Circle: Episode 2
So, this is what it’s like to have your expectations exceeded… and then blown away. Circle is a science fiction thriller out of my dreams, and the storytelling is so confident that I’m instantly reassured. This tale is less about aliens as we think of them — UFOs and long-limbed humanoids — and more about the consequences of freely giving up a part of yourself so that you can live without pain and misery. Who would refuse such a gift? But the show seems to be asking us: Is it such a blessing after all?
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Some time after they first met the alien, little Woo-jin, Bum-gyun, and their dad sat in a restaurant with their extraterrestrial guest. It was the boys’ birthday, and a waitress had taken a Polaroid picture of the boys with the unsmiling young woman. Seeing his brother’s excitement at having a picture to show his friends, Bum-gyun had stressed that she’s not an alien, though Woo-jin remained convinced.
Their dad had simply said that it would be nice if she told them something about herself, but the woman continued to study the view outside in silence. Nothing about her expression changed, but when Woo-jin turned to look in the same direction, his own eyes widened as he spotted a car racing straight towards the glass wall of the restaurant.
At the last moment, Dad glimpsed the car and pulled Bum-gyun to safety, but there was no time to reach Woo-jin on the other side of the table. The car plunged through the glass, crashing into tables, and finally came to a stop. Dad jumped up to look for Woo-jin and found him safely held in a protective embrace by the woman.
With trembling hands, Woo-jin pointed out the blood on the woman, and his dad finally registered the large shard of glass sticking out of her neck, though she had no reaction whatsoever to it. As Dad hurriedly called for an ambulance, the woman with the emotionless eyes met Woo-jin’s shocked gaze.
Part 1: Beta Project
Ten years later, Woo-jin follows his brother out into the rainy streets as he races off to find the “alien.” When Bum-gyun comes to a sudden stop, looking riveted, Woo-jin turns to stare across the street at a familiar figure walking towards them.
He stands frozen in place as memories of the alien’s first arrival replay in his mind. There is no doubt that this woman is the same creature. Then, as she takes a walkway and moves away from them, Bum-gyun gives chase. Unfreezing, Woo-jin realizes that his brother is running into speeding traffic with little care for his own safety.
Following him across the road, he grabs Bum-gyun, but his brother is too engrossed in his pursuit to pay him any mind. He notices a bus moving away the nearby bus stop and studies the passengers. The woman from their past turns and looks straight at them.
Bum-gyun chases after the bus, but Woo-jin — after almost getting run over — gives up and watches in frustration as his brother disappears after it. He walks back to Bum-gyun’s hidey-hole and notes the post-it on the wall under the mugshot of a stereotypical movie alien that says, “Culprit. Han Jung-yeon = Alien.”
Turning away from the wall map, charting the suicides, he notices a camera stowed with the bedrolls on top of the cupboard. When he examines the pictures in it, they are of the “alien” woman. But this one is smiling happily with friends in the campus of his college. Woo-jin tries to convince himself that this woman is just a lookalike.
Then he gets a call from his brother’s number, and it turns out that Bum-gyun is in the emergency room with a fractured foot. Woo-jin runs to the hospital, and the first thing his brother asks him is if he saw “Exhibit three… the woman from ten years ago.”
Barely restraining himself in front of the nurse treating Bum-gyun, Woo-jin snarls at him to finish his treatment first. When Bum-gyun brings up the woman again outside, Woo-jin argues that she just looks like the same person. Bum-gyun points out that she ran away when she saw them, convinced that she’s the one responsible for the deaths of the college students.
Woo-jin calls him delusional, but Bum-gyun reminds him that he was the one to first call her an alien. He pushes Woo-jin to acknowledge the truth, but this time Woo-jin looks at him squarely and asks why: “What if that woman is an alien? Why is that my problem?”
Bum-gyun begins to shout that that woman took their father, but Woo-jin cuts him off and asks if anything would change if their dad came back. “I already feel like I’m dying dealing with you. But dad too? Why should I?” Woo-jin asks. Bum-gyun falls silent at the clear desperation in Woo-jin’s eyes, but he can’t give in when Woo-jin asks him to forget about their dad and the alien and just live normally.
