Life on Mars: Episode 16 (Final)
After weeks of questions, it’s about time we get some answers. Tae-joo has wrapped up Kim Min-seok’s case, but his unfinished business in 1988 still haunts him. It’s the final hour and Tae-joo will have to figure out where his happiness lies.
FINAL EPISODE RECAP
A cold case file on the gang attack that resulted in the death of Dong-chul and Co. back in 1988 lies open on Tae-joo’s desk at home. Meanwhile, Tae-joo is speeding down to Insung Station to investigate further.
In the records room, Tae-joo locates the incident report and frantically flips through the crime scene photos of his friends’ bodies. His head snaps up at a cackle of familiar voices and he steps out into the hall where Dong-chul and the team are laughing loudly. He calls out to them, but they turn a corner.
Of course, when he reaches that corner, they’ve vanished. Anxiously running outside, Tae-joo grapples with his sense of reality as he wanders out into the middle of traffic. (Have you learned nothing from all your near-death scrapes with cars?)
Afterwards, Tae-joo is calming down on a bench inside when the current captain finds him. The captain hands over the case file on the gang incident and everything is as Tae-joo had said it would be… except Chief Ahn Min-sik doesn’t exist. Another name is listed in the file, but that individual has since died.
Tae-joo runs to the records room to crosscheck the documents, but Ahn Min-sik doesn’t appear anywhere. What’s more, the captain tells him Ahn Min-sik is absent from the police database altogether. He suggests that Tae-joo try contacting the Police Mutual Aid Association to be sure, but they tell Tae-joo no such person has ever worked within the force.
More confused than ever, Tae-joo stops by the hospital to visit 2018 Chief Ahn Min-sik at his office. Chief Ahn invites him inside and Tae-joo asks if there are any side-effects to his surgery. He explains that he’s been seeing apparitions from his coma dream and Chief Ahn agrees that it’s possible for brain surgery patients to experience delirium and hallucinations.
Chief Ahn reasons that Tae-joo’s dream was a product of his subconscious distorting memories from his traumatic childhood. The “apparitions” he saw there were created from his memories and pain as a sort of defense mechanism.
Tae-joo points out that all the people he met had actually existed, but Chief Ahn asserts that dreams are influenced by the subconscious. In short, if those people were real, Tae-joo had to have interacted with them in some way prior to the dream—passed them on the street, or seen them on TV or in the newspaper.
Thinking over the conversation back at home, Tae-joo’s eyes fall on the cold case files on his desk. Rifling through, he pulls out a report on the Hangbok Welfare Center incident and recalls the current Insung police chief saying that when he looked into the people Tae-joo had requested, he’d been told Tae-joo already had the information.
Turns out, Tae-joo had pulled the documents a few months ago with the intention of investigating unsolved cases. A flashback shows Tae-joo poring over documents on the Hangbok Welfare Center—as well as the Seobu Gang incident where the team died—shortly before his accident.
That’s when ex-fiancée Seo-hyun had approached him for help on Kim Min-seok’s case and commented that Tae-joo must’ve wanted to return to the field (because he was looking into cold cases). Realization hits and Chief Ahn’s words echo in Tae-joo’s ears, “All the things that you see are hallucinations that are created from your subconscious.”
Tae-joo thinks back to his first meeting with Dong-chul and the others and how those relationships had deepened over his time there. It’s too much and Tae-joo fumbles for the antidepressants Chief Ahn prescribed, choking one back.
That night, Tae-joo has fitful dreams of his last moments in 1988 where Na-young cries out desperately for him to save them as the gangsters attack. Jolting awake, Tae-joo sits up and his snowy TV emits Na-young’s desperate radio call.
Before he has the chance to process, however, Tae-joo’s phone rings. The TV cuts to a “no signal” screen and Tae-joo answers the call, greeting his mother on the other line.
