The Lies Within: Episodes 9-16 (Series review)
The Lies Within really brings to bear its original title, Everybody’s Lies, which has been the compass of the show from the start. As much as it’s a mystery drama, it’s also a forensic investigation into the lies and hidden truths of its inhabitants. The best thing about the second half is the co-operative partnership between Tae-shik and Seo-hee, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that they work together at all times. They each pursue their own lines of inquiry and tend to converge at the same discoveries, while actively sharing information and suspicions.
Sang-hoon’s disappearance takes the backburner for much of the second half as instead, the team focus on figuring out Chairman Jung and his JQ lackeys’ true agenda behind their ruthless campaign to spearhead the new business project in Songju. JQ presents a three-headed dog of villainy to our good guys, headed by Chairman Jung at the top, and below him, Chief In Dong-gu on the one hand, and Sang-hoon’s best friend, Jin Young-min, on the other.
The three of them act in an accord when it comes to furthering the new business, with Chief In and Young-min as bitter rivals, and Chairman Jung willing to play them against each other to suit his own ends. At the midpoint of the show, we had just learned of Choi Soo-hyun’s identity as an investigative reporter who had been killed at the start of the show, thus setting into motion Sang-hoon’s disappearance.
With her death now recognized as murder, it’s clear that she was meant to be silenced from whatever she had been on the brink of exposing. But reinvestigating her case brings Tae-shik’s chief, Yoo Dae-young, down on him like a ton of bricks, and the team is disbanded and facing internal audit.
Tae-shik and Seo-hee follow Soo-hyun’s trail and discover a list of names, but before they can even get a good look, Chief In destroys Seo-hee’s computer from his hacking lair. Going on her patchy memory of the few names and addresses she managed to get a glimpse of, they set out to ask after them in the local area, and eventually meet a resident who lost his child to cancer.
Even disbanded, both Jin-kyung and Ho-gyu continue to try to help Tae-shik. Ho-gyu (Yoon Jong-seok) is such a little scene-stealer, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see him so lost without the team. He and Jin-kyung have a really sweet bond, and she asks him to try restoring Seo-hee’s computer to see if they can recover the list.
But his reverse-hack sets off alarms at Chief In’s lair, and you know it’s game over the moment his face fills that screen. As we suspected, Dae-young really is Chief In’s mole, and his past is riddled with bad choices that put him under In’s thumb, the worst of which is really, really, really THE WORST and almost had me quit the show. It’s just so senseless and tragic and awful–which I know is the point–but I really loved that kid. *Cry forever*
Tae-shik is forced off the grid after being framed for murder, but both he and Seo-hee continue to investigate, and by some quick thinking and good luck, they actually manage to acquire the list in hard copy which Ho-gyu had tried to print off. They find out that the names belong to terminally sick people, and that JQ is taking care of them. On top of that, the addresses are all within the parcel of land assigned to the new business, which JQ is desperate to buy.
As Seo-hee marks each point on a map, it makes a chilling picture and the meaning jumps out even before she says it: People are sick because the land is contaminated. They slowly realize that Chairman Jung doesn’t want the land for the sake of the new business, but in fact, the new business was fabricated to hide the truth about the land: Twenty years ago, Chairman Jung’s old company illegally dumped industrial waste in that very location, contaminating the local water supply.
That’s the truth that Choi Soo-hyun had found out, and that she and Sang-hoon were working hard to expose. Seo-hee’s initial attempts to do the same backfire on her, and she’s discredited and the subject of a criminal investigation, thanks to her father-in-law’s and party leader’s vicious subversions of the truth.
Meanwhile, Tae-shik’s investigations lead him to Dae-young and some painful confrontations. But it’s only once he has definitive evidence to nail the chief for Ho-gyu’s murder that Dae-young finally gives it up, and at last turns a better leaf by bringing Chief In down with him in a carefully staged trap. (Sidenote: I could watch Tae-shik do his thing all day.)
The emotion of it is all too real, as well. Dae-young is a hyung to Tae-shik, and it’s the ultimate betrayal. No matter how many years they’ve been together or how close they are, this is something that can never, ever be fixed. Jin-kyung says it best: “I will never forgive you, because the things you’ve done can never be forgiven.”
Out of all the villains in the show, there’s something much worse about Dae-young’s betrayals and lies. Perhaps it’s the Peter Pettigrew problem: that “honest” evil is better than treachery hidden under the thin coat of friendship. For Dae-young, when push came to shove, he let friends die and even killed them himself to save his own skin. As Tae-shik pointed out to him, he could have made the choice to stop at any point and face up to the consequences, but he kept on going until the momentum of his crimes took him beyond the point of return. Just as every lie needs a bigger lie to hide it, each crime he committed required a further crime to cover it up.
As Chief In’s arc wraps up and he and Dae-young are put away, the show comes full circle to its starting mystery: What happened to Sang-hoon? It’s a shock to Seo-hee to get a phonecall out of the blue… from none other than Sang-hoon himself, proving once and for all that he’s alive. She learns little more than that, but by then, she and Tae-shik piece together the fact that there were two separate agendas at play: one to cover up the contamination and push forward the new business, the other to expose it.
With Chief In and therefore Chairman Jung behind the former, Sang-hoon’s disappearance only makes sense in the context of the latter agenda, and leaves only one culprit: Young-min. Young-min now wants Seo-hee to block the bill for the new business–which he’d previously forced her into proposing. It seems a little far-fetched and overly risky to me that all of that was to set her on the path to discovering the truth about the contamination, only to force the present U-turn. That’s a lot of coincidences you’re counting on there, but either way, it’s too late and it passes with an easy majority.
