Tracer: Episodes 1-8 (Series review)
The first half of Tracer has aired, and it’s been a fun ride with our crazy team and their reckless new leader. There are a lot of characters, histories, and relationships involved in the show, and while it might be difficult to keep track of everything at the beginning, once you find your bearings, it becomes much easier to understand all the machinations going on behind the scenes. If you are in the mood for some cheeky, lovable characters, then look no further because this drama has them in spades.
In case you haven’t caught up with the show, the following review is divided by episodes chunks, so if you want to avoid spoilers, feel free to skip certain sections.
At the helm of the show is HWANG DONG-JOO (Im Shi-wan), a brash and unscrupulous accountant who will do anything for money. His specialties are borrowed-name accounts and illegal business succession. However, one fateful event turns his world upside down, and Dong-joo finds himself with a bigger goal in life: revenge.
In most dramas, Dong-joo would be the titular villain who our ragtag team of heroes would be hellbent on bringing down, but here, Dong-joo’s past as a shady accountant is what gives him the tools to succeed as an investigator for the National Tax Service (NTS). As a result of his past, Dong-joo knows every trick in the book, including his opponent’s next moves, and luckily for him, he is still the underdog — which means his opponents severely underestimate his wiliness to their own detriment. By the time they figure out his traps, it’s often too late to escape.
At Dong-joo’s side to bring down the villains are Team One from Department Five. Known as the garbage dump of the Central Regional Tax Office, Department Five is where all the troublesome cases get tossed to, and Team One is a group of individuals who have accepted their lot in life. Led by a chief who won’t work if he isn’t being paid, and a department head who only cares about himself, it’s a breeding ground for low morale and complacency.
Within the team is Investigator SEO HYE-YOUNG (Go Ah-Sung), Dong-joo’s reliable, albeit initially reluctant, partner. She’s an honest and trustworthy person whose dream is to help people like the NTS investigator who offered her a hand when no one else did. Unfortunately, years at the NTS have squashed her hopes, but right when she wanted to quit, Dong-joo appears.
While it is relatively easy for Dong-joo to motivate his team since he is the one in charge of them, the same can’t be said for his direct superior, Chief OH YOUNG (Park Yong-woo). Once the ace of the NTS, an accident seventeen years ago pushed Oh Young to the sidelines, and now, he spends his days doing part-time jobs for extra cash. However, he is exactly the type of person Dong-joo is looking for, and with the right incentive, he might just be his greatest ally.
On the other side of this battle are the antagonists, led by the executive director of the Central Regional Tax Office, IN TAE-JOON (Sohn Hyun-joo). Third in rank at the NTS, only the commissioner and the vice commissioner are above him, yet his aspirations don’t stop here: he plans to reach the top no matter what it costs. A calculating and callous man, Director In is unyielding, and once you fall from his good graces, there’s no coming back.
Under his control are three of the department heads at the Central Regional Tax Office — the most powerful district in the nation — and all of them are conniving opportunists. In direct opposition to him is Commissioner Baek Seung-ryong and his right-hand woman, Vice Commissioner Min So-jung who hold influence over the main office. With the two biggest factions in conflict, the reigning tension between them is who will become the next leader of the NTS.
EPISODE 1 WEECAP: DONGHO SECURITIES
The show starts off four years in the past at an accident site where Dong-joo’s father apparently committed suicide. Once seen as a national hero for standing up against PQ Group — a large conglomerate run by the Ryu family — his image was recently tarnished by accusations of charity fraud and tax evasion. To Dong-joo, his father has always been the man who abandoned his family, but after his death, he starts to re-examine their lives.
With so many questions left unanswered, he receives a beacon of hope from Hye-young. As a member of the audit team investigating his father, she informs him of her suspicions concerning the circumstances of his death and hands over all the evidence she gathered in hopes that he might find something she missed. Thus begins our hero’s journey as he sheds his former, corrupt self and joins the very organization that played a part in his father’s demise: the NTS.
Dong-joo begins his career at the Southern Regional Office where he introduces himself to Director Noh Sun-joo. However, their meeting is not coincidental, and we will soon learn that not many things with Dong-joo happen by chance. Director Noh was also involved in his father’s case, but unlike the others, she actually shows remorse for her actions so Dong-joo turns her into an ally.
