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Breaking Down the Ending of Hierarchy, Netflix’s New Gossip Girl-Like K-Drama 

11 minute read

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Hierarchy

In the opening episode of Hierarchy, Netflix’s new K-drama about students at an elite private school in Korea, a former “it” couple of high teen society climb into separate sports cars and take off around a track. This is what breaking up looks like for teens in the world of Hierarchy; one does not simply send a text, they challenge their childhood sweetheart to a high-stakes game of speeding vehicles.

Well, in theory the stakes are high. In the three-and-a-half minute racing scene, it never once feels like Jung Jae-i (Our Beloved Summer’s Roh Jeong-eui) and Kim Ri-an (King The Land’s Kim Jae-won) are in any real danger, despite the fact that, outside of this scene, we only ever see them being ferried around in private cars by faceless chauffeurs. On the racetrack and elsewhere, the uber-privileged characters are untouchable.

Jae-i and Ri-an are the two wealthiest students at Jooshin Academy, a fictional high school that educates Korea’s 1%—and some scholarship kids. “Inspired” by the institution’s Latin motto, noblesse oblige, the school’s leadership admits a handful of promising poor kid students every year. Kang Ha (Crash Course in Romance’s Lee Chae-min) is one such kid. When we meet him in the first episode, Kang Ha is new to the school and seemingly oblivious to the institution’s not-so-subtle hierarchy, even when other students try to inform him, with their words or fists. But, as we get to know him, it quickly becomes clear that Kang Ha is not as naive as he appears. 

In fact, Kang Ha is at Jooshin Academy seeking revenge and justice for his fraternal twin brother, In-han. Months prior, In-han was also a scholarship student at the school. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident after a period of brutal bullying. As Kang Ha eventually admits to Jae-i, he came to Jooshin to find out what happened the night of In-han’s death, and to hold anyone complicit accountable.

In-han’s suspicious death is not the only thing shrouded in secrecy at Jooshin. Over seven episodes, Kang Ha uncovers a web of surveillance, blackmail, and institutional corruption that started long before his brother arrived at the academy. Like Gossip Girl and The Heirs before it, Hierarchy brings viewers into a world where teenage relationships are treated as extensions of parents’ business dealings, and a high school scandal can upend not just a school, but an entire company.

HierarchyCourtesy of Netflix

Who killed Kang Ha’s brother?

While we know from the first moments of Hierarchy that In-han was killed after being struck by a car in a dark Seoul alley, it’s not until the season finale that we find out who was behind the wheel: Ji-soo (Lee Jin-hong), one of the teachers at Jooshin Academy, who is sleeping with one of her teenage students, Woo-jin (Lee Won-jung). When a bruised In-han stumbles upon the two making out in a hallway while trying to escape his bullies, Ji-soo chases after him—first on foot, and then in Woo-jin’s family car.

Ji-soo is desperate to talk to In-han, but In-han just wants to get away. Since he started at Jooshin Academy, he has been physically beaten by other students, targeted for daring to be friends with Jae-i when he is “just” a scholarship student. Now, a teacher whose duty it is to protect him, is chasing him down. Distraught, he calls his brother. Just as the phone connects, In-han stumbles out in front of Ji-soo’s speeding car and she hits him. Rather than call an ambulance, Ji-soo grabs In-han’s phone and a camera pen that has recorded the entire night, including evidence of Ji-soo’s affair and the car accident. She leaves her student to die.

Later, the camera pen and phone end up with Woo-jin, who found them in his car. Inspired by Jae-i’s efforts to take accountability for the system that led to In-han’s death, Woo-jin turns In-ha’s pen and phone over to Jae-i, who gives them to Kang Ha, who gives them to the police.

How does Hierarchy end?

Does Kang Ha get his revenge? This is a complicated question. After Kang Ha turns over the incriminating video evidence to the police, Ji-soo and the students who beat up In-han the night of his death are arrested. However, the series’ central theme of vengeance is undercut by its treatment of Jae-i and its depiction of systemic privilege. While Kang Ha understandably holds Ri-an to a high level of accountability in In-han’s death for being a part of the violent system that led to his death (and even gets an apology out of him), he does not do the same for Jae-i; instead, he falls in love with her. 

In general, the show treats Jae-i mostly as a victim of this world, rather than an active and powerful participant in it. Hierarchy wants us to believe that Jae-i and Ri-an learn how to accept accountability because of Kang Ha’s arrival at the school. But if the death of a fellow student did not shake their world views, then it seems unlikely that Kang Ha’s presence would. Hierarchy ends on the message systemic inequality is fine, as long as those in power don’t get away with overt bullying or murder.

Read More: The Netflix Korean Dramas to Look Out for in 2024

What happens to Kang Ha? 

Hierarchy doesn’t spend a lot of time telling us who Kang Ha truly is, and what his brother meant to him. We’re told that he loved In-han, but we only get the occasional snippet of them together in flashback. Emotionally, we don’t get to understand what Kang Ha lost when he lost his brother. 

