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“Descendants of the Sun” (Series Review)

The military romance Descendants of the Sun left me with one question. How can commando gunfights, car wrecks, natural disasters, gangsters, North Korean spies and a CIA-backed military coup be this boring?

When Descendants of the Sun wrapped up on April 14, its ratings in Korea topped 40%. The show’s popularity in China has made it a phenomenon across Asia. If Naver is to be believed, Descendants of the Sun has had twice as many views in China as the 2014 mega-hit My Love from the Stars. The Chinese government has even complained about the show’s popularity (to the delight of Koreans).

It’s a surprise that a weekday drama can still earn ratings this high, in the days of internet streaming and DVRs. This makes Descendants of the Sun significant. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly good.

The 16-episode series about a romance between a doctor and a soldier deserves credit for its ambition. It broke with K-drama convention by filming in advance, leaving nothing to chance. And—very unusual for Korean television—the majority of the episodes are set overseas, in the fictional “war-torn country of Uruk.”

(Aside: Early episodes tell us Uruk is in the Balkans. The stunning landscapes—it was partially filmed in Greece—could indeed belong to the Dalmatian Coast. It is thus odd that the residents speak Arabic. Bad Arabic, but still recognizable Arabic. It’s also weird how many Russians are floating around. Maybe writer Kim Eun-Sook got the Balkans confused with somewhere else? Not surprisingly, the best plot line in the entire series is the one concerning North Korea, because the geography actually makes sense.)

This isn’t the first time a K-drama has gone big-budget and filmed in Europe. (In 2009, IRIS brought us those jaw-dropping action sequences from Budapest.) But it’s the first time Korean television has tried to take on such topical issues.

With hero Yoo Si-Jin (Song Joong-Ki) an army captain on a UN peace-keeping mission and heroine Kang Mo-Yeon (Song Hye-Kyo) a surgeon on a medical relief project, there’s no shortage of crises for narrative fodder. And the series seamlessly combines the footage shot overseas with the scenes shot on a set in Korea’s Gangwon Province. (The set is already a Korean tourist destination.)

The ripped-from-the-headlines plots include a high-magnitude earthquake, an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever, and a confusing, unresolved coup attempt involving the American CIA. It should be exciting.

Unfortunately, when high-level disasters hit twice per episode, they cease to feel dangerous. By the time the earthquake hit, I was surprising bored. A subsequent outbreak of an Ebola-like virus should have had me on the edge of my seat, but instead I was doing the modern equivalent of looking at my watch—checking my cats on Neko Atsume.

In the final thirty seconds of the last episode, the show acknowledges its own absurdity and deliberately switches gears into self-parody. But the unexpected joke can’t make up for the fact that the danger in Descendants of the Sun feels fake and manipulative.

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This poster is currently on every flat surface in the entire nation of South Korea.

To be clear: plausibility on its own isn’t that important in Korean television. K-drama’s beloved characters include women disguised as men, a 400-year old space alien, and more than one wealthy heir with multiple personalities. Plausibility may actually be a drawback for a K-drama.

But the best K-dramas make us believe in their absurdity. We’re genuinely afraid the heroine will be unmasked, or that the hero will disappear forever through a worm hole in time and space.

Descendants of the Sun never convinced me to worry. By the time the final episodes raised the stakes even higher, I was exhausted from strenuous eye-rolling. If a character who suffers a cardiac arrest can return to doing martial arts thirty seconds later, clearly cardiac arrest has lost its meaning. So many deceased people are brought back to life on this show that it’s like the Korean edition of The Walking Dead.

This writer and director have done better work in the past. Kim Eun-Sook has written ten dramas over the years, including the highly-rated body-switch comedy Secret Garden. Her ideas about romantic relationships are irritatingly old-fashioned—and her scripts lack that undefinable quality known as “heart”—but she knows how to write a memorable scene.

And though director Lee Eung-Bok has been slightly less prolific than writer Kim, he has made entertaining, trendy hits like Dream High, School 2013 and the Ji Sung/Hwang Jung-Eum melodrama Secret. In Secret, he managed to build suspense even though the title secret was revealed in episode one.

