Run On (2020 - 21) Finale: So Long and Thanks for the Movie

Last evening while I was slightly awake, mulling over my ramblings on Janghaven Forums about the finale, it dawned on sleepy me that with all its apparent idiosyncrasies, this drama, reduced to its elements, is just one extended party among like-minded acquaintances who reluctantly become friends. A noisy but good natured celebration of individualism in a South Korea that's evolving into what might be arguably a "freer" society. I use the word individualism advisedly because by it I don't mean selfishness or a complete disregard for family or community. I use it in the classical sense from which men and women negotiate for themselves a place at the table of decision-making where they have a place and a voice. It's certainly not about displacing other voices or about gaining some kind of ascendency. Individualism in its most palatable understands that there are competing ideas at play but tolerates real fundamental differences and even respects them because such interactions spice up the monotony of life. The very human tendency has always been throughout our checkered history to bully others into submission.

The "party" analogy makes sense to me especially because of that delightful late scene towards the end of the dramatis personae gathering (and framed) together in various units inside the cinema in anticipation of a movie. It's a lovely summation of the dynamics, themes and motifs that's been woven into the entirety of the drama. It's the show's curtain call. This moment is evocative of the Shakespearean line, "All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women are merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances/ And one man in his time plays many parts,"

One possible interpretation from that scene and its nod to the Bard is that Run On is less about character or plot than it is about interactions and intersections. It is a tv show about people who think of themselves as actors and agents in their own drama. The quirky and parodic dialogue certainly points to that. Everyone can potentially be the star of their own show if they have the choice to live the kind of life that they gravitate towards and negotiate with fellow actors for a chance in the limelight in a crowded stage.

Agency as I've noted previously is an important theme here. Seon-gyeom becomes a sports agent. He officially becomes where his heart was right from the start: an advocate for his juniors in the field of his expertise. By being an advocate for the "voiceless", he makes room for others like Woo-sik to have greater agency to fulfil their potential. Agents and in this show, sports agents benefit when their clients do well. This is the magic of individualism at play... when self-interest intersects and promotes mutual flourishing. Whether we know it or not, we benefit when others flourish. Assemblyman Dad on the other hand, was an example of what happens when one person or a party of individuals insist on their way and do violence to the fabric of their relationships. He loses everything as a result. Albeit temporarily. It's certainly topical in this current climate where there is so much political fracturing and insistence that it's one way or the highway. Everyone thinks they have the solutions to eternal happiness often to the detriment of key relationships. Dad, in this case, believed he had the wherewithal to be everyone's agent (sometimes called meddling) and saw himself as the director of this lifelong film project but bit by bit his heavy-handed dealings became increasingly unbearable even to his nearest and dearest. In the end he was relegated to being an extra in this new paradigm. It is chuckle-worthy that the party that he was affiliated with is called "The Happiness and Freedom Party". The jibe in light of the rest of the show, is without a doubt deliberate.

One of the ironies of the show is that in this paradigm, the wealthiest and most powerful "actors" here were the least free. Da-na in particular was living a fairly deterministic trajectory and yet she styled herself as an agent -- a representative. Her entire life was mapped out by others and circumstances from the moment she was born. She's weighed down by family dysfunction. That's why her being paired up with an artist student, the son of humble beekeepers had a satirical edge. The socio-economic disparity is glaring but Yeong-hwa is the intrusive free spirit that causes her to question everything she believes to be true. When Yeong-hwa comments that she lives in a castle, it is a crucial insight to making sense of her existence. The trappings of wealth can be both a protection and a prison depending on which way you look.

In the scene where they both show up at the art exhibition and ponder over his painting, the shot is framed in such a way to show that while Da-na and Yeong-hwa come from such different socio-economic backgrounds they are are connected by his art. His artistic gaze is the lens from which she can see the world that is closed to her. Perhaps that's enough for a woman who seemingly has everything except genuine affection.

Although it's good naturedly humorous that Mum, Ji-woo the professional actor insists that acting is her life, she too comes to the realisation that despite prioritizing her career all these years, when the chips are down she does genuinely care about her kids. On the one hand she seems to be the poster child for radical individualism but deep down she too understands that her personal happiness is somehow inextricably linked with the happiness of her family. While she is an actor, she doesn't have to act like a mother or play the wife (whatever that looks like) because she is one by nature of relationship.

As for the leads although they started well together, in all honesty, I like them better as individuals than as a couple not for any lack in chemistry. Seon-gyeom especially had a fascinating arc. With Mi-joo, I enjoyed her more in the first half of the drama than in the latter half. My own view in that regard is that she became more of a support role or sounding board for others as the show progressed towards the endgame.

As a whole, I didn't mind the show and there were enjoyable moments although I wonder if down the track I will remember much of it. It's a light watch and even though at times it feels like it might turn makjang on us, it never quite goes there except for parodic playfulness. For that alone I'm grateful. But for those who like K dramas for their dramatic turns, this is show will be a disappointment because it is a purposeful presentation in understatement. What I might remember (it's no guarantee) though is the witty and humorous banter. And the first time I met Kang Tae-oh, who is without a doubt a star in the making.