Meliere’s Cliffnotes

  1. Junghwan’s smile scene in episode 1 as he watched Deoksun on TV = initial confirmation;
    this episode sets up the “spice” and “kick” of a bickering relationship when he kicked her while she was washing the veggies.
  2. The series has maintained Junghwan’s “blossoming and deepening love”, whereas Deoksun-Taek is shown in “spurts”.
    On-screen presentation of Junghwans POV during Taek’s admittance of feelings in episode 10, and Junghwan as a narrator in episode 18
  3. “Thematic” consistency for all Reply series– i.e. the same franchise = the same plot direction. Linear plot line for Reply 1997 and Reply 1994. Junghwan’s arc is mostly linear, so he must be the husband. (Author’s note: Thematic unity and plot structure are different concepts.)
  4. Present day clues = null; most of them could be applied to both husbands, so smoking Taek explains nothing.
  5. No first person POV or narration for Taek; his story is told in relation to others; His characterization is built upon other characters’ understanding of him.

While the idea is laughably silly in real life, kdramas really do support the cliché of ‘first = best’. You know, first love, first confession, first kiss, first male lead always gets the girl. (Side note: Ryu Jun Yeol is not billed as the 1st male lead in official TVN websites)

Many Junghwan shippers have firmly maintained, since the beginning, that Taek does not stand a chance, because like Taewoong and Chilbong his entry into the husband game is delayed.

Junghwan must be the husband because he’s essentially first in line: first to be setup as a husband contender (episode 1’s smile), first to do swoony things for Deoksun, first to take the couple picture, first to go noble idiot, first to confess, etc. There’s even a war-cry of “doesn’t matter if Taek does it better, Jungpalie will have done it first.”

If Reply 1988’s setup was like any other kdrama, I’d bow out immediately and concede to this point. Sink and drown, wave my white flag and all.

If Reply 1988 is reduced to Reply Kim Junghwan, then yes, certainly the show is all about him as a protagonist and his struggles to fulfill his first love.

What I feel is this: Reply 88 features multiple narrators, multiple stories, multiple ‘main’ characters, and multiple OTPs. While Junghwan has narrated one episode only (epeisode 18), Deoksun has been a consistent first-person POV narrator throughout the show. If I must identify ONE character as the “main” of Reply 88, it would be Sung Deokseon, not Kim Junghwan.

And here’s the kick: Junghwan is only ‘first in line’ if we consider the Reply 1988 narrative solely from his POV. Deoksun, on the other hand, is running on a different clock, marching to the beat of a different drum.

For Sung Deoksun:

  • Sunwoo is her first crush
  • Taek is first in priority (e.g. Dongryong and Deoksun’s conversation in the staircase during episode 14)
  • The bridal run was her first romantic-sexual “awakening”, and the first time she’s reminisced about a ‘swoony’ moment alone in her room.
  • Taek is her first kiss
  • From Deoksun, Taek is the first to receive feelings undiluted by suggestions from friends or the assumption she’ll be loved right back.

Basically, one cannot respect Deoksun’s POV and arc as a main character and still argue that Junghan got ‘first dibs’.

Not gonna lie, I fall for this one a lot.

My past shipping history tends to favor tsundere, bickering, and tension over comfy fluffy affection (usually the domain of the forever friend-zoned second lead). So in this regard, I’m not ‘biased’ towards Taek (no seriously, in high school I was one of those girls reading HP Draco and Tom Riddle fanfictions. LOL).

Rom-com and chick lit writers love the bickering OTP trope because it provides a vehicle for:
1. Sexual tension
2. Comedic undertone
3. “That jerk had it coming”; Satisfaction of seeing the ‘cold’ hero on his knees once he’s in love
4. Delaying the “getting together” until the kiss in the sunset and fade to credits

In other words, this is an excuse not to develop the actual relationship, because long-term relationships are difficult to write, whereas cute bickering writes itself.

