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[Best Friends Forever] I will go down with this (friend)ship

By @anonybean

One of the reasons I watch K-dramas is that I enjoy their robust portrayals of relationships; and while it’s generally the lovelines that hook me, if those don’t pan out, there’s often a warm family bond, a good workplace connection, or a strong friendship to keep me invested. With most K-dramas, I fully expect one of those pairings to snag my heart, break it a few times, and then heal it.

Then along came Gaksital, which ripped my heart completely to shreds, never to be mended.

From the drama’s start, I loved every step of Lee Kang-to’s transformation from villain to hero; and while I never cared about his anemic loveline with his childhood sweetheart (who was everyone’s childhood sweetheart, apparently), I was fully invested in his angsty friendship with Kimura Shunji. Fully invested. This was my ship, and I was going down with it. And down is right.

If you haven’t watched the series, it’s hard to express just how heartbreaking the devolution of this friendship truly is. And while I expected the nature of their bond to change as Kang-to took up his mantle as Gaksital, I was in no way prepared for what happened when Shunji emerged as a secret ninja warrior bent on burning down the world with his tightly-bottled rage.

I mean, it was shocking. One moment Shunji’s a sweet, bowtied school teacher with slicked-down hair, playing an organ and teaching music to children, and the next, he’s a legit, foaming-at-the-mouth super-villain, rage-kicking people in the face and torturing everyone in a dungeon.

I mean, come on. Who does that?

And let’s be honest—while I was vaguely interested in the overall storyline of the downtrodden masses seeking freedom from their overlords, it was the fracturing of the friendship between Kang-to and Shunji when things really got good—and by good, I mean bad, but bad in the best, most fascinating ways possible.

Since both Shunji and Kang-to are fully dynamic characters, the nature of their relationship is dynamic as well, morphing and twisting in ways that I could not have foreseen and was in no way emotionally prepared to witness.

Kang-to and Shunji go from a warm, caring, two-person support system who demonstrate adorable affection and implicit trust in one another to an angsty binary with an intense, twisted magnetism binding them together even as it rips them apart. Their bond provides the perfect juxtaposition of physical proximity and emotional distance that often proves so delicious in storytelling: Even as misunderstandings and circumstance carve deep rifts in their relationship, the twists of fate ensure that they must continually show up in front of one another.

Even though they both sense that their relationship is headed into truly dark territory, they can’t not see one another.

It was this twisty layering of motivations and emotion that kept me coming back for more, even as I knew that—beyond a doubt—there was no way this ship could sail. I knew it was going down, but I was fully onboard and ready to go down with it. And down we all went, plumbing the depths of ever-deepening anguish.

Throughout the show’s middle act, Shunji and Kang-to had to maintain a veneer of friendship in order to assuage one another’s suspicions; so even as their friendship was dissolving, they were pretending still to care for one another. It was all so deliciously angsty I could have wept. But it got better (or worse, depending how you look at it). Even as these two were locked in a fake-friendship cold war, I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that they didn’t have to pretend to still love one another. Underneath all the layers of torment and lies, despite fate having pitted them as enemies, these two still cared.

I know many viewers felt that Shunji couldn’t be redeemed, and I understand their analysis; but I had a different take. As we approached the end—the bitter end, as the case was clearly going to be—I couldn’t help feeling that although Shunji was clearly doomed, deep down somewhere inside, he was still screaming for redemption. He reminded me of the adult version of an abused child who lashes out against those he secretly hopes will love and accept him just as he is, no matter how his sharp edges cut them.

In any case, if redemption was going to come, it could only come through the last vestiges of his ravaged friendship with Lee Kang-to. I believe that’s why Shunji took the route he did in the end. Although he clearly could not atone for his sins, choosing his own exit spared Lee Kang-to, his only friend in the world, more pain.

Think of the alternatives. Either way that fight would have gone, one of the boys would have killed his one-time best friend; and as much as Shunji could not bear to kill Kang-to, he also couldn’t bear the thought of Kang-to killing him. Clearly, it wasn’t the being killed that he was avoiding. I believe Shunji chose to spare Kang-to the weight of his death. That’s why I’ve always understood Shunji’s final act as one of love rather than defeat—an act of twisted, deranged friendship so deep and convoluted that it still gets me right here.

Maybe I’m wrong, and if so, please forgive me. If I’m not seeing clearly, it’s because of these tears in my eyes. I’ve gone down with this ship, and I don’t know if I’ll ever come back up for air.

