[Revisiting Dramas] Scandal: shockingly and wrongfully underrated
I was eager to watch this drama again, because although four years have passed since it aired, I still remember so much about this story, and how it made me feel. That’s something special considering how many dramas I’ve seen since then, and the mixed feelings I’m often left with on later reflection of even the most enjoyable shows.
Scandal: A Shocking and Wrongful Incident (yes, that’s really the official title) begins with a crime that sets off a complex web of tragedies that, when they finally come to a head many years later, send shock waves through the lives of everyone involved. Right before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a little boy dies due to the deception and greed of a corrupt chaebol, and the father of that boy kidnaps that chairman’s son in revenge. Twenty-five years later, the lives of all of the principal players in this tragedy begin to intersect once again, and the inevitable fallout begins as one after another, they find out the truth.
It’s a makjang plot, no question. One could be forgiven for giving this show a wide berth due to its premise (and that title). I only started watching it because Kim Jae-won completely won me over in Can You Hear My Heart. For me, Scandal defies categorization—it’s revenge melo, family drama, romance, and crime thriller all at once. It sounds over-the-top, but there’s nothing over-the-top about the way this drama is executed: Events unfold logically and naturally, exactly as they might if such a terrible situation happened to real people. Everything that happens is set up far in advance, often paying off many episodes later, with poignancy and to great narrative effect.
The writing consistently blew me away with its complex plot construction, well-developed characters, and dialogue that was often so on point that it took my breath away. This was one aspect that was even more apparent the second time around, when I wasn’t just trying to catch my breath at every new development but could appreciate how every moment led to the next. Each action by a character, no matter how insignificant, contributes to moving the story along, yet the show is never predictable, constantly surprising—even on a rewatch, it retains nearly as much suspense as on the first viewing.
The acting in this show is equally impressive; it’s brilliantly cast, and nearly every single actor blew me away with their performances, including those in minor roles. I came for Kim Jae-won, but the real star of this drama is Shin Eun-kyung as his tragic, conflicted, long-lost mother. Shin was virtuosic as this heartbroken woman with a core of steel, and she was the center around which all of the other characters orbited. She was able to convey multiple complex emotions with a single look, and although at times she made morally suspect decisions in pursuit of revenge against her monstrous husband, she remained unceasingly sympathetic throughout the drama.
Jo Jae-hyun gives an epic performance as well, as a desperate father at the end of his rope, who makes an extreme decision in his grief-blinded state that he has to live with for the rest of his life. His journey from an honest detective, to a grieving father, to a kidnapper on the run, and finally to a man who just wants to be a father to his children, is brilliantly realized and moving. I was so invested in his redemption because I understood why he took the path he did, even when it was clearly wrong.
That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when Kim Jae-won inevitably finds out that his father is actually his kidnapper—the two men share a deep love that’s rare to see between father and son in dramaland, and the ripping apart of that relationship is devastating to watch. And Kim Jae-won nails every emotion in this demanding role: He’s perfect as a stubborn cop with an unerring commitment to justice, and also displays grief, betrayal, anger, sadness, and love with a powerful but restrained pathos that completely suits his character.
My only complaint was with Jo Yoon-hee as the female lead, whose acting was very green in early episodes, and although she settled into her character over time and was serviceable by the end, her awkwardness was very obvious when every other cast member was killing it. Kim Gyu-ri was wonderful as Kim Jae-won’s tough yet vulnerable half-sister, but she was so much better than Jo Yoon-hee that I couldn’t help wishing at certain points that she’d played the female lead instead—especially since she had great chemistry with him. (And also, why isn’t Kim Gyu-ri getting any lead roles?)
Ki Tae-young broke my heart as the adopted orphan who couldn’t live up to the ghost of the boy he replaced, and his was another moving journey as he lost his way and found it once again, provoked toward both good and evil by his desperate desire for parental love. Kim Hye-ri was a riot as the villain’s mistress and mother of his illegitimate daughter, always hatching evil plots and often failing in spectacular and hilarious fashion because she was so dim. I loved to hate her for much of the drama, and yet even she became one of my favorite characters by the end.
And of course, Park Sang-min was mesmerizing as the amoral and ruthless man whose actions drew all of these people into this snarled web of tragedy in the first place. His sincere belief that his wealth and power give him the right to use and dispose of others’ lives in service of his own desires make him a terrifying and all-too-realistic antagonist. His character is larger than life but the actor has the charisma to pull it off, and his genuine and unconditional love for his lost son gives humanity to what might otherwise be too mustache-twirly a performance.
Ultimately, this is a story about how you can’t escape the past, but you can heal from it. The characters in Scandal are dealing with the consequences of decisions they made in the past; the truth will inevitably come out and justice must be served, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of forgiveness and eventual healing. Often, revenge melodramas are so focused on illustrating the evils of vengeance that they overcompensate by redeeming their villains far too quickly and easily. Here, though, every redemption was well-earned, and forgiveness was dependent entirely on the victims’ emotional journeys and needs, which was incredibly satisfying. We often see the narrative of the cold hero who is healed by a heroine’s love, but in Scandal, it was the hero’s ability to love others that saved him, and gave him the space and the heart to move on.
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