Watcher: Episodes 1-8 (Series review)
OCN’s currently airing weekend thriller sees Han Seok-kyu’s return to the small screen for the first time since 2016’s Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim, and I can tell you it is well worth the wait, especially if Forest of Secrets was your cup of tea. (And duh, OF COURSE they have the same director, Ahn Gil-ho—no wonder they remind me so much of each other!) Layered to high heaven, the show is spectacularly detailed, and the current of unease that runs through it from its very opening moments only intensifies as it goes on. It’s very cerebral, but there’s no shortage of action.
Each week, my mind is a little more blown by the questions, ambiguities and impossibilities I’m left to nurse, all with my brain running at a hundred miles an hour—and still way behind. That makes this review somewhat daunting to write, as this show is far cleverer than I am. Can I really do it justice in this limited space? But if you have ever loved a dense, complex, richly characterized thriller, you can’t not watch this (though it might be a show best marathoned). It’s the rare show for me where I relish rewatching episodes, and the second watch reveals a whole new layer to the show that would otherwise have passed me by. There are any number of words to apply to this show, but “simple” would never be one of them.
The show opens on the scene of a murder that took place 15 years ago, and a young KIM YOUNG-GOON (later played by Seo Kang-joon) witnesses his mother’s death. Later at the police station, surrounded by a group of faceless investigators, a woman’s voice asks him, “Did your father do it?”
Fast-forward 15 years, Young-goon is now police officer himself. A low-level patrol cop, he chases a minor traffic infraction, only to get caught up in a case that turns out to be much, much bigger. Despite his low rank, he’s a sharp thinker, and quickly realizes that he’s stumbled onto dangerous ground when the head of the Special Investigation team, Chief JANG HAE-RYONG (Heo Sung-tae), moves in on his case and all sorts of irregularities follow. Young-goon’s stubbornness in pursuit of truth makes its first show here, and he’s unable to back off from the case, especially when he sees with his own eyes the blatantly criminal way the Special Investigation Team is handling it, and how they answer to masters other than the law, whether that’s their own ambition, or corporate interests.
Detective DO CHI-GWANG (Han Seok-kyu), who is the total opposite: an unbending slave to the letter of the law. It leaves him as something of a lone wolf with no friends (who’d trust a colleague who’d turn them in?). Regardless, he’s undeterred, maintaining a laser-focus on rooting out corruption within the force. Jang Hae-ryong, one-time hoobae and a slippery nemesis, is his top target, but without any concrete evidence of wrongdoing, there’s nothing he can do about it, although he finally wrangles permission to investigate him from his long-suffering boss.
Young-goon, meanwhile, ends up undergoing investigation for misconduct after a series of his own mistakes leads him to shoot his suspect, which brings him into contact with Chi-gwang’s newly-formed Internal Investigations unit, deep underground in a long-disused gym—where we’re told nobody can hear you if you scream, and two people have committed suicide there in the past, so… cheerful surroundings. Chi-gwang is there for dirt on Chief Jang, but Young-goon has little trust for either of them, especially after the things he’s seen that day. Still, he follows behind Chi-gwang, if only to see his case through. Thus, they cross paths with our last main player, lawyer and former prosecutor, HAN TAE-JOO (Kim Hyun-joo), who has her own personal ties to the investigations in question.
With one thing leading to another, Young-goon finds himself the newest member of the Anti-Corruption Team, with Tae-joo on board as a special external consultant. Their remit allows them to investigate any ongoing corruption with a strict moratorium on historical cases, which isn’t exactly what Chi-gwang was going for, but he’ll take it.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. BEWARE AND PROCEED WITH CAUTION. I WARNED YOU.]
The three of them have an old, ill-fated connection going back 15 years, to the murder of Young-goon’s mom. Chi-gwang was the cop who brought Young-goon’s dad in, arriving first on the scene and discovering Young-goon in hiding. Han Tae-joo was the prosecutor who then put him away. In a further twisted connection, the dad turns out to have been Chi-gwang’s most cherished sunbae, and it seems like that betrayal of faith was what set him on the path of putting away “bad” policemen ever since.
Unlike a traditional revenge melo, Young-goon hates his father, KIM JAE-MYUNG (Ahn Gil-kang), and has no illusions of his innocence, not when he saw him do it. But the drama calls into question the reliability of Young-goon’s childhood memories, especially in the most recent (and most harrowing) episodes.
That’s the genius of the show: Nothing—nothing—can be taken at face value, not from anyone. In a show where it’s impossible to separate what you think to be true from what is actually true, the only person I believe—or at least, I believe is as confused as me—is Young-goon. It’s through the lens of his perspective that we, the audience, approach the show. Like him, we can see what’s going down, but we have no idea who the villains really are or are not. His changing emotions and shifting alliances are always a mirror to mine, and in a way, he forms the moral compass of the show.
