Heart-pounding and intense, tvN’s newest crime thriller Signal pulls out all the stops in its premiere, and boy am I diggin’ it. An unexpected connection is made when a two-way radio links the past to the present, adding to the already eerie mystery that surrounds a cold case. When a dogged profiler pairs up with a detective determined to get to the bottom of the truth, you can rest assured that they won’t call it quits anytime soon.
Even with all the information crammed into the first hour, Signal does a fine job of laying down the groundwork for what should be an exciting series ahead. Ratings-wise, the premiere pulled in an impressive 5.145%. All aboard for Signal!
SONG OF THE DAY
Royal Pirates – “Run Away” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
July 29, 2000. In a rowdy elementary schoolyard, a girl looks curiously at the only boy not playing with the other kids. Her friendly smile is met with rebuff. Seeing as he’s still in his normal clothes, he must be a loner.
She seemingly disappears for a moment before reappearing with a tennis racquet so they can play together. He silently rejects this kind gesture as well.
It’s raining heavily by the time school lets out, and the boy waits to leave until the other students have left with their parents. The girl is still there when he heads out, so he timidly hides his umbrella behind him. Again, she smiles at him.
He runs out into the rain instead, leaving her surprised and hurt. He briefly stops to stare at a finely dressed woman with red lips and heels — she’s been standing there since school ended — and turns his head once more to see the girl leave with the woman.
The boy doesn’t think much of it until he eats dinner at home alone and sees the news report that the girl Yoon-jung has been kidnapped. Reporters swarm around the school entrance the next day to inquire about the door, but the sight brings up terrible memories for the boy: screaming for his convicted hyung, being separated from his mother.
He’s confused when he hears that the prime suspect is a young man, when he definitely saw that a woman took Yoon-jung. He tries pleading with the police at the station, but his efforts are futile.
After Yoon-jung’s body is discovered, the police continue their search for her murderer. The primary suspect flees, and the months and years pass by as the boy sees Yoon-jung’s mother standing outside the police station to publicize her daughter’s case.
Over the years, we see that the boy who gets into fights at school grows into a young man who gets into fights at the pool hall. A news reporter states that the statute of limitations on Yoon-jung’s murder runs out on July 29, 2015—a date indicated in red as “The End” on a calendar.
July 27, 2015. D-3 until the statute of limitations expires. That little boy is now known as profiler PARK HAE-YOUNG (Lee Je-hoon) who goes snooping around for celebrity gossip. His most notable find to date: that actors Im Shi-wan and Kang So-ra are an item (hello Misaeng callback!).
Rather than today’s celebrity couple reveal, the reporter is more interested in how Hae-young knew to be at the right place at the right time to blow the stars’ cover. As Hae-young launches into his lengthy explanation, he doesn’t miss the woman walking into the cafe.
The details are astute and precise, from Im’s concert schedule to the psychological reasoning behind the time and location of their secret date—dark and secluded. It’s certainly impressive, but Hae-young isn’t done yet; he’s got more dirt… this time on Ji Sung and Lee Bo-young.
Before he can answer how he knows they’re dating (is this a world where they’re not married yet?), the woman answers, “By looking through the trash.”
This is detective CHA SOO-HYUN (Kim Hye-soo), who then takes Hae-young downtown. He’s affronted when he hears that he’s been marked as a stalker, and defends that his actions are no more offensive than a bum digging through trash.
He may be a cop (a lieutenant, at that) but he isn’t some pervert nor is he collecting money in exchange for tips—it’s just a hobby, Hae-young retorts. He scoffs at how his actions are harmful to an officer’s “dignity”, pointing out how the huge stacks of cases on Soo-hyun’s desk is evidence that she’s detaining him to lessen her casehold.
Furthermore, he plucks a picture of Batman from her desk to show that people like her always carry something to justify themselves. He moves on to the other cop’s desk because he’s sure that Lee Bo-young’s manager is among his contacts. This all means they were keeping tabs on him on said manager’s request. Why else would a violent crimes detective deal with him?
Soo-hyun knocks Hae-young off of his soapbox with the rejoinder that no cop is dignified—why, he stooped low enough to dig up trash. Just then, they’re interrupted by a call informing them that Lee Bo-young’s side has dropped the charges. She immediately calls Hae-young’s bluff to report them to their superiors, saying that it’ll only end up in embarrassment for him.
