Spy: Episode 1
If all spies were a vision to look at like Jaejoong is, I’d probably cave in and give up all my secrets within five minutes in the interrogation room. Thankfully Spy, the newest spy action drama on the KBS block offers more than a beautiful face to gaze upon. Not only is this show wonderfully directed, but its heart beats with the core relationship between a loving mother and her son.
At first glance, Mom might look like a housewife who adores her family and her son might seem like a regular guy who has a steady job. But the truth is that they both harbor secrets from one another that are far from ordinary. This recap covers the first episode of the double-header format of the show, but it certainly looks like Fridays are about to become pretty thrill-tastic.
SONG OF THE DAY
Jung Yeop – “그림자 (Shadow)” for the OST [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Shenyang, China. In a dark alley, a young man speaks with his mother on the phone, reassuring her that he’s traveling up from Busan. Let’s go ahead and introduce our hero by name: KIM SUN-WOO (Kim Jaejoong), whose smooth delivery flawlessly masks the lies he tells.
He climbs into a car, briefcase in hand, but barely drives off a few yards before a truck slams into the car. Several goons emerge and break in to confiscate the briefcase from an unconscious Sun-woo, and are instructed to nick his wallet and watch so it looks like petty larceny.
Sun-woo stirs, and is barely conscious in witnessing his driver being stabbed to death. He doesn’t know it, but it’s his wallet that spares him from meeting the same fate. The family photo inside gives the leader pause; his mouth twitching, the man utters, “Song-woo-yah.”
Time to meet Mom aka PARK HYE-RIM (Bae Jong-ok), who raises a shy hand to speak up during the residents’ meeting. She wins over her disgruntled neighbors of their high heating costs by suggesting that they all check their own meters around their building.
Mom frantically rushes over to the hospital upon hearing the news that her precious son was injured in a car accident. Sun-woo is awake and downplays his injuries in front of his anxious over-protective mother. He has to think on his feet to explain away the presence of the other man in the room, referring to him as his superior.
Still, Mom can’t help but note how the look in his boss’s eyes sends a chill down her spine. For now, though, she complains to her husband being stuck at work instead of stopping by the hospital to see their son. Dad laughs good-heartedly that he can visit Sun-woo later, since he didn’t sustain any life-threatening injuries anyway.
Mom and Dad seem to share a loving, amicable relationship, and it’s clear that they deeply care for their children. Making sure that Sun-woo is comfortable and has everything he needs, she buys the lie that the accident took place nearby, believing that exhaustion from work is to blame.
Hearing Mom go on about how she thought that working as a government official would mean her son would always be out of harm’s way, Sun-woo returns that her words might make people think that he’s in a dangerous line of work. Well… you are, aren’t you?
She thinks this is a good opportunity as any for him to ask for a desk job, to which Sun-woo looks directly at his mother and vows not to get hurt anymore or cause her more grief. “I love you, Mom.” I’m sure she’ll worry about him anyway, but it’s endearing to see how sweet he is towards his mother.
A week later, Sun-woo is questioned at the National Intelligence Service (NIS) headquarters in regards to his failed operation. The man at the hospital is the intelligence analysis team leader SONG JOONG-HYUK, who describes Sun-woo as an elite field agent with an error-free record in the past three years—up until this particular mission, that is.
No one knows understands why Sun-woo’s life was spared, but Chief Song would like to reassign Sun-woo to his team as an analyst. The director chuckles that it won’t be easy for a guy used to the field to suddenly work an office job, then asks about Sun-woo’s family background.
Dad Kim Woo-suk is currently an IT executive and met his wife in China, where she was working as a translator. Seeing as Sun-woo picked up his mother’s language skills, Chief Song feels that he’ll be a helpful addition to his team. The director approves, though reminds him to keep a watchful eye on the young agent.
We catch a glimpse of one agent whose presence has the director tsk disapprovingly. We’ll come to know him as agent KIM HYUN-TAE (Jo Dal-hwan), who smirks curiously when the lie detector finally pings at Sun-woo’s answer of “no” at whether he’s hiding something from the NIS or not.
Back at home, Mom helps her younger daughter Young-seo with her homework, then hurries to finish preparing dinner. They’re expecting a guest — Sun-woo’s girlfriend, to be exact — and Mom shows some curiously deft knife-handling skills while she chops up veggies. Dad doesn’t think he needs to do anything special, but his wife replies that it’s the first time Sun-woo’s bringing a girl home to introduce to the family.
