It’s a tense and emotional finale week, as everything finally comes together, and Shi-mok and Yeo-jin are forced to directly face the ugliness they’ve uncovered–and which has been hidden close by all this time. They have to decide once again what they’re willing to lose in their endless fight against the slow, hungry rot of self-interest. As usual, this team manages to both completely surprise us and give us the most natural and perfect conclusion to the story. Don’t ask us why or how, we’re still reeling and barely able to string our thoughts together. What can we do except laud this perfect second season of a flawless show, and pray hard for another one? And make a collage of Shi-mok and Yeo-jin smiling, perhaps. For mental health reasons.
Thank you to our wonderful guests Yunah and Lee Tennant for joining us every week to squee intelligently over this show! We had great fun ❤️
listen as you read 🥰
Saya: Everyone okay? 😭
Anisa: I don’t want to say goodbye. I’m not ready. 😭
Yunah: Forest of Secrets 2. The (sole) gift of 2020. Now what? Seriously though, now what? What else is there to look forward to in this dumpster-fire of a year? Shi-mok beaming made me hopeful! Cleared my skin! And for a second, I believed in the possibility of good triumphing over evil. Who’da thought? Seriously though, that was perfection. Another Lee Soo-yeon masterpiece. At this point, if networks aren’t throwing money at her, they’re doing something wrong.
Lee: That was perfect. My heart is full. I’m all the emojis. And you know I’m not an emoji person. Or an emotion person. I’m usually like Shi-mok looking confused at dancing emoticons. But I’m just 😭😭😭😭 but in a happy and fulfilled way. You know?
Saya: Emojis were the only language I was capable of communicating in for the last hour. Sorry, one emoji. And for the first time, let me say: thank you for your beautiful translation, Netflix and specifically Ju-young Park. And hearing that final voiceover—in Yoo Jae-myung’s incredibly distinctive voice—was just…what a great closer. Like, truly beautiful. In its sentiment and in how it was rendered in translation.
Anisa: It was superlative in every way. Season 1 ended with Shi-mok pointing out the problems with the way Lee Chang-joon left things, but he’s really served as a collective conscience this season. It was a perfect choice to have his words close out Episode 16. And you’re right, this week’s translations were very good. Not sure how I can be both completely satisfied with that conclusion and totally gutted that we don’t get any more, but here we are.
Lee: If a show can end perfectly but leave you wanting more then it’s done its job. The story is told but life goes on. Like Season 1, there’s no neat bow or blazing victory. But there’s enough good that Yeo-jin and Shi-mok can smile.
Yunah: Life goes on, indeed.
Lee: But as for Seo Dong-jae—I can’t believe they’re leaving me with this uncertainty. Will he do the right thing or Hanjo’s bidding? And I hate it but it’s also genius. Because these choices don’t stop here. They keep going.
Yunah: If that uncertainty means a Season 3 is happening, I’m a happy camper 🙂
Saya: I feel (a little) cheated that we had so little of him, but how classically Dong-jae to go out with a bang! I thought it was great.
Anisa: I definitely agree, and let’s talk more about the finale at the end, but can we go through these episodes in a bit more detail today, since it’s our last time? *sob*
Lee: Yes, please! Because there is just so much in here to unpack.
Yunah: I don’t know if it was just me, but Shi-mok’s eyes spoke volumes in these last few episodes. When he was confronting Chief Woo, I could’ve sworn I saw a twinkle of “Let’s see you try and get out of this one!” and whenever he was with Yeo-jin, I saw how concerned he was for her. But not just Jo Seung-woo…everyone’s performances were just *chef’s kiss.*
Lee: I can’t decide on which scene in this finale I found most powerful. But if I was forced to choose just one it would be the scene between Han Yeo-jin and Choi Bit.
Saya: Looking at my notes here, and they say, “Aahh you broke Yeo-jin, Chief Choi!”
