Black Dog: Episode 1
Welcome to the world of teaching–a cutthroat competition of survival with only one prize: the coveted permanent teaching position. Black Dog depicts a cast of characters in a world that feels all too real as it explores the inner workings of a school. Following the journey of a beginning teacher, the show takes the perspective of the stranger learning to adjust to her new surroundings and finding her place in the unfamiliar.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
2007. On a high school field trip, Teacher KIM YOUNG-HA (cameo by Tae In-ho) chaperones a bus of students along with their homeroom teacher. Young-ha notices one of the students, GO HANEUL (Ryu Ji-eun), wearing a cast on her leg as she talks with her worried mom over the phone. Outside, the sunny weather turns to rain.
As the road gets narrower, a truck passes the bus, and the annoyed bus driver tailgates the truck into a tunnel. Suddenly, the truck swerves to the side, and the bus driver notices the disabled vehicle too late. He hits the car, causing the bus to flip over and crash.
Though hurt, the students file out of the wreckage on their own, and Young-ha exits the tunnel last due to his wounded leg. Patrol officers who arrive at the accident site warn the students and teachers that the bus will explode, but the bad news continues: Haneul is still on the bus.
Young-ha exchanges looks with the homeroom teacher, and as if in a trance, he turns and enters the tunnel. The homeroom teacher shouts at Young-ha to come back, but Young-ha marches onward.
With her leg pinned between two seats, Haneul desperately calls out for help, and when all hope seems lost, Young-ha answers. He helps Haneul out of her seat, and luckily for them, a patrol officer followed after Young-ha and assists him in getting Haneul out of the bus.
As the officer reaches down to pull up Young-ha as well, Young-ha tells them to go on ahead. With the clock ticking, the officer takes Haneul out first, but as they reach the end of the tunnel, the bus explodes. A cloud of smoke swallows up Haneul, and she falls to the ground, barely conscious.
The news reports on the bus accident, declaring the death of one teacher: Young-ha. Haneul attends his funeral, and in the back, Young-ha’s mother argues with the school administrators. According to the law, Young-ha’s family can’t receive any compensation because he was a contract worker, which doesn’t make him an official “teacher” at their school.
Young-ha’s wife, Song Young-sook, accuses the administrators of using her husband as cheap labor and reminds them that no law forces private schools to hire short-term teachers. Their cries of injustice fall on deaf ears, and all the administrators and teachers in attendance leave without a word of condolence. While Young-ha’s family mourns, Haneul stares at his portrait and wonders what could have made him go to such lengths for her.
Life resumes as normal for all those at the school, but Young-sook continues her silent and lonely fight for her husband. Haneul watches her protest even in the rain, but rather than approach her, she runs away with a pained expression.
After some time passes, Haneul finds her way back to the tunnel where the accident occurred. More years pass and adult Haneul (Seo Hyun-jin) now stands in front of the tunnel, still searching for the answer to her question.
February 2019. Haneul turns in her teaching application, and her face falls when she realizes that she’s already the 101st person to apply for the one open position. Afterwards, she bikes to a noodle shop and cheerily greets the owner–Young-sook.
Haneul tells Young-sook about her plans to teach while studying for her teacher certification exam and explains that she applied for both short-term and permanent positions at public or private schools. Ignoring the elephant in the room, Young-sook tells Haneul to stop coming by once she gets a teaching position, but Haneul ignores her request and says that she’ll drop by again.
At her part-time job, Haneul talks with her friend over the phone when she receives a call from an unknown number. She decides to answer it, and the vice principal from Daechi High School congratulates her on passing the first round. Since the school year starts in twenty days, they need to speed up the hiring process, so Vice Principal Lee schedules an in-person interview for that afternoon.
Principal Byun enters the staff room as Vice Principal Lee gets off the phone with Haneul, and the two of them discuss the new short-term hires. Vice Principal Lee assures the principal that they chose young prospective teachers with no experience since they’re naïve and less likely to run away. (Yes, exactly what I hope for in my teachers.)
Despite it still being winter vacation, all the teachers of Daechi High School gather in the auditorium for a presentation by the College Advisory Department. Principal Byun sits in the front with Vice Principal Lee on his right and the head of School Administration, Moon Soo-ho, on his left.