So why does Descendants of the Sun feel so sluggish? The first two episodes move along well. They set up convincing chemistry between the leads—and an interesting relationship problem. Do you want to fall for someone who keeps disappearing on dangerous secret missions? It looks really cool—extremely, heart-stoppingly cool—when a helicopter carries your new boyfriend away to save the world, but damn, girl, is looking heart-stoppingly cool all that matters?

Unfortunately, when the setting changes to “Uruk,” the script abandons its promising flirtation with character-driven drama. We never learn much more about these personalities. The script keeps the characters so one-dimensional, and the director hurries so quickly to the next disaster, that I never have time to care.

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A weird apathy came over me a few episodes in, as the heroine was dangling in a car over a cliff. I’ve seen heroines dangling off cliffs before. In fact, I’ve seen heroines dangling off cliffs in shows starring Song Joong-Ki. (Though in Innocent Man, the accident-prone heroine was traveling by motorbike, not car.)

Song Hye-Kyo follows the script and acts hysterical as she teeters toward the brink. But the accident occurs out-of-the-blue and is resolved just as quickly. The scene didn’t add anything new to the wide world of heroines dangling off cliffs. It felt like it was simply Kim Eun-Sook’s latest choice of plot device, something to fill the space between product placements for Snickers bars and choco-pies.

And where was the director? Why does this literal cliff-hanger feel so cursory?

A number of the show’s sequences are carelessly constructed. It’s possible director Lee was too busy with the show’s challenging logistics—all those helicopters, all those gunfights, all those scenes in English to subtitle!—to pay attention to the editing. As a result, Descendants of the Sun relies on the disasters to create their own drama. But good editing is the difference between a car crash that makes our hearts race and one that makes us yawn.

Descendants of the Sun survives its plotting and editing problems thanks to the extraordinary charisma of its stars. Song Hye-Kyo is not just an actress with a highly bankable name, but she has experience making incoherent characters work. In Descendants of the Sun, she plays one of the most resourceful heroines Kim Eun-Sook has written to date. Her character suffers occasional fits of incompetence, as required by the script, but Song Hye-Kyo still succeeds in giving her dignity.

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And Song Joong-Ki!

Song Joong-Ki already proved in 2012’s Innocent Man (aka Nice Guy) that he could carry a serious melodrama, despite the delicacy of his looks. In Descendants of the Sun, his role is less challenging, but he again plays a tough guy concealed behind a youthful, flower-boy face. Song Joong-Ki capitalizes on this incongruity, bringing out subtle emotions in action-heavy scenes. (The fact that the actor recently finished his two years’ service in the Korean army also adds a touch of the real world to his military swagger.)

Like all of Kim Eun-Sook’s heroes, Captain Yoo does have a tendency toward pathological jealousy and tasteless jokes. But, thanks perhaps to Song Joong-Ki’s sweet face, he’s the most likable Kim Eun-Sook hero I’ve seen.

The second leads also deserve mention. Jin Goo’s sergeant-at-arms is stoic but never robotic. Kim Ji-Won’s female army surgeon is emotional, but never crosses into whininess. Together the two make an excellent pairing. And the bromance between the two male leads—comrades at arms with an adorable “meet cute”—is a treat.

Unfortunately, the secondary characters appear simply as further padding for those product placements. The script doesn’t try very hard to make us care about their side stories. If you’re going to tackle this show, you won’t miss anything by skipping the secondary “narratives,” such as they are.

So what does it mean that the show’s a hit, despite an incoherent plot, simplistic characters and choppy editing?

Maybe it means with stars this likable, the lack of characterization can actually be an asset. These heroes and heroines leave more room for the imagination than three-dimensional characters. Captain Yoo is ready-made for fan fiction.

By contrast, the most intelligent K-dramas depict vivid personalities. Viewers disagree over whether to love or hate them. But it’s impossible to dislike the characters in Descendants of the Sun. These characters aren’t believable enough to inspire dislike.

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It’s all about the product placement.

They are designed to be bland, inoffensive paragons of virtue (that is to say, conservative nineteenth-century virtues). The men are brave, the women are beautiful. The men shoot guns. The women get kidnapped and need rescuing.

Descendants of the Sun’s success may lead to future K-dramas that avoid live shooting, or that tackle international topics. It will certainly mean we get to see more of Song Joong-Ki. These are all a win.