Lee: Everything about that scene resonated with me. Not just Yeo-jin’s disillusionment but her disappointment. Disappointment in herself as much as in Choi Bit. But also her comment about how this was driven by Choi Bit’s feelings of inadequacy—she didn’t believe she could get promoted on her own merits and had to leverage this opportunity. And now she’s stuck with the constant nagging feeling she doesn’t deserve it. And this dovetails nicely with the Lee Yeon-jae arc over at Hanjo. Succeeding as a woman doesn’t just mean constantly having to prove you’re as competent, it can mean proving you’re as Machiavellian. Whatever you do, you can’t appear soft.
Anisa: That scene was so hard to watch. The sorrow on Yeo-jin’s face as she asked why she was forced to bring down the one person she’s respected the most during her career—and it holds all the weight of the spoken and unspoken ways we’ve seen her rooting for Choi Bit to be the woman Yeo-jin’s always believed she is. And how that grew painful as Choi as she began to seem increasingly shady.
Saya: I can’t pick an ultimate favourite because these whole two episodes are one long favourite scene to me, but I absolutely agree about how powerful that scene was between Yeo-jin and Choi Bit. I also really felt it with Shi-mok when he meets Choi, and he tells her it’s not her conscience he’s putting his trust in, but Yeo-jin’s judgement. And there’s a part of me that’s deeply pleased by the fact that people around him can see just how important Yeo-jin is to him. Even though Chief Woo uses it against him, knowing it’s maybe the single piece of leverage he can ever have against Shi-mok, I loved the element of acknowledgement. I want the whole world to acknowledge that these two are a perfect match, always and forever. 😭
Yunah: Shi-mok looking out for Yeo-jin until the very end. I teared up during Choi Bit’s exit as she stared at Yeo-jin for a long, emotional beat.
Lee: But also, how much respect does Shi-mok have for her that he doesn’t consider saving her or rescuing her? And this is about more than them as friends and partners, it’s about how you can’t let those personal relationships interfere with your job when your job is justice. And both of these people walk their talk—even if Yeo-jin dabbled with following Choi Bit’s lead. Shi-mok knows this and so he never once pauses to consider compromising for her sake.
Anisa: It’s such a perfect partnership. It’s ironic, because Woo uses those exact words to describe his relationship with Choi when he accuses her of selling him out (and she rightfully calls BS). But the real flawless comradeship is between the two who don’t bother with labels—they simply spend each moment trusting each other down to the ground, working in tandem without trying to claim credit. Although as you said, Saya, it’s obvious to everyone. As Sa-hyun reflects, if everyone worked the way Shi-mok and Yeo-jin do together, there’d be no need for reform.
Lee: “If only the police and prosecution worked together like you do,” he says and then pauses to remember the time that collusion went horribly wrong. This show has done a masterful job of contrasting the two partnerships. Choi Bit and Woo Tae-ha really were the dark mirror.
Yunah: We mentioned this previously about how well this show reinforces its themes, and that was especially true in the conversation between Yeon-jae and Chief Prosecutor Kang. Naturally, Yeon-jae wouldn’t be able to fathom that one person (read: bad apple) could spoil the bunch. With her wealth and influence, it’s easy to eliminate the person causing trouble, but Kang reminds her that even corporations consist of people, and even one person can cause a ripple.
Saya: On the flipside of that is Chief Woo and that weird conversation he has with Sa-hyun—he kept saying “someone” in a way I genuinely thought there was some other, higher-up person orchestrating it all, but then you realise, nope, it’s all him, and that is how he distances himself from his actions. He sanitises the thing and diffuses his own responsibility by reframing it as “something anyone would do”. And you can see that he has literally convinced himself of his own rightness.
Anisa: I loved that Shi-mok, despite his bear of a superior basically vibrating with anger and violence, didn’t let that one go for a moment. “Your duty is to serve justice. You should never hide behind the word ‘anyone’”. Goosebumps.
Saya: ALSO PLEASE CAN WE TALK ABOUT KIM SA-HYUN. I’m sorry I doubted you. 😭😭😭 I feel like a trash friend (🤣) for throwing him away in a hot second last week.
