OOOOOOOOOH this show seems like it’ll be fun! With such a dramatic (but beautiful) beginning, we ended the 90-minute (!!) premiere with a more lighthearted tone that I was really hoping for. After all, how can you not have comedy when you have the “Protector of Souls” rooming with the “God of Death”? Hijinks are bound to ensue.
From the opening sequence I can tell that this episode is going to be masterful. It has beautiful cinematography and an interesting way to set up Kim Shin (Gong Yoo)’s background by jumping between time periods. The only thing that ruined the beginning was the horrific aging makeup used on Lee El (Liar Game, Monster). But the aging makeup was also a sign that we’d see the actress in her regular form – otherwise, why use a young actress to play an old grandmother who could see goblins and gods?
Kim Shin is a very successful and popular war general, one that the people of Korea love more than their king (Kim Min Jae). Because of his increasing power, the king listens to his advisors who feed on his jealousy, and he condemns Kim Shin to death for his “crimes.” Only the queen (Kim So Hyun, starting to show how she can grow up from her high school roles) believes in Kim Shin and is willing to die – along with all her followers – for him. It doesn’t really make much sense, but at the same time you don’t really need to know her motivations or whether she loves Kim Shin more than the king. What matters is that many people are very loyal to Kim Shin, and are willing to die for him – and because of that, he is able to come back as a goblin after he is killed.
(The rule seems to be that if people keep calling you back and keep your soul on earth, and your soul/spirit inhabits an object that has a touch of human blood on it, then the spirit will become a goblin. His soul happened to inhabit his mighty sword that he was killed with.)
Unfortunately, the price he must pay for becoming a goblin is to remember every single death that happens, whether by his fault or not. It’s very tiresome, and he becomes more like a genie where he grants people their wishes if they plead for him enough rather than save their lives all the time. When he first comes back to life, there is a horrific scene where his former servant’s grandson is thrown off a boat ruthlessly by the vicious sailors, and it causes him to wreak vengeance upon the ship. He gets a new “servant” though, and we discover that starting with that new one, the grandson of the previous servant always takes up the mantle of serving him. And he will go through the stages of being his uncle, his brother, his cousin, his son, and his grandson as the servant ages but Kim Shin doesn’t.
It is also assumed that the new “servant” was the same young boy Kim Shin saved from his abusive Canadian (?) father many years ago in a random flashback. The descendants of that servant lead up to Duk Hwa (Yook Sung Jae), a spoiled brat who totally takes advantage of Kim Shin’s accumulated wealth rather than serve his master dutifully. It’s just my assumption that that’s who the kid is, as I try to piece the many scenes together, but it could also just be a scene to show Kim Shin’s compassion and powers.
Meanwhile we have Wang Yeo (Lee Dong Wook), a very stylish grim reaper who gets cards with the name, birth date, and age of the person he is to collect souls of. We see him work when he collects the soul of a woman murdered and left in the trunk of a car, and he takes her to his tea house to drink his tea that will erase her memories of her life and help her move on to the next world. The reveal on his teahouse is amazing and it made me feel like I was dealing with someone who was magical as he stored all the cups of the people he’s helped pass on.
The thing is, Wang Yeo is supposed to collect the soul of a Ji Yeon Hee – an expectant mother who is killed by a hit-and-run. Ji Yeon Hee begs for mercy and for her life, and Kim Shin happens to hear her and saves her life, giving her an extra nine years she wasn’t supposed to have. He also restores the life of her baby, and accidentally marks her with a birth mark that makes all the ghosts recognize her as the “Goblin’s Bride.”
Ji Eun Tak (Kim Go Eun) grows up being able to see spirits, which worries her mother greatly. And yet it comes to the mother’s advantage when she gets into an accident and Wang Yeo finally has to collect her soul. Yeon Hee is able to say goodbye to her daughter as a spirit and also tell the grandmother to watch her daughter before moving on. Eun Tak learns that she must never look at a ghost in the eye lest she be trapped into helping them. She becomes a bit of a loner and does her best ignoring the many ghosts who call her “Goblin’s Bride.”