Bum-gyun walks away, saying that he has to confirm it with his own eyes. Watching his brother leave, Woo-jin shouts out a final ultimatum: “If you walk away now, I’ll never see you again.” Bum-gyun pauses at this, but after squaring his shoulders, he keeps walking. Behind him, Woo-jin looks crestfallen, until he too walks away in the other direction.
When he gets back home, Woo-jin packs up his brother’s bag and throws it out in the hallway. Slamming the door shut, he tells himself: “There are no such things as aliens.”
The next morning, the bag is still sitting outside, but Woo-jin has to run to his college and apologize to Professor Park for missing their meeting the day before. The professor seems keenly interested in Woo-jin’s reasons for wanting to join their PTSD Research Team.
He asks Woo-jin which of the current treatments for PTSD is most effective, in his opinion. Woo-jin answers that he thinks none of them are — since traumatic memories remain untouched by the normal curve of human forgetfulness, people can never forget the pain and horror of the experience. His solution is to eliminate the memory completely, much like one eliminates cancer cells.
On his way out of the building, Woo-jin spots the woman from last night crossing the campus grounds. He chases after her, but soon loses sight of her.
During his next class, as he tries to convince himself that he had been mistaken, his professor teams the students up in pairs to study. His partner gets a sudden nosebleed and has to leave the classroom, but moments later, another girl walks in and introduces herself as HAN JUNG-YEON.
Woo-jin’s mind flashes back to the post-it in his brother’s motel room, and he slowly looks back at the alien he remembers from his childhood. As she walks towards him, he can’t stop staring. She takes a seat beside him, and the professor outlines their next assignment.
Jung-yeon brings up branches of data-mining they can work on, just as if she were a real college kid sitting beside a new partner in class. Woo-jin’s response is to bluntly ask her name, origin, and age. Jung-yeon visibly bristles at his rudeness, until the professor snaps at them to pay attention.
Outside the class, Jung-yeon strides up to him (while Woo-jin stumbles back a few steps) and asks for his phone. Putting her number in, she tells him to meet her in the library at six to work on their assignment. Then, she walks away with her friends, just like a normal college kid. Woo-jin watches her leave with a frown.
Later, he sits at a cafe with his student — a school-aged Lee Dong-soo — while distractedly playing with a Rubik’s cube. When he gets a text from Jung-yeon about their meeting, Dong-soo sniggers that he’s got a girlfriend. He tries to cut their study session short by claiming that he’ll succeed by using his computer skills anyway, but Woo-jin gets him to focus by pinching his eyebrow. (Ouch.)
At the library, Woo-jin sits across from Jung-yeon while they work. She catches him staring a few times, and Woo-jin tries to cut it out, until he remembers the glass shard in the woman’s neck from ten years ago. Jung-yeon’s hair is down, but Woo-jin tries to get a glimpse of the skin there in order to check for a scar.
This is simultaneously nerve-wracking and hilarious, since Woo-jin looks utterly embarrassed at his actions, despite being unable to stop his curiosity. He fails, but when Jung-yeon gets a call and leaves early, he decides to follow her.
She goes into a local bar and greets a group of young boys in army uniforms like a friend. As Woo-jin watches from across the room, they challenge her to chug a tumbler of beer, and she braces for this by tying up her hair. Woo-jin sits up and finally gets to see… completely unmarred skin where a deep scar should be.
Laughing at himself for thinking she was an alien, he gets up and leaves.
A younger Chief Hong, still a detective, is busy sketching the perpetrator of the serial college suicides — only his sketch has no face, just a cap pulled low over the eyes. His partner hands him the file of all criminals caught using a taser, then grumbles to another cop that when Chief Hong gets a hunch about someone’s guilt, they always turn out to be innocent. At his desk, Chief Hong pulls out Bum-gyun’s sheet from the file and places it beside his own sketch.
When Woo-jin gets home, he finds Bum-gyun’s bag still sitting out in the hallway. He picks it up and brings it in, then rings up his brother. Bum-gyun’s voice sounds hushed as he says that he thinks he’s found the alien’s hideout. Woo-jin tries to tell him about the woman, but Bum-gyun suddenly says, “The criminal is Bluebird!”
