Updated: Feb 7, 2021
The love triangle is an age-old trope in the romance genre. Unfortunately, the trope requires at least three people, which means that while the OTP (“one true pair”) can ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after, the third person becomes collateral damage. Nowhere is this more evident than in k-dramaland, whose romantic landscape is littered with the broken hearts and shattered dreams of the Second Male Lead.
*juseyo - Korean for "please," or "please give me"
Even though it's no fault of his own, the second lead has been dealt a bad hand not by fate but by the writers themselves. He was written to lose without coming across as a loser, and set up to fail without being a failure. He walks a tightrope. He must be lovable enough to give the male lead a serious run for his money, but not enough so that you’d want the female lead to end up with him. Not all writers are deft enough to strike this balance, and sometimes the actors are just so charismatic that they steal the show from the male lead. This is when the inevitable Second Lead Syndrome sets in.
The term “Second Lead Syndrome” refers to the audience’s sympathy (and often inevitable) preference for the second male lead in a k-drama love triangle. (Why this refers only to the male lead is another article entirely!) We shake our heads and wonder why the female lead could possibly prefer the male lead, when in many cases the second lead is often presented to be kinder, gentler, or more chivalrous. In other words, the second male lead is set up to be the logical choice while the male lead is the romantic one.
The second lead is not only written to be the foil of the male lead, but also serves as a plot point sometimes. The second lead’s presence creates unwanted feelings of jealousy in the male lead, which then forces him to confront his real feelings for the female lead and take action. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the female lead chooses the second lead at first, only to realize that her heart is not so easily lured from the male lead.
The second lead, who is more often than not the only mature person to communicate his feelings in a clear, coherent manner (without the need for alcohol), becomes a victim to the unexpressed longings of the two leads. And given this situation, the second lead really has only two ways out: give way in an act of noble selflessness (also sometimes called "noble idiocy"), or become a douche and turn to villainy. If he is lucky, he might get the second female lead as a consolation prize. But this rarely happens in k-drama. Instead, the second lead is relegated to the sidelines, shaking his head, along with the rest of the audience, and wondering where it all went wrong.
Until the writers say otherwise, we can only look forward to commiserating with each other, and enshrining the memory of a good man who fell in love with the wrong woman at the wrong time. Well, that or signing a petition: “Writer-nim, justice for the second lead, juseyo.”
In the list below, we look at our favorite second leads who deserve better. Obviously, (spoiler alert!) no one here ended up with the main girl, but we can’t help but wonder if they should have.
Again, spoilers! Spoilers everywhere! Proceed with caution.
Kim Jung-hwan (Reply 1988, 2015)
We can almost hear the shrieks of protest: “No, Jung-hwan is NOT the second lead!” Regardless of labels, let us, Jung-hwan (Ryu Jun-yeol) fans, accept it: He does NOT end up with his childhood friend Sung Deok-sun (Hye-ri).
This tsundere (a character who initially acts rude but later becomes kind towards his or her crush) drops Deok-sun several hints he likes her: waiting for her to walk to the bus station together, protecting her from the sudden brakes inside the bus, accepting her invitation to the first McDonald’s in Seoul, and asking her not to go to the blind date. It turns out, his real feelings are transparent only to us, viewers, each time, but Deok-sun's naïveté keeps her in the dark. We fall in love with every kind gesture, while she remains frustratingly confused. He never tells her what he truly feels, and no, the false confession at the restaurant does not count.
Once again, he reveals his thoughts only to us, “In the end, fate and timing do not just happen out of coincidence. They are products of ardent desire and earnest, simple choices that make up miraculous moments. Being resolute, making decisions without hesitation—that is what makes timing. [Taek] was more ardent, and I should’ve had more courage. It wasn’t the red lights nor the timing that was bad... but the countless times I hesitated.”