Four years pass by, and Dong-joo finally puts his plan into motion by approaching Director In for a transfer request to the central district. He knows the director personally because their families were close, and he offers his services to him.
Before Dong-joo can settle into his new team, a case is unceremoniously dumped on their laps. Chairman Yang of Dongho Securities is notorious for hiding his wealth and avoiding taxes, resulting in a headache for the NTS. However, Vice Commissioner Min tips off a reporter who then finds evidence of a large sum of cash flowing into his house.
With public pressure mounting, Department Five is given the arduous task with the higher-ups fully expecting their failure, and it’s an absolute mess as predicted. Though the team members lead by Chief Oh search high and low for the supposed bag of money, they find nothing.
Their department head, Director Ahn Sung-shik, orders them to give up, but Dong-joo arrives at the scene with a hammer. Having done a little research himself, he correctly deduces the hiding spot of the chairman’s slush fund and exposes it on live television. It creates a hullabaloo and marks Dong-joo’s first foray against his enemies.
EPISODES 2-3 WEECAP: OZ FOOD
Due to the media coverage of his previous stunt, Dong-joo attracts the attention of a manager from Oz Food, a large bakery franchise. He tells them his friend died five years ago after trying to report the company for tax evasion, and he hopes the NTS can help him avenge his friend’s death.
However, there are two legal factors working against them. First, they only have two days left to collect any withheld taxes because five years is the limit, but more importantly, Oz Food was already audited by Department Three this year which means they cannot be investigated again without proper cause.
Dong-joo rejects the case initially, but Hye-young pushes him to reconsider. After meeting with the informant again, Dong-joo watches a video of the CEO brutally humiliating the first whistleblower, but what really catches his attention is what comes next: the man’s son witnessed the abuse and ran away embarrassed. The image reminds Dong-joo of himself, and he accepts the case in hopes to help the young man avoid the same mistake.
With Hye-young’s help, they let slip to Department Three that their team is reinvestigating Oz Food, and news of their case reaches their department head. Director Ahn shuts down the project, but Hye-young convinces the others to help their new team leader in secret.
While Dong-joo runs off to the main office, the rest of Team One heads over to Oz Food to conduct an investigation. When they arrive, all the documents have disappeared, but this is exactly what Dong-joo planned for. All along, he knew that someone in Department Three must be in collusion with Oz Food, so he set a trap in order to expose the corruption within their organization.
Barging into the meeting at the main office, Dong-joo reports his findings about Oz Food in front of the directors and commissioner, strongly hinting at internal misconduct. His bold accusations rattle Department Three’s Director Jang Jung-il, but Dong-joo foresaw this as well.
Knowing full well that his department head was working for Director Jang under the promise for a transfer, he sent Director Ahn a picture showing that the new position would go to someone else. He offers his department head a chance to betray them first, and Director Ahn accepts.
As a result, the vice commissioner orders an internal investigation into both departments’ leadership: Department Three for collusion and Department Five for a duplicate investigation. Since the Oz Food case is still ongoing, Commissioner Baek allows Department Five to take over, and surprising everyone there, he puts Chief Oh Young in charge.
Not to be outdone, Director In orders his son, In Do-hoon (the chief of the Internal Investigation Department at the main office) to seize all documents related to this case from Department Five. To Dong-joo’s horror, Oh Young relinquishes them all, but as it turns out, he already planned their next move and no longer needs them.
Oh Young sends his team to the various locations that Director Jang and his family own, but all the places turn into duds. With the clock ticking, the team is left with very little clues until Hye-young realizes that they were missing an important detail. All this time, the true culprit was not Director Jang but their own department head. While the rest of the team make their way to his house, Oh Young is already there, having put the pieces together.
EPISODES 4-8 WEECAP: GOLD CASH
The fallout from the Oz Food scandal pushes Director Ahn from his seat, and in order to mitigate damage, Director In instructs Do-hoon to drop the charges against Department Three. Though Vice Commissioner Min knows her chief is lying to protect his father, she lets him and uses this opportunity for her own gain.