Again, if Reply 1988’s setup was like any other kdrama, I’d bow out immediately and yield to Team Junghwan. Ss it true that only Junghwan and Deoksun bicker, but like, LOL, she bickers with Dongryong too, right? So are they also destined? Haha, I kid.

This is my main point: Taek & Deoksun’s dynamics also contain a bickering side. 

Deoksun: So you’re a man, huh? Then take it off.
(Episode 10)

Taek: Bora Noona must have been you in the past life.
Deoksun: Want to die?
(Episode 14)

Taek: Yah!
Taek: Sung Soo yeon!
Deoksun: Hey, I’m popular elsewhere.
Taek: Where?
(Episode 18)

And here’s the kick: Junghwan-Deoksun is primarily characterized by their bickering dynamic Episode 1 begins with their bickering and by episode 18 they are still bickering in the car. What happened to development? 2015 couple bickered in the beginning, but by episode 18 one could spot the deep affection between them. Bickering is but a single facet to Taek & Deoksun’s complex relationship.

People watching the show tend to forget that by 2015, Adult!Deoksun and her hubby will have been married for decades. For the writer to setup a convincing prelude to a long marriage, bickering should be an ingredient — but it absolutely cannot be the motivating force (unless it’s Reply We Got Married Divorced.) @mangachickava has written many a brilliant analysis on why a bickering relationship is ultimately inconsistent with Deoksun’s emotional needs.

This is something Team Junghwan brings up a lot. Why allow access to his inner thoughts if Junghwan’s not the husband? Why show his reaction to Taek’s confession to the boys? Why allow him to narrate episode 18? There must be a greater purpose!

Have you guys noticed that, out of all the male Ssangmun-dong characters, Junghwan is the most relatable? Characters like Dongryong, Jungbong, Sunwoo, and Taek have such ‘hardcore’ unconventional traits that their identities are incontestably their own (Dongryong by any other name would not be Dongryong… like I can’t say some other character in a drama is a Dongryong). How many of us are class presidents? How many shove garlic up our butts? How many can’t park properly?

But I’ll bet my last banana that everyone here can find a piece of their heart in Junghwan.

This is because the writer likely formed Junghwan to be an audience surrogate. I’m not bringing up this term as an insult. All popular fiction needs an audience surrogate. Can you imagine Sherlock without Watson? Tolkien once admitted that “The Silmarillion” was less popular than LOtR because it lacked an audience surrogate. This is because as viewers or readers we yearn to identify with a character and experience that particular fictional world through their eyes. Have you guys noticed that Junghwan is always watching, observing, or narrating? Through him we as audiences also watch, observe, and narrate.

Reply 88 is amazing in that it weaves together several narrative arcs. Taek’s arc can be read as an allegory of a single baduk match. Sunwoo’s is about the metamorphosis of loss into attainment (it is through his father’s death that he matures into a competent young man, falls for his Bora, and gains an even larger family). In my opinion, Junghwan’s arc is a near-perfect bildungsroman (a.k.a. the coming of age story, the novel of education, the novel of formation, etc.).

Junghwan is the narrator of his own story — and his own story is but one of many narrative arcs in Reply 88. Junghwan’s POV is most often framed as that of a spectator watching from the sidelines, rather than someone caught in the crux of the action.

A consistent theme in Junghwan’s story has to do with his hesitancy, and how that flaw essentially pushed him to the peripheries of the love triangle (also, his secret keeping meant that DR & SW would not have had the chance to support his love). This thematic idea is explored through POV shots — we get so many scenes of Junghwan looking but not speaking, considering but not doing, peeking through windows but held back by the window glass.

It’s also a reductionist error to assume POV = narrator = main character.

First of all, Junghwan is not a narrator per se; the first time we hear his first person voice is episode 18; the majority of the show is in fact narrated by Deoksun and Bora. Second, he is a narrator-protagonist only to the extent of his own ‘coming of age’ tale.
Within the broader fabric of Reply 88, he is an observer. And we all know one can be a spectator-narrator-observer without necessarily being the main character (e.g. Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway).

