[Note: Ok, so I’ve fallen so far behind with Nice Guy that I have to write a reflection for three weeks’ worth of episodes (!). I’ll be writing up 3 separate reflections just as if I’d kept up with one for each week. I’ve tried to stick to the notes I took for each week so as to try to avoid spoilery stuff for future readers. And for the folks who’ve come back even though I haven’t posted in so long, thanks so much!]
Happiness – Ma Ru, episode 13
I saw Ma Ru writing “happiness” in the mirror and it I felt it spelt doom for him, because of the way it was filmed. Ma Ru comes out of the shower, with the heat from it hanging in a haze around the bathroom. He walks over to the mirror, and when he peers into it he doesn’t see his reflection because it’s fogged up. That’s when he writes the word. He looks at it for a moment. Then he wipes the word away–and that’s when his face is revealed, and he smiles. It’s like a sign telling us that happiness and Kang Ma Ru simply cannot co-exist, like the physics rule about two things not being able to be in the same place at the same time; when one is present, the other is wiped out. It’s a continuation of the way the drama has been using mirrors to reflect the state of the characters’ identities. Jae Hee broke a mirror during the height of her hypocrisy towards Ma Ru, which lead to a permanent breach in their relationship, and when Eun Ki first appeared onscreen after the car crash she looks blankly into a mirror, signifying an interruption in her identity. Actually, this happens again in this episode, when she looks in the mirror at Jae Hee’s home and calls herself stupid. Eun Ki knows so little about herself that she doesn’t know what she’s allergic to–she’s become a danger to herself. That’s how much her identity has been erased.
Someday, when you get tired of me and I become too cumbersome to you I know that you will run away from me. – Eun Ki, episode 13
Here Eun Ki is referring to her disabilities and the help she’s needed just to be able to make it through a day, as well the help she’s needed specifically from Ma Ru in order to pretend to be the same old Eun Ki at Taesan. But there’s a whole other context to what she’s saying that she doesn’t even realize. Ma Ru doesn’t find her disabilities to be a burden. He welcomes them because they offer him a chance to atone for his past treachery. What he does find to be a burden is the possibility of her memories returning. It scares him. It’s not her disability that’s the problem, it’s her ability. Ma Ru vehemently denies that he could ever leave her, but he’s lying. He’s already pushed her away and run away from her and his guilt (actually, I wonder if part of the problem Ma Ru has is that he sees Eun Ki as a manifestation of his guilt) when they became too much for him to bear, and he’s doing the same thing even as they speak. He tells Eun Ki, “And running away, too,” and he pauses, breaks eye contact, then looks back at her, hitching a smile onto his face, “I won’t run away, either.” He knows he’s lying.
Ma Ru isn’t part of this relationship wholeheartedly. He’s put constraints on it, has made it a conditional love–he’ll leave when she gets her memories back. He’s preparing himself to leave her, always keeping a bit of himself separate from her, protecting himself. It’s in the way he doesn’t confess out loud to her, in the way he keeps alluding to his past bad character but doesn’t make it clear, in the way he encourages her to leave him when she gets her memories back. He has this fatalistic approach to their romance, as if it’s doomed to failure. It’s like he’s preemptively breaking things off because he’s convinced that that’s what she should do to him if and when she regains her memories. I remember someone arguing that it was a good thing Ma Ru doesn’t switch to a styrofoam cup when Eun Ki keeps on breaking the glass ones in episode 14 because that would signal a lack of faith–but that’s what Ma Ru displays every time he holds himself back from Eun Ki. It’s not something I necessarily want to fault him for: he’s so scarred, and I’ve noted how he uses silence as a balm, and I can see how this could be an extension of that silence. It’s just…another obstacle to their romance.
Don’t worry, Eun Ki. I will take care of you till you die. I won’t ever kick you out without a penny, unlike someone else. As long as you know where you stand. As long as you stay stupid, pretty, and nice, like now, then I won’t hate you. Why would I hate you? Because of Ma Ru and me, your life has become a mess. You’re the biggest victim. I’m sorry. I’m sincerely sorry. – Jae Hee, episode 14
It creeps me out how easily you could replace her “then I won’t hate you” with “I will stay by your side” and attribute this to Ma Ru. It highlights Eun Ki’s dependency on him and makes it all the more satisfying when she finally decides she doesn’t want to hide behind him anymore. I think it says so much about Jae Hee that she understands that she’s helped to ruin Eun Ki, and that the only way she’ll be kind to her is if she remains ruined. She knows she’s guilty of something, but she doesn’t feel any guilt. What manifests as remorse in Ma Ru is determination in Jae Hee, and it perfectly encapsulates her selfishness. If you act exactly as she wants you to act, if your will aligns with her goals, then she can treat you well. If you object to her in any way, then you have to be crushed. I’ve been every critical of the way Ma Ru loved her, and I still am, but I’m starting to think that as much as Jae Hee uses love strategically, she fosters a kind of love from others in which they bend to her every whim. I actually like this about her in terms of character development because it makes her relationship with Ahn the Ass that much more ripe for study. He is her ally, but he has at times been more proactive in helping her achieve her goals than she herself has been, like when he killed the chairman. That tension is probably only going to increase, what with Ahn’s jealous streak, and I’m looking forward to seeing the power dynamics unfold between them.
