W - Two Worlds: Episodes 1-2 Review
I was worried that W wouldn't live up to its hype, but the first two episodes totally met and exceeded expectations. I love nearly everything about this series so far, from the suspenseful story to the snazzy directing and perfect soundtrack. The story is the standout so far, and I'd expect nothing less from the writer of Queen In Hyun's Man and Nine. It dishes out plenty of suspense balanced with an intriguing mix of characters and perfectly placed meta references. The seemingly absurd premise of a comic book world coming to life feels grounded and thrilling, and already has me so curious to see what happens next. All in all, a very solid outing for the series.
Episode 1 starts off by introducing us to Kang Chul (Lee Jong Seok), first during his gold medal win at the 2004 Athens Olympics followed by the bleak assassination of his entire family. We quickly learn that Kang Chul is a fictional character and the hero of a 10-year running webtoon series called W. It's been the top-selling webtoon for years, and is written by our heroine's father. Our heroine, Oh Yeon Joo (Han Hyo Joo) is an almost painfully mundane cardio-thoracic resident at a hospital. She's also a massive fan of W and has a fangirl crush on Kang Chul.
Yeon Joo's professor wants to get spoilers on W, so she makes a call to her father, who is in the process of writing the final chapter of the series. But things are odd - he's suddenly disappeared from his office, where he was in the midst of drawing Kang Chul's death scene. His assistants also don't understand why he suddenly wanted to kill Kang Chul, saying that he was sick of him and determined to kill him.
While in his office, Yeon Joo comes across a copy of Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son as well as note on the back saying "Rather than being eaten by him, I will eat him". It's downright creepy but is our first hint at the running theme of God/Creator fighting against his creation. Shortly after, she feels something on her back, and gets physically pulled into the scene with Kang Chul on the ground bleeding.
Interestingly, note how the hand he uses to pull her in (his right hand) was not in the comic drawing. I wonder if that has to do with the methodology by which she enters W?
While she claims she's not a great doctor (in her normal ditzy-heroine way), she manages to save Kang Chul's life, and the two of them share a glance before he's pulled away by the paramedics. Yeon Joo comes back to find that she's now become a character of W and that her act of saving Kang Chul was captured by the comic. Kang Chul is now looking for her, and she realizes that W is taking on a life of its own.
I felt like the first episode was one of the most solid drama openers that I've seen in a while, and episode 2 only built on this. Yeon Joo goes back into the world and saves Kang Chul again, and it becomes clear that her father is trying desperately to free himself of this character through repeated attempts to kill Kang Chul. But Yeon Joo is now one of his main barriers to this, and by the end of episode 2, Kang Chul is also starting to recognize this and fight for his survival against his creator.
The scifi premise behind W is what I find the most intriguing about this show. Each time Yeon Joo goes into W it takes up 30 minutes of her real world time (which feels reminiscent of Nine's time allotments). However, in W's world the time period might actually have been months and is dependent on the number of events important to Kang Chul - e.g., on her technically 2-month long second visit, there were only 30 minutes or so of importance to Kang Chul.
Additionally, I love that the only way she can exit W and go back to the real world is to devise a cliffhanger. It seems that the cliffhanger has to be something that mentally affects Kang Chul - this is why her first attempt with the slap failed but her kiss succeeded. It's an absolutely genius device and such gold to watch - I can't wait to see what she devises next.
The outstanding question for now is how she enters W. In episode 1 it was through Kang Chul dragging her into the scene with his undrawn right hand. In episode 2, it was while she was arguing with her father on the importance of Kang Chul staying alive. I wonder if it has to do with them having a connection in moments when Kang Chul's life is at risk.
Lee Jong Seok is absolutely pitch perfect as Kang Chul. He's such a nuanced actor, and brings a level of depth and drama to the role that makes me believe that he's a fictional character living out his own world. He's smirky and overconfident as a leading hero would be, but also interestingly vulnerable and steely. He's desperately fighting against the creator that has now killed his family and is attempting to kill him - I'm curious to see if the hooded man we see in all the scenes is a representation of the comic writer himself or if there's a bigger twist ahead. At any rate, I'm already so invested in Kang Chul beating the odds and living on. Of the leading pair, he's by far the more interesting character as well as the better actor.
