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Stranger 2: Episodes 3-4 Review

Along with the first full meeting of the Police-Prosecution Council, Shi-mok and Yeo-jin also have to contend with unsolved cases, unexplained deaths, and metamorphosing chaebols. As old friends, frenemies, and new adversaries assemble, battle lines are drawn (or at least implied), and our heroes find themselves reluctantly facing off.

Saya: It’s surprising how gripping you can make bureaucracy with the right kind of writing. Also: it took me three hours to watch one episode?

Yunah: I’m bingeing Life with my mom because I needed more of Lee Soo-yeon’s brilliance in my life, and let me tell you, she is the master of compelling politics, whether it’s in a hospital setting or in the realm of law enforcement. So gripping, so much drama!

Anisa: I’d forgotten how good she is at tense, implicit power plays like the one at the restaurant that started Episode 3. I feel like I would suffocate if I were actually there, so why is it so enjoyable to watch?!

Yunah: I just wanted to add that the one time we see poor Shi-mok take a bite, was for gopchang, which he really did not want to eat! Poor thing!

Anisa: He couldn’t get out of that one, haha. Although I do find it immensely stress-relieving how little he bends to the social pressures that his sunbaes wield so constantly. Him leaving that dinner without a care in the world made me laugh with delight.

Yunah: I would love to exit social obligations that I’m not in the mood for like that! No guilt, nothing!

Lee: Oh me too, the social pressures can be overwhelming. One of the messages I took away from the first season is that corruption isn’t caused by people being evil or venal or naturally avaricious. It’s caused by people having connections, relationships, obligations. It’s something that builds out of the normal interactions we have. And there was an undercurrent in the first season, an implication, that Shi-mok was immune to corruption not necessarily because he was more moral or more ethical but because he was incapable of forming these connections. And the dinner scene in Episode 3 really reminded me of that. All those subtle Korean social pressures around drinking, food, socialising and seniority and they just don’t work on him the way they do for others. I mean it’s delightful seeing Shi-mok the Incorruptible being Shi-mok the Incorruptible. It’s my favourite thing about this show that doesn’t involve Yeo-jin. But it reminded me about this underlying, almost sad notion about corruption being inevitable because people are… people basically.

Saya: That is acutely observed. What got me in that scene was all the symbolism and visual metaphors. I mean, apart from him finally getting to put a bite in his mouth, there’s also this subtext that illustrates how out of place he is—that this fancy food is something he doesn’t know how to eat the “right” way, and though he’s instructed, he puts it away and turns his back on it. I love how easily rejection comes to him! (Also he is such a miskeen1…what’s English for miskeen? Pulsanghan nom!)

Anisa: All that comes to mind is bechara2, but also not English!

Lee: Googled and… miser? Or maybe abstemious?

Saya: More like a sad, pitiable little guy, but in a…loving way? This is funny because usually we wouldn’t try to explain it!

Anisa: “Poor thing” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Yunah: Sad sack?

Lee: It was a similar dynamic later in his conversation with Yeon-jae, that she was trying to appeal to his ego, his loyalty, his personhood basically and it was just sinking into nothing. “Poor sad little man”. I don’t think we have a specific word for it.

Anisa: Yeah. And I loved how he saw exactly what he was doing, refused to bite, and turned it around on her. I think what makes Shi-mok stand out among all the emotionless heroes we’ve had in Dramaland so far (how is this an actual trope?) is that he’s not blind to the subtle emotional undercurrents of personal interactions. He just feels no need to bend to the demands of emotional blackmail–and that’s what makes him the best person for the job of rooting out corruption.

Lee: This brings me to why I love the Weasel so much and why I love it when he’s on screen. I read something about Bae Doo-na’s hair and the fact that they wanted us to feel the weight of the characters of these last two years, Shi-mok conveys such a tiredness behind his robot face. And she treats her long hair like a burden like something that is in her way, heavy on her head. And I realised that the tone of the show so far is not just grim, it’s leaden. All this internecine warfare is literally weighing all our main characters down. Is this what they became police for? Prosecutors for? Probably not. And then the Weasel shows up and he’s so… gleeful. I love him.

