Every time we open in Joseon, I struggle with wanting to stay there and watch that drama unfold, because the emotional and romantic conflict seems inherently fuller in that timeline, even though it’s not technically the main drama. Today I’m even more conflicted because the past timeline develops its backstory into what I think will become a very compelling romance. But the good news is that the present-day story has begun to mirror the past in little ways, which is definitely the kind of thing I’ve been waiting to see.
EPISODE 3 RECAP
In Joseon, the mermaid swims up to the surface when she sees lanterns lit up above—the sign that Dam-ryung wants to see her. He floats in on a small boat into a valley lit up with hundreds of lanterns, and asks for the mermaid’s name. At last!
She tells him that her name is Se-hwa, and Dam-ryung says that he had a sister who died young named Se-hwa. He starts to explain that the name means “bright, shining child,” but Se-hwa finishes his sentence, shocking him. She says that there’s a story behind the person who gave her a name, and asks if he wants to hear it.
As she narrates the story, we flash back twenty years to a group of young boys playing at the water’s edge. One is challenged to swim a distance, and begins to drown in the process. But as he sinks, he opens his eyes and sees a young mermaid swimming towards him.
She takes the boy by the hand and swims up to the surface, saving his life. He tells her that his name is Dam-ryung, and when she doesn’t respond with her own, he decides to give her a name and calls her Se-hwa, telling her what it means. The young mermaid smiles and they splash in the water playfully.
Se-hwa narrates that the boy soon returned to the capital city, but he yearned to return to the ocean and threw tantrums until his father allowed it. The boy delighted in bringing the mermaid new foods she had never tasted and flowers she’d never seen. And over the years they grew up together.
But one day as a young man, Dam-ryung brought her flowers and said that he’d have to be married soon, and the mermaid naturally didn’t understand what marriage meant. He described it as living with another woman and caring only for her, and Se-hwa’s face fell, asking if it meant he wouldn’t return to the sea.
He asked if Se-hwa couldn’t live on land, and she said that a mermaid could do so as an adult—she’d have legs and be able to walk once she grew up—but for now she was bound to the ocean. Dam-ryung said he didn’t want to leave her and marry someone else, but she silently shed a tear and swam away, leaving a pearl behind.
Dam-ryung returned home and was married, but on his wedding night he ran away, riding on horseback for hours until he reached the sea. He called out for Se-hwa and walked straight into the water… and immediately began to sink. Se-hwa narrates that Dam-ryung knew—the mermaid would stop at nothing to save him, knowing that he couldn’t swim.
“But he didn’t know something important—that mermaids have a special ability,” Se-hwa narrates. As Dam-ryung sank deeper, the mermaid appeared and gave him a kiss, but with that kiss she also erased herself from his memory. Se-hwa: “And like that, the mermaid disappeared from the boy’s memory like a bubble.”
Adult Dam-ryung tells the mermaid that his wife died early, but she always resented him for running away on their wedding night, even though he could never remember why he did it. “Am I… that boy?” he asks. (I know the answer is obvious, but that still gave me chills.) Se-hwa swims up to the side of the boat and looks into his eyes…
In the present day, con artist Joon-jae sinks to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Spain, and when the mermaid swims over to him, his eyes widen at the sight of her tail. She pulls him in for a kiss, and in that moment we return to the memories they’ve shared, except time stands still and the mermaid vanishes into bubbles in each scene, right before his eyes.
She erases herself from all of his memories one by one, until finally she disappears before him in the water, leaving him all alone. Joon-jae wakes up on the shore as the mermaid’s voice rings out like a faint echo: “I love you.”
He shakes his waterlogged brain and recalls everything about the thugs and the chase and jumping off the cliff, though all without the mermaid. He wonders why he’d jump into the sea like a crazy person, and then notices the jade bracelet that the mermaid slipped on his wrist, confused about where he picked that up. And just like back in Joseon, beside him on the beach is a small sparkling pearl.
Joon-jae flies back to Seoul, and from the plane he stares out at a tiny spot in the ocean, which gives him pause. He shakes it off, but down below the mermaid is swimming to keep up with the plane as it flies overhead, and she looks heartbroken as she watches him fly farther and farther away from her.
