Exploring Korean Drama: Descendants of the Sun

Descendants of the Sun is an international smash hit Korean drama, one that prompted reactions from entities as varied as the Korean Board of Tourism, the BBC, and the Chinese government. Its arrival onto Netflix, therefore, is significant enough it seems only fitting to revive our kdrama column with a look at the series.

"Why do we always have dates in hospitals?" "Because we're action stars like that."

“Why do we always have dates in hospitals?” “Because we’re action stars like that.”

DoS stars Song Joong-Ki as Yoo Si-Jin and Song Hye-Kyo as Kang Mo-Yeon. He’s military special ops, she’s an ER surgeon, and they have a rather traditional meet-cute before being thrust into high-stakes life-or-death situations over and over again both at home and abroad. The series is fast-paced, heavier on the action and lighter on actual plot. It’s also the first series in years by writer Kim Eun-Sook I can recommend without any major reservations.

Kim Eun-Sook and I have a tumultuous relationship. I’ve featured one of her shows, Secret Garden, in this column before; I liked that one almost despite myself, given that I hated how the male lead treated the female lead for the majority of the drama. Many of the writer’s other recent smash-hit shows contain similar toxic masculinity; an exception is City Hall, which is older, not as odious in its male lead, and sadly (and one would hope not in correlation) not as popular.

That Kim Eun-Sook isn’t present here. I don’t know whether to thank Song Joong-Ki, who generally has excellent taste in roles and even before this series enough star power to perhaps exercise some control over them, the co-writer Kim Won-Seok, the directors, or just society at large for beginning to reject the grosser traits in male leads. I’ll thank them all, because the reason why you must watch Descendants of the Sun now that it’s so easy to do so on Netflix is because in addition to being exciting and cute, it’s another fabulous example of the New Alpha Male, previously seen in characters such as Raleigh from Pacific Rim.

Sunglasses: the perfect accessory for playing it cool while squeeing on the inside.

Sunglasses: the perfect accessory for playing it cool while squeeing over your crush on the inside.

For a couple of years we saw a shift away from the traditional kdrama alpha male lead: cool and aloof, pursuing the female lead (and dragging her around by the wrist, ugh) in spite of her actual opinion on the matter, confusing wooing someone with constantly belittling and insulting them. Instead, we had goofier, sweeter, nerdier male leads in a number of dramas. Now Si-Jin combines the two; as a badass special ops military commander who’s constantly taking down bad guys, there’s no question Si-Jin fits the traditional alpha male mode in many ways.

And while Si-Jin is never outright goofy or nerdy, he does let his hair down, joke around with his friends (surprisingly uncommon for traditional male leads in kdramas), and most importantly: genuinely likes and respects Mo-Yeon from the beginning. He is always clear and forthright with his feelings without being forceful, gives her the space she asks for, apologizes when he’s wrong (this is 2016, whyyyy should this be listed as a positive point and not a given, argh), and even when he experiences negative emotions like jealousy is he is able to express it without being repugnant (as captured amusingly below, with bonus acknowledgement of the female gaze, hooray!).

It’s that respect he has for Mo-Yeon, his genuine awe at her own badassery, and his wish to see her succeed and do better that reminds me of beloved beta male leads like Enrique from Flower Boy Next Door, or similar genre-defying leads like Han Kyul from Coffee Prince. And for me, it’s this shift in how the romance between the two leads is presented that makes me love the show. Countless kdramas boast adorable couples with great chemistry. Less contain such well-written romance that holds up to scrutiny when the cute surface is scratched away.

Also making DoS unique, although increasingly less so, is the fact that the entire series was filmed before the first episode aired. It’s why the pacing works so well despite the fact that there is little overarching plot. Gone are any last-minute attempts to appease flagging viewership or stretch out the drama for an additional few episodes ordered by the network. Instead, we have a show that manages to be cute and romantic, funny and tongue-in-cheek meta (that ending scene!), and exciting and action-packed, making it a series not to miss. It’s time to check out what the rest of the world is watching.