Room No. 9: Episode 1
I love it. Room No. 9 promises a fresh take at a revenge plot, complete with a brilliant cast, complex character motivations, and an unapologetically female focus. Although the revenge story doesn’t seem too novel (yet), this episode was replete with the start of many, many interesting plot threads that I’m genuinely excited to explore, and I can’t wait to see our characters develop, for better or for worse.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
On a snowy Christmas Eve in the 80s, EULJI HAE-YI (Kim Hee-sun) strolls confidently into a pharmacy, looking for contraceptives. To Hae-yi’s annoyance, both the pharmacist and the other customers give her a hard time about her purchase.
As Hae-yi gets heated, an older woman, JANG HWA-SA (Kim Hae-sook) walks in, looking for prescription sedatives. Hae-yi is appalled when the pharmacist hands them over without asking for a prescription, but the woman brushes off Hae-yi’s concern and leaves with the pills.
Outside, Hae-yi treks through heavy snow in search of her car. She notices the woman pass by in the distance, but the woman doesn’t see her.
Hae-yi finally finds her snow-covered car and pounds on the windows for her boyfriend, KI YOO-JIN (Kim Young-kwang) to unlock the doors. When she doesn’t get a response, Hae-yi wipes away the snow to peer inside – only to find him unconscious and bleeding in the driver’s seat. Yikes.
Startled, Hae-yi clears away more snow, this time to reveal another figure sitting in the passenger seat – Hwa-sa. Agh. Noticing the open bottle of sedatives between them, Hae-yi watches in horror as Hwa-sa stares back at her. Pounding on the windows, Hae-yi screams, “What the hell have you done?!”
In the present, Hae-yi jolts awake in her office at the sound of her cell phone ringing. Oh, phew, it was just a dream! The caller is “My Perfect Man” – i.e., her young, handsome doctor boyfriend, Yoo-jin. Hae-yi answers the phone by wishing him a happy birthday in the most dismal, un-celebratory tone before telling him that she just dreamed about his death. Lol.
Yoo-jin comforts her, assuring her that death dreams are supposed to be lucky, before he’s loudly interrupted by a birthday surprise from his nurse co-workers. Hiding her petty jealousy of Yoo-jin’s “fan club,” Hae-yi reminds him about their birthday date that evening before hurrying to get ready for work.
After an oddly elaborate wardrobe change (I guess lawyers have fashion teams now?), Hae-yi and her assistant, Intern Bang, drive off to a prison in Cheongwon. Hae-yi is to sit on the parole board for Jang Hwa-sa, the culprit of an infamous murder from the 80s. As they review Hwa-sa’s files in the car, Intern Bang muses over Hwa-sa’s past beauty before lamenting her unusually harsh sentence. Hae-yi is unsympathetic, telling him to trust their seniors’ verdict.
As Hae-yi flips through the file, she dwells on Hwa-sa’s photograph. In voiceover, Hae-yi narrates: “Dreams are irrational signals of the subconscious. Back then, I ignored that signal, because in my world, things were always rational. I should never have met Jang Hwa-sa. I should have listened to my subconscious.”
Meanwhile, we see Hwa-sa in her cell, where her cellmates excitedly help her prepare for her parole, washing and doing her hair.
That afternoon, Hwa-sa sits before the parole board, calmly awaiting judgment. Hae-yi speaks first, wondering at the authenticity of the stellar reviews from Hwa-sa’s corrective officer. At Hae-yi’s aggressive tone, Hwa-sa notes that this is her thirty-fourth year in prison, but she feels like she dies every single morning as she wonders if today will be her last.
“If you won’t reduce my sentence,” Hwa-sa says, “then I beg you to kill me.” Oof. The board is startled by her candor, but Hwa-sa stands by her request.
The judges discuss Hwa-sa’s future on their way to lunch, noting her diabetic condition and her mother’s dementia. All seem in favor of reducing Hwa-sa’s sentence, save for Hae-yi, who argues that they shouldn’t overturn their seniors’ verdict so easily, but fails to get any support.
Frustrated, Hae-yi stews at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. In flashback, we see Hae-yi discussing the parole board with with Attorney Ma, a senior at her law firm. Attorney Ma had noted that “the chairman” wanted to keep Hwa-sa in prison. But thanks to a group of human rights lawyers on the board associated with someone named “Professor Kang,” the odds of Hwa-sa’s release were high.
