If my many hours of drama watching have taught me anything, it’s that, more than expensively-produced dramas that are all polish with very little soul, it’s the shows that lay their heart on the table, that tend to grab me, and then stick with me, long after the credits have stopped rolling.
In this sense, I’d say Go Back Spouses is kinda like the little drama that could.
There are no Big Budgets here, and Show isn’t even that elegantly written, to be honest. But, Show packs so much heartfelt goodness in its compact 12-episode package, that I find myself eager to sing its praises – and forgive its faults. Given that these days, I’ve been quicker to drop shows than ever before, I hafta say that’s No Small Deal.
THIS ISN’T TIME TRAVEL
If, like me, you’ve gotten more than a little weary – and wary! – of time-travel dramas, I’m happy to set the record straight, that Go Back Spouses isn’t a time-travel story. Whew.
Instead, this is more of a second-chance drama. Our protagonists Jin Joo and Ban Do (Jang Na Ra and Sohn Ho Jun) are the only versions of themselves in 1999, in a time rewind situation where they get to relive their twenties all over again. There aren’t other younger versions of themselves running around in this version of 1999. Here, there is no future yet. The future is theirs to walk towards, all over again, only this time, they have the benefit of hindsight and possibly a little more wisdom.
I found Show’s key question intriguing and even rather thought-provoking: Would you make the same choices all over again, if you were given a second chance?
STUFF I ENJOYED
Sohn Ho Jun and Jang Na Ra
I honestly feel like these roles were written for Sohn Ho Joon and Jang Na Ra; they just feel so perfectly cast.
They are required to play older and younger versions of their characters, and deliver both drama and comedy in turn, which is a pretty tall order, in my books. Props to them both, I felt like they were equally comfortable and adept at either end of both spectrums, and that they delivered consistently well.
At the same time, I felt that these two shared a solid chemistry in every facet and variant of Ban Do and Jin Joo’s relationship that they were portraying.
I personally found this OTP a slow burn, because Show took its time bringing to the fore, why we ought to root for their reconciliation in the first place. What I will say, though, is, once Show convinced me that these two were better off together than apart, that it wasn’t long before I was fully on board – despite my heart bleeding a little, for our melty second lead (more on that in a bit).
With Show giving so much early attention to Ban Do’s interactions with first love Seo Young (Go Bo Kyul) and Jin Joo’s run-ins with young smitten suitor Nam Gil (Jang Ki Yong), it was pretty late in the game before we got a glimpse into why this couple was worth rooting for.
The first time I remember softening towards the idea of this reconciliation is in episode 9, when we see that Ban Do’s flashbacks are focused on Jin Joo. That’s when I began to see that these two were very much in love, once upon a time. Ban Do’s realization and regret, as he thinks back to how Jin Joo made so many sacrifices for him, without even mentioning it, counts for quite a bit, in my books.
I also really liked the time in episode 10, when we see Ban Do’s thoughtfulness and care towards Jin Joo show up. It’s such an everyday sort of thing, but I loved that when he sees Jin Joo experiencing period-related discomfort, he goes to buy painkillers for her without even being asked. I appreciate how he’s already at the pharmacist, when Jin Joo, in a moment of desperation, calls him for help. I love that he buys the sanitary napkins without blinking an eye, even though the female customers nearby are giving him funny looks. That’s love and loyalty, right there.
Plus, I do love the fact that even though Ban Do has swallowed his pride and allowed Dr. Park (Im Ji Kyu) to walk all over him for so long, he simply can’t hold it together when he hears that Dr. Park had hit or tried to hit Jin Joo. That really says so much about how much he cares about her.
Jang Ki Yong as Nam Gil
Jang Ki Yong is great as our reluctantly smitten second lead, and I’m gonna hafta say, this boy made my heart wobble more than a couple of times, over the course of this show. I wanted only good things for him, and since he found himself smitten with Jin Joo, I couldn’t help but squee at every near-proximity, hyper-aware interaction that he shared with Jin Joo.
For a good long stretch, the highlight of every episode for me, was how Nam Gil got intrigued and discombobulated by Jin Joo. Jang Ki Yong’s got an excellent reaction face, and his tamped-down alarmed, nervous discomfiture at every up-close-and-personal interaction with Jin Joo, is pretty fantastic.
I rooted for Nam Gil pretty hard, so it’s to writer-nim’s credit that Show managed to get me to board the OTP ship by the end stretch.
For the record, here are a couple of Nam Gil moments that I really enjoyed.
E3. Nam Gil staring at the scene of the accidental hug, hours later. So cute. I think this is the moment I actually started wanting more for him.
