Loop or branch? Tale of the Nine-Tailed 1938
Another newsletter about a show you probably aren't watching (but should)
If I have not already done so in the pages of this newsletter, let me go on the record now to say: I hate prequels. I don’t find them narratively interesting. The most exciting thing about the most recent Game of Thrones prequel series was discovering the negroni sbagliato during the press tour. They’re uninteresting to me because you know what happens in the end–even if not to these particular characters, the end game has already happened. Why care about the Targaryens of House of the Dragon when you know what happens to them at the end of Game of Thrones?
I’m being reductive, of course. And I can’t say that I’ve read every prequel out there–surely there’s at least one that handles it well. Last week, however, I finished up a show that served as a kind of prequel, in the guise of a time-travel show: Tale of the Nine-Tailed 1938. It’s the second season of a show, so it technically should be a sequel, but instead functions as a kind of meta-prequel, where the audience aren’t entirely sure how the events of season 2 will affect the timeline.
(Spoilers ahead. Skip to What I’m Reading if you want to remain unspoiled!) For those of you out there who have been spared the absolute viselike grip of K-dramas on your psyche, Tale of the Nine-Tailed: 1938 is the second season of Tale of the Nine-Tailed, which aired in 2020, starring Lee Dongwook as the immortal nine-tailed gumiho (fox) Lee Yeon and Jo Bo-ah as his reincarnated first love, Nam Ji-Ah. Over the course of sixteen episodes, Lee Yeon and Nam Ji-Ah work together to solve the mysteries of Nam Ji-Ah’s past, defeat monster-of-the-week challenges, defeat an evil snake god, and repair Lee’s relationship with his estranged younger brother Lee Rang (played by Kim Bum.) Oh, and fall in love—as themselves, not as the past self Nam Ji-Ah doesn’t remember at first and Lee Yeon can’t forget.
At the beginning of Tale of the Nine-Tailed: 1938 (which I’m going to refer to as 1938 from here on out) all seems well: They’re married, and Lee Yeon is waiting to meet Nam Ji-Ah for ice cream when he gets a call from one of season 1’s key characters, Taluipa, the keeper of the gate to the underworld. Someone has stolen a magical macguffin, crucial to the spiritual stability between the world of the living and the dead, and Lee Yeon has to get it back. To get it, he must follow the masked intruder through the gates of Samdocheon—the river of the dead. Which he does, landing… in 1938.
Season 1 followed a fairly standard kdrama structure. The romance between the two (extremely attractive leads) is fun, but the real emotional catharsis of the show is between Lee Yeon and his younger brother Lee Rang. Lee Rang is a half-fox, and he has been carrying out a campaign of chaos and selfishness for centuries; he believes his older brother had abandoned him, leaving him alone and unprotected. When they reconnect again years later, Lee Yeon has been tasked with punishing rogue foxes, and stabs Lee Rang in the stomach. It’s Lee Rang’s villain origin story, the justification he gives for all the murder, extortion, robbery etc that he perpetrates after that. Over the course of the first season, Lee Rang first works against and then with Lee Yeon to defeat the evil snake god Imugi, and we see him slowly rediscover his good qualities. Through reconciling with his older brother, he redeems himself, sacrificing his own life in the process when he dies at the end of season 1.
Which is why it’s such a joy that he’s there, in 1938, right as Lee Yeon emerges into the Korean countryside. Imagine the confusion on 1938 Lee Rang’s face when his brother—who he has only seen sporadically over the centuries, and most of those times only when he’s trying to kill him—embraces him in happiness. For a moment, it doesn’t matter that Lee Yeon is separated from his wife; here is his brother. Lee Rang still hates him, but he’s whole and alive. The larger plot of the season is predictable: find the magic macguffin, get back to the present. But along the way, not only does Lee Yeon have the chance to reconnect to two of his childhood friends, the new reunion with his brother is more drawn out, more nuanced than they’d had time for in season 1. Now they have quieter moments, free of mayhem, in which to talk to one another and understand where the other’s coming from.
Where Season 1 was a fantasy melodrama, complete with falls from buildings, swooning moments where you think they’ll kiss but really they just hug, and rakish fights, 1938 is a found family romp. From the trio of original mountain gods (Lee Yeon, Ryu Hongjoo, who now runs an upscale brothel, and Cheon Moyoung, who turns out to have been the guy who stole the magic maguffin in the first place) who reconnect and reforge a friendship, to the two brothers, to the group of liberation fighters trying to eject the Japanese from Korea, it’s all about the bonds you choose and the bonds you protect. Do you protect your country, even when it means you might lose your life? Do you protect your younger brother, even if it means you might not make it back to the wife waiting for you in 2022? All the choices they make are vital in the moment–and they’ll affect the future, one way or another.
