THE SHORT VERDICT:
A show that takes the dark topic of prison and crime, and infuses it all with warmth and hope, Prison Playbook is the unlikely contender for your heart that will likely make you laugh, cry, wring your heart dry, and then fill it right up again.
Writer-nim weaves a story that makes primary and secondary character pop, while every actor in our ensemble cast breathes actual life into the characters, and PD-nim’s signature touch comes alive in both the palpable sense of community and the corny jokes. As a shining bonus, the bromance at the center of our story feels emotionally deep despite its often gruff surface.
Poignant and homey, despite its grim premise.
THE LONG VERDICT:
In a drama landscape where I’ve been feeling more underwhelmed than overwhelmed in general about the shows that are produced, I was, well, only cautiously hopeful about this one, going in.
On the upside, this is by the PD behind Answer Me 1997, 1994 and 1988, which are all shows that I think of fondly. On the downside, this is set in prison, and I find that I mostly don’t care all that much for crime / prison / legal shows in general. Depending on whether the upside or the downside turned out to be a stronger factor, I was also rather wary of Show’s famously long episodes, which are also a trademark of the Answer Me series.
Now that I’ve emerged on the other side, I’m happy to report that in spite of its dark prison setting, Show delivers a warm story that focuses on its characters, and celebrates friendship, comradeship, loyalty, and second chances. If you liked the Answer Me series, I think it’s safe to say that you’d like this one too. Or.. vice versa, come to think of it. If you love this one, you’d love the Answer Me series too. Heh.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it as you read the review.
STUFF THAT I LOVED LESS
I ended up enjoying a whole lotta things about this show, but it wasn’t perfect by any means. So I thought we’d start by getting those imperfections out of the way. Y’know, so that we can then wholeheartedly focus on the good stuff.
1. Show’s tone takes a while to settle
Not gonna lie; it took me a while to get a handle on Show’s tone.
I guess my crime & prison lens proactively and automatically took over when I started this show, and I went in expecting things to be darker and grittier than they actually were. But Show.. had other ideas.
The first couple of episodes, which take place mostly in the detention center, had a slightly darker tone than the rest of the episodes, which take place in the penitentiary. From about episode 3 onwards, once our scene shifts to the penitentiary, the signature corny style of humor that characterized the Answer Me series kicks in. I wasn’t quite prepared for that shift, and felt a little thrown by it.
As a result, when some of the inmates were involved in rather corny set-ups at about the episode 3 mark, I found the Intended Funny more lame than funny. [MILD SPOILER] Like in episode 3, when the “revolt” that the inmates were planning turned out to be about having proper hot water for instant ramyun. To be honest, seeing supposedly hardened criminals make such a big fuss about planning a ramyun meal made me feel like this drama world had evolved to become somewhat Disney-esque, and I wasn’t too taken by it. [END SPOILER]
I went through a short phase where I wasn’t feeling Show very much, at around the episode 3 and 4 mark, because I was struggling a little bit, to reconcile myself with Show’s tone. After a couple more episodes, though, I found myself settling into Show’s tone quite well, and by the end, I was sorry to say goodbye.
2. Sometimes I didn’t jive with the Intended Funny
Generally speaking, I found that I was pretty ok with Show’s idea of humor. I mean, sometimes I found the jokes corny &/or lame, but in most of those instances, that felt deliberate. Occasionally, though, Show’s sense of humor made me uncomfortable.
[SPOILER] The instance that stands out most in my memory, is the entire mini arc in episode 1, where all the prison guards were super eager to see Je Hyuk’s, erm, butthole, and all gleefully gathered around the screen to ogle while he was having his mandatory screening. Ack. That was so uncomfortable to watch, and I cringed through the whole thing. [END SPOILER]
3. Sometimes timelines aren’t clear
Show tends to sometimes start episodes with a cold open, which works pretty well when the context is filled in at least partway through the episode. In episode 4, though, this is taken to an extreme, and I ended up feeling part impressed and part confused with the way time was folding and unfolding throughout the episode.
[VAGUE SPOILER] It was only much later – almost at the end of the episode, I believe – that I had enough information to conclude that when we’d started the episode, everything was already over, and all the ensuing events that episode around Je Hyuk and his hand, were flashbacks. [END SPOILER]
This wasn’t a huge problem, but I thought it fair to mention it, since this did confuse me at times.
