On the Way to the Airport: Episode 1
On the Way to the Airport has been promoting a “natural and warm” atmosphere throughout its teasers so far, so I was curious to see whether the pilot (har) would hold up to that claim—after all, there’s a dangerously fine line between “natural and warm” and “boring.” Thankfully, with Airport’s assured directing, veteran actors, and gorgeously framed scenes, it seems to have a fine hold on its premise so far. As long as our characters remain interesting, I think we’ve got serious potential for a poetic examination of human emotion, all through a uniquely bittersweet lens.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
In the sleek, modern Incheon Airport, a crew of Air Asia flight attendants strolls purposefully through the halls. Among them is our heroine, CHOI SU-AH (Kim Haneul), who falls back from the group to check a text message from “Pilot Park.” The message seems to surprise her, and when he calls, she asks what’s going on: “Why are Hyo-eun and I going to Malaysia?”
Pilot PARK JIN-SUK (Shin Sung-rok), similarly walking with his own crew of pilots but in Sydney Airport, explains coolly that an international school in Malaysia contacted them while Su-ah was in flight—their daughter Hyo-eun has been accepted for enrollment. Jin-suk informs her that he’s taken care of Hyo-eun’s paperwork and homestay already—all he needs is for Su-ah to help her pack and bring her to the airport by tomorrow.
Su-ah is astonished that he is telling her all of this so late, but Jin-suk simply points out that she wasn’t there when the school called. Su-ah asks about Hyo-eun’s opinion in all this, but Jin-suk scoffs that she doesn’t have a choice. He tells Su-ah to just get Hyo-eun to the airport in time and hangs up before she can say anything more. Yeesh.
So Su-ah turns and hurries home, where she finds Hyo-eun wiping the floors with a rag, apparently to prove that she’s more useful at home. Hyo-eun is clearly a dramatic but bright kid, and she’s got lots to say about Dad’s decision—she rattles on about how she doesn’t care about global perspectives or learning English, and notes how irrational Dad is being about this.
Su-ah agrees and tries to comfort her, noting how much Hyo-eun hated her school after her aunt got injured and she couldn’t go to New Zealand, but Hyo-eun groans that she only hated her school because it was embarrassing to have to go back right after going through all the tearful goodbyes. None of Su-ah’s comforts succeed, and Hyo-eun tearily accuses her and Dad for being eager to send her off just so they can work. She sobs that she’s scared, but Su-ah only sighs as if there’s nothing she can do. That night, Su-ah packs Hyo-eun’s things until dawn.
Meanwhile, our hero, SEO DO-WOO (Lee Sang-yoon), is also up late working—but when he receives a call from his teenage daughter, Annie, he immediately heads outside, grinning at the dawn sky. They banter cutely over the phone while he drives a scooter over a bridge overlooking the Han River, holding his phone camera up to the sunrise for her to see. Annie marvels at the image through the camera, squealing that Korea’s sky is totally different from Malaysia’s.
She tells him that she thinks her long-awaited roommate is arriving soon—her host mom, Mary, has even offered her fifty Malaysian ringgits to tidy up, but she’s going to use it to buy a new iron to replace Mary’s ancient one. What a sweetie. She’s sorry that she won’t be able to visit him and Grandma in Korea again this time, but she promises to be there next time.
After Do-woo hangs up, Annie gets another phone call, this time from “Mom.” Interestingly, she looks much less excited than when she was talking to Do-woo, and sadly assures Mom that she told Dad she “wasn’t going.” Hm, is Mom preventing her daughter from going to Korea?
In the morning, Do-woo drives out to a place called “Eun-hee’s traditional ornament store,” a shop that makes handmade traditional Korean decorative knots. An assistant outside informs Do-woo that the director (and Do-woo’s wife), KIM HYE-WON (Jang Hee-jin), stayed up all night preparing for the exhibition. He sees her working through the window and smiles warmly.