 
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OHMYGOD @anonybean I have goosebumps all over my arms and my scalp is tingling and THIS IS SO GOOD. The subject matter (OHMYGOD GAKSITAL) and how you wrote it IT'S JUST SO PERFECT and my goosebumps aren't going down so I'll just re-read this again AND AGAIN until the old scars of this doomed friendship are as fresh as when they were incurred almost six years ago.

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I can't imagine another show ever topping this one for emotional investment. These boys broke so many hearts while breaking each other's! Thank you for reading along and understanding.

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Ah, this is the friendship/enemyship that always gets me, too! I'm so glad you wrote about it. You articulated it well. It's a show that I haven't even been able to watch again cause it hit me so hard the first time!

It says a lot that the final climactic scene was between these two--from the beginning they were always the central focus. The bland romance was thrown in for convenience and plot points. I've always viewed that final scene in the same way as you. I do think people have complex motivations, and it was partly that Shunji didn't want to live with himself anymore, but I also saw it as one last act of friendship, one moment of redemption. Really the only thing he could still offer Kang To. We were expecting some epic battle, but instead we got a quiet moment of real meaning. That one tear down Kang To's face said it all. He may have screamed for the death of his wife, but he would quietly weep for his lost friend for the rest of his life.

This really was about the creation of a hero and a villain, and how anyone can be transformed given the right or wrong circumstances. I loved that you could see how easily the two of them swapped places, and how easily it could have gone the other way. Had Shunji's brother not killed Kang To's brother, Kang To very well could have become the true villain and Shunji the hero.

That scene with them on the bike, where they just cling to each other and weep, when they both sense that this may be the last moment of true friendship between them--goes down as one of the greatest bromance moments of drama history. Such a beautifully tragic story!

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"He may have screamed for the death of his wife, but he would quietly weep for his lost friend for the rest of his life."

😭😭😭😭😭😭

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THIS IS PERFECT. This is exactly how I feel about these two guys - their pain and angst was so delicious to watch - I mean this was one of the most heartbreaking (b)romances tonwatch ever.

If you're into these kinds of (friend)ships, I really suggest you watch School 2013 and Nirvana in Fire - the male leads are devastating in both looks and the pain they suffer for each other.

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Thank you! I will check it out.

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I'm having trouble getting into Nirvana in Fire - your comment is really helpful, because "the pain they suffer for each other" is the kind of drama I like to get emotionally invested in. I've watched NIF 2 twice already and loved the friendship between the brothers so much.

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@Linda, NIF2 was so so good with the family love and warmth indeed! (I mean Tingsheng and the Emperor as well were so sweet)

Please please watch NIF1. It will be difficult a bit initially but once you start getting into it- I would say post Ep 4 or 5-it moves quickly. I would suggest reading the recaps over at dr-myri.blogspot.com because they help one resolve issues/gaps in understanding NIF because of stuff lost in translation.

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Thanks. I think watching NIF2 first will help me with NIF watching as there are quite a few references to NIF. I'm wondering if the bracelet PingJing wears in the last episode of NIF2 that saves his life is a reference to something in NIF.

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Yes NIF2 does indeed have references to NIF, esp. the main characters of NIF (Prince Jing - father to Tingsheng and his brother, Mei Changsu - sometimes teacher to Tingsheng. They actually have a different relationship - but it will be spoilery if I reveal). There are also other moments and people (Old Master Lin of Langya Hall, the armour and the bow that Tingsheng arranges). But of course - the bracelet is indeed something that ties in to NIF - it used to belong to the main protagonist of NIF1 Lin Shu (who is also related to Pingjing in a certain way), you'll see it in the very first scene of NIF1 itself.

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Thank you Slvr! I knew the bracelet had to be significant and I'm glad you referred to 1st ep of NIF because now I'll re watch it. And intriguing - Lin Shu is related to Pingjing? "In a certain way"? Ooh, interesting. Now I'm more curious. And I don't mind being spoiled, it will actually help me to understand what's going on. So hopefully you'll read this (since you're not registered and won't get a notice) and spoilery me please!

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Hello! I do have an account but there was some mess up and my password has gone to hell. Since you don't mind being spoiled - warning ahead!! The relationship may be a bit complicated but hopefully I will be able to explain it well.

