Life on Mars: Episode 12
The search for Na-young is on and Tae-joo’s determination to find her is only enhanced by the feeling of past failure. Unfortunately, her kidnapper is more unpredictable and crafty than any other criminal Tae-joo has faced so far. With the clock ticking and no guarantees as to Na-young’s safety, it’s a good thing Tae-joo doesn’t have to do this alone.
EPISODE 12 RECAP
Distraught over discovering Na-young has been taken by the fake cop “Soon-ho,” Tae-joo frantically runs through the streets searching for the elusive door with a cross. Hours pass as Dong-chul drives him around to different neighborhoods, but Tae-joo can’t seem to find the street that haunts his nightmares. Flashbacks of the 2018 chase through the alleys follow him as he runs until he finally stops to catch his breath.
Dong-chul is dubious about Tae-joo’s door and asks where he saw it. Unfortunately, Tae-joo’s honest answer—“In 2018”—only confuses Dong-chul and he wonders if the younger detective is messing with him. Tae-joo is dead serious, however, and starts to panic that Na-young has already been missing for nine hours.
He turns to resume searching, but Dong-chul holds him back—Tae-joo is practically dead on his feet and they’re getting nowhere wandering aimlessly. Tae-joo is unwilling to stop, but Dong-chul is firm. He suggests that they return to the station and see if they checkpoints turned anything up. Unable to really argue, Tae-joo follows him reluctantly back to the car.
At the station, Tae-joo is setting up his crime board when Nam-shik arrives with bad news—the checkpoints haven’t found anything yet and there are no cars registered to the killer’s pseudonym “Lee Soon-ho.” To make matters worse, the killer still has his police-issued pistol and was recently provided bullets.
They’re interrupted by Yong-ki running in, his head still wrapped in bandages. Apparently, Nam-shik filled him in and he was too anxious to sit around and do nothing. While the others are talking, Tae-joo flips through Na-young’s notebook and finds the photo she’d taken of him tucked between the pages.
His determination refueled, Tae-joo returns to City Hall and asks to see what Na-young had been researching. The clerk reveals she’d had him compile documents on the district adjustment. He explains that due to recent land development, some changes are being made and Tae-joo has him print off another copy.
The document lists the names being considered for the new district and Seongil-dong (the area where the door bearing the cross was in 2018) is among them. Na-young is so smart! Tae-joo races outside just as Dong-chul pulls up. He says he knows where they need to go and the detectives speed away.
They arrive at the bridge (where Tae-joo was run over in 2018 right before he woke up in 1988) along with backup. Tae-joo tells the officers what they’re looking for and everyone splits up to search. Tae-joo retraces his steps from his chase with Kim Min-seok and is the first to find the door.
Tae-joo starts to radio it in, but thinks better of it and hops the wall instead. The front door is unlocked and it appears that no one is home. After a brief search, Tae-joo finds a door with an extra lock and smashes it with his radio. The door opens up to reveal Na-young, bound and unconscious on the floor.
Immediately radioing the rest of the team, Tae-joo rushes to her and begins to untie her wrists. Waking up, Na-young begins to scream until she realizes it’s Tae-joo, and then her shrieks dissolve into sobs. She cries that she was scared and Tae-joo hugs her tightly.
When Na-young has calmed down, Tae-joo guides her out of the room to find little Min-seok sitting on the stairs. They all stare at each other for an odd beat before Dong-chul bursts through the front door with the rest of their detective unit in tow. All three immediately ask if she’s okay and Na-young nods. Tae-joo continues to eye little Min-seok warily as the rest of the detectives fan out to investigate.
Later, Na-young sits outside, staring at her bare feet. Tae-joo brings her heels and sits down next to her. She assures him that she’s okay, but when she takes a drink of water he notices her nails have been painted red. Na-young explains that Min-seok did it and a brief flashback shows he had painted her nails while she lay bound on the floor. “Don’t be angry,” he’d told her, “I’ll make your nails pretty.”