Hye-won joins Do-woo for breakfast, and they sit comfortably together at the table. When he tells her that Annie won’t make it to Korea again, she surprises him with an invitation to go to Malaysia with her—she’s already made sure that he isn’t teaching a class today, so she knows he’s free. She wants to check out the gallery for the exhibition there while he visits Annie.
Meanwhile, Su-ah and Hyo-eun load her bags into a taxi to the airport. The driver warns Su-ah that her bags feel too heavy for the airport’s weight limit, but Su-ah lifts them up and says assuredly: “Nope—24.5 kg!” Sure enough, when they check-in Hyo-eun’s baggage, it’s exactly 24.5 kg.
Jin-suk meets Su-ah at the airport to help with check-in, and asks her whether Hyo-eun is still upset. Su-ah tries to take their daughter’s side, saying that she’s just scared and that Jin-suk should try to be more understanding of her emotions, but Jin-suk only tells her that this is an incredible school where they teach both English and Mandarin—and Su-ah of all people knows what an advantage that is.
He buys Hyo-eun a glass of juice before the flight, and they snap at each other in annoyance: Hyo-eun thinks he’s being irrational and mean, while Jin-suk tells her to study hard—she’ll thank him someday. She glares at him, but when a pair of Air Asia hostesses greet him as the pass, he laughs heartily and pinches her cheek as if they’re a loving father-daughter pair. Hyo-eun tells him flatly: “I hate you.” She ignores Jin-suk’s hand and takes Su-ah’s instead, and they head to board the plane. LOL.
On the plane, Su-ah turns off the overhead light so Hyo-eun can sleep in peace. Just a few rows ahead, Do-woo is seated on the same plane to Malaysia, working on his laptop. When they arrive in sleek, energetic Kuala Lumpur, Do-woo heads to work, while Su-ah and Hyo-eun head to her new homestay.
At Hyo-eun’s new homestay, Mary tells Hyo-eun that she’s very lucky—her roommate is the nicest unni in the world and even set up all the decorations around the house to welcome her. Hyo-eun looks much cheerier already, and Su-ah smiles.
After school, Annie leaps out of class. Do-woo is waiting for her downstairs, although he explains that he’s only here for a short while for the art exhibition, where Annie’s uncle and grandmother will be showing off their traditional Korean ornaments. Annie pulls out a small spherical bead from her pocket to show Do-woo, telling him that Grandma gave it to her, and she carries it around everywhere she goes.
At sunset, she pulls him to a bridge overlooking a river in the middle of the city. She tells him it looks just like the Han River, and points out all the city landmarks that look just like Seoul. He reminds her that if she misses home so much, she’s free to come back with him right away, but she shakes her head: “Don’t you know how great it is to miss something? All you have to do is wait. It gives me hope.” They stand side by side, pretending they’re gazing at the Han River.
Hyo-eun is in much higher spirits after checking out her spacious new home, but still tears up when Su-ah has to head back to the airport for work. Su-ah promises to come back to see her on the next plane to Malaysia.
In the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Su-ah’s friend and coworker SONG MI-JIN (Choi Yeo-jin) walks assuredly toward her crew of attendants. She’s charismatic and strict, making sure the rookies on her team are properly uniformed and following proper protocol. Su-ah arrives last, and they share introductions before their flight.
The team makes sure the plane is in order before the first passengers start to arrive, and greet them warmly and professionally. Do-woo runs to catch the plane but makes it just in time; he and Su-ah smile at each other as he boards. On the way, Su-ah watches a mother-daughter pair and holds back her tears.
When they arrive at Incheon Airport, Mi-jin and Su-ah lead the crew through the terminal, chattering about their flight. On the moving walkway, they pass Jin-suk going the other direction with his own team, and both Jin-suk and Su-ah look away while the other crew members greet each other. As soon as he’s out of earshot, the rookie crew members squeal about Jin-suk—he’s as cool as the rumors say. They note that his wife is rumored to be a flight attendant, but she’s average-looking and unimpressive.