College advisor DO YEON-WOO (Ha Joon) leads the presentation, but as soon as he announces the absence of their head college advisor, Teacher Song decides to wreak havoc. Before the presentation even begins, he questions the authority of the College Advisory Department and calls them out for overstepping departmental boundaries.
Teacher Song mocks the college advisors for not producing results, and College Advisor BAE MYUNG-SOO (Lee Chang-hoon) whispers at his junior colleague to keep his cool. To Myung-soo’s relief, Yeon-woo continues the presentation and points out the copy-and-paste nature of the student records–courtesy of Teacher Song (who heads the department for third year students a.k.a. juniors in the American system).
In order to defend their department, Teacher Ha passes the blame onto the Department of Creative Activities, which Teacher Han leads, and Yeon-woo agrees that the department put its own convenience over the students’ interests. Myung-soo sets aside his documents and sighs, “It’s war all over again.”
After the presentation, Teacher Song calls to make sure the head college advisor is still absent and then storms the department. He shouts at Yeon-woo for ridiculing his senior in front of the entire staff, but Yeon-woo ignores both Teacher Song’s scolding and Myung-soo’s silent pleas.
Myung-soo receives a call from the head advisor who’s on her way right now, and immediately, Teacher Song quiets down and leaves the office without another word. In truth, it was just a spam caller, and Myung-soo wonders where their department head actually is.
On the subway, Head College Advisor PARK SUNG-SOON (Ra Mi-ran) watches a music video of Twice when Myung-soo calls her. He informs her of the school’s plans to hire a new short-term teacher today, which is news to her.
Haneul looks for a suit to wear for her interview and notices her uncle calling her mom. Haneul reprimands her mom for asking her younger brother for favors, but Mom doesn’t see the harm in it. While Mom escapes to the bedroom to answer her phone, Dad calls Haneul to their cleaners where he hands her an expensive suit, supposedly bought by Mom years ago for Haneul.
Sung-soon storms into the faculty office and confronts the vice principal and Teacher Song for hiring a new short-term teacher without consulting her. The vice principal explains that their previous short-term teacher ran away and points out the root of their problem: the position falls under both the College Advisory and Year 3 Department. The two department heads argue over where the new teacher should be located, and the College Advisory Department wins since they have more space in their office.
While Haneul arrives for her interview, Sung-soon catches up on the latest gossip from Teacher Sohn, the head of the Department of After School Program. The whole “new hire” situation smells of nepotism, but since it’s only a short-term position, no one seems too bothered by it…except Sung-soon. She vows to catch the “parachute,” and with Myung-soo in tow, she barges into the principal’s office and sits in on the interviews.
The first phase of the interview consists of a mock lecture, and unlike the other two candidates, Haneul structures her lesson around the college entrance exam. When asked about the reasoning behind their lesson plan, Haneul describes the realistic needs of students which led her to examine the patterns of test questions on the exam, but in her answer, she misnames the educational broadcasting station, much to her embarrassment.
Throughout the interview, Sung-soon takes mental notes of the committee members’ reactions to deduce who the “parachute” is, and from the way the others pay special attention to Haneul, it’s obvious that she’s the one. When the interview ends, Sung-soon asks a last-minute question: “Do any of you know someone at this school?”
The candidates stare back at the committee with blank expressions– Haneul completely unaware of the accusation being lodged at her. The principal waves aside Sung-soon’s question and dismisses the candidates from the room. In the hallway, Haneul hides her face in mortification over her mistake, but the committee is concerned with a bigger issue than her little mix-up.
Sung-soon asks who the parachute is and what their connections are, but the rest of the hiring committee claim that her allegations are false. Voices rise as the argument heats up, and eventually, the principal pulls rank to stop the bickering. He orders everyone but Sung-soon to leave, and once alone, he tells her to act a bit more refined.
On her way home, Haneul keeps replaying her mistake in her head and looks up Daechi High School’s website. She tries accessing the list of teachers at the school, but it’s off limits to the public. Absorbed in her own thoughts, Haneul doesn’t notice the subway train arrive and gets pushed by the other passengers. She drops her bag in the tussle and misses her train.
