Dramaland justice: Comeuppance
Dramaland operates on justice. It’s a place where, more often than not, things like rewards and punishments are doled out with a fairness that anyone can agree to. Goodness and long-suffering are rewarded (the hardworking heroine gets the job she’s been fighting for), and loneliness and heartache are healed with love and belonging (orphans find family, past scars are healed when couples come together, etc.). These are the things that make stories so satisfying.
Dramas gives us a place where everything balances out. It’s something incredibly powerful because we can’t attain it in real life. No, not because entropy or evil win — but rather, because our own story is still ongoing. We don’t know how it will end, or how justice will be parceled out, so instead we look to stories. Here we get something cohesive and complete; things add up, come full circle, and conclude.
We’ve looked at how dramaland uses the classical trope of compensation to bring balance and/or justice to heroes and heroines that have suffered undeservedly. But another important part of dramaland justice is when people suffer deservedly. In other words: when bad folks get their comeuppance.
For the purposes of this argument, we’re talking about the bulk of K-dramas where the world of the story is black and white, and where there’s an obvious good versus evil element. (Some dramas dig into the more complex and “gray” space that’s a part of real life, but we won’t get into them too much here.)
Our heros and heroines reaping rewards and attaining happiness is a given, but would the story be complete if we didn’t see the antagonist get their comeuppance? What if Chae Young-shin and Healer walked off into the sunset together, but we never saw the crimes of the past come to light, and be punished? What if Na-moo and Nak-won in Come Here and Hug Me fell in love as adults, but the serial killer that ravaged their lives was never caught and brought to justice? The stories wouldn’t be the same. And they wouldn’t feel as complete — or as satisfying.
Waiting for comeuppance turns out to be a major draw of watching a story, too. Though our focus is more often on the main characters (and usually the love line), our drive to see baddies get their just desserts often carries us through a drama as well. I can’t be the only person who watched My ID is Gangnam Beauty waiting and waiting for the sly, poisonous Soo-ah to be exposed. Or, in a very different kind of story, I know I’m not the only one holding my breath (literally) waiting for the horrible students in Class of Lies to have to face up to their crimes.
The idea of comeuppance exists no matter the genre, too, though the punishment itself changes based on the rules of the story. In a rom-com, our baddies don’t usually have a bloodied final battle, and in thrillers, the baddies don’t get a bucket of water dumped over their heads. Punishment is scaled for genre and story, and that’s another way dramaland uses its rules to build a satisfying tale.
Even the magnitude of the villain doesn’t matter. They can be anywhere from the truly chilling (like the serial killer father in Come Here and Hug Me), to a “love to hate” villain like the Empress Dowager in An Empress’s Dignity. No matter the nature of the villain/antagonist, the urge to see them get their comeuppance is there. It might be stronger in some stories, or run on a scale of tearful relief to a round of applause, but the ending for a baddie is just as important as the ending for our hero and heroine.
Even subtle comeuppance works, and is satisfying to the viewer. Think of the horrid abusive husband in One Spring Night. He’s a villain from the start, and uses his charm and a heavy dose of smooth manipulation to get what he wants, whether it’s loans or control of his wife. At the close of the drama, his character is left completely unredeemed. And according to drama justice, if a character isn’t painted as redeemable, then they have to get comeuppance of some sort in order for the story to be satisfying.
In One Spring Night, this lowdown character gets some subtle, yet satisfying comeuppance. He loses his wife, his parental rights, the growth of his medical practice. But more than that, the last time we see him in the drama he’s getting drunk in the middle of the day in a pretty sorry display of self-pity, laying the blame for his problems on others. While the other characters in the drama learned to overcome their obstacles with maturity and intention, his story seemed to show us what happens when a person isn’t willing to do so.
There are also dramas that take a kinder approach to their antagonists, but this still doesn’t negate them getting a dose of comeuppance before they’re redeemed. Take the cold Director Ko in Romance is a Bonus Book, or the not-so-nice girlfriend of the hero in My First First Love. They first operate as an antagonistic force in the story, but afterwards, their characters are either explained, forgiven, or a mash-up of these. Sometimes the comeuppance is as simple as realizing their behavior — and sometimes they even get a happy ending, too.
We all know dramas wouldn’t be dramas without the baddies, bitches, and flat-out villains — but the justice that rules dramaland wouldn’t be the same without them either. Antagonists are handled in different ways, and the way they get their comeuppances parceled out actually tells us a lot about the logic of the story, and the message it wants to convey. Some might even say that the way the antagonist is dealt with reveals more about the genre and/or themes than the protagonist’s storyline. It’s an interesting experiment, actually, to imagine how the story would change if the baddie’s comeuppance took a different shape. Would it make dramaland justice more or less compelling?
Either way, comeuppance is another great example of dramaland justice at work. We might take it for granted at times, being so used to the equation, but without it, the world of K-dramas becomes a very different place.