Mother: Episode 1
The premiere episode of tvN’s Mother tackles some pretty serious issues — namely, the many forms of abuse that one child is forced to endure. It also asks some ethical questions such as whether it’s okay to break the law when the law can’t (or won’t) protect an innocent child. Our heroine, Soo-jin, faces a difficult dilemma as she’s presented with a choice that has no easy solutions. This premiere can be upsetting to watch, but I believe that it raises some important questions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’re answered.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Our story opens on series of disturbing scenes: numerous emergency vehicles gathered by the riverbank, a cop asking a woman if a dripping-wet backpack belongs to her daughter, a little girl standing in the ocean holding a white feather.
One month before Hye-na’s disappearance.
A different woman sits in a blind near a wetlands, watching the birds fly over the water. This is our heroine, SOO-JIN (Lee Bo-young), an ornithologist. Back at her research center, there’s a notice that the lab will be closing soon, and her coworker EUN-CHUL asks why Soo-jin is still working when everyone else is packing to leave.
Eun-chul tells Soo-jin that he’ll be working on a migration project next, proudly showing off the high-tech band he’ll be using to track the birds. Soo-jin says that she’s going to work on her project a bit longer, but that after that she’ll have to do whatever she can.
That turns out to be teaching science to elementary students, though Soo-jin seems distinctly uncomfortable in front of the kids. She begins a lesson about how birds fly, but the children are confused when her vocabulary is way above their heads.
They play a prank on her by putting a rubber chicken in her chair, which squawks when she sits on it. The children burst into laughter, but one little girl doesn’t look as if she enjoys the joke.
Soo-jin is told that she’ll be the class’s homeroom teacher for several weeks while the school hires a replacement for a teacher who’s on maternity leave. Another teacher, YE-EUN, offers to help her with lesson plans, the first of which is to write a letter to the class’s recently deceased pet duck.
As the kids work, Soo-jin notices that one girl, HYE-NA (Heo Yool) isn’t writing, and she asks her why. Hye-na says that dead things can’t read letters, and that there’s no Heaven anyway. The other students agree and make jokes, so Soo-jin tells them that when you’re dead you can’t breathe, or eat, or read a letter.
But she adds that they still cared for their pet, so they might feel better if they write about how much they miss him. She also says that they don’t have to write if they don’t want to, and Hye-na looks at her teacher with adoration.
After class, Hye-na hands Soo-jin a note before taking off for home. The note says that two of her classmates fed the duck things that they heard could kill it, just to see what would happen.
At the lab that night, Soo-jin tells Eun-chul that she’s considering joining a project in Iceland, and that she may not come back this time. He asks cheekily if she’s uninterested in settling down, finding a mate, and making babies like her beloved birds, but she just reminds him that ten percent of living creatures are loners.
A glamorous woman storms out of the hospital, ordering the man trailing after her to find Soo-jin. He asks if it’s cancer and reminds her that she hasn’t seen Soo-jin in over a decade, but she just says that she wants her daughter to the the first person to hear the news.
The next day during class, Soo-jin watches as all the kids hand their garbage to Hye-na, which piles up on her desk. Soo-jin wanders past and sees a sticker on Hye-na’s back declaring her garbage, and she removes the sticker and demands to know who did it.
The girl who sits next to Hye-na whines that she doesn’t want to eat beside her, because her fingernails are dirty. Hye-na curls up her hands and hangs her head in shame.
Soo-jin pulls two boys out into the hall and tells them that she studies birds. She says that the class duck’s death is very suspicious, and that she’s thinking about performing an autopsy to see if he was fed anything strange. The boys beg her not to do that, and she makes them promise not to hurt animals, girls, or anyone weaker than them ever again.
At night, Hye-na sits outside with her dwarf hamster, practicing her reading with delivery menus. Soo-jin takes herself out to dinner, and she’s surprised when Hye-na’s mischievous little face appears in the restaurant window. Hye-na joins her, casually informing her teacher that she walks around alone at night all the time.
She takes out some bread for her dinner, saying that it’s delicious even as she hungrily eyeballs Soo-jin’s pizza. Soo-jin gives Hye-na a piece and chuckles when Hye-na tells her hamster how good it tastes. Hye-na is tickled pink to see Soo-jin smile for the first time, and she writes the moment down in a notebook, explaining that she records her favorite things there so she won’t forget them.