Young-goon does not and cannot trust Chi-gwang any more than he does Chief Jang, and Chi-gwang does nothing to dispel this. It’s a really fascinating aspect of Do Chi-gwang’s character that he cares so little about what others think of him and makes no attempt to defend himself. His great skill is in psyching out his opponent, using the power of silence in a way that seems to stop just short of being manipulative. In fact, he seems to be totally transparent, until you realize that maybe that’s a visual trick, and he’s actually totally opaque. Is he a puppet-master after all? If nothing else, he certainly embodies the title of the show: He observes.
The title, Watcher, always cues the same question in my head: Who watches the watcher? If the police are meant to function as the watchers over society, who watches over them? I think it’s the central question of the show. It feels especially relevant when we watch these characters frequently cross the line of the law in order to achieve their ends. As deserving as their “victims” may be, and as much as I appreciate that the grey morality is the story, on a real-life level, watching any form of police brutality disturbs me.
Though the show is structured to focus on a different case each week, every case connects to the next, like a string of flags coming out of a magician’s hat, with each case more grotesque and higher-reaching than the last. Though every case brings us a little closer to the culprit, we still seem impossibly far away from discovering them. The murder 15 years ago is almost like a prelude, and the subsequent slow reveals paint a picture far worse than we originally imagine—that we’re not looking at isolated cases of corruption, but that there is something much more sinister than personal or corporate greed underlying it… especially with a perp who revels in torture and whose signature is severing his victims’ thumbs.
As darkly enigmatic as Han Seok-kyu is, for me, Kim Hyun-joo is the one who steals the show as Han Tae-joo. We learn pretty quickly that she is a survivor of the thumb-clipping murderer. Though she’s rebuilt her life and gained a reputation for being a brilliant and ruthless lawyer, there’s a part of her that no one can see which remains vulnerable and afraid. Just like the sleek gold ring that hides the scar on her thumb, her outward success masks the inner anguish that drives her, and she’s haunted by the words spoken to her by her assailant: “Where do you think a person’s humanity comes from?” It’s an eerie question that becomes a touchstone for her as she seeks them out.
Tae-joo’s unpredictable in a way that is deeply intriguing. I find her an intoxicating mixture of pragmatic, unapologetically clever, and just a little broken. She’s willing to throw the dice, make deals and take risks, to double-cross and cross back for a triple-cross, plus she has the most adorable bodyguard/secretary, a reformed loan shark who is fanatically loyal to her. She’s emotionally honest in a way that Chi-gwang rarely is, and openly declares her intentions–that she’ll always put the search for her torturer first–but despite that, she always helps when asked. There’s something… warm about her, even if it’s only lukewarm. The show also sets up an interesting contrast between what she wants overall (to catch the culprit), and what Chi-gwang wants (to save people), and that drives a lot of their differences in their choices.
Perhaps that’s why I’m loving the current alliance between her and Young-goon so much. Young-goon might be younger and less experienced, but he’s in no way callow, and his acute senses not only keep him in the game, they keep him alive. It’s an alliance of pragmatism, but it’s driven by such raw emotions for both of them. Tae-joo’s as I mentioned above, but for Young-goon, it’s to know the truth about the night of his mother’s murder once and for all, especially as Tae-joo confesses her growing doubts about the case now, noting that her ordeal happened seemingly in response to her re-investigation into his father, meaning that somebody wanted them to leave the case alone. Is it possible that the truth he’s always believed about his father might not be the truth after all?
Young-goon makes a really good team with Chi-gwang, too, and his slow defection from Chi-gwang’s side to Tae-joo’s is so fascinating to watch. Tae-joo and Chi-gwang have a natural chemistry that shows in how easily they work together even when they want different things. They have a respect for each other’s competence that’s not quite trust, but may be even better. The great thing about this trio is how well-matched they are against each other. It plays to their strengths when they’re on the same side working for the same ends, but it also makes them formidable foes should they go up against each other.
By the second quarter, a host of major players are established, with Kim Jae-myung coming to the fore. After being in prison for 15 years, he reaches out to Young-goon with a tip-off about a corporate corruption ledger. Something of a power-broker in the prison, the corporation in question, Muil Group, tries to cut a deal with him to acquire the ledger, but matters quickly get out of hand, leading to a kidnap-cum-murder and a runaway prisoner. It culminates in a standoff with guns drawn between a chaebol, the runaway prisoner and Young-goon, which leads to Chi-gwang firing off a killing shot (WHY a kill-shot, WHY?)… and it’s the first crack we see in Chi-gwang’s unflappable front.
