Melancholia: Episode 1
Well, I never thought I’d be willingly watching a K-drama about math, much less thoroughly enjoying it, but here we are. Right at the start, Melancholia proves that you don’t have to be an expert at something to see the beauty in it. If the story and the characters can help you feel it, then that’s all you really need.
Note: This is a first episode recap only.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
It’s 2017. We open to an extravagant event being held for Asung High School. The poised director greets the parents and their kids, apologizing for a scandal that recently hit the school. And out in the city, we see both a woman and a young man (separately) racing on their bikes, towards the event.
The woman, who we’ll come to know as heroine JI YOON-SOO (Im Soo-jung), reaches the venue first. She walks in with determination, as the director is talking about accusations of Asung students being given special treatment. The director dismisses the idea, saying that they merely give their students “chances.”
“This is an age,” the director concludes, “where luck beats effort.” At that, Yoon-soo steps forward and calls the director’s words bullshit, shocking everyone in the room. She argues that luck doesn’t control everything, and she hopes that the students can understand that, even if their parents can’t.
The director thinks that’s rich, considering it’s coming from someone currently under investigation. She has security drag Yoon-soo out, where the police are waiting. Only then does the young man finally arrive. It’s our hero, and Asung student, BAEK SEUNG-YOO (Lee Do-hyun).
Seung-yoo pushes past security, to Yoon-soo, desperately crying, “Teacher!” They only have a few seconds of eye contact, with Seung-yoo promising, “I’ll prove it,” before she’s taken away, into a police car. Later, at the station, Yoon-soo is asked if she slept with Seung-yoo, and all she can do is sigh.
We jump back to four months earlier. At the Chungju train station, a much more laidback Seung-yoo witnesses a motorcycle striking a woman and then driving off. As the surrounding people panic, Seung-yoo nonchalantly recites the driver’s licence plate number, as well as the service phone number on their bike.
As Seung-yoo makes his way into Chungju, he notices some kids struggling with a Rubik’s cube. The kids accidentally leave the toy behind and, like a reflex or some kind of pull, he takes it and solves it in seconds. Well, damn, your mind sure works fast.
Meanwhile, back in Seoul, Asung mothers attend a gathering to celebrate the birthday of the director — the same director we met before, NOH JUNG-AH (Jin Kyung). Seung-yoo’s mother shows up too and the hotshot moms basically shame her into sitting at the table for parents of lower-ranking students.
Seung-yoo’s mom is embarrassed, but she sticks it out, wanting to hear Director Noh’s announcement. She’s thrilled to discover that college admissions really care about math scores these days and that, as part of Asung’s “chance” strategy, they hired a new math teacher who trained students for the International Mathematical Olympiad.
Seung-yoo visits a temple, praying for someone that’s passed away, and then takes a few pictures with his camera outside. He later boards the train back home, passing by Yoon-soo. It turns out that Yoon-soo is Asung’s new hire, and she’s on her way to move to Seoul.
To pass the time, Yoon-soo joins a math chat room and gives the students a fun problem: On planet Earth, a young girl rides a train one kilometer south from her home. She sees a bear and chases after it, traveling one kilometer east, then another kilometer north to her home. So, what color was the bear?
The students are confused, but Seung-yoo, who’s in the chat as well, has a moment of realization and comments that the bear is white. Yoon-soo happily states that he’s right, explaining that if plotted on a circle (Earth), the girl’s route takes her to the North Pole, hence the white polar bear.
Yoon-soo gets annoyed when the man sitting next to her keeps falling asleep on her shoulder, so she moves toward the next train car, where Seung-yoo is. Seung-yoo has the one seat in the car, so Yoon-soo stands. The train suddenly jerks from a turn, making Yoon-soo lose her balance. Seung-yoo jumps up and holds out his arm to steady her, and they lock eyes. Ah, yes, this is why I love dramas.
Cut to: Yoon-soo now in Seung-yoo’s seat and Seung-yoo standing. They eventually reach Seoul and go their separate ways, Yoon-soo meeting with her fiance RYU SUNG-JAE (Choi Dae-hoon). Once in their new home, Yoon-soo realizes that she has the wrong bag and that hers must’ve gotten switched with Seung-yoo’s. She takes out his camera and peeks at the pictures, which are of various numbers and patterns — she smiles and wonders if he likes math.
