THE SHORT VERDICT:
As dark as it is, and as flawed as it is, The Devil Judge is quite the rollercoaster of a watch.
I will say that Ji Sung and Kim Min Jung are both magnetic enough in their deliveries, to command your attention all on their own. That said, there is a lot that one might find problematic in this show’s writing and execution, not least Show’s propensity to try to shock its audience, as often and as deeply as possible.
Some folks love this one, and others hate it. It’s hard to say where you’d land, until you give this one a try. That said, I do think that certain lens adjustment would help yield a more enjoyable watch experience, which I’ll talk about shortly.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Let’s just say that my experience of watching this show has turned out to be an uneven one.
I actually felt intrigued by this one right away, and was very interested to see more of what Show had in store in its other episodes. It’s just.. somewhere along the way, I found myself feeling more and more perplexed with Show’s ideas and way of doing things.
It was only in Show’s finale, that I suddenly realized the lens adjustments which would have greatly reduced my perplexity. (Which, incidentally, also reminds me of the story from my schooldays that I told you guys once, about how I first became acquainted with the idea that the lens you wear, can make or break your experience. If you missed that story, you can find it in the early-ish, non-spoilery part of my review of The Last Empress, which you can find here.)
I’m honestly kinda bummed that I didn’t hit on the lens adjustment thing earlier, with this show, but at least you guys get to learn from my experience? 😅
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while reading the review. I have to confess that I didn’t exactly grow any sense of real attachment to the OST. However, I did find it atmospheric, and I do think that it amplified my watch experience. If I can to choose a track that I associate most with this show, I’d have to say that it’s Track 2, Nightmare.
Here’s Track 2, on its own, in case you’d prefer to listen to that on repeat. Just right-click on the video and select “Loop.”
MY UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS AT UNDERSTANDING THIS SHOW
Before I get into the lens adjustments that I recommend for this show, I thought you might find it interesting to know a bit more about the journey that I did have, with this show.
I basically had on a much more straight-up serious sort of lens, because I’d felt that this post-epidemic situation that Show paints for us, as our story setting, was a thought-provoking interpretation a possible version of our future.
People out of work, making it impossible for the government to collect taxes; companies going bankrupt; people made homeless; arson, terrorism and even rioting. The thought that whatever Show served up wasn’t that far from our current reality, made the experience of watching this show all the more morbidly fascinating.
However, Show gets darker and more morbid as it progresses, and I soon found myself feeling uncomfortable at Show’s warped sense of morals. I felt like I was witnessing some really dark, dysfunctional pantomime; it’s large, it’s theatrical, and it’s blithely twisted.
Perhaps because everything about Show is so theatrical and exaggerated; I found that I couldn’t quite figure out what Show was trying to do, as it did its flashy thing on my screen. I couldn’t figure out what a satisfying outcome would be, to our story, and I couldn’t guess either, what kind of ending would be fitting and satisfying, from writer-nim’s perspective.
I have to admit that in Show’s final stretch, I kept watching purely for the morbid fascination of it all, even though I found certain elements deeply uncomfortable.
Now that I’ve watched Show to the end, though, I do think that I have some ideas on the approach to adjusting your viewing lens, which would be most helpful.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a handful of things to keep in mind, that I believe would help you enjoy your watch experience more.
1. Show is, I think, meant to be a cautionary tale, specifically for the Judiciary system. I didn’t get this until I got to the end, and I do feel that my watch experience suffered for not realizing this earlier. I talk more about this in my finale section, but essentially, Show’s message appears to be: “If you don’t get yourself straightened out, Justice System, this might be your future.”
2. A makjang lens would be super helpful. Again, I didn’t realize this till I got to the end, and I’ll talk about this more then, too, but I do think that a makjang lens would help you to roll with Show’s OTT tendencies, and its love for shock twists and reveals.
3. The legal proceedings are anything but realistic in this show, and it’s all easier to swallow, when you think of Show as being a cautionary tale.
