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Stranger 2: Episodes 1-2 Review

Anisa: We’ve been waiting long and impatiently for the follow-up to 2017’s epic, dense, and cerebral thriller Stranger, or as we’re used to calling it, Forest of Secrets, which is a beloved show around here. It’s the first drama we’ll be reviewing weekly on the blog, and we’re super excited to have some friends of the podcast join us for premiere week. First, Yunah, who has joined us for a Spoiled Yak or two. Hi Yunah!

Yunah: Hi Anisa! Thank you so much for having me. This is extra special since my first podcast with you guys was for Forest of Secrets 1! So glad to be invited back! I’m Yunah, I’m Korean American and based in the East Coast. I work in TV, specifically scripted animation and live action development, love all things Forest of Secrets, and wonder when Hwang Shi-mok will ever have the time to pause and eat. Also I’m a full-time servant to a dog named Doogie who rescued a nation in his previous life so it’s the least that I (and the rest of my family) can do.

Saya: We got greedy and invited another friend of the podcast, too. You’ll remember her from the I’m Not a Robot episode—Lee Tennant! Thank you so much for joining us and also getting up at ungodly o’clock for this. 😅

Lee Tennant: Hi guys! It’s so great to be back talking to you again about dramas. The I’m Not a Robot deep dive was so much fun. I’m a huge fan of K-drama from the Land Downunder. And, yes, once again I’m here at an odd time. Although early morning is better than midnight—for me anyway!

Anisa: Welcome friends! And how much of a sight for sore eyes was it to see Shi-mok and Yeo-jin on our screens again, even if it took way too long for them to actually share a screen? (I miss that pojangmacha as much as they do.)

Saya: We waited for practically two hours to see them in the same frame AND YEO-JIN’S SMILE when she catches sight of him. And then they almost immediately get set up to be on opposite sides cracked my heart a little…and I’m getting ahead of myself. *rewinds*

Yunah: Can I just say that five of my close friends texted me because they knew that Season 2 of one of my all-time fav dramas was premiering, and that to be known as that diehard Forest of Secrets fan was just so flattering?! Like, I am honoured to be associated with loving a high-calibre drama. I literally got chills when I heard that familiar orchestral theme. Also I loved that Inception-like animated opening. ‘Skip Intro?’ Not this time, Netflix!

Lee: Everyone is always surprised when I say this but I binged Forest of Secrets in one day. I think I stopped to get a few hours’ sleep but honestly could not stop watching. It was just so gripping. I am looking forward to live-watching it with everyone this time.

Anisa: THAT MUSIC! Yes! And wow, Lee, I’m amazed that you binged it. I recapped Season 1, and despite having that space for in-depth, weekly analysis, I still felt like the show was so layered that I inevitably missed details.

Yunah: They got an actual orchestra to play that song! I saw the video!

Saya: I honestly think it was the music that got me most excited—like it woke up all of my latent Forest of Secrets memories and kicked up the adrenaline. I was like, “I have no idea what is going on” 60% of the time, but I am HERE for it.

Lee: Yes, Saya, THAT. Of all the shows (very very few number of shows) that get a second season out of Korea I’m so excited it’s this one, which had so much to say and was so perfectly and intricately written. Not that I want to disparage the Vampire Prosecutor/Detective series but… well, it’s no Forest of Secrets!

Yunah: It’s so true. Immediately from the get-go, I knew that once again, this drama would be way ahead of me, and I’d have to pause, rewind, replay some scenes, to make sure I understood. I love that writer Lee Soo-yeon is not here to give you hand-holding, explanatory exposition. Also, I don’t mind that my mind is catching up and whirling with questions, because I trust that it will all make sense in the end.

Saya: I’m a little embarrassed to admit it took me twice the time to watch each episode because of rewinding and taking notes.

Anisa: I definitely don’t think anyone needs to be embarrassed! The beauty of this show lies in its complex, layered nature. I’m SO GLAD Lee Soo-yeon returned for this season, as well as a cast who can do justice to her words. No one else could, or should, have done Season 2.

Yunah: Yes Anisa, totally! I was kind of worried that they got a new director this time around, but it’s really the writing that needed to be done by the same brilliant mind that is Lee Soo-yeon.

Lee: What I both loved and hated about the way that Season 1 ended was that it was very natural and very realistic. They didn’t ride to some kind of blazing victory, they didn’t win the war. It was frustrating and a bit depressing but at the same time—that’s how life works, right? You never win against systemic corruption.

Anisa: Absolutely. There is a complexity to the way this show handles the ideas of justice, morality, good and evil, that I’ve rarely if ever seen on TV. And that’s equally clear in Season 2, as we see in the setup of this council to reform the investigation process in which it’s clear that neither the police nor the prosecutors are the heroes in this story.

Lee: I think that what separates Korean dramas from American ones is that in American ones, people win. In that way I think maybe American ones are even more fantastical than the average K-drama. So they never win but they can still fight. And here we are! Still fighting that fight! In some ways it’s depressing but on the other hand it’s not. Because fighting corruption is about small persistent victories I think.