She reads a few of her favorite things to Soo-jin — things like curved roads, balloons, and lattes. Soo-jin tells Hye-na that coffee is bad for kids’ brains and growth. Hye-na asks what kinds of things Soo-jin likes, and Soo-jin says thoughtfully that she likes eating meals by herself.
Hye-na claps her hands over her mouth in mock horror and giggles, and Soo-jin belatedly realizes what she said and also laughs. She tells Hye-na that even if she has to take care of herself, she should cut her nails and wash her hair regularly, change her socks and underwear daily, and to alternate outfits, because a dirty child is a target to other children.
After dinner, Soo-jin takes Hye-na outside to trim her nails, and they’re approached by an old woman. The woman snatches up Hye-na and accuses Soo-jin of stealing another woman’s child, spitting that she doesn’t deserve children of her own because she was wicked to her own mother. That was weird.
Hye-na defends Soo-jin then skips home happily, but she starts to tiptoe when she sees a pair of men’s boots in the doorway. There’s a man playing a game on the computer, and when Hye-na accidentally knocks something off a shelf, she glances towards him fearfully.
Hye-na isn’t in class the next morning, and Soo-jin learns from Ye-eun that she passed out in the bathroom. She’s covered in scars, and the school nurse believes she’s malnourished. Ye-eun says that she’s worried because Hye-na never cries, no matter what happens to her.
Soo-jin goes into the infirmary to talk to Hye-na, who says that she told Ye-eun that she fell down the stairs, and that Ye-eun took pictures of her. She jumps away when Soo-jin reaches out to her and asks if she also likes looking at other people’s scars.
Soo-jin shows Hye-na a scar on her own knee and tells her that she also fell down the stairs once. She admits that she cried a little, but Hye-na seems proud of the fact that she didn’t cry.
She tells Soo-jin to think of things she likes, and then she won’t cry. She adds that Ye-eun asked her if she likes her mom, and when Soo-jin asks what her answer was, she says in a detached, almost rehearsed voice, “I told her I like my mom quite a lot, of course.”
On another night, Hye-na scrounges to feed herself, and she rustles a bag of snacks while trying to open it. The man, her mother’s boyfriend SEOL-AK (Sohn Seok-gu), whom Hye-na calls “Uncle,” looms over her and asks darkly if she remembers what he does to noisy kids. Hye-na says in a confused voice that they’re on the ground floor, which makes Seol-ak laugh at her.
Soo-jin accompanies Ye-eun to Hye-na’s house the next day, both of them worried that Hye-na after come to school. Hye-na’s mother JA-YOUNG (Go Sung-hee) eyes them warily and says that Hye-na has a cold. Ye-eun notices that Hye-na’s face is bruised and her ear is bandaged, and at her mother’s prompting, Hye-na says that she got hit by a baseball.
Ye-eun tentatively mentions Hye-na’s other injuries, but Hye-na insists that she just falls a lot. When Ye-eun asks if there’s a man living here, Ja-young snaps that she works long hours and needs someone to watch Hye-na, plus it’s none of their business who she dates.
Hye-na starts to run to the house, and she trips and falls, skinning her knee. Ye-eun goes to her immediately, and Hye-na shoots Soo-jin a nervous glance while Ja-young just holds out an emotionless hand and leads Hye-na inside. Ye-eun says that Hye-na was obviously acting just then, pretending to fall in an attempt to protect her mother.
Soo-jin and Ye-eun take the photos of Hye-na’s bruises to the authorities, arguing that it’s impossible to get bruises like that from tripping and falling. They’re informed that someone will stop by the house and ask some questions, and check on Hye-na periodically for a few months, but that if both mother and child are telling the same story, there’s nothing they can do according to the law.
The police do visit Hye-na’s home, and when they ask to come in, Ja-young goes inside to fetch Hye-na out instead. The little girl actually climbs out of a suitcase, where she’s been sleeping. She sleeps in a suitcase?? I have no words.
Hye-na sleepily repeats the baseball story, and the policeman says that they can check the CCTV cameras and see if she’s telling a lie. Ja-young accuses him of threatening her daughter, but he says that he’s just investigating a report.
Later, Hye-na overhears Ja-young placating her boyfriend. She actually apologizes to Seol-ak for having a daughter, but he completely ignores her when she asks him to leave Hye-na alone so that people will stop asking questions. Ja-young even offers to send Hye-na to an orphanage and give Seol-ak a child of his own, but he just slams out of the house angrily.