Haneul comes home looking crushed, and after some debating, she decides to check the forum for short-term teachers. Her search leads her to a new post accusing Daechi High School of nepotism, and if she had any hope left of being hired, it’s completely gone now.
Elsewhere, Sung-soon and Myung-soo discuss the candidates over dinner, and they both agree that Haneul seemed like the best fit–even if she is the “parachute.” Myung-soo asks why she threw a fit back in the office if she scored Haneul the best anyways, but Sung-soon wanted to send a message to the candidate and uphold her reputation as the “crazy dog.” Proving her point, she finishes up her soup first and leaves her check to Myung-soo. Heh.
At the restaurant, Young-sook grows indignant for Haneul’s sake after hearing about the corruption at Daechi High, but before Haneul even takes a bite of her noodles, she receives a call that she was hired. With a pep in her step, Haneul arrives at the school for her first day of work.
The news of Haneul’s connection spreads through the school, and Sung-soon confronts the principal who tells her that he and the vice principal were in the dark as well. As it turns out, Haneul’s uncle is Teacher Moon, and when he enters the faculty office, the other teachers grow quiet and disperse.
The vice principal introduces Haneul to the other new teachers who greet her warmly. When the vice principal steps out of the room, the teachers begin gossiping about the recent forum post accusing the school of nepotism. Along with the rumors of a permanent position opening up soon, they clearly despise the idea of a “parachute” swooping in and stealing the job.
After their meeting, one of the teachers offers to call everyone later to grab lunch together, and feeling welcomed, Haneul goes off to her office with a smile. In the College Advisory Department, Myung-soo advises Sung-soon to keep a neutral expression, but she does the opposite by angrily yelling and stomping out of the office.
Out of the loop, Yeon-woo wonders what’s bothering Sung-soon, and Myung-soo explains that the new hire is connected to Teacher Moon. Apparently, the two teachers have bad blood between them that’s been going on for a while.
Though Haneul misses Sung-soon on her way to the office, she runs into a group of teachers lead by Teacher Song on the stairs. Teacher Ha enthusiastically introduces himself and comments on the resemblance between Haneul and Teacher Moon. The new teachers stare at Haneul in disbelief, and it finally dawns on Haneul that she’s the “parachute.”
Still in a daze, Haneul enters the College Advisory Department and introduces herself to Yeon-woo who replies back curtly. Out of the blue, Yeon-woo tells her that teachers should be more interested in teaching and the students rather than politics, and Haneul stares at him in confusion.
The phone at her desk rings, and remembering their lunch plans, Haneul answers expectantly, only to be disappointed when it’s just a work-related call. The administrator informs her to log in to the school system, but Haneul is unaware of even the basic protocols for new teachers.
After receiving a rushed list of tasks, Haneul gets her school-issued laptop, and without a moment to rest, her phone rings again. It’s another work-related call, asking her to check her messages, and Haneul hurriedly opens the app to be bombarded with a backlog of texts.
The overwhelming amount of work on her first day causes Haneul to panic, and she turns to the only teacher in the room for help. Unfortunately, it’s the sixth-year short-term teacher (the one most likely to get the rumored permanent position if not for Haneul), and he excuses himself since he doesn’t work for her department.
Teacher Yoon enters the office looking for Sung-soon, but finding only Haneul at her desk, she asks the new teacher if she ate lunch. Haneul happily says that she and the other new teachers plan on eating together, but Teacher Yoon tells her that the others are already in the cafeteria.
Haneul ends up eating alone and sits at the table across the aisle from the other new teachers. One of the teachers asked if she knew her uncle worked at this school, and Haneul tells them that she didn’t know. The teacher who asked in the first place doesn’t believe her, and they start whispering comments about Haneul, not even bothering to hide their disdain.
Once everyone else is gone, Haneul gets up to return her tray but trips over her own feet. As she sits on the floor looking defeated, Yeon-woo sees her from the window and comments to himself that she won’t last very long.
