THE SHORT VERDICT:
Measured, slow and deliberate, Misaeng isn’t the kind of show that lends itself to marathoning.
Allow it the time and space to demonstrate its unique brand of awesome, though, and you’ll likely find a lot to like. Understated in its plotting and realistic in its execution, it’s the character and relationship moments that really shine in this show – and get under your skin as well.
Im Si Wan is quite the revelation in this, Lee Sung Min is just plain wonderful, and the rest of the cast is pretty fantastic as well.
Absolutely worth savoring.
THE LONG VERDICT:
To be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight for me, with Misaeng.
And it wasn’t even because of the show’s tendency for long, bloated episodes. Nor was it the slow, deliberate pace either. I generally don’t count those as big obstacles when it comes to my drama-watching journey.
It was the fact that for a fair stretch, this show was actually rather depressing to watch. Seeing our characters – particularly our main character Jang Geu Rae (Im Si Wan) – struggle so strenuously and so (apparently) fruitlessly in the contains of an unsympathetic system, time after time, left me feeling dismal and disheartened after each episode.
But then a funny thing happened.
As I progressed deeper into the show and its world, and got to know the characters better, I began to care for them in more than just a cursory manner. Better yet, they began to experience small but significant victories in their journeys. I felt like their victories were mine, vicariously speaking.
By show’s end, I was extremely reluctant to say good-bye, and literally put off watching the last episode for weeks, just to postpone the inevitable.
Yes. Slowly, ever so slowly, I grew to love this show.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
EXECUTION, FEEL & ATMOSPHERE
With many episodes easily running for 90 whole minutes, Misaeng sometimes felt painfully slow to watch. This was particularly true in the earlier episodes when things were especially tough for Geu Rae.
On hindsight, though, I have to say that it was probably because of the show’s treatment of its tone, pace and even episode lengths, that I eventually ended up caring so much for Geu Rae as a character.
Because the show’s pace is deliberate and slow, and because the tone is dark and purposefully ordinary to the point of tedium, the narrative unfolds at such a measured pace that it feels we are literally living through this each day with Geu Rae, minute by painful minute.
And there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone’s shoes to truly empathize with them, right?
Experiencing with Geu Rae, in all of its minutiae, the ostracism and bullying stemming from his being regarded as an outsider, made me feel sad and pathetic on his behalf from the very first episode.
Watching Geu Rae’s mom (Sung Byung Sook) dig deep to buy Geu Rae a new suit, only to see that same precious suit being sullied and stunk up the very first time Geu Rae wears it, made my heart hurt.
Often, we as the audience would see the trajectory rise up to meet us long before Geu Rae ever did, and it was painful to watch him inch towards inevitable doom each time.
Painful as that was to sit through, however, I do genuinely believe that if Show had not shown me so meticulously how Geu Rae suffered mistreatment, and how he weathered each incident, I would have cared for him less intensely.
Watching each episode truly felt like tagging along with Geu Rae on a day at the office. (And, in defense of the 90-minute episodes, one never really knows when a day at the office ends, right? When Geu Rae put in overtime, so did we, in a manner of speaking.)
With its carefully chosen muted color palette, understated plotting and thoughtful, deliberate pace, Show created a believable office world in which we, as an audience, clocked time as Geu Rae’ shadows.
It’s an exhausting and often frustrating world in which he and our other characters work, a world filled with politics and clashing agendas, and decorated with bald-faced lies and artificial smiles.
But, see, that’s the thing.
This world feels so true to life that it even hits a little too close to home for some of us. The issues feel real; the stakes feel real; and most important of all, the people in this world feel real. And as they learn to navigate this world and start to experience some victories, those victories feel real too.
Therein lies Misaeng’s appeal.
It gives us a sense of solidarity (I’m not alone; there really are other people facing the same issues that I face at work) and a sense of hope as well, as we vicariously taste the victories of our characters and look forward to our own.
There are lots of great characters in this show. With few exceptions, most characters are created with depth and dimension, and each has his or her own backstory. As I watched them on my screen, I found it easy to believe that each of them had full and fleshed-out lives outside of the frame within which I saw them.
It’d be impossible to talk about every character in the show, so here I’d just like to give my attention to my favorites.