Ja-young sits crying, and Hye-na ventures out of the bedroom. Ja-young yells at her daughter to get out of her sight, so Hye-na zips herself back into her suitcase and sings herself to sleep.
After the police visit, some of the teachers from Hye-na’s school gather to discuss what to do about Hye-na’s situation. The principal says that he’s contacted Child Protective Services, but that they have to be very careful to protect the child, her family, and the school’s reputation.
Ye-eun is frustrated by everyone’s lack of willingness to take action, but Soo-jin thinks that they should listen more to what Hye-na has to say. She believes that Hye-na’s lying to protect her mother means that she’s afraid to betray her only blood relative, and that she’s scared and embarrassed to tell the truth and risk being sent to a facility full of strangers.
Ye-eun objects, arguing that they can’t just sit and watch as Hye-na is abused. She accuses Soo-jin of acting as if this isn’t her problem, and says that being a teacher means taking on difficult responsibilities.
Once she’s home, Soo-jin thinks about the things that Hye-na has said to her that seem like red flags. She checks her email and finds a message from the ornithology center in Iceland, offering her the job she hoped for.
Soo-jin’s mother YOUNG-SHIN (Lee Hye-young), who turns out to be a famous actress, has her manager JAE-BUM tell her what he’s learned about Soo-jin. Jae-bum reports that he lost Soo-jin’s trail after she finished her Ph.D three years ago, so Young-shin tells him to go find Soo-jin himself.
He balks, but Young-shin reminds him that she’s not looking for her daughter on a whim. She says that she’s let Soo-jin roam for ten years but that she can’t allow it anymore, and she begs Jae-bum to find her. Her younger daughter YI-JIN overhears and asks why Young-shin is looking for Soo-jin after so long, frustrated that her mother won’t tell her what’s going on with her.
Seol-ak goes looking for Hye-na while Ja-young is out of the house, and he finds her sleeping under the desk in the bedroom. He wakes her and gives her a roll of kimbap, which she wolfs down while he calls her disgusting and urges her to eat even faster.
Soo-jin has dinner with her colleague Eun-chul and tells him about her acceptance to the center in Iceland. Eun-chul notices that one of her mother’s dramas is playing on the restaurant television (it’s a scene from Can You Hear My Heart, which actress Lee Hye-young actually starred in), and he quips that she’s from a rich family, but Soo-jin fires back that her mother being rich doesn’t mean she is.
Eun-chul tells her not to get lonely while in Iceland, and she says that she never gets lonely. He asks if she’s really never wanted to be with someone she liked, and Soo-jin’s expression proves that the concept truly mystifies her.
Ja-young comes home that evening to find a garbage bag in the middle of the living room. She jumps a foot when she realizes that Hye-na is inside, while Seol-ak laughs cruelly. Hye-na says that they were playing hide and seek, but that she couldn’t get out of the bag on her own.
Annoyed, Ja-young gives Hye-na money and tells her to go outside and play. Hye-na goes to the waterfront with her menus, practicing her reading skills by sounding out the words to her hamster.
Soo-jin spots her while driving past, and she stops to fuss at Hye-na for being out at such a late hour. She takes Hye-na and her hamster to her place and tries to call Ja-young, who isn’t answering her phone.
While Soo-jin makes curry, Hye-na tells her that she can’t read very fast. She shows Soo-jin her takeout menus and proudly says that she practices every day. Soo-jin feeds Hye-na dinner, and Hye-na says that her mother is a great cook. But when Soo-jin asks what she cooks, Hye-na repeats the dishes listed on her takeout menu.
Soo-jin just says that it must be nice to have a mom who cooks so well, which prompts Hye-na to keep bragging on her mother. She says that Ja-young is pretty, and good at putting on makeup, and that she smells nice because she works in a cosmetics store.
She asks Soo-jin why she never wears makeup. Soo-jin says that her mother is also pretty and good at putting on makeup, and that when she was little she thought she’d never be as good at it as her mom, so she decided not to try. Hye-na asks Soo-jin if she likes her mom, and Soo-jin indicates that she doesn’t. Hye-na asks who Soo-jin does like, and Soo-jin says with a tiny smile, “Birds.”
