Life: Episodes 1-2
From the writer of Forest of Secrets comes a political medical drama where a virtue-driven ER specialist and a profit-first executive begin their tense face-off. The first two episodes introduce us to these two protagonists on opposing sides and capture the collision of their two worlds. Thrown into a story filled with complex characters, mysteries, and questions, it’s easy to get lost in the details, but with such a solid cast and crew behind the helm, Life seems to be off to a steady start.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
An ambulance pushes through traffic in the middle of the night, and arrives at Sangkook University Hospital where ER Doctor YE JIN-WOO (Lee Dong-wook) nervously waits outside. He opens the doors of the ambulance, and inside, a weary man holding a defibrillator with bloody gloves sits next to a patient covered with a blanket. Jin-woo pulls the blanket away from the patient, revealing hospital Director LEE BO-HOON (Chun Ho-jin). The man inside is Deputy Director KIM TAE-SANG (Moon Sung-geun), who declares the time of death.
In a surgery room, thoracic surgeon JOO KYUNG-MOON (Yoo Jae-myung) and neurosurgeon OH SE-HWA (Moon Sori) stare at Director Lee’s lifeless body in disbelief. Interrupting their time of grief, organ transplant coordinator SUNWOO CHANG enters the room with papers for them to sign. Despite the doctors’ protests, Chang reminds them that they need to recover the cornea quickly and forces them to concede.
While the others leave, Dr. Joo remains in the room, lost in thought as he recalls a happy memory of Director Lee bragging about his new organ donor sticker. Before covering the director’s face, Dr. Joo prays for everlasting light and peace for the director, and asks for comfort and courage for those remaining.
Alone on the curb, Jin-woo calls his younger brother YE SUN-WOO (Lee Kyu-hyung) and tells him about Director Lee’s death. Sun-woo asks if Jin-woo discussed that with the director, but Jin-woo can’t bring himself to answer. Instead, he asks his younger brother to keep it a secret, and Sun-woo promises to try.
Still in a daze, Jin-woo walks onto the street and nearly gets run over by a car. He watches it drive by and stares as a sharply dressed man exits from the backseat. The passenger is newly appointed President GU SEUNG-HYO (Jo Seung-woo), and he marches into the hospital with ominous music playing in the background, foretelling the impending conflict he’ll soon bring.
Back in the ER, Jin-woo fills out the death certificate for Director Lee, but he hesitates to choose between homicide and suicide. Not alone in his misgivings, pediatrician LEE NO-EUL (Won Jin-ah) stands beside Jin-woo and tells him that it’s strange that Director Lee died at the deputy director’s house. Before she can elaborate, a young daughter and father are wheeled into the ER.
Dr. Oh visits Deputy Director Kim in his office and mentions the police officers who just came out. Her accusatory tone isn’t lost on the deputy director who explains that Director Lee came to his house drunk and went to the roof for a smoke when the accident occurred. Dr. Oh doesn’t push further, but warns Deputy Director Kim to not look so well-kept since rumors are already spreading.
The police officers who questioned the deputy director find their way to the ER, but unfortunately, the young daughter from before has already passed away, though the father still lives. A nurse asks them if it was a robbery, but the patrol officer sadly informs them that it was an attempted double suicide.
Jin-woo finds No-eul curled up in her office, and asks why she thinks it’s odd that Director Lee had a drink with Deputy Director Kim. She tells him that someone heard them fighting today, and doubts that they were on friendly terms. Despite her suspicions, No-eul doesn’t want to believe that the deputy director would have actually harmed the director, and she asks Jin-woo if she should take this information to the police or not.
Before he can answer, Jin-woo is called down to the ER, and contemplates the two DOAs today. The young daughter died from being stabbed by her trusted father, while Director Lee died after being stabbed with words by a trusted junior. Jin-woo silently notes April 5, 2018 as Director Lee’s final day as well as the day of his biting remarks to the director.
The officer from last night finds Jin-woo sleeping at the station since he’s been waiting to ask the officer about Director Lee’s death. The officer asks when Jin-woo last saw the director, leading to a flashback of that fateful day. His brother Sun-woo called Jin-woo, telling him that some of the hospital funds were funneled to Director Lee’s private account, so Jin-woo barged into the director’s room wanting an explanation. All the while in voiceover, present-day Jin-woo lies to the officer that nothing notable happened during their encounter and describes the director as a respectable doctor.
