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The Weekend Binge: Queenmaker

Kim Hee-ae's small screen comeback after the number one reigning cable series The World of the Married (2020) instantly rocketed to Netflix's Top 10 most-viewed list in several markets, and is currently its most watched non-English series worldwide. Multi-awarded veteran film actress Moon So-ri joins her in this 11-episode female-driven political drama.

GwenchaNoona | The Weekend Binge: "Queenmaker" (photo of Moon So-ri and Kim Hee-ae)

The Plot

Eunsung Group’s loyal and trusted Corporate Strategy Head, Hwang Do-hee (Kim Hee-ae) has spent the last 10 years cleaning up after the powerful retail chaebol (conglomerate). A brilliant and ruthless fixer, she can efficiently turn public sentiment in favor of her corrupt employers even in the face of the most outlandish PR disaster.

Her involvement in a tragedy awakens what’s left of her conscience, leading her to openly oppose the plan of her master, Chairwoman Son Young-sim (Seo Yi-sook, Start-up) to install her two-faced son-in-law Baek Jae-min (Ryu Soo-young, My Father Is Strange) as the next mayor of Seoul. Unceremoniously cut off, she hatches a plan to pit Oh Kyung-sook (Moon So-ri, On the Verge of Insanity), a righteous labor rights lawyer known as the “Mad Rhinoceros” because of her fiery temper, against the Eunsung group heir in the upcoming election. But first, she must face-off against Seo Min-jung (Jin Kyung, Extraordinary Attorney Woo) a veteran politician with a solid support base.

Will the grassroots campaign fueled by idealism, passion, volunteerism, and well... the desire for revenge, prevail over the South Korean political establishment and wealthiest (but also most evil) family?

The Review

It's been a while since a k-drama has made me want to drop everything and finish it all in one sitting, and even longer since I’ve wanted to immediately rewatch one. With just 11 fast-paced episodes, Queenmaker is an easy weekend binge, two times over.

Kim Hee-ae and Moon So-ri in a scene from Netflix's Queenmaker

As a sucker for female-driven stories, a political drama starring Kim Hee-ae and Moon So-ri was an easy sell for me. Even if the script were to go off the rails at some point, at the very least I’d be treated to powerhouse performances by two of Korea’s most respected actresses.

Thankfully, Queenmaker did not disappoint. With just the right balance of drama and thrills, a sprinkling of well-timed comedy, and the most welcome absence of a love line, this female-dominated series is one of the year's best television series so far.

And while there are a number of good woman-centric stories in k-dramaland, Queenmaker takes girl power to a whole other level. Passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors, it’s almost like it is set in an alternate fantasy universe where Seoul‘s wealth and power are controlled by a handful of women. (Reality could not be further from the truth.) It’s refreshing to watch a television series with a mostly female cast, and I would estimate that 80% of the speaking lines in the first half of the drama were delivered by its very capable actresses, led by the flawless Kim Hee-ae.

Kim Hee-ae as PR genius Hwang Do-hee

In a lesser drama, a character like Hwang Do-hee would've been a straight-up unfazed ice queen. Proving why she is Baeksang Daesang queen, Kim's nuanced portrayal is loaded with humanity. Do-hee may have a strong stomach for criminal behavior, but there is only so much evil she can take. In many confrontations, she is on the verge of tears, unable to hide her disbelief and anger. And while as a viewer, I sometimes wished she would hold it together, I realize that her vulnerability makes her more realistic.

A k-drama "sismance" for the books

Kim is equally matched by Moon, whose Mad Rhino Oh Kyung-sook is impossible not to root for despite her lack of an actual platform that goes beyond vague motherhood statements on equality and justice. Together, they form what I hope will always be remembered as one of the best k-drama "womances" or "sismances" of all time.

They are supported by a talented ensemble of both familiar faces and rising stars such as Ok Ja-yeon (Mine). My only beef with the cast is the presence of convicted sex offender Lee Kyoung-young in yet another rich villain role. We can't help but imagine someone else playing the unscrupulous political strategist Carl Yoon, and have fantasy-casted the majestic Lee Hye-young as a much more worthy adversary.

Having said that, Queenmaker's villains are bound to trigger flashbacks in anyone who has witnessed the depths of depravity that people will go through to win an election. Tactics old (bribery, murder) and new (fake news, social engineering) are gleefully used without hesitation, and if you didn’t already question the theatrics that politicians put on on prior to watching this, Queenmaker will certainly make you think twice. I wish I could say that this political drama is over-the-top, but it's actually spot-on in its depiction of how easily the public can be manipulated through meticulously crafted false narratives, and how goons and gold actually matter.

Whether this drama ends on a bleak or hopeful note is up to you to find out.

Stream if you love seeing smart, strong, powerful women battling it out in the political arena.

Skip if you're still suffering from PTSD from a recent election.

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