He drives over and Aunt runs out to greet him. She fusses over him affectionately as Mom looks on with a smile, and then they all go inside. Tae-joo gapes at the feast Mom has prepared and Aunt gushes that she and Mom were at the market all morning getting all the freshest ingredients.
When the meal is over, Tae-joo finds Mom tending to her plants on the balcony. She worries about him going to work tomorrow rather than resting a few more days, but Tae-joo assures her he’s rested enough.
Mom laughs that Aunt no longer seems interested in marriage—she just likes living with Mom. That’s why Mom moved here, and now she feels she has someone to rely on and laugh with. Tae-joo smiles, saying he’s happy to hear it but Mom perceptively notices something is bothering him.
“There are people who are in need of my help,” Tae-joo admits, “But I wasn’t able to help them.” He tells Mom they’re waiting, but he can’t reach them and he doesn’t know what to do.
Smiling gently, Mom echoes Na-young’s words to just close his eyes and listen to his heart. A genuine smile spreads across Tae-joo’s face and he tells her she just reminded him of someone. Mom guesses it’s a girl, noting that it’s been a long time since he’s smiled like that. Hee.
Taking Tae-joo’s hand, Mom tells him that she just wants him to be happy and that she’s on his side, no matter what. Aunt calls Mom inside to watch TV, but Tae-joo remains on the balcony, lost in thought.
At the Seoul Metro Police Agency, Tae-joo reports to his new position as captain of the Violent Crimes Unit 1. Seo-hyun drops by to congratulate him and check how he’s doing. He assures her he’s not sick, but Seo-hyun argues that he doesn’t look happy.
She points out that it was his desire to return to field work and Tae-joo agrees, but his expression remains lackluster, despite his efforts to look happy. “I’ve had the feeling that something was strange for quite a while,” Seo-hyun huffs, crossing her arms, “When you recovered, you didn’t seem like the same person.”
She recalls he seemed out of place after waking up, like he’d returned to the wrong place. “You felt like a stranger to me,” she says. She starts to ask about his dream, but before Tae-joo can answer, a team member peeks his head in to say everything’s ready to start the meeting.
Seo-hyun excuses herself and good-naturedly shoots down Tae-joo’s promise to call, saying she won’t answer. However, she does want him to be happy and implores him to smile more—she’d heard he smiled a lot as a kid. “I wish I could see you smile,” Seo-hyun says at last, and then she leaves.
The unit starts their meeting and a detective briefs the others on the current case. Tae-joo listens absently, twirling a small metal plate in his hand. The detective plays a phone call recording, but instead of the victim, it’s Na-young’s voice that rings out.
Tae-joo shoots out of his seat as Na-young’s voice is swapped for Dong-chul demanding that he hurry, and finally Nam-shik’s frantic cries. The other detectives cautiously address Tae-joo and he asks for the recording to be replayed… but this time it’s an unknown woman fearfully telling a dispatch officer she’s being followed.
No one is really listening though, because they’re all looking warily at Tae-joo. Finally the presenting detective asks if Tae-joo’s all right, pointing at Tae-joo’s hand that has been grasping the metal plate so tightly that it’s drawn blood.
Tae-joo stares at his bloody hand with a dazed expression. “I can’t… feel a thing,” he mutters, and then turns and walks out of the room. He ends up on the roof and remembers that Na-young had talked him down before. She’d held his hand to her heart to prove they were alive and he presses his palm against his own chest now.
Tae-joo:“I had a dream. In that dream, I met people who are no longer alive now. But… could it really have been a dream… or could it be that I’m still in a dream?”
Tae-joo takes a step forward and as scenes of his friends in 1988 being beaten by the gangsters flash through his mind, he starts to run and finally takes a leap off the roof…
Right back into 1988! Tae-joo holds Chief Ahn’s gun out as he races towards the horde of gangsters and fires off three shots. One gangster is hit in the leg and collapses to the ground while the others take a step back.
