We move into Angstville and a number of familiar tropes, which have been simmering throughout the drama, are in full play this week (and possibly the next). It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Beautiful Mind does have enough story to last the full 16 episodes, but I’m trying to make peace with the episode cut by deluding myself that this would be like a slightly longer J-drama – how awesome would it be, though, if Japan remade this and invited Jang Hyuk to reprise his role? So many dramas have faltered in the second half of their run, but the cast and crew have responded admirably so far and I hope this continues as we head into the final stretch. Also, episode 11 is a big fuck you to KBS, cleverly couched in the downsizing plot with several choice barbs of love thrown in. Good one, drama.
One thing I enjoy about Beautiful Mind is how it tries to subvert some of the usual (k-drama) tropes. Storytelling is such that very little is original with a capital O, so execution can often prove the difference and elevate one seemingly mundane event into something that makes you sit up and reconsider your perspective. Since we’re in the penultimate week, secrets naturally come tumbling out and poor Young-oh can’t catch a break as he encounters one heartbreak after another, which means the people around him are also in the doghouse. Collateral damage is a domino effect.
I’m writing on the premise that there is still frontal lobe damage in Young-oh’s brain. Should there be a k-drama miracle on that score, I will be inclined to rage quit the drama and bitch-slap some idiots to Timbuctoo. Also, quick shout-out to Michykdrama’s excellent medicaps, which are very informative and have really helped in my understanding of the medicine in the drama.
I. Sins of the father
Dad’s mistake in the OR many years ago comes to light as Young-oh finally realises what happened. They’re both still reeling from the initial shock and don’t have the full set of facts as yet – Dad’s scummy friend Dr Oh was deliberately vague on that score – and I really, really want them to sit down and thrash things out. That final scene in episode 12 was heartbreaking, the raw devastation laid bare for all to see. Jang Hyuk, so masterful throughout the drama, elevated pain and betrayal to a new level as Young-oh wrestles with the enormity of what Dad had done, tearing down not only the wall of social cues, but also what little progress he and Dad had seemingly made, and most importantly the last shreds of his crumbling self-belief and identity. There are plenty of parallels with Frankenstein and even Prometheus, but I see it more as a damning indictment of parenthood. How many parents bring a child into the world without fully understanding the implications of raising one, and then try to mould the child into something the child has no desire to become? How many can profess to be selfless enough in their love and support that they don’t allow their personal baggage to adversely affect a young life? When your relationship is rooted in guilt and fear, moving forward requires the determination to acknowledge the existence of a mistake and desire to make amends – Dr Oh is right about Dad having remained stagnant all these years, unable to break free of the vicious circle. Dad projected his own demons onto Young-oh even as he tried to do what he thought was the right thing, and Young-oh overcompensated in his drive to achieve excellence and gain his father’s love and approval. His experience is the universal lament of children whose spirit is broken in the futile struggle to live up to their parents’ expectations, and must yet continue fitting square selves into round holes for a recognition that will never be given willingly.
K-dramas are full of one-dimensional evil parents whose life ambition is to make their children miserable for no good reason, but I appreciated that Dad is full of greys and complexity, and it’s all credit to Heo Joon-ho’s nuanced performance. I’ve been disinclined to think Dad used Young-oh as an experiment and merely for his own ego – there may perhaps be hints of it but I believe that deep down Dad does love Young-oh, just that he has never allowed that feeling to blossom into anything concrete beyond a vague sense of pride (that does seem fairly genuine) that Young-oh is finally becoming “normal”. Yet all this conditioning, in the mistaken belief that it’s done for a greater good, has surely damaged them both and built more walls than bonds, making trust and communication near impossible. Many of Dad’s actions have been questionable, in particular calling Young-oh a monster, yet one can possibly also attribute good intentions (that have gone awry) as the motivation. That he was willing to trade his life’s work in return for Young-oh never finding out what happened is a step forward, and even if it can also be interpreted as his trying to continue covering up his mistake, it is important to acknowledge that he did at least have the intention to protect Young-oh as well. In episode 11, he finally listened to Young-oh for once and took decisive action against the downsizing. It is unfortunate that even as he tried to do his best for his son, he has failed to recognise the same efforts coming from Young-oh. I don’t hope for Dad to accept Young-oh completely, but to finally learn to see Young-oh beyond the labels he’d pinned on him is surely not too much to ask of him.
