There is a special feature that sets the male characters in the drama “Mother” apart. It is this same feature that makes them the best characters in the series.
As the title of the show implies, “Mother” is a drama that delves into what a mother means and is with a startling and invigorating level of complexity. The exploration of such a topic tittered between explicit examination and criticism of motherhood while keeping it vague enough to leave the final conclusion in the hands and minds of viewers.
As such, it was a much-welcomed announcement when the drama was nominated in the first annual Cannes International Series Festival. Further, the nomination was doubly impressive considering that it was the only show from East Asia to make it to the final round of the competition.
Alas, the dramatic series did not win any awards. For anyone who has watched the series, this is not necessarily a surprise: The show has pacing issues, albeit not as much as some other drama, but still, they persist. Another glaring issue is that of the characterization of some of the main female characters, specifically Soo-jin’s sisters and their unconvincing portrayal as a family.
More, when it came to the Soo-jin, the primary protagonist, her character development enters a kind of loop. The writers uselessly attempt to further establish Soo-jin’s sense of self by making her face repetitive and gratuitous challenges that conclude with the similar answers and results. However, that is not to say that the female characters are bad — they are beautifully complex.
Nonetheless, the topic of this article is not those characters, but the ones whom I believe make the show. There aren’t that many male characters in the show. Indeed, there are only four that have a significant impact.
In comparison to the female leads, the male characters are fittingly simple. They have straightforward, clear-cut intentions that remain in place until their arcs conclude. As a result, their regularity and stability tethers the plot and stabilizes its different circumstances to a plane of reality. Thus, there is predictability and security in the narrative. Additionally, these qualities also help to propel the story forward and maintain a high-level of thrill and suspense.
The stability of these characters in “Mother” is a bit unconventional. It is not uncommon to have a character in dramatic series change drastically over the course of the series, where at one point they do an about-face. This transition signals a moment of epiphany that ushers in a massive change in the person.
The stability of these characters in “Mother” is a bit unconventional. It is not uncommon to have a character in a dramatic series change drastically over the course of the show, where at one point they might do an about-face. This transition signals a moment of epiphany that ushers in a massive change in the person.
Baek In-ha from the 2015 “Cheese in the Trap” series is an example of this. She went from a malicious and conniving, to decent and friendly in the last two episodes of the series when she realizes that her idolized love interest does not care. Consequently, she suffers a mental breakdown. Fortunately, this is not the case for the men in the drama; they stay the same throughout.
At this point, you may be thinking, “well how can that be good for the story? They don’t have any character development!” Allow me to explain. In “Cheese in the Trap,” Baek In-ha was the primary antagonist for the most of the show. However, in the last two episodes, her character type changed to, well, not an antagonist.
Conversely, the male character in “Mother” stay within the confines of their archetypal structure for the duration of the show. However, that does not mean that they do not experience character development or are two-dimensional. On the contrary, the male characters are arguably the most well-written in the show.
This character exists to create conflict and is a constant threat that looms over the journey of the protagonist. Seol-ak (Son Seok-koo) is the true villain in the story and is so until his death in episode 11. He is a murderer, a conniving manipulator, and abuser who systematically takes advantage of emotionally vulnerable single-mothers with children.
From the beginning of the story, his goal was to break Hye-na by affecting her so much that she cries — the signal and reason he needs to kill. Once this goal is set, it shadows the Soo-jin and Hye-na throughout their journey — not from their perspective, but from the viewer.
Since the audience is privy to Seol-ak investigating Soo-jin and eventually tracking the two down, they are aware and pressured by his presence. Further, the juxtaposition between the knowledge of the audience and the ignorance of the other characters served to manifest a consistent level of suspense. Moreover, while the Soo-jin and Hye-na face and overcome different obstacles and threats, Seol-ak persists as the imminent menace, and the viewer knows that at some point the three will clash.
While Seok-ak is without a doubt a bad person, his origin story breathes life into his character. Although it fails to garner forgiveness for his actions, the flashback does introduce viewers to his childhood trauma and the birth of his modus operandi.
The detective’s primary objective and purpose is to fight crime. They have the uncanny ability to sniff out wrongdoing and see through falsehoods easier than others. Chang-geun (Jo Han-Chul) is a detective that relies more on his gut feeling that the traditional practice of his colleagues. As such, while unconventional, he gets results.
More than anything, he works to keep his own emotions and moral decisions out of his work. Deciding if someone is guilty or innocent is not is not his job. However, while he refuses to make any moral conclusions, his internal narrative manifests in his young partner who consistently says that Soo-jin appears to have good intention for Hye-na. Further, he also expresses consternation for Ja-young’s (Ko Sung-hee) behavior regarding the case and Hye-na, her biological daughter.