Just then, fake “Soon-ho” had walked in and reminded Min-seok that he wasn’t supposed to be in Na-young’s room. He’d sent the boy to his room and as Min-seok walked away, he’d paused to stare back at Na-young. In the present, Min-seok looks up from the officer interviewing him and levels the same stare at Tae-joo. In his mind, Tae-joo hears 2018 Min-seok’s words.
Min-seok: “I remember now. The horrified frown on your face. Yes, that’s the face I remember.”
The other detectives join them and Nam-shik reports that the house belongs to a missionary who’d lived there with her husband until their son went missing five years ago. The couple left to search for their son but hasn’t been back seen since. Dong-chul sighs that they didn’t find anything inside the house and wonders where the killer disappeared to.
Na-young says that “Soon-ho” had been in a rush that morning to go somewhere and offers to ask Min-seok if he knows anything. The guys are concerned, but she insists that she’s fine and doesn’t feel comfortable sitting around when she can help.
Sitting down with Min-seok at the station, Na-young unwraps an ice cream for the boy and asks for his brother’s real name. Turns out they’re biological brothers and fake “Soon-ho” is actually Kim Hyun-seok. The boy says he also has an older sister named Kyung-ran but clams up when asked where she is.
Na-young asks instead if he knows where his brother went, but Min-seok only knows that Hyun-seok said he had some work left to do. His words unnerve the other detectives listening in. Finally, Na-young asks about the place Min-seok lived before ending up in the orphanage and he goes quiet. We don’t get to hear what he says.
Afterwards, the team wonders what Hyun-seok is planning. Na-young thinks Tae-joo was onto something when he said Hyun-seok’s first known victim, Go Yeong-suk, was key. Apparently, Na-young had asked him about it while being held captive. A flashback reveals she’d accused him of killing Go Yeong-suk, Dad, Min-seok’s adoptive mother, and the addict he’d pinned her murder on.
Smiling eerily, Hyun-seok had wondered why she wanted to know. Na-young had said that the only murder she couldn’t figure out a motive for was Go Yeong-suk. “She deserved it,” Hyun-seok had responded. Na-young had then told him that no one deserves to be murdered and Hyun-seok had flown into a rage, wrapping his hands around her throat. As he choked her, Hyun-seok had snarled that the world was a better place without Go Yeong-suk in it and warned Na-young to keep her mouth shut if she didn’t want to share Yeong-suk’s fate.
In the present, Na-young tells the detectives that Hyun-seok’s rage towards Go Yeong-suk was on a completely different level from the other victims. She says it was much more personal and Tae-joo declares that if they want to catch Hyun-seok, they’ll have to figure out his connection with Go Yeong-suk.
Tae-joo tells Na-young to look into Hyun-seok’s call records and Dong-chul sends Nam-shik and Yong-ki to dig up everything they can on Go Yeong-suk. He reminds them to avoid being caught by Chief Kim as technically they aren’t supposed to be working right now.
Dong-chul wonders what they should do about little Min-seok and Na-young says that since the orphanage won’t be able to collect him until tomorrow, they’ll have to look after the boy themselves for the time being. Na-young reveals that three years ago, Min-seok had been traveling to his grandparents’ home with his brother when they’d gotten separated somehow. That’s why he’d ended up in the orphanage.
Additionally, Na-young thinks that since Min-seok is reluctant to talk about his family, they likely left home because something bad happened. Dong-chul suggests that they try to find the boys’ hometown. Na-young says Min-seok had been found at Insung Station and he told her they’d walked along the tracks for three days.
Grabbing a map, Tae-joo figures out the area the boys must’ve started walking from. Na-young volunteers to call the local police stations for the brothers’ records and to ask for assistance. Dong-chul agrees they need to do everything they can. Looking up at little Min-seok sleeping in the next room, Dong-chul tells her to take the boy to the night duty room.
