It's Okay To Not Be Okay It's Okay To Not Be Okay

Just like probably everyone else on this planet I found myself in a creative and personal rut the last couple of months. Who are we kidding? Pretty much the whole last year. Luckily, I’m in a more privileged rut than most people. I am a student, so I don’t have to work, I am well of at home and I don’t have to continuously fear for my very existence. Still, with no real worries or pretty much anything “real” as everything only happens on my monitor instead of my life, I found myself a bit lost, deeply needing a distraction. And voila in through the door came the new hip thing everyone’s on about the last couple of years: K-Drama. I’m usually open to new stuff if I could be arrogant for a moment but K-Dramas always intimated me a bit. Not because they are so far out there or crazily different but because a 16 Episode, 1-hour à Episode Season as is the standard for most is not a small-time investment. But just like with everything else you like, while watching a Drama you enjoy those 16 Episode just fly by, which I soon found out while browsing Netflix. Right from the beginning, the site as usual kept pestering me with its so called “Originals” and in the KDrama-Category the one being advertised the most was “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” or IOTNBO as fans shorten it. There is probably a myriad of reasons why you click on a show you get recommend whether it might be the interesting blurb recounting the story, that Netflix gives you or because an actor/actress you like stars in it or maybe you are intrigued by the trailer. I certainly clicked on IOTNBO because I was intrigued by all of it.

Before we go further in our discussion, I think we should maybe recap IOTNBO for a moment for all of you that have not seen it yet: Ever since their mothers’ tragic murder Moon Gang-Tae has been raising his autistic brother Sang-Tae all on his own. Sang-Tae was left heavily traumatized by the event as he was the only witness to his mothers’ passing and is since then worried that the killer might come to catch him too. Therefore, both brothers switch their homing situation roughly every year as Gang-Tae works in several different psychiatric hospitals around the country. After moving back to their hometown after all those years and starting at Go-Hospital, Gang-Tae not only reconnects with an older work-colleague but also meets Ko Moon-young, a successful children’s book writer and pretty much the personification of the phrase “stone-cold princess”. Her own experiences with her mother and her childhood left her too deeply scarred and she is only ever really concerned with herself. Because the show features the tag “Romance” however we all should know that by the end of it those two different characters, the sympathetic Gang-Tae, taking care of his brother and the emotionless Moon-young, will fall in love with each other. And as the tagline of Netflix states: He will learn to live a bit more easily, while she will warm up to him and lose her cold temper.

Even long before I ever watched an Episode of IOTNBO its titular phrase was well known to me and always gave me a strong sense of calmness. Just roll it of your tongue and realize that sometimes it really is okay to not be okay. But regarding this title I also was bit worried in the beginning because shows that feature mental disabilities or disorders are not always the most accurate or sympathetic portrayals. There are a lot of shows and movies on the market that maybe should have thought a bit more intensely about whether they are equipped to handle such topics (13 Reasons Why, who?). As you might have already guessed from the discussed phrase, IOTNBO features several characters with such disorders or disabilities, most prominently the autistic Sang-Tae, brother of our main character Gang-Tae. On the other hand, we’re also shown different mental disorders in the form of several patients at the OK psychiatric hospital where Gang-Tae works as a caregiver. I probably should stress that I do not have any actual experience or deep-seated knowledge about any of the disabilities and disorders that are being discussed in the show and I am certainly not a clinical psychologist, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I think the portrayals of those characters have been handled with care, showing them to be human, to be strong and to be sympathetic with each other instead of the typical stick of them just being “crazy” or completely different from us “normal” people.

