Skip to content

sure, why not

4 min

Now is as good a time as any to get back into newsletter writing. I was going to try a whole thing where I wrote about one pop culture thing and one science thing in each newsletter, but then it turns out that I had a lot of words to say about a Korean drama I loved, so let’s just get into that and save science for later.

There are a lot of guides coming out right now about what to read or what to watch during coronavirus. These lists are often (though not always) geared towards comfort or distraction—things like cheery romance novels or comedies. And that makes a lot of sense except for when it doesn’t, which is a pretty individual thing to figure out. In the past few weeks, there have been times when I want to laugh. But there have also been times when I’ve read the summary of a cute contemporary romance novel and become actively angry at these fictional characters and the fact that they have the absolute fucking gall to live a pandemic-free life in this day and age.

And to placate that mood, I found Hotel Del Luna, a Korean drama about a hotel for ghosts on the way to the afterlife. The hotel is run by Jang Man Wol (played by IU), a vengeful spirit who has been forced to run the hotel ever since a horrific and mysterious act she committed over 1000 years ago. The hotel is about to take on a new human manager (the 99th in its history) named Gu Chan Seong (played by Yeo Jin-goo), a very nice and good person even though he doesn’t shut up about his Harvard business school degree.

The show starts as a sort of gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast, which is interesting enough on its own. In the first episode, we see Gu Chan Seong’s father attempt to steal a flower from the hotel 20 years earlier, only to be caught by Jang Man Wol. She lets him live as long as he promises that his son will eventually come to work for her. When the time comes for that debt to be paid, Chan Seong basically is like “fuck no,” only to end up drawn in to the hotel’s stated purpose for existing: helping people move on.

This leads, of course, to romance as he learns more about his boss’ past and the role he has to play in helping her move on from her past grudges. Man Wol is gloriously petty and spiteful, but also funny and filled with 1000+ years of experience. Chan Seong is generous and forgiving, and the show uses that to illustrate Man Wol’s change without undercutting the characterization that made her interesting to begin with.

But the core of Man Wol’s story, and really of the whole show, is grief. Some of that is the grief of not being able to fulfill what you hoped in life. And as a show about ghosts, the story takes that on in full horror movie fashion. There are vengeful ghosts and curses. But the actual horrors are the consequences the show lays out for ghosts who follow this path, who are so burdened by their own grief that they cannot move on. The morality and rules in place are simple (don’t harm humans), but the feelings around the rules are more complex. This is the rare show where you’re rooting for characters to move on towards death, not out of a desire to see them be narratively punished, but because in the context of this show, it’s a bittersweet form of peace.

There is also grief on the side of the living, which is usually what I think about in stories about death. I don’t know if this is because of, you know, the state of the world right now…especially the fears both existential and grounded that many of us are feeling. Whatever it is, I don’t think I realized just how much I needed a show that made me confront the very pervading sense of sadness I’ve been feeling mixed in with all that anxiety and anger.

It’s not that I watched this show and felt any kind of clarity about the pandemic. I didn’t. There’s been too much that’s happened and too much that still has yet to happen, and I don’t expect to feel any kind of clarity about any of it for a very long time. But amidst the comfort fiction I’ve consumed in the past few weeks, I also needed something that felt cathartic without feeling too on the nose either (aka no zombie movies please). And it turns out that for a moment, what I needed was a bittersweet show about an angry, caring spirit and the ghost hotel she’s tended to for a millennia.

(On a less navel-gazey note, this show is so pretty to look at, and Jang Man Wol’s outfits are fucking amazing.)

Some Recent Things I’ve Done

It’s been so long since I’ve written this newsletter, so here’s just a few things (one of which is technically not something I’ve done yet):

A Nonfiction Book Club Announcement (YouTube): I’m finally doing a thing I’ve been wanting to do for a while: a nonfiction book club! Together with awesome person/friend Nicole Sweeney, we’ll be doing our first livestream on April 11th at 5 pm ET to talk about The Personality Brokers, by Merve Emre(note that is an amazon affiliate link). Watch the video to learn more, and hopefully you’ll join us next week!

A cool thing I get to do work for is SciShow Tangents, and last month, I got to actually be on a few episodes! We talked about viruses and sugar, and it was a very good and educational time!


If you want to talk about Korean dramas, the weird ways your tastes are manifesting right now, or anything else, you can reply directly to this email.


Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.