Shockingly, Tae-joo offers instead, and then stays to watch the boy sleep. Sometime later, Min-seok wakes up and asks if his brother has come yet. Tae-joo says no and Min-seok sits up, reaching out and holding his hand. Tae-joo looks down at their joined hands and Min-seok asks if he’s going to arrest Hyun-seok.
Min-seok says he heard the other officers saying his brother is a bad person, but swears that’s not true. Tae-joo stares at the boy coldly as Dad’s death replays in his mind. Tae-joo shifts his hand out of Min-seok’s grasp, but composes himself and tells the boy to get more sleep. Min-seok lies down and silently watches as Tae-joo stands and leaves.
Tae-joo and Na-young comb through Hyun-seok’s call records for the past few months. Most of the calls were to the police station and orphanages in Insung along with the town office when he was looking for Min-seok. However, he’d also called around to hospitals, hostess bars, inns and motels. Tae-joo also points out calls to the Hawaii Bar where Go Yeong-suk worked and the inn where she was killed.
It’s clear that Hyun-seok had been chasing Go Yeong-suk for a long time, but it still doesn’t tell them why. Dong-chul points out multiple calls made to the Hangbok Welfare Center while Na-young answers a call from another police station. Hanging up, she tells the others she’s found Hyun-seok and Min-seok’s home.
Dong-chul and Tae-joo drive out to meet the police captain who called them. He leads them to a house that’s been ravaged by fire. Apparently the owner—Hyun-seok and Min-seok’s dad—had lit a briquette in his room and died in the fire last year. The captain tells the detectives that the brothers’ dad wasn’t sane. After losing his hand in the Vietnam War, he’d come home to find that his wife had run off with a much younger man.
Unable to work, the man had passed his days drinking and fighting. The charred remains of multiple academic awards still hang on the walls and the captain reveals that Hyun-seok was very bright. He wasn’t able to attend school often because they couldn’t afford it, but had there been money he likely would’ve gone on to medical school.
Tae-joo picks up a photo of Hyun-seok, Min-seok, and a young woman. The captain says the woman is their sister, Kyung-ran. She’d worked tirelessly at a bar to support the family and did everything for them. Unfortunately, she’d fallen ill and eventually died just a few days before the fire.
The captain thinks the father likely lit the house on fire since he no longer had a source of income and laments that Kyung-ran didn’t run away with her brothers three years ago. He adds that the father seemingly suffered from some form of PTSD and whenever he heard sirens, he would beat his children. Tae-joo asks if anyone’s seen Hyun-seok recently and the captain says that the last time anyone had mentioned seeing him was the day of the fire… but she’s an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s so her statement wasn’t exactly reliable. Hmmm.
Dong-chul tries to talk to the potential witness anyway. Unfortunately, she just slaps him across the face. Tae-joo asks the captain about the brothers’ grandparents and learn they lived somewhere around Insung Station (where Min-seok had been found three years ago).
Following the captain back to his police station, Dong-chul calls around looking for the grandmother while Tae-joo flips through records. Something catches his eye and he shows Dong-chul the photos taken during the house fire investigation. The burn patterns reveal that the fire was started with an accelerant and not from a briquette—meaning the old woman was probably right about seeing Hyun-seok the day of the fire.
Dong-chul agrees that Hyun-seok likely returned home for his sister, but found her dead and set fire to the house… with his father inside. The thing that still confuses Tae-joo is how Hyun-seok had somehow been separated from Min-seok three years ago and then just disappeared until turning up at the police station the same day he did and starting his murder spree.
That night, Tae-joo lies on the floor of his home with case files scattered all around him. Chief Inspector is on the TV again and the old man guesses Tae-joo doesn’t even know what he’s looking for. Tae-joo confirms it and the TV man sighs that the case is muddled with personal feelings, so of course he’s lost.