Im Si Wan as Jang Geu Rae
Thrust into a world full of jaded people with fixed perspectives on success, Geu Rae stands out as a pure, untainted canvas; a canvas on which little has been painted due to his prior isolation from the world and its system. He almost feels like clay waiting for the right potter, really.
At the same time, with his fresh, innocent eyes, his reactions to the corporate world at large act almost like a barometer against which we can measure right and wrong. Not right and wrong seen through the weary eyes of eroded morals, but right and wrong in as close to its pure state as we can humanly get, in this drama world.
As the underdog of underdogs, Geu Rae is measured, isolated and pensive, and Im Si Wan is truly a revelation in how he portrays Geu Rae’s every action and reaction.
Aligned with the show’s understated tone, Geu Rae’s expressions are mostly extremely muted. But Im Si Wan manages to imbue all of those muted expressions with impressive nuance, so much so that every flick of his gaze, every slow blink of his eyes, and every tiny twitch of his lips, tells us exactly how Geu Rae is feeling, in the moment.
As the show progresses, it was extremely gratifying to witness Geu Rae enjoying moments of success stemming from the fruit of his insistent, untiring, unrelenting labor. Another extremely satisfying thing, was to see Geu Rae grow in confidence and strength of character; enough to stand up for what he believes in.
On top of that, it was also pretty great to see Geu Rae apply his baduk principles as he encounters the corporate world. His application of those principles, which enable him to see things strategically, sometimes really does make him appear wiser than his years.
Plus, it’s just so great to see Geu Rae doing well, y’know? Anytime Geu Rae did well, my heart swelled with satisfaction, and.. well, pride.
One of my hands-down favorite Geu Rae moments, though, has to be the arc in episode 6, where Geu Rae literally – ok, more metaphorically – gives wings to an anxious and timid Manager Park (Choi Gwi Hwa).
That earnest “I look up to you” effect that Geu Rae has on him is significant, and forces him to act in a way that’s worthy of setting an example.
That’s why Manager Park requested to have Geu Rae with him in the senior managers’ meeting. He really did need him. It was Geu Rae’s expectant gaze that gave him the courage to act in a way that would be worthy of that expectant gaze.
Those wings not only lifted his self-esteem, but enabled him to act in ways he couldn’t bring himself to, before. I just love that Geu Rae gave Manager Park those wings, and that those wings really did enable him to fly.
Geu Rae, underdog of underdogs; not only growing in maturity and wisdom with each day, but actually empowering others too, to be more than they thought they could be. Really now, how great and awesome is that?
Lee Sung Min as Oh Sang Shik (Chief Oh)
I just love, love, LOVE Lee Sung Min as Chief Oh.
When we first meet him, Chief Oh is such a gruff hardass, who openly grumbles about Geu Rae being sent to his team, instead of a better qualified intern.
Over the course of the show, though, through beats big and small, we get to know the man with the idealistic, principled, kind heart beneath the gruff, and it’s just wonderful to see the goodness leak out, sometimes when Chief Oh isn’t even aware.
Lee Sung Min portrays Chief Oh with a wonderful depth and nuance that looks completely natural and effortless on the surface, but which requires tremendous skill and character immersion.
With his mussed-up hair and clothes, eye-bags the size of fists, and a coffee &/or cigarette (or several coffees and cigarettes) never far away, Chief Oh always looks like he’s just barely holding it all together. The demands of being a team leader, a subordinate, a colleague, a mentor, a husband and a father all exact their combined toll on him, and yet through it all, Chief Oh continues to persist and strive, determined to do the things that are right, rather than the things that are popular.
I just loved getting to know him more over the course of the show, because there’s just so much goodness lurking beneath the gruff.
There are so many things that I love about Chief Oh, that I feel able to only list a few here.
Like the hilarious way he keeps tripping up people that he doesn’t like, when there’s nothing else that he can do, politically speaking. Yes, it’s petty and immature, but that’s what makes it so great, coming from Chief Oh. Plus, I can’t deny that it’s satisfying to see unlikable characters get some kind of punishment at least.
I love, too, the lengths that Chief Oh is willing to go to, to protect his principles and his team. When he’s assigned projects that require practices that weigh on his conscience, the extent to which he wrestles with whether or not to decline the assignment and thus risk his team’s future, says so much about the character of the man.