Woo-jin tells him to come home and tell him about this Bluebird, and Bum-gyun promises to come over right after he checks something. But the next morning arrives with no sign of Bum-gyun — his phone’s switched off and his boss at the bakery hasn’t seen him after his first day at work.
Chief Hong arrives with his partner at the bakery too, and after speaking to the boss, he decides that Bum-gyun is the man with the taser.
Woo-jin visits his brother’s motel room and faces an irate owner, who says that Bum-gyun was supposed to pay his dues that day. Before leaving, he notices a map stuck to the wall with “alien’s hideout” written on it. He takes the map and runs to the location. It’s a PC gaming den, and there is no sign of his brother among the gamers.
The other thing he remembers from the wall is another post-it note about the library, and runs there only to find Jung-yeon studying by herself. He walks up to her and begins to ask a question before changing his mind and running out.
Back at the motel, he remembers the camera and pulls it down from its place on top of the cupboard. The recording in it shows Bum-gyun placing it there and leaving it on as he switches off the light and leaves the room. Woo-jin almost groans, until he fast forwards a little to see a hooded figure enter the room and switch on the light. The person scans Bum-gyun’s wall, then turns to leave.
At the last moment, the figure looks towards the camera, and Woo-jin jerks back when he sees Jung-yeon’s face. He immediately goes back to the library and waits for her outside. When she sees him and asks why they keep bumping into each other, he walks up to her and asks if she’s really Han Jung-yeon.
He grabs her by her collar, and in the face of her seemingly genuine outrage, he yells: “Who are you? Who the hell are you?”
Part 2: Brave New World
Finally in Smart Earth, Joon-hyuk stands outside the imposing building housing the Human B control room. He glances down at the Rubik’s cube in his hand and thinks, Wait for me. I’ll find you, wherever you may be.
He watches as a few smartly dressed people enter the building, led by Deputy Chief LEE HYUN-SEOK (Min Sung-wook). Deputy Chief Lee walks into the control room, where dozens of employees monitor live feeds of their Smart Earth citizens. He asks the men in charge of the Stable Care chip and software how the murder could have happened.
Each man tries to push the blame on the other department while claiming that neither the chip nor the software could be at fault. He tells them to find the cause fast and keep silent about the murder. SECRETARY SHIN, his second-in-command, informs him that Mayor Yoon wants to meet him.
In Mayor Yoon’s office, Ho-soo reports on the background of the murder. The murdered man, Gong Min-woo, had kidnapped a seven-year-old Kim Min-ji twenty years ago, but got away due to lack of evidence.
Mayor Yoon asks about Min-ji’s location, but Ho-soo says that the Human B system can’t locate her. The mayor orders Ho-soo to report to him directly and to also keep an eye on Joon-hyuk during the investigation.
The mayor next meets the deputy chief and asks how such a crime is possible under the Stable Care System. Instead of answering, Deputy Chief Lee asks if he had to go to the extreme length of allowing an unchipped detective into their city: “You’ve planted a bomb in Smart Earth.”
Mayor Yoon doesn’t back down, retorting that the bomb is already on the loose. Deputy Chief Lee brings up an elusive “chairman,” and the mayor cuts him off to ask if the man even exists. The deputy chief avoids the question and stresses that the chairman finds Joon-hyuk’s presence in Smart Earth unfortunate, but the mayor confidently assures him that the Ordinary Earth detective will solve the case.
Unsurprisingly, Deputy Chief Lee looks into Joon-hyuk, and Secretary Shin tells him that the detective didn’t exist on paper until ten years ago, when he joined the police force. He guesses that this was the reason he refused to have a chip inserted in his head, and Secretary Shin adds that he probably came here with another motive.
Chief Hong and Joon-hyuk meet in the white space of virtual reality, and the chief immediately rags on him for looking like he just rolled out of bed. Joon-hyuk says that things are crazy because of the care chip and asks Chief Hong how a chip could keep crimes for happening for five thousand days. “That chip definitely has a purpose we don’t know about,” Joon-hyuk stresses.
