It’s over and we can heave a sigh of relief. Twenty Five-Twenty-One has come to an end, after keeping us on our toes for 16 episodes. The writers have been cruel to the audience — they didn’t give us the answers we so craved since Episode 1, and instead kept taunting us with merciless hints. The tension and suspense about the fate of the protagonists kept building slowly from the first episode, reaching a crescendo till the finale, that had atoms of sweet, in so much bitter. The ride has been breathless and brutal, if I may be honest — but oh, the emotional pay-offs have been so completely worth it. While the romance felt consuming, the beauty of the show was that it was about so much more, that by the end you just feel rather drained and exhausted.
Who knew that a seemingly innocent-sounding drama would be something like the Squid Game of romances? At its heart, Twenty Five-Twenty One juggles with many themes — the sport of fencing, the different phases of love, unconditional friendship, the compulsion to mature during excruciating circumstances, the decisions that can wreck an individual emotionally and yet chart their career, and living during politically charged times.
We’re introduced to the show through the eyes of a young child named Kim Min-chae, who discovers her mother’s diaries from the 90’s. It is through her that we meet the rebellious and overtly blunt Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri), whose passion for the sport of fencing doesn’t let her see much else. She befriends the rather battered Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), who is struggling to build his life again after the disastrous IMF financial crisis in South Korea. An unlikely yet healing friendship is formed between the two of them that isn’t hampered even by distance or sudden disappearances.
It’s the time of the 90s when the world was without the internet and Whatsapp, and yet these two find a way to be of support each other via payphone calls, when they cannot be near each other. You know they’ll fall in love eventually, but that isn’t the point of the show. There is something beautiful in watching this strange and funny friendship evolve over a span of several years, without expectations and profound explanations. The chemistry is addictive, almost hypnotic between Nam Joo-hyuk and Kim Tae-ri. The affection for each other is embedded in each smile, head shake, and their lingering hugs. The magical and unconditional love that is so central to Korean dramas isn’t born instantly, not even when Yi-jin confesses his love simply to Na Hee-do the first time. She knows she feels strongly for him, but is it actually love, she wonders. Slowly, she finds the answer herself, as she waits for him as he struggles to make a career. We learn with her as well—the different colours of their love, just like the rainbow, in front of which they confess for the first time. It starts with friendship, grows into a deeper attraction, and then the gradual understanding of romantic love, with its pain and bittersweet heartbreak. But the love of your youth is not the bliss you dream that it is—-and the young characters are uncertain whether they can carry each other’s exhausting burdens. It’s almost exhausting to watch, and dread begins to seep in as you start wondering, will this relationship survive?
Friendship and rivalry is sports is central to Twenty Five-Twenty One. As her school shuts down the fencing club, Na Hee-do is transferred to another school which houses her idol in the sport, Yu Rim. Yu-rim is cold and seemingly bitter, because she has had to grow up quicker than others, and shoulders more burdens than any 16-year-old should. The two spar on numerous occasions and their conflicts are taken to the international arena, when a small moment during a crucial fencing match results in a victory for Naa Hee-do, something that Yu-rim cannot accept. Yet, through a series of wholesome and actually hilarious circumstances, they become friends, almost sisters. There is no room for pettiness; life is too short for that. Perhaps, it’s just easier to make memories.
Life comes full circle when they spar once again, this time for different countries. Emotions run wild, and the final victory doesn’t taste sweet. Their friendship is powerful in front of the media of both the countries that had worked hard to pit them against each other, and in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the show, they break down and hug after the match. The cost of the match is visible in their tousled hair and tear-ridden sweaty faces as they take off their masks and face each other. As they say, no one will know how hard this match was for both of them.
The restlessness, and desire for answers sets in early in the show. The knife twists brutally at times just after fun comic scenes, without you expecting it, and your imagination begins to run wild. By Episode 7, we’re dying to know if Kim Min-chae is Yi-jin and Na Hee-do’s daughter, and Yi-jin’s whereabouts in the present. The suspense is too much to bear, and the innumerable theories thrown by fans on Reddit and YouTube are testament to that. Did he die, did she get amnesia, or did they divorce? Ah, for those answers, you must suffer the same ride the rest of us did, and watch the show. We’re all Kim Min-chae by Episode 14, trying to piece the puzzle together, bawling at the separations and the reunions of our lead couple. Yet, the show reminds us, life isn’t about that ‘happy ending’. The ending is a punch in the gut; it’s a brutal realization that life isn’t a fairytale. Sometimes, the most healing moments are temporary, though the effects resonates throughout our lives. The sad part is, we don’t want the realism. We want the fairytale. The ending almost feels like a diabolic betrayal and I almost didn’t want to accept it, because I refused to believe that after eight weeks of wholesomeness and the seeming comfort of a romcom, this would how it end. Who wants realism, isn’t life enough?
Twenty Five-Twenty One is a stunning, wholesome, and yet bittersweet portrayal of friendships that struggle to stand the test of time. The subtle nuances to each character brilliantly shines through, from Yi-jin’s desperation to do anything to avoid falling back into the pit of depression from which he had climbed out of, Na Hee-do wrestling with her love for fencing, her father’s sudden death, new attractions, and her sisterhood with Yu-rim. The growth in each character is visible throughout the course of 16 episodes, and at times it’s almost painful to watch. Na Hee-do’s perky and chirpy attitude slowly ebbs away as she learns the cost of fulfilling dreams and a relationship that was easier as a friendship, while Yi-jin realizes the emotional toll of being a reporter during a devastating world crisis. Nothing comes easy for anyone — not even if you’re world-champion in fencing, or a reporter who has the access to best exclusives. Dreams may persist; reality is something else. Yet, with a little bit bit of love and friendship, you might find a reason to hold on.