On top of that, I admire his ability to wrestle with and accept an idea, even if the idea comes from an inexperienced newbie. Such a fair person, who truly believes in equal opportunities and learning.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Chief Oh, though, is the kind of father he is.
Throughout the show, we get small glimpses into his family life, and I just love this little beat in episode 5, when Chief Oh is rushing out of the house in the morning, late and barely dressed. Yet, that doesn’t stop him from taking a moment to pat his boys on the head, tell them to study hard, and plant a kiss on his youngest son’s cheek.
Aw. So sweet, so warm and so loving.
And we see, too, throughout the show, that no matter how terribly badly things are going at work, that talking with one of his sons on the phone never fails to brighten him up.
There’s something just so extremely heartwarming about that.
Quick Spotlights [MILD SPOILERS]
Kang So Ra as Ahn Young Yi
Ahn Young Yi is a pretty interesting character, in that she’s introduced to us as all brilliance, talent and professionalism. And yet, as we get deeper into the show, we begin to see hints of insecurity, vulnerability, and even a touch of social awkwardness about her.
An intensely private and introspective person who doesn’t connect easily with others, Young Yi has her fair share of struggles and challenges at One International, in spite of her talent, and Kang So Ra portrays all of these facets convincingly, making Young Yi come to life as a character.
Even in her most understated moments, Kang So Ra imbued Young Yi with subtle dimension, and made me curious to know more about Young Yi’s backstory.
Nicely done indeed.
Kang Ha Neul as Jang Baek Ki
Impatient, aloof, and believing himself to be quite the know-it-all, Baek Ki wasn’t terribly likable from the beginning of the show.
While Baek Ki’s growth arc was possibly the slowest in the coming, he does eventually make significant strides in maturity and humility, both of which were gratifying to witness.
Over the course of the show, Baek Ki is continually challenged to look beyond the boundaries of what he deems acceptable, and his failure in spite of his inflated self-belief leads to an anger and impatience that feels very true to life.
Kang Ha Neul’s portrayal of Baek Ki’s young hotshot behavior and brooding frustration is extremely credible, and he delivers Baek Ki’s anger and impatience in a very real and palpable manner.
Baek Ki’s eventual change in attitude is well-earned and refreshing to watch, and I enjoyed getting to see beyond the steely unruffled armor, to glimpse the real person underneath.
Byun Yo Han as Han Seok Yul
Seok Yul was perhaps the character who charted the biggest turnaround for me, in terms of viewer experience.
When I first set eyes on him in the early episodes, he truly came across as oily, slippery and far from trustworthy. What a turnaround, then, that by series’ end, Seok Yul had managed to go from being super aggravating, to becoming actually kind of amusing and adorable.
Kudos to Byun Yo Han, for making every shade of Seok Yul equally convincing, and for making the huge change in his persona believable too. That’s no mean feat, and Byun Yo Han navigated it all with a natural, effortless aplomb that I found impressive.
Kim Dae Myung as Kim Dong Shik
I so did not expect to love Dong Shik, but OMG I LUFF HIM.
From simply being an unassuming secondary character with a bad perm, with each additional episode, Dong Shik quickly graduated in my mind to become one of my favorite characters on the show.
As I got deeper into the show, I began to see Dong Shik’s niceness, kindness, empathy, and oh-so-fierce loyal streak, and I couldn’t help but love him.
Kim Dae Myung plays Dong Shik with a distinctly unpretentious vibe that is devoid of vanity. Dong Shik isn’t ever dressed up nicely, beyond the occasional ill-fitting business suit, and he rocks the bad perm all series long. Not only that, Dong Shik’s spoken lines are, for the most part, pretty unremarkable.
Yet, Kim Dae Myung consistently injects a matter-of-fact sort of depth to Dong Shik, so much so that I always feel like there’s a lot more going on inside of Dong Shik than we sometimes get to see.
SO well done.
For a supporting character, there’s really a whole lot to love about Dong Shik.
I love that Dong Shik is pretty nice to Geu Rae right off the bat in episode 2, despite Chief Oh’s grumpy disapproval.
I love that Dong Shik really cares. Over the course of the show, we see how much Dong Shik cares for Geu Rae, for Chief Oh, and for the team.