Chief Hong says that this would mean that the Human B program was responsible for the disappearance of the twins. Joon-hyuk agrees: “If it weren’t for that child, this chip wouldn’t exist.” Chief Hong tells him not to get caught, since his identity could bring everything down.
Finishing the call, Joon-hyuk takes out a notebook and scribbles in it. Ho-soo walks into his apartment (he really likes white) and finds his guest sprawled on the couch with food and clothes strewn about. He passive-aggressively remarks on the talent it takes to be this untidy in so short a time.
As he picks up the clothes, Joon-hyuk adds his socks to the load with a smile. Ho-soo comments on his backward habit of writing in a notebook, and Joon-hyuk snarks that the analog process gives him a clarity Ho-soo wouldn’t understand.
Ho-soo says that they have to go to a place that is far from analog, and they take a trip to Smart Earth’s investigation lab, buried deep underground. As they take yet another flight of stairs, Joon-hyuk calls Ho-soo “Erro,” explaining that his plastic smile reminds him of the pantomime character, “Pierrot.”
As they walk into the lab, Ho-soo seriously explains that they have to keep their investigation hushed. Joon-hyuk takes another shot at Ho-soo by claiming to be surprised that the care chip lets him stop smiling.
Ho-soo patiently explains that the stable care system only controls emotions to prevent misery and crime. Joon-hyuk wonders exactly what needs to happen for the care system to step in, and Ho-soo says that it intercepts excessive emotions like over-excitement, sudden surprise, or anger.
Joon-hyuk nods along as he circles Ho-soo, then abruptly grabs him around the neck and chokes him. He lets him go when Ho-soo’s chip doesn’t light up in his neck. As Ho-soo readjusts his suit, Joon-hyuk tries another attack — this time, with the picture of a woman in a bikini on his phone.
As Ho-soo blinks in confusion, Joon-hyuk look downward and wonders if the care system controls that function too. Ho-soo almost rolls his eyes at Joon-hyuk’s immaturity.
Joon-hyuk finally gets serious and asks to see Gong Min-woo’s body. When they visit the morgue, and he pulls out the drawer with the dead body, Joon-hyuk finally gets the answer he wanted from Ho-soo.
The younger man reacts badly to his first glimpse of a corpse and runs out of the room. As he hyperventilates in the hallway, the care system stabilizes his vital stats so that he can calm down.
Joon-hyuk comes out and asks if this is the first body he’d seen. He tells Ho-soo that he’d thrown up after his own first glimpse of a corpse, but Ho-soo doesn’t see why he has to be like Joon-hyuk and says that it’s rational to avoid harmful human emotions.
When Joon-hyuk wonders if rationality is all that matters, Ho-soo claims that it has kept their city free of crime for fifteen years now. Joon-hyuk scoffs and asks if he really thinks that’s true. As Ho-soo spouts the Stable Care maxim with conviction, Joon-hyuk just says, “Ignorance is bliss.” Ho-soo is utterly thrown by the idea that there is something he doesn’t know.
Back inside the room, the two look over the body. There is a “No. 1” etched into the dead man’s forehead, which prompts Ho-soo to wonder if this is only the first murder. Joon-hyuk recalls Min-ji’s call, where she had said, “Those guys are back.” He deduces that there could have been accomplices in the kidnapping.
As they examine the body further, they find a slit on the side of his neck and realize that someone has taken out the dead man’s chip. Joon-hyuk immediately heads to the office of the doctor who performed the autopsy, with Ho-soo at his heels. He confronts the woman for damaging the evidence and demands the chip back.
She hands it over easily, saying that she was following protocol, but Joon-hyuk is clearly not satisfied. He waits in the car in the parking lot below, while refusing to answer Ho-soo’s questions. As Ho-soo gets a call and steps out to take it, Joon-hyuk notices the doctor getting into her own car. He immediately drives off after her, leaving Ho-soo yelling after him.
The doctor meets Secretary Shin and hands over the real chip. Secretary Shin says that Joon-hyuk couldn’t have accessed the information without the Human B software anyway. As Shin takes the chip, a hand grabs her wrist. “This is evidence in a criminal investigation,” Joon-hyuk tells her. “Who told you to do it?”
