Strangely enough, the most crack-addled I’ve been over a drama of late isn’t a snazzy one, or even a zippy fresh one at that. It’s the very classic and simple, almost throwback workplace drama Queen of Reversals, which just completed its 31-episode run on MBC this week. So if it wasn’t new and exciting, just why on earth was I so addicted to this drama about an ajumma who gets her groove back?
I never saw this drama’s quasi-spinoff-parent, Queen of Housewives, but I was happy not to have competing expectations. I also know, having watched Reversals, that I much prefer the reversal to the straight story. And that, in essence, is why I like this drama. Because it’s about a woman who falls in love, gets a divorce, dusts herself off, and then puts herself out there to love again. It’s totally How Tae-hee Got Her Groove Back, which is basically fantastic drama fodder.
Kim Nam-joo has pretty much always played leading ladies, but I sort of love that her character Hwang Tae-hee began this drama as a total bitch-monster from hell, who rules her team with an iron fist. She begins the series so high and mighty that we’re basically just itching for the moment when she gets unceremoniously knocked off her high horse. And you know she will. It’s the first of the great reversals.
When she chooses love over work, she gets usurped by her competition, Baek Yeo-jin, played by the winning Chae Jung-ahn (Coffee Prince). Chae is one of those actresses that I love, despite her always playing characters I mostly dislike. She’s like Moon Chae-won for me—I like the actress despite the characters she plays. I even liked her in Coffee Prince, even though she made me want to throw things. And she’s actually worse than Moon, because Chae Jung-ahn isn’t really a naturally good actress. I just like her. It’s weird.
Tae-hee returns from her honeymoon to find Baek Yeo-jin sitting at her desk, having scooped her title out from under her. And it turns out that Baek Yeo-jin, (who Tae-hee always calls, “Baek Yeo-woo,” meaning white fox) has two reasons to make her life a living hell: the torment she endured from Tae-hee when she was the low woman on the totem pole, AND the fact that Tae-hee’s new husband…is her first love.
And that’s all before we get past the first four episodes. What I really liked about the series initially was how fast things moved. In one episode, Tae-hee meets her husband-to-be, Bong Jun-su (played by Jung Jun-ho) and they go through their whirlwind courtship and marriage before you can say “commercial break.”
And the relationship is actually quite interesting, since Jun-su is a total beta male with no dreams and goals, and little talent to get him anywhere. Tae-hee, on the other hand, has been the alpha dog her whole life, and worked her way up with her whip-smart business sense. But their marriage is her first major left turn that takes her off the fast-track.
What we come to find is that theirs is a marriage wracked with problems, but it stems from this reversed-dynamic of beta male and alpha female. Not that it’s a dynamic that doesn’t work, but that it’s one THEY haven’t come to terms with. They spend five years with Tae-hee at home raising their daughter and Jun-su struggling at work, when really, it should’ve been the other way around. Play to your strengths, right?
In the end they divorce because Tae-hee finds out about Jun-su’s past with Yeo-jin, which he kept secret the entire time they were married. It’s not so much the reason for the split, but more the camel-breaking straw. She stops being able to trust him.
It played quite realistically—the way they handled the divorce—because though each character struggles with it immensely, they constantly butt heads because they’re trying so hard to save face and keep their pride. It’s actually quite tragic if you think about how many couples can’t get past massive issues because they can’t communicate how they really feel. And in the end, they realized that they had grown too far apart.
All of this story took a while, mind you, and the angsty divorce was no picnic in the park. I almost dropped the series a few times in this middle stretch when the marriage and divorce took center stage.
But then a curious thing happened…Second Lead Gu Yong-shik (Park Shi-hoo) got a reversal of his very own. I’ve said elsewhere that this drama is the worst case of Second Lead Syndrome I’d had all year (2010, when this drama started), but for once, it actually paid to root for the underdog.
The biggest reversal in this drama is that the hero, the guy who’s classically supposed to get the girl, doesn’t—he gets her and then gets kicked to the curb halfway through. The reversal is that the second lead…becomes the hero. I KNOW!
And it actually is a case of hero-swapping, not just in the romantic sense, but storywise. Gu Yong-shik was a day-player in the first half of the drama, showing up for the occasional moments, but in the latter half of the drama, he becomes the full-time hero, complete with tragic backstory and cutthroat battle to the top.
Once Tae-hee goes through with the divorce, Yong-shik’s crush takes center stage, and all the romantically-charged moments happen between them. I went from thinking it was a pipedream for Yong-shik to get the girl, to thinking that there might actually be a chance, to gasping that they really were going to let him win. It was such a nice progression, to feel like I’d wished for a unicorn, and then…poof! Unicorn!
And what happened in the latter half of the series was just unabashed adorableness at every turn, because Gu Yong-shik went all-out professing his love, and because Park Shi-hoo is just inexplicably magnetic.
I actually started this drama before last year’s cult favorite, Prosecutor Princess, and he was a huge reason I caved and finally watched that sucker. He’s one of those actors you would never look twice at, until you watch him in something, and then all of a sudden he’s insanely hot and you don’t know how you missed him. Mostly, it’s charm (and acting chops) over looks. He’s like the anti-Song-Seung-heon.
There’s something I just love about a hero who goes against the Darcy-grain. I’m SO tired of cold, proud jerky heroes who don’t reveal their feelings, and then get hit with a case of Noble Idiocy when it’s convenient for the story. Gu Yong-shik has all the outward markings of a classic Darcy-type: he’s a chaebol, he’s the prodigal son, he likes to grab wrists.
