Life on Mars: Episode 7
The mystery is largely laid aside this episode, as Tae-joo and the team must have a laser-focus on one big problem. This time, there’s no murder to solve, and no puzzle to piece together—the team has a chance to stop a crime before it unfolds. But as the story plays out in front of the watching world and warring motivations meet, will they be able to avert disaster?
EPISODE 7 RECAP
That night, the team heads out out to celebrate, jubilant over taking down the notorious Lottery Gang. Despite the cheery mood, Tae-joo is stuck remembering the horror that his father may be a serial killer, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Dong-chul who advises him, “If nothing is wrong, you should drink. If something is wrong, you should drink too!”
This does seem to comfort Tae-joo, and although he doesn’t get as merry as the rest of the team (who get very merry indeed), he does stay to the end. Tae-joo sweetly sends Na-young off in a taxi, with only a brief moment of awkward awareness as Yong-ki gleefully calls attention to an amorous couple silhouetted in a nearby window.
Trains clamor and as it transpires the scene is not what it seems… but reveals a woman being viciously murdered and decorated, a la the Manicure Murderer.
The next morning, Tae-joo awakens to the telephone, with his mother’s voice from the present time speaking down the line. Brokenly, his mother explains that the doctor has told her she needs to make a decision, because it looks like Tae-joo’s brain has suffered too much damage. She has been advised to turn off the ventilator which is keeping Tae-joo alive.
Frenzied, Tae-joo yells down the line that he’s here, he can hear her—but she can’t hear him. She tells Tae-joo that she doesn’t know what to do, but the machine will be turned off at two o’clock today.
At the station, Na-young runs in to a flurry of activity and informs Tae-joo that there has been a report of a hostage situation—and the hostage-takers are threatening to kill one of the family members by two o’clock. The parallel is too striking for Tae-joo not to notice. It’s eleven o’clock now, so there’s only three hours before their—and his—fate is decided.
There is mayhem at the scene, as reporters and onlookers alike crowd in the narrow alley to be near the action. Na-young informs Tae-joo that a family of three lives in the house, but the husband is away on business, so only the mother and daughter have been held hostage. The three hostage-takers are still being identified.
Looking the worse for wear after the fun night out, Dong-chul fights his way through the crowd. The hostage-takers are asking for a truck and ship to secure their getaway, and also a doctor (so someone inside may already be injured) by two o’clock or one of the victims will be killed. More irked than scared, Dong-chul orders the hostage-takers out of the house, berating them for causing trouble in his neighborhood.
In disbelief at the cavalier attitude, Tae-joo stops Dong-chul before he makes the situation worse, and orders him to go home and get sober. Although Dong-chul protests, Tae-joo merely points to Dong-chul’s mismatched shoes as proof—one trainer, one woman’s slipper. Unfazed, Dong-chul swaps shoes with a pissy Yong-ki.
Suddenly, one of the hostage-takers throws open a window and demands to know where the truck is. The team can’t get a good look from their vantage point (not even on tiptoes), so Dong-chul rashly bounds closer and peers over the wall to ask the hostages be let free first. The hostage-taker refuses, and heads off Dong-chul’s pleas—with a warning gunshot to a nearby claypot.
Dong-chul and Yong-ki agree they should go get their guns in a show of force against the hostage-takers. Tae-joo strongly disagrees, insisting that this escalation will end in war, but Dong-chul can’t see the point of continuing the conversation when they won’t listen.
Instead, Tae-joo tries to find some other way to persuade Dong-chul, and takes him to a roof for a better view of the house. Unfortunately, the hostage-takers have already thought of this, and chose a place where no one could see inside. Tae-joo warns that they should figure out who the hostage-takers are first, but Dong-chul once again disagrees, and thinks they should invade the house through one of the windows.
It may not be as simple as Dong-chul wants though, as it turns out the hostage-takers are experienced criminals. All three escaped from a prison transport bus that morning, and are known for serious crimes such as rape, murder, and robbery.
Taking the hostage situation much more seriously now, the team prepares a room for the hostage negotiations to take place. Although crude, the TVs and phone system setup actually looks pretty good.
In a bid to appeal to the hostage-takers, one of their mothers has been called to the scene. The mother worriedly asks the team to reassure her that her son will be able to live if he surrenders. The team exchanges a look, but it falls to Tae-joo to give the half-truth that it will be better for her son if he gives in now.
