Welcome back to SBS‘s Doctor Stranger: the drama that uniquely combines spy thriller with medical drama, where over 50% of the characters scheme against Park Hoon (Lee Jong-suk). This slew of episodes aired with falling ratings, with Big Man‘s ratings inching closer each week. To me, the falling ratings are understandable given the less compelling content of these four episodes.
I find the medical drama interesting, but the political conspiracy is wearing thin since the reveals are surfacing too slowly. Here are the characters invested in manipulating Hoon: Seung-hee, Comrade Cha, Jae-joon, Jae-joon’s surgery team, Doctor Choi, Chairman Oh, Doctor Moon (Hoon’s supervisor), the Prime Minister, Tae-sool (PM’s sidekick with sunglasses), Jun-han (former Chief), Soo-hyun’s half-brother, and that doctor from cardiology and his team and residents. This is pretty much the entire cast except Chang-yi (Bora) and Soo-hyun (Kang So-ra), and many of these characters also want to control Soo-hyun. While the medical side is fairly well-explained, though convoluted, the political web is not, which leaves the politics-focused scenes fairly unintelligible and less interesting.
Until the latter half of episode 12, Chief Jae-joon (Park Hae-jin) was still an utterly cold-hearted jerk. While I think that his backstory as an orphan adopted by an American family is somewhat compelling, the flashbacks of him as a young boy are overplayed to exhaustion. Every time he speaks to Chairman Oh, he as a young boy pleading and crying appears on the screen. The flashbacks don’t even positively impact my opinion of him as an insensitive adult; rather, they give information on why he is the way he is, so I don’t need to see it replayed again and again.
Rather, I would prefer to see him making gradual changes in the way he interacts with people; though he cares about Soo-hyun, he rarely does or says anything nice to her, and it’s unclear why he pursues her so singlemindedly and creepily. The literal storybook castle model as a metaphor is extremely heavy-handed and obvious. Eventually, his half-hearted redemption storyline pulls through at the end episode 12, which is too late in the game for a 20-episode drama with a somewhat bloated cast.
For the other leads, Kang So-ra’s range of expressions contribute immensely to Soo-hyun’s well-written character development, while Jin Se-yeon‘s one-note acting is still disappointing, as is the excessive shroud of mystery around her character Han Seung-hee/Song Jae-hee. Her face moves minimally, but even worse, this is the main site of her acting: her body language is sparse and withholding, so she receives a lot of close-ups. When Comrade Cha wraps his arm around her throat to strangle her, her expression is the same as when she is mildly downcast and when she jealously catches Soo-hyun and Hoon engaged in a face-grabbing contest. It’s possible that her low energy style contributed to the writing of her character as a secretive enigma, but this doesn’t absolve her performance from being boring.
I think idol-actress Bora as Chang-yi similarly showed her weakness when she was called to do an emotional scene with Hoon, and I don’t like the direction Chang-yi’s subplot with sleazy Kim Chi-gyu is heading in either. However, Jae-joon’s madcap surgery team of Drs. Keum, Eun and Kim always provide comic relief, and I think Han Eun-sun is a standout from the non-lead cast.
As for the romantic storylines, I still don’t buy Se-yeon and Hoon as a couple (and I’m not sure I believe Se-yeon is Jae-hee yet, either). Besides the palpable lack of chemistry, the biggest problem is that Se-yeon and Hoon have completely different and also opposing endgames. Hoon wants to become the most ethical doctor he can be, but he needs to figure out what that means first. Se-yeon… Well, we still don’t know what she wants or really who she is, and their reunion has not involved a lot of deep discussion. Since we have no idea what Se-yeon’s master plan is yet, she is instead positioned as an obstruction to Hoon’s quest of ethical discovery — not great for a romantic partner. Simultaneously, Hoon is positioned as Soo-hyun’s support on her own introspective journey of self-confidence, which is a more realistic bond. The online response is overwhelmingly in support of Hoon/Soo-hyun, and I would have to agree.
I think the last five minutes of episode 12 were the most suspenseful of episodes 9-12, so I am hopeful that it picks up from here on. I’m with Doctor Stranger until the end thanks to the possibility of a second lead endgame, but I hope the mysteries will be unraveled soon.