The newest drama from MBC, Marriage Contract seems poised to be a show with a lot of emotional impact. It centers around two people from very different financial backgrounds, who find themselves in dire need of outside help and are forced to turn to each other in their time of need. It gets off to a leisurely start, but the characters are strangely compelling and they just draw me in, making me eager to see more.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A man sleeps in a hotel bed, while his girlfriend accepts room service. She’s clearly got something romantic planned, with wine, flowers, and a fancy cake. She wakes him to tell him that it’s their hundred-day anniversary, and he gives her a gift… and then he breaks up with her. HA.
A team of chefs and servers prepares for a fancy luncheon — it’s opening day, and they’re treating the press to a free meal. The man from the hotel pulls up and goes inside to address his guests: he’s HAN JI-HOON (Lee Seo-jin) and he’s the owner of this restaurant, named Promise.
Outside, a young mother asks her daughter to stay put for just a few minutes, and goes inside to inquire about a job. We’ll learn that her name is KANG HYE-SOO (UEE), and her daughter is EUN-SUNG (Shin Rin-ah).
Ji-hoon may be the owner but he seems to have little interest in the restaurant, letting his manager HO-JOON (Kim Kwang-gyu) do the bulk of the work. He asks Ho-joon to borrow his car, having sent his own driver away, and Ho-joon reluctantly hands over the keys.
Ji-hoon takes a call from his mother, who’s well on her way to being inebriated despite the early hour, and she says that she wants his help giving his father a birthday present. He tells her to forget it, and he’s so distracted that when he puts the car in drive, he comes within inches of hitting little Eun-sung, who’s followed a kitten into the street.
Hye-soo sees the near accident and lunges for her child, collapsing in the street in front of Ji-hoon’s car. Even though he didn’t hit her or Eun-sung, Hye-soo is unconscious, and Ji-hoon rushes her to the hospital.
Eun-sung cries at her mother’s side, and when Ji-hoon tries to pull him away, she jerks her arm out of his grip. He calls Ho-joon, who wonders how she could have passed out when the car never touched her. Their natural assumption is that she’s faking, in an attempt to swindle Ji-hoon out of a settlement.
Ji-hoon has Hye-soo’s phone, and he picks up a call. The man on the other line is hostile and refuses to identify himself, and hangs upon Ji-hoon.
Hye-soo finally wakes, confused, but she assures Eun-sung that she’s perfectly fine. Eun-sung yells at Ji-hoon for hitting her mom with his car, and though he tries to deny it, he’s no match for the tiny little firecracker. To protect himself, Ji-hoon tells Hye-soo that he’ll pay for a full physical, just to make sure that she’s not injured.
Ji-hoon and Eun-sung wait for Hye-soo to finish her physical, with Eun-sung rhythmically kicking Ji-hoon’s chair. Hee, I love this kid. He fusses at her for running into the road, and she snaps back that he was driving too aggressively. She hollers that he nearly killed her mom, which turns heads, and he asks if her mom taught her to say that.
Ji-hoon and Hye-soo exchange numbers so that he can find out her test results, and Hye-soo warns Ji-hoon to be more careful when driving. He takes that as a threat, reminding Hye-soo that Eun-sung ran in the road, and she collapsed without his car touching her. If she claims otherwise, he’s fully prepared to go to the police.
He turns to go, but as Hye-soo’s guardian, a nurse brings him her medical bill. A shady-looking man overhears and approaches Ji-hoon, and seems awfully interested in how much Ji-hoon is compensating Hye-soo for the accident. Eww, he’s gross, and Ji-hoon takes this as more proof that Hye-soo is conning him.
But when Hye-soo sees the sleazy man and his goons on the escalator, she ducks and cringes from him, clearly terrified. He calls her and her ringtone gives her away, and she runs outside and jumps into Ji-hoon’s car to hide.
Once the men are gone Ji-hoon kicks Hye-soo out of the car, and tucks some money in her pocket, saying to end this here. He doesn’t even give her a chance to object (well, she does, but he doesn’t listen), and drives away.
