The Devil Judge: Episode 1
The charismatic Ji Sung is back as a mysterious celebrity judge in the ruthless world of tVN’s newest offering The Devil Judge. Amid social turmoil, the powers that be decide to appease the masses by allowing for reality TV style trials in which the public gets a vote in the accused’s fate. Not everyone is thrilled at this prospect, including an idealistic young judge played by Jinyoung. This sleek drama is almost apocalyptic in its framing of classist conflict and a world in which those greedy for power wield “democracy” as a tool of suppression.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Our opening shots are all glitz and glamour as KANG YO-HAN (Ji Sung) drives his flashy sports car through the nighttime streets of Seoul. At a swanky event by the Social Responsibility Foundation [SRF], the country’s PRESIDENT HEO (Baek Hyun-jin) gives an impassioned speech that’s broadcast to the nation.
We see a very different Seoul as Yo-han drives past a barricade of police in riot gear and through fire-lit streets that look like a war zone. President Heo rails about the “groundless” persecution of rich people that’s leading to arson and terrorism in the streets and has culminated in the Gwanghwamun Riot. His speech is intercut with shots of protesting, looting, and clashes between citizens and police.
President Heo calls the high unemployment rates and economic strife a thing of the past and vows to change everything. The virus has finally been overcome, and it’s time to move forward.
As destruction ravages the streets, the SRF’s CHAIRMAN SEO (Jung In-kyeom) schmoozes with the elite at his fundraiser. Everyone from the Minister of Justice MINISTER CHA (Jang Young-nam) to prominent chairmen of conglomerates are in attendance.
President Heo promises bolster the economy through job creation and restore Korea to its former glory. Everyone cheers and donations come rolling in, but JUNG SUN-AH (Kim Min-jung) and Chairman Seo critique the president’s habit of going overboard when cameras roll.
Yo-han arrives as President Heo announces his new judicial reform bill that will allow the entire nation to serve as jurors under the “ruthless” presiding judge. Yo-han receives a warm welcome from attendees and takes questions from skeptical journalists about the ethicality of this new system.
He dismisses any notion that offenders, regardless of class or ability status, are anything other than criminals deserving of the harsh sentences he doles out. Concerned murmurs run through the crowd when Yo-han shouts that he holds the power and will not allow anyone to influence his sentences. No one is above the people: “The people are the power.” Sun-ah approaches him after his speech to offer her congratulations, and they toast to power.
The following day, KIM GA-ON (Jinyoung) heads to his new job as a judge on the controversial new trial show. He shows his ID badge to get past the police line into the courthouse where he reports to JUSTICE MIN (Ahn Nae-sang).
Justice Min gives him the tour of the performance-ready courtroom for the broadcast trials. He’s no fan of Yo-han, disparaging the ludicrous bills he’s passed and observing, “A monster emerges in turbulent times.” Justice Min appointed his former student Ga-on to be a foil for Yo-han and fight for true justice.
Ga-on makes a trip to Yo-han’s office to introduce himself. Yo-han scrutinizes him for a long moment before returning his greeting and dismissing him. Once Ga-on leaves, Yo-han opens a file containing an article about a couple who killed themselves after being scammed and Ga-on’s resume. “He looks more like him than I expected,” Yo-han mutters.
Ga-on gets set up in the office he’ll be sharing with fellow young judge OH JIN-JOO (Kim Jae-kyung). She’s the friendly, outgoing type in contrast to Ga-on’s more reserved demeanor.
Jin-joo observes that all the judges must’ve been chosen in part for their looks – the public trusts image more than truth – and whips out a picture of Yo-han she puts on her desk. She’s a fangirl.
CHIEF JUSTICE JI (Seo Sang-won) tries to dissuade Yo-han from making the JU Chemicals case the first, but Yo-han is insistent. It doesn’t matter if the people are incited – it’s not their courtroom. The trials are merely to provide transparency.
