Y’know, I’d gotten to the point where I was so tired of serial killers and murders being mixed with romance (what is up with that, Dramaland?), that I was ready to give this show a hard, blind pass, just for having the audacity to mix murder with romance, again.
But, the overwhelming positive buzz around this show piqued my interest, as did the high ratings, and the glowing, persuasive comments that a number of you left me, which is how I ended up checking out this show, in spite of myself.
With 20/20 hindsight, now that I’ve emerged on the other side, do I still think Show didn’t need a serial killer murder arc? BIG YES. Did I manage to enjoy this one, despite my by-now-very-firm serial killer drama allergy? Also, yes. I guess that means Show wins, overall?
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 LIKED
The thing about this show, is that I didn’t love it right away, nor did I ever truly love it to bits like so many of its fans. But, Show grew on me anyway, in spite of its flaws, and in spite of my reservations.
Sometimes Show’s pacing was an issue for me, and I sometimes found my interest waning halfway through an episode, when we spent too much time on certain bits that I didn’t care for so much, but the funny thing is, while I found it easy to put off watching the next episode, once I did get to watching an episode, I found myself enjoying the episode more than I’d thought I would. These characters had endeared themselves to me, and coming back to this show consistently felt like a reunion with old friends.
For all of Show’s imperfections, this particular quality that it has, is, I have to admit, pretty special.
Given Show’s pretty big cast of characters, I won’t be covering them all in this review. Here’s the roving spotlight on the ones that I enjoyed most, during my watch.
The Ongsan community as a whole
If Show’s opening murder scene was the thing that made me want to make an early exit, it was the Ongsan community that persuaded me to stay. The moment Show turned its focus to the actual people living in Ongsan, I felt drawn to this drama world. I got some distinct Answer Me vibes right away, and I count that a Very Good Thing, since I enjoyed all 3 of the Answer Me installments (reviews here: 1997, 1994 and 1988).
At first glance, it does seem like almost all the ahjummas in the neighborhood have it out for our female lead character Dong Baek (Gong Hyo Jin), saying snide things behind her back, and then lording it over her when she’s there in person.
Happily, Show peels back the layers enough, that we eventually come to understand the ahjummas, and learn that they’re mostly all bark and no bite, when it comes to Dong Baek. When we eventually see the ahjummas come together and pool their strength and resources to help Dong Baek, I found it extremely heartwarming and satisfying to watch.
Watching the daily dynamics of the relationships within the community, and the slow evolution of those relationships, was a big highlight for me.
E13-14. It’s becoming clear that the reason that the women in the neighborhood regard Dong Baek as a target for their dislike, has less to do with her, and more to do with the fact that their no-good men are spending all their time and money at Dong Baek’s bar. So the associated frustration is understandable. And this episode, they started complimenting her, when they realized she was standing up to the men, starting with Gyu Tae (Oh Jung Se), with her ledger. That’s a positive development, I say.
E17-18. The ahjummas feeling lousy about Dong Baek’s impending departure makes me think of 2 things: 1, I guess you don’t tend to treasure someone until you’re faced with the prospect of losing them, and 2, these ahjummas’ bark is a lot louder than their bite. They each all feel bad and come around with boxes for Dong Baek, and Dong Baek admits herself, that all these years, she’d received kimchi from the ahjummas, even though they’re usually on her case. I guess this is called gruff love?
E33-34. One of my favorite things this hour, is how all the Ongsan ahjummas come together to protect and watch over Dong Baek, whom they’ve been quasi-bullying and ostracizing all these years. They’ve banded together against her in the past because they chafed at how their husbands sought solace at her bar, but now that she’s in real danger, they’re emphatic that they will not let the weasel get away with it, and are determined to take him down. I love how the relationship are finally shifting, and how Chan Sook (Kim Sun Young) even berates Dong Baek for being too polite and not asking her to help watch Pil Gu (Kim Kang Hoon). Aw.
Gong Hyo Jin as Dong Baek
I saw some comments about how Dong Baek as a character can be frustratingly passive and weak. At a time in my drama journey where I appreciate strong female characters more than ever (hello, Search: WWW), I can completely understand where these viewers are coming from.
Often, we see Dong Baek being treated as less than, by the people around her, and it’s hard to watch her just take it all. The upside is, though, that Dong Baek definitely charts a journey of growth over the course of our story, and by the end, we absolutely see more of her steely core, as she stands up for herself and becomes a lot more unapologetic for who she is.
It’s true that Dong Baek continues to come across as soft-spoken and demure all the way to the end, but I’d like to think of that as Dong Baek retaining the essence of her personality, even as she learns to celebrate herself.
E1-2. I’m waiting to see how I feel about Dong Baek. She comes across as rather timid, but so far, she’s already spoken up for herself a number of times, and that’s good. She still uses her hesitant, soft-spoken tone, but she’s firm in pointing out what should and should not be said to her, and I rather like that.
E3-4. How heartbreaking, that Dong Baek literally had no one in her life she could call family, and that’s why she swore to never abandon her own child.
E5-6. The flashback to how Dong Baek had such a hard time as the witness is so full of pathos, especially the part where her business suffered so much that the food rotted, and she just sat there and bawled with baby Pil Gu. That’s such a hard situation to be in, and she’s alone in the world with no one to ask for help from too.