But he turns out to be silly, hilariously immature, warm, kind-hearted, and best of all—he’s a shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of guy. Once he realizes that he’s in love with her, he literally spends the rest of the series in one heart-stopping, romantic declaration after another, being alternately cute and swoonworthy, sometimes with a little raw emotion thrown in. It’s So. Good.
It’s actually one of the cutest romances I’ve seen in a while, because it’s not riddled with larger-than-life histrionics and plots to turn them into Romeo and Juliet. They’re just two adults who work together (albeit in a very dramatic workplace), who have to get past the very realistic situation of life after divorce. Can she trust again, can she move on, can she let herself fall in love again?
Gu Yong-shik’s reversal into hero-dom and the stirrings of their romance are what took this drama from just cute and watchable to give-me-my-next-hit-of-crack-or-I-will-chew-my-arm-off. And interestingly enough, with Yong-shik’s character being so openly in love, it’s the heroine who gets hit with a bout of Noble Idiocy late in the game, to protect him from losing everything because of loving her.
I loved that while the characters struggled with their feelings, there was enough cuteness and levity to keep me rooting for them despite their reservations. This drama actually does a great job of turning mundane objects and little interactions into running gags, that eventually become emotionally fraught with meaning.
Like the pair of tangerines that they exchange, one with a smiley face that he draws for her, and one with a frowny face that she draws for him (since she’s always crabby and nitpicky while he follows her around like a googly-eyed puppy). They each take the tangerines home and put them on their nightstands, and though it doesn’t change anything or bring them physically together, it gives us a visual cue that they’re thinking of each other. One of my favorite recurring bits is Tae-hee venting at her tangerine every time Yong-shik does something annoying.
The same type of thing is done between Gu Yong-shik and his odd-couple roommate, Mok Young-chul (played by the delightful Kim Chang-wan of Coffee Prince and every drama ever). They have this running gag that Young-chul moves into his house and can’t ever manage to figure out which toothbrush is his, leading to hilarious bathroom run-ins and Yong-shik’s grossed-out faces every time he realizes they’ve been swapping again.
Mok Young-chul is one of the highlights of the drama as a side character who finds out that he has terminal cancer, and faces his mortality in a charming, winning, understated and beautiful way. When he dies, Yong-shik cries over their toothbrushes sitting in his bathroom, and then later makes a habit of visiting his ashes with a bottle of soju and a new toothbrush. It’s the cutest thing ever.
And that isn’t even the only bromance that Yong-shik has, since he’s got the sassiest secretary who ever lived, in the form of his best-friend-turned-secretary-slash-nagging-mom. He’s half in love with Yong-shik and half sick to death of him, and their interactions are really the best comic relief I’ve seen in a while.
This isn’t a drama that does anything new or revolutionary, but there’s something to be said for shows that follow a formula well. They’re like comfort food. There’s also something commendable in pulling off a formula the right way, as most dramas will show is not so easy a task. I was firmly with the heroine through all her ups and downs, and I held my breath at every will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger, tuning in because I literally HAD to find out what happened next. That’s actually rarer than you’d think, especially with a drama I’m not recapping.
But what I found refreshing about the story was that it handled divorce in a hopeful way—that it could lead you to rediscover yourself, find out your weaknesses that you have to face, and perhaps even bring you to the love of your life. What’s satisfying is not that Tae-hee gets her Cinderella ending, (because it wouldn’t have mattered if Yong-shik were rich or poor) but that she and Jun-su manage to wish each other well with heartfelt sincerity. It’s refreshingly mature, grounded, and progressive.
I love that Tae-hee actually ends up bonding with her rival Yeo-jin in their cautiously wary Cold War way. They sort of bond over how much they mutually hate each other, which runs its course in the drama and eventually ends at a sort of hilarious détente, where they’re the kind of people who shout that they hate each other, all the while sharing a drink or eating a meal like a couple of girlfriends. It mirrors the cute lifelong frenemy relationship between the two mothers-in-law.
In the end what Tae-hee confesses to Jun-su: that she was swayed by Yong-shik because she’d spent her whole life chasing the people that she loved, that she didn’t even know that she COULD be loved this much—just breaks my heart. And in turn the fear that she confesses to Yong-shik: that love is always this heady in the beginning, but that in five years everything changed for her…what’s to say it won’t happen again in five more?
It’s so simple, and honest, and universal to be scared by love after wreckage. The fact that we follow Tae-hee through the course of two whole relationships and that we’re rooting for her the entire time is a testament to her character and her journey.
Overall the drama was well-made and beautiful to look at, but it followed a very classic formula (despite the reversals), like the kid who colors strictly within the lines. That’s not to say that you can’t get a beautiful product when you stay inside the lines, which this drama pulls off quite addictively.
There’s always a place in the world for kids who follow directions to the letter, and dramas that color within the lines. And there’s one thing that results from doing this, and doing it well: a satisfying drama that delivers on all its setups and leaves me happy that I invested, that I cared, and wished for unicorns.
- Queen of Reversals surpasses Athena, another extension?
- Objects in mirror are closer than they appear: Year in Review Part 4
- Queen of Reversals spoiler and extension
- Kim Nam-joo and Park Shi-hoo’s romantic winter date
- Kim Seung-woo cameos for his wife’s Queen of Reversals
- Kim Nam-joo writes about her marriage and home
- Now for the second leads of Queen of Reversals