Team Junghwan has largely ran circles around Taek, gawking at him as if he’s some great exotic bird. They’ll form assumptions (e.g. Deoksun mothers him, he’s clingy, he’s a plot device to stop Junghwan/Deoksun) only to scratch their heads later and go, “he’s too confusing… I don’t get it.”

Junghwan’s POV is featured more frequently than Taek’s. I’d argue that Taek’s POV is explored with equal punch and poignancy as that of Junghwan’s. I mean, sure, during Taek’s confession to the boys, the camera zoomed in on Junghwan’s face and that sad guitar bgm played on; But Taek’s moment of realization was even more sophisticated in direction and writing: an ordinary squad hangout session transforms into a private moment of grief; the realization hits him and a god-awful silence falls; and then the background music.

To argue that Taek’s POV is unexplored is a sad case of selective-viewing. Reply 88 has had many a Taek-centric episode.
Episode 6 is a major access point into his inner world, as are episodes 7 (relationship with papa bear), 9 (Taek as a baduk player; smoking), 13 (relationship with papa, “is it okay if I lose?” question to Deoksun), 15 (“he hates interviews and asking favors… but“), and 16 (Taek’s POV regarding Junghwan’s feelings, the ultimate decision to give up on his first love).

If both Junghwan and Taek’s POV have been explored, why do the two characters seem so different? Why does Team Junghwan insist Taek is undeveloped?

My answer is this: reliable vs non-reliable narrative.

Junghwan’s arc is a case of reliable narrative; Taek’s arc is an example of an unreliable narrative.

There’s no confusion to Junghwan’s characterization. We know every episode the dude is going to hesitate, swallow his words, hide behind some tsundere behavior… only to step up near the episode’s end and do something sweet/warm/lovely/swoony. This formula has not changed for 18 episodes. What the audience expects, the audience shall get. The virtue of genre.

But with Taek, what the audience expects, the audience shall not get. His arc lacks the transparency of Junghwan’s ‘coming of age’ story. On the level of metafiction, what is happening instead is this: The writer, the narrative, the viewers, and Junghwan are playing a game of baduk against Choi Taek 9 dan. And he is winning.

First, as a ranked 6-dan player, he is kept out of the game for nearly 6 episodes (see handicap in baduk is 5.5 komi) .
But during this time, Taek surveys the board and makes his presence known. Baduk is all about maintaining your presence, and Choi Taek is technically never absent from the show (people are always talking about him: parents, friends, colleagues, random hospital people, Deoksun’s friends, freakin’ Michael; his room is HQ, he is seen on TV and newspapers, etc).

And then the writer (and by extension, viewers/the narrative) keeps on pitching moves against him: he sucks at using chopsticks, he can’t work a walkman player, he’s described as a ‘god of idiots’, he doesn’t go to school, he’s away all the time, baduk takes up 99% of his brain space, he’s in a slump, he can’t take care of himself, someone needs to mother him or he will starve, he appears fragile, he might die if Deoksun doesn’t love him back, he hates asking for favors so don’t ask him to ask for one for you, he’s too competitive to let Deoksun go, his first kiss might be a dream, he can’t park so no way he’s gonna beat Junghwan’s jeep… etc, the list goes on.

But with each move ‘against’ him, Choi Taek 9-dan counter-attacks and gains further momentum. Over and over again he proves to be stronger than the ‘handicaps’ inflicted against him. Over and over again he subverts and rebels against drama tropes, cliches, and viewer expectations. Until finally, in the last episodes, we sense him closing in on end game.

This is a case of brilliant, brilliant writing. If Nolan, Nabokov, Kesey, and others are experimenting with unreliable narratives… why can’t a kdrama writer? About time. I adore characters who are so complex, so bursting with life that they seem to “escape” out of the story itself. Whereas Junghwan reduced his own agency via hesitation, Taek fought for and earned agency every step of the way. And for this, he’s going to receive all the pizzas and bananas in the world (and his Deoksunie).

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