What it’s about
A middle-aged housewife finds a kindred soul in her son’s dentist as she struggles with the unforgiving expectations of her husband and his status-obsessed family.
What to say about this lovely, naturalistic show? It feels more like an indie film set in upper-middle-class New York than a Kdrama, for one. Its characters are real human beings, not drama bots. And it reflects life as people actually live it—full of disappointment, envy, and failed connections, but also moments of companionship, contentment, and even happiness. Set in a midwinter Seoul that’s as drab and dormant as its heroine’s life, this episode explores the fragile marriage between a driven reporter and his free-spirited wife, the combatants in an ongoing battle over their son’s education. In a world where a child attending the right middle school confers esteem and bragging rights, he wants professional tutors and round-the-clock studying, while she wants learning for the sake of meaning and insight, not showmanship. And caught in the middle is their poor, sweet-tempered son, a boy who spent most of his childhood too sickly for anyone to worry about his academic achievements. A Wife’s Credentials thinks so outside the box that I can’t even begin to anticipate where it goes from here, but I can’t wait to find out.
I waited a full year for this drama to be available subtitled in English, all the while reading rave reviews about it on essentially every English-language Kdrama blog authored by someone who actually speaks Korean. But when I started watching, I was still a little unsure if I’d like A Wife’s Credentials. According to its dramawiki summary, it’s about a middle-aged, married housewife who spends a lot of time worrying about her son’s education. My preferences skew toward stories about youthful first love, and I was worried this show would consist of lots of boring homework sessions. (I’m embarrassed to admit that the male lead wasn’t doing A Wife’s Credentials any favors, either—in the poster he looked old and unhot.)
I’m happy to report that my concerns were totally unfounded. I haven’t been this engaged with a Kdrama since I finished watching Answer Me 1997 last year. Like that earlier show, A Wife’s Credentials regularly made me laugh, cry, and gasp out loud. It uses the standard building blocks of Kdrama romances—love triangles and improbable coincidences and drunk nights at the norebang—to tell a compelling love story that’s also a critique of a world driven by materialism and desperation for prestige, no matter the cost. (Also, the male lead is a complete babe for his age group; it was just an unflattering picture.)
Seo Rae, the titular wife, is unanchored in the world. She has devoted her life to the people around her—her senile mother; her loud, posturing husband; and her son, whose many health problems have long been the only uniting force in her marriage. As the drama opens, Seo Rae’s situation seems to be improving. Her son has largely recovered and the day-to-day burden of caring for her mother is lessened when the family moves away from the nursing home where she lives. But as mere survival takes up less of Seo Rae’s attention, she comes to see that she’s not satisfied with her life.
Wherever she goes, sensitive, empathetic Seo Rae doesn’t fit in. She’s an outsider in her husband’s family, silently cleaning the kitchen as they gather for family discussions. Her neighbors are all pampered housewives who love to gossip and brag about their children’s educational achievements. Her mother is forever lost in a cloud of dementia. The affluence of her husband’s family even separates her from her beloved sister, a poor but hardworking caterer who hangs out with her sister-in-law’s maids. Her son is Seo Rae’s only true ally, and her connection with him is what ties her to the world. But even as she loves him and cares for him, she’s always aware that he belongs to his father’s family just as much as he belongs to her.
In a typical Kdrama, all her problems would be solved when Seo Rae befriends two new people: one the principal of her son’s academy, the other her son’s kind, handsome dentist. But in A Wife’s Credentials, that’s when her difficulties really begin. From her forbidden love to striking out on her own as a free woman, Seo Rae becomes her true self over the course of this show. And she eventually even learns how to do one of the hardest things in the world: to be her true self even when she’s with someone else.
Funny, humane, and ultimately optimistic, this drama’s universe is broader than what we normally see on Korean television. Instead of focusing on a small group of leads who seem to be the only living creatures in a bell jar, its cadre of (over)privileged wives, gambling mother-in-laws, random parents, and eavesdropping maids are all finely drawn and fully present in every scene that they appear in.
Perfectly cast and acted, beautifully filmed, and blessed with one of the most wonderful soundtracks in recent memory, A Wife’s Credentials is close to perfect. Its few shortcomings include male characters that are treated much less charitably than their female counterparts and a finale that leaves some regrettable loose ends—Whatever happened to the kids? Did the second leads stay married? But even with these failings, this series is one of the most well-made, transporting dramas I’ve seen.
• Episode 1. It’s amazing how differently people approach eduction in Korea and America. Here, there’s a lot of distrust in traditional schools and homeschooling is often viewed as the purest, most effective means of education. In contrast, education in Korea seems to be a corporate venture from day one, with kids pitted against each other for positions in tony schools and parents who are expected to get them there with any means necessary, whether it means tutoring or torturing. Watching Asian dramas sometimes makes me regret my own casual approach to school, but it seems as if there must be some sort of happy medium out there that would allow kids to learn without being treated like robots—or even worse, obedient pets.
