Like an Edgar Allen Poe story or a Hitchcock movie, Kill Me, Heal Me keeps finding new ways to confuse us about who the characters really are. I don’t mind the liberties the writer takes with dissociative identity disorder, because DID is a great metaphor. And with the plot twist at the end of episode 16, Kill Me, Heal Me gives us the ultimate identity theft. Who is our hero, if he doesn’t have one personality or even one name?
I’ve commented before on how Kill Me, Heal Me takes familiar tropes and then supercharges them till they glow in the dark and look surprising and strange. The writer loves multiples. Multiple personalities, multiple sets of twins, multiple overlapping love triangles, and now—multiple Cha Do-Hyuns.
What viewer hasn’t spent the past few weeks trying to explain how our hero and heroine met as children but aren’t related genetically? Were babies switched at birth? Or do the kids have manipulated memories à la nineteen-eighties pot-boiler My Sweet Audrina? But every hypothesis I invented failed to explain why Grandma MacBeth is afraid of Oh Ri-Jin in the present.
The writer’s Big Twist explains everything. It’s magnificently far-fetched but elegant: twenty-one years ago, Grandma stole our heroine’s legal identity and gave it to our hero. Yes. Do-Hyun is a “unisex” name and both our main characters are Cha Do-Hyun.For everyone who finished episode 16 screaming WTF? I’ll uncap the revelations and figure out what they mean. Episodes 15 and 16 are bathed in tears. The typical Act 3 reversal is more painful than usual because the central characters are so decent and well-meaning.
I can understand why some viewers skip the most depressing episodes. If you’re one of those viewers, these two are good candidates. Episode 15, in particular, padded with an unusually high number of flashbacks. Maybe they had production issues, but it felt like a blatant attempt to make the episode longer.
For you skippers out there, I offer a three-sentence sum-up: at the beginning of episode 15, Cha Do-Hyun has recovered most of his memories, leading to a somewhat predictable episode of Noble Idiocy. He dissolves his contract with Ri-Jin and tells her “he doesn’t need her any more.” By the end of episode 16, Oh Ri-Jin has recovered many of her memories, ironically thanks to Grandma inviting her to the mansion in her role as Cha Do-Hyun’s “secret physician.”
The newly uncovered memories are complicated. Some things we knew already. For instance, we knew Oh Ri-Jin’s birth mother was Min Seo-Yeon, who is Cha Do-Hyun’s legal mother on the registry. Now Oh Ri-Jin knows it too.
But some things are new. Cha Do-Hyun does his detective work and discovers that his family registry doesn’t make sense. The registry lists Cha Do-Hyun as the child of Min Seo-Yeon and Cha Jun-Pyo, but the child Cha Do-Hyun appears in the registry on a date well before our hero ever visited the Seung Jin Group mansion. In fact, he appears on the registry before Grandma Seo even knew he existed.
The explanation: the original possessor of the name Cha Do-Hyun was the little girl in the basement—not the little boy who grew up to have the name Cha Do-Hyun today.It’s important to note that the family census registry is an important legal document in Korea and a few East Asian countries. We don’t have anything like it in the States. (Our chaotic record-keeping would drive an Asian bureaucrat nuts.) The registry records births, deaths, marriages, divorces and adoptions. Traditionally, women were struck from their birth family registry upon marriage and joined their husband’s registry.
Until the law changed in the early 2000s, a divorced woman remained on her ex-husband’s registry unless she remarried. She could only obtain certain government documents such as a passport with permission from her ex-husband’s family. The family’s eldest son was legal head of household for everyone on the registry. Korean society has changed greatly in recent decades, with rising divorce rates, smaller nuclear families, etc., leading to some changes in the law. But when the hero and heroine of Kill Me, Heal Me were children, the law was based on good old Confucian family values.
When we get Kill Me, Heal Me‘s revelations about the family registry, think of the registry not as a simple family tree (though it does track genealogy and serve as a source of family pride). Think of it as an important part of a person’s legal identity, like a birth certificate or a social security number.