There’s one last question for Sun-woo to answer before he can go: “Are you seeing anyone at the moment?” Sun-woo answers yes, and the female agent slightly grimaces to see that he’s telling the truth. He runs out of there, completely oblivious of her interest in him, and Hyun-tae teases her for getting rejected in record time.
Sun-woo calls his ladyfriend apologetically—he’ll be running really late. She’s already in front of his house and refuses to greet his family alone. Mom has already noted the young lady waiting outside in the freezing cold, so Dad steps out to meet the girlfriend, LEE YOON-JIN (Go Sung-hee).
He warmly invites her inside, and neither of them are aware that there’s someone watching nearby, holding Sun-woo’s family photo in his hand. Ooh, the gang leader we saw in China?
Mom scans Yoon-jin from head to toe before remembering herself to be a gracious host. Her smile drops, however, when Yoon-jin mentioned that she brought Chinese snacks that Mom might like.
Mom’s suspicion radar is up at the dinner table, as Yoon-jin says it’s been a while since she’s had a homemade meal because she lives alone. In fact, she’s from Shenyang, like Mom is. It’s curious how Dad stutters over the coincidence; and at a few more of Mom’s interrogative questions about her background, Yoon-jin replies that both her parents died when she was young.
Dad is sympathetic, but when Mom continues to press the topic, he changes the subject of conversation. Yoon-jin works at a small Chinese travel agency and sometimes accompanies the group as a guide. Her reflexes are surprisingly quick too, as she catches a water pitcher that slips off the table. She smiles, still nervous, but Mom doesn’t miss the moment.
At the question of how she met Sun-woo, Yoon-jin replies that he’d helped her get out of a sticky situation during her job search. Because of her Korean-Chinese nationality status, she’s often treated like a second-class citizen at government offices. She eventually got used to the discrimination, but it was Sun-woo who stood up for her.
Mom watches Yoon-jin with suspicion for several tense moments before backing off, apologizing for being so aggressive with her questions. She shares some of Sun-woo’s childhood photos with Yoon-jin after dinner, along with the story that her son had a speech delay.
She had worried that her son suffered from a developmental disability, but it turns out that she had once scolded Sun-woo for copying her manner of speech when he was very young. He had clammed up as a result and didn’t speak again until he was a little boy.
But it’s every mother’s wish that her children would take after her good traits and never face the hardships she did in the past. “I wish Sun-woo would live a happy, ordinary life with a happy, ordinary mate.” Yoon-jin says she wishes for the same thing and vows to work harder to achieve that.
Sun-woo rushes in just then, apologetic for his lateness. He offers to take Yoon-jin home, and once the lovebirds take their leave, Mom shrugs off the idea of being considered in-laws already.
Her husband already knows what’s coming when she expresses her distrustful impression of Yoon-jin, calling his wife out on her tendency to over-analyze strangers. She insists that it’s just a sense she gets, and when her husband teases her for being jealous already, she huffs that that’s not why.
Stopping at a cafe, Yoon-jin is convinced that Sun-woo’s family doesn’t like her despite his insistence otherwise. She’s sure Mom disapproves of her, but he returns that the opposite could very well be true since Mom’s extremely shy when it comes to strangers. Aw, it’s sweet of him to try and make her feel better.
She wonders if bringing up her hometown in an effort to find a commonality with Mom only made her feel uncomfortable. His mom had told her that she wished for an ordinary life for her son and probably wouldn’t welcome someone like herself. Being special is better than being ordinary, Sun-woo answers.
Taking her hand, Sun-woo says he knew that he wanted to hold onto her from the moment he first laid eyes on her. That feeling was reciprocal, he points out, then places a hand on her cheek: “This is happiness.”
A young lady is dropped off along the streets of Seoul, blindfolded. Removing it, she tries to get her bearings, and then starts wandering. She soon picks up a tail and starts running, using the cover of a passing bus to get a head start.
She runs down the side streets and into a building, her pursuer still hot on her trail. She loses him at a stairwell and climbs out through a window and into a taxi. She gets out to pick up a pay phone. In a frightened voice, she says, “I want to turn myself in.”