I love the little beat in episode 17, when everyone is talking trash about Chief Oh, and Dong Shik drunkenly (and quite violently) swears at them all.
So fiercely loyal, which I love. And so cute too.
Episode 10, though, is where I felt Dong Shik shone brightest, in the moments dealing with the possible shady dealings of Manager Park (a very oily and unlikable Kim Hee Won).
In these scenes, Dong Shik doesn’t say much at all, but his expression says so much: that he doesn’t want to be in this position, but he isn’t going to back down; he’s going to stand up for what’s right, even if it’s intimidating and scary.
Kim Dae Myung really shone this episode, and I loved Dong Shik even more than I thought possible.
Given Misaeng’s understated plotting, it’s the characters and their relationships that truly shine in the show.
With an ensemble cast, there are so many relationships and permutations and groupings that it’s impossible to talk about them all. So here, I’m giving the loving (sometimes quick-ish, sometimes long-ish) spotlight to some of my favorite relationships on the show.
The Four Rookies
Given the fact that our four rookies are assigned to four different teams at the beginning of the show, the process of them coming together as a group understandably takes quite a while. With differing personalities and work boundaries in the way as well, our rookies journey a long way before arriving at a genuine sort of group dynamic by series’ end.
It was really nice, though, to see moments of solidarity and lending hands sprinkled through the show, among members of the group in their various permutations.
We get to see the rookies interact in pairs, in threes, and as a group of four as well, and as they got to know one another bit by bit in each of these combinations, I felt like somehow, their overall group dynamic strengthened as well.
It was long in the coming, but getting to see the rookies work together as an intact team in episode 17 was quite delightful.
And to then see them collapse in exhaustion, sprawled in an untidy heap, was such a happy, adorable bonus.
Just, totally classic and absolutely worth the wait.
Chief Oh and The Rookies
While this is a dynamic that’s kept fairly subtle throughout the show, I really enjoyed watching the little beats where Chief Oh interfaced with the rookies. So often, something good would come out of it.
With Baek Ki or Seok Yul, Chief Oh would likely provoke thought with an off-handed statement that would ultimately help them see things in a new light.
My favorite beats, though, were the moments when Geu Rae &/or Young Yi interacted with Chief Oh (and each other too, come to think of it). Their thoughts, said out loud, somehow consistently ping the others’ minds and give them new perspective and eventual headway in their own problems.
There’s something pretty communal about that, how they help one another just by spending time together.
Plus, I love that it flows both ways.
Chief Oh ends up helping the rookies, but often, the rookies end up helping Chief Oh, too, by provoking his thoughts. There’s something about that dynamic that I just love.
Sales Team 3
Oh, Sales Team 3. If every team could work together the way they do, the world would be a much better place indeed.
I just loved the caring, committed, one-for-all, all-for-one dynamic in Sales Team 3.
There is just so much unity and loyalty in this team, that I can completely understand why their team dynamic is the envy of every other team in One International.
A highly committed, high-performing team that actually enjoys working together. What’s not to love?
Over the course of the show, we see many instances of Team 3’s unity, loyalty and care for one another. Like in episode 9, when both Chief Oh and Dong Shik are quick to protect of Geu Rae, each in their own ways, when an antagonist in the form of Manager Park arrives.
It was also extremely gratifying to witness Team 3 score breakthroughs against the odds, as they did in episode 13, with Geu Rae’s help. So. Freaking. Satisfying.
And in episode 16, when Dong Shik first hears that Geu Rae’s sales item, which Geu Rae has been working tirelessly on, will be taken away from him, Dong Shik literally has tears in his eyes. Which is just so, so sweet and empathetic.
Even more touching is the moment in episode 18 when Dong Shik and Manager Chun (Park Hae Joon) realize that taking up the dubious deal offered by the Executive Director (Lee Kyung Young) might just save Geu Rae from having to leave the company. Their attitudes change instantly and dramatically, and they jump at the chance to take the risk for Geu Rae, even if it means putting themselves in a precarious situation. Augh, my heart. So much loyalty, truly.
Most moving of all, though, is the situation in episode 19, which showed me just how much these guys care for one another.
Just, so many things that moved me in this episode.