4. Expect darkness and dysfunction. I personally found some of Show’s sensibilities too dark for my personal comfort, but perhaps expecting it, will make it easier to digest..?
Because my impressions of our characters went through such a rollercoaster of evolution, I won’t be doing my usual bullet points, but instead, will be summarizing my thoughts on each of our characters. I hope you guys are ok with that.
Ji Sung as Kang Yo Han
I rarely ever watch a show for a particular actor anymore, but you could say that I watched this one for Ji Sung.
Right away, I found Ji Sung so compelling, as our titular devil judge.
On a completely shallow note, I’m struck by how much more attractive I’m finding Ji Sung here, compared to in Kill Me Heal Me, which I rewatched while watching this, because of our group watch (Open Threads listed here). In the 6 years that have passed since Kill Me, Heal Me, he’s accumulated a very nice amount of added gravitas and screen presence. Add on the leaner, sharper silhouette, which I think suits the role perfectly, and anytime he’s on my screen, I feel quite mesmerized.
Additionally, Ji Sung really sells it, with his personal charisma. Kang Yo Han really does have shades of Shin Se Gi from Kill Me, Heal Me, down to the dangerous, unpredictable, maybe-a-little-crazy sort of flair – except that I think Kang Yo Han’s got more gravitas, magnetism and presence, thanks to being older, more mature, and in possession of more power.
In fact, I found Ji Sung so magnetic as Kang Yo Han, that for a stretch, I found myself rooting for him, more than Ga On (Jin Young), our earnest good-guy judge. Given that I’ve traditionally, instinctively, always leaned towards rooting for the good guy, this was a somewhat discombobulating turn of events for me.
I think it’s mainly because of Ji Sung’s charisma and magnetism, rather than me being in danger of abandoning my moral compass; he’s just so compelling and intriguing as Kang Yo Han.
Overall, I’d say that my impression of Kang Yo Han went through a rollercoaster, over the course of my watch.
For the longest time, it felt like Show reveled in showing us different shades of Kang Yo Han, almost daring us to pick which shade was closest to his true personality.
One minute he’s inscrutable, and then he’s a badass shooting at a bus, and then he’s a sardonic judge who seems to have some kind of god complex, and who seems to especially love the limelight as well as the thrill of the dramatic, and then he’s a misunderstood victim of society, who’s been treated as a misfit and outcast, all his life. One minute he’s presented as a loving brother and uncle, who would risk his life for his family, and another, doubt is cast on him, as potentially having murdered his brother, for his own gain.
Show does attempt to show us a softer side to Kang Yo Han, and while I thought that was good in concept, I personally found some of the efforts around this, rather whiplashy. Particularly the time in episode 7, when Yo Han is shown feeling so nervous about relating with Elijah (Jeon Chae Eun), that he needs to consult a book to realize that it would be helpful to speak with a smile.
Overall, I found Kang Yo Han a fascinating character to have on my screen. The main problem, for me, is that I watched this entire show without feeling like I truly knew Kang Yo Han, even though he’s our titular devil judge.
Ultimately, Show does paint him in more sympathetic colors than not. In our finale, it feels like Show is sweeping all his questionable decisions and actions under the carpet, by having him “die” twice and then come back alive. I think that we’re supposed to be so relieved that he’s not dead, that we’re ready to forgive all the cruel things he’s done, like when he’d actually relished exerting punishment and violence on others.
I suppose this wouldn’t be an issue for those who love an antihero who’s very morally gray. I guess I’m not quite there?
That said, I will concede that Kang Yo Han is not all good, but he’s not all bad either.
Kim Min Jung as Sun Ah
Aside from Ji Sung himself, Kim Min Jung is our other scene stealer, and for a large portion of my watch, I found myself quite hypnotized by her.
From introducing her as an almost background sort of character, Show pushes her to the forefront, and Kim Min Jung delivers Sun Ah with a heady, dangerous mix of schoolgirl innocence, dexterous sex appeal and smooth manipulation. For quite a while, I just didn’t quite know what to make of her.