Lee: I’m so so happy that Kim Sa-hyun was not involved in the frame-job. When I suspected him last week I was so disappointed; not just in him but in myself for starting to like him. And I’ve said this before but this show does a brilliant job of putting you in Shi-mok’s headspace and this was no exception. We didn’t like him, then we thought maybe he was okay, and then we thought our trust was broken. But he really was the person we thought he might be and I’m so glad.
It was so raw and emotional and hit the exact right note of betrayal. Because these two weren’t just sunbae-hoobae, they were friends. You feel it in that moment when Sa-hyun says “Hyungnim,” in that painfully disappointed tone. And his complete disgust for someone whom he had great affection for.
Anisa: Yes! I was getting emotional whiplash from flipping back and forth between love and hate, and I felt so bad that I’d believed the worst of him after that confrontation in Woo’s office that honestly gave me chills from start to finish.
Yunah: There were some truly excellent lines uttered by Shi-mok, and I want to highlight the scene between him and Deputy Prosecutor General Shin Dong-Un. I got literal chills when Shi-mok—in the way that only he can—reprimanded him and others before him for turning the prosecution’s investigative authority into a bargaining chip that’s up for sale. The precarious state of such rights is the fault of their own.
Lee: When he said that if he sold the prosecution’s investigative rights it’s only because they were up for sale in the first place—that blow hit. And it’s not the only verbal right hook to land square on the jaw this week.
Anisa: YES. Blow after blow, smack on the bullseye. (Forgive my mixed metaphors, it’s been an emotional day.) What I realized at the end of that scene is how Shi-mok always says exactly enough to make the other person reach his desired conclusion on their own. He never over-explains, never pleads or cajoles. He just goes around quietly dropping mics and walking off stages like the subtle badass he is.
Yunah: I, too, would LOVE that skill. I also love that this show reminds me how lonely it is to be the Shi-mok or the Yeo-jin in a sea of shady folks. But that it’s always worth it, and some good does come out of it.
Lee: He walks around giving people enough rope to hang themselves. But also there’s this part of him that’s not in the conversation itself but is instead analysing the conversation. And there has to be because his brain is always having to work so hard to do the social thing. So the part of him that enables him to function around humans is the part that examines every conversation as if it’s an observer.
Anisa: It struck me when Choi told Shi-mok that he was a bad judge of character, that she’s wrong about him, once again. He’s actually the best judge of character in this entire joint, because he never allows his own feelings (now that he’s kinda figured out they exist) to cloud his observations of other people’s behavior, and he never misses a thing. And unlike the unemotional heroes we’re used to (i.e. benevolent psychopaths) he actually does understand human emotion and motivation. So he knows exactly what to say to make someone crack. It’s a joy to witness.
Yunah: Yes! He sees and says it like it is. Always.
Saya: And yet, as always with this show, there’s a part of me that feels…not sympathy for the devil as such, but you don’t always entirely disagree with the villains’ (and I use that word loosely, in lieu of a better one) points. Like when Woo has dropped his facade and straight up threatens Shi-mok, the key thrust of his argument is that it’s not like he killed the man—“it’s just a matter of where a sick man ended up dying.” And it is, so can’t he just drop it? But also, equally and simultaneously, it isn’t, so he can’t.
Lee: This show constantly makes me ask myself what I would do in these situations. And I do not know. I do not know. Chief Prosecutor Kang’s dilemma? Choi Bit’s dilemma? I do not know.
Yunah: I find that so unsettling. Do I even have an ounce of that bravery? Are my morals Shi-mok/Yeo-jin-level straight? Chief Prosecutor Kang’s dilemma happened in an instant. Hanjo and Lawyer Oh turned the tables on Kang so fast!
Saya: Right? You don’t need to be evil to make bad, awful, or even the very worst choices. But you do need to be brave—and often willing to lose something—to make better choices.
Anisa: That’s the gist, and the difference: the willingness to give something up. I was talking to my mom after we finished about why this show is so good, and so different from anything else. It doesn’t let you off the hook with easy narratives about good and evil.