Since the officer has a witness and no reason to doubt otherwise, he suspects the cause of death to be a heart attack, and asks Jin-woo why he’s really here. Suddenly, imaginary Sun-woo appears and answers the question for him: “Because a friend died, who was also a father.”
Jin-woo drives to the deputy director’s house and examines the scene of the accident. In voiceover, the officer repeats Deputy Director Kim’s story, and Jin-woo imagines the scene playing out before him. Still suspicious, Jin-woo tries to meet the witness but returns to his car empty-handed. Luckily, Deputy Director Kim leaves his home right then, and Jin-woo tails him.
The scene flashes back to a meeting led by Director Lee as he harshly criticized the proposed performance-related pay system. Even if the hospital were bought by a private company, he argued that this wasn’t right, and left the meeting to confront the new president. Jin-woo chased after him and reminded him that all the other doctors supported him as well.
Despite his day off, Jin-woo arrives at the hospital after following the deputy director, and he is dragged to a meeting by the head of the emergency care center, Doctor LEE DONG-SOO. A flower is placed at the head of the table in memory of Director Lee, and the doctors begin discussing and complaining about the latest events surrounding the director’s death.
As Dr. Joo announces Director Lee’s cause of death as a heart attack, Deputy Director Kim enters. He tells the group that he stopped by the Ministry of Health and Welfare this morning—which Jin-woo knows is a lie since he followed him to the hospital from his house earlier—and informs them that three of their departments will be dispatched to a provincial hospital: OB/GYN, pediatrics, and the emergency care center. Though the doctors protest, the issue isn’t up for discussion; it’s an order.
After losing a game of rock-paper-scissors with Dr. Lee, Jin-woo must inform the nursing staff of the impending transfer, and as expected, the news goes over poorly. However, an emergency patient cuts their meeting short, and as Jin-woo treats the patient, imaginary Sun-woo appears before him again.
Imaginary Sun-woo notes Jin-woo’s rather untroubled expression and guesses that he must have somewhere else to go. Looking around the center, imaginary Sun-woo ponders the fate of the hundreds of patients who come into this ER, and sardonically says that they probably won’t end up on the streets.
Meanwhile, Dr. Lee breaks the bad news to the emergency care center residents who suggest striking in order to voice their dissent.
That night Jin-woo finally goes home, and meets Sun-woo who’s just come back from Director Lee’s funeral. Jin-woo helps Sun-woo, a paraplegic, change, and thinks back to earlier that day when No-eul asked him if it was all right for him to leave Sun-woo by himself. In his usual nonchalant manner, Jin-woo told her that that Sun-woo would be fine without him.
Lying on his bed, Sun-woo wonders if he did something wrong, but Jin-woo tells him that the funneled account is real. He explains that Director Lee asked him how he knew about it when he confronted him, and that was enough of an answer for Jin-woo. Unconvinced, Sun-woo decides to reinvestigate the bank account, ignoring his brother’s protests.
The next day while leaving Director Lee’s funeral, Jin-woo runs into Deputy Director Kim, and using this chance encounter, he calls out the deputy director for lying about his visit to the Ministry of Health and Welfare yesterday. Deputy Director Kim denies the accusation, so Jin-woo threatens to inform the police about the deputy director’s fight with Director Lee the day of his death.
Deputy Director Kim tells Jin-woo that he was actually teaching the director a lesson, and explains that he’s unafraid to bare everything to the police. However, he doubts the same can be said for the saintly Director Lee.
Angered, Jin-woo accuses the deputy director of destroying the hospital that Director Lee dedicated his life to protect, but Deputy Director Kim points the finger back at Jin-woo, citing how much he works to fix the emergency care center’s deficit. Jin-woo doesn’t deny that Deputy Director Kim performs a lot of surgeries and is well regarded, but the hidden implications behind his words strike a chord with Deputy Director Kim, who grabs Jin-woo by the lapels. Before their fight escalates, a phone call breaks them apart.
Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff members gather for a meeting about the dispatch issue, and Dr. Joo mentions the fact that the provincial hospital they are transferring to seems to be in the dark as well. As the conversation turns to complaining about the newly appointed president, Dr. Oh interjects and reminds the crowd that a business doesn’t have any grand ideals, and this dispatch is just the start.