By accepting Do-hoon’s report, Vice Commissioner Min forces Director In to also acknowledge Do-hoon’s previous investigation into Director Jang’s connection with Dongho Securities (the reason why Department Five was ordered to give up so easily before). Cornered, Director In has no other option than to cut ties with both men, and Director Jang is left to fend for himself.
To make sure Department Three’s director is gone for good, Dong-joo sets up another trap, offering the director two pieces of information about Director In’s misdeeds. None the wiser, Director Jang pockets one of the ledgers as safekeeping and presents the second to his superior to win his favor. Alas, Dong-joo already notified Director In about both ledgers, and Director Jang is left begging for mercy to no avail.
With two seats now available for the taking, Director In recommends Chief Park Sung-ho from Department Three and Director Noh Sun-joo from the Southern Regional Office (aka, Dong-joo’s new ally). Everything up to this point was carefully setup by Dong-joo to get two of his people into power, but who then is his second because Chief Park is definitely a dishonest fellow?
As the nomination process begins, Commissioner Baek suddenly interrupts the proceedings to announce his own candidate. All heads turn to the door as Oh Young steps in, clean-shaven and dapper.
The languid chief willingly jumped into the game, and it’s all thanks to Dong-joo. By posing as Director In’s man, Dong-joo pushed Oh Young on purpose in order to make him cautious of him, and his method worked. In order to keep the new team leader in check, Oh Young realized that he needed power and his desire to fight back was successfully reignited.
Director In’s side opposes the commissioner’s choice and brings up Oh Young’s past connection to the Myungjoo Electronics incident where his aggressive investigation caused a family to commit suicide. As the tide turns against Oh Young, Department One’s director (an old friend of Oh Young who is on the vice commissioner’s side) interjects, explaining how he was merely the scapegoat in that case.
With the vote still in favor for Chief Park, Commissioner Baek puts his career on the line for Oh Young. Vouching for his past, he promises to step down as commissioner if another problem arises in Department Five within three months, and Oh Young becomes the new department head.
The Myungjoo Electronics incident is not such a simple case, though, and a flashback reveals that this event links two of our main characters together. Rather than push the family to commit suicide, Oh Young was the only one who tried to help them and happened to find the family in time to save the youngest daughter, Hye-young.
Thus, the NTS employee who influenced Hye-young to become one as well was Oh Young, and we learn that our bright-eyed investigator harbors deep scars. The night her family committed suicide, her older sister warned her not to take the “vitamin,” ultimately sparing her sister’s life but taking her own. Though her struggle with survivor’s guilt continues to this day, Hye-young was fortunate to have a kind teacher who raised her and uses her past experience to find compassion towards others.
Also connected to the case are the antagonists including Director In and his lackeys. At the time, Director In was the head of Department Four and in charge of the Myungjoo Electronics case. While Oh Young took the fall and his team was disbanded, somehow Director Ahn survived the culling, and Dong-joo wants to know why. Though he looks around for answers, no one is willing to speak about it.
Meanwhile, an informant comes to Department Five to report his money lending company, Gold Cash. Young adults defaulting on their loans get hurt during his company’s forceful collection process, but all of them lie to the police about what happened. The informant wants to know what is going on, so the team begins to investigate and soon realizes that something wicked is brewing under the surface.
Department Five learns that Gold Cash is actually a company they investigated two years ago that is operating again under a new name. Back then, the case was handed over to Department Four, who ended it within a month without arresting a backer.
After Hye-young causes a scene at Department Four to gauge their reaction to their reinvestigation, the head of the department, Lee Ki-dong, calls Dong-joo out for drinks and tells him to bury the Gold Cash case. His demands mean nothing to Dong-joo, though, and he warns the director to watch his step unless he wants to be destroyed.
Desperate to hide the case, Director Lee turns to his superior for permission to stop Department Five, but Director In puts him on a more important task. He wants Department Four to look into PQ Group, specifically Chief Financial Officer Ryu Yong-shin.
While the NTS is Dong-joo’s main target, another important figure in his revenge plan is PQ Group and CFO Ryu. As an illegitimate son, Ryu Yong-shin hides behind the scenes, but everyone knows that he is the true brains behind the conglomerate.
He was also a key reason why Dong-joo’s father fell from grace, and in terms of ruthlessness, he rivals Director In. Though CFO Ryu is partners with Director In, he betrayed the director by offering a hand to the vice commissioner, which is why the director wants leverage over PQ Group.