So the mother climbs onto a chair, and calls out to her son to come out—one of the hostage-takers, Ahn Kwang-seok, comes to the window, a crazed look in his eye. Desperate, his mother pleads with Kwang-seok to give up because the detectives will forgive him, but her presence just tips him over the edge, and he bashes furiously at the barred window with a chair and orders the police to take her away.
Realizing this isn’t going as planned, Dong-chul grabs the mother away. The head hostage-taker, Lee Kang-heon, comes to the window, and coolly asks what will change if they surrender now. With the eyes of the newspapers on him, Kang-heon states that the police have made them all into criminals already. He spits out, “So stop spouting nonsense and get us our truck.”
Creeping close, Dong-chul tries to lie that the truck is already on its way. This infuriates Kang-heon, who knows that the police have cordoned off the area and no truck is coming. He furiously slams the window shut. Two gunshots ring out.
As Kwang-seok’s mother is taken away, Dong-chul broods that they have just poured gasoline on a fire.
Meanwhile, Tae-joo hangs his head to the sound of his mother, as she cries that she can’t end his life and pleads with him to say something, anything.
Dong-chul’s attempts to telephone the hostage-takers proves futile, not because they have disconnected the line—but because the reporters standing by are repeatedly ringing to get an exclusive interview. Dong-chul orders Nam-shik to take the phones from the reporters, but there are so many he still can’t get through.
12:46. Contemplative, Tae-joo watches the reporter speaking on the roof, as his segment is simultaneously broadcast on the TV within the room and suddenly understands—the hostage-takers are watching the TV from inside the house. That’s how they knew the truck was a fabrication.
Resolute, Tae-joo takes a spade and smashes both the phone line and TV box on the outside of the house. He explains to Dong-chul, “We have to cut them off from the outside. We have to corner them. We can’t let them control us like this.”
13:02. As the time creeps ever closer to two o’clock, Dong-chul questions whether cutting off the phone line was a smart idea and orders Nam-shik to connect it again… which is when Kang-heon comes to the window to ask what the police are playing at.
Tae-joo immediately adopts a calming tone as he asks that the hostage-takers show them that the hostages are safe. Once that happens, they can provide a doctor and their other demands. Although wary about letting Tae-joo take the lead, Dong-chul backs him up.
Kang-heon shows the mother and daughter, afraid but unhurt, and requests that food be sent to them along with the doctor—as well as a cassette of the song “Holiday” by the Bee Gees. Afterwards, Dong-chul scoffs that now is not the time for silly requests.
Running out of time, the team decides to send Na-young, dressed as a nurse, in place of the doctor because she is the only one who is trained in first aid. Although Na-young declares that she will be all right—and Yong-ki unwisely advises Na-young to flirt with the hostage-takers to distract them—Dong-chul, Tae-joo, and Nam-shik are tense at this risky move.
Kang-heon doesn’t look happy that a nurse has been sent instead of a doctor, but lets a nervous Na-young through, gun trained on Tae-joo the entire time.
Ten minutes pass as Dong-chul paces uneasily outside, when head detective Kim Kyung-se strides through the crowd with a SWAT team at his beck and call. He is completely indifferent to Dong-chul’s anger, and scorns that his team hasn’t been able to do anything in the hours they’ve been here.
Tae-too tries to reason with Kyung-se, explaining that if he and his men storm the house now, Officer Yoon Na-young will be in danger—and the reporters will probably get footage of the hostages or fugitives being killed on camera.
Kyung-se rocks Tae-joo’s world as he answers that that’s the point—their superiors want the reporters to display justice being served. Not caring how it sounds, Kyung-se smirks, “It would paint a pretty picture.”
On the count of three, the troops move on the house. Kang-heon warns them back, a gun pointed at Na-young’s head… and to Dong-chul’s dismay, Kyung-se tells Kang-heon that he will be killed on the spot if he kills “that cop,” outing Na-young.
13:20. The standoff stretches out, Kang-heon still threatening to kill Na-young, when Tae-joo hears the doctor’s voice in his head. He urges Tae-joo’s mother to make a decision quickly, as Kyung-se simultaneously screams that this is Kang-heon’s last chance… and Dong-chul’s hand on Tae-joo’s shoulder pulls him back to 1988.