Still holding the firearm, Tae-joo orders the gangsters to drop their weapons. One member tries to rush him, but without even a second’s hesitation Tae-joo plants a bullet in the man’s shoulder. His message comes across loud and clear and weapons clank to the cement floor as the men raise their hands in surrender.
Dong-chul grumbles at Tae-joo for taking so long while backup finally arrives and officers arrest the gang members. Yong-ki checks on Nam-shik while Tae-joo kneels next to Na-young. He apologizes for taking so long and they all rise to their feet.
The officers drag all the gangsters away while the team shambles out of the warehouse. Tae-joo confirms to Dong-chul that Chief Ahn is responsible for everything and Dong-chul gripes that he never liked that guy. He barks out an order to call for backup since Chief Ahn couldn’t have gotten far, but only manages a few more steps before crumpling to the ground.
Manager Park checks Dong-chul over at the clinic and assures the anxious group that he’ll be just fine. When Yong-ki continues to whine, Manager Park snaps, “He won’t die! His head is much harder than yours.” Hee.
He tells them the injuries Dong-chul suffered were actually quite minor and he just passed out from all the stress. Unfortunately for Manager Park, the chaos has just begun as Dong-chul’s mother-in-law bustles into the room, Dong-chul’s wife and daughter in her wake.
Assuming Dong-chul is dead, the women immediately start caterwauling. His wife smacks at his body, simultaneously sobbing and berating him for getting himself killed. Manager Park attempts to interject, but Mother-in-law has already switched gears and grumbles that she shouldn’t have approved the marriage.
The team listens awkwardly as Mother-in-law declares it’s not too late and suggests that her daughter hook up with a man from her past. Dong-chul’s daughter stops crying to ask if she’s talking about that rich man and when Mother-in-law nods, the daughter mutters that she’s not against the idea.
All their tittering stirs Dong-chul and he sits up grouchily, scaring the daylights out of the women. Mother-in-law fusses over him in disbelief and his daughter hugs him tightly. He barks that they must want him dead and when his daughter denies it, he tells her to go say that to her new rich daddy. Hehe.
Dong-chul’s wife starts smacking him for faking dead and Dong-chul whimpers that he almost died. The team watches with bemused expressions as the wife lets loose, only muttering, “Please, stop” when Dong-chul begs them to help.
Afterwards, Tae-joo sits with Dong-chul and snickers. Dong-chul snaps at him to stop laughing and says that Tae-joo’s marriage will be the same. They sober when Dong-chul asks about Chief Ahn, but he’s still at large.
Yong-ki and Nam-shik jog in and report that Chief Ahn showed up at the docks, trying to charter a boat. To Tae-joo’s horror, Dong-chul rips out his IV (ouch) and declares that he’s going to catch Chief Ahn with his own hands. “A police officer shouldn’t be afraid to die at the scene!” he shouts and runs out of the room.
Tae-joo’s handcuffs—that he’d used on Chief Ahn—are found discarded at the docks. Dong-chul asks Yong-ki for the name of the boat Chief Ahn cut a deal with and then draws the others in to tell them his plan of attack.
Later, Chief Ahn runs down to the dock but is quickly hounded by an army of officers. He breaks into a sprint and manages to leap onto the boat, shouting for the captain to hurry. To his dismay, Dong-chul emerges from inside and chides him for trying to escape. He then proceeds to pound on Chief Ahn while the other officers, including Tae-joo, look on.
Down in the interrogation room, Chief Ahn refuses to speak. Tae-joo plays the tape Detective Shin had secretly recorded of Chief Ahn admitting to killing Chief Kim and framing Dong-chul, before he’s heard shooting Detective Shin as well. Chief Ahn smirks and Dong-chul flies over the table at him.
Hoisting Chief Ahn up by his collar, Dong-chul growls that he should beg the judge to keep him in jail because the minute Chief Ahn is out, he’s dead meat. Chief Ahn remains silent so Dong-chul drops him to the ground and storms out.