In an attempt to stop Dong-joo, Director Lee releases a story to the press about Oh Young bribing someone to keep quiet, and the entire Central Regional Office uses this chance to attack the commissioner. With both sides waiting for him to make one more mistake in order to drag him down, Oh Young understands how powerless he is and realizes that he needs Dong-joo’s help.
Unwilling to be another puppet, Oh Young demands to know Dong-joo’s goal before accepting his hand, so Dong-joo answers truthfully, “To find a way to cut off someone’s air. In order to do that, I need someone to stand at the top.”
Dong-joo and his team figure out that Gold Cash is bribing bankers to refer young adults to them and using a car wash company to deliver cash. All they need next is the identity of the backer to truly solve this case, so Dong-joo makes a risky move: he takes out a loan from Gold Cash.
The backer behind Gold Cash turns out to be CFO Ryu — though his secretary takes care of the day-to-day tasks — and they have Director Lee on their payroll. Once news of Dong-joo’s loan reaches the director’s ears, he immediately reports this to Oh Young who has no other choice than to suspend Dong-joo. To make matters worse, Director Lee sends Do-hoon to the team as their new chief, and Department Three is added to the Gold Cash case, too.
With their leader gone and two new enemies joining their investigation, the remaining members of Department Five feel betrayed and abandoned by Dong-joo. They demand to know why he took out a loan from Gold Cash, and he apologizes for impeding their investigation.
With Department Three on the case as well, the two departments split up to search the other subsidiaries of Gold Cash, and as suspected, Department Three’s Chief Park is here to hinder the case. During the investigation, he takes a bribe from one of the loan sharks and alters the ledgers to Director Lee’s wishes.
When the time comes for Dong-joo’s disciplinary committee, Chief Park takes this moment to present his findings and disprove all of Department Five’s theories concerning Gold Cash. He claims that these companies are run by honest, hardworking people and blames Oh Young for wasting everyone’s time.
Oh Young agrees to take responsibility if they are wrong, and suddenly, the mood shifts in the room. The members of Department Five take over the presentation and reveal that they were working with Dong-joo all along.
Back when they asked their team leader why he took out a loan, Dong-joo told them that he had planned his suspension to happen with Oh Young. He bet on the fact that Director Lee would use his influence to stop them, so they set a trap.
The companies they gave Department Three to investigate were not linked to Gold Cash in any way. In fact, they were delinquent companies that Department Four already investigated, and their findings differ drastically with Chief Park’s conclusions.
To seal the deal, they also searched the premises beforehand, and presently, 47 million won (approximately $39,000) has gone missing. Though Chief Park pleads his case, the evidence is damning, and Director Noh suspends him immediately.
Director Lee points out that they still need to discuss Dong-joo’s dismissal over his illegal loan, but Dong-joo gets up to explain phase two of their plan. The initial loan from Gold Cash was used for cross trading, meaning that he exchanged virtual money to make fake sales. While it was a dangerous gamble, he was able to increase the initial 200 million won to 41.9 billion (approximately $35,000,000).
He was also able to deduce the backer’s identity and guesses that his phone number is saved inside Director Lee’s phone. He offers Department Four a chance to confess, but adds a condition: only the first person to come forward will be removed from their investigation. They have three days to consider, and if nothing happens before then, Dong-joo will make Gold Cash and all its subsidiaries go bankrupt.
Now that they have lit a fire under Director Lee’s butt, Department Five needs to increase the pressure on him, so Dong-joo has Director Noh spill what happened to Director In who moves as predicted. With his superior now wanting the case closed as quickly as possible, Director Lee’s only option is to meet with the backer to cut a deal.
That night as Director Lee makes his move, Department Five chases after him with two teams. The first was a decoy to make the director lower his guard, but as the team tails after the director, a suspicious third van is there, too.
Though Dong-joo and Hye-young successfully follow the director to his meeting place, they arrived too late and miss the backer. They rush down to the parking lot in hopes to catch a glimpse, and Dong-joo recognizes CFO Ryu’s secretary leaving the premise.