At that, Hae-yi told him that if he really wanted to stop Hwa-sa’s release, he’d need to send her into the fray. When Attorney Ma scoffed that she lacked the status necessary to even sit in the same room with them, Hae-yi had signaled for her assistant to bring in a plaque engraved with the words, “Senior Partner, Eulji Hae-yi.” Oh, ballsy!
Attorney Ma had been infuriated by her insolence, but Hae-yi had told him that in exchange for making her senior partner, she would keep Jang Hwa-sa locked up forever. Back in the present, Hae-yi looks at her reflection in determination.
In Cheongwon, the inmates take turns making video calls while the guards are merciless about keeping calls short.
Hwa-sa’s best friend Gam Mi-ran helps look after Hwa-sa’s mother and the two are waiting for her call. Sadly, Hwa-sa’s mother is in a nursing home due to dementia and can no longer recognize Hwa-sa. She spends the call singing songs before the call is cut off and Hwa-sa is left staring at the blank screen in pain.
After the call, Hwa-sa is being escorted back to her cell when Hae-yi stops her to chat. Hwa-sa wonders excitedly if Hae-yi has good news, but Hae-yi only advises Hwa-sa to stay in prison. She points out that with Hwa-sa’s bad leg and diabetes, release means she’ll be homeless at best, while prison would grant her food, shelter, and medicine.
But Hwa-sa explains that her only wish in life is to take care of her elderly mother: “I want to cook her favorite noodles, bathe her with my own hands, and be beside her when she passes away,” Hwa-sa says. “If I can do that, I don’t care what happens to me.”
Hae-yi is heartless, however, needling Hwa-sa that her demented mother will never recognize her. In fact, Hae-yi continues, it was the extreme stress of Hwa-sa’s crime that caused the dementia in the first place.
Infuriated by Hae-yi’s disrespect, Hwa-sa knocks Hae-yi down and begins to beat her with her cane, screaming death threats. Oh no.
At the commotion, the guards and lawyers hurry to the scene. Hwa-sa continues to kick and scream as she’s pulled away – until she sees Hae-yi smile at her. Hwa-sa goes blank, realizing that Hae-yi has played her like a fiddle.
On the drive home, Hae-yi holds an ice pack to her face as she calls Attorney Ma and the chairman to report her victory. They commend her for a job well done.
Meanwhile in solitary confinement, Hwa-sa cries over a picture of her mother, apologizing for being unable to keep her promise.
Hae-yi comes home to find the professional chef (cameo by Hong Seok-chun) she’d hired to cook up a feast for two in her kitchen. She thanks him for his help before she unceremoniously kicks him out, ordering him to use the stairs so he doesn’t accidentally run into Yoo-jin in the elevator. Lol.
After the chef leaves, Hae-yi hides a pair of couple rings inside a cake. When Yoo-jin rings the doorbell, she hurries to the kitchen and acts like she was cooking all along, timing it perfectly so that he walks right into her casually flambéing a steak. Lol.
Meanwhile, Chef Hong struggles down the stairs when a dark figure rushes past, holding a package. Chef Hong yells at him: “Why are you taking the stairs when there’s a perfectly good elevator?!” Haha.
It only takes Yoo-jin one bite to know it was made by a professional chef. When he calls her out on it, however, Hae-yi complains about his tactlessness and leaves the table in annoyance. Realizing his mistake, Yoo-jin follows to soothe/seduce her bad mood away. Hee.
Their sexy times are quickly interrupted when the doorbell rings. While Hae-yi goes to answer the door, Yoo-jin pouts at the ruined mood before following.
There’s an unmarked box at the door that Hae-yi assumes is a threat from someone dissatisfied with one of her recent lawsuits. When Yoo-jin opens it, they find an antique box. Inside is an old newspaper clipping with the headline: “Evil Woman Jang Hwa-sa Kills Boyfriend.”
Unexpectedly, Yoo-jin tells her that the box was likely meant for him. He points out the initials messily engraved into the side of the box, and explains that he’d carved his name into his father’s pill box when he was young.
Hae-yi and Yoo-jin sit down, both solemn. Yoo-jin asks about Jang Hwa-sa, but Hae-yi tells him that he should really be asking about Choo Young-bae – the boyfriend in the news story. Hae-yi explains that Choo Young-bae is his half-brother, but that he should ask the chairman if he wants to know any more. Hm.