Yunah: What I love about Lee Soo-yeon’s writing is that she’s mapped out the narrative so intricately that she’s already several steps ahead of the viewer. I always thought that suicide case was fishy because suicide by hanging from a low showerhead just seemed so off to me, and sure enough, that was precisely the point.

Saya: Same! For a moment in that suffocating room full of knifelike words and not enough air, I had a fleeting doubt about whether I could stay for a show that didn’t actually have actual crimes and murders that needed solving, and then it went right back to the case on the ground. Also, how grim and awful was it? I’ve just come from finishing off the latest episode, and that feeling came down hard: the choking sadness and the lead-weight that Lee describes.

Anisa: I honestly felt like crying when I saw Shi-mok freeze for a second, seeing Yeo-jin enter the room, and the way that entire first argument meeting went. It kills me that they’re on opposite sides, arguing against each other, when I waited three years for them to get back on the same team. And it’s obvious that Yeo-jin and Shi-mok feel the same way.

Yunah: I loved that first Police-Prosecution Council meeting (however unfruitful that was!). No one wants to give even an iota, but I would argue the prosecution, especially. I think even from the get-go, there’s a visual difference between the two. It’s like the suits (fancy law degrees) vs. the scrappy (bad-guy chasers). The mudslinging was fun to watch, but I also felt that frustration. No one wants to make the first amendment.

Saya: Especially when you can see that both their perspectives have merits. But to cede is to lose, because the ground they give or gain is implicitly and directly connected to the balance of power. And that right there is the problem: to even view it in that way, when the way they need to view it is that gaining in efficiency and function is a win for everyone.

Lee: I don’t know nearly enough about the intricacies of Korea’s justice system so I found it fascinating. But also everyone in the room was upset about the rental scam—even the prosecutors—but still nothing changed because nobody wanted to concede the others’ point.

Anisa: We had to keep pausing so my sister could ask me to explain, with my very limited knowledge, how the Korean justice system works (thank you, Korean 306 Seonsaeng-nim!). She was like…so which side is more corrupt? And I couldn’t answer, obviously, but I do think that’s exactly what the show is asking us. And we’re being put in the uncomfortable position as viewers to really examine how this system works and whether this is simply a power struggle between two equally hungry heads of the same monster.

Lee: As a whole I find Korean dramas tend to portray uniformed police as genial buffoons, prosecutors as slimy and corrupt and detectives as hardworking if grizzled public servants. I wonder how closely that aligns with how Korean people see their own system.

Saya: I am so interested in what we’re learning about the foundation not just of the S. Korean judicial system, but the actual formation of its state and constitution, and how the historical context is so relevant to their present discussion. It really crystallises this idea that we’ve talked about quite a bit recently, that it’s only through that lens that you can fully understand how fundamental the flaws in the system are.

Yunah: The snippets of actual news footage in Episode 3 and the historical context (i.e. mention of May 18) were a great way to remind us that hello, this is an ongoing, major issue in Korea as we speak!

Lee: This is apparently a very real argument that’s happening, or has just happened, in Korea although I don’t want to find out who won it yet in case that becomes a spoiler.

Saya: Did you find yourselves swayed to one side or another as they made their cases? (Also: I LOVE how charged, how jagged and barbed that entire meeting was. I guess it’s absolutely appropriate that they met in… wait, that was a court building, right?)

Anisa: The Board of Audit and Inspection. Guess that answers the question of whose turf they’d be meeting on.

Yunah: I actually felt like Team Police was pushing for change, but Team Prosecution kept cutting them off, defending the way things have always been and arguing for continuous adherence to the status quo. Kim Sa-hyun especially!

Lee: The most compelling argument I found was unsurprisingly Shi-mok’s—that if the police get this power it doesn’t stop corruption, it just shifts it to the police. All that pressure, all that influence that prosecutors are dealing with now shifts to them. And how are they going to handle that?

Saya: You know, I found myself disturbed by how Team Prosecution—Kim Sa-hyun in particular—were determined to intellectualise the debate (look, even the fact that I used the word “debate”). He plays it like an academic situation which is best answered with blunt, ugly “pragmatism”. And taking that approach to important questions about human welfare is honestly frustrating. Because you can only take a position like that from a perch of privilege. It’s very political, very removed from real people and the small realities that add up to a life lived in the everyday.

Anisa: I haaaaate Kim Sa-hyun. Just wanted to say that.

