This was a post I never wanted to write.
And, quite frankly, a post I didn’t know how to write. I didn’t want to think about the fact that it was all over, never mind trying to put words together and write about it.
But now that I’ve picked myself off the ground where I collapsed in a pool of my own tears, have stopped staring vacantly at walls for hours on end, and have sufficiently caffeinated myself with enough coffee to keep me awake for a week straight, I think I can finally muster the courage and the mental energy to talk about the end of this remarkable drama.
Be warned, there will be spoilers, and this is going to get lengthy. So grab a box of tissue, take a calming breath, and brace yourselves because emotions run high and nothing is sacred in the finale of “Misaeng.”
I think, generally, fans of the show approached episodes 19 and 20 with cautious excitement. Of course, we all wanted to know how the drama was going to wrap things up for our beloved characters, and I swear the air was buzzing with anticipation to finally see how the director Kim Won Suk would tie in those great Jordan scenes. And yet, I’m pretty sure all of us have been burned by the ending of a series before, let down in the most critical of moments, where the ambition of the direct and/or writers did not quite meet with its execution. At best, these kinds of endings, while disappointing, can be overlooked given the quality of the rest of drama, and, at worst, utterly ruin and undermine what was so great about the show. And for a drama like “Misaeng,” the level of potential disappointment in its ending was proportional to how well it was loved.
And “Misaeng” was so, so loved. It’s not a wonder that so many were so nervous.
But we can now let out a collective sigh of relief, because episodes 19 and 20 of “Misaeng” are of such quality unlike anything, I think, seen in K-dramas before, producing some of the finest and most gratifying hours of television I have ever seen.
Back in episode 18, when Geu Rae (Im Siwan) begs Manager Oh (Lee Sung Min) not to sacrifice the team for his sake, Manager Oh is adamant that he will find a way, will make Geu Rae a full-time employee, that will not let the team fail, in spite of the gamble they’re all taking. He’s so insistent on those points, in fact, too insistent. Oh, Manager Oh, you can’t just go around announcing to the world how you’re going to take big risks and do the impossible by having it all work out in the end. You’re practically inviting the universe to knock you down, humble you, make you lose all that you had hoped to gain. Which is exactly what happened in episode 19!
Sales Team 3 deals with the fall out of Geu Rae’s mistake: he’s recorded a phone conversation that reveals not only his doubts and suspicions about the Solar Panel Project, but also that of their contact in China. Manager Oh immediately jumps in to do some damage control, but it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart, and our seemingly unshakable Sales Team 3 began to unravel. A sense of helplessness, dread, and uncertainty colored the faces of Geu Rae, Dong Shik (Kim Dae Myung), Manager Chun (Park Hae Joon), and Manager Oh, and it was heartbreaking to see them backed into a corner from which they could not escape.
And then the unthinkable happened: Manager Oh actually put his resignation letter use, voluntarily leaving One International in order to save his beloved team. I could go on and on about how perfect the build up to this scene was, how it hit all the right notes in terms of delivery and execution. If this were a rom-com K-drama, it would be similar to when someone in our main couple would pull that classic self-sacrificing ploy–the whole I’m-going-to-end-our-relationship-because-you-deserve-so-much-better-so-go-be-free-and-happier-without-me-even-if-this-conviction-is-completely-unfounded-and-doesn’t-actually-solve-the-conflict separation scene. Except this “Manager Oh and One International” break-up scene is better because it isn’t unfounded, it actually solves a problem, and it makes sense, despite it all.
Episode 19 did a brilliant job at allowing us to feel that One International was no longer the obvious choice for Manager Oh. That it no longer was a place or a relationship that was beneficial for anyone; that it was more detrimental than not to continue to stay and hold on for reasons that were purely sentimental. It made sense.
And it was effective, because Manager Oh “taking responsibility” does what he sought accomplish- things get better for Sales Team 3. But that doesn’t mean Manager Oh leaving didn’t hurt something fierce.
And so while things might have returned to “normal” for Sales Team 3, we come to understand in episode 20 that “normal” means something quite different. In the wake of Manager Oh’s departure, the world has changed, and each member of Sales Team 3 has to decide if they want to be a part of it.
I am still so stunned by the writing of “Misaeng.” It is just so thoughtful, so subtle, so well executed that you don’t have to stop and think about motivations, about how certain events complicate others, about how to put it all together. You could say that the writing in “Misaeng” is relatively simple, that it doesn’t have certain conventions of suspense and drama, of twists and reversals to push the action of the story forward. Some have called it “slow” and others “boring.” But I think the writing is a crucial part of what makes this drama so worth watching. It doesn’t need to over-complicate the drama of the characters’ lives, has no use for surprising betrayals; it actually lays most things out on the table for us. Why? Because “Misaeng” is about life, and life is pretty darn dramatic in itself.