After dinner, Hye-na practices reading with one of Soo-jin’s books about birds. Soo-jin explains that birds can migrate thousands of miles and never lose their way. Hye-na asks how it feels to fly so far, and Soo-jin offers to take her to see the migrating birds.
Ja-young finally returns Soo-jin’s call. Hye-na gets ready for Soo-jin to take her home, and her notebook of favorite things falls unnoticed from her jacket pocket.
When they near Hye-na’s house, they pass Seol-ak walking down the street. Soo-jin doesn’t know who he is, but she notices that Hye-na hides her face from him. After Hye-na goes inside, Soo-jin suffers a series of of flashbacks featuring a very angry man.
She rushes back to Eun-chul and asks him to check on Hye-na later, to make sure she’s safe. She’s agitated and has trouble identifying exactly what she’s scared about, and she tells Eun-chul that she saw the man who lives with Hye-na. Even though she’d never seen him before, she says that he had a very familiar look in his eyes, “The look of a beast who breaks women and children.”
Soo-jin gives her notice at the school, and Ye-eun snipes that bird research suits her cold nature. She runs into Hye-na after school, but Hye-na just says sadly, “I thought that I would be going to see the migratory birds with you,” before turning for home.
When she nears her house, Hye-na spots her hamster’s empty cage out with the garbage. Ja-young tells her curtly that her hamster went to Heaven, but Hye-na says that Heaven doesn’t exist. Ja-young blurts out, “I’m not the one who did it!” Oh, no…
While packing up her house, Soo-jin finds the notebook that Hye-na dropped and she takes a break to read more of Hye-na’s favorite things. Hye-na’s list includes things like the sound of her hamster eating seeds, waves crashing on the beach, and the smell of the wind before it rains.
At the same time, Seol-ak finds Hye-na sleeping in her suitcase, and he tells her that if she cries, she’ll die. But at the thought of her hamster, a single tear tracks down Hye-na’s face.
Seol-ak suddenly strikes, quick as a snake, grabbing Hye-na by the hair and dragging her out of the bedroom. He gets right in her face and asks what he does to kids who make noise, but Hye-na says that they live on the first floor, so falling won’t kill her.
Chuckling, Seol-ak tells her what he did to her hamster: “I pressed down on her hard, like this. Really, really hard. And then do you know what happened?” He describes the poor creature’s death in horrific detail, relishing Hye-na’s reactions until Hye-na begins to gag and cough.
Seol-ak roughly grips Hye-na’s face in one hand and smears her mother’s lipstick on her mouth, then douses her with perfume, grumbling that she’s disgusting. He gets very close to Hye-na, too close, and starts sniffing her like an animal.
Luckily, Ja-young arrives home, and Hye-na runs to her mother for shelter. But Ja-young slams Hye-na to the ground and frantically wipes the lipstick from her face, gasping, “Disgusting… disgusting!” A short time later, Ja-young and Seol-ak head to the movies, but Hye-na is nowhere in sight.
Soo-jin gets to the end of Hye-na’s notebook and reads her latest favorite thing: “The first day that Teacher Soo-jin smiled.” She drives to Hye-na’s house to return her notebook, but something about one of the garbage bags in front of the house seems wrong to her.
She notices that the bag appears to be moving, so she takes a closer look. When Hye-na’s bruised face peers up at her from inside the bag, Soo-jin experiences more flashbacks of a hand flying at her, and a man’s predatory eyes.
She takes Hye-na to her house, and while Hye-na sleeps, Soo-jin takes pictures of her numerous injuries. She fights her own traumatic memories while she examines Hye-na, crying and apologizing.
When she’s finished, she asks if she wants a drink of water or some food. Hye-na shakes her head, so Soo-jin asks if she wants a latte. Smiling weakly, Hye-na whispers, “I want to see the migratory birds.”
The sunrise finds the two of them at the seaside watching the birds, Hye-na still too weak to do more than lean on Soo-jin. She tells Soo-jin that there was a boy named Lee Hwan who lived with her mom and Seol-ak. She says that one day Hwan was being too noisy, “So Uncle threw him off the balcony.” Oh my god.
Soo-jin somehow manages to stay calm, and she says that Hye-na doesn’t have to tell her if it’s too scary. But Hye-na continues, saying that Hwan was only five years old. She says that she will never forget his name because she’s the only person who knows how he really died, and she adds, almost like an afterthought, that Seol-ak threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone.