Yunah: YES. Kim Sa-hyun is probably Exhibit A for fancy-schmancy prosecutor who sneers at “blue collars.”

Lee: The whole dynamic between Prosecutor Woo and Kim is that of juvenile private school boys having ‘japes’ in their exclusive clubs..

Anisa: And, that dynamic reinforces the historic class difference between prosecutors and police in South Korea. The police have been hated for decades because the current structure was basically inherited from what was set up by the American Occupation, who received it from the Japanese when they handed over power after World War II. And of course there’s the history of police brutality toward citizens in very recent memory, as Yunah mentioned. On the other hand, as my Korean professor explained, prosecutors are elite, highly educated and high-status people who have entire networks of cronyism based on who they went to school with. And as we talked about above, it’s these networks of connection that entangle people in the webs of money, favours and self-interested injustice.

Saya: And the thrust of the Kim Sa-hyun school of prosecutorial thought is to make a classic lawyers’ response. Basically, they really are being a**holes on legal technicalities. Yet, like Lee says, when Shi-mok makes his argument, it’s hard to disagree. But that’s also partly shored up by the fact that you know he walks the walk, and it’s not an academic question to him. It’s a real question of function and fitness for purpose.

Yunah: Yeah, we know when Shi-mok speaks up, he’s like the most “objective” of the bunch.

Anisa: But as usual, Shi-mok and Yeo-jin, and I think we can include poor straightforward Geon who’s stepped into this too, are in a dark forest of secrets (😎) where no one else is what they seem, everyone has a hidden agenda, and these three poor friends don’t even get to share in the misery anymore because they’re apparently working for different masters.

Yunah: Killed me to see him continue to run after twisting his ankle!

Saya: I love Geon 😭 He is the very definition of a good egg. Also that’s an interesting thought about working for different masters, which I felt was kind of cut open with the meeting: we’re ostensibly presented with these two sides, police and prosecutors, but their sparring in the meeting revealed a different dynamic altogether as their internal divisions became apparent.

Anisa: Yep. Those who are determined to hold onto their power—or gain power—and those who genuinely want the system to become more just. It kills me that the more powerful council members are using their juniors’ earnest arguments for their own ends.

Saya: Like, how the officers and prosecutors on the ground have quite a different conception of their jobs, while the people higher up in the ranks become increasingly distant from what those jobs mean. And you can see how that puts more common ground between the lower ranks on both sides, versus the upper ranks. And perhaps the distance between top and bottom is greater than the distance between one side and the other.

Lee: I mean this was really stark in the meeting the police had to prepare for the council. Geon had canvassed his colleagues to gain practical insight into what they needed to do their jobs more effectively and his superiors basically rolled their eyes and ignored him. Although he got a nice little thumbs up from Yeo-jin.

Anisa: That fist bump!

Yunah: So… do you think Yeon-jae’s pops is actually ill? Or is he as the housekeeper says, just disowning her because he thinks she was in on his downfall?

Lee: Hmmm… I’m not sure. But I did find her little mini-breakdown over her husband’s death really powerful. She’s clearly feeling isolated and abandoned.

Saya: I’m kind of wondering if they’re keeping him drugged and compliant at this point (or maybe even DEAD). Though I’ll be honest, I’m mostly lost on the Hanjo storyline, darn my failed memory of anything that happened in Season 1. Though it was coming together a bit by the end, so whew.

Lee: On the shallow side—Bae Doona’s pyjama game wasn’t on point this week. But food remains a running theme.

Yunah: I love how in Episode 3, Kim Sa-hyun and Chief Woo were like, “oh yeah! Of course Shi-mok eats. Of course he can feed himself. I’m sure he eats solo all the time!” And then we just see Shi-mok’s usual unreadable face. Little moments like that really tickle me.

Anisa: Jo Seung-woo’s deadpan expression is really what makes these moments so hilarious.

Yunah: There was one Weasel scene that cracked me up so much I had to replay it. In Episode 3, Shi-mok and Dong-jae were talking about the police suicide case. Dong-jae starts with a hypothetical scenario: “Let’s say I died—” and then he looks at Shi-mok, reconsiders, and goes, “No. Let’s say you died…” I was dying.