We learn a lot of additional details in episode 15 and 16. We can figure out what happened in the past, as follows:
♥ Roughly 29 years ago, Cha Gun-Ho decided to give Seung Jin Group to his daughter-in-law Min Seo-Yeon rather than to his son Jun-Pyo. Seo-Yeon was whip-smart and a better leader than her husband Jun-Pyo, the legal heir. Perhaps this is why Gun-Ho arranged for her to marry into the family in the first place.♥ As a result, a fight broke out between father and son. Jun-Pyo left the house and cut off contact with his family, but not before Min Seo-Yeon asked him for a divorce. With the divorce papers in hand, Min Seo-Yeon left the Seung Jin Group. She went to the United States and reunited with her long-lost love.
♥ Not too long after—28 years ago—Min Seo-Yeon had a baby in the United States with her first love. They named the girl Do-Hyun. (Family name unknown.) Jun-Pyo, still avoiding his family, had a child with Shin Hwa-Ran. We don’t know the little boy’s name.
♥ When the kids were still little, Min Seo-Yeon’s Long-Lost Love (second husband?) died. Min Seo-Yeon returned to Korea. She and her daughter came to be living in the Seung Jin Group mansion, most likely due to pressure, blackmail, etc., from Grandma MacBeth. Min Seo-Yeon was probably still in the family registry, after all. Perhaps Min Seo-Yeon returned to a place in Seung Jin management.
♥ Grandma desperately wanted an heir to replace her absent son. She knew that Min Seo-Yeon’s child wasn’t Jun-Pyo’s, but she created a fiction that Min Seo-Yeon was pregnant when she divorced Jun-Pyo and that the child is his. Grandma entered Do-Hyun into the official family registry as the child of Min Seo-Yeon and Cha Jun-Pyo (above). The little girl Do-Hyun is now Cha Do-Hyun.
♥ Then, 22 years ago, Jun-Pyo returned to Seung Jin, bringing his six-year-old son (below). Grandma has a real grandchild!
♥ Not too long after, Seo-Yeon calls her old friend, Oh Ri-On’s mother, and asks for help. Please save my daughter from the Seung Jin house, she says. I’ll be back in three days. She gets in a car with Gun-Ho and they die in a car accident later that day.
♥ Speculation: I think Grandma and Shin Hwa-Ran wanted the little boy to be Jun-Pyo’s only heir, but the registry already had a child on it, “Cha Do-Hyun.” Adding Jun-Pyo’s little boy to the registry wouldn’t solve the “problem”—Grandma didn’t want Min Seo-Yeon’s child to inherit anything at all.
How could she secure everything for the boy? Only by giving him Do-Hyun’s identity and pretending the little girl, the original Do-Hyun, doesn’t exist. She kills Min Seo-Yeon and Cha Gun-Ho, because they wouldn’t go along with the scheme, and to ensure that Jun-Pyo would be the next Chairman.
♥ In the period between Seo-Yeon’s death and the house fire, the little girl is confined to the basement, and the boy visits her in secret. How does his family tell him he has a new name? Now we know why Kill Me, Heal Me keeps emphasizing variations of the question, “What is your name?”
The two lives are further intertwined because when the boy misbehaves, the girl is punished in his place. He comes to remember the past incorrectly—he thinks he was the one beaten. Ironically, he’s the child who suffers the most psychological damage.
♥ Twenty-one years ago, around the time Jun-Pyo is taking control of the company, a fire breaks out and burns the Seung Jin mansion to the ground. Jun-Pyo rescues the little boy, now going by the name Cha Do-Hyun. But Jun-Pyo is injured and lapses into a coma. Somehow Mr. Oh and his wife rescue the girl from the basement and give her a new name, Oh Ri-Jin, and a new life.♥ We don’t know what Grandma thought about the little girl’s disappearance after the fire. Technically, the girl who was born Do-Hyun is the child listed on the family registry. This means that technically, Oh Ri Jin is the Seung Jin heir. Grandma may have intentionally set the fire to destroy evidence of the identity theft and eliminate the little girl.
But Mr. Oh and his wife were looking for Min Seo-Yeon’s child. They managed a fortunate rescue in the nick of time, probably taking advantage of connections with the outside caterers handling the party that day. Grandma must have been furious, but she couldn’t find the missing girl.
