Every episode of Extraordinary Attorney Woo which has aired so far is best summed up by the moment of enlightenment that the show’s titular protagonist experiences: a ‘whale eureka’. A smile breaks out on her face as realisation dawns, there’s a strong wind that ruffles her hair, and we cut to the image of a majestic whale in the sea.
When we meet Woo Young-Woo (Park Eun-Bin), a rookie attorney who has autism spectrum disorder, she’s all set to join hot-shot law firm Hanbada. A framed newspaper clipping on the walls of her father’s Kimbap restaurant tells us that she is the first autistic attorney in South Korea who has graduated summa cum laude from the Seoul National University.
At the beginning, one can’t help but tend to approach the series with some level of trepidation. When shows have protagonists who are neurodivergent, there’s often a lack of nuance and empathy in the writing, and the characters become caricatures.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo, however, is the perfect example of how good writing, empathy, and sensitivity can unfold beautifully on-screen. No surprise then that this K-Drama has taken audiences across the world by storm and has seen a meteoric rise in its ratings. It is also reported to have topped Netflix’s list of most-watched non-English shows for a couple of weeks.
Woo Young-Woo is a genius, has a photographic memory, loves Kimbap, and adores aquatic mammals... whales in particular. If you’re groaning about the fact that this is yet another person on the spectrum depicted as a savant on-screen, EAW effectively addresses this and so much more about being on the spectrum through Young-Woo, as she takes on workplace challenges, tackles prejudice, and forms solid friendships.
At Hanbada, Young-Woo has her first brush with workplace ableism as her prickly senior, Attorney Jung Myeong-seok (Kang Ki-young is less than happy to have her on his team. He marches to the chairperson of the firm, and says he needs ‘an attorney who can meet with clients and go on trials’.
It is her neurodivergence here that stands out to him, more than her stellar record and honours as a law graduate. Her other colleagues at Hanbada comprise fellow attorney Choi Soo-Yeon (Ha Yoon-Kyung) who was her law school classmate, and Kwon Min-Woo (Joo Jong-Hyuk). There’s also kind and sweet Lee Jun-Ho(Kang Tae-Oh) from the legal team there, who helps her navigate the rather complicated revolving doors at work on her first day, and soon becomes her lunch buddy.
Any expectations that the focus of the show will remain solely tailed on Young-Woo struggling or settling down at work is quashed early on. She is assigned her first case soon enough, and it isn’t long before Myeong-Seok is impressed; any concerns about him becoming the stereotypical difficult boss Young-Woo will have to go up against is thankfully done away with.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo
It is in depicting these workplace relationships and friendships that writer Moon Ji-Won goes off the beaten track. Young-Woo, thankfully, is also not pitted against the other female member of her team, Attorney Choi. They, in fact, go on to become loyal friends and get probably one of the best scenes in the show, that is sure to leave you a blubbering mess.
K-Dramas have always excelled at female friendships, and be it Attorney Choi or Dong Geu-Rami (Young-Woo’s school friend who is her biggest cheerleader), there’s so much love, support, and warmth to revel in.
Each episode deals with a case that Young-Woo’s team at Hanbada takes up, and through her eyes, the narrative goes above and beyond limiting itself to a staid procedural drama. We follow her journey as she discovers something new about people, ethics, and the world around her with each case.
The cases range from an elderly client dealing with a murder charge against her husband, a North-Korean defector who has been accused of assault, to helping the residents of the quaint town Sodeak Dong take the legal route against the construction of a highway, while going up against rival law firm Taesan.
Law firm Hanbada and the people that EAW focuses on, are a microcosm of the world outside and how it treats people like Young-Woo who are on the spectrum. There are several scenes that force us as viewers to reflect on our internalised prejudices. When Young-Woo is walking with Jun-Ho, the latter’s classmate who runs into them, asks if he is volunteering with the disabled from a home nearby. The ableism is also followed by workplace sexism, especially made evident when Young-Woo meets a new client who doesn’t acknowledge her presence, since they are in a room full of male lawyers.
There’s sensitivity, humour, and kindness that Park Eun-Bin brings with her portrayal of Attorney Woo. This is a career-best role for the actor, and comes close on the heels of her performance in The King’s Affection for which she bagged a Baeksang award nomination. She is a treat to watch, be it when she’s spiritedly arguing in court, or as she quietly speaks about her autism, and the way people perceive her.
However, there has been some valid criticism about Young-Woo not having been played by an actor with autism. But the writing and the manner in which the character has been conceived, deserves to be lauded. At no point in EAW is Young-Woo made a mockery of, and there’s so much to love and learn from her.
Playing ‘greenest flag’ Jun-Ho as he’s being celebrated by the fans, Kang Tae-Oh is charming and sweet. There’s genuine admiration, and warmth as he looks out for Young-Woo, though never overstepping his boundaries professionally, and remaining a silent, solid ally. It is admirable how this romance has not overshadowed all the other aspects of the show, and it will be interesting to see how the relationship is taken forward in the coming episodes. Seen in comedic roles in other popular K-Dramas, Kang Ki-young is also a revelation as the quiet, serious and yet supportive senior attorney Jung Myeong-seok.
With ten episodes down, the K-Drama is now moving into its final three weeks where six episodes will be aired. There’s professional challenges, drama surrounding Young-Woo’s birth mother, and a romantic relationship all on the anvil. EAW’s biggest strength so far has been how it has effectively balanced sensitivity and nuance in writing with its heartfelt and likeable characters. Here’s to hoping the empathy and acceptance continue!
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is currently streaming on Netflix