A hush falls upon the audience as footsteps approach, and every pair of eyes in the room turns towards the figure taking center stage—President Gu Seung-hyo. He urges the doctors to begin the discussion about the surgery, much to their confusion, so Deputy Director Kim asks for clarification. Seung-hyo explains that the surgery is for the nation since all the doctors gathered here want to help people regardless of their background, and apparently now, they also want to personally go to those places in need.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
In an office overlooking Hwajeong freight company, Seung-hyo orders Director Lee to turn around the loss of the three bottom departments (OB/GYN, pediatrics, and the emergency care center) before his inauguration, but from Seung-hyo’s response, it seems that Director Lee keeps pushing back. Manager KANG KYUNG-AH sends Seung-hyo the profiles of the doctors from Sangkook Hospital, and Dr. Joo’s resume catches his eye.
Seung-hyo buys drinks for the vice minister of Health and Welfare, and with some careful prompting by Seung-hyo, the vice minister brings up the topic of dispatching doctors to more rural hospitals. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find cooperating university hospitals, and Seung-hyo laments the lack of support for such a wonderful program.
Hearing the news of Director Lee’s death, Seung-hyo makes his way to the hospital and recalls the day when Director Lee admonished him for expecting to make a profit off the poor who come through their ER. The car suddenly jerks, bringing Seung-hyo back to reality, and he watches a dazed Jin-woo standing on the road.
In his office, Seung-hyo’s flashback of Director Lee continues as the director then defended the importance of the OB/GYN department and threatened to tell the media about Seung-hyo’s for-profit stance. Back in the present, Deputy Director Kim enters Seung-hyo’s office and assures him that the hospital funds issue with Director Lee has been resolved. Seung-hyo pointedly describes Director Lee’s last moments as peculiar, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Deputy Director Kim, but Seung-hyo casually avoids explaining what he means by it.
Seung-hyo gives a presentation of Sangkook Hospital to the other presidents of Hwajeong group’s different companies, and offers Hwajeong Insurance their patients’ information for a million won per person. Another company president attempts to undermine Seung-hyo by pointing out the illegality of this exchange, but Seung-hyo informs him that the rule was overturned a couple of years ago, making this negotiation completely legal.
The young chairman sitting at the head of the table gives Seung-hyo a barbed compliment, bringing up his past as a scholarship student, but Seung-hyo laughs it off along with the rest of the presidents. The chairman assigns Seung-hyo another task, and orders him to buy land from a particular person who isn’t willing to sell.
Seung-hyo thinks that the land is a bit far from the hospital, not making it ideal for the new hospital building, but the chairman won’t budge. Thus, Seung-hyo agrees to take on the assignment, but in exchange, he wants 70 billion won to help build the new hospital centers.
As soon as the meeting ends, Seung-hyo calls the land owner, but can barely say hello before the owner angrily hangs up the call, clearly stating his disinterest in selling the land. Leaving that task to the side for now, Seung-hyo arrives at the hospital and enters the auditorium where the hospital staff has gathered to discuss the dispatch issue.
Continuing from Episode 1, Seung-hyo addresses the audience and urges them to speak up about the topic. Dr. Oh goes first and expresses the confusion this sudden order has caused. In response, Seung-hyo asks the group if they reacted this way when the medical examination center moved to the Gangnam district (a wealthy district in the capital) last year.
The head of OB/GYN argues that the two aren’t comparable, and asks if Seung-hyo would relocate to a rural area if he were in their shoes. He replies in the affirmative, and twists their words back to them: If this were actually a business, then the workers would have already prepared to move rather than complain.
Dr. Joo speaks up next, and asks Seung-hyo what right he has to split up thousands of patients who visit these three departments when Sangkook Hospital is a public institution. Seung-hyo has a response for this too, and asks Dr. Joo if a public institution isn’t about everyone having access to equal care.
Dr. Lee suggests sending financial support rather than a dispatch, but Seung-hyo reminds him of his department’s accumulated deficit. Jin-woo remembers those same words from his argument with Deputy Director Kim, and to the surprise of those who know him, he throws a question at Seung-hyo: Does this mean that departments in the black can satisfy the requirements with money rather than be dispatched?
