THE SHORT VERDICT:
An excellent ensemble cast made up of skilled industry sunbaes; faceted, detailed deliveries that feel convincing and engaging; a tightly written narrative that delivers some surprising twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat; thoughtful directing and execution; an expertly applied OST that can be hauntingly ethereal one minute and then pulsing with tension the next; SKY Castle has it all, and it all comes together in one polished, dysfunctional package.
This drama is a very solid, compelling social satire that manages to make its characters come alive, even as it makes its social commentary. On the downside, Show suffers from an ending that feels like a tacked-on epilogue written by a different team altogether. Happily, that’s easily fixed by thinking of the last episode as just that, because Show manages to tell a story in its first 19 episodes that feels reasonably complete even before it presents its finale.
Worth the hype – and the monster ratings.
THE LONG VERDICT:
So I’m pretty sure that social satire isn’t a genre that commonly appeals to the majority of drama viewers. It just sounds so.. highbrow and heavy, doesn’t it?
I personally don’t naturally gravitate to this genre myself, and I confess that the main reason I checked this out at all, was because Show was generating so much positive buzz that the curious cat in me really just wanted to see what it was all about.
I’ll admit that it took me several episodes to properly get into this one. I mean, I was suitably intrigued after episode 1 (the excellent cliffhanger definitely played a part), but found that each episode felt somewhat toxic to watch because of the high amounts of dysfunction presented in our characters. I literally would watch an episode of this, and then follow it up with something light and frothy as a palate cleanser, to remind me that not all is dark and twisted in the world.
By episode 5, however, I found that I didn’t find it as challenging to watch this show anymore; I didn’t need a couple of days between episodes either; I was happily in the rhythm of watching an episode a day, and I didn’t even need a palate cleanser afterwards. I guess I just needed some time to adjust, was all.
So even if you feel like social satire is not your thing, I think it’d be worth your while to check out just episode 1, and see whether you’re intrigued enough to want to continue. Coz even though social satire is this show’s calling card that sets it apart as a drama that’s different and daring, at its heart, it’s also a really well-told story – and we drama fans are all about that, I know. 😉
MACRO STUFF THAT I LIKED
1. The ensemble cast
One of my favorite things about this show is how the ensemble cast is made up of character actors who are really experienced and skilled at their craft. I’m talking mainly about the adult characters, though the younger set of actors does very well too. Most of these veteran actors would be familiar faces to drama fans because they’ve played so many supporting roles. I found it so refreshing to see them in the spotlight for a change, because they are all very capable, and deserve a chance to really shine.
I’ve come to realize that skilled acting is very important to me, because the actors are the ones who make the characters come alive. What a treat, to watch a show where every single actor is pulling his or her weight and just being their characters.
On a tangential note, I’m impressed with how Show effectively manages this ensemble cast. Usually it takes me a while to get a grip on who’s who in a show with an ensemble cast, since there are so many characters. Impressively, by the end of episode 1, I felt like I was already getting a reasonably good sense of who was who, in this drama world. Very nice indeed.
2. Tight pacing
Stuff tends to happen sooner than I expect
While many shows dance around important plot points and save them for later in their run to keep audiences guessing, this show, more often than not, gets to stuff earlier than I expect it to. That thrill of being surprised by Show’s boldness, in covering narrative ground faster than I thought it would, was something that I experienced a couple of times during my watch. A very happy thing, in my books.
Right away in episode 1, Show presents a suicide mystery: why would the mom with the perfect life and perfect son (Kim Jung Nan) kill herself? This is the Big Hook at the end of episode 1, and I really thought Show would stretch out this mystery for a good chunk of its airtime (since it’s something that many dramas do), but no. Show lays out the answers plainly, in the very next episode. I was suitably wowed.
Another time Show surprised me like this, was in episode 11. I’d expected that Seo Jin (Yum Jung Ah) would find out the truth about Hye Na (Kim Bo Ra) much later in our story, so that Hye Na would get to play out her plan for longer, but Show rips that bandaid off pretty early, and my brain was left reeling, trying to figure out where Show would take Hye Na’s journey next.
The cliffhangers are generally very good
The cliffhangers were one of my favorite things to watch, in this show. It’s not just the fact that Show regularly served up good cliffhangers; it’s also in how Show handles the cliffhangers.