But there is also a kind of poetry to be found in “Misaeng.” Let’s all take a second to step back and appreciate just happened in episode 19 between Geu Rae, Manager Oh, and Executive Director Choi (Lee Kyoung Young). The conflict between Manager Oh and Executive Director Choi was drawn out through the drama’s entire run: who would win in the end, the sly director or the stone-faced manager? The answer: neither. Manager Oh’s principles had wavered at the prospect of helping Geu Rae become a full-time employee, and there could be no satisfaction in him actually succeeding. How could we look at Sales Team 3 in the face again if Geu Rae was promoted under such shadiness? How could we continue to respect Manager Oh if he caved to Executive Director Choi’s deceit? As harsh as this sounds, they needed to fail.
The poetry comes from the fact that Executive Director Choi was brought down by none other than Jang Geu Rae. The same kid he placed on Sales Team 3 to mess with Manager Oh. The same kid he had disregarded, thought was useless, who he pitied and toyed with. It was Geu Rae’s recording that was the catalyst to his demise. And the means by which Manager Oh and Executive Director Choi became free of one another. So instead of viewing Manager Oh’s resignation as something tragic, instead of seeing Geu Rae’s action as being stubborn foolishness, we can look at events in a more positive light.
Geu Rae saved Manager Oh from himself. Whether intentional or not, he kept Manager Oh’s principles in tact. And he allowed Manager Oh to start a new path that would have been unfathomable months before. Although, admittedly, my heart broke when I thought Manager Oh had become a fried chicken delivery person and I wailed and lamented how unfair it all was!
If episode 19 dealt with resolving the conflict between Manager Oh and the executive director, then episode 20 tackled the other major conflict: whether or not Geu Rae would become a full-time, regular employee. The answer: yes, but not at One International.
This was the time for our newbies to shine. Because it is the last episode we can come to expect a lot of sentimental flashbacks and mirroring of memorable scenes or incidents from episodes past, and “Misaeng” follows trope. We say goodbye to our newbies, who are no longer newbies, but are strong, confident, and seasoned employees. Most importantly, they continue to fight the good fight. And while I have loved each newbie on their own, I love them so much more when they’re all together. I love (how many times can I say love in one paragraph?) that the last scene we get of the four of them is after Geu Rae has left One International. It indicates that their relationships aren’t simply work-related, that they’re not just “work friends.” I mean, they bonded together in one last ditch effort to “save” Geu Rae, coming full circle in one of the most moving series of scenes. And people say “Misaeng” doesn’t have a love line!
I’ve talked about how transparent the writing of “Misaeng” is, so it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to us that Geu Rae didn’t become a full-time, regular employee at One International, not with how they were showcasing how capable he was, how respected he was by his team, peers, and colleagues, how he fit in perfectly with Sales Team 3. There could be no one better or more deserving so, naturally, he couldn’t have made it. I loved that Geu Rae leaving One International, at that point, didn’t feel like much of a loss. If anything, it was the company who has feeling his departure with the clumsy new intern occupying the space, but not the role, that Jang Geu Rae once held.
But fear not, Geu Rae knows what he’s worth now, and so he won’t just be doing any odd job anymore, and while he doesn’t have a decisive plan of what he’ll do with his life (aside from learning English!), there’s so much more confidence in the way that he moves about the world, the way he presents himself; it lets us know he’s going to be more than okay. He’s no longer that newbie intern swimming in his father’s old suit, feeling as if he caught a break and doesn’t belong. No, no. Our Geu Rae hasn’t been that guy in quite some time. *reaches for tissue, dabs eyes*
One of the biggest surprises – but one that was so fitting and so incredibly obvious I don’t know why I didn’t read the signs that “Misaeng” was leaving us this entire time – is that Manager Oh, former-Chief Kim would team up to start their own company. Of course Geu Rae would join (his desk right next to Manager Oh’s, naturally!), but I was over the moon when Kim Dong Shik walked through the door. Our original Sales Team 3 back together again! *GROUP HUG* It was a little idealistic, to be sure, but hey, I will take the optimism any day, especially since I think we deserve it after the devastation that was episode 19.
We come to it at last: Jordan.
If it was shocking to find out that Geu Rae wasn’t working at One International anymore in those opening Jordan scenes, it’s because the drama has done a fantastic job investing us in the company. It seemed impossible that he could be working anywhere but One International, given his circumstances. But again, it is the case where the best resolution was also the most obvious and the most simple: make your own company, and make your own team. Duh.
If we were at all broken-hearted, if we shred tears and felt a real sense of panic and loss, from either Manager Oh or Geu Rae’s departure from One International, it is a testament to how well thought out, how well written “Misaeng” is. The writers again, built up so much tension and drama in the past few episodes that we felt the desperation, saw this Solar Panel Project as the one and only chance for Geu Rae, so much so that we couldn’t see the possibilities elsewhere. And that is what I mean by this drama’s excellent writing: it leads us to believe in something so much, and subverts our expectations, but still gives us what we want in the end. And it is quite often better than we imagined it could be.