The Bracelet - In the very first scene of NIF1 you see the bracelet. The bracelet was like a standard-issue identifier issued to an army called the Chiyan army. This specific one belonged to Lin Shu, the Vice-general of the Chiyan army.
(Note: The Chiyan army was the premier army of Da Liang, much like the Changlin Army. It was headed by the Lin family, with Lin Shu being the vice-general like Pingzhang. This army was massacred at Meiling on the Emperor's - Yuanqi and Yuanshi's great-grandpa in this case - orders. Lin Shu was one of the few remaining survivors, but he had to change his face and re-appeared as the scholar-strategist Mei Changsu, the main lead of NIF1 and Tingsheng's teacher who he always remembers)

The relationship between Lin Shu/Mei Changsu and Pingjing - To put it simply, Lin Shu is PJ's granduncle by blood and Tingsheng's uncle. Lin Shu is Tingsheng's real father's paternal double 1st cousin. Confused? I'll try and make it simpler. We must go 2 generations before Tingsheng. (Note: The past emperor, the adoptive father of Tingsheng in NIF2 was named Prince Jing in NIF1)

Tingsheng's real father -
Tingsheng's real father was actually the crown prince first in line to the throne titled Prince Qi (given name: Xiao Jingyu). Prince Qi was very noble and framed by people along with the Chiyan army. The then NIF1 emperor (prince qi and prince jing's father) ordered prince qi's whole family exterminated. Tingsheng was not born yet and someone saved the mother and unborn baby. Under a fake identity, Tingsheng became a royal palace slave. Lin Shu/Mei Changsu had Tingsheng released and Prince Jing adopted him.

Therefore, Prince Jing is Tingsheng's uncle by blood (he was half-brother to TS' real dad Prince Qi, and he shared a deep bond with Prince Qi)

Lin Shu and Prince Qi-
The Emperor in NIF1 was the father of Prince Qi. Prince Qi's mother was a lady named Lin Yueyao, the full paternal aunt of Lin Shu (Lin Shu's dad's sister).
There is another connection however. Lin Shu's mother was a lady called Grand Princess Jinyang, full sister to the NIF1 Emperor.

So Lin Shu/Mei Changsu is double first cousins with Prince Qi, and also first cousin to Prince Jing, direct uncle to Tingsheng, and direct granduncle to Pingjing.

We've been joking that Pingjing got the hyper Lin family genes.
Hope this was good enough to understand ahahaha

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Slvr: Thanks! I'm printing this out...
I wondered whether or not Tingsheng was really only an adopted son of a slave - this explains it! And, Pingjing's hyper Lin genes - love it! Your explanation and comments have inspired me.

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Slvr: Does Pingjing know Lin Shu is his granduncle? And all the other royal connections?

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Hello! No, Pingjing doesnt know his royal connections and that he and his dad are technically the true heirs to the throne. In fact, Tingsheng himself doesn't know his real origins in the NIF1 or NIF2 Drama.

In the NIF1 novel (it was a novel adapted into a drama) it is that Tingsheng has an (fake) identity, as the grandson of a traitorous official - so he is downgraded to a slave and made to work in the palace from birth. It is implied though, that Tingsheng has an inkling that there is more to his story and he is somehow related to Prince Jing. (Prince Jing and his teacher Mei Changsu make a decision not to tell Tingsheng his birth secret to avoid any future complications)

Apparently in the NIF2 novel (recently released), the old Tingsheng knows his own birth history but doesnt pass it to his own sons.

If you're looking for resources on NIF or NIF2, check out AvenueX's Youtube channel. Or you could message me on twitter (@orangememories) or tumblr (orangememory) where we can chat easier.

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Loveeeeee thank you for this. I just put Gaksital in my rewatch list. Huhuhu epic!!!

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Looks like I have yet another k-drama I need to watch. Thanks for the gripping analysis

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Bring tissues.

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OMG yessss! I absolutely love this entry. I didn't dislike the romantic otp as much as the majority but gosh YES Shunji and Kangto stole the show. Man. I have never bawled my eyes out as much as I have with Gaksital.

As I was reading your entry I couldn't stop remembering one scene in particular. After Shunji (finally) catches Gaksital and confirms its Kangto. Gahhhhh that dungeon scene. Kangto explains how he became Gaksital etc etc but then he THANKS Shunji for catching him first. Such a powerful scene (matter of fact in the bts for that scene they had to redo it because Shunji/PKW actually cried and couldn't say his lines). I wholeheartedly agree with your argument that to the end they still loved each other as brothers and it literally broke them to be on opposite sides. Okay...now I blame you for making me want to rewatch. *grabs tissue box*

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"Kangto explains how he became Gaksital etc etc but then he THANKS Shunji for catching him first."

