I’m really loving the tonal pendulum of this show, which is both sadder and funnier than I expected, but so well executed in both extremes. The comedy really ramps up in this second hour, sending us on a totally ridiculous farce of a chase that has me in stitches. But no matter how outlandish the comedy, the heart of the emotion is always there, making it easy to empathize with our mermaid who’s adrift on land and our con man who’s adrift in life.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Joseon, 1598. Newly appointed mayor Dam-ryung lights wish lanterns by the sea with local children, and accidentally lets one loose too early, sending him down the shore to collect his wayward lantern. But he discovers that someone else has found it first, and is surprised to see that it’s the mermaid he’d released back into the ocean.
The old fisherman who had witnessed their parting narrates over the scene: “It is a connection that should not have been made. But they are already linked, and so that connection will continue. They will meet again.”
Hearing this, mermaid-hunter Lord Yang chuckles and interprets it as a very simple roadmap to recapturing the mermaid: follow the mayor back to her.
Back on the shore, Dam-ryung is startled when the mermaid speaks to him, and very eloquently at that. She calls him “scholar,” and says that he’d told her not to be afraid, but he’s the one who seems frightened now. He wonders how she can speak, and she says that there’s no reason a mermaid can’t do anything that a human can do.
He asks why she didn’t speak up the day she was first captured, and she says that she did—it just never reached him. In flashback, we see that she spoke in her head the moment she first saw him: “Save me.” She explains that mermaids hear each other’s thoughts, so words are unnecessary.
Dam-ryung wants to know if humans can hear a mermaid’s thoughts (uh… isn’t that what’s happening to you right now?), and she says that a long time ago, a boy loved a mermaid and heard her voice. He asks what happened to that boy, and judging from the sad look on her face, nothing good. He wants to know if they can meet again, so she tells him to light a lantern over the sea, and she’ll know it’s a sign to come see him.
In the ensuing days, Lord Yang keeps tabs on Dam-ryung, and hears that there is one odd thing the new mayor is doing…
That night, the mermaid sees a shining light up above the sea, and swims toward it. When she reaches the surface, she sees an entire ocean valley filled with an army of lanterns, all lit for her. And from the distance, Dam-ryung glides in on a small boat. That’s some entrance (also, are you steering that boat with your mind?).
He stops right in front of her, and they gaze into each other’s eyes.
Spain, 2016. Con artist Joon-jae has a rare moment of conscience and doubles back to go find the mermaid he left behind at the department store, and she reaches up with a smile when he appears in front of her holding an umbrella. He pulls her up and says he hates leaving without saying goodbye, and that’s the only reason he came. Uh-huh.
Satisfied that he said goodbye now, he turns to go. But when we cut to him in the car, the mermaid is sitting right next to him wearing his jacket and covered in a blanket. She’s still shaking, so he stops to buy her a coffee, and even blows on it first so that she won’t burn her tongue.
The mermaid mimics him gleefully, blowing into her coffee like it’s a balloon. He asks if she doesn’t have a place to stay, but she’s busy having her first taste of coffee, which starts with a grimace and ends with her sucking down the whole cup.
Joon-jae sighs that he should’ve left her back there, but with no other recourse, he takes her with him to his next hotel. He heads to the shower, while the mermaid remains in the doorway, transfixed by the hotel keycard that turns on all the lights. She gets a kick out of pulling the card in and out and making the lights flicker on and off, over and over and over again until Joon-jae finally storms out mid-shower.
He backs her up into the wall and has to reach around her in the dark to get the keycard, and the proximity makes her suddenly turn bashful. He stares at her curiously and says, “Are you… being shy?” As if on cue, she tucks her hair behind her ear, and he yelps at her to stop it this instant. Hee.
Joon-jae insists that his ideal type is an intelligent woman, her total opposite, and tells her not to mistake his random act of kindness as romantic interest. Hilariously, she spends the whole time leering at him in his bathrobe and thinking lusty thoughts, so his whole speech falls on deaf ears. She stands there for a while just tapping her fingers together coyly, while he locks himself in the bathroom.
