[Revisiting Dramas] Does Second Lead Syndrome prevail in Sungkyunkwan Scandal?
by Guest Beanie
I took this August challenge as a chance to relive my Korean drama “firsts.” After all, there is something magical and untouchable about firsts—no matter how much time has passed, they retain a sentimental spot in my memories. I started off with Hwang Tae-kyung, my first K-drama love, and then I decided to revisit Sungkyunkwan Scandal—where my first ever serious Second Lead Syndrome began, and where I discovered how much I love a good bromance.
I remember watching this when I was 15, a teenager enamored by the romanticism of a sageuk, the idea of a girl studying in a time when only men were allowed to, and the mysterious Red Messenger, whose adorable hiccuping problem stole my heart. When the show was over, I went through a severe stage of withdrawal; I distinctly recall sitting a friend down and rambling to her for hours on end about why exactly Geol-oh should have gotten the girl, until it became clear that she was utterly annoyed. (Said friend did not even watch Korean dramas, and needless to say, was not amused.)
I have to admit that I have never been overly interested in the politics—the so-called best scholars of Joseon throwing hissy fits over one student’s refusal to change rooms to match his political status, nor the odd plot twist of the king asking four students to build a better Joseon. My main purpose in rewatching this drama was to relive how much I enjoyed the relationships in the show. Time may fade the ingenuity of plotlines, but the heart and feelings behind the relationships linger in my memories far longer.
Crossdressing hijinks abound in this show, and it was still hilarious to watch Yoon-hee adapt to living with men in that conservative time period. As unrealistic as it seems, I guess the crossdressing trope is something I’ll never tire of.
I used to think Lee Sun-joon was snobbish, straitlaced, and believed blindly in his own values, and his improvement in later episodes hadn’t been enough to redeem him. Seven years down the road, I wondered whether my dislike had been uncalled for. I am still not attracted to his character, though I’ll grudgingly admit that he was more decent than I’d remembered—his steadfast belief in sticking to his principles might have been idealistic (and almost small-minded in some occasions), but it allowed him to push Yoon-hee to believe in her own capabilities and achieve more than she ever thought she could.
The Yeo-rim-Geol-oh bromance remains as one of the greatest I’ve ever watched. Yeo-rim was an enigma of a character; he never seemed to be on any particular side, and always had this knowing smile that told of how much he actually knew. (Arguably, he was the first to suspect and discover that Yoon-hee was a girl. After all, he’s Gu Yong-ha. *wink*)
His touchy scenes with Geol-oh spoke volumes about their closeness, but one particular scene where he stopped Geol-oh from running into a trap set for the Red Messenger broke my heart. He was always there to cover up for his friend’s deeds without question. In hindsight, Geol-oh didn’t get the girl, but I guess at least he had Yeo-rim, and perhaps a good bromance is all you need.
Geol-oh’s brusque exterior belied his kind nature, and I am a true sucker for such characters. He was the one who’d found out Yoon-hee’s secret first, and took on the role of the silent protector. He was there to take revenge on In-soo for using Yoon-hee as target practice, to tie her shoelaces and wrist guards, to clear her name of accused theft, and later on, to comfort her broken heart even while suffering one of his own after finding out who she really loved.
And just like the first time, Second Lead Syndrome hit hard. Despite Sun-joon’s newfound redemption in my mind, I found myself questioning yet again why exactly Yoon-hee had fallen for him instead of Geol-oh, with his shy smiles and mane of glory.
I also silently cheered for our gang of scholars whenever they triumphed over the student president. I loved how Sun-joon confessed to being the Red Messenger to save Geol-oh, and how our ragtag quartet slowly but grudgingly became friends. They may have come from all different classes with different upbringings, but their friendship transcended their political beliefs and classes, and the way they looked out for each other was priceless.
Ultimately, once he got off his high horse, Sun-joon was actually a great help to his friends, and I won’t discount the fact that he went through great personal growth—trusting and helping the Red Messenger, lying to help Yoon-hee and Geol-oh during their trial, and admitting to Yoon-hee that he liked her. But even after all that, I strangely couldn’t connect with him fully or like him more. I guess it was too little, too late.
Perhaps the beauty of the Second Lead Syndrome is that it gave me someone to root for, knowing that the hope was futile anyway, which was probably how Geol-oh felt in his situation. He may not have gotten the girl, but for me, Geol-oh will always be the main character, complete with the heroic cause, the title of the resident crazy horse, the epic side bromance, and the legendary mane of glory.
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