Chief Oh tendering his resignation to make things better; Chief Oh trying to convince Geu Rae that it’s not his fault; Dong Shik trying to be strong and hold it in, but then sobbing like a baby outside the restaurant; Geu Rae collapsing and weeping at home.
Just so very heartwrenching, to know just how much these gruff boys care for one another.
Oof. And, sob.
Chief Oh and Geu Rae
Oh, these two. Chief Oh and Geu Rae are absolutely and without doubt the OTP of this show.
Despite a bit of a rocky start, the relationship between Chief Oh and Geu Rae grows and blossoms in spite of the odds, and it’s just heartwarmingly satisfying and endlessly gratifying, to see the gruff demonstrations of affection from one to the other.
What I love even more, is how the help, love and desire to protect flows both ways.
As much as Chief Oh helps and guides Geu Rae through the murky, unfamiliar waters of the corporate world, so does Geu Rae provoke Chief Oh to stay true to his principles and hold fast to his dreams.
And I love that through it all, both Lee Sung Min and Im Si Wan are so nuanced, that we can see the dynamic between Chief Oh and Geu Rae growing and developing over the course of the show, even when not very much is said at all.
Given Chief Oh’s initial conveyed displeasure at Geu Rae joining Sales Team 3, getting to pick up on the little hints of Chief Oh being nice to Geu Rae while undercover, is pretty great.
I really enjoyed watching Chief Oh grow a soft spot for Geu Rae in spite of himself, and finding himself protecting Geu Rae, also in spite of himself. Like how he tripped Seok Yul in episode 3, when Seok Yul was taking advantage of Geu Rae. So awesome.
Or even just the little beats when Chief Oh makes coffee for the team, and serves Geu Rae first. It’s such a small beat, but these little gestures of affection add up so nicely.
I also loved the arc in episode 3, where Chief Oh gives Geu Rae advice to find the center of the tornado, which ends up being the very lesson that Chief Oh learns from Geu Rae too. That full-circle duality was excellent.
I love, too, how well these two understand each other. Like the beat in episode 13, when Chief Oh writes a Christmas card to Geu Rae and simply says, “Jang Geu Rae, you couldn’t have done any better. YES!” It’s so brief, yet it totally hits the spot. And, Geu Rae knows exactly what he’s referring to, too. I just love how so much is said in so few words.
There are so many moments to love, between Chief Oh and Geu Rae, that it’s hard to talk about them all. But here are my two favorites.
I love Chief Oh’s intoxicated outburst in episode 2, when he drunkenly refers to Geu Rae as “our kid.”
Aw. After all his brusque words, this is the first moment when we get to see how he really feels about Geu Rae, and I love that he’s decided that Geu Rae is “our kid.”
The scene that follows shortly after, of Geu Rae fixating on the moment while alone in his room at home, is so poignant.
He has so little to hold on to, and this little moment means the world to him.
The quiet wonder as the words continue to reverberate in his mind, as tears rise to his eyes, is such a poignant sight.
It’s such a sweetly moving moment, to see how much Chief Oh’s acceptance means to him.
Another favorite Chief Oh and Geu Rae moment of mine, is this scene in episode 5, when a hungover Chief Oh discovers Geu Rae fast asleep outside his door in the morning.
Isn’t that the sweetest thing ever? Geu Rae really is cleaving to Chief Oh like a duckling to a mother duck.
And just look at that awesome bed-hair!
Even though, in all his strong silent gruffness, Chief Oh doesn’t explain in so many words his appreciation for Geu Rae, he does express it in a little more detail in episode 16, when telling his friend and ex-colleague to learn from Geu Rae’s example.
“Our team has a new employee. He reminds me of you.
He works hard without procrastination. But he’s different from you. He works hard but it’s natural and he’s passionate, but still rational.
The young guy’s not drunk.”
So awesome, to hear from Chief Oh’s own lips, just why he loves Geu Rae the way he does.
And we know that admiration flows both ways.
Dong Shik and Geu Rae
As much as I love Chief Oh’s relationship with Geu Rae, I hafta say that Dong Shik’s friendship with Geu Rae ranks pretty high up in my heart too.
In the day-to-day grind of work, we see Dong Shik’s care for Geu Rae grow with each passing day and each new challenge that they face together.
