Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me: Episodes 1-3 (First Impressions)
Our latest bite-sized drama had me fooled into thinking it was just another quirky rom-com about a young woman searching for love in all the wrong places. But underneath the clichés and the magical realism is a surprisingly astute message about the follies of one-sided crushes and chasing after the feeling of being in love instead of finding someone to love.
Editor’s note: [UPDATE] Drama coverage will continue with weecaps.
EPISODES 1-3 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
When I first read the synopsis for Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me, my first thought was: What is this? Death Note but with romance and song lyrics instead of murder? I had the thought in jest, but some unexpected dark comedy featured in the opening moments did have me wondering if our latest dramavella — that’s what I’m calling this not-quite-a-web-drama drama — is more like Death Note than I initially suspected.
We open to our heroine SEO HEE-SOO (Han Ji-hyo) going on a series of romantic dates with the same man — later identified as KIM GANG-WOOK (Sohn Hyun-woo), her current crush. Through a voiceover, Hee-soo ponders the perfect location for a love confession, and we move through three different scenarios: playing around in an empty train car during the first snow, watching the sunset from a rooftop, and putting a pillow over her lover’s face like she’s about to smother him…
Yeah, that last one gave me a moment of hesitation, too, but it eventually turned into some flirtatious (fully clothed) mattress wrestling.
As these dates play out on screen, they sync up — think Everything, Everywhere, All At Once if you’ve seen it — and as Hee-soo comes to the conclusion that all places and moments are great for a love confession, she and Gang-wook admit their feelings for one another and exchange a kiss in all three situations. Dawww, how romantic. Until…
All three versions of Gang-wook start coughing up blood. He collapses and seemingly dies as Hee-soo tries to perform chest compressions on his lifeless body.
Well, that certainly wasn’t the tone I envisioned this drama having, but it’s all good in the neighborhood, folks. Our leading lady doesn’t have an overly infectious case of the cooties. Nah, she’s just got an overly active imagination, and — as we see when she arrives at school the next day — the real Gang-wook is still alive and well.
Hee-soo — in a move that is the very definition of cringe but totally something I would have done as a teenager — tries to manufacture a situation that would prompt Gang-wook to initiate a conversation with her, but he doesn’t fall for the bait. Because why would he? He’s the cool sunbae type, and he doesn’t even know her name. Ooof! That had to sting.
In class we meet JUNG SHI-HO (NCT’s Doyoung), Hee-soo’s long-time best friend. He’s the kind of guy who used to be a wimp but then became a total hottie after he went through puberty. He definitely has a not-so-secret crush on Hee-soo, but she has him firmly packaged away in the dreaded friendzone… for now. I say “for now” because I’m 99.99% positive that Shi-ho is Hee-soo’s endgame. Everything about this drama screams YA-novel-turned-movie-about-girl-falling-for-the-guy-who-has-been-there-all-along. But first, she has to date some losers. *cough* Gang-wook *cough*.
Shi-ho goes through the motions of being the subtly jealous best guy-friend, which helps give us the low-down on Gang-wook. Turns out Mr. Perfect Sunbae is a bit dumb and also a klutz. According to Hee-soo, he’s “gap moe” — he acts differently than you would expect from his appearance, but that’s part of his charm (and Hee-soo adds that it humanizes his perfection lol).
Hee-soo and Gang-wook are a part of the same music and lyrics club, and during the start of the semester party, the club members go around reading lyrics that they have composed. First up is the new freshman beauty KANG JOO-YEON, and her lyrics are praised by everyone. Hee-soo is the unfortunate soul who has to follow Joo-yeon’s stellar performance, and considering Shi-ho keeps dragging her out for food when she’s supposed to be writing, it’s unsurprising that Hee-soo’s latest composition is entitled, “Have You Eaten?”
As you can imagine, it doesn’t go over well with the snooty club members, but several drinks later Gang-wook calls her song cute. Riding high on his praise and too much liquid courage, Hee-soo follows him out of the restaurant with the intention of confessing her feelings.
Unfortunately, she stumbles upon what appears to be his secret rendezvous with Joo-yeon, who proceeds to insult Hee-soo in an absurdly petty manner. Oh, you write your lyrics in a notebook instead of on your cell phone? That’s sooooo cute! But, underneath all the backdoor insults, Joo-yeon did have some solid (albeit unsolicited) constructive criticism: next time, write from the heart.
