I can measure my enjoyment of a show by how sad I feel when the final credits roll. By that standard, I adored Kill Me, Heal Me—every magnificently deranged minute.
The finale contains a few surprises, most notably two short encounters with Mr. X. I can still imagine seven different ways for the show to end. But I’m glad it’s ending on a high note, leaving me wanting more instead of overstaying its welcome.
Personally, I would have liked to see Mr. X interrupt the stockholders meeting in a top hat and opera cloak to turn the ballots into doves, which would then fly north over the border, land and transform into flower boys who spread a new dawn of peace and love throughout the Korean peninsula. The major stockholders then realize the futility of living and dying by quarterly reports, and start a Buddhist monastery distinguished by the silk top hats the monks wear while chanting.
But despite lacking any of those developments, episode 20 did send us off in style—the style of a nineteenth-century Parisian man about town.
By the time a show wraps up, most viewers have already decided whether they love it or not. For that reason, the final episode doesn’t have to astound anyone. But it’s all too easy to produce a finale that’s confusing, or fails to resolve key conflicts (or, worse, resolves them in a way that betrays the story’s themes).
Fortunately, episode 20 of Kill Me, Heal Me wraps up everything important, although they have too much story here to fit comfortably into one episode. Given the wealth of material, the writer and director make the right choice and focus on Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-Jin’s confrontation with the past.
Their journey has had an uncanny quality since the beginning, and it continues here. The finale feels like the final leg of a journey through a fairy tale forest. Even more than in previous episodes, we see important scenes through the lens of fantasy or hallucination. We see it when Cha Do-Hyun and Shin Se-Ki part ways in that misty darkness of flying dust motes, and when “Nana”—the little girl Cha Do-Hyun—seamlessly transforms from Ji Sung to child actress Kim Amy to talk to Oh Ri-Jin.
And then there’s the fabulous Mr. X, who pops up looking like a human incarnation of the strange Gothic energies in Kill Me, Heal Me (below). He’s an antique magician, a conjurer, who will delight viewers who get the joke—while irritating or baffling viewers looking for realism and rationality.
If you’re uncomfortable with Kill Me, Heal Me’s Edgar Allen Poe meets Cabinet of Dr. Caligari style, this episode won’t improve your opinion. When the writer at Samsoon Down the Rabbit Hole comments that Kill Me, Heal Me is “fairly mediocre” and “not entertaining,” I attribute most of the comment to taste. Some people like Gothic, some don’t.
But although I disagree with a lot of what Samsoon says, the post got me thinking about how to define “good K-drama.” The Samsoon definition puts a pretty equal emphasis on story, acting and production values. By those standards, Kill Me, Heal Me doesn’t meet Samsoon’s criteria for “good.” And I have to agree that Kill Me, Heal Me‘s weakest area is technical things like editing, sound quality and camera work—all that stuff that comprises “production values.”
The final episode offers one egregious example—the lighting in the riverside farewell scene. It’s dark, really dark. I can barely see the figures in many frames. This might be the director’s decision, but it’s more likely a result of budget and time constraints. The lack of polish in that scene is a disappointment, because I want to see the leads.
But bad lighting is an inconvenience, not a fatal flaw. (Check it out above and below—luckily they turned the lights on for the rest of the series.) Production values aren’t as important to me as an interesting story and characters. Hyde, Jekyll, Me‘s excellent production values don’t make that show watchable, for instance. The episodes I’ve seen were strangely static, lacking in energy, plot or purpose. To pose another example, 2013’s Heirs had beautifully polished editing—really a step up from the usual—but that didn’t make the story less predictable.
In fact, I have a sideways affection for mediocre production values. A film or show’s technical quality correlates to its budget and schedule. If you spend more money, you get better quality crew and equipment, and the more time you have, the more you can polish the final product. Since K-dramas are notoriously made on modest budgets in absurdly short periods of time, they can’t compete with American cable channels for technical quality.
