The right-hand men of dramaland
Like the female lead to a male lead, to every chaebol boss there must be a right-hand man. To the elderly chairmen, he’s the one who knows where all the bodies are buried and where the slush funds are hidden. And to the young CEOs, he’s the other half of their bromance and oftentimes the cupid to their romance. The right-hand man is a dramaland staple, and he can take the form of a secretary, a manager, a personal assistant, and the like. And in sageuk, he takes the shape of the king’s eunuch or his quiet but deadly bodyguard.
My focus here will be limited to the right-hand men of the younger generation male leads like our chaebol CEOs — whom we are attracted to for obvious reasons: they provide expensive makeovers, rent out amusement parks for dates, and jump to the female lead’s rescue in helicopters. These grand romantic gestures we swoon over are evidence of character growth in the once cold-hearted CEO which, admittedly, stems from his love for the female lead. But this raises the question: how did the CEO realize that he’s in love?
Dramaland CEOs speak multiple languages and can accurately predict the rise and fall of stock prices, but they are total novices on matters of the heart. This is where the right-hand men comes in — often with eyerolls and facepalms — because they’ve spent so many years joined at the hip with their bosses that they can instantly tell when the latter has been bitten by the love bug. It takes a few cycles of denial, but the right-hand man is nothing if not persistent. Soon enough, our CEO comes to the realization that he’s indeed in love.
But because this
life love is his first, the CEO who effortlessly commands a board of directors and several subsidiaries is always clueless about the right move to make when it comes to approaching his love interest. So, the job of the right-hand man is far from done as he has to come up with a How to Ask Her Out list for our love-struck CEO. But is it a worthy love story if this list is the key to winning the heroine’s heart? No. Eventually, the CEO has to figure out the best approach on his own. After all, it’s called the hero’s journey, not the sidekick’s. Still, we cannot undermine the importance of the sidekick on this journey.
But the right-hand man does more than merely serve as cupid or a source of comic relief. He remains rooted in reality because, well, someone has to be realistic when the male lead becomes delusional in love. With his chaebol boss, he is extra protective and always on guard because the CEO position attracts sharks seeking to take over from the rightful heir. His loyalty remains unwavering towards the male lead — which is an absolute necessity because our leading man needs genuine people on his side as he fights to secure his position. And while the right-hand man knows his place, he is not afraid to cross the line to rein in his boss when the latter goes overboard — because sometimes, our CEOs need to be protected from themselves.
In a company setting, the right-hand man is not always a junior employee. Park Yoo-shik (Kang Ki-young) in What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim and Ki Dae-joo (Gu Ja-sung) in The Secret Life of My Secretary both occupied senior roles in their respective companies, but were still functional as right-hand men. The right-hand man is also not always a contemporary (age wise), and as such, he can take up a fatherly role in the male lead’s life. Chaebol sons (and Joseon kings) have one thing in common: daddy issues. And who steps in to fill that void? The right-hand man. We see this with characters like the delightful Secretary Kim (Choi Jung-woo) in Master’s Sun who — as an act of penance for his niece’s action — took care of the boy she hurt and stayed by his side as the loyal secretary to His Royal Gruffness for 15 whole years. Such dedication!
The fatherly right-hand man is more often seen in sageuk as the older eunuch to a youthful king. Like our chaebol CEOs, for our young kings, getting crowned is basically throwing themselves at the wolves. Their position is constantly threatened by domineering dowagers and meddling ministers. And there’s also the matter of protecting their love interests from political schemes. In what is oftentimes a life and death situation for the hapless kings — who have to put on a stoic persona in the face of the threats — there’s only one person they can be truly vulnerable with: their right-hand man.
The palace is a lonely place and before they can finally get together with their love interest, they are made less lonely by the presence of their right-hand man — the one person who has been by their side since childhood and has watched them grow from crown prince to king. He is aware of their scars, fears, secrets, and deepest desires, and with him, they can just be.
Although the right-hand man plays a supporting role in the male lead’s life, he is very much the main character in his own story. He has goals and ambitions that drive him — and even if the driving factor is a need to see the male lead succeed solely because that in turn assures a better life for himself, it is also valid. As a main character, the right-hand man sometimes gets involved in a cute side romance of his own, like Secretary Cha (Kim Min-kyu) with Young-seo in Business Proposal, and most recently, Secretary Ha (Ahn Dong-goo) with Cho-won in See You in My 19th Life. But speaking of romance, the right-hand man might also end up as a rival in love to the leading man. *coughs* The Forbidden Marriage *coughs* And because you can’t help who you fall for, we can overlook instances like this — even to the point of developing second lead syndrome — when the feelings are genuine.
Unfortunately, some right-hand men take their personal agency too far, like in the case of The Red Sleeve Cuff, where the king’s (already banished from the palace) teacher attempted to manipulate the king’s love interest into running away with him. And no, he wasn’t in love with her, he just wanted to one-up the king. Another example of going above and beyond is the assemblyman’s chief of staff (Kim Mu-yeol) in Trolley, who ignored his boss’s “troublesome” son and left him to drown for the “greater good.” These right-hand men may argue that their actions were driven by loyalty, but as soon as they began to make arbitrary decisions, it became a case of seeing themselves as the boss rather than as the right hand.
Still, the few bad eggs among them cannot soil the reputation of dramaland’s right-hand men — not when loyal-to-the-death ones exist. *Cries in Kings 2 Hearts* In dramas, just like in life, the male lead needs more than a romance. He needs someone who is unequivocally on his side. Someone who makes it their mission to support him and invest in his success for all the right reasons. And to the faithful right-hand men of dramaland, we thank you for your service!
Tags: Business Proposal, editorial, King the Land, Master's Sun, See You in My 19th Life, The Forbidden Marriage, The King 2 Hearts, The Secret Life of My Secretary, Trolley, What's Wrong With Secretary Kim