Arang and the Magistrate: my review (updated)

Based on an old Korean folktaleAatM is a comedy/ghost-story/mystery/fantasy/historical fusion. *whew!* And with all that, the story-tellers didn’t loose their way, managing to turn out a tightly told, well-balanced (for the most part) tale. The main characters are clever twists on old tropes (the hero who’d really, reallyrather not be, the damsel in distress who’s actually self-reliant enough to figure out how to rescue her own damn self — which was awesome), and fully formed enough to not fall into caricature. On the whole, I’d recommend this as a fun watch. However…

For some reason, towards the end, the show didn’t grab me as much. I still enjoyed watching it, but it was easy to walk away from. Even at the last few episodes when I should have been on the edge of my seat wondering, what will happen next?!? I was able to end ep. 19 and wait a few days before finally getting to final episode. So what went wrong? I think the emotions of a few of our main players — especially those players who could have seriously monkeyed with our heroes happily-ever-after, were ignored. Or at least, weren’t as fully fleshed as they should have been.

Spoilers! Big, big spoilers below the cut! (You’ve been warned.)

There’s a fascinating connection between the Grim Reaper, Mu-young, and the big-bad, Mu-yeon. And with that connection we should have felt some tension over the question of whether or not Mu-young could have killed Mu-yeon when the opportunity came. But that doubt, raised in ep. 13 got faced down (rather quickly, imo) in ep. 15. There was still a need for a delay (you can’t kill the big-bad five episodes before the ending), but it got hung on a technical issue (Grim Reapers can’t touch living humans). And frankly, that doesn’t make for much drama. Especially when the means for fixing that issue is pretty obvious.

Which meant that when those two have their final clash, there’s no tension there. We know he can do it and, hey look, he does. And it’s too bad. If Mu-young’s story had been better developed it would have been a nice counterpoint to Eun-oh’s emotional struggle. Providing a level of pathos Eun-oh himself couldn’t bring to the table (in the end he is helping his mother and fulfilling her wish, as well as saving an innocent), and giving a nice moment of growth for Mu-young (stepping outside the protective, emotional barrier being the best Grim Reaper ever provided).

Another story-line that might have provided some more character-driven dramatic tension was Joo-wal’s. I think, in and of itself, Joo-wal’s story was well told, with a… well, not a good ending (he’d gone too deep for that, I think), but a satisfying one. But, again, I wish it’d been linked to our main characters a little more. He and Eun-oh mirror each other in so many ways, but they never really get a chance to discover, let alone explore that mirroring. (They both call the same woman “mother” for goodness sake. Why is this never really explored? Joo-wal’s envy should be pinging through the roof!)

And of course, there’s his connection with Arang. This does get touched on a little — it’s her showing him that someone actually loved him that gave him the strength to face what he’d done — but just a little. Joo-wal takes this information and goes off by himself to process it, and it’s amazing and emotional and my heart really did ache for him, but it’s got nothing to do with our heroes’ story. Not anymore. Not really. (Iiirc, Arang never remembers that he’d killed her at one point, does she? Missed opportunity right there.)

But. Despite not hitting all the emotional notes I wished they had, AatM was a good story. One I’m glad to have watched and one I’d recommend for anyone looking for a fun, sometimes spooky, sometimes heartfelt, sometime hilarious ride.

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