Tae-joo comes upstairs to report that Chief Ahn won’t talk. Luckily, Dong-chul found the ledger of various police officers’ dirty dealings with Insung Construction that Detective Shin had hidden. Na-young says that Chief Kim had probably tried to pressure Chief Ahn with the book when he wasn’t promoted, as expected.
Along with the recording, Tae-joo says they have enough evidence on Chief Ahn to hand him over to prosecution. A couple officers escort Chief Ahn to a police car for transport, but he tries once more to appeal to Tae-joo. He warns Tae-joo that if he goes to prison, Tae-joo will never go home.
“Think about it,” Chief Ahn implores, “I’m the only person who could help you here.” Tae-joo opens his mouth, but his reply is cut off by Dong-chul telling Chief Ahn to shove it. He gripes that Chief Ahn sure is talkative now and tells the officers to take him away.
As the car pulls out, Dong-chul asks Tae-joo what Chief Ahn wanted. “I couldn’t care less,” Tae-joo replies, “Don’t worry about it.” The car starts turning out of the parking lot and they both send Chief Ahn an obscene gesture… except Tae-joo flips the bird and is immediately embarrassed because Dong-chul doesn’t recognize it.
That evening, the team drops in on their favorite haunt like a bunch of gangsters. They inform the barman (whose name is Mr. Yang) that they’ll be having dinner there but he deadpans that they should go to another establishment. Dong-chul whips out an envelope full of cash and Mr. Yang asks what they want to eat.
As soon as Mr. Yang walks away, they drop the act and giddily take their seats. While Mr. Yang grills their beef, Dong-gul toasts the team. After they throw those back, Yong-ki respectfully offers to pour Tae-joo a drink and the others look on proudly as the two awkwardly toast each other. Aww.
Dong-chul suggests that Yong-ki sing a song, so he and Nam-shik jump up and start dancing. Na-young pulls Dong-chul up to join them and Tae-joo watches the others dance around like fools with a grin on his face. Mr. Yang comments that it’s the first time he’s seen Tae-joo smile like that, and says it’s nice.
Na-young comes back and urges Tae-joo to join them. The other three beckon from the dance floor and he eventually gives in. Though his moves may be a bit tentative and stiff, Tae-joo’s smile is genuine as he sings along with his friends.
The party winds down and everyone spills out onto the street. Dong-chul steers Yong-ki and Nam-shik in one direction, but Nam-shik runs back to bid Tae-joo and Na-young goodnight. He eyes them suspiciously for a moment, but then shakes it off and runs back to the other men, who’ve disappeared around a bend.
Na-young starts to excuse herself, but to her surprise Tae-joo offers to take her home. She can barely contain her joy and practically skips after him. As they walk, Na-young tentatively broaches the topic of Tae-joo leaving, wondering when he plans to go. Without missing a beat, Tae-joo answers that he isn’t.
Stunned, Na-young asks why and Tae-joo stops to face her. “Because I’ve grown fond of this place,” he says. Smiling shyly, Na-young says that’s a relief and Tae-joo blurts out that if she ever has the time, they should go see the movie they never had the chance to see (from the tickets she gave him forever ago). Na-young replies that she’d like that and then runs home, while Tae-joo watches with a smile.
The next morning, Tae-joo arrives at the station to find Na-young, Nam-shik, and Yong-ki fussing over the paper. Joining them, Tae-joo sees that Ahn Min-shik’s case has made headlines and Dong-chul’s picture is in the paper.
Dong-chul appears behind them and grumbles at Reporter Bae’s photography skills, but his expression is clearly pleased. Yong-ki wonders if Dong-chul will receive a promotion and although he’s intrigued by the idea, Dong-chul snaps that detectives should catch culprits out of a sense of duty, not for greedy ambition.
