‘Why Her?’ review: Seo Hyun-jin’s triumphant portrayal carries an otherwise bumpy ride

While it promises to be an intense watch, this new K-drama sadly fumbles in more ways than one

Why Her? – or Why Oh Soo-jae?, as the Korean title goes – is certainly aptly named. From the very first minute, you’re torn about whether the haughty, prickly Oh Soo-jae (Seo Hyun-jin) deserves our time and energy. She certainly is an impressive woman, having climbed up the corporate ladder to become a lawyer despite her humble high school diploma background and everyday battles against sexism, sexual harrassment and class divides.

Years of going through the grind has understandably made her cutthroat: her tongue is as sharp as her attire and her wit, she doesn’t make mistakes, rules over her subordinates with an iron fist, is a champion of ‘men ain’t shit’, and is not above using nefarious means to win her cases.

Except, Soo-jae’s callousness, at times, colours the inspiring “self-made woman” image she projects. She’s too cocky for own good – going so far as to proclaim that she is TK Law Firm, and the firm is her. She has no sympathy for people or causes. She often veers into condescension. Halfway through the pilot, she cruelly dismisses a rape victim – Park So-young (Hong Ji-yoon) – trying to bring charges against an influential politician. Looking the young girl in the eye, she berates her career choices and threatens to make her life a living hell.

This, unfortunately for her, becomes her downfall. As she’s leaving work that night, So-young jumps to her death from the rooftop of the TK Law Firm. As Soo-jae takes in So-young’s broken body and scattered shoes – the same ones as hers – something inside the lawyer is rattled. Slowly, but surely, her ivory-hued facade cracks.

The consequences are swift and severe. Soo-jae maintains that she had nothing to do with So-young’s suicide, but the mounting public backlash is just the catalyst her firm needed to knock her down a few pegs. She is “exiled” to be an adjunct professor at the Seojung University law school, where she eventually meets the genial, dedicated student Gong Chan (Hwang In-yeob), unaware of their past connection with each other.

This brings us back to the obvious: Why Oh Soo-jae? We respect Soo-jae’s drive and ambition. We acknowledge her struggles and lived experiences, both at home and at work. Despite all of this, we have a hard time sympathising with her, given the context of her actions. When she is exiled, we think: “Oh, that’s unfair, but she kind of had it coming.” When she ignores her duties as a professor, we scoff. It’s a good question to ask: Why are we supposed to care about her? Why should we give her a chance?

The answer is not immediately evident, but as we see glimpses of Soo-jae’s life and her righteousness, we warm up to change. For instance, when aware that certain pieces of information might traumatise an innocent, she insists on having private audiences. She puts her own comfort on the line to deliver justice. She breaks down at the thought of driving a woman to suicide. Until her mousy demeanor was cruelly stamped out of her, she was a kind woman.

Don’t get us wrong: Why Her? isn’t a quest to vindicate Oh Soo-jae. Instead, it is a multifaceted question about its titular character, the answers to which will be slowly revealed over the course of the show. The cards are all laid bare. We can make our own inferences.

The show’s writing and Seo Hyun-jin’s arresting portrayal of Soo-jae get the gray areas of her character right. She carries the show, hands down. It does, however, make us wonder how unfairly strong women are depicted on camera. While it’s clear that there is more to Oh Soo-jae than just her gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss attitude, the idea that women need to cater to one extreme or another in any situation not only weakens the complexity of her character but also makes some of her decisions confusing. Granted, the larger aim seems to be for Soo-jae to reconcile these two sides and come into her own, but at the moment, the extremes she is vacillating between make that transformation a huge mountain to scale.

This also begs the question: Are the other characters around her people or plot devices? While it’s fulfilling to see Hwang In-yeob finally taking on more complex roles, his existence right now is tethered to his past connection with Soo-jae. Despite being the just, righteous man recovering from a traumatic past, his primary motivation is, well, Soo-jae. Is he really in love with her, or the idea of the woman he met years ago?

As we’re still reconciling with the romance between Soo-jae and Gong Chan, we also have to consider how ethical it is. Not only is he her student, but she also – minor spoiler alert – represented him in the past. While student-teacher relationships are problematic on their own, the previous connection between Soo-jae and Gong Chan violates several rules, at least in the real world.

Speaking of plausible scenarios, while we understand that TV shows in general take liberties with due process, there are perhaps too many conveniences in Why Her? to take things seriously. Footage is obtained within the blink of an eye, students sneak into guarded buildings in a flimsy disguise, illegally obtained evidence is helpful in some instances while inadmissible in others.

The only thing more incredulous than the coincidences is perhaps Soo-jae’s teaching style: she swoops into the classroom, channels her inner Viola Davis circa How To Get Away With Murder, writes a single sentence on the blackboard – “Never let your client end up in prison,” it says – then walks out. You can almost see the students regretting paying for law school.

Despite how it stretches reality, you’ll watch Why Her? for one thing and one thing only: Oh Soo-jae. It all boils down to a key moment in the pilot: as Soo-jae stares upon So-young’s body in horror, she realises the two were wearing the same pair of shoes – a poetic way to describe that despite the differences between them, Soo-jae and So-young were in similar positions. Both held captive by their immediate surroundings, and both fighting against a system that’s stacked against them – ironically, she soon ends up as helpless as So-young.

It’s at that moment that Soo-jae realises she had perhaps been standing on a spine of cardboard. All this time, her belief that climbing up high enough would somehow provide security had cushioned her from the bitter reality: she is and will always be an outsider, and the world will never be fair to her.

But Oh Soo-jae is nothing if not stubborn. Once she reconciles with the truth, she unlocks a new path of growth, one which might lead her down personal development, love and grave danger. Perhaps this is why the show pinned everything on her – Why Her? – because she just might be able to rise to the challenge.

New episodes of Why Her? air on South Korean TV network SBS every Friday and Saturday, and will also be available on Viu and Viki in select regions.

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