But the main point of this drama is to sell vitamin drinks, instant coffee and cellphones. (Not to mention those damn choco-pies.) And judged by that goal, Descendants of the Sun appears to have succeeded beyond even Anthony Kim’s wildest dreams. ♥

Disclaimer: Kim Eun-Sook is perhaps K-drama’s most prolific writer next to the Hong Sisters, and I’ve only managed to watch three of her series all the way to the end (including this one). That’s less than a third of her output, so there’s a lot I don’t know about her work. If you can add anything, please share!

21 thoughts on ““Descendants of the Sun” (Series Review)

  1. Odessa, you make a compelling case against Descendants of the Sun, and honestly I can’t argue with pretty much all the things you mentioned that were problematic: the lack of anything resembling a cohesive or realistic plot (it really did feel like situations were just inserted so that character could react to them rather than existing for any real narrative purpose and let’s not even mention the gaping plot holes), the lack of life-and-death stakes despite DoTS being Disasters’R’Us (hence the complete lack of narrative tension), insta-love (which I absolutely hate, especially when it’s coupled with slo-mo and melodramatic musical cues and flashing neon signs blasting “EPIC ROMANCE” down our gullets), and the blatantly awful and obvious PPL. That said, I must confess, I started watching with my “Skeptical and Critical” lens firmly in place, replaced it with my “Bored and Bailing” lens after 3 episodes of insipid and cheesy dialogue, lackluster plot and a main couple that had absolutely no relationship conflict (they had no reason not to be together, apart from the obvious and obviously resolved issue of his dangerous career), but then something happened … the X-factor—that subjective and intangible thing that kicks in and makes you love something despite all your completely rational reasons for dismissing it. For me it was the characters, pretty much all of them (except for anyone with an English—I use the term loosely—speaking role), but especially the main couple. They transitioned from unrealistically star-crossed lovers to that best of all things: two “real” people (they were refreshingly normal) in love working through the kinks (let’s pretend cars falling off cliffs, earthquakes, killer viruses, and being held at gun point classifies as “kinks”) in their relationship as they try to work out what they mean to each other and how to make space for each other in their lives. And they were adorable. It’s the romantic in me, I guess, I blame her. I was Song-Songed before that even became a verb (and if it hasn’t then someone should make that happen). I’m bemused and slightly ashamed of myself, but I’m riding the DoTS bandwagon into the sunset.

    Regarding the writer, I’ve only seen Secret Garden (the second K-Drama I ever watched and I actually really enjoyed it, despite Hyun Bin’s awful cave-man-in-flashy-tracksuit character), Heirs (which I was prepared to hate, but found inoffensive though over-hyped), and City Hall. I actually just found out that Kim Eun-Sook wrote City Hall, and I was surprised because it’s a very different kind of drama. I completely loved City Hall. As a romance, this drama was a perfect tango—intense, passionate, full of sharp turns and dips and twirls, and perfectly beautiful to watch. The characters were wonderfully developed, though Mi-rae (the Kim Sun-Ah character—not my favorite actress) is a trial to watch in the first few episodes (really, she’s cringe-worthy and beyond obnoxious, and seriously damages the watchability of the first two episodes). The trial by Mi-rae is worth enduring however, because she changes realistically and the plot is relentless in keeping you both emotionally engaged (seriously addictive stuff) and gut-bustingly amused. City Hall had a lot of heart, and it seriously stole a spot in mine. So hats off to Kim Eun-Sook, and here’s to hoping she writes a good drama for Gong Yoo, whom I miss terribly.

  2. “Descendants of the Sun never convinced me to worry”

    This is the element that reminds me a lot of cop procedural show ala CSI or Major Crimes (it just MC did better at cases). Especially the part when everyone is totally capable on the job, well sometimes it makes sense, they have to.
    Kdrama used to have this unbelievable one plot that driven the story while DoTS has small not so important plot to actually getting worry.
    But the popularity is not quite a shock for me since Song Hye Kyo is always fan favorite and tbh I think Korean like to follow the trend, so what big become bigger,
    this drama just don’t do what most drama did at the moment,
    – like-able lead, nice guy and nice woman
    – man and woman who had real job
    – humanity
    – no love triangle
    – no nonsense individual ala Mother in Law that just don’t approve anyone
    – hate-able antagonist cause they factually a bad guy.
    – make military look good, so the male based viewer didn’t hate the male lead
    – no revenge story
    – not overly chaebol centered
    – easy to watch cause you don’t have to watch the prev ep to enjoy the latest one.
    – and bromance (this one always work)

