If you’ve ever read I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith), you might remember its iconic opening line: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
I write this before the finale of Sisyphus, and maybe even the act of this preface before the grand finale is giving the experience more importance than it merits.
But do you know what? I don’t care. It’s JTBC’s birthday and Tae-Hae invited me to the party, so I am going to indulge my taste for drama by anticipating the thing in the grandiosestestest way possible: with a navel-gazing, inconsequential foreword which I’ll spend looking backward. Partly because I truly don’t know what to expect going in, and I am deeply enjoying that. Partly as an act of defiance against the disgruntlement this show has elicited. Partly because for the first time in a while, last week’s episodes put me at ideological odds with our lead pair. Nothing to do with that Beyond Evil review that is—highly inconveniently—not writing itself.
And since I’m here—at this point between the airing of Episodes 15 and 16, the former of which I won’t watch until the latter drops, I’m going to quickly exorcise my own disgruntlement. BECAUSE. TAE-SUL. YOU ARE MORE GENRE-SAVVY THAN THIS. Don’t you know about self-fulfilling prophecies? I’ve said it in an earlier review, about whether they actually cause the things they intend to prevent, but in this mad interlude with Seo Gil-bok/Seo Won-ju, the pre-Sigma incarnation of Sigma, you literally watch Tae-sul (and to a lesser extent Seo-hae) turn this pitiful, broken creature into the man who would one day destroy the world. Like, in that moment, if they had shown him kindness instead of violence, would that have changed everything?
Instead, Tae-sul is about as cruel as a human can be, but while he talks to the future version (who, you could argue, deserves it), it’s the one in front of him, the present one—the one he is not just ignoring but isn’t even looking at like he’s a person—who is the one really being cut by the words, eventually to be changed by them. And I find this quite significant in character terms, because oftentimes when you have people trying to prevent evil by killing a villain before they become one, it’s also the case that what stays their hand actually is compassion and the recognition of a) shared humanity, and importantly, b) innocence (and consequently a worldview that future evil doesn’t preclude that innocence in the present).
But neither Tae-sul nor Seo-hae have any of these compunctions. You can argue it’s understandable, but you can also argue that this is where they fall short of acting according to archetype. Can they be heroes if they are flawed like this? I think it would be an interesting treatment of the hero-as-archetype question if the show had set out to explore this intentionally, but I don’t think it has and therefore this is really only an academic discussion I am having with myself.
I admit part of my disgruntlement also is being forced to see Tae-sul in a truly unfavourable light. He’s been the character I’ve invested the most emotion in, so it’s a crisis of conscience to have to confront the fact that this guy may not be the unequivocally good person I want or imagined him to be, but instead someone who also makes bad choices that cause great harm.
So when Sigma offers that basically Tae-sul should be good to people in case the person he mistreats ends up destroying the world…well, to be honest, he makes quite a compelling argument.
And Sigma, it turns out, isn’t an ideologically boring villain even though he’s got a cookie-cutter origin story. It’s not unusual for villains (or quasi-villains) to drop the best truth-bombs and/or insights into the ways the system is broken and unfit for purpose, but Sigma really feels like a full story of how the harsh heel of society can grind you into dust and then just keep on grinding—until you cease to be matter and have become antimatter, until the light has been sucked out so completely that all that remains of you is a black hole ready to consume the world. He’s not interesting in and of himself: he’s interesting as a symbol. And you know. “Sigma” is literally a symbol. He is the sum of his suffering, the sum of what has been acted upon him, the sum of his own twisted bitternesses. The sum of all the evil he’s experienced and the sum of all he has wrought.
And in that sense, we are all “sigma”. We are all the sum of what we have experienced, and to flip it the other way, we are all potentially villains, because it’s a role whose qualifications are terribly easy to achieve. And even if you are a hero in one story, that doesn’t prevent you from being the villain in another, because that’s how we exist, not as singular stories or lone figures, but in this vast web of interconnectedness where one person easily plays a thousand roles. (…I had no idea we were going so existential!)
