Today saw the premieres of three dramas, all direct timeslot competitors on the Big Three broadcasters, but it was this show, Legend of the Blue Sea, that had the highest hype and the highest expectations. I’m always nervous when a show I’m looking forward to, which has writers and directors and actors I like very much, is beset by a lot of early buzz; it almost sets us up for disappointment, because it’s rare that a show can live up to all that anticipation.
Well, for now Legend of the Blue Sea is safe, because it premiered to generally favorable response and impressive ratings: 16.4%, a rarity in today’s landscape, against Oh My Geum-bi’s 5.9% on KBS and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju’s 3.3% on MBC. Is that number justified? Despite my wariness to decide anything based on a first episode, I do think it delivered, and while I’m still waiting for some elements to gel and the story to truly get going, the first episode hit all the main points for me: intriguing characters, a wonderful performance in a sure-to-be-classic role for Jeon Ji-hyun, a hint of whimsy, and a dash of poignancy. It’s not quite soup yet, but the ingredients are there and I’ll harbor hopes that it’ll continue to develop into a heartfelt and hilarious romance.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
August 1598, in the northeastern province of Gangwon-do.
A massive storm pummels a seaside village, uprooting trees and battering huts. Villagers secure their goods and huddle for cover, while fishermen struggle to secure their boats and the pier, only to have a massive tidal wave sending them into the churning waters.
By morning, the sea is calm, and the residents set about cleaning up the wreckage left behind by the storm. One happy result is that fish have been beached by the storm, and the people gather them up by the handful on the shore.
In a nearby cave, a young woman struggles to move, weary and sand-swept. The fish-gatherers make their way over to the cave curiously, and gape when they see the woman inside (Jeon Ji-hyun). “It’s a person!” they exclaim.
A short while later, a nobleman, LORD YANG (Sung Dong-il) hurries home excitedly, asking the fishermen who await him, “Where is the mermaid?” He is shown to his pond, eyes widening to make out the woman sitting there—a little battered, wrists tied with rope, her long glittering tail stretched out in front of her. “It’s a real mermaid,” he breathes excitedly.
He reaches out toward her, but a fisherman warns him to be careful: It’s said that if someone mistreats (“raises a hand to”) a mermaid, she can suck out his soul and erase his memory. That’s the mermaid’s self-protective measure against humans. Lord Yang shrugs, saying he won’t raise a hand to her, but a knife.
The mermaid shoots him a sidelong glare. The nobleman uneasily wonders if she can understand him, but brushes it aside. He promises the fishermen a reward before turning to his plans for tonight’s banquet. He wonders when the newly appointed mayor will arrive.
Probably soon, from the looks of the large traveling party on the road. The new mayor, DAM-RYUNG (Lee Min-ho), rides among them, and the camera lingers on a jade bracelet on his wrist.
At the banquet that night, Lord Yang plies Dam-ryung with flattery, then asks if he’s heard of mermaids. A nobleman dismisses the stories as fiction, but Lord Yang announces that he’s got a fascinating sight to show them. Turning their attention toward his pond, he proudly reveals his catch.
The mermaid looks up at them, looking lost and forlorn, sitting in a net as fishermen prod her with sticks. Intrigued, Dam-ryung walks down for a closer look.
He asks what Lord Yang means to do with her, and gets the explanation that mermaid oil is incredibly valuable, burning for an incredibly long time and never going bad. Lord Yang boasts that he’s landed this fortune for being faithful to his country and living a good life.
Dam-ryung has been holding back his distaste for Lord Yang so far, but now he lets some of it show, explaining that he had Lord Yang looked into, and found that he’d bought his way into a government position and then tripled the fishing tax. He says that the king levies severe punishments against officials who burden the people, hinting that Lord Yang could lose his neck over this. Scared, Lord Yang asks what to do, asking if there’s anything Dam-ryung would like.
