Episode 1 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score –3.5/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score –3.5/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 5 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score –4.5/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 9 -| Review Score –4.5/5
Episode 10 -| Review Score –3.5/5
Episode 11 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 12 -| Review Score –4/5
Episode 13 -| Review Score – 5/5
Episode 14 -| Review Score –4.5/5
Episode 15 -| Review Score –5/5
Episode 16 -| Review Score –3/5
A show can live or die by its ending. As we’ve seen with disasters like Game Of Thrones, the quality that preceded a closure can fall to the wayside and amount to nothing if you don’t stick the landing.
While Game Of Thrones plummeted nose-first onto the runway, exploding into a million pieces, Twenty Five Twenty One wobbles, loses a wheel and just about manages to make it down intact, albeit with shaky passengers and a lot of worried looks.
Plane analogies aside (disclaimer: apologies for anyone who’s afraid of flying reading this!) Twenty Five Twenty One could have been the perfect coming of age k-drama, but its ending definitely puts a dent in that 10/10 score.
That aside, this series features a solid story, excellent characterisation and one of the best soundtracks seen in any Korean drama for quite some time. Ending aside, this is one of 2022’s brightest gems.
The story takes place in both the present and 1998. During the present, a certain virus is doing the rounds and Na Hee-Do watches as her daughter loses her nerve during a ballet competition and quits outright.
When she heads home, Kim Min-Chae finds her mother’s journals and through her eyes – and clever bits of narration – we learn about Hee-Do’s past. This is where the bulk of the drama takes place, as we experience the innocent, optimistic world of this up and coming fencer.
Unfortunately, due to the South Korean financial crisis, Hee-Do’s high school fencing team is disbanded. Hee-Do convinces her mother to let her switch schools and train with Coach Yang. Now, Yang has history with Hee-Do’s mum, which we learn more of across the season. She also happens to be coaching Ko Yu-Rim, the current Gold medallist in fencing, and Hee-Do’s role model.
Interwoven across this story is another involving Baek Yi Jin, a tragic young man who finds himself burdened with his father’s business (and debts). When the financial crisis causes him to suddenly shift from wealth to poverty, Yi-Jin studies, juggles part time jobs and tries to pay back those disgruntled workers that blame him for their woes.
As the show continues, Hee-Do and Yi Jin find comfort in one another, with Yi Jin’s life experience and grounded attitude contrasting Hee-Do’s optimistic and upbeat persona perfectly. There’s something about these two that really resonates across the season, and their dialogue and mismatched relationship works an absolute treat.
With strong themes around youth, forgiveness, innocence and the harsh realities of life, Twenty Five Twenty One has a fair amount of emotional weight to it. What’s particularly interesting though is how this changes across the run-time. As Hee-Do and her friends get older, the problems they face become much more important.
At the start of the show, we’re tackling school exams and training woes, and by the end it interweaves the real life tragedy of 9/11 into the story, as PTSD, mental health and depression take the story in a very different direction. This journey is a gradual one, and it’s so subtle that you’re unlikely to notice it until it slams onto the screens near the end, leaving you in a blubbering mess. The main difference here though is that those earlier moments of levity are all but gone.
While Twenty Five Twenty One is a solid coming of age story, it’s also a fun and light-hearted affair for most of the story too. For every tear jerking moment, there’s another laugh out loud segment or a silly quip involving Hee-Do and her friends… the same cannot be said for the ending.
I won’t go into spoiler territory here but while a lot of people have bemoaned this finale as destroying the series, I’d have to disagree.
Given the sheer quality of what’s come before, it was always going to be difficult to wrap everything up in a satisfying manner. The problem arises that Twenty Five Twenty One’s ending is just…an ending. It leaves big questions on the table while wrapping things up in a bit of a ham-fisted and forced way. For those who have invested a lot of time into this one, that’s likely to rub you up the wrong way.
It’s not a bad ending per-se, but given how incredible the writing is before this, it’s a little disappointing to see average writing in the finale.
However, the drama preceding that is so good that it eclipses the ending. There are some excellent lessons in this about friendship, sacrifice and the cruel reality of life that hit like an absolute sledgehammer. I dare anyone to get through episode 15 without absolutely bawling their eyes out.
In fact, episode 15 is something I’d like to talk about here, as it seems to be the turning point for many people. I won’t spoil plot points here but the entire chapter is pitch perfect and probably one of the best episodes of any K-drama released in a long while.
Within this, the show tackles two specific relationships with very different outcomes. The first comes from Yu-Rim and Hee-Do; enemies turned friends that cap off their incredible journey with an emotional fencing match.
The midway point of this 1 hour 20 minute episode (and it’s literally in the middle, just like a fencing match is split into two sides) turns the focus to Yi-Jin and Hee-Do, but the tone is very different. But then, isn’t life like that?
To quote Rocky, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.”
I won’t write out the full quote but I think this captures the essence of what Twenty Five Twenty One is trying to do. This is a beautifully written, almost-pitch perfect K-drama that navigates through the innocence and youth of being a teenager and how brutal that shift is when you become an adult.
This is one of the rare occasions where what’s come before is so good that it would be a crime not to watch it. Subjective ending aside, Twenty Five Twenty One is an excellent K-drama and one of the best released this year.
Verdict - 9/10