Updated: Mar 14, 2021
Every woman was born to be queen of her own castle. That castle can be as small as a household or as large as an empire. While our earlier feature on female-led k-dramas focused on groups of women, this time we take a look at stories that zero in on the lives of one or two as they find their place in their domestic, corporate, and political domain.
For all the immense space females occupy in k-dramaland—from female directors, writers, cast, crew, and a dominantly-female audience—a drama that dares to deal with taboo and unpalatable female issues is still rare. Try to remember a show that deals unflinchingly with abortion, infidelity, workplace misogyny, and divorce at the same time.
If you haven’t seen all these themes in one show, we offer Misty for your consideration.
Go Hye-ran (portrayed with finesse by veteran actress Kim Nam-joo) is a top news anchorwoman who is having a very bad week: She's on the verge of being replaced by a younger and "fresher" newscaster. She could lose out on a top spot at the Blue House. On top of all this, she's been accused of murder, and the only lawyer who agrees to defend her happens to be her husband whom she has long wanted to divorce. Now all of Hye-ran's secrets—and their consequences—are beginning to spill out, threatening to destroy not only their professional futures, but also obliterate the measly scraps of affection that remain between them.
It must be said that unlike the typical k-drama protagonist, Go Hye-ran isn't likable or even endearing. She's incredibly flawed and selfish—quite refreshing in a genre that works very hard to make their characters as pleasing as possible. But beyond the characters and whodunit plot, Misty is also one of the most visually striking dramas out there. And while it’s far from perfect (for many fans, the ending spurs more questions than it answers them), it is a drama to watch when you are tired of having a meek victim as a protagonist, and are in need of a hardhearted anti-heroine who can fight the system in glorious Gucci pantsuits.
The Lady in Dignity/Woman of Dignity (2017)
A homely and seemingly kind ahjumma with an unknown past is hired as the caregiver of a sick, old billionaire with three inept and greedy children—what could possibly go wrong? To fully enjoy all the twists and turns that The Lady in Dignity has in store, it’s best to know as little as possible, so that’s as much of a plot summary that we’ll provide.
If you loved SKY Castle (2018) and The World of the Married (2020), you will definitely enjoy watching their older, sometimes slightly less elegant, eonnie (older sister) that reigned as the highest-rated drama of cable channel JTBC until SKY Castle broke its record. All three dramas are stylish yet scathing high-society takedowns, each with their own blend of murder, deception, betrayal, gossip, stylish interiors, and designer clothes.
The Lady in Dignity focuses on the greed and artificiality of the Gangnam class and those wish to fit in, so as with any upper-class makjang, be prepared to grit your teeth and feel your blood pressure rise while viewing this. But the frustration is more than made up for by the tight script, brisk pacing, and the masterful performances by its two female leads: Kim Hee-sun (Room No. 9, 2018; Alice, 2020) as Woo A-jin, the trusted daughter-in-law and moral center of the family, and Kim Sun-ah (My Lovely Sam Soon, 2005; City Hall, 2009) as Park Bok-ja, the anti-heroine caregiver whom you may just find yourself rooting for. Both actresses earned much acclaim and Baeksang Best Actress nominations for their roles, and the evolving dynamic between these two strong, intelligent women is one of the highlights of this drama. Unexpected comic relief is provided in spades by SNL Korea cast member Jung Sang-hoon as A-jin’s unbelievably idiotic husband and the ever-reliable Oh Na-ra as the billionaire's greedy daughter.
Queen Seondeok (2009)
At 62 episodes, Queen Seondeok is not for the faint of heart nor short of time. Yet it remains beloved by its legions of fans not only for its grand scale, but also because it’s a great 2-for-1deal: We not only meet Seondeok as she rises from lost vagabond to become the Queen of Silla, but we also get to meet Lady Mishil, the ruthless concubine who smartly (and every so calmly) blocks her every move. In fact, so memorable was the role of the evil Lady Mishil that it earned Go Hyun-jung the Baeksang Daesang (Grand Prize) in acting in 2009.
The historical accuracy of royal tales like these will always come under fire as most of the plot lines and characters of Queen Seondeok are based on a heavy mix of fiction and flimsy Buddhist legend. But long before Confucianism took root in East Asia, matrilineal and female-dominated eras were the norm, and the show is an entertaining glimpse of what that time could have looked like.
The show also does fall into predictable tropes, but it’s understandable why it made waves in 2009: It took a typical masculine arc—kings and brothers fighting for the throne—but retold it for queens and daughters. It also made waves for its physicality. Queen Seondeok isn’t another “evil dowagers' scheming in the background” sageuk. In fact, this show has its women lead battles and, in the case of Mishil, ruthlessly slaying her enemies with her own sword. After all, wrestling control of a kingdom needs more than just a strong will; it’s going to need brilliance, a boy’s love, and blood. Lots of spilled blood.
Empress Ki (2013)
Empress Ki, starring Ha Ji-won in her award-winning role, was a critical and commercial success when it was released in 2013. The hefty 51-episode drama follows the rise and fall of Gi Seungnyang, convincingly portrayed by Ha Ji-won, as she goes from being an escaped Goryeo-born concubine tribute to being an empress of the Mogul empire in the Yuan Dynasty.
Politics, court intrigue, revenge, hidden identities, scandalous secrets, and a compelling love triangle abound in this historical juggernaut with three times more body count than a Shakespearean tragedy. There’s plenty of guilt-free old-school justice to be savored when Empress Ki delivers her own brand of vengeance on all those who once oppressed her. But there’s plenty of heart-wrenching drama too. After all, no one escapes a historical drama unscathed. Especially one that won the Golden Bird Prize for Serial Drama at the 9th Seoul International Drama Awards and included a stellar cast of Joo Jin-mo, Ji Chang-wook, and Baek Jin-hee among others.
As with all historical dramas, the lavish production and design, elaborate costumes, and large cast can only work if the audience learns to love its central figure. In the case of Empress Ki, it’s easy to root for Seungnyang as she goes from being a victim to the most powerful woman in the empire. She maneuvers her way in and out of the political sphere, all the while dealing with childbirth, falling in and out of love, suffering personal losses, and abolishing the concubine tribute practice along the way. Ha Ji-won’s performance makes the indomitable spirit of Seungnyang/Empress Ki shine in a memorable drama that adds new members to its fanbase even several years after its first release.
The World of the Married (2020)
Based on the BBC series Dr. Foster, The World of the Married took the tired and overused mistress plot and spun it into ridiculous ratings gold, both in Korea and internationally. The destruction brought by infidelity is lavishly played out, wonderfully oscillating between the exaggerated and the tragic, but is never cheapened. Strong performances abound from the entire cast, especially from two-time Baeksang Daesang (Grand Prize) winner Kim Hee-ae as the beleaguered Dr. Ji, keeps one watching despite the incredible stress it wreaks on all its viewers. (Pro tip: Don’t stop at episode 6!)
The World of the Married is built on a powerhouse combination of all our k-drama dreams: a realistic plot and pace, oblique dialogue, a brilliant level of unpredictability, and incredible humanity suffused in all its characters. You will find no caricatures here. You may hate the husband one moment, then feel sorry for him in another scene. Did we even think that a betrayed wife would also act against her interests and be capable of horrible things? A safer, more vanilla drama would say yes to keeping her “pure” and “good,” but not this R-rated drama. In fact, it is this level of honest imperfection in its characters, as well as the eternally shifting plot, that make this drama top-tier entertainment, and maaaan, The World of the Married is *chef’s kiss* fantastic from stressful start to stressful finish.