Episode 1 of Melancholia begins at the end of an arc, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come in the series. Ms. Noh Jung-ah gives a speech to students and parents at Ahseong High School, a private school for distinguished families in the Gangnam District. She addresses a recent article that claims Ahseong’s students are successful simply because of their privilege. The principal retorts by proclaiming that luck is a greater virtue than effort.
When teacher Ji Yoon-soo protests this speech in front of everyone, the police escort her outside and to the station. We soon realize there’s more at play here than her disagreement with the principal. Yoon-soo suffers the accusation of having had an affair with a student. Enter said-character, Baek Seung-yoo, who promises to Yoon-soo that he will prove her innocence.
Flashing back to the present, Ahseong holds a parents’ meeting. It’s worth mentioning that parents sit in sections divided according to their child’s rank in school. It embarrasses Seung-yoo’s mother to be sitting at a lowly-ranked table. Ms. Noh then announces the establishment of an advanced mathematics course, which accomplished math teacher Ji Yoon-soo will teach.
Meanwhile, Yoon-soo and Seung-yoo accidentally swap bags on the train station. This young man who wears the number “1729” on his cap and takes pictures of Mersenne prime numbers piques Yoon-soo’s curiosity. He remains elusive, however, even when they meet up later to trade bags again.
Ms. Noh’s and Yoon-soo’s visions for the students are clearly at odds with each other, which will likely remain a point of contention throughout the series.
Sung Ye Rin is a case in point. She’s a student in the advanced math course whose father is both a member of the National Assembly and a school professor involved in the principal’s corrupt dealings. Ye-rin is weak at maths, but her parents expect great things from her. The principal also affords her special privileges as she’s from such a high-profile family.
Feeling pressured to excel, Ye-rin leads Yoon-soo to believe she solved the teacher’s complex mathematics problem. It’s in fact Seung-yoo who solved the equation anonymously. Not wanting to be discovered, Seung-yoo shows Ye-rin how it was accomplished, only to storm out of their study session when Ye-rin presses him about his past.
Seung-yoo is obviously troubled, though his demons remain mainly cryptic. The beginning of the episode sees him visiting a memorial. And in the study session, Ye-rin asks him what happened at MIT, indicating he had a brief stint at the university as a child only to return to Korea to do poorly in his studies. He reacts negatively to this question and leaves the room, which puts Ye-rin in a bind with Yoon-soo.
When Yoon-soo learns that Ye-rin was lying about knowing the equation’s solution, she becomes obsessed with finding the student actually responsible. Fortunately, video evidence confirms it to be Seung-yoo.
In the closing scene, Yoon-soo confronts Seung-yoo in the schoolyard, setting up the next episode to expound on their relationship.
The Episode Review
A maths-driven storyline meets political intrigue in this high-school setting k-drama.
Melancholia’s first episode starts off with a bang, but builds slowly throughout the rest of its hour-long running time. It’s very much character-driven, with the first episode already reeling viewers in with several character subplots.
Since the “good guys” of the show (such as Yoon-soo) are the obvious underdogs, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle opposing attitudes among school figures, as ideals of justice and hard work clash against those of privilege and good fortune.
The potential for Yoon-soo and Seung-yoo to develop a teacher/student romance might present a red flag. However, this episode doesn’t yet develop anything romantic between the two. I’ll be interested to see how and in what manner their relationship progresses.
Of course, there’s also the factor of Seung-yoo’s unknown age at play. If he went to MIT for a few years and picked up his high school education where he left off, it’s possible he’s a legal adult. One has to wonder if the writers kept that piece of knowledge intentionally ambiguous!
Overall, Melancholia delivers a pretty strong pilot episode that gets you interested in the characters’ motivations and in the corrupted school politics.