I have often heard it said among my fellow Winter Garden travellers that the quality they most appreciate about Jang Gyeo-ul is the fact that she's relatable. In other words, she's someone they can easily identify with because she makes mistakes and is on a journey of self-development. It's a perspective that I share. Seemingly flawless characters have their place but like Superman without kryptonite, they're predictably going to save the day without breaking out in a sweat. Of course we need them too but us mere mortals identify most with those who plod along like the rest of us. Their journey on some level mirrors ours. Furthermore, a character like Jang Gyeo-ul is needed in a show like Hospital Playlist to ground it. Hospitals (especially drama hospitals) function as life saving stations and those at the top of their game apparently have god-like powers to mediate life and death. And if we forget, the residents are also there to remind us that doctors never stop being lifelong learners.
Our first encounter with Dr Winter aka Jang Gyeo-ul is also Ik-jun's first encounter with her outside the OR. She's notably efficient but her highlighted flaw seems to be her lack of empathy for caregivers and guardians who are desperate for good news. Jeong-won's... Mr Empathy on steroids... initial impression of her is rather negative. It's a mild clash considering their personalities and levels of experience. Then he does his brief but understated impersonation of Mr Darcy when he says, "She doesn't suit me." (Or "She's not my cup of tea") When he overhears her giving a patient's caregiver the bad news, he is quick to whip out his professorial hat and chastise her... in essence for her lack of empathy and irresponsible way of speaking to patients. He demands that she own her words. The vast majority of us would agree with him on that. Gyeo-ul could do better in how she interacts with others. She's a straight shooter that needs a filter. It's a learning event signalling the start of not only her growth arc in the course of those featured months but their slowburn romance. For me it also begs the question as to why no one else had pulled her up on her bedside manner prior to this. After all, she's a third year resident. Something was sorely lacking in her education. Much can be said about this including the favouritism she enjoyed but I suspect that on a metaphysical level the show insists that they were destined to notice each other early on. The "noticing" being the key thing here. But also it's the bumpy start to their relationship that will go beyond work. Later in a flashback we note that she had already noticed him from Day 1 but for him something else had to happen for him to notice her.
In an interesting case of role reversal from the usual Kdrama male and female stereotypes, Gyeo-ul is introduced as the less empathetic of the two of them. In a real enough way she is a character designed exclusively to complement his. It bears repeating that they replicate the Yin-Yang dynamic to a T. Whether one likes it or not, her arc was intertwined with his from the first day she set eyes on him. For her it was love at first sight, for him it was in all likelihood, love at first maggot. At the start she shyly pushes forward to get closer to him but later she pulls away when she wrongly believes her cause to be a lost one. He-who-wants-to-be-a-priest, on the other hand, pushes her away with uncharacteristic coldness. Yet he feels the irresistible pull. Little by little he moves towards her. Until he finally succumbs. The seemingly cold, emotionless third year GS surgeon gradually thaws under the tutelage of the professor who falls for her. His affection for her overrides his own misgivings while inadvertently doing its magic in taking her forward as a clinician. Even when they're not sure about each other, the impact seeps through the masks. It is inescapable.
Gyeo-ul's sense of efficiency is highlighted when she shows up at the ER to deal with the homeless man squirming around with the frost bitten leg. In an uncalculated act of respect for the patient, she gets the job done when others stand around repulsed by the sight. With no ulterior motive she does what Jeong-won accused her of being incapable of doing on an earlier... dignifying the homeless man by treating him like any other patient with no expression of discomfort. This scene completely reframes our understanding of her. Her underdeveloped communication skills don't come from a place malice but a place of lack. Whatever her faults might be, she comes from a place of sincerity and diligence. So when Ik-jun says she seems to work hard and when Jeong-won dismisses it at first, the show repudiates his hasty judgment of her unequivocally. So what Gyeo-ul needed was someone... or in her case... two people to give her a chance to better herself and give her the right kind of push in the right direction.
Her relationships with Ik-jun and Min-ha brings out another side to her. With Ik-jun, she's his little sister. He's her confidante not only because he is Mr Nosy Parker but because he genuinely cares. With him she was freer to be more animated. With Min-ha, Gyeo-ul shows an unexpectedly wry sense of humour. She gently pokes fun at her best friend's preoccupation with looks and Min-ha takes it all with good-natured indignance. As she interacts with them in the first season, we see her not just as a resident but someone who could easily be our next-door neighbour or a relative even albeit an introverted one.
I often wondered why we seldom got to see her in the OR very much as someone who is a General Surgery resident. The only GS resident who was very much in demand. In fact, from our perspective she seemed to spend more time in the ER or the PICU. A lot of obviously has to do with her dynamic with Jeong-won which the show made the decision to focus on. She also served as a contrast to Do Jae-hak and vice versa. He was apparently better one-on-one with patients while she was in all likelihood a much stronger surgeon. As Jeong-won gravitates closer to her towards the end of the calendar year, her presence in the OR increases. Before that we are given glimpses of her progressively becoming a more well-rounded clinician. The show spotlights an occasion in the PICU where she interacts with the mother of a patient. Jeong-won is present at the time and overhears the exchange. Once again the deficiencies in her communication skills are brought to the forefront. However, rather than pulling her aside and chiding her, Jeong-won takes responsibility for the situation and explains things in simpler, layman's terms. This provides Gyeo-ul with a model to work from. The mother whose anxiety distracts from paying full attention later returns and seeks further clarification. Gyeo-ul, rather than parroting what Jeong-won had done, took it on board but made the effort of simplifying things further with quick diagrams. She is rewarded here with an effusive hug from the anxious guardian whose relief is palpable. For Gyeo-ul, in Episode 9, this is a moment where she makes a leap in her clinical skills and experiences first hand the joy of getting it right. Her teachability and lack of resentment is my favourite things about her. Even when corrected, she takes it all in her stride and makes effort to improve. As I said elsewhere, she's not one to hold grudges. It didn't prejudice her against Jeong-won. She proved herself willing to learn and proved that she could thrive under the right kind of guidance.
One of the things that impresses me about this show is the way Gyeo-ul's looks are downplayed. She's proud of her own frugality in the manner of dress. Her hair is completely dishevelled after chasing down the DV dad. Her entire face swells up when she has her anaphylactic episode. Later when she's recovering in the ER, she looks the part. On top of that she keeps her glasses on most days. And as my online friends have noted, there's no big makeover before the big confession. So as far as looks are concerned, she's not exactly a standout. But she is widely beloved and valued regardless of how she looks.
For a so-called side character, her popularity seems disproportional. From what I've seen around the web, her pairing with Jeong-won resonates with so many because of her. She's easy to root for and many of us champion their cause because we champion hers. She's one of us. He is the man that brings that rare smile to her face. More importantly, he is good for her as she is good for him. Our Dr Winter blossomed beautifully in a garden cultivated especially for her.