It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Episode 1
After months and months of waiting on my part, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay finally premiered and, frankly, knocked my socks off. It’s a very pretty drama, but the true beauty lies in the dark whimsy sprinkled all throughout, showing the world of mental illness in all its glory. If the drama keeps it up, we could be in for something real special.
EPISODE 1: “The boy who fed on nightmares”
We start with a beautiful stop-motion animation, about a young girl who lived all by herself in a castle. One day, she decided to go into town to find herself a friend. She offered the others what she thought were nice gifts, but they were horrified to see she held two dead birds.
“They called her a monster who brings along the shadow of death,” the narrator says. The girl was angry with every living thing and wandered off to a lake, where she reeled in fish and stomped them to death. On her third try, she reeled in a young boy, unexpectedly saving him from drowning.
Since then, the dark shadow stopped following the girl and the boy followed instead. Later, the girl asked if he would always stay by her side, and he replied that of course he would. But then she turned to him and ripped a butterfly apart. “Even after you see this?” she asked, her eyes glowing menacingly.
Scared, the boy ran away, the hook that connected him to the girl detaching. That’s when the shadow returned and whispered that no one could ever stay by her side because she was a monster. We transition to a real life castle, to the real life girl (Seo Ye-ji), who replies, “Yes, Mother.”
Modern-day Korea. In a university, a man is overwhelmed by the sounds of the heavy machinery around him and has an episode. No one gets hurt, but the professor tells the man’s guardian that they can’t keep risking others’ safety and that the man should be in a special needs school.
The guardian, and younger brother, MOON KANG-TAE (Kim Soo-hyun) listens with an exhausted expression, eventually looking up to see his autistic brother MOON SANG-TAE (Oh Jung-se) watching him through the window. “He’s angry,” Sang-tae notes to himself.
As Kang-tae cleans out Sang-tae’s locker, it does appear that he’s angry. Sang-tae braces himself, but Kang-tae merely kneels down and smiles, asking if he’s hungry. The brothers leave the school, with Sang-tae offering to pay for dinner since he’s the hyung. Aww, they’re so sweet.
The next day, we meet famed children’s author GO MOON-YOUNG (again, Seo Ye-ji) as she’s eating in a restaurant alone. A mother and daughter approach her, the little girl saying she’s a huge fan. Though Moon-young seems uninterested, she agrees to give her an autograph.
The girl calls Moon-young a princess because she’s pretty, and Moon-young pauses before asking if they’d like a photo as well. While the mom stands back to take their picture, Moon-young brings the girl in close and quietly says, “You’re not my fan, are you? In all my fairy tales, the witch is always the one that’s pretty.”
With a devious smile, Moon-young says that if the girl wants to be pretty, she should tell her mom that she wants to grow up to be a pretty witch. The girl starts crying and jumps off Moon-young’s lap, the mom chasing after her.
Moon-young’s editor and boss LEE SANG-IN (Kim Joo-hun) saunters in, telling her to stop by the beauty salon. He whines that she can’t do a reading at the children’s ward with all-black attire — she looks like something out of The Addams Family.
Moon-young shuts him up by running her knife along her plate, like nails on a chalkboard. She tells him that she likes this restaurant not because of the food but because of the knives. She cuts the tip of her finger and, amazed with the knife’s sharpness, puts it in her purse.
At the OK Psychiatric Hospital, Kang-tae gets ready for work (cue mandatory post-army shirtless scene), and we see multiple scars all over his body.
Once on duty, he’s called into the lounge and finds a female patient on the floor stuffing her face with food. The patient calls Kang-tae “Honey,” saying he always told her she was pretty when she ate.
To calm her down, he explains that he meant she was pretty even when she ate. She swoons and hugs him, only to mutter that he shouldn’t have cheated on her. She sticks her finger down her throat, and OMG the puking-esque imagery that follows.
Later, a new patient comes in — a man with anxiety disorder who tried to kill himself and his daughter. The daughter Go-eun had to be separated from her dad Mr. Kim to be treated for PTSD.
Meanwhile, Moon-young is on her way to the hospital for her event, Sang-in and art director YOO SEUNG-JAE (Park Jin-ju) in tow. Sang-in gets a call from OK Hospital, and to his horror, Seung-jae sees and announces the caller ID.
Calling is nurse NAM JOO-RI (Park Kyu-young), waiting for the guardian of a patient named Go Dae-hwan to sign for his surgery. She tells Sang-in that they can’t keep avoiding their calls; it’s the same thing as killing the patient.
