Thrice Married Woman, episodes 1-31: Why am I watching this?!
This is a “Thrice Married Woman” post. Yes, I’m still watching this ish. Yes, this show I am all caught up on, despite being weeks behind on “I Need Romance 3” and “You From Another Star.” Believe me, the completely unnecessary 8-episode extension is doing nobody any favors, but I think there are some important takeaways from the story, which is why I keep watching.
Discussion touches on plot points up to episode 31.
For those of you who aren’t watching, here’s a very bare-bones outline of the story:
Oh Eun-soo (Lee Jiah) and Jung Tae-won (Song Chang-ui) were married once upon a time, and they have a daughter Seul-gi together. Like many families in Asia, once married, Eun-soo and Tae-won lived with Tae-won’s family, a mother and an older sister.
Tae-won’s mother is unbelievably overbearing, sexist, and terrible to the point where she made Eun-soo’s married life a living hell, and Eun-soo ended up getting a divorce for this reason. In her parting goodbye, she told Tae-won that she hoped they could find each other in another life, when he’s born to another mother.
Eun-soo got remarried a few years down the line to Kim Joon-gu (Ha Suk-jin).
Tae-won did not have that a big interest in remarrying, but for overly dramatic K-drama reasons I won’t get into, he had to, and got remarried to Han Chae-rin, whom he has a very lukewarm attitude towards. It was a marriage of convenience to him, but Chae-rin actually does have good feelings towards Tae-won. It’s also made apparent to the viewers that Tae-won still loves Eun-soo.
There are several main side characters — Eun-soo’s older sister Hyun-soo — but I’ll talk about their plights in another post maybe. For this post I’m going to mostly focus on Oh Eun-soo and Jung Tae-won’s remarriages.
Eun-soo and Joon-gu’s relationship was good until … it wasn’t, I guess. There were warning signs early on — Joon-gu’s family wouldn’t let Eun-soo’s daughter live with them until after a “couple of years,” and wouldn’t let her see her daughter with regularity because they didn’t like it. It’s a reminder, I guess, that she’s once divorced already, though I don’t know why all the stone throwing, because Joon-gu also has gotten divorced once before. But hey, double standards, you’re not new around these parts.
As the marriage continues, it becomes more apparent that Joon-gu is not the nice guy who Eun-soo thought he was when they were dating. For one, he has an old flame that reappears in his life, and cheats on his wife twice. Once was after they had a huge fight about it, so some people just never learn. Despite all of that, he expects her to be more understanding about it and gets extremely nasty when she doesn’t take it well. (At one point in the story, he forces himself on her despite her vocal rejections. So, he rapes his wife. Great!)
His family is, on the outside, more liberal than Eun-soo’s dealings with Tae-won’s mother, but when push comes to shove, they’re the same overbearing, demanding, harsh creatures that many conservative Asian in-laws can be. Once Joon-gu’s mother finds out that Joon-gu has been rekindling a romance with his ex, she berates Joon-gu for it, but she berates Eun-soo more for not bearing with it better. Mmm, deliciousness. This, by the by, is her speaking from her own experience of dealing with a once-cheating husband.
That’s Eun-soo’s side. Now Tae-won’s side.
Tae-won’s mother and older sister (Tae-hee) are just something else. The mother is shrill, demanding, never satisfied, and just FUCKING TERRIBLE. Whoops, sorry for the outburst. Tae-hee is terrible in her own way, and selectively nice, but I guess she is net terrible.
Tae-hee and her mother like Chae-rin when Chae-rin and Tae-won were dating, but once they get married, they treat her the way I imagine they treated Eun-soo before she divorced Tae-won. Once they get married, nothing Chae-rin does is to the liking of her in-laws. On top of that, once they find out that she’s probably not going to inherit a large fortune from her parents, they turn even icier towards her. These people, just swell. Meanwhile, you have a Tae-won who knows how his family have treated his past wife, and he sees how they’re treating Chae-rin, but he does nothing.
Chae-rin being a stepmother to Seul-gi also causes a lot of friction in the house. Her child-rearing attitudes differ from Tae-won and his family’s — she likes a less hands-on approach, less coddling, less babying. Tae-won’s family are the very example of smothering, which might not be as apparent in the treatment of a child, but it’s easy to see how those smothering tendencies carry over to all their adult relationships as well, so I can’t particularly side with Tae-won’s family, despite how it seems like Chae-rin is made to appear like she’s “meddling” — which is concurrent with how females marrying into a family are still seen as outsiders despite being part of the family.
The problem, ultimately, is this: Chae-rin is seen as an opposition to Tae-won, and Tae-won is written as a protagonist, despite his flaws, so Chae-rin can’t really occupy a space beyond being the female antagonist, who is going against her husband’s wishes and the wishes of his family. Isolated from this environment, she could have been a protagonist, but because she is a new daughter-in-law, who is herself once-divorced, her not doing what her new family wants makes her an easy villain in the eyes of the viewer.