At the breakfast table, Sun-woo encourages his mother to refer to his girlfriend in a friendlier tone. He rises when gets an urgent call from work, but stops to explain to his mother why he likes Yoon-jin so much: “Because she’s like you.”
Ha, no one can argue that Sun-woo doesn’t know just what to say to please Mom, and her husband asks if they should go out and get some fresh air together today.
Agent Hyun-tae is busy practicing his opera singing pipes (to “O Fortuna,” and badly, at that, heh) when he’s interrupted by Sun-woo’s arrival. Once inside, he fills Sun-woo in on the details: a North Korean female secret agent claims that the North is in disarray following the execution of North Korean general Jang Sung-taek — who was executed by his nephew on grounds of treason — and someone is gathering up and killing the spies in the South.
Sun-woo asks if the story checks out, but he’s told it isn’t important whether that intel is true or false—only whether that information is useful to them or not.
At their rendezvous point, Hyun-tae attends to an angry phone call while Sun-woo keeps his eyes peeled for their informant. He spots a scared-looking woman without a winter coat surveying her surroundings, and I love how Hyun-tae yells at the other agents for not being inconspicuous (“Take your hand away from your earpiece! Are you shooting a movie right now?!”).
Hyun-tae is further displeased when he hears that Sun-woo hasn’t brought a gun with him because he was only instructed to show up. Not liking the odds of heading into the battlefield without a firearm in case things go awry and risking innocent citizen lives, Hyun-tae instructs the agents to pull out and arrange another rendezvous location.
But Sun-woo has made eye contact with the young woman and says they might not get another chance: “She might die within that time.” He decides to head in himself.
He approaches the woman with caution under the guise of handing out flyers. Handing her one, he delivers the passphrase. She exhales in relief.
But that’s only the beginning as Sun-woo takes the woman by the arm and down into the subway station, followed by Hyun-tae. They hurry through the station and travel further underground, making sure they’re not being followed. Once they finally reach their destination, Hyun-tae warns Sun-woo not to go running off like that again because there were at least three suspicious persons in the area.
Chief Song is already here at their makeshift headquarters and asks after Sun-woo’s broken arm. He says it’s already better, eager to get back into the field, to which Chief Song says they can talk about that later.
Some introductions are in order first, including Hyun-tae and the female agent who interrogated him yesterday, agent NOH EUN-AH. The intelligence analysis team will take the reins on this case, which means they’ll all be working together.
It turns out that outing Dad mentioned is a round of golf with the Minister of Defense, much to his wife’s disappointment. She understands that he had to persuade the minister to consider his proposal but wished that he’d brought it up earlier so that she wouldn’t get her hopes up.
But Dad has another surprise in store for her and they drive out to see a house for sale up in the mountains. She has to admit that it is nice out here, and he wonders if they should buy the place.
He humors his wife as she lists off all the practical reasons why they don’t have the means right now — they have to save up for their daughter’s tuition, their son’s marriage, and their retirement — but he’s convinced they can do all that and more if this deal is successful.
He tells her to trust him and presents her with a bouquet of reeds. His voice full of adoration, he says he knows the heartache she’s been through but it’s time for them to be happy because everything has worked out for them.
It’s a wonderfully sweet and simple proposal, and then he adds the request for her to look kindly upon Sun-woo’s girlfriend Yoon-jin. Mom agrees to reconsider, and the two enjoy the mountain air together. Aw, they really are a lovely married couple.
Back at the makeshift headquarters, Eun-ah leads the interrogation on North Korean agent Jo Soo-yeon. Her original assignment was to infiltrate the South and gather intel, but lately she’d been working odd-end jobs to earn money and send some to her family in the North.
All her fellow agents did the same, but a new team leader arrived and used that to spin an excuse to gather the spies and have them killed (on the implicit grounds of sending that money to their families instead of passing it along to the government).
Eun-ah says they can’t find any trace that her Northern comrades even exist in the South, to which Soo-yeon answers that’s likely because they’re all dead by now and she was nearly killed too. But Eun-ah points out that she’s still very much alive and doesn’t look all that hurt either.
Questioning the verity of her testimony only incites Soo-yeon to finally release her pent-up frustration, as she screams at Eun-ah in her North Korean dialect that she wouldn’t have approached them if she were lying. Doesn’t she understand that her comrades are dead?!