Yunah: Oh that’s such an interesting point you make, Lee. I agree. Maybe as a jaded person myself, I prefer that more realistic resolution. I hate when it’s all sunshine and rainbows at the end because that’s just not how the real world works.

Lee Tennant: It reminds me that in Life, which is also by this writer, they couldn’t ‘win’ against hospital privatisation either.

Saya: What they’ve set up really deftly in these opening episodes is this sense of layers over layers: first, the immediate issues of the opening case with the drowning kids, and then a sharp zoom-out to take in the bigger picture of a system at work. The first episode sets up an almost procedural-like lead-in, and you think that’s the story, but by the second episode, that quickly gives way to this political, bureaucratic battle between police and prosecutors, which is more or less the question with which Season 1 left off.

Yunah: Yes, Saya, I love that, too! We start micro with that Instagram case, and then we build out from there to see this systemic clash between the police and prosecution, which by the way, is an actual conflict that’s happening in Korea.

Anisa: I love how the opening week not only catches us up with the political landscape and developments since the end of last season, but gives you enough context and character-building that you could conceivably start watching with Season 2. Although there is a LOT that you’d miss—in terms of fun references to Season 1, the enjoyment of seeing these characters reunite in all sorts of interesting combinations, and the inalienable fact that Season 1 is perfect TV and every human should see it.

Lee: Yes, Anisa, that’s so true. Season 1 was so perfectly self-contained but also had such organic scope for a new season. And they’ve taken their time getting it together so hopefully it lives up to that potential.

Saya: What effect do you guys think the change of director has had on the show so far?

Yunah: I think it’s a little too early to say, but I think visually, the direction is a little different. But I wouldn’t say it’s been distracting, which is a good thing.

Saya: Was it a little less detailed? I am not an expert in matters of direction, but it felt visually less dense than Season 1.

Yunah: I’m no profesh haha, but I found that the colour palette remained more or less the same. The same muted greys. And they brought back Shi-mok’s visualisation sequences where he imagines himself present at the time of the crime. Give me a few more weeks to observe the direction 🙂 So far, it hasn’t been distracting, which is a win!

Anisa: We’ll definitely be anticipating your professional opinion. I love that we still have those visualisations! I was worried about the new director, and to be honest it does feel a bit different, but not in a bad way, though I do think the previous season’s director was just a touch more subtle. But as you say, time will properly tell.

Lee: I absolutely loved Just Dance, which I thought was such an underrated little gem of a show. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a liiiittttle nervous about the change because Just Dance had a very different look and feel of a crime thriller show like this.

Saya: Also Princess’ Man! What do you think of the set-up for the new season? How different is its trajectory going to be from the first season, do you think? Also, remind me who the returning characters are outside of Bae Doona, Jo Seung-woo and Lee Joon-hyuk (2017 was a long time ago 😆).

Anisa: I wasn’t sure if I liked the premise of police vs. prosecutors at first, because in a time when I’m especially sensitive to corruption in the criminal justice system, I worried that this would just become a power struggle between two equally shady groups that might end up ignoring the people they’re supposed to protect. But as the battle lines were drawn and we saw another epic special team being put together—one that will once again be full of conflicting loyalties, secrets, and undercurrents—I found myself relaxing and trusting the writer again. She’s definitely not taking us anywhere conventional. (In the main cast, we also have Yoon Se-ah returning as the queenly and razor-sharp widow of Lee Chang-joon.)

Yunah: Totally. I had to remind myself that “police” and “prosecution” are quite different in the U.S. vs. Korea. I think the formation of the council is such a fantastic setup, and when we saw Yeojin’s disappointment upon learning Shi-mok was part of that council, I felt it, too. We’re going from Season 1’s unlikely duo that worked exceptionally well together to the two as opposing forces now.

Saya: I actually came to appreciate it by the end of the second episode. It really allows them to dig deep into the idea that there’s some kind of barbed merit in having these two powerful bodies opposing each other because it has the result of acting as a way to keep them somewhat accountable—if not to the citizens they should serve, at least to each other. It’s not ideal, but maybe it’s the best/most that a broken system is capable of. (The conflict being that the police and the prosecution are at loggerheads over who has investigative rights over a case: the police argue that they should have full investigative powers and jurisdiction over criminal cases, while the prosecution believe that the police don’t have the necessary qualification or expertise to make complex calls. It’s basically one-upmanship.)

Lee: A kind of brinkmanship I think where the quest for power becomes more important than what you want to use that power for.

Anisa: Exactly. I also really appreciate how many more women are in powerful, main roles this season as compared to last season. Especially since I am SORELY missing Shin Hye-sun.

Yunah: YES! Jeon Hye-jin as Choi Bit?! It is SO great to see her in Season 2, and she’s settling in nicely as if she always wore that uniform! I really love all the new additions to the cast. Strong, reliable actors—all of them!

Lee: Oh gosh, Shin Hye-sun! And I remember how relatively unknown she was at the time and she’s now shown herself to be such an amazing performer. Her death in Season 1 gutted me because I felt like it was the death of justice. Wow that sounds really OTT. But it did! Also I felt the fact the only prosecutor to die was a woman said something too (about the system or about writers, I don’t know which LOL).