The mermaid is startled when Joon-jae’s phone rings, and on the other end (in Seoul), CHA SHI-AH (Shin Hye-sun) hangs up with a sigh. She’s Joon-jae’s classmate from KAIST, and Shi-ah’s sister-in-law AHN JIN-JOO (Moon So-ri) asks nosily about the man she’s calling.
Shi-ah is a researcher in preservation science who deals with artifacts, and we can tell from the chip on her shoulder and Jin-joo’s comments that her family doesn’t really think it a very worthy career.
Once Shi-ah is gone, the family’s housekeeper MO YOO-RAN (Na Young-hee) tells Jin-joo that her son went to KAIST too, which I’m guessing is not a coincidence. Jin-joo doesn’t seem to believe that the housekeeper’s son could be as handsome and brilliant as his mom insists, and she says that these days dragons don’t come from Gyecheon River (an old idiom for a man who comes from humble beginnings and goes on to greatness), but Yoo-ran says wistfully that her son isn’t from Gyecheon, but “a wide, blue sea.”
At that, Jin-joo asks teasingly if the housekeeper is hiding her illustrious background. She doesn’t answer, but her look suggests that there’s more to her story.
Jin-joo is amused to hear the latest gossip that a friend of hers was just scammed, and that friend turns out to be the woman Joon-jae conned just before leaving for Spain. The angry CEO fumes at her henchmen and orders them to catch those con artists dead or alive, especially the one who pretended to be a prosecutor.
Back in Spain, Joon-jae nearly has a heart attack when the mermaid appears over his shoulder, mesmerized by the sight of a movie playing on his laptop. She climbs over the couch and all over him until he tosses the laptop at her, and he assumes that her interest is because of Kang Dong-won on the screen (and he seems a little miffed about her indiscriminate taste in pretty boys, heh).
He lets her have the laptop and goes to bed, and the mermaid stays up all night watching everything from comedies to kung-fu movies, mouthing along with certain words or mimicking gestures along the way. She’s mesmerized by a documentary about the ocean, and reaches out to the screen longingly.
When Joon-jae wakes up in the morning, he finds the mermaid still clutching the laptop with dark circles halfway down her face. She refuses to let go, and he sighs that she’s become a celebrity-obsessed fangirl (because now she’s got So Ji-sub on the screen).
Joon-jae’s con artist partner Nam-doo calls with a warning that the CEO they recently scammed turned out to be a scary loan shark, and she’s sent her henchmen abroad to hunt them down. What’s worse is that they’ve caught Joon-jae’s scent because he carelessly didn’t switch phones after the job, and Nam-doo warns that they’re probably on their way right now. Nam-doo chides him for being lax, and then asks Joon-jae to send him the jade bracelet before going on the run. Joon-jae ignores him.
The mermaid just watches curiously as Joon-jae packs up at the speed of light. He says it’s time that they part and runs out… only to come right back when he spots the henchmen already outside the hotel. He tells himself not to panic and looks around the room, eyes landing on a fire extinguisher, alarm clock, and bottles of water.
The henchmen go from room to room until they bust open Joon-jae’s door, but then they spot what looks like a bomb and everyone drops to the floor. He had time to build a bomb? The clock rapidly counts down and they brace for impact, but all that happens is that the alarm goes off. Wah-waah. They find a sheet tied to the balcony, and Joon-jae and the mermaid are gone.
It looks like they didn’t get much of a head start though, because they run hand-in-hand down the beach with the henchmen huffing and puffing not far behind. The mermaid seems to be enjoying this, unaware of the life-and-death stakes, and takes in the ocean view happily.
When the henchmen close in on them, the mermaid sends them flying into the air with a kick here and a punch there, without ever breaking a sweat. Joon-jae steals a bicycle and the mermaid gleefully gets on and throws her arms around his waist.
The best part is that she’s in a romance movie while he’s in a spy caper, and she reaches out to pluck flowers on the way and wave at bystanders, all while knocking out henchmen left and right (she mutters a few sounds, though they don’t sound like words yet). Unaware that she’s doing all the heavy lifting, Joon-jae congratulates himself on his speedy getaway, and brags to her that they wouldn’t have made it out if it weren’t for him.
They nearly eat it down a sudden slope of stairs on a sharp turn, but the mermaid’s quick reflexes keep them from tumbling all the way down, not that Joon-jae notices her stopping the bike with her hand. He leads her down on foot, and when more henchmen arrive to block their path, he tucks her into a corner and tells her to wait while he fights them off.
