When I first heard the set-up for Scholar Who Walks the Night, I was really excited. I mean, a supernatural drama world featuring Joseon-era vampires with glorious bone structure, and a girl who goes undercover as a boy to earn a living and support her family? It sounded like the perfect mashup combining the best of Arang and Sungkyunkwan Scandal, both of which are dramas I really love.
Plus, Scholar stills promised that I would get to see Lee Jun Ki wearing guyliner and a deeper red lip, sorta like how he did so spectacularly in his breakout role in The King and The Clown.
Basically, I couldn’t not watch this one. And I couldn’t wait to feast my eyes on the Pretty too.
…It’s really too bad that Show turned out to be a very, very different creature than what I’d expected.
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.
STUFF I DIDN’T LOVE
1. The level of Drama
Taking into account my high hopes for a lovely mashup of Arang and SKKS, I was expecting Show to have a tone that was light & fun for the most part, with stretches of moderate intensity for the rest of the time. After all, I figured we’d need some dramatic tension, right?
Well. Show definitely agrees on the Dramatic bit, coz Scholar turned out to be a lot more Dramatic than I expected, not only in the plot points themselves, but in the delivery too.
Case in point, when our resident vampires Sung Yeol (Lee Jun Ki) and Gwi (Lee Soo Hyuk) vamp out, it’s not at all subtle. Rather, it’s whites-of-eyes, dramatic cold sweat, snarling-at-the-camera-with-blood-all-over-their-faces type of dramatic, which feels a bit much. Especially since I was hoping for a cooler, more subtle and effortless sort of vamping out, sort of along the lines of Season 1 of Vampire Prosecutor.
Basically, I was hoping for frothy fun, but Show is really more interested in serving up Dramatic, Tragic Angst, and that angst pervaded the entire show. Whether it was character-centered, relationship centered, or plot-centric, just about everything had angst written all over it.
All our key characters are angsty. Sung Yeol, Yoon (Changmin) and Gwi all have their fair share of angst, all of it to do with their identity and who/what they perceive themselves to be.
Also, all our romantic relationships are angsty. [SPOILER] From Sung Yeol drinking Myung Hee’s (Kim So Eun) blood, to Sung Yeol’s burgeoning I-shouldn’t-love-you feelings for Yang Sun (Lee Yoo Bi), to Hye Ryung’s (Kim So Eun) complicated relationship with Yoon, to Soo Hyang’s (Jang Hee Jin) one-sided feelings for Sung Yeol, every relationship is rife with angst. [END SPOILER]
Plot-wise, everything’s painted as quite dire and tragic, what with so many people dying from start to finish (seriously, so much blood!).
In a nutshell, Show did not hold back on the angst in the least. For the record, I’m not against angst, and have managed to enjoy heavily melodramatic dramas in the past. Just, Scholar didn’t manage to make the angst feel worth it, y’know?
2. Story Emphasis
Show has an odd sense of balance when it comes to where it chooses to place its emphasis.
There are basically two main emphases in our story. On one side of the fence, we have the romance between Sung Yeol and Yang Sun, which feels star-crossed from the start because he’s a vampire and she’s a human. On the other side, we have the seemingly endless search for the journal belonging to Crown Prince Jung Hyun (Lee Hyun Woo), which will purportedly reveal the secret plan on how to kill Gwi.
For a show that seems quite fixated on the romance (there’s a particular jangly romantic ballad played over and over, to drive home that point), Show spends an inordinate amount of time on the search for the secret journal instead. We get episodes and episodes of Very Serious Dramatic Stuff, all in the name of finding the secret journal. The search rarely ever gets anywhere, and in the midst of it all, we get oddly-placed romantic interludes with our OTP, which just makes me go, Wha..?
I don’t know about everyone else, but these “romantic” scenes often felt out-of-place, to me. That jangly ballad would start to play, giving me the cue that what I was watching was supposed to be romantic. Often, though, I felt like there was a short circuit somewhere, coz a lot of the time, I just didn’t find the scenes very romantic at all.
Like in episode 3, when Sung Yeol saves Yang Sun from the water after a big exciting chase involving Gwi, and proceeds to place his lips on hers. The jangly tune begins to play, as he presses his lips to hers, and I’m cringing all the way through the scene. C’mon now, saving someone with mouth-to-mouth is not kissing, nor is it supposed to be romantic. Do it right, Show.
And in episode 11, Sung Yeol’s conversations with Yang Sun, about how he’s now her owner and she belongs to him, is also scored with the same jangly music. I get that those scenes are supposed to be sweet and romantic, but honestly, when a man asserts himself as your owner, are you really supposed to look touched? Are you supposed to find it romantic? Coz I really didn’t.
As for the times when I could understand the romance of the scene, I often found those scenes felt fairly random and therefore not as squee-worthy as they could or should have been. Many times, I felt that it was because the romantic scenes had been inserted weirdly, into a general flow that had more to do with the Endless Search for the lost journal.