E5-6. Aw. The part where Dong Baek says that she’s a very fortunate person because she has Pil Gu, and that she wouldn’t exchange him for anyone else, is really so sweet.
E5-6. I appreciate that Dong Baek, for all of her reserved and shy nature, is shown to stand up for herself when she feels the need to do so. This episode, she does a nice job turning away the reporters, even though they were quite pushy and insistent. Of course, Yong Shik (Kang Ha Neul) shows up to add his muscle to the mix, but I suspect that even if he hadn’t, she would have turned them away just fine on her own.
E7-8. I do find it refreshing that Dong Baek is so candid with Jong Ryeol (Kim Ji Suk), that she has thought of him from time to time, because you can’t just erase someone from your life. That’s true, and I like that she can be so forthright with him.
E9-10. Dong Baek’s backstory, of being rejected by everyone since she was little, is so sad. And then, to find Jong Ryeol, but get rejected by his mom (Chu Kwi Jung), is just so cruel. It’s just quite tragic, how she’s gotten used to rejection. First for being an orphan, and now, for being a single mother.
E11-12. How awful for Dong Baek, that she was old enough to remember all the details around how she was abandoned, and how Mom (Lee Jung Eun) had instructed her to say she didn’t know who her parents were. How mortifying, that Dong Baek knew she was being abandoned, even as Mom was in the process of abandoning her. I feel so sorry for her.
Dong Baek is a good person, though. Even though she took revenge on Mom by abandoning her in return, she just can’t go through with it, and goes to take Mom back, even though it will make her life more difficult.
E13-14. I like that we’re seeing Dong Baek standing up for herself and asserting herself more this episode. She won’t back down, whether it’s about facing Deok Sun (Go Doo Shim), or holding her ground about pressing charges against Gyu Tae, and it’s a very good thing. I also appreciate that Dong Baek articulates that this is new for her, and that she’s having trouble getting used to it. But I agree with Jong Ryeol, she does seem kind of cool now.
E17-18. I am pleased that we’re witnessing a turning point in Dong Baek, that she’s now determined to stand up for herself and not be a pushover, and I do appreciate how it’s the words of the people around her, that care for her – Deok Sun, Mom and Yong Shik – that give her the boost that she needs, to finally make a stand.
E19-20. It’s cool that Dong Baek no longer feels obliged to fade into the shadows, and feels brave and bold enough to wear a red dress and be pretty, if she feels like it.
E19-20. I like that Dong Baek lives up to the new self that she’s set out to be, and is strong. I like that even in the face of Jong Ryeol asking her to take him back, that she very firmly lays out the fact that she will not go back to him, and will not wait for him. This, even while they talk about the past, and she admits that she moved to Ongsan because of what he’d said before about Ongsan and the kind of neighborhood it was and how he’d wanted to live there and raise his kids there. She even admits that there had been a time when she’d waited for him, nursing a false hope that he would come for her. And yet, even while digging up all these old feelings, she has her head firmly on straight, and declines to take him back. Yess, girl.
E21-22. Dong Baek standing up for Hyang Mi (Son Dam Bi) is something I expected, because Dong Baek sincerely cares about Hyang Mi. My favorite moment, though, is when Nak Ho (Heo Dong Won) thinks he’s leaving victorious, and Dong Baek comes out and whacks him on the head with a giant metal bowl, knocking him out. You go, girl! I’d thought that maybe Yong Shik would be the one to step in, being a police officer and all, but he never got the chance; Dong Baek had taken care of it by the time Yong Shik even registered that Hyang Mi was in trouble. Nice one.
E23-24. Hyang Mi coming back, and facing Dong Baek with tears in her eyes, is a really poignant moment. Despite being stolen from, Dong Baek doesn’t even ask Hyang Mi about the missing money, and talks to her as if nothing’s happened. It’s no wonder that Hyang Mi can’t help but cry. How heartbreaking, that Hyang Mi took the bracelet to remember Dong Baek by, and in the end, it’s Dong Baek who survives her and ends up remembering her. Sad.
Kang Ha Neul as Yong Shik
This really seems to be the season of the dorky male lead, coz after Ahn Jae Hong’s surprising, dorky-yet-charming turn in Be Melodramatic, now we have Kang Ha Neul playing Yong Shik in the most blustery, earnest, dorkiest way ever, and he really grows on me, beyond my reservations and expectations. Wow.
I never knew Kang Ha Neul had it in him to play such an extreme charming bonehead, but he does, and he does it beautifully. There’s not an ounce of vanity or affectation about his delivery. To my eyes, Kang Ha Neul just morphed into Yong Shik, and became this unapologetically loud, snorty, simple-hearted, sincere lug of a man.
I’ll admit that it took me a while to get used to Yong Shik’s loud ways, but I soon came around to his earnest charm, and I grew to love his pure-hearted soul. For me, Yong Shik formed a big part of the heart of this show, and I couldn’t help but root for him, to get his dream girl and solve the big murder case.
E1-2. I find it amusing that when Yong Shik is first mentioned, it’s all in the context of causing trouble, and getting into trouble, and getting stabbed. It sounds like he’s some kind of gangster troublemaker – until we see that he’s actually an overzealous police officer, lol. That was rather amusing.