“Anything?” Dam-ryung asks. Lord Yang affirms it, sending a sidelong glance at the mermaid. She and Dam-ryung lock eyes for a long moment.
The next thing we know, the mermaid splashes into the sea, swimming off to freedom.
Dam-ryung watches from the boat above, while from the shore, Lord Yang grumbles over the mayor’s high-handedness. He vows to recapture the mermaid and get rid of the mayor.
Dam-ryung watches the mermaid swim away, but she pauses to look back at him, then turns back to swim up to his boat. She reaches up with an outstretched hand.
Lord Yang wonders if, according to the myths, she means to drag him underwater, steal his soul, and erase his memory. The fisherman replies that mermaids only erase memories that one wants erased, but figures it’s best to avoid taking the hand in any case: “Humans and mermaids live in such different worlds—whether the fate is good or bad, what can come of it?”
In his boat, Dam-ryung kneels down, reaching down to take the mermaid’s hand. The stay like that for long moments, holding hands, eyes locked.
And then, we zip ahead to the future. Er, present. Seoul, 2016.
We meet our hero (Lee Min-ho again) in multiple guises in quick succession: He snatches away the joy of pushing a bus stop button from a little girl, metaphorically stealing candy from a baby; chats up a woman at a fancy bar, calling himself a lawyer; and asks about buying merchandise from a shady dealer, looking like a nervous dork.
The smooth-talking lawyer charms the woman with a magic trick, lighting a tissue rose and turning it into a real one. Then the dork buys a valuable vase with a briefcase full of cash… which then lights on fire, revealing only a red rose inside. So Mr. Smooth-talking Con Man likes playing with magic, and also fire.
He’s HEO JOON-JAE, and he’s congratulated by his partner in crime, JO NAM-DOO (Lee Hee-joon), who calls him the Harry Potter of con artistry, only better looking. Ha. Trailing behind is their silent hacker maknae, TAE-OH (Shin Won-ho, aka Shin).
On to a new con: From their hacker van, partner Nam-doo intercepts a call from the prosecutor’s office requesting an elevator repair. The trio grabs their tool boxes and enters the office building, keeping a close eye on one prosecutor in particular, who’s on his way out.
As they pass security, one guard calls out to the group, asking why the regular elevator technician isn’t here. In a flash, our leader Joon-jae sizes him up, reading him almost like a computer, noting details of his dress and demeanor. Within a span of seconds, Joon-jae concludes that the best method of dealing with this guard is hypnosis.
So he pulls out a lighter as he addresses the guard, twirling it impressively between his fingertips, and the man’s eyes are naturally drawn to the flashing silver. Joon-jae ignites the flame and tells the man that his regular elevator guy is right over here. In a daze, the guard agrees and lets them continue without further incident.
The scammers head to an empty office, pulling off the outerwear to reveal suits underneath. A few prop adjustments later, and it looks like Joon-jae’s own office. Hacker Tae-oh sets up his equipment on the rooftop and gains them access to the prosecutor’s files, just in time for the arrival of clients.
Nam-doo takes the lead on this con, having previously made contact with the male mark, a company president. He and his wife (Kim Sung-ryung cameo) are here because a high school student committed suicide at school and named the couple’s son in his suicide note.
From his rooftop perch, Tae-oh sees that the real prosecutor is on his way back to the building, and buys a little extra time by turning the traffic signal red. They’ve only got about a minute before the prosecutor returns, so Nam-doo suggests they break for lunch and ushers the couple out.
As they walk out, the wife asks Joon-jae to ensure that their son is found innocent, offering to pay handsomely out of their slush fund in the Virgin Islands. Joon-jae scoffs, worrying them when he says that it’s too risky to use such a famous tax haven.
On their way out, a man is brought in in handcuffs (Sung Dong-il, again), and he seems to recognize Joon-jae’s group.
Joon-jae advises the wife to move their slush fund and says he knows a good place, on an island with beautiful scenery.
