If you had told me back when The World Of The Married was releasing its first promos that it was going to become one of the biggest K-dramas of all time, I would have laughed. Look at it now—the highest-rated drama in Korean cable television history! Learn from me, dear readers, and never again judge a drama by its promos alone. The first half of this show completely blew me away, but even that could not have prepared me for how unpredictable and wild the second half was going to be. We began with the focus on Ji Sun-woo’s (Kim Hee-ae) betrayal and her subsequent revenge plan. Now, the focus shifts to Lee Tae-oh’s (Park Hae-joon) revenge plan. One of the show’s central questions is, “How long does a married couple’s connection last?” We find this out as we uncover how deep this cycle of revenge and lingering feelings run between a couple that has once been married and have a child together.
Post-divorce, Ji Sun-woo finds herself unable to open up to anyone, from friends to coworkers to potential lovers. Her mental health is precarious at best—she begins drinking heavily when Tae-oh first moves back to Gosan with his new family, completely losing her mind. When morning comes, however, she slips on her mask of being in total control and does not let anyone close enough to be able to spot the cracks under her facade. Her spirit remains indomitable despite how much she suffers in the confines of her room. When Chairmain Yeo (Lee Geun-young) asks her to leave Gosan, you almost wish she’d just back down and leave to have a quiet life with her son, but you also cannot stop admiring her pride and her refusal to let influential people bully her into upending her life for someone else’s comfort. The town is as much hers as it is Tae-oh’s or Da-kyung’s, despite how hostile it is to her.
In the absence of anyone else in her life, she focuses all her attention on her son Joon-young (Jeon Jin-seo), which leads to him feeling suffocated. Several times in the show, her therapist co-worker Yun-ki (Lee Moo-saeng) advises Sun-woo to stop trying to be Joon-young’s dad by focusing all her attention on his material needs instead of giving him the emotional attention he needs—a suggestion that Sun-woo shoots down saying “he doesn’t understand.” This is partly true because nobody else in the show grasps the pressures of parenting alone as a divorced woman in a prejudiced society. But Sun-woo needs to work out her own issues and traumas as well, which Yun-ki sees and suggests therapy for, but Sun-woo seems insistent on not opening up.
We also get insight into Joon-young, who for the first half, remained a pawn in his parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Now, in the absence of marriage, he becomes the only thread connecting his obsessive parents and feels used by both of them for their personal agendas. His relationship with his mom seems forced, he’s alienated at school, and he feels jealous of his father’s new life. Constantly watching his parents tear each other apart leads Joon-young to vent out his frustrations by acting out in ways like stealing, lying, and eventually, even committing violence towards a friend. The lack of communication between the mother and son gives both Tae-oh and Da-kyung (Han Seo-hee) the window they need to manipulate Joon-young into thinking he is a liability in his mom’s life. He ends up leaving Sun-woo to live with his dad, an event that devastates her to the point of making her suicidal.
As if the trauma watching your parents engage in violence and divorce wasn’t enough, Joon-young also walks in on his parents having sex. This kid is going to have issues his whole life, and I feel so, so sorry for him. Advertently or inadvertently, he ends up being used by every adult around him for their own nefarious purposes. In such a complicated situation, it makes total sense that Joon-young was driven to do what he did towards the end of the show. As worrying as it was that a middle schooler was driven to take such an extreme decision, there were times I wished for Joon-young’s sake that both his parents left him alone. That is perhaps why it was necessary for him to leave their lives for a while so that this last remaining tie between then could be snipped off.
Lee Tae-oh remains an entirely pathetic and flat character throughout the show, until the very last episodes, when he loses everything from money to work, to his marriage, kid, and home. Perhaps the one redeeming quality of his character is that his affection and concern for Joon-young is genuine, but even that isn’t enough to stop his from using Joon-young as an excuse to get to Sun-woo. However, unlike Sun-woo, his obsession for revenge doesn’t stem from betrayal but from a desire to reduce the woman to a begging mess and make her admit she needs him. We also realize a creepy fact about him—that he’s just trying to recreate his marriage to Sun-woo considering he buys Da-kyung the same lingerie and perfume as Sun-woo and proposes to her using Sun-woo’s favorite song. The two even looked alike when Sun-woo was Da-kyung’s age. He doesn’t want to relinquish control over her and feels possessive, despite having Da-kyung by his side. This revelation was as creepy as they get.
