I find this show a nice breath of fresh air, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps the You From Another Star connection has dulled the shine a bit so that this show doesn’t feel as fresh as that one did at the time, but I’m loving the brightness, the characters, and the undercurrent of sentimentality (particularly in the Joseon storyline, which is lovely).
EPISODE 4 RECAP
Joseon. Late at night, someone walks along the beach. In the morning, mayor Dam-ryung receives the curious report of a thief taking clothing and shoes from nearby houses and leaving behind a pearl in their place. Dam-ryung furrows his brow.
A gisaeng hears the same report and sighs enviously, wishing that the visitor would leave her pearls. Lord Yang says that the reason he’s so busy trying to catch the mermaid is so that he can take all her tears and lavish pearls on the gisaeng. (As the lore goes, mermaid tears turn into pearls.)
The gisaeng asks how he means to catch the mermaid, and Lord Yang replies that she’ll come to the village of her own accord. His underling confirms that the mermaid is the one leaving pearls in place of the clothes and food she takes: “A mermaid who falls in love with a human will surely come to land. That is their instinct.”
Mermaid Se-hwa, now dressed in hanbok, walks through the town and watches villagers shake persimmons down from a tree with a stick. She picks up one that’s fallen in the street, thinking back to her youth, when young Dam-ryung had given her a persimmon for the first time.
“A mermaid, who can only love once in her life, will risk that life for that love,” the underling says. Lord Yang notes that this mermaid’s once-in-a-lifetime love is his once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch her.
He instructs his man to catch the mermaid before the mayor does, and tells his gisaeng to spread rumors blaming the mermaid for the storm that ruined their homes and fishing boats. They’ll say that the mermaid has assumed the guise of a person and hidden herself in the village, and that if she isn’t stopped, a bigger storm will come to destroy their livelihoods.
Lord Yang cackles that fear is the best way to make people lose their reason, and if everything goes well, they may even be able to kill the mayor along with the mermaid.
It doesn’t take much to set the people off, and they work themselves into a frenzy demanding that the mayor catch and kill the mermaid.
Against the protest of his sidekick, Dam-ryung sets out to find Se-hwa, saying that he’d asked her to come to him when it turned cold, so they could be together at the first snowfall. (In keeping with the notion of experiencing the first snow with the one you love.)
Just then, snow starts to fall, and Dam-ryung reaches out a hand to catch a snowflake. Not far away, so does Se-hwa.
Dam-ryung says that if she truly came to land, she has risked her life: “What can’t I risk?” He sets out immediately, riding furiously.
Se-hwa senses someone approaching as she walks along a mountain path—but when she turns, it’s not Dam-ryung there but three menacing swordsmen. They’ve been sent by Lord Yang, who’d ordered them to target the mermaid’s legs, her biggest weakness.
Advancing, they Se-hwa falling to the ground and encircle her. One raises his sword to strike her legs—but then, he’s struck in the chest with an arrow.
Dam-ryung charges into the fray, driving them back. He stands guard over Se-hwa, shining heroically in the sunlight.
Seoul, present day. Escaped murderer Dae-young (Lord Yang’s modern-day doppelganger) is still on the loose, keeping a low profile.
Rich housewife Jin-joo (Shi-ah’s sister-in-law) chides the housekeeper, Joon-jae’s mother, over the way she’s packed a container of crab. I love how Joon-jae’s mother is curiously bold to her employers, and just tells Jin-joo to carry the box properly. Jin-joo backs down, then wonders why.
Jin-joo sends the crab over to Chairman Heo’s family, seeking to score a few brownie points. Chairman Heo is Joon-jae’s father, and the family consists of his second wife and his other son, HEO CHI-HYUN (Lee Ji-hoon). Gossip says Chi-hyun is her son but not his, making him Joon-jae’s half-brother by law, but not blood.
The chairman’s wife informs him that Jin-joo is angling to set up Chi-hyun with Shi-ah. When asked his opinion, Chi-hyun says he’s happy doing whatever pleases his parents, and they chuckle over his reputation as a papa’s boy.
Then the chairman takes a bite of the crab and recognizes the taste, which triggers a memory of eating this dish with his first family. Joon-jae’s mother had teased him about his plans to become a chaebol, and he’d promised to shower her in luxury.
