THE SHORT VERDICT:
Thoughtful, understated, and yet so full of accurate teenage feels, At Eighteen is the youth drama that we didn’t know we needed, but which we absolutely deserve. You don’t even need to generally be into youth dramas to enjoy this one, methinks, because this is arguably the most “grown up” youth drama I’ve seen yet.
There’s no hyperbolic cutesy here; growing pains and teenage euphoria are portrayed in such an organic way that it makes me feel like these writers remember exactly what it’s like to be a teenager growing up, and with amazing attention to detail, to boot. Show manages to create a world that feels real and raw, while still retaining enough pretty and polish to give it that drama lift. The entire cast does an excellent job, but extra kudos goes to our young actors, for making their characters come to life in such an organic-feeling manner.
As a bonus, the music in this is by turn breezy-heartfelt, tinkly-ethereal and gently poignant; all astutely applied just so, to give the watch experience that extra dimension of immersion.
Quite excellent, all-around.
THE LONG VERDICT:
I’ve always had a soft spot for high school stories, but lately, I’d started to question whether I’ve finally outgrown them. I’d been disappointed at Extraordinary You, and had felt lukewarm towards C-dramas A Little Thing Called First Love and Le Coup de Foudre (my good intentions of going back to this are now slowly fading). But, At Eighteen made me think that rather than outgrowing high school stories, I just needed the right one. I didn’t even need to get halfway into Show’s first episode, to have a gut feeling that I was going to like this one.
I may have never felt like I needed the next episode of this show Right Away, after finishing an episode, but I actually think that that’s part of Show’s charm. If I had to categorize Show, I’d say this is a youth melo with a bit of a slice-of-life feel. Everything is handled in an unrushed, unhurried manner, and story events are mostly not of the world-tilting variety (although sometimes they are), and yet, I feel gently sucked in and completely immersed in this story world.
This one crept under my skin, slowly but surely, and even when I wandered off and got distracted by other shows (this admittedly happened several times, not through any fault of Show’s; I sometimes am just.. distracted), every time I came back, I remembered all over again why I’d been mentally (albeit tentatively) assigning this show an A-type grade. Show was consistent and never lost its footing, and the storytelling felt assured and thoughtful, and as everything came together in Show’s final stretch, that A-type grade became much clearer in my head.
This really is one of those underrated dramas; I feel like it flew under the radar for a lot of viewers, despite being so solid on just about every front. And I’d love it if this review helps to get this show a little more love. It certainly deserves it, in my opinion.
(Having said that, I do think that if you’re looking for a more standard youth rom-com, then this show might not work for you.)
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to the very enjoyable soundtrack as you read the review:
STUFF I LIKED
The writing and handling: Show understands teenaged feels
The writing & handling is really good
I didn’t realize this going into my watch, but it turns out that writer-nim also wrote Girls’ Generation 1979, which I really liked. It’s little wonder then, that this show, despite being set in a different era, manages to achieve a similar balance between light, youthful whimsy and darker, more serious themes, all wrapped up with a good amount of heart, which I appreciate.
The characters feel real and the struggles that they face feel real too. And most importantly, the feelings feel real, and that’s probably why I feel the feelings too, as I watch. That’s precious.
As a bonus, I love the music in this show. It’s got the feels of youth, of memories, of wistfulness and hope mixed together. The music often makes the scene, and sometimes, the music makes my heart ache in the moment, so much so that I need to pause, just for a bit. Really good.
Admittedly, there are certain elements in our story that feel a bit tropey, but the handling makes everything feel natural and organic nonetheless.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 10, we get the quintessential school trip that’s a staple in just about every high school drama, but unlike many dramas where this can feel clichéd, this felt reasonably organic, to me. We see all the emotions play out on a bigger, less structured stage than the classroom, and that’s probably why many things are able to come to a head. Da Heen’s (Kim Bo Yoon) big fight with Ro Mi (Han Sung Min); So Ye and Ki Tae (Moon Joo Yeon and Lee Seung Min) making up then breaking up; Oh Je (Moon Bin) being put on the spot about whether he likes someone he shouldn’t; Ro Mi’s lies being called out and exposed. I feel like all of these things had been percolating for some time, so to have them come to a boil during the school trip felt organic to me. [END SPOILER]
When it hurts, it hurts so good
Oof, this show. It has a way of feeling strongly slice-of-life, while lacing its narrative with lashings of melodrama and tragedy, and then, making that melodrama and tragedy actually hurt so good.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 4, one minute we’re watching Joon Woo and Soo Bin bicker and bond over the English free talking test, and the next minute we realizing that Joon Woo’s best friend in the world, Jung Hoo (Song Geon Hee) whom he’s just – literally just! – made peace with, has been beaten to death. Dang. [END SPOILER]
The combined feels hit me right in the gut, and I wasn’t sure I would be ready for another episode of this show, for a while. But once I did start the next episode, I felt engaged and invested, all over again.
Show’s so good at unpacking the teenage experience
This show takes the teenage experience and unpacks it, and lays bare all of the conflicting emotions of being eighteen: the thrill of first love; the petty jealousies; the awkwardness of uncertainty; the stress of trying to live up to your parents’ expectations; the desire to be loyal to your friends; the doubt in the search for identity; the confusion of trying to figure yourself out. It’s all brought to raw, pulsating life in this show, in such an effortless, understated sort of manner, like Show doesn’t actually need to try, to bring across this mass of teen emotion. But it pops, and makes my heart skip a beat, and pinch, and squeeze, all at the same time. I love it.
[SPOILER] That moment in the lab in episode 10, where everyone is hyperaware of everyone else, and trying not to look like they’re staring, is such a perfect example of what it’s like to be young and dealing with crisscrossing emotions. Hwi Young (Shin Seung Ho) can’t stop looking at Soo Bin and Joon Woo; Ro Mi can’t stop looking at Joon Woo and Soo Bin; Ki Tae can’t stop looking at So Ye; Pil Sang (Yoo In Soo) can’t stop looking at Ro Mi; Da Heen can’t stop looking at Oh Je; everyone can’t help but feel the thick tension in the air. Really well done. [END SPOILER]
Ong Seong Wu as Joon Woo
Even though Show has a sprawling cast, Joon Woo is our actual protagonist, and his journey is the true center of this story. When we meet him, he’s withdrawn, reticent and quite reclusive, and freshly transferred to a high school in Seoul. As Show unpacks his past and peels back the layers of his character over the course of our story, we see Joon Woo’s inner warmth rise to the surface and slowly but surely infuse his entire being, where it wasn’t visible before. It’s such an organic, gradual process, that I almost don’t notice his evolution before my eyes. And yet, when I compare Joon Woo in Show’s early episodes and then in Show’s later episodes, I find the difference quite startling.
A lot of credit goes to Ong Seong Wu, who does a pretty amazing job inhabiting Joon Woo. Joon Woo may not say much, but Ong Seong Wu channels Joon Woo’s feelings really well, and we can often glimpse how he feels, in his gaze. From contemplative and thoughtful, to awkward and embarrassed, to warm and hopeful, he expresses a really nice range of emotion, without saying much at all.
Like I mentioned above, when I compare stills of Joon Woo at the beginning of our story, to stills of him at the end, he looks completely different – even though he’s wearing a similar wordless expression. Major props to Ong Seong Wu, for making Joon Woo come alive so well, even though Joon Woo often doesn’t say much at all, or even change his expression much. It’s in the tiny micro-expressions, the flicker of his gaze, the way he tilts his head, the way he carries himself; he expresses so much, without saying much at all. I am duly impressed.
E1. Joon Woo goes through almost the whole episode without his own name tag, both at school and at work. He keeps being called other names besides his own. I think Show’s trying to tell us that this is going to be Joon Woo’s search for his identity. It’s not subtle, but it works very well.
E1. I’m intrigued by Joon Woo, because he goes through most of the episode with barely any emotion blipping on his face. He brightens only when he smells his mother’s cooking and thinks she’s at the house to see him. And he brightens again, only at the end of the episode, when Soo Bin takes the borrowed name tag off his uniform, and writes his name on a fresh tag for him. Other than that, he remains even-keeled even when he’s being accused of theft, and even when the people around him behave in disappointing ways. He doesn’t argue, shout or say more than the minimal “I didn’t do it” to defend himself. How does he not have a more emotional reaction? Even when he confronts Hwi Young at the end of the episode to ask why Hwi Young’s pinning the theft on him, he asks the question without a great deal of emotion in his voice. Does he have that much self-control, or is he that jaded with people, that nothing shocks him anymore?