That big brother hyung-nim sort of care from Dong Shik to Geu Rae moved me time and time again, particularly since Geu Rae is consistently so withdrawn. It takes a very special kind of person to keep on reaching out to make a connection, when the other person is so reticent.
On the other hand, it was equally great to see Geu Rae opening up to Dong Shik bit by bit, in spite of his introverted personality.
By series’ end, the love that these two new-found brothers had for each other was one of my favorite things in this show.
I really enjoyed this fairly quick scene in episode 9, which proved to be such a pivotal point in their relationship.
After witnessing Geu Rae being mistreated by Manager Park, Dong Shik asks to talk with Geu Rae on the roof.
Once alone, I kinda love Dong Shik’s concerned tirade, which spills out of his mouth willy-nilly, in his frustration over how Geu Rae’s been mistreated.
“You just keep saying “yes” to everything because that’s what “Geu Rae” means? If you can’t do it, say “no” since it’s ok. I’m not just talking about Mr. Park. Once you start working, your true colors are bound to show when you face frustrations. But not in your case.
You always obey without a single complaint. It seems like you’re ready to accept anything. Like a long-term prisoner who was released. Like you’re struggling to adjust to society…
That was too much. I’m sorry, but you’re really like that. I don’t know your past. I just know you have a GED and haven’t done anything so far. What kind of past can make you this cooperative and self-sacrificing?
You know… I want to get to know you better in the near future.”
As jumbled up as Dong Shik’s words sometimes come out in this scene, his words are so palpably heartfelt.
I love that underneath it all, Dong Shik, despite not understanding why Geu Rae allows others to use and abuse him, just wants to know Geu Rae better. What a sweet heart he has.
And it’s no wonder that it’s this outpouring from Dong Shik that acts as the catalyst which causes Geu Rae to actually open up to him.
By inviting Dong Shik to his home, and eating with him, and showing him all about his baduk past, Geu Rae is being completely vulnerable with Dong Shik, and it’s an understated, beautiful thing to behold.
As much as I love how brave Geu Rae is in this moment, to share his “secret past” with Dong Shik, I love just as much, Dong Shik’s acceptance. Not just even acceptance, but admiration too, as he praises Geu Rae for being amazing.
Better yet, Dong Shik then opens up to Geu Rae about his own past and his personal struggles after graduating from a community college, and the two even talk about what defines success, on a day-to-day basis.
To see the two of them connecting on a deeper level and opening up, is just So. Great.
I simply love Geu Rae’s closing voice-over in this episode: “We reveal ourselves to find comfort and understanding.”
That is so true. He reveals himself to Dong Shik in spite of his initial fears, to find comfort and understanding. And when he does that, Dong Shik opens up about his own past and struggles too.
There had to be a certain amount of trust before Geu Rae felt able to open up to Dong Shik, and the thing is, as he does that and as Dong Shik opens up too, they not only find comfort and understanding in each other, the trust between them is strengthened, and therefore the bond between them is deepened as well.
On a related tangent, isn’t the whole reason we are here in dramaland, revealing ourselves to the extent that we are each comfortable with, all in service of finding comfort and understanding? Such a universal truth, and one which I identify with, so much.
Each Rookie with his/her Supervisor/Team
In spite of each rookie’s rough patches with his or her team, over time, it became clear that each rookie’s relationship with his or her corresponding supervisor &/or team improved over time.
Yes, often it felt slow in the coming, but perhaps because of that, the final fruition felt more organic and believable, than if the turnarounds had been given a swifter treatment.
That believability also made the wait feel worthwhile, to see the rookies finally find their footing and their place within their teams.
By the last stretch of the show, it was nice to see the Resource team finally rally together around Young Yi after their Chief (Jung Hee Tae) stands up to Odious Manager Ma (Son Jong Hak).
While Seok Yul’s situation with Manager Sung (Tae In Ho) was the last to have any kind of significant breakthrough, it was also nice to see his Section Chief (Jang Hyuk Jin) appreciate him more in episode 16.
My favorite rookie-manager relationship, though (aside from Geu Rae’s relationships with Dong Shik and Chief Oh, of course), is Baek Ki’s relationship with Manager Kang (Oh Min Seok).