Towards the end of an episode, we often watch a moment that feels like we’ve gotten to the cliffhanger; the music starts pumping, and you think that this is it, it’s the end of the episode and you have to wait for the next one to find out what happens. But then, stuff keeps unfolding on our screens as the music continues pumping, and we get a peek at what feels like extra time after the cliffhanger – which is when Show drops the actual cliffhanger. Boom.
I liked that a lot. It almost always gave me a bit of a thrill.
3. The attention to detail
In a drama world where appearances are everything, and everyone grits out a pleasant smile even when they’re furious or scared or just out of their minds on the inside, it’s the little details that give us insight into our characters’ emotional landscapes, and Show manages this consistently well. Those details – the fidget of a finger, the flicker of a gaze, the curl of a lip – these are what tell the real story, beneath the polite charade, and it’s compelling stuff.
[SPOILER] In episode 8, Coach Kim (Kim Seo Hyung) is taken away by Professor Park (Yu Seung Ju) and held at gunpoint. On the surface, Coach Kim is completely calm and unruffled, but we see that beneath her calm exterior, there are tell-tale signs of nervousness when she gets into Professor Park’s car. The flicker of her eyelids; the tiniest hint of tears sheening in her eyes; the minor fidgets of her hands. We see that Coach Kim is unsettled after all, by the incident. Really well done. [END SPOILER]
CHARACTERS / RELATIONSHIPS
In a show with a sprawling cast like this, it’s pretty impossible to give every single character the spotlight that he or she deserves. So I’m just going to try my best to talk about as many of them as possible, without making any promises to cover everyone equally.
Generally speaking, I had complicated and evolving feelings for almost everyone in this drama world. This is thanks to Show’s skillful unveiling of our characters’ hidden layers, combined with the actual development of our characters over the course of their journeys. My feelings for any given character hardly ever stayed the same for very long, and I consider that a Very Good Thing.
Professor Kang, Seo Jin & family
Thanks to elder daughter Ye Seo’s (Kim Hye Yoon) college acceptance journey being a major arc in our overall narrative, and Mom Seo Jin being the de facto jjang among the wives of SKY Castle, this family enjoys more screen time than the other households in our drama world.
My favorite member of this household was younger daughter Ye Bin (Lee Ji Won), a tween with a keen observant eye for all the dysfunction happening around her. In particular, I really loved her voice, which always sounded like it was on the verge of breaking. So cute. <3
My main fascination with regard to this household, though, was Ye Seo’s college acceptance journey and Seo Jin’s management of it. Dad Professor Kang’s (Jung Joon Ho) foibles and trials at the hospital where he’s angling to become president, was always of secondary interest to me. Of course, the growth and evolution of these 3 characters was of significant interest to me as well.
I’ll get to our characters’ development later in the section on the penultimate episode, but first, here are my responses to these characters for the main stretch of my watch.
E1. Seo Jin’s desperation to get her daughter into medical school at SNU all boils down to how much her rich mother-in-law (Jung Ae Ri) disdains her. That’s pretty sad.
E3. Seo Jin really seems blind to her daughter’s faults. No matter how rude and obnoxious and unkind her daughter is, she’s quick to blame others for how they treat her daughter, instead of the other way around. Also, I find it really distasteful that Ye Seo screams at her mom to get her Coach Kim back. I guess disrespect starts in the home?
E4. All the drama, tears and hysterics from Seo Jin to get Coach Kim back, made me believe for a moment, that she was sincere. But, the way she walks away from Coach Kim’s office, with a triumphant smirk on her face, tells me that it was all an act in service of getting what she wanted. Shudder.
E4. Ye Seo keeps screaming hysterically at her mother to fix things, immediately. This girl has serious issues; she almost comes across as mentally unsound.
E4. Ye Bin and her classmates shoplifting; that scene of them stomping on the snacks they’d stolen, feels so dysfunctional. They didn’t steal the snacks to eat them; they stole them to destroy them. That’s disturbing.
E5. Seo Jin indulging Ye Bin’s shoplifting habit as relieving stress, and paying off the convenience store owner on a regular basis, is so twisted. Does she really think that with this “game” which really isn’t a game, that Ye Bin’s doing ok, emotionally and mentally?
