Itaewon Class. What a strange love story to Capitalism, am I right?
Here is how I imagine this drama was pitched between the writer and the studio executive.
Executive: “So what have you got there? You said it’s a revenge story set in the food industry?”
Writer: “Oh yeah. It’s gonna be great. We’ve got this stubborn, solitary guy who doesn’t need anyone’s approval, he’s just gonna go his own way and do what’s right. Stick to his principles. Never budge an inch.”
Executive: “Like a John Wayne type?”
Writer: “Teenage John Wayne.”
Executive: “But better looking than John Wayne.”
Writer: “Much better looking.”
Executive: “Who does he want revenge against?”
Writer: “A CEO of a worldwide food company. This guy is just super rich and powerful, so it’s gonna be hard to get revenge, ya know?”
Executive: “He’s gonna get his revenge by becoming rich too, right?”
Writer: “Of course. That’s how justice works.”
Executive: “It’s how product placement advertising works too. Sounds like a win!”
Itaewon Class had all the elements of a quality fairy tale K-drama: A strong archetypal hero with impeccable values and a heart of gold who rises over adversity, meets his goals, finds loyal friends and allies, and of course discovers true love. There was a nice sized cast of diverse characters with unique plot lines and motivations. I was interested in the fates of everyone I’d been introduced to, good and bad. It was far better than the majority of K-dramas I have seen in the past year and not bothered to review.
And yet it had serious problems. The last few episodes really fell off the gas pedal and the plotline slowed down considerably. Ironically, the most dragging episode was the finale – which had a preposterous amount of exciting things happening and somehow managed to muffle all the energy of the climax. And worst of all, in my opinion, there was the problematic underlining theme of the entire show. It’s what I like to call the Capitalist Dream, the lie we all tell ourselves: If you just work really, really hard then you can achieve anything. Entry into the golden palaces of the 1% is possible for anyone willing to work overtime. This idea has tucked the poor into bed since the dawn of time, soothing their anxieties about class inequality with a little fairy tale about how some people sneak into the castle… and get the prince to fall in love with them… and that could be you.
So, yeah, there were issues. But I still highly recommend this drama. It’s 16 episodes, which is a nice length for a series. They managed to fill each episode with enough plot that we didn’t have to over indulge in excessive flashbacks, pointless walking or staring scenes, or other fillers. It was lighthearted and funny at times without being silly or cartoonish. I especially enjoyed the spunky, quasi-sociopathic lead female. And who doesn’t love a good revenge story?
Itaewon Class – Overall Rating: 8.5/10. Feel-Good Capitalist Propaganda.
More – about characters and themes below. SPOILERS GALORE so watch the show first, my dear readers.
This show did a lot of things right – things I LOVED – and it did a lot of things wrong too. Let’s talk about the negative stuff first… then end it with praise, shall we?
Let’s talk about money.
If you don’t know anything about the economy of South Korea – about 10% of the people own 45% of the wealth (it’s not as bad as in America, but it’s still pretty bad). Income inequality is a serious issue they are tackling. Jobs are scarce. Many people work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Gender inequality is massive, far exceeding that of other industrialized countries.
Itaewon Class is a rags to riches story. Or it tries to present itself as one. It tries very hard to paint the narrative of Hard Work=Financial Gain. No education? No problem just read a book and teach yourself! Criminal history? You can overcome that with hard work, baby. Just take the shitty work you can get and save every penny, then you can be your own boss one day!
Of course, the truth is that narrative is flawed. Our hero had a great education at top schools because his father held a high position in a massive company. He didn’t get kicked out until his last year – and he’d learned enough to be able to easily get his GED and go into the police academy. His father, though fired, had enjoyed such a high salary that not only was he able to save money, but he squirreled away significant amounts of it – enough to pay for the college education of two people and open a small business. The father had a financial safety net and our hero enjoyed the privilege of that stability.
When his father is killed and our hero almost murders the teenager responsible, that safety net comes into play once again. Our hero is a convict now, he will not be able to work for the police, but he’s not destitute. He has that college savings account. And he has the payout money for his father’s insurance and whatever he just inherited. He also has a friend who is an investment banker super nerd. So unlike most people who serve jail time and are fucked for life, his safety net remains intact.
This is the most frustrating aspect of the entire show, in my opinion. The drama makes it seem like our hero works on a fishing boat so he can save all his pennies to open a restaurant, but in fact he just needed to kill some more time to let his stock investments grow. While his employees and outside parties worry over the success of his new restaurant, assuming he’d put every dime into it and that the rocky start and various set backs will ruin him, he’s secretly sitting on a gigantic golden egg.