As Ga-on steps out of the courthouse that evening, he sees a bus careening down the street. Police ready to shoot after it bursts through the barricade and barrels toward the courthouse. In the chaos, a little girl falls on the street, right in the path of the bus.
Ga-on runs into the street to save her. But before he can pick her up, a shot rings out, and Ga-on covers the girl with his body. Yo-han put a bullet through the bus’s windshield and readies to fire again. The bus swerves and tips over onto its side, missing Ga-on and the little girl by inches.
After shakily checking on the girl, Ga-on stares in shock at Yo-han who chides the officer for not shooting. Yo-han spots Ga-on running over to check on the trapped driver. He watches with interest as Ga-on extracts and carries the man out of the bus just before it explodes.
The explosion sends Ga-on and the driver to the ground. Ga-on stumbles up and tries to rouse the unconscious driver, looking around for assistance which doesn’t come. Yo-han turns and walks away from the wreckage.
The news reports the kindergarten bus driver was upset over the suspension of the arrest warrant for Chairman Ju of JU Chemicals. Sun-ah calls it a desperate cry, like the futile actions of a trapped, starving rat.
President Heo requests more funding from the SRF and jokes that CHAIRMAN PARK (Lee Seo-hwan) better make this trial show a hit; Minister Cha has a personal stake in it. Her expression stoic, she slams down her glass and cuts off the men’s tittering.
That night, Ga-on walks through the desolate, litter-filled streets as a PA announcement about Korea’s safety plays. His friend YOON SOO-HYUN (Park Kyu-young), a police lieutenant, stops by after hearing about bus incident. Ga-on lies that he steered clear of the danger.
They have drinks on Ga-on’s little patio, and Soo-hyun notes his reticence when she brings up Yo-han. She mentions Yo-han’s “moving” backstory as the heir to a fortune and survivor of an accident. Ga-on scoffs that it’s quite different to his own backstory.
Soo-hyun encourages him to move to a better neighborhood, but he wants to stay since it reminds him of his parents. When he offers to cook her dinner, she jokingly responds he’ll make her confess her feelings again. He’s already rejected her five times since kindergarten. “I love you!” she shouts. He responds with finger hearts.
At JU Chemicals, the legal team goes over strategy for the trial. They’ll be pleading not guilty. How could Chairman Ju have known there were toxins in the industrial waste?
Worst case scenario, he’ll be charged with negligence resulting in death with a maximum sentence of five years. Chairman Ju is poised to throw a fit, but Attorney Ko assures him he’ll only have to serve a year or so before getting released on parole. And they both know who he can ask for help if necessary.
At the courthouse, Ga-on thanks Yo-han for saving his life. Would he have killed the driver? Yo-han would’ve, if necessary, but that wouldn’t have changed the bus’s path. Ga-on realizes he intentionally made the driver crash the bus since saving two lives was worth the driver’s possible death.
Justice Min suspects Yo-han has an ulterior motive for insisting the JU chemicals case be the first broadcast trial. Chairman Ju is the biggest donor to the SRF which, along with Minister Cha, supported Yo-han’s judicial reform plan. Yo-han must have a reason to put himself in this awkward position.
The judges discuss the bus driver, and Chief Justice Ji wants to go easy on him to avoid a scandal whereas Yo-han is all for harsh punishment. Ga-on clashes with Yo-han on ideology, arguing that motive matters. The driver’s three-year-old daughter died because of JU Chemicals, after which her maternal grandmother committed suicide. Yo-han isn’t moved.
In their office, Jin-joo and Ga-on watch a news report on the driver and his family, as well as the 11 deaths and 47 injuries due to JU Chemicals’ toxic wastewater. Both having grown up poor, the case hits them hard. Ga-on asks for her read on Yo-han, but Jin-joo avoids “useless curiosity” about her superiors.
Ga-on confronts Yo-han yet again after reading through his proposal to use a voting app to determine verdicts. Why even have associate judges, then? Yo-han leaves Ga-on speechless when he admits they’re mainly there for the aesthetics and as an “emergency measure.”