E2. I’m curious as to why Joon Woo doesn’t show any anger when he’s maligned and wrongly accused. He seems to just take it all in and swallow it. It doesn’t even seem to be building up within him, ready to explode in retaliation angst at some point. It feels like he’s got a black hole within him where he keeps all the slander and related hostile treatment directed his way, and I wonder if he truly thinks that he’s a nobody who’s not worth anything.
E2. I find it interesting that we are shown that Joon Woo’s an incredible runner, in such a matter-of-fact way. He’s able to keep up with Sang Hoon (Kim Do Wan), who’s reputedly freakishly fast. Not only that, he leaves Sang Hoon breathless and unable to continue. Wow. Y’know, I’d thought that this running strength would be something Show would play up again, but.. Show doesn’t. How interesting, and how cool, that Show would point out that Joon Woo’s impressive in more than just his art. It’s just that it’s art that speaks to him, not that he can’t do anything else but art. I appreciate that distinction.
E2. For all of Joon Woo’s reticence, I do appreciate that he’s so calm and even-toned, when he does confront Hwi Young and Sang Hoon. I see it as self-control rather than devil-may-care, because he does care that he’s being wrongly accused.
E2. I like the reason that Joon Woo went back to school. Because Mom (Shim Yi Young) never gave up on him, even when she was young and scared, so he won’t give up now, either. Aw. Mom would be proud, I’m sure.
E3. We learn that Joon Woo had taken the fall for his best friend Jung Hoo, and that’s why he’d been forced to transfer. Sigh. I do appreciate that Mom never doubts him for a second; she knows instinctively that he didn’t do it. And even though it seems obvious that his ex-classmates are taunting him and baiting him for a fight that will get him in trouble, knowing what we know now, about his past with Jung Hoo, I can understand why he’d throw himself into the fray, unwilling to see Jung Hoo get beaten up. That flashback of Jung Hoo going over to Joon Woo’s house during the thunderstorm to sleep with him, coz he knew Joon Woo was scared to sleep alone in the storm, and then the two of them screaming under the blankets every time there was a clap of thunder, was just gold.
E3. It’s so painfully poignant, how Joon Woo’s dream is so simple yet so seemingly out of reach: to be able to sleep with the lights off. How many lonely, scary nights he must have spent by himself as a kid, to develop a phobia of sleeping by himself in the dark. Poor guy. And now, he’s still alone, and lonely, and that’s why he keeps the lights on still, when he goes to bed. Aw.
E3. I really like the way Joon Woo’s entire body language relaxes and changes while he sits and eats lunch with his mom. The comfort he gets from being able to sit and eat with her, the pain he feels at her tears and her worry for him, the ease with which he can talk with her; it’s all so clear to see. Really nicely done.
E5. While Joon Woo berates himself for taking out his anger on Soo Bin, it boggles my mind that given all that he’s been through, he’s managed to keep his reaction fairly even all this time. Even the extent of his lashing out is relatively mild. Nothing compared to Hwi Young lashing out, for example. And I appreciate that he regrets it quickly after, and tries to apologize.
E6. Joon Woo is astoundingly calm when it comes to this thing with Hwi Young. I’d like to think it’s because that Mom did a good job raising him to care about more than just school and grades and getting ahead, and therefore, when all the fighting and politicking has to do with school and grades and getting ahead, it’s just.. beneath him, to join in the fray.
E7. I have to respect Joon Woo. He has his own thing with Hwi Young, and yet, when Sang Hoon approaches him and offers to clear his name with regard to stealing Teacher Sohn’s (Choi Dae Hoon) watch, Joon Woo declines. He tells Sang Hoon to sort out his own issues with Hwi Young instead of trying to use him. I feel that’s really mature and level-headed. I feel like most people in his shoes would have jumped at the chance to have their name cleared especially since it’s to prove their innocence.
E9. Joon Woo really is blossoming. The old him would not have worked with his classmates to plan a special event for their school trip, nor spoken up to make sure that Soo Bin stayed behind to participate. He really has changed.
E9. I love the way Joon Woo calls out Pil Sang for all the mischief and sabotage. Even when Pil Sang denies it, Joon Woo knows right away that it has to do with Ro Mi, and even smiles at Pil Sang’s frustration, and tells him to work harder at getting Ro Mi to like him. The old Joon Woo would’ve never done that either.
E10. I kinda love the running gag that Pil Sang keeps trying to ambush Joon Woo out of petty jealousy because Ro Mi likes Joon Woo, and Joon Woo keeps foiling him. I also love that Joon Woo’s response to Pil Sang is never of annoyance, but more of a good-natured protest. I also dig the fact that Joon Woo’s comfortable enough to just tell Pil Sang to have some courage, and go confess his love for Ro Mi, and that he does so with a smile tugging at his lips. He looks like he’s in a pretty happy place, and that makes me happy.
E10. Ong Seong Wu’s background as a boyband member is utilized to great effect when Joon Woo takes the stage at the last minute, and ends up singing a completely heart-melty song. He’s got nice vocals, and the delivery sounds effortless yet heartfelt, and I liked it a lot. Importantly, this showcasing of his singing abilities doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and feels reasonably organic to the story.
E13. Soo Bin’s mom (Kim Sun Young) discovers that Joon Woo and Soo Bin are dating, and goes ballistic right there and then. After she sends Soo Bin off, she has a Serious Conversation with Joon Woo, and I feel that Ong Seong Wu does a truly excellent job of delivering Joon Woo’s emotions in this difficult scene. Joon Woo doesn’t say much, but the slight quiver of his lips, and his gaze, darting slightly, communicate so much. I feel his nerves, his desire to do right by Soo Bin, his hurt that Mom would even ask if he’d slept with Soo Bin, and all he does is answer her question truthfully, but I feel like I saw his heart being run over by a truck, and his mind coming in, to pick up the pieces.
E13. I love that Joon Woo’s now setting his sights on art school. It feels so perfectly suited to him; he’s always loved drawing, and that’s where his talent and passion collide. I really like the idea that he’ll be able to leverage on this talent, to go to college. It feels authentic and genuine, and yet, it gives him the respectability that Soo Bin’s mom is likely looking for. On that note, though, I like Teacher Oh’s (Kang Ki Young) emphatic advice, that Joon Woo should not overthink things, and simply do this for himself.
E13. Joon Woo’s quiet joy at the prospect of meeting his dad, and then having any anticipation and hopes crushed right away, by Dad (Choi Jae Woong) asking him to never seek him out again, is just heartbreaking. Joon Woo’s a good kid, and even though Dad knows that, he’s pushing Joon Woo away, as a relic of the past. That’s really sad.
E14. Wow. The hurt in the depths of Joon Woo’s eyes, as he looks upon his dad and asks him why Dad’s other son is also named Joon Woo. It’s a very difficult moment for Joon Woo, hearing about his dad’s misguided actions in relation to his feelings of guilt, and Ong Seong Wu pulls it off with understated believability. Joon Woo has to fight to keep his tone neutral, and I hear that struggle in the ever-so-slight quiver in his voice. I feel so sorry for Joon Woo, who’s grown up longing for a dad who’s mainly looked upon him as a mistake. Oof.
How heartpinchingly poignant, that Joon Woo later tells his younger brother to grow up to be a brave man. Aw. That’s so kind, and it shows that Joon Woo understands that it’s not younger Joon Woo’s fault.
Kim Hyang Gi as Soo Bin
I have to confess that Soo Bin as a character wasn’t as front-and-center in my mind, compared to Joon Woo. That said, I did enjoy Soo Bin very well. I found her immediately likable, with a natural warmth and a curiosity about others that comes across as empathetic and caring rather than nosy. I also liked that Soo Bin clearly possesses an independent streak, even though she struggles to reconcile that with her desire to honor her mother’s wishes.
Soo Bin’s growth over the course of our story isn’t as.. substantial as Joon Woo’s, but by the end of our story, it’s clear to see that Soo Bin’s done her fair share of growing up, and has finally found a way to make a stand for what she believes in, without offending Mom too much.
This is my proper introduction to Kim Hyang Gi (I’d seen her in A Werewolf Boy, but mentally, I hadn’t registered her much, since she’d played a supporting character), and I must say that I found her delivery very solid, with a nice amount of nuance. She portrays Soo Bin’s emotions in a way that feels natural yet restrained, which I found quite perfect, since Soo Bin mostly works to keep her sadnesses and frustrations to herself.