They wrap up the job, and some time later the con artist trio makes their way through an airport. Nam-doo assures the wife over the phone that they received the funds and are now all in the same boat, figuratively.
With the job done, it’s time for them to go their separate ways, and Joon-jae complains when silent Tae-oh heads off without a word: “I hate leaving without saying goodbye most of all.” (Then he heads off without saying goodbye, and it’s Nam-doo’s turn to grumble.)
Joon-jae has a solo vacation lined up (in Spain, it seems), and chats up the flight attendant (Krystal cameo) on his flight there, passing himself off as a doctor. The flight attendant shows him the view out the window and tells him that she heard from old grandpas who live on the island that a mermaid still lives in the water here. Joon-jae laughs.
The camera swoops down over the island and into the water as she explains that the mermaids have been disappearing, and that the last remaining ones live in this sea.
We follow one—the same one from 400 years ago—as she swims down into a cavern, and retrieves a jade bracelet. Aha, Dam-ryung’s? She carries it back up with her to the surface, then slips it on her wrist.
A little boy spots her from a passing boat and exclaims to his parents that he’s seen a mermaid, which of course gets laughed off as his imagination.
The mermaid returns underwater, and notices signs of disturbance. A storm is brewing above, and the waters turn choppy.
At a seaside hotel resort, Joon-jae sits outside, looking out at the agitated sea as the storm approaches.
The mermaid dives underwater, struggling to outswim the turmoil, which overtakes her in a dark cloud of churning water.
In the morning, the storm has passed and the mermaid finds herself washed up on rocky terrain. She peers up over a ledge at a man-made pool built into the cliff, looking around curiously.
Belatedly, she registers something strange—and looks down to see she has legs. She gasps in surprise, then examines her legs a bit before diving into the pool, at which point the legs transform back into a mermaid tail.
Joon-jae steps out sleepily, looking out at the sea. The mermaid watches warily and dives under when he turns in her direction, and he misses seeing her. Off in the distant waters, several mermaids swim up to the surface, their heads dotting the horizon.
Joon-jae returns to bed, and is awakened a bit later by a loud clang. He bolts awake and warily looks around, taking in the mess in the living room: food strewn everywhere, literal crumbs marking a trail on the floor, which he follows to the walk-in closet.
Joon-jae rears back when he sees a pair of legs in his closet, and slowly reaches out toward the rack. He jerks clothing aside to reveal the mermaid (well, a person now), mouth smeared with food, wrapped in a sweater (that’s still on its hanger, haha).
He demands to know who she is (and when he uses that exclamation of disbelief, “Hul,” the mermaid mouths it out, copying him). But she rears back defensively when he yells about the sorry state of hotel security. He sees that she’s wearing his favorite sweater, and when he makes a move, she throws out a leg and kicks him way, way back, shooting through the air.
Joon-jae notices she’s got something in her fist and demands to see it, thinking she’s stolen something from him. He tries to force her to show it, and she kicks him again, sending him flying into the next room this time. He starts to bluster indignantly, but when he sees the mermaid approach with her dukes up, he wimps out and retreats.
Joon-jae offers to drop the whole thing if she’ll hand over what she’s holding, asking what it is. The mermaid looks at the blue sea out the window, assesses the situation… and bolts for freedom.
Thump! Apparently she didn’t count on there being glass in that window, and she knocks herself out cold. Joon-jae ties her wrists together with a necktie, then calls for police to deal with the intruder.
He assumes a scolding tone, telling the mermaid that she’s embarrassing her countrymen with this behavior, and takes pictures of her as evidence. All the while, she just looks around bemusedly.
Joon-jae’s determined to find out what she’s holding, and pries open her fingers… to find one maraschino cherry. Hee! He tosses it aside, and she gobbles it up.
The local police arrive to cart the mermaid away, and while Joon-jae is mostly still annoyed, he doesn’t like seeing her handcuffed and asks if it’s necessary. The officer says that she’s a flight risk and says she’s now their prime suspect in a rash of recent thefts.
