Meliere’s Take on Narrative Structure
Nearly all the episodes have a consistent structure that I believe represents the overarching story as a whole.
- Non-linear story telling (i.e. flashbacks galore)
- Critical information withheld or missing
- A reversal or surprising revelation near the end.
In this sense the show is constantly playing one-upmanship with viewer assumptions and expectations.
Let’s take an early example: in Episode 1, we assumed Deoksun lost her place as a picket girl. It wasn’t until D-day that it was revealed, retroactively, that she got to take someone else’s place. That information was withheld from us and was never told “in real time” on screen. Same with Sunwoo’s crush on Bora. Critical scenes/information were withheld, and were only revealed non-linearly at the end of episode 6 for the big reveal. Basically the list goes on and on for every episode, from important arcs such as Taek-Papa bear’s relationship and Sunyoung finding cigarettes in Sunwoo’s room to Taek’s aborted confession in episode 16.
What’s ironic is that people keep on saying Reply 1988 is so obvious and predictable, yet at every turn predictions completely go wrong and shippers are left surprised and/or confused. See a pattern here? I believe individual episode structure also represent the direction of the story at large: What’s been told in the beginning matters less than what will be unveiled at the end.
And guess which character’s arc aligns most closely with the aforementioned structure? Choi Taek.
His emergence from the story has consistently subverted drama conventions and viewer expectations. The hit list has been pretty dead-on so far…
- “Choi Taek is so innocent he can’t possibly be a smoker”. CHECK.
- “Choi Taek doesn’t seem like the type to be popular with girls.” CHECK.
- “Choi Taek is so clingy he’d never back off” CHECK.
- “Choi Taek is so oblivious he needs someone to tell him that Junghwan likes Deoksun.” CHECK.
- “Choi Take needs mothering; he can’t even take care of himself, much less other people.” CHECK.
What’s left is this: “And anyway the husband is Ryu Jun Yeol.” Guess which way the narrative is going to swing?
The reason why I was never fully onboard with Junghwan’s story is because it felt (to me personally) that the writer was holding back on her creative/intellectual powers when crafting his arc. Junghwan’s destiny has been fairly predictable since the beginning: everyone could spot the tsundere thing, the eventual crush on Deoksun, his noble idiocy etc. For a show so careful with its storytelling, it’s like the writer just decided to flash everyone at point blank, and left few things to guesswork. It’s incredibly anti-intuitive from a narrative perspective if he’s to be the husband—why start the Junghwan/Dseoksun loveline with the strongest scene (boner! boner! boner!) in your book and proceed to dial it down from there? (bonus: didn’t Chilbong’s entry into the husband game start off with a real kiss and his glorious abs? Suddenly Junghwan’s half naked scenes seem less indicative of any real outcome.)
PD Shin & writer Lee are smart people, and given what’s been presented in the episodes so far, I do wonder if they’re trying to venture outside of the kdrama cosmology. I’d assume both are well read people. Outside of kdramas, unreliable narratives/narrators and metafiction are the film-and-fiction zeitgeist of the modern era. Taek’s transformation from “obvious” second lead to Mr. husband is actually more fitting to the tone and style of Reply 1988 than Junghwan being end game.
The writer may be setting up Junghwan as the one to move on. (Note: Author wrote this before episode 17, so…GREAT CALL MEL!)
For a show so obsessed with reversals and so-called “twists”, Reply 1988 isn’t random and doesn’t commit itself to out-of-nowhere developments.
In this sense its surprises are even more enjoyable; if you want to leap really really high, you gotta crouch and prep for it.
Sunwoo’s feelings for Bora may have surprised people, but clues were thrown everywhere in the preceding episodes.
Same with Taek bowing out of the confession– they built up tension with all those suggestions of Taek preferring to “die than be second place”, and yet if anyone’s truly watched episode 15 (Taek asking a hospital director for a favor, even though he hates favors on principle; Taek giving the baduk center director money to take the interview crew for drinks, even though he hates interviews on principle), you’d see his backing out from miles away.
Watching this show, I get the sense that writer Lee is someone who throws out bread crumb trails / paving stones to prep her narrative course.
Watching episode 16, I’m sniffing out her bread crumb trail, and it’s telling me Junghwan will move on.
Remember guys: one little isolated detail may be random; repeated “random” details = foreshadowing. When in doubt, refer back to Chekhov’s gun: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Yes, I know that plane is blue. But let’s not talk about that.
Paper airplane makes two separate appearances in the episode. Seeing it, I’m reminded of the bus. It’s interesting that Taek-Deoksun are represented by organic symbols (fish, sea, water) while Junghwan-Deoksun modes of transportation. The crane is another organic symbol: according to Jungbong, “If you fold 1,000 of these tiny paper cranes, they become real cranes, and fly away. Also, they grant the wish of the one who folded them.”
Earlier in the episodes, we have a scene of Jungbong diligently taking notes from Deoksun, wanting to learn and know everything about Mi Ok. Jungbong’s efforts parallel the the sincerity and dedication other characters like Sunwoo and Taek in realizing their love, and the honesty in their approach. Whereas Jungbong-Sunwoo-Taek make their hearts known to select friends and/or family, Junghwan’s love is still very much obscured in shadows. In the crane scene, Junghwan sweetly wants to help out, but is limited by the fact that he doesn’t know how to fold cranes. In itself this fact symbolizes a teen boy’s endearing inability to command the ins and outs of love.