4. The instance where I feel Show was trolling us [SPOILER]
As early as episode 1, we get flashbacks to when Je Hyuk and Joon Ho (Park Hae Soo and Jung Kyung Ho) were younger.
In the present timeline, Je Hyuk is played by Park Hae Soo, who is taller, bigger, more well-built, and has a deeper complexion, while Joon Ho is played by Jung Hyung Ho, who is not as tall, and has a smaller built, more delicate features, and a fairer complexion. Yet, Show cast young Joon Ho as tall, tanned and muscular, and young Je Hyuk as shorter, fairer and less well-built. And then proceeds to actively avoid having either character addressed by name for most of the flashback, so that we are left guessing as to who’s who.
I get the element of surprise Show was gunning for, but seriously, with young Joon Ho so tall and muscular, my brain protests at how he could have possibly turned into Jung Kyung Ho? I feel like in this one, Show was deliberately trolling us. The casting feels manipulative and premeditated to mislead, and the ultimate reveal unfortunately felt a bit like a cheap shot, to me.
Aside from this specific instance though, I must concede that Show did a good job subverting expectations otherwise.
STUFF I LOVED
This show turned out to be a very enjoyable watch, and I found myself turning to it on a regular basis like it was comfort food. Show has a way of acknowledging pain, darkness and pathos, while weaving in a predominant tone of warmth, hope and care, which is possibly my favorite thing, among all of Show’s strengths.
By the end of my watch, I felt like I had grown genuinely affectionate of many of the characters and the accompanying relationships, so much so that it feels impossible to talk about them all. Here’s just a quick spotlight on just my favorite-est things in this show, picked from many favorites. 😉
1. Park Hae Soo as Je Hyuk
Embarrassingly, this was the first time I actually noticed Park Hae Soo, even though he’d been on my screen twice before this show; once when I was watching Six Flying Dragons (alright, I totes noticed him in SFD, but I couldn’t place him as the same actor) and then once when I was watching Legend of the Blue Sea. I suppose the silver lining to that oversight on my part, is that I didn’t have to disassociate him from any other character in my head, when I saw him on my screen. To me, he was Je Hyuk, and what an endearing character he turned out to be. Park Hae Soo does a fantastic job of bringing every facet of Je Hyuk to life, often without saying much at all, depending mostly on his gaze and the slow blink of his eyes.
When we’re introduced to Je Hyuk, Show is very efficient about giving us an overview of him, that he’s a superstar baseball personality, and yet, kinda dim and stupid about everything else in life. I accepted that readily, and Park Hae Soo does a fine job of bringing across Je Hyuk innocence and dull-wittedness.
What I love is that as we progress deeper into the show, it becomes quite apparent that Je Hyuk might not be as dumb as everyone thinks he is. What I love even more than that, is that through it all, Je Hyuk is all heart. He truly cares about the people around him, and I love it.
One of the times when Je Hyuk’s deeper shrewdness stood out to me, is in episode 4, when he finds himself in need of medical attention and unable to get it through the prison system. At the same time, he’s being harassed and threatened by Yeom (Joo Suk Tae), whose sexual advances he’s turned down.
Given that Je Hyuk is set up as something of a dimwit, it’s extra thrilling and surprising to see how Je Hyuk uses the situation to his own advantage. He basically rises to Yeom’s threat and invites Yeom to hit him – and then just stands there, taking the hit to his head, which is served with a wooden rod with a nail sticking out of it, no less. Ack. The way Je Hyuk smiles, as the rod charts its path towards making contact with his head, seems knowing, sly and reckless, all in one. I feel like Je Hyuk knew he was taking a risk, but he still saw this as his way out. Je Hyuk promptly gets what he wanted – a visit to the hospital – and it’s all so twisted, yet so brilliant.
He’s such a survivor
In episode 5, we find out that Je Hyuk is a stomach cancer survivor, a reveal that basically stole the entire episode. Poor Je Hyuk. Behind the Golden Boy glow, he’s suffered so much, and worked so hard, and felt so lonely and hopeless.
