The World of the Married recently made K-drama history when it became the highest-rated cable K-drama ever, overtaking heavyweights like SKY Castle. What about this drama has so captured the public’s attention? What makes it so riveting, so magnetic?

The answer lies in The World of the Married’s nuanced depictions of flawed relationships and characters. The drama follows a successful doctor, Ji Sun-woo (Kim Hee-ae), as she divorces her cheating husband and deals with the fallout of their destroyed marriage. Instead of sugar-coating and oversimplifying, the drama realistically portrays the damage wrought by infidelity and divorce.

This review contains spoilers.

The World of the Married offers multiple perspectives on the effect of cheating on a relationship. Consider Sun-woo and her husband Lee Tae-oh (Park Hae-joon), who is having an affair with the young, rich, and beautiful Yeo Da-kyung (Han So-hee). Sun-woo’s maelstrom of fury and disgust is extreme but understandable. After all, how could the father of her son commit a betrayal of this magnitude? Their eventual divorce is incredibly messy and destructive, but not unexpectedly so.

Meanwhile, Sun-woo’s friend Ye-rim (Park Sun-young) is also married to an unfaithful husband. Yet unlike Sun-woo, who quickly resolves to leave her husband, it takes Ye-rim two years to finally choose divorce. When she does separate from Je-hyuk (Kim Young-min), their divorce is very simple. They do not fight over possessions, they have no children to battle for custody of, and they seem frosty but very calm about the divorce. Ye-rim gives him a few documents, Je-hyuk signs, and it’s over.

Except it’s not.

This is where The World of the Married’s greatest strength lies: it portrays complex and confusing relationships, without falling into easy resolutions. The drama could have chosen a simple, clear-cut route: either permanent separation or permanent reconciliation. Sun-woo could have allowed Tae-oh to be convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Or she could have persuaded him to leave Da-kyung and return to her and Joon-young. Ye-rim could have kicked Je-hyuk out of their house and carried on with her life without a second thought. Or she could have remarried Je-hyuk and happily rebuilt their life together. But no.

Instead, one divorce is messy while the other is simple, but neither relationship ends easily. Sun-woo and Ye-rim struggle to reconcile their distrust with their lingering love towards their exes. Neither woman’s feelings are simple, even though their divorces were very different. This complexity is at once stunning and realistic: The World of the Married emphasizes that no matter how simple a divorce is, couples just can’t separate simply.

There are no easy endings. There is no quick healing. Cheating utterly destroys a couple’s sense of trust and security, even when love remains. Likewise, long marriages leave a strong emotional imprint, even when there’s no rational reason to feel any more love.

The World of the Married takes this message a step further by exploring the impact of divorce on children. Joon-young (Jeon Jin-seo), one of the most interesting characters, shows clear signs of emotional trauma even before Tae-oh and Da-kyung move back to Gosan. But after his father returns, Joon-young quickly spirals into delinquency. By following Joon-young’s troubling youth, The World of the Married establishes the fact that divorce doesn’t just devastate couples — it leaves scars on entire families. Joon-young may be belligerent and even violent, but he invites sympathy. He is a victim of his parents.

Contrast Joon-young with No-eul (Shin Soo-yeon), however, who unlike him, has a sweet friendship with her divorced mother and performs well at school. No-eul is the quintessentially perfect preteen, yet she is also the product of a failed marriage.

By juxtaposing Joon-young (a worst-case scenario) with No-eul (a best-case scenario), The World of the Married once again proves that divorce’s aftermath isn’t easy to describe. Some children like Joon-young are deeply hurt and may take years or decades to heal, while others like No-eul exhibit little emotional trauma. Divorce is messy, and its outcome is similarly difficult to pin down.

The World of the Married ties all of these myriad relationships together with its masterful use of suspense. This drama is lean and taut, with some truly startling moments: Sun-woo shoving Joon-young by the lake, with a sudden cut to the next scene just as he slips. The scarf she gave Hyun-seo (Sim Eun-woo), bloodstained and crumpled on the road. Sun-woo walking into the ocean as Doctor Kim (Lee Moo-saeng) hurtles down the road, searching for her.

The World of the Married pairs disturbing scenes with equally dark characters, highlighting the full consequences of sudden relationship ruptures. There aren’t plot twists, per se; rather, this drama bucks and swerves at breakneck speed.

Even when the plot slows down, The World of the Married still creates a compelling sense of intense emotion, further embellishing the drama’s narrative that divorce is heart-wrenching in more than one way. The stellar music in particular helps craft this tension.

From the quiet yet stirring ballad “Lonely Sailing” to the soaring production of “Sad,” each song in The World of the Married packs a powerful punch. The drama also makes full use of music beyond its soundtrack, with a frenetic orchestral number and a pulsing chorus of voices. Music enhances emotion, and The World of the Married knows how to embellish the on-screen action with fitting music.

Of course, the drama does have its faults. It sometimes becomes overdramatic, lingering just a few moments too long on a shocked expression or crying character. The last episode is not nearly as lean and quick-moving as previous episodes, instead hovering on sentimentalities just before delivering a shocking sucker-punch of an ending.

Yet The World of the Married’s strengths far outshine its weaknesses. It takes a common occurrence, divorce, and spins a breathtaking story full of rich complexity, throbbing suspense, and realistic flaws. The World of the Married is a deeply tragic and deeply human drama about the consequences when relationships are split asunder.

(Naver, YouTube. Images via JTBC.)