When JTBC’s Misty ended I was angry and disappointed because I felt the ending was a negation of everything the show had given the audience thus far; but for That Man Oh Soo I feel like the ending was in line with everything we’d so far seen.
Whenever I’m really satisfied with a show that is objectively not good I always end up thinking about genre (see Me Too Flower). I think That Man Oh Soo was not really a supernatural show—it’s not like Queen In Hyun’s Man, focusing on the supernatural elements to move both plot and character forward. For most of the drama, Oh-soo’s ability to see love is besides the point. What That Man Oh Soo really is, is a show about fate—what matters is not Oh-soo’s powers but the curse that was originally put on his family. Think Beauty and the Beast, not TVN Signal. The mechanics of his abilities don’t matter, what he does with his abilities don’t really matter; any tension and meaning in the story, any of the power the story has to move you as a viewer, comes from the tragedy of his family’s curse.
And there’s a finality to the tragedy, because it’s not a curse that can be broken, like in Beauty and the Beast. Romantic love will not break the curse; in fact, love fulfills the curse—no matter how careful anyone from Oh-soo’s family who inherits the ability to see love is, the person they love will drink the potion. It’s fate. I like the curse a lot, because it’s not only about past cruelty. It’s about power: Oh-soo’s ancestor was a judge, and he misused his position and power to condemn an innocent man to death. I like the violence of the curse—death begets death, and so when that innocent man was put to death, the person who loved him committed suicide. The tree Oh-soo’s family is beholden to is a tree born from recrimination and violence, watered with the blood of the woman who killed herself. And in this delicious twist of irony (of fate) the only thing the descendants of that judge can think of to do to save the people they love is to commit suicide. It’s a curse that casts back on itself and recurs.
One of the glaring drawbacks of the drama was how heteronormative it is, with each man tidily paired up with a woman; but I liked that the violence wasn’t unfairly meted out along gendered lines. The original death was a man, and though it was Yoo-ri’s life that hung in the balance if she and Oh-soo stayed together (or rather, if Oh-soo kept loving her), Oh-soo is the one who tries to commit suicide. And of course, Oh-soo is the one who’s memory is erased, which is a violence. I’m so glad that it’s Yoo-ri who gets to pine, Yoo-ri who gets to bear the burden of remembering, and, in the end, when they are inevitably thrown together again, she is the one who gets to decide to go ahead and walk alongside Oh-soo with full knowledge of what that may mean.
So if the show is not about the supernatural and never presented Oh-soo’s abilities as a mystery to be solved (which is why, I think, he so easily tells Yoo-ri about them, which I very much enjoyed—keeping information away from women characters is one of my biggest pet peeves; it’s such a common and easy way to undermine them), if what the show invests in is the power of fate, does it actually address the question of fate and what it means to have individuals ensnared in it, who have wills that don’t want to bend to fate? I think so.
When Oh-soo finds out Yoo-ri drank the potion, he at first refuses to break up with her—he decides to do what he wants, decides to fight fate. It’s only when when he realizes harm has been coming Yoo-ri’s way that he actually believes the curse is real and will kill her; it’s only then that he loses hope. This even though he watched his parents succumb to the power of the curse. He and Yoo-ri then go through four (gorgeous) break ups. He first breaks up with her in his cafe after saving her from the oncoming motorcycle; then Yoo-ri confronts him and he confirms their break up; they break up again in his room—he tells Yoo-ri about the curse and she knows it’s her life that’s in danger; and they break up one final time at the beach house. They both give in to fate. And then, finally, because he can’t stop loving Yoo-ri, Oh-soo decides to commit suicide. He makes the same decision his father made, because he’s fated to follow in his footsteps.
Only Oh-soo doesn’t die. He loses his memory. All the time he spent with Yoo-ri is wiped from his memory, and so he can’t love her because he doesn’t remember her. The only way he and Yoo-ri can avoid the fate of her death is for him to lose himself—and he was willing to die so she could live. (He also forgets he was willing to kill himself to keep someone else alive.)
What really made their final break up work for me is that even after they’ve agreed they can’t be together, Yoo-ri and Oh-soo still try to make it work. In episode 15 they meet on the beach and walk together, joking and reminiscing. their interaction isn’t like it was when they were dating—they don’t touch or kiss, they don’t cry about the state of their relationship. What characterizes them at this point is this sense of resignation. They’ve accepted their tragedy, and instead of fighting against it they’re going to bear it. There’s a dignity in that that touched me. On the beach and at the beach house Yoo-ri and Oh-soo are so kind to each other, so soft with each other. Even though they have this terrible weight hanging over them, they just spent time together talking and sharing a meal and taking a walk.
I think this is my favorite thing about them, that even with the typical trappings of a trendy drama (rich guy poor girl, cold guy peppy girl, etc.) and even with the melodrama of tragedy and fate, they are still so simple and easy with each other. They’re good to each other. And so we get to see what fate is denying them: in breaking up Yoo-ri loses someone who was always there for her with his time and understanding, someone who identified with her and offered her comfort and solace, someone who recognized how kind she is and how hard she works to be good to the people around her. She loses someone who takes care of her, when all she does is care for her sister and mother and the neighborhood. And Oh-soo loses the person he admires and tries to emulate, the first and only person he’s ever been in love with, the person who’s kindness he saw and who he thinks so well of that he was willing to go ahead and love her openly even if she didn’t love him back. That’s a lot to lose.
In the last episode Yoo-ri lets the talisman that is meant to keep her safe blow away in the wind, and immediately afterwards Oh-soo sits beside her. The night before she’d cried and told him the only reason she could be alive and feeling fine was if he totally forgot her (have I mentioned how much I love that the only way Oh-soo could not love Yoo-ri is for him to either be dead or to totally lose his memory?), and the fact that he’s forgotten her and everything they shared together makes her miserable. But this Oh-soo before her is different from the Oh-soo she knew before. He doesn’t remember her, but he also doesn’t remember that he poisoned his mother and contributed to his father committing suicide. He’s lighter, somehow. But even so, when they meet at the cafe in what Yoo-ri thinks is a soju fueled dream, he still offers her the same solace and understanding that he had when he had all his memories. He wipes way her tears, he brings her water, he lets her hold his hand. He’s different, but they together aren’t different, their dynamic remains intact.
When he had his memories Oh-soo was at his happiest when he was with Yoo-ri. He positively *bloomed* when he fell in love with her; he started smiling and joking around and became so tactile. I haven’t seen a the Robot Falls In Love this well-done in a while. Now without his memories it’s as if he’s free to be like that all the time, and free to love Yoo-ri without the burden of those memories. And it’s a relief, because it means the tragedy of his family is not what defines Oh-soo, and the care and comfort he offered Yoo-ri when he remembered who he was was not only born out of his own knowledge of pain.
The only question the show leaves us, I think, is if fate is tied to memory, to knowledge. So then, if Oh-soo doesn’t know about his parents’ death, about his family’s curse, if Yoo-ri doesn’t tell him, can fate still follow them? Is that the one limit fate has, the recognition of it?