There’s a small family celebration that night for Ji-hoon’s father’s birthday, and this is interesting — his father’s wife is not his mother. Ji-hoon is the illegitimate son of President Han and his mistress, and was raised in the main household with his older half-brother JUNG-HOON. We also learn that Ji-hoon actually lives above the restaurant Promise, and that his real love is music.
He seems uncomfortable when President Han makes a big deal out of the rstaurant, calling it the first in their new restaurant empire. You get the feeling that Ji-hoon gave up his musical dreams to gain acceptance in the family by running Promise.
A guest is announced, and the family is surprised to see Ji-hoon’s mother, who is now fully drunk and raving. She’s slurring that she’s President Han’s wife and has every right to be here, and Ji-hoon is sent out to deal with her.
For some reason, Ji-hoon seems horrified that his mother has been drinking, asking if she wants to die. Jung-hoon’s fiancee SEO NA-YOON (Kim Yoo-ri) arrives in time to see Ji-hoon struggling with his flailing mother, and though it’s the first time Jung-hoon has introduced her to Ji-hoon, it’s obvious by their expressions that they’ve met before.
Ji-hoon takes his mother home and gets angry at the evidence of her excessive drinking, ordering the maid to get rid of all the alcohol in the house. He puts his mother to bed, and when she complains that his father never talks to her anymore, he says that President Han is getting older and tired. Ji-hoon asks if she’s taking her medication, but Mom just tells him to get married to someone better than Jung-hoon’s fiancee. That’ll show them.
He’s still angry at his mother’s drinking, saying that if she collapses again, that’s it for her. She finally relaxes into the pillows and starts to sing, telling her son that she fell in love with his father when she heard him sing that song. He used to sing it to her when she was pregnant with him and sick, and she wails that he’s a liar — he said she was the only woman for him.
That night, Hye-soo starts to pack the tiny apartment where she and Eun-sung live. She tells Eun-sung that she just wants to find them a bigger place, but Eun-sung complains that she promised they’d stay for a long time this time. Hye-soo is running from something, and it’s a good bet that the sleazy guy is the reason.
She fibs to Eun-sung that she ran away from the hospital today because her physical hurt, but Eun-sung is a smart little cookie and calls her mother out on her lie. She tells Hye-soo that she’s not a baby and she can be honest with her, and my heart breaks a little at how adult she is already.
So Hye-soo tells Eun-sung terrible jokes until she laughs, and they break out in a tickle fight. The two are adorable together, and obviously very close. All this while Hye-soo’s phone keeps ringing, and she declines every call.
Ji-hoon makes it back to Promise after they close for the night, and Ho-joon shows him that the initial reviews are very good. Ji-hoon goes up to his apartment, which is quite nice, in stark contrast to Hye-soo’s humble home.
Hye-soo calls Ji-hoon, and he immediately goes on the defensive, repeating that he never hit her with the car. She tries again to talk about the money he pushed on her but, assuming she’s going to claim it’s not enough, he repeats that he’ll call the cops on her if she calls him again and hangs up on her.
He gets another call, and this time it’s his mother’s maid — his mother has collapsed again. He rushes to the hospital where her doctor tells Ji-hoon that her condition is progressing fast, and she needs a liver transplant as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Ji-hoon is not a match, and he glosses over the doctor’s query about other possible family members.
Hye-soo arrives home the next day to find her place has been invaded by the man who’s been chasing her. As suspected, he’s a loan shark, and although Hye-soo stands up to him and says that she’s paid back the principle and then some and can’t pay anymore, he insists that she still owes him interest.
By now it adds up to a hundred million won, and for Hye-soo it’s more than she can imagine being able to pay. She tells him that she’s done paying him — she’s got a daughter to raise and no job, and can’t afford to pay him more even if she did owe it.
He’s utterly unmoved, telling her that he hears sob stories every day. But her husband borrowed that money, and though he died, she’s on the hook to pay it back. He grabs her collar when she screams at him, and tells her to sell her body if she has to, and he can even introduce her to someone who would be interested. He even kicks Eun-sung’s bike over, the threat clear — if Hye-soo tries to run again, her daughter will be his next target.