I just love how their heretofore uncomfortable relationship is unceremoniously thrust into the most awkward of situations, when they run into each other in the locker room of the jjimjilbang in episode 13.
How hysterical, that their eyes meet just as they’ve both undressed. Imagine the horror of being stark-nekkid in front of your stark-nekkid boss, when your relationship is already of the ill-at-ease variety. Eep.
The scenes that follow are painfully hilarious, as Baek Ki nervously and awkwardly tries his best to navigate this Terrible Situation, while Manager Kang doesn’t appear to bat an eye.
I suppose the good thing about being starkers with your boss, is that there isn’t much farther that you can go, on the Embarrassment Scale. Which is when Baek Ki gets up the nerve to ask Manager Kang to have a drink with him.
I really liked the frank and open conversation they have over that quiet beer. Baek Ki admits his feelings of dissatisfaction with himself, while Manager Kang provides much needed perspective and insight on the importance of the work that they do. Manager Kang’s words make sense; that not all work is flashy and gets the spotlight, but that fact doesn’t make their work any less important or significant.
I believe that the idea that Manager Kang plants during that chat, of finding meaning in the work that you do being a core starting point, is the true genesis of Baek Ki’s eventual turnaround and growth.
By episode 16, it’s pretty great to see how far these two have come, when Manager Kang matter-of-factly congratulates Baek Ki on a job well done. Baek Ki first fumbles in surprise, then grins widely to himself in happiness.
Also. I love this dynamic of small victories giving rise to big pleasures. There’s something so earthy and real about it.
Aside from the characters and their relationships, Misaeng also serves up multiple themes, several of which I found extra thought-provoking.
Here, I delve into two big themes, before giving the quick spotlight to other themes in the show.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
One of the most troubling and disturbing themes that Misaeng takes on, is the issue of gender discrimination.
No matter where we live and work in the world, I believe that most of us have encountered or witnessed some form of gender discrimination.
While Misaeng’s treatment of the issue might appear exaggerated, its focus on gender discrimination in the Korean workplace is both illuminating and troubling. It really is hard to be a woman in the corporate world, and Director Sun’s (Shin Eun Jung) words in episode 5 sum it all so perfectly:
“Working moms are always the culprit, at the workplace, to elders, not to mention, to your children. It’s impossible without the help of your husband. If you want to keep working, don’t plan on marrying, Young Yi. It’s easier that way.”
How sad, that a working woman is essentially a wrongdoer in everyone’s eyes; whether in the eyes of your in-laws, or your husband, or your co-workers, or even your own children, you’re just not good enough.
Not a good enough worker, for taking time for your family, and not a good enough wife and mother, for taking time away from your family. It’s a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, and it’s such a hard place to be as a modern woman who desires to have a family and a career.
While that may be particularly true in the context of a still-highly-patriarchal society like Korea, it’s a universal sentiment that I believe women the world over can identify with.
It’s Not Just Business
Another theme that resonated throughout the show, is that it’s really Not Just Business.
One Side of the Coin
We see the first side of the coin in episode 6, when a potential business partner turns out to be Chief Oh’s old friend.
The dynamic that we witness between them, where Chief Oh’s college friend swings between being nice and not-so-nice, shows us that it’s not “just business” after all. Things can get very personal.
On one level, it’s in how Chief Oh’s old friend holds a grudge and uses their business context to take petty revenge.
We see this petty revenge dynamic too, in Young Yi’s team in the same episode, when they take out their frustrations on her, for being a woman, and for giving information to another team.
On another level, the idea of how it’s Not Just Business is in how everyone has their own “baduk game” as Geu Rae puts it.
Everyone has their own agenda, their own needs, and their own path to carve. Their family context and personal growth is all real. It’s all personal.
The Other Side of the Coin
While the first side of the coin can be troubling, I found another, more uplifting side to this coin as well.
In episode 8, when Chief Oh passes out after having a nosebleed, he drags himself to a clinic to get checked out.
In his absence, as people in the office start to realize that Chief Oh is missing, everyone – and I mean everyone – going crazy trying to look for him was very heartwarming to behold indeed.
The worry, care, and fear in Dong Shik and Geu Rae, in particular, moved me.
Just look at the stricken look in Geu Rae’s eyes, as he searches for his beloved Chief Oh.