Joon-jae doesn’t believe that, thinking it’s likelier that the girl is dimwitted. She casts a last look back at him, and he feels a twinge when he sees her scraped-up feet. But he shakes it aside and heads back in, where he looks over the photos he took of her—and this time, he notices the jade bracelet she’s wearing.
Riding in the back of the police car, the mermaid is awed at everything around her: all the people, the noises, the city sights. She makes little honking noises to mimic a car horn, then copies the screeching of tires. Everything amazes her, from the sliding doors she can’t quite figure out to the fish tank in the station.
Back at the hotel, Joon-jae talks to his partner, Nam-doo, about a potential new con, calling the item’s owner “not normal.” He must mean the mermaid and her bracelet, both of which are currently at the police station. The mermaid is so distracted by the sights and sounds she barely registers the frustrated policeman trying to question her, and when one officer reaches for a tissue, she delights in pulling them out of the box, over and over.
The officer gets so upset with her inattention that he looms angrily, and then the mermaid reacts by shoving her handcuffed fists at his face, sending him flying against a closed door.
She then finds a gun dropped on the floor and picks it up curiously, making everyone rear back in alarm. They hit the floor, and she tosses the gun aside to return to her tissue-pulling.
Joon-jae meets the flight attendant for a fancy lunch, who admits that she’s breaking her rule not to see plane passengers outside of the flight. He pours on the charm, surprising her with a magic trick that produces a necklace. He’s interrupted, though, by a text message from Nam-doo confirming that the bracelet is a real find: at least 400 years old, worth over 6 billion won if genuine.
Suddenly his attention shifts entirely, and when the flight attendant asks about the necklace, Joon-jae backpedals and says it’s not for her. Saying it’s for his mother, he excuses himself immediately, leaving her confused and offended.
Joon-jae calls Nam-doo, who continues his explanation: There’s an engraving on the bracelet, which reads “Dam-ryung,” likely a name. Joon-jae stops in his tracks to hear the name, then heads to the police station, where he finds the mermaid in one of the jail cells, sleeping on a bed of tissues. Again, he’s bothered at the sight of her scratched-up feet.
The officer, now belligerent, refuses to let the mermaid go, and Joon-jae’s computer-like brain scans the man for information: He’s sensitive, hot-tempered, a newlywed, and susceptible to hypnosis. Joon-jae pulls out his lighter and distracts him with it, saying that the mermaid is his wife.
He convinces the officer that she’s dressed as a bride and says they have to leave for their honeymoon. Entranced, the officer apologizes and unlocks the cell, wishing them well.
Once outside, Joon-jae extends a hand in apology, although he takes her lack of response as a rejection. He asks about the bracelet, but that sends her fists up in defense mode, and he backs off, saying merely that it’s pretty.
I’m still not sure how much language the mermaid understands, but she is definitely soaking it in; she relaxes her guard, and mouths that word to herself: “pretty.”
He offers to buy her a gift and urges her to come along, but stops short of touching her wrist and instead pinches her sweater. At a crosswalk, he has to yank her back from walking into traffic, pointing out that the light is red. The mermaid looks up at the lit-up red man with its arms outstretched, then throws out her arms to copy its pose.
Joon-jae takes the mermaid to a mall, where she’s spooked by the scary moving steps of an escalator. Exasperated, Joon-jae just picks her up (which passers-by take for romantic) and carries her along, all the way to the shoe section of a department store.
He picks out several pairs and tells her to try them. Of course, the mermaid just puts her hands in two flats and holds them to her chest, at which point he takes over to slide them on her feet. Satisfied now, he tells her to stop walking around barefoot, then takes her to try on dresses.
By now I’d be surprised if she did anything properly, and sure enough, she comes out of the dressing room with a sequined dress hanging on her head. Joon-jae shoves her into the dressing room, and somehow she manages properly this time.
