Watcher: Episodes 9-16 Final (Series review)
Wow. What a very excellent show. It was hard to do the first half justice, but I feel like it’s going to be even harder to capture the breadth and depth to which the second half took us. Watcher is a show that deserves a close watch, and then a rewatch, and then a thesis, to fully encapsulate every theme and every dark side of human nature that it took upon itself to delve into.
[Warning: The following review assumes you’ve watched the first half, and contains major spoilers for the second. Proceed at your own risk!]
The murder of Kim Jae-myung (Young-goon’s father) marks the midpoint of the show and takes the show’s trajectory to a completely new level. It clears him of his wife’s murder this is where it all begins to unravel for the villains, as the team finally start to ask the right questions. The Muil ledger, the cause of Jae-myung’s murder, also becomes his legacy. We’re told that the ledger is a comprehensive record of the corruption of law enforcement officials among both the police and the prosecution service.
The search for the ledger dominates the third quarter, driving all of our greater and lesser characters. The big question, though, is why each person is after it. Is it because they want to catch the people in it, or because their own names would be found inside? It’s a question Chi-gwang does not fear to ask, and he asks it at every level, from his direct superior, Deputy Commissioner Park (Joo Jin-mo), all the way to the Commissioner herself, Chief YEOM DONG-SOOK (Kim Soo-jin).
There’s something blackly entertaining about the way Chi-gwang approaches people, whether they’re his suspects or his superiors, or indeed, both. It’s always been impossible to tell who to trust, but it’s also impossible to tell who trusts whom. Between the inscrutable triad of Chi-gwang, Deputy Park and Chief Yeom, the probing edge to their verbal matches creates a sharp expectancy, and the sense that everything is a carefully orchestrated performance. Whether that’s a performance of truth or lies is deliciously difficult to tell, but we’ve reached the half of the story where answers begin to slowly seep out.
The team chases up every lead they can, and uncover a drug distribution ring run by—wait for it—the prosecution and police, as they filter confiscated drugs back into the market. It’s all part of a vast operation where Jae-myung’s thumb-clipping killer (known as “Turtle”) is only the smallest part. The team uncovers a secret society within the organization known as “Jang Sahwae” (or Jang Society), who profess a mission to punish the bad guys when the law can’t.
Thus, we learn that the bodies found in the pit in the first half were gang leaders cleaned up by Jang Sahwae. Jang Sahwae then took over the gangs and used them to sell drugs, and ran their operation on the proceeds. And make no mistake about it, it’s big money business. I’m not sure how Jang Sahwae thinks this makes them righteous, but that right there is the billion-won question, isn’t it?
Deputy Park unmasks himself as a member of Jang Sahwae, and really tries to get Chi-gwang to join, though that could also easily be a ploy to get him off their tail. Park makes no apology for Jang Sahwae’s operations, considering them a necessary and lesser evil for justice to prevail. Chi-gwang certainly has no time for grand ideas like justice, but more on that later.
Young-goon finally discovers the tiny memory card with the ledger on it hidden in his shoe, a last gift from his father. But it’s incomplete, with the data on Jang Sahwae and Jae-myung himself missing. But Turtle steals it away almost as soon as he acquires it, and makes a harrowing attempt on Young-goon’s life.
Anyone suspected of having the ledger becomes a potential target for Turtle, and it’s a fact Tae-joo quickly exploits, luring out the killer by pretending to have it. But while it goes to plan in some fashion, it also ends with a murdered chief prosecutor, and Tae-joo comes face to face with the hooded nemesis. It reawakens her trauma, and the rush of fear almost paralyzes her—almost. But she manages to land a shot on the fleeing Turtle, and the blood left on the scene finally gives them a lead on their identity. Man you’ve got to hand it to this woman, she is bold, and does not let her fear choke her.
