In a nutshell: You could say it’s about the law and the balance between justice and vengeance. You could say it’s about the struggle between love and greed, forgiveness and obsession. You could say it’s about the deep desire to be heard and what it takes to really listen. But what is it that keeps you stuck to your screen, watching into the small hours of the night? A romance that is hot like burning cleverly disguised as an adorable, dorky, puppy-love. There’s a reason this show bear-hugs you with the grip of a grizzly — and it ain’t got nothing to do with theme or plot. But theme and plot are there — thoroughly discussed and clearly presented. That the drama doesn’t get sloppy with either its motif or its pacing gives the story’s beating heart a good, solid body to reside in. Which makes it a very good watch indeed.
Motif: There is, of course, a love triangle. But this one does more than kick-start the romance, it also sets out the theme. We meet our leading lady, Jang Hye-sung (Lee Bo-young) sleepwalking through her job as a defense attorney. She’s already so jaded the only reason she wants to become a public defender is the steady, government paycheck.
Opposite Hye-sung’s definitely not listening method of dealing with clients is ex-cop, Cha Kwan-woo (Yoon Sang-hyun). He’s idealistic and passionate and wants to become a public defender to serve the greater good. He’s even learned sign-language so any clients’ actual deafness won’t stop him from hearing them.
The final leg of the romantic triangle is high school student, Park Su-ha (Lee Jong-seuk). He can read minds. Which gives him a uniquely mature perspective on people. He, more than anyone, knows there’s a lot more to people than their surface impression because he can hear what they won’t or cannot say.
[Fun fact: Yoon Sang-hyun and Lee Jong-seuk have worked a love triangle together before. Though it shook out a little differently. In Secret Garden Lee Jong-seuk played a composer pining after Yoon Sang-hyun’s character.]
Between them, three different ways of approaching the criminal justice world are shown. Hye-sung grinds people through the system as quickly and easily as possible. Kwan-woo pours everything he has into each case, believing in his clients perhaps a tiiiny bit too much. And then there’s Su-ha. With his ability he’s well practiced in seeing that there’s two sides to a story and that both sides need to be heard.
(I loved that the drama was so thorough in its look into the criminal justice system, by the way. I’m not at all familiar with court procedure in the Republic of Korea, so I’m definitely talking thematically here. I do suspect, based off of past tv-watching experience and a few eyebrow raising occurrences within the drama itself, that some of the usual practices and methodologies were bent. But the desperation of the accused, the anger of the victims, the need for both sides to get a fair hearing, to be listened to — they get that part very right. Someone with the proper legal familiarity will probably find many nits (or even gnats) to pick. But getting the emotions right was enough for me to wave away any technicalities that niggled.)
Plot: There is, as it turns out, a reason our Hye-sung is already so jaded. Despite a supportive and just plain awesome mom, (the always delightful, Kim Hae-sook) Hye-sung’s been shaped by two big events from her past. She’s used to not being heard and she’s learned that involvement leads to pain. Within the first episode the drama sets forth those events and opens the path for some key-players to reenter Hye-sung’s life.
The first involves her high school nemesis. Who of course shows up as a newly minted Prosecutor. She and Hye-sung face off in, and out of, the courtroom and their clashes are interesting and insightful and oftentimes hilarious. I loved that Prosecutor Seo Do-yeon (Lee Da-hee) was given her own depth and complexity. It enabled both sides of the courtroom to be seen as equally interested in pursuing truth and justice. And it gave both Do-yeon and Hye-sung room to learn and grow from their interactions. (Which they usually handled with amusing reluctance and lack of grace — they made for entertaining frenemies.)
The second event is a lot scarier and pumps the drama full of adrenaline and action to a level I had not expected and very much enjoyed. Young Hye-sung witnessed a crime and the criminal (an unexpectedly terrifying Jung Woong-in) is not one to let that slide. Which brought an interesting dimension to the Prosecute versus Defend dynamic. Our public defender has intimate knowledge of the dangers an unchecked criminal can bring to society.
Heart: So we’re given solid plot bones with the ongoing fallout from Hye-sung’s past. And we’re given a strong body with the thorough examination of what justice truly means. But the beating heart of this drama is the romance.
And this is where things get tricky because I don’t want to spoil a thing. [Spoilers are in the comments.] So I’ll only point out one cool aspect. With both of Hye-sung’s potential beaus, the dorky and idealistic Kwan-woo, and the insightful but vulnerable Su-ha, the dynamic was fascinatingly and intriguingly gender reversed.
Hye-sung is prickly and aloof but also refreshingly sure of herself. Yes, much of it is pure bravado (which is what keeps it refreshing rather than annoying) but she never (or rarely) betrays doubt that she’s someone worthy of being wooed. (Lee Bo-young does a wonderful job bringing Hye-sung to life, having her stalk and strut her way through the world, a slight widening of her eyes and freezing of her smirk the one tell that maybe she’s faking it — just a little.)
It’s up to both Kwon-woo and Su-ha to bring the empathy and gentleness. They have to work to get her to drop her barriers, let go of her jadedness, to essentially let her know she’s being heard but also encourage her to do some listening herself. In many ways the romance is about Hye-sung getting her groove back. A process that becomes something unexpectedly engrossing.
In Conclusion: There is so much to love about this drama. It’s entertaining and funny and heartbreaking and scary. It gives us a deeply felt romance that should seem standard but becomes something much greater than its parts. It sneaks up on you, this drama. And once its got you, you won’t want it to let go.