See? It's stuff like that. I just can't with these two.

😭😭😭😭😭

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I want to read this but I plan on watching Gaksital so I can't read it because I'm assuming there's tons of spoilers 🙈
Congrats on getting published. 🙂

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Spoilers galore, but I don't know that they'd ruin it. With this show, it's not about what happens but how it's portrayed and the slow after effects of ever-unfolding emotional trauma. I promise, it's better than I just made it sound. 😂😂

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Even with spoilers and knowing what happens, you can watch this drama again and again and feel the same emotional roller coaster with these two.

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I watched it alone originally, then again with a friend. The second viewing proved richer and more emotionally moving than the first. The bicycle crying scene will always a wreck me.

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And the potato scene...
Joo Won did such a fantastic job with the emotional scenes!

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Haha, yes! That scene is so memorable and quite uncomfortable to watch. Who cries that hard wile eating a potato?

For a while, my friend and I would use the text shorthand *potato crying* to express deep sadness.

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I'm sure I cried right along with him!

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That potato scene, augh.

I also loved the one with hyung when they were silently crying next to each other before sleeping... and the silent-scream-crying with mom.

Gosh, Joo Won was just something else in Gaksital!

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Thank you so much for writing this! This drama still remains deep inside my soul. In another world, they could have been the best of friends, which is why it was so much more tragic! 💔 While I knew things had gone too far for it to happen, I wanted the two to embrace as friends once again. That pain was real.

And thank you to Good Doctor for understanding our desires and giving us a reunion. 😂😂 Perhaps one of my favorite fanservice moments ever.

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Yes! I didn't care if Mok-dan survived or literally anything else. ALL I wanted was for this friendship to be restored.

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I get that you like the friendship but why say that about the female character? One can appreciate the friendship between the male leads without ragging on the female love interest.

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Oh wow! @anonybean - This is one of the best theme of the month posts I've read since this feature began. Gaksital. Is one of my absolute favorite TV series of all time. It's such an amazing show centred around possibly the most dynamic friendship I've seen in fiction.

Thanks for writing this. I agree with your analysis about Shunji's final act - it was one of love, and as well as one of exhaustion. Shunji no longer wanted to continue the fight, he could see clearly that the both of them were steadily losing everything precious to them. And for Shunji himself, he had lost everything but Kang To, whereas Kang To still had something to fight Shunji for. So what was Shunji fighting Kang To for anymore? Love, as well as exhaustion.

I want to go back and re-do my post haha. Add this friendship. I saw Gaksital so long ago I'd kind of forgotten about it. But now its back and I'm probably going to watch it again.

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It was actually one of the very first kdramas I watched, so you can imagine the impact it had! I was stunned at the end, never would have predicted it, didn't understand it at the time. Now I do.

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Same here! One of my first K-dramasThe impact - haha, no wonder we're such K-drama fans?! And it definitely stands out even now. Truly one of a kind, this drama.

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I agree. My career includes literary analysis and storytelling, and this is literally the best depiction of complicated relationship dynamics that I have come across. It is the gold standard for me when it comes to multifaceted, fully textured character development.

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Oh! In that case, I can speak about Gaksital's friendship with some authority now :)
Your career sounds like that which was once my dream career (er.. one of the many things I wanted to do when I was younger). :)

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Good storytelling comes with an insight into human nature which only comes through maturity. Never too late to start creating. ❤💻📚🎥

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This drama left me so heartbroken! It was one of the first dramas I watched and I was so invested in all the relationships, especially the friendship between Kang To and Shunji. To turn from Best Friends to fierce enemies only because of outer circumstances is really the worst case scenario for a friendship. Joo Won and Park Ki Woong did such a great job in portraying their torn emotions, so it was impossible for me not to be invested in this friendship.
Thank you, @anonybean for writing such a great essay about Kang To and Shunji!

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One of the first!!! And you were brave enough to watch another??

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I guess this was one of the reasons why I watched more ;)
I started to watch Korean dramas because my boyfriend went to Korea to work there and I wanted to learn more about Korean society. And then I soon realised that all the emotional and heartbreaking dramas distracted me (in a good way) whenever I missed my boyfriend to much :)

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I love you're write up @anonybean, that ending line really describes everyone who ever like this show.

Welp, time to revisit it again.
*goes off to find my beloved kang-to and shunji vids*

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You know, I tried to watch these two actors in other things, and nothing else grabbed me. There was a special magic in the chemistry of this performance.

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now that you mentioned it, that's true.

