“Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2” belabours the point and clutters the core dynamic.
This recap of Thirty-Nine season 1, episode 5, “Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2”, contains spoilers.
There is no genre more difficult to get right than the specific kind designed to hit you right in the feels. That isn’t technically a genre, I suppose, but you know what I mean. In the best case, you put compelling characters in relatable situations and allow the audience to inherit their pain; in the worst, you create caricatures and try to manipulate the audience like puppets on strings. All narrative media is manipulation of a kind, of course, but nobody really wants to know how a magic trick works.
Thirty-Nine season 1, episode 5 recap
Thirty-Nine is ostensibly a show about friendship, loss, and love, and how the three intersect. When it’s about these things it’s pretty good. Its sense of sisterly camaraderie is well-intentioned and well-observed, particularly between Mi-jo and Chan-young. You see that here in the delicate way that the former avoids the latter, and how the latter is reminded in small, important ways of her longstanding relationship with the former. Both are trying to navigate the reality that one of them is going to die soon; that their bond will be severed forever. It’s heavy stuff, and when the acting and writing are allowed to lift it, it’s surprising how well the show shoulders the burden.
But there’s still an air of contrivance surrounding the whole affair. These are long episodes, and each one feels too long – not too too long, but objectively too long, a couple of minutes too long in every instance. The point is obvious yet still feels belabored, and where in other, tighter shows and films it might allow us to better know the characters and understand their thoughts and feelings, here it feels like we’re being deliberately stalled so that the loss hurts more when it arrives. Yet it’s having the opposite effect. We’re beginning to see the card up the magician’s sleeve, and it’s ruining the sleight of hand.
Don’t get the wrong idea – I know none of this is supposed to be a surprise. The idea of the journey being more important than the destination rings true, and this is a show that is unashamedly about the journey, albeit a journey that leads inexorably downwards. But in Thirty-Nine episode 5, I began to see Chan-young’s fears of dying, and her desire to have Mi-jo by her side, as a bit annoying. Her regrets and reflections began to feel trite.
It doesn’t help that there are other things going on at the same time. I’m still not buying the relationship between Mi-jo and Seon-u; I don’t care about Seon-u and his sister Su-won; I don’t care about Jin-seok and Ju-won; Joo-hee has nothing to do so feels like a dead weight. Chan-young’s bucket list of final wishes – to help Joo-hee find love, to help Mi-jo find her biological mother – seem to give the show some long-term structure, and more of a narrative point, so to speak, but they also feel like even more dramas to pile on top of a framework that is already struggling.
Amidst all this, big, important moments aren’t landing. Chan-young agonizing over telling her parents about her diagnosis should be a complex crisis, but it feels cruel and needlessly drawn out. Seon-u and Mi-jo kissing is a ridiculous scene. There are still things to like here, but they’re all related to the core of the drama that the show seems so adamant about distracting us from. Hopefully, as it progresses, Thirty-Nine can settle into some more focused drama that utilizes its strengths of writing and casting and doesn’t get bogged down by petty subplots and chemistry-free romances. At this point, though, I can’t say I have much faith in it.