But when juxtaposed against Taek’s development in the past 6 episodes, Junghwan’s end game position suddenly looks unfavorable. And then there’s that ambiguous scene of Junghwan holding the airplane and wanting it set it free and yet hesitating once again.
I read it as a foreshadowing of his daring to “fly away” in the future.
Our ancestor Dongryong has spoken. People, listen to the oracle! Again, in two separate scenes, Junghwan is shown circling that math problem in an endless loop of frustration (until it literally looks like a black hole). Our boy is confused. Our boy is walking in circles deep in the woods.
Dongryong: How many days have you been on the same problem?
BINGO. Yes, how many episodes has poor Junghwan angsted over the love triangle? When the concept of “moving on” is introduced, the camera zooms in and lingers on Junghwan considering the idea.
Now that the drama has ended, the Reply 1988 episodes looks to be grouped in a 2-4-4-4-4-2 sequence:
Episodes 1-2 [2 episodes] – Exposition
- In essence, who what when where why; key characters and themes introduced.
Episodes 3-6 [4 episodes] – Deoksun→Sunwoo ; Junghwan→Deoksun.
- Deoksun’s teen-girl crush on Sunwoo explored. Noteworthy scenes: “all I can give you is candy/heart” present, post cards, intense determination, cute dressing up / primping / aegyo.
- Junghwan’s crush on Deoksun explored (alleyway, bus, back-hug, trench coat commercial, and umbrella scenes).
- Taek→Deoksun hinted. Taek enters the husband ‘race’ end of ep.6, while Sunwoo is eliminated from the pool.
Episodes 7-10 [4 episodes] – Junghwan→Deoksun ; Taek→Deoksun
- Both Junghwan and Taek’s feelings are explored with equal weight.
- Deoksun is a participant in these scenes, but she does not develop romantic feelings for either boys… until very end of episode 10, when she tries to verify her friends’ suggestions of Junghwan’s feelings, and that brings us to the next arc.
Episode 11-14 [4 episodes] : Deoksun→Junghwan ; Taek→Deoksun
- Junghwan→Deoksun on hold after he heard Taek’s confession to the guys.
- Deoksun’s cute, determined nature again comes to the fore, as she goes after Junghwan. Episode 11 was full of Junghwan/Deoksun goodies. Yet starting from ep.13, decreased screen time for Junghwan.
- Taek→Deoksun developed – we learn about the depth of his feelings. Also, Deoksun-Taek bond/friendship/whatever is developed and explored.
Episode 15 – 18 [4 episodes] : A period of transition.
- Deoksun→Junghwan ends (in that she’s not actively pursuing him anymore, though arguments could be made for her still having feelings).
- Taek→Deoksun continues but is put on hold at the end of episode 16.
- By episode 17 Deoksun emerges as an individual (Dongryong’s pep talk, third year high school struggles, decision to fight for college after all). Hints of possible Deoksun→Taek.
Episode 19 – 20 [2 episodes] : Endgame Taek and Deoksun confirms their feelings for each other.
Deoksun is the key and our girl has spoken.
So this 2-4-4-4-4-2 episode grouping/sequence is completely in-line with Deoksun’s heart:
- 2 episodes to establish Deoksun as the kind-hearted & determined 999th placed middle-child
- 4 episodes of her crushing on Sunwoo
- 4 episodes of her being “neutral”, all while spending time with Junghwan & Taek in a level ‘playing field’
- 4 episodes of her crushing on Junghwan
- 4 episodes in which she re-examines her heart, steps back, grows as an individual, and sets her heart on college
And that right before the coming of a new arc, it is in fact Deoksun who signals shifts in the narrative:
- End of Ep. 2, when it’s revealed she’d written about a “first love” in her diary
- End of ep. 6, when her crush on Sunwoo is terminated
- End of ep. 10, when she discovers Junghwan’s feelings
- End of ep. 14, when she rescues class president, ends her pursuit of Junghwan, and considers Dongryong’s words of wisdom
Basically, whenever there’s a major re-shuffling of the love lines, Deoksun’s feelings in the end of the immediate episode before will tell us what’s going to happen next (she likes Sunwoo → Sunwoo eliminated from husband pool → her twisting the telephone cord = she likes Junghwan → her conversation w/ Dongryong & giving up on Junghwan).
Also, whenever there’s a major shift of her heart in the next episode, Deoksun is shown “keying” viewers by wearing pajamas and/or using the phone. How clever of the PD. The phone is a representational play on “reply / answer me” (preview teasers also show characters using the phone). And the pajamas! Get it? This is Deoksun before bedtime, at her most vulnerable and private state. It’s a throwback to the literary/artistic tradition of granting viewers private access to a female character by showing her “in her boudoir” (art too! All those intimate eastern woodblock prints and western oil paintings showing women before baths, before bedtime, before getting dressed.)
Oh man … the production team isn’t too subtle this time around, huh?
To borrow @liteulkwin‘s words: “PD SHIN, STARE AT ME IN THE FACE AND TELL ME THIS ISN’T FORESHADOWING.”