He’s so busy handling three henchmen that he doesn’t notice the army of goons coming from the other direction, but the mermaid cuts them off with her crazy kung-fu moves that she learned from her Bruce Lee movie marathon, complete with fast feet, sound effects, and signature thumb move.
The true comedy is Joon-jae’s lame fight intercut with the mermaid’s high-flying action-hero fight, where he kicks a guy in the nuts and manages to land ONE impressive punch, and then stops to brag to the mermaid about it with his fist in the air. LOL. City Hunter he is not. He’s missed her entire fight, and doesn’t notice that every balcony around them is littered with tattered henchmen.
His victory is short-lived though, because the lead henchman shows up with a gun. Thinking quickly, Joon-jae flips his lighter on and orders him to put down the gun. The man starts to obey for about two seconds, but then asks if he wants to die, and Joon-jae praises the leader on his mental fortitude and folds his hands obediently.
The men lead Joon-jae into their van, and the mermaid starts to run after them, but Joon-jae silently motions for her not to follow. Aw, but she looks so lost without you!
Thankfully she doesn’t listen, and instead gets on the bicycle to chase down the van. The henchmen are bewildered by her superhuman speed, and though they attempt to outrun her, she actually manages to cut them off and stop right in the van’s path.
The leader orders them to just run her over, so Joon-jae starts a tussle from the backseat and yanks the steering wheel in the other direction, sending them crashing into a phone booth instead.
He busts out of the van, somehow with the gun in hand, and jumps onto the back of the mermaid’s bike for a comically low-speed getaway. The gangsters chase them on foot, lol, and Joon-jae leads the mermaid by the hand into a maze garden. He tells her that if they happen to round a corner and spot the baddies, he’ll fight them off and she’s to run the other way.
He’s so busy bragging about his fight skills that he doesn’t notice the mermaid falling behind, where she spots the henchmen and runs right for them. The next thing we know, henchmen are flying through the air left and right.
By the time Joon-jae finds the mermaid, she’s alone, hair covered in leaves, and this time she takes him by the hand and leads him back out of the maze. He beams at her and says she did a good job finding the way out, and starts to pluck the leaves out of her hair.
Time slows, and one by one the leaves fall at their feet, and the mermaid smiles up at him shyly. She looks extra pleased when he holds her hand to lead her away.
They bike through town and the mermaid jumps off at the sight of children eating ice cream. She takes a cup and the vendor grabs her arm and starts yelling at her to pay, and Joon-jae gets angry with him, only to turn sheepish when he doesn’t have enough money to pay him.
While the mermaid gets her very first taste of ice cream and brain freeze, Joon-jae calls a local friend to ask for help because he can’t use any of his credit cards. They go to a seaside church to meet this friend (cameo by Ahn Jae-hong), who must be pulling off a con as a holy man, because he introduces Joon-jae as a pastor friend working in Africa to save elephants.
Joon-jae introduces the mermaid as his wife, giving this whole sob story about an accident that rendered her a little brain-damaged and unable to speak, getting appropriately choked up as he wonders when he’ll be able to hear his wife’s voice again.
Without skipping a beat, the mermaid suddenly says, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you all. The weather is quite warm, isn’t it?” Omo! She speaks!
Joon-jae drags her outside and asks how she’s suddenly talking, and she matter-of-factly states that he said he wanted to hear her voice. Ohhhhh, does he have the power to do that??
She wants to know what a “wife” is, and he says it’s no big deal, like a friend. She files that little tidbit away. He wonders why she didn’t talk all this time if she could, and she says she found it difficult until yesterday, “but I learned it all from that box you gave me.” Cut to: the mermaid absorbing an online Korean language course while wearing the laptop on her head. Hahaha.
He catches her staring at him, and she says she’s looking at his eyeballs: “The ink in your eyeballs is shiny. It’s pretty.” The comment catches him off-guard, but Joon-jae is weak to compliments, and agrees that his eyes are pretty. He repeats what housekeeper Yoo-ran said earlier about being unable to go ten steps with her son as a baby because people wanted to hold him. Then he teaches the mermaid more appropriate words like “eyes” and “pupils,” wondering where she learned such strange words.