Su-ah cringes as Mi-jin halts in place, and Su-ah quickly excuses herself before Mi-jin can give them an earful. Mi-jin sighs that there’s no point in scolding them, and when they guess that perchance Mi-jin is Jin-suk’s rumored wife, Mi-jin gives them an affronted glare and practically spits out her denial.
Su-ah waits while Mi-jin gets ready to attend a celebration party for her friend’s business. Mi-jin clarifies that she’s not mad because they called Su-ah average-looking, but because they thought Jin-suk was cool, hah. She pushes Su-ah to take one of her dresses and come drink at the party with her, but Su-ah refuses, saying she’s waiting for a call from Hyo-eun. Mi-jin: “It’s because you hide that nice body of yours that there are rumors about you being average!”
They’re interrupted by a call from Su-ah’s mother-in-law, who expresses no reservations in her relief that Hyo-eun has been sent away—children are a hindrance. Su-ah politely denies it, while mother-in-law tut-tuts at a group of grandmothers picking up their grandkids from school, declaring that she would never live like that.
Mi-jin successfully convinces Su-ah to come to the party with her, who now sports a form-fitting maroon dress that makes her feel awkward. Mi-jin picks up two beers from the restaurant owner and seems to recognize him, but he doesn’t answer. When she gives Su-ah her drink, they run into another one of their younger coworkers. He’s full of rumors, asking about Su-ah being married to Pilot Park, Mi-jin’s clubbing habits, and even Su-ah sending Hyo-eun away—apparently, he adds with a look, to lead a freer lifestyle. Guess there are no secrets at the workplace.
Mi-jin’s friend Ji-eun finally arrives, and explains that the party is to celebrate her getting her first commission. Mi-jin still can’t place where she knows the restaurant owner from, and Ji-eun reminds her that they all met before—him, Ji-eun, and Do-woo. Mi-jin finally remembers, recalling how she flirted with him before finding out that Do-woo was not only married, but had a daughter as well.
Su-ah can’t stop worrying about Hyo-eun, however, and she tells Mi-jin that she’s going to head out early. Mi-jin urges her to stay, introducing Ji-eun as the person who set up Hyo-eun’s homestay in Malaysia—she knew Hyo-eun’s roommate’s family (that is, Annie and Do-woo). Su-ah is embarrassed that they’re meeting like this before she even got a chance to thank her properly, but Mi-jin doesn’t see the big deal: “Are ahjummas not allowed to have fun?” Haha.
When Do-woo pulls up to the front of the restaurant, Mi-jin recognizes him right away as Seo Do-woo, Hyo-eun’s roommate’s father. Su-ah, of course, is mortified at the thought of meeting yet another person in her tight dress, and refuses to introduce herself.
Do-woo isn’t interested in joining the party anyway, and only brings a drink upstairs to his office to get right back to work. But Mi-jin follows him up to say hi, asking if he remembers her—they met five years ago. It doesn’t seem to ring a bell, so she tries again: she was the one who asked about Annie’s homestay through their mutual friend, Ji-eun. Do-woo asks if Mi-jin is Hyo-eun’s mother, then, but Mi-jin assures him that she’s not: Hyo-eun’s mom is elsewhere, hiding in her dress.
So instead, he gets Su-ah’s phone number from Mi-jin and calls, heading out to the roof. He catches sight of her walking home as he talks, introducing himself as Annie’s father and inviting her inside. She sighs and tells him it’s a little inconvenient at the moment, her awkwardness palpable through the phone.
Do-woo finally breaks the long pause, hitting right what Su-ah is concerned about: “It’s hard, isn’t it? Sending your kid abroad.” Su-ah agrees, saying that she just feels so sorry that Hyo-eun is out there scared and alone, and Do-woo relates: “You even feel bad when she’s sick and you’re not.” He tells her that if it’s any comfort, his daughter seems to prefer it there, and rarely calls or visits Korea.