E4. Nam Gil walking away with his heart pounding, after coolly telling Jin Joo to stop flirting with him. Ha. And then the library double rescue, followed by her working to help him with his ankle, his protests falling on deaf ears. And then him, watching her during the history department gathering, and then following her home, just to make sure she was safe. And then, for him to then see her sobbing in the bus all over again, after being bright and chipper all evening – boy never stood a chance; he was so gonna lose his heart to this girl.
E5. Nam Gil going out of his way to return Jin Joo’s wallet is pretty cute. Pretending that his leg still hurt, so that she’d follow him around. Sneaky boy.
E6. Nam Gil buying Jin Joo a dress is kind of cliched, but the great lengths he goes to, to make the gift look casual and convenient, is cute. That, and his nervous, discombobulated face, heh.
Show’s thought-provoking moments [MINOR SPOILERS]
On a more intellectual level, I find the concept of time interesting in this show. Here, the past isn’t characterized by a typical timeline. Most interesting to me, is that fact that in this show, flashbacks can come from the future. The defining thing about what makes something a past event, is whether Ban Do and Jin Joo have lived it yet – whether here in the 90s, or in the future of 2017. Because, if they’ve lived it in 2017, it still counts as the past for them, here in 1999. That’s pretty mind-bendy stuff, and I love it.
On a more visceral level, despite some of Show’s more ungainly moments (more on that later), I found that there’s a bittersweet quality about this drama which I enjoyed very well. The nostalgia of revisiting one’s youth and the wistfulness that surrounds that; the sadness associated with wounds that still feel fresh even though one has the chance at a do-over; all that, combined with the confusing yet exciting plethora of choice that seems to lie ahead – the possibility of rewriting one’s future. All of this creates a poignant context for the other events in our story, and gives everything an overlay of extra meaning.
There is gained wisdom from the years that Jin Joo and Ban Do have lived before the redo, but it also feels like these two can’t quite fit into their past as easily or as comfortably as they did before.
I found it interesting that Ban Do and Jin Joo reap the benefits of adulthood in different ways. Ban Do is more confident, wise, and even a little suave. On the other hand, Jin Joo acts and talks like an ahjumma. Every time she responded to Nam Gil’s romantic overtures with her signature ahjumma “Aiyooo..!” I cringed a little in secondhand embarrassment. But, I realize that this simply reflects the marriage that Ban Do and Jin Joo had; he went out to interact with people, while she stayed home and looked after the kid and the house.
Which begs the question: if we are truly shaped by our experiences, then does this do-over truly exist, since both Ban Do and Jin Joo can’t leave their experiences behind?
One example of a specific scene that I found affecting and thought-provoking, is in episode 6, when Jin Joo struggles to see herself as a worthy contestant in the May Queen contest.
Jin Joo’s inability to see her own beauty and talent, is very poignant to me. It’s true. When your loved one puts you down and tramples on your self-esteem repeatedly over an extended period of time, that is what happens to you. You find it hard to have confidence in yourself, and it’s a long journey getting back your self-confidence. Not only that, the start of that journey back to self-confidence often feels like embarking on the impossible.
My heart really went out to Jin Joo when she seemed clueless about her potential, and couldn’t believe that she stood a chance in the May Queen contest. For this reason – the fact that Ban Do has hurt her and brought her down to this level – I really wanted her to move on from him, properly. In fact, I even found myself thinking, “Yes, Seo Jin wouldn’t exist, but in this timeline, Seo Jin isn’t real?”
I just felt so fiercely protective of her, as she struggled to deal with the scars of her marriage, even while she got a chance to live everything over again.
Kim Mi Kyung as Jin Joo’s mom
Hands-down my favorite character of this entire drama world, is Kim Mi Kyung as Jin Joo’s mom.
Even though Mom doesn’t enjoy as many scenes as our main couple and their friends, Mom consistently stole the show, whenever she showed up on my screen.
From the way Jin Joo couldn’t stop hugging Mom and kept trailing after her, to the way Jin Joo kept crawling into bed to take refuge in Mom’s arms, to the way Mom fussed over Jin Joo and blew dry her hair at the bath house, every moment we see between these two, is so sweet and precious.
The thing that moves me the most, though, is how Mom remains so strong, loving and wise through it all. She has no idea why her daughter keeps crying in her arms, but she doesn’t question it. She simply holds her and comforts her, and remains steadfastly her daughter’s rock and anchor.
Mom moved me in a deeply visceral way, and I love her, So Much. <3
STUFF I ENJOYED LESS
The writing isn’t very elegant, for the most part
This writing in this show is not elegant by any means, and sometimes feels like convenient connect-the-dots storytelling. Still, it gets the job done, generally speaking.
There are 2 examples in episode 3, of this connect-the-dots type of storytelling.