Unfortunately, Han Hyo Joo is the one big thing that I don't like about this drama. Her performance isn't necessarily terrible, but it totally takes me out of the story when she loads up on her flighty idiot mannerisms. It's all the worse because per the story she's supposed to be the real person next to Kang Chul's fictional perfection. Her reactions to the crazy scenarios should reflect what we as the audience feel. But I can't relate to her actions or behavior at all - nearly everything is overacted with crazy wide eyes or reduced to a ditzy bad joke.
I don't find her believable as a character and subsequently I don't find Yeon Joo all that likable as a leading lady right now. It gives me tonal backlash when she comes on the screen - everyone else is acting appropriately for a fantasy thriller, then she comes on and it's like someone is trying to forcibly insert scenes from a cheesy romantic comedy. Part of it may have to do with the writing, as unfortunately this writer tends to shower her male leads with all the complexity and interest while leaving her women as bystanders.
That said, Han is also putting in a very one-note performance so far, which I'm not all that surprised considering she's never showed much range in her movie or drama roles. This is probably a reason why she's stuck to movies to date - far less screen time and fewer opportunities for her weaknesses to shine through. Appearance-wise she and Lee Jong Seok make a beautiful pairing, but acting-wise she really struggles next to him and their scenes together are mainly lacking due to her exaggerated performance. I do want to like her though, so hopefully things get better.
Partly as a result of my general dislike of Yeon Joo, I'm not all that invested in the romance and hope it won't overshadow the mythology of the show (a bit like Nine, which I watched while trying to ignore the overdone romance as much as possible). Yeon Joo and Kang Chul's meetings have been painfully cliche despite the fantastic circumstances, and their interactions to date have mainly consisted of him emoting and her making silly faces or lying. So while I thought the kiss in episode 2 was beautifully shot and clever as a device, I didn't really feel any emotional connection to it. I assume it'll serve to awaken Kang Chul's interest in her, but frankly I don't think Yeon Joo is a character that warrants the complete love of a perfect hero like Kang Chul.
I do love the meta though of how even though Yeon Soo is our drama main lead, the main lead of W, So Hee, is about to get shafted by this outerworld interloper. Yeon Soo's coworkers even remark on how they dislike how the main leads always get together. Totally with you on that! Sadly there's not really an alternative in our story here, but I still appreciate the joke.
The character that fascinates me the most right now is Yeon Joo's father. He's portrayed with a terrifying intensity, such as the moment when he smiles as he draws Kang Chul's death. He's the mad creator with a very dark twist, and I'm wary that I'll end up hating his character as he continually tries to off my favorite character. It's an interesting dilemma to position him next to his daughter and I hope to see the father-daughter relationship get utilized more strongly. So far their interactions have been oddly cold and vague - she's interestingly timid around him and afraid to ask any questions even after the oddness of her first experience in W (I would have been asking a ton of questions rather than holding it back were it my dad). It was fascinating too the level of hatred with which he was staring at their kiss scene in episode 2. I imagine the anger is out of a desire to protect her from Kang Chul, and I want to see her and him battle it out with wits in the future episodes.
It's a sidenote for now, but I am curious as to why they always show him drinking a scotch when he draws. Is it merely an indication of his deeper emotional unwillingness to kill Kang Chul, e.g., he has to forcibly numb the pain of destroying his character? Or is it something else? This writer is very purposeful in her use of objects in a show, and he's been shown gulping down the drink enough times for me to wonder. My other question is why is the series called W? Also, was the bridge survival where Kang Chul first showed signs of independence and life?
As I was a major comic fan when I was younger, it's so interesting to see the beautifully rendered artwork for W match up with the scenes that play out on the screen. I love this cross medium element, and it's so refreshing to have a drama give such attention to detail in all of its scenes. The directing is truly on-point, making things feel slick and thematic as needed. It's also a nice visual to have W's world be shown with a different color scheme compared to Yeon Joo's real world, similar to the sepia tones used in Nine's past scenes. W's environment is dark and rich, which really reflects its heightened and almost artificial environment. By contrast, Yeon Joo's world is bright and airy. I'd be curious to see how Lee Jong Seok looks once he goes into her world as so far we've only seen him with the W filter on.
Overall, this is easily one of the best shows I've seen all year. It's engaging, it's smart and hits all the right notes for me. Lee Jong Seok is killing it as Kang Chul, and I'm itching to see if and how he'll survive outside the W universe.