Insider: Episodes 1-2 (First Impressions)
When an undercover investigation goes awry, an upright judicial apprentice is dealt a bad hand and forced to struggle for survival in an unrelenting environment. If he wants to uncover the truth, he’ll have to play his cards right — after all, there can only be one winner.
Editor’s note: Drama coverage will continue with weecaps.
EPISODES 1-2 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Insider throws us headfirst into the action with an intense chase scene — our hero, whom we’ll come to know as KIM YO-HAN (Kang Haneul), is on the run from a group of suited men.
He’s caught by their leader, who’s a better fighter than him — what a nail-biting fight to watch — but Yo-han catches him off-guard with a flying hwatu card to the cheek. Nice.
We rewind to a year ago, where Yo-han is in the midst of a hwatu card game. They’re betting with big money, and Yo-han wins it all with his unreadable poker face.
That catches the attention of the gambling den owner, who gets his lackey to spill a drink on player OH SOO-YEON (Lee Yoo-young) as a distraction to hide his cheating. Yo-han goes all in, which means the players all lose miserably to the cheater.
But not all is lost — turns out Yo-han is a judicial apprentice, and he’s here on an undercover investigation. Quickly turning the tables, he exposes the den owners for the fraudsters that they are, and police officers burst in right on cue.
We learn that one month ago, the director of the judicial training institute, NOH YOUNG-KOOK (Yoo Jae-myung) roped Yo-han into a scheme to uncover the corrupt dealings between CHAIRMAN YANG (Heo Dong-won), Chief Prosecutor HONG SANG-WOOK (Park Sung-geun), and his son HONG JAE-SUN (Kang Shin-hyo). The problem is, such an undercover investigation is illegal — which means it’s high risk, high reward.
As typical of a dramaland hero, Yo-han has a sad backstory; his father’s prosecutorial work called him away from a young Yo-han, and the wristwatch Yo-han wears to this day is a memento his father gave him. He lives a humble life, and his lack of an illustrious background (and subsequent disadvantage in climbing up the career ladder) makes Young-kook’s offer irresistibly appealing.
However, Young-kook has bigger fish to fry, and fellow undercover partner MOK JIN-HYUNG (Kim Sang-ho) takes it one step further by suggesting that Yo-han goes to prison in order to obtain crucial video evidence from an inmate.
They tell him that he can take his time to answer, but Yo-han is abducted on his way home that night. He awakens strapped to a dental chair — the gambling den owner is out for revenge, and he threatens Yo-han with a drill to his teeth and a warning that he knows his beloved grandmother’s address.
After that ordeal, Yo-han heads to Young-kook’s house. When Yo-han admits that he’d expected vengeance of this sort to be exacted upon him, yet still agreed to the undercover operation anyway, Young-kook comments that he’s just like his father.
In response to Yo-han’s staunch commitment to his ideals, Young-kook reminds him that conviction can lead them down the right path, but it can also push them into danger. Prison is a whole different ballpark, and Young-kook reassures Yo-han that he can back out if he wants.
It almost seems like Yo-han’s going to forge straight ahead, until a call from his grandma (Yeh Soo-jung) has him running to her mart in a panic. It’s in disarray, and the gambling den owner steps out — he’s playing the part of helpful handyman, but the veiled threat is as clear as day to Yo-han.
Determined to protect his grandma, Yo-han makes clear his intention to pull out from the plan. Jin-hyung is livid, but Young-kook understands; some of their colleagues have gone dark.
Unfortunately, Young-kook is next. He gets into his car, but doesn’t notice that he’s not alone — a masked man is in the backseat, poised to attack. Noooo, I wanted to see more of Yoo Jae-myung!
Jin-hyung approaches Yo-han at Young-kook’s funeral, showing him a list of call logs. All the colleagues who went missing, Young-kook included, received a phone call from the same number.