Tae-joo has been a character who hasn’t wavered in her motives for a single moment, even when the direction of her decisions fluctuate more than anyone else’s. She still wants only one thing, and that’s to discover Turtle’s identity. Chi-gwang accuses her of wanton revenge at one point, and she tells him it’s nothing so grand: She only wants to sleep at night. It’s a line that is just… so simple but so stark.
I just love everything about Tae-joo, and she and Chi-gwang have some of the best dialogues in the whole show. They’re intense, combative and honest, and the fact that they are so deeply frank yet so unrevealing is a testament to both the actors and the writing. It’s fitting, therefore, that it’s to her that Chi-gwang confesses his sin: that believing Jae-myung to be guilty, he fabricated the evidence that put him away. It’s why he’s obsessed with police corruption.
After all our doubt about Chi-gwang and the reliability of Young-goon’s memory, learning the truth tells us so much about what has been driving him ever since, and moreover, the subtle change in what drives him now, after learning that he’d jailed an innocent man through his own suppositions. Before, we know he was dead-set on rooting out all the “bad cops,” but in the latter half, it becomes an atonement from a man who believes he doesn’t deserve to forgive himself. That’s what makes him warn Young-goon so seriously not to be blinded by preconceived ideas, and even not to let him off the hook.
I said it before, but I’ll say it again: the synergy of this trio is really remarkable. They’re such very different characters, and often want very different things. But on the rare occasion that they are all on the same page, they have the kind of single-minded accord that is pure artistry to watch. Where Tae-joo is bold, Chi-gwang is devious, and next to them, Young-goon’s unyielding pursuit of right remains a grounding force. He’s like a point of calibration between the extremes of the others. Rather than make his character insipid, it gives him a kind of aching gravitas. Far from ringing hollow, his principles are clearly a product of his own painful experiences, and it makes him impossible to dismiss.
Young-goon is the one who finally manages to catch Turtle—who unexpectedly turns out to be Jang Hae-ryung’s underling (a fact which Jang himself seems to be unaware). Which isn’t right at all, because he’s far too young to be Young-goon’s mother’s killer and Tae-joo’s torturer. But he does seem to be Jae-myung’s killer, and for that, Young-goon wants to kill him, but he’s held back by both Tae-joo and Chi-gwang, in what is a really emotional, heart-in-your-throat scene.
Tae-joo learns from the wrong Turtle that she had her man—it was the crooked detective Kim Kang-wook (played by Lee Jae-yoon) who was dispatched way back in the first half of the show. Well, wow. What a letdown for Tae-joo. I love the way the show really goes there with the characters: It just steals away the thing that drives them, and the characters are left to catch themselves, to think about “after.” “What happens once you get your revenge?” was always a relevant question, but what happens if you can’t? What is left?
We’re treated to some really poignant scenes where both Tae-joo and Young-goon have to confront that world. It’s a huge question for Tae-joo, and she actively has to find a purpose again—a reason to wake up in the morning, now that she can allow herself to sleep at night. It’s touching and symbolic that it starts with watching over Young-goon, for whom the situation has evolved once more. Though he’s found his father’s murderer, he hasn’t found his mother’s. At the center of it all, he needs to know who is giving the orders. In that, he and Chi-gwang have a common goal.
But he takes Chi-gwang’s advice not to trust him to heart. When Chi-gwang stages a murder (in order to catch one of their bad guys), Young-goon traces it back to him. He has to trust the facts, and the facts all point to Chi-gwang. It turns Young-goon’s faith in him into an equal amount of fury, driving him to confront Chi-gwang in a ferocious, no-holds-barred fight.
The choreography of the fight scenes in this show is so impressive. They’re executed with an economy of motion that heightens the excitement and makes it genuinely thrilling to watch. This fight is one of the best examples: It’s savage, silent, and brimming with feeling on one side and restraint on the other. There’s as much betrayal as there is anger in Young-goon, and it’s not the first time that I wonder how much of a surrogate father he sees in Chi-gwang. He learns that it was a ruse not a moment too soon, but it’s interesting that Chi-gwang himself doesn’t confess to it.