E6. Ye Bin’s growing pent-up frustration is portrayed very well. I can just see her reaching her limit, and I can understand why she wanted to run away.
E6. Seo Jin throwing a congratulatory lunch for Soo Im, so that she could flaunt Ye Seo’s results, is just like her. All elegant on the surface, but cold, calculative, predatory and competitive underneath.
E7. The moment that Seo Jin has with Ye Bin, where they talk about what Ye Bin read in Young Jae’s (Song Geon Hee) diary, feels refreshingly two-way. This is the first time that I feel like Seo Jin actually comes across as listening, and having a proper dialogue with Ye Bin, and even though I don’t know whether what she said about Young Jae having mental issues is true, I still like this moment. Ye Bin really needed to feel heard, and her mother finally gave her that.
E7. Seo Jin putting pressure on Coach Kim to make Ye Seo student president, is her being delusional. Is she blind, literally?
E10. Professor Kang is always reacting strongly and immediately in a righteous (self-righteous too) manner, cutting down suggestions from his wife and Professor Woo, then taking those exact suggestions to heart afterwards, on his own. He’s so proud and two-faced.
E10. The big reveal about Seo Jin’s real name and real background: Seo Jin holds her head up high, but the fallout is harsh. Not only are the neighbors staring and whispering, her husband is taking it out on her, and so is Ye Seo. I mean, Ye Seo says some really nasty things to her own mother, and even blames her mother’s inferior genes for her poor performance in school. Ouch. I do feel sorry for Seo Jin to some extent, and I can even understand why she would feel such a strong need to let Ye Seo live a different life than what she experienced herself, but the truth is, a lot of this is the fruit of her own sowing.
E14. Ye Seo is a brat of her parents’ making; they taught her that she’s a princess, that she can do no wrong, that nobody else is worthy.
Professor Cha, Seung Hye & family
Seung Hye (Yoon Se Ah) was the member of this family that I liked most, and felt most sorry for. Husband Professor Cha (Kim Byung Chul) is obsessed that his kids (twins Seo Joon and Ki Joon, played by Kim Dong Hee and Jo Byung Kyu respectively) study their way to the top (of that darned pyramid), and employs highly stressful and unhealthy study methods to push them.
I liked Seung Hye because of her strong desire to protect her children from the tyranny of their father; she often just wants them to have the freedom to be young. And yet, she’s subject to the wrath of her husband whenever she speaks up for the kids. I loved watching Seung Hye fight for what she believes in, and maintaining an admirable amount of composure, control, and elegance through it all.
Here’s a quick peek into how I felt about this family during my watch:
E3. I feel sorry for Seung Hye. Every time Professor Cha gets angry, he turns his anger on her first. This episode, he was so angry after the book club meeting because of Soo Im’s words, but immediately blames his wife for bringing Soo Im to the book club meeting in the first place.
E4. When the book club disbanded, I thought Professor Cha would go ballistic on his family. He really is just that hung up and overly invested, and he clearly has anger management issues. He keeps taking things out on his wife, and I feel sorry for her every time.
E4. Today I felt really sorry for his sons. That dungeon environment, and the set-up, deliberately created to impose a feeling of time pressure and stress, is just horrible. And then he adds to it by giving them a highly difficult question to solve, and he insists that they solve it within 4 minutes, or get locked in the dungeon with him. Ugh. I seriously thought he was going to push Seo Joon’s face into the pyramid tip. Eek.
E5. Seung Hye destroying the study dungeon was a ballsy move. But she’s powerless against Professor Cha’s counter tactics. She doesn’t have her own money to fight back with, so when he takes away her credit cards and insists she provide a ledger of expenses, she doesn’t have the resources to just take her sons and leave the lunatic. How frustrating.
E6. Seung Hye winning the battle of the study room over her husband is pretty great. I do love how she managed to remain consistently calm even when he was shouting and being unreasonable. That takes a lot of self-control, &/or a very cool head. I think she’s got both.
E9. Seung Hye having the guts not to sign the petition against Soo Im is quite impressive, considering that she’s always been reasonably well-accepted in the community and treated as one of their own. At the same time, this feels organic, as we’ve seen Seung Hye’s discontentment and frustration building up since the beginning, with the book club.