That number belongs to prosecutor YOON BYUNG-WOOK (Heo Sung-tae), who specializes in catching wealthy, tax-evading chaebols, and is also in cahoots with Chief Prosecutor Hong. Byung-wook had received a text containing the names of the people who are aiming to take down the Central Investigation Division, though it’s not yet clear who the mole amongst them is.
In any case, Young-kook’s death is the catalyst that spurs Yo-han into prison, determined to uncover the truth. Some time ago, Jin-hyung had revealed to Yo-han that the series of administrative mistakes following the death of his father had been a cover up by the prosecution. That’s exactly the sort of corruption they want to root out.
Byung-wook catches on quick, though, and he makes Yo-han an offer — confess the truth to him, and he’ll waive his prison sentence and reinstate him as a judicial trainee. Yo-han responds by looking offhandedly at his surroundings and asking Byung-wook what he just said. Ha.
Byung-wook might not have gotten to Yo-han, but he’s managed to shake Jin-hyung. Byung-wook’s knowledge of their plan to use Yo-han as their trump card means he can threaten to expose their illegal undercover operation, and Jin-hyung ends up deleting Yo-han’s file from the database. Jin-hyung’s cleaned up his own tracks, but freeing himself from any potential implications also means that Yo-han has been hung out to dry.
In prison, Yo-han’s trials and tribulations aren’t over just yet. A prison guard leads him to the kitchen, where the gambling den gangsters are lying in wait like a pack of hungry hyenas.
However, they’re not out for blood — just money. Yo-han owes them a million won a week in compensation, or else both his grandma’s mart and her life are at stake. Yo-han fights back, but it’s no use, and he gets beaten up.
The gangsters pass a note to the leader of Yo-han’s cell, SONG DOO-CHUL (Choi Moo-sung), asking him to send Yo-han to the kitchen to pay his dues — but that’s their mistake. Turns out Doo-chul is part of the same gang as the gambling den owner, just many years his senior, ha.
Also, Doo-chul has a bone to pick with top dog JANG SUN-OH (Kang Young-seok), who swaggers around with the prison guards despite being a fellow inmate. Doo-chul extends an offer — Yo-han just has to make the right connections and stick close to Sun-oh, in order to spy for Doo-chul. In exchange, he’ll deal with the gambling den owner. It’s two birds with one stone.
Meanwhile, we catch up with Soo-yeon — she’s noticed the suspicious circumstances surrounding Yo-han’s presence at the gambling den, so she heads to his grandmother’s mart to investigate for herself. That places her there at just the right moment to intervene with a soju bottle to the windshield of the car that’s tailing Yo-han’s grandmother, and she even arranges a phone call between grandmother and grandson.
Soo-yeon takes over the phone towards the end of the call, urging Yo-han to pay back his debt for his grandmother’s sake. When he asks after her identity, she simply tells him cryptically that they’ll meet soon.
Yo-han’s worry for his grandmother’s safety has him accepting Doo-chul’s deal, and with that, Yo-han’s second undercover operation begins. Doo-chul’s henchman KIM GIL-SANG (Cha Yeob) reveals to Yo-han that the prison wardens actually run an illicit gambling den; all the staff are in on it, and the prisoners have to rise through the tiered ranks to get to the big leagues.
First up is the bottom rank, where bets are placed using cigarettes. The game is a modified version of Texas Hold’em, and Yo-han wins his first game with ease. His subsequent games go terribly, though, and he begins to suspect cheating — but without any concrete proof, all he can do is keep trying (and losing) day after day.
A scuffle with the gambling den gangsters lands Yo-han in solitary confinement for twenty days, during which the prisoner in the next cell strikes up a conversation about the prison’s gambling den.
The unknown prisoner correctly speculates that Yo-han lost money, and offers to teach him gambling tips. Yo-han turns him down, though, and then a guard calls Yo-han out — he’s granted special leave for the funeral of his grandma.
