SKY Castle: Series review
Never in my life have I tuned into a drama solely because of its ratings. But watching the astonishing progression of SKY Castle’s viewership ratings had become so entertaining on its own that I just had to jump in. The satirical dramedy had a quiet premiere, with 1.7 percent, and from there on out, an unexpected spark happened. An addictive story was set, with veteran and rookie actors so talented that they made you question whether or not you could even root for their characters.
Needless to say, the hype was real. SKY Castle’s ratings kept going up and up, at such an impressive pace, and what was amazing was that those numbers felt 100 percent earned. With hyped-up dramas, I’m used to a certain cycle: I watch an episode. I understand the hype. I ask myself “What’s the catch?” The catch happens, and I’m disappointed. But that never happened here. As the show topped the list of highest-rated cable dramas, I could only nod and think Yeah, sounds about right.
The show reminded me of Heard it Through the Grapevine, as well as the American series Gossip Girl–all three gave an honest, if not also exaggerated, take on the foreign world of the elite. Because, yes, SKY Castle had the trifecta of excellent directing, writing and acting, but it also had the bravery to tackle sensitive subject matter in an explicit fashion. This particular story may focus on the wealthiest of the wealthy, but it is relevant to anyone living in South Korea in this day and age. Or anyone, period. With that said, it’s time to gather ‘round, pour the tea, and dish.
So what is this drama really about? It’s funny because the summary itself would be like a tangled web or an endless maze. It starts off simple, with the everyday lives of four wealthy families in the SKY Castle community, and then it branches off into the dark, mysterious, and surprisingly hilarious antics that they get into when preparing their children for college. And since these children live in SKY Castle, they only have the three options that “SKY” stands for: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.
Three of the fathers are big shot doctors and the fourth is a big shot prosecutor-turned-professor, meaning the kids have a lot to live up to. So the mothers put all of their time (and I mean, all of their time) into getting the best resources to ensure their kids’ acceptance into these top tier universities. One household, who we’ll come to know as the Park family, is ecstatic to have their only son accepted to SNU, blatantly showing him off like a prized cow to the rest of the neighborhood. While the neighbors express their congratulations, they’re actually more interested in the methods these parents used to get their son accepted.
Their secret turns out to be a very expensive, very reliable private tutor, and the other mothers are just dying to hire this tutor for their own children. However, right before the beginning of the school year, tragedy strikes the Castle community, turning everyone’s lives upside down. But even in the midst of tragedy, life must go on. The kids’ studies must go on. They keep working their way towards that one acceptance letter, unaware that they are in imminent danger of far more tragedies.
NOTE: The rest of this review will contain major spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Of the four households, we mainly focus on the Kang family, consisting of mother Han Seo-jin (Yeom Jung-ah), father Kang Joon-sang (Jung Jun-ho), eldest daughter Ye-seo (Kim Hye-yoon), and youngest daughter Ye-bin (Lee Ji-won). Seo-jin’s mother-in-law is extremely cold and strict, pushing Seo-jin to make her granddaughters as successful as her son. So Seo-jin takes whatever measures she considers necessary to do just that, starting with the tutor that the Parks had recommended.
Next, we have the Parks themselves, with mother Lee Myung-joo, father Park Soo-chang, and son Young-jae. However, after Myung-joo shocks everyone by committing suicide, Soo-chang and Young-jae leave the Castle grounds, allowing a new family to move in. This family consists of stepmother Lee Soo-im (Lee Tae-ran), father Hwang Chi-young (Choi Won-young), and son Woo-joo (SF9’s Chani). Neighbor Seo-jin is nervous with their arrival, having learned that Woo-joo’s grades tie with Ye-seo’s.
At the Cha household, we have mother Noh Seung-hye (Yoon Se-ah), father Cha Min-hyuk (Kim Byung-chul), eldest daughter Se-ri (Park Yoo-na), and twin sons Seo-joon (Kim Dong-hee) and Ki-joon (Jo Byung-kyu). With Se-ri studying abroad at Harvard, former prosecutor Min-hyuk prefers to tutor his sons himself. But to his wife and kids’ annoyance, his teaching methods can be extremely suffocating. All he cares about is the pyramid of society, and according to him, if you don’t reach the top, you don’t matter.
Finally, at the Woo household, we have mother Jin Jin-hee (Oh Nara), father Woo Yang-woo (Jo Jae-yoon), and son Soo-han (Lee Yoo-jin). Gossip queen Jin Jin and her hubby are the goofy couple in the neighborhood, always kissing up to the Kang family since Yang-woo works under Joon-sang. Their son Soo-han is good friends with Ye-bin, and to their parents’ disappointment, neither are all that great at studying.