Crushed, Hee-soo returns to the restaurant, where she drinks and cries on Shi-ho’s shoulder. At some point, he sends her off in a taxi, and she wakes up on her father’s couch, something she isn’t pleased about now that she’s sober. As Hee-soo wanders around the house, we get the sense that her relationship with her father is strained and has, perhaps, been that way since her mother passed away.
She wanders into her father’s office, where she has an old memory of him crying over a photo album, and this is where things get magical. A journal starts doing a little jig on the bookshelf then throws itself on the floor to get Hee-soo’s attention. She picks it up, and as she reads her name on the cover page, the other books begin to tremble on the shelves like an earthquake is rolling through. Suddenly, they all fly at her face.
She wakes up in her own bed and assumes the incident was all another one of her wacky dreams, except… Shi-ho confirms he dropped her off at her father’s house, and the mysterious journal is on her desk. Conveniently, she’s used up all the pages of her old journal, so she cracks open the new one.
Cue dramatic lighting and music, and I can’t help but giggle at Hee-soo’s very appropriate WTF expression as a mysterious voice calls from the journal and invites her to write inside of it. It promises to give her everything she desires. Hmmmm… what could go wrong?
Hee-soo pours her heart into writing a new set of lyrics. At first, nothing seemingly happens, but then her club hosts a concert where Gang-wook performs a song called, “Would You Please Confess to Me.” Those are Hee-soo’s song lyrics he’s singing! After Gang-wook finishes, he walks out into the audience, and to everyone’s astonishment, he confesses his love to a very confused Hee-soo.
Once she realizes that the situation is not a dream, she and Gang-wook begin dating, and we get to suffer through a long montage of them doing couple activities together. Gang-wook is as stiff and boring as a 40-year-old accountant, and their time together reminds me of staged wedding photography — the kind where the photographer asks everyone to laugh and act like they’re all having a good time, but you can low-key tell that all the bridesmaids are hungry and daydreaming about taking their heels off and hitting the open bar.
And sure enough, not everything is peachy in paradise. Hee-soo starts to suspect that something is up when she overhears members of her club gossiping that they were positive Gang-wook was going to confess to Joo-yeon the night of the concert. She eventually figures out that her journal has magical powers and forcefully changed Gang-wook’s heart so that he fell in love with her instead.
Hee-soo wavers briefly, feeling insecure, but she chooses to selfishly plow ahead with the relationship. I hate to use the term “daddy issues,” but all signs point to her father being emotionally distant. So she latches onto Gang-wook because he seemingly gives her the love and affection she never had.
Shi-ho senses her wavering and tries to point out to her that their relationship is extremely unbalanced — she’s out here buying Gang-wook expensive coffee makers while he gets her cheap jewelry — but she won’t hear any of it.
We flashback to when Shi-ho first transferred to Hee-soo’s high school. He’s shy and awkward, and we learn that he was bullied at his old school, which has given him PTSD. After an incident at school triggers a panic attack, he retreats to a storage room, where Hee-soo finds him and assures him that it’s a safe space for him to hide to when he needs it.
There’s a montage of their friendship and Shi-ho’s personal growth, but just as Shi-ho starts to feel like all his past pain and suffering was the price he had to pay so he could meet Hee-soo, he learns that she has no intention of ever dating. She doesn’t feel loved at home, and her upbringing has given her a pessimistic outlook on romantic relationships. She feels there’s no point in dating because all relationships eventually end.
Back in the present, the magic has worn off Gang-wook, and Hee-soo catches him doing the hanky-panky with Joo-yeon. He’s actually angry at Hee-soo for walking in on them, calling her a stalker and claiming he never liked her in the first place. Needless to say, they break up.
Shi-ho shows up at her place with food and comforting words, and he advises her to start writing song lyrics again because it made her happy. Hee-soo remembers the magic journal, which is mysteriously not in the trash where she last left it, and takes Shi-ho up on his advice. Except he wasn’t aware that she was going to use her new lyric writing to get over her breakup the old fashioned way: by throwing herself into a series of seemingly unhealthy rebound relationships courtesy the journal’s magic powers.