Dong-chul and Tae-joo sneak into the house through the window that they spied earlier—and immediately get caught by Kang-heon (some plan, ha). Kang-heon handcuffs the two plus Na-young together in a small room, but not before they notice the as-yet-unseen third criminal, hugging his bleeding side.
The three put their heads together to get out of the bind, quite literally, as Dong-chul and Tae-joo take it in turns to try and bite the hairpin from Na-young’s hair to use as a lock pick. They can’t reach, so instead the three strain, fumble, and yank their way to their feet (despite Dong-chul’s whining).
It’s much easier for Tae-joo to reach Na-young’s hair in this position (hubba hubba), but in walks Kang-heon to upset their plan. Dong-chul manages to hide the hairpin under his foot, and Tae-joo talks his way out of the cuffs in order to administer CPR to Kang-heon’s severely injured and bleeding comrade, Han Hee-chul.
13:40. It turns hairy as Hee-chul stops breathing, but Tae-joo’s desperate attempts at CPR revive him. Hee-chul’s buddies Kang-heon and Kwang-seok look genuinely relieved, carefully watched by Dong-chul.
13:52. Tae-joo tries to appeal to Kang-heon that his friend Hee-chul will go into shock again and die without proper medical attention, and asks that the other hostages are let go now that they have him and Dong-chul. Hee-chul protests that he’s willing to die and won’t leave.
Fed up, Dong-chul asks if the fugitives think they’re in some sort of movie—since they’re all violent criminals, they should stop pretending to be loyal and accept their punishment. Irate and a little bit drunk, Kwang-seok presses his knife to Dong-chul’s throat and asks who the violent criminals are, because it isn’t him and his friends.
Kwang-seok screams that all he and Hee-chul did to deserve five years in prison was steal a box of ramyun—and Kang-heon may have stolen 5 million won but he was given a disproportionate 17 years in prison for it. Meanwhile, men like (real-life) Jeon Kyung-hwan steal 7 billion and only get 7 years for it.
Kang-heon dispassionately says that of course the newspapers are reporting that they are violent—because then no one will pity them when they are shot dead. Kang-heon scoffs that the laws in Korea have only ever let the rich go free and imprisoned the poor.
Dong-chul scoffs right back that this isn’t the way to change the world—no one is going to listen to them now. An angry Kwang-seok pushes the knife into Dong-chul’s throat, but Dong-chul can’t be stopped. In his righteous fury, Dong-chul ignores Tae-joo’s warning and screams that the three fugitives should have fought back legally instead of hold innocent people hostage.
Kang-heon pulls Kwang-seok away from Dong-chul, but in his hazed judgment, Kwang-seok wants to make the world pay attention to him. He yanks the hostage mother to the window, brandishing a knife at her throat and jeering at the reporters and SWAT team to come in.
Kang-heon shoves him away from the window, but his firm hold on Kwang-seok has slipped and Kwang-seok turns on Kang-heon. The gun spins from Kang-heon’s grasp to the floor, just as Dong-chul and Tae-joo take advantage of the chaos to pick their handcuffs. But not in time, as Hee-chul gets to the gun and shoots into the ceiling, stopping the fight between Kang-heon and Kwang-seok. Hee-chul cries that they didn’t escape prison to become like this.
Dong-chul seizes the opportunity to agree that the three men have been wronged, so they have to live to fight the injustice—and even though people might not believe their word, they will believe Dong-chul’s.
Tae-joo is quick to add that they will help with lawyers, and in any way they can, while the hostage mother pledges to tell people how good they were to them. Even the little girl tells the three that they aren’t bad men.
Hee-chul’s hand wavers, and hope blooms on Kang-heon’s face… just as the SWAT team makes their move on the house. Hee-chul’s face crumples and he raises the gun to his head, as he sobs that he can’t go back to prison. Dong-chul gets free, and Kang-heon rushes to Hee-chul’s side. But it’s too late. Hee-chul pulls the trigger, and shoots himself.
In the shock of the aftermath, Kwang-seok utters that his life is over and holds the knife to his throat—but Dong-chul stops it with his bare hands. Ferocious, Dong-chul asks why Kwang-seok would kill himself when his life is so unfair, and seethes, “If you kill yourself here, no one will know it wasn’t your fault.”
His pleas fall on deaf ears, as Kwang-seok pushes Dong-chul away. He slits his own throat.