On hindsight, I feel like my interest in Sun Ah went through some kind of mathematical curve. I started out only mildly interested in her, and then that interest climbed steadily – until Show effectively made that interest drop, a good bit, because of how it was dealing with her characterization.
My biggest Aha! moment about Sun Ah, is how she’s exactly what I’d imagine a live-action Korean Betty Boop to be like, if Betty Boop was, y’know, a dominatrix type with very possibly nefarious schemes up her dainty little Betty Boop sleeves. Hahaha! I noticed that at the episode 4 mark, felt super pleased with myself for seeing this connection, and then couldn’t unsee it, for the rest of the show. 😆
For me, Sun Ah was a character who was fascinating to watch, because of how she appears both innocent and evil, at the same time; powerless, yet also powerful. She’s a complicated bundle of contradictions and emotional baggage, and I found her endlessly riveting to watch. Sometimes, I disliked her, and sometimes I felt neutral towards her, but I never found her boring.
As Show peels back the layers and reveals more information about Sun Ah, her climb to the top becomes quite an intriguing study. She literally takes the misfortunes that befall her, and turns them into opportunities.
Chairman Seo (Jung In Gyeom) had sexually assaulted her, so she turned him into her groveling slave puppet – until she found a useful time to kill him. Her mother had abused her, and it’s hinted at, that Sun Ah had likely killed her, by pushing her down the stairs.
When she gives that lecture to those girls on behalf of the Foundation in episode 7, she seems to basically impart her entire approach to life. She teaches the girls to steal something if they need it, and to secure evidence if men come on to them, and then torment them until they die.
Clearly, Sun Ah is very smart, and has fought to get to where she is, and has fought dirty, where she’d felt necessary.
The other thing that makes Sun Ah sympathetic, is how Show puts the spotlight on her loneliness. That scene in episode 9, when she has no one to drink champagne with her, even though she’s achieved an important personal milestone, is definitely tinged with pathos.
However, as I progressed deeper into my watch, I found myself growing uncomfortable with Sun Ah’s characterization.
While I get that Sun Ah is a victim of her circumstances, who has to deal with a great deal of unfairness and misogyny, and is therefore not a straightforward villain, I find that I can’t actually condone or root for her actions. Particularly in episode 13, where she kills K (Lee Ki Taek), in order to punish Yo Han.
The key thing that bothers me, about Sun Ah’s characterization, is that she consistently says to Yo Han, “You should’ve been kinder / nicer to me,” which implies that if he had been kinder to her, she wouldn’t have acted a certain way, or done a certain thing. In this case, if Yo Han had been kinder to her, she wouldn’t have killed K.
In my head, this is a blame type of thinking, where you make yourself a victim by making someone else responsible for your actions. “I wouldn’t have done this if you hadn’t done that” is, ultimately, victim mentality. And this “victim” quality is amplified, I feel, by the breathy, innocent sort of way that Sun Ah expresses this sentiment.
A truly strong person would take ownership of their own actions, even if there were factors affecting their decisions. By essentially saying that “my actions are your fault,” Sun Ah is attempting to absolve herself of blame, by removing the step where she gets to choose how to respond to her environment. And this, to my mind, is not cool. And it’s even more not cool, when it’s applied to things like whether to keep someone alive, or kill them, like in the case of K.
All that said, I do still find Sun Ah fascinating, in her murderous Betty Boop sort of way.
Jin Young as Ga On
In a drama world where Ji Sung and Kim Min Jung are swanning about and stealing scenes left and right, it’s tough to play the straight, grounded, moral-compass guy.
For the record, I do think that Jin Young does a solid job of the role, and there are difficult scenes for Ga On, where I thought Jin Young did very solidly. I just.. found Ga On a lot less interesting than Yo Han or Sun Ah, unfortunately.
