All good things come to an end, and for Beautiful Mind, it’s been an incredible journey of self-discovery and healing. To be honest, I’ve sat here for days wondering how to write this post, knowing that I’m still not ready to let go but ultimately must. It’s been a fantastic ride, along with many memorable firsts, making this my favourite k-drama to date. When a drama shows this much integrity in all aspects of its production, you know you’ve got a real gem on your hands. One that lasts the test of time, to savour for years to come.
The episode cut did affect things somewhat, but mostly I was pleased to see that the bulk of the story threads got tied up nicely. I am the odd one out in the sense that I have no issue with the pacing – perhaps it’s because I’m used to J-dramas where compact storytelling is the norm, and I felt that the key links were established enough for the audience to make that next logical leap without too much scratching of heads. It’s always easier to cut than to pad, and all things considered, I felt the drama ended on a strong, consistent note and told the story it wanted to tell. That is unusual in itself and deserves respect.
Penning my thoughts on the two key relationships in the drama has been difficult, for I’m unable to do proper justice to the beautiful complexity of it all regardless of what I write. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed how the drama shaped them and hope these relationships have touched you as they did me.
I. Young-oh & Dad
At its core, the drama is about Young-oh’s journey and the role Dad played in shaping his life. It’s a shame that Dad never quite realised just how much Young-oh strove to be like him – becoming a doctor and striving to be a good one, the intense focus on medicine and lack of interest in anything superfluous, prioritising patients (albeit expressed in different ways) and having high professional standards, risk-taking in surgeries, right down to being cold and unapproachable. So much of their relationship has been about effort and doing one’s best amid struggles with guilt, fear and inadequacy, but the question lingers: is doing one’s best for another person really for the other person’s benefit or just to make oneself feel better? The idea of a parent wanting to create a “perfect world” for his child is not alien in child-rearing, but when there are regrets and negativity, when “extreme” methods are resorted to, can one still say one has done one’s best? So often we have heard parents lament that they did their best for children who could not, or would not, reciprocate or understand their efforts, and vice versa. It is, as Dad says, sometimes the only answer where no others are forthcoming, but it is also, as Young-oh says, simply not enough. Not in a hospital setting where patients’ lives are at stake, and even more so when a loved one’s well-being is involved.
I appreciated the drama’s low-key semi-resolution of the father-son conflict – no shouting matches or whatnot, just a lot of loaded dialogue and meaningful/withering glances. There was a lot of anger and scorn on Young-oh’s part, and the smackdown at the mortality conference was such an effective way of registering his utter contempt for the man who had raised him that I cheered for him. Yet it was amazing how Young-oh managed to come around somewhat to Dad’s perspective thanks to the lung transplant for Jin-sung, and eventually even provide the key for Dad’s emotional release. Where previously Dad had laid a hand on Young-oh’s shoulder as an exercise in control, authority and suppression, having Young-oh reach for his father’s hand as a small step towards reconciliation spoke volumes of how the imbalance in their relationship would be adjusted and redressed henceforth. I love how Young-oh was honest enough to admit he doesn’t have the courage yet to forgive Dad even as he no longer needed Dad’s acceptance, and he’s well within his rights to feel this way, but he still wanted to try to understand why Dad did what he did. Yet, I think Young-oh has been plenty courageous since episode 8, when he decided to be more open about his condition and began to wear it like a badge of honour, at times using it as a crutch, shield or even weapon. That courage came out in full force when he took responsibility for the transplant, all the while remaining convinced that he did the right thing for Jin-sung – as a human being, a physician and a boyfriend. He had no regrets and was not ashamed of his actions, staying true to his personal and professional convictions without being condemned to forever guilt. I love how Young-oh, as he made peace with who he was as a person and as a doctor, also managed to inspire Dad and Suk-joo to man up and take responsibility for their respective actions, and in turn, seek their own personal release.