Later, Ga-on gets Justice Min to give him a key to the storage room so he can (illegally) access Chairman Ju’s 20-year-old court records. Minister Cha was then a prosecutor who quietly helped Chairman Ju out of trouble. When she later ran for Assembly, he assisted her campaign.
Now, Minister Cha is just standing by while Yo-han, who she has been strongly supporting, publicly tries Chairman Ju. Even knowing this could wreck his career, Ga-on isn’t about to sit back and watch a sham trial to conceal Chairman Ju’s crimes.
While driving home that night, Soo-hyun hears a teenage girl screaming for help as she struggles against two men. One of the men escapes, but Soo-hyun apprehends the other. She hugs the crying girl underneath a poster promising a safe Korea.
Sun-ah pays a visit to Minister Cha to discuss the SRF’s worries about the upcoming trial. The purpose is to appease citizens by publicly punishing petty criminals – targeting a businessman would set a problematic precedent.
Minister Cha scathingly calls out the SRF’s arrogance for stepping on her turf and telling her how to do her job. The steely look in Sun-ah’s eye belies her submissive manner and polite apology for overstepping. She respectfully reminds Minister Cha who foots the bill for her luxurious lifestyle and supplements the Ministry’s budget. “I wonder who is actually serving the country?”
Meanwhile, Ga-on asks Soo-hyun for a listening device but won’t tell her why he needs it. She sets it up for him anyway and helps him test it out. “Will you marry me? Just kidding. Love you,” she says into the microphone. He smiles while listening to the recording a few times after she leaves.
Elsewhere, Yo-han skulks around an abandoned warehouse where many unhoused individuals are seeking shelter. He seems to be searching for someone as he peers at young men’s faces and, oddly, checks their wrists. When a man grabs him, Yo-han mercilessly beats him down.
Ga-on takes the opportunity to slip into Yo-han’s office and searches for a good spot to plant the bug. Of course, Yo-han returns before Ga-on has a chance to sneak back out, so he pretends he was there to borrow a book from Yo-han’s sizable collection.
Yo-han scrutinizes Ga-on before pushing him against the bookshelf by the shoulder. Does he live alone? Confused, Ga-on says yes. Yo-han smooths Ga-on’s rumpled shirt and says that living alone is tough. After Ga-on leaves, Yo-han chuckles that he’s a funny kid.
Throughout the day, Ga-on listens in on Yo-han’s phone conversations. He hears Yo-han assure Minister Cha the trial will go “according to the law.” Yo-han also asks someone about a meeting with a doctor and promises to speak with the lawyer. That night, Ga-on follows him to a meeting with Attorney Ko, Chairman Ju’s lawyer.
Ga-on shares his findings with Justice Min, but they both know there’s not enough evidence to prove wrongdoing. The only thing they can do is keep an eye on Yo-han at tomorrow’s trial.
It’s the day of the trial, and everyone from President Heo to ordinary citizens eagerly tune in. Backstage, Yo-han stares at his judicial robe, memories of a fire in a church consuming his thoughts.
The trial is intended to restore the public’s waning trust in the courts, but it kicks off more like a gameshow, complete with an MC who explains how to vote via app. The judges make a striking entrance, Yo-han clad in white flanked by Jin-joo and Ga-on in black.
Yo-han vows that the judicial process will be transparent and account for the people’s will. “This court belongs to you, the people.” (That’s not what you said in private, sir.)
The trial opens with the prosecution laying out the case against JU Chemicals for dumping toxic waste into local rivers, leaving 11 dead and many more with disabilities. After the prosecutor’s emotional appeal to the jury in which he calls JU Chemicals a murderer, 70% of viewers already vote guilty.
The defense scoffs at the prosecution’s inflammatory speech and chides the prosecutor for his theatrics. Attorney Ko argues the wastewater treatment facilities were damaged after an embankment collapse, but JU Chemicals only took an hour to shut it down and fix the leak.
