The Veil: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
MBC’s new action thriller The Veil is off to a bloody, brutal, and rather compelling start. We meet our hero, an NIS agent capable of doing anything to complete his mission, and then we learn first-hand what that looks like. But beyond the typical “wronged spy” set-up, the plot is layered, full of great twists, and most importantly, relies on us trusting our untrustworthy hero, who we already know is an unreliable narrator.
Note: Coverage will continue with weecaps.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
The Veil made its premise pretty obvious while promoting the drama: an NIS agent returns after disappearing in the field for a year. That’s exactly where our drama opens, so we vaguely know what we are going to get, but the story’s juiciness is when all the details and twists start to be revealed. And to that end, each episode is quite well-crafted.
We open up with a sizable fishing boat that has a cargo hold full of people, and a deck covered in blood. A man tries to hide his young daughter, and the terror and gore around tell us what we’re seeing before it’s even confirmed: organs are harvested, people are murdered, and it’s just a total, revolting bloodbath.
But there’s a man hidden in the corner. He looks like a lunatic, with overgrown hair, bloodied and battered, but when he finds his moment and rises up against their captors, he’s a total beast.
This man is missing NIS agent HAN JI-HYUK (Namgoong Min). We see him tearing into his captors in a rage, but it’s not until the boat is raided, and the intel reaches the NIS, that all the details are confirmed. Not only has he slaughtered all these horrible people, but he seems more animal than man when he’s apprehended and finally brought back to Korea.
As Ji-hyuk is questioned and examined and given a cute haircut, we learn more about his reputation as an agent, and about the operation where he went missing and presumed dead. Ji-hyuk is psychologically damaged and physically scarred, as one can imagine, but the most important bit of information they uncover is this: he’s been given a dose of ZIP, or Zet-IP, an extremely strong drug that erases memories. And so they learn that Ji-hyuk has no memory of what happened in the last year he’s been missing — his memories end during his last operation, right before it all went bad.
The people in command are quite unhappy with this, as can be expected. They want to know what went wrong during the operation, and are even willing to treat Ji-hyuk like an enemy to get the information that they want out of him. He passes the lie detection interrogation, so they move on to their next tactic.
Meanwhile, the story of the operation is slowly filled in for us. Ji-hyuk and two other agents were in China, on an op to take out targets responsible for the death of a few NIS agents. The targets are involved in the Huayang gang, an incredibly powerful drug ring. We see Ji-hyuk and his two teammates kicking serious ass. Their information network seems solid, they torch literal tons of drugs, and walk out with the flames roaring behind them, in true hero fashion. But not soon after, it all goes south.
Ji-hyuk is with his teammates (played by Hwang Hee and Jo Bok-rae) in their safe house. We haven’t seen that much of Ji-hyuk at this point and we already know what a badass he is; he’s silent and serious as he cleans his guns, while the other two talk about how they want to go relax on a beach when this op is finally over. And that’s all it takes — once an agent mentions wanting a simple life with a woman they love, you know they’re destined to die. And that’s exactly what happens.
Ji-hyuk hears something and silences them. He gets up and walks to the door, gun in hand, but when he tries to turn the doorknob it’s locked. Huh? He turns around to look at his teammates and they are also frozen in time. A voice announces that Ji-hyuk is hypnotized.
It’s such a great twisty moment! We thought were were simply watching the op play out, but what we are watching, really, is the NIS interrogator trying to get deep in Ji-hyuk’s mind to find out what happened. Where the memories in his head lock and freeze is where the drug did its job, and no matter what they do, Ji-hyuk remembers nothing.
The NIS doesn’t know what to do with him, so they clean him up and reinstate him in a “field office” to basically rot behind a desk. But at the same time, they’re keeping very close tabs on him to see what he does, and what his behaviors might reveal.
Namgoong Min is absolutely great here, with a glimmer of madness in his eyes, and a blankness too, as he struggles to cope with the gap in his memories. His psychiatrist tells him that even though his memories are erased by the drug, the emotions are still there (since they operate differently than where the brain stores memories).
They have a telling discussion about how memories are so fluid, and how “the power of emotions is stronger than memory.” This is such a great, messy topic to explore, and pulls in the idea I mentioned early of an unreliable narrator. We know his memories are erased, but how much of what he slowly remembers can be trusted?
This idea lands with a bang as we reach the end of Episode 1. Ji-hyuk is languishing his old apartment, the doorway littered with local advertisements and nonsense while he was missing.
He doesn’t seem to sleep, and is in such a strange psychological state that he soon picks up that the light flashing into his apartment building is actually morse code… and that morse code points him to a locker at the local mart (whose flyer was lying on his floor). It’s also stitched together so convincingly, and that only gets more so when Ji-hyuk unlocks the locker, finds a USB drive, and watches a video.
The video is of Ji-hyuk himself, back in his long-haired captive state. He filmed the video as a message to his future self. He tells Ji-hyuk that there’s a rat at the agency, and that he must uncover who it is. Then comes the bombshell: I erased your memories so that you’d be able to solve it.
Chills! The video makes it clear that he was closing in on the rat, but that there was one piece of the puzzle he wasn’t able to fill in, and that is what his present-day self needs to do. He’s warned to trust no one by past Ji-hyuk, and present Ji-hyuk takes the warning to heart.
Among those characters are DIRECTOR DO (Jang Young-nam), KANG PIL-HO (Kim Jong-tae) who recruited him long ago, the antagonistic HA DONG-KYUN (Kim Do-hyun), and finally there’s SEO SOO-YEON (Park Ha-sun). None of them seem particularly good-hearted or trustworthy, and Ji-hyuk associates emotions and motives with each of them: hatred, greed, obstinacy.
The plot thickens even more as we get deeper into Episode 2, and a local police station is infiltrated by thugs from the Huayang drug ring. Ji-hyuk goes against his boss’s orders and offers to do the interrogation, and it’s akin to Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Ji-hyuk is ruthless in his tactics, but the huge piece of his memory that’s missing starts to compromise his actions in the field. This plays out in wild and twisty ways, setting the stage for the rest of the drama to come.
Despite being super violent and harsh overall, what is it that I liked about this drama so much? It took me a hot second to realize it feels a bit like an old favorite TV show 24, where agents are pushed the edge, have to deal with corruption from within, and are forced to use unsavory tactics to complete their mission.
The other part of why this was so much fun is Namgoong Min — I don’t think I’ve ever liked him as much as do here as Ji-hyuk. He’s somehow emotionally detached and emotionally crushed at the same time. And half the fun of the drama seems like it will be watching him play against himself. Those memories he wiped from his own mind are exactly what he needs to move forward, and it makes for an interesting dynamic.
While most of the drama’s premiere week is overflowing with violence and gore and interrogations and threats, there’s also hints of some lightness to come. In the “field office” where Ji-hyuk is assigned, he’s partnered with an intelligence agent who was dying to get some field experience. She’s YOO YE-JI (Kim Ji-eun), wet behind the ears, has absolutely know idea what she’s getting into, but also has a strong knack for piecing a puzzle together.
Right now Ji-hyuk can barely be bothered to make eye contact with her, but pretty soon I bet he will see her value as the two become a bit more of a team (and this is one instance where I will say that a love line is not welcome, and I
think hope the drama knows it).
With so much story behind us already, it’s impressive that our premiere week set the stage for the drama to come, but at the same time didn’t feel like a typical first week of setup. On the contrary, by the twisty end of Episode 2, we are already neck-deep with Ji-hyuk. Whether we trust him or not, or condone his methods or not, we are still on his side, and willing to follow where his story leads.