Other essential characters, outside of the neighborhood, include the infamous tutor Kim Joo-young (Kim Seo-hyung) and Ye-seo and Woo-joo’s poor but bold classmate Kim Hye-na (Kim Bora).
On one snowy evening, Lee Myung-joo walks out into the cold, wearing nothing but a nightgown, and kills herself with her husband’s rifle. And with no note or further explanation, the SKY Castle residents are beyond confused. Myung-joo’s beloved son got accepted to SNU and her husband offered her an extravagant cruise, so why would she do such a thing? The residents don’t get the chance to find out, seeing that the only two people who would know–her son and husband–go into hiding right after the funeral.
It’s a shock to us viewers as well, because up until this point, we’re led to believe that Young-jae’s ticket to SNU has sealed his family’s happiness. But as soon as Myung-joo walks out into the snow, the show shifts into this crooked look at pure misery, the background an icy blue and dull gray. Myung-joo’s closest friend Seo-jin doesn’t know how to react or what to think, but she has to concentrate on hiring Coach Kim Joo-young for Ye-seo. So she attends the super exclusive “auction” of tutors and earns Coach Kim’s attention with Ye-seo’s impressive track record. And since Coach Kim has gotten every single one of her students accepted to SNU, Seo-jin can rest easy.
That comfort is shattered real quick when the Hwang family move into the Park home next door. Because not only is Woo-joo Ye-seo’s direct competition in school, but his father and the highly-skilled surgeon Chi-young is Joon-sang’s direct competition at the hospital. And that’s not all–it turns out that Woo-joo’s loving stepmom Soo-im knows Seo-jin from childhood, and from Soo-im’s memory, we instantly know that Seo-jin isn’t who she says she is. Apparently, Seo-jin’s real name is Kwak Mi-hyang, and she comes from a poor family with an alcoholic father. When Soo-im recognizes her, however, a nervous Seo-jin firmly denies all of this.
Seo-jin, being the strict mom that she is, scoffs at Soo-im’s own laidback parenting style. And it’s fascinating whenever we cut to each family, because they actually run the gamut on parenting. Seo-jin is on the far left, having her entire life dedicated to Ye-seo’s studies, and kiss-up Jin-hee pretty much copies whatever her unni Seo-jin does. Seung-hye, while a very sweet mom to her boys, often steps back and hopelessly watches her literary, pyramid-obsessed husband push them to their limit. And on the far right, Soo-im simply lets Woo-joo do his own thing since he’s already such a smart and responsible kid. She’s quite stunned, actually, to learn of SKY Castle’s do or die philosophy, considering some of these kids are only in middle school.
The phrase “Do or die” doesn’t seem to faze Seo-jin at all until she discovers Young-jae’s hidden diary within his tablet. She reads through days of entries, horrified to learn that Young-jae had been suicidal too, and he had been for a long time. He was so sick and tired of his parents only caring about med school and nothing else, only wanting him to study and nothing else. He’d found some way to cope it with, though, with the help of Coach Kim. After discussing his depression with her, she’d urged him to use his hatred toward his parents as motivation to getting his acceptance letter. After that, he would give his parents the precious letter and leave them for good. As Seo-jin reads all of this, we see a heartbreaking flashback of Myung-joo finding the diary sometime before her death.
Myung-joo had tracked down Young-jae, finding him living with the girl that he loved, and I’d have to say that it was this scene that officially sold me. The sophistication of the veteran actor mixed with the rawness of the rookie actor was like absolute magic. It almost felt invasive having to watch such an intense and painful confrontation between mother and son. It was all too real for Seo-jin as well, finally understanding that her unni took her life because she’d thought she’d lost her son forever. Seo-jin then confronts Coach Kim and slaps her right across the face, blaming her for taking advantage of Young-jae and ultimately destroying his family. This accusation leads Coach Kim to revealing the cold, calculating woman she really is. She insists that she only did her job, and her job is to make use of the millions of dollars parents pay her to get them that acceptance letter. So if the family fell into ruin, she believes it’s the family to blame.
What’s crazy is that Coach Kim is right–the family is to blame. They let their greed and selfishness get in the way of being a real family. But what’s crazier is that Coach Kim knows all of this and she still uses the same methods to get her students into SNU. As long as they get into the school, whatever happens after that doesn’t concern her. Now, hang onto your teacups, because it gets even crazier. After Coach Kim warns Seo-jin that the same tragedy could befall her and her family, Seo-jin still lets her tutor Ye-seo. She, of course, goes back and forth between wanting to fire her and wanting to keep her, but at the end of day, she thinks that Coach Kim is Ye-seo’s only surefire way of getting into SNU. It’s like Seo-jin has tunnel vision, seeing every other consequence nowhere near as terrible as Ye-seo getting a rejection.
