Kim Soo-hyun has finally returned to the small screen with It’s Okay To Not Be Okay! Given this is his first drama in five years, and post-military service, the hype is real. This time, Kim Soo-hyun greets us in an unusual romance that explores psychological wounds and healing. Not what I would have expected as his comeback show but exciting nonetheless. Joining him is the stunning Seo Ye-ji and the brilliant Oh Jung-se. At least we can be sure the show will deliver on the acting front, right?
Teasers for It’s Okay To Not Be Okay made it clear that the show’s focus will be equally on the romance between the leads and the bond between the brothers. The first episode keeps pretty much the same tone. It begins with a gorgeous stop-motion animation of the story of a strange little girl with a fixation for hurting/destroying things, who only inspires fear in others. She meets a boy willing to be friends, who eventually leaves, too. The animation bleeds into an image of Seo Ye-ji in a black gown, her hair framing her face, standing alone on the balcony of a mansion as her mother tells her she’s a monster. The shot is reminiscent of a classic fairy tale princess trapped by an evil witch. In this case, however, the princess seems to have trapped herself, believing herself to be a witch.
Moon Kang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun) is introduced to us as the sensitive and kind brother of Moon Sang-tae (Oh Jung-se), a 35-year-old-man who seems to be on the autism spectrum. One thing that immediately stood out about Sang-tae is that despite his condition holding him back, he’s incredibly sharp and intelligent. Kang-tae is the sole caregiver for his older brother, trying to put him through regular school and failing because no one seems to be understanding of his brother’s condition. Despite their difficult circumstances, the love between the brothers shines throughout the episode and makes me look forward to getting to know them, even though I can tell that it’s going to be very emotional.
Kang-tae’s endless patience with his brother happens to make him a great fit for his job—a healthcare worker in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. He uses his endless reserves of patience to care for psychiatric patients, soothing them through extreme symptoms in his most comforting voice. Kang-tae seems sacrificial to a fault—even putting himself in harm’s way when it comes to protecting his patients. Several times during the episode, he challenges those reducing mentally-ill individuals to “vermin” or “insane people” by saying that they are simply unwell. Despite his competence at his job, Kang-tae can’t seem to make his jobs last. He quits every hospital he works at in about ten months and none of his colleagues know why, but we find out that it’s got something to do with his brother and butterflies.
Sang-tae is a huge fan of writer Go Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji) who writes fairytales for children—but with a twist. Instead of using fairy-tale settings to whisk children away into a fantastical world, Moon-young uses fantasies to introduce them to the darker side of life that parents usually try to keep hidden. In Moon-young’s stories, the protagonist is always the witch instead of the princess, which ties back to her mom calling her a monster.
And, well, Moon-young’s personality does everything to establish her as a witchy character—she dresses like Morticia from The Addams Family, is rude, unpredictable, and doesn’t try to hide her inherent creepiness. She also has a fascination with collecting knives and other sharp objects and doesn’t mind exposing herself to violence—be it drawing blood on her finger from a steak knife or confronting a violent man knowing that she will be attacked. This disregard for their own well-being seems to be a common thread between our leads. A big mystery from Moon-young’s past is also introduced in this episode in the form of her father suffering from dementia, who Moon-young refuses to acknowledge, and who seems to be the source of massive childhood trauma for her.
The chemistry between Kang-tae and Moon-young jumps out from their first meeting, which takes place right before Moon-young’s book-reading event at Kang-tae’s hospital. It’s not exactly a pleasant meeting because Kang-tae has to ask her to stop smoking around the hospital, to which her response is to dunk her cigarette in his coffee, leaving him annoyed. But there’s something electric about their interaction. Their second meeting is even more intense and happens after Moon-young’s confrontation with a psychiatric patient who has escaped from the hospital.
There is SO. MUCH. STARING going on between these two, which I didn’t mind at all, because staring means close-up shots of Kim Soo-hyun and Seo Ye-ji’s beautiful faces. They look at each other like they recognize something in each other despite being so different and can’t stop thinking about each other the night of their meeting. We also get some really messed-up flashbacks into their childhoods—one, of Moon-young being strangled by her own father, and two, of Sang-tae being attacked by a horde of butterflies. It doesn’t need pointing out that we will be unpacking a lot of childhood traumas in the coming weeks.
Medical dramas like this one usually have episode-specific arcs featuring patients from the hospital. This episode tells the story of a suicidal man with an anxiety disorder, bent on dying along with his child. I suppose we can look forward to more such depictions of mental illnesses and patients. Surprisingly, it is one of Moon-young’s dark fairytales that ends up consoling the heartbroken child whose own father wants to kill her. We learn that Moon-young’s stories might be dark, but in her own way, she presents hope. “Hurtful, painful memories… Only those with such memories buried in their heart can attain happiness. So remember it all and overcome it. If you can’t, you will be a kid whose soul never grows.” I’m not sure how the conflation of fairy tales and mental illnesses will go down, but if done sensitively enough, it has the potential to be unique and interesting.
I found the overall tone of the show slightly incongruent with the theme, because emotionally intense scenes were lumped together with rom-com-style humor in a way that didn’t fit well sometimes. There was also the gratuitous shot of Kim Soo-hyun’s abs in the middle of this, which, I won’t lie, I enjoyed thoroughly but felt out of place in the narrative. As far as initial impressions go, I’m having a difficult time reconciling someone with Kim Soo-hyun’s face to a healthcare worker, but Seo Ye-ji is fully embodying her character’s brand of weird, sometimes even reminding me of IU’s Jang Man-wol in Hotel del Luna. There wasn’t enough of Oh Jung-se in this episode, but knowing how good an actor he is, I’m expecting good things from his character.
Kang-tae seeks out Moon-young to tell her that she reminds him of a girl he used to know. Someone who was messed up, lacked warmth and conscience. “Were you afraid of her?” Moon-young asks. “I liked her,” Kang-tae reveals, and the resulting flashback is a retelling of the animated story from the beginning of the show, this time from the point of view of the boy befriended by the strange little girl. It appears that Moon-young and Kang-tae are the characters in that story, and we are looking at a childhood connection arc here. I’m also curious about the mystery of the butterfly attack since it featured both in the story as well as Sang-tae’s dream. Does Moon-young have a connection with Sang-tae’s past? Plenty of mysteries to unpack in the next episode, and as you can probably tell, I’m hooked.