It does make Su-ah feel a lot better, until she suddenly realizes that she forgot her suitcase inside. She hurries back to the restaurant to pick it up, and Do-woo follows, looking through the window to find her. Su-ah notes a man speaking on a phone from across the room and bows, mistaking him for Do-woo; the man nods back and promptly hangs up. LOL. From outside, Do-woo watches the whole thing through the window, equally confused as to who she’s talking to.
Do-woo calls again as Su-ah heads back outside, telling her that he just spoke with Annie and Hyo-eun’s host mom, Mary. Mary told him that Hyo-eun is adjusting very well and that she and Annie are getting along like longtime friends, so Su-ah has nothing to be worried about.
Su-ah can’t hold back her emotions anymore and sobs, thanking Do-woo for his kind words through the phone. She quickly excuses herself from the call, telling him her taxi is here, even though Do-woo can see from his place on the balcony that there is no taxi. He watches quietly as Su-ah drags her suitcase through the street, sobbing in relief.
Two months later. Su-ah speaks to a much happier Hyo-eun through a video call—Hyo-eun just got an A on her report card! She’s clearly doing very well, and although Su-ah is planning to arrive in Malaysia again soon, Hyo-eun tells her that she doesn’t have to. She notes that it’s weird that the two of them see each other more than Su-ah sees Jin-suk. Su-ah starts to respond, but when Annie tells Hyo-eun that she’s heading out, Hyo-eun picks up her backpack and leaves the house while Su-ah is still mid-sentence, haha.
After Hyo-eun leaves, however, Su-ah hears a male voice in the room, and looks closer to see that Annie has also left her computer open on her desk on the other side of the room. Do-woo is filming the rain falling from the roof for her, which Annie apparently asked for as a part of her homework, calling out: “Annie? Are you there?” Su-ah laughs, realizing that both of their daughters went off after saying only what they needed to say.
Su-ah leaves for duty after putting some food in the refrigerator for Jin-suk, who comes home after she’s long gone. He takes the refrigerated food out and wonders dryly if it’s an in-flight meal.
Su-ah arrives in Malaysia to meet Hyo-eun at the Korean ornament gallery. The traditional knots catch Su-ah’s eye, and Hyo-eun tells her that Annie’s uncle and grandmother made them. But Hyo-eun is in no state to appreciate the exhibits—she’s worried that Annie is going to return to Korea for her grandmother’s birthday today, and she has to stay nearby to say goodbye in case she does. She finally convinces Su-ah to call Mary and ask whether Annie has decided to go. When Mary reports that she’s not going, Hyo-eun practically jumps with joy.
At Annie’s grandmother’s ornament store, Hye-won joins Grandma in working outside, expressing her regret that Annie won’t be here for Grandma’s birthday again this year. Surprisingly, however, Grandma tells her that Annie is coming—she just told her that she was at the airport a short while ago. Hye-won looks mighty displeased about that.
At the airport, Annie tries to ignore the repeated phone calls from “Mom,” but finally gives in and picks up before she enters the gate. Through the phone, Hye-won tells her: “Don’t come. Do as you promised. Why do you think your dad sent you to me?”
Annie tears up and runs back outside out of the airport, running into Su-ah and dropping her grandmother’s bead. Su-ah picks it up, but Annie doesn’t even notice in her hysteria. She runs blindly outside and into the street… and is hit by a car. OH NO.
Do-woo is teaching a class when he gets the phone call. He texts Hye-won that he’s on the way to the airport—Annie was in an accident. Hye-won reads the text and calmly returns to her meeting with her clients.
On the plane, Su-ah comforts one of her coworkers—she was the one that Annie ran into before she got hit by the car, and she can’t stop thinking about it. Su-ah helps her breathe to ease her anxiety, comforting her professionally and kindly.
Back home, however, Hyo-eun calls Su-ah, telling her that something’s weird—Annie isn’t home, and the police keep coming by. Su-ah tells her not to worry and that she’ll figure it out. She calls Mi-jin for Annie’s parents’ phone number, but suddenly thinks of something: Seo Do-woo’s name is awfully similar to the no-show on her flight, Seo Eun-woo, who was recorded as a minor. Unable to shake the feeling that Eun-woo might be Annie, she turns straight around to buy the last direct ticket to Kuala Lumpur.
