‘Thirty-Nine’: K-Drama Breaks the Rules to Show Reality of Death, Love, and Friendship

Netflix’s Korean drama Thirty-Nine has started an interesting round of conversations about its storyline. Within the first episode, Thirty-Nine broke a cardinal rule of K-dramas by letting fans know one of the main characters will ultimately die. As the drama has progressed, it has broken common expectations to show the reality of love, friendship, life, and death without the haze of a made-up storyline.

[Spoiler alert: This article contains mild spoilers for Thirty-Nine.]

'Thirty-Nine' K-drama main cast huddled together in front of window.
‘Thirty-Nine’ K-drama main cast | via JTBC

A main character comes to terms with her death in ‘Thirty-Nine’

It is not common for K-dramas to make audiences aware a leading character will die by the end of the story. But Chan-young’s (Jeon Mi-do) diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer is what drives the underlying story of what it means to live and face death. Despite fans knowing she will die, they see her and the characters’ evolving journey to look at themselves differently in Thirty-Nine’s K-drama story,

Mi-jo begs Chan-young to seek treatment in Thirty-Nine, even if her condition is terminal. But Chan-young is not blind to her reality. Instead, she chooses to live out the remainder of her life with no regret and with the people she loves. This also drives her to seek out the dream she left behind a long time ago, becoming an actor.

Not only is Chan-young’s acceptance of her death a refreshing take on a real-world situation, but the way it affects the other character is as well. Like most, Mi-jo and Joo-hee are in denial but must learn to accept Chan-young’s decisions. This does not mean they are free of moments of fear and sadness.

The characters facing Chan-young’s death push them to also look at themselves. Jo-hee starts to realize her life is not meant to be pushed around by customers. Chan-young’s wish for Mi-jo to find her mother opens a new chapter in her life.

Love is never easy, not even in K-dramas like ‘Thirty-Nine’

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Fans have seen their fair share of romances in K-dramas, from enemies to lovers, age gap relationships, unsuspecting love, and more. While Thirty-Nine caters to many tropes with the leading couples, there is something unique with Chan-young’s. There is no denying affairs are a sticky topic, even in K-dramas.

But in Thirty-Nine, the leading characters are well aware of Chan-young being in a relationship with Kim Jin-seok, despite being married. Chan-young does not describe it as an affair. They have not kissed, had sexual relations, or typical factors that categorize an affair.

The K-drama breaks common romance rules in this regard. Everyone is aware of the relationship but lets it slide, seeing as Chan-young is happy. In an episode, the main characters and Chan-young’s mother enjoy a normal time in her apartment. When Jin-seok’s wife arrives, Mi-jo is the one that begs her to let them be happy and turn a blind eye.

In most K-dramas, the reveal of an affair is scandalous, and in Thirty-Nine, there are those moments. But there is a twist when Jin-seok’s wife learns Chan-young will die and realizes what they have. Chan-young and Jin-seok’s relationship is not about a taboo sexual appeal but about finding comfort and connection with each other. Chan-young does not wish to get married. She would rather have Jin-seok mend his marriage.

‘Thirty-Nine’ K-drama shows the complexity of friendships

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A K-drama is not complete without a close-knit friend group. While fans have fallen for the carefree and sisterly bond between the female characters, Thirty-Nine also unearths problems under the surface. Chan-young, Mi-joo, and Joo-hee are family, but Thirty-Nine breaks K-drama expectations to show things are not always okay.

The best example is in episode 10. A lot has happened from Chan-young’s cancer taking a toll and Mi-jo meeting her birth mother. But Joo-hee has something more to say. After learning her mother knew about Mi-jo’s past, she feels guilty.

But she painfully admits Mi-jo and Chan-young have often cast her aside. She explains she is always the last person to know the truth. A fan on Reddit explains, “I guess her mom having cancer, coupled with the missing college entrance exams because it and JH just being naive and kind are the reasons why she is left out of her friends’ hardships first.”

Joo-hee tearfully admits that she is afraid her and Mi-jo’s friendship will deteriorate when Chan-young dies. Thirty-Nine breaks K-drama expectations and rules to showcase how death can change multiple aspects of life for better or worse.

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