Awaken: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Mind games, puzzles, and some creepy twists! tvN’s latest crime thriller Awaken gets off to a slow and predictable start, but once it hits its pace, injects some excitement that promises a more interesting drama ahead. Yes, with lots of lollipops.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
Why is every drama lately starting off with fire and flames? The intro scenes to Awaken are just that, giving us a hell-worthy scene set 28 years in the past. There’s some kind of demonic and/or zombie insanity going on, and we’ve got flames, blood, clocks, terrifying children, and basically everything but the kitchen sink to make this as creepy as it can be.
We’ll circle back to this incident for sure, but it’s important to know that the kids we see are pretty damn likely to appear in the drama as present-day thirty somethings. I wonder who they could be?
Our present-day storyline follows a special police task force led by DO JUNG-WOO (Namgoong Min). Also on his team are the fledglings GONG HYE-WON (Seolhyun) and JANG JI-WAN (Lee Shin-young of Crash Landing fame).
As if we couldn’t already assume that the team is awesome, we follow them on a super intense (and big budget) car chase that includes three semi trucks, loads of laundered money, and some big criminals. The common denominator here is this: our team has guts. They put their all into their cases, whether that means endless foot chases, risky moves, or anything else. They have bravado, passion, and brains — though they aren’t equally divided amongst the team, per se.
Jung-woo is the lollipop-eating genius team leader who’s always emotionally removed. It seems to help him do his job better, and he’s clearly the brains and the balls behind the team, while Hye-won is the passion, and Ji-wan is the comic relief puppy.
The team (and the police force in general) are in the middle of a big, public mess, though. There are some games afoot with “forewarned” murders, cryptic coded warnings, and a journalist who always seems to be a step ahead of the police, and doesn’t mind crucifying them on his TV show.
We follow our team as they try to decode one of the warning letters, but they’re ultimately unable to stop the murder before it happens — even though they are on the scene. This happens a second time, and soon the situation is getting out of control.
Like most higher-ups in the dramaland police force, they care a little too much about public opinion and getting bruised by the press. They go so far as to call in a big-name FBI agent from the States to help them crack this case.
Poor Awaken — it works hard to create a cool reveal of this FBI agent that our team is eye-rolling over, but much of the thunder is stolen, since we already know it’s the fabulous Lee Chung-ah. She plays JAMIE LEIGHTON, and we meet her a few times before she is officially introduced to the team. Turns out she’s already cracked the code, and is neck-deep in the case already. She runs around with a huge padded backpack (even during chase scenes!), and for some reason this backpack is the most interesting thing about her.
It’s not that Awaken isn’t trying hard to give us characters that have some personality — it’s trying, it’s just that it has all been done before, and these are archetypes that are not doing much but fulfilling their roles. Hopefully that will change as the drama progresses, because Namgoong Min and Lee Chung-ah certainly have good chemistry, and enough acting chops, to make this drama pop a little more than it is.
The subject matter, admittedly, veers off from “normal crime” almost into the “paranormal crime” territory, but I can’t quite put my finger on how far they’re going to push it yet. There’s a heck of a lot of drugs involved with these murder victims, and incidentally they’re all horrible humans themselves, which makes this string of murders looks like “justice” killings.
But in addition to the drugs, there is also the super bizarre behavior of the victims. They act almost as if possessed, jumping into their swimming pool and drowning themselves, or cavorting in front of an oncoming train before it hits them (this scene was downright creepy, and boy, there’s no one that can do creepy psycho quite like Joo Suk-tae — what a cameo!). Long story short, our team has more to solve than the information/informants around the murders — it’s the fact that the murders play out as seeming suicides.
Jamie Leighton earns her keep almost instantaneously. Like any good profiler, she’s basically buried in the case, and her apartment already has a wall full of case notes and photos and clues. She realizes that something more nefarious is going on when she can tie each muder/suicide together by the fact that each deceased person was smiling. Almost like they were possessed. Or hypnotized? Or something?
There’s a delicious twist at the end of Episode 2 that I hate to give away here, so suffice it to say that Jamie is onto something big. This twist, and the really fun film-making here, make me feel like Awaken might actually go someplace interesting after this slow-ish start.
Other elements in the story are kind of a snooze, whether it’s the kids on the team, Hye-won’s secret crush on her boss, or the all-too-obvious fact that Jamie and Jung-woo go way back… who wants to bet they go all the way back to the same creepy burning childhood event?
Admittedly, crime thrillers are not my go-to genre. In order for them to suck me in, there has to be a whole heck of a lot of character depth — interesting backstories, compelling characterizations, and really nice interactions. I can’t say Awaken slam dunks on any of these three yet, but it certainly ends with some potential.
Finally, another wild card to note is Awaken’s writer — previously responsible for two of my favorite and guilty pleasure web dramas, High-End Crush, and Gogh’s Starry Night. Both of these web dramas were the most sugary and frothy things you can imagine. But they were also satisfying and fun.
I’m not quite sure how one pivots from those scripts to writing Awaken, but color me intrigued. Hopefully it means more fun storytelling, and less regurgitated crime thriller. The secret sauce of success, here, is clearly having a story with strong, rich characters. They would sell the whole thing — even the flame-roasted childhood.