Secretary Shin takes him to the Human B building, where a company of guards immediately blocks his way. Deputy Chief Lee walks down the stairs, and with a cold look towards his secretary, he introduces himself. Joon-hyuk shows him the chip and asks if its unauthorized removal was his doing.
When he feigns ignorance, Joon-hyuk asks to see the chairman, since it could only be on his order, then. The deputy chief tells him that the chairman doesn’t see outsiders, but Joon-hyuk brings the book down on them by quoting the law that entitles him to arrest the chairman for forging evidence.
Deputy Chief Lee immediately claims it was a mistake and promises full cooperation in the future. He extends a hand to Joon-hyuk, which the detective ignores and walks out. Secretary Shin steps forward, shamefaced, as Deputy Chief Lee clenches his fist.
Joon-hyuk makes a virtual reality call to Chief Hong and shows him the chip he confiscated. He directs the chief to quickly arrest Lee Dong-soo so that they can crack the secrets of the chip.
Dong-soo is up to his usual swindling in a bar when Detective Ho and Chief Hong arrive on the scene. They arrest him by clapping an electronic anklet on his leg, all the while bantering with him like old friends.
Dong-soo is brought to the gateway to Smart Earth, where Joon-hyuk hands him the chip. He tells the hacker to analyze it, which frustrates Dong-soo, since he’s a software hacker and the chip is a piece of hardware. Getting increasingly worked up, he shouts that the chip only connects the brain to the Human B software, but holds no data in itself.
Asking if the Bluebird can do it, Joon-hyuk directs Dong-soo to find the legendary hacker in five days. Dong-soo tells him that it’s impossible, but Joon-hyuk clearly has him cornered. Later, when Dong-soo sits in his lair, stewing in frustration, his monitor lights up with Bluebird’s logo.
Back in Smart Earth, Ho-soo confronts Joon-hyuk about his behavior. Joon-hyuk asks if Ho-soo knew about Human B’s forging of the chip, adding, “I can’t trust you people.” Ho-soo shoots back that he can’t trust Joon-hyuk. “Detective Kim, why did you come to Smart Earth?”
Joon-hyuk claims that he’s there to solve the murder, but Ho-soo points out that instead of looking for Min-ji, he’s been entirely focused on Gong Min-woo’s chip. He warns Joon-hyuk to behave himself, or he’ll be thrown out of Smart Earth.
Just then, both men get an alert on their phones: Min-ji’s chip has come online. They race to the location, but just then, the chip vanishes from the system again. They find a man bleeding from a stab wound in an apartment, and while Joon-hyuk tries to stem the blood, Ho-soo freezes at the sight. Joon-hyuk yells at him to call an ambulance, but Ho-soo can only move once his chip’s light changes to green.
Min-ji’s second victim (with a “No.2” etched on his forehead) survives, but claims to have been a loving uncle to his friend’s daughter. Ho-soo reports the man’s name and residence to Joon-hyuk, who notes it in his book. The man is Min-ji’s legal guardian, and he tells his visitors that Min-ji had been behaving strangely for the past few days.
Ho-soo asks if he has any memory footage they can examine, and Joon-hyuk is surprised to learn that people can download their memories and store them. In the uncle’s memory, Min-ji speaks about remembering being kidnapped as a child. The uncle’s voice tells her that she’s never been kidnapped, and Min-ji agrees, except the memories are becoming more and more vivid.
Ho-soo turns to Joon-hyuk and asks why everyone keeps saying she had never been kidnapped when it was a fact of her past. Joon-hyuk slowly says that her lost memories were returning to her. Ho-soo wonders how she lost them: Stress? Mental trauma? Joon-hyuk shakes his head and says, “No. It was because of Smart Earth.”
Later, Joon-hyuk walks out of the shower with an aching head. He takes a pill out of a bottle and clears the fogged mirror. He pushes away the hair from his left ear and examines a scar there. It’s eerily similar to the one on the dead man’s corpse.
Memories from twenty years ago rush in as he stands there clutching his head. Woo-jin pleads with someone to find his brother. “I don’t care if he ends up in the hospital or jail, so please…!”