    So there’s no reason to actually hate or dislike the drama even though the drama didn’t deliver what really best. It wasn’t thrilling or best of the best but it doesn’t create a problem.
    I imagine this syndrome is the epitome of over saturation kdrama with bad guy+love triangle+revenge+chaebol that happen in almost every show on tv in SK, from Monday to weekend drama so when another guilty pleasure, not so demanding drama appear, not so hateful story come, it gets attention.

    I-fans have the privilege of choosing the drama to watch a drama while people that contribute to rating maybe just come home and watch tv. I also realize this when I choose to watch CSI bc it aired at the moment I turn it on and I don’t have to think so much or require myself to be so engaged at the moment. Beside not everyone have the audacity to analyze the drama that doesn’t have mystery.

    This insured feeling that may make lots of international fans interested in kdrama is a new pleasure for people that tired of complaining on why kdrama make everything become so complicated over a feeling over and over again.

    I like DoTS for a watch but not something I would intended to watch or re-watch, I think it’s good and recommended to watch while doing house work.

    nb: for PPL, I understand the amount is baffling but pre-produce drama is new thing in SK and they have no guarantee if it will succeed when the filming already over at December, they need some insurance to payback the investment. After watching series of pre-produce C-drama, I knew why it happening,
    and

    Have a nice day ^^

  3. Pretty much everything you said, except I didn’t like the acting of both female leads. As I already said elsewhere looking pretty while crying isn’t acting and SHK should watch Marriage Contract asap and try to learn from the excellent UEE (as could in fact Song Joong Ki learn some things from Lee Seo Jin, who was excellent in MC, too, while SJK lacked some depth as Yoo Si Jin, because his character underwent unfortunately no developement at all.)

    I was puzzled to see the massive ratings and success this show had in so many countries and came to this conclusion: In Germany the most favorite food in canteens is called Currywurst. It is, of course, the ubiquitous sausage, this time in a curried sauce and generally served with French fries. Is it the best food Germany has to offer? No!!!! That is Mom’s secret family recipe treasured by generations and never ever handed over to a stranger. Dots is just like the German Currywurst. It hits the average taste buds of the masses in the bull’s eye. It is what all those people can agree to like although their taste is much broader and better.
    Dots has all the ingrediences one needs to cook up something a lot of people can find something to like about, but is by far not the best Kdrama has to offer. That would be Signal and Marriage Contract so far this year.

  4. Thank you all for commenting, even though it took me too long to finish writing this!

    I love your currywurst comparison, Newbie. DoS hits enough good points to get attention from a wide range of people. About the acting, I’ve seen SJK and SHK in dramas with good scripts that required a lot of character development, so I’d argue they can both excel when they’re asked to. And now I have to start catching up on Marriage Contract.

    Anastasya, great run-down of the ways this show is out of the box. You make an important point that there’s a difference between watching in real time in Korea and seeing the show internationally. If you’re flipping channels after a day at work, this show immediately catches your attention.

    Rouny, great to hear from you, and to get a thoughtful defense of DoS! The X-factor is a great term. It happens to all of us–and it happened to a LOT of people with this show! I’ve never watched City Hall, but now you’re making me curious. I actually liked Heirs, as crazy as that will sound to some people. Kim Eun-Sook can write good dialogue, and her way of writing characters (one-dimensional but distinct) worked for those teenagers. It’s her grown-up characters that don’t seem real to me.

    In other news, the fact that Ji Sung is in a new drama fills my world with light and rainbows. Doesn’t matter that the first episodes were totally confusing. For me, he will always BE the X-factor.

  5. I was really looking forward to this drama but ended up dropping it around episode 8. Song Joong-Ki is one of the best drama actors out there but even his acting could not save this series for me. It was so very pretty to look at but I kind of like there to be some kind of a plot. Also, as perhaps the only person on this planet I found the romance a little bit boring. One thing’s sure though: I need pilot sun glasses.

