I said I would keep my expectations low for Descendants of the Sun, and I can’t say I really did it all that well. As the premiered neared I couldn’t help but get more and more excited. Song Joong Ki! Glossy overseas shoot! Kim Eun Sook potentially writing herself back to the glory days of City Hall! There was just too much I wanted from DotS to hold myself back fully, so the excitement burbled below the surface even as outwardly to tried to play it cool and collected. If I was going to be disappointed at least it wasn’t going to crash and burn myself, maybe just another bump in the road with an ouchie is all.
With all that as background, and having to wait longer than usual to dive into episode 1, it’s with a heaving sigh of relief that I can safely say – this drama is da bomb! I love it so so much on episode 1 alone and that hasn’t happened in god knows how long, both on how quickly I’ve fallen for a drama and how strongly I feel about it. DotS is certainly not without flaws but as a drama it launches with such cohesive certainty that it’s hard to nitpick. Much like Song Joong Ki’s male lead Yoo Shi Jin is simply that confident and charming of a male lead, the effortless feel of this drama which clearly took much effort to make sells it like a sublime treat for my viewing pleasure. And boy is it a much needed pleasure that evokes the best drama crack of years past.
Episode 1 recap:
The drama opens on a tense meeting. The South Korean side of the demilitarized zone has incurred an intrusion by three North Korean soldiers who have taken hostages inside a military watch station. The generals discuss options with the politicians and the understanding is that the North Koreans are trying to incite the South Koreans to resort to military action first and breach the accord of the demilitarized zone. The South Korean army sends in the special White Team forces led by Commander Yoo Shi Jin to handle the situation.
Shi Jin and his second in command Seo Dae Young scope out the hostage situation before removing all their weapons to walk right up to the hostage location. Shi Jin announces his presence and is pulled inside along with Dae Young. It’s pretty cute that Shi Jin’s code name is Big Boss and Dae Young is Wolf, so Top Gun. The remaining South Korean soldiers waiting outside are ready with bombs in case this rescue mission fails.
The North Koreans allow Shi Jin and Dae Young to enter and immediately sizes them up. The North Korean commander challenges Shi Jin and Dae Young to a knife fight of brute skill and the two sides go at it. It’s fierce and fast, with both sides getting the upper hand at times on each other.
Finally the fight moves out of the building and ends with Shi Jin getting a cut on his abdomen but managing to press his knife to the North Korean commander’s neck. The North Korean derides Shi Jin for not making the killing blow since South Koreans are too weak but Shi Jin refutes that it was not out of weakness, for peace he would shoot anyone at any time. Another North Korean presses a gun to Shi Jin’s temple but he points out that a South Korean sharpshooter is aimed right at the gunman as well.
Everyone puts away their guns and knives slowly, which is when the North Korean commander greets Shi Jin with a long time no see. Shi Jin sighs that he’s also happy to see Commander Ahn Jung Joon but there is no reason to do this every year. Commander Ahn calls his men to head back across the border and Shi Jin radios in that the mission is completed.
Shi Jin and Dae Young are at an arcade in Seoul shooting BB guns for prizes but both are missing wildly. They wonder if the gun calibrations have been fiddled with so they can’t shoot straight. The arcade manager (cameo by Kwang Soo) claims that this is the gun type used in real battle and derides Shi Jin and Dae Young for not being skilled enough to use it.
Someone yells out to catch a thief and Dae Young pulls Shi Jin out to the street with the BB guns to shoot at the thief headed their way on a stolen motorcycle. Shi Jin calculates that the guns have only a short distance accuracy and the two successfully take down the thief, who turns out to be a young man. Shi Jin patches the beat up thief on the street while Dae Young calls for an ambulance. Shi Jin asks to buy a few stuffed animals from the arcade and uses it to stabilize the thief’s neck, warning the arcade owner not to refuse lest Shi Jin go and win every prize in there.
Shi Jin and Dae Young are at a café and each is sitting with a stuffed animal beside them. Shi Jin teases Dae Young’s cute “girlfriend” rabbit but snarks back that his is merely his “comrade” monkey. Shi Jin doesn’t know why Dae Young accepted these stuffed animals but Dae Young couldn’t say no when the guy offered them the toys begging that they never come back to the store again. Shi Jin can’t believe that Dae Young is so soft hearted, how could he have formerly been a gangster. Dae Young wonders how that thief kid is doing, pitying him because he reminds Dae Young of his own teen gangster past. Shi Jin mocks Dae Young for whitewashing his past now while going hard on that kid.
