how the apothecary is being frustrated (in several senses of the term), and makes one hell of a double entendre as he points out that he can use his authority to hold the attendants at bay (a comment (and approach) that causes Maomao to violently shudder in disgust.) But with a charm offensive aimed at the ladies in waiting, he secures her audience with the Wise Consort to do the job she was sent there to do, with Maomao commenting how scary it is that women can change so quickly.

With the attendants now held at bay, Maomao begins to feed Lihua - the fact that she tries to eat is heartening, but her condition is more severe than thought, requiring an even more limited diet to work up from. Gently wiping her chin, Maomao notices that she's been dressed in makeup - more specifically, she's been dressed in the lead powder that was supposedly banned and confiscated.

You know the saying "beware the fury of a patient man?" Yeah, we're about to see why, as this discovery had Maomao livid. Looking at the one lady in waiting who attends to her makeup, Maomao confirms her target before promptly smacking her down to the floor, then bodily pulling her by her hair to the dressers while the others look on in horror, knowing that she's acting with full imperial authority (i.e. trying to stop her could very well result in a divorcing of their heads from their necks.) Searching the drawers, she finds the container of the powder, and promptly dumps it on the attendant in cold fury, as she stares the woman down, pointing out how it will slowly poison her completely, leaving a "lovely corpse" like what will happen to her lady, pointing out that the powder was banned for a reason, her voice trembling with rage. Forcing the attendant to look at the body of her lady, slowly deteriorating from her actions, the lady in waiting starting to realize the reality of what she had been doing to her mistress, and as she says she thought it would make her happy, Maomao bluntly points out that it was ridiculous to think that she would be happy to be covered in the poison that killed her son - a point that causes the attendant to break down in tears as she finally grasps what she was doing. Telling her to go wash off the powder (including washing out her mouth), Maomao looks at the other attendants and orders them to clean up the powder to protect Lihua's health - an order that they immediately and diligently perform, having just had the fear of Maomao put into them. They're not the only ones, either, as a surprised (and impressed) Jinshi echoes her earlier comment about how scary women can quickly change, as Maomao realizes how she just acted.

Finally having control of the Wise Consort's diet - and realizing how much worse her condition was, Maomao switches tack, moving to rice water as that is all she is capable of handling at the moment. Airing out the room revealed that the attendants couldn't even clean up her vomitus properly, continuing to infuriate the apothecary - and when they see her now, the ladies in waiting - now properly cowed - meekly follow her orders as Maomao cleans the Wise Consort carefully. She also proceeds with the diuretic tea (to force urination, which will help excrete the lead) - and with Lihua now receiving proper dietary management, her strength begins to return. As for the attendant who used the powder, she was put into confinement as punishment, and the eunuch who was supposed to recover the powder was whipped for his failure. And so, with her efforts now having a positive effect, an exhausted Maomao collapses on a couch for a short nap.

Handling the Consort's linens, Maomao finds herself confronted by Jinshi - though the meeting was to reward her, as Gaoshun presents her with a couple of delicious bao, which she happily devours, noting that he would make a good husband (not knowing how right she is on that particular score.) Of course, this now has Jinshi asking her if she needs help with anything - and as it turns out, Maomao has something she could use - and with that we see the palace staff constructing a steam bath in the Crystal Pavilion - with Lihua stronger now, such a bath will help with the expulsion of the poison in her body, and after all, he did offer.

(This will not be the only time she uses this steam bath to humiliate Jinshi, by the way.)

Sitting with the Wise Consort, Lihua speaks with Maomao, noting that she's confused by why the apothecary would have saved her, given what happened with her son, and that she should have been left to die. To this, Maomao pointed out that while she helped, the simple fact is that Lihua could have chosen to just give up, and yet she chose to fight on - that she chose to live. Thinking of her lost son, Lihua notes that Maomao is right. And with the steam bath prepared, her attendants help her into it, as well as with cleaning and dressing the Consort - and so a rhythm develops in the Crystal Pavilion, with Maomao leading the staff in helping Lihua recover. And then Maomao is confronted by the attendant who had used the makeup - released from confinement, she notes that her actions were a terrible mistake - one she will not repeat, and asks Maomao to let her take her place, so she can rest - a request the apothecary accedes to, letting her take over. And as Lihua gently asks for some water, the lady in waiting cries gently, glad to be able to serve her again.

And with two months of care, Lihua has finally recovered enough to be able to walk the grounds of the Crystal Pavilion, and with that, her true gentle demeanor has come back - which we see when she happens upon a slumbering, exhausted Maomao, gently comforting the apothecary in her sleep, sitting with her. With that, Maomao announces her leave to return to the Jade Pavilion, as Lihua is now healthy enough that she should be able to recover with the support of her attendants. With this, Lihua addresses her worries about the Emperor's favor, to which Maomao comforts her, and leaves her with a parting gift - a technique courtesy of her big sisters at the Verdigris House, well suited to someone with her..."assets", the learning of which broke the Wise Consort's brain a bit.

Returning to the Jade Pavilion, Maomao finds a warm welcome awaiting her from Gyokuyou and her other ladies in waiting, all of whom are happy to have her back. Jinshi also finds her return a good thing, as she completed the Emperor's request successfully. And it's noted that afterwards, the Emperor seems to be frequenting the Jade Pavilion less - to which Gyokuyou has no complaint, as it's letting her rest more - and Maomao has a good idea as to why this is.

And in a courtyard, several officers are burning documents, but a set of wood tablets cause the fire to burn in wild colors, the official who threw them in saying it's a curse as he looks at his burned hands...
posted by NoxAeternum (3 comments total)
I have mixed feelings about this series. I love Maomao, but the Rear Palace, for all its fancy dresses, is a toxic nightmare. (Literally toxic, as this story demonstrates.) Although the story frequently adopts a humorous tone, the threat of execution hangs over everyone all the time. I want Maomao safely out of there!
posted by SPrintF at 8:35 AM on May 10

I love Maomao, but the Rear Palace, for all its fancy dresses, is a toxic nightmare. (Literally toxic, as this story demonstrates.)

The problem is that the issue is being a woman in this culture is a toxic nightmare, and we're coming to a scene where Maomao is going to blindside Jinshi with that reality, and that's going to force him to change his worldview.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:44 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I almost missed this post!

Mao has a hard time understanding that she has actual authority. Her first reaction to the obstinate ladies-in-waiting is “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” Not really surprising, given her background.

Jinshi actively helps her out by effectively escorting her to see her patient. And, I think, again by simply accepting Mao’s percussive correction. After that it’s clear to everyone involved—including Mao—who is in charge of the situation. Then he can go back to ‘doing nothing’ and leave her to it.

It’s a bit surprising that the attendant kept her head, never mind returned to her duties. What she did could be interpreted as an assassination attempt.

the Rear Palace, for all its fancy dresses, is a toxic nightmare.

Indeed. The series makes frequent comparisons between the Rear Palace and the Pleasure District. As we just saw, some skills are directly transferable.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:53 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

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