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The Whirlwind: Episodes 1-12 (Series Review)

Once in a blue moon, you come across a drama that simply commands respect for its sheer objective quality. It rises above conventional measures of assessment, demanding not judgment but attention. Every piece is deliberate, every word a choice, and by the time you realize what is happening, your jaw is on the floor as you are swept in its raging current. No superlatives can capture the brilliance of this show, so rather, let us discuss, nay debate, on what makes a masterpiece and why The Whirlwind stands on top.

 
“There is no light”

The show opens to one of the most striking introductions I have seen in recent memory: the protagonist murders the president. At the helm of this dark tale is Prime Minister PARK DONG-HO (Sol Kyung-gu), an ambitious man who will cross any bounds to achieve his goal, and in a matter of minutes, the show displays just how far he will go. He once pledged his loyalty to President JANG IL-JUN (Kim Hong-pa), even saving his life before, but now, he plans to stop that same beating heart he revived.

After thrusting the viewers into the midst of chaos, the show reveals details in layers, explaining the complex histories and intricate dealings that led to the current tragedy. All the characters stand in some shade of grey, and while one’s proclivity may lean them towards certain people over others, there are no heroes here. The story is a web of shifting alliances and conflicting visions; a reflection of our world and its faults; a path towards redemption that leads to demise; and ultimately, a psalm of lost dreams and broken promises.

To understand why these events occurred, we must first introduce the other half of this show’s heart: Deputy Prime Minister JUNG SOO-JIN (Kim Hee-ae). A woman of equal, if not larger, aspirations than our hero, the deputy prime minister is as capable as she is cunning. If Dong-ho was the president’s right-hand, then Soo-jin was his left — the sword and shield he wielded to rise to power in order to change the world. Alas, in their fight against monsters, our once righteous warriors turned into the very things they vowed to dismantle, and thus, the conflict begins.

In this game of chess with various moving pieces, one central figure is Daejin Group. Currently lead by Vice Chairman KANG SUNG-UN (Kim Young-min), the conglomerate’s pockets run deep and the number of stragglers hanging onto their coattails for crumbs is even greater. While individuals sought to bring the group down — including our very own protagonist during his prosecutor days — none have succeeded. In the latest iteration, Assembly Member Seo Gi-tae went up against the behemoth only to have his name besmirched and his will to live extinguished. In his last act of defiance, he left behind a task for his lifelong friend, striking a fire in Dong-ho’s heart.

Taking up Gi-tae’s mantle means standing in direct opposition to the president and the deputy prime minister, both whom have ties to Daejin Group. Dong-ho’s initial attempt to reveal their corruption leaves him hours away from arrest, and cornered, he assassinates the president. Correction, he attempts since the president survives. This unforeseen hitch causes the characters to scramble for control — over people and the narrative— and this modus operandi becomes the show’s bread and butter. In a fight where no light exists only darkness, the struggle to stay ahead of your opponent drives the plot forward, oftentimes at dangerous speeds because those who stumble are left behind. One mistake could cost everything, and the line dividing failure and success is paper thin.

With the president comatose, Dong-ho finds himself in a precarious situation and enlists the help of two powerful women: the resolute Chief of Staff CHOI YEON-SOOK (Kim Mi-sook) and his steadfast secretary SEO JUNG-YEON (Im Se-mi). Both know of Dong-ho’s crime but give him their full support in hopes that he keeps his promise to change the world within a month. The words of a murderer may hold no weight to some, but Yeon-sook and Jung-yeon know that Dong-ho’s determination cements itself in the present rather than the future. In practice, this means he puts his own life on the line as a gambling chip to catch his first target, and the traps Soo-jin laid to accuse Dong-ho of insurrection gets flipped into a script that leads Vice Chairman Kang locked behind bars.

“They could do the same thing I did”

The show really starts to shine after Episode 3 when Soo-jin takes the same tricks Dong-ho used and changes the game. If Dong-ho poisons the president, then Soo-jin suffocates him; if he lies about the president’s message, then she fabricates his dying words. In order to reveal her deception, Dong-ho must expose his own, and he learns from this back-and-forth a very costly lesson: anything he can do, his enemies can also. This basic principle is the crux of their ongoing fight as each scheme pushes the boundaries further and builds on the previous one like a game of blocks stacked on cracked foundation. How far will the enemy go to win, but more importantly, how far will I go to follow suit?