Coming back to the present, Chairman Heo tells his son to eat up, apparently unaware that Chi-hyun is allergic to shellfish. His wife says that Jin-joo’s new housekeeper must be good, but that just makes the chairman even more preoccupied.
Later, the chairman asks his driver-aide about Joon-jae’s current whereabouts. The aide says that it’s been difficult finding his new address and suggests that Chairman Heo reconcile with Joon-jae. The chairman replies that Joon-jae is his only blood relative, and that he intends to find him. He asks his aide to locate Joon-jae.
What Chairman Heo doesn’t realize is that his car is bugged, and that his wife is listening in, looking mighty unhappy.
She puts in a call to fugitive Dae-young and informs him that since today is Joon-jae’s birthday, he’ll be showing up “there.” She orders him to find out where Joon-jae lives, then get rid of him.
So Dae-young shows up at the aquarium, just missing Joon-jae as he runs back inside after realizing that his mystery girl from Spain is the mermaid in the tank. They stop in their tracks at the sight of each other.
Joon-jae approaches to ask if she knows him, while she just stares with tear-filled eyes.
Aquarium employees run in and ask Joon-jae to grab her before she flees. Joon-jae quickly pulls out a police ID from his stack of fakes and introduces himself as the officer responding to this call, and escorts the mermaid away. She looks so happy about it that the employee wonders for a second whether she’s truly a captive.
At a safe distance, Joon-jae tells the mermaid that he didn’t do this to save her, but because he has questions. Showing her the picture on his phone of them in Spain, he asks why they were together. Not understanding the concept of a photograph, she asks, “How is Heo Joon-jae with me in there?”
That’s another surprise, since he rarely gives out his name. He’s certain that she knows him, but he can’t understand why he doesn’t know her.
He asks for her name, and she says she doesn’t have one. She offers that while she’s nameless, she’s not a strange person; she’s using his own words, and says that a “good person” told her that. Joon-jae scoffs that whoever said that was probably a strange person too.
Just then, two police officers walk by. Acting friendly to deflect suspicion, he grabs her hand, then starts running. She follows willingly, recalling how they ran on the beach together in Spain.
Once outside, he drops her hand and asks what happened in Spain, and if there was an accident he can’t remember. She remains silent, and in exasperation, he figures that if she has nothing to say, they have no reason to be together.
He walks away, and when she continues to follow, he asks again if she has anything to say. She doesn’t, so he leaves again, and this time she gets separated from him by traffic and loses sight of him.
She hurries to catch up and comes to the park by the river, scanning the crowd anxiously… and comes face to face with Cha Tae-hyun (hee!). After sizing her up for a moment, he tells her never to alter her nose, explaining that it is blocking tons of bad luck for her. However, because she is so deficient in ancestral luck, her ancestors must be weeping in the ground.
She doesn’t know what ancestors are, and when he explains, she replies that they wouldn’t be in the ground, but in the water. Con artist Cha Tae-hyun rolls with it and says that even if their ashes were scattered over the sea, they’re still crying.
She asks why, and that’s his cue to launch into his whole con artist spiel about descendants needing to put in effort to honor their ancestors, yada yada yada. I love his little comedic one-man show as he tries to engage her interest, even as she gets bored and her attention wanders.
When he fails, he sighs that she’s quite bizarre (using the word in the title of their classic film, My Sassy Girl). Still, he ushers her away to continue the con, and she goes along with him.
That’s when Joon-jae steps into their path, and she lights up. Joon-jae tells the con man that he’s his ancestor, here to step in lest his descendant turn the world into trash.
Cha Tae-hyun starts to get peevish, but Joon-jae deflects him with a swift shove and ends up with his wallet. Cha Tae-hyun threatens to report him for pickpocketing, but chickens out of the bluff and meekly asks for his wallet back.
As they walk away, the mermaid keeps one hand pinching Joon-jae’s jacket and he warns her not to follow guys like that, who’d scam her with false promises. Then he spies skateboarders zooming near and whirls her out of their path, which puts a moony look on her face and unnerves Joon-jae.
He steps aside to take a call just as the fireworks show begins, and the mermaid reacts to the loud bang instinctively, throwing herself on top of Joon-jae. She topples him to the ground, covering his body protectively with hers: “It’s a gun!”
