It’s been almost a week since the finale of tvN’s Twenty-Five Twenty-One and people are still breaking apart the final episode, hoping to find leads on a next season. This clamor for anything but a final goodbye is shared even by BTS’ Jungkook, who responded to an ARMY query about the show saying, “I don’t like sad endings. Director-nim, you heard us? We put our hope on you.”
And what’s not to look forward to in a possible second season? The drama maintained a number one spot in its time slot across all channels in Korea. It offered an unconventional K-drama structure that veered away from meet-cute tropes and appealed more to coming-of-age classics like tvN’s Reply 1988. The magnetic chemistry of the leads Kim Tae Ri and Nam Joo Hyuk are uplifted by a refreshing ensemble of new talent: Bona, Choi Hyun Wook, and Lee Joo Myung. Finally, the unpredictability of each episode engineered many entertaining theories on how things will end for the kids that we watched grow up over sixteen episodes.
Endings are important. They provide us signals to fold up one story and then open up space for the next. They confirm to us that the characters we love are in good places and we can let them go with ease. So what happens when we get an ending that tells us nothing is guaranteed? That life is a constant cycle of falling and choosing to get up—of loving, then losing, and then choosing to love again?
This is perhaps what makes Twenty-Five Twenty-One a masterful show that exhibits the passions and pitfalls of being young. We didn’t simply zero in on the budding romance between the fierce Na Hee-do (Tae Ri) and the cautious Baek Yi-jin (Joo Hyuk), but the lives of everyone around them.
We also witnessed fencing athletes crumble under pressure, nurture precious friendships, and leap with joy after a hard-earned victory. We celebrated both the times Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo Myung) put up a fight and the moments she backed down and let go. We navigated the same emotional minefields thrust upon Yi-jin who was forced to grow up early by an economic crisis. We learned to empathize with many different versions of a parent-child relationship. We chased the thrill of each new feeling as if we were Kim Min-chae (Choi Myung Bin) aggressively flipping through the pages of her mom’s diary.
In closing the way it did, Twenty-Five Twenty-One asked us to sit still for a moment and feel all of it, the joy and the sting together, before jumping into the next thing. And if we do take that cue to sit still, we might find the show holding out its hand to us—a generation of lost and confused dreamers trying to find place in a world where the pandemic is changing everything we know.
Like Hee-do and Yi-jin at the onset of Korea’s IMF crisis, adolescents and young adults all over the world are recalibrating their plans, shifting careers, and even questioning the worth of what they’re doing. While some of us turn to K-drama to put those worries away or maybe even find uncomplicated guides on what to do, Twenty-Five Twenty-One offers no such easy answers. It gives us the truth.
Here is one: With Hee-do’s daughter finding inspiration to do ballet again and her long-lost diary returning with a surprise letter from a young Yi-jin, it is no longer a question of whether the lovers who once supported each other through difficulty will get back together. The question becomes, 'Was it all worth it? All that time and emotional labor leading up to this moment?'
Here’s another truth: There are many people in our personal lives asking that same question. There are more aspiring athletes, journalists, and students like Hee-do and Yi-jin on the brink of giving up a passion, losing connection to a dear friend, or breaking up. To them, Twenty-Five Twenty-One says that whatever you decide, as long as you decide out of love, you will always eventually end up on the right path.
That much is made clear in the end, when we see adult Hee-do (Kim So Hyun) gaze lovingly at the same tunnel where she fell in love, experienced heartbreak, and laughed with friends. Once upon a time, she ran through this tunnel and dared to say "everything will last forever." Even if it didn’t, being able to recall something that vividly is enough. Having known that kind of love, even if momentarily, is a complete gift in itself.
If our fiery, uncompromising Hee-do can find peace with the way things turned out, then there is hope for the rest of us.
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