In the booth next to her, Do-woo runs up and asks for the same flight, when he’s interrupted by a phone call. His face goes pale as he listens, and then: “She’s… dead?” Aghhh. He grips the side of the counter, trying to steady himself. Su-ah gives up her ticket and asks for it to be transferred to Do-woo. He looks at her, but she turns away before he can see her.
No matter how many times she tries to call Do-woo or Mary, they won’t answer. Mi-jin, however, reminds her that there’s nothing she can do anyway, and Su-ah finally gives up.
Do-woo, meanwhile, has arrived at Annie’s homestay, where he stares at the iron his daughter bought to replace Mary’s ancient one and lays in Annie’s bed in mourning. When Su-ah goes to video call Hyo-eun, she hears a glimpse of a man crying in her room before her computer runs out of battery.
Su-ah finally can’t take it anymore and gets on the next flight to Malaysia. Mary is acting weird, however, avoiding giving any concrete answers to Su-ah’s questions about Annie leaving for Korea and a man crying in their room. Su-ah believes her and heads up to Hyo-eun’s room, where she finds a picture of Do-woo and calls him again. This time, he does pick up, but when Su-ah presses him about Annie going to Korea, he tells her that he can’t really say it aloud right now—he’ll text her instead.
Hyo-eun comes back from school in a cheerful mood and immediately asks about Annie. Su-ah tells her that she just spoke to Do-woo, but trails off when his text arrives. Her face goes pale and she tells Hyo-eun to pack her bags immediately—they’re leaving.
Confused, Hyo-eun packs up and follows her mom out into the living room, where Mary is still maintaining her happy façade. Su-ah demands how Mary could do such a thing: “How could you hide that Annie died?!” Startled, Hyo-eun bursts into tears at the sudden revelation, and Mary pulls her into her arms, angry at Su-ah for upsetting her—she didn’t say anything yet because Hyo-eun wasn’t prepared. She tells Su-ah that if she’s going to bring Hyo-eun home, she should take care of her like a proper parent rather than just call every so often to see if she’s studying.
That seems to hit Su-ah hard, and she books an immediate flight to take Hyo-eun home. We finally see what Do-woo texted her: “If Hyo-eun ever feels uncomfortable, bring her straight home. Annie… is no longer in this world.”
Do-woo sits in a church and calls Hye-won. He asks how she’s feeling, but Hye-won only begs him not to bring Annie back and to bury her in Malaysia instead—otherwise, she won’t be able to live with herself.
Su-ah is on duty on the way back from Malaysia to Korea again. Do-woo is one of the passengers, and as he watches her work until her hair is mussed and sweaty, even rocking an infant to sleep, he recognizes her as the person who gave up her ticket to Malaysia for him. She finally recognizes him when he goes to find her, as he offers her his bracelet to tie up her hair and thanks her for giving up the ticket.
Su-ah prepares beverages to deliver to the pilot and co-pilot, and asks to sit in the pilot’s compartment for a while. They welcome her, telling her she’s just in time to see a lunar eclipse. She asks what it looks like, and the pilot responds: “It’s like you’re jumping into a ball of fire, and you’re about to burn up—but you won’t.” When the moon emerges from behind the clouds, it’s bright red, showering them in light.
As the plane prepares for landing, Su-ah returns to her seat, right across from Do-woo. She finally has the right pieces and asks: “Are you Seo Do-woo? Annie’s… father?” When he confirms, asking how she knew, she introduces herself: “I’m Hyo-eun’s mother.” They stare at each other in that moment.
