What makes someone a good mother? The answer to this complex question is so incredibly arbitrary that for as long as we can remember, humanity has still remained unsure of how best to gauge it with any metric. But if there were only one thing we know about motherhood, it would be that it’s one of the most intricate, frustrating and sometimes beautiful relationships we will ever get to experience in our lifetimes. The Good Bad Mother, Netflix’s latest K-drama offering, picks apart the subtleties and explores the nuances of mother-child relationships in a way equal parts vulnerable, personal and thought-provoking.
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Veteran actress Ra Mi-ran stars as the series’ primary matriarch, Young-soon, a fastidious woman and single mother to her adult son, Kang-ho (played by The Glory’s Lee Do-hyun). Her story begins in ’80s South Korea, where a bright-eyed Young-soon – then an artist – is proposed to by her husband and pig farmer, Choi Hae-shik (played by Jo Jin-woong), with a piglet. As fate would have it for the couple, Hae-shik’s farm is burned down by a company looking to raze properties to make way for the Seoul Olympics. Tragedy strikes when Young-soon’s husband decides to continue fighting for his farm, which results in his assassination, which was staged to look like a suicide. The then-pregnant Young-soon is subsequently left to fend for herself and her unborn child.
Once Kang-ho is born, The Good Bad Mother delves straight into the matter at hand. We are shown every facet of Young-soon and Kang-ho’s chaotic relationship as each other’s only immediate family, through vignettes of painfully raw moments strung together throughout Kang-ho’s adolescence. They fight with and for each other against school bullies, over college admission exams and about first crushes. As with any mother-son relationship, Young-soon and Kang-ho don’t always see eye-to-eye, nor do they understand each other all the time, but there is love neatly and unwittingly tucked in every interaction they share with each other.
The Good Bad Mother gets the ball rolling once Kang-ho reaches young adulthood, after he moves out of his hometown in the countryside to pursue a career as a prosecutor in the city. When we are finally caught up with events of the present, Kang-ho is executing an odd plan for a case where he seemingly (also uncharacteristically) murders a woman and a child. He later begrudgingly returns home to seek help from Young-soon in order to carry out the remainder of his schemes. Although his relationship with his mother is distant, both physically and emotionally, she welcomes him home wholeheartedly, spreading the word to her fellow villagers who organise a homecoming party for Kang-ho. As he ropes his all-but-estranged mother back into his life for personal gain, the pair are put through a new rough patch as they get to know each other all over again.
Anyone who has seen a Ra Mi-ran production knows her strength as a performer lies in the ability to imbue her characters – no matter their quirks – with such visceral emotion and intensity; her pivotal, titular role in The Good Bad Mother is perhaps the greatest example of this talent. Mothers are some of the strongest, most courageous, complex people on Earth, yet somehow also the most fragile. Ra embodies this so effortlessly, and her on-screen rapport with Lee Do-hyun, who impressively holds his own, feels terrifyingly authentic. Both characters have such a loaded history that only the other can ever understand, so to watch that play out as the odds are stacked against them feels like a reflection of our personal relationships with our mothers.
The writing on The Good Bad Mother is also phenomenal – no character here is relegated to your usual K-drama character archetypes. Everybody we meet through the show, even antagonists, is as complicated as they would be in real life; nothing is black and white. It’s refreshing to be able to invest in side characters’ growth without the predictability that usually comes with lazy writing.
The Good Bad Mother is unapologetically raw and heartfelt, unafraid to unpack and explore the discomfort that comes with trying to reckon with parental love and dynamics. As a drama that hinges so much on the ability of its lead actors, it has so far, four episodes in, exceeded expectations. The Good Bad Mother promises to become one of 2023’s most powerful Korean dramas, and we can only hope it maintains this momentum.
The Good Bad Mother is available to stream on Netflix in select regions, and also airs on JTBC in South Korea