Any doubts I harbored about the show — the missing two percent that raises a drama from good to great — vanished after this watershed moment. The overdone repetitions, the onslaught of happenstances, the dizzyingly quick cuts, all these perceived faults no longer mattered at the immenseness of Park Kyung-soo’s writing. I was simply in awe — enraptured by the deliberate reflections, the rich connections, and the calculated movements. In my attempts to appraise, I felt a distance, but as the episodes progressed, the brighter the writing shined leaving nothing in its wake but admiration. What I assumed was the main draw of the story was merely the beginning, and with each passing hour, it became abundantly clear how layered the dialogue was and how deep the characterizations.

The bulk of the story may revolve around Dong-ho and Soo-jin, but as the plot thickens so does the world. Moving into the second act, the show introduces two key players; the first of which is Korean Liberal Party Leader PARK CHANG-SIK (Kim Jong-goo). A man of lofty goals yet incapable of achieving them, he represents what happens when water stills. Assembly Member Park’s rise and fall sets up one of the core messages that appears in a pivotal moment later on in the show: people do not change. His predictability — more accurately, his inability to learn from his lessons — reveals that one’s strength can become their downfall, and the way the show uses other characters to reflect our heroes’ follies acts not only to foreshadow but also imply how no one exists in a vacuum.

The second important figure in this act is New Conservative Party Leader JO SANG-CHEON (Jang Kwang), the symbol for right-wing extremists and a bygone era. To Dong-ho, he is an enemy to remove, and to Soo-jin, he is a nightmare from her past. In the race for the presidency, the one thing our two politicians can agree upon is that Assembly Member Jo must not take over the Blue House, and thus, he provides the grounds for a brief alliance. If Park Chang-sik represents people’s lack of growth, then Jo Sang-cheon illuminates the parallelisms between individuals — or as Dong-ho would argue, “Same armor… different shield.” In the end, what truly sets us apart from the monsters we seek to defeat?

The other interesting thing about Assembly Member Jo is that he becomes a barometer of both Dong-ho and Soo-jin’s depravity. He is the proverbial devil offering an enticing deal, so when Dong-ho grabs his hand to win his party election, it allows Soo-jin to do the unthinkable; because if her enemy can swallow his pride to dance with Jo Sang-cheon, so can she. However, this almost crazed obsession with outwitting each other becomes the stepping stone for her fall, and this seemingly minor act is the precursor of a larger tragedy that snowballs out of control. Hence, nothing is completely by chance but rather a result of past actions that impact future decisions.

This repeated use of motifs and lines becomes the show’s signature style, and overtly, we see this through flashbacks, highlighting the weight of certain words. Whether that be Dong-ho spitting back the warning President Jang gave him that fateful night or Gi-tae’s dream echoing in our hero’s head, the show has a penchant for stitching past and present together into a mosaic of motivations. It also serves as a reminder that Dong-ho and Soo-jin imitate the other in order to defeat them, but at the same time, their similarities signify their deeply rooted history and hint at the possibility of a world where their roles are reversed.

One of the most fascinating relationships in the show that demonstrates this clever use of dichotomies is Soo-jin and her husband HAN MIN-HO (Lee Hae-young). His pride drags her into the swamp of Daejin Group, and though she reels from his touch, she cannot let go of his hand because the very same qualities that brought them ruin are the ones that made her fall in love with him all those years ago. Their marriage depicts a lifetime of choices, and while she cannot abandon him because of the past, he can let her free because of their present.

When Min-ho finally chooses to protect his wife — and in part, his legacy — it comes after a humiliating encounter with Vice Chairman Kang. As the latter orders him to eat an egg, it forces Min-ho to reevaluate his life and accept that the young man he once was is no more. However, what makes this moment, in particular, so astounding is the subtle parallel to an earlier scene between the vice chairman and Soo-jin where she offers him an orange. His actions mirror hers, demonstrating the long-reaching consequences of our words, and though Soo-jin knows she could have grabbed her husband from the edge, she will never be aware of the extent of her influence on his final moments.

“The truth does not beat lies”

After Min-ho’s death, both sides show a staggering display of force for a game with no winners as they trample up a hill littered with tarnished reputations and immutable steps. They use others like pawns with no regard to the havoc their lies create, but when the truth holds little water in a society upheld by biases, it comes as no surprise that lies beget another in an attempt to sway public opinion. No one is off limits in their pursuit of power, including the third member of Dong-ho’s friend group, Chief Prosecutor LEE JANG-SEOK (Jeon Bae-soo).