Instead, many of the best character moments in Hierarchy focus on the core four rich kids—Ri-an, Jae-i, He-ra, and Woo-jin. This prioritizes the world of the wealthy over the world of the scholarship kids. Because we get so little of the world Kang Ha, In-han, and these other scholarship kids come from, In-han’s death feels further devalued. It becomes a morality lesson for these wealthy teens, rather than a tragedy that actually resulted in a human’s death. And, ultimately, it is a tragedy that was carried out by someone outside of the rich kids’ social circle—a teacher who can only afford luxury handbags when the student she is having an affair with decides to gift her one. 

In the end, Jooshin Academy is still thriving, albeit with a new principal in its head office. Presumably, the new principal is in the pocket of Ri-an’s mother too, which lends a kind of futility to much of what happened in Season 1. This futility is not treated as disturbing or uneasy, but rather full of possibility. The show ends with He-ra and Kang Ha sharing Korean street toast, implying that these two worlds—the world of the wealthy and the world of everyone else—have been reconciled. But they have not been, not in any real way. 

Who is recording Jooshin Academy’s students?

It may seem convenient that Ji-soo’s crimes are so neatly recorded, but most of what goes on around the students of Jooshin Academy is. Because Ri-an’s chaebol mother funds the school, Jooshin’s Principal Park uses the students’ own phones to keep an eye on everything that happens there, and sends relevant information about Ri-an back to this mother. It is implied that literally anything any student records on their personal device and then uploads to “the cloud” is accessible to Principal Park. It’s also accessible to Principal Park’s teenage son, Ju-won, who regularly sneaks into her office to steal the digital files. A scholarship student himself, Ju-won prides himself on being invisible, watching other students from the shadows.

HierarchyCourtesy of Netflix

Who is blackmailing Jae-i?

In the first episode, Jae-i returns to Jooshin Academy after a mysterious, three-month trip to the U.S. She immediately breaks up with her long-term boyfriend Ri-an (via the physics-defying car race), and begins hanging out with Kang Ha, seemingly wanting to use her power to keep him safe from bullying. 

While all signs point to her being directly involved in In-han’s death, this is not the case. They were friends, and she does feel responsible for not doing more to keep him safe, but she did not kill him.

It’s later revealed that Jae-i is being blackmailed. Her terrible younger brother had recorded a video of her and Ri-an having sex at their family’s beachside villa, and Ju-won has gotten a hold of it from his mother’s surveillance archives. Ju-won, who hates what Jooshin Academy has turned his mother into, uses it to make Jae-i squirm. It doesn’t even seem like he wants her to do anything; he just wants to make her suffer before he eventually blows up her life. Later, we learn that Jae-i was pregnant with Ri-an’s child before going to the U.S. to have an abortion. She didn’t go through with it, but later had a miscarriage. She broke up with Ri-an in part because she didn’t want him to be sad, too. He eventually finds out, however.

When Ri-an learns about the video, he puts his people on it, trying to ensure that it doesn’t come out. Kang Ha, who develops feelings for Jae-i, also keeps Ju-won from sharing it. 

Eventually, Jae-i learns to live with the grief of her miscarriage and her role as a bystander to In-han’s bullying. This way, she gains the courage to escape her abusive father’s clutches. While she’s an extremely passive character for much of Hierarchy, the series leaves Jae-i on a higher note. She breaks up with Ri-an, but not before telling him the truth: More than anything, she wants to see him happy, work on their codependency, and that they are young, and there is a good chance they will find their way back to one another once again.

She also admits to Kang Ha that she has feelings for him. Before Jae-i leaves town, Kang Ha races across the city to see her one last time. He embraces her, and tells her that, though he came to Jooshin to get justice for his brother, he fell for her along the way.

“I just wanted to be with you,” Kang Ha says, but laments that he could not be with her while still accomplishing his goal. Though their relationship never felt particularly earned, it is a moving moment, made even moreso when Jae-i says, cooly, before getting into her car: “That day. Do you remember the last question you asked? [If I ever had feelings for you.] You were right about it. I was lying to you.” 

Ultimately, however, Jae-i’s happy ending is wrapped up in her choosing herself. She finds her birth mother, who was sent away by her father years ago. From the time she was small, she has been afraid of being “disappeared” like her mother, but she has finally realized the promise of love and safety in it, so different from the fear and shame wielded by her father in the name of family. “Mother,” she says with a smile in the show’s closing moments.

Will there be a Hierarchy season 2?

Not so long ago, it was virtually unheard of for a K-drama to get a second season—the format was designed as a one-and-done experience. However, especially with the influx of American-based streamers like Netflix to the Korean TV industry, it is becoming more common. Sweet Home, Hospital Playlist, and Yumi’s Cells are just a few examples of the recent Korean dramas that have extended into multiple seasons. And, of course, Squid Game will be returning later this year with a second season.

While there has been no official announcement, Hierarchy seems particularly well poised for a second season. There’s a new principal at Jooshin, which Ri-an, He-ra, Woo-jin, Kang Ha, and many other familiar faces still attend. And, in a post-credits scene, there is an apparent murder afoot. A student is found dead and bleeding on a classroom floor, in the middle of the school day. As the shocked and horrified students rush into the classroom, Ri-an receives an anonymous message: “You look shaken up, Kim Ri-an.” Here we go again…

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