Yet, despite this new bleak development, where he’s injured and his hand isn’t responding as it should, he continues to plod on, to make the best of his situation. Yes, he does waver in episode 5, and announces his retirement from baseball, but in the end, he doesn’t give up, and continues to work hard despite the dark odds. Ultimately, he achieves his miraculous comeback, and I couldn’t be more proud. <3
He cares about people
Perhaps my favorite thing about Je Hyuk is how kind and humane he is. I especially love the arc where he takes his attacker Crony (Ahn Chang Hwan) under his wing and turns him into his catcher. It’s so poignantly sweet how he quickly becomes the object of Crony’s unadulterated admiration and loyalty, and awkwardly accepts the devotion for Crony’s sake, and is kind to him. Love. So freaking much. <3
2. Jung Kyung Ho as Joon Ho
I truly enjoyed Jung Kyung Ho as Joon Ho, and feel like he was the perfect choice to play Joon Ho. I love that while Joon Ho is all bluster and bravado on the surface, he is such a kind, caring person underneath it all. We see his goodness leak out in so many ways, in his various relationships with the people around him, and the more I saw of his good inner core, the more I loved him.
With Je Hyuk
The thing that struck me the most about Joon Ho, is how selfless and giving he is, when it comes to Je Hyuk. Even though they had been out of touch for literally years, before Je Hyuk’s arrival at the detention center, Joon Ho treats him with so much brotherly care and love, it’s as if they hadn’t ever been apart. He goes out of his way to protect his bestie, and even asks for a transfer to the very penitentiary that Je Hyuk is posted to – just so that he can continue to watch over his friend. And he does it in such a matter-of-fact fashion too, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, to uproot himself for Je Hyuk.
I’ll be talking a lot more about this bromance in the next section, but for now, I just wanted to highlight the moment in episode 5, when Je Hyuk announced that he’d had cancer. The Look on Joon Ho’s face says everything, it’s like his whole world came crashing down, in that moment. The horror, and the guilt, for not knowing, is written so clearly in his eyes. Ack. My heart.
With his colleagues
Joon Ho begins the show distinctly keeping a measured sort of distance from his colleagues, but it isn’t very long, before they get to him too. I especially love the scene in episode 12, when Joon Ho acts all gruff-cool and takes the junior officers to see Je Hyuk train, so that Lt. Paeng (Jung Woong In), who’s deeply secretive about his burn scars, can change his shirt in private. Such a total marshmallow on the inside, who so fiercely doesn’t want to show it on the outside. Aw.
With Je Hee
Joon Ho’s romance with Je Hee (Im Hwa Young) doesn’t kick into gear until the second half of our story, but when it does, I loved watching Joon Ho be so happy while dating Je Hee. The way he goes all out to impress her and make her happy is very sweet and super cute.
The moment that Joon Ho really stole my heart, though, is in episode 15, when he “confronts” Je Hee about keeping negative events in her life from him. I love that the way he talks to her about wanting to know even the bad things, is just so tender and gentle. And then, when he leans in to kiss her, he even stops short and asks for permission. SUCH a tenderheart. Melt. Meltmeltmelt. <3
3. The friendship between Je Hyuk and Joon Ho
The bromance between Je Hyuk and Joon Ho is truly one of the big highlights of this show, for me.
I mean, yes, these two are adorable together, but more than that, the love runs deep between them, and the trust and belief they have in each other, is steadfast and profound. It’s heart-grabby, moving stuff, and I just could not get enough of these two together.
Show provides each boy with his own loveline, but to me, the real loveline in this show is between Joon Ho and Je Hyuk. <3
Joon Ho cares so much about Je Hyuk, it almost hurts to watch. Most times, it’s endearing and poignant. But in episode 4, when I realized that he’d used his entire day – and risked offending his superiors at work by not turning up for the hike – completely focused on fulfilling Je Hyuk’s bucket list for him, it just hit me right in the heart.
I feel like Joon Ho will literally do anything for Je Hyuk. The way he is so invested in Je Hyuk’s training is very touching. And the way he takes on extra night duties, albeit with a bit of an evil eye, just because Je Hyuk said he wanted to sleep in the infirmary in episode 8.
The scene that stands out possibly the most with these two, for me, is in episode 6, where Joon Ho comes up behind Je Hyuk, who’s trying to pitch for the first time in ages and is failing miserably, and just backhugs him, silently patting Je Hyuk’s chest comfortingly, while sweat and tears glisten on Je Hyuk’s face.
The entire moment is just so raw, so intimate, and so sweetly poignant. Without saying a word, Joon Ho shows that he understands, and I flail into a puddle of gurgling feels.
I love that in episode 9, Joon Ho demands that Je Hyuk live with him at least for a year after his release, even specifying that he wants Je Hyuk to sleep next to him. Aw.