In a sea of compromised morals, Jang-seok stands out as a law-abiding man who believes in making the world a better place for the next generation. Alas, his idealism blinds him from the manipulations of others, and one of Dong-ho’s greatest weapons turns against him. Of course, in Jang-seok’s eyes, his friend became the very thing he hoped to destroy when he offered Daejin Group Chairman KANG YOUNG-IK (Park Geun-hyung) half of the Blue House so he could avoid impeachment. This proposal, though, turns out to be a trap, and right when all seems lost for Dong-ho, he declares his win. The world will soon learn that the scariest person in the room is not the one with the most power but the one with no tomorrow.

While Chairman Kang takes two steps and Soo-jin takes one further, Dong-ho takes four and charges toward the end. On national television, he confesses to all his crimes, including his assassination attempt on President Jang. One by one, he drags down the individuals involved starting with the constitutional justices and Chairman Kang. Next comes Assembly Member Jo then Soo-jin’s cousin, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Jung. Everything topples with Dong-ho’s sacrifice, and after weeks of bribes, manipulations, and threats, he fulfills his friend’s dream of being a whirlwind, sweeping away the suffocating trash.

The last and most important target on Dong-ho’s list is Soo-jin, but even with his carefully laid plans, she manages to weasel away from his trap by using his favorite tactic against him — the same one he first implemented in this game of wits. The final battle becomes an accumulation of all the strategies they used, but the stakes are even bigger and the consequences more dire. However, what eventually tips the scale in Dong-ho’s favor is that the future he envisions has no place for him in it, and unlike Soo-jin who desperately clings to life, he values something more than that. Though this review has not been spoiler-free in any way, shape, or form, I urge anyone who has not seen the show to stop here since I am about to discuss the ending, and what an ending it is.

Even after wagering everything, Dong-ho loses, which forces him to use his last card. Calling Soo-jin to the mountains behind the Blue House, he meets with his ally-turned-foe and their past collides with the present as the show reaches its climax. He tells her that the question never changed: will she disappear into oblivion or make her downfall worthwhile? Beating her lie with a bigger lie, Dong-ho accuses her of killing the president — not Jang, but Park—and jumps from the ledge. Using his life, he seals hers, but even death cannot stop Dong-ho’s crusade.

Chief of Staff Choi Yeon-sook picks up his flag and offers to clear Soo-jin’s name of the murder charge in exchange for the identities of the fifty politicians on Daejin Group’s payroll. With no other option, she accepts, but our conniving antagonist never changes and blames her deceased husband for all the wrongdoings. In the face of an unscrupulous enemy, Jang-seok finally grabs Dong-ho’s hand not as a prosecutor but as a friend — compromising his own principles to put an end to this war. A lie to beat a lie, repeating old tricks, and a fight with no light, all these core aspects of the show merge together, and the sins of her past finally catch up to Soo-jin.

“Toward our own answers”

The final scenes depict the tragic ends of our two leads, and though their falls created different waves, their conclusions reflect a similar message. For Soo-jin, the show leaves her in jail where she comes face-to-face with her past. The young woman who devoted her life to democracy, who endured torture for her husband, who refused to cower before the corrupt, looks up at her present-self who threw all those away. Stripped of everything, Soo-jin breaks down as she reads the words her past-self etched into the cell wall: “Long live democracy.”

As for Dong-ho, his people and the country see him off as he dreams of a world where wrongdoers feel shame. The flag Gi-tae gifted him drapes over his coffin, and the symbol that stood for independence and marked with the names of those who sacrificed their lives for a brighter future burns away with him. What ultimately set Dong-ho apart from those he wished to erase from history was that he felt ashamed of his actions rather than turn a blind eye. It feels minuscule in nature, but this small distinction made all the difference. In the end, though, both he and his enemies justified their decisions for the sake of their goals, and in this story about politics, power, and promises, everyone marched towards their own answers.