She can’t find Joon-jae when she comes out, though, because he’s stepped aside for a phone call. The mermaid wanders out into the shopping mall, following a juggler and the group of kids around him.
On his return, Joon-jae is alarmed to find the fitting room empty, and runs around the mall looking for “Six Billion.” Seeing a sign for missing children and a lost and found, he follows it and finally relaxes when he sees the mermaid sitting in a kiddie chair, licking a giant lollipop.
He chides her for wandering off without warning, and checks that she’s okay and unharmed. He’s mostly concerned about the bracelet, and when he sees it, he smiles in relief, which prompts the mermaid to smile too.
He takes her to eat next, and she shovels noodles in her mouth so ferociously that it makes Joon-jae cringe in embarrassment. He asks if she came from the jungle, wondering why she’s so entirely instinct-driven.
He shows her how to eat with a fork, and she looks quite pleased with herself when he praises her for it. It’s adorable how she keeps looking to him for approval as she eats with the fork.
Over the dessert course, which basically means the mermaid shoving two handfuls of cake into her mouth, Joon-jae starts in on his standard smooth-talking lines, saying that they’ve become friendly now. In magician mode, he brings out his lighter and burns a piece of string, which turns into a necklace.
He fastens the necklace around her neck, and the mermaid looks at him quizzically, then smiles shyly to herself.
Joon-jae, meanwhile, clutches the bracelet in his hand, having stolen it away without her noticing.
After eating, he leads her back inside the mall, where he seats her on a bench and tells her to wait for him until he returns. He admittedly looks a little conflicted as he leaves, taking the elevator down, and after he’s gone, the mermaid looks up expectantly every time the elevator dings.
Joon-jae returns to his hotel and gets packing, and tells partner Nam-doo over the phone that the bracelet appears to be authentic. Nam-doo is impatient to meet up now that he has the item, but Joon-jae puts him off—he still has somewhere to go. He calls it merely “the end of the world,” though we can see in a map that he means to go to the Tower of Hercules, off the northwestern coast of Spain.
He tells his friend to wait a week, then grabs his bags to head out. He pauses for a moment at the sight of a maraschino cherry on the ground, then exits.
Meanwhile, the mermaid continues to wait by the elevator, looking up at every ding, until it’s finally closing time and an employee tries to get her to leave. She seems to register that she has to go, and starts to walk away.
As Joon-jae drives, the sight of a red stop light makes him think back to the mermaid mimicking the stop light.
She makes her way back to the children’s playroom at the mall, sitting there in the dark until an employee finds her there. She’s escorted to the door, and all she can do is stare uncomprehendingly at the annoyed employees.
It’s raining out, but with nowhere to go, all she can do is huddle there by the door, waiting for somebody or nobody.
But around the corner is Joon-jae, who approaches with an umbrella, extending it over her head. She smiles to see his face and extends an arm upward—reminiscent of her and Dam-ryung all those years ago—and Joon-jae reaches down to take her hand.
Flashing back to earlier in the day, the mermaid is back in the children’s playroom, staring at a giant lollipop being eaten by a little girl. She utters her first word—”Pretty”—and snatches the candy away. The girl protests, so the mermaid replies with another word she’s heard a lot: “Wait.”
Her voice narrates, “The word wait means something good is going to happen soon. That even if I am briefly far away like a wave, my friend will come to find me. That I don’t need to be afraid that nearby may be a shark or a scary person.”
That’s how Joon-jae finds her, sucking on the giant lollipop, sitting in a kiddie chair. Exasperated, he says, “I told you to wait. Don’t you know the word wait?” He checks that she’s okay and unhurt, and the mermaid thinks, “It means that my friend hopes I am not hurt, and makes my heart warm. It means that something good will happen soon.”
People all wondered whether Park Ji-eun could write a follow-up hit to measure up to the ginormous success of You From Another Star, and when Jeon Ji-hyun signed on, the secondary question on my mind was whether she would be as good—and if so, in a way that wasn’t just repeating the same formula.