A call comes into Shi Jin’s phone and he shows Dae Young the caller is from the army, just not their army squad. Dae Young asks Shi Jin not to answer it but Shi Jin insists on answering it, and telling the caller to come here so that Dae Young can be a man and say what needs to be said. Dae Young bribes Shi Jin with beef and aged wine, which doesn’t work, so he escalates to introducing Shi Jin to his hot stewardess cousin with her many hot stewardess coworkers.
Shi Jin accepts the final offer and allows Dae Young to take his phone and decline the call. Shi Jin demands to see pictures of the hot stewardess cousin right now which is when Dae Young realizes that his cell phone is missing. Dae Young figures out that the injured thief managed to pick his pocket as he kneeled down to help. The two head off to the hospital where the thief was transported.
The thief is wheeled into the hospital and a nurse picks up Dae Young’s phone as it drops on the ground. A call comes in and the nurse answers, asking if the caller is family to an injured patient who was just wheeled in and is the owner of this cell phone.
Dr. Kang Mo Yeon greets the injured thief and compliments the person who gave him emergency medical treatment. She reads on his arm a note written by Shi Jin that this person is a thief and to make sure his treatment includes some pain. Mo Yeon orders x-rays for the patient but the thief runs out of the hospital when he’s alone.
Mo Yeon meets with the hospital director to show him the report that she finished writing. The director asks if Mo Yeon is done with her professor application but Mo Yeon notices the thief running off so runs out to grab him.
Mo Yeon wheels the thief back inside as the nurse is getting chewed out for letting this patient escape. The patient claims that he’ll be wheeled into the morgue after his hyungs get a hold of him. The head nurse tells the patient that he can leave after he pays his medical bill, otherwise the cops will be called. The patient claims he needs to go use the rest room and gives Dae Young’s phone to Mo Yeon to hold so that he doesn’t run away.
Mo Yeon notices a call from “Big Boss” and thinks it’s the gangsters calling. Shi Jin and Dae Young pull up to the hospital and Shi Jin has been calling Dae Young’s phone this whole time with no answer. They see a bunch of gangsters walking around the hospital and Dae Young looks concerned. After they head inside is when the thief patient runs away yet again.
Shi Jin calls Dae Young’s phone and hears it ringing, following the sound to where Mo Yeon is stitching up a patient. She finally answers the call and Shi Jin walks over. Mo Yeon notices that he’s the “Big Boss” who is calling. She confirms that he’s Big Boss and asks if he’s family to the patient. Shi Jin says he’s not family but is the owner of the cell phone.
Mo Yeon notices that the patient has run off again and asks if Shi Jin and Dae Young are the hyungs who are going to put the patient in the morgue. She orders the nurse to move the men aside so she can stitch up the patient. Shi Jin and Dae Young are pushed aside and Shi Jin is clearly interested in such a sassy doctor. Dae Young notices that Shi Jin is checking out the lady doc and doesn’t buy Shi Jin’s fake appendicitis attempt to get out of looking for the thief around the hospital. Shi Jin has no choice but to head off with Dae Young. Mo Yeon and her nurse discuss how Shi Jin and Dae Young are clearly gangsters but Mo Yeon isn’t cowed by them.
Shi Jin and Dae Young find the gangsters from earlier beating up the patient and another kid. Dae Young wants to help and gets Shi Jin to agree. They walk into the fray and the thief begs Dae Young to help them. Dae Young wants to know why he’s being beat up? Turns out they want to leave the gang but is told to pay an exorbitant departure fee first. Dae Young notes that there has been inflation and the gangsters want him to pay up since he must be in the same profession.
Dae Young takes out his wallet and offers to pay for the kid if the gangsters can get his wallet out of his hands. He calls himself the kid’s “hyung” and the gangsters rush forward to grab his wallet but are dispatched swiftly and summarily. All the gangsters pull out switchblades and rush the outnumbered Shi Jin and Dae Young.
Mo Yeon is told that the thief patient has a family member here at the hospital. Mo Yeon walks over and recognizes the woman wearing military fatigues as her medical residency sunbae Yoon Myung Joo. Mo Yeon wonders why they are always meeting because of a guy? Myung Joo demands to see the patient’s chart and rails at Mo Yeon for losing the patient. Myung Joo says the patient is someone very important to her. Mo Yeon orders the nurse to look around for the patient and if he can’t be found then have Myung Joo pay for him.