On Jae Hee and Power & Ma Ru and Doubt
Jae Hee’s Power and Genre
If Eun Ki’s power lies in being able to negotiate the past, being able to change her relationship with the past so that she can better navigate her present, then Jae Hee’s power lies in her ability to blur and confuse. Jae Hee is that fog in Ma Ru’s bathroom: she clouds things, makes them seem like they’re something they’re not, makes them seem like they aren’t there when they are. While Eun Ki tries to make things clearer and more coherent, as seen by the way pre-crash Eun Ki always confronted things head on and post-crash Eun Ki goes on a journey of retrieving her memories, Jae Hee deliberately tries to obscure things. It’s like Jae Hee is ambiguity itself, which would explain why her character can be so awful and still garner such sympathy.
Jae Hee’s greatest attacks don’t lie in any of the corporate machinations she’s tried with Taesan, but in her ability to sow doubt into the romance between Ma Ru and Eun Ki. Her greatest power is doubt, and because she uses love strategically, it has the most impact on the romance in the narrative. What Jae Hee knows is how to manipulate and inveigle through the use of love. She’s most threatening in that arena, and while she wants Taesan more than Eun Ki–enough to sell her into sexual slavery or have her killed–I find I’m more interested in the way her use of love will come back to haunt her, first with how she comes to regret her decision to leave Ma Ru (the first tiing Jae Hee ever regrets; remember she doesn’t even really regret “ruining” Eun Ki’s life, which is what Ma Ru most regrets) and how Lawyer Ahn will become more than she can handle. It reflects how the show isn’t really about corporate ascendency, but is at it’s core a romance. The strongest moments of episodes 13-14 were the ones that dealt with Ma Ru and Eun Ki’s romance, and the weakest ones were those addressing Eun Ki’s position in the company. I loved that Eun Ki decided to rid herself of dependency, but I wasn’t very invested in her trying to return to Taesan. I think it has something to do with her doing it to get back her memories of Ma Ru, and not because she enjoys the job, which is something the old Eun Ki actually did like. The old Eun Ki actually loved Taesan; what she didn’t like was her father’s insistence that it be all she had in her life, and she chose Ma Ru over that. So the show is a romance because it focuses on the trials of Eun Ki and Ma Ru’s love, but also because through Jae Hee it focuses on the ways love can be corrupted. And I just love that the thing we’re told that foils love is doubt, that indeterminate shadow that feels like you’re protecting yourself, but can chip away at you until there’s nothing left.
Jae Hee’s Power In Action
I have to backtrack and go over a few things, though. Firstly, as of episode 14 Ma Ru has yet to say he loves Eun Ki. Here is the pseudo confession he gives in episode 12 (and he doesn’t say it to her, but in his head to his father):
One day, a woman walked towards me.
A woman whose heart my words pierced with the sharpest of knives;
A woman I tried to push away with all the might I could muster;
A woman who, in spite of that all, still kept on walking and came back to me.
A woman who so strikingly resembled me; in whose eyes I could see my own self, like a mirror to my soul.
A woman whose scars looked and felt and hurt like mine, whose heart was filled with a deluge of tears I for so long had trapped inside my mind.
Scars I inflicted, tears I am to blame for.
A woman I should have never met, who should have never had the misfortune of walking along the same path as someone like me.
A woman who makes me feel regret, Father.
For the very first time in my life.
* The blogger whose translation this is asked not to be credited; but it’s not mine!
The most striking thing here is his sense of guilt, of contrition. It’s a lovely monologue, and it describes so perfectly how alike the two are and how resilient Eun Ki is, but it’s significance lies in the pain that exists between the two, in the remorse Ma Ru feels for being the source of that pain.
Secondly, when Ma Ru breaks up with Jae Hee in episode 8, he tells her that he didn’t understand his real motives in trying to get revenge on her, that he didn’t actually want vengeance, but was just trying to be close to her because of lingering romantic feelings.