I remember we wondered in Week 1 why they brought back Yoon (the murderer from Season 1) and if that was fanservice. But I can see why now. It fits so perfectly into the recurring theme that anyone can slip into evil, and that good can come from any source, even someone who everyone has written off as a waste of life. Every person carries the potential for both damnation and redemption. It was quite moving to see Yeo-jin basically tell Yoon to stay alive so he can complete his penance—not because he deserves it, but because maybe the victim needs that to find some peace. (Also wut, is Shi-mok having prophetic dreams now?!)
Yunah: I loved that scene between Yeo-jin and Yoon as well. And the dream sequence. It was definitely an unexpected, stylistic deviation that worked.
Saya: I was pretty much sobbing over that dream (and texting Anisa with a stream of crying emojis). I wasn’t even surprised when Yeo-jin basically went to tell Yoon to stay alive because Shi-mok had seen him leaving with the other two. But I mainly loved it for giving us a startling peek inside Shi-mok’s unusual brain, where you get to see his neurological machinery translating all this electrical activity into manageable pieces of grief and emotion that then take the form of this highly metaphorical, slightly prophetic dream.
The blank whiteness of the dreamscape, the distance between him and the people who’ve left – that’s the distance between him and his emotions. They’re there, he can perceive them, but they’re just a little out of reach. And then you have Dong-jae, always larger than life, touching Shi-mok and giving him those little easy moments of human contact that he generally eschews…and it’s a little heartbreaking. And those damn lyrics. “I’ve lost my way.” “People say I’m cold.” 😭
Lee: I’m in two minds about the dream because it was such a departure from the show’s normal tone. But I see it as him processing how he feels about all the lost people. And that’s who they were—the lost ones. And he sees Dong-jae as still being somewhere in the middle. Not quite lost yet, although I guess we’ll find that out in Season 3 (there’s a Season 3, right? I need that Season 3). Anyway, the fact that Kang was as lost as the others was a powerful image. Shi-mok may not be in touch with his feelings but he’s clearly trying to come to terms with all the fallen soldiers on this battlefield.
Anisa: (Please God let there be Season 3.) Yes. The human cost of the work, as it were. So often we only think about the victims and the criminals in these cases: the ones who had their lives destroyed as the powerful took what they wanted and covered it up, and the downfall of those who our protagonists finally bring to justice. But this show really highlights how this kind of work wears on you if you’re one of the few people in the system who are actually trying to fight corruption. Who have to push back every day, in small and big ways, against the people above them who just want anything problematic to get buried without fuss. Shi-mok, standing in that white hallway with the beautiful song in the background speaking his heart—it was a bold move, but I think a really effective one. And then when he woke up, and just lay on his pillow looking so young—I turned to my mom and asked, “How can he express so many emotions when he barely moves his face?!”
Lee: Chief Prosecutor Kang at the end really got to me. Did he resign over Hanjo? Was he upset he let himself be compromised? Yes, but also he realised that Shi-mok was right about him closing that case too early on the restriction line. If he just kept the investigation open maybe none of this would have happened. Which cut line do we walk past? What is important? All of them. Because that’s your job.
Anisa: The “long shadow” of his actions as a prosecutor.
Yunah: Knowing how things ended for Lee Chang-joon, I don’t think Kang wanted to be stuck as Hanjo’s puppet. Lawyer Oh doesn’t have any alliances though. He’s just in it for the $$$.
Anisa: I think what got me most was how disappointed Kang was in himself.
Yunah: If only more people had the capacity for disappointment in themselves. That self-awareness…ego and greed overtake the capacity for self-reflection unfortunately.
Lee: And we’ve talked a lot about privilege and entitlement this season and Lawyer Oh’s whole arc is emblematic of this. I deserve to be in the South Pacific sipping Mai Tai’s. Does he really think only he deserves that? Everyone works hard. Not everyone can sell their morals to the highest bidder.
Yunah: “I WAS THE PRESIDING JUDGE ONCE!” LOL that outburst in the car was everything. You can’t knowingly sign a pact with the devil and then complain about it!
