[First Thoughts] Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Episodes 1-2

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Saya: Dude, this show is good.

Paroma: The first episode was incredible. The way they started with the distant view of the National Assembly on fire, then the structure crumbling. All we know at this point is that our protagonist’s (Ji Jin-hee) very young child is on a field trip at the Assembly, and he and his wife are watching the explosions helplessly from the bridge. We can tell that it’s one of those unbelievable, unforgettable moments for a country that starts with horror-filled silence and then rises to incredible pitches of cacophony as people panic. But then they rewind and we go to the beginning of that day and meet the current President and his staff, most of whom will be dead that afternoon.

Saya: No kidding. It took me about half an hour to watch the first 5 minutes because I kept having to stop. Disaster, death and destruction are not generally my wheelhouse! And these shows, god they start as tragically as possible. I was controlling my emotions trying to calculate distances and was he actually going to run all the way there? Quickly followed by the realisation that, hold on, this is the kind of dude where a 10K is probably nothing to him. Just because you (aka me) get winded running for the bus, doesn’t mean everyone is like you. XD

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Saya: Speaking of running, the whole symbolism-of-the-shoes storyline is so great. The moment the President says to him, ‘Though [the shoes] are uncomfortable at first, you’ll soon get used to them…by the time you form calluses and those shoes have broken in really well, you too will have become a true politician,’ you know—you KNOW—this is serious foreshadowing. Those dress shoes are getting a character arc, and I have no doubt that some part of the final arc will have Ji Jin-hee not only no longer chafing in them, but maybe even picking them, over his faithful running shoes.

Paroma: I, on the other hand, am strongly rooting for him to ditch the dress shoes cause that would be him symbolically ditching the conventional way politics is done and leading the country in his comfy, soft loafers. Him becoming comfortable in them would be a pretty chilling arc.

Saya: I definitely prefer your take! Also, I totally went back to see what shoes he ran in—how did he go from dress shoes in the morning to running shoes in the afternoon? How was that transition even meant to happen? And I love that that is what earns him his nickname: ‘Cinderella’.

Paroma: I love that too. Also, he shed those shoes when he put on his KAIST hoodie after getting fired. Then, he left to go pick up his wife and son. Convenient that he didn’t have to run in dress shoes. XD

The second episode threw me a bit though. I’m still into it, but they created a dire political situation that was way too easily solved. The whole submarine thing was… kinda dumb. I think they were trying to show us that Ji Jin-hee is a genius who can spot patterns no one else can.

Saya: But I loved that! I feel like the exceptionalisation treatment he got wasn’t for being a typical drama-genius who sees what others miss, but that his particular way of approaching the world as a scientist first makes him see information in a different order and with different weights. He’s NOT a politician; data is his god, and data is essentially objective where politics is anything but. Because he’s able to arrive at conclusions based on data, not on inference or external pressures, that gives him a kind of clarity and intellectual freedom that the others don’t have, and perhaps can’t afford to have. His ‘power’, such as it is, comes from being outside of the system and not being shackled to its patterns or demands.

Paroma: But the ‘golden time’ thing was way too pat. On the other hand, Secretary Han’s (Heo Jun-ho) reprimand to our man made no sense. Should he have started a nuclear war when there was a chance the whole thing was a misunderstanding? That would have been the responsible thing to do? Anyway, the second episode was a bit meh.

Saya: I loved both episodes, to be honest! I was nearly dead with tension over the submarine thing. I am basically the kind of viewer all shows want: utterly credulous and able to suspend every iota of disbelief 99% of the time.

Paroma: I think I’m more in love with the overall story arc than I am with Ji Jin-hee. I haven’t connected with his character yet. Have you noticed that he’s too much of an enigma despite all those close-ups and tears?

Saya: I actually love the way Ji Jin-hee’s character is such a careful unfolding (even though I can’t remember his name, haha). I feel like we’re getting a surprisingly organic view of his character, a proper execution of showing, not telling. Like the bottles of dirt he explodes on the rude American dude, haha, I totally bought his apparent bumbling and was (delightfully) shocked that it was apparently deliberate.

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It’s not just his character that excels at the show-don’t-tell—the very moment we’re introduced to Kang Han-na at her wedding dress fitting, listening to her absent fiancé’s voicemail, I felt a frisson of unease that I didn’t want to believe but also couldn’t shake off. And then when it all hits the fan, you actually learn she’s a special agent for counter-terrorism and suddenly all my unease solidified into a kind of terrified horror. Can you imagine? Like, is it worse to be wrong, or hideously, infinitely worse to be right? You wouldn’t even WANT to know, omg.

Paroma: I did love Kang Han-na’s intro and how we found out the whereabouts of her fiancé just as she did. It established her as a smart, no nonsense agent, who is fully capable of solving the larger mystery. BUT, the show is confusing me a little with how disconnected she feels from everyone else. She isn’t shown to be in contact with family or superiors. Why is she the only counter-terrorism agent in the field when the worst thing a nation could face short of nuclear war just happened?

But all those things are essentially nitpicks. I’m happy to wait for subsequent episodes to let me more into the minds of our Acting President and Intelligence Agent.

One last thing I want to say is that I love how North Korea here is unpredictable and dangerous but essentially more kin than the Americans who are waiting in the wings to take advantage of a weakened country. You never see that. American army can be shown as being bossy (see: Descendants of the Sun or King 2 Hearts) but they’re never shown as the one South Korea needs to beat or outsmart. Also, I appreciated them showing how when governments are weakened, there’s a very real threat of a military coup. That was a part of episode two I completely bought into.

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Saya: Ohhh absolutely. Like I said on twitter, I love that the show seems to have constructed an authentic critique of American power and hegemony and is totally willing to make them villains (extremely justifiably, in my opinion). I feel like there tends to be a generally positive saviour narrative for American political or military involvement in K-dramas, despite a few scattered examples of the contrary. There’s a careful line dramas have to tread in how they portray North Korea as well, given the volatile nature of the relationship between the two, so in a sense, I knew the outcome would absolve the former, but a) it in no way made it less tense, and b) I appreciated how we got there, and the way the politics of the situation was explained to us. So far I find it an intelligent show that also assumes the viewer is intelligent.

As deliciously intriguing as I found the opener, though, I don’t have any interest in watching the original. I can’t see it not brushing up against the things that have remained problematic for me in western TV (see: the Riz Test) and are part of the reason I can’t fully enjoy contemporary thrillers especially. On the other hand, the K-drama political intrigue is usually far removed enough from my everyday concerns that I can just…gleefully enjoy all the machinations. How about you, are you interested in checking out the original?

Paroma: Nah. Not even a little bit. I just want to watch more of THIS.

Saya: Right? I hate that I started the show already. I want the next episode now now now. Uhh, we should probably also finish off by saying that Ji Jin-hee’s character is called PARK MOO-JIN, and Kang Han-na is HAN NA-KYUNG. For our own reference!

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