From the backseat, Moon-young coldly states, “He’s dead to me. Why do you keep trying to bring him back to life? Are you Jesus?” Addressing Joo-ri informally, Moon-young tells her to come in person if she wants her signature. Frustrated, Joo-ri practically slams the phone down and returns to her station.
Joo-ri can’t believe what Moon-young is demanding, but her superior NURSE PARK (Jang Young-nam) tells her to do the professional thing and just get the signature.
Joo-ri visits patient Go Dae-hwan, who has severe dementia. Joo-ri mentions that his daughter may not be able to visit, and Dae-hwan goes into a panic. He surprises Joo-ri by grabbing her arm and saying his daughter can’t come. He sees flashes of Moon-young, that cold look on her face, and cries, “If she comes, I’ll die.”
On break, Kang-tae chats with a newbie caretaker, who wants to know the real reason why he moves hospitals every year. Is it because he flirts with the female nurses and patients? Kang-tae puts a hand on his shoulder and answers, “Male.” The guy awkwardly laughs while Kang-tae coolly sips his coffee.
Kang-tae then calls his brother, smiling when he hears that Sang-tae is coloring in one of Go Moon-young’s books again. He mentions that Moon-young is visiting the hospital, and Sang-tae immediately stops what he’s doing. Wanting to meet his favorite writer, Sang-tae scrambles around the apartment, rambling that he’s on his way.
Kang-tae can hear Sang-tae growing agitated, and Sang-tae isn’t listening to reason, so Kang-tae has to shout “Moon Sang-tae!” This shocks Sang-tae into silence.
Kang-tae tells his brother to take deep breaths and then explains that he wouldn’t make it in time for the event anyway. Kang-tae does promise to get him Moon-young’s autograph, which satisfies him.
While Moon-young’s people are setting up her event in the auditorium, Moon-young is lounging outside smoking. Passing by, Kang-tae notices her and asks that she put her cigarette out. She argues that she just lit it, and when he persists, she stands to look him in the eye.
Cherry blossoms start blowing in the wind, all around them, and Moon-young takes in the atmosphere, asking, “Do you believe in destiny?” Without answering her question, Kang-tae tries to take the cigarette from her, and she pulls it out of reach. Why is this so badass to me?
Moon-young dumps the last of her cigarette into Kang-tae’s coffee cup and says that destiny may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Kang-tae watches her walk away, angrily crushing his cup in his fist.
Cut to: Moon-young screaming into her microphone on stage, surprising her audience. She clears her throat and begins reading from her book The Boy Who Fed On Nightmares. In it, A boy is plagued by nightmares of his past, and he ventures out to a witch, desperate to make the horrible memories disappear.
Just outside the auditorium, patient Mr. Kim is running about looking for his daughter while the caretakers are running about looking for him. Kang-tae asks his co-worker what happened, and the guy admits that he let Mr. Kim out of his restraints because he said he felt uncomfortable. What?? Really, dude?
Mr. Kim heads into the auditorium, checking every little girl in the audience, when the hospital workers come in to announce an emergency. As everyone evacuates, Mr. Kim finally finds Go-eun and drags her backstage. Moon-young notices this but doesn’t say anything, instead yelling at the workers for interrupting her show.
Moon-young then sneaks off backstage, watching as Mr. Kim tells the scared Go-eun that they need to run away. Mr. Kim says that kids can’t survive on their own, so they should just die together, and Moon-young cuts in that that’s total bullshit.
“You’re the first worthless human being I’ve encountered in a long time,” she continues. She tells him to die alone rather than drag his daughter with him. At that, Mr. Kim lunges at her, but she knocks him down with her purse. The knife from earlier falls out and she crushes his hand with her heel before he can reach for it.
Now boiling with anger, Mr. Kim overpowers Moon-young and starts to strangle her. At first, she’s smiling with amusement, but then she starts to see Mr. Kim as her father Dae-hwan. A flashback shows us that her dad tried to strangle her when she was young, reassuring her “it’ll all be over soon.”
All of a sudden, Kang-tae bursts in and pulls Mr. Kim off of her. The men have a tussle, crashing into things, with Moon-young trying to get ahold of herself. Just when Kang-tae has a hold on Mr. Kim, he sees Moon-young coming at Mr. Kim with the knife. Mr. Kim flinches and we see droplets of blood hit the floor.
Holy crap… Kang-tae stopped Moon-young’s knife by grabbing the blade. They stare at each other, neither showing much emotion, until she finally says, “So it wasn’t destiny after all.”
