Was It Love? was off to a surprisingly promising start, with a host of odd characters who piqued Karen and Qing‘s interest by defying archetypes. The two editors return to weigh in on episodes 5-8, which veer dangerously close to simplistic plotlines, and discuss the problems they had with two of the male leads in particular.

Qing: Seems like we’re hitting a bump in the road—I’ve been engaged for most of the episodes so far, but in episodes 7 and 8, especially, I found my attention drifting. Show, it’s too early for the third-quarter slump!

Backing up a bit, though, let’s pick up where we left off the last review. We spoke about the interesting characterisations of Oh Dae-oh (Son Ho-jun), Noh Ae-jeong’s (Song Ji-hyo) college boyfriend and now-director of her upcoming film, and her investor Koo Pa-do (Kim Min-jun), a kind-hearted loan shark. 

In comparison, the other male leads, actor Ryu Jin (Song Jong-ho) and high school teacher Oh Yeon-woo (Koo Ja-sung), were harder to relate to because we weren’t shown as much of their stories. In these recent episodes, we’re given more insight into Ryu Jin’s past with Ae-jeong, and Yeon-woo takes on a more proactive role in making his feelings known to Ae-jeong. What’s your take on their character development (or perhaps, regression)?

Karen: Ryu Jin and Yeon-woo no longer have the excuse of insufficient screen time to defend the flaws in their character. Between the two, Yeon-woo seems to be the worst of the lot of suitors in my eyes. His boy-next-door image might be cute and endearing, but when matched to the reality of him being probably in his early 30s and also a school teacher, his behaviour verges on disturbing. 

In many ways, Yeon-woo takes the initiative in furthering his relationship with Ae-jeong like Dae-oh does. He’s grabbing the opportunity while he can, though he steps way past any kind of boundaries that should be set. At the parent-teacher meeting, he can’t help but flirt with Ae-jeong, and uses his puppy dog eyes to persuade Ae-jeong into giving in to his requests. As Ha-nee’s teacher, openly flirting in school is a big no-no. 

While I could have forgiven Yeon-woo’s more childish behaviour when he was in his 20s, his aggressiveness and impatience towards his mother (and anyone he deems annoying) also crafts him as a rather insidious character; he pulls off the mask of kindness easily to eradicate any potential threats to the romance he has narrated for himself. Moreover, he has the tendency to shut out all other life paths for Ae-jeong once he realises they don’t involve him. He starts the fight with Dae-oh by delivering the first punch and chases people away from Ae-jeong’s life when it’s clear he’s nothing more than a friend to Ae-jeong, someone who doesn’t have the authority to interfere so strongly in the lives of Ha-nee or Ae-jeong. 

It makes me wonder if his somewhat pushy and two-faced personality is a result of his mother’s endless coddling, and it’s pretty obvious she also doesn’t respect personal boundaries when it comes to her son. I understand that despite being a good-looking chaebol that’s tired of the rich socialite activities his mother tried to coerce him into, I can’t forgive him for depriving Ae-jeong of the right to make decisions for herself and her family. If a piss-drunk Dae-oh has the decency to allow Ae-jeong to choose between himself, Ryu Jin, and Yeon-woo, I don’t see why an educator like Yeon-woo can’t give Ae-jeong the same space. 

I’m definitely displeased and creeped out by Yeon-woo’s behaviour, or maybe this kind of personality type just doesn’t appeal to me very much. Now that we get to know more about Ryu Jin and Yeon-woo, what are your thoughts on their characters?

Qing: Yeon-woo had the potential to be an interesting character, having the most down-to-earth profession compared to the other three, and also being the only man younger than Ae-jeong. His acquaintance with Ha-nee (Um Chae-young) and Ae-jeong’s mother (Kim Mi-kyung) also gives him an edge. Though the revelation of his chaebol background changes his character type into a more cliched one, it was ultimately his disrespect for personal and professional boundaries, as you noted, that made me strike him off the list.