Unfortunately, this tunnel vision also prevents Seo-jin from seeing the needs of her youngest Ye-bin. While Ye-seo gets all the praise from her parents (making her all the more cocky), Ye-bin always feels as if she’s just standing in the background. Since her grades aren’t good enough to garner their attention, Ye-bin starts rebelling a bit by shoplifting with her friends. Soo-im catches Ye-bin during one of her shoplifting sprees and informs Seo-jin, but Seo-jin prefers cleaning it up quietly instead of having a deeper conversation with her daughter. Seo-jin has enough on her plate as is, what with all the anxieties she’s developed for rehiring a tutor that literally shows signs of brainwashing her students. Ye-bin actually attempts running away, but Soo-im finds her in time to give her the hug that she’s been craving for so long.
As the school year goes on, the Castle kids are weighed down with more stress than ever. And similar to Ye-bin, they have no idea how to get through to their parents. Between studying in the Castle and studying at school, they’re starting to feel like they’re trapped in prison, with their parents as the guards. Soo-han ends up running away too, but thankfully, Chi-young helps a hysteric Jin-hee bring him back home. And though the Woo family is mostly there for a lot of comedic relief, this particular storyline was the first real breakthrough for any of the Castle households. Jin-hee and Yang-woo realize that they were so caught up in trying to keep up with their neighbors that they’d been oblivious to Soo-han’s silent struggles. And after coming so close to losing him, they agree that it’s time they allow him to just be a kid–a kid that maybe skips his morning lessons every now and then and has some (*gasp*) fun.
Meanwhile, those in the Cha household are about ready to explode. And you would be too if you were living under the same roof as Min-hyuk. Seung-hye and the boys try to convince him that, with all the chaos happening around them, maybe it’s time they change things. Like, I don’t know, the dark and depressing interior decorating? The cramped and anxiety-inducing study room? But Min-hyuk’s tunnel vision is probably worse than Seo-jin’s. Anytime anybody brings up change, he gives them the look and says something like “You guys are high school seniors” or “You have to reach the top of pyramid.”
Seung-hye can’t sit back and watch anymore, though, as her husband continues controlling all of their lives. She starts forcing the changes herself, the first major one being the destruction of the study room. She even has the construction workers hand her a mallet so she can experience the satisfaction of tearing down the wall. However, Min-hyuk always finds a way to get Seung-hye back on her leash, so to speak. And this time, after learning his precious study room is ruined, he takes Seung-hye’s credit cards away until she puts it back together. Nothing seems to get Mr. Pyramid off his high horse.
Then, we’re introduced to the Chas’ eldest daughter Se-ri, the Harvard student that Min-hyuk couldn’t be more proud of. She comes back from America, able to brag to everyone in the neighborhood that she’s friends with Barack Obama’s daughter. However, Seung-hye soon gets a phone call from her sister in America, and surprise, it turns out that Se-ri has been lying to them the whole time. Instead of attending Harvard, she’d been working at dance clubs, terrified of telling her parents that she wasn’t cut out for college life. Though Seung-hye is understandably upset, she comes to understand where her daughter is coming from.
And Min-hyuk… Well, he’s the last to find out, because everyone else is just as terrified to tell him. He reacts as expected, threatening to disown Se-ri before curling up in bed to cry. This doesn’t change Min-hyuk’s ridiculous pyramid philosophy–in fact, it makes it worse–but it does make Seung-hye all the more determined to protect her children.
As time passes, Seo-jin uncovers Coach Kim’s shocking secrets one by one, from the fact that Kim has a hidden daughter to the fact that she might’ve killed her own husband. This is when everything within Seo-jin is screaming for her to get this woman away from Ye-seo as soon as possible–I know I definitely screamed the same thing while watching. But Ye-seo is already trapped in Kim’s grasp, and she has no intention of reaching out to her mom again. Seo-jin ignores her conflicted feelings, constantly reassuring herself that Kim can get Ye-seo into SNU and that’s all that matters.