Mo Yeon runs off to talk with her colleague about the sudden appearance of Yoon Myung Joo, that arrogant medical student who did residency with them. She blames Myung Joo for taking the guy that Mo Yeon had a crush on. Clearly they didn’t date since Myung Joo is here for her boyfriend, but Mo Yeon can’t believe she’s dating a young dude.
The other doctor says gossip has it that Myung Joo is dating another soldier. Myung Joo’s boyfriend is a lieutenant who came up through the army, but Myung Joo went to military academy and is an army doctor, plus her father is a three star general, so her family disapproves of her relationship because the soldier is not as high ranking.
Dae Young and Shi Jin bring the injured thief back to the hospital and run into a visibly angry Myung Joo. Shi Jin takes the patient off to the ER leaving Myung Joo to confront Dae Young.
Mo Yeon finds the nurses tending to the patient and jumps to conclusions that Shi Jin and Dae Young beat him up. The patient tries to explain it wasn’t, that the hyungs saved him, but Mo Yeon thinks he’s too scared to tell the truth. Shi Jin calls her out on that and gets an angry glare from Mo Yeon in return. Mo Yeon demands the surveillance video from around the hospital pulled and heads off to call the cops.
Shi Jin chases after Mo Yeon and asks her to not leave until he clears up the misunderstanding. He tries to explain that the patient stole his friend’s cell phone and chased him here. They found him being beaten up by gangsters and stepped in to save him. Mo Yeon doesn’t believe that, why would they save the thief who stole their cell phone? She dials the cops and Shi Jin knocks it out of her hand and explains that she can’t call the cops.
Shi Jin reveals that they are soldiers and can’t get into any trouble while on leave, so can she please not call the cops. Mo Yeon doesn’t buy his story and demands her phone back. Shi Jin shows Mo Yeon his dog tags and card but thinks she still won’t believe him. Since she works at this hospital, he correctly guesses which affiliate medical school she went to and asks if she knows Yoon Myung Joo. Mo Yeon asks if Shi Jin is the solder Myung Joo is dating? Shi Jin isn’t but asks Mo Yeon to come along so they can find Myung Joo and she can confirm their identity.
Myung Joo is near tears as she angrily demands to know why Dae Young is avoiding her? And if he plans to keep avoiding her? She wants to hear him explain, and more than that wants to hear his voice. Dae Young claims he had a change of heart is all, and didn’t leave her for any other reason. Dae Young turns to leave and the only way Myung Joo can get him to stop is to pull rank and demand that he salute her.
Dae Young turns around and salutes Myung Joo while refusing to meet her eyes. She orders him to stand there like that until sunrise, she wants him to die like that before she will accept his salute.
Shi Jin arrives and makes Dae Young stop the salute, accusing Myung Joo of torturing Dae Young. Shi Jin wants Myung Joo to confirm their identity. Myung Joo calls them deserter soldiers and tells Mo Yeon to go ahead and call the cops on them. Dae Young gets his phone back from Mo Yeon who asks Shi Jin to come with her so they can watch the surveillance video to prove the guys didn’t beat up the patient.
As Mo Yeon and Shi Jin wait for the video to be pulled up, Mo Yeon asks Shi Jin what his relationship is with Myung Joo? Shi Jin says military superior and subordinate relationship. Shi Jin doesn’t know why he needs to still watch the video, now that their identity is confirmed, he looks super trustworthy. Mo Yeon sasses back that serial killers always looks trustworthy. Shi Ji pauses before agreeing with that statement which freaks Mo Yeon out since they are alone.
Shi Jin tells her not to worry, his rule is to protect kids, pretty women, and the elderly. Mo Yeon is comforted since she fits into that bucket but Shi Jin thinks not. Mo Yeon claims she meant as an elderly. She asks for his name and they trade introductions but Mo Yeon declines to shake him hand.
The thief wakes up and sees Dae Young beside his bed. Dae Young asks what martial arts the thief practiced and why he didn’t fight back earlier. The thief reveals he learned taekwondo but didn’t fight back because it would end quicker. The thief’s name is Kim Ki Bum and when the nurse comes over to ask for his family information, Ki Bum says he doesn’t have family. That’s when Dae Young speaks up and says he is family.
Mo Yeon is oohing and awing while watching the video of Dae Young and Shi Jin beating up the gangsters and teaching them a lesson. She’s visibly impressed and Shi Jin laughs at her reaction.
