In many ways, Itaewon Class is a stereotypical K-drama. It has a plucky protagonist in Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon), a villain whose power comes from his status in society with Chairman Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung), high-level police corruption, and, of course, a love triangle. But within this familiar structure, the show plays with expectations and manages to be the kind of hopeful, instructive story that we need in these troubling times of fire, flood, plague, COVID-19, and the destabilization of both lives and economies.
Itaewon Class, available internationally on Netflix, starts downbeat. Bullying, manslaughter, and abuse of power come early to emphasize the ideological opposition between Sae-ro-yi and Chairman Jang. As the leader of one of South Korea’s most powerful corporations, Jang can throw his weight around, influencing, intimidating, and covering things up. Meanwhile, Sae-ro-yi, in those early episodes, is just a kid who must suffer under the yoke of Jang’s hatred and disdain. That power imbalance remains a constant, but Itaewon Class reminds us that power comes in many forms.
Chairman Jang prioritizes profit. Sae-ro-yi prioritizes people and his principles. Jang makes it his mission to destroy Sae-ro-yi’s spirit, but Sae-ro-yi is the perfect role model for our current world.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing rampant selfishness worldwide. Masses of people are panic-buying, resulting in images of store shelves emptied of toilet paper, pasta, canned goods, and other so-deemed essentials. In some places, beaches, restaurants, and shopping centers continue to be packed with people despite constant pleas from governments and health officials to stay home, keep your distance from others, and minimize the harm that each individual is doing to the community as a whole.
We’ve also seen our national leaders worldwide struggle with the magnitude of this crisis. They have been blasé, waiting to close borders, to ramp up testing regimes, to close schools, to instigate quarantine measures. They have acted for the short term, waiting for things to get worse before acting to prevent things from getting worse.
What makes Itaewon Class‘s Sae-ro-yi such an appealing, inspiring character in these times is his dedication — the very quality that Chairman Jang seeks to break. It is his dedication to the diverse, strong-willed people that he gathers around him and his dedication to a years-long plan to reap his just rewards.
The first of these qualities shows Sae-ro-yi to be a community-minded role model. Over the course of the series, he attracts and accepts outsiders — ex-criminals, people of color, transgender people. And in the face of discrimination, he stands alongside them to ensure that they can stand strong in themselves.
When Guinean-Korean Toni (Chris Lyon) is denied entry to a club due to racial profiling, Sae-ro-yi retaliates by highlighting that bigotry. The nature of his reaction may be almost juvenile, but it sends a clear message. When Choi Seung-Kwon (Ryu Kyung-Soo) sees no way out of his criminal lifestyle, Sae-ro-yi convinces him otherwise and hires him as a waiter. That pattern of overlooking difference and structural disadvantage recurs, and Sae-ro-yi convinces even his sociopathic manager Jo Yi-Seo (Kim Da-mi) that investing in these looked-down-upon people is worthwhile.
That spirit in Itaewon Class extends beyond the immediate circle of his friends and employees, though. When forced to relocate his burgeoning restaurant business DanBam, Sae-ro-yi chooses unwisely and finds himself in an area of low foot traffic and crashing revenue. Instead of giving up, he gets together with local business owners and leads an initiative to revitalize the neighborhood and improve the situation for everyone in the area, not just himself. He works hard, suffering immediately so that everyone may benefit eventually.
As a result, he is able to convince people to believe in him, and that ensures he can rise after every setback. Money may help, but it is the coming together of the indomitable human spirit in the wake of disaster that leads to prosperity.
That latter example also demonstrates how Sae-ro-yi bases his decisions on long-term planning. His motivation of retribution may be misguided, but it enables a clarity of approach in almost any situation. He sees an economic downturn as an opportunity and invests wisely, using the money earned then as leverage later. When given the early chance to exercise his anger against Chairman Jang’s son, he holds off, knowing that the instant gratification would jeopardize everything that he has been longing for. Every action (and inaction) he takes leads him closer to his goal, which remains steady and certain.
In contrast, Chairman Jang acts like a weathervane. Consumed by his desire to make Sae-ro-yi kneel, Jang uses his money and connections to block the growth of DanBam. At the same time, he puts his own company before all else, cowing his employees and eventually even abandoning his own son when his actions threaten to bring the business into disrepute. Jang’s goal may be no less certain than Sae-ro-yi’s, but his plan is reactionary and his house of cards is far less steady as a result.
Of course, fiction doesn’t map so neatly to reality. “Good guys” don’t always win because of the strength of their principles. Nonetheless, the idea of putting the collective good before the individual is necessary right now. Only by acting together in remaining apart can our societies hope to minimize the damage caused by this virus. We act alone for the benefit of everyone, as does Sae-ro-yi. His determination to stand strong in the face of overwhelming adversity is a lesson from which the world could benefit.
Itaewon Class celebrates the power of people. Through the endless twists and turns of its 16-episode run, the series remains steadfast in its message that sharing the load and acting with community spirit is more important than profit or revenge or the us-versus-them mentality that divides us. It tells a hopeful story, perhaps a little idealistic, but the core messages could hardly be more timely.