Secret Boutique: Episodes 3-8 (Series review)
Secret Boutique has totally become my dark horse of awesome. It’s not often that a show moves exactly the way I hoped it would, and exceeds my expectations every week with its consistency, tone, and great twists and turns. But it’s also just a really good watch. The drama’s exciting battle of wits, introduced during its premiere week, wages on, building tension with each episode.
While everyone else is watching cute, pastel-y sageuks and high school shows right now, I feel like I’ve got this deep and delicious revenge story all to myself — but that doesn’t mean I don’t want company!
The opening week of Secret Boutique gave us a pretty good sense of the kind of drama we were in for — we left off with the reveal that Jenny Jang’s position in the Dae-oh household and conglomerate is really an elaborate and decades-long revenge scheme. Jenny is working to secure back her birthright, and while we’ve had these sorts of revenge plots before, something about Secret Boutique sets it apart.
I talk a lot about execution and how it can make or break a drama — things like pacing, editing, and of course, the directing. So far, Secret Boutique is hitting all of these perfectly for the kind of story it’s telling.
In particular, the pacing is nicely balanced thanks to a marriage of a quick-moving plot with quiet moments where we linger with the leads. This keeps the fast-paced and crisply edited story from feeling rushed, and gives it its depth (I love how showing characters in contemplation can accomplish this). It also allows the world of the story to feel well-established, and enables it to capture the sense of all the time that has passed from the start of Jenny’s story (the bus accident) to where she is today, twenty years later.
Jenny’s present day is where most of the drama takes place. We were clued in on her revenge scheme early on, and most of the drama that unfolds is her strategizing, piece by piece, to achieve her aim. If regaining her birthright is her goal, there are several battles she must win first, and the primary one is control of the development of the international city.
In order for Jenny and Dae-oh Group to get control of the project and win this particular battle, fight after fight unfolds — with the city mayor, with Ye-nam, with the competing chaebol group, with the land owners whose property they need to purchase — and that’s only the top of the list. Each fight that we watch unfold is part of the war that Jenny has been living in for decades.
Kim Sun-a does a great job here, portraying a heroine who, when we meet her, is already a veteran at the game. She’s sharp as a tack, cold, calculating, and always has another move up her sleeve. Outside of the power that she wields, even the way she walks and talks rings with her dominating presence. But what about the real Jenny underneath that showy, lacquered surface? That’s why I love Secret Boutique — we get to see glimpses of that Jenny, too.
At certain moments of the drama, Jenny seems to get a bit over her head, whether it’s with her recent marriage or the vulnerabilities that are created during her war with Ye-nam. She’s incredibly guarded in battle, like anyone who has to hold up a front for as long as she has — but then there are these soft moments in the drama too, where we see underneath that. In one, Jenny calls her husband, showing that very vulnerability, and asks him to return to her side. In another, she takes a ferry back to her hometown with Sun-woo, and enjoys the sea air and the short respite from pressure cooker of her everyday life.
It’s Jenny’s husband Jung-hyuk and Sun-woo who are the ones that get to see the real Jenny — the one that’s behind the glamorous outfits and black sunglasses. Her relationships with both of these men are nuanced, deep, and meaningful, and the complexity of these characters and their interactions is one of the things that adds the depth to the story.
Her relationship to her best friend and husband-of-convenience is compelling, but it’s Sun-woo, her right-hand man and attorney at her firm, who grabs me the most. Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve fallen this hard for a fictional hero. In the opening week episodes, I was really impressed with the intensity that Kim Jae-young brought to the role, and he continues to deliver a really nice performance that’s wrought with lots of unspoken emotion. His relationship with Jenny is my favorite one of the drama. It’s rich with this understated, nuanced affection and emotional closeness, but it’s also guarded and there are walls up all over the place. Fluffy noona romance, this is not.
Another important relationship for Jenny is with Hyun-ji, the young baduk player searching for her mother who went missing. Hyun-ji got entangled in one of Jenny’s early battles, and became a “trophy” for Jenny. Hyun-ji starts working for her, tagging along with Sun-woo, and it turns out that her baduk experience — and her earnest heart — give her an edge that others don’t have. Halfway through the drama, Hyun-ji is proving herself quite useful to Jenny.
However, how this relationship will unfold is very much in shadows at this point. Sun-woo keeps encouraging Hyun-ji to leave while she can, and warns that she won’t be able to get close to Jenny. Sun-woo also warns Jenny to be cautious of Hyun-ji; he once tells Jenny, “Don’t see yourself in her.” It’s clear the drama is going to dig into the Jenny/Hyun-ji dynamic in its second half. Again, that’s why the drama is so good — it’s character and relationship-driven at the center of all the action and double-crossing and plot twists.
While Jenny is most certainly in the midst of a war with life or death stakes, it’s also got an element of gameplay a well. This theme has been running strong with how Jenny, Chairwoman Jang, Ye-nam, and other players operate. Everyone has their trusted advisor, their pawns, and the game pieces they are keeping close for when they need the perfect play.
Interestingly, the drama is a bit of a game in how the story is told, too. Rather than be certain of where our characters are in each scene, we often watch a plotline unfold and only later learn it was all carefully plotted. This keeps the storytelling fresh, since we never quite know if Jenny’s finally been dinged, or if she’s merely giving up a pawn to save her queen.
A great example of this is with a major reveal that’s built into the story quite earlier than expected: Chairwoman Jang learning that Jenny Jang is actually Jang So-jin, the rightful heiress of Dae-oh Group. This reveal is the crux of the entire revenge scheme, so it’s natural to expect it to be teased, but never actually put on the table until the drama is nearly over. But Secret Boutique does it different.
Chairwoman Jang becomes suspicious and digs into Jenny’s past, and there’s a crucial moment where her identity will either be proven or unproven with a DNA test. It’s not till much later in the episode that we realize that exposing herself to Chairwoman Jang was part of Jenny’s plan to further secure her position. “She would have suspected who I was eventually,” Jenny tells Sun-woo. So, instead of struggling to hide the truth, she dealt with the suspicion up front.
This kind of storytelling is not only mad exciting, but accentuates the elaborate gameplay, both in and out of the drama. And now that we’re at the halfway point, there’s only more of this in store for us, as the drama has built a lot of compelling relationships that will surely have a big part to play as the plot unfolds.
The airing of Episode 8 was delayed last week, which unfortunately cuts into the show’s flow going forward (meaning, the mid-week cliffhangers will only be more so, since they’ll stretch to the following week now). Regardless, I’m already riveted to this show. Round after round (or is that episode after episode?), the stakes are getting higher, and I can’t wait to see where the drama goes from here.