I think both actor and writer delivered successfully on those concerns, because while you may naturally spot similarities from that project to this one, I think the producers have managed to make Blue Sea feel like its own entity. (It probably helps that we have a different PD onboard, with a strong directorial style of his own.) On paper, there are a number of similarities between the two dramas, but I actually think those are more evident on paper than in the experience of watching the show. For instance, both star a mythical being who’s lived for over 400 years, both have an origin story in the Joseon era with a bittersweet feel, both have Jeon Ji-hyun carrying the show. But I think of it as the similarity between Queen In-hyun’s Man and W or Nine—distinct characteristics come through in all projects, but you’d never confuse one for the other.
As with You From Another Star, I loved the sageuk opening, and almost didn’t want it to end because it felt so understated and sadly beautiful. It was a lovely way to adapt the classic folktale on which the drama is based, about a mermaid caught by a fisherman and returned to the sea by the town mayor. I appreciated that there were few words exchanged, and none at all between the mermaid and Dam-ryung, which seems fitting (and in contrast to the barrage of conversation—albeit one-sided—that characterizes the present-day timeline) for their star-crossed circumstances, making that one handhold all the more resonant.
Of course, then we leapt into the modern day and dropped us into a rollicking caper, so I let go of the disappointment of leaving Joseon rather quickly. But it means I’ll be looking forward to more glimpses of that storyline in upcoming episodes, and the melancholy tone that it brings.
Speaking of tone, I love this kind of mixing of comedy and sad wistfulness, which I prefer to the more common occurrence of getting comedy first, then sadness. I’d really love if it could keep this balance throughout, so that they feel intertwined and natural, rather than shooting us from one extreme to another. And I do think these actors are up for this style—and by that, maybe I mean more Lee Min-ho, since I think Jeon Ji-hyun could do anything you threw at her. I was concerned about Lee Min-ho tackling a romantic comedy, because he’s always been better being serious or funny in a dry, incidental way.
The Joon-jae character suits him, and I’m intrigued by the dichotomy we see in his nature: He can turn on the charm in a blink and he’s always out to find another score, but he doesn’t exactly seem like a happy con man. Not in the way that his partner Nam-doo seems. Joon-jae often seems like he’s ignoring the voice inside urging him to be a better man, like not leaving the mermaid behind with the cops and then at the mall. Both times he wasn’t above shoving that aside to do it anyway, but there’s a darkness and conflicted nature about him that I find interesting, and I want to see how that develops the more he gets intertwined with the mermaid.
As for the mermaid, it hardly needs to be said, but Jeon Ji-hyun is brilliant once again. This role is completely unlike Chun Song-yi in You From Another Star, but equally as one-of-a-kind, and dependent on her playing it. I’m a little amazed that she could find a character-of-a-lifetime twice in three years, and make both so distinct and vivid. I spent a large part of this episode unpacking what she brought to the role, wondering what the character would reveal, and it felt like she’d thought about everything so thoroughly that she’d considered things that we might not even have thought about until we saw her doing them. I sort of feel like she’s creating a mythology all on her own, and not through writing but through performance.
There’s a baseline expectation for the fish-out-of-water (hur) setup, with a mermaid trying to figure out the way the human world works. I think most people probably had a few ideas of how she’d struggle, like figuring out how to eat or walk, but it feels like Jeon dove deep (hur again) and worked out an entire psychology and history for the character. Her mermaid is more like a feral animal, and I find it fascinating to try to figure out just where she falls on the spectrum of awareness and cognizance. She seems to understand language, and she definitely feels emotions, but it’s all in primal soup mode at the moment, and I think it’ll be a lot of fun watching those evolve and develop into distinctly human traits.
Who knows, maybe things will all fall apart later on, or maybe the drama won’t be delving into any of the areas I find most interesting, but for now I’m holding on to hopes that the show lives up to its promise, because I think it could turn out to be something special. *don’t jinx it!*