[Dramaland Catnip] Secret identities and alter egos
It’s difficult to express in words why secret identities and alter egos are such a big draw for me, especially amongst the sea of other drama catnips that continue to pull me into shows against my better judgment. Maybe it’s because of the superhero Clark Kent vs. Superman element that’s often associated with the plot device (I’ve always loved a good superhero story), or maybe it’s my general affinity for drama tropes that play with the idea of identity, like crossdressing or body-possession.
Whatever the reason, dramas that feature heroes that assume multiple identities for some purpose always manage to raise my blood pressure in the best way, whether it’s because I’m worried about the hero’s safety or because I’m holding my breath while the hero and heroine dance around the subject of his real persona. For me, the real crack factor of these scenarios is derived from the romance, because nothing heightens the angst of the will-they-won’t-they like the danger and baggage that often comes with a hero with a secret identity.
Sometimes, this element can become the decisive factor that gets me invested in an OTP at all, as in the case of Chicago Typewriter. I can easily pinpoint the moment I started rooting for the pairing of the OTP: It was the instant it was revealed that Hwi-young was the masked rescuer that came to young Soo-hyun’s aid as she was fleeing from Japanese soldiers. As soon as that happened, Hwi-young’s glib attitude and devil-may-care personality were given retroactive context and depth. I adore characters with this duality, which explains why I’m enjoying Kim Young-kwang’s role so much in Lookout, because it often means that our drama heroes have to lay down their pride while keeping up their facade and I can really relate to how difficult that would be.
In Chicago Typewriter, this outer ruse is necessary to Hwi-young’s cover for his illicit activities as the leader of the youth independence organization, but it was also a wall Hwi-young could hide behind regarding his growing feelings for Soo-hyun. I understood that he needed to keep up the pretense for the cause, but I couldn’t help but enjoy his increasing inability to keep that wall up, culminating in that kiss “for their country.” I didn’t even fault him for bringing his defenses back up right after, because I felt so thrilled by that one second he let himself give in to his feelings.
The returned-from-the-dead hero is a hilariously common usage of this trope, as we’re currently seeing in Seven Day Queen. I’m usually an impatient viewer and don’t get as invested in the backstories, but in this case I savored this setup, because my knowledge of what’s in store for the prince and his would-be bride gave their cute, blossoming relationship a bittersweet edge that I loved. Their moments together seemed that much more precious, so when forces beyond their control come crashing down to separate them, it’s heartbreaking in the most satisfying way possible.
Their separation and subsequent grief feels like the quickest, most extreme induction into adulthood ever. So when we find them both years later and our hero struggles to maintain his alter ego while our heroine is hoping against hope that he is who she thinks he is, it’s like a deliciously angsty internal struggle between their adult and younger selves. I admit I take a lot of sadistic satisfaction from these situations when the hero acts like an ass and denies his true identity repeatedly in response to the heroine’s probing, each time with less resolve on his part, even though we the viewers know that he secretly appreciates that she’s still looking for him and would be disappointed if she stopped trying.
I find it mildly amusing that all of the above is also directly applicable to Joseon Gunman, in which the leads are forced apart when our hero’s father is falsely branded a traitor. I had hoped that the heroine would have a more proactive role in our hero Yoon-kang’s revenge, and while she didn’t ultimately live up to that initial potential, she was at the center of some very poignant scenes that I feel are pretty unique to this particular catnip.
Seven Day Queen
I have little patience with leads who engage in noble idiocy, but in this particular context, with the very real life-and-death stakes inherent to the premise, I could totally accept Yoon-kang pushing Soo-in away for her own safety. I knew that him hurting her emotionally in order to protect her from getting hurt physically was also for his own mental well-being, and when he lashed out at her, he hurt himself as well. That’s why I loved it (in an admittedly sadistic way) when she ended up being tortured in front of him by the time she had already figured out his true identity, because it felt like her turn to step up to the plate and protect our hero, when so often, it was him taking risks to protect her. It also served as a harsh wake-up call to him, because watching her suffer showed him just how stupidly it was to hide his identity from her.