A man with nothing left to lose, Kang-heon grabs Na-young and hauls her towards the window. Kang-heon asks what he and his friends did that was so wrong—is stealing some money a grave sin?
Angry tears welling, Kang-heon yells that this country is full of corrupt people—prosecutors and judges set rich people free, and journalists never listen when innocent people protest.
The shocked crowd waits with bated breath, and Kang-heon yells, “You should have listened! If you have money, not guilty. If you don’t have money, guilty. One law for the rich and another for the poor. What a stupid country.”
Kang-heon turns back into the room, a hunted man, and defies Dong-chul or Tae-joo to take the only thing he has left, his gun. Defeated, Kang-heon says, “Time’s up. It’s over.”
13:59. Tae-joo tries one last appeal to Kang-heon, just as the doctor readies to take him off the ventilator, but Kang-heon won’t stand down. So Tae-joo offers to be the one who is shot in place of Na-young. Kang-heon replies they are all going to die now and adds, “You think you’re alive don’t you? But you’re being fooled. You’re dead. Just like this whole rotten world.”
14:00. Resigned to his fate, Tae-joo wishes Na-young goodbye and moves to grapple Kang-heon. Kang-heon shoots. At the same time, a blinding light fills the room; the SWAT team bursts through the window; and Tae-joo is taken off the ventilator in 2018. His body lies still in the present as his mother cries over him.
But then, Tae-joo startles awake in 1988 again. Na-young’s face falls as she tells Tae-joo the captain stepped in to save him, and Tae-joo runs out of the house. In a daze, he walks past Kwang-seok’s mother as she implores her son to wake up, and a bleeding Kang-heon in an ambulance, to Yong-ki crying out, “Why did it have to be him?”
Tae-joo slowly walks up to another ambulance, with a body covered in a sheet inside. Sorrowful, Tae-joo says, “I heard someone would die today. I thought it was going to be me. I’m sorry, captain.”
Tae-joo respectfully places Dong-chul’s fallen slipper back on his foot… and it twitches.
Turns out the bullet only grazed Dong-chul on his arm and he was lying down for a snooze (what a troll). And Yong-ki was crying because he got a face full of tear gas. Tae-joo struggles to get the words “thank you” out so Dong-chul rescues him before it gets too awkward, “What did I tell you before? If you’re thankful, buy me a drink.”
Relieved, Tae-joo walks away but stops as he hears his mother’s voice call out to him over the radio. “Tae-joo, you smiled. I won’t take you off the ventilator again. I’m sorry I doubted you, my son.”
Back at the station, Nam-shik asks Na-young to go with him to a shaman for a protection charm, since Dong-chul has one and it saved his life today. Affronted, Dong-chul corrects Nam-shik that it was his animal-like instincts that saved him. The whole team watches as Na-young lets Nam-shik down easy because she’s already busy going to a movie.
After she has gone, Nam-shik wails to a teasing Yong-ki that he definitely wasn’t just rejected. Silently watching Nam-shik run off, Tae-joo looks inside his desk drawer—and finds a movie admission ticket. D’awwww.
Tae-joo swipes the ticket before he heads out with Dong-chul to celebrate at the bar, where he fusses over Dong-chul like a mother hen that he shouldn’t drink that much. Unrepentant, Dong-chul chugs down more alcohol and tells Tae-joo to knock off the uncharacteristic worrying.
The barman arrives with some special liquor for Dong-chul (who is not a connoisseur, ha) and jokingly asks Tae-joo what it’s like to come back from the dead. Tae-joo honestly answers that it’s exactly how it sounds, earning himself a sharp look from Dong-chul and nervous laughter from the barman.
Tae-joo and Dong-chul’s attention is pulled to the TV, as a newscaster reports that hostage-taker Lee Kang-heon was shot at the scene and died in the hospital. Two other bar patrons moan that all three men should have been given the death sentence straight away anyway instead of wasting their tax money.
In a separate report, the newscaster continues that there has been controversy that embezzler Jeon Kyung-hwan’s 7-year sentence was too harsh given that he has paid back most of the money and committed no other crimes. Disheartened, Dong-chul repeats what Kang-heon said before, “If you have money, not guilty. If you don’t have money, guilty.”
Nam-shik runs into the bar, pulling Dong-chul and Tae-joo away from their celebration to another crime scene. It’s the woman from the start of the episode, Go Yeong-suk—and we’ve seen her before. Yeong-suk was the woman hiding in the bathroom stall at the Hawaii Room Salon with Tae-joo’s father. Apparently she and Dad have been living together.