After Yoo-jin leaves, Hae-yi stabs the cake with a fork, wondering who could have sent the box. Meanwhile, Yoo-jin sits at home that night, wondering how many more children his father had out of wedlock, including himself and Choo Young-bae. In flashback, we see Yoo-jin at his father’s deathbed, begging him to tell him who his mother is, but his father remains silent. Back in the present, Yoo-jin wonders if Hwa-sa could be his birth mother.
The next day, Hae-yi and her legal team celebrate over drinks. When she notices Attorney Ma start to become slippery about her promotion to senior partner, she asserts that she will be rightfully compensated for her work.
Intern Bang hurries in to inform Attorney Ma that he needs to move his car. When Hae-yi volunteers to do it for him, Intern Bang hurriedly one-ups her, volunteering in her stead. Unfortunately, he’s had a little too much to drink, and gets caught driving under the influence by the police.
However, the police officer seems to have a grudge against Hae-yi. After a nudge from Intern Bang, she remembers him: Officer Oh Bong-sam of the homicide division. He had been party to a past case of Hae-yi’s. The trial for the case had become messy when Officer Oh leapt onto the court floor, attacking Hae-yi’s client, Ki Chang-sung, and throwing water at her face after a verdict he didn’t like. Officer Oh explains shortly that he was demoted to a traffic officer after that.
When Hae-yi snorts at his misfortune, Officer Oh snorts right back before slapping Hae-yi with a ticket for accompanying a drunk driver.
Apparently, Officer Oh’s ticket also requires her to fulfill thirty hours of volunteer work for her former law school professor, Professor Kang. When she shows up to fulfill it, Professor Kang informs her that she’ll be spending those hours on Hwa-sa’s request for retrial. He hands her a massive stack of files, explaining that Hwa-sa’s mother spent ten years compiling evidence in Hwa-sa’s favor.
At Hae-yi’s chagrin, Professor Kang reminds her of his first lesson: “No matter the case, do not be prejudiced, and do not refuse a client.” He assures her that Hwa-sa has a special connection with both her and her father, but Hae-yi just storms out.
Hae-yi explains the turn of events to Attorney Ma, offering to take the opportunity to destroy Hwa-sa’s chance for appeal once and for all.
Meanwhile, Professor Kang calls up Eulji Sung, Hae-yi’s father, who’s busy smoking and gambling. When Professor Kang informs him of Hae-yi’s new task, Sung is horrified and shouts at Professor Kang for his recklessness.
That night, Hae-yi unpacks the files she’d received from the professor, but starts to feel disgusted as she looks at Hwa-sa’s face.
The next morning, Hae-yi’s father is waiting outside her apartment. As she heads out for her first day of volunteering she’s unwilling to listen to him, but he hurries after her, swearing that she has the wrong idea about him and Hwa-sa.
Hae-yi, however, will have none of it: “What part is untrue? The part where a prosecutor fell in love with his pretty death row inmate, and secretly handed over evidence to her public defender? The part where he got fired as a prosecutor for it? The part where the prosecutor who entrusted you to take on Jang Hwa-sa’s case committed suicide? Or the part where Mom abandoned and left me?”
Furious, Hae-yi storms off to her car, but Sung manages to catch up again. He begs her to grant Hwa-sa a retrial, especially if she ruined Hwa-sa’s sentence reduction because of him. Hae-yi retorts that if he wants it so bad, he should get it himself. He may have lost his prosecutor position, but he still has his law license – “unless you gambled that away, too?” With that, Hae-yi pulls out a few bills and stuffs it into his pocket, telling him to gamble it well. She drives off, leaving him in the dust.
At the hospital, Yoo-jin flips through Hwa-sa’s files with a P.I., who warns him that tracking down Hwa-sa’s personal information will be difficult. At that, Yoo-jin asks him to track down information about the medical director at Cheongwon. Yoo-jin’s sister-in-law calls then, asking him to visit the chairman at his mansion. Aha, so the mysterious chairman is Chairman Ki, Yoo-jin’s half-brother.
After a pleasant afternoon together, the chairman brings Yoo-jin to his office and pulls out their father’s antique pill box. Explaining that his wife had found it in Yoo-jin’s room and asks if their father gave Yoo-jin the box before he passed. He asks why there was a newspaper clipping about Hwa-sa inside. Yoo-jin explains that he’d received it anonymously on his birthday..