Shaking, Mr. Kim calls Moon-young crazy and runs out, straight into the hospital workers’ hands. Kang-tae takes the knife away, and Moon-young watches him try to wrap up his wound. She nonchalantly states that he overreacted; she only meant to give Mr. Kim a small cut. She takes the handkerchief out of his hand and wraps his wound for him.
As she does, she tells him, “In this world, there are people who deserve to die. But some thoughtful freaks kill them for us in secret. That’s why clueless civilians can sleep peacefully at night, completely unaware of it. Which one do you think I am?” After a moment, he says she’s a clueless freak, making her chuckle.
Afterwards, Kang-tae is called into his boss’s office and is told they need to let someone go in order to make this accident go away. And since Kang-tae moves hospitals every year, Mr. Boss suggests he just quit a few months early. With that, poor Kang-tae hands in his badge.
Kang-tae sulks on the street, until a motorcycle stops in front of him. The driver (not so coolly) removes his helmet to reveal Kang-tae’s buddy JO JAE-SOO (Kang Ki-doong). Jae-soo gives Kang-tae a ride to help him feel better, but halfway through, the bike dies on them and they have to push it the rest of the way. And, HA, they pass a poster for the actual drama.
At Moon-young’s hotel, Moon-young is showering while Sang-in worries over Kang-tae possibly suing them for his injury. He gets another call from Joo-ri and whispers the room number before sneaking out. So when Joo-ri arrives at the door, it’s just her and a surprised Moon-young. And by the way they’re looking at each other, I’m guessing these ladies have a past.
It turns out these two went to school together twenty years ago (before Moon-young was transferred elsewhere). Joo-ri tries to get right to business, asking for the signature, and Moon-young wonders why she drove three hours just to get this done. Moon-young smiles and says that she’s an orphan.
Joo-ri points out that Moon-young’s mother is still alive, but Moon-young interrupts with, “I registered her death a long time ago.” She finds it interesting that her dad is alive physically but dead in soul and that her mom is the exact opposite.
With that wicked grin, Moon-young says she’ll sign the forms if Joo-ri agrees to switch parents. To Joo-ri’s blank expression, Moon-young notes that she still doesn’t get her jokes. So, in the end, Joo-ri gets the signature but is emotionally drained by the time she leaves the hotel.
Kang-tae tells Jae-soo all about today’s events on the way home, and Jae-soo calls Moon-young insane. “She’s not insane,” Kang-tae says. “She was just born that way.” Then Kang-tae remembers — he never got Moon-young’s autograph! The guys look over Moon-young’s signature online and do their best to forge it.
Unfortunately for them, Sang-tae can tell right away that it’s a fake. Feeling betrayed, he escapes into his little zip-in closest. As the guys try to coax him out, Kang-tae gets a series of texts from Sang-in begging him to come by the publishing house and hear him out.
On the news, we learn that Mr. Kim took his own life in solitary confinement. And meanwhile, Moon-young is lying in bed and thinking about Kang-tae and how pretty his eyes are. Kang-tae is thinking about her too, so much so that he decides to pull out Moon-young’s book and give it a read.
“Years went by, and the boy became an adult. He no longer had nightmares, but for some reason, he was not happy at all. One night, a blood moon filled the night sky, and the witch finally showed up again to take what he had promised in return for granting his wish. And he shouted at her with so much resentment, ‘All my bad memories are gone. But why can’t I become happy?’ Then the witch took his soul as they had promised and told him this: ‘Hurtful, painful memories… Only those with such memories buried in their hearts can become stronger, more passionate, and emotionally flexible. And only those can attain happiness.’”
Moon-young stares at an old photo of her father, unfolding it to reveal her mother right next to him. At the hospital, little Go-eun takes out her copy of Moon-young’s book and reads the autograph Moon-young left after the accident: “Don’t forget today.”
A nurse checks in on Go-eun, and Go-eun starts crying about her dad. The nurse assumes she’s scared Dad will show up again, but that’s not why she’s upset. “My dad is not a bad person… So please don’t let the police take him.” Aughh…
Kang-tae finishes the last page of Moon-young’s book, with the witch reminding the boy to never forget. Otherwise, he’ll forever be a kid whose soul never grows. Later, in the middle of the night, Sang-tae has a recurring nightmare about butterflies. Sighing, Kang-tae guesses it’s about time they move again.