It’s a major turning point in how we’re allowed to see Chi-gwang, because he always gives the impression of knowing exactly what he’s doing. There’s this snippet of a scene with Chi-gwang soon after the shooting, where alone and trembling, he holds up the gun to his reflection. It’s a brilliant visual metaphor, the moment feeling like it’s the first time he’s really looked in the mirror at himself for so long. To me, that moment, the way his entire body shakes tells me how heavily the death he caused sits on him, even though it was all by the rules. It’s as if, for the first time, he begins to doubt the rules. According to the rules, he did nothing wrong, but clearly he feels wrong, so what does that mean?
It’s a seed of faith you need as a viewer, because everything about the second quarter makes you doubt him. Tae-joo introduces a possibility fairly early on, that Chi-gwang is the true culprit of the murder of Young-goon’s mother and he framed Kim Jae-myung. He was in all the right places at the right time for that to be true. This is another part of the genius of the show, it doesn’t give you any answers right away but instead introduces reasonable doubt. In a criminal case, the introduction of reasonable doubt is what can make all the difference in court, and it’s such a clever, subtle way of delivering the narrative and maintaining suspense, which is a thriller’s most crucial currency.
Like Forest of Secrets, the cinematography of the show does such interesting things with space and distance. The team can all be in the same place, but separated by yawning distances, making it feel like a reflection of their disparity and actual dynamics. Even in small details like the fact that Ahn Gil-kang is significantly taller and broader than Seo Kang-joon, so that even when his kid is all grown up, he towers over him and fills the space, which shows especially when they’re together in the home they once shared. The entire show is littered with details like that, and creates a further layer to the storytelling.
Most of the first half goes by at breakneck speed with little time for melancholy, but episode 8 sees a slowdown as Jae-myung finally succeeds in negotiating his own release on parole in exchange for the ledger. By this point, Young-goon has enough doubt about the events of that night that he’s able to grudgingly take his father in. However, Young-joon refuses to acknowledge him as his dad, always referring to his father by name (or less). But Jae-myung is willing to take that. By this time, we’re pretty convinced he didn’t do it, and with Jae-myung’s concerted efforts to cram 15 years of fathering into one day, it’s clear that despite Young-goon’s brusque attitude towards him, he’s also ready to start changing his mind.
So it’s absolutely freaking tragic (and inevitable), that Jae-myung’s innocence is finally proven in the worst way possible, murdered in the bathtub–with his thumb cut off. It ripped my heart to utter shreds that Young-goon never got to call him “Dad” once, and that that terrible house where he saw his mother murdered now has another ineradicable memory. And why was Chi-gwang there again? And what about the face-off between the two men beforehand, forced by his boss? They both seem to have conflicting stories of what happened the night Young-goon’s mom was murdered, what does that mean?
The trauma awakens Young-goon’s memory of a new detail from that night: a bloodstained jacket, which belonged to his dad and was a vital piece of evidence in his conviction, was planted by someone else…someone who looks very like Chi-gwang. With that realization, his memories of his father standing over his dying mother morph into a demonic image of Chi-gwang, but whether this new version is “true” is impossible to say. Young-goon’s memory is no longer reliable.
So that’s where we’re at at the midway point: a thousand questions and no answers. We’ve got a culprit who all the evidence almost irrefutably suggests is a member of law enforcement, and for suspects, we’ve got creepy Deputy Commissioner PARK JIN-WOO (Joo Jin-mo; Chi-gwang and Chief Jang’s boss), who seemed like an ally at first, but this man is shadier by the day and increasingly obsessed with the ledger, whose whereabouts are still unknown. What’s his game? We’ve also got the inscrutable police chief, Commissioner YEOM DONG-SOOK (Kim Soo-jin), a social media celebrity fixated on making her mark. Does her smiling front belie hidden corruption? She looks like murder wouldn’t make her turn a hair. Of course there’s also Jang Hae-ryong, who’s been forced into working together with Chi-gwang. Suddenly he doesn’t seem like the worst of the lot, and he’s actually good at his job when he does it, so is he actually a little fish?
There’s such an abundance of doubt right now, that the only people I’m not suspecting are Young-goon (because he would not murder his own mother) and his teammate Jo Soo-yeon (she’s too young). As much as I love Tae-joo, I have to force myself to suspect her too, despite her scars and trauma. Is a thumb-scar even reliable proof that they’re not the villain? A villain this devious could well play their own decoy. We’re left to rely on interpreting the meaning of each character’s private moments and who they are when no one is watching. With the second half of the show taking off, all I know is, I’m going to be watching it like a hawk, second for second.
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