Over the course of the next few months, Hee-soo learns that the journal’s powers have a few rules. First, in order for the magic to work, she must think of someone she wants to date while writing. Second, only dating-related wishes work — this is not a lottery winning kind of magic. Third, she can only wish for realistic relationships, so she sadly can’t date her favorite idol. Fourth, if the relationship began because of the notebook, then it will end after a month. And finally — according to the mysterious voice emanating from the journal — if she writes something on the last page, then she will never love again.
While Hee-soo goes through a string of one-month relationships, Shi-ho worries about her. Their mutual friend PARK SE-JIN (Kwon Ah-reum), however, is a bit impressed. Se-jin wants to know the secret of Hee-soo’s new dating success because Se-jin has a crush on Shi-ho, and he keeps rejecting her date invites.
For some undisclosed reason, Hee-soo voluntarily reveals her magic journal’s powers to Shi-ho. They meet in the school library where she asks him to help pick out her next target, and she settles on PARK JOON-YOUNG (the Kim Ji-hoon born in 2001), the hottest freshman in the Korean literature department. Hee-soo writes in her journal, and together they watch as Joon-young walks — in slow motion, of course — towards them…
And then he takes an abrupt right turn. Shi-ho sees this as proof that her magical journal doesn’t work, but then Hee-soo shows him her lyrics. The first line reads, “We’ve walked past each other a few times.” Sure enough, after walking past each other a few more times in the library, Joon-young approaches Hee-soo among the book stacks and asks her out. On the other side of the shelf, Shi-ho forlornly watches Hee-soo’s face as she smiles and accepts.
Afterwards, Shi-ho asks if she’s really going to keep using the journal, and Hee-soo responds that she likes it when guys tell her that they like her. He asks what will happen when she fills up the last page, and Hee-soo considers that a problem for future Hee-soo. For now, she wants to live in the moment and feel loved and happy, but Shi-ho argues that she doesn’t look happy. She disagrees and ditches him when Joon-young calls.
When she’s gone, Se-jin appears and asks Shi-ho on another date. After giving it some thought, he agrees, which surprises Se-jin. She was clearly expecting to get rejected again. It appears Shi-ho is taking a page from Hee-soo’s (metaphorical) book and is going to try and get over her by being open to the idea of someone else.
And so we get a sense of what the mysterious journal voice meant when it said Hee-soo could have all the love in the world so long as she doesn’t write anything on the last page. Hee-soo’s window of opportunity to nab Shi-ho is closing, and if she doesn’t get her head out of her ass, she’s going to lose him.
While it’s frustrating to hear Hee-soo complain about not being loved when Shi-hoo — romantic feelings aside — is standing right there being an extremely loving friend, I kind of like that she’s a bit of a mess. It’s a refreshing take on an overused plot line. Usually when the leading lady falls for her long-time friend, she’s the perfect girl-next-door type who has to get her heart crushed by a douchebag before she sees the appeal in her best friend.
Hee-soo, on the other hand, is someone who has grown up feeling unloved and vowed to never face heartbreak, which may explain why she either hasn’t acknowledged or noticed Shi-ho’s crush on her. But now that she got a taste of what it feels like to be loved during her brief time with Gang-wook, she’s chasing the high. She’s looking for her next fix, and someone who can quickly fill the void — long-term consequences be damned — so it makes sense that she’s not looking at Shi-hoo as a romantic partner. She only has eyes for men who will love and leave her after a month.
Y’all, I was not expecting this dramavella to be deep, but it’s actually taking a legit look at love and romance. It even points out the toxicity and disappointment that comes from having a one-sided crush on a person before you actually spend substantial time with them. Hee-soo’s crush on Gang-wook was built on the fantasy of who she perceived him to be and that carried over into her relationship with him. And because she was so blinded by who she thought he was and who she wanted him to be, she didn’t see the reality.
That being said, this dramavella still suffers from some of the pitfalls of your typical web drama, such as abrupt scene transitions, inconsistent pacing, and flat secondary characters that you don’t really care about because there’s not enough time to give them the proper attention and development. I’m personally willing to overlook such issues when consuming bite-sized dramas, like Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me, so I’m interested in seeing more from this surprisingly complex dramavella and its rookie cast.