That said, I do think it was important that we had him in our drama world, because somebody’s got to be the voice of reason, to balance out the warped logic that our other characters keep spewing out. 😆
For me, the eventual arc that Show gives Ga On’s characterization is rather tenuous.
For a good chunk of time, he functions as our story’s moral compass, and then suddenly, in episode 7, we learn that he’d been so angry at the conman who’d caused his parents’ deaths, that he’d literally planned to kill him, and then kill himself. I considered it an interesting glimpse into what Ga On truly feels about justice and punishment, when he doesn’t have the privilege of being emotionally removed from the situation.
I suppose on paper, it works, in that an otherwise well-balanced and normal person can be provoked to the point of being willing to commit murder. And on paper, it also sorta works, that seeing the perpetrator living a free life, while some other sad sack is serving his time in prison, would trigger those same murderous instincts in Ga On.
It’s just.. somehow, in execution, I found it a little whiplashy?
Perhaps I found it hard to get a handle on where Ga On really is, in the second half of our story. On the one hand, he walks away from Chief Justice Min (Ahn Nae Sang) and aligns himself with Kang Yo Han. On the other hand, Ga On tells Soo Hyun (Park Gyu Young) that he’s just playing along with Kang Yo Han, so that he can dig further for the truth.
I never felt entirely sure where Ga On stood, on this spectrum; ie, I never felt confident of how much for or against Kang Yo Han he was.
And perhaps the whiplashy-ness comes down to the fact that Ga On is, at his core, a decent person. Maybe that’s why his various turns to “the dark side” felt so tenuous.
Park Gyu Young as Soo Hyun
I really like Park Gyu Young as Soo Hyun, but also, Soo Hyun as a character is extremely (some would say criminally) underutilized.
What I mean is, I really liked Soo Hyun right away, and I really enjoyed her friendship with Ga On as well. I liked that Soo Hyun’s written to be a badass police officer who is consistent and competent at her job. I also liked that (thanks to Park Gyu Young’s delivery) Soo Hyun manages to come across as hard and soft at the same time.
However, as a main character (and Soo Hyun is listed as a main character), she doesn’t really have an arc of her own. Her main function is to support Ga On, and act as his sounding board and voice of reason. Worse, given the way Show ultimately deals with her character, which I’ll talk about later, it’s clear that in Show’s eyes at least, Soo Hyun never had any value except in relation to Ga On.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
Yo Han and Ga On as adversaries &/or partners
With Ga On and Yo Han set up as diametric opposites, theirs is one of the key relationships in this drama with the most potential for exploration and development.
Every time Ga On tries to go up against Kang Yo Han, it feels like a confused kitten trying to swat at a grown tiger, and said grown tiger is trying to make up its mind whether to be patient, and indulge the kitten coz it’s cute, or just fling it against the wall with a single swipe of its mighty paw, because how dare the ignoramus not know who it’s dealing with; it was annoying and not all that cute anyway. 😆
That’s exactly how I feel, every time Kang Yo Han has a conversation with Ga On. It always feels like we’re teetering on the fine line between patient indulgence, and, well, mortal danger. I get the sense that Kang Yo Han could literally kill Ga On, if he decided that he wanted to.
As for Ga On, it seems like he just bristles against Kang Yo Han by nature, meaning, it’s as if his moral compass is so strong that he’s offended at a core level, by Kang Yo Han’s radically different way of looking at things.
In principle, I liked this set-up, of two opposites being pitted against each other.
As Show works to close the gap between them, however, and get us to believe that they grow to appreciate each other, I found it, again, rather tenuous.
Perhaps it’s because the circumstances lean surreal. After all, the first real inroad to a sense of closeness with Yo Han, that Ga On gets, is when Yo Han squirrels Ga On away in his own home, after the explosion – and then proceeds to drug Ga On, in order to keep him from snooping around. That said, I can still buy the various spots of coziness that we get served up; Ga On’s a warm enough person, that he would manage to bring a semblance of family normalcy to this household.