  6. Interesting viewpoint. I agree YSJ was a very one-note character. They could have done a lot with his character but sadly he ended at the same place where he started. KMY on the other hand had a lot of growth. I believe shows like these are targeted towards the female audience allowing them to live the moment as KMY. Now with some distance between me and the show I can see the flaws more clearly.

    But I must say the initial setup and premise was very refreshing. A guy and girl who like each other not playing the fake hate game. No screeching mothers and mothers-in-law. No scheming second leads. Stripped of these hallmarks of Korean drama, it became comparable to standard American action drama.

    All said and done, I still loved it while it played. SJK played a BIIIG part in it 🙂

  7. Hi Pranx! Thanks for leaving your thoughts on DOS. I was thinking about you as I watched the series–since it was you who first introduced me to the works of Song Joong-Ki. I’m so glad that the crazy action plot didn’t interfere with your enjoyment!! And now that he’s back from the army, we can only look forward to more SJK in the future. Hopefully we’ll also get more dramas where the hero and heroine admit that they like each other from day one. That was really cool. As was that damn helicopter. Wow, those first episodes were sexy.

  8. This is really big where I live, here the 19th century kind of simplistic world resonates a lot But given the train wreck that was Secret Garden it is a big No for me and your review convinces me I am right! And not a big SHK fan too though I like SJK so that’s there. I really liked your point on lack of characterization and fanfic, this seems to be true of so many serials. And newbie’s currywurst analogy is right!

    PS: Its nice to see a refreshing critical take on dramas. Most of the major sites seem to often lose focus with fangirling over some actor or the other making me avoid them these days. Nothing wrong with fangirling as long as you can engage critically!

    • Hi! Sometimes it takes me an effort to keep the fangirling to a minimum, but there’s so much more to say about these shows. Especially the ones with some depth (i.e., not Descendants of the Sun, sigh). I don’t want casual K-drama viewers to think DOS is the best Korean TV has to offer. Not when there are shows like Signal and Marriage Contract coming out in the same spring. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. Hello there to the cast and korean drama lovers.
    I was a normal guy up to until when my girlfriend suggested that i should watch this series, I have never watched a korean drama in my life. First I’d like to say 10/10 rating , good show for teens looking to know more about love
    I’m commenting about the behaviors of my girlfriend after watching this drama,Yes.You guys poisoned her mind.In our relationship she tries to do what the characters do in the drama especially about love.
    First of all, she’s constantly and annoyingly asking me to break up with her. I suspect this from watching Doctor Kang constantly breaking up with Captain Yoo.After I renewed myself,changed for the better she then asked me to leave her because she doesn’t deserve me. I suspect this from Yoon breaking up with Seo because he was sacrificing his uniform to be with her , she didn’t want to make his life suffer then broke up with him.
    Next,for whatever reason Captain Yoo , Seo , Doctor Kang and Yoon all cheated at one point in their life.My girlfriend cheated one me,I dont know if it’s a coincidence if not dont make you’re bloody fan girls or boys follow you and cheat when they are in a relationship. Its bloody sick
    She continues to try to make our relationship difficult just like how the drama’s couples are having lots of love dramas.
    So kindly,stop your fan girls from acting what the couples experienced in the drama or the population on earth is gonna decrease thanks to you. Love trouble causers .No offense to you but liked the show.
    I am a victim of a relationship that is in the process of trying to be like this drama. Help
    Thank you

    • Oh no! It sounds tough. The characters in dramas aren’t very good at being in relationships, are they? If they were always happy, there wouldn’t be much, well, drama, to keep us watching at the edge of our seats. But in real life, we don’t want to be in suspense. Being in suspense about love feels like hell!

      Happy drama fans know that the cheating and tortured emotions should stay on the screen. If you’re in love with someone who cheats or doesn’t respect you, you deserve better. In dramas, unhappy relationships can magically get better in the last episode. But that doesn’t happen much in real life.

      I’m sorry dramas are turning your life into a drama! The best kind of love is the kind that makes everything easier, not harder. If you don’t have that kind of relationship now, hang in there because someday you’ll find it. And it won’t be anything like a drama, but it’ll still be awesome.

    • That was funny. It’s maybe time for your Happiness. Pun absolutely intended. Send her pictures from the front row of that Red Velvet concert you’re about to book.

