Nine: Consequences, resolutions, and the ending

All right, the overall review is up, now on to the good stuff. Not that the rest of the series wasn’t good, of course. There’s just so much going on with the way the series wrapped that I think we’ll have plenty to discuss here. I don’t usually separate out the ending into its own discussion, but this is a unique situation where I believe finding out the ending in advance would especially ruin the experience—it would unravel the whole build-up of the rest of the series. They don’t call ’em spoilers for nuthin’.

Needless to say, this post will be allllllllll about the spoilers. Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere! You are warned.


Nine OST – “아홉개의 향” (Nine Incense Sticks) by Lee Ji-hye [ Download ]

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If you’re here, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the show, so let’s dive right in.

A major theme of the drama is the role of god/time/fate, whatever that force is that refuses to let Sun-woo change things to his will, even if presumably that very god/time/fate has permitted a world wherein time-traveling incense sticks exist in the first place. Quibbles. (But honestly, talk about entrapment.)

This force is not treated as a religious or paranormal power, and in fact it’s not an overt character in the drama. The characters speak of a god, but the drama doesn’t explicitly show some external force acting upon the world; it’s more of an interpretation than a hard-and-fast explanation. So while we (and the characters) infer that some generic higher power is displeased at the disruption, the issue is more about retaining a cosmic balance rather than a direct punishment-reward dichotomy.

But the cost of messing with Time is an explicit, real thing. In Sun-woo’s case, not only are his adventures met with thwarted outcomes, he is literally trading in bits of his life every time he burns the incense sticks. His already worsening health accelerates its decline due to his travels, and this culminates with him getting stuck in the past after the last stick burns, using up all his chances to stay alive in the present. But we’ll get to that ending in a minute.

I appreciate that at every point the show demonstrates that the course of life is the sum of choices, and that the drama doesn’t take the traditional K-drama fate line on this. Fate stories tend to take the power of choice away from people, one side effect of which is to absolve them of responsibility for their actions: Fate intended for this to happen, so it’s not your fault.

In this story, to the contrary, we see people maneuvered (coerced, perhaps) into taking responsibility, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of big bro Jung-woo.

So Jung-woo first dies in the Himalayas. After Sun-woo travels to the past and acts as Cupid to reunite the younger hyung with his ex-girlfriend, Jung-woo comes back to life in 2013—or rather, in this new reality, he never pursued the chain of events that would lead him to die in the Himalayas. Instead of fixating on a mysterious time machine, Jung-woo takes over his father’s hospital, marries, and has a seemingly successful life.

However, a closer look proves that the quality of that life is much the same as it was in the previous one: Because his emotional issues stem from the guilt of causing his father’s death and cheating justice, he has essentially forfeited his right to live a normal life. It’s tragic because the accident was an honest mistake and defensible as an act of protection, but his choice to cover it up is what sealed his fate, and speaks to the weakness of his character.

Thus even in this new life, Jung-woo ends up dying; the means are different, but the reasons driving him are much the same. It’s only when his past self is convinced into owning up to his actions that Jung-woo can go on to live a real life. Sure, he may have spent some years in prison, but he can now shake off the crushing guilt that his previous selves suffered, and does good work as a doctor for the disadvantaged. In both previous lives, Jung-woo succumbs to drug use to deal with his depression, but once free of those psychological burdens, I have faith that he’s finally clean in the last version.

That ties in to the realization that Dad’s death was not the tragedy of the past—it wasn’t the incident that needing fixing. The key to Dad’s death is Jung-woo’s complicity in it, and in getting to the bottom of the full story Sun-woo gains a measure of understanding, as does his brother. By leading him to making the right choice, Sun-woo saves his brother’s life in a way he couldn’t accomplish when he simply gave him the trappings of a happy life—having a wife and daughter kept Jung-woo hanging on longer, but it wasn’t enough.

One of my favorite developments from the dual-time storyline is the way that Young Sun-woo begins affecting the future as much as Future Sun-woo affects the past. This occurs in the stretch when Sun-woo runs out of incense sticks (having left the remainder in the past, deciding not to use them anymore), which keeps his younger self in fits of curiosity, waiting for him to show up in 1993 again as promised. It’s a genuine head-scratcher to cut off the hero’s access to the time machine with no way of getting them back.

So Young Sun-woo diligently waits, and writes a steady stream of messages to his older self, while Future Sun-woo can do nothing to answer him. There’s no way to explain that he’s dying of a brain tumor, either, to ensure that his adult self lives past 2013. And yet, it’s Young Sun-woo who figures it out on his own, deducing in his logical way that there’s a reason Future Sun-woo can’t come back. When he finds out about the possibility of a brain tumor, he secures his own future—having the knowledge means he can prevent the illness that Future Sun-woo couldn’t catch in time.

And, most importantly, his younger self finds the incense sticks recovered in the aftermath of the fire, and sends them back (er, forward) to Future Sun-woo. Now how’s that for a clever partnership?

I love that Sun-woo actually dies (twice!), because the drama doesn’t draw back at the last minute, saving him before we call its bluff—it frankly wasn’t bluffing. On the flipside of that is my disappointment in knowing that he died twice, because reviving Sun-woo in a rewritten alterna-reality doesn’t quite have the same punch as knowing the original Sun-woo lived on.

