I really like this series. I think this series is really good. I have enjoyed each episode. The episodes are funny. I want there to be more of them! That said, we did not just watch the finale that we deserved. It brings me no pleasure to say so, but I think if we clear the air, maybe we can salvage some meaning from the dizzying saga of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, whose beloved Pembroke deserves her even less than her beloved Bill Dobson. Her tenure as chair was cut scandalously short by the hand of a covetous enemy, but I’d like to think she was about to quit anyway.
Satisfyingly, we’re finally treated to the full skinny on Dr. Peter Seung and the fairy tale that never was. The couple resigned themselves to long-distance lovin’ when Michigan declined to make Ji-Yoon a competitive offer as a spousal hire. Eventually, though, Peter met someone else. Ji-Yoon responded by burying herself in her scholarship to the point that she was undeniable; she could get tenure at whatever R1 university she wanted. But when the time came to choose, she stayed at Pembroke, where she’s now the very public face of a systematic campaign to quash dissent. You can read about it in the school paper.
I’m grateful to finally get the goods on Peter. If only Ji-Yoon could confide in someone more appropriate than her daughter’s school-appointed psychologist. She’s not just too distracted by work to seriously engage with Ju Ju about her frustrations. Now she’s even missing her daughter’s triumphs. Habi, looking hella adorable in his Día de los Muertos costume, accompanies Ju Ju for her big presentation. I know Ji-Yoon loves teaching, but how much is she willing to give up for a job that would probably wait a few days before texting her back? I wonder if she has ever defined the upper limits of what she’ll tolerate.
After the Pembroke Daily story runs, even Ji-Yoon’s lit classes turn on her. “Some women in the academy pretend to be allies,” says an especially savage undergrad. It’s astounding how sure the students are of their own understanding. They could ask Ji-Yoon questions about what happened, but instead they use the moment as a springboard for broader complaints likely to better apply to Pembroke at large than they do to Ji-Yoon. It’s sadder than watching her suffer abuse from Larson, Elliot, or even Bill, whose self-serving agendas are apparent. The series hasn’t primed us to doubt Ji-Yoon’s commitment to her students; how painful it must be to her that they doubt it themselves.
Unbeknownst to Ji-Yoon, she has also lost Joan’s confidence. The grand dame of the English department is back in the Title IX office, which has merged with the ethics office, which is now staffed by the woman in the very short shorts. Joan fights off tears as she runs through the injustices she has endured over 32 years at Pembroke, how she was paid less and always asked to do more. My body dissolved into chills as she described how the culture curbed her ambition. She stopped publishing, never bid for tenure. There’s nothing anyone can do, not least the short-shorts lady, to make it right.
Ji-Yoon really can’t afford to lose more allies, so she agrees to take an active role in Bill’s dismissal hearing at the dean’s request. “What we are trying to do here is create a narrative that will allow you to realign with your students, regain their trust.” The Or else is implied. At home that night, folding laundry, she can’t stop herself from crying. It’s strangely reassuring to see Ji-Yoon slow down enough to process her emotions. Perhaps sensing that vulnerability, Ju Ju crawls into her mother’s lap and speaks Korean to her for the first time ever. It’s language as a form of belonging to each other, something Ju Ju’s been unsure about all season. It’s a breakthrough.
Bill, on the other hand, is conducting business as usual, Hitler jokes included. His lawyer tells him she can’t save his job, but she will get him a hefty settlement in the aftermath. We’re at the “break glass in case of emergency” stage, which is depressing because Bill was probably a great teacher once. He may have even been a good friend to Ji-Yoon. I want to root for them. And, if I’m being honest, I do like Bill Dobson. I just also know that the part of me that likes him is a real sucker.
Take, for example, the moment Bill rushes over to Ji-Yoon’s place after seeing the scurrilous news report. He wants to check that she’s okay. He loves her. He can’t bring himself to spirit away with Pembroke’s consolation money if she and Ju Ju (and, I hope, Mr. Kim) don’t come with him. But when they finally make out, I’m not even sure it’s what I want. Ji-Yoon doesn’t want to move to Paris. She has the job she always wanted; she’s got the daughter she fought so hard for. She’s already on her grand adventure. It takes less than a minute for things to sour between them. She thinks he’s being manipulative, invoking Sharon to convince her to stand by him at the hearing, which will only damn them both. He calls her a lackey. He loves her not, I guess.
