Juvenile Justice: Episodes 2-12 (Series review)
After the sensationalized murder of the first episode, Juvenile Justice takes a slight step back to examine the societal influences that impact the more common and nuanced cases protected by the Juvenile Act. But at the center of every ruling is a judge who is vehemently biased against juvenile criminals.
EPISODES 2-12 REVIEW
Juvenile Justice was not what I expected. Initial trailers and promos set me up to believe it would be slightly humorous, and even though it was apparent from the first episode that was not the direction the show would take, certain elements — Eun-seok’s emphatic proclamation that she hates juvenile delinquents and the Truck of Doom — made me suspect it might address the inadequacies of the juvenile justice system through dark comedy. Instead, it was just dark.
The first episode, with all its shock and awe, mimics the way juvenile cases are generally perceived by the South Korean public. The more heinous crimes committed by minors are prominently featured and exploited by the press, and the public goes rabid, vilifying teens and demanding legal reformation.
The first episode did well to use a series of unreliable flashbacks to skew the audience’s perspective — mine included — to paint Seong-woo as the monster the public perceived him to be. While the truth behind the murder was no less gruesome, it did set the stage for our characters to discuss the press’s biased coverage of juvenile crimes and the ramifications of the Juvenile Act.
I wish I could say that this drama explores this issue further, but it doesn’t do a thorough job. Juvenile Justice is fairly episodic — dedicating approximately an episode and a half to each new case. While the setup gave the story the ability to cover a variety of crimes, it also hindered the narrative from delving deeply into many of the societal issues that lead to criminal acts. That said, the show didn’t completely ignore or shy away from them either.
In fact, the second case our judges face involves domestic abuse and directly calls attention to the reality that violent home lives lead to runaway teens, who resort to criminal activities — like theft and prostitution — as a means of survival. At the center of this case is SEO YU-RI (Shim Dal-gi), one of Tae-ju’s reformed teenagers, who flees her abusive father and is understandably frustrated that the law seems designed to punish her while protecting him.
The case is as much about Tae-ju as it is about Yu-ri, though. He was also abused by his father as a child, and he was sent to a rehabilitation center after defending himself. His past explains his softer stance towards the teens and his consistent faith that they can be reformed.
Unfortunately, even though Tae-ju is meant to serve as Eun-seok’s foil, he doesn’t do well to challenge her convictions. Instead, the drama depicts him as a champion of the children who gets consistently steamrolled by Eun-seok’s uncanny ability to find evidence to prove he’s being too naive.
Despite all Eun-seok’s declarations that she hates juvenile delinquents, though, she feels less anti-criminal and more pro-victim. That isn’t to say she’s not biased — because she definitely is — but I think it’s an important distinction to make.
Instead of looking for excuses to severely punish the children who end up in her courtroom — as one would expect from someone claiming she hates young criminals — she seems more driven to uncover the truth so she can issue an appropriate ruling and find closure for the victims and their families.
She’s also aware that juveniles are not inherently evil but are influenced by their environment. When reading over her files she pays particular attention to their background, highlighting details that would potentially contribute to their behavior. And when she’s given the opportunity to hold the parents accountable, she issues mandatory parenting classes and — in the case of Yu-ri’s abusive father — time in a probation facility.
As the story progresses, Tae-ju and Eun-seok tackle new cases, and we’re exposed to different societal contributors to juvenile delinquency, such as bullying, child abandonment, and the competitive education system and additional familial pressures that lead to academic dishonesty. Throughout these cases, the drama successfully depicts (most) of the teenagers as three dimensional, occasionally evoking both disgust and empathy for the same characters.
But there are many scenes that are downright uncomfortable and triggering to watch, so if you are adverse to blood and gore, child abuse, or rape, I highly recommend skipping Juvenile Justice. Given that many of these cases are loosely inspired by true events, it’s debatable whether these scenes are gratuitous or a mirror being held up to call attention to the atrocities that society would rather sweep under the rug than address and fix.
Everything culminates in a final case connected to Eun-seok’s past. Five years ago, two young boys (approximately 10 years old) threw a brick off the roof of a building and killed Eun-seok’s young son. Given the two boys were extremely young and first-time offenders — and presumably lacking in malicious intent, which the drama fails to mention — they were let go with a light warning.
Their non-existent punishment upset Eun-seok, as she believed the free pass would cause the boys to grow up thinking their actions were devoid of consequences. At the very least, she felt they should learn that others were harmed by their behavior. But as the show has shown — and Eun-seok is keenly aware — parents and society often fail children. They don’t always teach children right from wrong, and so Eun-seok seems to think it is her job to pick up the slack and show these kids that their actions harm others.
The two boys who threw the brick that killed her son grew up to be rapists and the masterminds behind a pornography ring. Eun-seok fails to recuse herself due to her conflict of interest with the case, so when her connection is revealed, she’s forcibly removed as the presiding judge and formally reprimanded.
Even so, she refuses to leave the investigation alone, and her vigilante sleuthing is ultimately the break the case needs to prove that four — not three — boys were involved. While I’m glad that the rapists were appropriately punished, I had two problems with this last case.
First, it barely addressed the issue of victim blaming, which seems like a huge oversight given Eun-seok is a staunch advocate for victims. I guess the story didn’t have enough time to focus on Eun-seok’s backstory and scratch beneath the surface of this major societal problem, but I would have preferred a little more than a scene in which the victim sadly reveals that her best friend’s mom will no longer let them hang out.
Second, I wish the death of Eun-seok’s son had remained solely a part of her backstory and characterization. I can follow Eun-seok’s logic and sympathize with the emotions that lead to her biases, but her son’s death felt more like a tragic accident, not a sign that those boys were on the path to becoming sociopaths. So, by connecting the two cases, it was clear that the story was pushing the idea that Eun-seok was justified in believing unpunished crimes create minors who assume that they are impervious to the law.
If that’s the stance the narrative wanted to take, so be it, but it seems to directly contradict the ending, which shows Eun-seok at her disciplinary hearing before the Supreme Court. Here, she acknowledges that she has biases against juvenile delinquents, but promises to not let them affect her judgment on future cases. The conclusion would suggest that she’s grown a bit softer and has a better understanding of when and where her biases might influence her judgment.
But when did she learn this lesson? Certainly not when her son’s “killers” were on trial for rape and all signs pointed to her theory — that light sentencing is a major contributor to repeat juvenile offenders — being correct. And given that Seong-woo, the boy from the murder trial in the first episode appears in her courtroom again in the last shot, face covered in tattoos, one would assume that’s also a sign that Eun-seok’s biases are somehow justified and grounded in truth.
So what exactly is Juvenile Justice trying to say about juvenile crimes in South Korea? Honestly, I’m not sure. This drama has me so emotionally drained that it’s hard for me to either form an opinion or muster the brain power needed to comprehend its intended message.
One would hope its goal was to expose major societal flaws that contribute to juvenile delinquency in an effort to enact a positive change, but I’m not sure it was successful or pointed fingers in the appropriate directions. One thing I am certain about, though, is that this drama wanted to shock its audience, both with its mature content and with a main character who’s expected to be unbiased, but whose actions are deeply impacted by her anger and grief.
- Juvenile Justice: Episode 1 (First impressions)
- Premiere Watch: Sponsor, Juvenile Justice, Love (ft. Marriage and Divorce) 3
- Judge Kim Hye-soo commands the courtroom in Netflix’s Juvenile Justice
- Lee Sung-min joins Kim Hye-soo, Kim Mu-yeol in Netflix drama Juvenile Court
- Kim Hye-soo, Kim Mu-yeol courted for Netflix drama Juvenile Court