♥ At this point, Shin Hwa-Ran was the only person besides Grandma and the children who knew the whole story. She signed a non-disclosure agreement and “lives off her secrets,” as Shin Seki puts it.
A number of mysteries remain. I’ve speculated here about who started the fire and how our heroine escaped, but I hope we’ll learn the full story. I’d like to see how the good-natured Mr. Oh and his wife took on the Seung Jin Group. He started out in a fairly wealthy family himself, after all, though he gave away most of his inheritance. I bet he isn’t afraid of Grandma.
Another mystery is how our hero is “to blame” for his father’s coma. If someone in the family set the fire deliberately, wouldn’t they make sure the heir was safely out of the way? How did the boy come to be in danger? Why did his father need to rescue him? I doubt Grandma would make a mistake in her Evil Scheme of Evil. I’m sure she thought her family was safe before she lit the match.Which leads to the poignant possibility that the boy put himself into danger trying to rescue the girl in the basement. Shin Seki is furious at his father and grandmother for saving him instead of the other child, furious in the way only a person without blame can be. Yet he feels guilty towards our heroine for having received gentler treatment from his father—at one point he’s angry because he was a witness of abuse, rather than a victim.So why doesn’t he feel guilty about witnessing the fire?
As heart-breaking as it is, I’d like to think perhaps the boy tried to go back into the house for the girl. He’s still angry that his father dragged him out, while no one tried to save “the other child.”
The stolen name is a brilliant twist. It was hard enough for Cha Do-Hyun to organize himself into one personality. Now he doesn’t even know his own name.
It also creates relationship trouble. When our hero recovered his memories, he gained knowledge that Oh Ri-Jin doesn’t have. He’s afraid to share the information with her, and it creates inequality in their relationship. On top of the unfair treatment in their childhood, it’s unfair for him to know more than her.
The more I love a show, the more I try to think critically about the Noble Idiocy trope. The shows that manage to avoid it are rare. Healer made it through 20 episodes without it, but the show lost dramatic tension in the last few episodes. It’s like K-drama writers don’t know what to do without the hero who turns away from the heroine “for her own good.”Like a lot of K-drama tropes, Noble Idiocy offers a ready-made source of tension. But it’s too often a short-cut for the writer to avoid showing the real ways tension creeps into a romance. Even as drama writers have become better at exploring the possibilities for equality in relationships, most haven’t yet figured out how to depict a good fight. (By a good fight, I mean a productive fight that makes a couple stronger. Marriage Not Dating had some good fights, for example.) That leaves us with manufactured problems like noble idiocy, a.k.a. pointless break-ups disguised with noble sentiments.
In the case of Kill Me, Heal Me, Cha Do-Hyun’s sudden attack of self-sacrifice annoys me to death, but it’s at least in keeping with his character. Not, mind you, the mature, grown-up side of his character, who told Oh Ri-Jin they would go through everything together. Walking away from Oh Ri-Jin is the act of Cha Do-Hyun’s old, insecure side. He may have grown strong enough to recover his memories, but he’s terrified to see Oh Ri-Jin in pain. He’s also afraid his family will hurt Oh Ri-Jin if she’s by his side. I can imagine these fears might make him want out.
I’m disappointed in him, though. He recently offered to hang in there and help her face her memories. Now that he knows how painful her past is, now he wants to say, “just kidding”? He can’t stop the events he’s already set in motion. Leaving her is only going to make her more curious about the past. And it would be easier for her to face the past with his support. More than anything, I’m disappointed with him for pretending the break-up is for her benefit.
Because I don’t think breaking up with Oh Ri-Jin will protect her. If Cha Do-Hyun’s mother were the only person who knew Oh Ri-Jin’s identity, our hero could protect Oh Ri-Jin by taking his mother to the States. But since his uncle and grandmother are also seeking the child, too many people want to hurt her. The only reason to break up is that Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t want to see Ri-Jin in pain from her memories.