E10. Seung Hye is quite the epitome of elegance and gentility. Even when her husband is being hard on the twins about their results, she intervenes in a very even-toned, gentle manner. A few interjections of just one word: “Yeobo” tinged with warning and persuasion, and then an quiet interruption – “Have you fully understood what your father is telling you? Alright, go up to your rooms and continue studying” – and she’s safely rescued her sons from protracted nagging and yelling, without making her husband look bad. Nicely done.
E13. I felt so bad for Seung Hye, after she found out that Se Ri’s (Park Yoo Na) been living a lie. The poor woman, trying to process it while trying to hold it all in, worrying what will become of her daughter once her husband finds out. I’m shocked at Se Ri’s relative lack of remorse: “So what’s your plan, now that you know?” What?
E14. Seung Hye choosing to acknowledge that she and her husband have more fault in the matter than Se Ri herself, is an example of maturity, self-awareness and grace. I love that she chooses to love her daughter, and even apologizes to Se Ri, despite how much she’s hurting on the inside. She truly is putting Se Ri’s well-being first. In contrast, Professor Cha chooses to completely ignore Se Ri, and even states that she is not his daughter. That’s sad. And horrible.
Professor Hwang, Soo Im & Woo Joo
This is the new family to SKY Castle, the more normal, well-adjusted folks who are the foil to every other household in the community.
My favorite member of this family is Dad Professor Hwang (Choi Won Young), for his level-headed, warm, laidback (warm yet chill?) sort of vibe. That said, I was super pleased to see Lee Tae Ran play Mom Soo Im, coz I hadn’t seen her since 2006’s Famous Princesses, where I really enjoyed her noona loveline with a very young and cute Park Hae Jin. (They were adorable and I loved her strong independent soldier woman vibe.) I was very pleased to have her on my screen again.
This family’s journey is essentially a test for each of the family members; can they maintain their values and outlook on life, while surrounded by politicking and ambition?
Again, here’s a peek into my thoughts about this household during my watch:
E3. Soo Im is Professor Hwang’s second wife and Woo Joo (Kang Chan Hee) is her stepson? I didn’t see that coming. I do like the way it’s revealed, though, through Woo Joo’s voiceover to his mom. I like that he sounds content. I already think of him as a good kid.
E3. I like how Soo Im and Woo Joo get along. He calls her Mom and she calls him Son, and they really do seem to get along well.
E5. Soo Im disciplining Ye Bin for shoplifting is not appropriate, because Ye Bin isn’t her child, and she really barely knows Ye Bin. Soo Im sometimes oversteps her boundaries without thinking.
E7. Soo Im deciding to write a book about Young Jae is really quite out-there, since it will be hard to get any information. But, I can understand that as a writer, you just want to pursue something when it clicks with you on the inside. Something about Young Jae’s story has triggered her inspiration, and she can’t easily let go of that.
E8. Woo Joo’s awkwardness around Hye Na is so real it’s secondhand embarrassing. But it’s nice to see his parents embrace Hye Na as if she’s immediately part of the family. The way they all rushed to the hospital together was nice to see as well. At least in that moment, Hye Na wasn’t alone.
Professor Woo, Jin Hee & Soo Han
Among the ambitious households of SKY Castle, I have to say that Professor Woo’s (Jo Jae Yoon) family was the one that I liked the best. Yes, this family is used as comic relief on a regular basis, but beneath the angling and ambition, they seemed the most normal to my eyes.
Tellingly, Professor Woo is the only one with a pet name for his wife (Oh Na Ra): Jin Jin. For all of their bickering and petty struggles to win at the rat race, there is true affection between this couple, which is more than I can say for Seo Jin and Professor Kang.
Here’s the quick rundown of my reactions to this family during my watch:
E6. Jin Hee confessing to Soo Han (Lee Yoo Jin) that she doesn’t quite know whether what she’s doing is right, and apologizing to him, is a refreshingly honest moment. In this moment, I liked her a little more.
E7. Professor Woo’s struggle with his back pain and whether to get his surgery from Professor Kang or Professor Hwang is quite amusing. I guess it’s much easier to sing Professor Kang’s praises when you’re not the one on his operating table, ha.
E10. Professor Woo’s remark to his wife, that what you do in good times doesn’t count, and what really counts is how you behave when times are bad, is so insightful. I’m pleasantly surprised that he was the one who dropped that nugget of wisdom.