But then we have Yo Han suddenly taking Ga On to that party which is clearly for elites only. Show wants me to believe that Yo Han’s decision to take Ga On to the party, is because he wants to make Ga On his ally, but I honestly find it hard to buy that Kang Yo Han would trust Ga On enough, this early in our story, to make him a sidekick, especially since he’d found that Ga On had bugged his office.
Generally speaking, the signs that Show serves up, of increasing closeness between Yo Han and Ga On, just don’t land very organically, to me. For example, the way we see Ga On suddenly taking more liberties around Kang Yo Han’s home, like walking into Kang Yo Han’s bedroom on a fairly regular basis, and asking pretty personal questions, feels pretty unnatural, to me.
Also, given that Yo Han does eventually use Ga On’s past in a very public way, in order to sway things to his own advantage, I don’t sense a true friendship here. It’s feel more like.. “I appreciate your company on this boat because there’s nobody else here and I can’t do this alone – but if necessary, I will not hesitate to throw you to the sharks.”
It feels like a mixture of sincerity and artifice, and those, in my estimation, are uncomfortable bedfellows.
And then, right at the very end of our story, we have, “I feel so guilty that I put you in prison that I will literally die if I have to, to get you out,” followed by,”Ohthankgoodness you’re alive and not dead; I’m so relieved that I think I’ll forget all the bad and cruel things you ever did, and dedicate myself to continuing your cause.”
Which, while reinforcing the bromantic angle of their connection, is also not exactly satisfying, narratively speaking. There’s just so much that gets swept under the carpet, between these two.
The makeshift household
Even though this arc starts and ends rather abruptly, I do like the idea that Ga On brings slivers of warmth into Yo Han’s household, just by being himself.
As prickly as Elijah and Kang Yo Han are, Ga On manages to endear himself enough to the both of them, that we even get a scene of them sitting down to a meal together, smiling and talking like a regular family. It kind of made me wonder what might happen, if Ga On were to live in that house on a more long-term basis.
The thing between Yo Han and Sun Ah
From the moment these two take to the dance floor in episode 2, the crackly electricity between them practically leaps off the screen.
In this sense, I do love how well-matched Yo Han and Sun Ah are. From the get-go, it’s clear that they don’t play on the same side, and when they face off with each other, more often than not, the air crackles between them. The chemistry between them is pretty darn formidable, y’all. I honestly don’t remember their chemistry being this electrifying in 2008’s New Heart, which is when Ji Sung and Kim Min Jung last shared the screen.
Did I like everything that Show served up between these two characters? Well, no, I can’t say I did. But did I feel glued to my screen every time they showed up in the same frame? Most definitely.
In episode 5, when Sun Ah literally kidnaps Yo Han and has him bound to a chair in what appears to be a replica of his family home, we learn that Sun Ah had been a maid in his father’s house, when he’d been a kid living in the basement. It’s bizarre and surreal, and this sets the tone for their interactions, through the rest of our story.
Yo Han’s consistently firmly stoic with Sun Ah, despite her breathy seduction, and he remains determined not to be baited, even when Sun Ah threatens him. I mean, in episode 6, while he’s bound to that chair, he even goes so far as to tell Sun Ah to kill him and get it over with. I do think that this is because Yo Han knows how obsessed Sun Ah is, with him, and how she would therefore want him alive, rather than dead.
..And Sun Ah really does turn out to be literally obsessed with Kang Yo Han. I mean, there are even framed portraits of him in that room where she keeps him captive. This obsession gives me Miss Havisham vibes, except Sun Ah’s concept is more Betty Boop than a drab wedding dress. As it turns out, Sun Ah had been obsessed with Kang Yo Han from the time that they’d been kids, and she’d been a maid in his father’s house. Even in the flashbacks, young Sun Ah had had that same starry-eyed obsession about her.
Through much of our story’s development, it’s a battle of wills, between Yo Han and Sun Ah. They keep pressing each other’s buttons, and one-upping each other in turn.
