The Secret Life of My Secretary: Episodes 17-32 (Series review)
The Secret Life of My Secretary has just finished its run, and it’s time to sit back and talk about lies and forgiveness, metaphors, make believe — and of course, floating moss balls.
The first half of this sweet and feel-good rom-com was concerned with the budding (and complicated) relationship between our face-blind Director Do Min-ik, and Jung Gal-hee, his adorable minion secretary in the red cardigan. The second half of the drama contained the fallout that everyone had been waiting for: what would happen when Do Min-ik found out that the Veronica Park he was in love with was actually his cosplaying secretary, and not the “original” Veronica Park at all? There was a whole lot of anticipation as to how the web of lies would shake out, and how high of a price little Gal-hee would have to pay for first tricking, and then intentionally (and repeatedly) lying to, the man she loves.
Rom-coms are often rife with uncorrected misunderstandings, fibs that lead to hijinks, and hijinks that lead to all sorts of mayhem. But The Secret Life of My Secretary was different in that it took it a step further, because its lies and hijinks were built around taking advantage of someone’s weakness. And by weakness we mean a debilitating inability to see, recognize, and read people’s faces.
Kim Young-gwang excelled at showing how his character’s disease was affecting him psychologically, making us feel first-hand the vulnerability that he did — which is saying a lot for a rom-com illness trope. Normally, it would exist for comedy and a little bit of pathos only, but in The Secret Life of My Secretary, we got a front-row seat to a lot of his hardships and heartache.
First, we watched Min-ik suffer over his confusion of being in love with two women, and the conflict of his heart saying one thing (they are the same woman) and the facts saying the opposite (they are two very different women). That his illness makes it nearly impossible for him to decode what he needs to for everyday social interactions — never mind romantic entanglements — makes Gal-hee’s deceit all the more hurtful. The scene where he confirms that his Veronica Park is actually Gal-hee in disguise was actually more painful than I had expected of this mostly lighthearted drama.
The hurt and breakup have to be strong for the reunion to pack a punch, and I was pretty satisfied both with Gal-hee’s heartbreak and shame over how she had hurt him, and Min-ik’s devastated reaction. No one likes being lied to and taken advantage of, but in rom-coms it’s often presented as something explainable, understandable, and turns out okay in the end. The same goes for Do Min-ik and his secretary, after the proper length of time. The drama balances (or at least tries to balance) Gal-hee’s pretty cruel masquerade first with her misgivings and pure-hearted intentions, and then later with her grief and repentance, all acted out nicely throughout the drama via imaginary conversations with her mother.
Then, to even further justify how the lie got so out of hand, we had the “original” Veronica Park strong-arming Gal-hee to continue the sham. This might make Veronica seem like the drama’s Puck, creating mischief and then flitting away, but her character is actually filled in quite nicely by the time the drama comes to a close.
Veronica goes from crazy man-eater to a woman who is not only madly in love (with Gi Dae-joo — such a strange but great couple), but one who is pretty sensible, and sometimes even insightful. Recognizing the Jung sisters’ acting talents is one thing, but seeing right away Gal-hee’s heart towards Min-ik, and actually working to repair their relationship, is another. In other words, Veronica turns out to be a pretty good human. She even visits Do Min-ik to explain the charade after it has crashed down, with the hopes that he’ll forgive Gal-hee.
Forgiveness is, of course, a big theme in the drama. Is Min-ik going to be able to forgive Gal-hee? And if he does, is it going to be believable? I wasn’t sure, honestly, but in the end, this turned out to be where I felt the most magic from the drama.
Gal-hee took advantage of his weakness in the worst way possible, and Do Min-ik had every right to react the way he did — from firing her, to sulking, to being absolutely heartbroken. There were even a few brief seconds where I actually thought they might not reconcile (what would that sort of K-drama be like!). But we know better. These two are too good a match to let their parting be permanent. And this is dramaland, where couples conquer the obstacles that keep them apart, where love proves stronger than hurt, and where moss balls will always rise.