1. The random DJs with stomachaches who then conveniently leave their studio on air, so that Jin Joo and Ban Do can accidentally broadcast their argument to the whole school. That felt randomly inserted and quite clumsy, to me.
2. The drunk nightclub scene, where a drunk Jin Joo stumbles onto the stage and addresses Ban Do through the mic. I found the entire thing not very believable at all, because surely Jin Joo would’ve been dragged off the stage by a staff member – or several – long before she was able to give that long rant into the mic?
Additionally, I also didn’t like the childish angle Show took with Jin Joo and Ban Do’s estranged state of affairs, early in their 1999 revisit.
Each time they tried to one-up each other, it came across as childish and petty. The care they had for each other wasn’t showcased much at all, and most of Show’s focus was on the disdain they felt for each other. That didn’t help in terms of getting me to care about their potential reconciliation. In fact, for a long time, it seemed to me that the reactions they had when they saw the other person with what appeared to be a new love interest, were rooted less in actual jealousy, and more in a sense of betrayal. Like, how could you move on so quickly from me, you jerk?
If the writing could’ve been more layered and nuanced around that, it would’ve been nice.
Show’s sense of humor isn’t always my cup of tea
If you’ve known me for a while, you’d likely know that I don’t often jive with broad, OTT, gag humor. While Show wasn’t always unfunny to me, there were definitely times when I cringed at the Intended Funny.
Here are just a few examples.
E3. The projectile vomiting at the nightclub, with vomit landing on random people on the ground floor, was unnecessary and gross.
E4. Dok Jae (Lee Yi Kyung) getting his drunken head stuck in the gate was played for comedy, but I didn’t feel amused.
E6. The DOTS parody made me cringe. Just, why?
The cheerleading couple
I hafta admit, I didn’t much care for the secondary loveline between Bo Reum and Jae Woo (Han Bo Reum and Huh Jung Min).
Generally speaking, I found their lovey-dovey moments cheesy and cringey, and overall, I found this plotline a tad too childish for my taste. I personally could’ve done with a lot less of this couple on my screen.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Show leaves us with an ending that feels quite perfect, to my eyes.
Ban Do’s decision to break things off with Jin Joo, believing that he’s doing the better thing for her, is sad to watch. But it’s crystal clear that he’s doing the most selfless thing, with his eyes only on Jin Joo’s happiness, and that is moving indeed. Later, when he sobs alone, apologizing again and again to his unborn son who would now never get to exist, my heart breaks with his, and I can’t help but be sucked into his pain.
Nam Gil’s farewell date with Jin Joo is simple and heartfelt, with honest conversation accompanied by simple pleasures like kimbap and tteokbokki in a park. In particular, I love Jin Joo’s response to Nam Gil’s final confession. The way she walks up to him and hugs him, and thanks him for liking her, then tells him he’s a good person who just doesn’t know how warm-hearted he is yet, is just so kind and sweet. She is so thoughtful too, letting him leave the playground first, because she remembers how he’d hated being left alone in the playground when he was small. Altogether, it’s a moment that feels poignant and pure, and while my heart aches for Nam Gil, I feel content that this is where his first love ends.
More than anything, though, it’s Jin Joo’s alone time with Mom that hits me, so hard, in the heart. Mom’s resilience, strength, grace and love is so very beautiful to behold, as she holds her daughter and tells her it’s ok to go. This, while the realization of why Jin Joo’s been acting so strange is so fresh on her mind and her heart, along with the new knowledge that she will not be around to see the birth of Jin Joo’s baby. And yet, Mom puts herself aside, and is strong and gentle and kind and loving, as she advises her daughter to go back to her child. Augh. My heart. It’s just so beautiful and so heartbreaking and so moving, at the same time.
I love that Jin Joo and Ban Do get to have dinner with Mom and Dad one last time, before they leave the past. And, I can’t help but notice how sexy Ban Do gets, when he puts on his bedroomy gaze. Flail. I need Sohn Ho Jun in more romantic leading man roles, please.
Jin Joo’s happy tears at seeing Seo Jin again make my heart so full, and I love Ban Do’s tearful relief as he holds his wife and son for the first time, all over again. Love, love, love.
It’s gratifying too, to see that pretty much everyone else’s lives have been improved by Ban Do and Jin Joo’s trip to the past; Seol is no longer missing from their lives; Jae Woo and Bo Reum reunite as a couple; Nam Gil is married and is daddy to a little kid; Ye Rim (Lee Do Yun) is no longer married to cheater-schemer Dr. Park. We even get a cheesy low-rent fantasy explanation for why the rings are magical, which is a fun touch.
All in all, a finale that not only tugs hard at my heartstrings, but fills my heart while it does so. Thank you, Show. <3
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A little rough around the edges, but so full of heart that it’s easy to love anyway.
FINAL GRADE: B++