I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Extraordinary Attorney Woo win legal battles and talk about whales each week.
When the series finished airing, I was very surprised to find such a mixed reception to what I believed to be a fairly authentic representation of a genius woman with a learning disability finding her way in life.
I’m not going to link to them, but I read a fair amount of scathing mid-season reviews of the Netflix series from people claiming to be in the intellectual disability community.
Is Extraordinary Attorney Woo Worth Watching?
Some shunned Attorney Woo’s portrayal as ‘unrealistic’ since they themselves had never been embraced in their lifetime by strangers and co-workers alike, only ignored. Others praised the positive representation, but claimed the caveat to the positive portrayal was putting Attorney Woo up on a pedestal unachievable to most people living on the autism spectrum.
As it stands now, the kdrama series has very polarizing reviews.
I should point out that I am not autistic, nor do I have any intellectual or learning disabilities. Nor have I come into contact with anybody who identifies on that spectrum in my personal life.
So this kdrama review will be filled with my own ignorance, or interpretations surrounding the story, production, and portray of Attorney Woo Young Woo, a gifted savant with a brilliant legal mind – but poor social skills.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What Is The Extraordinary Attorney Woo Kdrama About?
Extraordinary Attorney Woo [이상한 변호사 우영우] is a 2022 Netflix legal drama. It tells the story of Woo Young Woo, an attorney who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the Autism Spectrum.
As a child, Attorney Woo was raised by her single father, Woo Gwang Ho.
Unbeknownst to the viewer at the time, the legal books in the home may have belonged to Gwang Ho, who used to attend law school. While in college, Gwang Ho was in a relationship with Tae Su Mi, a woman with a privileged background who was set to inherit the illustrious legal firm Taesan from her father when she came of age.
After falling pregnant, Gwang Ho begged Tae Su Mi to have the child – even promising to quit law school and never face her ever again. With the deal arranged, a car dropped an infant Woo Young Woo off one late night to Gwang Ho, who passed the bar and then left the legal sector to open up a Kimbap snack shop to support his family of two.
Despite being absolutely brilliant when it comes to the law and legal matters, and graduating from a top university with honors – nobody would hire Woo Young Woo, a woman with autism.
Growing more depressed watching his brilliant daughter face discrimination for her intellectual disabilities, Gwang Ho’s friend from university, Han Seon Young, offers Young Woo an internship at her legal firm Hanbada.
And…this is where our story begins.
Can A Person With Autism Become A Lawyer?
Throughout the entire series, there is always the lingering question:
Can Attorney Woo handle being a lawyer despite having autism?
I think the series answers this in its own way, through the viewers own interpretation of events, situations, and legal cases Hanbada takes on.
Although there are two other autistic people Young Woo meets during work, I would like to focus on only one for now.
There was a case towards the beginning of the drama series where an autistic man was accused of murdering his brother. The suspect in question was low functioning on the spectrum, voluntarily non-verbal, and needed to wear headphones most of the time.
Senior Attorney Jung introduces Attorney Woo to the man in an effort to get him to speak, to which Attorney Woo questions if she is only on this case because she has autism. Attorney Jung tells her yes, and Attorney Woo has a very hard time attempting to communicate with someone who is believed to be “just like her” despite clear differences in their intellectual and social functionality.
Young Woo’s Adversary, Attorney Kwon
Along with Young Woo, Hanbada also hired Attorney Choi Soo Yeon, the daughter of a supreme court justice and Kwon Min Woo, an insecure man who is in debt due to his parent’s ailing health. The three are intended to be mentored by Senior Attorney Jung, and ‘compete’ for the sole open position in the legal firm for hire.
Soo Yeon and Young Woo went to university together. Although at first Soo Yeon behaved like a false friend due to her romantic interest in Lee Joon Ho, later on in the series Soo Yeon becomes one of Young Woo’s biggest supporters at work, and a true friend who always has her back.
Juxtaposed to this, we have Attorney Kwon…who does quite literally everything in his power to sabotage Attorney Woo from the moment they meet. Now this may be odd to say, but I love how they portrayed Attorney Kwon for the majority of the series.
Attorney Kwon first comes off as someone who enjoys being a part of the ‘boys club’ in South Korea’s patriarchal society.
Attorney Kwon has no qualms with taking bribes in the form of artwork or goods, or bending the truth while ignoring opposing moral factors in order for his client to win cases. He would even go so far as to continually slander and frame his co-worker if it meant furthering his position at Hanbada.
In short, Attorney Kwon is a complete asshole who comes off as someone prejudiced against an autistic person.
But…is that really the case?
Despite constantly bullying and attempting to antagonize Attorney Woo, Attorney Kwon’s actions are never condoned by those around him.
There were numerous scenes in the drama where Attorney Kwon would shout in frustration that Attorney Woo “isn’t like (us)” to which he would be shouted down and reprimanded by Attorneys Jung, Lee, Choi, and even (to a certain extent) President Han.
Finally, when Attorney Kwon is able to finish his sentence without another lawyer jumping down his throat – he mentions that Young Woo is strong.
That Young Woo is not weak, but the rest of them are.
Young Woo is a ‘tortured genius’ who can storm out of courtrooms and discussions without impunity due to her intellect and vast legal knowledge.
In other words, it has nothing to do with Young Woo’s disability that threatens Attorney Kwon, but her own intelligence – which is separate from her disability and – based on her own merit.
When that was revealed…I absolutely loved it.
While by the end of the series Attorney Kwon is (somewhat) reformed and redeemed as a character, his treatment of Attorney Woo is a testament that yes, an autistic person can become a lawyer – as long as they have the knowledge and abilities required.
Can An Autistic Person Fall In Love?
