It's Okay not to be Okay (2020) Episode 12
Romeo and Juliet is often touted as this great tragic romance between star-crossed lovers... an ill-fated encounter between a couple of young people thwarted by the sins of their fathers. But to cynical o'l me, the actual story is lesson in idiocy from start to finish. Beginning with the ridiculous feud between the Capulets and the Montagues... nobody even remembers what started it... to the Prince's mismanagement of said feud to sword altercations leading in death and the secret marriage. Everybody made such terrible choices that I don't wonder if Shakespeare meant for this to be a farce or satire. Of course there is literary value in the play. Many of the lines are pure poetry... the balcony scene for instance while others have become a fixture in the English language. For eg. "A plague on both your houses"
Of course these days Romeo and Juliet has become much more of a literary prototype for other tragic love stories of couples caught in the crossfire of opposing sides. It is a well-worn narrative trek in K drama plots especially of the melodramatic variety.
On some level it's not entirely far-fetched to insist that Gang-tae and Mun-yeong's predicament has parallels with the Bard's most famous love story. Gang-tae can hardly be blamed for feeling distraught that the mother of the woman he loves is very likely his mother's Butterfly Killer. What is he to do? He's much too involved and has made too many promises now to do a back flip. Indeed one could blame him if he did. Except that there would be plenty of hurt feelings and Mun-yeong would feel abandoned once again. Plot wise it feels as if a typical push-pull strategy is in the air. But the show doesn't quite go there. And this is why I have the utmost respect for this show. It lurches into melodramatic territory but it never wallows in it. Gang-tae punches a wall over recent revelations (he must vent somehow) but one thing that's different now is that he has a mentor and a confidante in Director O.
It is part of his gradual reclamation of his own sense of self in this new dynamic that Gang-tae has the capacity to look beyond the devilish details to want something better for the three of them. Whether he is able to hold it together of course remains to be seen. There's little doubt that Gang-tae has been plunged into his abyss. It is a terrible secret for one man to carry on his own and yet we expect that secrets have a sneaky way of coming out into the open despite all best efforts. It's not what he believed he signed up for but there's no doubting that it was. As he himself acknowledged in this episode, he is a man drawn to challenging people and situations. In all of this and other bleak moments the show continues doing stellar things with the cursed castle trio. Each is on his/her own journey of growth... to be just that little bit better than what they were yesterday. Sang-tae's drawing which has become Mun-yeong's inspiration for her next book supports that assertion that all three are going somewhere. Whatever dark truths await them... these have to be faced separately or together as is reiterated by the reappearance of The Boy Who Fed on Nightmares. Nightmares are a given in this world. Suffering and pain are par for the course so rather than avoiding them, they should be confronted head on.
I've been wondering for a while what it is that's brought Kan Pil-wan (the director's favourite "mole") to the facility as a patient. On the surface he demonstrates a high level of affability and functionality. But he is unable to navigate in the "real world" because of the horrors he was a party to in Vietnam as a combatant. (I had no idea that Koreans were involved in Vietnam) The real world with its sights and sounds can't hold new possibilities because he is trapped in very specific old memories of it like the boy who fed on nightmares who eventually becomes the witch's plaything. In similar fashion, Kan Pil-wan may exist but he can't live meaningfully. It is no accident then that revelation of his PTSD and survivor's guilt intersected with Sang-tae's new found confidence as "an adult" and "older brother". I thought it was delightful that he was bragging to Ms Kang about what he'd done. Instead of being just someone who needs to be taken care of, he is now someone who can care for others. It clearly must have felt good on some level to have arrived at this place as a newly minted adult. This opened the door for him to talk about his trauma related to his mother's murder because of his realisation that he is stronger than he thought. He has now attained the resilience of adulthood and can now face up to his greatest fear. For Mun-yeong to call Jae-su for his advice instead of badgering Gang-tae as she might have previously, is also an incremental step in her learning how to deal with others on their terms, not just hers. It was a visible sign of growth now that she's part of a functional family.
Storytelling is powerful medium of communication. Not just to instruct or to reveal truths about the human condition... as the show has repeatedly done referencing well-loved folk tales. Everyone has at least one story to tell. The telling of their stories can be cathartic... as it compels us all to reflect on life, the universe and everything in it. It can provide a door to understanding someone else's motivations. It's an ancient form of interaction that continues to provide insight but shapes the way we see ourselves in the world we live. The Bible contains numerous stories rooted in historical events. Jesus told parables to his followers to help them understand God and the supernatural world. Moreover the stories about Jesus' doings have been preserved for posterity because of the underlying belief in his uniqueness. History is stories about the past. We study history for the purpose of learning from the past and hopefully to prevent the repeat of mistakes of the past. The show wants us to see that storytelling occurs at every level of life. When someone talks about their trauma or worst nightmare... it's done in the form of a story. When Jae-su counsels Mun-yeong about Gang-tae's modus operandi, he tells a story. When Lee Sang-in talks about his monthly event to keep his dad happy, he tells a story. That's why something like The Boy Who Fed on Nightmares can be a far more effective didactic tool than counselling. And as the drama has demonstrated all throughout, storytelling is a crucial part of counselling or what we often call "therapy" today.
The Romeo and Juliet story in its original was a tragic tale not of ill-fate but of poor choices. Judging from what is being done in the drama, I don't think it's just me that thinks that either. It's not that the titular characters were entirely devoid of personal agency or were victims of larger cosmic forces. The reality is that human beings often do thing for short-term gains and so undermine their own long-term self-interest as well as that of their loved ones. Gang-tae and Mun-yeong can't do much about the past. That's something out of their control. It's done. But what they have is the future to reshape if they have the courage to face the past and learn the right lessons from it.
It wouldn't surprise me with all the foreshadowing and hints if Mun-yeong and Sang-tae are indeed birth siblings. It causes me, not for the first time, to wonder what manner of woman Do Hui-jae really was. Was she really Maleficent in the lives of all the people she touched?