Once Chang-geun was put on Hye-na’s case he quickly began to suspect that it was not a case of a missing child, but a kidnapping. Since then, the detective has always been one step behind Soo-jin. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is smart wit is inescapable and that it is only a matter of time before he outdoes her.
Jae-beom (Lee Jung-yeol) is a great character that is a jack of all trades. He knows how to get information, navigate less savory environments, and works hard for those that he loves. This is demonstrated in his absolute dedication to Young-sin (Lee Hye-young) for whom he travels worldwide to do her bidding. Moreover, he also helps out her three daughters to the best of his ability. It is for this reason that Soo-jin reached out to him first for help. She needs a forged passport for Hye-na so they can leave the country and by proxy the villain and detective, behind.
It is at this point that Jae-beom’s role as the mentor is established. The mentor assists the protagonist in putting their situation into perspective and helps them obtain key items for their journey. In “Mother” Jae-beom remind Soo-jin that she also has an obligation to her mother, who is deathly ill, as her daughter. Further, he is the one who uses his connections to get a forged passport.
However, mentors do not fight the protagonist’s battles. Once Jae-beom had assisted Soo-jin as best he could, including getting the passport and joining with them at the airport to buy tickets, he leaves once this fails. He physically and narratively departs once they all leave the airport.
Jin-hong (Lee Jae-yoon) role in “Mother” is clear and is unabashedly connected to his day job: a doctor. He is the healer and caregiver. For this archetype, the character can physically, mentally, and emotionally heal others. This is underlined by its basic purpose which is to care for others.
In this role, Jin-hong gains Soo-jin’s trust when he physically heals Hye-na. From them on, his purpose as a healer transforms from the physical to the emotional and mental. He cares and soothing both of them when he goes on a birdwatching trip with the pair and welcomes them into his home. Further, he also covers for Soo-jin when she needs to be with Hye-na; he is the reverse of Young-sin who attempts to dictate what Soo-jin does to a certain degree. Instead, he openly accepts the decisions she makes and supports her throughout.
What makes him a well-rounded character are the clues left throughout the show that contradict his warm character. Soo-jin discovers that he lost his mother but keeps her phone, so he can call it when he is feeling lonely. More, she also finds out that he never wanted to be a doctor, but intended to study birds like herself.
Additionally, his doesn’t have much furniture or furnishments in his apartment. What he does have remains bundled up, unpacked and pushed against walls making it appear that he just moved. Rather, in place of proper furnishings, he utilizes a variety of outdoors equipment as seating and cookware. Notably, while it could be assumed that his unpacked apartment, laden with outdoors gear as it is, would be cold and inconvenient, it is a surprisingly more comfortable space than the home of Young-sin.
These different and contrasting elements help to paint a picture of Jin-hong as a warm, caring individual but is also dealing with his own ghosts. His acceptance of these aspects of his life allows him to give to the runaway mother and daughter without asking for anything in return. His primary purpose as Soo-jin’s caregiver ends when she makes he final attempt to leave the country.
Men in “Mother”
The male characters detailed above have clearly dictated arcs, goals, and roles in “Mother” which are all decidedly fulfilled by the time the story’s climax. The two-part climax begins when Soo-jin confronts the villainous Seol-ak to save Hye-na and ends when detective Chang-geun captures them. Before this, both Jae-bom and Jin-hong’s parts in the story have already ended.
The end of their arcs coupled with the nature of their archetypal structure indicates that while the male characters are not independent of overarching plot, their character development is. What makes them great characters is that by the start of the story, they are all fully realized characters. This means they have distinct personalities, motives, agency, strengths, weaknesses, connections to other characters, conflict, complexities, quirks, and secrets. As such, they have a purpose, but no character development. Instead the viewers discover more about them, uncovering their secrets, like Seol-ak’s past, and the complexities, like Chang-geun’s morality.
Subsequently, they are able to drive the plot without overcomplicating it with their individual development. Can you imagine having 11 characters all growing and changing in 16 episodes? It would be overly-complicated and confusing, and you’ll end up with something like tVN’s “Cheese in the Trap,” which I assert is terrible. Besides sustaining a coherent plot, the writers can spotlight the development of the main characters, which all mothers and daughters.
Mothers and Fathers
The decision to make all of these major male characters complete (in a narrative sense) is ingenious. It works incredibly well in a story that is focused on the experience of women, daughters, and mother. However, before ending this, I would be remiss to mention that while the drama is called “Mother” it is also decisively about fathers.
Indeed, none of the men are called father, dad, pop, or any other alternative term. But don’t be deceived, all of the men in the story played a father at some point. Both Seok-ak and Jin-hong were father figures for Hye-na. Jae-beom is the father to Young-sin’s daughter and Chang-eun mentors his young partner like a son.
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