Haneul limps back to the office, still ignored by the other new teachers, and the sight of her unfamiliar workplace and the day’s events bring tears to her eyes. She quickly wipes them away and goes to find Teacher Moon.
As Sung-soon returns from her coffee break, she catches Haneul in Teacher Moon’s office and overhears them talk about her employment. Haneul declares her intentions to resign, but Teacher Moon advises her to stay and gain experience. He tells her that he had nothing to do with her being hired, and kept his presence here a secret from Haneul on her mom’s behalf.
Rather than waste her parents’ money studying for the teaching certification exam, Teacher Moon tells her to keep her options open unless she wants to be a short-term hire for the rest of her life. Memories of Young-ha’s funeral flash before Haneul as she replies, “What’s so wrong with that.” Teacher Moon scoffs at her answer and calls her naïve.
Leaving her uncle’s office, Haneul recalls the things her parents did for her, and she wipes away her tears before returning to her desk. As Haneul packs up her things, Sung-soon asks if she’s leaving. She tells Haneul that quitting early might be for the best since teaching isn’t a respected profession anymore, which means teachers have to do demeaning things occasionally.
If Haneul only wants to do “cool” things as a teacher, then Sung-soon thinks the position is wasted on her. But more importantly, Sung-soon states, “All else aside, someone who gives up on the students first is unqualified to be a teacher.”
Haneul stares at the school one more time before heading off to buy food to eat with Young-sook, and at the restaurant, a customer notices a call from “My Daughter” on Young-sook’s phone. The drunk customers ask what her daughter does, and Young-sook replies that she’s a teacher. At that, they mention Young-ha, and Young-sook’s face darkens.
After the customers leave, Young-sook ignores Haneul’s call, and clutching a photo of Young-ha, she weeps. From the window, Haneul watches her cry and stays outside to give her space. At home, Haneul sits alone in the bathroom as Sung-soon’s words echo in her head.
With seven days left until the first day of school, Sung-soon comes in to the office despite being on vacation, and to her surprise, she finds Haneul at her desk, too. Every day Haneul arrives before Sung-soon and stays later than her, but regardless of what Haneul does, Sung-soon continues ignoring her.
Then one day, Haneul doesn’t appear in the office, and only when Sung-soon leaves does she spot the young teacher inside an empty classroom. Haneul stands with her fist clenched and whole-body trembling, and to the world, she’s simply in front of a classroom. However, to Haneul, she stands in front of the tunnel that changed her life.
On the first day of school, all the desks in the College Advisory Department are filled except for the short-term position. Myung-soo asks Sung-soon if they found a replacement, but Sung-soon just smiles at his question.
Down the hallway, Haneul walks towards her office and narrates, “If you find yourself trapped deep in the darkness, all you can do is sit where you are and wait until your eyes completely adjust to the darkness.”
Haneul stands outside the doors, taking a deep breath, when Sung-soon makes eye contact with her. Sung-soon tells her to come in, and Haneul pushes open the door and steps inside. The other college advisors stare at Haneul, and she returns their gaze, no longer lost but determined.
For anyone interested in education, this show is a fascinating watch. From just the first episode alone, the show depicts multiple problems of the South Korean education system and does a splendid job setting up the social context of the profession, especially from the perspective of beginning teachers. From my limited knowledge, the South Korean government regulates training programs for secondary education much less than for primary, which has led to an oversupply of teachers looking for secondary school positions–a fact displayed in the show when Haneul first applies for the open position at Daechi High School and realizes that it’s already a 101:1 odd of getting the job. Furthermore, the licensing exam acts as a screening process and is notoriously difficult to pass, which the show addresses through Teacher Moon’s advice to Haneul. As a result, many teachers in the real world find themselves in Haneul’s situation: they reach an impasse with few prospects for job stability. With limited options at their disposal, teachers are forced to take less than ideal jobs, but even these have become coveted positions as competition grows. The characters in Black Dog may be fictious, but the society that they live in and the circumstances they face are wholly realistic to a painful degree.