The next day, Kang-tae stands outside SangSangESang Publishers, taking a deep breath before going in. Little does he know, Moon-young is on her way in as well. All the employees hear of her entrance and hurry to clear their desks of any sharp objects.
But when Moon-young struts through the office, she manages to find one sharp letter opener on someone’s desk. She takes it and heads to the conference room, stopping short when she sees Kang-tae inside reading one of her books. She takes a moment to admire him and smiles.
She approaches him and cuts to the chase, saying she wouldn’t have ever thought he was the type of man to accept a bribe. He tells her that money doesn’t work on him, so she asks what does work — sex? If not that, why is he here?
“I was hoping,” he says, taking a step closer, “I could see you again.” She looks genuinely surprised as he continues that he wanted to see her eyes to confirm something. Her eyes remind him of someone he used to know, someone whose eyes had no warmth.
We see flashes of the past, resembling the opening animation: a boy falling through ice and nearly drowning, a boy giving a girl flowers and watching her stomp on them.
“Were you scared of that woman?” Moon-young asks. Kang-tae doesn’t bat an eye when he responds, “I liked her.” And in flashbacks, the young Moon-young gazes out her balcony while the young Kang-tae smiles up at her from below.
You know how you know a drama’s premiere is good? Like, really, really good? When you so badly want to say you love it but you’re afraid you might jinx it. That pretty much sums up how It’s Okay to Not Be Okay made me feel. I’ve had strong feelings for premieres before, and I’ve been scared to be hopeful before, but this is different. With the themes the drama’s introduced and promised to tackle, I don’t want it to disappoint. Mental health awareness is very important to me, and it physically hurts me to see it poorly portrayed in media. I think certain dramas have done a good job of including these themes, like in Flower Boy Next Door, or centering around them completely, like in It’s Okay, It’s Love, but I’ve never seen one brave enough to take that deep dive. To show mental illness for what it is, in all its colors, bright and dark.
Maybe It’s Okay won’t be the drama to take that dive, but it sure would be nice. I already like how brave it’s being with its heroine in Moon-young. She’s so unabashedly herself and I can’t imagine what it took for her to get to that point of confidence. I’m not sure if we’re eventually going into specifics in the drama world, but the character of Moon-young has been described as having antisocial personality disorder — a mental condition in which someone may have no real grasp to what’s right and wrong. There’s obviously much more to it than that, and goshdarnit, I can’t help but be excited to see how far the drama is willing to go. (I know I said I didn’t want to be over-optimistic, but yeah, I’m over-optimistic.) Let’s talk about the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths; let’s talk about whether a monster is made or born; let’s talk about whether there are bad people or just people who make bad decisions!
Well, look at me, getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into the actual drama. Seo Ye-ji is amazing as Moon-young, making her cool and stoic while still giving her charm. In so many cases, an actor can make the stoic type seem bored or lifeless, whereas here, there’s so much to this character without her even having to speak. It was so great to open with the Coraline-like animation, as it really set the tone. I think Moon-young chose the perfect career path, because this dark fairy tale innocence within her storybooks suits her and her life story beautifully. It almost seems weird for her to be so popular with children when her content is so dark, but that’s what fairy tales are at their core. And I think a lot of children, and just people in general, are drawn to darkness.
Moon-young’s writing is clearly her way of dealing with her past, and judging from the snippets we got, those memories are awfully traumatizing. I was surprised to hear the incredible maturity in her book, preaching that ridding oneself of bad memories wasn’t the answer to one’s happiness. She literally had to fight for her life, from her own father, and she didn’t let that break her. While it is impressive, it’s also worrying. She’s forcing herself to remember these things, as her mother ordered, and it seems to be causing more resentment than peace. There is no cure for her condition, for any mental illness, and I’m hoping the drama doesn’t try to find one. Falling in love with Mr. Angel-face Kim Soo-hyun should not be a treatment, but a chance to find gradual healing and support with someone who understands.
Moving on to Kang-tae, I think he truly does understand. There’s something about the way he treats his hyung and his patients that just says I don’t understand you and I understand that I probably never will. Having a brother diagnosed with autism, I’m sure he had some major growing up to do at a young age. He has to feel some kind of bitterness — at his brother, his parents, the world — but I think he genuinely has too much love in his heart to let that poison him. It’s people like him who see the person behind the mental illness, who can take the hardships and still say “It’s okay.” I don’t know what happened with him and Moon-young in the past or what’s going to happen in the future, but I’m already rooting for them to find that happiness Moon-young was writing about.
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