That is enough navel-gazing for now. I guess it’s time to see how it ends? Here’s some mood music to get you through:
The end (is the beginning)
So far, I’ve started all my reviews at the end before going back into the middles, so since this is the end for real, I’ve decided to go linear for a change and work my way to the end in…well, a highly disorderly fashion (but it’s the thought that counts, right?), and we can pretend we watched it together, okay?
(All quoted text is courtesy of Netflix because I am too tired to translate it myself!)
Tae-sul on the hunt for Sigma:
“You were really fast when running away in tears. You should’ve become a professional runner instead of an artist. Then you probably would have turned out all right (…) Some people just never make it no matter how hard they work. That’s you.”
The way Tae-sul really mocks Sigma, I would like to believe that what he believes he’s doing is playing mind games with a villain, not that these are his sincere thoughts. Because he is downright mean. No, cruel.
Though I’m still trying to figure out how much merit Tae-sul’s claim has, that what separates him from Sigma is that he doesn’t blame others for his mistakes.
“You people…you, Kang Seo-hae, that old man who sold me the rope and charcoal briquettes and said nothing, the taxi driver who hounded me for the fare when I was running away barefoot, covered in blood, and the cops! I slept at the park for two nights, freezing. Not a single person asked me if I was okay. Not even one person.”
This. The stripped down, dissociated way in which Sigma tells this story leaves you with a sense of horror that makes it worse than if he’d told it with feeling.
You’re left with the twisting knowledge that Sigma—a villain, a mass-murderer, a war criminal—was created by society and failed by a prejudiced system, and therefore society is collectively responsible for his existence.
Though also I must add that despite those failings, it doesn’t ultimately absolve Sigma of the moral responsibility of his choices, though it does mitigate them. But I think we must always hold systems responsible before we can hold individuals to account.
“I kept racking my brain to figure out why the heck you tried to kill me. I thought it was unfair. I didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve that (…) Did I do something to deserve getting shot? Did I? But you know, it turned out the reason didn’t even matter at all. Because the world is an unfair place to begin with.”
And still, all of this is incredibly sad. Especially when it would have taken so little to save him. It haunts you with this idea that among those we deem monsters were once people who needed saving, and more importantly, could have been saved.
HOWEVER. I have never heard of being saved in a nuclear apocalypse by taping up the windows. 😂 But I won’t begrudge his surviving after the rather crap life he had.
Oh hey, these Quantum & Time office workspaces look like the same as Kim Haneul’s in 18 Again. Are JTBC just using their own offices? 😂
Tae-sul playing with guns: hasn’t he had like, idk, 20 minutes of gun coaching from Seo-hae in the bunker? Ah well I guess I can go along with this, lol.
Though the Sigma-peekaboo and all does make me wonder who is playing with whom at this point.
“I went outside. The outside world had become so quiet. It was dark, even during the day. And there was no one. Those who belittled me, all those arrogant show-offs and obnoxious jerks. They were all gone. That moment, I realized that those jerks were the ones who deserved to die, not me.”
At least Sigma gets all the best monologues.
“Let’s put an end to this today. This could be the beginning. The beginning and the end are always intertwined. Just like a poor little puppy that chases its own tail in circles. You’d better get used to this darkness. Because that…is all you have left.”
You cannot deny that he has quite the flair, our Sigma. I mean, if you’re going to end the world, keep things dark and do it with style, right?
Seo-hae, Sun, and saving the world
I really like how the show ended up setting up Seo-hae and Sigma as opposing forces. I think we’ve tended to forget that the show’s main main character really is Seo-hae: she’s the one who’s travelled through time and space and is trying to shift the colossus of a broken future into reverse.
Sun: “Aren’t you scared of dying?”
Seo-hae: “I am. I am scared. But…what scares me more is surviving alone in the world.You have no idea what it’s like. If you lose everyone you love and survive alone, do you think you’ll be happy? Trust me. I’ll save everyone. All of you.”
I like the contrast of how she and Sigma wake up to the same world, but experience totally different reactions to it: she’s sad, he’s glad. She’s determined to save it, he’s determined to destroy it. She wants to change the past, he wants to make sure it doesn’t deviate from what got them here.
I guess it means backstory is everything.
NooOooOooOooo not SUN!!!