Young-min’s attempt to overthrow Chairman Jung in a boardroom coup also fails, and his accomplice is discovered, and to top it all off, Chief In gets out of jail thanks to Chairman Jung manipulating his trash dad into taking the fall for him. Just as it’s nearly game over for Young-min, he faces off with Chairman Jung and gives him one last chance to give it up and get his son back. Chairman Jung refuses to admit defeat of any sort.
To me, Chairman Jung has always felt like the villain of the piece–so deceptively innocuous, with his aged frailty and rheumy eyes and hollow core. He’s so self-serving that even when he loved, it was self-serving. Don’t forget Sang-hoon’s origin story with him, so disturbing: He just plucked this kid from an orphanage and remade him to replace the original.
The show crafted its clearest symbolism out of his bonsai hobby, showing him snipping and pruning the little trees to his exact desires, but then in a moment trashing the one he couldn’t correct. By blade or by velvet glove, he forces people along with his schemes, his ideas, even his own perception of the world, until he forces it into the shape of a truth.
There’s still not enough Lee Yoo-young in this second half, but at least there’s more of her. Seo-hee gets her absolute best moment when she faces down with Chairman Jung herself, after he’s tried to bully her into standing down. With no hesitation at all, she tells him that he’s the traitor, and that for all he claims to care about Sang-hoon, he only cares about himself. God I am cheering her on so hard through this speech. This is the Lee Yoo-young I’m here to see.
I’ve had some time to think about the ending, and the truth we were left with after peeling away all those big and little lies. I have a feeling it’s one of those endings that will divide the viewers, half of them furious about it and the other half okay with it. I think I’m the latter, though I can sympathize with the former. To me… it works. It’s horrible almost to the point of unthinkable, but the idea that it was a desperate plan concocted by a desperate man who knew his days were numbered… I did suspect it, though I thought at first that the dismemberment was faked somehow. The closing act to his “show” though, was insanely grisly and I can’t help thinking that there must have been another way.
But maybe that’s the crux of it all: Sang-hoon, too, had kept hoping that there would be another way, but his father Chairman Jung simply could not be moved even to the end, and I suspect Sang-hoon knew that he would not. To weaponize yourself requires an extraordinary, impossible amount of insanity, but he was going up against the Chairman’s own insanity, and that’s a tall order. As with Seo-hee, it required a great deal of precise coincidence so his chosen course seems more foolhardy than self-sacrificing, and just unnecessarily cruel to his wife. This only works because it’s a drama, but in real life, it would be really stupid.
The capping moment of the show comes when Seo-hee confronts her mother in utter disbelief, after realizing she had known all along. Her mom pleads with her not to mar her late father’s reputation, and argues that she had to keep quiet so that they could live. Seo-hee’s reply to this is bitingly to the point: “While we lived well and stayed silent, people in Songju died without even knowing why. Had just one of us spoken up and exposed them, none of this would have had to happen in the first place.”
And that sums up the underlying message at the very core of the drama: that silence in the face of wrongdoing is complicity. I think that’s also the final message that Sang-hoon sends to the people he leaves behind: that there are things it’s better to die for, but it’s not glorious. His sacrifice is a huge one, but I don’t think it’s ever sold as noble, or anything less than the worst. It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have had to happen but it did.
But I think the most individually tragic figure of all is Young-min, whose role played out from loyal friend to villain to loyal friend again. It actually gives me comfort to know that he was a true friend to the end, but what a thing to have to endure for the sake of that friendship. I don’t think you can do what he had to do and just carry on living… I wonder if Sang-hoon knew that. Young-min is a complicated character who played his beats with real presence, and was believable at all times. The show had to accomplish something with his character very quickly and the final episode offers him so many raw confrontations, from his last meeting with Chairman Jung, to his final rooftop fight with Chief In, to the moment he says to Tae-shik, “It was all my choice”–a statement we don’t fully understand until later.
Often as I watched this, I felt echoes of Argon, director Lee Yoon-jung and writer Jeon Young-shin’s last drama, which shone a spotlight on media corruption. That show was only eight episodes, and The Lies Within felt like something Argon could have been given a full-length run. They both question the system, taking an unflinching look at power and corruption, but critically, their central questions are about what responsibilities individuals have in service of the truth. While Argon approaches the question of truth-telling directly, The Lies Within comes at it from the opposite end, working its way through a thick curtain of lies before reaching its goal.
As in Argon, the show closes with what is essentially a keynote speech, which acts as a manifesto for the show’s own message, delivering an antidote to all the evils so far. While summing up the case, it consciously acknowledges the internal, systemic problems that allowed such things to happen in the first place, and calls for individual integrity in spite of it. Somehow, it seems to promise a better world, and in Argon, it’s delivered by the late Kim Joo-hyuk, all the more sobering for it having effectively become his legacy. In The Lies Within, the keynote is delivered by Tae-shik, who has embodied both integrity and hope throughout. (And let us not finish without mentioning the superb performances from the cast, especially Lee Min-ki.)
For those reasons, The Lies Within is more than a simple mystery thriller to me. And while it’s an indictment of a broken system skewed to favor a select few, it also makes a strong case for personal agency and individual resistance. No effort is wasted even if it seems fruitless, it tells us, because resistance itself is meaningful. It’s something of a rallying cry for our times, I feel, to people who feel that same impotence where their lives are controlled by powers bigger than them, and they have very little currency with which to take their agency back. There’s something viscerally real about these two shows, and that makes them transcend the boundaries of their medium to take on meaning in the real world.