Lee: 😂 🤣 Also the scene in the restaurant when he declares that he and Shi-mok are a great team and Shi-mok glances behind him to try to find the person he must have been referring to.

Saya: YES THAT SCENE! I just can’t get enough of Shi-mok x Dong-jae! Also just Yeo-jin in every form. How she lights up whenever she sees a friend! ❤️❤️❤️ And she’s still coaching Shi-mok on social niceties. Their dynamic is so, so comfortable and it makes me want to just climb into the show to be their friend too.

Lee: As I said above, the Weasel lights up the show for me even if he’s struggling to weasel his way in anywhere at the moment.

Anisa: My favorite scene this week was also Weasel-centric, but it was actually when he brings back the medicine labels from Yeon-jae’s brother’s house, and she’s like, “You went through the trash?” And he replies smugly, “I am a highly skilled worker.”

Yunah: HAHAHA. And his regret from just nabbing a glass of water from the chaebol casa!

Saya: 😂😂😂😂

Anisa: And then the transition almost immediately to Yeon-jae’s grief and her determination, and Dong-jae admitting that he’s slimy and untrustworthy, but he’s sincerely rooting for her… and I actually kind of believed him. God bless Lee Joon-hyuk’s amazing acting ability.

Lee: Can you be sincere in your insincerity? Is that what it is? That he’s just so unapologetically himself?

Saya: That encapsulates why his character is so great. He moves from weasel-king to pathos with the barest shift, yet the air changes entirely. There’s one more Dong-jae moment for me: when Chief Woo dismissed him from that secret dinner with Shi-mok, I felt a little bad for him, with his willingness to be used but not being able to benefit. And then you’re laughing a moment later because Woo observes exactly the same thing. 😂

Anisa: Whenever the grim tension becomes unbearable, this show gives us a moment of pure, joyful humour. Which is why it never became too heavy last season, and I’m getting the same vibes now. (All hail the return of Yeo-jin’s sketchbook!)

Yunah: Yes! I trust Lee Soo-yeon wholeheartedly! OMG I hope we see more of Yeo-jin’s doodles.

Lee: I trust her too. And what I love about her is that she never spoon-feeds her audience or treats them like idiots. She respects us and our ability to follow what’s happening and to read between the lines of subtle dialogue and character interplay.

Yunah: Never! And I notice this in Life, too. The dots do connect, and we’re able to connect them on our own. I also noticed that any actor in a Lee Soo-yeon drama needs to be adept at memorising their lines. I don’t think the dialogue is as much as, say, an Amy Sherman-Palladino show, but the lines are long, the delivery is fast, and the subject matter is often technical. They need to be precise!

Lee: The actors never feel like they’re delivering exposition either; the dialogue feels organic.

Anisa: I know we’ve only just gotten started, but I’m hoping that Yeo-jin almost going into Choi Bit’s office to tell her that Shi-mok was investigating that suicide too, and then changing her mind, means that we might see them team up again soon. Am I being too greedy in Week 2? I just want them back where we left them, sitting in that pojangmacha and grinning over crappy udon!

Lee: The pojangmacha is gone, the past is gone. The only meeting they’ve had was in a place that was too loud where they failed to communicate properly. Deliberately so.

Yunah: They will find another pojangmacha! I am holding out hope for this!

Lee: I believe so too, they’ll find their common ground again! They will!

Saya: I would say they already are there—common ground is their homeground… they just have to work on getting everyone else there.

Yunah: I’m looking forward to more developments on the police suicide case, especially in terms of Choi Bit’s involvement, and another Police-Prosecution Council meeting! Will fisticuffs ensue? Civility was just barely maintained. Thank god for piping hot, spicy Korean food to help everyone let out their steam.

Lee: I’m just looking forward to more. I was kind of disappointed when you got me up at the crack of dawn again to do this (joking, not joking—it’s like minus 2 you guys!) that I was out of episodes. I am hooked and want more. MORE.

Anisa: The joy and tragedy of live-watching, my friend.

Lee: Till next week then! I will just have to wait.

Yunah: Ta-taaaa!

  1. Miskeen, Arabic

  2. Bechara, Urdu

#review #leejoonhyuk #JoSeungwoo #ForestofSecrets2 #dramareview #stranger2 #BaeDoona #kdrama

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