I’ll talk more about Soo Bin in the section on her loveline with Joon Woo, but for now, I’ll just say that I enjoyed Soo Bin very well, and definitely rooted for her all the way through to the end.
E1. Soo Bin is appealing, right away. She’s sincerely concerned when her mom nearly knocks Joon Woo over, and seeks him out to ask if he’s ok, when she could have ignored it. And when she sees that no other study groups are taking in Joon Woo, she volunteers. I think that’s nice. I also like that she has an independent streak. Even when her mom is trying to get her into Hwi Young’s math academy class, she refuses to attend, insisting that she wants to study on her own. I like that.
E2. Soo Bin’s interest in Joon Woo feels innocent and like genuine curiosity, to my eyes. She notices him at first because of the near-accident with her mom’s car. But Joon Woo is so reserved and different and non-committal, that I think it piques her curiosity. She observes him; asks him questions; talks with him. She doesn’t jump to a snap judgment; she seems to really not be swayed by other’s opinions, and forms her own, based on her own interactions with Joon Woo. I like that.
It feels similar to how Soo Bin doesn’t want to receive special tuition in Math. She wants to put in her own effort and earn her own grades. She doesn’t expect her grades to be perfect, but she does want them to be her own. That feels just like how she approaches Joon Woo. She’s got a strong independent streak, and she isn’t afraid to buck the trend, and I like that.
E10. Soo Bin’s really got a good heart. Even Hwi Young is surprised that she’s not lashing out at him for lying to her. And when he asks her why that is, she replies that it doesn’t change anything, and that she’s trying to understand it from his perspective. And then she requests that he take some time to really think things over, and ask himself what he really feels about her. I mean, how mature and patient is she?
The treatment of the OTP relationship
From pretty early in our story, Show starts to hint at a mutual romantic interest, between Joon Woo and Soo Bin. What I really like about this, is how Show gives them the space to be friends, before any love declarations or romantic developments take place. Given Joon Woo’s circumstances and reticent nature, it’s Soo Bin who’s written to reach out to him more, but I really enjoyed the down-to-earth, honest nature of their little conversations.
And when things do turn romantic between them, I love that Show is equally adept at bringing out all the little joys, thrills and angst of teen love, and yet, making these two mature beyond their years. I love how sensible and grounded Joon Woo and Soo Bin are, when they do start to date, and instead of finding them boring, I wanted more adults to be as mature as these two young lovebirds.
The chemistry between Ong Seong Wu and Kim Hyang Gi is suitably of the sweet and youthful variety, and I thought that Joon Woo and Soo Bin worked together as a couple very nicely.
I was also very pleased that just because this loveline becomes a key narrative arc in our story, that it doesn’t detract from Joon Woo’s personal journey and development. If anything, this loveline supports his development; how very healthy and wholesome, yes?
E3. The little signs of attraction between Joon Woo and Soo Bin are quite endearing. The way she picks his name out of the box for the English free speaking test, and the way Joon Woo does his awkward, super cute little happy dance, it’s all very true-to-life. These totally are the kinds of little highs that girls and boys in school experience.
E3. When Joon Woo and Soo Bin meet in the rain, it’s just like Joon Woo to make the one thing that he says to her, be something like, “Don’t walk in the rain; it’s bad for you.” And when the thunder claps, his instinct is to leap forward to shield Soo Bin with his hands, his eyes trained on her. He may not say much, and he may not explain himself much, but he’s definitely got a soft spot for Soo Bin, and he definitely cares.
E5. Joon Woo’s shocked reaction at Soo Bin’s blurted out confession of feelings is very cute. His stunned expression, as he wobbles down the hill on his bike, trying not to fall, is quite priceless.
E6. Finally, we have Joon Woo’s official response to Soo Bin, instead of the imagined rejection in Soo Bin’s head. The way he tells her, “I like you too” is so hesitant, sweet and dorky. I like.
E7. Aw. Hee. This episode was pretty fun to watch, with both Joon Woo and Soo Bin agonizing in the wake of his confession. Joon Woo, wondering what else to do, now that he’s confessed, and Soo Bin, wondering if she’d imagined it all, because Joon Woo’s not doing anything after confessing. Lol.
Of course, there are other obstacles, like Hwi Young and Ro Mi getting jealous and getting in the way, but that’s par for the course, and sigh, there’s also Soo Bin’s mom being a bit of a bigot and telling Soo Bin not to get too close to Joon Woo (“Are you interested in him because of his looks?” Pfft. Even Mom knows that Joon Woo’s got nice features, ha). But the way Joon Woo concludes the episode, with resoluteness, that he wants to tell Soo Bin how he feels, and the way he decides that he wants to say that he meant what he said, is so.. youthful yet mature. He doesn’t let Mom intimidate him into making an excuse to talk the next day, and he doesn’t hide behind any made-up excuse either. He is forthright yet respectful and gentle with Ro Mi when she tries to ambush him into dating her instead, and his chosen words to Soo Bin, “I meant what I said,” (which I hope he gets to say) is so simple and yet so earnest and sweet.
E8. Joon Woo working to be a good potential boyfriend is very cute. I love how focused he becomes, once he realizes that he needs to actually do something. The way he is gently persistent in wanting to talk to Soo Bin is so offhandedly sincere, and the way he tells Soo Bin that he only likes her, is so gently matter-of-fact too. How does he manage to be sweet yet matter-of-fact at the same time? And how cute, that he went early to the movie theater and bought the drink and popcorn so far in advance that the ice had all melted before Soo Bin even arrived? And even cuter, is how honest he is about it. I also love how attentive he is, to Soo Bin’s expression. When she falls silent and looks troubled after receiving that text message, I love the quiet, concerned way he asks her about it.
E9. Joon Woo is so pure. When Soo Bin starts acting strangely on their date, he does his best to tend to her needs, and afterwards, spends hours on end, trying to figure out how he’d made her unhappy. And he seeks her out to talk about it. I like that by the time he looks her up at her home, that he’s sharp enough to know to read her expression, rather than simply trust the words she says. When Soo Bin shows him the text, it’s so telling of Joon Woo’s character that he doesn’t get angry. Instead, his first reaction is of hurt and disappointment, that she trusted the text more than she trusted him. He doesn’t even get into the fact that Hwi Young fabricated the text. I kinda love that about him. He’s really so pure.
E10. Joon Woo and his reflex of protecting Soo Bin is very endearing. First, that time when he tried to shield her from the rain with his hands, and this episode, when he shields her from the contents of the penalty balloon, when she freezes up at the question of whether she still likes Joon Woo. It’s very endearing.
E10. Props to Joon Woo for having the courage and quick reflexes to pull Soo Bin in for a hug, when the opportunity presents itself during the dance. Their misunderstanding cleared, and their resulting hurt and confusion resolved, they both are ready to reaffirm their affection for each other, and when Soo Bin gets accidentally pushed in Joon Woo’s direction, he grabs the opportunity, holds her tight for a hug, and whispers, “Stay beside me.” D’aw. He’s certainly paralyzed no longer, and has honed his boyfriend instincts, to show the girl he likes, how he feels. Go, Joon Woo!
E11. I’m a little sorry to see the school trip end, but it is cute to see Joon Woo and Soo Bin as a newly minted couple, getting their first taste of being in a relationship. Show clearly knows what it’s like to be in a new, teenaged relationship; all the anticipation, earnestness and innocence is captured perfectly in the little moments that Joon Woo and Soo Bin share. The little exchanged glances; the list they make of things they’d like to do together as a couple; the happy glow that each of them can’t hide; the phone calls and text messages; the simple dates peppered with little questions and confessions and shy smiles; it all feels gloriously real, yet it also feels touched by a dash of magic. So good.
E12. Joon Woo and Soo Bin are cute and heartwarming together. They are really level-headed, for teenagers just discovering love. They encourage each other, study together, support each other, cheer each other on, have heart-to-heart talks about deep things like life and regrets, and they even have a plan on how to best approach their relationship reveal, with Soo Bin’s mom. If there ever was a role model for how to have a healthy romantic relationship while in school, I feel like this is it.
E12. It’s quite a lovely thing, to see Joon Woo blossom into a boy who’s no longer reserved and socially awkward, but a boy who’s able to express himself to the girl that he likes, holding her hand and telling her that he loves her, and even able to read her expression to know that she’s sad and needs cheering up.