Overall, it does feel like a power struggle. In episode 8, Sun Ah tells Yo Han that her dream is to go back to his house, as the owner of that house. And so, perhaps her dream is a reversal of roles, where she is the master, and he, her slave.
My only issue with this, is, as I mentioned above, Sun Ah’s propensity to blame all her actions on the fact that Yo Han hadn’t been nicer to her.
Well, that and when everything starts to get casually murderous in episode 12, when Sun Ah kills K, because she wants to punish Yo Han. That’s about the point where this electric power play tipped over the edge to become morbidly dysfunctional, to my eyes.
The thing between Ga On and Soo Hyun
So Trent introduced me to the term “fridging,” over on Patreon, as we were discussing this show, and I hafta say, the way this relationship arc shakes out, “fridging” really seems like the perfect way to describe Show’s use of Soo Hyun in its story.
Essentially, like I alluded to earlier, even though I really enjoyed the glimpses that we get, of the care, warmth and loyalty between Ga On and Soo Hyun, it became clear after a while, that Show never had the intention of fleshing out their connection properly.
From the get-go, from the very way we are introduced to their friendship, it is crystal clear that Soo Hyun has romantic feelings for Ga On, and it soon becomes obvious that Ga On returns those feelings, and is just too afraid of losing Soo Hyun, to actually do anything about it.
I personally found it charming, that Soo Hyun’s so candid and forthright, that she’s told Ga On multiple times that she likes him, and wants to marry him, and yet, this hasn’t affected their friendship. This kind of thing, where feelings like this – which most people fear will ruin friendships, or simply change everything – are just allowed to be out there, and breathe, and not have any effect on the friendship whatsoever, really gets me right in the heart. I loved that there’s this degree of comfort and openness between Ga On and Soo Hyun.
However, once we get past this initial context-setting stage, Soo Hyun is basically relegated to the sidelines, to function mostly as Ga On’s sounding board and source of support.
Therefore, once Show starts serving up the sweeter moments between Ga On and Soo Hyun in episode 13, I had a feeling that Soo Hyun might not make it out of this alive.
It’s clear that Show sees Soo Hyun as too secondary of a character to warrant a proper loveline with Ga On. Therefore, the only explanation for Show suddenly amping up the sweetness and connection between her and Ga On, even taking their relationship to a romantic place, is that Show had planned to rip that sweetness away from us, after serving it up, to maximize the pain and the shock value.
From the way everything shakes out, it does appear to me like Show was planning to kill her off, all along, as a way to galvanize Ga On into reconsidering his moral stance.
And, ok, I take the point that it would have to be Something Big, that would get Ga On to reconsider his disillusionment with society at large, and with the justice system in particular, since Show took pains to get him from Point A (our initial moral compass) to Point B (throwing in his lot with Yo Han).
That took a total of 8 episodes, and so with just a couple of episodes left to our finale, Ga On’s second turnaround, from Point B to roughly Point A (or some variation of Point A), would have to be fast and effective, since we don’t have much story time left. What better way than to take away the person Ga On cares about most in the world, and then force him to frame everything he does, in terms of how she would have felt about it, and whether she would have approved?
For the record, I’m not exactly thrilled with Show’s treatment of Soo Hyun; I’m just.. deconstructing Show’s thinking, a little bit. I can see what Show’s gunning for, basically.
Also, what a blow to Ga On, to be confronted with the idea that the shooter had most likely actually been aiming for him, and Soo Hyun had gotten shot, because she’d been on her way to him. That would definitely also make him reconsider everything he’s done, while aligning himself with Yo Han.
Altogether, a classic case of “fridging,” wouldn’t you say?
Jang Young Nam as Minister Cha
Out of our various baddies, I found Minister Cha nicely compelling, thanks to Jang Young Nam’s delivery.