Noona you know me very well. You know me much better than I know myself. The me that is confused, the day that I don’t want to believe myself, the me I wanted to deny; noona happened to be like the person who came into my heart, who knows me well enough to give me shivers**. Right? …So in fact my heart doesn’t want revenge. Even after you did all that it still missed you. It was my idiot like unendning feelings. …’Ma Ru-ah, help me!’ Whenever you called me I would abandon my younger sister with a fever of 38 °C. Like a crazy guy, running towards you like that, the Kang Ma Ru from 6 years ago. You knew I’d come to you like that. No matter what noona did, I understood, I was patient, I forgave you and endured it all. You also know this, right? Although I was used like that, the me that was crazy over Han Jae Hee like a mentally ill person, like a person lacking in some aspect, like a person with amnesia, like a person without a liver…Where Han Jae Hee is, where she is going, whether that place is heel or utter destruction, I am no longer interested.
The bolded part foreshadows what will happen to Eun Ki with her double amnesia and her cognitive disabilities; it also foreshadows how Ma Ru will start to forget his romance with Jae Hee. And this break up is a direct negation of the letter he wrote to her, when he’d said he’d follow her to the ends of the earth.
And now, in episode 14 Jae Hee tells Ma Ru:
[Ma Ru is gripping her lapel and has her shoved up against a wall and has just threatened her.] Love is not about loyalty. It’s not about sympathy, either. Just because you are sorry and want to return everything back to normal, doesn’t mean you’re in love. That is just your conscience. Love is what you gave me. That is love, right? [Ma Ru lets go of her lapel and looks shaken. He steps back from her.] …You came back as Eun Ki’s fiance. I have no idea why you are here to provoke me, but honestly, I don’t mind it. Honestly I was glad to see you again Ma Ru. …I’m going. See you again.
Jae Hee’s little speech is in direct response to Ma Ru’s previous two speeches. Jae Hee is doing two things here. First, no matter how much patience he has with Eun Ki now, no matter how well he treats her or how much he helps her, how “loyal” and “sympathetic” he is, Ma Ru will always be in a kind of debt to Eun Ki. He’ll always be paying her back, first for using her to get back at Jae Hee and secondly because of how cruelly he broke up with her on the beach in episode 9 (which was itself a result of the former). It’s a position Jae Hee recognizes: after Ma Ru had come from jail she’d been in a kind of debt to him–an insurmountable one, one that couldn’t really be paid, except maybe by reciprocating an unending love for him. Ma Ru now has an unpayable debt to Eun Ki. But Jae Hee’s debt to him was for something he did freely for her and his debt to Eun Ki is for a wrong he did to her. Jae Hee is sowing a doubt here, one she thinks Ma Ru could have: is he doing all of this for Eun Ki out of love, or out of a feeling of debt, out of the burden of his conscience? Is it love or is it contrition?
And second, not only is Jae Hee trying to make Ma Ru’s romance with Eun Ki about repaying a debt, she’s also trying to make it about her. She’s trying to turn this incarnation of their romance into a continuance of it’s first incarnation, trying to say that he’s not actually in love with Eun Ki but is just trying to get close to her again, just like before. Of course, this is a manifestation of Jae Hee’s solipsism, but it’s also the sharpest knife she has in her cupboard, because she recognizes it’s a doubt Ma Ru may harbor himself. That’s why when she says “That was love,” Ma Ru takes a step back and is shocked. It’s like with those three little words (which kind of mock those other famous three little words that Ma Ru has yet to say to Eun Ki, i.e. “I love you”; although, does that work in Korean?) she says aloud and makes real what he has been trying to keep at bay. With those three words she literally gives the him shivers he’d referred to before. Ma Ru was right, Jae Hee knows him very, very well. She doesn’t have the power to call him over to her side willy nilly anymore, but she does have the power to make him doubt himself. Thinking about it now, it’s a crushing doubt that began in episode 8 when he discovered the extent and scope of the lies Jae Hee was willing to tell. I’ve been watching this drama thinking that Ma Ru’s fall began after Jae Hee stopped coming to visit him in jail, but really, it was this blow that destroyed him.
I’ve got to hand it to Jae Hee, when she’s good at something, she’s good. That last line she says to him, “See you again,” is so deadly because when he broke up with her he basically swore he’d never see her again, and yet here he is, a year later, and they are facing each other. That last line is Jae Hee saying, “Are you really doing this for Eun Ki?”
On Ma Ru, Guilt, and Punishment
You getting mad, breaking everything, and being like this after collapsing. It actually makes me happy. In this situation, it’s normal to get angry and furious. Because, Seo Eun Ki, you were always too bright and happy. I was worried about that because I thought maybe you were just hurting inside. If it’s possible, I want to see you scream and cry. What did you and Han Jae Hee speak about? Are you having a hard time because of me? If you’re suffering because of your memories of me, don’t hide, let it out. Stop stabbing yourself and hurt me, Eun Ki. Stop inflicting pain on yourself and stab me, like this. You need to live properly in order for me to leave. You need to get up properly so I can leave your side with out worries.