E1-2. I’m not particularly precious with Kang Ha Neul’s image since I’m not a fangirl, and so I’m really enjoying him as the overzealous, socially awkward, uber earnest Yong Shik. He’s completely the opposite of cool, and his run-in with Dong Baek at the bookstore is painfully, hilariously awkward, which suits him to a tee. Kang Ha Neul nails it.
E1-2. Yong Shik subduing a bank robber with just his lunchbox for a weapon is ridiculous and funny, and immediately gives me an idea of how fiercely intense he can be.
E3-4. That earnest, sincere, dumb-lug vibe that Yong Shik projects, as he asks Dong Baek if they can be friends, is as endearing as it is amusing.
E9-10. Aw. Pil Gu’s against Yong Shik now that he knows that Yong Shik likes Dong Baek. But, I do like that Yong Shik expresses respect for Pil Gu’s feelings and opinions. It’s not every adult who will show respect for a kid’s opinions, and Yong Shik gets extra brownie points from me, for taking Pil Gu seriously, even though he’s only eight.
E9-10. Yong Shik’s blustery, earnest, flailing confession to his mom, that he can’t stay away from Dong Baek for two months, is so wild-eyed and heartfelt and solemn and apologetic-but-not. How endearing-cute. He really does wear his heart on his sleeve.
E13-14. Yong Shik’s intense, burning simplicity is what slaps Jong Ryeol in the face, when they have that conversation over udon. Jong Ryeol tries to play his dad card and asks whether Yong Shik thinks he’s cool for liking a pitiful woman, and Yong Shik defends her with the righteous anger of a thousand burning suns. He tells Jong Ryeol that there’s nothing wrong with Dong Baek’s life, that she’s flippin’ amazing, and that he’s willing to give up everything for her. There’s something very charming about Yong Shik’s singleminded adoration of Dong Baek.
E21-22. We see such a contrast between Jong Ryeol and Yong Shik at the baseball game, when Pil Gu’s treated unfairly and bullied. Jong Ryeol is Pil Gu’s dad, and yet, he can’t do anything but stew in relative silence, hyperventilate while signing autographs, and then privately threaten the sleazy coach from the other team. Yong Shik, on the other hand, waltzes in and stands with Pil Gu when it matters, and speaks up for Pil Gu when it matters, and defends him, in front of everyone. He’s loud and unapologetic and a little bit in-yo-face about it all, and in this instance, it’s glorious. I can just feel Pil Gu being liberated from the corner that the sleazy coach and dirty umpire were trying to pin him into, and I love Yong Shik for being so unflinchingly and openly on Pil Gu’s side.
Also, I love that Yong Shik is so in tune with what it’s like to be a boy. When Pil Gu asks if his friends can see the drone, because they’re all asking, Yong Shik hems about it for a bit, then tells Pil Gu to choose 10 friends – only the ones who’ve been nice to him – to be allowed to see the drone. And Yong Shik’s so cognizant of it too; he tells Dong Baek that this is the kind of thing that gives boys power. Yong Shik’s totally lifting Pil Gu up this episode, and I dig it a whole lot.
Yong Shik and Dong Baek together
I never would have expected it, given the dorky, blustery nature of our male lead, but this OTP relationship gave me some of the most memorable OTP moments in my drama journey, I think.
Yong Shik just has a way of being completely frank and forthright in his adoration and care for Dong Baek, that lifts her up in the process. I loved that, so much. In a drama landscape where many OTPs spend more time engaged in tropey wrist-grabs than actual meaningful conversation, I found this extra precious.
It’s true that I found Yong Shik a little too intense and in-yo-face in the beginning of his obsession with Dong Baek, but he more than makes up for it, with the way that he demonstrates respect and love for her, both in his words and his actions. It’s little wonder that Dong Baek (our titular Camellia) blossoms in the face of his outpouring of love, and learns not just to love him back, but love herself as well.
E3-4. Yong Shik’s earnest desire to protect Dong Baek really comes off as rather stalkery. I would be rather freaked out by him, in her shoes, always insisting on trailing her wherever she goes.
E5-6. What sets Yong Shik apart from so many other male leads in dramaland, is how earnestly forthright and guileless he is. There’s no beating about the bush with him. He likes Dong Baek, and he’s quick to tell her so, and he does so in such a completely open and artless way that it’s easy to grow a soft spot for him, social awkwardness and all.
E5-6. Yong Shik saying he wouldn’t exchange Dong Baek for anyone else is a little too forward, I think. As Dong Baek points out, that makes it sound like she’s his, which she isn’t. She’s right; he does manage to make everything sound like a love confession, heh. He’s just that forthright that if he feels it, it’s gonna spill out.
E5-6. Come to think of it, it’s true that Yong Shik happens to be what Dong Baek’s been craving all her life: someone who’s unconditionally on her side, who doesn’t play games, who’s fiercely loyal.
E7-8. Now that we get more insight into what Dong Baek’s relationship with Jong Ryeol was like, it does seem like he was keeping her hidden. When she’d asked if she should go with him to his friend’s wedding, he’d brushed it off, saying it would be troublesome if there was a scandal. And yet, despite being Jong Ryeol’s hidden girlfriend, she’s still so affected by what he said. Because he’d praised her for being the best at making side dishes for alcohol, she’d decided to open a bar. She literally had no one else to encourage her or advise her, and she’d ended up taking to heart the words of a guy who claimed to love her, but wouldn’t introduce her to his friends. How messed up is that? I feel for Dong Baek more than ever.