Meanwhile, Hwa-sa returns to her prison cell from solitary confinement. Hwa-sa comforts her heartbroken cellmates as they cry over her unjust parole hearing.
Back at Chairman Ki’s, Yoo-jin asks about Choo Young-bae. But the chairman assures him that Yoo-jin is nothing like lower-class Young-bae, who never even received acknowledgement from their father.
Yoo-jin then asks if Hwa-sa is his mother, but Chairman Ki refuses to even entertain the thought: “How could my brother be the son of a murderer?” The chairman tells him not to even think about Hwa-sa, and promises to find his real birth mother for him, even though it was against their father’s wishes.
The chairman tells Yoo-jin to focus on rising up at the hospital, and Yoo-jin finally agrees, promising to become a good doctor for the chairman’s sake. The chairman embraces him, telling him how fond he is of him.
That afternoon in Cheongwon, Hwa-sa is escorted to room number 9, where Hae-yi awaits her. Hwa-sa notes that she’d heard her lawyer would be the daughter of Prosecutor Eulji Sung, and Hae-yi officially introduces herself: “I’m Attorney Eulji Hae-yi.”
She explains that they’ll be having six five-hour meetings, starting today, as her “housekeeping attorney” – i.e., she’ll sit and do her personal work on one side of the room while Hwa-sa minds her business on the other. Hwa-sa is confused, having thought Hae-yi would be her appeal attorney, but Hae-yi notes that new evidence needs to come up to qualify for an appeal.
As their first five-hour session comes to an end, Hwa-sa asks Hae-yi why she interfered with her sentence reduction. Hae-yi plays innocent, not caring if Hwa-sa believes her. “But,” Hae-yi adds, “It is true that I hate you.”
Looking through Hwa-sa’s files again, Yoo-jin calls Dr. Seo Young-chul, the medical director at Cheongwon, introducing himself as his underclassman and asking to meet.
At the prison, Yoo-jin is escorted to Doctor Seo’s office. As he waits for Doctor Seo, Yoo-jin hears a faint beeping sound from the supply room. He starts to get up to investigate…
…But is interrupted when Doctor Seo arrives. Doctor Seo thanks him for agreeing to do charity work at the prison despite his busy schedule. Yoo-jin brings up the beeping sound he heard from the supply closet, and Doctor Seo sighs sadly: “Well, there’s bound to be a ghost or two in a place like this. I mean, dead inmates wander about the place, you know… BOO!” Lol.
Brushing the whole thing off as a joke, Doctor Seo leads Yoo-jin out of the office. As they leave, however, we pan back to the equipment to see the screen flickering, though the machine is unplugged. Spooky.
During Hae-yi and Hwa-sa’s next meeting, Hwa-sa helps herself to the donuts and coffee that Hae-yi brought. Hae-yi deadpans that Hwa-sa must like the donuts so much because she’s a diabetic. Geez, chill. When Hwa-sa tells her not to be so rude, Hae-yi retorts that it’s nothing compared to what she did to her: “You ruined a genius prosecutor who could have become the attorney general. You debilitated my father!”
This is clearly news to Hwa-sa, who drops her donut in shock. She asks Hae-yi what she means, but Hae-yi ignores her, turning back to the news video on her tablet.
As the video plays, Hwa-sa overhears the news, in which Chairman Ki is interviewed about a scandal involving his son. Recognizing his voice, Hwa-sa quicky limps over to Hae-yi, grabbing the tablet to see for herself. Recognizing Chairman Ki, Hwa-sa has a brief flashback of a boy in the past before dropping the tablet to the floor, gasping, “Choo Young-bae!”
Hwa-sa clutches her heart as she collapses, muttering Choo Young-bae’s name. Startled, Hae-yi hurries out to get a guard.
Meanwhile, Yoo-jin sits with Doctor Seo over tea, telling him that he would like to meet Jang Hwa-sa. Doctor Seo is surprised by this, but before he can ask any further, an alarm goes off through the prison, alerting Doctor Seo of Hwa-sa’s medical emergency.
Yoo-jin and Doctor Seo jump into action, gathering medical supplies and hurrying to room number 9. Hae-yi is startled to see Yoo-jin, but there’s no time to chat. He hurries to help Doctor Seo tend to Hwa-sa.