Truly, it’s Not Just Business.
In this manner, in this way, it’s very personal indeed, and I love it.
With so much meat on its bones, and such a thoughtful, deliberate vibe, it’s no surprise that Misaeng serves up multiple themes over its 20 episodes.
Here’s a collection of the ones that resonated with me and gave me food for thought, even as I continued to enjoy getting to know our characters:
E2. The idea of being alone vs. working with others.
E7. The idea that every day is a new battle, so whatever happened the day before, and no matter how discouraged you got, you bring a new game face to the new battle.
E8. Do principles have a place in the corporate battlefield?
E8. The importance of having a good foundation.
E9. We reveal ourselves to find comfort and understanding.
E10. Essentially, it’s all baduk, and it doesn’t change the world, but the baduk board that we play, is each of our lives, and therefore is our world.
E11. The idea that the world isn’t so straightforward in distinguishing between right and wrong.
E11. Choose your battles to win the war.
E13. Find meaning in the work that you do.
E13. The idea of being absorbed/drunk. Find something to be absorbed in, to keep you going.
E14. The idea of keeping a cold mind and a hot heart.
E19. Endure, and win.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
Episode 20 was bittersweet to watch. Coz not only was I preparing myself to say goodbye to these characters, it was also hard to see them say goodbye to one another.
It was sad to see life go on after Chief Oh’s departure from One International, and eventually, after Geu Rae’s departure as well. Everyone’s concerted, last-ditch effort to help Geu Rae, even with the odds stacked against them, was moving to watch. That’s how much they care, and it was bittersweet to see them do every little bit possible, and hold on to every last shred of hope, till the very end.
It was gratifying to see Young Yi and Baek Ki, both now much closer to their immediate supervisors; enough to take advice, and even to give some too. Who would’ve thought we’d see the day? Seok Yul making the tough choice, to not stoop to unveiling his supervisor’s affair, was a big sign of maturity and integrity, which was worth waiting 20 episodes to see.
I felt sad to know that the four rookies won’t be working as a set of four at One International anymore. But their reunion over drinks felt warm and true to life, and reminded me that goodbyes at work are par for the course, and the friends that are truly worth keeping, are kept. And I have a feeling that these four will continue to mean a lot to one another, years down the road.
I love that Chief Oh started a new company, and insisted on getting Manager Kim (Kim Jong Soo) in as the CEO. Chief Oh is loyal through and through. I love even more, that Chief Oh was actually quietly preparing to receive Geu Rae, without saying a word to anyone. He is just so, so gruffly sweet.
Vying for my favorite moment in the finale, is the scene when Dong Shik determinedly plants himself in Chief Oh’s new office and refuses to leave.
And the group hug that followed – just, SO. MUCH. WIN.
The expressions on their faces is priceless.
This is just how much they enjoy working together, never mind the lack of security in a young company. That synergy, enjoyment and care means more to them than the stability of a big company.
To be honest, the final scenes in Jordan felt a little shoe-horned in, just to bring us full-circle. Still, it was gratifying to see Geu Rae doing all sorts of things that he’d never been able to do before, like speak in English, and be a thorough badass.
The comfortable camaraderie between Chief Oh and Geu Rae in Jordan was also heartwarming to witness, particularly in the light of the epilogue, that showed us that they’d crossed paths at the wake area of the hospital years before, when Geu Rae had lost his father, and Chief Oh had lost that contract worker that he’d been trying so hard to help.
What a supremely gratifying thought, to consider that they’ve found their way full circle to each other. Who would have guessed that they would each eventually settle in, to fill those gaping wounds in each other’s hearts, helping to comfort and heal each other, beneath the gruff everyday stuff?
Augh. That thought just fills my heart. So. Much.
In the end, what a perfectly imperfect end.
Completely in line with its title, Misaeng paints an incomplete life in progress, even as the credits roll.
Jang Geu Rae is still work in progress, as is Chief Oh and all the rest of the characters. The roads ahead of them are uncertain, but they walk ahead anyway. With hope, with determination, with as much wisdom as they have in the moment, and with just a touch of swag, as they follow where their hearts lead them.
Just as we all should.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Measured, quiet and contemplative, yet ultimately uplifting and inspiring. To be savored slowly.
FINAL GRADE: A