And so, when Yong Shik declares his love for Dong Baek, it’s even more swoony than it already is, on its own. With the earnestness practically bugging out of his eyes, Yong Shik says to Dong Baek, “If a man and a woman secretly get involved with each other, it can start a rumor and hearsay. But if I just say directly, ‘I like her. I like her so much. I don’t care what you say, I like Dongbaek so much. And liking this amazing woman is… That’s… Yes, that’s my pride!’ If I do that, no one will say a thing. I believe that it’s a better way of showing manners.” Wow.
That’s the complete and utter opposite of the peak of Dong Baek’s experience of love. Even when her relationship with Jong Ryeol was at its best, she couldn’t say that she was his pride. And here is Yong Shik, shouting it from the mountaintops that he thinks she’s amazing and that he likes her, and that he’s proud to like her. How sweet is that?
Even more unexpectedly melty, is how Yong Shik pep talks Dong Baek at the end of the episode, when she’s despondent about her life, and admits to feeling embarrassed at how her life has turned out. Staring right at her, Yong Shik launches into the most heartfelt, sputtering, searching-his-heart-for-words spiel:
“Dongbaek-sshi. Don’t act like you’re weak. You’re an orphan and a single mother, so people might go around saying you’re living an unfortunate life. But let’s be honest. You’re really lucky.. You may be an orphan and a single mother, but you managed to raise Pil Gu so well, and you even run your own business. You don’t blame others or live a cheap life. On top of that, you still manage to stay so kind and diligent. That’s how you live. People should respect you and compliment you for that. If anyone else were in your shoes, they would’ve lost it already. No one has the right to badmouth you. Dongbaek-sshi. In this entire neighborhood, you’re the strongest, the most strong-willed, the most magnificent, and the most admirable person I know.”
How utterly moving. He’s not just trying to say stuff to make her feel better. You can just tell from his words, that he truly sees her. He sees just how accomplished and amazing she is, and he’s trying to get her to see the good in herself, the way he sees the good in her. That’s just so wonderful and lovely, and heart-pinchingly magical, particularly for Dong Baek, who’s never been complimented in her life, save for the tastiness of her stir-fried pork. Just, how life-changing is this spiel, for her? I love it. So much. <3
E11-12. Dong Baek assumes, with the appearance of her mother who’s suffering from dementia, that this would send Yong Shik running in the other direction, but instead, the moment she reopens Camellia, Yong Shik is busting through the door with his arms loaded with all kinds of supplies he thinks she might need, and blurts out how terribly he missed her, his feelings practically exploding out of his chest.
And then, when she tells him to stay away, having given him a carefully chosen excuse that he can’t argue with, he snaps into action the moment he hears that it’s her birthday, albeit not her real one. The elaborate surprise he orchestrates for her, culminating in such sweet, affirming words, that every day can be her birthday, and she’s done really well, all these years, is just such uplifting sweetness, like a balm for her starving soul.
And when Gyu Tae gets persistently handsy with Dong Baek, Yong Shik can’t hold himself back from beating him up for her. And then, keeping in mind her words about how hard it is to be the subject of gossip, he refuses to say anything, when he’s questioned back at the police station. How loyal and considerate, even amid his crazy, nostril-flaring, violently loyal defense of her.
I’m not surprised that Dong Baek is galvanized into action, going to the police station to press charges against Gyu Tae. The look on Yong Shik’s face is priceless. What gets me, is that this look is brought on primarily by the realization that Dong Baek has a ledger of all the ways that the neighborhood folks have misbehaved at Camellia, and his anger and indignation at how she’s been mistreated. It’s only afterwards that he belatedly realizes that she’s defending him. Altogether, he looks like he’s stunned speechless, has the wind knocked out of him, and is one hair’s breadth away from bursting into a fiery flood of tears. It’s awesome. Dong Baek crying back at him is cute too, but it’s Yong Shik’s larger-than-life I’m-gonna-cry face that makes the scene.
I truly love that the most major way that Yong Shik is affecting Dong Baek, is not giving her butterflies in her stomach from being pursued romantically. It’s much deeper than that; Yong Shik makes her feel valuable and precious, like she’s worthy instead of worthless; that she has the right to hold her head up high, and that is so fundamentally worldview-shifting and so deeply moving. I love that Yong Shik, in all his dorky earnest heart-on-his-sleeve ways, is able to affect Dong Baek in such a profound, needful way. <3
E13-14. I like how straightforward Dong Baek is with Yong Shik, now that she’s figured out what she wants and what she’s prepared for. She tells Yong Shik that she won’t get into a fiery passionate relationship with him, but would like take things slowly and be warm together for a long time. She’s also clear with Yong Shik in terms of articulating where her priorities are, and where his should be, as they explore this new “some” thing between them. It’s quite refreshing.
E13-14. As smitten as Yong Shik is for Dong Baek, I appreciate that he does let her know, when his feelings are hurt. When Dong Baek remarks that all men are the same, and that he will start to mind her past later on, he gets upset and tells her so. He challenges her that she hasn’t dated so many men that she would know that he’s the same as Jong Ryeol, and informs her that he is, in fact, completely different from Jong Ryeol and would make her burst with happiness, every day, if she dated him. Aw. I love that even when he’s angry with Dong Baek for hurting his feelings, he still manages to bluster about how much he likes her. It’s very sweet.