Hye-na seems to gain some strength when she sees a flock of geese flying overhead. She gets up to pick up a white feather and walks into the ocean, waving the feather at the birds. She calls out, “Hey, where are you going? Can you take me with you? Take me away with you! Far away… far away to Heaven.”
Alarmed, Soo-jin runs to Hye-na and leads her out of the water. She grabs Hye-na in a desperate hug, then looks the little girl in the eye. “Hye-na, listen well,” she says. “I will take you away to a place where nobody will find you.” Hye-na asks if she could go to jail and she says she might, which makes Hye-na start crying.
Soo-jin tells Hye-na that she doesn’t have to go with her, but that if she does, she will never come back or see her mother again. “But if you do go back home (now), you may end up like Lee Hwan one day.” In a shaky voice, Hye-na asks why a child can’t survive without a mother, but Soo-jin says she’ll help Hye-na so that she can.
Hye-na wails that her mother threw her away in the trash, sobbing in earnest. Soo-jin says that she will be the one throwing away her mother now, and when she asks Hye-na if she can do it, Hye-na cries even harder.
Wow. Okay, that was extremely hard to watch, and even harder to write. I don’t even have words for the emotions I’m feeling right now, which I’m guessing means that the show has me exactly where it wants me. I’m shocked at the serious topics tvN has tackled with this show, impressed with the finesse and delicacy with which those issues are being portrayed, and blown away by the performances of both Lee Bo-young and newcomer Heo Yool as Hye-na.
I went into this drama expecting to see Hye-na being emotionally and even physically abused, but I wasn’t anticipating the show to go so far as to not-so-gently imply sexual abuse (or at least make it clear that Seol-ak was contemplating it) as well. It makes sense, as many abusers start “small” and escalate their abuse tactics over time, but that didn’t make it any easier to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that the show is off to a great start and I plan to continue watching, but it’s definitely not for the faint-of-heart. On the other hand, when adult has such a difficult time dealing with fictional portrayals of the things that were done to Hye-na, knowing that such disgusting and reprehensible things actually happen in the world can really drive home the desperation that Soo-jin must have felt when she decided to rescue the little girl. Once she realized what was truly going on, I have no doubt that Soo-jin felt she had no choice.
I can certainly see why Soo-jin couldn’t resist helping Hye-na despite her desire not to get involved — she’s an adorable little sprite with a core of steel, an aura of vulnerability, and the soul of a poet. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to want to take her out of her abusive situation and give her a happy life before she’s destroyed physically or even mentally by the unthinkable things that are happening to her. I actually found it very interesting that Soo-jin wasn’t the one making the most noise about Hye-na’s abuse at first, which made it that much more meaningful when she decided to take her. Soo-jin seems distant and even a bit cold at first, no doubt in an attempt to keep from becoming too emotionally involved (and probably due to her own childhood), and it was interesting to watch her soften up towards Hye-na as time went on.
I wasn’t so sure how I would react emotionally to a show about abuse and kidnapping, so I was comforted to see that Soo-jin tried everything she possibly could within the legal system to help Hye-na. But when the child’s mother is complicit in her abuse, and the system lets her down, I can also understand Soo-jin’s impulse to just take the kid and run. Of course, most of us wouldn’t give in to that impulse, and that’s the dilemma I think the show will be debating — is it better to follow the law and allow a child’s life to be threatened, or does the fact that Soo-jin is trying to save the child render her actions morally acceptable?
But this isn’t just a show about Soo-jin becoming a mother to Hye-na — there are several other mother/daughter relationships to explore, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these relationships affect the characters’ actions. I’m particularly interested in Soo-jin’s relationship with her famous mother, what exactly happened to her when she was a child, and how it contributes to her impulse to take Hye-na away. There was definitely some abuse in Soo-jin’s past, probably at the hands of a boyfriend of her mother’s. But Young-shin doesn’t seem to be a horrible person herself, and she also appears to want to see her daughter badly. On the other hand, she’s accepted Soo-jin’s desire to stay away for a decade, which leads me to believe that Young-shin knows exactly what happened to her daughter and that she failed to protect her. I’m curious about Hye-na’s mother Ja-young as well, who seems disturbed by her daughter’s abuse (if only because the questions are inconvenient), but who seems willing to throw her away rather than protect her.
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