For me, that’s what makes this season of television so interesting. It’s a sequel that’s a prequel, but we (and they) have no idea how or if the actions of Lee Yeon in the past will affect the future. There’s even a contemporary 1938 version of Lee Yeon, who sticks around—presumably to stay close to his brother and his two friends. With that friendship and support, will the Lee Rang of 1938 turn into the bitter, jaded Lee rang of 2020?
I don’t know that he could! And this potential is super intriguing to me. Now, I’m probably wildly overthinking this. Surely the showrunners of 1938 weren’t thinking about the nuances of time travel theory and the implications of giving a formerly isolated, selfish person a group of relationships to care about and invest in. They were most likely more concerned with making sure Lee Dongwook’s hair fell in just the right handsome way, and that they were showing the Tissot watches enough for the sponsors. (You’d be surprised how much modern sponcon they can fit into a show that ostensibly takes place in the past.) But even if all they were trying to do was make an action-packed thrill ride full of deeply questionable outfits, they succeeded in making a season of television with exciting implications.
I’m now obsessed with the idea that his actions in the past have changed the future Lee Yeon is going back to. If Lee Rang spends the eighty-two years between 1938 and 2020 in the loving circle of his new mermaid girlfriend, his brother (who has kicked his opium habit and joined the efforts to fight the Japanese occupation of Korea), and his two childhood friends, he probably won’t help the evil snake god Imugi, who then wouldn’t use his servants to entrap Nam Ji-ah’s parents, who then wouldn’t disappear, and then Nam Ji-Ah wouldn’t have to go looking for them, so she wouldn’t meet Lee Yeon in the process. Will we get a season 3 where Lee Yeon gets back to the future and finds his brother and his friends, but not the wife he’s spent centuries searching for?
Again, probably not! But the idea is fascinating to me. This is what I love about stories. No matter the medium, no matter how silly, they can provoke the most interesting trains of thought. And you never know where one magical macguffin will lead you.
WHAT I’M READING
Still working on Witch King but since I’ve had a lot of time on the train with a lot of bags to carry I needed a phone book, and Witch King is a beast. So after hearing of his death at the age of 92 I downloaded Robert Gottlieb’s 2016 memoir Avid Reader. Gottlieb was an absolutely legendary editor (Toni Morrison and Joseph Heller among countless others) and spent time as the editor of the New Yorker as well. He was also Robert Caro’s editor, and there’s a documentary I’d like to see about their collaboration on Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biographies. It’s interesting–both Avid Reader and Last Call at the Hotel Imperial spend time exploring the impact that psychoanalysis had on their subject’s lives. Gottlieb only spent seven years (“only,” Jesus) going four days a week to his analyst to try and figure out how to stop turning into his cold and mercurial father. Several of the people in Last Call spent their whole lives in analysis. Psychoanalysis obviously doesn’t have the grip on intellectual life that it once did, so it was interesting to see it so integrated into people’s lives. Gottlieb is an engaging writer, and there is a very funny moment at the beginning that I have to share:
“For a long time when people asked me whether I was ever going to write a memoir or autobiography, I answered that all editors’ memoirs basically come down to the same thing: “So I said to him, ‘Leo! Don’t just do war! Do peace too!’”
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Well, folks, they did it: in only their sixth year of existence, the Vegas Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup in an absolutely brutal 9-3 bloodbath of a final against the Florida Panthers. Going into this series I had let my residual dislike of the Knights color my opinion of them. After all, were they not my beloved Capitals’ nemeses in the 2018 playoffs? I was also happy for Panthers’ goalie Sergei Bobrobsky, who I had affection for due to his advanced age (for a hockey player—a thirty-four year old goalie! My knees hurt just thinking about it.) But then I was reminded that the Panthers had the Staals, and Staals were the ones who wouldn’t wear Pride jerseys. From that moment on I was all in with the Knights. When the Panthers pulled Bobrobsky from the net six minutes before the end of the game, I rejoiced. There’s a lot that Vegas has done well, particularly drafting Mark Stone in their inaugural year (Stone got a hat trick in the final game, always a delight) and rescuing Jack Eichel from the doomed icy clutches of Buffalo last year. Seeing them decimate the Panthers—I’m happy for them. Now, Caps, time for cup number two! Or Stars—win Jason Robertson a cup!
My first novel, Marrying In, is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
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