E15-16. The scene of how Yong Shik gives Dong Baek the space to be strong like she wants, but trails her to make sure she’s ok, and then shows up to give her assurance when he sees her faltering, is really endearing. He doesn’t want to force his protection on her, but is also considerate of how she truly feels on the inside. The gesture, of reaching for her clenched fist to dry it with his sleeve, is so sweet and thoughtful. He notices things about her, and really thinks about her feelings. And the way he positions himself, as someone she can fall back on, is so assuring too. Aw.
E15-16. I do appreciate that Dong Baek is starting to confide in Yong Shik. It’s a big step, her telling him that she doesn’t want to act strong anymore, and just wants to leave Ongsan and hide. She must really trust him, to open up to him like this.
E17-18. Yong Shik just has a way of blurting out his heartfelt feelings into words. His response to the scene of Jong Ryeol trying to convince Dong Baek to take him back is just classic Yong Shik. Instead of jumping in on the wrist-grab action, he grapples with his feelings, and blurts out, “Dongbaek-sshi. Do whatever you want. You aren’t the type who would let someone drag your life around. You always followed your own path. So you should do whatever you want, Dongbaek-sshi. That’s the Dongbaek I like, care for, and respect.” OMG. Swoon. How empowering. While everyone sees Dong Baek as a pushover, Yong Shik sees her strength, and acknowledges it, and encourages it. It’s no wonder Dong Baek draws strength from his words, to tell Jong Ryeol to back off, or she’ll kill him for real. Yong Shik swooning at that, is just too funny.
E17-18. I do love that Yong Shik is so head-over-heels for this new, stronger Dong Baek, that he can hardly contain his glee, and it’s cute that Dong Baek is so exuberant about her new outlook that she kisses Yong Shik on the cheek. It totally shocks him sober, enough that he would remind her that she kissed him first, before leans in and kisses her properly, on the lips. How perfectly awkward-cute.
E19-20. It’s also pretty great that Yong Shik stops shrinking away just because Jong Ryeol is Pil Gu’s dad. I like that he makes a stand that he’s the one that Dong Baek likes now, even though I don’t appreciate Yong Shik’s attempt to lay down the law and tell Dong Baek what he will and will not allow her to do, when it comes to Jong Ryeol.
I appreciate even more, that before Mom pushed him towards making a stand, that Yong Shik’s instinct was to just trust Dong Baek and wait for her, believing that she’d make the right decision for herself. Even though Mom says that men who wait don’t win, I do believe that Yong Shik could have waited, and Dong Baek would’ve done just what he said, and come back to him.
E25-26. Of course I’d expected Yong Shik to save Dong Baek, because we still have 14 more episodes to go, and also, this just isn’t the kind of show to kill off its female lead. But, it’s still poignant and sweet, that Yong Shik would throw all caution to the wind, in order to save Dong Baek. And I’m not at all surprised that he would propose.
Kim Kang Hoon as Pil Gu
If Yong Shik accounted for a large part of the heart of this show, Pil Gu accounted for an equally large serving of heart. His mature little man efforts to take care of his mom Dong Baek is the most precious thing, and never failed to warm and break my heart, all at the same time.
Kim Kang Hoon is a true revelation, as Pil Gu. I never expected a little munchkin to tug at my heartstrings so hard, but Pil Gu dang near made me cry multiple times, during my watch, and it’s all due to Kim Kang Hoon’s amazingly deep and nuanced delivery.
Every time Pil Gu cries, it feels so raw and real, like I’m looking at an open, pulsating wound. I honestly don’t know where Kim Kang Hoon pulls it up from; it’s nothing short of spectacular.
E3-4. Dang. Kim Kang Hoon is playing Pil Gu with so much depth of emotion. The scene where he pushes the lady away from harassing his mom, and shouts that he will hit her son every time she bullies his mom, is so raw. It feels like he means it with all of his little being, and he’s putting out the biggest gun he’s got, into the fight, to save his mom. And the scene where he blurts out that he’s protecting his mom because he has to, even though he’s only in First Grade, is just heartbreaking. The way the tears well in his eyes, his frustration and sadness written all over his face, is just gut-wrenching. So much depth and emotion, from such a little kid. Amazing.
E5-6. Pil Gu’s big boy desire to protect his mom is the most precious thing. I love how he literally talks to her as if he’s her bodyguard, offering to stay to protect her, and teaching her how to defend herself, in his absence. And then when Dong Baek sends him off because he needs to be at the academy, he talks with Yong Shik man to man, and asks Yong Shik to protect Dong Baek because he’s worried about her. It’s heartbreakingly sweet. Heartbreaking that he has to think of such things at such a young age, and sweet that he does so, so selflessly.
E13-14. Aw, Pil Gu being so proud of his mom for being prettier than a celebrity, and for being a CEO, is adorable. His pride in her is just shining out of his little face, and I love how impressed his friends are.
E19-20. The most poignant moment this episode is when Pil Gu admits to Jong Ryeol that he knows that Jong Ryeol is his dad. His pent up angst over how Dad has made Mom cry so many times over the years, that he doesn’t like his dad much to begin with, is so heart-pinching. He doesn’t even really say anything about Jong Ryeol having abandoned him; his entire focus is on Mom and Mom’s feelings and Mom’s suffering. It’s really sad that Pil Gu grew up so fast, because he felt the need to protect and shield his mom, even though it’s sweet that he’s got such a selfless and giving heart.