The second half also sees the unexpected return of Tae-joo’s ex-husband YOON JI-HOON (Park Hoon). We knew they had been tortured together, but it’s a shock to see him sporting two poorly reattached thumbs. His motives for returning are unclear, but he appears to have been recruited by Jang Sahwae, who use his rage as their own weapon.
It culminates in him kidnapping both Tae-joo and Young-goon, and staging his own torture session. Under his smooth veneer, he’s as bitter and broken as Tae-joo, and we soon learn why. Back when they had been tortured, Tae-joo—sobbing and terrified—had volunteered her then-husband to get the snip in her place, and he was never able to forgive or get over that. When he threatens Young-goon with the same fate, she pleads for him to do it to her instead, and that breaks him again. Why couldn’t she do that then? What’s special about Young-goon?
It’s an interlude that really reveals how Tae-joo sees herself as someone who’s already given up on her humanity, which is why all that’s left for her and Ji-hoon now is just a raw need for revenge, or maybe just an end to fear. But it also strips bare her regrets over who she is and has become, as if she wished she had been able to be different, but is prevented by her own limitations and inability to grow past them. It’s hard to blame her for it though, when her wounds are so visible that she’s practically still bleeding. But somehow, the “replay” of their trauma gives the one-time spouses some closure in their relationship. For Tae-joo it’s a personal catharsis, too, as if finding herself capable of self-sacrifice puts something back into place inside her.
I have really loved the way the relationships have been developed so subtly as the show has progressed, and I love most of all the one that grows between Tae-joo and Young-goon. Tae-joo always seems to harbor some remorse toward Young-goon, which she confessed to Chi-gwang was because she feels responsible for steering his testimony as a child. Knowing now that it robbed him of his father, there’s something soft about her when it comes to Young-goon. You could actually say that’s true for both her and Chi-gwang, but the one Young-goon seems to instinctively trust is her. She’s not a particularly motherly woman, but there’s something disarming about her all the same. Maybe it’s the fact that both of them are victims, and they recognize that brokenness in each other.
“Where do you think a person’s humanity comes from?” The question that haunted Tae-joo is one that comes back to play a significant role, though not exactly as we expect. Our favorite bodyguard Jae-shik (♥) has an answer to that question: opposable thumbs. Thumbs, it turns out, are important, and we learn it was an assault method favored by Jae-myung, which he taught to his team to incapacitate their quarry. With a broken thumb, you can’t hold a weapon. Is it as simple as that?
The question gives way to a really deep interrogation of what it means to be human—whether it’s merely to have opposable thumbs, or having emotions and empathy, or whether there’s something much more complex about the moment-to-moment negotiation of doing good or evil, of crossing the line for a greater good and how you justify those actions to yourself, that separates humans from beasts.
The full and unabridged ledger eventually comes into Young-goon’s possession, thanks to his dad and a secret safety deposit box. It also includes an audio recording from Jae-myung confessing that he was the original founder of Jang Sahwae. So… Jang Sahwae is not an elite organization but an illegal side-operation by rogue cops? Or it was once. But even if Jang Sahwae was originally conceived as an engine to resolve injustice and clean up society’s trash, it was quickly co-opted by the personal agendas of its members. Arguably, that’s the fate of any enterprise involving humans.
I’m fascinated by the show’s refusal to exceptionalize: To be a murderer requires no special qualification, as Chi-gwang notes. Anyone can do it, with or without any kind of elite status or particular power, and it’s an overarching theme that characterizes the show. The grey morality is a consequence of the sometimes infinitesimal difference between the two, and in nobody is that duality more pronounced than in Do Chi-gwang.
The unveiling of the true culprit in Young-goon’s mom’s murder is just as shocking. The way that information comes to Young-goon is deceptively low-key, and stands out in contrast to the way Chi-gwang arrives at the same answer, torturing it out of Deputy Park. It’s a clear line that he crosses with no compunction, and it’s the show it at its most disturbing, but more on that later. I feel appropriately sheepish that the person I previously relegated to “little fish” turns out to have been the answer all along. But of course, it makes total sense. I love/hate that at the very moment when Jang Hae-ryung has made some kind of peace with the team, that’s when the tables turn.