For some reason, opening statements become a free-for-all with the lawyers arguing back and forth like they’re in a poorly moderated debate. Even the defendant cuts in to disparage the prosecutor for defaming him without evidence and goes on a rant about how many employees he provides for.
Yo-han finally intervenes, stepping down from his podium to approach Chairman Ju. He tells him to sit and makes him take a deep breath. Then, he orders a short recess.
Upon reconvening, Jin-joo questions the defense on the strange timing of this “accident” that damaged the facilities a mere day after the first death. He argues that the first death can’t be tied to the case since there was no autopsy done.
Ga-on perks up when the defense calls a doctor to the stand, assuming this is who Yo-han arranged a meeting with. The doctor testifies that the water does contain heavy metals but argues they could’ve come from any number of pollutants. Now the guilty vote has gone from well over 70% to slightly over 50%.
Yo-han smiles when Ga-on asks for clarification on the specific pollutants found in the water. Ga-on gets the doctor to reluctantly admit that the most prevalent pollutant was cyanide. The defense tries to do damage control and argues cyanide sounds worse than it is – it’s only harmful in high concentrations.
The doctor patronizingly tells Ga-on he’s the expert here, but before Ga-on can fire back, Yo-han puts a stop to the discussion. He suggests they give the doctor some water.
As the doctor starts to drink, Yo-han concernedly checks to make sure they didn’t accidently give him water bottle with the river sample. The doctor spits the water out in a panic, proving that the river water is dangerous.
The doctor berates himself for agreeing to testify as he drives away from the courthouse. He starts having a coughing fit and swerves into the path of an oncoming Truck of Doom. Was he actually served the poison water?!
In another blow to the defense, a factory employee flips on the stand and reveals there were contamination issues from before the embankment “accident.” He even reported the issue to Chairman Ju who dismissed his concerns and said he didn’t care what happened to elderly residents who’d already lived a full life.
Chairman Ju denies the allegations, but the employee continues. Ga-on looks up sharply when he says his nickname is Doctor Safety for his adherence to the safety guidelines. It looks like there’s more than one possibility for the “doctor” in Yo-han’s pocket.
The guilty votes climb past 90% as Chairman Ju’s denials get more desperate. Yo-han pushes him into a corner, calling his actions murder by gross negligence. Chairman Ju changes tactics. He cries and apologizes, admitting he was told about the contamination but didn’t think it cause so much pain.
In line with Attorney Ko’s worst-case scenario, Yo-han confirms that Chairman Ju is admitting to professional negligence resulting in death. Ga-on realizes this was the outcome Yo-han worked toward all along.
During the break before the reading of the verdict, Chairman Ju is livid and barely stops himself from confronting the employee. “Why would he tell such a lie?” he grits out. Ooh.
In the hall, the PD excitedly reports that the show was a hit. Yo-han barely spares him a nod while Ga-on finds treating a trial like a variety show distasteful. Chairman Park and his cohort are thrilled, however.
Everyone is on the edge of their seats when Yo-han returns to announce the verdict. There’s not enough evidence for intent to murder, but negligence is clear. The maximum sentence for professional negligence resulting in death is five years. Disappointment ripples through the crowd.
However, a recent bill allows Yo-han to deliver a cumulative sentence accounting for all victims. The lights go down, leaving only Yo-han dramatically illuminated. He reads all the victims’ names while their pictures scroll on the screen. The family members in the gallery cry. Minister Cha watches from her office in wordless shock.
Yo-han addresses Chairman Ju, blaming his greed for the harm and loss of innocent lives. For that, he’s sentenced to 235 years in prison. Damn. The final vote: 97% guilty, 3% innocent.
Ga-on and Jin-joo stare in disbelief as cheers resound inside and outside the courtroom. The camera zooms in on the lone tear that rolls down Yo-han’s face.
Before security whisks Chairman Ju away, Yo-han whispers in his ear that he wishes him a long life. The older sister of the grandmother who committed suicide approaches the bench. She drops to her knees and bows, crying and thanking Yo-han profusely.