Okay I knew there was going to be a body count this episode
but Sun 😭😭😭😭
Hyun-gi and tying up all the loose threads of time:
I was surprised by how well done this wrap-up was. Apart from when we first met him, Hyun-gi hasn’t been a particularly compelling character for me—he didn’t have enough doubt in his convictions, so as a character whose end we knew before anything else, it kind of took away the tension of his character and our ability to sympathise with him, and just left him as this annoying dude we knew was going to realise the truth in the end, but instead was just being played for a fool over and over, and who kept buying what Chief Hwang was selling without asking for receipts. YOU NEED RECEIPTS.
Let me also take a moment to appreciate Chief Hwang, who likewise has not been much of a character—he’s always been so occupied being a plot device that he never had the chance to develop into more. Partly because a large cast of characters naturally limits how much development the tertiaries can get, but he absolutely made his final moments count. You know, unpopular opinion I’m sure, but I think the story would have benefited from a longer run. I get a very definite sense of a lot of untold stories among the rest of the characters and I kind of wish I had known them.
But Hyun-gi ABSOLUTELY KILLED his exit. Like, that moment the penny drops and he realises what it means when Seo-hae didn’t kill him when she could have and clearly wanted to: he. has. agency. A thing he clearly neither realised nor exercised before.
And he finally gets it, that he has the power to overcome “fate” by making his own choices.
Ohhh what a powerful parting gesture—“I’m not going to shoot you, and I’m not going to get on the Uploader.”
And then he walks out of Hwang’s office without looking back, empties his gun, drops it, and he’s done. He’s out. Like, OUT.
It’s THE watershed moment, not merely for his character, but for the WHOLE SHOW, the full realisation that to win the game, you have to not play the game.
How can you change the future, save the world, if you do what’s always been done? And that’s really the conflict that lies at the core of the show as well—that one side (Sigma, the Control Bureau) wants to maintain the cycle, and the other wants to end it.
From the start, this show understood its concept really well, and I think it managed its internal logic in a clear and consistent way. It also answers that question which I was always a little uncertain about in Dark—how do you know what happened in the last cycle? The diary for Seo-hae, the Control Bureau records for Sigma, are the assigned continuity agents in the carry-over from loop to loop, and we understand that in some way they maintain a history of the loop’s progressive iterations.
You know, one of my absolute favourite relationships in this show is the one between Seo-hae and her father. It’s just so good. I wish so much that we had been able to explore it more, but I do love that we finally got to see some of Seo-hae’s teen years. Because really, imagine. There’s no one left in the world you can trust, there’s nobody for you to rely on but that one person. There’s also so much time. It’s a really exceptional relationship: he would have been both her mother and her father, her teacher, her friend, her confidant. I actually had forgotten the details of that departure scene, and now, knowing everything we know, it’s even more sad and bittersweet to watch this scene again.
However. It does seem inadvisable to go into the Uploader chamber all guns blazing if you want to bribe them to give you a ride.
This show really does show itself in contrasts—it has these brilliant, amazing parts and then it has these downright silly parts.
Lol at Sigma’s bizarro greasy playboy messiah look though 😂
How many Sigmas are there, and which one greets Seo-hae when she takes the Uploader? If that’s the one that’s lived through the apocalypse, when does he go back to the past to become Endgame Sigma? Didn’t he go back with the advance guard? If he did, how is he still there in 2035?
And then the end again: of the penultimate episode, the world, and also the show
“She’s here. Seo-hae is here.”
This will never get old for me. This thrill of anticipation that his not-quite-smile holds when he says that.
Wait what? Sigma’s intention was always to manufacture a relationship between them? 😱
“I’ll tell you why you’re hesitating. Because you love him. You love him! You two should thank me. I worked very hard for you two to end up together (…) It’s natural to develop feelings for each other when you go through hardships together. While helping and saving each other, and making sacrifices. That’s how love begins. And once it begins, it can’t be stopped. You can’t help but love him, even though you couldn’t avenge your dad’s death because of him.”
I mean. I kind of can see how that is the ultimate revenge. It’s both genius and pitiful at the same time, because in so doing, while you are hurting them, you also have genuinely given them a gift.