Okay, first of all, this drama is gorgeous. Is it the budget? The actors? The editing? The music? The directing? Every frame is beautifully rendered, with an artistic vision really focused on the product and mood. The soundtrack is present but not overwhelming, the color palettes are consistently well thought out, and the camerawork is unique and smart. The effect of it is not lost on the show, delighting us with (as promised) a natural sort of relaxed and quiet elegance. With that kind of visual quality, I felt more than once during this episode like I was watching a movie or even a commercial rather than a drama.
I don’t know if this level of quality will continue for twenty episodes, but it did miracles for my first impression of the show. I never like to make conclusions early, but I found it hard not to like the show when it’s clear how much thought went into it—the lighting, the coloring, the shots. It speaks volumes to the kind of communication that’s possible out of this medium, which I found particularly fitting considering this is a show about people connecting to each other. They fly from one city to another, sure, but also they also connect through talking, through emotion, and through mutual understanding of a shared humanity.
In that regard, this drama did a really beautiful job in making me love our characters. They’re not particularly interesting (yet) on an individual level, but when you put them together, the characters seem to know each other in ways that makes us know them. The scene between Su-ah and Do-woo outside the party, where they communicate entirely without seeing each other’s faces but seem to completely understand each other, was the moment I fell in love. Being a drama concentrated on the subtlety of human emotions, it necessarily relies on its relationships being interesting and relatable, and I think the show accomplished that on both an emotional and creative level.
From an acting level, Lee Sang-yoon is fantastic as always, although the last show I saw him in (Liar Game) is a huge break from his current character. The sweet, almost naïve love of Seo Do-woo was almost a shock in comparison to the cold and calculating Ha Woo-jin; his understated and subtle reaction to Annie’s death was both believable and heartbreaking, a true image of a father’s silent morning. Kim Haneul, meanwhile, seems to be really fulfilling the expectations of her return to dramaland; her natural elegance is a perfect fit for Airport, and it’s definitely accentuating the effect the creators want from the show. She adds natural warmth to Su-ah that’s the perfect balance between professional and vulnerable. And then their chemistry? I found it absolutely marvelous to watch. I can’t seem to tear my eyes away from the screen when they’re together.
I couldn’t even bring myself to dislike the “villains”—i.e., Jin-suk or Hye-won, each of whom have their own very obvious problems. I’m not even sure if I was supposed to dislike Jin-suk, because I most definitely didn’t—he’s not truly an asshole, he just picks badly out of the many ways to love. Hye-won’s motivations, too, aren’t explained very much in this episode, but I’m thinking (hoping) that she has some interesting and complicated reasons for keeping Annie away from Korea. Overall, we’ve clearly got some complicated family dynamics, but I’m thus far confident that the showrunners will know how to address them appropriately. I don’t want to talk about Annie’s death yet because I’m not sure whether it was necessary to the story as of now, but I will say that her character and relationship to Do-woo was well done, and it’s a death that will touch a lot of characters. I’m happy with the way her death was treated—not melodramatic, but not done for shock value, either—but I hope it will have some narrative purposes conducive to growth that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.
All in all, there’s something really, really wonderful about this show, and I think it’s a sum of its parts: the idea of being in the liminal space of the air, missing everything that’s going on down on earth; the idea of flight and escape, the idea of connections through the heart, and the idea of reconciliation; the promise of love and understanding in a cold place like an airport, and the endlessly different number of ways to love. There are so many deliciously emotional and poetic directions that this show can go and I’ll be happy with any one of them, but of course, I’ll be happiest if it can manage to surprise us with observations of its own.
I spent 30+ hours in airports in transit this summer due to near-constant delays and layovers, and have now developed a rather jaded view of the entire institution as a pitiless soul-sucking abyss. But it’s that exact reason why the premise of this show works so well for me: In a professional, cold place so focused on efficiency, especially within the deliberately impersonal Korean culture, even the smallest kindnesses, smiles, and touches mean everything. An airport, if you think about it, is the perfect place to examine this paradoxical complexity of humans as being wrapped up in themselves and their schedules, their stringent jobs and plans and responsibilities—and as a corollary to that, the tragic loneliness of solitude, despite being surrounded by people.
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