Turning his head to look at the screen, Tae-joo asks what the old man means. “Officer Han. Are you trying to arrest the culprit?” the old man asks, “Or are you trying to seek revenge?” From Tae-joo’s silence, he guesses Tae-joo is seeking revenge. He suggests that Tae-joo just shoot Hyun-seok next time they meet… the way Hyun-seok had shot Dad.
Finally sitting up, Tae-joo says he’s not necessarily seeking revenge and the old man wonders if Tae-joo is feeling sympathy for Hyun-seok’s past. Tae-joo is unsure, but the old man barks at him that Hyun-seok’s a murderer. He sighs that Tae-joo is too soft and says Tae-joo will figure out what kind of person he is next time he sees Hyun-seok.
The next morning, Nam-shik reports that the brothers’ grandmother died three years ago and her house was wrecked. However, they catch a break when Yong-ki reveals that Go Yeong-suk worked as a nursing assistant two years ago… at Hangbok Welfare Center. Now the phone calls make sense and Dong-chul sends Nam-shik and Yong-ki to investigate.
A detective from a different unit comes in to relay that Chief Kim wants Dong-chul to head down to a crime scene immediately—a police officer’s been killed and he wants everyone at the scene. When they arrive, Dong-chul identifies the officer as a recipient of an award from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Tae-joo inspects the body and notes that the bruises match up with being beaten with a police baton. They question the officer’s coworker that was called to ID the body and he says the victim had been missing just over a week. The last time he was seen, the victim had been going to meet someone called “Pretty.”
The other police had thought perhaps it was a girl from a brothel, but couldn’t find anyone using that name. Dong-chul thinks the name sounds familiar and Tae-joo recalls the mental patient, Yong-soo, who had made a scene at the station recently. He remembers that when Young-soo had seen Hyun-seok, he’d recognized him and called him “Pretty.”
Yong-ki confirms that before the psychiatric hospital, Young-soo had been in Hangbok Welfare Center. Everything seems to point to one place so Dong-chul sends Yong-ki and Nam-shik ahead to Hangbok Welfare Center while he and Tae-joo make a quick stop at the psychiatric hospital.
Young-soo greets the detectives warmly and immediately identifies Hyun-seok as “Pretty” from a photograph. He says Hyun-seok was always nice to him, but freaks out and calls Go Yeong-suk a “bad wench” when Tae-joo holds up her photo. Young-soo tells the detectives she was abusive at the Welfare center—refusing to feed them and administering strange medication.
A flashback shows Go Yeong-suk screaming and hitting Young-soo before walking over to the next bed where Hyun-seok lies awake, but rendered immobile from the drugs. She wonders where they should start and then starts applying makeup to the young man, giggling when he glares up at her. She finishes by painting Hyun-seok’s nails red, a sadistic smile plastered across her face.
In the present, Tae-joo stares at Young-soo horror-stricken as the young man cowers against the wall. Afterwards, the detectives head over to the Hangbok Welfare Center only to find it blocked off by a line of guards. The guards refuse to let the detectives pass even after Dong-chul identifies himself, saying that he needs to come back with written permission from City Hall.
Despite the inevitable scuffle, the detectives are forced to return to the station empty-handed. Gathering round, Yong-ki explains that the Hangbok Welfare Center was, in actuality, more of a group home for vagrants. A few years back, Chief Bae Sang-moo had initiated an “environmental cleanup project” and won a commendation for it.
Tae-joo is fuzzy on the details so Nam-shik explains that in preparation for the Asian Games and 1988 Olympics, the government launched a major crackdown on vagrants. They would round up vagrants and send them to facilities and Chief Bae’s main hunting grounds were the terminal and Insung Station.
Tae-joo deduces that the reason Min-seok and Hyun-seok were separated at Insung Station was the crackdown. After walking for three days, Hyun-seok surely looked ragged and Chief Bae had assumed he was a vagrant, beaten him, and locked him up in the Hangbok Welfare Center. Meanwhile, Min-seok was carted off to the orphanage.