Joon-jae and his friend “Pastor Thomas” are apparently both members of the Mensa Con Artists Club, ha, and Thomas is happy to help Joon-jae with his needs… for a price. He lays out the whole religious scam he’s got going here, and tasks Joon-jae with a performance to pull the emotional strings once the congregation has their wallets open. So Joon-jae gets up on stage and sings a song with an acoustic guitar, and the crowd is moved to tears.
After the service, the pastor shows Joon-jae and his wife to a room, and when the mermaid says she’s thirsty, he points her to a water dispenser offhandedly. When he and the pastor look back over at her, she’s got the giant bottle held upside-down in the air, and she chugs the entire bottle in one shot.
From her bed, the mermaid asks Joon-jae what love is, because that’s what he sang about earlier. He calls it something dangerous that a person like her should never do, and explains: “If you ever love someone, that’s surrender. It’s losing.” He says that she’d believe everything that guy ever told her, which would be the end, and advises her to never ever say that she loves someone.
To which she stares into his eyes and replies, “I love you.” HA. He’s taken aback, and it takes him a few seconds to recover and yell at her not to do that. Without skipping a beat, she switches gears and says she’s hungry.
While the mermaid slurps some ramyun, Joon-jae watches her and wonders if maybe she has amnesia, and tries his lighter hypnosis on her to ask about her parents. It doesn’t work even a little, and once he explains what parents are, she says she doesn’t have any.
She asks him if he has parents, and he gets this faraway look in his eyes as he says that he has a father who might as well not be there, and he wishes he had a mother. He says that’s what he’s doing—looking for his mom—and when the mermaid asks where, he says, “The end of the world.”
He asks the mermaid for her name (took you long enough), and isn’t even surprised when she says she doesn’t have one, because he’s gotten used to all her weirdness. She asks forlornly, “If I weren’t strange, if I were a person with a name, then I could stay with you, right?”
He assures her that he didn’t mean it like that, and says she’s not even all that strange compared to all the truly weird people out there, calling himself the strangest person of all. She calls him a good person and he asks how she’d know that. She answers sincerely, “My hand—you could have let go many times. You’re a good person.” This time, he has no quippy comeback to mask his reaction.
As the mermaid sleeps that night, Joon-jae gets up and slips the jade bracelet back on her wrist. He mutters softly that he’s dined and dashed a lot of times, but this is the first time he’s ever spit out what he ate. He sighs, “Let’s go together. To the end of the world.”
Unfortunately, the henchmen have also discovered Joon-jae’s plans to visit the Tower of Hercules, the place he keeps calling “the end of the world,” and they head there to intercept him.
In the morning, Joon-jae gets his cut of the scam and a car from Thomas, who’s busy trying to hit on the mermaid. But once Joon-jae is gone, Thomas finds out that his share of the money collected last night was given to the church pastor—Joon-jae told him to use it to educate poor children, lol.
The mermaid keeps hearing about this place called Seoul and asks if Joon-jae is going there, and he says yes, because that’s home. At the mention of home, the mermaid looks out at the ocean and shuts her eyes.
They reach the Tower of Hercules, and the mermaid asks why they call this the end of the world when it’s the start of the ocean. Joon-jae thinks back to coming here as a child with his mother, who told him about the legend of Hercules’s mother who longed to see her son, and the lighthouse that the people built so that he’d cross the ocean and come to her.
Little Joon-jae asked how the legend ends, and Mom didn’t answer, but said that people who part here are destined to meet again. She said it was probably because while this was the end of one world, it was the beginning of another one.
He’d carved his name into a stone there, and in the present he shows the mermaid and tells her his name, saying that it’s an honor since there aren’t many people who know his real name. She asks if people who part here really do meet again, and he figures it’s probably a lie, since he was separated from his mother here and still hasn’t found her.
They watch as Little Joon-jae runs around in tears looking for Mom and gets led away by a man in a suit, and once the vision fades, he says that his mother left without saying goodbye. Well that explains his fixation with goodbyes.