The involvement of PQ Group catches them off-guard, so Oh Young suggests making the case bigger in order to reveal the true backer. While Oh Young meets with Vice Commissioner Min, Dong-joo seeks out Politician Nam. With these two people joining hands, they approach Director In and voice their concerns over the rumors about Director Lee covering up the Gold Cash case two years ago.
Dong-joo checks up on Director Lee and ridicules his poor attempt to conceal the truth by instating a fake backer and manipulating the numbers. Director Lee challenges him to find the debt ledgers then, and Dong-joo tells him that they already did.
With a few well-placed threats, Department Five got a couple of Director Lee’s team to talk, and they collected both the debt ledger and double contracts. All that’s left is the final act, and Oh Young steps in front of the limelight. Holding a press conference, he apologizes for not ending this case two years ago and promises to find the real backer.
With the frontstage stuff out of the way, Dong-joo waits in his office for his backstage schemes to come to fruition and has Oh Young listening in from afar. While investigating Gold Cash, Dong-joo was making progress on his father’s case and figured out that Director Lee had blackmailed the officer in charge and stole something from the accident scene.
Holding a bank statement, Director Lee charges at Dong-joo and demands an explanation as to why nearly twenty million dollars are in his account from him. Dong-joo congratulates him on solving the case but points out that he is still missing a crucial piece.
While Director Lee was busy cleaning up his mess, Director In let him run around in order to obtain his levy report. Director Lee scoffs at Dong-joo’s threat since the executive director would never betray him, but his smile disappears when he sees the evidence stating otherwise. As things stand, Dong-joo explains how the director only has two options going forward: he could beg for his life or he can return the item he stole from his father’s accident site.
Flashing back to that fateful night, Director Lee was there along with a very familiar-looking figure. That very same figure was also the one who stole his father’s ledger and was present during the moment the car crashed.
After wrapping up the case, Dong-joo has tea with Director In who advises the young man to not let his father’s death hold him back. Dong-joo wonders if the director is also stuck in the past, but he declines to answer.
Before leaving, Dong-joo picks up something off the floor and asks Director In if it is his. He holds out a cuff link, and Director In stares at it wordlessly for a moment. It is the one he lost the night Dong-joo’s father died, and Director In looks up to see Dong-joo smiling at him.
Despite being a procedural drama of sorts, Tracer avoids feeling overly episodic by keeping the main plot front and center. Dong-joo’s goal to reform the NTS is the driving force that moves the story along, and the drama’s charm really hinges on Im Shi-wan’s ability to balance Dong-joo’s cheeky side with his earnest one. He’s a rapscallion who can slip through anything, but at the same time, he instills trust through his honesty and zeal. Im Shi-wan is perfectly cast for this role, and I really can’t imagine anyone else capturing Dong-joo’s complexity with such ease. All in all, the show has an amazing cast with a ton of notable supporting actors as well, and it’s an absolute treat to watch.
While the premise of the show is familiar, it can be difficult to keep track of all the players involved in this tangled game especially with the show’s proclivity for nonlinear narrative. However, the writer never keeps the viewers in the dark for too long, and the payoffs are usually very gratifying. Though some of the cases can come across as too convenient and coincidental, writer Kim Hyun-jung weaves the story in a way that highlights the characters and keeps things from feeling too contrived. By having Dong-joo constantly thinking on his feet, it’s not that all the cases conveniently fit his agenda but that he makes them fit. The characters aren’t passive agents in this story but active participants who shape and influence what the outcome will be.
The best part of this show for me is the dialogue. Dong-joo is beguiling with his ill-mannered quips followed by that trademarked innocent smile, and you can never quite predict what asinine retort he’ll pull next. Besides our sassy lead, the other characters also have their fair share of humorous moments, and I love how the show inserts these scathing insults and banter seamlessly into a scene regardless of the mood or tension in the room. That isn’t to say the show isn’t emotional (it very much is), but the humor adds a depth to the characters that make them feel nuanced rather than stock cutouts with only one default emotion.
Overall, the first half of Tracer was fun, and I almost wish it wasn’t split into two “seasons.” However, Episode 8 ended on a wonderful note, and season one was a satisfying buildup to the main battle. In the end, Dong-joo’s lofty goals are to bring down Director In and reform the NTS, and from what we’ve seen so far, his remaining opponents won’t be so easily taken down.