Till the very end, Lee Tae-oh is never honest with himself, even going as far as to continue to blame Sun-woo’s excessive revenge for their divorce and not his own cheating, which he refers to as “a passing affair.” He eventually realizes that he doesn’t mean much to the people in his new life— meanwhile, Sun-woo and Joon-young treated him like he was their world. You do end up feeling a little sorry for him until you realize that despite losing everything, he still doesn’t understand the concept of an apology. Sun-woo’s methods are excessive, yes, but when you compare it to the sheer mental anguish it takes to come to terms with being cheated on, what she did to get revenge begins to look a little fair.
Meanwhile, Han Seo-hee has emerged as the show’s rising star, and for good reason. Her acting is both arresting and vulnerable, especially when her character Da-kyung finds herself in the situation where Sun-woo was—desperately trying to keep her marriage afloat, despite the evidence of her husband’s obsession with his ex-wife and his son. She tries very hard to be different from “that crazy woman” Sun-woo and let Tae-oh’s cheating subside, but that’s the thing about cheating—once your trust is broken, it just cannot be repaired. She finds herself just as obsessed with being in control as Sun-woo is, with some scenes of her finding out Tae-oh’s intentions being eerily similar to Sun-woo discovering his infidelity. You do feel bad for such a young girl caught in a bad marriage with a kid. Despite everything, I admired Da-kyung’s her resolve and her pride. Han Seo-hee does a fantastic job of portraying the arrogance of a beautiful rich woman as well as the vulnerability and insecurity of being the second woman in someone’s life.
At its core, The World Of The Married is a story about control in all facets of life—from marriage to motherhood to revenge, and that is the redemption Sun-woo seems to seek in the end—the relinquishing of all control and just waiting for her son to return. Yoon-ki comforts her beautifully by asking her to stop pretending she’s fine, and even Dr. Sul asks her to stop shouldering the blame for everything, but it seems Sun-woo just does not understand asking for help, and that breaks my heart, because it stems directly from her childhood traumas. All marriages and relationships in the show are based on some form of control. If it’s not revenge, it’s emotional and physical abuse like in the case of Min Hyun-seo and Park In-kyu, or the lack of trust, like in the case of Je-hyuk and Ye-rim.
The show progresses from very controlled revenge attempts by both Ji Sun-woo and Lee Tae-oh to an obsession that takes over both of them, ruining their lives in the process. Not only do they hurt the ones closest to them, they also give up their peace of minds in the process. In the end, the viewer is left wondering, what makes up this obsession? Is it hate, lingering feelings, loneliness, betrayal, or love? Or is it a nasty concoction of all these feelings? One might never really know. There is, however, one marked difference between Sun-woo and Tae-oh’s obsession and desire for revenge—while she aims to avenge her betrayal and punish him for cheating on her, his reasons are based on toxic masculinity of deriving joy out of breaking a woman who does not need him like a woman needs a man—for emotional and financial security. He wants to break the autonomy out of her, much like Park In-kyu (Lee Hak-joo). Their methods differ but their intentions are the same. That’s why when Tae-oh tells In-kyu that he hates Sun-woo so much he wants to kill her, In-kyu grins and tells him, “That’s love.” It’s one of the most chilling moments in the show.
In the end, it seems like the perenially single Dr. Sul Myung-sook (Chae Gook-hee) came out the most unhurt and happiest. Those who avoided falling into the trap of obsession-fuelled revenge, like Jae-hyuk, Ye-rim, and Da-kyung, all seem to get their happy endings. Well, happy by the show’s standards. Meanwhile, our heroine, Ji Sun-woo, is left lost, alone, and searching for redemption. It made my heart hurt not to see her get the happy ending she so deserved, especially after a whole life of trauma related to her parents’ deaths and then her nasty marriage. It was even more frustrating because Dr. Yun-ki was right there beside her, being comforting and silently supporting her. After he saves Sun-woo from a tragic suicide attempt, I was really hoping that she would finally open up and finally let one good person into her life, but it didn’t happen. Which was frustrating, because I really liked Yun-ki as a character and how different he was from other men in the show, and her finally getting together with him would have been beautiful.