Unfortunately, medical emergencies abound in the prison today. A guard bursts into the room to inform Doctor Seo that another inmate has just slit her wrists and needs medical attention. When Yoo-jin offers to take care of Hwa-sa for him, Doctor Seo readily agrees.
Yoo-jin prepares the defibrillator to shock Hwa-sa back into consciousness. Just as Yoo-jin picks it up, however, a strange blue light flows through the wires. Meanwhile, the inmates notice strange storm clouds rushing through the sky. When the lights in the room flicker on and off, Hae-yi jumps in surprise, sending her toppling over the tangled machine wires and falling headfirst over Hwa-sa’s unconscious body. Outside the room, the “Room Number 9” sign clatters to the floor.
Chairman Ki is informed by an assistant that Hwa-sa had a heart attack and is now unconscious. At that, Chairman Ki notes that death is never so simple: “but this one took much longer than expected.”
Back at the prison, we watch from a first-person perspective as a pair of guards wheel them away in a stretcher. It’s Hwa-sa, who slowly returns to consciousness, looking for her cane. Noticing her recovery, the guards begin to rejoice in relief and gratitude, looking unusually happy to see Hwa-sa safe and sound.
At that moment, Hwa-sa notices a body being wheeled away in the opposite direction – that is, her body. She yells for them to stop before stumbling toward the other stretcher in disbelief. Slowly, she reaches out to uncover her own body’s face.
We pan out to see Hwa-sa in Hae-yi’s body, a look of horror on her face as she screams, “No. It can’t be!” Dun-dun-dun.
I love it. The unapologetically female focus certainly makes up for anything I didn’t love about this hour, and adds a welcome, fresh spin to everything going on. It’s also clear from the get-go that the writers are uninterested in romantic drama for romantic drama’s sake – particularly by shutting down the possibility of a genuine love triangle between our main leads due to Hwa-sa’s age (I hope, at least!). These decisions give me confidence that the showrunners came in to this story determined to create a revenge story about women – and if there’s any one phrase that has an eternal key to my heart, it’s “revenge story about women.”
Aside from the general premise, I also think the first episode did a solid job making us care about our characters despite how little we really know about them. Save for hints at deeper motivations and darker backstories, we know almost nothing about any of our characters so far. But the first episode still managed to make Hae-yi and Hwa-sa’s body switch thrilling and suspenseful by fully establishing the emotional roots of each of our characters and clarifying what they have at stake. Hwa-sa is clearly the ultimate underdog, and has been for the last thirty-four years. She’s hated by the entire nation and seems to be willingly, mysteriously silenced despite her innocence. I loved her monologue during her parole board hearing, when she explained that she felt like she died every single morning of her life while awaiting execution. It speaks to Kim Hae-sook’s acting chops that she really looks like she’s been killed every day in every scene she’s in. Hae-yi, meanwhile, has been shown to be a total bitch with no limits to her manipulative habits, and maybe it’s because I know she’s about to get what’s coming for her in prison if she keeps up that attitude (or maybe it’s because of Kim Hee-sun’s endless charm), I still adore watching her onscreen.
The stark contrast between these two characters, and the unexplained yet still somehow understandable hatred between them, makes the timing of Hwa-sa’s switch into Hae-yi’s perfect life incredibly juicy, especially since it gives the writers the most interesting narrative leverage to work with. As it is now, Hae-yi faces horrible life prospects in Hwa-sa’s body – prospects that were actually caused by Hae-yi’s actions herself. Hwa-sa, meanwhile, is fueled both by a newfound desire for revenge as well as a lack of compassion for Hae-yi, who has consistently been nothing but a horrible person to her. Hwa-sa has no reason to feel bad about both pursuing her goals in Hae-yi’s body or about what might happen to Hae-yi’s life in the aftermath, which guarantees us – as viewers – the most exciting version of the coming episodes.
In terms of concerns for the story’s trajectory, I do hope that the story won’t be as simple as it lets on. I find Hae-yi a complex and fierce enough character that if she suddenly became reformed and empathetic after a month in prison, I’d be deeply disappointed in the show. I trust that the body switch will transform Hae-yi into a more interesting character, rather than a more “good” character, as it intertwines with her past, her intelligence, and her fiery personality. The show has promised a female-centric, character-driven story, after all, and I will never, ever forgive the writers if they forget that.