Remember I mentioned earlier that there are two autistic people Attorney Woo meets at work?
Let’s circle back to that now.
One day, when Attorney Woo was on the subway, she witnesses an illegal arrest take place. Eventually getting roped into taking the case, Hanbada and the rookies are tasked with representing a gigolo who preys on autistic women.
A woman in her mid-twenties with the mental capacity of a thirteen-year-old girl is the plaintiff, and her mother is accusing the gigolo of rape. Although the plaintiff meets with Young Woo outside of court and attests that she does love the man, in court she buckles when trying to admit her mother’s forced testimony.
This brings into question whether or not a person with autism can fall in love, or rather – will society believe that an autistic person even has the capacity to fall in love.
Although the case ends with Hanbada losing and the defendant going to jail for his serial predatory actions against women with intellectual disabilities, this causes Young Woo to re-examine her budding relationship with litigation Attorney Lee Joon Ho.
Popular with women and men alike at work, Joon Ho is an overall nice guy who becomes enamored with Attorney Woo. The two begin to go on dates, and continue to use polite speech with one another.
After the case I discussed above, Young Woo begins to distance herself from Joon Ho.
Because Young Woo isn’t sure how to express her concerns with Joon Ho, he begins to feel lonely. There was this great conversation Young Woo and her father had where he expressed that as a child, Young Woo made him feel very lonely.
It is this memory that seems to guide Young Woo in her interactions with Joon Ho, culminating during the rookie’s trip to Jeju Island for a case.
Young Woo And Joon Ho Break Up On Jeju Island
While on Jeju Island, Joon Ho takes Young Woo to meet his sister and her husband for a meal. During the hours leading up to the visit, Young Woo is too focused on dolphin watching – which frustrates Joon Ho.
After calmly explaining to Young Woo that his sister prepared a lot of food and is really looking forward to meeting her, the two travel to her home. Young Woo receives some particularly bad advice on ‘kind’ things to say based on an old drama her friend Geu rami watched, and unfortunately repeats the cheesy lines to Joon Ho’s sister…who was not impressed, to say the least.
The siblings argue while Young Woo leaves for the bathroom, and Young Woo returns to overhear Joon Ho’s sister disapproving of the relationship.
Citing Young Woo as someone he will always have to take care of and doesn’t even seem close with (due to still using honorifics with one another), the two later break up on the beach – Young Woo never telling Joon Ho the true reason why.
Communication Is Key?
Towards the end of the series, the two get back together after talking about their feelings for one another. Young Woo expresses that she doesn’t know how to not make people feel lonely around her, while Joon Ho likens Attorney Woo to a cat.
Joon Ho explains that although cats ignore their owners, they still love and care for them anyway. Young Woo then chimes that cats love their owners just as much, even if they don’t show it.
Although I was satisfied with the portrayal of romance between Attorney Woo and Joon Ho, I can still see where his sister is coming from.
Young Woo’s father was upset when he learned she chose not to bring her boyfriend home, expressing his desire to see if Joon Ho could “take care of” Young Woo as he does.
Tae Su Mi appeared to be surprised, and even proud when learning from Attorney Kwon that Young Woo had been in a romance with one of her fellow co-workers at Hanbada.
There have indeed been times when Joon Ho had to ‘take care of’ Young Woo, like when she was yelled at by overly aggressive clients in his presence, or when the pair were witness to accidents and even murders while working cases.
But in my own personal opinion, you don’t have to be autistic to have a strong reaction to someone dying right in front of you.
On the flip side, as a viewer I know that Young Woo only eats gimbap. So while I cringed at Young Woo trying her best to be polite and eat the food made by Joon Ho’s sister while in Jeju, I could understand her taking offense to Young Woo’s admittedly rude behavior.
While I watched Attorney Woo battle with the revolving door for weeks at work, I can understand (temporary replacement) Senior Attorney Jang‘s annoyance at Young Woo needing three seconds to step through a new doorway’s threshold.
(Although to be fair, she shaved it down to two seconds towards the end of the season ☺.)
Is Extraordinary Attorney Woo A Good Kdrama?
I keep thinking about the last conversation this season onscreen between Tae Su Mi and her daughter, Young Woo.
While reflecting on her working life, Young Woo likened herself to a narwhal, living in an unfamiliar ocean with unfamiliar belugas. Although they are different from one another, and some whales hate the narwhal – it still learned to coexist and adapt with the other aquatic life.
I feel like this is a great analogy for Extraordinary Attorney Woo.
Despite appearing different, beluga and narwhal are still two species in the same white whale family.
Although Attorney Woo has autism, and experienced a lot of hardship and discrimination – in the end, she found her place in the world. Young Woo found friends, romance, and even family in reconnecting with her mother, and meeting her half-brother.
That sense of fulfillment Young Woo felt at the end of season one is something I’m sure most of us felt as well, watching her journey and growth this past year as a lawyer in one of South Korea’s top law firms.
Autism or not – Young Woo found and built a life for herself. And that alone definitely makes Extraordinary Attorney Woo a spectacular kdrama in a year full of gems, and well worth watching.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo Season 2 has already been announced.
While I personally feel like Attorney Woo’s story is over, I am interested in what comes of this new kdrama in 2024.
But, tell me your thoughts.
Did you enjoy watching Attorney Woo evolve and adapt to society?
Do you think things would be different for Young Woo if she wasn’t a legal genius and high-functioning in her disability?
Did you want to see more interactions between Young Woo and her half-brother Choi Sang Hyeon?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you!
And if you’re looking for a show similar to Extraordinary Attorney Woo, I’d highly recommend Move to Heaven!
I watched it weeks ago, and have been meaning to make a review on it. Maybe I’ll make one soon… ☺
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