The World Of The Married tells us that married couples are tied together by many things that go beyond simply marriage—love, companionship, secrets, insecurities, betrayals, hatred, obsession, what have you. Or perhaps, these emotions are exactly what make a marriage. Despite being out of each other’s lives, Sun-woo and Tae-oh still affect each other so much. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell whether what keeps drawing them to each other is love or hate, and other times, the show leaves you feeling like there is no difference between the two in a marriage. You love your spouse as much as you hate them, and vice versa. Like Ye-rim (Park Sun-young) realizes, most people tend to hold onto their marriages for the sake of habit. That is also why women find it difficult to leave abusive relationships—as is demonstrated in Hyun-seo’s (Shim Eun-woo) case. In a way, despite the world of difference in their social statutes, both these women seem to be caught in the same cycles. I was very invested in Hyun-seo’s arc and wanted to see her get a proper happy ending, but this show had to ruin that for me, too.
Despite such a tight plot that leaves almost no room for posturing or any side arcs, the show still does a good job of commenting on some social evils. Like the whole town being hostile towards Sun-woo and making up rumors about her just because she’s a single divorced woman when literally all she does is go to work and worry about her son. Initially, she finds herself alone. Even those who sympathize with her, like Ye-rim and Dr. Sul, avoid speaking out for her. Slowly, they realize that any woman who doesn’t fit into the binaries of being married (Dr. Sul) and having kids (Ye-rim) will see the same hostility as Sun-woo. Slowly, these women who rally behind Sun-woo. The instances of women leaving toxic circles behind and having fun were few, but they did delight me. Surprisingly, it’s Dr. Sul who gives us a heartfelt monologue about the discrimination women face after she loses a promotion simply because she’s not married. I started out annoyed at her but by the end, was rooting for her.
At first glance, the show’s ending comes off as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being obsessed with someone. However, as days passed by, I also came to appreciate it as an exploration of what betrayal and adultery can do to a broken heart. I think I would rate The World Of The Married as one of the best makjang dramas I’ve ever watched—it was excessive but never ridiculous, and despite the unpredictability and plot twists, still managed to tug at my heart in a way that makjang shows don’t. It was the perfect combination of a revenge plot and heart-stirring depiction of marriages gone bad, making it one of the most well-written Korean shows to come out in recent years. Just when you think the show cannot surprise you anymore, it introduces another suspense in the final episode that has you on the edge of your seat till the final moments.
My main takeaways from this show are 1) Kim Hee-ae is a stunning actress who should do every drama ever, and 2) in a World of the Married, be Dr. Sul Myung-sook. One of the most hopeful moments of the show was when Sun-woo is trying to convince Da-kyung of Tae-oh’s truth. “Is it worth giving your all as collateral just because you lived with someone for a few years?,” Sun-woo says, making a very convincing argument for divorce and leaving bad marriages. I wondered if, through the process of getting Da-kyung to leave Tae-oh, Sun-woo will free herself, too, but it didn’t happen. Despite her many flaws and her obsession, Ji Sun-woo suffered from the very first episode to the end, and as a viewer, I was very invested in her journey to recovery and healing. Instead, what we are left with is a woman robbed of her punk and spirit, left hollow by her obsession, waiting for redemption. The final message The World Of The Married leaves us with is this—there are no attackers and victims between a married couple. As much as I would give an arm for Ji Sun-woo’s happiness, I can’t say that the ending was unsurprising or unsatisfying. In the end, what our favorite makjang characters keep trying to tell us is that it’s best to mind our own business. But nobody ever listens, and that is why makjang dramas are so addictive.
BREAKING NEWS ABOUT THE WORLD OF THE MARRIED:
- ‘The World of the Married’ becomes 3rd Korean drama to exceed 20% mark in cable TV ratings
- ‘The World of the Married’ now the highest-rated cable K-drama in terms of average ratings
- ‘The World of the Married’ beats premiere of Lee Min-ho, Kim Go-eun’s ‘The King: Eternal Monarch’
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