E31-32. Pil Gu’s immediate rejection of Jong Ryeol, and his distressed tears, while he immediately throws out everything that Jong Ryeol had given him, says so much about how hard the thought of not living with Dong Baek – and I suppose, the very concept of “losing” his mom, in a way – hits him. It’s completely in character for Pil Gu to figure out a way to keep Dong Baek safe while he’s away. And it’s telling that he entrusts the task to Yong Shik, right after rejecting Jong Ryeol and telling him that he hates him most in the world.
E33-34. Oof. The fact that Pil Gu chooses to live with Jong Ryeol, for Dong Baek’s sake, even though he says vehemently that he hates Jong Ryeol the most in the world, is such a punch in the gut, to me. What an enormous sacrifice this little kid is making, for the mother that he loves the most out of all the people in the world, so that people won’t look down on her and say she has a burden in her son. It’s so sacrificial and mature that it hurts my heart. When he said that he was happier when he was seven, that was just too much. He’s taken on too much on himself, at just eight years old.
E33-34. Kim Kang Hoon is so good this episode, showing us all of Pil Gu’s complicated emotions. The fear mounting within him, when Dong Baek didn’t come pick him up after his school trip; the terror that he felt when he couldn’t get into the house and realized that combination of the lock had been changed; the hurt that he felt when he overheard Deok Sun talking about him as Dong Baek’s burden and disadvantage. Poor Pil Gu, and Kim Kang Hoon brought all of Pil Gu’s pulsating, raw emotions to the surface, so well.
E35-36. Kim Kang Hoon does a bang-up job of fleshing out Pil Gu’s complicated emotions around his life, his burdensome effect on his mother, his limited options, and his true feelings. Every time Pil Gu cried, I felt his emotions, so much. It all feels so real and raw and.. bald. Supremely well done, and my heart still feels sore, from the effect of his tears.
Lee Jung Eun as Jung Sook
Dong Baek’s mom Jung Sook is introduced a little late in our story, and yet, I found myself quite deeply affected by her arc. Lee Jung Eun does a fabulous job of playing Jung Sook in a way that feels matter-of-fact, yet multi-faceted. I found myself growing more and more curious about Jung Sook, even as I grew fond of her, almost without realizing it.
E11-12. I’m curious to know what the circumstances were, around Mom abandoning Dong Baek. It doesn’t make it ok, but the circumstances must have been dire, to make a mother abandon her child.
E21-22. Dong Baek’s mom can’t be truly suffering from Alzheimer’s, given the way she’s talking. She’s not only lucid, she’s very shrewd as well. I’m very curious about Mom.
E23-24. Jung Sook is just pretending to have dementia, it’s certain now, and although I wish she wouldn’t pretend, I do like that she’s showing herself to be shrewd, outspoken and sharp, even as she protects Dong Baek. I wonder if Dong Baek would’ve grown up to be very different, if she’d been able to live with Mom in her formative years.
E27-28. Jung Sook’s secret is now out. No wonder she kept disappearing and staying out overnight; she had to go to the hospital for medical appointments. I don’t think she intended to ask Dong Baek for a kidney though. It felt more like she was cramming in all the things she wanted to do for Dong Baek, before her time was up. How heartbreaking, that Dong Baek received it the opposite way, and punished her with a cruel re-enactment of her own abandonment.
E29-30. Learning the truth around Jung Sook’s backstory, and finding out not only how much she’s continued to care for Dong Baek over the years, but also, how much she’s continued to punish herself for abandoning Dong Baek, is completely heartbreaking. Now, she’s literally putting her life on the line to threaten who she believes is Joker, in order to protect Dong Baek, and I.. my heart aches for her. No mother would want to abandon her child, and we’ve seen enough to know that Jung Sook had been desperate and at the end of her rope. And although nothing can change the past, I don’t want her to punish herself any more either. She doesn’t need to think of her illness and possible/probable death as penance that will allow her to do something for Dong Baek. That’s just too tragic. Sob.
E31-32. Jung Sook asking the doctors to help her live, at least for now, when she hears the news of the murder, is such a motherly thing to do. She’s determined to protect Dong Baek, and she’ll cheat death to do it, if she must. How very moving.
Go Doo Shim as Deok Sun
I wanted to talk about Yong Shik’s mom Deok Sun because even though there were times that I wished she’d decided differently or behaved differently, her kind heart was clear to see. I found her a warm presence for all her nagging and grumbling, and wanted to give her the quick spotlight.
For the record, even in the moments when I would have preferred that she behaved differently, I always found her understandable; I could see why she made the decisions she did, and I couldn’t begrudge her any of it, honestly.
Here’s a quick dive into my thoughts around Deok Sun, as things evolved for her, over the course of our story.
E3-4. Deok Sun feeding Pil Gu every chance she gets, is just the sweetest, most wholesome thing. I already want her to be his grandma.
E3-4. Deok Sun standing up for Dong Baek, and defending her to the aggressive neighborhood ladies intent on bullying her, makes her my hero. There’s so much empathy in her. She knows what it feels like, since she was treated similarly for selling soju as a widow, and I love how she translates that into being Dong Baek’s champion and spokesperson.