However, she ends up locking eyes with Kim Shin when she is leaving high school, not realizing he was a ghost because, well, he’s a really fine looking man. When he appears after she makes a wish on her birthday cake, she thinks he might be her guardian angel. She excitedly asks him to grant her three wishes: get her a job, get her away from her evil relatives who just want money, and get her a boyfriend. Kim Shin rolls his eyes at all her requests but he can’t explain why he shows up every single time she blows out a candle. It’s never happened to him before.
Besides, Kim Shin also needs to prepare for his next twenty-year journey searching for his bride, whom he’ll recognize if she can see his magical sword pierced through his body and pull it out for him. Only the bride can end his immortal agony, and if she pulls out the sword he’ll be able to die and move on to the next world. Duk Hwa is so ready for Kim Shin to move out and so he rents out his place to… Wang Yeo. Kim Shin definitely does not approve of this situation but because Duk Hwa already (unknowingly) signed a contract with the god of death, it’s either they live together or Wang Yeo takes Duk Hwa’s life. So, they’re now roomies.
Eun Tak finally figures out that Kim Shin is a goblin because he can’t be the god of death (he would have taken her away the moment they met), and he can’t be a ghost because he has a shadow. She also announces that she’s the Goblin’s Bride, and so she’s willing to marry him to fulfill her destiny. (It helps that he’s really really cute.) But she doesn’t see the sword in Kim Shin’s body, so he doesn’t believe that she is the Goblin’s Bride. He leaves her to go to Canada, to visit presumably the grave of the young boy he saved long ago, and she miraculously follows him through the same magical portal he uses. He’s stunned – how can she even do that?! And she herself can’t believe she traveled to another continent and another country just by going through a door.
More and more, she believes that he’s a goblin, even though Kim Shin refuses to confirm it. And with that, she proposes to marry him, which is even more shocking for him. I love that from the beginning Kim Shin is presented as a very pragmatic person. He’s not as stiff like an alien a la Do Min Joon from My Love From Another Star, but rather just a matter-of-fact person. And so when he’s presented with a really cheerful girl like Eun Tak who sounds and acts like a high schooler, it’s really fun to see him act so annoyed and confused as to why this simple girl has so much power.
Let’s also acknowledge that he did seem to find her very beautiful at first sight when they first pass each other, but he doesn’t really think too much of her after that.
It’s also fun to see him rival with Wang Yeo, whom he sees as flashy, and to see the two of them try to one up each other with their powers.
I’m a bit glad that the first episode is 90 minutes long because it helps flesh out the story a little more. There are many gaps of knowledge that need to be filled, especially what Lee El’s role really is when she turns young again in the present day and sort of seduces Duk Hwa, but at least the set up is all there in the first episode. It’s very clear that this is going to be a very complex world with many rules, so it really needs the time to lay the foundations. The longer running time also lent itself to a more cinematic experience. The entire battle sequence and scenes in the historical era are so artistically done that I felt like I was watching a movie rather than a drama. I did worry a bit though that the production spent their entire budget on the first couple of episodes, and everything is going to suck after that. But the experience was kind of worth it in giving a solid first impression.
The only drawback to the length of the episode was that the director had a lot of time to do a lot of slow-mo scenes and draw out the meaningful looks with so many angles. There was also an excess of blood for every slow death scene and I almost wondered if it was a bit too dramatic. I saw hints of Descendants of the Sun, but I think the drama manages to stand on its own. Kim Eun Sook has certainly made a very good impression with the first episode, and now all I can hope is that she keeps it up throughout the series and doesn’t turn the female lead into mush. I like that Ji Eun Tak is currently spunky and a little silly; what more can you ask of a high schooler? But if the drama veers too much into the melodramatic side where Eun Tak has no agency, then it’s not going to be fun. And I’m going to quickly tire of this show.
The acting is what’s really selling the drama to me right now, and I’m hoping that the stellar cast and deft directing will help hide any writing flaws that may come about.