Importantly, the love flows both ways, and Je Hyuk, in his own way, loves Joon Ho just as much.
I loved the flashback to their reunion in the restaurant in the same episode, when Je Hyuk sincerely and without hesitation pronounces Joon Ho his best friend, in front of everyone, even though they had not seen each other in years. Aw. Joon Ho’s face, barely holding in the imploding feels on the inside, is just icing on the cake.
Another instance that I loved is in episode 11, which demonstrates that the trust that Je Hyuk has in Joon Ho is complete. He knew that Joon Ho would prevent him from actually killing Crony, and wholeheartedly trusted in Joon Ho to hold him back, when he knew that he couldn’t hold himself back. Augh. My heart. <3
4. The dynamic among the cellmates
One of things about the Answer Me series that grabbed my heart the most, is the sense of community that gets brought to the surface. It’s that sense of community that sucks me in and makes me not ever want to leave that drama world.
To my delight, PD Shin brings forth that same essence of community and brotherhood in this show, and I found myself melting over and over again, at all the small details that spelled out in large letters, just how much these cellmates had come to treat one another as family. All the personal moments make this show feel warm and real, even though it’s set within cold prison walls.
Still, there is a bittersweet quality to it all, since our boys are bonding in the worst of circumstances – in prison – and to add to it all, the inevitable departure and arrival of cellmates means that there is a transient quality to the community that these boys build. Yet, in spite of it – or perhaps because of it? – these relationships feel extra precious and heartfelt. The deeper I got into this show, the more deeply these relationships touched my heart. <3
Here’s quick spotlight on some of my favorite moments among the cellmates:
E6. The cellmates orchestrating a fake dream so that Je Hyuk would have an excuse to take back his words on quitting baseball, is the dorkiest thing. The fact that Je Hyuk plays along, even though he isn’t fooled, is also so dorky sweet.
E6. It’s so sweet that Min Chul (Choi Moo Sung) trades in his precious radio to get Je Hyuk a proper dumbbell and a resistance band, so that he can work on his rehab properly even while in the cell.
E9. It’s cute that the cellmates exercise right along with Je Hyuk, and it’s also amusing that Je Hyuk and Jung Woo (Jung Hae In) have a bit of a fitness rivalry going on.
E10. Such sweet, thoughtful gifts. First, Min Chul giving Dr. Ko (Jung Min Sung) a bunch of transport cards, so that he can use it to buy something nice for his daughter. And then, Dr. Ko’s gift to Je Hyuk, which literally gave me goosebumps. Such a thoughtful, loyal gesture, to have journaled Je Hyuk’s entire recovery process through his various training sessions. That legit brought tears to my eyes. These boys love each other so thoughtfully and so creatively, and it feels so bittersweet that they are together but for a season – and in prison, at that.
E11. It’s adorable how protective the boys are, of Je Hyuk. The way they stare down Crony all the time, until it tires them out, and the way they don’t even sleep, just so that they can form a human shield for Je Hyuk, when he gets up to go to the bathroom.
E13. The affection between the cell-mates is so natural and so tangible. The way they let Han Yang (Lee Kyu Hyung) sleep with his head on their thighs, the way Je Hyuk gathers Han Yang up and carries him to his bedding, the way they all get anxious for Kaist (Park Ho Sun) as he goes for surgery, the way they are happy for Min Chul when he’s told that he’s being considered for parole.
E14. Even though Jung Woo and Han Yang fight like cats and dogs all the time, Jung Woo does care. When Han Yang was in danger, he was the one who sensed it, and he was the one who orchestrated Han Yang’s rescue. Gotta love that.
E14. I love the scene where Jung Woo, out of desperation, asks Han Yang for advice. The way Han Yang sits up immediately, ready to listen, is sweet. Han Yang talks in his typical devil-may-care way, but he really cuts to the heart of the matter, and gives Jung Woo the best advice possible: to be honest with his brother, to apologize, to tell his brother that he really needs him right now. The tears sheening in Jung Woo’s eyes say it all; this was exactly what he needed to hear, and he’s grateful. And then, for the first time, Jung Woo doesn’t protest, as Han Yang reaches for Jung Woo’s stash of chocolate – again, without permission. I LOVE IT.
E15. OMG everyone on tenterhooks, prisoners and guards alike, waiting for the announcement of Min Chul’s pardon on TV, then whooping their hearts out at the news, while Je Hyuk cradles a sobbing Min Chul. Augh. My heart.