As soon as Seung-yoo gets home, his parents bombard him with questions. He explains that he went to Chungju because “it’s the death anniversary,” and his father chides him for still obsessing over that. His parents sit him down and tell him that it’s time to get serious about his studies. After eight years, he finally has an opportunity.
The next day, as both Yoon-soo and Seung-yoo are heading to Asung, they manage to get a hold of each other’s phone numbers and agree to meet tomorrow to exchange bags. She saves him in her phone as “1729,” the number he’d had on his baseball cap.
Before classes begin, Yoon-soo meets with Director Noh, and immediately, you can tell they have different values. Yoon-soo comes across as very open and idealistic, and though Director Noh doesn’t comment on it, she doesn’t seem to like this.
Yoon-soo pins up several art pieces in her classroom, and her Advanced Math students trickle in, puzzled over what art has to do with math. Among her students is SUNG YE-RIN (Woo Da-bi), daughter of an assemblyman and one of the hotshot moms from earlier.
At Ye-rin’s home, we learn that math actually isn’t Ye-rin’s forte. She requires a tutor, and her parents even mention to each other that she lacks the skills. Still, her father has his connections (i.e. Director Noh), and he’ll make sure his daughter succeeds.
By the following day, many students have submitted answers to Yoon-soo’s entry question for the math club. However, Yoon-soo reveals, no one in her class, or in the entire sophomore class, has gotten the right answer. She encourages them to widen their perspectives a bit.
After class, the students notice that someone posted their answer on the bulletin board in the hall. The paper simply states, “Premise error.” The kids think it’s a joke, but an impressed Yoon-soo tells them that it’s actually the correct answer. She asks who posted it, but no one speaks up.
Of course, once Director Noh hears about this situation, she pulls Yoon-soo aside to say that pointless trick questions don’t suit Asung. “The students are already good at guessing the answers to routine questions,” Yoon-soo tells her. “I want them to occasionally experience faulty or unanswerable questions.”
Elsewhere, Ye-rin confronts Seung-yoo, asking if he’s the one who wrote the correct answer. He initially dismisses her, but then she shows him a picture of a note left on his submission. The note accuses him of bluffing and challenges him to show proof of his answer. (Yoon-soo left this, hoping it would provoke him.)
Seung-yoo’s usual stoic expression flashes to angry disbelief. He marches over to the bulletin board, to his submission, and furiously writes out the equation. We see Yoon-soo approaching the bulletin board, but by the time she gets there, Seung-yoo is gone. Instead, she sees Ye-rin there, staring at the equation.
Ye-rin starts to walk away, but she stops dead in her tracks when Yoon-soo says, “You did well.” Assuming Ye-rin wrote the answer, Yoon-soo confirms that it’s exactly right. Her voice small, Ye-rin takes the credit and lies that she didn’t speak up before because she felt wrong calling out an error.
Sometime later, Yoon-soo and Seung-yoo meet up as planned. She notes that he’s wearing the number 1729 again, which is the Hardy-Ramanujan Number, this time on his sweatshirt. She asks if he happens to like math, and he firmly denies this (even though it’s so obvious he does).
The two switch bags and are about to part, when it starts to rain. Seung-yoo notices that Yoon-soo doesn’t have an umbrella, so he gives her his, surprising her. Without another word, he puts his hood over his head and leaves. Ya know, for someone who doesn’t seem to care about anything, he can be effortlessly sweet.
That night, Yoon-soo’s fiance has a meeting with Ye-rin’s dad, as they’re both a part of the Education Committee. Ye-rin’s dad is currently setting up for the upcoming Olympiad, surely having his daughter in mind.
The next morning, Director Noh calls in Ye-rin, asking if she indeed submitted the right answer to Yoon-soo’s question. “It has to be you,” Director Noh tells her, as if she doesn’t have a choice. She tells her to look confident and to not make it obvious that she’s receiving special treatment when her skills are lacking. Um, ouch.
Ye-rin confronts Seung-yoo again, demanding to know what his deal is — she thought he’d lost his math skills years ago. He assures her that he’s not trying to compete against her, which makes her loosen up a bit. Even so, she says, why did he solve the problem? After a beat of silence, Seung-yoo replies, “I don’t know either.”
Well, if he’s not trying to compete against her, she asks that he show her how he solved the problem. He starts to oblige, but she keeps attacking him with more questions: What happened when he was at MIT? Why did he act dumb when he returned to Korea?