This final quote from Ma Ru fits into the ideas I’ve been grappling with about him. Hiding and smothering emotions is his job, and he knows how wearying it is and doesn’t want Eun Ki to do the same. On one hand he doesn’t want Eun Ki to suffer and doesn’t want to be the cause of her suffering. That’s part of why he doesn’t want her to regain, or is scared of her regaining, her memories. On the other hand he feels that it’s inevitable that she will, but he doesn’t want her to react as she had before: he wants her to punish him. His greatest fear isn’t that Eun Ki will find out about the past and she’ll hate him and won’t be able to forgive him (I mean, she’d known about it before and had forgiven him) it’s that he doesn’t know if his relationship with her will ever be able to escape the huge shadow his relationship with Jae Hee throws over it. His fear is that she will forgive him. The only way to cleanse, to exorcise, his previous wrongs to her is for her to punish him, and to do so without hurting herself, and he’s afraid this is exactly what she won’t be willing to do.
*Once Eun Ki starts wailing and “letting it out,” Ma Ru leaves, mirroring what he told her, and it triggers his hemotoma, showing us that he was speaking on two levels: that he would leave her in terms of their romance and that he would leave her in terms of death.*
His whole relationship with Jae Hee and her enormous betrayal (her faking abuse, not her letting him go to jail) was such a shock to him that it’s completely shaken his ability to trust himself. If he could love such a person and be so blind to her faults, if he could trick himself into believing he wanted revenge when he really wanted something else, then what else is he wrong about? I have wondered before that maybe discovering Jae Hee’s incredible hypocrisy fundamentally changed his relationship with love, to the point that he no longer believed in it’s existence. He can’t help but think, “How does what I have with Eun Ki figure into what I had with Jae Hee?” It’s not that he’s still in love with Jae Hee, he makes that clear when he calls her disgusting, it’s that he has doubts about his love for Eun Ki, because of his past love for Jae Hee. It’s a fundamental, wholly destructive doubt that’s plaguing him, and Jae Hee knows just how to solidify it. And for Ma Ru the only way for him and Eun Ki to survive, the only way to escape completely from Jae Hee, is for Eun Ki to punish him, for her to be willing to do what she wasn’t on that beach in episode 9.
When Ma Ru says that she’s always been “too bright and happy,” he’s talking about both Eun Kis, the one before the car crash who forgave him and wanted to forge ahead in their romance, and the one post crash who didn’t know she had anything to forgive him for. That’s why he was so accepting during the car crash: he wanted to receive that punishment. Ma Ru says that he was worried that she was just hurting on the inside, which means that he didn’t believe that she’d wholeheartedly forgiven him. He doubted her. He believed she herself had doubt. On that beach in episode 9 he believed she was lying to herself, and that she would grow to resent him, that that resentment would grow to engulf them both. It’s almost like he thinks that the only way to deal with betrayal and doubt is through punishment, that forgiveness without punishment is empty, existentially untenable.
Ma Ru has a constant awareness of his guilt, and a constant need for penitence, to purge himself through devotion and sacrifice. It was this quality that initially colored his relationship with Choco when we first saw him after he came out of jail. Choco openly blamed him, and he accepted it, welcomed it with a chastened demeanor, and gave her a piggy back ride home. That’s what Ma Ru wants from Eun Ki, to help rectify what he’s done to her. The only way he can keep from running from the past is to constantly be punished for it–and so in a way what we discovered about Ma Ruin episode 5 during his coyote conversation with Ahn has remains true; he is the most self destructive character here. His being with Eun Ki during her amnesia is part of his penitence and that’s why Jae Hee’s words hit so close to home. This is the paradoxical hell he lives in, the conundrum that makes him so welcoming of death and so yearning for a life of happiness.
One romantic in me (the romcom-loving, OTP-supporting romantic) wants a happy ending for Eun Ki and Ma Ru, but the other romantic in me (the loves-tragic-endings, Satan-is-the- real-hero-of-Paradise–Lost romantic) wants Ma Ru to die, because he is just so destructive, to himself and to those around him. It’s almost like he has to die in order for this world they live in to be at peace.
Both Eun Ki and Ma Ru have a tension running in them between wanting to stay alive and wanting to die and it’s woven into the theme of time and the past and how they constrain us. If only we could divest ourselves of our pasts and start over anew, it seems to be asking. But it’s not something that can happen. At first it seems as though by ridding herself of her past Eun Ki would no longer have the pain it inflicted on her. But your past is part of your identity, and it’s impossible to live without being hurt. That’s the risk of being alive. I think it’s telling that the act that rids Eun Ki of her past–her pain–was a suicide-murder attempt.
Shout out to Viki for the awesome subs!