Bedtime is a time for repairing rifts at the Kim house. Ji-Yoon tells Ju Ju that she’ll never stop talking to her, even if she shouts hurtful things like “No wonder no one wanted to marry you” in her loudest voice. Ju Ju asks why she’s called a doctor if she never helps anybody, which is a mean question and narrow definition of “helps.” This is the last meaningful thing Ju Ju will ever say onscreen, our final glimpse of that tricky, captivating young mind. It bothers me.
Bill’s hearing the next day is precisely the kangaroo court Ji-Yoon foretold. You can even hear the protesters chanting “Nazis out!” through the windows. Despite Ji-Yoon’s warnings, Bill has prepared no formal defense of himself. He hands over an envelope containing something that is both 1) too long to read and 2) not a rebuttal. This is all we’ll ever learn about what’s inside this envelope. I will think about this envelope for the rest of time.
In lieu of a defense, he expounds on his love of literature — “a very complicated but faithful relationship.” It’s a good speech. The sentiments are lovely, and it stirs something in Ji-Yoon, but it also pisses me off. No longer is this a trial over whether Bill is too big a Nazi to teach English; it’s a test of whether Ji-Yoon will do something to stop it.
Which, of course, she does! She’s a nice person who loves Bill. She’s also a smart person who perceives that firing Bill isn’t going to fix the culture her students want changed. Another week, another protest.
But saving Bill’s job also isn’t going to fix the culture, so I’m not sure I’d throw my body in the way of the firing squad. Isn’t that exactly the point Ji-Yoon made to him the day before when she accused him of dragging her down with him?
So why does Ji-Yoon change her mind? Because a 7-year-old reminded her that doctors are supposed to help people? She’s 7! Also, I think she was probably talking about curing cancer. I really doubt that “not taking part in Bill’s inevitable firing at tremendous personal cost” is what Ju Ju was getting at when she said “help.” Of course, they fire Bill anyway, even after Ji-Yoon has recused herself from the hearing. They don’t fire Ji-Yoon because they don’t want a second tenured professor — the first female department chair, no less — to sue for wrongful termination. (WHAT’S IN THE LETTER?)
By the time the coup happens, I’m praying for it. No one except Elliot even looks Ji-Yoon in the eye as they reach into her chest to remove her throbbing heart. When it’s time for a roll-call vote, Joan can’t land the death blow, but it turns out her vote was superfluous. In fact, the no-confidence motion passes without a single woman in favor of it. Ji-Yoon out, Joan in. What’s there to celebrate? By this point, I’m convinced the chair is nothing but a poisoned chalice. Now Joan will be holding it when the students find out about Yaz’s departure and when the next Band-Aid slips off the latest bullet hole. I’m happy she’s happy. At least she’s out of the basement.
(Do you think they’ll show Joan the letter?)
From there, things grow montage-y. Ji-Yoon reads Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” aloud to her students, and now I wish Sandra Oh could read every poem aloud to me. Ju Ju is speaking Korean and making noodles with her family. Elliot wordlessly offers to hand out some papers to the class on behalf of Yaz, whatever personal growth that’s supposed to imply. Bill is on the phone recommending a student, and I’m embarrassed to admit I fell for it. I went too negative on the man. I thought he’d read Dafna’s novel, but really he’s tying up loose ends for Lila. It’s a step in the direction of redemption. We needed it.
The Chair is ostensibly about the first female chair of the English department, but the show’s arc is Bill’s. Instead of replacing the guy at the center of the action, the guy is her preoccupation. I wish Ji-Yoon had proactively decided to give up the chair, maybe because she saw how Ju Ju was thriving at home with all the extra attention Bill had time to give her during his suspension. Or maybe because it was sucking time away from her students and her research. But the meaningful decisions all happen without her. The one bold move she makes can’t change the course of anything. Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, at the end of the day, just wasn’t a very effective chair.
Out on the quad, she waits for Bill, no longer banned from campus, it seems. “Not being chair suits you,” he tells her, which is true, but still kind of dickish to say. Turns out Bill didn’t take the settlement; he’s trying to get his job back instead. I’m trying not to think of poor Doodle at Columbia, her tuition payment hanging in the balance. It’s good that he’s fighting for something, really. She can always take out back-breaking loans.
Just when I think it’s safe to let my guard down, though, director Daniel Gray Longino hits us with the crane shot. Young co-eds criss-cross the quad, the snow is finally melted, the white-columned buildings look resplendently collegiate. Somewhere sits an unread letter. I want to stay mad at The Chair, but the crane shot always gets me.