With it’s highest ratings while airing, When the Camellia Blooms’ finale beat the record of highest ratings for a miniseries. It is not surprising that the K-drama has captivated audiences with its beautifully written story of a single mom who struggles with love, family and, of course, a serial killer. The show is the perfect mix of comedy, thriller, family, and romance while challenging the stigma of being a single mother by featuring a strong female lead who rejects the idea that she is anything less due to her circumstances.
Dong-baek ( Gong Hyo-jin ), the main protagonist, breaks all kinds of stereotypes by being a single parent who has never been married while running a bar in the small town of Ongsan. Kang Ha-neul plays Hwang Yong-Sik, a heroic cop who recently returns to work in his hometown after a 5-year absence. While it is love at first sight for Yong-Sik, Dong-baek is reluctant to accept any romantic gestures. Meanwhile, her now-famous ex, Kang Jong-Ryeol (Kim Ji-Suk,) finds out that he is the father of her child and is desperate to be part of their lives. While the pair are fighting over Dong-baek’s love, a serial killer known as Joker is terrorizing the small town and stalking Dong-baek.
The show portrays single motherhood with a character the viewers can admire instead of pitying. Dong-baek is constantly bullied in this small town by the other female business owners as they talk badly about her, overcharge her for their products, and exclude her from their local community. Despite this, Dong-baek keeps a smile on her face, is polite to everyone, and is still able to defend herself. While the ladies ostracize her, the men think of her as something to ogle and touch. However, she is not afraid to shut down their comments or call them out on their inappropriate behavior. Dong-baek is treated like she committed a grave sin. However, as she tells another character, she does not have anything to be ashamed of:
I’m not ashamed. I didn’t do anything to embarrass my son. I’m not very well off, and I raised him without a dad. So I’ll always feel sorry about that. But I’m not ashamed. I didn’t do anything to be ashamed of myself
There are two other single mothers in the show that play pivotal roles in Dong-baek’s life. Kwak Deok-Sun (Ko Du-Shim), Yong-sik’s mother, was widowed soon after his birth. She raised her children without a father while running the business on her own. She also faced a lot of the same discrimination Dong-baek faced as people pitied her after her husband’s death. While Deok-Sun did empathize with Dong-baek and was her best friend, she was not able to accept her as her son’s girlfriend. Throughout the K-drama, she struggles with her affinity for Dong-baek while also feeling like she cannot be a good mother if she allows her son to date Dong-baek. Her character illustrates how other people’s comments still affected her opinion of Dong-baek, and even of herself.
Dong-baek’s own mother, Jo Jung-sook (Lee Jung-eun) was also a single parent who abandoned Dong-baek in an orphanage. While it is easy to paint her as a villain, we learn that it is only part of the story. Jung-sook left her abusive husband to protect Dong-baek. She struggled to find work while taking care of her daughter on her own. Eventually, after realizing that she could not feed her daughter, she thought it was best to send her to an orphanage. As we piece together each of these mothers’ stories, we see that they all made the best choices they could under their circumstances. They do not deserve to be shamed if anything, they deserve praise for their strength to continue on despite their situations.
Being a child without a parent also carries a similar stigma. Yong-sik was bullied for not having a father and he intervenes when he sees that Pil-goo (Jung Ga-ram), Dong-baek’s son, is bullied for similar reasons. He tries to fill that fatherly role for him but also steps asides when his biological father comes into the picture. Seeing Dong-baek and Pil-goo reminds of Yong-sik reminds him of his own upbringing which is part of the reason he wants to be a part of their lives.
Dong-baek and her employee, Hyang-Mi (Son Dam-Bi) grew up in similar situations as they were both orphans who were bullied by both children and adults for not having parents. However, Hyang-Mi is completely different from Dong-baek. She steals, she lies, and she blackmails several people for cash. At first, her character seems to only be a side character meant to cause trouble. However, as her background is revealed, we see that she has an equally tragic story. She often asks Dong-baek how they could have the same upbringing but have different perspectives on life. Hyang-Mi character shows the other side of what could have easily happened to Dong-baek.
Without spoiling who Joker is, it is clear that he is not a flat villain meant to create more drama in this show. Similar to Hyang-Mi, he is meant to contrast Dong-baek’s character. Joker is insecure and reacts violently when people look down at him. He uses his murders to feel powerful and take back what he felt was taken from him in the first place. Dong-baek, on the other hand, is constantly insulted, pitied, and ostracized. However, she is a stronger person than Joker because she does not seek revenge and is able to be a better person.
Dong-baek’s character was not so much about how she changed but rather about how the townspeople changed around her. Whereas she was first pitied and ridiculed, she finally is seen as an equal that can be part of their community. She shows everyone that she is capable of taking care of herself and her son, even when there is a serial killer out there. When the Camellia Blooms is about tossing away all the stigma there ever was about single motherhood and changing it to admiration.
(News1. Images via KBS)