E10. I like the little callback, of Professor Woo texting Seo Jin on behalf of his wife, to smooth things over. It’s an echo of when she did the same for him, with Professor Kang. Another example of how these two, as bickery as they are, take care of each other.
E12. Soo Han running away and being brought home again. I felt sorry for Soo Han, for being so stressed out and frustrated; it must feel hopeless to be the hostage of your own limitations – with your mother holding the gun. I do appreciate how Jin Hee held him and talked with him and apologized and comforted him afterwards though. As shallow as she sometimes comes across, I deeply appreciate the very real emotional core of this woman, in a world where emotions are often sniffed at as worthless.
Kim Seo Hyung as Coach Kim
In a dysfunctional drama world peppered with excellent performances, I’d have to say that Kim Seo Hyung’s portrayal of Coach Kim is like a black diamond, shining darkly among many other gems. Kim Seo Hyung basically knocks it out of the ballpark with her performance, making Coach Kim all-around intriguing, mesmerizing and completely arresting.
I often didn’t know what to make of Coach Kim, she was so complex; what I did know was, every time Coach Kim was on my screen, she was a large, commanding presence – a force to be reckoned with.
Wild applause for a fantastic performance from Kim Seo Hyung. I’d love to see more of her on my screen.
For the record, here are my evolving thoughts about Coach Kim, as I learned more about her over the course of my watch:
E3. Oh my word. Coach Kim literally planted the idea of revenge in Young Jae’s head. She didn’t just know about it, she planted the very seed, and then used it to get him to do what she needed him to do, to achieve her goal. That’s so cold and inhumane.
E4. Coach Kim is fascinating. On the one hand, sometimes she seems fair, like when she points out the downsides of the twins’ dungeon study environment. At other times, she seems to simply be proud of her work, though overly so; the way she accepts only one student per year, and the way she is so thorough in her screening and her actual preparation process. And then, at other times, she seems coldly manipulative. The way she could barely hold in the smirk, as Seo Jin got more and more desperate to get her back. At the very end, when she asks Seo Jin whether she would accept it if the same tragedy were to befall her family, it almost feels like a threat. I feel like she might just make it such that Seo Jin will die at the end of this, out of vengeance.
E5. I wonder how sincere Coach Kim is, about being grateful to Seo Jin for taking the blade for her. I can guess that Seo Jin did it for Ye Seo, so that Ye Seo’s studies wouldn’t be disrupted, but is Coach Kim’s appreciative response a calculated one? Will she turn around and say, you calculated that move for your daughter and I did what I promised, for your daughter, so we are even?
E6. The biggest revelation this hour, is that Coach Kim has a hidden child – who’s literally lost her mind from studying. Oh dear. How could she keep doing the work that she does, after seeing what too much pressure has done to her own daughter?
E7. I must say that for all of her questionable techniques, Coach Kim’s not delusional. The way she states that Ye Seo will never make it as student president is so final, and I agree with her. No one likes Ye Seo, and she won’t get the votes she needs. Also, I can see why Ye Seo would lose points in Literature. All her wonky interpretations from the book club must be showing up.
E8. I’m intrigued by Coach Kim. I’d expected her to feel relieved after her meeting with Professor Park, since she’d risked getting shot, and we’d seen signs of her nervousness. But alone, in her apartment, when she thinks back on the moment, she smirks. Sometimes I feel like she’s waiting for someone to shoot her and put her out of her misery; sometimes I feel like she’s just expertly playing everyone.
E9. Coach Kim’s fascinating as usual. Her cold instruction to stop Soo Im, immediately followed by her sob story act in front of Soo Im, claiming to have tutored Yeon Du in the past, and promising to tell Soo Im everything she wants to know. It’s so disparate that I’m wondering how she will connect her action to her intention.
E11. Even though Coach Kim’s intentions aren’t pure, her method of changing Soo Im’s mind about writing the book, is definitely better. She takes Soo Im to meet Young Jae’s dad, and because of Soo Im’s empathy for Young Jae’s dad, she respects Dad’s wishes not to have the book written. And she comes out it with her sympathetic image in Soo Im’s mind intact, and her credibility in Seo Jin’s mind intact as well. Nicely done.