As Joon-jae arrives at the airport, the local news broadcasts a breaking story about a murderer who escaped police custody. The suspect’s name is MA DAE-YOUNG (ah, this is the man played by Sung Dong-il in the present timeline, who was entering the prosecutor’s office in handcuffs), and he happens to be at the airport curb just ahead of Joon-jae. Dae-young is dressed as a parking attendant and writes a receipt for a man’s car, clearly intending to steal it.
Joon-jae returns to his house to find partner-in-crime Nam-doo taking out the trash like he lives there, looking surprised that Joon-jae returned alive. Nam-doo swears up and down that he knew Joon-jae would be fine, but he scuttles into the house to avoid any more hounding.
Joon-jae scoffs to see their hacker partner Tae-oh staying there too (Tae-oh characteristically doesn’t even say hello), and Nam-doo tells him to get comfortable like he owns the place, and Joon-jae has to remind him that it’s HIS house, not theirs. He figures that Tae-oh broke in, and Nam-doo says proudly that there’s no lock Tae-oh can’t hack.
Nam-doo says their places have already been tossed by the scary loan shark CEO Jang and her henchmen, and the only house untouched is this one that Joon-jae bought recently with a clean identity. Aw, con man sleepover?
What Nam-doo really wants to hear about is that jade bracelet, and he takes Joon-jae to the terrace to discuss it privately. Of course, Joon-jae has no memory of stealing it from the mermaid or telling Nam-doo all about it, and Nam-doo gets his feelings hurt thinking that Joon-jae is trying to con him out of his share.
Nam-doo insists that Joon-jae met a weird girl in Spain, and we cut to the mermaid swimming in the ocean with sunglasses on, and carrying a giant seashell like a clutch bag. She waves at her mermaid friends and swims off like she’s modeling it, ha.
Joon-jae argues that he never met a weird girl and never sent Nam-doo those pictures of the bracelet… except he does have the bracelet itself. He can remember quick flashes of using his lighter to take it, but his memory is hazy and he doesn’t quite know how he came to have it. He decides to hold on to it for now, because something doesn’t feel right about it.
The mermaid comes above water and looks at the moon, and she thinks back to the day Joon-jae told her about Seoul, where his home was. Talk of home had made her look out at the ocean wistfully, but Joon-jae had eagerly talked up how much she’d like it in Seoul, with its late-night food and fireworks above the Han River, which is a great view from the 63 Building.
He swore that he wasn’t trying to seduce her into going to Seoul with him, but he’d wanted her to go, and when she said yes, he lit up and told her that it was a promise, and promises were made to be kept.
In his sleep, Joon-jae has dreams of being underwater, and the mermaid’s voice saying, “I love you” startles him awake. He clutches his pounding heart and wonders what this is, and where that voice came from.
Three months later, Joon-jae turns on the TV and sees CHAIRMAN HEO IL-JOONG giving an interview about being a pioneer in real estate development. The last names can’t be a coincidence, so this is likely his father, and Joon-jae turns the TV off with a sigh.
Chairman Heo plays golf with an associate, while his wife is there with Shi-ah’s sister-in-law Jin-joo, waiting for their husbands. Over lunch, Jin-joo’s husband Dong-shik puts his foot in his mouth by bragging about his son and how DNA can’t be fooled, and Jin-joo drags him from the table to warn him that there’s a rumor about Chairman Heo’s heir not being his biological son.
Jin-joo says that according to rumor, that is his second wife who kicked the first wife out, and the chairman’s son left home without a word. The second wife brought a son into the marriage, and so the chairman’s stepson is the one working for the company at present. Dong-shik gapes at the scale of the biological son’s rebellion, and Jin-joo agrees that he must be crazy.
Cut to: Crazy, sighing at the state of his empty fridge. He blows his top when he discovers Nam-doo drinking the last beer and Tae-oh eating the last ice cream, and wonders when they’re moving out.
Nam-doo argues that they’re still being chased to within an inch of their lives, and that Joon-jae doesn’t know their pain because the henchmen think he’s already dead.
Meanwhile, the mermaid has made it all the way to the coast of Korea, and she pops up to ask some fishermen where Seoul is. They point her in the direction and ask if she plans to swim there, and when she just disappears into the ocean, they freak out and wonder if she was a deep-sea diver, or a ghost.