But I care more about things that can’t be bought. No matter how much money you spend, you never know if a story will connect with viewers. And isn’t the goal of story-telling to connect?
I admit, my definition of “good K-drama” is very writer-centered. If I were a professional lighting designer, I might have different priorities. But I’m a writer, and I measure a show’s success mostly in how creative it is and the risks it takes.
“Creativity” and “risks” are pretty subjective, but Kill Me, Heal Me more than satisfies me on both counts. The basic premise of this story was one giant pile of risk, to paraphrase Shin Se-Ki. It sounded like a guaranteed failure, even before running into epic casting difficulties. And then the writer stuffed the show to the brim with formulas, using three or four familiar elements in places other writers would use one. It shouldn’t have worked.
It did work, though. It worked for reasons that are evident here in the finale: its fairy tale structure, fantasy elements, and sympathetic characters.
The fairy tale structure here doesn’t allow much room for the “real” world, and we only have one short scene to settle who will control Seung Jin Group in future. We have a sense that Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t care if he takes control of the company. His dislike of his uncle comes mostly from his uncle’s involvement in Min Seo-Yeon’s death 21 years ago. Just as when Shin Se-Ki first shanghaied Cha Do-Hyun back to Seoul, our hero remains uninterested in corporate power.
His father! I was resigned to his waking up, against all medical probability, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. The father’s reappearance worked better a little than I expected, though, because he shows up in an uncanny way, like a ghost. He doesn’t wake up groggy and confused about what year it is, or if he does, we don’t see it. His loving mother and Shin Hwa-Ran don’t run to his side—or if they do, we don’t see it.
Instead, he wakes and asks to see Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-Jin immediately. In his two scenes, he gives off the vibe of a man who knows he will die soon, and has the gift of visiting earth one last time to apologize to the people he’s harmed. He has one mission, to ask for forgiveness, and in this single-mindedness he resembles a ghost more than a human.
It’s enormously satisfying that Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-Jin don’t forgive him (above). In too many K-dramas the evil parents and grandparents magically turn nice in the final episode, and all is forgotten. But Kill Me, Heal Me doesn’t try to sell us unicorns and rainbows. I believe the father’s sincerity, but I also believe that Cha Do-Hyun and Oh Ri-Jin are terrified of the man. They’re honest enough to know forgiveness would be a lie.
But episode 20 gives us not just one father, but two, if we include Mr. X.
Cha Do-Hyun is dreading seeing his father, dreading asking about Min Seo-Yeon’s death. In episode 19, he worries that Shin Se-Ki will kill Cha Jun-Pyo if he has any pretext. He’s concerned that Oh Ri-Jin’s feelings about the past could trigger Shin Se-Ki.
These worries cause him to lose consciousness before getting to the hospital. When we see him again, he’s the little girl with the teddy bear Nana (above). This is the first time in the series another person has spotted the little girl, so it’s the first time we see Ji Sung in this role and he’s acts eerily like the shy seven-year-old in the basement. I just want to pat him on the head and give him a cookie.
The little girl explains Mr. X to Oh Ri-Jin. He’s an imaginary father, but not our hero’s father. He’s Oh Ri-Jin’s father. We learn from “Nana” and the subsequent conversation with Mr. X that he has been around since the beginning of Cha Do-Hyun’s dissociation. Along with inventing Perry Park out of the decent parts of Cha Jun-Pyo, Cha Do-Hyun also invented a superhero dad for Oh Ri-Jin—the dad that could rescue her from the basement.
Oh Ri-Jin’s dead father has been a source of online discussion for weeks, and the mysterious Mr. X doesn’t leave us any wiser as to who he was in reality.
But in a trippy, hallucinogenic way, Mr. X makes perfect sense. He fits with how the young Cha Do-Hyun wanted to transform himself into a powerful protector for Oh Ri-Jin. He fits with Cha Do-Hyun’s own need for a good dad. He fits with the fairy tale style of story-telling, by arriving supernaturally to remind Cha Do-Hyun of things he already knows (above). And from another angle, the fact that he’s an alter ego of Cha Do-Hyun makes Mr. X a bit of a parody of the complicated faux-cest scenarios we spent February worrying about.