II. Pigtails and noble idiocy
Admittedly, noble idiocy is low on the stupidity meter in this drama, for which I’m eternally grateful. I understand why Young-oh has shut Jin-sung out because he thinks he will never change and can never offer her a “normal” relationship – it’s an issue with a damning precedent and he sees no point in fruitless endeavours that will only end in tears. This ties in with his (earlier) approach to medicine and personal relations as well – he has repeatedly rebuffed his ex, Dr Kim Min-jae, after she so spectacularly betrayed him and then later decided to make nice. It’s true that Jin-sung cannot heal his condition with lurve, and it may perhaps be better to nip the fledgling relationship in the bud before she sinks deeper into it. But love is not always about probabilities or the tangibles. Jin-sung is not only his Wi-Fi, she has quietly, unconsciously set about a process of change that Young-oh is only beginning to fathom, and even though he thinks he has cut her loose, everything about her continues to affect him, and in turn effect change in others. The tiny explorations, the stumbles, the immediate retreat into safer territory, summoning the courage to make that leap of faith … all these are what Young-oh must experience as he goes in search of himself, and while it will definitely be easier to have Jin-sung around to help, there are always some realisations that one must arrive at alone.
I’m also very glad that Young-oh is honest to a fault with Jin-sung, which means when he’s angry and frustrated, he tells Jin-sung that straight out and she doesn’t have to guess. He even calls her out on her non-answer to his confession – how can his Wi-Fi not know what answers to provide? The thought is preposterous, and she is suitably chastened, yet amused. I love that Young-oh is so refreshingly forward about what he thinks he feels for Jin-sung, and doesn’t play hard to get in his interactions with her. This is very atypical of a k-drama male lead, who usually can’t communicate intelligently to save his life and must always treat the girl of his affections like a five-year-old whose pigtails he still enjoys pulling for the kicks. Even more endearing is Young-oh’s admission that despite being put through the wringer thanks to her (ha!), he doesn’t hate that side of himself. The wonderful thing is that Jin-sung is equally honest, admitting she is not ready but is willing to give their relationship a shot if it’s with him. This is very consistent with her character, and I love that she has emphasised effort rather than some miraculous connection between them. She doesn’t want to make it complicated. She just wants the simple joys of dating, like spending time together, which is something Young-oh can definitely do and give. Ask not what your partner can do for you, but what you can do for him – this seems to be Jin-sung’s approach, and is in stark contrast with Min-jae’s thinking.
III. Day in the sun – shifting perspectives
The little guys don’t often get to shine as they should, but in Beautiful Mind, solid world-building means the viewer gets to bond not only with the main characters, but also appreciate the contributions of minor ones – the growth works several ways and becomes much more satisfying and well-rounded than if it’s only Young-oh saving everyone’s asses all the time (even if I do quite enjoy the other doctors getting schooled by Young-oh every so often, cuz… well, it’s Jang Hyuk). The difference between Dr Yang Sung-eun then and now has been amazing and I’ve liked him so much better ever since he formed an unlikely mentee-mentor relationship with Young-oh – the beauty of that bromance is how natural and without fanfare the development has been. Before we knew it, Dr Yang was assisting Young-oh more and more, learning what it takes to be a good doctor, and in episode 12, even actively obeying Young-oh’s orders to the extent of pissing off his seniors. Similarly, the drama paid tribute to the nurses in the form of Nurse Jang Moon-kyung and showed how each person not only has a role to play in the hospital system, he or she has the ability to give it meaning beyond the usual job responsibilities. When a job becomes a vocation, the heart and the mind are engaged in tandem to go the distance.
It’s been interesting to observe and track how various earlier incidents have been reinterpreted in later episodes to show not only development in several characters, but also a change in perspective and reversal of roles, and once again, the questioning of what it means to be a good doctor and who the real monster is. For me, this is good writing as it shows the writer has thought it through and has not only the big picture in mind, but also the small details and connections that matter. I found Young-oh’s “revisionist” approach to medicine rather intriguing – that doctors don’t save lives but merely prolong them. On a certain level, it’s not wrong and also a pragmatic, if jaded, way to look at things. Hope can only sustain one so far, a bitter lesson Dr Hyun Suk-joo has come to appreciate even if deep down he may not agree. The most telling of role reversals is how Young-oh himself turns the “good doctor” question on Suk-joo in their tussle over the ECMO – the face-off is so satisfying that I wish we’d gotten more scenes of the two of them duking it out over ethical issues. It’s unfortunate that Suk-joo’s character never quite got the development he deserved (no thanks to the cut), but except for that initial surrender, everything else he has done since has been a conscious choice on his part, and Young-oh has every right to call him out on this latest turnaround. Yet, Young-oh’s actions of trying to saving a terminally ill patient are thrown back into the grey zone again, with Dad’s words from episode 6 coming back to haunt him. At what point do you give up on a patient and let him go in peace and with dignity?
I’ve been very appreciative that the drama has allowed the audience to form their own opinions on the various issues presented, since whatever conclusions one draws also hinges on the values one espouses and the particular circumstances involved. This is a sign of a drama confident in the story it wants to tell and the trust it has in the ability of its actors to deliver that message. As we enter finale week, I hope the drama ends on a strong note to show it has beaten the odds as well as it could have, just like how Young-oh is doing in his journey of self-discovery. That would be a finish befitting the spirit the drama has come to embody.
Also, please restore that Wi-Fi connection stat!