There are fragments of memories where Bum-gyun bangs on a door, where Woo-jin runs after a car while a bloody hand presses against the window, and where a hooded figure walks away from Woo-jin. The final, most vivid memory is of Woo-jin sitting in the police station, begging to have his brother found. Joon-hyuk shuts his eyes against the flood of these images.
Deputy Chief Lee rides in an elevator alone and ascends to the penthouse where “the chairman” resides. The man sits in a deep armchair, with his back to the room. As the deputy chief walks into the room, he finds the chairman watching Kim-ji’s memories of being kidnapped as a child.
The deputy chief promises to get rid of the memory from the system before Joon-hyuk finds out about it. He asks the chairman why he halted their investigation into Joon-hyuk, who clearly forged his identity and has something to hide. We don’t hear an answer, but Lee says that he understands.
As he turns to leave, a thought stops Deputy Chief Lee. “Perhaps… you already know who he is?” The chairman doesn’t turn around, but one gloved hand extends to show him a picture on an old phone. From it, the twin brothers look out at us, and it’s the picture Bum-gyun had taken with his phone back in 2017.
Circle grabs you from the first scene and refuses to slacken its grip until the very last minute. The tone, pace, and music are all calibrated to infuse a delicious sense of urgency into the show. Just two episodes in, and I’m utterly invested in the fates of its characters. Not only has the drama sold me on the various motives and conflicts in both timelines, it has also managed to make both “worlds” equally compelling. As Beta Project ends, I want to scream at the cliffhanger, and then Brave New World starts and I’m back on the edge of my seat again.
Who is Joon-hyuk? Why does he have both the brothers’ memories in his mind? Where are the brothers? Who is the Chairman? And who or what is Jung-yeon? I have my theories, but what makes me love this new drama is that I don’t know if I’m right! I don’t remember the last time I was this thrown by the mystery at the heart of a show. And the execution so far has been so tight that I feel a deep conviction that there is a satisfying answer at the end of this road. That anticipation is half the fun of watching each episode!
Beyond the impressive effects of the set and costume designs, the show has put a lot of work into the smaller details of the story. While the subtleties maybe easy to miss at first, their presence lends a depth to each character in the two main timelines, as well as the flashback into the brothers’ childhood. Small things like Bum-gyun using that image of a movie alien to depict Jung-yeon, when he had a camera full of her pictures, show how determined he is to keep her dehumanized in his mind.
Ho-soo only hyperventilates when he faces scenes of violence, but not when he is attacked. This seems to foreshadow something in his own past that he may have forgotten or chosen to remove. At the very least, the extent of his reaction makes you realize that of all people, Ho-soo needs to believe that the Stable Care System works, since it so obviously keeps him functional.
In the future timeline, when the people keep talking about a crime free era in Smart Earth, I wonder how they define crime. Is forgery not a crime? Obstruction of justice? Knowingly erasing evidence that can shed light on a murder case? If “crime” simply means violent crime, then I can see how removing triggering memories and dampening emotional excesses could quiet those urges. But then, doesn’t the abuse become more insidious? The ones in the know are manipulating the feelings and knowledge of the rest of the citizens. How much goes unquestioned? How much unreported? When Woo-jin brought up the idea of erasing traumatic memories to ease the suffering of humans, I doubt he ever meant for the idea to be used in such a way.
This is a case of splendid actors being directed by a skilled master. Gong Seung-yeon gives her alien such lifeless eyes, that I have a hard time believing the smiling Jung-yeon could possibly be her. She seems to lack that endless age that the alien held in her gaze. And it’s because I question Jung-yeon’s extraterrestrial origins that her first interactions with Woo-jin were wrought with so much tense uncertainty. I don’t know if he’s about to uncover the existence of an immortal alien, or if he’s creeping out a college girl who just wants to do her assignment. It’s brilliant!
There is an abundance of moments like that in Circle, where a character’s present action ties into some future payoff. The actors have such a great range of expressions that their reactions carry the narrative. There is also beauty in the simplicity of the show’s emotional hook — we can’t help but care for Woo-jin and Bum-gyun, and therefore, we can’t help but keep watching to find out what happened to them. Suffice to say, I’ve taken the bait.
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