The strength of this first episode was its realism, and the unflinching manner in which it dealt with emotions and human nature. For example, when the new teachers learn of Haneul’s connection to Teacher Moon, their response is regrettable yet understandable. From their standpoint, Haneul’s employment feels unjust, and in a system that already has fierce gatekeepers, nepotism is simply another form of corruption to them. However, the show doesn’t portray their actions as justifiable, and out of anger, the very people who should be leading the next generation by example are bullying their peer without an ounce of remorse. Their reactions to Haneul’s explanation are filled with contempt, and regardless of the truth, they already created an unfalsifiable narrative about Haneul. When the male teacher asked her if she knew about her uncle, it was a trap where Haneul loses no matter what she says. If she admits to nepotism, then she confirms what the teachers already thought of her, but if she denies it, then they accuse her of being a brazen liar. What makes their response worse, though, is how mundane their form of bullying is. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people have experienced some degree of isolation and ridicule that Haneul faced in this episode, whether it’s the unkind whispers made deliberately loud enough for a person to hear or the act of leaving another out of the group as a form of punishment. Just as the bullying depicted felt like commonplace occurrences, Haneul’s response to her surroundings felt personal and familiar.
Rather than be “sad” about her situation, I get the impression that Haneul feels lost, and with that comes a wide range of emotions including fear and hopelessness. At the start, Haneul is enthusiastic about the job and looks forward to getting acquainted with her peers. When they invite her to lunch, she practically beams, and despite getting revealed as Teacher Moon’s niece, she holds onto the hope that the others will still call her. Thus, when she realizes that they abandoned her, the feeling of embarrassment and hurt was palpable. I cringed alongside Haneul as she sat by herself in the cafeteria, and when she fell with her tray, I could understand her want to just stay on the ground and not move. Not only was she overwhelmed with the amount of work she had to do, but the degree of alienation she experienced on her first day was what made her feel lost in this new space. Though I’m sure Haneul probably wanted to give up, she didn’t, and it’s thanks to Teacher Young-ha who propelled her down this path in the first place.
Despite the small screen time, Young-ha left a deep impression on me that lasted throughout the episode. He’s the catalyst in Haneul’s journey and his sacrifice marks a watershed moment. Though the show could have wringed his death for tears, it didn’t go down that route, which I appreciated. Haneul doesn’t cry for her teacher, but instead, she’s left with a lingering question that can’t be answered: why? To be honest, I doubt Young-ha would be able to articulate why he did it. He wasn’t trying to be a hero in that moment, but that’s what made his action standout. Even though he was clearly afraid, Young-ha walked in to help Haneul, and when time was running out, he told them to go first because her safety came before his. In a time of crisis, his instinct was to serve and protect. Ultimately, he was a man of distinguished character, which was only made more evident as Haneul interacted with other teachers.
The first episode barely scratched the surface of Daechi High School and the political factions within the organization. There is a wide array of characters in this show from the staff side alone, but now that school is starting, I’m sure the list will only expand. The show introduces a lot of characters (both major and minor) in the first episode with the two most prominent being the College Advisory Department led by Sung-soon and the 3rd Years Department led by Teacher Song. The rivalry between the two departments adds a bit of lightness to the show, which counterbalances some of the heavier moments. The comedy is done in small dosages and rarely takes center stage with the laughs coming from minor gestures and quips such as Myung-soo’s comment about war brewing or the wonderful side-eye of Sung-soon. While some lines are clearer, there are other rivalries and allegiances that remain murky, and if anything, there seems to be plenty of story for the show to tell.
In spite all the characters populating this world, Sung-soon still manages to shine from the crowd as the capable female teacher whose bold personality makes her known throughout the school. It’s obvious she’ll become Haneul’s mentor, especially since she’s already taking notice of the young teacher. Though her complete disregard of Haneul in the beginning was mean, I never found Sung-soon’s actions cruel like I did with the new teachers. Sung-soon’s words about quitting were harsh, but it was her bluntness that helped Haneul realize that resigning wasn’t choosing the morally upright path but a cowardly one. Sung-soon won’t coddle Haneul, but she also won’t dismiss Haneul’s effort if she earnestly tries. She’s an upright teacher with a sense of duty towards her students, and for the fledgling teacher, Sung-soon might just be what Haneul needs to find her footing and finally answer the question that’s been nagging her all this time.
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