The Glory (2023) A Review
If ever I need to be reminded of the grotesque evil that human beings are capable of, I can reassure myself that there will always be a K drama just around the corner to sledgehammer that home. When it is finally revealed for what reason Yoon So-hee, the girl who allegedly took a tumble off a building, had to died, I am particularly struck by how deeply sociopathic and morally bankrupt the antagonist truly is. But when her equally vile mother is backed into a corner, it all makes sense. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
People who have followed this blog for some time will know that I have a fondness for revenge plots and The Count of Monte Cristo is my go-to reference. The original by Alexander Dumas is unquestionably a literary masterpiece and while it’s been much emulated, it has never been bettered. None of the two English adaptations that I’ve seen come close to touching it in scope, intricacy and depth. Instead it has earned its street creds as the template for revenge stories providing the blueprint for archetypal characters and plots.
This recent Netflix offering is undoubtedly patterned after the progenitor of all revenge stories. To its credit it does a terrific job following the story beats. The plotting, which is half the battle, is excellent. The execution as a whole is terrific and the high production values are evident. That said, the level of brutality displayed is high and depending on how you feel about that and some instances of lurid nudity, this extraordinarily bleak treatment of human evil might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Song Hye-kyo is good as Moon Dong-eun, a victim of school violence who has spent all of her adult life plotting against her unconscionable highschool perpetrators. Physical torture was as much on the menu as psychological abuse. The gang of 5 bullies led by Park Yeon-jin, (Im Ji-yeon) who is accustomed to having her way, have a history that sees them embroiled in an unholy lifelong friendship. Theirs is a highly toxic group of degenerate types who feed off one another for personal benefit. Despite the obvious hierarchical nature of this gang, it suits each member to remain in it regardless of how they’re treated by Yeon-jin. Even with the obvious contempt that they feel towards one another, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. It is on these fissures that Dong-eun’s schemes find a foothold. Dong-eun’s antagonists are well-acted. In fact, they give the best performances here. Im Ji-yeon chews up the scenery everywhere she goes. The gang of five are a product of a materialistic nihilistic environment that becomes the petri dish for social parasites. Those with a silver spoon in their mouths mistreat those that aren’t — a common enough theme in K dramas. There is a caste system at play that has devastating consequences for the ones relegated to the bottom of the food chain. There’s one rule for those who can afford to pay to cover up their sins and there’s another for those who aspire to be further up in this hierarchy. It’s the logical result when power fall into the hands of a few who flaunt their wealth.
What makes the show perhaps a cut above many of this type, is the recognition of what revenge does to the protagonist within her soul. Yes, it’s not hard to see the necessity of such a lifelong mission but the fixation is potentially self-destructive. It takes a leaf of the original template in that regard. Dong-eun is consumed by revenge to the point that she can’t hold out much hope for herself once the game is done. She doesn’t expect redemption or forgiveness for the damage that her revenge does.
Along the way in her bid for vengeance, Dong-eun gains allies and comrades-in-arms. One being Yoo Yeo-jung (Lee Dong-hyun) a plastic surgeon and the other more prominent co-conspirator is Kang Hyun-nam, a battered housewife, played by the always delightful Yeom Hye-ram. Both Yeo-jung and Hyun-nam are people carrying festering wounds and so easily find common cause with Dong-eun. As her landlady and secret cheerleader says to her, “You look like you need someone on your side”. Not long after he is made aware of the facts, even Yeon-jin’s husband, Han Do-young (Jung Sung-il) becomes something of a sympathizer.
As a revenge story it hits all the right notes. While Dong-eun and Co. sets things into motion with a suggestion here and tip there, ultimately the band of villains are their own undoing. Once the mask of respectability rips off, they latch on to their primal instincts for dear life. This is the cunning of the plan. Give them rope and let them hang themselves.
If there’s one thing I don’t buy about this production, it’s the casting of Lee Dong-hyun, a likeable popular actor to be sure but doesn’t seem to be a good fit as a surgical specialist or as Dong-eun’s supposed love interest. Narratively speaking, I can see how a romance might be “necessary” for the scheming to get anywhere in the weeds (it’s debatable still) but I’m not convinced we had the right man for the job. I had a tough time getting past the sibling vibe that they were exuding for much of the show. Sure he says he likes her but she seemed largely indifferent. While I can see why Dong-eun shouldn’t be with Han Do-young even though there was palpable underlying sexual tension and sparks between the actors, I think there should have been a male lead that could compete a little more with him in the mature masculine stakes.
It seems so rare these days to see K dramas do a decent wrap of a drama that this one feels unusually outstanding. This should be the norm not the exception. The karmic circle does it thing and everything ends nicely. (Maybe a little too neatly in parts) And every player down to the corrupt cop gets their comeuppance — some meet a far more gruesome end than others. It’s a wish fulfilment fantasy story and in that regard it will scratch an itch here and there.
This is a show definitely to binge-watch. I’m glad I waited because it is better taken in a single continuous dose to see those call backs. It is better and classier than the average K drama melodrama although not without flaws. At least the show can boast about its consistency and the way it ties up all loose ends. I enjoyed it for what it is — an entertaining piece of escapism and considering the waning quality of K dramas in the last couple of years, it undoubtedly will seem to many like its the best thing since Hospital Playlist.
Because I can I will complain about the way the streaming platforms are dividing up these shows into “multiple seasons”. Unnecessarily, I might add. I’m glad that I didn’t watch this until all the episodes were on often because I am sure it would have completely coloured my perspective on the whole drama with that hiatus. From what I’ve read in the comment sections around the web, I don’t think it did the show any favours because it most likely raised expectations exponentially for the second half which were likely not realised. It’s a double-edged sword made for financial reasons I’m sure but I can’t imagine that it will bring new subscribers or retain existing ones just because the show has been divided into two halves.