E13. I’m also impressed with how Soo Bin and Joon Woo handle the situation with Mom. There are no histrionics or tantrums from Soo Bin, not because she’s actually afraid of Mom’s threats, but because she doesn’t want Mom to think badly of Joon Woo. And Joon Woo puts himself out there and promises not to even talk to Soo Bin, if Mom would give Soo Bin back her independence and freedom. They are each thinking of the other, in navigating this situation that’s been thrust upon them that was the last thing they wanted. And, on top of that, they’re choosing the most level-headed, mature way forward; working hard while finding ways to encourage each other, without betraying Mom’s trust. They are really sweet kids.
E14. Oof. That moment when Soo Bin’s running towards Joon Woo, calling his name, with so much concern in her voice, and Joon Woo looks at her, pauses, and then calls her name, “Soo Bin-ah,” and then just quietly shakes his head. His expression is gently neutral, but I can only imagine how much determination and self-control it’s taking for him, to turn down her company in this moment when he could so use the emotional support. And yet, he does it, on principle. I’m so impressed with Joon Woo in this moment.
E14. Soo Bin works really hard to show Joon Woo her love and support, and her efforts aren’t all for nothing, coz the letter that she sneaked out to get to Joon Woo, really does bring him a great deal of comfort at a time when he really needs it. But her efforts do put Joon Woo in a difficult position, since he’s promised her mom that he won’t speak to Soo Bin or spend time with her. So every time Soo Bin sidesteps her bodyguard to do something for Joon Woo, he’s torn between accepting her gesture, and keeping his honor. Credit to Joon Woo for consistently choosing to honor his word to Soo Bin’s mom, despite how difficult it must be, to ignore his feelings, and his desire to also spend time with Soo Bin.
I can totally see why Soo Bin would feel discouraged and slighted, though, since she is putting herself out there, and risks a lot, just to do something for Joon Woo. So I’m glad that Joon Woo finally tells it to her straight, and explains his dilemma to her. I’m also glad he seals it all with a kiss; these two lovebirds deserve at least that much.
Kang Ki Young as Teacher Oh
I feel like Kang Ki Young is just perfectly cast as Teacher Oh. His natural warmth and dorky charm fits Teacher Oh so well.
The more I got to know Teacher Oh, the more I liked him. Not only is he earnest and wholehearted about teaching, he genuinely cares about his students, and will go above and beyond to help one of them, without a second thought. I love that he’s caring, yet fair, yet all-embracing, when it comes to supervising and protecting his students.
[VAGUE MINOR SPOILER] For example, even though Joon Woo and Hwi Young are obviously on opposite sides, and even though it’s clear to see that Joon Woo’s been unfairly treated, Teacher Oh doesn’t discriminate against Hwi Young, nor withhold affection or concern from him. [END SPOILER] I thought that was so loving and pure, of him.
Even though Teacher Oh is introduced as an almost comic sort of character, by the end of our story, I luffed him unreservedly, and wanted only all of the good things for him, always. I’d even be up for this story to enjoy multiple seasons, with each season focusing on a different batch of students, and Teacher Oh as the constant that anchors it all. <3
E1. Kang Ki Young’s immediately quite likable as the somewhat scattered, but caring assistant homeroom teacher. His rapport with the students is casual and easy, and it’s a rare teacher who can joke with the students like he does, and get choruses of reactions out of them.
E4. Teacher Oh is a good-hearted egg. The way he runs after Jung Hoo, even though he doesn’t know him; the way he wants to honor the students’ efforts to prepare for the test; the way he enthusiastically watches Soo Bin and Joon Woo run through their prepared free talking segment, then offers to take them out to celebrate with pizza; it’s all so heartwarming. He really wants to be a good teacher and supporter of these kids, if only his VP (Park Sung Geun) would let him.
E5. Good on Teacher Oh for hustling his way to a permanent position, despite the slippery shady VP. You can just tell that he cares for the students and genuinely wants the best for them in terms of growth and learning. And you can tell that the students know it too, by the way they moan and groan when they hear that he’s leaving. When he shows up to allegedly say goodbye, they all beseech him to stay. You don’t get that often, especially with high school students, and to me, this is the ultimate proof that Teacher Oh is a good teacher; a teacher that the students want and need.
E5. I sense a bond growing between Teacher Oh and Joon Woo, and I’m here for it. Teacher Oh seems to genuinely desire Joon Woo’s acceptance and trust, and I love that. Maybe it’s because Joon Woo is the class underdog; maybe it’s because Teacher Oh senses Joon Woo’s isolation; maybe it’s because Teacher Oh just knows that Joon Woo needs a friend. Whatever it is, I really enjoy their little interactions. Their conversations feels honest and unguarded, even though up till this moment, Teacher Oh has been quite powerless to challenge the shady powers that be. I’m looking forward to see where this goes.
E5. I do like that now that Teacher Oh is the permanent homeroom teacher of Class 3, that he’s starting to put his foot down on things. Hwi Young was too much, telling Teacher Oh that he couldn’t yield to him on the matter of extra classes. Good on Teacher Oh for calling him out on that, and then telling him to switch back the seating arrangement to the previous one. Can’t wait to see Teacher Oh establishing himself more as a voice of authority in the classroom too.
E8. Teacher Oh making Joon Woo his right hand man is an endearing arc that I’m not at all opposed to. I do like that the vibe between them is closer to a connection between friends, even though Joon Woo is still speaking respectfully.
E8. Teacher Oh showing kindness and concern to Hwi Young, despite everything that he knows about Hwi Young being shady, is a good demonstration of what a nurturing teacher he is. He does see every student as one of his babies, and that’s so pure.
E9. Teacher Oh’s shock at Hwi Young’s mom trying to bribe him shows just how pure-hearted he is. Even with all of Mom’s prior manipulation and theatrics, Teacher Oh genuinely never saw this coming. And he wastes no time in returning the money and making it clear that he won’t accept it. Good man.
E12. Teacher Oh’s backstory is rather sad.. no wonder he has so much empathy for his kids, if he knows exactly what it’s like to be under pressure to be first in class all the time. I feel bad for him that his mom died too; that’s just so much for a young teen to bear. But I’m proud of him, for turning all that angst into something positive; he’s become such an understanding teacher now, to his kids.
E13. The way that Teacher Oh loses his cool in that conversation with Soo Bin’s mom shows just how strongly he feels about his students, and how much he cares about them and wants to protect them so that they can blossom without too much interference. Afterwards, when he notices the gloom over his entire class, I love how he puts aside his lesson plan for the day and takes them out to chill in the open, while looking up at the sky. And I love that what he imparts in the moment, are words about character, relating with others, and what’s truly important in life.
E13. I appreciate that Teacher Oh’s little gentle pep talk nudges Ki Tae to finally officially apologize to Joon Woo. I feel like the boys have a remarkably mature conversation, despite neither of them feeling comfortable about it. Ki Tae acknowledges his mistake and apologizes, and Joon Woo acknowledges his own difficult feelings and admits having blamed Ki Tae, but believes that Ki Tae hadn’t intended for things to turn out that way, and accepts Ki Tae’s apology. There’s no magical reconciliation and the boys don’t become friends. Joon Woo walks away right after, but it’s still significant that they spoke, and that a truce has officially been declared, even though they weren’t at war to begin with. It feels like things have shifted in a meaningful way, and I feel like both boys receive a measure of catharsis, in this.
E13. Teacher Oh and Joon Woo both being lovesick together is amusing and cute. Teacher Oh is right; liking someone comes with its challenges, no matter what age you are.
Moon Bin as Oh Je
I really loved Oh Je as a character. Among all the students in Joon Woo’s class, Oh Je stood out to me very quickly, with his genial good nature and beautiful smile. [MINOR SPOILER] In the beginning, when the others were wary of Joon Woo and giving him a wide berth, Oh Je was one of the first people to show interest in being Joon Woo’s friend, and for that, he quickly had my heart. [END SPOILER]
I think what gets me the most about Oh Je, is that despite his genuine caring nature and the warmth that he is quick to show others, he has his own personal struggles; struggles that tend to make him despondent and downcast. It hurt me to see Oh Je struggle, and I honestly wanted to reach into my screen to give him a hug and tell him that everything was ok.
Show doesn’t delve into Oh Je’s arc too deeply (that would be meaty enough to make him the protagonist of his own story, I think), but overall, I’m satisfied that Show wraps up the threads that are most important, at least to my eyes. In the end, the friendships that are most important to Oh Je remain intact, and Oh Je seems content with that, so I’m content with that too.