3. General pacing & tone
Honestly, Show felt like it was maybe 8 or 10 episodes too long.
For a show that seems to prize the romance as much as it does, Scholar spends a heckuva lot of time creating an extremely complicated history around the secret journal. [SPOILER] A lot of the time, all the business about the Lustful Student felt like it was going over my head in a jumbled mess. Coz, there’s Lustful Student #1, the Original, which is Prince Jung Hyun, and then there’s Lustful Student #2, who’s Prince Yoon. It’s all very confusing since not only is Prince Yoon impersonating the original Lustful Student, Sung Yeol does it too, at one point. Which only served to make me go, Why?? Just, WHY is Show making it this confusing? [END SPOILER]
Essentially, Show spends many episodes circling around the search for the journal, and a lot of the time, that includes at least a few of our leads facing possible death. Quite often, Yang Sun would also need saving, somehow. When this cycle happens again and again, the watch experience feels sort of tense, but not really (since it starts to happen well within Show’s first half and therefore we already know that none of our leads will die) and eventually, with all the circling, Show starts to feel pretty repetitive and boring.
On a related note, I found the tonal shifts between the light and cute, versus the dark and bloody, kind of jerky and jarring.
I mean, there were times when I enjoyed Show’s light and cute, and there were times when I enjoyed Show’s moody melancholy. But Show’s shifts between those two tones often didn’t feel organic to a single narrative, and that felt pretty distracting. It sometimes almost felt like I was watching two different shows, like I had maybe fallen asleep with my eyes open and had sleep-worked the remote to change channels or something. Ha.
4. Ambiguous mythology & inconsistencies
The mythology of this drama world, around who dies and who gets turned into a vampire upon being fanged, is not explained. Frustrating.
Additionally, the methodology of killing a vampire and keeping it dead, is also inconsistent. Somewhere along the way, besides the hawthorne daggers/stakes through the heart that we see from the beginning of the show, silver bullets also become effective. Notably, neither method is explained to the audience. Also frustrating.
In early episodes, we are shown dead concubines through history who’d been fanged by Gwi, and those corpses all had stakes through the heart. But in later episodes, many corpses who’d been fanged – whether they’d turned or not – were shown without stakes through the heart. Like in episode 6, we see all the booksellers who’d been bitten and turned (how did they then all end up dead in a following scene? Did the palace guards subdue them all?) dead and without stakes through the heart. What gives?
And as just another example of Show’s inconsistency, I can’t get the scene from episode 1 out of my mind, when, one moment, we see a freshly awoken, just-turned Sung Yeol with his hand sizzling in the sun, and then soon afterwards, we see him staggering around in the sunlight, not sizzling at all. He’s wearing the magic black robe both times, so seriously, what gives?
Basically, it all starts to feel pretty random as we get deeper into the episodes, and I can’t decide whether it’s a case of writer-nim being very forgetful, or the live shoot preventing PD-nim from ensuring these details remained consistent.
Yes, I appreciate when dramas show us things instead of tell us, but when Show can’t seem to make up its mind, all of the inconsistent things become extremely confusing. We essentially just keep getting shown different things, which makes it impossible to identify a pattern. Past a certain point, I stopped caring or trying, and learned to just shrug it all off as just one of Show’s weird ticks. BUT, this is not how you want your audience to think of you, Show. Just sayin’.
STUFF THAT MADE IT BETTER
Given that there were quite a few things that I didn’t love about Scholar, what kept me going to the very end? I must say, it wasn’t a lot that kept me going, but it was enough.
1. Strong performances from key characters
In spite of the questionable direction of the narrative, I was consistently impressed with the delivery and dedication to the role, of our main cast.
I tuned in for Lee Jun Ki, and he didn’t disappoint. From the overwrought, dramatic moments, to the quiet, subtler beats, Lee Jun Ki pours so much feeling into Sung Yeol that it’s easy to believe Sung Yeol’s pain. I particularly enjoyed the beats where we got to see Sung Yeol’s vulnerability beneath the stoic surface, and Lee Jun Ki portrayed those layers quite beautifully.
Although I had my doubts in the beginning coz I found Gwi a little one-note for a while, I definitely came away impressed with Lee Soo Hyuk. He embraced the character of Gwi, and made him an interesting, fascinating antagonist. We don’t get much insight into Gwi’s inner conflict until the later episodes, but even in the earlier stretch of the show, Lee Soo Hyuk manages to imbue Gwi with enough nuance to hint at the layers yet to be revealed. Lee Soo Hyuk basically took a potentially cheesy, one-note bad guy, and made him believable, intriguing and even a little bit tragic. Major props for that.
Additionally, I found Changmin‘s performance as Yoon surprisingly good (I say surprisingly coz I’ve never seen him act before, and he’s an idol actor, on top of that). Yes, there were times when I found Yoon to be a frustrating character, but there were definitely also times when I found him captivating. When anger blazed from his eyes, Yoon breathed regality. And during moments when Yoon felt he had to make hard choices, he looked genuinely conflicted, heartbroken and torn apart. In those moments, I truly believed him, as a character.