On the shore, an ajumma brigade picks up trash, excited to see the moment when the water recedes and makes what looks like a sandy bridge between the mainland and a small, uninhabited island. So naturally they’re shocked when the sand bridge appears with a woman walking along it—the mermaid, dressed in sweats she picked up off the shore, still carrying her seashell clutch.
The ajummas can’t make heads or tails of her, and the mermaid asks if this is Seoul. When they say it isn’t, she lets out an exasperated sigh, wondering how much farther she has to go when she already swam till she puked.
Thankfully, the ajummas are from Seoul and offer her a ride. They drop her off on a busy street, and the mermaid looks around in a daze before whining, “There are more people than anchovies! How am I going to find Heo Joon-jae?”
Back at Joon-jae’s house, he opens up a secret compartment in his closet, which leads to a second closet as big as a house. This must be his batcave, because it’s lined with all sorts of different uniforms. Today he picks the airline pilot suit.
Downstairs, his garage has all the vehicles to match, from ambulance to police car to taxi, and as he heads out with his team, Nam-doo gets all fluttery with excitement at starting a new job. Joon-jae just tells them that they have to move out after this one.
On the street, the mermaid stops random passersby to ask if anyone knows Heo Joon-jae, which obviously gets her nowhere. And in the car, Nam-doo talks about what a coincidence it was to run into the person they conned on a golf course, but Joon-jae tells him that Seoul is smaller than they think, and you’re bound to cross paths with everyone.
At that very moment, they stop at a light, and the mermaid is just ahead at the crosswalk. She walks right past them, focused on the food stand because she’s so hungry, but the vendor turns her away when she has no money.
Joon-jae’s car whooshes past her, sending autumn leaves flying into the air, and the mermaid reaches out and catches one.
She trudges along, growing tired and hungrier, when she comes upon a group of schoolgirls ganging up on a classmate to take her money. Oh no. Thinking that this is how it’s done, the mermaid sidles up to a tiny child and bullies her for her lunch money, except the little girl is savvy enough to call her out on it.
The kid buys the mermaid an instant ramyun at the convenience store and teaches her not to steal people’s money. The precocious little girl tells her to get a job and work hard because you need money to live, and the mermaid asks when you’re supposed to be happy if you work so hard that you can’t see your family, like the little girl’s mom does.
The girl doesn’t have an easy answer for that, but she wishes the mermaid luck in finding Heo Joon-jae, and then turns back to put her last 1000 won in the mermaid’s hand. Aw.
The girl waves goodbye to the mermaid and rounds the corner… and walks smack into Joon-jae of all people. She snaps at the ajusshi to watch where he’s going, and Joon-jae gets all huffy at the little girl for calling him an ajusshi. Nam-doo pulls him away and says it’s not like he’d be her oppa (lol, she called the mermaid unni though), and again Joon-jae and the mermaid miss seeing each other by mere seconds.
The mermaid comes upon the same schoolgirls still bullying their classmate, and this time she speaks up, having been taught that stealing lunch money is wrong. She asks if they don’t have Mom’s credit card, which the little girl taught her was “something like money,” and insists that they stop stealing.
The girls smirk and charge at her, but the mermaid just rolls up the flyers she’s collected all day and whaps them over the head and sends the leader flying into the air.
The mermaid makes them promise not to steal money again, but one girl swears that they’re friends with the bullied classmate—she says the slang version of “we made friends,” which is literally “we ate friends.” The mermaid’s jaw drops in horror: “You… eat… friends?! You’re not supposed to eat your friends! Don’t do that! Eat something else!” LOL.
The lead bully is fuming mad as they run away, but she answers the phone with a smile when her mom calls. Her mom happens to be CEO Jang, the scary loan shark that Joon-jae conned. As she gets in the elevator, Joon-jae steps in with her, and from the roof Tae-oh cuts the power and stops the elevator on its way up.
Joon-jae steps in front of CEO Jang and takes off his sunglasses, and then he flips his nifty hypnotic lighter on, instantly putting her in a trance. He tells her that there’s a back door in this elevator that opens out, and that her son is hanging on the ledge just barely, by his fingers.
She cries out to her son and tries to help him up, but Joon-jae tells her it’s too late and makes him fall to his death. She collapses in tears, and he tells her to remember this feeling, because the student who committed suicide because of her son’s bullying had a mother, and she felt this way too. He tells her to forget those who’ve wronged her, and only remember the people she’s wronged, and live making it up to them.