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i didn't get to watch even half of the first episode of this series and has been buried far too deep in my archive of must-see. with your round-up, i am again encouraged to look for it and watch it during drama downtime.

thank you.

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I REALLY need to watch this show.

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Great write-up @anonybean You just re-opened the wounds of my broken heart 💔

Like you, it never mended after watching this show. I was, and still is heartbroken for these two that to this day, I tend to stay away from watching dramas that may have a similarity of doomed friendship. Gaksital was just one of a kind, I have yet to come across another to top it.

I totally agree with you on Shunji's death. I too believe that he chose to kill himself rather than let his best friend be tainted with the act. But I believe Shunji himself thought that he was beyond redemption: like Kangto, he had done too much and gone too deep in his chosen path that you just know there was no going back. And his moment was him passing judgement on himself and as a last "righteous" act, chose to spare Kangto the pain of having killed his best friend

Oof, I'm tearing up just remembering this drama. I will never forget that scene on the bicycle when they were both crying 😢

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And for some reason, the title of your article reminds me of Dido's song: which is actually an apt description of what I felt when watching the epicness of the Kangto + Shunji friendship

♪♫ I will go down with this ship
And I won't put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door
I'm in love, and always will be ♪♫

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Exactly where I got the title. 😂😂😂😂😂

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Really? Cool! lol! Started singing the song in my head the moment I saw your article 😂

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This is EXACTLY it ! I think you made the perfect description of their relationship. I rewatched it again not so long ago, and I still felt torn apart by their story (though I knew it wasn't going to end well). Thank you for expressing so accurately what I felt when watching that drama ^^

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👏 This is so well written. 🙌

This bromance frenemies was everything, comparing to the main loveline, lol. Thanks for writing, I really enjoyed reading it. 😊

Let's go down together, with this awesome ship. ⚓

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" Even as these two were locked in a fake-friendship cold war, I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that they didn’t have to pretend to still love one another. Underneath all the layers of torment and lies, despite fate having pitted them as enemies, these two still cared." Couldnt agree more with this!

And omgosh this post came our just when i was thinking of rewatching this drama. Definetly marathoning this one after easter break starts :D

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I just finished watching this drama last week and omg bitter end is so right! I kept looking at Shunji as he became a monster and wondering how he could be so evil. I guess I still haven't fully processed the ending. To me it seemed to be just Kangto losing everyone he ever loved. It was tragic and I kept hoping for Shunji to show flashes of humanity but yes the last two episodes did deliver that but he was a broken hollow shell of a man by that point.

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Processing the ending took a while for me. I basically stared at the wall for days.

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Hands down this drama had the best cliff-hanger endings of any drama I’ve watched. Also, Kang-to and Shunji had such interesting (and opposite) character arcs - one from bad to good and the other from good to bad. This was also one of the few dramas where I wanted the H to end up with the second female lead (of course since they both survived in my version of the drama they find each other after the end of the war).

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Had to laugh at your comment "while I never cared about his anemic loveline with his childhood sweetheart (who was everyone’s childhood sweetheart, apparently)" as it was so true. The romance wasn't very well written, especially the part where Mok-Dan goes from hating Kangto (justifiably) to being instantly in love with him once she discovers he's become Gaksital. Unfortunately, Mok-Dan wasn't a well developed character. While it appeared in the first episode that she might be a strong character as the show progressed she became weaker until she became solely a plot device.

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Yes, exactly. Such a waste.

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YES. This is precisely why Gaksital is one of my very favorite K-Dramas. You are spot on about Shunji's death. I don't know that I would call it redemption, but I do think he chose it to spare Kang To having to kill him, thus demonstrating that he was more than raging, mustache-twirling supervillain. Thank you for writing this. I need to go re-watch Gaksital.

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Yes! No fictional relationship ever sank its teeth into me like this one did. Thank you for writing, @anonybean!

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I truly stayed for their friendship as well from the start i felt nothing of the romance between the leads and after a few eps i just started fast forwarding through their scenes cus it was pretty boring BUT THIS THIS FRIENDSHIP WAS BEAUTIFUL AND TRAGIC AND THE ENDING WAS SO RIGHT YET SO WRONG BUT IT FELT RIGHT AND I WAS CRYING SO MUCH another friendship i would like to point out would be ueno rie and her body guard that arc was just as precious

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I was sad to see them separate.

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Have never watched this drama, but I have heard tons of good things about it. So maybe one day! Thank you for your post. 🙂🙋😀

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I need to watch this now! The praise has me hyped.

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