Welcome 2 Life: Episodes 5-32 (Series review)
There’s always something bittersweet about finishing a good show, and Welcome 2 Life was a very good show and a fitting swansong for MBC’s Monday-Tuesday drama timeslot. I didn’t go in expecting much: I hoped for a generally satisfactory, somewhat supernatural thriller, but it ended having so much more depth. I think the show’s strength came from weaving itself around an emotional center and never forgetting to keep characters true to their feelings. That doesn’t mean that their feelings come without conflict—in fact, the conflict is intrinsic to and drives the entire show.
In the alternate reality, Jae-sang has to come to terms with an entirely new life, where the woman he broke up with is now his wife, he has a child, and he’s a lowly prosecutor who apparently values justice, helps the weak, and gets paid peanuts for working practically every hour of the day. Initially, he takes his “second chance” with Shi-on as a blessing. The way she looks at him like he’s a gift makes him want to deserve it, and he has some deep realizations about the meaning of life. He takes on the challenge of playing this version of Lee Jae-sang with some relish, and throws himself into the Missing Persons Taskforce, going on to solve major cases.
But as the novelty of the situation wears off, reality sets in—and the reality of his reduced means, insane workload, and noisy family life just doesn’t compare with the glitz and cushy comfort of his old. So even though he made a U-turn on his old self back in his “real” life, the hardship of his new reality drives him back to seek out his old station again, despite his knowledge of the corruption and foul play that it’s built on.
It’s at this juncture that we meet our supreme villain, CEO of a construction company and wannabe city mayor JANG DO-SHIK (Sohn Byung-ho), who brings with him young biotech genius YOON PIL-WOO (Shin Jae-ha) to prop up his election campaign with the promise of turning the city into the biotech center of the country.
But before that storyline comes fully into play, the culprit of another case, who has developed a grudge against Jae-sang, kidnaps and nearly murders Jae-sang’s daughter. It’s a huge shock for him, and jolts him into realizing some home truths. He’s learning the hard way about the value of family and the love that keeps them together—all things his other self learned from making different, better choices. As a result, it rekindles his feelings for Shi-on, but you also get this wonderful, slow falling in love of Jae-sang with his tiny, fiery little daughter Bo-na.
Jae-sang figures out that there are certain parallels and differences between the two worlds, and in the alt-world, it was a colleague who was left in a coma from the same car crash. The other man is expected to recover soon; Jae-sang guesses that his time in this world is measured and he commits to doing his best to make it count.
The midpoint of the show brings us to a Jae-sang who has finally fully embraced the alt-world as it is after having that family threatened. Each time something happens, he gets to fall a little bit more in love with his family, and each time, it makes him a slightly better person and renews his resolve to live up to it—not only does his family need him, but he finds that he needs them.
Positioned in the place of his better self, Jae-sang comes to learn things about Shi-on’s past that he’d never known in the other world, like why she broke up with him back then: She’d found out that he’d lied to her about a crucial piece of evidence for a mass murder case that her older brother had been framed for, and her niece had been a victim. Everything about the case is a shock to him, and this time, he sets out to help her discover the real killer and clear her brother’s name. But this ends in the worst way possible, putting both of them at the killer’s mercy. Jae-sang is forced to look helplessly on as the killer goes for Shi-on… and just like that, the gross shock of the moment jerks him awake from his coma.
His return to the “real” world is absolutely excruciating: This is the world where Shi-on can’t stand the sight of him, and impossibly, unspeakably worse, it’s a world where Bo-na… doesn’t even exist. Rain does a heartrending job of showing Jae-sang’s aching, aching loss and grief, and the man sobbing his heart out in his opulent, yawningly empty penthouse really is a striking tableau that gets you right in the heart.
It’s so interesting to realize that he’s changed too much now to fit back into his old life, and his self-disgust at what he used to be is brutal and acute. He knows things now, too, from the alt-world, which have meaning in this world, and most of all, he’s driven by one very simple thing: to protect Shi-on at all costs. And he’s deadly serious about it.
When her brother’s remains are discovered, they prove he was murdered, and it reopens the investigation of the orphanage mass murder case. Jae-sang quits the law firm and becomes a prosecutor heading the new investigation team—which is really a reconvening of the team he knew from the alt-world—but has to start over with them, amid their hatred and distrust.
It hurts a little to watch it, but it’s gratifying to see Jae-sang genuinely trying to do his best towards all of them, including heartbreaking second-lead GOO DONG-TAEK (Kwak Shi-yang), Shi-on’s sunbae who’s secretly been in love with her forever and finally worked up the resolve to confess to her. Aaaarrgghhh he’s such a good guy, why can’t I have all my ships and eat them?!