Her stare is unwavering, so Hae-young collects his things and walks out, though it’s Soo-hyun who has the final word: Find a new career path because he isn’t cut out to be a cop.
Hae-young doesn’t get very far before he realizes that these empty halls feel much too familiar. When he turns the corner to the elevator and the grandfather clock, he imagines his younger self seemingly looking back at him.
The camera pans around, and we’re back in the past again: A younger Hae-young crashes into an officer in the stairwell but doesn’t stop. Unbeknownst to him, he loses the note he’d tightly gripped in his hand.
August 3, 2000. Five days and five hours following Yoon-jung’s abduction. The briefing is held by the detective we saw earlier: LEE JAE-HAN (Jo Jin-woong). Here are the details: a ransom note was discovered approximately an hour after Yoon-jung was reported missing; they identified a suspect—medical student Seo who suffers from debt and is already on the run.
Director of Investigations KIM BUM-JOO (Jang Hyun-sung) remarks that the world is littered with bad people and criticizes the team for being unable to nab the suspect. Jae-han says he found that Seo had a girlfriend who bought many a luxury item with his credit card, but her identity is yet unknown.
Knowledge of a new ransom note comes in just then, and Jae-han argues that he can’t shake off the feeling that Seo is just a red herring. Only a thumbprint was found on the initial ransom note and on the table at the cafe—it’s as if someone deliberately framed him.
He believes they should look into the girlfriend, a lead that Director Kim says he can dig up on his own and advises that Jae-han watch his back. He’s alone when Soo-hyun drops by in her police uniform, and just as she’s about to bring up a previous conversation they had, Jae-han says they can talk after the weekend, once this case is over.
He places a hand on her shoulder, and she smiles. With that, we briefly transition back to the present, as Soo-hyun tucks the Batman picture on her desk and organize her caseload.
We then cut back to the year 2000, as a young Hae-young retraces his steps back to the police station for the fallen note an hour later. Speaking of which, Jae-han reads the note in his car, about how the kidnapper was in fact a woman.
Jae-han looks at his walkie-talkie before driving off to follow a lead: a note indicating today’s date and a rundown Seonil Psychiatric Hospital. Over in the year 2015, Hae-young gripes over a parked truck blocking his car and Soo-hyun reviews her cases.
When the clocks hit 11:23 PM in both timelines, Jae-han speaks into his two-way radio. Hearing the static, Hae-young follows the voice and listens as Jae-han reports that he’s found Seo’s body hung from a waste disposal railing with a missing thumb.
Wide-eyed, Hae-young digs through the trash bag to find a walkie-talkie from which Jae-han’s voice states that Seo was killed and made to look like suicide and that Yoon-jung’s murderer is someone else.
Speaking into the radio, Hae-young demands to know who’s on the other end of this transmission. Just as Jae-han responds, a shadow moves behind him. Creepy. When he asks (who he thinks is another cop) why he was advised not to come here, the shadow hits him over the head.
Hae-young hears the noise from his end, but his demands to know who he’s speaking to goes unanswered. He tries literally slapping himself out of it, only to wince from the pain. Heh.
After seeing Yoon-jung’s mother still standing outside, Hae-young heads back to his precinct where he learns that the old walkie-talkie doesn’t even have any batteries. He tucks it into his drawer, but then recalls Jae-han’s voice about the suspect Seo.
Next thing we know, Hae-young breaks into the long abandoned psychiatric hospital. He walks through the grimy, cobwebbed halls towards the back of the hospital. He stops short upon seeing the grate, remembering that this is where the voice said he discovered the body.
Hae-young musters up the courage to step forward and shine his flashlight into the grate. Nothing. He wonders what the hell he’s doing, following a voice from a walkie-talkie that shouldn’t even work. Figuring that he’s wasting his time, he doubles back…
… and that’s when he sees another grate. Deciding to check it out, Hae-young peers in, then jumps back in alarm. When he shines his flashlight over it again, we see it: a noose and a skeleton. And what does Hae-young do? He runs.
Forensics is on the scene the next morning, and Soo-hyun walks up to a jumpy Hae-young to ask how he discovered the corpse and why he called her. He knows it’s going to sound crazy, but he asks that the team test the skeleton’s DNA to suspect Seo who was linked to Yoon-jung’s kidnapping-murder fifteen years ago.