He sighs, saying he’s curious too, about how she ended up this way. And she snaps that she had to, as she was always compared to him when they were kids. She says it’s his fault for being special. At the word “special,” he’s hit with the memory of someone calling him that when he was younger.
Suddenly overwhelmed, Seung-yoo bolts out of there without finishing the equation. Outside, he’s hyperventilating, caught in a panic attack, and it takes him a while to calm himself down.
Unfortunately for Ye-rin, she still has no idea how to solve Yoon-soo’s problem. So when it’s time for class and Yoon-soo asks her to show her classmates the equation, she’s pretty much sweating bullets.
Ye-rin attempts to write what she remembers, but right away, Yoon-soo knows something’s wrong. But to save Ye-rin from embarrassment, Yoon-soo comments that Ye-rin must’ve forgotten.
After class, Ye-rin apologizes to Yoon-soo for lying. She says that she did so because she’d never had anyone tell her she did well, only that she got the answer wrong. She scurries out, leaving Yoon-soo to wonder who her mystery student is.
During break time, Yoon-soo runs into some boys practicing for dance club in the hall. The boys show her an older practice video, and she notices something in the background — her mystery student at the bulletin board. Wearing a very familiar sweatshirt that reads “1729.” Bingo!
Seung-yoo rests on a bench, dreaming of another memory. This time, we see young Seung-yoo walking towards an open door, papers strewn around the room and flying into the storm outside. He hears someone calling his name and startles awake, Yoon-soo hovering over him. With a huge smile, she says, “I found you.”
Again, I have to commend this show for somehow making math seem so alluring. It feels strange even describing math as such, since it was pretty much the bane of my existence in high school. (No exaggeration there — I have some legit bad memories of crying over tests.) But I don’t know… There’s an unexpected charm to these characters and the way math affects how they view the world. Im Soo-jung, in particular, does a fantastic job in portraying Yoon-soo’s indescribable love for the topic. She already comes across as warm and bright, but when she’s teaching her students or examining an equation, she really lights up. I was feeling little tugs at my heart just watching her smile at Seung-yoo’s answer sheet.
Lee Do-hyun as Seung-yoo is interesting in a very different way. I adore Lee Do-hyun in roles that are lively and flirty (see: Eighteen Again and Youth of May), but I’m liking his performance here as well. I think that there’s a certain kind of emptiness to Seung-yoo that could be difficult to portray, and he nails it. It’s an emptiness that tells me there was a passion there at some point and it was taken away. And I’m dying to know how that happened. In one scene, when we saw his home, I noticed that it panned to multiple trophies and awards with the name “Baek Min-jae.” So unless Seung-yoo has an equally smart brother we don’t know about, he must’ve changed his name when he returned to Korea. But, why? I’m so curious!
What’s sad is that Seung-yoo is deliberately pushing his passion down anytime it starts to bubble up again. He’s doing this, yet there are times when he can’t help himself. Whether he’s solving a Rubik’s cube or proving a math problem, he lights up like a fire. So, he can deny it all he wants, but he can’t hide the fact that he still loves math. Especially from Yoon-soo. With only a few interactions, I already see a lot of potential in their dynamic. I think Yoon-soo’s interest in math is very similar to Seung-yoo’s, so they’re sure to build a strong connection. Perhaps she could be the one to redefine the word “special” for him.
When you think about it, that one word can be damaging in a number of ways. For Seung-yoo, the word is a title he had to carry as a child. Whatever meaning it had for him and his family back then, it’s clearly haunting him now. But then for Ye-rin, the word is a title she could never reach. It’s totally unfair of her to blame Seung-yoo for being “special,” but at the same time, I get where her anger and frustration is coming from. These kids live in a society where their studying skills have to be perfect and that’s just not feasible. Ye-rin even lied in order to feel some kind of achievement, which again, made me simultaneously dislike her and empathize with her.
We’ve seen what Ye-rin would do to gain success, and we’ll probably see a lot worse from her and from the Asung school board. I have a feeling that someone, most likely Director Noh, will find Yoon-soo and Seung-yoo as a threat, especially as Yoon-soo re-sparks that fire in Seung-yoo. I highly doubt that the couple will be romantically entangled (at least in the 2017 timeline), so the scandal mentioned in the opening sequence had to have been fabricated to kill the competition. If anything, Seung-yoo may develop feelings for Yoon-soo, which will only make his drive to help her stronger. If that’s the case, I can’t wait. Two genuinely good people against the world + innocent Lee Do-hyun puppy love = one happy fangirl.