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Stranger Season 2 (2020) *Non-Spoiler Review*

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On his way to a farewell party thrown in his honour, Hwang Si-mok notices a commotion during a dark, foggy evening along the highway. His curiosity is piqued so he disembarks from his vehicle and makes the usual inquiries. A couple of twenty-year-old lads enjoying a bit of time out have tragically drowned in a local beach in Tongyeong after a bout of heavy drinking. Si-mok does some cursory observation and to his mind, some things don't add up. After thinking on it a bit, he  makes further inquiries via his old partner-in-crime, Senior Inspector Han Yeo-jin, who has been seconded to the Intelligence Bureau in police HQ now under the tutelage of Chief Choi BIt. It's clear as she follows-up on the case with old police teammate Jang Geon, that she yearns for fieldwork, finding more administrative work rather more unsatisfying. After passing through a few hands, the Tongyeong case turns into a bit of political football between the cops and the prosecutors. This is doubly significant because of an ongoing very public brawl between the prosecutors and the police over investigative rights. Concerned about the optics over this bickering, the powers-that-be launch a gab-fest that attempts to bring both sides to the table and come to some compromise. As Si-mok heads towards Won-ju, he gets a call from the chief of the Supreme Prosecutor's office, Woo Tae-ha (Choi Mu-sung) who wants him on this team to take the fight to the cops. Unknown to him at the time, this inadvertently sets him up against his old comrade, Han Yeo-jin who is a representative for the police camp. It doesn't take long for the new recruits to this council to realise that this is a political circus erected solely for public consumption. 


Enter Seo Dong-jae, the show's resident weasel, brown-noser and inveterate networker. He is sick of being transferred away from Seoul in some regional location because it takes him away from his family. His goal is to ingratiate himself with Chief Woo using the police-prosecutor squabble and of course, he's happy to run errands for Lee Yeon-jae from Hanjo as a bonus. She's in a battle of her own with half-brother Lee Sung-jae. He rocks up to Chief Woo's office and serves him up morsels (3 dubious cases) involving the cops that could potential destabilize their position. Chief Woo bites and sends Si-mok along to babysit and ensure that Dong-jae doesn't rock the boat too much. As soon as Dong-jae does his digging in earnest, he disappears and in all likelihood, abducted. This sends everyone into a tizzy. Some in the police wonder if this isn't one publicity stunt on Dong-jae's part, which only shows the level of distrust his reputation has generated over the years.


Reprising his role from the first season, Cho Seung-woo continues in fine form as Hwang Si-mok, the irrepressible prosecutor and in-house straight arrow. Two years on, Si-mok's a little older and a little wiser. He wants to do his bit for the prosecutor's office but soon cottons on that things aren't what they seem with his superiors. He and the ever-reliable Bae Doo-na's Han Yeo-jin are the only ones (apart from Dong-jae's family) that are eager to solve Dong-jae's disappearance as they race against the clock. The two are sent on a seeming wild goose chase that end up having enormous, surprising political ramifications for both camps.  Both are challenged to put tribal interests on the forefront but in the end their strong sense of justice prevails against all obstacles standing in their way.


With the benefit of hindsight, there is a lot to like in this second season. The writer took an entirely different approach and it's not hard to understand why. However, with the burden of expectation of a second season to navigate (a kind of "sequelitis"), it did cause some degree of discontent at least among international fans. I personally thought the set-up took a world and an age to get going although it wasn't without some justification seeing what came later. Perhaps domestic audiences were in a better position to appreciate what the writer was doing because of the socio-political issues that were raised initially. In its defence the approach taken was innovative in terms of the way the 3 disparate cases introduced at the start became interconnected because of the various players involved. Politics gave those cases seeming undue prominence but as it turns out, the three cases -- the Tongyeong drownings, the Segok station suicide and former prosecutor, Park Gwang-su's death -- brought to light systemic problems of corruption within the criminal justice system stemming from individuals flouting the law . The downside to all of this, as a myriad of new characters were trotted out  in dribs and drabs, is that it placed the onus largely on the viewer to try and weigh the relative importance of a myriad of supporting characters while tracking their appearances throughout the series in relationship to their specific cases. Even as someone who watches a lot of detective/ police procedurals, I often found  myself needing to watch every episode at least twice to navigate my head around this large ensemble of vested interests while wondering where they fit into the bigger story. This consequently slowed the show's progress in the first half. Moreover,  in the attempt of trying to be mysterious for its own sake and ramp up the hype, there seemed to be a lot of window dressing in the early days.


Despite my issues with it, I stood by the show because of the writer's track record and because, quite frankly, there aren't that many well-written police procedurals that come out of K dramaland in any given year. Overall I feel my confidence in the writer was justified and she delivered in the end. She raised a number of key political issues and wove a decent story around it that contained a more realistic tone. I would add, (I've seen criticisms of this elsewhere) that the writer doesn't write "realistic" political dramas or even what is traditionally called police procedurals. What she does... and many other K drama writers do this, outside of OCN... are metaphysical or political fables or parables. They use the crime genre as a soapbox for some contemporaneous political issue. Rather like what writers like HG Wells or George Orwell did with speculative science fiction. The show's reference to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is quite deliberate and not some casual name drop as the comparisons are compelling. There are deep moral concerns governing the corruption narrative and how individuals can affect the group for good or for ill. 


The cast as a whole is good value although I wouldn't have minded seeing more of Park Seung-gun who plays Kang Won-chul. Although his role was reduced here, he did remain a presence. Newcomers to the franchise Choi Mu-sung and Jeon Hye-jin are welcomed additions as experienced political operators in the police vs prosecutors battle. Everyone here, no matter how large or small their role, pulls their weight. 


Overall I enjoyed it. I certainly wouldn't mind a third season as long as the rich writing continues. I'm also in general agreement with the view that the show was probably at its best when the leads (Si-mok and Yeo-jin) were working together rather than as contrived adversaries on opposite sides of the tribal fence. It makes so much sense especially after their collaboration in the first season that they would be natural allies despite working for opposing sides politically. As for romance between them (I had hopes), sadly but perhaps wisely the show chose not to go there. Another season might improve the prospects in that regard.


Plot/Story: 9

Storytelling: 8

Cast/Acting: 10

Production Values: 10

Rewatch Value: 8


If you're interested in what I have to say about the show's connection with Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and its moral universe, please go to my blog post. Please beware of spoilers. 




Edited by 40somethingahjumma
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Currently Watching: Queen of Tears, In Blossom


"Love is not an affectionate feeling but a steady wish for the loved person's good as far as it can be obtained." -- CS Lewis.

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