Good Lord, that was a good story. Now I see why those who’ve seen it love it so strongly and urge others to give it a go. I’ll be joining that chorus. If you haven’t seen A Wife’s Credentials — hunt it down. I had to watch via dark sources. The picture was bad (small and grainy), the subbing got lazy (using, “I’m so busy,” when I could tell the character was actually listing out all the things keeping them busy), but it still managed to hit me in the heart and the gut and the head. (Spoilers through ep. 16 below.)
What surprised me the most is how feminist the drama is. It fiercely takes on the status-quo (powerful men as the center of the universe) and exposes how false, how weak and insubstantial and immoral and cruel, that status-quo is.
There’s a sequence of events in the last few episodes — perfectly shot and scripted and acted — that, to my mind, perfectly encapsulated exactly what the drama is getting at. The sister-in-law, Myung-jin, finally realizes her best friend is her husband’s mistress. As she walks through her friend’s apartment looking for her husband, he scrambles out the window and winds up hanging onto a drainpipe for dear life. She sees him, of course, and he ends up getting rescued by the fire department.
We watch the firetruck and ambulance pull out of the station, arrive at the apartment complex, get the cherry picker up and to the stuck husband (Hyun-tae). The time it takes for all this to happen, while the crowd grows and Hyun-tae wails, brings its own comedy and I was literally laughing out loud by the end. Hyun-tae is exposed as this total putz and it’s hilarious.
Then things shift. His father, a powerful and wealthy man, head of a large law firm, accepts Hyun-tae’s son. The mistress (an intelligent and ruthless woman who I actually admired, despite her callousness towards Seo-rae, because she worked the system so well) has managed to keep custody of her son, so Hyun-tae’s mistress is accepted by default. (This is my understanding of what went on, anyway. Again, the subs weren’t that detailed.)
Suddenly the putz becomes a tiger. He essentially warns his wife that she is subservient to him and needs to make sure he’s happy (i.e., accept his mistress) if she wants to continue receiving his monetary and social support. He tells Sang-jin, in no uncertain terms, that Sang-jin is the subservient one in their relationship. Which Sang-jin is forced to acknowledge because both he and his father are now dependent on Hyun-tae (or, more accurately, Hyun-tae’s father) for work.
There’s a certain amount of Schadenfreude to this. Sang-jin and his sister totally looked down on Seo-rae and it’s nice to see some turn-about. But it’s tainted because the set-down is coming from an established putz. One who leaves Teacher Hong out to dry — letting her go to prison despite his earlier promise to protect her. And we get a shot of his older daughter watch her grandfather embrace her newly discovered half-brother. So we see her realize that her place as heir-apparent — the one she’s been working so hard to be worthy of — has just been usurped.
The message is pretty clear. In this world, power is determined by wealth — nothing else. It’s men who control the money and thus, it’s men who have the power. Women can scramble after it, and possibly get a slice of the pie (as the mistress manages to do), but it’s the men who make the call in the end, and they can drop you as easily as they pick you up (as Hyun-tae does to Teacher Hong).
But there is some hope. The final scenes show Seo-rae and Tae-oh on a bicycle ride. They separate because she wants to take her own route. He arrives at their destination first, per his text to her, but she is pushing on. The road is rocky and sometimes she has to get off her bike and walk it in some places, but the views are nice and she’s going to get there.
I loved that this is what we leave on. I feel like the drama is saying that the old system is too corrupt and ugly to bother reforming. Or to bother trying to succeed in. Because success there is never a sure thing — never a real thing. (If Hyun-tae’s family firm fails — which, can easily happen — he’s reduced to his natural putz state, just like what happened with Sang-jin.) That’s the secret Tae-oh knew — the game is an empty one without any real victory. His strength came from his refusal to take part in that world. It’s the life-saving advice he gives Seo-rae (the advice Teacher Hong ignored) — don’t try and beat these people at their game, just quit the game.
I think the sexual harassment case against Sang-jin fits into this narrative as well. The internal case is dropped; the male upper-management are happy to just let Sang-jin quit. We know that sexual harassment isn’t unique to Sang-jin because of what Seo-rae went through. So the old-boy’s club is obviously alive and well. But, Sang-jin did have to quit and the accusation is treated as a big deal. And the attorney (I think she was the company attorney, anyway) is planning to file a public case against him. There’s not an out and out victory — but the bike got pushed a little further up the road.
(Oh, how I wish the abused mom had managed to leave that life like Seo-rae did! That was a heartbreaking end to her story. I hoped, when we got that cut to her, face freshly bruised, that she was preparing to leave. Unfortunately, it was her son who decided he couldn’t take it anymore. And if that wasn’t a pointed warning… The drama delivered their message so, so well.)
I think it’s really kind of amazing that such a quiet story — one that feels so beautifully slice-of-life — manages to deliver such a whopping huge message. And that it does so while also giving us believable and warm characters that are so, so easy to get behind and love, and while giving us an uplifting and warm love story. I’m really impressed. (If this ever gets picked up by the legit streaming sites I am so re-watching it. It’ll be the perfect excuse!)