TL;DR: This show is not for the faint of heart.
I think it would be best if I started out listing the trigger warnings for this episode: child neglect, domestic violence, child abuse (both physical and emotional), child sexual abuse (implied), murder of a child (described), bullying, and animal cruelty/death (described). There are also PTSD flashbacks to yet more child abuse and also a lot of scenes where the system fails to protect a vulnerable child. If you’re ready to handle that, then we can continue. If you’re not, then I would strongly suggest skipping this drama.
This show wasted no time in making sure we knew exactly what was going on in Hye-na’s home. Most of the abuse came from her mother’s boyfriend, Seol-ak. He’s a vicious piece of shit, with a hair-trigger temper and a sadistic streak a mile wide. Seol-ak is more an evil force than a character, without any redeeming qualities or attempts to explain away his vileness (which is a minor relief.) No, he’s the kind of guy who tosses a five-year-old off a four-story balcony because the kid was too loud, and that’s really the only thing you need to know about him.
Hye-na’s mother, Ja-young, only fares slightly better, and that’s because Seol-ak is her boyfriend. She knows some, if not all, of what Seol-ak does to Hye-na—and he may have or may be abusing her, too, if the way she flinches and tries to persuade him to stop beating Hye-na is any indication—but she compounds the abuse. I could probably understand her if it was mostly the forced-to-work-long-hours-to-support-an-abusive-boyfriend-and-thus-can’t-supervise-her-child variety, but I lost all sympathy for her when she struck Hye-na to the ground. You’re going to call your elementary school-aged daughter disgusting because you caught your adult boyfriend sniffing her? And then drive away with that same man while eaving your daughter literally in a garbage bag? What the fuck is your problem, lady? (…years of domestic violence, undoubtedly.) If there were any indication that Ja-young was attempting to protect Hye-na for Hye-na’s sake and just, you know, fucking up in her response, I’d still have some sympathy for her, but at no point do we see her comforting, trying to advise, or deflecting abuse for Hye-na. Why don’t you just take Hye-na to the orphanage and be done with it?
I’m glad, for once, that adults noticed a child was being abused and tried to do something about it. I’m less than thrilled by Ye-eun’s commentary on how children of single parents take up so much of the teachers’ time because it sounded like she was equating single parenthood with bad parenting, and that is not what I am here for. Regardless, it was good to see Ye-eun be angry on Hye-na’s behalf and be increasingly frustrated by a system that doesn’t have enough teeth to protect a child.
Ye-eun took steps to document Hye-na’s abuse, tried home visits, cooperated with the school authorities, and ultimately wasn’t able to help Hye-na in the least. I also found the conversation between her and Soo-jin about listening to what Hye-na was saying to be very interesting. It framed Ye-eun as a well-intentioned but ineffective interloper because she wanted to steamroll through the issues of Hye-na’s family life, whereas Soo-jin, despite her emotional distance, had a better grasp on Hye-na’s feelings and personality.
Soo-jin is a fascinating woman. She’s brilliant in her field, respected by her peers, and only moonlighting as a teacher because she’s in between project funding. Soo-jin seems right on the line between appreciating being alone and actually being lonely. I can’t tell yet if she just naturally prefers solitude (a woman after my own heart) or if it is a reaction to her own tumultuous childhood.
Because even before the fragmented flashbacks, it was clear in the way that Soo-jin addressed Hye-na that she was well aware of the problems Hye-na was facing. Soo-jin gave her concrete, age-appropriate things to do to take care of her appearance in order to reduce the risk of bullying and reassured Hye-na that plenty of kids can look out for themselves when no one else will. Then she stepped in, more than once, to care for Hye-na because no one else was doing it. With the PTSD flashbacks to her own abuse, it was easy to see how Soo-jin would come to care for Hye-na and her welfare, deeply. I wonder if she wished someone would swoop in and rescue her from that man when she was young, and if she is using this opportunity not only to save Hye-na but to do what no one else would for her younger self.
I’m intrigued by Soo-jin’s estranged family. Based on the few clues we have now, it’s possible that Soo-jin’s mother, Yeong-sin, wasn’t able to protect Soo-jin from the abusive man in her flashbacks. That would explain why Soo-jin has basically just ghosted her family, and that guilt could be why Yeong-sin hasn’t pushed the issue until now. (Why? Her striding out of the doctor’s office/hospital makes it seem like she’s sick, so does she need a blood relative to donate an organ or something?) Soo-jin’s younger sister, Yi-jin, doesn’t seem to be aware of why Soo-jin might have ghosted them, which makes me wonder if Yi-jin was the family’s golden child while Soo-jin was the scapegoat. We’ll have to see how that shakes out.
Ultimately, my heart aches for Hye-na. She has endured so much abuse that she’s proud of herself for not crying no matter how much physical or emotional pain she’s in, and her list of happy things include the suitcase she hides in when her mother tells her to get out of her sight. Hye-na is a child who desperately loves her mother but is starting to realize that maybe her mother doesn’t love her back, and it is heartbreaking to see her will to defend her mother start to crumble.
I’m relieved that Soo-jin did not break her promise to Hye-na about taking her to see the migratory birds. She came so close to washing her hands of the situation, but finding Hye-na literally in a trash bag, covered in bruises, was the moment she realized she couldn’t just leave Hye-na behind. It was awful to see Hye-na finally break down in tears at the end of the episode, after everything else she went through. She’s just a child who feels like she can’t live without her mother, so it was beautiful and also painful that Soo-jin could confidently reassure Hye-na that it was possible.
No matter what happens in this show, I hope that Soo-jin is right. I hope that she can teach Hye-na how to survive without her mother—and if things go south, that Hye-na can learn to survive without Soo-jin, too.
By the Numbers
- Animals killed: 2
- Bird-watching scenes: 2
- Tracking rings to collect: 20
- Students in homeroom 3: 15
- Bechdel Test: 1 episode passed