He adds that he also just likes being captain and Nam-shik innocently asks if he should inform HR not to promote him, then. Dong-chul snipes that Nam-shik has grown up and then asks Na-young if she would make him some coffee.
Turning to do so, Na-young is stopped by another officer delivering some paperwork. When she opens the folder, she freezes. Tae-hyun notices her odd reaction and asks what’s wrong, but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t respond to Dong-chul either, so Nam-shik takes the folder.
It’s a transfer notice for Tae-joo to return to Seoul and Dong-chul asks if he requested it. Tae-joo is as shocked as the rest of them and denies any involvement, but no one is convinced. Yong-ki mutters accusingly that it doesn’t make sense for him to be transferred without asking for it and Na-young won’t even look at him.
That night, Tae-joo sits in his house and stares at the transfer notice. A knock behind him alerts Tae-joo to Dong-chul’s presence. When asked how he got in, Dong-chul replies the front door was unlocked and wonders if Tae-joo was waiting for someone. He guesses Na-young but Tae-joo just looks away sadly.
Dong-chul came bearing gifts of chicken and alcohol and he digs in, laughing heartily at the TV while Tae-joo silently sips soju. Finally, Tae-joo speaks, guessing that Dong-chul came in order to tell him something. Dong-chul denies it and Tae-joo wonders if he got kicked out again. Hee.
Sitting up, Dong-chul barks that he’s not a stray cat and Tae-joo asks why is he here, then. “I was just passing by and dropped in. Can’t I do that?” Dong-chul asks, and Tae-joo can’t argue. Sighing, Tae-joo muses that this will likely be his last chance to go home.
Dong-chul stares at him for a beat and then agrees, noting that getting transferred to Seoul from the countryside is a rarity. He wonders why Tae-joo doesn’t look happy though, and points out that it’s ultimately Tae-joo’s choice.
The evening alarm blares and Dong-chul remembers he was supposed to bring his wife soy sauce. Tae-joo stands to see him out and Dong-chul says he never told Tae-joo thank you. “I would’ve died without you,” Dong-chul tells him, “Thank you, Tae-joo.” He pats the young detective on the back, wishing him luck in Seoul, and takes his leave.
The next morning, Tae-joo watches a bunch of kids run past and he flashes back through his time here in 1988, bonding with the team and healing old scars. The memories bring a smile to his lips.
At the station, Tae-joo stops Na-young as she rushes by, but freezes up, unsure of what to say. She says if he doesn’t have something to tell her, she’ll return to work and walks away. Behind her, Dong-chul makes eye contact from his desk for a moment, but returns to his paperwork. Yong-ki also eyes Tae-joo but turns away without saying anything.
Nam-shik is the only one to address him, and asks if Tae-joo has finished packing. Tae-joo says he hasn’t and Yong-ki grunts that he should hurry up already—he’s making them restless. A call comes in and Nam-shik informs the team that a body has been discovered, apparently belonging to a member of the Seobu Gang.
Yong-ki wonders if it was internal strife and Dong-chul vows to clear the gang out of their town. Dong-chul orders Yong-ki and Nam-shik to get ready and tells Na-young to call in forensics and a backup team. Tae-joo waits expectantly but when Dong-chul turns to him, he hesitates and then leaves.
Everyone follows and Tae-joo takes a step to join them but stops when the TV flickers on. He turns to look at the snowy screen and Doctor Jang’s voice addresses him while an apparition of the doc appears behind him.
Doctor Jang asks if Tae-joo is happy, or if he’s still confused whether this place is a dream or reality. Tae-joo doesn’t answer and Doctor Jang tells him the answer is simple: “The place you can live with a smile… is your reality.”
Tae-joo walks past him and follows his team outside. Na-young is telling Dong-chul that backup is unavailable and Nam-shik adds that it’s due to the Olympics. Yong-ki spots Tae-joo and says there’s no point in accompanying them, as he’s leaving soon. Dong-chul agrees that there’s a lot to prepare, but Tae-joo refuses.