Also on the verge of being knocked out of this love pentagon—or square, since we haven’t seen Pa-do demonstrate romantic interest yet—is Ryu Jin. In the first quarter, his actions were mostly driven by his newfound realisation that he may have unknowingly fathered a child. Here, though, he defaults to the cliched path of a petty love rival.

Unlike with Yeon-woo, who clearly likes Ae-jeong now just as he did back when they first met, we’re never quite sure whether Ryu Jin still likes Ae-jeong in the present. Yeon-woo verbalises his motivations: he wants to be there for Ae-jeong in a way that a younger him failed to. Ryu Jin, however, only refers to the past when he tells Dae-oh that he liked Ae-jeong first.

Ryu Jin’s attitude towards pursuing Ae-jeong is problematic on two counts. His first dibs argument is unfounded; he may have met and liked Ae-jeong before Dae-oh, but did he make his feelings known and try to win her over? Moreover, by making a claim on Ae-jeong regardless of her feelings, he’s treating her as a possession, rather than respecting her as a person who can make decisions on who to date. 

This objectifying perspective comes to light further when we consider that Ryu Jin only begins taking an active stance when he realises that Dae-oh is trying to win Ae-jeong back. Is he pursuing her because he truly still likes her, or to simply thwart Dae-oh from repeating what he did back in college? If it’s the latter, then Ryu Jin could almost be worse than Yeon-woo, because he’s not acting on sincere feelings.

Beyond the characters, I do feel that the plot is approaching a slight slump. Did you feel the same way?

Karen: Yes, I do see the ominous mid-series slump heading at us full speed, considering how the past four episodes seem to be slowing down. The weight of Ae-jeong’s dream in becoming a film producer is taking a backseat, and is transforming into nothing more than an element to forward the romance. This doesn’t sit particularly well with me. 

I loved Ae-jeong for her ambition and strong will, but with the love story taking over too much, she’s simply being bonked around like in a pinball game between the potential suitors. As a result, she’s being trapped in a rather passive role of having to respond to the men in the show rather than take the wheel herself. She seems to be caged from the beginning by the circumstances set by others, and even the forwarding of the film, her dream, comes to be via Pa-do and Dae-oh butting in. 

Perhaps a simple way to put it would be Ae-jeong’s phenomenal luck, such that things seem always to fall in place without her taking active steps in searching for opportunities. Even the hard-to-please Joo A-rin (Kim Da-som) just so happens to have a crush on Dae-oh, and the result of such a coincidence smoothens the path to success for Ae-jeong. 

I guess my curiosity only remains when it comes to the history behind Dong-chan’s (Yoon Sung-woo) mother, whom we got a few glimpses of in episode 8. Now that the drama has reached its mid-point, do you think it’ll manage to overcome this oncoming hurdle? 

Qing: The elements that could steer the plot away from the typical and uninteresting territory of love rivalry are there, for sure. While the issues with the writing of Ae-jeong’s character have always been there, the other characters have fared better previously. 

In our first review, we observed that each male lead seems to have a unique role and growth arc even as they similarly show romantic interest in Ae-jeong. For Dae-oh and Pa-do, it’s coming to terms with a traumatic incident related to love; Pa-do has the additional hurdle of a fraught relationship with his son. Yeon-woo and Ryu Jin both struggle with unrequited love. The difference is Yeon-woo having to deal with a tricky relationship with his mother, and Ryu Jin facing the dilemma between taking responsibility for Ha-nee and his career.

Two areas that the show would do well to focus more on would be Ha-nee’s journey to reconnect with her birth father, and her relationship with Ae-jeong. It’s clear that the story events have changed Ha-nee’s previous stance towards discussing her father, and also her dynamics with Ae-jeong. It’s a missed opportunity if the show doesn’t focus on these aspects, since they relate closely to our leading lady.

If Was It Love? manages to shift back to a nuanced perspective that focuses on character growth, it should be able to renew viewer interest. If it fails to, then it won’t be able to transcend the limits of the rather farcical comedy of four desperate suitors pursuing a lady who just wants to make her career take off.

(YouTube. Images via JTBC.)