Mo Yeon apologizes to Shi Jin for doubting his story and the misunderstanding. Shi Jin says Mo Yeon can make it up to him by giving him medical treatment now. He points to his belly injury but she pokes it, not believing he’s injured. Shi Jin doubles over in pain and Mo Yeon is shocked to see his belly cut is bleeding. While she’s staring at his wound Shi Jin smiles looking down at her, clearly not in pain at all.
Mo Yeon tends to Shi Jin’s reopened wound and asks when and how he was injured. She recognizes a previous wound as a gunshot wound from when she worked in Africa as an overseas medical volunteer. Shi Jin claims he got that injury in Normandy, saving a comrade in a hail of bullets. Mo Yeon asks if that comrade is named Private Ryan. They stare at each other until Mo Yeon breaks the moment up to remind Shi Jin to see a doctor for follow up. Shi Jin asks to come back here even though it’s far from the base, and if Mo Yeon can be his doctor.
Mo Yeon doesn’t think Shi Jin needs to pick a doctor for such an injury but Shi Jin finds his doctor’s looks to be important. Mo Yeon laughs as she fits the bill and tells Shi Jin to come back tomorrow at 2 pm. Shi Jin leans in and wonders if Mo Yeon doesn’t have a boyfriend because being a doctor is too busy? Mo Yeon throws the question back at Shi Jin, he must not have a girlfriend because it’s too tiring as a soldier. They stare at each other and smile. Okay, these two are so into each other it’s adorable.
Shi Jin is modeling various uniforms to find the right one to wear to the hospital tomorrow for his checkup. His squad teases him for going so far when there is an army doc right here. Talk turns to how the army doesn’t have pretty doctors but Myung Joo is brought up as a pretty army doctor. One squad member cluelessly brings up how Myung Joo got dumped by another soldier and the other guys have to shut him up as Dae Young glares daggers. Dae Young asks Shi Jin to give him a ride to the hospital tomorrow.
Shi Jin watches as Dae Young pays the medical bills for Ki Bum before heading off to look for Mo Yeon. Ki Bum tries to play it cool and doesn’t want Dae Young to lecture him but Dae Young just walks off. Ki Bum asks how Dae Young got out of the gang if he didn’t pay the money or get beat up? Dae Young says he went somewhere the gang members couldn’t get to him.
Shi Jin spots Mo Yeon tending to a bleeding patient and being wheeled to the OR. He gets behind the bed to help wheel it to the OR faster and watches Mo Yeon head into surgery as she never notices him. Shi Jin waits outside until the sun has set, and by the time Mo Yeon leaves surgery it’s already past 6 pm.
Shi Jin is working out (shirtless pull ups oh yay!) when Mo Yeon calls him. She apologizes for missing their 2 pm appointment and heard that he came by. Shi Jin teases that this is the first time a doctor has stood him up but is happy to hear the patient lived. Shi Jin points out that Mo Yeon saved his cell phone number and she tells him to save her number now as well. Shi Jin wants to see Mo Yeon tomorrow and she laughs at how direct he is. He claims it’s for medical treatment and when she gets annoyed is when he admits that’s not when he meant.
They tease each other some more when Shi Jin asks to meet right now. Mo Yeon pauses for a few seconds until Shi Jin asks if she doesn’t want to? Mo Yeon wants to so tells Shi Jin to come over now. They hang up and both smile.
Shi Jin walks into the hospital lobby and pulls up a movie app to check times while Mo Yeon is putting on makeup in the elevator and looking excited for her date. Shi Jin looks up on the television screen showing the news and his smile disappears as he sees there is an update about a conflict in the Middle East. Shi Jin takes a call and tells the caller that he is at the hospital.
Shi Jin calls Mo Yeon and apologizes for cancelling on her. He calls her up to the hospital roof and explains that the helicopter flying over is here to pick him up. Mo Yeon asks if there’s been a war and Shi Jin explains there is conflict but it’s not here so she needn’t worry. Shi Jin asks Mo Yeon to promise that when he comes back she will go on a date with him next weekend. Not at the hospital, somewhere else. He promises to come back safely and asks her to go watch a movie with him.
Shi Jin pulls close to Mo Yeon and asks if she likes it or not? Mo Yeon likes it, she wants to see Shi Jin again, which brings a smile to his face before he runs off to board the helicopter. Mo Yeon watches Shi Jin’s helicopter lift off and fly away.
A military transport plane flies through the air and inside is Shi Jin’s squad. The pilot announces over the intercom that the plane has entered the combat zone air space. The squad readies to deploy and each takes off their dog tag. When a junior member asks why, Dae Young explains that during this mission if they are killed, they cannot be identified.