The mermaid discovers his name carved into a second stone, and Joon-jae smiles to realize that his mother did say goodbye to him all those years ago. He tells her that it reads, “I love you, Heo Joon-jae,” and the mermaid asks if Mom lost and surrendered to him. He chuckles and says she did, momentarily taken with the mermaid’s smile.
The trip down memory lane is cut short by the arrival of the relentless loan shark henchmen, and when Joon-jae cocks his gun from the tower at them, the goons bust out machine guns.
Always quick to back down, Joon-jae grabs the mermaid’s hand and they run… and run and run and run… all the way to the edge of a cliff, with the ocean churning violently down below.
They’re cornered now, so Joon-jae asks to let the girl go, insisting that she has nothing to do with this and he doesn’t even know her name. He tells her to get lost, but she comes right back to his side and says, “I’m your wife.” Oh no!
He mutters out of the corner of his mouth that she should’ve run away when she had the chance, and asks what they’re going to do now. The mermaid just glances down at the ocean, but Joon-jae turns pale and says that he’s afraid of heights AND water, and he’d rather get lightly shot. Lol.
The mermaid says no to the bullets, and before he can argue, she grabs his hand and leaps into the sea. He begins to sink almost immediately… but the mermaid returns to her true form and swims over to him, and at her touch, he opens his eyes.
He takes in her mermaid tail and suddenly remembers all the odd things about her, and how she wondered if she could stay by his side if she had a name and weren’t so strange. The truth dawns on him, as the mermaid pulls him in for a kiss.
Epilogue. Preservation scientist Shi-ah works on a collection of artifacts recently discovered underwater, and she’s shocked when she clears away the mud on a vase, uncovering a drawing of a mermaid kissing a man.
I’m really enjoying the way each episode opens on a new chapter of the mermaid’s love story with Dam-ryung, especially because it’s so visually beautiful and melancholy in tone. I’m hoping that if the past storyline is the classic tragic one, the present timeline has a shot in hell at a happy ending. Hey, it’s the first week, so why not dream big? I like getting the Joseon story in little bits, like a short fable where we get to imagine all the details in between. But even if these two souls were fated to be for the last four hundred years, what I like about the present-day romance is that they’re both actively choosing to stay together—repeatedly taking her hand and not letting go, as the mermaid keenly pointed out.
We’ve only known Joon-jae for a short time, but he seems to be breaking every rule in his book for this strange girl, without really knowing why. That repeated choice, especially the one where he returns the jade bracelet and takes her with him to the end of the world, makes me invested in the romance from the start. On an emotional level, it carries more weight than the mermaid’s childlike attachment to him, since for now it’s like she’s imprinted on him like a duckling, which is adorable but not so complex. I do think we’re in for a lot of change with the mermaid now that she knows language, no matter how unbelievable the overnight crash course is. I mean, how many videos could she possibly have watched in one night to go from Wolf Boy to Wifey? Can she also stop time?
The connection between Joon-jae’s desire to hear the mermaid’s voice and her sudden ability to speak is fascinating, because in Joseon I honestly couldn’t tell if they were sharing a mental connection and he just didn’t know it. But now it seems like Dam-ryung wishing to hear the mermaid is connected to her suddenly talking, similar to the way that Joon-jae voiced the desire and it magically coming true. Is the mermaid something of a wish-granter, or are her abilities limited by what Dam-ryung and Joon-jae want? Why? Because they saved her? Or because they love her? Or because she loves them?
I already knew in the first episode that the mermaid would be a great character, but I’m surprised to also like the con man right away, because I expected him to be more morally questionable, or to keep leaving her behind and being a slippery weasel. But he’s so sweet to the helpless mermaid and so hilariously puffed up by vanity and his nonexistent fight skills that I ended up loving him by the end of this episode. It helps that he’s so sincere and forthright with the mermaid, possibly because he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again, or because he trusts in her innocence on a fundamental level. He’s more likable than I expected, which is a huge relief. I think overall the comedy won me over, thanks to the clever directing—both for his character, and the drama as a whole—because the emotional range is greater on both sides now, and that opens up a lot of possibilities. I’m thrilled that Joon-jae has already learned of the mermaid’s true identity, but what are the chances that he’ll get to remember that? I’d say slim to none, but here’s hoping for a magical twist to counter her magical memory-zapping powers.