What Price ‘Glory’?

The secret sauce behind ‘The Glory,’ Netflix’s surprise hit South Korean drama

Netflix has a new South Korean champion. The Glory, in its second part, surged out of nowhere to become the streaming platform’s number one serial drama last weekend with 125 million hours viewed over its first three days alone, 50 million more than the new season of You in second place. The Glory might or might not outperform the release of the new season of Shadow and Bone pending new official numbers from Netflix, but the classically styled South Korean revenge thriller  has already greatly outperformed its media footprint in the discourse. The Glory stars Song Hye-kyo as a badly scarred woman, Dong-eun, who quietly plots to achieve her dream in life–the complete and utter destruction of Yeon-jin, played by Lim Ji-yeon, and her gang of bullies who back in high school and still in the present day respond to nearly any situation with sadistic, psychotic assault.

The Glory is considerably more popular overseas than in native English language markets, though it has still consistently been hovering in third and fourth place in the United States. But it’s also succeeding significantly because of reputation. The first part premiered last year on December 30th, climaxing in its second week (January 2nd to January 8th) with 80 million viewed hours on the power of personal recommendations.

That said, The Glory’s pedigree isn’t exactly obscure. Even if you haven’t personally heard of lead actress Song Hye-kyo (Descendants of the Sun), or screenwriter Kim Eun-sook (The King: Eternal Monarch), I can guarantee you that South Korean drama fans have. Director Ahn Gil-ho of the recent drama Happiness also snuck in here. The main things you need to know about Happiness is that it involves zombies, and that Netflix only licensed it in the southeast Asian markets where South Korean dramas are the most popular, long after it had originally aired, and Happiness still gave them an excellent return on investment.

Speaking of zombies, All of Us Are Dead was showing similarly boffo numbers for Netflix last year despite most English language pop-culture publications also underwriting it relative to the show’s actual popularity. A lot of the story for The Glory just rehashes the one for All of Us Are Dead in this regard. Both are unapologetic genre stories that did and are doing well because the current high-concept obsession of American screenwriting doesn’t lend itself well to less pretentious premises. Amusingly enough, All of Us Are Dead and The Glory are also both highly socially relevant despite their genre origins, for very similar reasons. They both touch heavily on high-school bullying.

But that’s about as far as the similarities goes. The Glory is a very different beast from All of Us Are Dead. In fact, if you want to quit The Glory after the 15-minute mark because it’s so overblown, I wouldn’t blame you. Cruel high school students graphically brutalize and humiliate our young heroine for no reason other than the fact that they can. They even explicitly vocalize this sentiment. When young Dong-eun asks Yeon-jin about her dreams, the reply is merely that she has no dreams. When you already have wealth and power, what’s the point? Yes, it’s psychopathic behavior and yes, our generally monstrous high school bullies have parents who are about equally monstrous. For that matter, so does our heroine. What little recourse Dong-eun had as a teenager was literally signed away by her greedy money-loving mother, who makes a return in part two.

As Dong-eun’s enemies become aware of her presence one by one, an unsettling statement by Dong-eun to the effect of, “thank you for not reforming” punctuates the increasingly disturbing encounters. This is the emotional complexity of hatred that’s always made the revenge drama such a staple among the weak and disempowered of society. There’s no joy in striking down an enemy capable of genuine introspection or remorse. Yeon-jin’s continuously vile behavior confirms to Dong-eun, and other sympathetic characters, that there’s no point negotiating with each other. Even if scared, all Yeon-jin does is threaten. She doesn’t actually believe in anything except the value of her own immediate ego.

Villains like this have a strong appeal pretty much everywhere, because dealing with such petty tyrants is such an almost universal aspect of the human experience. This is why The Glory has been so broadly popular. Sure, some specific elements are definitely specific to South Korea. Take the loud church where Yeon-jin claims membership, or the shamanistic rituals her mother resorts for good fortune. But other elements, like a teacher careful to take off his watch before beating Dong-eun for the crime of complaining and making the school look bad, or the wealthy trying to use hard cash to force obedience, are experiences most people relate to far easier than the hero’s journey of having too much power.

This is, indeed, the great irony of our current discourse. The revenge soap opera is stereotypically low art, and has also principally been the domain of women, especially in the lower classes, and these facts aren’t coincidental. One might think this would be an example of latent misogyny, and our pop culture landscape could solve that issue by elevating the genre. But to the contrary–movies from Everything Everywhere All At Once to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to The Woman King simply make women the chosen ones instead of men. Distinctions between mainstream and art films have greatly started to blur on this and only this line because basically all it takes to turn a narrative into something women can supposedly relate to is to include a female protagonist. It’s worth noting that, in terms of viewership, there’s little evidence that this messaging does much to attract actual women to theaters.

Dong-eun is a chosen one of a sort, though, just not for any special powers. Another woman chose her to suffer for no reason. And The Glory skewers a lot of magical thinking of these narratives by having Yeon-jin claim that Dong-eun couldn’t have suffered that much, since she’s clearly a strong woman doing so well today. This has always been a powerful form of mythmaking for hierarchical societies: if the lowly hero could make it through adversity, so could you, and if you’re couldn’t, then you’re just a whiner.

But people merely fabricate hierarchies to satisfy their lust for power. These social elements are also critical to the popularity of revenge narratives among women. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, whose machinations tend to come down to just finding complicated ways to exploit rules and human feelings, The Glory isn’t about Dong-eun’s personal glory. She’s still miserable and blackened inside, only able to use hobbies like her mastery of Go to emotionally steady herself. In the end, it’s the friends Dong-eun made along the way to revenge that give her a reason to live after she completes her dream. And that’s a lesson well-worth taking to heart by men and women alike, even if their dream is something more modest than the complete and utter destruction of all their personal enemies.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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