Soo-im decides to write a book about SKY Castle and the dark secrets beyond its gates, but when she gets too close to the truth, Coach Kim manipulates her into a whole new web of lies. Fortunately, Soo-im is not a naive character, and she digs up the truth herself by finding Young-jae and his dad. She gets all the information she needs from them, like the other families that Kim has torn apart, and promises Young-jae that her book will give them a voice. She tries to convince her old friend Seo-jin that Kim is dangerous, but Seo-jin has convinced herself that she’s too far gone to turn back.
At the high school, we meet Kim Hye-na, Ye-seo’s biggest rival and Woo-joo’s not-so-secret crush. When Hye-na isn’t studying, she’s busy taking care of her ill mother in the hospital. She’s a very headstrong girl, being proud of obtaining high grades without the help of a tutor like Ye-seo has. She’s perfectly content having her mom as her only family, but she’s suddenly thrust into the world alone when her mom passes away.
Hye-na is grief-stricken, but a new hope arises when she discovers an old photograph of Mom with Ye-seo’s dad Joon-sang. A string of unanswered texts to Joon-sang tell her all that she needs to know: Joon-sang is her dad too. Nervous that she may lose her only lifeline, she keeps this to herself. She attempts making nice with Ye-seo at school, but she knows right away that it’s futile with her.
Of course, Coach Kim uses her oh-so-efficient resources to learn of this birth secret and uses it to her advantage. She urges Seo-jin to bring Hye-na into her home, that way she has a tutor for Ye-bin and some motivation for Ye-seo. It sounds silly to Seo-jin, but once again, Coach Kim makes something silly sound smart and reasonable. So in a few days time, she has Hye-na move into SKY Castle, having no idea that she’s just planted a time bomb in her home.
What’s interesting is that I wasn’t sure who to root for in this situation. At times, it seemed like Hye-na was putting herself in danger, and other times, it seemed like she was the one bringing danger to the Kang family. She knew very well that one wrong word out of her mouth could bring chaos, and for the first time in her life, she felt powerful. That is, until Seo-jin discovered her secret.
Just like that, Hye-na had made herself an enemy. Seo-jin practically threatened to kill her if she ever told Joon-sang the truth, but she stood her ground; after all, she had nothing left to lose. But Seo-jin saw right through her, knowing she did have a potential father to lose and that the thought scared her more than anything else. They eventually come to the agreement of keeping quiet (for now), which turns out to be much harder than they thought.
Tensions run high at SKY Castle, and soon, Hye-na’s secret finds its way to even more people. Yet, all this time, Joon-sang is still unaware that he has another daughter roaming his halls. Hye-na gets tired of being patronized, however, and tells Ye-seo that she deserves a place in the family. And with Coach Kim, Seo-jin, and now Hye-na causing Ye-seo so much stress, Ye-seo is about ready to snap.
Then, on the night of Woo-joo’s birthday party, tragedy strikes once again. Hye-na is found lying outside Woo-joo’s house, having fallen from the balcony. She’s immediately taken to the hospital, but with another patient in critical condition–a patient with a connection to Joon-sang’s boss–Joon-sang makes the decision of sending Hye-na to another hospital. As she’s gurneyed away, she struggles to say the word “Dad,” but a confused Joon-sang merely turns away. And not too long after that, Hye-na dies in the ICU.
The police rule out suicide and come to the conclusion that Hye-na’s death was a murder. But who could have pushed her? Could it have been Ye-seo, who was threatened by Hye-na only hours before? Could it have been Seo-jin, who was just waiting for the right opportunity to get rid of her? Or could it have been Coach Kim, who was never fond of her in the first place? Seo-jin proves herself innocent when she meets with Coach Kim, afraid that her daughter might’ve gotten herself caught up in a murder case.
Coach Kim suggests Seo-jin do what’s best for Ye-seo by blaming it all on Woo-joo. Seo-jin starts to think that this is far too much to handle, but she’s so desperate to protecting Ye-seo’s future that she decides to follow Coach Kim’s instructions. Woo-joo gets arrested for Hye-na’s murder, shocking his parents, his friends, and poor Ye-seo, who’s harbored a crush on him ever since he moved to SKY Castle.
The more obvious it becomes that it was Coach Kim who killed Hye-na, the more terrified Seo-jin is to step up and tell the truth. Kim reveals that she’d been feeding Ye-seo test answers without her knowledge, and if Kim gets arrested, then Ye-seo will have to give up on SNU. Seo-jin and Ye-seo feel so awful for what they’ve done to Woo-joo, but how can they give up on SNU? A distraught Soo-im figures that Kim must be holding them back, but she begs them to think about what’s really best for Woo-joo and Ye-seo. She tells them that Kim is intentionally trying to destroy them–it’s what Kim has been doing ever since her own family was destroyed.