It’s been ruled a suicide, but we see the truth; the same masked assailant that murdered Young-kook had lured her to an alleyway. She was found with her land ownership deed in her mouth, and Yo-han realizes that it points to Jae-sun. Apart from Yo-han and his grandmother, only Jae-sun and the gambling den owner know about the deed, and the latter isn’t the type to kill if there’s no money to be earned.
Jae-sun smugly admits to it without a shred of remorse; it’s payback for Yo-han’s attempt to drag Chairman Yang and Chief Prosecutor Hong down. Jae-sun even has the gall to blame Yo-han for his own grandmother’s death, and that’s the last straw. Yo-han socks him square in the jaw and starts wailing on him, and it’s as satisfying as it is heartbreaking.
Jin-hyung arrives and pulls Yo-han off an unrepentant Jae-sun, but the conversation between them has Yo-han realizing that he’s been cut off. Despite Jin-hyung’s attempts at downplaying the situation, you can see the forlorn disillusionment slowly creep into Yo-han’s eyes as he realizes that he’s lost his most precious person in the process of fighting for a cause that has abandoned him.
Back in solitary confinement, Yo-han reasons out that Jae-sun isn’t the type to get blood on his own hands; this conspiracy extends further than he can see at the moment. Determined to continue pursuing the investigation to its bitter end, Yo-han finally takes the neighboring inmate up on his offer to teach him how to gamble.
Hong Jae-sun, Mok Jin-hyung, Yoon Byung-wook, and the murderer who killed his grandmother — Yo-han vows to end them all with his own hands.
Insider’s opening episodes had me on the edge of my seat throughout, with its deft storytelling and tightly-woven suspense. Corruption is a tale as old as time, but all of our characters are so compellingly layered that I’m fully immersed and invested in the story’s twists and turns.
One particular aspect that stood out was the irony of using a temple as a gambling den; the desecration of holy ground with the indulgence of carnal pleasures offers a parallel to how the wicked greed of corruption undermines the impartial justice that the prosecution claims to uphold.
Amidst it all is Yo-han, a paragon of justice beaten down by the bleak futility of railing against a system that’s stacked against small fry like him. He’s steadfast in his convictions, but he’s not immune to despair and dismay, which makes his choice to continue pursuing the truth hold even more weight.
We didn’t get to see much of Soo-yeon this episode, but her charismatic composure and razor-sharp wit already have me wanting more. She commanded the screen in the little air time she had, and she’s definitely shaping up to be a formidable foe to those who dare oppose her.
In addition, there’s a small ray of hope in the tentative connection between Yo-han and deaf inmate NOH SEUNG-HWAN (Choi Dae-hoon). When Yo-han witnesses the vicious verbal abuse hurled at Seung-hwan by the other inmates, he’s the only one to stand up for him; Yo-han even initiates conversation with Seung-hwan via sign language.
The way the camera lingered on Seung-hwan seems to suggest that he knows more than he lets on, and I’m looking forward to seeing both him and Soo-yeon help Yo-han on his quest — the more people in his (currently lonely) corner, the better!
I’ve always held Kang Haneul’s acting in high regard, but I think he’s outdone himself here; he plays Yo-han with a restraint that humanizes his inner conflict in what might otherwise have been a trite or melodramatic setup. His desperation — both to keep his loved ones safe and simply to survive — was utterly palpable, and the final shift in his gaze to that of determination was so gratifying.
Yo-han may have been thrust into an unfamiliar and unforgiving environment, but he’s already proven himself shrewd enough to adapt quickly and overcome any hurdles that come his way. As the betting pool grows, the stakes will only get higher, but that’ll make his final win all the more satisfying. I’m ready to watch Yo-han take down the bad guys, one playing card at a time.
- Premiere Watch: Link: Eat, Love, Kill; Insider; Yumi’s Cells 2
- Lee Yoo-young schemes with Insider Kang Haneul to take down Heo Sung-tae
- Kang Haneul becomes an Insider in JTBC’s new action-suspense
- Lee Yoo-young to join Kang Haneul in JTBC’s Insider
- Kang Haneul comes back to dramaland in JTBC’s Insider