E13. I don’t even know what to make of Coach Kim anymore. What is her agenda? Is she even in her right mind? Or did she go crazy after her daughter got in that accident? Maybe she’s out to punish every parent who has a bright kid, because she felt that she’d been punished?
E15. The way Coach Kim looks right at Seo Jin, while ushering Ye Seo into the car, is triumphant and contemptuous. And as she turns to get into the car, she looks distinctly pleased at her victory. That’s dark, taking pleasure in tearing a child away from her mother.
E16. It looks like Coach Kim had decided to kill Hye Na and then frame Woo Joo for it, to facilitate her own dark plans. Whut in the actual heck? That’s cold-blooded murder, pre-meditated, with intention to frame an innocent person for it. How.. cold.
Lee Hyun Jin as Teacher Jo
I remember Lee Hyun Jin fondly from his role in 2009’s Family Honor as a smitten, loyal young man, and was pleasantly surprised to see him on my screen as Teacher Jo.
Through my watch, I remained curious to know why Teacher Jo continues to work for Coach Kim, even though he looks terribly ill-at-ease all the time. He always looks troubled. She verbally abuses him when it suits her, and he clearly feels conflicted about the morality of her actions. I wondered why he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – quit and walk away.
[SPOILER] We finally find out in episode 19 that Coach Kim had, in her own twisted way, saved him from a life of being a druggie on the streets. I was rather impressed by his loyalty, especially when he refused to run away when he had the chance. Instead, he chose to stick with Coach Kim, and stay around to pay the price for his part in the crimes that were committed. I had to respect him for that. [END SPOILER]
Kim Bo Ra as Hye Na
To be honest, Hye Na was one of the characters in this drama world which I really struggled to wrap my head around. Her characterization evolves a great deal, which was interesting to watch, but I’ll admit that there were certain facets to her character that I never understood.
For the record, I didn’t dislike her, even though I came across some viewer hate for this character. I personally didn’t find her evil, even during her most troubling moments. I found her very smart, sometimes disturbingly calculative, and sometimes reckless to an almost unhinged degree. I would’ve liked to have had more access to her more vulnerable layers, but overall, I thought she was an interesting and ultimately sympathetic character. Kudos to Kim Bo Ra for a very good performance.
Here are my evolving reactions to Hye Na during my watch.
E8. Hye Na really is a smart girl. Not only does she immediately figure out who might be behind the video forcing her to step down from the election, she also quickly puts two and two together and figures out who her father likely is. Ye Seo should take her as serious competition.
E9. Hye Na’s response to finding out that Professor Kang is her father, is interesting. I kind of expected her to just blurt it right out, early on, if not over the phone, then soon after. But instead, she bides her time, and thinks about each move that she plans to make. She’s scared, and it shows in how she hesitates and leaves the hospital instead of going in to see Professor Kang, but she’s still plowing ahead like an excavator on a mission. I’m intrigued and I want to know what her plan is.
E9. Hye Na seems to be clear on Woo Joo’s feelings for her, and also, Ye Seo’s feelings for him. And, she doesn’t hesitate to use both, to achieve her goal. She’s slowly turning into a more scary character, from the initial upright good girl that I’d first pegged her to be. I’m intrigued, and also, a little scared of what she’ll turn out to be.
E10. Hye Na is very, very smart. I mean, she’s basically forcing Ye Seo’s hand with the live-in tutor thing, by bringing it up in front of Woo Joo. Ye Seo knows that if she refuses to allow it, then Woo Joo will definitely step in to help Hye Na, and the last thing Ye Seo wants, is Hye Na having even more access to the boy that she’s crushing on. Well-played, Hye Na. She would make a scary-excellent politician one day. I hope she doesn’t choose the dark side.
E11. Hye Na is definitely showing a different side to herself now. She’s sweet and humble when it suits her purpose, but she’s unleashing a intense, angry, entitled side otherwise. Walking around the house as if she’s the owner of the place; touching things as though she has every right; it’s jarring. I also expected smarter, of someone as shrewd as her. This is the part that doesn’t ring true, for me.
E13. Hye Na’s just pushing all of Seo Jin’s buttons. Does she even know what she’s doing?
E14. Hye Na.. is a character that I struggle to wrap my head around. When her mother was alive, she seemed sweet and hardworking, even though she earned money in dishonest ways in order to pay Mom’s hospital bills. But now that her mother’s passed away, she is demonstrating dark and disturbing behavior that includes blackmail and manipulation. And yet, sometimes, in the midst of her dark threats, the tears that sheen in her eyes indicate some level of vulnerability.