E3. Oh Je seems like a nice boy, choosing to sit with Joon Woo in the cafeteria, even though his classmates had saved him a seat.
E9. Oh Je seems to look in Hwi Young’s direction a lot. Does he have a crush on Hwi Young? I mean, I have no issues with him being gay, but couldn’t he like someone more likable?
E9. When Da Heen sulks at him for ignoring her, he coaxes her with the most gentle doe-eyes. Ack. I just like Oh Je. He’s a good egg.
E9. Oh Je really is a nice person. When he sees Hwi Young all angry on the field kicking balls into the net, he volunteers to be goalkeeper, even though Hwi Young is being anything but personable. And yet, he never loses his genial, even tone with Hwi Young, even when Hwi Young growls at him to go away. Very few people can do that, and Oh Je does it so naturally.
E11. I feel bad for both Oh Je and Da Heen. It was a mistake for Oh Je to agree to date her in the first place, so it’s best that they break up now, but it’s still a painful thing for them both. Da Heen’s heart is broken because the boy she likes says it’s too hard and doesn’t want to be her boyfriend anymore (ouch); Oh Je’s stuck between continuing in a sham of a relationship where his heart is not in it, and breaking up with Da Heen and hurting her, in order to give himself room to breathe. And Oh Je is just the sort of boy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, so this must be really hard for him too. Ack.
E13. The fact that Oh Je confesses to Da Heen that he likes someone else and that that someone else isn’t a girl, is really huge for him, and it’s awful that not 2 seconds have passed, before the girl who overhears it has spread it to the school group chat. Poor Oh Je. This isn’t how it should be, now that he’s mustered the courage to actually tell someone about it.
But, it does break down the walls between Da Heen and him, and I appreciate that she immediately wants to protect him. I also like that she apologizes and cries, and that Oh Je hugs her to comfort her. It’s awful for Oh Je, but I like that these two have made up, and are past the petulant cold war. Before they were a couple, they were friends, and I hope that this means the friendship is back. I just want Oh Je to be happy and at ease.
Joon Woo’s friendship with Oh Je
Joon Woo and Oh Je are my two favorite boys in this drama world, for whom I want nothing but good things, and it pleases my heart so, that these two become best friends.
At first, Oh Je’s the one who reaches out to Joon Woo more, because Joon Woo’s the loner newbie who could really use a friend, but by our story’s end, it’s clear to see that this friendship flows both ways; these boys really have come to care about each other, and knowing that, comforts me. Each of these boys has his own struggles and challenges, and I’m just happy to know that they have each other’s backs, through it all.
E8. I do love that Joon Woo and Oh Je are besties now. I loved that little scene where Oh Je’s giving Joon Woo food to take home, and then questions him about dating Soo Bin, then won’t stop ribbing him about keeping it from his best friend. Aw. That’s exactly what best buds do, and it just warms my heart so, to see this happening between these two new besties. <3
E9. Oh Je seeks out Joon Woo at his home, just to hang out with him for a bit and lend him a listening ear. How considerate of Oh Je, to instinctively know that Joon Woo’s troubled, and go the extra mile of visiting him at home, just so that Joon Woo would have someone to talk to.
E13. I appreciate that when Joon Woo calls Oh Je after Oh Je’s secret’s been exposed, he chooses to talk to Oh Je as if nothing’s happened. In a situation where Oh Je’s world has been turned on its head, this sense of normalcy is probably actually welcome.
E14. I love that Joon Woo is so accepting and respectful of Oh Je’s situation, when they have that talk about the rumors. He doesn’t judge Oh Je at all, and is very matter-of-fact about how Oh Je isn’t messed up, and is just feeling his feelings, and that he’s entitled to do that. Oh Je needs that so much, and I’m glad these two are besties.
Shim Yi Young as Joon Woo’s mom
I really enjoyed Shim Yi Young as Joon Woo’s mom. She’s got a natural, simple warmth and charm that becomes the character, really well.
I loved Yeon Woo for being such a supportive mom to Joon Woo. In all of her unconventional ways, she rocks at being a mom who believes in her son unconditionally. We can see that that radical love comes at a cost to her, but the evidence speaks for itself; that radical love has caused her son to grow up to be a sensible, sensitive, mature young man in spite of his mother’s self-confessed foolishness. It’s quite beautiful to behold, and I really enjoyed the bond between Yeon Woo and Joon Woo.
E2. I feel sorry for Joon Woo’s mom. She really seems to be trying her best to be cheerful for Joon Woo, but her sadness and guilt are unmistakable. Her tears at failing as a mom, and putting all the blame on herself, are heartbreaking. It’s a hard choice to be apart from her son.
E12. I do love Yeon Woo. She’s such a believer in her son, and such a cheerleader, and there’s no judgey-ness about her. Instead of tsk-tsking at her son for dating while still in high school, she rejoices that he’s opened his heart to someone, and that his girlfriend is such a sweet and cool girl. That’s an unusual and cool mom right there. And when she returns to the countryside to her job and therefore has to say goodbye to Joon Woo again, she cries. I feel like both mother and son are so earnest. Instead of a mother and son, it almost feels like they’re friends, both working hard where they are, and cheering each other on. It’s just really sweet.
E13. Joon Woo’s mom coming early to cook him breakfast on the first day of the exam, is such a sweet Mom thing to do. What’s happening with her, though? Why is she wan and sad?
The budding friendship between Song Hee and Yeon Woo
At around Show’s midway point, we begin to see a connection forming between Soo Bin’s mom and Joon Woo’s mom, almost against their wills. I really enjoyed seeing this reluctant friendship blossom (well, reluctant on Song Hee’s part anyway), because I really love the idea that we can find friendship in unlikely places.
While we don’t get a conclusive ending regarding this friendship, I’d like to think that these two women will continue to regard each other as friends for a long time.
E9. The new connection between Soo Bin’s mom and Joon Woo’s mom is going to be interesting. I like that despite their initial discomfort, they’ve started to embrace this symbiotic relationship. They need each other, right now, and they seem to be growing a little fond of each other, even. What’s going to happen, though, when they realize that Soo Bin and Joon Woo like each other?
E10. I really enjoy the burgeoning friendship between Joon Woo’s mom and Soo Bin’s mom. Joon Woo’s mom is just the right kind of sweet, cheery and accepting person that Soo Bin’s mom needs, especially now when her life is going into a crisis of sorts, with Soo Bin’s dad asking for a divorce. It’s too bad that Soo Bin’s mom is currently pushing Joon Woo’s mom away out of embarrassment. But I appreciate the care and concern that Joon Woo’s mom shows Soo Bin’s mom, when she sees that Soo Bin’s mom is in a hard place. There’s no judgment, only a nurturing sort of solicitude, and a desire to support her. That’s sweet.
E11. It’s such a loyal friend thing that Yeon Woo does for Song Hee, speaking up for her in front of the snooty Geum Ja (Jung Young Joo) who’s being evasive about why Soo Bin’s been suddenly excluded from the tutoring program. Even though Song Hee hasn’t been altogether welcoming, Yeon Woo’s been consistently warm and caring, and I love that afterwards, Song Hee thanks her. I feel like even though she’s not cognizant of why she’s thanking Yeon Woo, that it’s because it felt gratifying to have someone so unequivocally on her side.
E12. It warms my heart to see that Yeon Woo and Song Hee decide to become friends. The way she threatened to run Song Hee’s estranged husband over, and got Song Hee to laugh instead of cry, was pretty awesome. And I thought it was really sweet that they continued to call each other even after Yeon Woo stopped working for Song Hee and went back to the countryside.
Soo Bin’s gal pals
Having a gang of girlfriends is such a quintessential part of the high school experience, and I enjoyed seeing Soo Bin spend time with her gal pals, in the big and small moments.
My favorite thing about this gang, is how supportive the girls are of Soo Bin’s budding romance, once she tells them about it. The way they all encouraged her to watch the movie with Joon Woo made me smile. I love how they are unequivocally in support of her and that there’s no petty jealousy, even though they do sigh in envy, a little bit. I like that a lot.
Kim Ga Hee as Chan Yeol
Although Chan Yeol is a supporting character that doesn’t get much screen time, I found myself growing more and more fond of her, the deeper I got into my watch.
Chan Yeol functions as the anchor to her group of girlfriends, and they always get together at her home, whether it’s to enjoy a sleepover, angst and mope about boys, or celebrate little wins. Somehow, Chan Yeol grounds them through it all, even though she later develops a bit of lovelorn angst of her own.