Just recently I talked with a friend of mine about the last couple of shows I’ve watched and while discussing IOTNBO a particular thought came to mind: I quiet like Romance, but I do not really like most stories that would fall into the Romance Genre. There are a lot of fictional couples that I “ship” as they say, but most often than not, they are part of stories that do not solely revolve around them. One concern of mine always hangs on the format of purely romantic stories as they mostly only have one story goal in mind: In the end Protagonist A and B should end up together. If they are now as long as a KDrama with its 16 Episodes there is of course a lot of time that needs to be filled, resulting in (for my liking) a lot of rough patches, unnecessary break-ups, love triangles and the like. Romance stories, particularly in a long form format like a TV Show often become rather stale for me, as their conflicts feel more artificial than heart-breaking. I do not know anymore how often I’ve seen on screen couples break up for the 100th time because of some stupid reason. Luckily IOTNBO features more than enough interesting side characters besides the main couple and especially the relationship between Gang-Tae and Sang-Tae is quite deep and interesting. So, it certainly does not fall into the trap of stretching the story way over its head just to fill 16 Episodes. After all, how long can you show two people fall in love again and again without it getting annoying. While I am certainly not an expert in this matter, from all the KDramas I have watched so far, I think quite a few of them could win by featuring more relationships than just those of love between two people. Friendships, Brotherhood and more run just as deep and can be told just as beautifully as IOTNBO shows. A whole other ballpark regarding romance is of course also the problem of toxicity often when it comes to the male characters. As always, I know it’s a story and fantasy, but I for one do not find it very attractive when the male lead keeps pursuing the female lead even after her explicitly telling him off, often downright stalking her, which then leads to her miraculously realizing she was in love with him all along. Especially romance stories lend themselves to a lot of Consent Breaking whenever characters touch or kiss each other against the will of one of those involved and certainly IOTNBO is not an exception. What changes it up a bit however is the fact that it is pretty much a role reversal with the man (Gang-Tae) now being more flustered and the woman being the active pursuer, at least in the beginning. Nevertheless, does it show a common trope of a timid character at first rejecting the outspoken and confident character, only to gradually fall in love with them after some time. This is of course a common trope in romance stories as I think we certainly enjoy seeing how someone gets “conquered” or to say it in less patriarchal terms, how someone gets swayed by love. In IOTNBO there are moments where Moon-young for example touches Gang-Tae chests, clearly to his discomfort. I do not wish to provide an accurate list of all the times something like this happens in fiction, that would certainly be quite exhausting and I recognize that this is probably not an issue for a lot of other people, but I always believe we should critically think about the media we consume and how it might change our behavior. Moon-young is a toxic character in the beginning and while she certainly changes towards the end, I always find it a bit hard to remedy a character like her, seeing as the victims of her outbursts have not really been compensated in the end.

It is quite ironic, that while criticizing Moon-young, I also found her to be one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen on screen in some time (at least in the romance genre). What I find so fascinating about IOTNBO’s role reversal is that it shows us a female protagonist that knows how to get by, while still being, well feminine by wearing dresses, make up and enjoying other interests that have typically been coded as feminine. There are a lot of flawed media analysis when it comes to terms such as “Forced Diversity” and especially the talk about female characters, but I think it is a very feminist critique to note that a lot of “strong” female characters tend to be just stripped-down or re-gendered male characters. Meaning, they don’t appear to have any qualities that stereotypically would be enjoyed by a woman and are rather associated with “manly” activities like sports or other physical activities. Which is of course not to say, that women cannot enjoy those things or that there even is any inherent essential meaning to describing something as “male” or “female” when it comes to activities and the like, but it certainly shows a tendency to create more tomboyish characters that do not enjoy makeup and the likes. My main argument here is that I do not find it to be a good outlook to reduce female protagonists to male characters that just happen to have a female body, ALL THE TIME. The emphasis here should be on “all the time”. There are people like this in the everyday world and they should be accepted (as they are often not whenever someone breaks gender norms), but there are also a lot of woman who wear dresses and make up and can still kick ass. Eliminating them completely does not feel right for me and maybe even shows that there still is a lot to learn about how we write characters apart from the stereotypical straight, white guy in his 30s. What I also enjoyed not only in Moon-young but also the other characters of IOTNBO is, how they all show a refreshing mix between their “weaker” side and them standing up for themselves or others. IOTNBO while of course not being the most accurate show about those topics offers a lot of insights into how its characters deal with their life issues. Someone like Gang-Tae can raise his brother and manage his life, but he only breaks down and cries, showing him needing support just as much as anyone else. Someone like Moon-young can be strong and fierce when she for example stands up to the ex-husband of one of the patients in the hospital, but she is also deeply wounded by her past and needs help. These characters are strong, but not unbelievably strong, they are fierce, but in their fierceness, they show just how much everyone of us needs the support of others. They are allowed to feel sad and cry, whether they be a man or a woman and no matter how old they are. Just as the titular phrase suggests: “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay”.