THOUGHTS ON SHOW’S SOCIAL COMMENTARY
A social satire needs to have some commentary, doesn’t it?
What I like about SKY Castle is that it doesn’t come across as preachy (well, until the finale, that is, which we’ll talk about later). Through almost the whole of its run, I felt very much able to enjoy the story that Show was working to tell, without feeling like Show was stuffing its message down my throat. And yet, through these characters’ journeys, the message does hit home: an unhealthy obsession over academic performance isn’t good for parent or child.
Yes, it’s demonstrated in a theatrical, hyperbolic sort of fashion, but that’s this show’s charm.
Here are a couple of highlights of when I found myself reflecting on Show’s message.
E8. The whole arc about Professor Woo and his wife arguing over who should do his surgery is played for laughs, but it speaks of a darker theme. This brings home just how far these parents are willing to go, to get their children in the best schools.
It’s all power play, and Jin Hee basically tells her husband to suck it up and think of their son while he gets his surgery from Professor Kang; that if something goes wrong in the surgery, to just think of it as his fate. Woah. Risk some form of paralysis, just so as not to offend the doctor whom you think might be able to give you and your son some kind of advantage in life? That’s pretty insane.
E17. As everything twists and inter-strangles into a screaming climax, we finally see the vulnerability and humanity of our hardest characters. Professor Kang shouting, screaming and wailing right there in the hotel cafe, not caring about anyone who sees or hears, is the epitome of this. Everyone has their own breaking point, and he’s finally reached his. He’s finally faced with something that he cares about more than his ambition.
The idea that all of these impossibly ambitious, greedy, pretentious, scheming people were made that way, is thought-provoking. Professor Kang’s own ambition and Seo Jin’s ambition to get Ye Seo into SNU medical school are driven by his mother. Ye Seo’s own ambition to get into SNU medical school is driven by her parents, mostly her mother. Ultimately, are we all products of societal expectations and familial ambition? In the end, as Show is working to show us, aren’t we all just human, after all?
STUFF I THOUGHT COULD’VE BEEN BETTER [SPOILERS]
For all of Show’s excellence and polish, there were several things that I thought could’ve been addressed better, or just done better.
E9. I understand Soo Im’s desire to write about Young Jae’s story as a form of duty to Yeon Du. Surely though, since it’s a fictional work, the location and context can be fictionalized? She doesn’t need to use the name SKY Castle, nor talk about doctors. Why doesn’t Show address that?
E12. Ok, so Se Ri’s not a Harvard student. But all that about the Cambridge police and the university suing her feels weird. How could she possibly live in the dormitory or use the school facilities and libraries without actually registering as a student?
E18. Why is the only option for Ye Seo to be expelled if the stolen test papers come to light? She didn’t personally steal them and didn’t know she was benefiting from the theft. Why not give her a chance to sit for a different test without help, to see if she deserves to stay in school?
THOUGHTS ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
In many dramas, the penultimate episode feels like necessary set-up for all the action that will take place in the finale. In Show’s case, because of how the finale is written (which I’ll talk about in the next section), I actually feel like episode 19 functions almost like an actual finale. We see a lot of important character and plot developments in this episode, and witness what feels like closure for a number of important characters.
Here’s a quick spotlight on some of those developments, which might otherwise be missed out, if I focused only on the finale.
In this moment, as Ye Seo chooses to do the right thing in revealing the theft of the exam questions, all her bratty behavior of the past seems to melt away in my eyes. Yes, it’s to satisfy her conscience which is keeping her up at night, but that does show that she has a heart in the first place. And, she is also going to knowingly give up her life’s dream as she does this, so that deserves some credit. Also, it’s significant to me that she takes the blame for wanting Coach Kim to help her, even though her mom says first, that she is to blame and not Ye Seo. That takes courage and self-awareness, and I respect Ye Seo for squarely owning her part of the blame.