This explains the three-year gap. When Hyun-seok was finally released, he assumed the identity of Lee Soon-ho, who’d worked at the Welfare Center while serving with the Riot Police. The team dives back into Hyun-seok’s call records but are interrupted by the arrival of Chief Kim. After the team’s stint at the Welfare Center, he’d received a call from the mayor and he’s livid, to say the least.
He launches into a tirade, first at Nam-shik and Yong-ki (who aren’t supposed to be here) and then at the team as a whole. He shouts at them to stop wasting time pursuing frivolous things and just as he and Dong-chul are about to get physical, Na-young (who’s been on the phone the entire time) cries out that she knows Hyun-seok’s plan.
The last phone call Hyun-seok made was to the director of the Hangbok Welfare Center. Now Chief Kim cares and Dong-chul orders him to get backup over to the hotel where the director is attending a conference—Hyun-seok is going to try and kill the director.
The detectives arrive at the hotel and demand that the concierge take them to the director’s room. Once inside, however, they find out he’s already gone down to the sauna. The team quickly fans out to search for him and Tae-joo and Dong-chul see him seconds before spotting Kim Hyun-seok as well.
The director unwittingly walks towards Hyun-seok, and Tae-joo and Dong-chul start to move in when Chief Kim arrives and calls out to the director. His schmoozing forces Hyun-seok’s hand and realizing it’s now or never, he pulls his gun and shoots the director in the back. The room devolves into chaos and Dong-chul and Tae-joo run after Hyun-seok.
Tae-joo chases Hyun-seok to the roof, but by the time he gets there, Hyun-seok is gone and a security guard is dead in the parking lot. The director was luckier and he snarls at Chief Kim to catch Hyun-seok before driving away.
Nam-shik tells Tae-joo that another security guard saw Hyun-seok leave in a red car, but couldn’t catch the license plate number. It doesn’t matter, however, because the detectives quickly work out that he’s on his way to pick up his brother.
Dong-chul and Tae-joo arrive at the bridge and find the red car parked there, the hood still warm. Na-young arrives in a taxi, saying Kim Min-seok disappeared from the station and she thinks he came here as well. The three split up to search for the brothers and Tae-joo returns to the house. Just as he’s reaching for the door, someone shouts for Kim Hyun-seok to stay put and he races off.
The chase scene perfectly mirrors Tae-joo’s 2018 chase with Min-seok. Tae-joo even catches Hyun-seok and nearly manages to subdue him until Hyun-seok fires the gun. Fortunately, unlike the 2018 scenario, Tae-joo manages to twist his body out of the way just in time to avoid anything fatal. The gunshot alerts the others and they frantically run towards the source.
Hyun-seok points the gun at Tae-joo again, but Tae-joo tells him it’s all over. Hyun-seok says he hasn’t even begun and Tae-joo asks if he really wants to be separated from his brother again. He says Hyun-seok’s sister wouldn’t want that.
Hyun-seok snarls that Tae-joo doesn’t know anything, but before he can pull the trigger, little Min-seok calls out to him. He turns back to look and sirens begin to wail in the distance. Lowering the gun, Hyun-seok yells for Min-seok to wait for him—promising to come back for him soon.
Tae-joo tries to grab Hyun-seok as he runs past, but misses. However, he notices Hyun-seok’s inhaler abandoned on the ground and scoops it up before giving chase once more. They end up back on the bridge and Hyun-seok drops the gun as he collapses from an asthma attack. Tae-joo kicks the weapon aside and follows slowly behind the now crawling Hyun-seok.
Gasping for air, Hyun-seok reaches towards Tae-joo for his inhaler but Tae-joo glares down at him as memories of Dad flash through his mind. Hyun-seok continues to reach out and Tae-joo grips the inhaler tightly, replaying Dad’s death in his head… before tossing the inhaler to Hyun-seok.