Probably one of the strongest characters in this drama is Sang-Tae, who is living on the spectrum and therefore has a lot of inhibitions he must face in his everyday life. What I found so endearing about IOTNBO was how he tries to and succeeds in a lot of ways in challenging those problems he faces and lives happy even tough, there certainly is a lot holding him back. In the end of the show [SPOILERS!] we see him working as a full-time illustrator for Moon-young, as well as for other authors and the last decision he makes is to return home alone and work on his projects while Moon-young and Gang-Tae continue their trip together. I cannot speak for the accuracy of the actors’ portrayal of Sang-Tae, but I think it is important to show characters like him that tell us they are not only weak people that need to be saved by “normal” people. They certainly face problems different to those of neurotypical people, but they are also often able to deal with those just as we deal with ours. Another aspect I also cannot comment on is how psychologically accurate it is how the characters overcome their specific traumas. The show features a rather heavy-handed approach with Sang-Tae being more or less forced to challenge his traumatic memories head on, which I do not think might be always the best approach (at least). Still, there are lessons to be learned, however flawed the portrayal might be. In the end we see just how liberating it is for these characters to finally come home, to have someone to talk about their struggles, to open up to, to cry and to fall in love and I think that should be the main takeaway from this. Do not bottle up your emotions, do not try to challenge the world alone but rather lean on each other and conquer your lives together (as well as maybe try to find an actual therapist if you are suffering).

One criticism I found in IOTNBO revolves around a cliche that especially plagues KDramas: The main characters have secretly been childhood friends or lovers from the start. I do understand the appeal of love stories that have been going on for years or in some fantasy settings for centuries, where the characters fall in love with each other again or meet each other again after a long time, showing us how deep and all encompassing their love is, but I do not think that every show needs to be like that. The real world looks a bit different and there can be genuine love and compassion even without having to meet this person already as a child. But maybe them being childhood friends is just an explanation for how quickly KDrama characters fall in love, seeing as they sometimes only need 2 weeks to deeply love each other and get married?

Regarding the show as a whole I think one last thing to be also applauded is just how visually appealing it is. Especially TV Shows often do not use the tools and methods of filmmaking in their full potential because they are after all shows that mostly feature different directors per episode, making a coherent distinct visual style rather impossible. After all, if you must work on a project with ten or more people it is probably the best to make it more uniform. Trying to achieve a distinct style would mean that all ten people must copy it. IOTNBO however like a lot of KDramas features only two directors and they certainly do their work. While it somehow goes down a bit after the first episodes there are a lot of interesting and noticeable transitions and framing choices in the beginning. Being too extravagant with them can risk the viewer being pulled out of the fantasy and realizing it is just a show, but they also give the show important pacing and tie those different moments together. I am most definitely not (yet?) enough equipped to handle an in-depth discussion about cinematography and the like, but I wanted to talk about this fact at least quickly, because it made the show stand out more to me than others I have seen so far.

Let’s talk about the last part of the title of this post: “Post-Series Depression is Real, Yo” and just how true that is. On face value it always seems a bit funny to use the word “Depression” when you are talking about fictional stories and fictional characters, but nevertheless I think we can all relate to this certain feeling of emptiness after just using hours of your time to enjoy something great, whether that might be a book, a show, a movie, a game, or something else entirely. Finishing IOTNBO left me empty in a way that I tried to fill with other shows and so I’ve been constantly watching dozens of KDramas over the last few weeks. Finishing a show means goodbye even if not from a real person. For me Post-Series Depression especially hits hard when it comes to stories like IOTNBO that deeply rely on their characters instead of a grand narrative. While there are narratives that I would want to go further or would enjoy being a part of, the most heartbreak I feel through stories is the sadness of not being able to continue with their characters. I want to be a part of the College in my favorite show “Community” or meet Rick and Morty or maybe slap BoJack Horseman in the face. Most of all I want to see Gang-Tae’s and Moon-young’s relationship foster and develop, I want to see them grow old together, maybe marry and have kids. In this regard I am very happy that IOTNBO features one last episode without any drama, after the story has wrapped up, where we see the characters live their happy new lives, go on a trip together and be happy. I think more shows could gain from having one last episode of fluff, giving us one last moment of happiness with the characters before we must depart.

Anyways before I ramble on and on about fictional characters, we should maybe wrap it up now. Thank you so much for reading this little post. What I hope you can take away from this, is that it certainly is okay to not be okay and whatever your flaws are, I hope you keep on rocking and loving.