On his path to forgiveness, Min-ik is encouraged by the people around him, too. Veronica not only speaks on Gal-hee’s behalf, but his ever-faithful and no-nonsense neurologist does the same. He scolds Min-ik saying, “The two women you were in love with turned out to be the same person. Isn’t that a good thing?” and later tells him, “I’m sure she had a good reason why she did what she did.”
The repair of Do Min-ik and Gi Dae-joo’s brother-like relationship also played a role in the reconciliation between Min-ik and Gal-hee. I didn’t find the endlessly thieved/retrieved spreadsheet file subplot to be all that compelling, even when the details were finally revealed, but it paved the way for a great conceit of the drama.
When Min-ik apologized for suspecting his friend of all sorts of nefarious plots, we finally told the truth about his illness and how he let it damage their trust. “If you can’t see people’s faces, you can’t see their hearts,” he explained. He’s visibly lighter in spirits after telling the truth, sharing his heart, and making amends (another nice moment of the drama).
But it turns out that Do Min-ik was wrong. He can see someone’s heart without seeing her face, and that’s exactly the lesson he needs to learn in order to forgive Gal-hee. In her absence, he’s able to see her true heart, from her loyalty to him as a secretary, to all her hard work, to the sincerity of her feelings towards him. The letter she wrote explaining the charade seals the deal. Just as Dae-joo assured him, “Even if someone hurts you or lets you down you can still forgive them. That’s what loving someone is like.”
My enjoyment of this drama far outweighs my criticisms, but I do wish the drama had been a little more consistent with its logic, particularly around Do Min-ik’s disease. The potential for him to temporarily see again, and the variables that might be responsible for it, were played with again and again — except without much satisfaction. Does his blood pressure rise around Gal-hee, Veronica, or both, and why is it so inconsistent? We’re led to believe that their first kiss will be a catalyst for his sight temporarily returning, but not only are we denied the satisfaction of this happening, but we don’t even see the conclusion of the scene after the episode break (rude, very rude).
Similarly, the mysterious patient who’s frequently used as a benchmark for Min-ik’s own prosopagnosia is of no help to him (or us!), and it almost feels like the drama gives up on the whole idea of facial recognition being re-triggered by the time it concludes. The blood pressure component seemed built to complicate the Veronica Park masquerade, but it never quite got all the way there for me.
In the wrap-up episodes, it’s concluded that the episodes of facial recognition returning are entirely random. On the off-chance something triggers his sight, he seizes the moment and soaks in the world (and woman) around him. Other than that, which I believe we are supposed to take as positivity and optimism, we don’t get much plot satisfaction in that direction.
The company presidency, the longevity of Veronica and Dae-joo’s romance, the exposure of the long history of Euldoguk, and the fate of the contracted secretaries are all wrapped up in the last episodes of the drama. All of this was great, and did a good job tying things together, but it also felt pretty tangential by the time we got there. Why? Because our central conflict was already resolved. For all intents and purposes, The Secret Life of My Secretary really ended the moment Do Min-ik invited Gal-hee to a reconciliatory dinner and pulled out the chair for her to sit on.
After “seeing” Gal-hee’s heart, Do Min-ik was able to not only forgive her, but to see the situation from her perspective — the same lesson Gal-hee had had to learn when she finally realized just how much she had wounded him. But a couple that can understand and appreciate each other is more than a match for any odds and obstacles dramaland can serve up, and so by the end, the couple’s sparkle only got more sparkly.
One of my favorite sparkly details was around the red cardigan. At first it was a symbol of thankless minionhood, then the token by which Min-ik was able to recognize her, but it actually became an even stronger symbol. Near the close of the drama, Min-ik drapes the cardigan over Gal-hee’s shoulders. It’s a tender gesture of care and forgiveness, but it’s also a reference to some moments they shared earlier in the drama.
On a few occasions they had both given each other an invisible “cloak of confidence” when it was needed. That the fateful red cardigan became that very symbol of confidence, assurance, and love, was a lovely touch to conclude the drama with. It also fit nicely with the rest of the drama’s wrap-up, from Min-ik making peace with his condition, to the lovely reminder from Gal-hee’s mother not to neglect what you have by hanging on to what you’ve lost. Focusing on gain, rather that loss, is precisely what our couple learns to do, and with that they earn their happy ending.
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