It’s absolutely exasperating to watch this family interact, and I can see why Eun-soo divorced Tae-won, no matter how gentle and nice he is as a person, a father, and a husband. Tae-hee and her mother are monsters to Chae-rin, nitpicking at everything, squashing out any kind of “rebellion” against the family, not letting Chae-rin do anything her own way.
All of this makes a person miserable, but Chae-rin, as a daughter-in-law and the new mother of a stepdaughter coddled by her entire family, she’s at a disadvantage. So she takes it out on the only person she can, the only person she has power over: her stepdaughter. All her frustrations — which are borne from the really disgusting sexist standards of women and women in the household — are unfairly unloaded onto yet another female, and while this drama won’t track that far, we can expect that if this happened in real life, the daughter will only grow up knowing that this is how you treat other females and other females in the family. She’ll probably learn to internalize and unload her own expectations of females onto other females she deals with, whether it’s a competing female in the workplace, a competing female in her love life, her daughter, her future daughter-in-law. It’s a never-ending cycle, man.
I don’t think that writer Kim Soo-hyun cares to elaborate on these intricacies, because Chae-rin is hardly the stuff of heroes. Her actions are seen as ugly jealousies, so they just reinforce for the viewer that she’s a villain, who’s doing something she has no right to do, which justifies the mistreatment she’s getting from her sister and mother-in-law. And that she deserves to be smacked around, she deserves to be unloved, and she deserves to be divorced once again.
I barely like Chae-rin myself — I think she was obtuse in not realizing that Tae-won was never genuinely in love with her and still pushing ahead with the marriage, and I find it despicable that she takes out her adult frustrations on a child that’s been caught in the middle of a very ugly divorce — but her character saddens me. It saddens me that there are probably not many viewers who are as sympathetic to her character’s plight as I am, despite not having many good feelings towards her myself.
I’ll even admit that sometimes when Chae-rin gets an earful for her shit, I feel momentarily satisfied, like she’s getting her comeuppance, like she’s getting what she deserves for hitting and berating Seul-gi. But despite that, I think it’s important to contextualize her world — which is her husband’s family — and her position in it.
The worst thing about this situation is that there’s nobody stepping in to tell Tae-won’s mother and his sister that they are acting out of line — that them acting out of line is making Chae-rin act out of line, which further makes the two of them act out of line…!
There’s a scene in episode 31 where Chae-rin gets really angry at Seul-gi, suspecting her of telling her dad to get a divorce, and she takes it out by hurting her and hitting her, and the house cleaning ahjumma catches her and takes Seul-gi away from her. Afterward, Chae-rin is so worried that the ahjumma will spill to her in-laws that she tries to buy the ahjumma off by telling her to leave the house in exchange for money. Tae-hee overhears the conversation, storms into the kitchen and hits Chae-rin hard across the head and shouts at her, asking her if she’s a psycho.
This is just terrible all around. Tae-hee maintains her alpha female position by taking Chae-rin down a peg because she can as an older sister-in-law, tells her mom what happened, which incenses the mom like crazy and the mom already needs very little goading to become a complete fucking psycho; Chae-rin is constantly suspicious and afraid, acting out of anger and then fear, and I can’t imagine this is anything but extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing; the ahjumma is berated because she’s been in the household for long, but Chae-rin doesn’t like her, so she’s constantly at war with Chae-rin. All women, all put into victim/abuser positions, and everything they do further reinforces and intensifies the cycles of abuse and mistreatment.
Tae-won, as much as he’s painted as a loving, caring figure — so, classic weekend drama protagonist material — is the root of many of these problems. The most annoying thing is that he’s such an ineffectual person that I’m starting to worry about Eun-soo’s eventual remarriage to him, which I think is where the show is headed.
I am not the kind of viewer to lambast horrible Asian mother-in-laws or complainwhine about how Asians can’t just leave their families for the sake of love, which I find to be fucking annoying Western audience complaints, but I’ve also never seen a home situation as toxic as this. His mother is clearly the biggest aggressor of many, many problems in his life, and Tae-won seems to be genuinely depressed about his marriage and his home, but he’s not doing anything to rectify this. His “firmness” in dealing with his mother always seems momentary and ultimately useless, and then he’s back at square one and he’s depressed and drinking a lot again. At this point I feel like it’s less a battle of Asian tradition and more that Tae-won is a spineless and incapable person. Ouch, but someone had to say it, right?
A perfect foil to Tae-won is actually Eun-soo, which is why I really love her and want to watch her succeed, even if this show is tiring me the fuck out. She’s patient, but she knows when and how forcefully to draw a line in the sand, because it’s just not fair the kind of expectations we have of males and females. She knows that her decisions will end up creating uncomfortable situations for her and that will suck, but I like that she also knows that it’s ultimately not smarter for her or her family to stay stuck and submissive to the wishes and demands of others, just for the sake of staying in line.
We have 9 episodes left — GOD, eff this extension — but her family, her actual family — her sister, mother, and father — are one of the sweetest, most loving, genuine families I’ve ever seen on TV. And that makes me want to stick it out and finish the rest of this story and hope for a meaningful resolution.