Seung-hyo starts to respond in his roundabout way, but Jin-woo forces him to be direct and answer the question. Thus, Seung-hyo asks how the emergency center will even acquire the funds if that is the case, and Jin-woo simply replies, “You’re right. We can’t.” However, he exchanges glances with Dr. Joo, who in turn locks eyes with Seung-hyo.
The meeting ends, and as everyone files out of the auditorium, Dr. Joo catches up to Jin-woo and asks him what he meant by that question. A sudden outburst by Dr. Lee saves Jin-woo from answering, and he excuses himself to take care of his department head.
The ER is busy as usual, and as Jin-woo starts chest compressions on a patient, we hear him talk about the two most frequent questions he receives. The first is about the difficulty of the job (using a common Korean expression about something being so hard it’ll kill you), to which Jin-woo says that people don’t technically die from hard work. The second is about why he picked this job, and Jin-woo explains that it’s because it would be a waste of his education… and because he lacks the courage to look away from a disappearing life before his eyes.
Jin-woo watches another doctor escort a young patient to the pediatric ward, but suddenly, both disappear as an empty wheelchair bangs into the wall. He looks around the ER, and staff and patients fade away as the equipment and walls age from neglect. Jin-woo firmly tells Director Lee that he’ll continue living without courage, and marches through the abandoned ER.
Manager Kang brings Seung-hyo the hospital’s varying records, from patient wait times to surgery room usage. He complains about the inefficiency of the hospital as he flips through the different files, and orders Manager Kang to improve the operation rate of surgery rooms.
He notices her sullen expression, so Manager Kang tells him that it’s easier said than done, especially since she’s never worked in a hospital before. He tells her to gather operation data from other top hospitals first, and also asks her to find more information on Jin-woo—whose face Manager Kang praises, much to Seung-hyo’s disapproval.
Jin-woo goes around to the pediatric and OB/GYN departments, hoping to find out their deficit. He learns from No-eul and a loose-lipped OB/GYN doctor that both were at the bottom, and imaginary Sun-woo appears besides Jin-woo to state the obvious: He might have an idea, but no proof.
Imaginary Sun-woo suggests checking out the accounting department for evidence, but Jin-woo gets off on a different floor. He walks away from imaginary Sun-woo, ignoring his questions, until he hears a crash and a cry. He quickly returns to his imaginary brother’s side, and Sun-woo teases Jin-woo for his worried look.
Real Sun-woo is at work where he learns about the recent dispatch order from Jin-woo’s hospital. He pulls out his phone to call his brother, but stops himself from pushing the button.
Meanwhile, Dr. Lee works in the ER with no Jin-woo in sight because he’s currently too engrossed in a list of departments ranked by sales. Confirming his suspicions, the three departments chosen to be transferred are at the bottom.
Jin-woo remembers Seung-hyo’s self-righteous claims about saving lives and helping places in need, and realizes the deceit behind his words. He finds Dr. Lee to tell him his discovery, but catches his department head looking for a job at another hospital. Dejected, he silently closes the door and seeks help elsewhere.
Jin-woo looks for Dr. Joo, but the nurse in charge tells him that he’s currently operating and won’t be available for a while. However, the nurse confronts Jin-woo and asks him to stop calling on Dr. Joo since they’re taking advantage of Dr. Joo’s good nature, which only results in more troubles for their department. It sounds harsh, but we see Dr. Joo slump to the floor after his surgery, clearly exhausted from overexerting himself by taking on all the rejected patients.
In his office, Seung-hyo examines the annual report and different types of equipment, but the pictures of various surgical scissors all look the same to him. Instead, he decides to visit an operation room and look at the equipment in person. To his surprise, Seung-hyo finds a sleeping Dr. Joo—the one he hates the most.
As he looks upon the scraggly doctor, he remembers Dr. Joo’s resume, which states that Director Lee scouted him from another hospital, and since he’s the only one from a different school, he was an outcast and often works 36-hour shifts because they’re short-staffed. Clearly though, no one can hate Dr. Joo since he wakes up covered in surgical blankets, most likely placed by Seung-hyo.
Jin-woo goes home and is greeted with food prepared by Sun-woo. The two brothers drink, and Jin-woo quickly catches on that Sun-woo heard about his transfer. He reassures his brother that he isn’t leaving, but doesn’t explain how. Later that evening, Jin-woo uploads the list of departments ranked by profit margin.