Hye-soo cries in fear and frustration, but she gets a break in the form of an interview for a job at Promise restaurant. Manager Ho-joon says that someone recommended her highly, and though Hye-soo doesn’t know of anyone who works there that would know her, we see a handsome server watching her interview with a small smile.
Desperate, Ji-hoon visits his uncle to ask him to help his mother by donating his liver, but it’s a dead-end. She’s long since alienated him by cutting him out of her life when she became a rich man’s mistress. She even refused her own brother a small loan when his wife was dying and needed surgery. His wife died, and he has no intention of helping his sister now, not even for money.
Ji-hoon goes to see his mother, who’s awake now, and she begs him to save her. She promises to stop drinking and living like she’s been, scared to die without even seeing her only son marry and have children. She sinks to the floor, sobbing, pleading with Ji-hoon over and over to save her life.
Ji-hoon can only stand helpless, unable to say anything to comfort her. He grows angry and says that she did this to herself, bellowing, “Who told you to live like this?!” He whirls and leaves her there alone.
Hye-soo starts her new job the next day, and the (frankly a little frightening) head chef SOO-CHANG glares at her when she asks if she could get a pay advance. She rethinks her request and tells him never mind, and heads home for the day.
The handsome waiter follows her outside, and she recognizes him — he’s her deceased husband’s cousin SEUNG-JOO. She figures out that he’s the one who recommended her, and asks if he’s straightened out and stopped getting into trouble.
Their conversation is stilted and awkward, and it’s clear that her relationship with his family isn’t good since her husband died. But he seems to like her, and asks if he can see Eun-sung one of these days.
She visits her friend JOO-YEON, who owns a small beauty shop, and tells her that the loan sharks have found her again. Joo-yeon is outspoken and blunt, but she obviously loves Hye-soo very much, and she fusses that Hye-soo’s husband died and left her to deal with his problems.
Hye-soo defends him, saying that he was just too trusting, and Joo-yeon complains that she married him and had a child too young. She’d love to help Hye-soo, but she has her own family troubles, so the best she can do is offer moral support.
On their walk home after school, Hye-soo takes a phone call and drops Eun-sung’s hand, and Eun-sung gets distracted by a cute puppy. When she looks up again, Hye-soo is halfway across the street, and Eun-sung gets stuck standing on the median when the light turns. She cries out to her mother, but Hye-soo is deep in conversation about a new apartment, and doesn’t hear her.
By the time she realizes that Eun-sung is no longer with her, the girl is nowhere to be seen. Hye-soo runs back along her path, growing more and more panicked, remembering the loan shark’s threat to her daughter. Thankfully, she soon finds Eun-sung still standing in the median where she left her.
It’s hard to say who is more upset, and outspoken little Eun-sung makes her anger at her mother known: “You left without me!” Hye-soo feels terrible and apologizes, and holds her daughter while they both cry.
The loan sharks are there again when they arrive home, and this time Hye-soo manages to hustle Eun-sung out of sight before they’re spotted. They go back to the benches in front of Promise to kill time, staying until late at night, and Eun-sung notices her mother ignoring several phone calls.
Ji-hoon has involved his manager Ho-joon in helping him find a liver for his mother, but Ho-joon has also hit a dead end. With no family to help and buying a donor too risky, Ji-hoon is running out of options.
When the restaurant closes for the night and the employees file out, Hye-soo sneaks herself and Eun-sung inside. Hye-soo puts on a little show for her girl, acting silly and pretending to faint in Eun-sung’s lap. Eun-sung tells her mother that she’s not a baby, and she knows that those men are trying to get money from her.
She gives Hye-soo a few dollars, the money that Joo-yeon gave her to buy Christmas presents, and that just about breaks Hye-soo’s (and my) heart. She says to give the money to those men so they can go home, promising to protect her mother with her tiny, fierce little fists. Hye-soo hugs her, and cries.