I have my issues with how the frontal lobe damage problem was resolved. The drama has been building, encouraging and dismantling perceptions and prejudices throughout its run (albeit via malleable but ultimately “user-friendly” perspectives, aided capably by Jang Hyuk’s masterful, sympathetic performance), yet its latest attempt seems to have fallen slightly short of the mark. It seems to require a huge leap in science and logic and while it doesn’t diminish in the least Young-oh’s traumatic experience, it does seem to just miss out on a more nuanced, less fantastic, treatment of the key themes of overcoming adversity and playing god. I understand it was done to flesh out the nature vs nurture argument and make Dad’s abuse that much more horrific and difficult to justify, but given how layered Heo Joon-ho’s portrayal of Dad has been, the various questions raised must ultimately be resolved with perhaps a touch of dissatisfaction. If indeed we go by Dr Oh’s argument that Dad was driven by the “human condition”, then there can be no easy answers or convenient pigeonholing of the motivations behind his actions – motivations that perhaps he himself would be hard put to pinpoint. He loves Young-oh and fears losing him to the surgery, and Young-oh’s semblance of forgiveness and understanding means that much to him that he would break down in tears and then step forward to redress the wrongs he’d committed. That alone shows at least a part of him wanted, and still wants, to do right by Young-oh. The admission that his son had surpassed him is probably a hard pill to swallow, and one that Dad had been avoiding, perhaps unconsciously, yet to recognise and accept that truth is also a happy load off Dad’s shoulders that he finally has a worthy legacy to leave behind. I loved the bit where Dad called Young-oh “my son” and was happy to share news of his recent visit with Suk-joo. I’d like to think Jin-sung had a hand in helping father and son mend their rift, and although it was sweet to end the drama with Young-oh and Jin-sung, a scene of Young-oh with Dad building new bridges and making nice would have ended things beautifully for that relationship arc.
II. Young-oh & Jin-sung
Throughout the drama, Jin-sung has never really been cowed by Young-oh, even when they were at odds. Once she revised her opinion of him, she learnt to see him beyond his disorder for the man he really is, and this allowed her to parse through his brusque statements to unlock the jumble of emotions warring within him. It was so in episode 7, and again the case in episode 13 when he stormed up to her and unleashed a torrent of harsh words at her. She recognised his cry for help. She felt his fear and anger, his uncertainty, the frustration with his own inability to make sense of things, his loneliness and resentment. She also recognised the truth in his words – that she had indeed turned his life upside down and it’s left him adrift and struggling to find his bearings. Jin-sung’s heartfelt response, so entirely in keeping with the growth of her character throughout the drama and in sharp contrast to her earlier back-hug of Suk-joo, gave Young-oh the emotional answers he had not known he needed or been able to decipher. More importantly, she gave him the courage to take the next step forward when he had been about to retreat into the bleak solitude of his own stifling world.
It’s interesting how, although there is seemingly a power imbalance between Young-oh and Jin-sung in terms of age, profession and life experience, theirs is a remarkably well-balanced relationship that is developed fairly realistically and with an appropriate focus on effort (in k-drama terms, this is nothing short of a miracle). She chooses not to view him within the narrow parameters of his disorder, and he learns to respect her innate good sense and take delight in her genuine warmth. Where Young-oh reels Jin-sung in with his logical, unemotional thinking when she tries to take on too much, such as the murders at Hyunsung, she is steadier and wiser where matters of the heart are concerned, in the sense that she doesn’t complicate things and gets right to the crux of the issue. This is the simplicity and clarity that Young-oh needs as he continues to navigate the various challenges in his life. She breaks down the emotional stuff in terms he can understand, yet there is no condescension from her, only empathy and understanding and a willingness to help. Theirs is a conversation between partners keen to learn and share, grow and move forward together. Their channels of communication have been open enough that Jin-sung feels the loss when Young-oh shuts her out, and she is sensitive enough to realise that when he finally chooses to come to her, it is because he is feeling vulnerable and at his wits’ end, and even though he may not be aware of it, it is because he needs her. It’s a lovely tie-in to episode 7, only he is now more personally invested because of his feelings for her.