However, that pause that Deok Sun takes, when Dong Baek jokes about marrying her youngest son, doesn’t bode so well for Yong Shik wanting to date Dong Baek. It could be one of those things; sure, you’re good enough, just not good enough for my son.
E7-8. Deok Sun’s reaction at realizing that her son likes Dong Baek is understandable. In a mother’s eyes, no woman would be good enough for her son, so even though Deok Sun’s been great friends with Dong Baek, and even encourages her to marry again, it’s a different story when it’s her son who’s the potential match.
E11-12. Deok Sun’s conversation with Dong Baek is good in the sense that at least the besties are talking it out. But the double standard is there and it’s something quite universal. Deok Sun wishes the best for Dong Baek – as long as it’s not with her own son. And it’s only a long beat later, that Deok Sun realizes that it would be impossible for Dong Baek to find that “someone else much better than Yong Shik” because every other guy’s mom would feel similarly.
E13-14. I like that things between Dong Baek and Deok Sun have now settled into a truce-like state. Deok Sun can’t honestly say that she will be supportive and approving of Dong Baek, if she and Yong Shik decide to date, but at least she’s willing to wait and see, as Dong Baek observes Yong Shik and decides whether to date him. It’s the rational thing to do, and Deok Sun is right, men’s feelings can be fickle.
E19-20. I found it very poignant when Yong Shik nagged at his mom to stop wearing his old t-shirt and shoes, saying that it hurts him, and that if she keeps doing it, when she dies, he’ll be so sad every time he sees the shirt at the World Cup, because of her. And that’s the thing that motivates Mom to finally retire the t-shirt. Aw. Mom really has been skimping on herself for the sake of her children, and again, when she decides to spend a little more on herself, it’s still because of her children.
E29-30. We see Deok Sun flexing her influence to pave the way for Yong Shik even at work, and.. I don’t know how I feel about that. I get that Deok Sun’s always been extra protective of Yong Shik, because he grew up without ever knowing his dad, and I know that to a mom, her child is always a kid in their eyes. But seriously. Yong Shik is over 30 years old. Surely it can’t be good for him to succeed at work because Mommy is always ready to make some calls and imply some threats on his behalf?
Yum Hye Ran as Ja Young
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Ja Young as a character, by the end of the show. At first, she appears to be an almost peripheral character, with her husband taking up more screen time and story significance. But Ja Young soon shows just what an awesome badass she is, and I couldn’t help but grow in admiration and fondness for her. Yes to more strong women on our screens!
E13-14. Ha, that Ja Young decides to offer free legal services to Dong Baek, instead of siding with her husband Gyu Tae. She’s just that disgusted with him.
E19-20. Ja Young’s mother-in-law (Jeon Guk Hyang) cluelessly lording it over her daughter-in-law, not realizing that her son has done something to deeply anger Ja Young, is suitably annoying to watch. Ja Young’s quite the badass though. After politely playing the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law, she calls a close to the eel-grilling and the free legal advice, and informs Mom that she will be waiting outside. I love that she’s just not the sort to be intimidated, ever.
E21-22. Ja Young’s reaction to confronting Hyang Mi about her supposed affair with Gyu Tae is quite possibly the most astute, most self-liberating thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, she automatically seethes, yes, and she wants to crush Hyang Mi too, but in the end, she has a moment of clarity, and realizes that Gyu Tae’s not that great as a husband, and decides that Hyang Mi ought to take him off her hands. HAHA. How perfect. The combined consternation of Hyang Mi and Gyu Tae is just bonus.
Of course, breaking up is always painful, so I feel for Ja Young when she has tears in her eyes while walking out on Gyu Tae. He has hurt her deeply, and even though she’s being a badass, she still has open wounds to tend to.
E31-32. The way Ja Young talks down the officers trying to arrest Gyu Tae is so fierce and badass; it’s no wonder Gyu Tae stares at her in wonder. Talk about fresh perspective and new admiration.
E37-38. I really liked seeing Ja Young and Dong Baek bond over drinks. It was nice to see Ja Young smile, and it also felt refreshing to hear Ja Young tell Dong Baek honestly why people are intimidated by her. I hope Dong Baek and Ja Young become friends.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
There are two main things that I didn’t like so much during my watch, and while that doesn’t sound like much, I have to say, these two things did put a fairly significant dent in my watch experience.
The whole serial killer thing
I maintain that Show would have been a more enjoyable watch, if we didn’t have a serial killer arc.
Overall, I feel like this show needs to be categorized into two main narratives. One main thread is the fleshing out of the residents of Ongsan, their relationships, and the teasing out of developments on both the personal and relational fronts. And then the other main thread is the serial killer and the murder.
Show’s handling of the serial killer things wasn’t all bad, though. I’ll give Show that much. For example, even though the threat of a killer is out of the ordinary, the reactions of our characters feel real and down-to-earth. Dong Baek’s fear, for her son’s safety as well as her own, and the stress it brings her, and how paranoid it makes her, even as she’s trying to be strong, feels very human, to my eyes. And I think that’s part of what makes this show feels relatable, and Show managed to keep this up, for about half of its run.