He protests that it’s not a gun, but she insists, “Be still, Joon-jae! I’ll protect you!”
He works himself free and directs her attention to the light show above. Joon-jae tells her firmly that protecting someone else comes after protecting oneself first: “That’s the proper order. Changing that order is something fools do.”
The mermaid is transfixed by the fireworks, and he asks if she’s never seen fireworks before. That reminds her of Joon-jae describing them when they were in Spain—and how he’d promised to take her to see them with him.
Joon-jae explains that you don’t touch them, and when she sees everyone taking pictures on their phones, she asks what they’re doing. She doesn’t know what taking a “photo” is, so he pulls out his phone to show her how.
The mermaid asks why he isn’t taking pictures like everyone else, and he replies, “Because I can just remember.” She smiles and places his hand over his heart, saying, “You’re taking pictures in here.”
Joon-jae flashes back to watching the fireworks as a child, and how his mother had told him that beautiful things disappear. She’d told him to look with his eyes, and remember in his heart. The memory throws him for a moment.
Joon-jae’s mother watches the fireworks on the news, and even orders her employer Dong-shik not to change the channel. Dong-shik actually thanks her when she lets him switch, and admits to his wife Jin-joo that it’s strange how he ends up doing whatever the housekeeper tells him.
Per his orders, hit man Dae-young keeps his eye on Joon-jae, reporting to his employer (Joon-jae’s stepmother) that he’s been with a girl all day. He asks how Stepmom knew he’d be at the aquarium.
Stepmom replies that Joon-jae has done it since childhood, and a flashback to his childhood shows Joon-jae attempting to leave the house to meet his mother on his birthday. Stepmom tells him coldly that Dad paid Mom off to never see him again, and that she likes money more than her son.
Then Chairman Heo had come home and gotten angry to hear Joon-jae tried to see his mother. Stepmom put on a show of kindness in front of her husband, while smirking behind his back.
Now, Stepmom tells Dae-young that she didn’t work this hard to have her husband leave everything to his biological son.
Joon-jae tries to send the mermaid away again, but she asks to go home with him. He asks what her parents would think of her going home with a man, then feels bad when she says she has no parents. He gives her another chance to ‘fess up about their prior connection, but she keeps her mouth shut.
Joon-jae writes his number on her palm, telling her to call once she’s ready to talk. He drives away, shaking off his guilt as he sees her in his rearview mirror.
That’s Dae-young’s chance to approach from behind, but he stops when Joon-jae brakes his car. The next thing we know, she’s sitting in his car, tilting her face out the window and telling him that she likes being in Seoul. He looks over at her, and is hit with a memory of driving in Spain.
She smiles, adding, “I like being with you.” Another memory flashes through his brain—of waking up on the beach and hearing a whispered “I love you.”
Joon-jae tries to get her to say it to compare her voice, but can’t actually bring himself to say “I love you” to prompt her to say it.
It’s then that he spots the car tailing him in his mirror, and he starts weaving through traffic to lose him. Dae-young remains close behind as he turns onto a small side street, but loses track of the car in the neighborhood and screams in frustration.
Meanwhile, Shi-ah is back in her lab, looking at the vase depicting a mermaid kissing a man. It dates to the Joseon era, but the man is clearly modern-day, and her colleagues joke about a Joseon artist taking a ride in a time machine. Shi-ah says that it has a similar feel to someone she knows.
Joon-jae brings the mermaid home, to the shock of his con artist buddies. They gape as she beelines for the small pool, then asks disappointedly if there’s nothing to eat in it.
She gets pasta instead of pool fish, and as she eats, Nam-doo shoots “Are you crazy?” looks at Joon-jae. He asks where the mermaid lives, and she replies, “Far.” Nam-doo says he lives far away too, and she returns, “Mine’s reaaaaaaaally far.”
Nam-doo declares her personality the type that can’t lose and says she doesn’t suit him, as though he’s got roommate veto rights. Joon-jae reminds his partners that they’re mooching off him and orders them to leave, and Nam-doo accuses Joon-jae of wanting private time with the girl.
Joon-jae insists he’s only keeping her until he can confirm something, and takes out the jade bracelet. He asks if she knows it, and she confirms that it was hers, but she gave it to him. That makes Nam-doo happy, since he was afraid Joon-jae would do something stupid like return it.