Breathtakingly gripping, The Whirlwind like its namesake was an absolute force from start to finish. Bolstered by stunning performances from across the board, I was blown away by the controlled yet explosive portrayals from the entire cast, and no matter who was on screen, I was glued. From Sol Kyung-gu’s building rage to Kim Hee-ae’s suppressed indignation, the actors lifted an amazing script to even greater heights. The show only got better as it went on and continued to surprise and delight me with each twist and turn. From spurned handshakes to callous remarks, everything mattered in this story, showcasing writer Park Kyung-soo’s trademark meticulousness and profound insight. Just as our leads hoped to leave their names in history, I doubt I will forget this particular drama for a long, long time.

 
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Woof woof, what a show. I took my time with it, but there were twists and turns and more twists and turns. The final twist was balls to the walls. The acting was top notch from all actors and I believed their battle. Fantastic from top to bottom.

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What an incredibly thoughtful and thorough review of this drama, @lovepark. We Beanies--and the Internet writ large!--are lucky to have folks like you to offer such engaging analyses. You honestly make me wish I loved political intrigue more. I'm putting this on my list for the day I realize how right you were!

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My goodness! @lovepark sold the hell out of this show (if you're into this kind of show). 👏👏👏
It's nice to see a for sure drama highlight being discovered when so many people say how disappointing this year's dramas have been.

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Thanks for writting this review. I am going to start watching this on Monday, knowing how lowly hyped this is, despite having a fantastic cast. I just need someone to open my eyes about the actual quality of dramas, instead of some "hype" and the fact that it is available on Netflix.

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Your review in itself commands respect for your objectivity and well-thought out analysis of plot and characters. I have no choice BUT to watch now after such an enticing sketch of the story. Thanks @lovepark.

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This made me more excited and want to start this soon. I have kept my eye on this since it was released.

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I got as far as ep4 so far and I will continue.
Thoughts: This is a gripping and well-paced political thriller. Kim Hee Ae and Sol Kyung Gu take turns one upping the other as they manuever the political minefield among the top government officials. They manage to make the characters look sympathetic despite doing despicable things. There is no good or bad in their world only morally gray characters pushing for their own agendas.

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Thanks for the recap @lovepark. As I read through it, I realized that I don't have the time right now to watch and probably would not enjoy all of the violence/death until. . . . I read Jeon Bae Soo plays the apparent late-coming hero Chief Prosecutor Lee. Not enough to watch the entire drama, but definitely enough for me to watch the last couple of episodes.

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Jean Bae-soo actually appears throughout the show! It's just hard to include twelve episodes in one review so I saved him for the end. He has a pretty decent amount of screentime, and I would consider him one of the bigger roles among the supporting cast.

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Thanks for clarifying his role. This drama was on my watchlist (because of the synopsis) and I was initially attracted by your praise for the writing and direction. But 12 hours of never-ending plot twists can be tiresome. With your recap in hand, I think I'll try it out this weekend with a heavy finger on the FF button (finding 12 full hours in my schedule is not possible). 😊

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Not a big fan of political dramas because the politics and manipulation get over my head and I’ll get lost often 😅

But this was really great! Easy to understand to me lol. Love the twists especially the last one. A Whirlwind indeed 🌪️

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Thats how I feel about political dramas too! But I get most of what's going on and it is really keeping my attention!

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Thank you @lovepark! This has been my most anticipated show, and it hasn't disappointed me so far (currently at episode 10). Writer Park was worth the wait! Can you believe he used to be writer Song Ji Na's assistant? His solo works have been solid from the beginning.
While I would have loved to see Han Suk-kyu in this role, I'm glad Sol Kyung-gu took his place thanks to Kim He-ae. Sol is more than a worthy replacement. I just finished re-watching HOPE, and he was fantastic, as always.

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Binged this over the weekend and wow, what a show. I never thought a political drama can be this gripping and even if there are no action scenes, it felt like I was watching an action-packed, adrenalin-pumping show. Excellent performances all around, it is always a treat to not get distracted by lame acting. This is how you show stoic, strong characters (male or female) but still convey the emotions.

My only nitpick is that I can't believe Soojin was able to get away with what she did without alerting medical personnel. It was the president's suite, no one will leave that room alone and even if they did, the alarm should trigger immediate response. Anyway, minor one and it did move the plot along so , i let it pass.

Without revealing the plot so much, but the war I think had been won because Dong Ho had the best allies and a smart assistant. Soojin's assistant is the dumbest character here, as he had not learned anything and was outsmarted 3 times. !

I wish more would watch this excellent piece of work.

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Oh wow, this review is such an ode to the show. ♥

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