Seo-jin denies Soo-im countless times, but she knows deep down that Soo-im is right. And it’s at this point that everything falls apart: Joon-sang discovers that Hye-na was his daughter, and he becomes horrified with the man that he’s become. He wants to starts over, to have his family start over, so he tells his wife to stop letting society, namely Coach Kim and her mother-in-law, push her into doing such terrible things. Even if Ye-seo gets into SNU, he says, she’ll be miserable knowing she ruined someone’s life. Seo-jin still hesitates, but when she sees for herself what she’s done to Ye-seo, she finally, finally, decides to set things right.
Seo-jin delivers all the evidence she has to the police and has Woo-joo released to his parents. It takes a lot out of Seo-jin, but luckily, Joon-sang appears to embrace her as she cries. Coach Kim is arrested, but not before she has one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever watched with her grown daughter. And with that, the residents of SKY Castle can let out a big sigh of relief. Ye-seo decides to prove herself by taking the GRE and getting into college on her own terms, while Woo-joo decides to travel the world to really find himself. Seung-hye moves out with the kids, which is what finally gets Min-hyuk to start changing his ways. It’s incredibly sad for him to forget about his beloved pyramid (*rolls eyes*), but he’d rather have his family instead.
The Kangs leave SKY Castle, prompting another SNU-obsessed family to move in. And though Soo-im’s book Goodbye, SKY Castle gets some well-deserved attention, there are still plenty of wealthy mothers going to auctions for private tutors. The series ends with one unsettling shot of Coach Kim smirking.
Now, at first, the final shot freaked me out because I actually thought that Coach Kim had been released from jail and allowed to tutor again. Then I realized that Kim’s arrogant expression was the show’s way of saying that were will always be people like Kim Joo-young, and there will always be parents desperate to hire them. It’s a scary thought, just as the drama itself is scary, but it’s a reality that I’m grateful SKY Castle was willing to explore.
Once you get sucked into the world of SKY Castle, it’s easy to see why it performed so well. It had those classic makjang elements, and the writing made those elements more universal. And with the addition of great directing and acting, everything was taken up a notch. We’ve seen the things chaebols and their crazy mothers are willing to do, like pay a girl to break up with her son. But nothing is quite as crazy, or quite as scary, as what a mother is willing to do to get her child into college. The activities and behavior within this story are ludicrous and unfathomable, but they are oh-so-real. There is mental and physical abuse, there is depression, there is deceit and betrayal, and unfortunately, there is death. South Korea’s education system didn’t become number one in the world without consequence. This is real life, so I appreciate the drama for presenting complex characters that are neither heroes or villains but a mix of both.
Though this was an ensemble cast, and every character was blessed with a rich storyline, Seo-jin was the main character for me. She would be considered the evil villain or the evil mom in other dramas, yet here, we spent so much time with her that there was enough room for sympathy to develop. And that sympathy grew the more we got to know her and her own struggles. Sure, there were times where I hated her, but just as it was for Soo-im, it was like watching a friend completely destroy herself, knowing why, yet having no idea how to help her. It was brilliant having Seo-jin in the middle of this tangled web because she represented the absolute worst case scenario. I wanted so badly for her to make better choices, and there were multiple instances where it seemed like she was going to, but SNU was too ingrained in her mind. She was so concerned with Ye-seo’s future that she lost track of what was happening in the present.
Admittedly, the finale felt like one long epilogue, so it wasn’t as fast-paced as I would’ve like it to be. Every episode prior was almost an hour and a half long and felt like ten minutes, while the last episode definitely felt like an hour and a half. In retrospect, it actually provoked an interesting reaction for me. Whenever I watched the show, I would lean into my computer, getting more and more tense with every scene, and this episode finally gave me the chance to sit back and actually breathe. I commend the cast and crew for creating an atmosphere equally as suffocating for us viewers as it was for their characters–that way, I could also experience how freeing it was when the parents and kids realized what was most important to them. It’s obviously hard for them to adjust, as we see with Cha Min-hyuk, but small steps eventually turn into big steps. Change is possible even if it seems like it’s not.
I wish I could’ve talked about the show more in depth, but there was just way too much to pack into one review. There’s plenty to say about parents, teachers, students–heck, about society as a whole–making it the most relevant drama in recent years. While the plot may sound average on paper, it grabs your attention from the second it starts to the second it ends. So yeah, its final rating of 23.8 percent didn’t come as a surprise. Who better to crown as the kings and queens of dramaland than the royalty in SKY Castle?