E11. Aw, Chan Yeol’s little crush on Teacher Oh is quashed as quickly and as suddenly as it started. We get only glimpses of Chan Yeol’s reactions to Teacher Oh, during the school trip, and then this episode, when she sees him with new girlfriend Ji Min (Heo Young Ji), and kudos to Kim Ga Hee, Chan Yeol’s burgeoning hyperawareness of Teacher Oh, and her subsequent tamped-down shock and heartbreak, feels so real. It really popped for me, even though it gets so little screen time.
E14. Chan Yeol is a hero. I love how she still has feelings for Teacher Oh, but chooses to show him where to find his girlfriend Ji Min anyway. Chan Yeol may be young, but she sure knows how to love selflessly. I love this girl. <3
Teacher Oh’s loveline
It doesn’t get a great deal of screen time, but I thought Teacher Oh’s little loveline was cute, though slightly random. I have so much affection for Teacher Oh, though, that I’m just happy that he’s happy to be in love.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
Shin Seung Ho as Hwi Young
To be honest, I didn’t like Hwi Young a whole lot, for the most part. Show does a solid job of setting him up as the golden boy with hidden angst, but because of his multiple objectionable actions, it took me a long time to soften towards him.
Even though Show makes it a point to redeem Hwi Young as a character by the end of our story, I’m putting Hwi Young in the “just ok” category because, well, he does do a lot of very undesirable things in the first half of our story. Show doesn’t do the typical drama thing of sweeping all his wrongs under the carpet and tying it up with a happy bow; credit to Show, Hwi Young’s arc gets an ending that feels reasonably realistic and reasonable.
Overall, I thought Shin Seung Ho did a pretty solid job of portraying Hwi Young’s various facets.
E1. Show does a good job of presenting Hwi Young as a boy who’s under a huge amount of pressure to be perfect. He needs to live up to his brother’s achievements, and make his parents proud, and be #1 at school, and be all-around nice and perfect-mannered to everyone. He’s clearly cracking under the pressure, and I feel a little sorry for him, for being in that situation. But, it’s still not ok that he makes Joon Woo out to be a thief, and his sudden flashing of his nastier side is, well, nasty.
E1. My guess is that Hwi Young is getting rid of Joon Woo because his crush Soo Bin is showing an interest in Joon Woo. But what a move to pull, when Joon Woo’s only been at school for a few days at most. Is this how he treats anyone who gets in his way?
E2. I’m trying to decide what to make of Hwi Young. He’s clearly under a lot of pressure from his parents, and the expectations of everyone at school is affecting him too. He feels like he needs to be everyone’s perfect golden boy. I feel like that’s the only place that he sees for himself, like, if he fails to be that perfect golden boy, that there would be no other place for him, in this world. It’s driving him crazy, which is clear from how he’s scratched his wrist raw, from the stress and the anger. It seems like he’s got a lot of pent up angst within him and feels like he needs to take it out somewhere, and that somewhere happens to be Joon Woo.
E2. It started out with Hwi Young taking it out on Mr. Sohn by throwing away his watch. But Joon Woo happened to be there, and looked like an easy target. Plus, Joon Woo had already gotten on Hwi Young’s bad side because Soo Bin’s shown an interest in Joon Woo. So in that moment, Hwi Young made a decision to make Joon Woo the scapegoat. And once he started, he was too far gone to reverse it, which is where I think we are now. He acted the part of the golden boy, pretending to help Joon Woo, and all he wanted was for the problem to go away. He thought that if Joon Woo transferred, that this problem would all go away, but it didn’t, because Joon Woo came back. Uh oh?
E3. Hwi Young is like some kind of mafia boss, with the kind of power he wields informally. His minions look to him for permission to obey the teacher; his respect for authority is only superficial and he goes over his teacher’s head to submit budget reports; he pulls strings to help the ones that he wants to help; the truth is what he decides it is; he is the one buying people off to orchestrate Joon Woo’s expulsion. What an insolent little gangster he really is. I get that he has problems at home, but what makes it ok for him to mess with Joon Woo’s life and future by getting him expelled? Is his life the only life that’s important? That’s so entitled. If this is all because Soo Bin’s paying Joon Woo attention, that makes it even worse. He can’t handle rejection and has to ruin someone else’s life in order to maybe control the girl that he likes? Ugh.
E3. Hwi Young really is such an entitled jerk. The way he seeks out Joon Woo at his job, to tell him that he can help with the test, for Soo Bin’s sake, because Soo Bin’s his girlfriend (which is a total lie), is just so presumptuous. That he thinks it’s ok for him to stick his nose into this, is just so wrong.
E8. It occurs to me that Hwi Young is not only stressed by his parents’ expectations of him, he’s likely also plagued by feelings that he’s a phony. He’s only at the top because of all the strings that his parents pull for him, and all the times that his parents have bailed him out of a sticky situation. All those times that he’s been aggressively putting himself forward to show how good he is, I think it’s not only to prove to others that he deserves to be the best, but it’s also to convince himself of it.
E9. To Hwi Young’s credit, he does feel conflicted and guilty for hurting Soo Bin, and he does finally attempt to ‘fess up, but it doesn’t make it ok for him to have orchestrated that whole fake text thing to keep Soo Bin away from Joon Woo. This is obsession, and not love. How could he do something so low, and so deeply hurt the person he claims to like so much, just to satisfy his own obsession?
E12. I’m starting to feel a little sorry for Hwi Young, because he’s finally showing some truth and vulnerability in this episode. He’s genuinely not aware of some of the dark things that his parents have done to improve his position in school, and finding out is such a smack in the face to him; they say that it’s all because he can’t do well on his own. Considering how hard Hwi Young works, and how hard he is perceived to be failing, by his parents and therefore also by himself, it’s no wonder that he’s systematically getting his soul crushed. And, his earlier behavior with his classmates has ensured that he doesn’t really have any friends to confide in, right now. But Teacher Oh is right there waiting for him, so I hope Hwi Young takes Teacher Oh up on that offer of help and support.
E13. Did Hwi Young purposely get those 5 answers wrong on his Math exam? He seems determined to raise a ruckus. Also, he gets a brownie point for offering Soo Bin his phone, since he knows that she’s being closely monitored by Mom.
E14. It feels like Hwi Young’s finally snapped, what with him even standing up to his dad’s physical threats. I feel like this is almost about to become a murder crime scene, there are so many feelings, fully charged on all sides.
Kim Sun Young as Soo Bin’s mom
Don’t get me wrong; I love Kim Sun Young, and I think she does a fantastic job of portraying Soo Bin’s mom Song Hee. I also think that Show does a pretty nice job of fleshing her out, and showing us the challenges and struggles that she grapples with on a daily basis, which in turn make her unreasonable behavior more understandable.
It’s just that in the grand scheme of things, Song Hee does display some less than desirable mindsets, especially around social class and social standing. Her prejudice and bigotry come into play, especially in relation to Joon Woo, and while I understand why she might behave the way she does, it doesn’t reduce the vicarious sting of her harsh judgment and words.
I’m happy to say, however, that Song Hee mellows out significantly by the time we reach the end of our story, and I’m heartened by the growth that she experiences personally, and how that positively affects her relationship with Soo Bin.
E2. Soo Bin’s mother’s tirade about how women can’t expect to be judged like men, and have to work many times harder to succeed, is positioned as a tiger mum thing to say, but at the same time, it also rings so true of today’s world. It’s undeniable that women have the odds stacked against them, in society. And so, even while I feel sorry for Soo Bin for having to contend with this source of stress from her mother, I also feel like I can understand why Mom would feel that doing this now is the best way to guarantee Soo Bin’s future.
E9. That scene of Soo Bin curling up with her mom, both of them murmuring words of conversation that maintain that they’re ok, but each with a tear escaping through their closed eyes, is so very poignant. It’s heartwarming that they care about each other so much, and yet, it’s so heartbreaking that they feel like they can’t be completely honest with each other. Mom doesn’t tell Soo Bin about seeing Dad with his new girlfriend, and Soo Bin doesn’t tell Mom about being brokenhearted. Aw.
E12. It’s a sad state of affairs that Soo Bin’s parents are putting up a show of being married, for her sake. And it’s really tragic that Soo Bin feels so guilty about having persuaded her mom not to leave, back when Mom had first wanted to divorce Dad. It’s true what Joon Woo said; it’s not her fault because she really believed it was the best thing to do, at the time. She had no idea then, that her parents would agree to stay together, but execute it only in form and not in spirit. It’s tragic that Mom has become a bitter, lonely single mom in the meantime, and it’s unfortunate that the burden of lifting her up has fallen on Soo Bin, via her grades and general academic performance. So much pressure and so much stress; it’s too much of a burden for a teenager to bear.