A lot of aspects of the narrative seem odd when you consider the golden egg. It invalidates our heroes struggle in many ways and there is a reason the writers didn’t reveal his secret bank account until after his restaurant was already successful. Because the narrative of struggle doesn’t really work when your protagonist is rich. I have a feeling if I went back and rewatched the show knowing that he had millions pocketed away, I would hate the guy. He made a lot of speeches to his coworkers and friends about doing the right thing even if it meant risking the business – but there was no risk. THERE WAS NO RISK. He’s a millionaire!
Anyways, this happens a lot if you scratch the surface of rags to riches stories. And we are given not one but TWO of these stories in this particular drama. The evil CEO is also a rags to riches story. Straight from the streets. He watched his siblings die of starvation and extreme poverty… but somehow rose to be a heartless multi-millionaire… and how did he make it again? It’s very unclear.
I know that both men relied on the extreme wealth of an investor to break past the millionaire status into the multi-millionaire 1% bracket. In this story, that billionaire investor goes around disguised as a poor woman and collects rent from elderly people who are so desperate they are considering suicide by brisket. She beats them and berates them and gives them a few crumbled dollars occasionally. I mean… is there anything more sadistic than this? To think of a billionaire going around in dirty clothes collecting rent personally from people who are suffering financially… while she has a private jet and a secret summer mansion in Jeju Island and… access to billions? That’s fucked up. I mean… it’s seriously fucked up. This whole story line gives me chills.
There were quite a few convoluted aspects to characters, including the ice queen who was our heroes first love and long time crush. She went to work for the company run by the man who COVERED UP A MURDER of a man she knew and loved. She went to work every day with his son, the guy who MURDERED HER BENEFACTOR. And there was no ulterior motive there, either. She wasn’t there as a mole, she didn’t take the job to fuck up the system, there was no reason! I mean… what? Why did she do that? She was smart and capable – she could have been successful anywhere but she immediately tossed her principles and conscious aside for a guaranteed gig at the evil conglomerate, secure in the fact she probably wouldn’t be fired because she knew the CEO’s secret. I suppose her character is supposed to be an example of the ills of wanting to become wealthy no matter what – instead of, you know, because of a deep-seeded slightly psychotic need for revenge.
Money wasn’t the only problem.
On the other side of the love triangle of this tale of money and woe, we have a spitfire borderline-sociopathic girl, and though I loved her, she was also problematic. A dedicated stalker. I realize it was supposed to be cute, especially towards the end when she non-stop flirted with our hereo even after he repeatedly asked her to stop. There was something icky about that whole plotline. About as icky as the ice queen being non-stop hit on by the murdering CEO’s son, even when she’d asked him to stop repeatedly. Yet we’re supposed to feel different ways about these two examples even though they are the same thing. What is the lesson, Itaewon Class? It’s okay to sexually harass someone in the work place if… what??? Eck eck eck.
Okay, enough about the problems. But before we jump into the good stuff – let’s talk about missed opportunities.
Did anyone else think that the oldest son of the CEO was going to have a redemption arc?
This actor was outstanding. He was both terrifying and creepy and petty and mean… but he also had this sad broken boy calling out from behind his eyes and I felt horrible for him the whole show. His redemption arc would have been terrific. It could have shown that even though you are raised wrong – spoiled and encouraged to behave badly by your parent – you can recognize your mistakes and correct them. Maybe that’s just not possible in the world of K-dramas, but I honestly thought it was going to happen.
When the second female lead finally tells him that she hates him – that the man he killed was someone she knew and loved – that was when I started to wonder if he couldn’t be redeemed. His only connection to the dead man was through his son – the boy who had been the first to stand up to him, the situation that had caused his father to berate him and force him to later kill a chicken. That boy also tried to murder him, so it was somewhat understandable that he’d hate the hero and thus be able to disassociate from the man he’d murdered. But now he was given another dimension to the story – the girl he’d loved his whole life had also been affected by the murder. And when she pointed out that even if it was an accident, he’d done wrong by not reporting it and covering up the crime, our villain looked truly shaken. Later, when he got out of prison and sat down to have drinks with his ice queen crush – for a minute he seemed like a changed man. Remorseful. A bit lost. I thought… oh my God, how cool would it be if he decides to turn on his father and his upbringing? This could be the true test of our hero’s moral resolve – to see if he could forgive the man who’d killed his father if he asked for it. If he made amends. Maybe these two ambiguous characters – this materialistic ice queen and this damaged spoiled prince – can find happiness together. Maybe this is about to get really freakin’ deep.
Speaking of our ice queen, this is the perfect segue into things I loved.
One of my favorite scenes in the whole show was when our sociopath girl blocks a kiss between our hero and his first love, the ice queen.