The forensic pathologist states that it may not be who Soo-hyun is looking for, but this man was in his 20s when he died and his thumb was likely forcibly sliced with a scalpel. Hae-young, meanwhile, can’t believe that none of the detectives named Lee Jae-han know nothing about Yoon-jung’s murder. “Was he a ghost then?” he asks.
He barely has a moment to entertain the thought that he might actually be crazy before Soo-hyun grabs him and asks how he knew that was Seo’s body. That’s news to him, and Soo-hyun sorts through her mind of how the police only found Seo’s thumbprint fifteen years ago, and now his body is missing an appendage.
According to that logic, the only person who knew where Seo’s body was has to be his murderer. But how did Hae-young know?
Their standoff is interrupted by Section Chief AHN CHI-SOO, who leads the Special Crimes Squad. He’s also the cop who got up in Jae-han’s face about investigating the Yoon-jung case on his own. Section Chief Ahn demands all the paperwork on Seo, and before Hae-young can protest, Soo-hyun beats him to it.
They need to find out who truly killed Seo, she argues, but Section Chief Ahn shuts her down. There’s less than 29 hours before the statute of limitations on this cold case expires—does she honestly believe she can figure it out before then?
Hae-young is appalled when Section Chief Ahn snatches the paperwork out of her hands, but there’s nothing he can do about it.
Section Chief Ahn beelines for Director Kim’s office and reports that Jae-han’s hunch was right: Seo’s skeleton was missing a thumb. Director Kim asks if Section Chief Ahn is prepared to open the can of worms by going public with this info because they’ll need to address Jae-han’s case too. Why? What else happened that night in 2000?
Hae-young confronts Soo-hyun at the police station to state that yes, he saw the actual person responsible for Yoon-jung’s kidnapping-murder. He adds that he didn’t quite see her face, but it was indeed a woman who took Yoon-jung.
When asked why he didn’t come forward earlier, Hae-young spits back that he tried, but no one took notice of him. Still, he naively believed that the police would find the kidnapper, but as time went on, nothing happened.
So when he was older, he returned to the police, only to be dismissed once more. And it was only then he learned why his voice was never heard—because to re-open a case means that the police would have to admit they were wrong. “Because the police would have to wear shame on their faces!”
As Director Kim walks outside the station to face a ragged-looking Yoon-jung’s mother, Hae-young asks bitterly, “Will you also pretend not to hear me like the other detectives did?”
He follows her when Soo-hyun walks past him without an answer, and she explains why working on cold cases is the worst: unlike other cases, you don’t know who killed your loved ones and why, which essentially makes each day like living in hell.
In the sight of the reporters, Director Kim hands over the autopsy results on Seo with the public apology that Seo ended his life shortly after the crime. Yoon-jung’s mother breaks down in tears.
“So are you going to close the case then?” Hae-young asks. “No, I’m saying I’ll catch her,” Soo-hyun replies. But that isn’t a good enough answer for Hae-young, who demands to know how Soo-hyun plans to catch a woman he barely saw on her own.
“Let’s do it together. I’ll help you,” he pleads. She flatly refuses, reminding him that he’s not fit to be a cop. She tries to get through the swarm of reporters downstairs, and when one of them asks if the police is certain that Seo committed suicide, Hae-young declares, “No, it wasn’t suicide.”
The swarm surrounds Hae-young, who boldly asserts that Seo was killed by Yoon-jung’s murderer. He names himself as the one who found the body and describes the true killer as a female nurse in her 30s who worked at the old Seonil Psychiatric Hospital.
The reporters eat up all the information Hae-young provides, and he declares open war against the murderer—the truth will come out soon enough.
Soo-hyun finally gets through the crowd to grab Hae-young by the shirtfront. “You said you’d catch her. This is the only way,” he defends. They’ve only got 27 hours left, so this is their final shot.
Director Kim’s smug face falls when he sees the shocking news report on TV that directly contradicts his own statement. Section Chief Ahn tenses. In a hospital, a female nurse backs away slightly when she hears Hae-young’s public declaration of war.
The nurses start whispering about who worked at Seonil Psychiatric, and the camera hones in on one nametag: Kim Se-young.
When Section Chief Ahn storms into the station, Soo-hyun immediately stands up for Hae-young. She defends the idea that she was following procedure, and Hae-young says he saw the culprit.