“You’re an outstanding officer,” Hyun-seok wheezes when he can breathe again. He asks why Tae-joo is chasing him and his brother so fiercely, and guesses it has something to do with the phone call from Seoul. Tae-joo is stunned that he knows about it, but Hyun-seok says he’s the one who looked into it for him.
Tae-joo thinks back to the mysterious caller (the one who warned him not to act rashly) and grabs Hyun-seok, demanding to know who the caller is. Hyun-seok is surprised Tae-joo doesn’t know but takes the opportunity to pull a knife from his pants and stab Tae-joo in the gut. Stepping back, Hyun-seok muses that Tae-joo must not even know the reason he’s here.
Hyun-seok warns Tae-joo not to trust the mystery caller too much and starts to say something else, but someone suddenly shoots him in the back. The shooter is Chief Kim and he grins as Hyun-seok clutches the bridge railing. Min-seok runs up on the opposite side with the detective team in tow and cries out for his brother.
Hyun-seok hoists himself over the railing and Tae-joo dives for him. They both fall over the side but Tae-joo manages to grab Hyun-seok with one hand and hold onto the railing with the other. He demands that Hyun-seok tell him what he knows, but Hyun-seok only replies cryptically that he’ll find out soon.
“That person… will come to see you,” Hyun-seok says before letting go of Tae-joo’s hand and falling into the water. Tae-joo makes a split-second decision and lets go of the railing as well. As he hits the water, Dong-chul and the others can be heard screaming after him but are soon drowned out by the sound of a heart monitor flatlining.
That was intense! So, are we headed back to 2018 or is the show still playing with us? Silly question, of course the show is playing with us. I mean, that whole conversation with Kim Hyun-seok at the end was so cryptic and bizarre. Why is Tae-joo here? If this is all a figment of his fragmented mind, then all the doublespeak makes a little more sense since every “person” Tae-joo meets is part of his subconscious. But if not… then I am at a total loss.
Who is the mystery caller and just why was Hyun-seok so tickled that Tae-joo didn’t know? And even more curious, why did Hyun-seok warn Tae-joo against him? Everyone who seems to know something about Tae-joo’s displacement tends to contradict one another. I feel like this is just a really crazy spin on Alice in Wonderland and trying to make sense of anything is a fool’s errand. With only two weeks left, perhaps I should just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Which isn’t hard to do. Because despite my frustration at trying to untangle all the mystery threads, I do find this show very enjoyable. And I’m so thrilled Tae-joo was able to save Na-young so quickly. I was about to throw hands when she went missing because she is the heart and soul of the team and without her, there’s just a big gaping hole. And how sweet was it how happy everyone was to see her safe? They’ve all really come a long way from ordering her to wash their pants and bring them coffee.
From the start, the only person that I’ve disliked more than Yong-ki has been Chief Kim. I’ve always believed that Yong-ki, at least, would come around. And this week he and Tae-joo have come a long way together. However, I’ve always known Chief Kim was a political weasel. Yong-ki’s methods were wrong and his attitude left something to be desired, but he genuinely wants to help people. Chief Kim doesn’t give a rat’s behind what happens to anyone else, so long as he comes out smelling like daisies. Bad as it is, I wish the bullet Hyun-seok shot in the sauna had clipped him as well. Because while murder is wrong and Hyun-seok is no doubt a criminal, I don’t think he deserves to be killed—especially by a self-serving jerk like Chief Kim.
In truth, I feel for the Kim brothers. Those boys have been dealt a nasty hand and it’s just been the horrible gift that keeps on giving. After all they’ve been through, it’s really no wonder they turned out crazy. I had been hoping for a complex backstory, but I hadn’t been expecting it to tug at my heartstrings. Maybe I’m too sympathetic or optimistic, but is it too much to hope Tae-joo could somehow save those boys? Now that would make for an interesting plot twist.