Hyun-tae berates Eun-ah for riling up their informant, and Sun-woo volunteers to speak with Soo-yeon. She’s still rather upset when he walks in, but Sun-woo calmly cuts to the chase and asks her to point out where she was captured on a map.
He then asks how long the van ride was. Approximately an hour, Soo-yeon replies, and Sun-woo grabs a radius around that location on the map. He asks what happened next, and she answers that they were killed off one by one.
We see her words play out in flashback as each blindfolded North Korean spy pleads for mercy, only to be handed a death sentence. Sun-woo asks for any distinctive features about the ride or the location, and his ears perk up at her answer that there was a smell of something rotting in the air.
Asking if she’s still wearing the same clothes from when she was kidnapped, Sun-woo steps around to sniff her clothing. Bodies, he deduces, which means that she must’ve been taken to a crematorium. Keeping the rest of Soo-yeon’s statements in mind, Sun-woo pinpoints the location to a crematorium in Paju.
He asks why Soo-yeon’s life was spared, and she tearfully admits that she was instructed to retrieve the funds she and her deceased comrades saved up, lest she and her entire family be executed.
Soo-yeon did manage to somewhat see the new North Korean team leader’s face. It was his facial scar that triggered her memory about a story she’d heard back in her training days about an agent who failed a mission in China years ago because of a woman—a female agent who is supposedly dead.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that we cut to Mom following those words. She sets aside her new bouquet when the doorbell rings. She goes to answer the door and opens it, only to look up and see that North Korean team leader and the mystery gang leader from the top of the hour. “Song-woo-yah,” he says. “It’s been a long time.”
Mom furrows her eyebrows in recognition as the man at the door pauses to correct himself: “Oh wait, no… is it Hye-rim now?”
A promising outing for Spy so far. I’d been hoping that the spy action thriller would deliver on all counts of directing, writing, and acting, given its stylish teasers and promotional stills. Although the first episode of the Friday double-header drama barely skims the surface of the many secrets that lie beneath, there is enough mysterious intrigue that catches my interest.
In regards to Spy’s two-episode-on-Fridays offering, I’m always interested on how experimental formats will affect viewership and the surrounding buzz. The ratings churned out some interesting numbers (Episode 1 pulled in 8.5% and Episode 2 hit 7.9%), and while I see the title among the top drama series in the search engines, it’s still early to draw any solid conclusions on what kind of following the show will have in Korea and abroad.
While I’m all for multiples spies running around this dramaverse, what I’m also afraid of is if Spy chooses to reveal allllll of its characters as spies. It’s apparent that Mom, Sun-woo, and the scarred man aren’t the only one keeping personal secrets close to the vest, but there is really is such a thing as Too Many Spies (see: the Iris series). So I’m hoping that for the drama’s sake, it chooses wisely on which characters to possess a mysterious past.
I can say that I’d been most looking forward to Jaejoong’s performance here and that he’d continue the strides he’d made in his acting in Triangle. And while we didn’t quite get to see the range in his acting skills just yet apart from playing the adoring son and boyfriend and the cool and professional NIS agent, there’s still a natural presence and confidence that Jaejoong adds to his character Sun-woo. I really do enjoy the loving relationship he shares with his mother and that he hails from a warm family upbringing with doting parents who truly care about him.
But it’s Mom’s character by far that intrigues me the most and shrouded in mystery in this opening hour. There are plenty of subtle clues that hint at an unsaid past, and I feel that it isn’t much of a spoiler when the premise tells us that she’s a North Korean sleeper agent. We saw a glimpse of her weapon-handling skills, her high suspicion of others, and her interrogation skills, but what I’m most interested in is her connection with the man at the door and the history they share.
His re-entrance into her life means that the quiet decades she’s spent in the South is about to get rocked, and I can’t wait until she gets pulled into whatever mission puts her back onto the field and we get to see the badass Mama secret agent in action. It’s the family-centric focus of this spy premise that pulls me in the most—to see how far a mother will go to protect her baby chick and unaware that he harbors secrets of his own. It’s a setup that’s rich with dramatic conflict, and I’m confident that Bae Jong-ok and Jaejoong will deliver a character relationship that will keep us on the edge of our seats for an emotionally-driven and wild ride.