This article contains spoilers.
All good things must come to an end, but for hit K-drama The Penthouse, which just brought its third and final season to a close, the “good” petered out a long time ago. This drawn-out closing season, which was extended by two episodes despite flagging ratings, lazily cycled through imitations of the show’s earlier highlights, until it reached a perfunctory and sappy climax.
Korea’s makjang dramas, akin to Western soaps, rely on peaks of feverish melodrama, often capped off with major deaths. In many cases these deceased characters will come back to life, or perhaps their long-lost twin will appear – or sometimes even both will happen. The Penthouse gave us several such moments in its run, but the body count truly ramped up in season three, and surprisingly few characters made it to the finish line.
Major character deaths can be hugely emotional moments in serialised drama, but in The Penthouse characters repeatedly died and came back to life with alacrity.
In the final stretch, Sim Su-ryeon (Lee Ji-ah) inexplicably killed herself, as did Cheon Seo-jin (Kim So-yeon), which was easier to accept; Logan Lee (Park Eun-seok) died of cancer, and Joo Dan-tae (Uhm Ki-joon) got the big death scene we’ve all been waiting for. Although death was an ephemeral concept on The Penthouse, the finale ended with Su-ryeon and Logan walking through a tunnel to the afterlife, connected by the red thread of fate.
Of the characters remaining on Earth, Bae Ro-na (Kim Hyun-soo) has become a world-famous diva and her former school rivals Ha Eun-byeol (Choi Ye-bin) and Joo Seok-kyung (Han Ji-hyun) are reformed singing teachers. Eun-byeol is now unable to sing, having dramatically severed her vocal cords during the trial of her mother, Seo-jin.
The Penthouse never pretended to be anything other than high-pitched, hysterical fun, but while the excess remained until the end, it lost its giddy energy and felt forced and tired. That said, a few moments still stand out, such as Seo-jin’s amusing inner monologue that revealed her hatred of Su-ryeon began when they both brought the same pecan pie to a dinner party.
Also entertaining was the scene in which a deranged Seo-jin mistakes Ro-na for her daughter Eun-byeol in the two-floor practice room within Hera Palace. She tussles with Ro-na and ex-husband Ha Yoon-chul (Yoon Jong-hoon) and makes them fall down the stairs, the latter cracking his skull, while she trips over the balcony, swings from a chandelier, falls and screams as the light fixture drops from the ceiling and impales her.
Kim Hyun-soo in a still from The Penthouse season three.
Despite this deadly blow, at the very beginning of the next episode, Seo-jin is essentially unharmed and soon back on her feet. Seo-jin had been suffering from drug-induced early onset dementia, which led to the bloody altercation, or so we thought. However, it turns out she knew that her daughter had been trying to poison her and secretly regurgitated the laced wine she drank.
It’s perhaps not fair to hold The Penthouse to rigorous logical standards, but in season three it became clear that the writers did not have the slightest interest in being consistent. The wheels came off and the narrative increasingly abandoned rhyme or reason – and thus events, no matter how manic, no longer came as a surprise.
The show lacked consistency in its plotting, but most troubling, it also forgot about the apologies it had made to viewers. Early in this final season, The Penthouse got into hot water following the appearance of Logan’s twin brother Alex (also played by Park Eun-seok). An insensitive and messy mix of African-American cultural stereotypes, the character rankled foreign viewers, who complained about cultural appropriation.
Both Park Eun-seok and the show’s producers apologised for the offence caused, and Alex disappeared … until he came back. In the back half of the season Alex returned, with all his troubling characteristics intact. It’s one thing to be a little clueless about what may or may not be insensitive to other people, it’s another entirely to apologise for it and then flagrantly do the exact thing again, hoping people wouldn’t care a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, as there was no backlash when Alex reappeared. But that may be because everyone who cared had long since given up on the show.
Uhm Ki-joon in a still from The Penthouse season three.
And yet The Penthouse did manage to stoke controversy again following its biggest moment this season: the destruction of Hera Tower. Arch-villain Dan-tae finally meets his maker when he rigs the high-rise to explode and presses the triggers as he falls out of the penthouse window, after being shot in the head by Su-ryeon.
This moment offers a fittingly operatic end to the show’s major antagonist, but the resulting images of the crumbling tower edited in real-life footage of recent deadly disasters in South Korea, which didn’t go down well with viewers.
SBS’ prime time makjang drama was a ratings smash that delighted viewers with its stylised views of the villainies of high society, and kept us entertained with a steady stream of outrageous set pieces and surprises. But three consecutive seasons within the space of a year ultimately turned something lively and fun into a rushed and sloppy affair, where the writers were clearly scrambling to manufacture new big moments long after they’d exhausted their supply of good ideas.
Lee Ji-ah in a still from The Penthouse season three.
The Penthouse season three is streaming on Viu.Internet Explorer Channel Network