Think about it this way: Geu Rae’s one desire was not to keep working at One International. He didn’t even necessarily want to become a full-timer. He just wanted to keep working, always, together, with Sales Team 3. The ending accomplishes just that. Moreover, it does so without sacrificing anyone’s principles and without anyone sacrificing themselves.
And then we get Geu Rae and Manager Oh literally driving off into the sunrise.
If there was one thing that I was a little disappointed by (“disappointed” is even too strong a word), is that we didn’t see Geu Rae play “Go.” In fact, the ending was surprisingly free of “Go” references (that weren’t in flashbacks). I mean, sure, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” was nice and all, but the drama really could have brought it home with a more fitting “Go” reference. I have really enjoyed the way “Go” has been used through out “Misaeng” and was sorry to see it so absent in the finale.
I did love that the finale answered the big questions, but left a lot still open-ended for our characters. Take, for example, that Young Yi still has issues with her father, that Suk Yool still hasn’t bested his boss, that Geu Rae still hasn’t played “Go.” And why was Manager Oh scoping our property and land in Jordan? Why hasn’t Chief Ma had his misogynistic butt handed to him by Manager Sun yet? Did Geu Rae end up with the teacher? Important questions that demand answers, I tell you. Perhaps in season 2…
All in all I found the ending to be as devastating as it was rewarding. It was honorable and respectful of these characters, of their relationships, and of their stories. It respected the audience and the faith we’ve given to the director, and it honored the journey we’ve all taken together these past several weeks. It was a labor of love, and I say that literally because everything about “Misaeng,” from its teasers to the epilogue has been crafted out of affection. You can tell by the way the directors and staff talk about working on this drama. You can see it in the way the actors challenge, give into, conspire together on screen and off. Everyone seems to be aware that there was something quite unusual, special, dare I say, magical, that happened on the set of “Misaeng,” and it was simultaneously humbling and gratifying to witness.
There has been so much talk about how atypical “Misaeng” is because it is so widely popular but doesn’t rely on a traditional love line to drive its story forward to appeal and command the numbers that it does. But to say that it doesn’t have a love line is a huge discredit to the show and its characters because “Misaeng” is, at its barest, all about relationships and the affection, these character have for each other. Try and tell me that the relationship between Geu Rae and Manager Oh isn’t love, or that there isn’t love in the way that Suk Yool hugs Geu Rae. That Dong Shik leaving One International on his own and joining Geu Rae and Manager Oh was about convenience and not about affection. The relationships in “Misaeng” are so varied, so complex and layered, and yet all incredibly intimate. It’s somewhat ironic to find this level of intimacy in a place that will define itself as being professional — it’s not personal, it’s business, right? Except that in “Misaeng,” it’s always personal.
Just when I thought the finale couldn’t get any better, of course the director had to toss in the first time Geu Rae and Manager Oh encounter each other: not at One International, oh no, that would be to easy. We come to learn that they meet at the funeral services for Geu Rae’s father and Lee Eun Ji, contract employee of One International and Manager Oh’s team member. That’s the scene the drama leaves us with. I can’t tell if I hate or love the director, but I know this: I love Lee Sung Min. He has been such a knockout all drama long, and his Manager Oh so layered and poignant. He’s far from perfect, and stubborn to a fault, but we love him all the same. If Lee Sung Min doesn’t win all the awards for the way his voice broke when he told Geu Rae to go home, or the look for anguish on his face when he brushes by Geu Rae in the epilogue, then there is no justice in the world.
Im Siwan, too, has been so solid all the way through, and his portrayal of Geu Rae is defined, I think, by a stillness, a quietness. His dynamics come from what he isn’t saying or doing, rather than what he is. And Siwan was able to capture the allure of Geu Rae so well, made this underdog of all underdogs come alive in a disarming way. Moreover “Misaeng” introduced me to Byun Yo Han, who made Suk Yool as wonderful as he is. Kang So Ra and Kang Ha Neul, along with Kim Dae Myung, were equally impressive, and I loved that even as supporting characters, we were all as invested in their stories as we were with Geu Rae and Manager Oh. Can you all just, you know, stay working together, always?
I am still somewhat devastated by the reality that it is all over, that I have to say goodbye to “Misaeng.” Every once in a while a drama comes to you just when you can appreciate it the most, when you need it the most, and this is the case for me and “Misaeng.” It has become a drama beloved by me, and I only have the highest compliments for it.
Thank you, Soompiers, for taking this journey with me. Let me know what you thought about the finale, and any coping strategies for K-drama withdrawals, in the comments below!