5. Individual spotlights on our characters
Beyond giving us a strong sense of community among the cellmates, Show also takes the time to give each of the cellmates a context.
I love the flashbacks that we get, of each cellmate. This show – just like its cousins – understands that personal history and context counts for so much. All the flashbacks have that warm retro nostalgic feel that’s characteristic of the Answer Me series, and I love ’em. Via these flashbacks, and by giving each prisoner his own time in the spotlight, Show excels at making each character so much more than just a number in a system. By giving them context and heart, these characters popped for me, so much, and I ended up caring a great deal for each one of them.
In the interest of relative brevity, I’m just going to highlight 3 of the cellmates and their personal stories.
When we first meet Dr. Ko, he just seems like an annoying stickler for doing things by the book, but once Show gave us insight into his backstory, I felt so sorry for him. Despite being disparaged openly by his superiors at work, he sucks it up and chooses to take the fall for the company, for the sake of his family.
In episode 4, the way Dr. Ko works so hard to prepare for the singing competition, thinking that that would be his chance to be by his daughter’s side while she got her ear surgery, only to be completely let down in the end, was so sad. Not only is he let down, the warden and Captain Na (Ahn Sang Woo and Park Hyung Soo) even scheme to force him into an interview that he didn’t want to do.
And so, when Dr. Ko decides to fight back at the slimeballs at his company in episode 9, I found that pretty satisfying to watch, if just for the fact that he finally speaks his mind and doesn’t swallow his pride.
Captain Yoo – both in character and in casting – is such a clear nod to Descendants of the Sun and Song Joong Ki. Here, just as in DOTS, Captain Yoo / Jung Woo is fresh-faced, clean-cut and youthful looking. Jung Hae In even kinda looks like he could be related to Song Joong Ki. Because of this, I was rather amused at Captain Yoo – but only just for a bit.
Despite his aggressively antisocial behavior with his cellmates, it soon becomes clear that he’s good at heart. It’s clear from how he saved Officer Song (Kang Ki Doong), and it’s clear too, when he writes the letter to request for Dr. Ko to get medical attention, even though he’d said he wouldn’t write it.
Once we get to see how Jung Woo had been unfairly framed for murder, despite being a model officer, it’s easy to understand his hostile behavior. I quickly started to root for Jung Woo’s retrial and release, and even though we don’t get to see that come to fruition onscreen, it was still an arc that grabbed my heart in a big way.
A scene that really stands out to me is in episode 9, when Jung Woo’s brother (Jung Moon Sung) comes to break the news that he’s found a witness confirming that it was Sergeant Oh (Lee Sang Yi) who had killed the Private. So much raw emotion, spurting out in gasps from Hyung, and then such a heartrending wail from Jung Woo. Oof.
Although I felt for all the cellmates, I do think that it’s Min Chul’s arc that I found most affecting.
First of all, the backstory of Min Chul and his young friend, who had died for his crime, is so sad. He’d tried to protect the boy, and tried to dissuade the boy from the thug life, and the boy had refused, saying he would live gloriously, even if for a day. And the boy had then signed his life away, by stabbing the guy who’d had Min Chul up against the wall. Augh. That is so sad.
That explains why Min Chul is so kind and forgiving of “Jean Valjean” (Kang Seung Yoon) even when the guy framed him. But I loved what Min Chul said, as he contemplated Jean Valjean’s discharge. He was good to these guys, just so that he could feel better, and so he doesn’t expect anything back. It’s so poignant, how he’s being as kind as he can, to the young inmates who come his way, as a way to honor and repay his friend who’d died.
In episode 10, I found it so poignant, that Min Chul’s visitor turns out to be his “son” Jean Valjean who’d betrayed him. He really makes up for it, by not forgetting Min Chul at all, and coming back to fulfill his promise to visit, and even promises to earn enough to get a place where they can live together. It’s so touching. These guys don’t seem to have any family, but the way they’re making each other family, totally made me cry.
And just when I thought I was done crying about this arc, Show levels up by revealing that the reason Jean Valjean hadn’t visited Min Chul earlier was because he’d wanted to earn enough money to buy treats for everyone in the wing, to be given in Min Chul’s name. Blubber.