Lee Yoo Bi manages to make bumbling, clumsy Yang Sun adorable and endearing instead of frustrating, which just speaks to her likability as an actress. She makes Yang Sun so earnest and hardworking and sunny that it’s hard not to like her.
Last but not least, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Kim So Eun in her role as Hye Ryung. I mean, she did a good job as Myung Hee too, and made Myung Hee a sweet and likable character. But it’s really as Hye Ryung that she shines. I thought that Kim So Eun did a very solid job of portraying Hye Ryung’s complicated feelings towards Yoon, Gwi and Sung Yeol. I felt and believed her conflict.
2. Lee Jun Ki & Lee Soo Hyuk are Pretty
I wasn’t too enamored with the killing, biting and bloody mouths, but when both men got to show off their cool, smirky, more sardonic sides, it was undeniably rather swoony. Both Lee Jun Ki and Lee Soo Hyuk bring indisputable amounts of pretty to the show, and uh, I just liked gazing at the Pretty.
This is the much shallower reason, to be sure. But let me just say that when the going was rough, this was sometimes the reason that kept me hanging by a thread.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
The other thread that kept me hanging on to the very end, is that, despite how messy I found the narrative, I had a slightly morbid curiosity towards how it would all end. Like, ok already, show me this secret Gwi-killing plan and how it works.
Sadly, I was rather underwhelmed by the ending. In summary, my reaction to the ending was pretty much a mix of, “Finally!” and “What?” and “Um. Okay.”
1. The Final Showdown
I found the final showdown a bit of an anticlimax, to be honest. All the build-up to the final showdown during the episode – and the multiple episodes prior – was just way too much. I honestly don’t think that Show could have lived up to all of that build-up. We’re talking about 19 whole episodes – actually, 19.5, if we’re being nit-picky – so probably any ending would’ve felt anticlimactic.
I also thought the resolution around Gwi, where he looks up to the sunlight and muses over how it really is beautiful – as his skin is steaming, mind you – before disappearing into nothingness, was an inordinately pretty and rather poetic ending for the show’s Big Evil Antagonist.
2. Show’s weird sense of time
All through the finale, Show displays an extremely odd sense of time. It feels like rubber-band time, in a sense. Things which should have taken only a moment, get protracted to an unreasonable length. And, because it’s convenient, nights get shortened considerably too.
When Sung Yeol rushes into the underground palace, Gwi’s supposedly hot on his heels. And then we get an extremely protracted scene of Yang Sun making her presence known, and offering Sung Yeol her blood, and then we see Sung Yeol angsting over it, and then giving her a goodbye speech, before kissing her, and then drinking her blood. He even has time to then catch her body as she falls, and then lay her on the ground, before Gwi speeds into the underground cavern. What was Gwi doing while all of this angsting and kissing and drinking of blood was going on? Running in circles in the courtyard??
Additionally, how about that whole internal fight that Sung Yeol has, between his human self and his blue-eyed super-vamp self. It feels on the long side on our screens, and I can’t help wondering what Gwi is doing while this is going on too. Like, is he literally just standing around, waiting for Sung Yeol to be ready to fight?
If you think about it, we start the showdown scene when the sun has supposedly recently set. And mid-battle, when the explosives go off, bright sunlight starts streaming into the place. Did Gwi really wait around for hours, while Sung Yeol fought with himself??
I’m sorry, but that’s just quite ridiculous. And I’m supposed to find this all really exciting, when through it all, I’m actually mostly thinking stuff like, “What’s Gwi doing?? Hurry up with taking her blood, you don’t have time to talk and kiss and angst! Wait, seriously, WHAT IS GWI DOINGGG?!??”
3. The Time Skip
Of course, Show had to go with a time skip and an unexplained reappearance of Sung Yeol. Not that I begrudge Show its happy ending; I do want Sung Yeol to be alive, after all. Just, a little more inclusivity and clarity would’ve been nice. I want to know why Sung Yeol needed to disappear for a year. What did he need to do? Heal? Regenerate? What??
Coz in the end, even though we get to a happy ending, I feel like I don’t even really know how we got there. Which really shouldn’t be the case.
Overall, I think that it would’ve been better all-around, if Show had just made up its mind on what it valued more – romance, or the secret plan to kill Gwi – and just focused its attention there. Basically, make a choice to either go all-out cute and frothy, or full-on intense with the action melodrama. Because, as it’s sadly proven, Show just couldn’t handle being both at the same time.
I’ll admit that there were some cute moments in this show that I enjoyed, and there were even some poignant beats that I liked. In trying to do too much over too many episodes, though, Show ended up being extremely hodge-podge, too melodramatic, and wayyy too long drawn-out.
Sadness. It feels like such a waste of so much commitment and talent. And a waste of so much Pretty too.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
An uneven, protracted, albeit pretty mess.
FINAL GRADE: C+