Netflix’s The Chair season 1 was just released; here’s its ending–including Pembroke’s decision about Bill–explained. Originally conceived as a miniseries, the academia-set dramedy was co-created and written by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman. At the moment, it’s unclear whether or not The Chair will receive a second season, but there’s certainly more than enough story and potential character development should Netflix decide to greenlight a season 2.
The series stars Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve star Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, a brilliant but frazzled English professor at the fictional Pembroke University. Once prestigious, the reputation of the English department is flagging and it’s up to Ji-Yoon as the new chair–the first woman and person of color to hold the position at Pembroke–to figure out how to retain students while pushing the university into the future. The Chair season 1 split its time between Ji-Yoon’s struggles to keep everything afloat at Pembroke and put out all its fires in her professional life, and her blossoming romance with fellow professor, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who lost his wife a year ago and is still in a self-destructive spiral.
Ji-Yoon has multiple interpersonal relationships to navigate. Along with Bill, she has a fraught relationship with her complicated, prickly adopted daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla) and her old-school Korean dad, Habi (Ji-yong Lee). At Pembroke, she has to juggle the egos of her older, entrenched colleagues, including the outdated and uptight Professor Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and the dean of the department, Dean Paul Larson (David Morse), who is more concerned with making money and keeping students than doing right by them. The acerbic, longtime professor Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) grows increasingly frustrated at how she’s treated compared to her male colleagues, and the brilliant young professor, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) grows increasingly frustrated at the reluctance of the old white male guard of Pembroke to give her tenure as a young Black woman.
It was a lot to pack into one six-episode season, with some storylines resolved but others remaining ambiguous. The finale of The Chair left enough open story for questions to still linger. Here’s the ending of The Chair season 1, including how Bill’s scandal was resolved, explained.
Why Ji-Yoon Changes Her Mind At Bill’s Hearing
The inciting incident in The Chair season 1, and Ji-Yoon’s most pressing emergency, is the PR nightmare Bill Dobson creates when he unthinkingly throws up a sarcastic Nazi salute during a lecture he gives while he was hungover. It ends up taken out of context and put on social media and things only spiral from there, ending with Bill’s time and tenure with Pembroke seemingly over with everything building toward a dismissal hearing.
The hearing, of course, ends up being nothing but a kangaroo court, with the board of trustees having already decided they want Bill out, whether or not Ji-Yoon agrees or not. At his hearing, Bill presents no actual defense instead giving a lovely, but ultimately meaningless, monologue about one’s relationship to literature and the complicated but lifelong love it inspires. After hearing it, Ji-Yoon suddenly changes her mind about dismissing Bill. On the surface, it appears as though it’s Bill himself and his speech that sways Ji-Yoon–it’s obviously clear that his speech about literature is a thinly-veiled metaphor for their relationship; his coded message is a confession about how he feels.
But Ji-Yoon likely has something else on her mind: the outburst from Ju-Hee, when her angry daughter asks how she can possibly be a doctor when she doesn’t even help people–a child’s misunderstanding of what kind of doctor Ji-Yoon is, but also the brutally pointed barb only a child can fling. Bill’s words may certainly have helped, but Ji-Yoon realizes at that moment that while keeping Bill on faculty won’t help Pembroke, dismissing him won’t, either; the problems at Pembroke run far deeper than just one insouciant professor. Pembroke’s problems aren’t the easily-resolved college or fictional high school problems of a movie. The school has slowly been losing touch with its students for years, with the faculty either entrenched in antiquated ideas about teaching (and refusing to evolve), or too concerned with money to actually take the time to fix what ails Pembroke’s English department. It all suddenly hits Ji-Yoon at once: the entrenched racism and misogyny of academia, the glass ceilings, the insular academics refusing to change, the department so enamored with its own brilliance it doesn’t recognize it’s dying out, the system collapsing under the weight of its history. She realizes then that she was wrong and nothing she does as the chair will save the English department; no one person can, and certainly not without time. She understands then that the position of chair, which she had for so long coveted, is not the honor she thought it was, but an albatross dragging her down.
How Bill’s Scandal Was Resolved (& What He’s Doing Now)
Ji-Yoon’s 180-degree turn in the dismissal hearing sets the expectation that, Bill managed to keep his job at Pembroke and things somehow worked out. However, after a brief time skip, the final conversation between Ji-Yoon and Bill reveals that he’s no longer at Pembroke–but he didn’t take the settlement, either. Instead, he’s choosing to fight to get his job back, a surprising decision for a character who audiences could be forgiven for thinking would happily take a cushy buyout and go off to write a snobby novel that no one reads.
But the revelation shows Bill has grown, or at least is making an attempt to. All through The Chair season 1, Bill’s lack of awareness was a recurring source of strife. He failed to see or acknowledge how everyone around him, most of all Ji-Yoon, had always bent over backward to shelter him from his own bad decisions in order for him to keep on being the enfant terrible of Pembroke’s English department. To this point, his unprofessional behavior and lack of ability to get it together have only inconvenienced other people, so why should he stop? Bill displays emotional stuntedness worthy of any Will Ferrell movie character. But the events of The Chair finally force Bill to become aware of his own entitlement. The hearing might have been avoided had Bill just agreed to take a settlement and leave quietly, but Bill, whose problem is his own entitled arrogance, refuses to leave, thinking he can just skate through the hearing on his charm and misguided righteousness. Time and time again, he blows off Ji-Yoon’s advice and her anger.
