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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.