• Episode 2. I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is and sign up for a month at MVIBO.com to watch this show. Too often serious dramas are overlooked in favor of lighthearted fairytales, while there should really be a time and a place for each of them. I want to do my part to support avenues that provide legal access to more obscure programming. But in spite of the “premium” label MVIBO is so fond of, I’ve been able to watch so far without signing up or sitting through commercials. So...I guess we’ll see how long this lasts. I hate that this site is so incredibly slow at subbing, but it would be nice if their library was freely available. (And if they’d sub At the End of the World and I Live in Cheongdamdong, both of which they carry in Korean only.)
• Episode 2. It looks as if dental patients in Korea have their faces covered with only their mouths exposed to allow the dentist to get at their teeth. This would make me crazy—I can’t even imagine not being able to see the drill coming at me. Eeek. It’s like S&M dentistry or something.
• Episode 3. It turns out that you hit the MVIBO paywall after watching two free episodes. As this show is just as good as I’d heard and the subtitles are decent, I signed up for a month after all.
• Episode 5. I’m against camping in the best of circumstances, but this is officially insane. Can’t you at least wait for true spring? There’s snow on the ground. Also, the makers of camping supplies must have had a big ad budget in 2012. This show, Big, and To the Beautiful You all featured camping trips that were product-placement madness. The version in Wife’s Credentials is already better than Big’s, though; the writers didn’t just slap the characters together in a tent; they gave real thought to the opportunities inherent in the situation.
• Episode 5. The female lead’s relationship with her mother is so sad it’s killing me. Unlike most dramas, Wife’s Credentials doesn’t frame their situation in a cutesy, madcap way, and it doesn’t demand our sorrow. Instead, it just shows you in a matter-of-fact way that after all these upsetting things happen to her, the female lead’s first instinct is to go to her mother. But she doesn’t find what she needs there, and probably never will again.
• Episode 7. I think the word I’m looking for here is “riveting.” I wasn’t sure how I’d take this grown-up story of cheating spouses. But it turns out that I can barely tear my eyes away—and it’s so engrossing and humane that I don’t even know how I want it to end. No matter what, someone is going to be hurt terribly by what’s happening, and there’s no easy side to be on. The under-appreciated wife deserves happiness, but does she deserve it at the expense of an innocent person who’s every bit as sympathetic as she is? [Finale note: One of the few things I dislike about this show is how it solved this problem—by enthusiastically smearing the characters who would be the love triangle’s losers.]
• Episode 7. Whenever a television is shown in a Kdrama, I always try to figure out what they’re watching. For the first time ever, I actually did it in this episode: as the husband walks through his office, Deep-Rooted Tree is playing in the background. How do I know? Song Joong Ki’s lovely face, of course.
• Episode 7. This show’s musical leitmotifs are used to brutal effect—“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees and “Turn, Turn, Turn” as recorded by the Byrds. The first is all about waking up to the realities of adult life and realizing that it might be possible to find happiness even without fairytales, and the second details the natural cycle of beginnings and endings we all experience. They’re both simple and delicate, like hymns or lullabies, but when you really listen to their lyrics they’re also clear-eyed and poignant.
• Episode 8. If I had made a reaction video for this episode, it would include: shock, terrified nail biting, wicked delight, sadness, misery, happiness, and fear. Most middling dramas are out of story by now, but this was probably one of the most thrilling episodes of Kdrama I’ve ever seen.
• Episode 13. After one of the deftest time-jumps in Kdrama history, the female lead has gotten a luxe (if deceptive) makeover. The sad thing? I liked how she dressed before better. Her simple, natural-fiber outfits were sleek and sophisticated. Now she looks like everyone else, with her fussy brand-name purses and layered haircut.
• Episode 14. This show is still great, but it’s falling victim to one of the same annoyances that plagued In Time with You. Instead of featuring a relationship that just doesn’t work, they’re going out of their way to absolve the break-up-er by making the break-up-ee a terrible person. I had hoped for better from a drama as kind-hearted as this one.
• Episode 14. If I had ever considered Mvibo as a Dramafever substitute, I don’t now. In addition to subbing shows at a laughably slow rate, the subtitles they’ve provided for this series have gotten worse with each passing episode. At first it wasn’t that troublesome—obvious words wouldn’t be translated, and whole episodes would pass without a single apostrophe. But now entire exchanges aren’t being subbed, especially if they involve characters other than the leads. In other scenes the subs give you enough information to follow the plot but are obviously only summarizing what’s actually being said. That’s what I’d expect of a newly available drama on Viki, not a show that’s been professionally subtitled and available for almost a year. Badly done, Mvibo.
• Episode 16. A great ending for the leads, but not so much for everyone else. Sigh. If only this drama had gotten a 50-episode extension, they could have really explored the story from every angle. And I would have been a happy girl, getting to keep these wonderful characters in my life a little longer.
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Morally conflicted, grown-up Que Sera Sera
Answer Me 1997, which also uses standard Kdrama tropes to tell a realistic story