There’s a look in Young-goon’s eyes when he first confronts him that is so dangerous but also completely heartbroken—because the truth doesn’t set him free so much as drop him out of a plane without a parachute. The fact that his mother’s death was ultimately an accident does cast Jang in a slightly more sympathetic light, but it’s undone by the many more crimes he commits to cover that mistake, as he embarks on a career as the original “Turtle” under the auspices of Deputy Park. But his roots go deeper than that, and we learn that Jang’s daughter had been abducted by one of the men whose bodies were found in the pit. The had cut off her fingers in retaliation for Jae-myung’s team breaking his thumbs, and Jang in turn killed him.
The only reason Young-goon is able to hold himself back from killing Jang is because he needs to clear his father’s name. He hears that Deputy Park has the evidence in his possession, but he’s soon found murdered. Once again, Young-goon has to deal with the thought that the thing he wants is out of his reach forever. But Chi-gwang doesn’t give up, and they find the evidence bag hidden underwater at Deputy Park’s fish farm, and that really does signal the end of the line for Jang Hae-ryung, who goes down for Deputy Park’s murder at least.
Chi-gwang reveals everything in a press conference, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that that would be the end… but of course it isn’t. In Jang’s last exchange with Young-goon before he’s taken away, he names the true instigator of Deputy Park’s murder: Chief Yeom. In a chilling moment of revelation, we see the UV markings from Deputy Park all over Yeom’s office, that prove her connection to his death… and Young-goon quietly leaves after confirming that. Oh, I knew it. I never trusted her for a second, but damn, she played one hell of a close hand.
A month later, Young-goon finally confronts Chi-gwang about it. He knows Chi-gwang cut a deal with the chief, literally letting her get away with murder in exchange for being allowed to go after the people in the ledger. It’s a riveting closing scene for them. Chi-gwang has always been blisteringly self-aware, but is this his blind spot? As cognizant as he is of how easily a person turns, he seems to trust himself to “do the right thing,” even though he has literally proven himself wrong multiple times.
It’s intentionally disturbing, I think, every time we have to confront that duality of his. We have to reconcile these opposites to make sense in a single person, and I don’t know if they do. Maybe that means he’ll always have these two conflicting sides to him, one the dark, diabolical one that is willing to make a deal with the devil itself, versus the one who wants the world where not even small sacrifices are necessary.
Or maybe he’s living up to that ideal by making himself the sacrifice—he’ll sacrifice his own conscience and descend into hell, if it achieves that same end. But whether he sees it as penance for his original sin or as a moral duty, maybe even he doesn’t know. But there is one thing he knows for certain: He is not a hero. He’s not even a protagonist in the grand scheme of things. He’s a small cog in the machinery of power, with the ability to rotate the right way or the wrong way at any given moment, immaterial except in the choices he makes.
In a sense, I think that’s his conclusion. He accepts that he, a watcher, needs Young-goon to be his watcher, the person who’ll make sure that he turns the right way. This is how we answer the question, “Who watches the watchers?” I’ve replayed the closing scene between them so many times, and I still don’t fully understand what we’re seeing in Chi-gwang’s face. Is it challenge or assurance? Either way, I want to see what happens next. I’ve said before that Young-goon formed the moral compass of the show, but to actively play conscience is, perhaps, his final evolution.
There’s so much more to unpack in this second half than is possible to do in the scope of this review. It’s worthy of an episode-by-episode thesis with separate discussions on justice, morality, victimhood, conscience, vengeance, purpose, and so much more. I’m ready to call Watcher my best of 2019, even though it’s barely September.
What were the best moments of the show for you? I’m excited that it seems to have been left open for a second season, and I badly want to see it. Given its very good ratings for OCN, between them and Studio Dragon, it could happen. What do you guys think, do you want a second season?
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