That personal investment takes on epic proportions when Young-oh donates his lung to Jin-sung, a gesture so selfless yet ironically so logically framed – “I had what you needed” – and also completely in line with Young-oh’s own creed. Despite Young-oh constantly labelling himself as selfish, his newfound bit of self-awareness means he’s eager not to make the same mistake with Jin-sung that he did with Min-jae. I am pleased that the writer took pains to show that his isn’t a condition that can be healed or ignored with an abundance of lurve, and Young-oh’s honesty in this regard continues to be a high point as he acknowledges not only the lack of a miracle, but that both he and Jin-sung will have to battle this for life, and asks not only for her understanding, but her continued trust in his love for her. In front of Jin-sung, he has no defences and can only be honest. I love how Jin-sung just understands what he’s getting at and accepts his heartfelt confession for what it is and more, and how Young-oh doesn’t hesitate in demonstrating his feelings for her with a well-earned kiss (the aftermath shyness leading to round two of kisses is ridiculously adorable). My issues with the misdiagnosis aside, this is a happy ending that I can get behind and feel the development has been well-charted. I’d have preferred Young-oh stick to his all-black clothing, but that’s a minor quibble.
III. Best of the rest
Suk-joo has always been a foil for Young-oh (Jin-sung being another), but it was nice how the drama brought him back and had him join forces with Young-oh for Jin-sung’s operation. His development got the short shrift due to the cut, which was a pity as I’d have liked to have seen more of him in those ethical battles with Young-oh or have him develop a mentor-mentee relationship with Dad given their connection via the research and Director Shin, but for what it was worth, his arc had some decent closure as he readjusted his priorities and went back to doing what he believed in, for the right reasons. He lost some credibility points, however, for not realising the possibility of statistical errors (in this case, human lives sacrificed) still existed in the later trials of the research, given what he had personally gone through in the first few episodes, and needed Young-oh to point out the obvious. He also never told Jin-sung his doubts about the regenerative medicine and would actually have let her go through with it had Young-oh not stopped him. Still, I enjoyed Suk-joo’s face-offs with Young-oh (especially when Young-oh socked him in the storage room), and thought having him come around to Young-oh’s way of thinking without sacrificing his own set of scruples was a nice touch.
There was a surprising chunk of laughs in the second half of the drama, which made for some fun watching as Young-oh discovered his sense of humour and practised his pick-up lines, while the gossipy doctors, aka Power Rangers, aka Greek chorus, reluctantly gravitated more and more towards Young-oh and eventually ended up taking a hilarious selfie with him. I have enjoyed the shifting attitudes of these doctors and other hospital staff, culminating in some awesome teamwork as they banded together to help Young-oh and Suk-joo with Jin-sung’s operation. Nothing like an illegal surgery to bring out the best in one’s character.
The research issue seemed almost an afterthought given the strong middle stretch of the drama, and wasn’t resolved as neatly as I’d have liked, but I did appreciate the drama bringing back Dr Lee Shi-hyun as the one who noticed something off about the research and eventually confided in Young-oh. She’d always been a smart cookie and it was also a nice turnaround from when she’d thought him too snooty for his own good. I also rather welcomed the return of detective Young-oh, albeit for a short time. Although some people questioned whether it’d have been better to have the drama focus solely on Young-oh’s journey of humanity, I really liked seeing Young-oh doing his own brand of sleuthing in the earlier episodes and wish there had been more of it.
Overall, I have really enjoyed watching Beautiful Mind. It’s been entirely too long since a k-drama got under my skin so badly that I needed multiple rewatches of every episode to catch every little detail, and was completely absorbed in the development of key characters and a romance I could get behind 100%. It has renewed my appreciation of Jang Hyuk and his big brown eyes (for his abs, please visit Chuno stat) and helped me discover other actors worthy of my time. It’s been a real privilege watching Jang Hyuk at his craft, rising to the challenge and conquering it like a boss. He disappeared into the character and became Lee Young-oh, allowing us to live vicariously through his beautiful mind and delight in the discovery of his unyielding spirit. I loved his chemistry with his main co-stars – with Park So-dam, they were absolutely charming together and made the age gap work to their benefit; with Heo Joon-ho, they had some seriously crackling scenes and it’s the kind of pairing you’d want to grace your screen more often. I’ve also enjoyed sharing my opinions on the drama with like-minded people, gaining new perspectives, and have been able to put my meagre brain cells to work. All in all, a very fruitful drama endeavour and one that will be fondly remembered. Beautiful Mind fought the good fight and we were well-rewarded.