I mean… that was comedy gold. And she just kept her hand clamped on that drunk girl’s mouth for ages and ages – it was hysterical.
The romance was super bizarre in this show but very enjoyable for this reason. We had this strange virginal handsome guy, pure like Jesus Christ, in the world but not of it. And we had him paired with a materialistic orphaned ice queen and a spunky social media sociopath. In a way, both of these women were very odd. Ice Queen’s life story and motivations were reduced to $$$$. And our social media starlet did not have any motivations of her own – she was good at everything but aimless – so she adopted the motivations of her crush and used his goals as a clear path to channel her skills.
I also thought it was funny when our sociopath slowly turned into a weird replica of the other girl – when they met up again and had the same hairstyle? I was amused by this, but it was a nice touch really… people subconsciously model themselves after their goals, and the ice queen still had her hero’s heart.
I like that our male lead was basically asexual. I mean, he seemed vaguely aware of the opposite sex. On occasion. To put it crudely, I got the impression he didn’t even masturbate, ya know? The dude didn’t have a sex drive, he was running his entire operating system on ambition. The sociopath is the same, though at least she’d experimented with dating and clubbing and such. Towards the end, when the spunky sociopath tells our hero she knew they were suited for each other because they were both selfish and lonely, I thought that perfectly summed them up. They can teach other all the bedroom stuff off camera, post-credits.
And I didn’t mind that there was no sexual chemistry between these two people because I don’t think there was even a drop of it between the actors. They clearly enjoyed working together, but when they actually touched – even casually – it seemed cringey. Like it did with Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in Sleepy Hollow. You could tell they did not enjoy their romantic scenes and were mentally telling themselves “Focus, you’re an actor, damn it! Act like you like this. Focus, focus!” So it turned out for the best they were so G-Rated in their amorous adventures, cause I would not have believed the romance if they were trying to sell us fire between them.
Our second leads – the ice queen and the second son of the CEO – were also lonely and ambitious, but they weren’t selfish. The ice queen just wanted money, she didn’t really care about making a name for herself or being personally recognized for her achievements, she just wanted those expensive perks. And the second son of the CEO couldn’t really figure out what he wanted so he abstractly focused on having a crush as a replacement for a driving force. He even admitted he knew he’d never get the girl, but getting the girl was the crutch he needed to put forward momentum in his life.
I think that’s how it is for most people. We’re only abstractly aware of things we want. We want comfort. Maybe some perks. Some love and acceptance. That’s what everyone else in the show wanted.
The ex-con gangster wanted to live a simple life, to feel he was making things better in the world, to let go of the stress of violence. The transgender girl just wanted to transition and accept herself and be with others who accepted her for who she was. The foreign Korean guy just wanted to find his father so he could legally claim his heritage and get to know the other side of his family.
I loved that not only did this show feature a transgender character, but it showed their lives during transition AND gave her a love interest. We even had a date at the end! I was thrilled.
When this character was first introduced I was delighted to have a cute tomboy in the cast. When people kept mistaking her for a man, I thought, “Oh, this is a girl disguised as boy trope.” And then when they showed her out at the club and established her as transgender character, I felt like applauding. I did not see that coming, Itaewon Class. This character story line was very well done for a K-Drama. It had problems, but as we are in the baby steps realm for diversity in media in South Korea, I am gonna let everything slide and just be really happy that they’re trying to stand up.
How cute was it she ended up becoming good friends with the sociopath? I absolutely adored that they presented a strong female friendship between these two, especially after their rocky start.
They also had an openly gay character – a side, side side character – but he was well respected and made several cameos. They made a point of mentioning his significant other, firmly establishing him as not only gay but in a relationship. Again, it’s a baby step but no one starts walking overnight. This is how it’s done.
Not only did this drama introduce characters in the LGBTQ+ spectrum but it also had a main side character of color. This is another taboo topic that I look forward to further exploring in other dramas in the future – foreigners, particularly foreigners of color – and biracial characters. South Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom for a long time because they kept their borders locked up tight. South Korea is still among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous nations. And there’s a lot to unpack there – and no easy approach.
I very much enjoyed the story of this character – and his search for the Korean side of his family. The subtle implications of how difficult it was to hire foreigners, the racism and xenophobia, were nicely touched upon and acknowledged. Again, baby steps. But it was well done and this show really took advantage of its run time to dive deeper into side character’s personal stories and I appreciated that.
So… that’s about all my thoughts on the story. I liked it, I was annoyed by it, but most importantly I was engaged. I burned through the whole series in two days.
What about you? Did you like it? Did you have problems with it? Let me know – I’d love to hear your opinions too.