By the episode 25-26 mark, I felt like Show was now less about the neighborhood feels, and more about who the killer was. I suppose for a show that started out with the crime scene, I should feel grateful that it took Show this long to rely on the whodunnit aspect of our story to drive us forward.
But, I did feel the loss of the focus on the Ongsan folks and their relationships, as Show shifted it focus to the murder side of things. I have to admit that I found Show’s final stretch, which is heavily tilted to focus on the murder, less intrinsically interesting. Scratch that. Actually, combined with Show’s penchant for fakeouts (coming up next), the last stretch was a bit of a drag, to be honest.
Show’s penchant for fakeouts
By Show’s final stretch, fakeouts become Show’s favorite narrative device, and this.. was not great.
First of all, it didn’t really feel like the writing was all that clever, around the fakeouts, and secondly – and possibly more importantly – at times, it felt like Show was toying with my feelings, and I did not like that one bit.
1. The fakeout of making Heung Shik’s dad (Lee Kyu Sung and Shin Mun Sung) the murderer was not at all convincing, because there were so many loose ends that were left dangling. Yes, I’d believed that Show was making Dad the serial killer for real, but the multiple dropped threads as a result just didn’t do Show any favors.
2. The fakeout of having adult Pil Gu (Jung Ga Ram) say in voiceover, after Dong Baek breaks up with Yong Shik, that that’s when his mom’s miraculous spring day came to an end, implying heavily that Dong Baek and Yong Shik broke up for good.
3. The fakeout of Jung Sook’s death. I’d cried when Show led us to believe in episodes 37-38 that Mom had died. We get a heartwrenching flashback to everything that Mom had suffered through the years, and how hard it had been for her, to decide to give up Dong Baek. Well. When I realized in the finale, that Show had pulled a fakeout on me, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed, and that, unfortunately, irrevocably tainted the poignance of Mom’s backstory, to me. Boo.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Have you ever looked upon an annoying child – maybe your own child, or maybe a nephew or niece – and despite your frustration at their annoying behavior, you can’t help but smile in the end, because they managed to be cute, while they were being annoying? Uh. That’s how I feel about this show, in the end.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was not pleased with Show’s penchant for fakeouts as we neared the finish line. I feel like in trying to be clever and everything, that Show played with my feelings and in some instances, insulted my intelligence while it was at it, and I did not like how that felt. Seriously, did we really need so many fakeouts, Show? I want to slap you upside the head, truly.
BUT. On the upside, Show delivers a finale that’s full of warmth, and – goshdarn it – Show even managed to make me choke up a little, from that lump in my throat that inconveniently appeared once everyone rallied round to help create Mom’s transplant miracle. Gulp. That was touching; not gonna lie.
And that moment in the hospital, before we knew Mom was going to be ok, when a frazzled-looking Yong Shik hesitantly asked Dong Baek’s permission to just sit with her, while fighting back the tears in his eyes, was just so heart-pinchingly good. Yong Shik’s entire heart is written all over his face; his worry for Dong Baek; his worry for Mom; his own physical exhaustion; his deep desire to hold her and comfort her; his deep fear and hesitation, that this would be overstepping the boundaries that she’d asked for, and that he’d agreed to keep. Kang Ha Neul delivers the moment so beautifully, that this just might be my favorite Yong Shik scene in the entire show.
Dong Baek holding her arms out in silent acquiescence, and Yong Shik rushing forward to hold her tightly in his embrace, both of them crying big ol’ tears, is just so organic and affecting. I felt that moment in my soul, and it was beautiful. <3
Of course, Show works to tie up other character arcs as well. I thought Jong Ryeol setting up a bank account to support Pil Gu was a nice touch, but I must admit that the patching up of his relationship with Jessica (Ji E Suu) leaned on the unbelievable side of things, for me. After so much strain and threats of divorce, it seems overly convenient that they’re now on good terms again, with Jong Ryeol even being a supportive Instagram husband.
On the other hand, I lapped up the reconciliation between Gyu Tae and Ja Young. It was heartwarming and hilarious to learn about their courtship via flashback, and it makes so much sense that Ja Young totally wore the pants in the relationship, even before there was a relationship, ha. I buy this reconciliation a lot more, because Show’s been showing us for a good while now, that there is still a lot of mutual care and affection between Gyu Tae and Ja Young, even post-divorce.
Importantly, we see Yong Shik enthusiastically preparing for the wedding, declaring that Dong Baek deserves a big wedding. We don’t get to see the wedding itself (boo), but we do get to see them sit together contentedly in a flash-forward, holding hands as they watch Pil Gu’s Major League announcement on TV, camera flashes popping.
I do love that even though Dong Baek had earlier denied the existence of miracles, that now, looking back on her life, she corrects her previous statement, telling Yong Shik, “Honey, now that I think about it, my life has been nothing but a miracle.” Aw.
To me, I feel like the true miracle of this story, is Dong Baek’s growth as a person. From being downtrodden and timid, believing that she wasn’t deserving of happiness, she’s blossomed into a stronger, more confident version of herself, and she’s grasped happiness in both hands, and defied the odds to live a happy life. And I do give a good chunk of the credit too, to Yong Shik, who proved himself to be such a wonderful pillar of support. I’m happy that these two found happiness together, in spite of it all.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A bit overly long and meandering, but a feel-good, heartwarming watch nonetheless.
FINAL GRADE: B+