  10. Another great Drama movie, which you don’t get bored even after watching the movies a few times.

    Like the Actor, Actress and also the soundtrack ..love all of them

  11. After all that hype, I wad looking forward to SJK and SHK…Disappointef..I find this drama boring. The military parts are good but in terms of so called romance…really the dialogue between SHK and SJK just too slow and boring. I did not find myself looking forward to their ‘encounters” as much as I did other dramas!.
    SHK did much better in her other drama roles. In my opinion her potrayal as a doctor is not convincing enough. Not sure if its the dressing (short skirts and high heels while on attachment in a deserted pl?) or is it l her flawless face that remains white and clean all the time despite the heat in Urk (except for the earth quakes scenes..but that still did not cut it for me). I like her much better in Autumn in my heart and Full House.. I vant help but compare Moon Chae Won’s performance in The Good Doctor which I feel is much more realistic.

    Also on OST, tho the songs are nice..there are occasions where I feel the pcs are played at the wrong mood setting.

    All said its not a drama I would re-watch. Well for all others who love DOTS..sorry its just me..perhaps coz I expected more.

  12. I cannot disagree more about your review of DotS. You put many same thoughts as mine. I just watch DotS and i only need to finish the last episode but i lost my interest. the plot is very promising and interesting but sadly it’s tasteless on some scenes and off the target.
    I even had to convince myself that YSJ and KMY are indeed in love with each other. I should be squeal in the romantic scene but somehow it feels out of place. their relationship is pretty much confusing because their push n pull, accepting and rejecting relationship is not needed actually. I think they are the one who make excuse of why they can’t be together when actually there’s no one on their way.
    About the characters though, i think everyone is one dimensional. the villain is totally bland and not giving me a great impression as an antagonist. That captain agus is like a come-and-gone character, not very needed in many ways. just a typical bad guy that is needed to be killed off.
    When i acknowledge that this is a military-action-romance drama, i hope it’s really good drama as King 2 Hearts drama (though K2H is more into action-political-romance with some military). Sadly i have to say though K2H not get good rating as DotS, the story is better and neater than DotS.
    Regardless of many weakness in this series, the actors had nailed it, they are very good in acting ofc. I don’t think i want to re-watch DotS soon.

  13. I’m not Korean and I don’t usually watch Korean drama. But all my Asian girlfriends told me it’s a must watch show and I did since it’s now available on Netflix. Once done I was left in a wonder. Wondering how the heck I’m gonna get my 15 (or was it 16) hours of my life back. Wondering if that was “the best Korean drama” as gushed by my friends then maybe I haven’t missed anything not following Korean drama all this time. And wondering if I was alone in my disappointment of the series. And I’m glad I found your article. I’m glad that there are sane people out there. 🙂 Because my friends refuse to hear any criticism about the show or the characters on the show.

    Noted that I didn’t hate it. I did watch the whole series, mostly to make sure to do it justice. But the simple plot line was a yawn, the insane implausiblity insulted the viewers’ intelligence, the horribly stiffy kissing scenes that made me feel sorry for the actor and actress, which made me wonder if that was really how Korean people kiss (narrow American-sided view I know). The one saving grace of the show was how gorgeous all the people were. Beautiful luminescent porcelain skin on both male and female made those slow motion cues and deep gazes tolerable. I used those moments to wonder how they did the natural makeup and what brands they used, or what kind of filtered lenses. 🙂

    Anyway I’m done venting. Onto another Korean drama. Not!

    • Yep, you’re not alone. But there are a lot of Korean dramas out there. Maybe someday you’ll see a K-drama you like, one of the ones that has a plot. (My advice: stay away from anything written by Kim Eun-Sook. She specializes in those weird stiff kissing scenes that even Koreans find weird.)

  14. its enjoyable, while some portion defies logic like the overdramatized ending and as discussed above. Its about love stories and never mind how to explain the absence of communication among the major characters for about a year – in the age of technology.
    Over dramatized ending.

  15. OMG! I thought I was crazy being one of the few people who didn’t like Descendants of the Sun; and I watched it until the end waiting for that “something” that made everybody so crazy last year… Never found it though…

  16. Such an excellent summary explaining my apathy and frustration towards the show. Song Joong Ki is a masterful actor and maybe I came here looking for something like Innocent Man again, but was sorely disappointed.

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