E12. Soo Bin’s mom losing it when she realizes that Soo Bin is dating Joon Woo, is so unfortunate. Ironically, the scene that she walks in on, which looks so incriminating to her eyes, is simply Joon Woo comforting Soo Bin over her guilt at ruining Mom’s life by stopping her from getting a divorce, those years ago. Yet, I do wonder if knowing that would’ve made any difference to Mom.. She’s adamant that Soo Bin not date while in high school, after all.
E13. While I’m not surprised that Soo Bin’s mom practically screams her lungs out when she realizes that Soo Bin and Joon Woo are dating, what does surprise me, is that when she stays back to talk with Joon Woo, she speaks gently, and even says that because his mom is a good person, she’s sure that Joon Woo’s a good person too. Given the circumstances, I feel like this is huge progress, for Mom. I’d expected her to throw a screaming fit at Joon Woo for daring to date her daughter, but instead, she appeals to him to do what she deems is the “right thing,” and thanks him for agreeing to her request. I don’t agree with the way she threatens Soo Bin with what would effectively be abandonment, if Soo Bin doesn’t cooperate, but on this one thing, where Joon Woo is concerned, I’m.. quite pleasantly surprised.
E14. The painful charade that Soo Bin and her mom keep up, for each other. Mom pretends that nothing’s wrong and that there’s no divorce happening, and Soo Bin pretends to believe her. Ack. I wish these two could just be honest with each other; this ritual deception is eroding their relationship and killing them, slowly but surely.
Hwi Young vs. Joon Woo
From the beginning of our story, Show sets up Joon Woo and Hwi Young as opposites. Hwi Young’s the perfect class president who’s consistently first in class, and who enjoys a great deal of popularity, while Joon Woo’s the outcast newbie who’s been forced to transfer because of a dubious incident, and who struggles to keep up with schoolwork.
And yet, over time, it becomes clear that Joon Woo and Hwi Young might have more in common than they think. [VAGUE HIGH LEVEL SPOILER] Both of them are learning to find their own path, apart from their fathers, albeit in very different ways. [END SPOILER] I guess that’s what it means to be eighteen; you learn to find yourself and figure yourself out, for you.
I found it interesting to see these two boys contrasted consistently, over the course of our story.
E1. One episode in, I’m already concerned for Joon Woo, our underdog protagonist, and I feel upset at how he’s being unfairly treated, his previous school record being used as evidence against him, even though he didn’t commit the theft. It makes me angry how all the key adults are simply assuming his guilt based on his background, even though there’s no evidence to prove he took the watch. Worse, he’s being pressured to transfer because of it. Even worse, the picture-perfect class president, who’s saying that he’ll help Joon Woo, is talking to the teacher behind his back, saying that Joon Woo is guilty after all. How are these people so vile and without conscience? Ugh.
E6. I do think it’s interesting that Joon Woo is finally saying that he will expose Hwi Young and set things right. Given how Hwi Young is so emotional and out of control when he’s upset, and how Joon Woo is, by contrast, so unruffled and even, in the face of that emotion, I think Joon Woo is in a much better position to think straight through all of this. I’m very curious to see how Joon Woo is going to reveal the real Hwi Young behind the perfect mask.
E6. Aw. Joon Woo doesn’t even hesitate to volunteer to carry Soo Bin to the nurse’s office when she doubles over from the pain during the test. Hwi Young, on the other hand, doesn’t budge from his seat because he’s got a bigger priority.
E14. It feels fitting that at a time when no one seems to be able to get through to Hwi Young, that it’s Joon Woo who steps in to speak some hard-hitting sense into him; that he’s being a coward, and that he should set things right before it’s really too late.
STUFF I LIKED LESS
Hwi Young’s parents
The more I learned about Hwi Young’s parents, the more it became clear that Hwi Young comes from a highly dysfunctional family, and the more I started to feel sorry for him. They basically made Hwi Young’s life a living hell, all in the name of excellence, ugh. It baffles me that parents can be so cruel to their children.
E6. Hwi Young does have a terrorist of a father. The way his dad (Sung Ki Yoon) uses threats and violence against both him and his mother is disturbing. Growing up like that, I suppose it’s little wonder that Hwi Young’s turned out pretty messed up.
E7. Hwi Young getting beaten up by his dad with a golf club is quite disturbing. Everyone thinks Hwi Young’s got it easy, with parents who will influence the exam outcome, even when he gets the answer wrong, but the price that Hwi Young has to pay, is really high, and quite troubling. It’s no wonder he’s becoming so messed up.
E11. Hwi Young’s dad is treating him like some kind of fighting dog, including Sang Hoon in the tutoring group for the sole purpose of giving Hwi Young some tough competition to battle it out with. I know some competition is healthy, but there’s nothing healthy about this situation.
Han Sung Min as Ro Mi
I’ve put Ro Mi in this section because while Show redeems her by our finale, there were definitely times during our journey that I was annoyed with Ro Mi’s behavior.
E6. I don’t know if Show only just decided that Ro Mi ought to have a crush on Joon Woo and assume that he has a crush on her too (it all does seem way too sudden and random), but I do rather like the dramatic tension and amusement (mainly mine) that results from it. It’s so confusing and frustrating for Soo Bin. Joon Woo actually likes her, and just when she thinks it might be true, her friends talk about how it was Ro Mi all along, which totally sets Soo Bin in the wrong direction.
E9. I used to feel neutral towards Ro Mi, but she really rubbed me the wrong way today. Joon Woo’s already made himself clear to her about his purely platonic feelings towards her, and she still tries to guilt-trip Soo Bin about going to the movies with Joon Woo. And, when Soo Bin tries to be honest with her, she takes the opportunity to twist Soo Bin’s words, and calls after her that Soo Bin’s just confirmed she doesn’t like Joon Woo, all because she saw Joon Woo within earshot. Ugh. Little manipulative schemer.
E11. Ro Mi making that snide remark that Soo Bin’s been dropped from the tutoring program because she’s now beneath Hwi Young because she’s dating Joon Woo, is so twisted. It wasn’t that long ago that Ro Mi herself was smitten with Joon Woo, and upset that he didn’t like her back. Now he’s inferior to her eyes? What gives, girl?
E13. For all of Ro Mi’s past posturing and petulance, she does come through this episode, what with her trying to cover for and protect Soo Bin and Joon Woo when she spots Soo Bin’s mom in school, and with her offering to mentor Pil Sang, and actually tutoring him. I’m mollified.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
I was rather afraid that this lead-up to the finale would take a sharp left turn into Angstville, with a possible forced separation between our young lovebirds, but – and I’m so grateful – Show doesn’t go there.
Instead, our young lovebirds demonstrate that they’re much more grounded and mature than some of the adults in our story world. Joon Woo works hard at juggling art academy with school and his part-time job, and despite not getting enough rest, he manages a much improved showing in his grades at school, and I feel so proud of him.
Soo Bin does well too, and shows Mom that she’s trustworthy. Mom’s attempt to talk with Joon Woo’s mom, to have Joon Woo transfer out of Seoul, is thankfully not only without any screaming or histrionics, but also, unsuccessful. As much as Yeon Woo likes Song Hee, she doesn’t accept Song Hee’s tearful request, and reminds Song Hee that she’s as much of a mother as Song Hee is, and that she won’t hurt Joon Woo that way. Gooo, Mom. <3
Most of the angst this hour comes from Hwi Young being investigated for all his wrongdoings, and that feels right and apt. It’s true that Hwi Young’s done some terrible things, and it’s only appropriate that he faces the consequences, and with enough time before the final credits roll, that we get a better picture of what happens to him after the investigation, and how everything in this world falls into place as well.
I really appreciate Teacher Oh this hour. Not only is he ever supportive of Joon Woo and his new goal of going to art school, he’s so empathetic and respectful, as he supports Joon Woo and Hwi Young through the investigation. I love that he takes time to talk to Joon Woo beforehand, to gently give him the heads-up that this might dig up unpleasant memories, but it’s for the best that everything gets set straight. And I really appreciate that Teacher Oh talks to Hwi Young beforehand as well, to tell him gently, that he will share what he knows with the investigators, even if it might hurt Hwi Young’s feelings. That’s so caring and non-judgmental, and I luff him.