Nam-doo calls her quite generous, and the mermaid replies airily, “There are lots of things like that at my house.” A flashback shows the mermaid rifling through her chest of precious vases and tossing them carelessly, heh.
Suddenly Nam-doo’s all in favor of keeping her around and promises to help her while she’s in Seoul, suggesting that she thank him once she’s back home.
Nam-doo asks for her name, and she replies that she doesn’t have one. Moreover, she asks why everyone asks her that, and why it’s important. Nam-doo says that you need to have a name in order to be called.
She asks Joon-jae if he’d call her by name, and he supposes he would. She immediately asks him to make her one, and Nam-doo proposes Audrey, as in Hepburn, finding her similar to the Roman Holiday character.
Joon-jae tosses out, “Just be Shim Chung.” (Shim Chung is the heroine of a famous folktale about a daughter so pious she threw herself into the sea to help cure her father’s blindness, only to be saved by the sea god.) But he jokes that he means shim chung as a shortened way of saying “really really stupid.”
It’s a mean joke and Nam-doo calls him on it, but to their shock, the mermaid loves it. Excited to have a name, she bounces over to Tae-oh to ask his name and introduces herself as Shim Chung.
Shi-ah shows up at the door with a birthday cake, and Chung senses a rival and shoots her a glare. When a self-cleaning vacuum rolls into her foot, Chung freaks out and jumps into Joon-jae’s arms, which displeases Shi-ah and makes the boys die laughing.
Then it’s time to cut the cake, and Joon-jae has to literally stop Chung from diving in face-first. She barely contains her excitement like a puppy ordered to wait for a treat, blows out the candles before they’ve sung the song, and sticks a hand straight into the cake.
Joon-jae initially rejects Shi-ah’s offer of cake, but reluctantly takes it when Nam-doo tells him to be nice. Chung clocks the exchange, eyes darkening when she sees Shi-ah whispering into Joon-jae’s ear. She eyes Shi-ah’s dainty mannerisms and tries to mimic her, taking tiny bites and dabbing at her mouth with a tissue, and takes note of Shi-ah’s jewelry and feminine gestures.
Shi-ah yanks Nam-doo aside to ask peevishly if they really mean to keep Chung around. Nam-doo explains it as an act of pity on Joon-jae’s part, assuring Shi-ah not to worry, since the girl is clearly addled and doesn’t even know her own name. Shi-ah orders Nam-doo to stick around, which makes me wonder again what their agreement is.
Joon-jae shows Chung to her room, which is a loft attached to his own bedroom, and says she’ll only be staying for a few days while he confirms something. She excitedly bounces on the mattress, settling down only after he yells at her from his room below.
Hit man Dae-young lurks in the street, knowing that Joon-jae must be nearby. Spying Namsan Tower off in the distance seems to give him an idea.
In the morning, Chung bolts awake, driven by the thought of breakfast, and wakes Joon-jae up. When the talking rice cooker announces that it’s starting, she urges it to hurry.
Dae-young poses as a salesman to go door to door, and marks X’s on the doors that don’t belong to Joon-jae. He misses seeing Joon-jae drive by, but does get the attention of a loan shark who’s unhappy about being woken up and sees him marking his door. The man starts to make a call to report him, but Dae-young’s face takes on a creepy calmness…
Joon-jae drops by the mall, where the sight of a woman modeling clothing for her boyfriend triggers another memory of himself in Spain. He can’t remember why he went to that store or why he was looking at women’s shoes, and tells himself he must have hit his head when he fell.
While waiting for an elevator, he’s struck with the memory of a similar instance in Spain. More memories fly through his mind as he drives home, like the luxurious hotel and the bicycle chase and the fall into the sea. But in his memories, he’s all alone.
As he nears his house, Nam-doo calls and warns him to pull over, then sidles up to the car to point out the police checkpoint nearby. There’s been a murder at their neighbor’s house—and moreover, one of the cops, Detective Hong, has been trying to catch Joon-jae for years. Detective Hong, meanwhile, smells the work of Dae-young, since his signature weapon is a hammer.
Joon-jae worries about Chung being home alone, but Nam-doo tells him it’s more important to escape right now.