It works, and CEO Jang comes out of the elevator in tears, demanding to see the victim’s mother so she can apologize. The boys strut to the car after a job well done, and the hyungs stop in their tracks when Tae-oh pipes up and asks Joon-jae how he hypnotizes people.
Nam-doo urges Joon-jae to hurry up and answer his question, amazed at how curious Tae-oh must’ve been to open up that mouth of his and speak words. Joon-jae smiles and explains all his fancy tricks, which essentially boils down to showing someone a trigger, and turning their gaze elsewhere where he can manipulate what they think they see.
Tae-oh instinctively lowers his gaze and doesn’t make eye contact when he hears that, and Joon-jae pets him on the head affectionately, saying that you can’t just hypnotize anyone.
As the boys get in the car, the mermaid is just a few feet away, digging head-first through a clothing donation bin while a homeless woman (cameo by Hong Jin-kyung) keeps watch for her. She gives the mermaid all the tips and tricks to living on the street, like how she’ll never leave Gangnam because the people throw away designer clothes, and she’ll give up on hot meals if it means maintaining a fashion sense.
The homeless woman sighs to hear that the mermaid came all this way to look for a man who didn’t even leave her a phone number, and advises her to start looking in places that he might have mentioned offhand. The mermaid remembers the 63 Building, so she uses her last 1000 won to take a bus there, and the driver is nice enough to let her on even though it’s not enough money.
She sticks her head out the window and enjoys the ride, while Joon-jae sits on his terrace contemplating the mysterious jade bracelet.
The mermaid stares up at the 63 Building and wonders if she’ll be able to see Joon-jae from all the way up there. She manages to slip inside just as it’s closing, and she finds her way to the aquarium, where she licks her chops in glee, relieved that she won’t go hungry. Wait, you’re going to eat all the fishes? She plops into the giant tank and happily goes diving for her dinner.
The next morning, Joon-jae’s college classmate Shi-ah asks the housekeeper to make her seaweed soup for someone’s birthday, and the housekeeper says that today happens to be her son’s birthday too, and she made the soup the way her son likes it.
Sister-in-law Jin-joo teases Shi-ah for trying to seduce her classmate with food, and Shi-ah grits her teeth and says it’s for a co-worker. But she brings the birthday spread to Joon-jae’s house after all, though he seems annoyed that Nam-doo told her where he moved.
Joon-jae doesn’t seem very enthused about his birthday, but one taste of soup has him remembering his childhood, and the special place where he and Mom went every year on his birthday.
Nam-doo gets excited about throwing a birthday party and Shi-ah happily suggests a location, but Joon-jae says he already has plans and just walks off, not giving Shi-ah the time of day. She lets her smile fade the second Joon-jae is out of the room, and Nam-doo mutters that he’s not falling for it and passes her a wad of money. Huh. What are you two up to?
Shi-ah worries that Joon-jae’s birthday plans are with a girl, but Nam-doo says it couldn’t possibly be the case because Joon-jae will never let a woman past a certain line. Nam-doo gobbles up all the food and asks if Shi-ah really made this, and she says that her housekeeper did.
The housekeeper looks forlornly at an old photograph of herself with Little Joon-jae, confirming that she’s the mother he’s been looking for all this time.
Mom and Joon-jae’s special place turns out to be the aquarium at the 63 Building, and Joon-jae arrives there by himself. The mermaid has eaten her fill and wakes up from a nap to find the place swarming with visitors. Thankfully this aquarium features human divers in a mermaid show once a day, so no one thinks it odd to see a mermaid swimming around in the tank, though behind the scenes the workers are confused to see the real diver show up for work.
The mermaid is blinded by all the visitors flashing their cameras at her, but behind the wall of picture-takers, she catches a glimpse of Joon-jae walking past. She taps on the glass and follows him, and when he rounds the corner into a quiet tunnel, he finally hears her tapping furiously on the glass.
He turns to look, but there’s no recognition in his eyes as he stares at her. Joon-jae just turns around and walks away, and the mermaid rushes to the surface to go find him. Above the tank, her path is cut off when the aquarium workers discover her and demand answers.