I can totally see why Chan Yeol’s still kinda-sorta carrying a torch for him, even though she’s being super healthy about it, and not getting obsessed about it. And I really like that Teacher Oh goes to see Ji Min and finds practical ways to help her, even as he tells her that he can do that much for the person he likes, whether she decides to date him or not. Aw. He’s such a good egg.
I love that Oh Je and Da Heen are besties now, and that that’s all that matters. We don’t even see if the other kids are still gossiping about Oh Je, and I feel like it’s because it doesn’t matter to Oh Je. All we see is that he smiles when he’s with Da Heen and Chan Yeol, and that he takes joy in feeding Joon Woo all of the food he cooks, to give Joon Woo some strength. He’s such a sweetheart, and I just love him. <3
It warms my heart greatly, to see Soo Bin and Joon Woo buckling down and working hard without complaint, not just for their own sakes, but for each other’s, as well. I like how they find little ways to cheer each other on, and support each other, complete with little pats on the head, and providing the occasional shoulder to rest on.
The most significant moment this hour, I think, is Joon Woo’s confrontation with Hwi Young. Joon Woo’s choice not to testify against Hwi Young says a lot about what’s truly important to him. For Joon Woo, it was never about punishing Hwi Young for what he’d done; he was more concerned with whether Hwi Young was actually sorry for what he’d done. And Joon Woo’s quiet but fierce question to Hwi Young, of whether he ever actually felt sorry, is as much of a punch to the gut as the actual punch he throws at Hwi Young. Hwi Young finally kneeling and apologizing to Joon Woo, is a moment that’s been a long time coming, and I’m heartened that even though I don’t know what’s going to happen next, that this is a significant milestone that was necessary and liberating not only for Hwi Young, but for Joon Woo as well.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
To be honest, I was a tad reluctant to start this finale. First, I didn’t feel ready to say goodbye to these characters; I’d grown fond of them all, and I wanted to be a part of their world for a little longer. Always a sign of a great drama, I say. Second, my gut told me that this finale would likely make me cry, at least a little, and.. I was right. I did cry a little, at this finale, but I can’t fault Show for it, and I’m grateful that we leave our characters in a positive, hopeful place.
Hwi Young does drop out of school, and we see him have one last conversation with Teacher Oh, before he leaves. I’m gratified that Teacher Oh tells him that he feels sad to see Hwi Young leave, and that Hwi Young doesn’t only thank Teacher Oh for everything, but apologizes too, for all the times that he’s been rude or disrespectful. Joon Woo and Soo Bin walk Hwi Young out, and Hwi Young thanks Joon Woo for forgiving him, and also expresses that he thought long and hard about what Joon Woo said about running away, and that this really is the only thing that he feels he can do, right now.
Later, we see that Hwi Young begins working as an attendant at a gas station, and visits his brother – in a psychiatric hospital. Woah. I’d wondered where his perfect older brother was, that his parents kept talking about, but I never expected that Hyung would be in a psychiatric hospital. That.. sure puts a completely different spin on things. Hyung probably struggled just as much as Hwi Young did, to live up to their parents’ expectations, and that probably drove him crazy, literally. To think that this wasn’t enough to get their parents to wake up and stop the craziness; instead, they doubled down on the pressure they exerted on Hwi Young, and almost drove him crazy too. That’s so awful.
I find it quite odd that we don’t see Hwi Young’s parents at all, this finale. We’re not told what happened to them, and I doubt they would’ve ended up in jail for what they did, so I’m assuming that they cut ties with Hwi Young for his rebellion and his decision to drop out of school. That does suck, that Hwi Young’s got such dysfunctional parents, and right now, I do think he’s doing what’s right for himself, for the first time, and that’s a step in the right direction. Hwi Young’s intelligent and full of potential, so I am confident that he’ll figure himself out and be the best version possible of himself, just like he promises (sadly vacant) Hyung.
As summer vacation rolls around, the classmates rally round to go to the movies, so that Pil Sang can finally have his movie date with Ro Mi, and to Pil Sang’s shocked delight, Ro Mi asks him to date her during the movie. Aw. Good on Pil Sang, for finally winning the heart of his dream girl; he’s been nothing but loyal and smitten all this time, and I do agree that it’s time he catches a break, heh.
In parallel happy news, Teacher Oh’s patience finally pays off, when Ji Min comes running to him the moment she gets accepted for a formal job. Aw. She really did feel like she didn’t deserve him, which is absolutely untrue, but I’m glad that Teacher Oh respected her feelings and helped her get to where she wanted to be. It’s sweet that the moment she feels ready, Ji Min pulls out all the stops, with flowers, balloons, and a formal love confession, to ask Teacher Oh to date her. Cute! And, yay that Teacher Oh gets all the love; he’s such a good egg, I just want him to be happy.
Through all of this, we see both Joon Woo and Soo Bin working hard at their studies, keeping in touch mostly via text messages. The troubling thing is, Joon Woo looks increasingly conflicted and ill at ease. We finally find out that Joon Woo’s decided to move back to the countryside to be with Mom who’s in financial trouble, so that he can help her. The thing that stands out to me is, when Joon Woo talks with Teacher Oh about it, and Teacher Oh expresses how well settled Joon Woo is now compared to before, intending to ask him to stay, Joon Woo says that this is precisely why he feels that he’s able to go. Before, he’d been running away, but now, he feels that he’ll be alright anywhere. And it’s true, I do believe that Joon Woo’s healed so much, from his past pain, and I also believe that the friendships that he’s forged these past months, will continue to endure and stand him in good stead, no matter where he is.
It’s also in this moment, as we see flashbacks to Joon Woo at the beginning of our story, that I realize with a start, how different Joon Woo looks now, compared to earlier. Even though he’s always been quiet and reticent, the air about Joon Woo before, was sullen, whereas now, all we see is an open expression full of quiet warmth. I’m impressed all over again, at Ong Seong Wu’s acting ability. He makes Joon Woo feel almost like two different people, despite Joon Woo essentially staying the same, quiet person. Really good.
Joon Woo respectfully asks Soo Bin’s mom for permission to spend a day out with Soo Bin, and our young lovebirds savor the day with tears burgeoning in their eyes. It turns out that, even though Joon Woo had planned to tell her of his move during this date, Soo Bin had already heard about it, when she’d called Joon Woo’s mom out of concern for Joon Woo’s troubled aura. Our young lovebirds agree not to be sad, and to be patient, until they can be together again. And then, in quite a perfect moment of serendipity, Joon Woo receives a text informing him that he’s won second place in the art competition he’d participated in. How lovely, that Soo Bin’s right there, to share his tearful joy, and tell him how proud of him she is. Sniffle. I find myself feeling super proud of Joon Woo too, like a mother hen seeing her chick all grown up.
On moving day, Soo Bin stays home like Joon Woo requested of her, and he sends his stuff off in a mover truck, then surveys his home and savors all the memories he’s made there with Soo Bin and the rest of the gang, before taking his bicycle and leaving on foot. As the hour draws near for Joon Woo to leave, though, Soo Bin can’t hold herself back any longer, and heads out in a hurry. She finds Bumbi the bicycle parked among the other bicycles downstairs, with a note in its basket telling her that the combination code is her birthday, along with a roll of paintings that Joon Woo had made, of a bunch of their key meeting moments. How sweet, and how uniquely Joon Woo. <3
Soo Bin rushes to the bus station, and, unable to find Joon Woo, calls out his name. We see Joon Woo’s eyes welling up with tears as he sits in his seat, having heard Soo Bin’s voice call his name, and then, as his bus pulls away, we see that Joon Woo’s stepped off the bus, so that he can see Soo Bin one last time, and hold her one last time, before their temporary goodbye.
As the camera pans away, we hear Joon Woo in voiceover, “Even though we’re facing this moment of farewell now, this goodbye isn’t forever.. the moments we shared are still shining so radiantly and the dazzling moments that I experienced at the age of 18 were truly beautiful.”
It’s on a heartpinching yet hopeful note that we leave Soo Bin and Joon Woo, and while my heart squeezes at the thought of the hardships ahead of them, I have confidence that these level-headed, mature lovebirds will make it out the other side, even stronger in character, and stronger in their commitment towards each other as well. And I’m confident too, that the rest of the gang will continue to stay committed friends as well, long after our credits stop rolling.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Hopeful, poignant, and full of feels.
FINAL GRADE: A-