But when Ji-Yoon defies the board during his dismissal hearing and puts her own reputation and career on the line, Bill realizes just what a selfish jerk he has been, especially in regard to Ji-Yoon, and how much undue stress he’s caused her. What’s more, her impassioned speech about their relationship with the students seemingly woke something up inside of Bill. He was reminded of the truth, and it’s that he truly loves teaching–not being loved and adored by his students or considered the brilliant jewel of the department, but that he truly loves teaching. And he’ll lose both his ability to teach, and his own reputation and integrity if he takes the settlement. For the first time in a long time, Bill isn’t taking the easy way out, and is determined to get his position with Pembroke back on his own, the right way.
Why Ji-Yoon Nominates Joan For The Chair (& Is Okay Without It)
After Bill’s dismissal hearing, the rest of the English department enacts its plan for mutiny and holds a vote of no confidence against Ji-Yoon as the chair. Surprisingly, Ji-Yoon seems okay with it–in fact, she doesn’t even seem particularly surprised by it. As Rentz puts himself forward to be the interim chair, Ji-Yoon quickly shoots him down and nominates Joan to be her replacement. It’s a somewhat unexpected move–after all, Rentz revealed not three minutes prior that Joan had initially been part of the plan to vote for no confidence against Ji-Yoon. Even though Joan ultimately voted against removing Ji-Yoon, it would have been understandable had Ji-Yoon felt betrayed by her friend.
But it’s the very vote about whether or not to keep Ji-Yoon as chair of the department that illustrates exactly why Ji-Yoon gives the chair to Joan. Of the 12-person English department, only four are women. Only two are women of color, Ji-Yoon herself and Yaz. Every woman in the room voted to keep Ji-Yoon on–they know the extra pressures handed to women in professional positions, how rare it is a woman gets a fair shot in the old boys’ club of Pembroke’s English department and academia in general–her own relationship with Bill illustrates this, and it’s a dynamic Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass really sell. And no woman has shoveled muck at Pembroke for longer than Joan, or worked harder for less acknowledgment and advancement. Despite being just as brilliant and just as deserving as her male colleagues, Joan became a professor at Pembroke at a time in which few women became professors at all. For decades, Joan had been forced to make herself small in order for her male colleagues to feel big, and by the time there were some fellow women in the department to support her, most opportunities for career advancement had passed her by.
That’s why Ji-Yoon gives the chair to Joan. As she flippantly describes it, “It’s a sh*t job, but it comes with an office,” but that last part has meaning. It’s a coded message from Ji-Yoon to Joan, one only the women in the room can hear. Despite having just as much tenure and just as much prestige as her male colleagues, it is Joan, the woman, who is forced to move to a makeshift office in the basement; it’s always the woman who is forced to move. The office that comes with the chair is a literal one, yes, but also a metaphorical one: Joan will finally have recognition for her decades of work. She will finally be seen.
What Joan Being The New Department Chair Means
The truth is, Ji-Yoon didn’t do right by Joan during her time as the English department chair. Ji-Yoon had promised to change the system and fight for Joan and Yaz, but instead, she spent so much time catering to Bill’s drama and catering to the feelings of her male colleagues that she failed to support either of them in a meaningful way. Both Yaz and Joan lost confidence in Ji-Yoon and expressed it in different ways. Instead of fighting for Yaz when the distinguished lectureship for that year is taken away from Yaz and handed to The X-Files‘ David Duchovny in a bit of academic celebrity stunt-casting, Ji-Yoon caves to the dean’s demands. Yaz responds by accepting Yale’s offer to give the distinguished lecture there–as well as a job offer for expedited tenure.
Meanwhile, Joan spent all season finally trying to do something about the increasing indignities forced upon her as a woman, which she does after Ji-Yoon says she’ll be there to support her only for Ji-Yoon to miss every single meeting. Though well-intentioned, Ji-Yoon does no more for Joan or Yaz than the previous male department chairs had; in the end, Ji-Yoon herself is knocked down by the impossible obstacles put in women’s way. “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” Ji-Yoon laments of being given the department chair. In nominating Joan to replace her in The Chair, Ji-Yoon goes a little way in giving Joan the respect she failed to show her colleague before.
It’s entirely likely that Joan will find the job just as stressful, but after almost 40 years of being devalued, undermined, and dismissed, Joan will also appreciate the position more than anyone else who would replace Ji-Yoon. Certainly, none of their male colleagues, who take for granted the position as it’s something they assume they’re entitled to, that they casually expect, like waking up in the morning and the sun still being in the sky. Ji-Yoon may not have fixed all that ails Pembroke’s English department in The Chair season 1, but by putting Joan in the position to lead it, Ji-Yoon is finally able to take a small step toward keeping her promise to change things for the better.
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