And then we have the hero who maintains a secret identity cover because of his vigilante activities. One of the earliest examples of this that I fangirled over was in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, where the double-identity character was the second lead, Moon Jae-shin aka Geol-oh. He was a prickly-on-the-outside, marshmallow-on-the-inside type, who moonlighted as the Red Messenger, working against the corrupt ruling political party in court. He also acted as a daddy long legs to our crossdressing heroine after finding out her own identity secret, which explains why I fell so, so hard for his character. He had all the traits of a traditional drama hero, and the fact that he wasn’t made me feel like a captain in denial at his sinking ship.
One of the most endearing things about Geol-oh was that his cover wasn’t really a facade, because his daytime persona was really just himself, and himself was pretty swoonworthy. Sure, he was gruff and perpetually annoyed, but he also had this adorable affliction of hiccuping around the presence of women. And when he started hiccuping around Yoon-hee before he even consciously realized she was a she? I died. At night, he was a masked avenger, but during the day, he was this flustered doofus who couldn’t look at our heroine in the eyes without getting a mad case of the hiccups, hee.
One of my all-time favorite examples of this catnip, and of dramas in general, is City Hunter, who was the closest to being an actual vigilante hero, fighting against corrupt politicians who were committing crimes against the public for their own gain. There were many elements that made this show so gripping, but what I loved about the City Hunter identity was his dynamic with Nana, because he had to actively work against his love interest while also trying to protect her.
Aside from her general sass, I adored Nana’s fighting skills and her job as a Korean Secret Service agent. While those very traits made her an asset to Yoon-sung’s activities down the line, at the beginning, she and the City Hunter were natural enemies because she had to protect his targets. He had to carry out his mission in disguise, protect himself while avoid hurting her in the process, and also make sure she wasn’t in the crossfire when his dad tried to take matters into his own bloodthirsty hands. All in a day’s work, right? It was compelling because they’re on opposite sides when our hero was the City Hunter, but then in the next moment, bantering and flirting when he was just Yoon-sung. It was also the more rewarding when Nana finally found out about his secret life as a vigilante hero and joined the ragtag Scooby gang to help take down the baddies.
But never was I more happy to see the heroine finally figure out the hero’s true identity than when Healer’s Young-shin found out that her cowardly co-worker Bongsookie was in fact the errand boy/vigilante she was looking for. Healer elicited some pretty violently giddy emotions from me, and it will most likely stay right near the top of my all-time favorite dramas, and number one when it comes to a romance involving a secret identity. (I also just noticed this is the fourth drama in this post to star Park Min-young. Lucky woman.)
Everything about Healer and Young-shin’s romance hit the right notes for me, and it made me run through a whole gamut of emotions, from really high highs, to a lot of nail-biting tension and panic. I suffered from eruptions of giggles when our hero got jealous of his own alter ego, and my heart stopped whenever Young-shin would suspect that Bongsookie was not who he said he was. It’s much more satisfying to have her figure out the identity in a case like this where she interacted with Healer but never saw his face, because she caught on by instinct and nuances, whereas it was less of a head-scratcher in Joseon Gunman where Lee Jun-ki wore the same face in all guises.
I also loved how the show shaped our two leads’ dependencies on each other, because while Healer rescued Young-shin from harm several times, he and the show made it very clear that it was he who couldn’t go on without her in his life. He might have saved her physically, but she was the one to ultimately save him from his lonely existence. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another drama couple so perfectly made for each other, and I honestly couldn’t imagine a future with these two characters not together, which is the best kind of drama magic there is.
Reading through this list, I realize it might seem like I enjoy watching characters suffer onscreen, but I promise that’s not it. For me, dramaland is at its best when it takes me on a roller-coaster of feels, and with the heightened emotions, larger-than-life stakes, and the warranted angst that comes with this catnip, it really is no surprise that dramas that employ this trope rope me in every time. It doesn’t hurt that the masked hero look? It’s a good look.
- [Dramaland Catnip] Disastrous first meetings
- [Dramaland Catnip] Cohabitation shenanigans
- [Dramaland Catnip] Enemies turned lovers
- [Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
- [Dramaland Catnip] Marriage before dating
- [Dramaland Catnip] Swooning for dramatic height differences
- [Dramaland Catnip] Ragtag bands of misfits
- [Dramaland Catnip] Finding satisfaction in sad love stories
- [Dramaland Catnip] The magic of bad drama magic
- [Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
- [Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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