Cleaning Up: Episode 1 (First Impressions)
Based on the UK television show of the same name, JTBC’s Cleaning Up tells the story of three cleaning ladies who decide to take advantage of insider trading intel to earn some much-needed cash. The first episode is spent setting the scene and introducing our trio of office cleaners, one of whom is particularly desperate to change her financial situation.
Editor’s note: If there is sufficient interest, drama coverage will continue with weekly Drama Hangouts.
EPISODE 1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
First off, I haven’t seen the original British version, so I didn’t go into this drama with much knowledge. From the premise and the teasers, I expected something cheeky with an edge, and that’s pretty much what I got. While the tone feels playful, it’s not exactly a lighthearted drama. Like many a drama these days, class inequality is a major theme with money and the lack of it driving questionable decisions for both the haves and the have-nots.
Our main protagonist is UH YONG-MI (Yeom Jung-ah), an exhausted mom working two jobs and barely making ends meet. Her primary job is as a cleaner for the brokerage firm Vested (across the street from
WeWork wowork) where she and the other cleaners are practically invisible to the financial advisors and other white-collar employees working to make the rich richer.
Yong-mi struggles to juggle her jobs and single motherhood, while also dodging the loan shark who comes knocking at her door with a bat. While Yong-mi is fairly gloomy and bitter (for perhaps understandable reasons), her coworker and friend AHN IN-KYUNG (Jeon So-min) is quite the opposite. In-kyung is optimistically saving up to buy a coffee truck so she can start her own traveling business. They make an interesting pair, the world-weary Yong-mi and the innocent-seeming In-kyung.
We only get a brief introduction this episode to the third member of our promised trio MAENG SOO-JA (Kim Jae-hwa), another cleaner at Vested. Most of the cleaners seem to resent her for always sucking up to their manager, but Yong-mi understands it’s all about survival. And Soo-ja’s strategy is effective – their manager is the type who enjoys even the most obvious flattery.
It’s easy to see why Soo-ja curries favor where she can; when the cleaning ladies aren’t being ignored, they’re being treated like personal maids. One of the financial managers orders In-kyung to clean the cup stains off his desk since he apparently doesn’t know how to use either a coaster or a napkin.
The cleaning crew often works after-hours, something the higher-up employees don’t always consider. While Yong-mi is taking a break nearby, DIRECTOR YOON (Song Jae-hee) talks to someone on the phone about recent investigations and worries about getting caught. (Maybe don’t talk about your criminal activities in the workplace, then.) His anxiety makes it seem like he may not be doing this of his own accord, but maybe he’s just jumpy.
Director Yoon very helpfully talks about an upcoming merger and not only writes down but verbally repeats the name of the company everyone is supposed to invest 50 million won in. Yong-mi takes that all in, and, although she may not know exactly what it means, she knows it’s shady and important.
But for the moment, Yong-mi has more pressing matters. She meets up with her ex-husband JIN SUNG-WOO (Kim Tae-woo) to demand his late child support payments. Their relationship is contentious, and there’s obviously resentment on both sides. They may have divorced over Sung-woo’s infidelity, but that wasn’t their only problem.
Sung-woo pointedly asks if she’s resolved her gambling debt, assuming it’s why she came all the way to his work to demand the money. Ah, so that explains the loan shark. Sung-woo even tells her he’ll take the kids, questioning her fitness as a mother. As if things weren’t bad enough, now Yong-mi’s landlord is threatening to kick her out thanks to the chaos of bat-wielding loan sharks and noisy, unsupervised children.
That night, Yong-mi is shocked to hear a report about a massive jump in stock price for Worktech Electronics – the very company she heard Director Yoon mention – after an announced merger. At work, Yong-mi overhears a couple of financial employees in the bathroom talking about insider trading, how hard it is to prove and how rich it can make you.
Even when a noise alerts them to Yong-mi’s presence, they keep talking since one of the women scoffs that it’s not like Yong-mi would understand them anyway. Wow. Yong-mi takes it upon herself to learn everything she can about insider trading, reading books and watching videos. She takes to eavesdropping at work and even snooping through documents on desks to discover trade secrets.
It’s no surprise given Yong-mi’s financial desperation that she sees a massive opportunity despite the risks. She also understands that her uniform gives her cover, making it easy to go unnoticed and unsuspected. Yong-mi tries to bring In-kyung in, but In-kyung is much too honest to be tempted into doing something illegal for cash.
Yong-mi gets another visit from the loan shark, this time at her part-time job. He gives her ten days to come up with the money, so she then tries to get her brother Yong-kyu to loan her money. From his reaction, this isn’t the first time. Yong-mi tries to guilt him into it by claiming it’s his insistence on studying abroad that meant she couldn’t go to college and live a better life, but he’s unmoved.
Yong-kyu calls Yong-mi out on her gambling debt, unwilling to give her money after she squandered her own away. Things get tense, so their mom pretends to faint to stop their fighting. Ha. When Yong-mi leaves, she vandalizes her brother’s expensive car in retaliation for his refusal, which seems like a particularly bad move when you’re already in debt. Plus, it’s rude.
Yong-mi moves on to her next target: In-kyung, who proves to be much more sympathetic. As they stand on a bridge, Yong-mi shares that she almost committed suicide there twice, once when her kids were little and again after her ex-husband cheated. But Yong-mi couldn’t go through with it and leave her kids alone. In-kyung, being way too nice, decides to help Yong-mi get started with her criminal enterprise.
Their first step is to bug the office, so In-kyung orders some cheap listening devices online … that don’t work. Luckily for them, Yong-mi has just started renting out her attic room to LEE DOO-YOUNG (Na In-woo), a family friend and PhD student. Despite the sketchy situation, sweet and timid Doo-young helps repair their cheap bug and buys Yong-mi’s explanation that it’s to catch In-kyung’s cheating boyfriend.
Armed with their now functioning listening device, Yong-mi and In-kyung set their plan in motion. In-kyung stands lookout while Yong-mi slips into Director Yoon’s office to plant the bug. Of course, their manager spots In-kyung in the hallway and leads her away, leaving Yong-mi on her own. Right as Yong-mi manages to open the ceiling vent, the office door opens. In walks Soo-ja, catching Yong-mi red-handed as the episode ends.
I guess that answers how Soo-ja gets involved in this scheme. Based on the very little of her we’ve seen so far, she seems like the type to cash in on an opportunity. Now the question is whether she’ll want in on the action right away or will use it as leverage for something else.
With the setup out of the way, I’m looking forward to seeing these ladies get started for real. For once, they’re lucky that people barely notice cleaners since that means they don’t have to be good at sneaking around. Yong-mi and In-kyung clearly have no idea what they’re doing, and I for one am ready for some faux spy hijinks.