Seung-hyo chomps on a sandwich while on his way to meet the land owner who won’t sell, but has the car turned around when Manager Kang tells him about a post on the hospital forum. Jin-woo’s list was posted online, highlighting how the bottom three departments were chosen to be dispatched, and to top it all off, the author is the deceased Director Lee.
Manager Kang still hasn’t found the uploader, though they did figure out that the computer used was from the residents’ sleeping quarters. Seung-hyo instructs Manager Kang to check the accounting department as well as the computer processing room to find out how the list was leaked. Since they struck first, he’s decided to end any positive relations.
Meanwhile, Dr. Joo quietly walks up to Jin-woo in the hallway and cryptically asks if he missed the director that much. He orders him to follow him outside, and Jin-woo complies. Once alone, Dr. Joo asks if he was the one who posted the list online.
The first outing of Life works best as a sum of two parts barreling towards a conflict brewing on the horizon. It’s an interesting opening, to say the least, with different characters, relations, motivations, and secrets all jumbled and intertwined. The first episode is fine on its own, but I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Gu Seung-hyo to the story and the contrasting perspective he brings in comparison to Jin-woo’s narrative. I thought the choice to keep one half of the conflict hidden until the second episode to be a brave move, since there’s no guarantee the audience will stick around for that long. However, I really liked the end product as the story retraced itself from Seung-hyo’s point of view and completed certain flashbacks and stories from Episode 1. It feels closer to a dual narrative, and I hope the show continues telling its story for both Jin-woo and Seung-hyo this way.
Though so many characters were introduced and the teams are clearly being formed, I can’t say for certain who’s “good” and “evil.” There are more sympathetic characters like Dr. Joo, who seems to radiate so much virtue that even his enemies give him blankets, but even characters I know I’m supposed to dislike, as in Deputy Director Kim, seem to be hiding something else. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the characters couldn’t really be pegged down, and to be honest, I don’t really trust anyone at the moment. I feel like everyone is hiding something and only looking out for themselves, but it could be the ominous background music that’s got me paranoid.
The acting is amazing, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the stellar cast filled with talented veterans and scene-stealers, and lead actors Lee Dong-wook and Jo Seung-woo. Jin-woo in particular feels like a hard character to play because of his stoicism, but I think Lee Dong-wook, with his ethereal face, brings a tension to the character that I can’t quite place. Though Jin-woo is calm and collected on the outside, he also feels like a ticking time bomb ready to break down, and when imaginary Sun-woo first popped up, it only cemented the fact for me that all is not well with our hero. Though Jin-woo seems to acknowledge the fake Sun-woo as a figment of his imagination, often ignoring his comments, he also showed emotions when he thought imaginary Sun-woo got hurt. Not only is it fascinating to see a part of Jin-woo’s consciousness manifest itself into the form of an able-bodied Sun-woo, his reactions to this figment also raise so many questions that I hope the show won’t forget to answer.
As for Seung-hyo, Jo Seung-woo makes the character impossible to hate with his smooth-talking persona and unreadable expressions. Despite being set up as the antagonist who’s only after profit, we see him portrayed as a human being, and adding Manager Kang as his sidekick was a stroke of genius. Their banter is easy and familiar, while still maintaining that delicate balance between boss and subordinate that doesn’t cross the line into cheesy territory or an abusive relationship. I especially loved the scene where the mean president commented on Manager Kang’s weight, and Seung-hyo snapped at him, throwing the president’s insult right back. It was a tiny scene, but revealed so much about their relationship and added another dimension to Seung-hyo as a character.
While I loved the characters so far, I’m not quite as fond of the plot yet. It’s odd, but after finishing the episodes I feel like so much yet so little has happened so far. If I write all the things that occurred, the list isn’t too long, and in terms of action, it was mostly characters talking and walking. However, there were so many little details and nuggets strewn throughout the show that makes it feel packed. It’s impossible to add everything into the recap, but if Forest of Secrets wasn’t a fluke, I think writer Lee Soo-yeon will be able to keep the twists and the turns coming for this show as well. All in all, I’d say that Life is off to a good start, but if years of drama-watching has taught me anything, I’ll hold off on my judgment until we see a little more.