Everyone stands up to parachute out of the plane as the belly flap opens to show the plane is flying towards an area exploding with bombs and fire. Shi Jin finally tells the junior squad members where they are heading into – Afghanistan.
Thoughts of Mine:
How can my first episode recap of DotS not start off with a huge welcome with my baby-faced cutie with the newly impressive abs – WELCOME BACK SONG JOONG KI! I should have never doubted his project picking ability, the role of Yoo Shi Jin isn’t tailored made for him any way I look at it but he makes it his own with zero hesitation. Some roles feel like the actor or actress is visually or stylistically primed to play it, Song Joong Ki as the alpha male with the twinkle in his eye is the best subversion of a Kim Eun Sook type male lead I’ve ever seen. It helps that the characterization never crosses the line nor sold on manufactured background angst, Shi Jin comes off as a normal hot blooded military man with a confident attitude that is a natural extension of his professional calling. Song Joong Ki takes it even a step further and softens Shi Jin with that killer smile of his, making his character the first thing I connected with in the drama and the pivot point to draw me into its world.
DotS looks and feels tight and sleek, with all the big budget going to the right places and delighting the audiences with the end result that is one big step above what K-dramas have been delivering in cinematic quality. That wouldn’t mean much if there was bad acting or writing tucked inside the pretty package, and in this case the inside matches the outside seamlessly. I enjoyed the world that Kim Eun Sook has created, a peek into the life of this band of brothers in an elite squad and how things heat up when a bunch of doctors cross paths. Episode 1 felt both big, the battle with the North Koreans and the sudden deployment to Afghanistan, and small, the interaction with the thief and stolen cell phone which leads Shi Jin to meet Mo Yeon. There is still way too many coincidences built in to call this organic, but the dramatic elements are nicely layered so it never feels forced. No matter how Shi Jin and Mo Yeon meet, it’s clear they would be interested in each other right off the bat. Two capable, intelligent, and good looking professionals in their prime, who’s going to quibble with the lightning speed romantic development when both are so open about it. This isn’t sappy romance, it’s physical and mental attraction between adults that get interrupted with some unfortunate duty calling is all.
Aside from the main romance of Shi Jin and Mo Yeon, I’m also immediately invested in the secondary pairing of Dae Young and Myung Joo. The writing nicely gives us their backstory without much exposition, just the way Myung Joo rushes to find Dae Young and calls him out on his ignoring her is more than enough to explain their more usual K-drama trope issues. The military class divide is a new switch from the usual money and power schism, not to mention Myung Joo and Dae Young come across as strong and confident characters it makes me even more curious to see them deal with this issue. They make a nice contrast to the just getting to know one another Shi Jin and Mo Yeon, a couple that certainly won’t be lacking for their own obstacles going forward. In terms of chemistry, I think both couples are evidencing a solid onscreen connection already, which is such a relief after disappointing promos and a press conference where everyone looked like they just met that morning. Jin Goo and Kim Ji Won hold their own with each other in intensity, but Song Joong Ki is doing all the heavy lifting so far in generating chemistry with Song Hye Kyo. She’s unfortunately the one weak link in episode 1, but not so weak as to shake the drama’s strong opening. Her performance comes off flat at times, and her line readings exacerbate the problem with really flat intonation and pitch. There were moments when she started to light up and all I can do is hope that’s the direction she takes the performance as the drama progresses.
It’s not just the various romances that anchor this drama and draw me in, I’m also loving the military bromance aspect of it. Shi Jin and Dae Young have this fantastic camaraderie, the kind that means they would die for each other, and when sent to an active war zone it’s certainly going to generate tons of angst. The brief glimpse at Shi Jin’s squad already had me in stitches with their banter, it reminds me a lot of the military training elements in The King 2 Hearts with many interesting soldier characters. I’m guessing beaten up thief Ki Bum will end up joining the army to get away from his gang life, and add him to the bunch of youngsters Shi Jin and Dae Young will have to mentor and protect. So far the military aspect of the drama is way more interesting and well down than the medical elements, especially since the first introduction to medical professionals is having a patient repeatedly escape a hospital without detection. Episode 1 ended on such a swoony and intense note, with tons of excitement saved for later but with a solid foundation laid. I’m so in for the full ride on this one, chingus, not to mention it feels good to be back recapping after such a long break.
Click here to watch Descendants of the Sun.