Out in the street, Seung-joo helps his aunt (and Hye-soo’s ex-mother-in-law) with her street cart, where she sells socks and stuffed animals. He tells her that he saw Hye-soo, but the news doesn’t make her happy, and she tells him not to talk to her about Hye-soo again.
Eventually Eun-sung falls asleep, and Hye-soo worries about getting in trouble for being at the restaurant. She decides to ask permission, and heads toward the office. She sees Ji-hoon also on his way there, and only now realizes that the same man who accused her of scamming him, is also the restaurant’s owner.
Ji-hoon has a new idea, and he tells Ho-joon to find him someone to marry. It would kill two birds with one stone — his mother wants to see him married, and if he marries a woman who’s a donor match, she can donate her liver. He’s willing to compensate the woman handsomely to help him with this.
Hye-soo overhears their conversation, and her eyes grow wide at the amount of money Ji-hoon is prepared to pay. She stumbles, and Ji-hoon chases her downstairs to the restaurant, where she stops and turns to face him. He recognizes her and smirks, sure that she’s here because of the accident, but her next words shock him:
“Let’s get married. I’ll marry you.”
I had my doubts initially about this show, mainly that the plot sounds very similar to Superdaddy Yeol, and the seemingly mismatched pair of UEE and Lee Seo-jin. But I’ve been wrong before, and I’m willing to admit that I was wrong again here. So far, I’m finding the story quite engaging and the leading characters extremely moving and relatable. Neither Ji-hoon nor Hye-soo are perfect — in fact, they’re both very flawed people, with challenges both outside their control and completely self-made, and though their life situations are polar opposites, they’re both stuck in a position where they feel helpless to take care of those they love. I think that it’s their haplessness in the face of life’s cruelties, and their desperation to do whatever it takes to make things better for their families, that will be what brings them together and helps them find common ground.
I think my favorite scenes are when Hye-soo and Eun-sung are together, because the two are just adorable. Hye-soo’s love for her child is such a bright light in her life, really the only good thing she has since her husband’s death, and it’s so sweet how she makes sure that her daughter knows it. She may not be able to provide much in the way of material things, but she’ll make sure that Eun-sung knows that she’s loved, no matter what. I appreciate that Hye-soo is willing to do anything to provide for her daughter in a situation she never asked for, and who can blame her… the kid is flat-out precious. At the tender age of six, the actress playing Eun-sung already has an impressive resume, and rightly so — her portrayal of Eun-sung is both adorable and fiercely spirited. I love that she’s sassy and smart, and gives Ji-hoon the what-for when she feels he wronged her mother. I can’t wait to see more from this little ball of fire.
Ji-hoon is harder to get a bead on, because he’s so stoic and doesn’t show emotions lightly. But you get the sense that he’s that way because of the way he was raised, away from his mother but trying to maintain a good relationship with her without alienating his father’s family, and trying to fit in with his half-brother. The fact that his true dream is to be in the music business hints that he’s probably quite emotionally deep, but he’s just learned to hide that side of himself. And he obviously loves his mother very much, and is scared to see her die and leave him without anyone truly on his side. It’s no wonder he’s willing to do just about anything, even marry a stranger, to make her happy and save her life.
But it’s also worrying, because we know from the show descriptions that Hye-soo is also seriously ill, and that she will enter into this alliance for her own reasons — to give her daughter a father after she’s gone. I’m sure that feelings are going to get involved on both sides, which will complicate matters and turn this marriage contract into something much more meaningful. It’s frightening to project forward to Ji-hoon’s using Hye-soo to save his mother’s life, only to fall in love with her and face losing her instead.
The show has a slow pacing that I initially worried would be annoying, but I actually found myself relaxing and enjoying the leisurely pace. It gives the characters and situations room to breathe, and the audience a chance to understand the nuances in the scenes without feeling rushed. The show is full of loaded emotional beats, unspoken but clear if you pay attention, and I really like that about it. It’s nice to watch a drama that respects its audience’s intelligence, trusting us to understand what’s being said even if it’s not being spelled out for us. It does give Marriage Contract a different feel and ambiance than many mainstream shows, but I think that’s going to end up being one of its greatest strengths.