It’s revealed that biotech genius Yoon Pil-woo is actually CEO Jang’s scorned son by a prostitute, but it’s a while before all the clues add up for the team. By the time they figure it out, Jae-sang is already in enemy hands, slowly suffocating to death. He’s roused by a tiny voice yelling, “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” And Shi-on is there, too. It’s such an emotional moment for us, too, because man, Bo-na’s non-existence was THE WORST.
It’s all too short an interlude before Shi-on and the team rescue him back to consciousness, but I feel like the knowledge that Bo-na exists in the alt-world, whether it’s real or not, and that Shi-on lives, gives me some degree of closure (but not enough).
By this point, we can guess that the alt-world is a place he can only get to when he’s knocked out in his real world. I’m going to go with the alt-world being as real as his real world, BUT it does raise the question of what then happens to alt-world’s original Jae-sang… does he just go dormant while being “possessed”? Does he get pushed to yet another world? We know for sure he’s not in this world, because Jae-sang is not even conscious. (I don’t expect an explanation, to be honest, and I find the mechanism sufficiently adequate.)
There’s something very satisfying in watching bad people tear each other apart, and you delight to see who will destroy whom first. The father-son face-off between Yoon Pil-woo and Jang Do-shik is especially rewarding in just how vile each is. Jang is an overly possessive, obsessive and habitually abusive piece of work, who beats his wife to punish his son. Nice, right? Pil-woo is a psychopathic mass murderer who bashes in the skulls of his victims with a hammer, or experiments on prostitutes because he hates his mother. Who even is the bigger monster?
There’s a scene near the end where Jang’s face, confronted by Pil-woo at his darkest, turns slowly to horror, and it’s a face that says everything. When Satan himself is disturbed by you, what manner of devil does it make you? But all said and done, Pil-woo ultimately just wants his father to accept him—and to the end, his father refuses, finally paying for it with his life. Their tangled fate is a tragedy in every possible way, literary and literal, but is it one that requires our pity? We lightly skim the question of who can be redeemed, and whether evil is a choice, bad childhoods notwithstanding.
By this time, the investigation team are onto Pil-woo. With nowhere left to go, he drugs and abducts Shi-on, determined to give Jae-sang his worst nightmare, before finishing things off in a neat little murder-suicide. It’s sobering to realize that the events of this world are mirroring the alt-world to bring him to the same point: Shi-on is going to die. But even drugged, she’s a mean fighter, and I love that this has always been the couple’s dynamic: Shi-on’s the fighter and Jae-sang’s the wuss.
But I also love that the show crests on the level of selflessness Jae-sang has finally reached—that he’d die for her without a second thought, and that he’d always run to her even if it was futile. Pil-woo’s murder attempt fails, though, and he throws himself from the rooftop. But Jae-sang and Dong-taek jointly save him, refusing to let him die so that he can be judged by the law. I don’t think it’s particularly driven by a faith in the legal system as much as it was knowing that that way would be most torturous to him. Why should he get the luxury to decide his own fate? It’s a perfect punishment.
I love that Jae-sang’s reconciliation with Shi-on feels very natural, yet is so hard-earned. He has to prove his sincerity consistently and in every way. I said in the opening week review that I missed Shi-on with her edges, but since we returned to this world, I’ve missed the soft Shi-on. She’s remained a compelling character throughout, not once have I questioned Jae-sang’s feelings for her.
This couple flipped the usual gender dynamics at first, but that quickly gave way to a more complicated, non-binary character development that felt very emotionally real. I find it so interesting that we got to see two very different iterations of the same relationship, where the only variables were their own choices. It’s a quiet examination of agency and consequence, and it was delivered in subtle, lovely strokes.
And so ends the drama of the show, and all that remains is to send off a very endearing cast of misfits and dissidents whom you come to love over the course of the show, from Rice Ball to Rice Grain, Galileo to Bang Shil. And finally… to welcome in a new member of the family. Jae-sang’s reaction is the best and there is nothing that beats this one crowning moment right at the end, when Shi-on tells him about some cryptic dreams she’s been having and HE KNOWS. He knows right away, “It’s her!” YES SHE’S COMING, I LOVE IT AND THANK GOD.
And that sums up much how I feel about the show altogether. Crime-fighting and politicking are only as interesting as the people doing it, and Welcome 2 Life got me right in that soft place between cynicism and ennui. It takes a close look at human darkness, but leaves you (literally!) with a message of hope about life, self-determination, and one’s ability to change for the better.
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