A makjang revenge drama on the surface, a commentary on social and moral decadence on a deeper level and a cinematic metaphor for Dante's Inferno at its core, 'The Penthouse: War In Life' is no ordinary K-Drama. As a matter of fact, even classifying it simply as a K-Drama (in the popular sense of the word, not the literal) seems to not do justice to its grandeur. Speaking of grandeur, debauchery, grandiose, hedonism, and vice seem to be the keywords in understanding this drama and that, is only the beginning.
'The Penthouse' is set in a 100-floor luxury apartment complex known as Hera Palace. Hera Palace, right off the bat, is a symbolic stand-in for the nine circles of Hell, as seen in Dante Alighieri's 'Inferno' - the first part of the epic 'Divine Comedy.' 'Divine Comedy' is written in 3 parts: 'Inferno,' 'Purgatorio' and 'Paradiso' just as 'The Penthouse' has been slated to have 3 seasons. 'Divine Comedy' charts the author, Dante, and his journey through the nine circles of Hell to Purgatory and eventually to Paradise. In the circles of Hell, each circle holds more and more grave sinners - the higher the level, the greater the sinner. At Hera Palace, hierarchy is key, and the Penthouse apartment holds the devil himself, Dan Tae (played by Um Ki Joon). The eponymous Hera of Hera Palace is the Greek Goddess of women, marriage, childbirth, and family. As such, it makes perfect sense to start off this brilliant series with a murder stemming from a perversion of those very values, especially because the innocent soul falls right into Hera's arms, tainting the sculpture with her blood.
Dante's 'Inferno' explores the origins of evil, the recognition and rejection of sin and the trilogy walks us through eventual divine justice meted out as punishment or reward accordingly. The main figures in the first season of 'The Penthouse' are those of Shim Su Ryeon (played masterfully by Lee Ji Ah), who is thrown into the harsh reality of her existence as she inadvertently witnesses the murder of her own child and Oh Yoon Hee (played by Eugene) as she quite literally sells her soul to the devil to protect her child. In their search for revenge, both women stray from what could be called the moral right, albeit in varying degrees, initiating their journey through hell.
Without any major spoilers, all that can be said about the ending is that it is nowhere close to the real ending of the narrative. Regardless of which characters return for the second season, one thing is for certain - divine justice will be meted out in full force and in all likelihood, it will be delivered through human hands. The manifestations of the seven deadly sins as represented in the residents of Hera Palace, along with the ultimate culmination of them all, will finally feel the wrath of retribution.
The children of Hera Palace, who suffer as and from collateral damage throughout the first season and are affected in unimaginable ways by their parents' sins, will partly either repeat their mistakes, getting stuck in a loop of history, or will come back stronger and more prepared to face the evil lurking behind luxury.
'The Penthouse' Season 1 exhibited a perfect balance between being a crime thriller and a makjang drama. While it does lack the humanity and grace of similar dramas like 'The World of the Married' and 'SKY Castle,' there is something addictive about the sheer caricatures of evil that the characters are portrayed as. It's almost like a car crash that you can't look away from. However, half the appeal of the first season lies in how it builds up the hope for revenge proper in the seasons to come.
The ending might have been disappointing to most but looking at it in a way which prefaces an even greater form of poetic justice makes it seem not so unlikely. A momentary triumph of evil over good only disillusions the former, setting them up for ultimate defeat. The characters are all tropes and hence, exaggerated and over the top in some respects, but that's what makes this drama so effective in the portrayal of its core message. 'The Penthouse' is in no way a laughable melodrama meant to be a decadent escape from real life. On the contrary, it is a perfect representation and critique of the same. On a superficial level, the thrilling sequence of plot twists and the hair-raising inhumanity of the crimes that frame this story indisputably make for an unforgettable binge.