‘The Golden Spoon’ character vignette: Why we love a morally gray protagonist

Spoilers ahead for episodes 1-4 of The Golden Spoon.

Lee Seung Cheon — as one sharp Asianwiki commenter put it — is a morally gray protagonist. By that, I mean that his actions are not always what one might consider noble or conventionally good. His motivations are sometimes flat-out questionable; for instance, a couple of his decisions we’ll look at today are fuelled purely by revenge or greed.

While a flawless main lead might work in some stories, it certainly doesn’t make for a relatable character — which is what we get in Seung Cheon (Yook Seung Jae) of the currently-airing The Golden Spoon. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve all felt less-than-honorable feelings before; whether or not we want to admit it, the bane humanity behind his actions are relatable to viewers to an extent. It’s one reason I believe we still like him and root for him; we get it.

And Drama helps us out; The Golden Spoon tells its tale masterfully, weaving in character motivations early on so that we quickly begin to see how these people tick. That way, when they make choices — whether good, bad, or just morally gray — we understand why they do, even if we don’t agree with them.

Bringing it back to our protagonist, Seung Cheon here has stumbled upon an unusual opportunity to act upon his greed and desire for revenge with little to no immediate consequences to him. (Yes, “immediate” is the key word there…we’re already seeing that all of Seung Cheon’s choices do indeed hold consequences; they’re just different than what he imagined they’d be.) On numerous occasions, for instance, Seung Cheon choses to get back at his abuser — a sentiment most of us might not agree is morally correct, per se, but can understand the reasoning behind. But let’s take a step back and look at the first decision he makes that I think can be considered questionable: the decision to switch parents with Tae Yong (Lee Jong Won). I won’t get far into the lore of the golden spoon here, but here’s a quick rundown: if you eat with it three times at someone else’s house, you switch parents with that person — as in, you become a part of their family and get their life while they get yours. No one remembers except you. So, Seung Cheon is suddenly able to enjoy the wealth and power of Tae Yong’s life while Tae Yong is now a part of Seung Cheon’s family.

Clearly, switching your parents with someone else without their consent (or with it, for that matter) can probably be universally agreed upon as an unethical move, but the drama has made it clear before this point how Seung Cheon thinks and feels: he attributes his suffering to poverty and, more significantly, to the lack of power that money could otherwise provide.

As an example, let’s look at how Seung Cheon is bullied by Jang Gun (Kim Kang Min). He takes the abuse, not because he is afraid or can’t fight back, but because he knows that any retaliation would very likely end in him being punished severely (and thus having to kiss his envisioned future goodbye) while Jang Gun and his buddies might get a proverbial slap on the wrist. Jang Gun even pays Seung Cheon sometimes for letting him hit him, further perpetuating what they both already believe: money = power.

Taking all of this into consideration, viewers can understand why Seung Cheon wants to switch parents — even if it seems like kind of a smarmy thing to do at surface level.

The next morally gray decision we’ll look at is when Seung Cheon tells the school principal about Jang Gun cheating on the exam. This results in Jang Gun’s father beating him with a baseball bat. Now, in Seung Cheon’s defense, I don’t think he knowingly used Jang Gun’s violent father against him (anyone seen Heirs?); he clearly wanted him to face some sort of consequence, but we have no reason to believe he knew Jang Gun’s dad would beat him up. Still, while watching the domestic violence play out, it’s hard not to remember the role Seung Cheon had in it. And even if the viewer doesn’t blame Seung Cheon, Jang Gun certainly does — and swears at the end of the scene that he’ll make him pay (which leaves Jang Gun with strong motivation to bring Tae Yong [who is now Seung Cheon in the eyes of everyone except our protagonist himself] to his house in the particularly brutal bullying scene that comes later.)

The moral ambiguity is not so much in the fact that he told on Jang Gun. (I’m not going to get into the debate of “tattling” because I’m sure there are varied, strong opinions on the subject.) Instead, the question of moral grayness comes into play when we look at Seung Cheon’s motivation. Why did he tell the principal Jang Gun cheated? Solely for revenge. Which, again, we as an audience understand that desire for what he probably thinks of as justice; we get it. But this self-centered decision had dire consequences for someone else, whether Seung Cheon intended those specific consequences or not. And that raises ethical questions in my book.

The last example we’ll look at today is when Seung Cheon chooses to point the gun at Jang Gun and fire the blank. Viewers already know that Jang Gun has done this to Seung Cheon in the past, but I doubt too many people would watch this scene and think this behavior is okay — even knowing that the bullet was a blank. It’s remarkably frightening to watch, not only objectively because of the content, but because the protagonist of our story just crossed the line into villainous, antagonistic territory. Suddenly, he’s putting someone through psychological torture because he can.

I want to be very clear here: I am not defending Seung Cheon’s behavior. It was wrong and this moment was particularly jarring. But I am able to see where Seung Cheon is coming from, even if I disagree with his decision. He probably look at this as a chance to give Jang Gun a taste of his own medicine; this was done to him, so why not put Jang Gun through the same horrors he inflicted onto others? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it: Why not?

And it’s the question our protagonist seems to think is an answer in and of itself.

So, why do we love a morally gray protagonist? Because he’s realistically human, he’s relatable to an extent, and we get why he feels the way he does. Even if you haven’t been bullied, even if you didn’t grow up poor — the drama makes sure you understand things from Seung Cheon’s point of view so that you can understand his motivation. That’s why it’s important to build a vivid protagonist with clear motives — something The Golden Spoon is doing beautifully. Because its hard not to root for a character that you sympathize with, regardless of whether or not you agree with every choice they make.

Last week I wrote a post on the unique second male lead The Golden Spoon is presenting with Tae Yong. Let it suffice to say, he’s not your typical rich boy character — and it’s extremely refreshing. Here’s the link to that if you’d like to check it out:

If you’d like to check out more of my work, look a little lower on the page to see a couple of my latest posts. And/or follow my blog to stay updated.

Currently watching: The Golden Spoon, Bad Prosecutor

All-time favorite drama: Sakura no Oyakodon: Season 3

As always, happy drama-watching, friends.

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