He can estimate the woman’s height based on the jungle gym and wore fancy clothes. Seeing as she’d kidnap a little girl, the killer likely suffers from narcissistic personality disorder and intended to act alone because she wouldn’t trust anyone.
But if Seo came home to see what she had done, he may have demanded her to turn herself in, and she could’ve killed him out of anger. She would’ve chosen a familiar place—her old workplace, Seonil Psychiatric—and used lethal injection since Seo could physically overpower her.
Hae-young’s tone becomes more heated as he explains that unlike her flashy attire, the woman kept her nails clean. This means her profession restricted her from manicures and her skill with a scalpel increases the chances of her being a nurse who works in the operating room.
When Section Chief Ahn asks Soo-hyun believes these groundless claims, Soo-hyun says it all adds up: the body was found in a secluded, restricted area of the hospital grounds, and the cause of death and missing appendage were confirmed by forensics.
Soo-hyun has documentation to show that there were only two female doctors when Seonil Psychiatric Hospital shut down and neither fit the criteria. Furthermore, Seo’s credit card purchases aligns with the shopping habits of a woman in her 20s…. which puts the killer in her mid-30s, just like Hae-young described.
Section Chief Ahn is doubtful that that’s enough to catch the murderer, because that description could apply to hundreds of women. “Do you intend to meet them all?” “You don’t have to,” Hae-young says.
He made that announcement so that the public could help him dwindle those numbers for him. We see that it worked because a nurse at Youngin Hospital remembers that Kang Se-young used to work at Seonil Psychiatric, but no one has made a call to the police yet.
Hae-young claims that there needs to be a window of time for co-workers to spot any suspicious behavior—once they spot it, they’ll make the call. In addition, he exaggerated about having irrefutable evidence so that the murderer would think her cover’s about to be blown.
She’ll naturally act out of character, and that’s how they’ll know. A call comes in just then, followed by another. Soo-hyun turns to Section Chief Ahn for the green light to follow up on this case—it only takes one piece of evidence to find their killer. When she doesn’t get an answer right away, Soo-hyun says she’ll take full responsibility if things go south.
But Section Chief Ahn takes that burden off her shoulders and repeats that her team has 24 hours to find irrefutable evidence or get a confession. 20 hours before the statute of limitations is up, Hae-young confirms that the credit card usage fits the description.
The female murderer loves luxury items, follows fashion trends, and likely carries a compact mirror for vanity reasons. The first lead is a bust, as Hae-young notes that a narcissist wouldn’t care about another life, let alone a pet.
We see that Kang Se-young is already on the road, and her supervisor Nurse Yoon, contemplates whether to make the call. D-6 hours, and none of the leads have gotten the cops anywhere until they get a call from Youngin Hospital.
Following up on that lead finally gets them somewhere: a calendar with the days marked down to July 29, and more importantly, a pair of red heels. Soo-hyun and Hae-young try to get updates while they’re stuck in traffic, though they’re told that Kang Se-young is still missing.
They let out a frustrated sigh when they find out that Kang has checked into a hotel in Busan. Since time is of the essence, Section Chief Ahn demands that they get in contact with the Busan police force.
They finally make it back to the station with one hour and forty minutes remaining, but neither of them can bring themselves to say anything to Yoon-jung’s heartbroken mother. The good news is that they have Kang Se-young in custody, but they’ve got less than 90 minutes to get a confession out of her.
In the interrogation room, Soo-hyun cuts right to the chase, though Kang denies killing anyone and claims not to know who suspect Seo was. She asks why Kang ran for it following the news broadcast, but Kang refutes that too.
Hae-young is told to go home now that it’s nearly over, but he doesn’t understand why someone obsessed with brand name clothes would leave her flashy red heels behind. So he asks the detectives if they saw what kind of shoes she was wearing.
Upon hearing that they were tan, Hae-young bursts into the interrogation room and confirms that they have the wrong woman. Everything in that locker suggests that the owner is left-handed, and it dawns on Soo-hyun that it could be the woman who called…
… as Nurse Yoon abandons her cell phone and puts on red lipstick in her car. Turns out she’d seen Kang Se-young freeze in place because they both worked at Seonil Psychiatric. So Nurse Yoon had given Kang the day off so she freely could switch the locker nametags and call it in just before the deadline.