“I’ll come with you,” he says, pulling out the transfer notice and tearing it up. Nam-shik warns him that he’ll be disciplined for ripping it up, but Tae-joo is unfazed. Dong-chul smiles and Nam-shik cheerfully asks if this means Tae-joo’s here to stay.
Tae-joo nods and Yong-ki calls him inconsistent, but he’s smiling too and steps aside for Tae-joo to ride shotgun. Dong-chul tells Na-young to get in the car as well. She’s taken aback, but he points out that she needs field work experience.
Everyone happily piles in and Dong-chul shouts, “This car is Back to the Future!” before peeling out of the parking lot.
As they’re driving, Tae-joo’s ears begin to ring and Chief Ahn calls out to him desperately from the radio. Tae-joo looks over at his oblivious car-mates and turns the volume down. Dong-chul questions him and Tae-joo replies that he just didn’t want to hear it.
Dong-chul tsks and switches the station, turning the volume back up on an energetic pop song. Everyone rolls down their windows, so Tae-joo follows suit and when the others start bobbing their heads he awkwardly tries to imitate their movements. Finally he starts singing along and his face breaks into a smile as they drive into their future.
On another day, Tae-joo sits alone in the office finishing up paperwork. He grabs his jacket and starts to leave when the phone rings. He picks up and waits for someone to speak but there’s only silence. Finally he asks, “Hello?” and a familiar voice answers, “Hello, Chief Han Tae-joo. It’s been a long time.” The man wonders if Tae-joo has forgotten his voice, but Tae-joo smirks and calls him by name—Kim Hyun-seok.
I can’t believe it’s already over! Although, that epilogue does leave it open if they ever wanted to pursue Tae-joo’s adventures in this new timeline he’s created. Or is it a new timeline? Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure whether he time-traveled, warped to an alternate reality, or if he’s really just running around in an extremely realistic coma dream. I love the twist that he’d been researching those cases before his accident, filling in a few coma theory holes and throwing Tae-joo back into the “What is real/what is a dream?” dilemma once more. I actually like how it’s left somewhat open for interpretation, but I prefer the alternate reality theory, so I’m going to stick with that for my own peace of mind.
I’m so glad Tae-joo was able to return to 1988, because that’s truly where he belongs. He’s happy there, and it really goes to show how miserable he was before, by the way everyone reacted to the “new” Tae-joo that woke up from the coma. His time in 1988 helped him heal long-forgotten scars and become the happier, healthier person he deserves to be. I feel a bit sad to leave Mom and Aunt behind, but that scene when he visited them really felt like closure. Mom let him know that she had Aunt and she was going to be okay, and gave him permission to do whatever he needed in order to be happy (while also giving her seal of approval for the girl who could make stoic Tae-joo grin like a fool).
After returning to 1988 (and solving the immediate problem of saving his friends’ lives), I love how Tae-joo melted into that life. He finally stopped restraining himself and while he’s still a little awkward (the guy needs to get some groove, that head twitch looked painful!), he’s showing his expressions more openly, he took a solid step in forming a relationship with Yong-ki, and he asked Na-young on a date! And how cute was it when his transfer notice came in and everyone was salty? The smiles on all their faces when he ripped it up were so genuine and heartwarming, and I’m crying bittersweet tears to see them all go.
I want to give major props to all the cast and crew for doing such an amazing job from start to finish. Especially Jung Kyung-ho, who somehow made me forget he wasn’t an emotionally stunted cinnamon roll that didn’t even know how to smile (despite watching him play multiple goofy characters over the years). I’ve always adored him but this character really highlighted how skilled he is as an actor. Everyone did such a great job. I love all the characters so dearly and wish them all the best on their journey. The only upside to seeing this gem of a show come to a close is that now I can finally go back and watch the original BBC version! I hope y’all had as much fun with this as I did. Until we meet again on our next drama adventure!