The more I think about it, the more I feel sorry for Ye Seo. She had no idea that she was benefitting unfairly from leaked exam papers. She thought she was studying her hardest and her best, and she trusted Coach Kim and followed instructions, only to be told one day, that she had succeeded not on her own merit, and if she wanted to save the boy that she liked, she’d lose everything that she ever worked for. That’s such an unfair blow. She never intended to cheat, and yet, to do the right thing, she had to lose everything and leave school. Given the circumstances, I’d say she’s handling it all with an unexpected amount of maturity and grace.
Professor Kang & Seo Jin
What fitting words for Professor Kang to say to his wife, as he runs to embrace her outside the police station. “You did well. You made the right choice. Our daughter will do well. You did well.”
These are the very words that Seo Jin has been so hungry to hear all this time; it was for these words that she worked so hard and so desperately to get Ye Seo into the best school. And now, she finally hears them, as she feels the embrace of the very husband whose cold treatment of her prior had made her life even more miserable.
Such a poignant and bittersweet moment.
Professor Hwang & Soo Im
Soo Im and Professor Hwang’s tearful relief as they embrace Woo Joo is so raw, so deep and so guttural, that it just leaps off my screen and sucks me right in. I’m gulping back the tears coz I can feel their emotions so acutely. Oof.
Coach Kim and Kay
Wow. Kay (Jo Mi Nyeo) recognizes her mom, and she’s clearly been waiting for her mom, all these years. To think that Coach Kim had kept herself away from her daughter, just sitting in the car, or at most, sitting on the bench across from Kay’s window. How terribly cruel is that, for the daughter who’s still feverishly studying as best as she can, because she knows it pleases her mother?
It’s so disturbing that Coach Kim had the house stocked with the lethal pills. So she knew that she might need to do this one day, and prepared for it? Ack. And OMGG. Kay’s frenzied, frantic efforts to study, to stop Mom from crying, are just heartbreaking. This literally drove her crazy.
This scene just shattered my heart into a million pieces. Sob.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Sometimes it pays to be a little late to the party. I was a little behind in my watch, and when Show aired its finale, the collective wail of all the netizens in the world reached my ears even though I was studiously trying to avoid spoilers. And because of that, I knew to brace myself for a final episode that might not meet the expectations that the rest of this drama had set.
Let’s just say that Show would’ve probably done better to stick with its original plan of 16 episodes, because that’s what this story was created for in the first place. If they’d wanted all 20 episodes of airtime/content, then it would’ve been a better idea to extend episode 19 to the point where Professor Kang and his family go to visit Hye Na’s niche in the columbarium (which would’ve been a good place to end, I thought), and then air everything after that point as a special episode; an epilogue episode to give us a peek at what else happened with our cast of characters. That would’ve worked a lot better, I think, and would’ve made the weird switch in tone easier to accept.
Coz, in a nutshell, episode 20 was uneven and all-over-the-place, with Show toggling between showing us what happens to various characters (Woo Joo going away; Professor Cha swallowing his pride and cooperating with Seung Hye’s request-demands; Ye Seo studying with the twins; Professor Woo getting promoted), and inserting random PPL amidst dialogue that feels it belongs to some preachy public education service.
Essentially, all of our characters were suddenly talking like CF-PSA versions of themselves, and I had to actively rationalize why everyone from adults to kids, were behaving so differently all at the same time, every step of the way. It was.. rationalize-able, in that I could believe, for example, that Woo Joo would suddenly feel school was meaningless and that his parents would not want to interfere too much after the trauma of all that he’s gone through, but it was also hard to swallow that it made sense for him to drop out of school altogether, and that his parents would agree to such a drastic step. It didn’t feel real, if you know what I mean. Still, I appreciate the sentiment that Show presents, that finding yourself and your purpose in life is more important than academic achievements.
Also, while I could believe that Professor Kang’s got a whole new outlook on life, it felt really weird to see all the men sitting together espousing how important family is, and how, at the end of the day, being able to sit down to a meal with one’s family is the most important thing. That moment just felt like aliens with strong family values had taken over their bodies and were speaking through their mouths; they just didn’t sound like themselves, y’know?
That said, I still do feel that SKY Castle was, in spite of its hodgepodge-epilogue-special-episode sort of finale, a smartly-crafted, daringly different drama that had the boldness to forge its own path where other kdramas hadn’t gone before, and do it with style.
Nicely done, Show.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Show ends on an oddly uneven, flaccid sort of note, but is otherwise compelling and quite excellent.
FINAL GRADE: A