The writer is ahead of me as usual, though. Although Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-On are convinced they have to shield her, Oh Ri-Jin is way tougher than they are. She’s already thinking like a psychologist.On her day trip with Cha Do-Hyun, which starts out cute, she gets suspicious as soon as he says he’ll remember the meaning of her name “for a long time.” And when he turns serious later, she forestalls him. As if she knows she’s a K-drama heroine, she says she knows he’s going to break up with her (above). She dares him to do it. She can see that the problem isn’t the past itself, but the fact that Cha Do-Hyun can’t deal with the past. “I’m in the past that you’ve remembered. And something in your memories makes it painful to be by my side.”
I wish he could just admit she was right. Instead, he brutally says he’s ending their contract and he doesn’t need her any more. It’s a lie and it’s cruel. I’d be a lot happier if he apologized and said he just doesn’t have the nerve to go out with her. How do you say, “It’s not you, it’s me” in Korean?
Oh Ri-Jin is as angry as I am, for the same reasons. Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-On have teamed up to hide her own life history from her. In the past, she liked Oh Ri-On’s stories that turned nightmares into harmless anecdotes. But now that she’s curious, she yells at Oh Ri-On for hiding things from her. She wants to know if the boy in her memories is Cha Do-Hyun. She isn’t looking for comfort, she’s looking for truth. Oh Ri-On should be telling her the truth, not condescendingly assuming that she can’t handle it. When Oh Ri-Jin politely but firmly confronts Chairwoman Seo in episode 16, it’s clear this woman can handle herself.
But it’s because she’s grown up so strong and cheerful that Cha Do-Hyun feels she would be better off without him. Since the beginning of the series, he has pursued her because she could give him hope. He has said a couple times that he’s never given her anything. He feels particularly useless now that he knows he stole everything from her, including her name. The one thing he can offer her is the chance to remain cheerful, by not reminding her of the past.
Cha Do-Hyun reaches out to comfort Oh Ri-Jin when her memories come back in episode 16, and she flinches (above). He pulls back in a kind of horror. Perhaps it crosses his mind that as an adult, he resembles his father. Although Ri-Jin recoils from him because she’s caught up in memories and doesn’t recognize him, he may feel like he deserves it. His existence reminds her of terrible things. If they’re to be together again, Oh Ri-Jin will have to decide she’s better off with Cha Do-Hyun than without him. She’ll have to pursue him.
A few scenes in these episodes deserve special mention, for anyone planning on skipping to the happier bits:
♥ Oh Ri-Jin and Cha Do-Hyun’s best scene is halfway through episode 15, when they’re in the hospital. She talks blithely about how she wants to recover her memories. Perhaps she has some really happy memories of Cha Do-Hyun, she says. The contrast between his sad knowledge and her cheerful ignorance just kills me.
♥ Oh Ri-On and Cha Do-Hyun are reluctantly starting to trust each other. Oh Ri-On doesn’t threaten Cha Do-Hyun like many K-drama big brothers would. Instead, he tells him about the twins’ childhood together and tearfully begs Cha Do-Hyun to break up with Ri-Jin. Later, Oh Ri-On tells Cha-gun not to blame himself for anything that happened when he was a kid. “You were a victim, too,” he says. I’m really glad Oh Ri-On understands that Cha Do-Hyun isn’t one of the bad guys. In fact, Cha Do-Hyun asks Ri-On to write a book about the Seung Jin scandal and publish it widely. Cool!
♥ Cha Do-Hyun tells his mother about his DID. Her first question: does anyone else know? Can we cover it up? She’s a piece of work. She doesn’t even apologize for kidnapping Oh Ri-Jin and nearly killing her own son. But Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t care about hiding his DID. In fact, he threatens to tell the world about it, if his mother doesn’t agree to leave Korea with him.
What’s next? Cha Do-Hyun’s purpose has shifted now, from healing himself to giving Oh Ri-Jin an explanation and atoning for the past. He’ll also probably want to find out his original name. At the same time, the boardroom battle is heating up. Grandmother’s power is shaky and she asks Cha Do-Hyun to come back to the company. He refuses. Uncle Cha is gathering intel and planning a coup. And Ki-Joon blames Cha Do-Hyun for the fact that Chae-Yeon just broke their engagement.
I thought Kill Me, Heal Me risked running out of steam once we knew who the child in the basement was. But it turns out it was just getting going. Hoo boy!