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