Anisa: I definitely felt like it was saying more about the system itself, but of course it was in the wider context of the sea of men who surrounded her, so it felt extra painful. But here we have Choi Bit, who seems like a complex mentor figure to Yeo-jin much in the mould of Lee Chang-joon to Shi-mok, Lee Yeon-jae (Yoon Se-ah) who is clearly going to be a significant antagonist, and of course our Yeo-jin. *heart eyes*

Saya: The commentary on the system I think is really what these episodes have done best, so far. There was one particular dialogue in the second episode that I found really powerful—the conversation that Shi-mok has with Chief Prosecutor Kang Won-chul (Park Sung-geun), where Chief Kang tells him that it would’ve been impossible to indict in the closed case, and his points are legitimate: the burden of proof is with the prosecution and it HAS to be prove that the thing they did was the direct cause of death for it to be indictable at all.

Yunah: Agree. Everything the Chief Prosecutor was saying wasn’t wrong.

Saya: And Shi-mok doesn’t disagree, but his point is different: that in closing the case so quickly, instead of the slow turnaround, he’d deprived the couple of the time they would have to develop remorse. And I find this thought incredibly striking—like he’s saying that the fundamental purpose of the law isn’t necessarily to execute a certain kind of justice, but to instil morality. When we talk about the law, we always make the distinction between what is “legal” and what is “right”, and that they aren’t necessarily the same. But what Shi-mok reminds us as viewers, as much as his superiors, is that a justice system has a more foundational goal not of punishment, but of conscience.

Yunah: 100%. Saya, I want this printed on a shirt.

Anisa: This show never lets anyone off with an easy answer. I love how it pushes for nuances in its exploration of the ideals of justice that most crime thrillers never even approach. I actually paused, turned to my mom and sister, wiggled my entire body and whisper-shouted, “The writing is so good!” when Chief Kang used that metaphor of Shi-mok being a sharp knife for a tough job, and how they’d use him and throw him away once he was damaged.

Yunah: Anisa, I got the same wiggles! And I loved when Shi-mok said, “Yeah, but I can’t stay in the drawer forever.” Yes, know your worth, Shi-mok!

Lee: On the lighter side—Shi-mok never being able to eat. I had forgotten that this show has some really subtle humour in it.

Yunah: Anisa and I loved that that was brought back! I KNEW when he got the potatoes from the rest area, that a phone call would interrupt him in 3…2…1… Same with his first meal with Yeo-jin. So sad! Give the poor man a lunch break!

Anisa: We were literally texting about it. Such a great running joke. Remember the doughnuts from Season 1? (And hilariously, Yeo-jin is ALWAYS eating.) I had forgotten how well this writer works in exactly the right amount of humour, but once I remembered I was nearly cackling with anticipation at Seo Dong-jae’s first appearance this season.

Yunah: Oh we had to wait until Episode 2 for our favourite weasel! His face upon seeing Shi-mok…priceless. Still hasn’t lost a smidge of his weaselly ways.

Saya: Not gonna lie, as soon as Lee Joon-hyuk appeared on my screen, I was all, WELL HELLO THERE, SEO DONG-JAE! And what a fantastic snake-oil salesman he still is. But I can’t say it isn’t tinged with the tiniest regret that he isn’t his 365: Repeat the Year character anymore.

Anisa: I am here for Lee Joon-hyuk in ANY FORM.

Yunah: ANY FORM.

Lee: I watched the first episode with my Dad at one point and Bae Doo-na does this hilarious and subtle thing with her body in one scene when she’s annoyed at one of her superiors. And Dad laughed and went, “Wow, a K-drama with irony!” And I hated to admit that it was probably true overall. I mean I argued with him. But deep deep inside I thought it might be true. And while I’m being shallow—the UFO pyjamas. I want them.

Yunah: How did I miss the UFO pyjamas? Also, Bae-Doona rocks that black leather coat. If I wore it, I’d just look like a roving garbage bag.

Anisa: She is a unique fashion icon. Although I miss her Season 1 hair.

Saya: And don’t you love the sense that, even on potentially opposite sides, Yeo-jin and Shi-mok will always want the same thing? They are rock-solid and you feel it immediately and I LOVE that. (Please don’t break my heart, show.)

Lee: I feel like I need to rewatch Season 1 just to remember all the little details. But I do think these first two episodes stand alone. If you were a new viewer you’d find it just as gripping and atmospheric from scene one I think.

Anisa: Agreed! This is clearly going to be an incredible ride. I’m glad to start it with you all, and to surrender myself to the skilled driving skills of this incredible production team. Except I don’t know how I’ll pass the time until I can see Shi-mok making Dong-jae sweat again.

Lee: Live-watching it is going to be a more fulfilling experience and I am so excited.

Yunah: So fun! Until next time!

Find our wonderful guest writers on the internet!

Yunah: Twitter | Instagram

Lee Tennant: Twitter | Blog

#review #JoSeungwoo #guests #ForestofSecrets2 #dramareview #stranger2 #recap #BaeDoona

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