Yo-han kneels beside her and pulls her into a hug when she reveals she tried to kill herself too. He pats her back while she sobs … and then he yawns. Ga-on watches, stunned, and catches Yo-han’s eye.
Ga-on thinks back to all Yo-han’s manipulation and dramatics during the trial. Once more, a single tear falls down Yo-han’s face as he smiles right at Ga-on who stares with contempt.
As he looks at Ga-on, Yo-han again flashes back to the burning church. He reaches his hand out, seeing in his mind’s eye someone who greatly resembles Ga-on standing across from him in the rubble. Then, he’s kneeling on the ground beside the Ga-on lookalike who lies unconscious. Yo-han comes back to the present and smiles at Ga-on.
Color me intrigued. The juxtaposition of the privileged and underprivileged in the opening sequence immediately set the tone and dropped us into this harsh alternate reality that isn’t such a far cry from our own. The stylistics stood out right off, particularly how the blue color palette gives everything a futuristic and sterile feel. Everything is sleek, cold, and detached in a way that highlights the veneer put forth by the wealthy. This is class struggle on steroids with the elite safe in their ivory towers while the streets literally burn. I’m guessing we’ll learn more about what set off this social war, but I actually like that we were dropped in without any expositional backstory. It was jarring in a good way. Despite only being one episode in, this bleak world feels pretty lived-in, and it’s clear how things operate and who benefits. For now, there’s just the right amount of mystery and the unknown to keep things interesting and create a sense of foreboding.
No one is quite as mysterious as our harsh celebrity judge Yo-han. Despite the character’s reticence, Ji Sung gives him such presence and nuance. Yo-han is entirely untrustworthy and unpredictable, in part because his motives are so hidden. I have no idea what he wants, but I know he’s after something. He seems the type to always be two steps ahead and have a motive for everything he does. The question is whose side that motive puts him on. We know he’s not overly concerned with ethics given his interference in the case and playacting in the courtroom, but whether he’s out for revenge, a harsh form of justice, or this is just how he gets his kicks remains to be seen.
And then, there was that strange incident with Yo-han sneaking around that warehouse and going overboard in attacking that man. He appears to be secretly looking for someone, and I’m guessing it’s related to the fire he keeps seeing in flashbacks. All we know so far is that the incident is also somehow related to Ga-on. From Yo-han’s comment about Ga-on’s resemblance to someone and that final flashback, I’m assuming that was Ga-on’s father at the church. The way Yo-han looks at Ga-on makes me think he and Ga-on’s relative were close, but who knows?
Ga-on is Yo-han’s opposite, not just in ideology but in his transparency. He’s exactly what you see: an empathetic, idealistic young judge who wants to make a difference. Ga-on isn’t a revolutionary character, but I think his straightforwardness works well in opposition to Yo-han’s mystique. Sometimes these sorts of altruistic or “pure-hearted” characters can end up one-dimensional and unengaging, but Jinyoung makes Ga-on likable and easy to root for. I’m looking forward to his interactions with Yo-han as they spend more time together. But the character who really has my attention is Sun-ah. She has such a great vibe. Glimpses alone are enough to know that is a woman not to be messed with. I’m excited to see more of her and figure out what her game is.
This drama might technically involve the law, but it’s not what I would call a legal drama. The courtroom antics were ridiculous, although seeing as this is an alternate reality, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief about the workings of the judicial system. Because the point here is decidedly not the law or legal proceedings. Turning the law itself into a reality TV game show foregrounds the performativity of it all. Reality can be harder to define with social media and entertainment blurring the lines between the real and the cultivated. People may believe their voices are being heard, but the democracy offered to them here is purely performative. Power remains firmly grasped by the same small percentage of elites who, as we saw, entirely decided the outcome before “democratic” justice was served. Not that civilians should have the power to convict en masse from their homes with the click of a button. That kind of anonymity and lack of accountability in deciding someone’s fate presents a different kind of concerning and potentially dangerous scenario.
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