The first half of Youth of May presented an ambitious set-up, not only in terms of its busy subplots and struggle to balance its tone and pacing, but also in its quest to depict a fateful love story between Hwang Hee-tae (Lee Do-hyun) and Kim Myeong-hee (Go Min-si) amidst the tumultuous events of the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. While the depiction of these painful events accelerates the drama towards an expected tragic ending, their convincing portrayal and tie-in to the main narrative indicates a stark improvement for the drama overall.  

This review contains spoilers. 

With the introduction of the Gwangju Uprising to Youth of May‘s plot, the drama finally settles on a consistent tone and pace. Its previous unevenness is rectified by the beginning of episode 7, when Myeong-hee is kidnapped by Hwang Ki-nam (Oh Man-seok). By the end of episode 8, the government imposes nationwide martial law, and the military soon wreaks havoc and violence on Gwangju. 

The drama’s depiction of these events completely shifts its genre from a simple melodrama to a dismal historical thriller. While the director (Song Min-yeob) still includes some tropey moments throughout, the out-of-place, light-hearted moments abundant in the show’s first half almost completely disappear in its second. On top of that, the acceleration in the military’s violence episode by episode brings the show’s pacing up to a faster, more captivating speed. 

Another strong point throughout Youth of May’s second half is its stellar acting and writing. The supporting cast especially exceeds expectations in this area. Every actor makes themselves the star of each scene they’re in, adding to the believability and breadth of the drama as a whole. The show’s writers also shine a spotlight on each of the supporting characters, from Jung-tae (Choi Seung-hoon) to Kyung-soo (Kwon Young-chan) to Hyeon-cheol (Kim Won-hae), seamlessly weaving their character arcs into the main narrative surrounding Hee-tae’s and Myeong-hee’s relationship. 

Beyond the writing, the chemistry between Lee Do-hyun and Go Min-si as Hee-tae and Myeong-hee is even stronger and more riveting than before. The writers help to depict this by leaving out the usual clichés typical of romantic dramas. There is also little push-and-pull between the characters. This makes for a refreshing romantic narrative, even as the two experience grim moments both together and apart. Overall, Hee-tae’s and Myeong-hee’s relationship appears realistic, even as it develops intensely and quickly.

Additionally, the show’s leads exceptionally portray the true essence of their characters and the nuanced emotions they experience as they face the realities of the uprising. Oh Man-seok expertly portrays hateable villains (as in Crash Landing on You), and continues this streak as Hwang Ki-nam in Youth of May. The writers give him a sliver of a sense of humanity by the end of the series when Jung-tae is shot and injured. Oh’s portrayal of Ki-nam in this moment shows that even a villain like him isn’t as one-dimensional as he first seems. Go Min-si’s acting is also a high point in Youth of May’s remaining six episodes — her expressions of Myeong-hee’s particular pains and innermost emotions are evocative and universal. 

But Youth of May isn’t without its misses. While the show becomes more consistent by its last few episodes, its narrative structure can be frustrating at times. For example, most of episode 7 (which revolves around the aftermath of Myeong-hee’s kidnapping) involves a large amount of dramatic irony. Viewers must wait for the rest of the characters to play catch up and finally discover when and why Myeong-hee went missing. This format can render key plot moments underwhelming. Other questionable editing choices also still appear, and threaten to ruin needed moments of comedic relief.

Many of these small issues are still overshadowed by the show’s writing, which fills in most of the blanks left in the beginning. The ending of Youth of May is arguably its most important part, especially for tying up the loose ends introduced all the way back in episode 1. And luckily, the writers create a powerful yet heartbreaking ending that brings everything full circle.

In the final moments of the series, the questions of how the Gwangju Uprising affects Hee-tae’s and Myeong-hee’s fates, who the man in the train station is, and whose skeleton was found at the construction site in the present day are finally answered. After Hee-tae and Myeong-hee split up in a last-ditch effort to find a missing Myeong-soo, Myeong-hee tragically dies, and it is revealed that it was her skeleton found in the present day in episode 1. The show then makes one last time jump back to the present, and in an unexpected twist, Kyung-soo turns out to be the man at Gwangju Station. Hee-tae is alive and working as a doctor, and hears from Myeong-soo that Myeong-hee was found. He then runs into Kyung-soo, who hands him a note and pocket watch uncovered with Myeong-hee. In a final, bittersweet moment, Hee-tae writes a note back to Myeong-hee promising that he will see her again in another life. 

With all of the foreshadowing leading up to these final moments, it’s no surprise that Youth of May ends in utter sadness and tragedy. If anything, it brings the drama full circle and drives its main messages home even more. Myeong-hee’s chilling death serves as a reminder of the terrible and painful events that occurred during the Gwangju Uprising, and the manner in which so many innocent lives were lost. While many viewers may not be pleased with such a harrowing ending, all in all, it rounds out a complex story detailing love, loss, and twists of fate to make for a poignant, sleeper hit of a drama. 

(Images via KBS.)