At home, Chung gets sucked into a TV drama, which is a hilariously dramatic show called My Mother-in-Law’s Man that ends on the line, “Your father is really…!” Chung doesn’t understand why the people freeze onscreen, wondering if they died.
A man in a police jacket breaks away from the crew and makes his way to Joon-jae’s front gate. Chung perks up at the doorbell, thinking it might be Joon-jae, and opens the gate, where she comes face to face with Dae-young.
In his car, Joon-jae wrestles with his dilemma, thinking of the rule he gave to Chung, that the smart thing is to protect oneself before others. He makes up his mind, muttering about opting for foolish instead, and drives forward, heading right for the police checkpoint.
Joseon. Ha, now Joon-jae’s mother is the lady of the house, and Jin-joo is her slave (she has a different name, but for convenience’s sake, let’s call her Jin-joo). Mom orders Jin-joo to tend to uncover single one of the clay pots outside, and Jin-joo complies, only to have her mistress decide that they ought to cover them for possible rain.
Jin-joo’s (current-day) husband Dong-shik, also a slave, offers to help, only to be told that he has a task of his own: to travel aaaaalllll the way to a nobleman’s house to deliver a letter regarding Dam-ryung’s marriage talks.
Jin-joo cries to Dong-shik, saying that the mistress is trying to tear them apart. She hopes they’ll be married in their next life, and he vows to be born rich. He asks what she’d like to be reborn as, and Jin-joo glares at her mistress and replies, “Her master.”
Okay, that epilogue did make me laugh, and I like that it’s not pure throwaway in terms of plot—the show has linked the Joseon lifetime to the present day in multiple ways, and I like that there’s a sense of purpose in paralleling the two arcs, even if we haven’t peeled back enough layers yet to see what exactly that purpose is.
The more I see of the Joseon storyline, the more I’m drawn to it—it supplies a gravity and seriousness to the relationship that we haven’t had a chance to build yet in the present. I find this level of connection just right for me: that Dam-ryung and Se-hwa are distinct people apart from their Seoul counterparts, so that I don’t feel like the hand of fate is overpowering or robs anybody of agency. It’s a lighter touch than that, giving their connection a little extra depth without feeling too dramatic. For instance, they both gave names to their mermaids, but the reasons were entirely different; one was being sweet, and the other was kind of being an ass. One mermaid is dignified and regal, while the other… well let’s just say that sometimes it feels generous to say she’s only missing a few marbles.
I find the presence of that old vase (the one Shi-ah restored) an interesting point, which I would probably find extraneous if I hadn’t caught the director’s cut when it aired over the weekend. That version didn’t substantially alter the storyline or my understanding of it, and many of the cut scenes would have been informative but weren’t strictly necessary, but there was one bit I wished had stayed in. It’s a scene in the first episode where Dam-ryung explains to his friend how, after his encounter with the mermaid, he’d been beset by recurring dreams where a man that looked just like himself lived in a world with tall buildings and different terrain. So I wonder whether Dam-ryung drew that picture on the vase, and if it was prompted by his own visions about his future life.
I know it may seem unnecessary for the mermaid to have wiped Joon-jae’s memory when she sought him out anyway, but I thought it was fairly reasonable rationale: She had to send them into the water to save them from the guns, he inevitably saw her mermaid tail, ergo amnesia kiss. But as this episode informed us, a mermaid can only love once, and that love will spur her on an instinctual level to risk her life to come to land to reunite with her man.
It turns out that I’m grateful for that, because I found myself really loving the echoes of their first encounters in the present ones. Joon-jae may not remember Chung, but he reacts in all the same ways—initial gruffness and outward frustration, but he will always come back for her. Always. And that’s touching in a way that mirrors the whole Joseon parallel, where these people have free will, but because of the basic truths about their natures, history will repeat itself in similar patterns.
I just really hope that either (1) that Joseon storyline ends well, or (2) if it turns out to be as bittersweet as it feels now, that it’ll be the one point where our modern lovers can find a better solution to be together. Not that I’m seriously worried about a sad ending—I’m pretty sure fans would revolt if it ended unhappily. Plus, you can’t make a story that absurdly funny and then kill it off in the end, you just can’t. It’s a dramaland rule!