Mr. X doesn’t make much logical sense. He was created 21 years ago, like “Nana,” but like her, he hasn’t shown himself until now. What exactly brought him out? Couldn’t Cha Do-Hyun have used some supernatural help in episodes 15 or 16, too?
It’s easy to conclude that the writer couldn’t figure out who Mr. X was until finishing the script last week. But even if that’s the case (as it well could be), his identity is still an elegant solution to the question of who is X. Though he doesn’t make logical sense, he makes a lot of illogical sense.
Mr. X fits with the illogic of the show by looking totally out of place, and being aware of it. He knows he’s a hallucination, and a weird one at that. “I’m just glad I’m not Superman,” he says. His mysterious black briefcase and question—will you look inside?—sums up the central conflict in Kill Me, Heal Me : the choice about whether or not to look at the memories of trauma.
One thing we never learn is what Grandma MacBeth or Oh Ri-Jin’s parents think of this relationship. We can imagine they’ll be distressed when they first learn of it, because it will bring back bad memories. But the sense at the end of Kill Me, Heal Me is that our main characters are free of caring what other people think any more. Cha Do-Hyun makes that clear when he tells his uncle that DID isn’t comparable to his uncle’s embezzlement. He doesn’t care who knows.
I have mixed feelings about “one year later” epilogues. They mess with the Aristotelian unities, or rather, they mess with the unities even more than everything else in K-dramas.
But this ending makes more sense than most. I’m glad to see Oh Ri-On wrote that novel (titled Kill Me, Heal Me), and amused that he’s still hanging out in bookstores to meet his fans. He’s still giving out fake names for himself, and still haunted by the name Ahn Yo-Na.
It also makes sense to find Cha Do-Hyun chopping wood at Ssang Ri. What better “treatment” than to live in the country and work part-time for the Ohs? Since Cha Do-Hyun’s grandmother and mom never showed any compassion for him, I can understand him pretending to be abroad. And he might be the heir to Seung Jin, but he never really wanted to work for the company. Dabbling in business via phone calls to Director Ahn is about the right amount of “work.”
And if he’s terrible at things like chopping wood and brewing beer, fortunately he has his chaebol fortune to make up for it. Ri-Jin’s mom adores him, and Mr. Oh will come around too. I’ll never understand the K-drama propensity to depict characters who have serious relationships in secret—why don’t the Ohs know?—but given how suspicious Ri-Jin’s parents were of “that old chaebol,” maybe our Do-Hyun’s on the right track. Coming out as the old chaebol would just lead to, well, drama.
The quirkiest thing about the ending is that Cha Do-Hyun is living under the name Perry Park. After all the sturm und drang about his names and identities, his name is a source of freedom now. And though Perry’s a natural choice because the Ohs knew the name already, it’s sweet that he’s using the name of that very joyful alter-ego.
Only one last thing to say, which is that even though Korea’s live shoot production system makes for unpolished final products, it also makes for weird serendipity. The winter weather broke here on the East Coast on Monday, just in time for spring weather to appear on the show. When they mention the spring breeze on Kill Me, Heal Me, I felt like it was the same one coming in the window here.
That’s the magic of the live-shoot. (Or perhaps just the magic of watching something that wasn’t made in California, where winter clothing apparently consists of wearing socks under your sandals). I love the moment in a K-drama where everyone stops wearing thick parkas, because it means I can bust out my spring clothes too.
Yo-Sub refers to the breeze in his parting remark, a quote from the last verse of Paul Valery’s 1920 poem “The Graveyard by the Sea”:
“The wind rises!…You must try to live.”
It’s a famous, evocative poem about human existence, about the joy and challenge of being alive. I’m thankful for the little touches like that in this show. Kill Me, Heal Me is weird, messy, and imperfect; but also creative, beautiful and full of heart—just like human beings.
Thanks for reading!