Sometimes there are shows that fill you with excitement because they seem like they’ll give their female characters compelling motivations and genuine agency in the plot, only to completely disappoint you by reverting to the same old misogyny and conservatism found in any other show. Arang and the Magistrate was one such show for me. Although I enjoyed watching it in the beginning, I was left with bitterness at the end because the women in the series received such disappointing resolutions to their character arcs. (Warning ahead for spoilers!)
Arang and the Magistrate originally aired from August to October 2012. Unlike You Who Came from the Stars and W: Two Worlds, it’s a sageuk, or period piece. It’s not necessary to know any Korean history to enjoy the show, however. Like period pieces in other countries, many sageuks are more about the novelty of a historic setting (whether it’s factually accurate or not) and the accompanying clothing, and Arang and the Magistrate is no exception. The show is based on the folklore of Arang, a magistrate’s daughter who is murdered and seeks the help of a magistrate to apprehend her killer.
Like the original folktale, the series follows a young woman named Arang (Shin Min Ah) who was murdered, becomes a ghost, and enlists the help of a magistrate named Eun Oh (Lee Jun Ki) to find the truth behind her death. Throw in Eun Oh’s missing mother (played by a deliciously theatrical Kang Moon Young), a young nobleman with a mysterious and menacing mission (Yeon Woo Jin), and two godly beings who watch over the proceedings and meddle in the humans’ lives, and you’ve got the vibrant, funny, and sometimes genuinely creepy world of Arang and the Magistrate.
My favorite thing about this series is its central theme about what it means to be human. Unlike the Jade Emperor and Yeom Ra, the aforementioned godly beings who preside over everything from their serene and unchanging abode, the human beings in Arang and the Magistrate are full of desires.
Every single character wants something: Arang wants to remember who she was and to experience giving and receiving love; Eun Oh wants to find his mother; Ju Wal, the mysterious young nobleman, wants to have a home, food to eat, and a mother, all things he was denied as a child; and Moo Yeon, the show’s main antagonist, is a heaven’s fairy who wants to escape the tedium of a never-changing life in the Jade Emperor’s garden and live once more as a human.
For the first half of the series, at least, it was delightful to see the women in the show receive as much interiority as the men. Arang isn’t like the protagonists in You Who Came from the Stars and W: Two Worlds. What she wants is abundantly clear, and she drives the first half of the plot through her attempts to get it. She manipulates incompetent government officials into forcibly appointing Eun Oh the magistrate; cusses out the Jade Emperor on a regular basis; and kidnaps a grim reaper so she can force her way into heaven to cuss out the Jade Emperor some more and bargain for a chance to figure out the circumstances behind her death.
Despite seeming to be her polar opposite, Arang’s past self turns out to be as passionate as her. One of this show’s better writing decisions was treating Arang and the person she used to be when she was alive as two different people. Even after Arang learns that her name was Lee Seo Rim and that she was the former magistrate’s daughter, she doesn’t remember anything from that past life or feel any emotional connection to it. She always refers to Lee Seo Rim as if she’s another person, and in all the ways that are important, she is. Lee Seo Rim was a quiet and reclusive young woman who rarely left her room. Arang is loud, brash, and completely uncaring of what kind of behavior society expects from young women.
Yet Seo Rim also wanted something deeply: she fell in love with Ju Wal at first sight and, after the marriage she begged her father to arrange was canceled, pined for him. It was, as her diary reveals, “a love that comes once in a lifetime,” and even Arang feels the residual effects of that love when she sees Ju Wal for the first time—her heart beats loud and hard and achingly.
Arang and Seo Rim aren’t the only women who love and desire deeply in the series. Moo Yeon, the heaven’s fairy, wants to be human again so badly that she’ll go to any lengths to do so. She tells the grim reaper Moo Yeong that even if it means rolling in dog shit, she would rather be a human on earth than be a fairy in heaven who isn’t allowed to want or feel anything.
Most villains in fictional works, even the male ones, don’t have compelling motivations. They want grandiose and egomaniacal things like world domination. But what Moo Yeon wants is simple, poignant, and relatable. Heaven is a lovely but unchanging paradise. Those who live there might not feel pain, but they also can’t feel love, nor are they allowed to want anything. For me, it’s completely understandable why Moo Yeon would rather be a human who experiences suffering alongside joy than a fairy numb to all feelings for millennia.
Unfortunately, Arang and the Magistrate’s plot tells us that, in the end, it was wrong for all these women to have desired things so deeply. Arang, who is tasked by the Jade Emperor to find the person responsible for leading her to her death, learns that it was herself. According to the show’s logic, it’s Seo Rim’s own fault that she died because she followed Ju Wal to his rendezvous with Moo Yeon and sacrificed herself for him—all because she couldn’t let go of him even after their marriage was cancelled. Not only is her own death Seo Rim and Arang’s fault, so are all the tragic events of the series. At the end of the series, as Arang is dragged to hell, she blames herself for everything, and she’s only spared such a dreadful fate because the heroic male protagonist, Eun Oh, sacrifices himself for her.
Moo Yeon, too, is punished, although her fate is worse than Arang’s: she simply disappears into nothing-ness, unable to feel even the torment of hell. She’s the show’s antagonist, of course, and she commits many terrible deeds throughout the show, but it’s incredibly misogynistic that her fault lies in wanting things. Whether villainous or not, fictional narratives often frame women as weak-willed and lacking because they have desire. Whether it’s love or money or power, women are supposed to be shallow and weak-willed because they want things. Too much desire, Arang and the Magistrate warns, is bad—it can lead you to your death, in Arang’s case, or warp you into an evil and miserable being, like Moo Yeon.
Nothing exemplifies the show’s message more than the moment when Lady Seo, Eun Oh’s mother and another female character I really liked, says on her deathbed that it would have been better to live as a slave than to seek revenge against the man who conspired to have her entire family murdered. Then, at least, she would have had her son by her side. Lady Seo wanted something as unfeminine as revenge, and as a result she lost what the show considers much more important to a woman: love and a family.
In fact, Eun Oh, the most privileged character, is the only one who’s allowed to want things without being punished. He’s a man and a noble by birth even if he’s illegitimate, and he’s never known want other than missing his mother. Of course his desires aren’t considered bad like Arang’s and Moo Yeon’s and Lady Seo’s: he already has more advantages and comforts than any of them. His desires don’t rock the status quo.
If I had to write several more essays about Arang and the Magistrate, I could, because there’s so much to unpack in it. For now, I’ll end by saying that it’s a fun and heartwarming show for at least the first half, but that its misogynistically moralizing ending casts an unappealing shadow over the whole thing. I also want to warn for suicide and incest. The latter isn’t a prominent plot point and neither thing is graphic, but they’re still very uncomfortable. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, Arang and the Magistrate was all the more disappointing for its initial promise.