For one, the mechanics puzzle me: Consider the scenario when Future Sun-woo dies on the operating table in 2013. At just about the same time in 1993, his younger self makes the brain tumor connection and thereby secures his future health, rewriting history. So then Future Sun-woo returns to life. Not in the sense of reanimating a dead body, but in the same way that Jung-woo’s altered storyline now avoids the road that would have led to death.

Even so, this revived self retains all the time-traveling memories of the other one (including the part where he died), like he’s a video game character cashing in a 1-UP token to get another life, and I’m left wondering just what happened, in a metaphysical sense. It’s one thing to merely “acquire” memories of an altered past, the death-to-life jump strains my imagination.

Confusion aside, there’s a fantastic symbolism to Sun-woo’s death in 1993 as he finds himself stranded in the wrong era, without even his own identity. I would shudder to think what would happen if he were actually allowed to live on in that world, because could you imagine the chaos that would wreak? Would a cosmos that allowed him to leap into a different time allow him to stay there? I would argue no.

“The incense was me,” Sun-woo realizes in his last moments. It’s a spine-chilling line, as befits a drama that is bold enough to play out its life-and-death stakes to their full conclusions. Even if he weren’t to die in the hit and run, he has still used up all his incense sticks, and I fear that that means his life has been used up as well.

This question turns out to be a moot point when he dies in the phone booth soon thereafter—trapped in his glass box, locked out of his life, ultimately killed by the same device that allowed him these travels in the first place.

A stranded Sun-woo isn’t the only potential complication to threaten our future, because as more and more people start learning about the incense, their combined knowledge starts messing with history in diverging, conflicting ways. No longer are we dealing with one ripple sent out by one person, but a whole cascade of them. The circle of characters “in the know” expands from the inner circle to include dangerous loose cannons, particularly once Choi gets his hands on a stick and takes a quantum leap himself, spawning so many alternate memories that the future starts feeling rather unstable.

It’s a scenario that brings to mind Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (spoiler alert?), where the time traveler’s series of changes to history render the world so unsteady that it becomes assailed by numerous large-scale disasters. He plays with Time and literally brings about the end of the world.

Nine doesn’t go this far, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that this kind of chaos is where we’d be headed if things were allowed to continue indefinitely. The present world gets too twisted, with Sun-woo and Jung-woo and Young-hoon and Min-young and Chairman Choi all finding out about the time travel and being awakened to their alterna-realities.

That’s why I’m a fan of the ending, because it provides a clean slate to start over with. Instead of a future where all those intersecting lines and parallel lives coexist in these people’s heads, some in direct conflict with the material world around them, the drama is able to present a single truth with which everybody can continue onward. There’s a really lovely simplicity about that.

The Sun-woo who prevails in our last episode is the grown-up version of Young Sun-woo, who went on to live a life much as his original version did. (Once again, we are shown that Time or Fate is a massive force that is difficult to divert from its original intentions.) The older Sun-woo(s) who tried to alter time paid the price for their interference and died, but the Sun-woo we are left with is the unwrinkled life. There’s something deeply satisfying in that.

(Yet I will concede that there’s also a tinge of dissatisfaction, depending on how you choose to view it. Is the final version a facsimile life, because it’s not really the Sun-woo we started with? Are all realities equally valid? Is only the first one valid? Or should we measure success by the last one standing?)

In Future Sun-woo’s final message to his 1993 self, he advises the younger version to forget about his encounter with the older one, because he wants him to live out his life freely. He says that Young Sun-woo’s choices will create the older man, so there’s no need to wonder or worry what became of the visitor from the future; if he continues to live his life well, in twenty years he will meet that man in the mirror.

Thus we circle back round to the issue of choice, and in the last scene, Sun-woo (the last one) ponders how to make sense of his knowledge, and how to reconcile his belief in fact versus fantasy: Is it fantasy to hope that he can live on? “In 2013, the me from the future traveled to 1993 and died there. Because that happened in the future, is that something I can avoid because I know about it? Or, because I died in the past, is it already a foregone conclusion?”

In true Sun-woo fashion, he decides that the simple approach is best: He’ll move forward and live as best he can, regardless of that question. If that means he’s believing the fantasy he wants to believe, he will, and he’ll love the woman he loves.

But, but, but… does Sun-woo live? Or is he doomed to die again per the “foregone conclusion”?

Here’s how I see it: The original Sun-woo (er, the second, really) traveled to the past and died, which means that he disappears from his own lifetime. The people in his future will never see him again, and if we were somehow able to find some magical incense sticks to transport ourselves twenty years into the future, first of all don’t do it, but second of all we would find that Sun-woo existed there, but one day was nowhere to be found.

But that future timeline exists until something in the past changes its course. This parallel-flow mechanism tells us that when younger Sun-woo acts differently than Original Sun-woo did at that age, his future is now changed. All series long we have been following the older hero, but now that he’s gone, we hop timelines to follow the last Sun-woo left—and he is, ultimately, the one whose history will stand.

Even if younger Sun-woo reaches a point in time where he finds out about these incense sticks, he will have no reason to go back. For one, he is now armed with the knowledge that time travel is dangerous. For another, the great injustice in his past no longer hangs there unsolved, prompting him to pursue revenge. As he told himself, he trusts that he’ll make the right choice—and it’s the sum of those daily choices that make up his character.

In short? The younger man creates the older one, and Sun-woo lives. And living well, they say, is the best revenge.


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Love your synopsis. After binge-watching this show in two days, I needed to continue a discussion and yours fit the bill! Thanks.


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Thank you


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