Han Ji-pyeong (Start-Up, 2020)
What’s worse than regular Second Lead Syndrome? When your second lead has all the blatant hallmarks of a main lead, and yet, is still inexplicably cast aside. Han Ji-pyeong, the prickly and brutally frank director at Sandbox has everything going for him: the tragic backstory, the childhood encounter with the female lead, and even the requisite chemistry with her later on. Adding fuel to the confusing setup is Kim Seon-ho’s near-flawless acting that seems to outclass the rest of the cast, making us root for our cold tsundere Corporate Boy instead of the predetermined love interest. So difficult was it to choose between him and the main lead Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) that their “rivalry” launched weekly fan wars, hundreds of fan pages, tons of fan fiction, and countless fan-made videos of theories and alternate endings. In fact, Ji-pyeong’s affront to the main lead is so convincing that only one flaw could hold him back now: the trademark passivity of the second lead. Our Good Boy has it good until he hesitates on one too many key moments, and takes too long to make critical romantic decisions (is there a pattern you're beginning to notice here?) Well, in his defense, a lifetime of living alone and some hefty emotional baggage can do that to you. “Fortune favors the bold,” as they always say, and our perpetually alone Ji-pyeong does remain fortunate in the end—not romantically—but in the company of new friends.
It still doesn’t make it hurt any less, though.
Goo Dong-mae (Mr. Sunshine, 2018)
Second leads that literally bleed—like, a lot—for the female lead abound in historical dramas, and Goo Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok) in Mr. Sunshine may just top that list. Because of the obvious difference in their class and status, the merciless mercenary Dong-mae feels “unworthy” to be with the noblewoman Go Ae-sin (played by Kim Tae-ri), and yet we see that his actions often show otherwise. Despite being hardened by years living the thug life, Dong-mae is a true romantic in every sense of the word. His unrequited (and often unspoken) love for Go Ae-sin is truly one for the books. While we may never be sure if he loves Ae-sin as the person or Ae-sin as the ideal of the Great Korean Love, we know that in Dong-mae’s fatalistic heart, Ae-Sin is everything he longs for and—eventually would—fight for. Sometimes brutal, and often cold to the point of toxicity, we were meant to abhor and fear this bloody warrior, but ended up sympathizing with him instead.
Go Chung-myung (Hotel Del Luna, 2019)
Go Chung-myung (Lee Do-hyun) is an ambitious young general who falls in love with a thief, Jang Man-weol (IU). He unfortunately causes the death of Man-weol’s people and betrays her. In a further heart-wrenching twist, we learn that he knowingly let himself die at the sword of Man-weol.
Like Han Ji-pyeong, he embodies much of the alpha characteristics that are usually deferred to the main lead, such as a strong drive and aggressive ambition. While we cannot deny that he loves Man-weol, Chung-myung's love is flawed in that it is not enough for him to become the hero she needed and deserved. His cowardly actions set them both on a painful and tragic path. But the sum is greater than its parts, and his love enables him to support her on her journey towards redemption, though it comes at a great personal cost. Man-weol waits a thousand years to get her revenge against Chung-myung, but instead, he lives as a firefly around Man-weol all those years. To round up the tragic tale, he does get Man-weol’s forgiveness in the end, but not her love.
And the latest recruit to the club, Han Seo-jun (True Beauty, 2020)
"Don't say it!" Han Seo-jun (Hwang In-yeop) exclaims, begging Lim Ju-kyung (Mun Ka-young) not to tell him that she likes Lee Su-ho (Cha Eun-woo). It is too late. The truth flows out with her tears, and pierces through Seo-jun's heart. We felt the painful daggers, too.
More perceptive than the male lead Su-ho, friend-zoned Seo-jun continues to take care of Ju-kyung from the sidelines. He protects her from whoever might hurt her—her bullies, her low self-esteem, and even Su-ho himself. This is not surprising as he takes good care of the women in his life: He takes a leave from school to take care of his mom at the hospital. He also teaches his sister's annoying suitor (Ju-kyung's brother) a lesson on what "no" means.
Even in Su-ho's absence, Seo-jun is careful not to overstep his boundaries of friendship with Ju-kyung. Unfortunately, when he finally manages to tell Ju-kyung his feelings, Su-ho returns. In a final act of noble idiocy, Seo-jun helps Ju-kyung realize she still loves Su-ho and gets them back together.
We are left to pour out our love for Seo-jun but hopeful for his success in his band's debut!
No matter how we may have wanted the second lead to end up with the girl, or resented him for being paralyzed by indecision and pride (or maybe even by sloppy writing or production decisions that the actor has no control over), we've learned that all is truly not fair in love, war, and k-drama. Our only hope lies in him being noticed by an adoring audience which usually turns our present second lead into a future main lead in his next dramas. When that time comes, he will definitely "get the girl" and ironically, send the newbie second lead into no (wo)man's land in the process.