The arc around Min Chul’s potential parole and release was also one that grabbed my heart in a big way. Min Chul’s emotional reaction at being picked for parole in episode 14, is so affecting. The subsequent emotional rollercoaster had me on the edge of my seat, on tenterhooks for him just as much as everyone around him, from cellmates to guards alike.
Another huge moment for me, with Min Chul’s story, is his reaction at realizing that the girl in front of him was his daughter. The cautious hope; the stunned realization; the complex mix of guilt, regret, and disbelief, expressed only through his heaving sobs. Oof. It hurts so good.
Jung Woong In as Lt. Paeng
Lt. Paeng is truly the dark horse of this show. For all his apparent laziness and prickly outer shell, it isn’t long before we get to see that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Episode upon episode, it was just so great to see Lt. Paeng’s innate goodness leak out, in spite of himself. By the end of the show, I luffed him, in a big way.
Here’re just a handful of awesome Lt. Paeng highlights:
E4. From the way he wanted to break Je Hyuk out of jail to get treatment, to the way he brought an extra blanket to the shivering inmate, to the way he turned out to be the My Way singer, Lt. Paeng is pretty darn awesome.
E8. Lt. Paeng buying nice food for Dr. Ko to eat in hospital, while he himself eats ramyun in a convenience store. The guy is gruff, but he’s all heart.
E9. It’s sweet that Lt. Paeng is taking a personal interest in Captain Yoo’s story, and the way he reacts, is so genuine. You can just tell that he cares.
E10. Lt. Paeng coming in for an additional shift, just to be able to be the one to transfer Dr. Ko.
E11. Lt. Paeng choosing to take the blame, instead of letting the inmate know that his sister doesn’t want to see him. Aw. He’s a good egg.
E12. That backstory of how he ran into the fire to save the inmates in his wing, says so much about Lt. Paeng. He truly cares. He sees the prisoners as people, not as mere numbers. And the fact that he feels so bad, towards the only inmate who died in the fire, under his watch, says even more about his humanity.
E13. Lt. Paeng looks like he’s the happiest one, about Min Chul’s possible parole.
E15. Aw, Lt. Paeng cares so intensely. The way he cries as he tells Min Chul that he’s getting a Christmas special pardon, just makes me tear up.
Krystal as Ji Ho
Krystal’s been pretty hit or miss for me so far; I liked her a lot in Heirs, but found her rather underwhelming in everything else I happened to see her in.
Happily for me, Krystal is solidly good in this. Ji Ho genuinely felt like a real person to me, and I felt like her scenes with Je Hyuk in particular really popped. I actually really liked Ji Ho’s loveline with Je Hyuk – which I’ll talk about next.
The loveline between Je Hyuk and Ji Ho
Park Hae Soo and Krystal have a pretty easy, charming chemistry, and I really enjoyed their scenes, especially the flashbacks to the backstory of their romance.
For the record, I did find it a tiny bit borderline squicky that Ji Ho turns out to be Dead Coach’s little girl that Je Hyuk and Joon Ho played with, when they were teenagers. Beyond that, though, I found the backstory of their romance very sweet. The way they hung out together, and kept getting mistaken for a couple, and the way they were basically dating without actually knowing that they were dating, is so cute. It totally reminded me of the Answer Me series.
Here are just 3 couple moments with these two, that I really liked.
E8. Je Hyuk, who’s usually slow to act, is so swoony when he moves in to kiss Ji Ho in that flashback. Faced with the headlines that Je Hyuk is dating some announcer, Ji Ho is galvanized into asking him to date her. When Je Hyuk hesitates, she says she’ll give him till the count of three. All she manages is, “One..” – before he’s ardently got his lips on hers. Squee!
And overwhelmed awkwardness and all, he takes his time kissing his new girl. Swoon.
E9. In the flashback, Je Hyuk is such a dorky sweet boyfriend, even singing to Ji Ho over the phone, while sitting in the team bus surrounded by other players.
E14. It’s funny and very touching, how Ji Ho knows Je Hyuk so well, that where the doctors failed to help Je Hyuk, she fixes it all in just one try. She truly knows him best, and that just makes me smile.
GENERAL THEMES AND IDEAS [VAGUE SPOILERS]
Show touches on quite a lot of themes and ideas, which I won’t attempt to list in full. Instead, here are the ones that resonated with me the most, particularly as I reached the end of the show.
- Being true to yourself, and trusting your gut, even in the darkest circumstances.
- Everyone has a context and a backstory. Even the silent, hardened Lifer has a story – and a conscience.