Anisa: So true. And it’s so telling that he waits until he’s alone in his car to rage about how dare Hanjo tell him to come and go, after presumably meekly listening to all their requests like a good yes-man. He’s totally swallowed the elitist narrative he and his fellow prosecutors perpetuate about their special status, and how no one else has the holy access and knowledge to the law that they do. It’s the same stuff Sa-hyun was telling the police in the first meeting of the council, as though looking down on the police from his superior perch. It was one of the pleasures of his arc to see him shaken summarily off it to place his feet properly on the ground.
Saya: You know, I was surprised that out of the dominant themes of hierarchy and cronyism reaching upwards, there was an equal reach downwards in the ranks to its rougher cousin, bullying, which didn’t start and end with the Segok case, but continued to turn up in practically every subsequent case, and ended up playing such a major role in Dong-jae’s storyline.
Lee: That’s a good segue because I want to talk about bullying. We’ve spent a lot of this season on the Segok case and the bullying there. As you mention, bullying was a strong element of the drowning case. And we’ve seen small hints of bullying around the way in which Yeo-jin is treated by her colleagues and just the way in which organisational norms are reinforced constantly to keep people controlled. So when Yeo-jin got her ‘promotion’ at the end my stomach clenched. Was this a Segok situation? Has she been sent somewhere to be bullied out of the profession? She’s so strong but precisely how much of this could she take?
Yunah: In addition to the bullying, to a lesser extent, I really appreciated the instances of sexism in the workplace. I don’t excuse Choi Bit’s shadiness, but I admire the fact that she came clean, and I also don’t think that had a man been in her place, that he would’ve been able to do what she did. I also liked that we see how tough Yeo-jin has it, as one of the few women in her crew.
Saya: Yeo-jin being cornered by those two male colleagues of hers—who’ve been hostile to her all show—was a great scene. Not just for the badass way she handles them, but also because you see the aftermath, when she’s alone, curled into a wall, crying. Her tears really, really got me. Because she acts so okay all the time, you forget that she obviously isn’t okay at all. Choi Bit wasn’t just her champion, she was her hero. And now she’s on her own.
Yunah: Bless her nonchalance, but it’s not easy to keep that up. She’s only human, so when she got that call from Geon, which reminded her that she in fact isn’t alone, and has colleagues supporting her, it meant a whole lot. Even while dining with Shi-mok, you can see him searching her face for answers, knowing that she’s able to act like everything’s fine when clearly something’s up.
Lee: As someone who once left a male-dominated workplace I really felt this. Because the constant grinding sexism gets to you, as does the need to maintain a facade of coping. It’s exhausting. And Yeo-jin is stronger than I am by far, but there is a point at which you realise you have nothing left. Giving back as good as you get in public while crying in private is a place I’ve been. And of course Bae Doona is such an extraordinary actor that she took us there effortlessly.
Yunah: And I think we all know that as women, we have to cry in secret. We can’t let slip our vulnerability for even a second because that could be used against us. I remember starting out in the entertainment biz, one of my friends told me that if I ever needed to cry, to never do it in front of my bosses. Yeo-jin gets it.
Anisa: It felt so real. I had a hard time watching that scene, because I’ve been there too—knowing that the people bullying you are beneath your contempt and yet being unable to keep from crying anyway…and not wanting to walk out with the evidence of that emotion on your face, because it’s exactly what they want. One dude even mocks her explicitly by saying, “You’re not going to cry later when you’re on my team, are you?” Ugh. My heart. Bae Doona has such an incredible mix of toughness and vulnerability, and it all shines here.
Lee: And this is Lee Yeon-jae’s issue too. The need to appear as strong and as Machiaevellian as a man. The need to prove yourself a thousand times a day. Sure she could do the right thing and stop trying to circumvent the law. But that would mean losing the war against a father and a brother who don’t deserve to win.
Yunah: Yes! There’s a reason Yeon-jae always has a blazer ready to go.