Joon-jae gets a text from Nam-doo saying that he just ran into their friend Thomas (the con artist at the church), who showed him proof that Joon-jae was with a woman in Spain. The picture makes Joon-jae’s eyes widen: It’s him with the mermaid he just saw, and she’s wearing that jade bracelet.
The mermaid is cornered by the aquarium staff and ends up throwing one of them into the tank because she can’t control her own strength, and she runs off with an apology.
Joon-jae runs through the aquarium looking for her, and goes past a little boy who then runs into the mermaid’s arms. When she gets up again, Joon-jae is standing at a distance looking right at her.
He slowly walks over to her, his steps and his breath echoing loudly in his ears. All he does is walk to her, but by the time he reaches her, the mermaid’s eyes are brimming with tears.
As they gaze into each other’s eyes, the mermaid flashes back to the beach in Spain where she left Joon-jae. She said she was sorry and put the bracelet on his wrist, telling him to keep it because she knew he liked it.
Tears spilled down her face as she said he wouldn’t remember her now, but she vowed to keep her promise and go to him: “Whether a storm comes, or the sun is too hot, or I’m lonely, or afraid because it’s a road I’ve never taken, I will endure it all and go to you. I love you.”
That’s the voice he heard as he was coming to, but by the time he opened his eyes, she was gone, and all that was left behind was one shining pearl.
I didn’t think this episode was as fun because we had to spend most of it with the couple apart from each other, but bookending it with Dam-ryung and Se-hwa’s backstory and then Joon-jae and the mermaid’s reunion and parting was a good way to keep me emotionally invested. There were some slower parts in this episode—family exposition to slog through and some basic resetting of the world—but overall I think I’ll end up enjoying the story in Seoul because of the con man trio and the witty banter between Joon-jae and Nam-doo.
The two partners have a really interesting dynamic where they’re clearly very good friends but always distrusting and on guard in some way, and now we know there’s possibly another long con in play with Nam-doo and Shi-ah. Are they after Joon-jae’s inheritance? Using him to get to Chairman Dad? Or is there something stranger going on? Whatever it is, I like this twist, since it’s a lot more interesting than a second lead pining over a guy who obviously doesn’t care for her. I’m suddenly very curious about Shi-ah, her connection to Nam-doo, and why she leads this double life.
I could’ve done without all of the coincidences in this episode, because they were piling them on pretty high. I know that this is fantasy through and through, and there’s a very strong element of fate here, but everything just happened to fall into place and lead the two lovers back to each other, and the ease of it all kind of diminished the whole I-will-endure-the-storm speech. I know, she swam for three whole months and crossed the globe, which is no small feat—it’s just that we didn’t see any of that, and it seemed rather simple to get to Seoul and find one dude there. Obviously I care more that the leads are together, given that the drama is about eighty percent less interesting when they’re not sharing the screen (okay, it’s really that it’s less interesting without Jeon Ji-hyun onscreen), so I’m happy with the outcome, in any case.
The mermaid’s fish-out-of-water hijinks continue to be amusing, though I find it more enjoyable when Joon-jae is around to witness her crazy. Despite it being early in their love story (as far as we know), I think the amnesia was effective. It’s a nice way to tie in the classic mermaid mythology of vanishing into bubbles, while using a classic drama trope—it creates an ardent one-sided love that the mermaid must carry alone. And because the trope is used twice in parallel storylines on both Dam-ryung and Joon-jae, the emotion actually builds cumulatively, making us feel for the present-day mermaid because we’ve seen Se-hwa live the same fate and erase herself from the boy she loved, and then carry a torch for him for twenty years.
I mean that the emotion builds for us as viewers, since I don’t think of her as the same mermaid living from then till now. Until the drama tells me otherwise, I’m going to believe that Se-hwa and the present-day mermaid are two different people, despite the similar sacrifices they made for love. Or maybe it’s what I hope—that Se-hwa only ever loved Dam-ryung, and that our mermaid will similarly only ever love Joon-jae, and that it was Dam-ryung and Se-hwa’s ardent (and probably tragic) love that made the second romance possible. The mermaid’s tears at the very end do make me wonder though—did she fall in love that hard, in that short a time? Or have they known each other for much longer, the way Se-hwa remembered Dam-ryung by herself? Maybe when you love a mermaid, you can never be sure when Day One of your love story was.