Secret Boutique: Episodes 9-16 (Series review)
It’s been a wild ride with Secret Boutique! It’s no small feat when a drama makes big promises at its start, and then delivers on them straight through to the end, but Secret Boutique did just that.
Not only did we get our decades-long tale of revenge with just about as much drama and intrigue as you could imagine, but we also got really fantastic and moving character arcs with all of the players. I love stories about people with the courage to step back and take a look at their actions — and in the case of Secret Boutique, this element is what elevated the drama from a story of high-stakes revenge into an even better, richer story about people.
There are some dramas I watch and wonder, “Why is everyone watching this?” and then there are dramas like Secret Boutique that make me wonder, “Why isn’t everyone watching this!?” It deserved better ratings, more attention, and above all, less tempo-wrecking preemptions (dramas over sports!).
It feels like ages ago since the mid-series review (thanks to those same preemptions), but what Secret Boutique lost in momentum it sure made up for with punch. No, not the kind you drink, but the kind that hits you in the stomach when you’re engaged in a really good story that goes exactly where you hoped it would, and takes you along on the journey to get there.
At the core of Secret Boutique is the revenge plot of Jenny Jang/Jang Do-young, fighting to depose the Chairwoman who stole her mother’s place, and regain her rightful seat. But in order for all of the plotting and revenging to go on, we need people. It’s these complex relationships and characters that lend so much of the fun, intrigue — and later, meaning — to the drama.
For much of the action, Jenny dukes it out with Ye-nam, her competition in the Dae-oh household. But at the same time as these battles are going on, Jenny is also waging a secret war with the Chairwoman. She earns the Chairwoman’s trust in double for every whisper of doubt that might occur, all the while plotting for the ultimate mutiny.
This method works pretty well for Jenny for about 20 years. She’s more powerful than the actual heirs of Dae-oh, and even though she’s hiding her identity, she’s been fighting wholeheartedly for Dae-oh Group, because, as she says, “it’s mine.”
It’s clear that things are escalating, though, and piece by piece, the stakes get higher. Jenny Jang pretty much out-maneuvers and wipes the floor with everyone, but it’s when her own “weaknesses” (i.e., the people she cares about) are finally involved that things start to get intense.
Even though we learned early on that Jenny doesn’t form relationships that could become a weaknesses (so says that very person for her, Sun-woo), what Jenny can’t really conquer is her past. Her love of husband Jung-hyuk goes back to her teenage years, as does the love for Sun-woo. Hyun-ji, while playing a crucial and well-developed part in the plot, also has an important role in signifying Jenny’s own past.
Earlier in the drama we saw Sun-woo warn Jenny about seeing herself in Hyun-ji — but it was too late for that. Even the venomous Chairwoman sees the parallel in their stories and personalities, and says she recognizes the same things in Hyun-ji that drove her to Jenny decades before.
While Jenny is busy taking numbers and plotting to regain the life that was stolen from her, she’s also in bondage to the past. In a pivotal scene with Hyun-ji, Jenny admit that she is trapped living in the past, and often, tries to steer Hyun-ji away from the path that she herself followed.
That doesn’t work so well, and the parallel between these two characters, their stories, and behaviors, is just too strong. It wreaks havoc in both their lives — but in the end, it’s also a way for Jenny to find closure.
In one of the most moving scenes of the drama, Hyun-ji is reunited with her mother. Jenny and Sun-woo watch the reunion teary-eyed (and boy I had more than teary eyes myself). It was not only gorgeously authentic, but also so meaningful, not only because of the high price tag, but because Jenny was able to give to another what she was unable to give to herself.
Like the best of revenge stories, Secret Boutique examines the true cost of revenge. The drama digs deep into this question in several ways, but mostly by having Jenny facing herself in the aftermath. Secret Boutique has been strong on moments of contemplation and satisfyingly self-aware characters, and this aspect stayed strong till the end.
During the second half of the drama, we follow Jenny through some dark places, where in her desperation, she loses sight of what’s really important to her. Decisions that were once calculated with precision, devolve into a battle of pure ruthlessness, where inflicting emotional pain is the weapon of choice. “It’s our fight,” says the Chairwoman to Jenny, “but innocent people keep getting hurt.”
What’s so compelling about the maelstrom that develops is that although Jenny can’t escape its inertia, she’s very aware at the same time that things are going too far. She tells Sun-woo that they (she, Jung-hyuk, the Chairwoman) are all like moths to the flame. And boy are they ever.
As anticipated, Secret Boutique really ramps up the stakes in its final few episodes, and it’s appropriately dramatic, upsetting, and amazing. Casualties abound. Some are sacrificial, some are accidental, and some signify the greatest act of defeat.
When the war in the Dae-oh Group finally comes to an end, it’s in a public arena, and there’s something appropriate about this conclusion. It took me a while to realize it’s because this is the first time we’ve really seen outside of the Dae-oh Group’s power circle.
In this sense, there’s something finalizing about a press conference or a hearing. We finally get to see a very insular story exposed to the public, and I think that’s part of why I found the drama’s conclusion so satisfying.
I admire a drama that can be both completely satisfying with the conclusion of its story, and yet pull the rhetoric of the story apart at the same time. In other words, we got the satisfaction of goals achieved and the truth brought to light. The irredeemably evil people were broken, and met their end. The characters who were strong enough to face themselves and their deeds found redemption.
But there’s a wrinkle in this ending, too. It’s the fact that although Jenny finally gained everything she had long fought for, she wound up renouncing it in the end.
“Behind the glamour of the Dae-oh family and International City Project, many precious things were lost,” Jenny tells the press. This statement is a testament to the aftermath of her long battle — the lives that were callously traded, the hearts that were broken, and the lines that were crossed. The power of the story is in the fact that Jenny gives up her reward as a punishment for the road she took to get there.
Secret Boutique is a wildly entertaining and fun story — but it also has soul and substance to keep it going, because the notion of love is at its core. The price for revenge was high, perhaps higher than Jenny realized, and at the close of the drama, love and loss are poignantly tied together.
If there’s a statement the drama leaves us with, I think it’s the message around people. Our heroine went from leveraging the people around her as game pieces, to falling even further and ruthlessly using them to attain her end goal. For the story, and our heroine, to come full circle, Jenny has to experience more loss and heartbreak in order to see how far she’s fallen — and then, to pick herself up.
The drama wraps up with some beautiful scenes of forgiveness, redemption, reunion, you name it. It’s as if the decades-long fever has subsided, and now the people left in the aftermath are able to assess what they’ve done, and how far they’ve come. And for Jenny, that means finally being able to close the door on the past, and to move forward.