So Kang Se-young was simply a red herring to waste the police’s time. “I was wrong,” Hae-young cries. “I was so sure that she’d run. But she misled us because we were impatient and desperate.” Oh god, how creepy is that stare over the cop’s shoulder?
“We cannot let it end like this,” Hae-young strains. Nurse Yoon must think that she’s manipulating the police like marionettes, and he’s positive that she must be nearby, enjoying the show.
Hae-young dashes out of the station and into the rain, while Soo-hyun makes the call to review the hospital’s CCTV shortly after the police dropped by.
D-40 minutes. After scouring the footage, the security team finds footage of Nurse Yoon getting into her car. At the same time, Hae-young stops running and then looks up to right where Nurse Yoon is sitting, warm and dry.
Hae-young runs upstairs to find her seat empty and hurries to chase Nurse Yoon out into the street. He tries braving oncoming traffic but to no avail, and can only watch as Nurse Yoon clicks her heels away from him.
A truck obstructs his view, and when it finally drives off, Hae-young sees Nurse Yoon… with Soo-hyun standing two feet from her. Hae-young catches up to them, and Nurse Yoon looks at him with a look of contempt.
Be still, my beating heart because that was awesome. Not that I’d expect any less from a solid director like PD Kim Won-seok (Misaeng, Sungkyunkwan Scandal) and a veteran writer like Kim Eun-hee (Three Days, Sign, Ghost). Still, I wanted to approach Signal with the same kind of cautious optimism as I would with any other project, and man… my hands are still shaking from the intensity of this first episode.
So despite the episode length (76 minutes), it really did feel like every minute was meant to be there, almost to the point where it was frantic to cram as much information in to lay down the narrative groundwork. More importantly, as a viewer, the episode didn’t feel any longer than any other standard 60-minute episode. I consider that a huge plus, since sometimes getting through an hour feels like pulling teeth. This all goes to say how engaging the storyline is from the beginning, something I hope will continue for the rest of the series.
Speaking of which, I have to admit that the two-way radio connecting the past and present premise to solve cold cases reminds me a lot of the 2000 film Frequency (in short, it’s about a father and son who communicate through radio to find Dad’s murderer). The jury’s out on how Signal will carry on this connection, and if Hae-young will be the only one who hears Jae-han’s voice or if Soo-hyun will hear it as well. Which brings me to the whole mystery surrounding Jae-han, because while he’s alive and well in 2000 (save for the blunt injury to the head), he’s spoken of like a memory in 2015. It’s safe to say that we’ll see far more of Jo Jin-woong since he’s the link to the past, but what happened to him in the interim is still shrouded in mystery.
On a technical note, you may notice that the video aspect ratio appears different whenever we’re in the past. Characters’ faces appear thin and/or stretched, and if you were to ask me why that’s the case, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell you. There could be a number of reasons behind it, from a deliberate choice on the PD’s part or a rookie editor who pressed a wrong button. For the purposes of not making our characters look like they went through the stretcher, I’ll be tweaking the screencaps in the recaps.
That aside, there’s so much to learn about our characters themselves, especially in Lee Je-hoon’s character Hae-young. His ties to our other detectives may start with Yoon-jung’s case, but his frustration towards the police is a longstanding one that originates to the snippets of his past. As a timid child, his voice went unheard, and even now as a bold young cop, his claims aren’t always taken seriously. His career as a profiler makes him an interesting character with high intelligence and keen observational skills. When finding Yoon-jung’s kidnapper, I loved how we could see how surprised he was that his details matched up with other kinds of evidence, and conversely, how grave his own errors can be. His mile-a-minute delivery makes me wonder how much the people around him actually pick up, but I get it—there’s a lot of information to dump with so little time.
I do like his rapport with Kim Hye-soo’s character Soo-hyun, a no-nonsense veteran detective who will stand up for what she believes is right. Mostly I like how dogged Hae-young is when he finds out that someone will actually listen to him, and how she doesn’t put up with Hae-young’s petulant tendencies. Soo-hyun’s ties to Jae-han are more unclear (though the official character descriptions give it all away) but there are hints that she regards him as more than just a sunbae.
This is all to say that I like what I see in Signal so far, from its solid storytelling to its intriguing characters. So you can count my fingers crossed, and hope that we’re in for one helluva ride.
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