Tae-joo is shocked to hear this, but he’s even more disturbed when the crime-scene analyst pulls a pair of panties from Go Yeong-suk’s mouth. Just like the Manicure Murderer.
Horror mounting, Tae-joo pulls back the bedsheet from Yeong-suk’s body—revealing her perfectly painted nails. The fragments in Tae-joo’s memory—of the woman in white, her painted nails, Dad’s bloodied face—coalesce together into one nightmare realization.
Tae-joo’s father is the Manicure Murderer.
Well, that was a hell of an episode. I mean that in every sense—it was an amazing hour of television, and I also felt like we were being dragged through the worst of humanity watching it.
There is no denying that this was a bleak episode. I have praised this show for balancing light and dark elements before, but in this episode, the light was used as a stark contrast to show us how dark it could actually get. The touches of humor and almost sympathetic villains made me believe that there could be a happy-ish ending—so it hit me hard when hope died. It was as if these three men had their story written for them by someone else, from their unjust imprisonment to their escape and eventual death. The moment they took the hostages, they were just working towards the inevitable, with the reporters and SWAT team waiting outside to draw blood, and no one willing to listen to them.
This wasn’t a victory, and the show didn’t play it as one. This was a messy tragedy that police like Dong-chul had a hand in creating, by playing along with a system that demonizes criminals and even locks away the innocent. Tae-joo has had to confront the idea that his code of ethics is too unbending, and now Dong-chul is witnessing the worst version of his. This episode marks the first episode that I unreservedly enjoyed more than the BBC version, because it used many of the same beats but wove a larger societal problem into a tight story—and doubly so because this episode is based on a true story. All three fugitives in this story were real, Kang-heon really did make that famous speech about the innocent and guilty, and all three men did die by suicide or getting shot. Their deaths raised huge questions about the South Korean “Preventative Custody Policy” which allowed the courts to lock up repeat offenders for very long periods of time, in an effort to reduce future crimes.
I imagine the real-life example of Jeon Kyung-hwan, who embezzled 7 billion won and got off comparatively lightly because he was the brother of the ex-president of South Korea, was chosen deliberately as well, given that he was sentenced for another fraud case in 2004. The cycle of corruption doesn’t end, even as it is contrasted with the cruel indifference to the three fugitives’ deaths. They were unimportant and died a small death, and there is a sadness in that. On the other hand, Dong-chul’s tarnished ethics are right—the fugitives were bashing against a corrupt system, but they should have done things the right way, and not harmed other innocent people. They should have continued to fight, because no one else would do it for them.
This episode did an excellent job of weaving the timelines together between 1988 and 2018. It is a smart idea to connect Tae-joo’s fate to the hostage-takers, which heightened the stakes for the present time in a way we could appreciate in 1988. This episode was deliberately very claustrophobic, as the action is centered in one tiny street with a very simple premise—there are no twists or turns, just a mounting tension—and in 2018, Tae-joo is trapped by his own mind. If there is one criticism I have of Life on Mars, it is that the danger in 2018 is somewhat nebulous, and repetitive. We understand that Tae-joo is in trouble in 2018, but with no way to connect to the people there, it was at risk of feeling stagnant. However, in this episode, 1988 Tae-joo directly affected what happened in 2018 (when he smiled), anchoring the story.
The punches keep coming tonight as well, as Tae-joo finally connects the pieces with his father, the woman in white, and the Manicure Murderer. If I were nitpicking, I would have said that it has taken Tae-joo too long to figure this out, but on the other hand, who wants to believe that their father is a serial killer? I have to say, I’m still not entirely convinced that Dad is the Manicure Murderer, especially since it looks like he is being set up with Yeong-suk’s death. But he is definitely a shady character, so I’m not holding out much hope for his redemption. Tae-joo is going to have to come to terms with that, and fast, because fellow time traveler Kim Min-seok is finally making another appearance and ready to make more trouble.
Tune of the episode: I was torn between “Holiday” by the Bee Gees during Kang-heon’s coda, and “Nameless Bird” by Sohn Hyun-hee during Dong-chul’s fake-out death, but I’ll have to go with “Holiday.” That was a gut-punch of a scene.
Mystery of the episode: Is Dad really the Manicure Murderer?