- Love and loyalty can cross all kinds of boundaries – if you’ll let them.
- Not losing hope while chasing your dream. If your left shoulder gives out, you still have your right shoulder.
- Not being afraid of starting over.
- Second chances can be real. Hold onto them. Be brave.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
What a heartwarming, poignant finale this turned out to be, while still characterized by Show’s unique brand of corny humor. At a whopping 1 hour and 40 minutes, this might just be the longest finale in kdrama history. But, y’know, I never wanted it to end.
As Show spends time giving us various degrees of closure with our various inmates and their arcs, my heart felt like it was tugged in so many different directions.
It’s deeply frustrating to see Yeom tormenting Je Hyuk and attacking those who are near and dear to him. But it’s really sweet how all of Je Hyuk’s cellmates tell him, sincerely, not to risk himself for them. They are literally willing to serve more jail time, if it means they can keep Je Hyuk safe. That’s deep. And in the end, I do love how everything and everyone comes together – planned and unplanned – to make sure that Yeom doesn’t get away with his evil blackmailing.
Je Hyuk’s brief final visit to Jailbird’s (Kim Sung Cheol) cell legit made me tear up. Je Hyuk basically makes a promise that will turn Jailbird’s life around; the promise of a job. Jailbird’s tears feel so real, and my heart is gripped by how much Je Hyuk is changing Jailbird’s life, and how much unspoken love there is, between these two.
Min Chul’s release is also so poignant. Everyone around him is just so happy for him, and it’s such an emotional moment, when he’s finally ready to step out of his cell for good. His heartfelt words to Je Hyuk and Jung Woo are touching, and his wordless rubbing of Crony’s bald head speaks of so much affection as well. I love that he’s not only got a chance to live life as a free man, but he’s got Jean Valjean and his daughter waiting for him, ready to embrace him.
Show had me on the edge of my seat, regarding the outcome of Jung Woo’s appeal. I knew his hyung would cry either way, at the result of the petition, but Jung Woo’s reaction, so wrought with overwhelmed emotion, his sobs so deeply guttural and heartfelt, made me want to cry with relief too. And how heartwarming, that the guards and cellmates alike, were on tenterhooks for him, and overjoyed for him. They were there with him, every step of the way.
I liked that we see both Joon Ho and Je Hee ‘fessing up to Je Hyuk that they’re dating. Je Hyuk pretends to get upset at Joon Ho, but I do love that he feels a sense of assurance, knowing that his baby sister is dating Joon Ho. Aw.
Je Hyuk’s release is so bittersweet when it finally arrives. It’s a day that we’ve waited for all series long, and now Je Hyuk is a free man. But it’s also deeply poignant because it also means saying goodbye to friends that he’s made. I’m especially touched by how deeply Je Hyuk has made a difference in Crony’s life, just by treating him with kindness and giving him dignity. How touching, too, that all the other inmates in other cells woke up early for his release, so that they could cheer for him and clap for him, from their cells.
I love that amid all the reporter’s questions and flashing cameras, Je Hyuk’s eyes searched only for Ji Ho. And when he found her, he honed in on her, blind to everything and everyone else, to wrap her up in his arms.
Je Hyuk takes the mound again, this time with a new anthem – which I love – and even though he doesn’t win his first game, I love that just being able to play brings him so much joy. Also, it’s great that his potential to shine again, is widely and unanimously acknowledged.
I kinda love that for all his cool-cat talk, that Joon Ho gets riled up on Lt. Paeng’s behalf and has to be held back from beating up the inmate who keeps taunting Lt. Paeng. I also kinda love that Joon Ho thereafter kinda-sorta channels Lt. Paeng, in the way he talks tough with the inmates.
In the end, we get an imperfect happy ending, in that not all arcs are completely tied up, and we don’t get to see Jung Woo win his retrial and be released from prison. We also don’t see what happened to Han Yang, after his re-capture. Also, while Show has been consistent in teasing out and celebrating the comradeship among our inmates, it’s a bittersweet thing to know that not all of their paths will cross again. But on the upside, my gut instinct says that these boys will remain comrades for life. They may not be hanging out 24/7 anymore, but something as trivial as geography isn’t going to keep these boys from going all in to help one of their own, if and when the need arises. And that’s definitely a solid silver lining to take away.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Heartwarming and homey, with lashings of poignance and corny humor.
FINAL GRADE: A-