Her ambition is huge; that’s one thing. But the thing I find most fascinating about her, is her alternating rage and affection towards her son Young Min (Moon Dong Hyeok). I can see why sonny boy would be terrified of mommy dearest.
Combined, it all comes together as one hugely volatile package that I found quite engrossing.
Through our entire story, Minister Cha’s actions establish that she cares more for herself than for her son, even going so far as to throw her son to the dogs, as it were, to endure the public flogging, in order to protect her position as Justice Minister.
What puzzles me, is how Minister Cha chooses to end it all by shooting herself in the head, when Kang Yo Han successfully corners her. Given her ambition and her tenacity, I’d been so sure she would sooner shoot Yo Han, or throw her son under the bus again.
Ultimately, I couldn’t quite understand Minister Cha’s strategy, in committing suicide.
Sure, it could be said that she chose to die because she saw no other way out of the corner that Yo Han had pushed her into, but, I’m curious to know if she’d really called Soo Hyun to her office, in a bid to drag Yo Han down with her death. I’d also like to know whether Minister Cha hid that chip in her cigar, expecting it to be found, or expecting it to be lost forever, because of its extremely obscure location. Show isn’t clear about this, which I’m rather disappointed about.
Baek Hyun Jin as President Heo
I also found President Heo quite fascinating, among our crop of baddies.
The more I heard him talk and saw him in action, the more hyperbolic he sounded, to my ears. Some of his spiels sound very disturbing, because they feel almost lifted from some of the stuff that has been heard coming out of the Trump presidency, in the past. I honestly don’t know how to feel about that.
I personally found it disturbing and uncomfortable, and I’m thinking that at least a good chunk of that discomfort comes from how close these speeches hit, to real life. Sure, President Heo’s getting all dramatic and hyperbolic, but honestly, you could summarize his speeches as him trying to say, “Let’s make Korea great again.” 😬
I was definitely morbidly fascinated with this guy.
The other baddies
Chairman Park (Lee Seo Hwan) and Chairman Min (Hong Seo Jun) deserve a quick mention, for so consistently managing to come across as both vultures and parasites, at the same time. That takes some skillz, yes?
[SPOILER] One of the scenes I disliked, in particular, is the one in episode 12, where Sun Ah sits down with President Heo, Chairman Park and Chairman Min, and they talk about next steps. The men talk so condescendingly to Sun Ah, particularly when she tries to sell them the idea of having Yo Han on their side.
The way they assume that she’s slept with him, and that’s why she’s being sentimental about him, is so gross and lecherous. I’m surprised Sun Ah doesn’t gag right there, to show them how disgusted she is by them. I hated this, and I hated that this is just the way these men operate. Ugh. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
Show’s apparent religious undertones
Show has some strong religious currents running through it, from the way our TV judges are styled, to the imagery, and even some of the dialogue.
Originally, I’d thought that perhaps Show had something deeper to say, via the use of all this religious allegory. The thing is, now that I’ve seen the whole show, I don’t actually think any of this was really necessary.
Most of it feels like an effort to gain some shock value, like in the priestly aesthetic of the TV judges, and the godlike positioning of the judges, as they preside over mere mortals.
And the rest of it.. feels like it’s there just for its form, but not for its substance.
E5. That dream-hallucination where Kang Yo Han kneels shirtless on the bed and reaches out his arm to a vision of Isaac standing in the fire, kind of reminds me of Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam, except that Isaac isn’t likewise reaching out to Kang Yo Han. With this show’s emphasis on Biblical symbolism, this doesn’t feel like a coincidence, but yet, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean.
E13. The way the judges stand on that ledge, above all the violence, and the way Kang Yo Han is shown with his arms outstretched, feels quite pointless. The imagery here is kinda like they are gods, looking down upon the chaos of the world – except they don’t actually have any real powers.
And the whole “darkness can’t beat the light” beat (a clear reference to John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”), where everyone follows Kang Yo Han’s lead and puts on the flashlight function on their mobiles, and all this somehow galvanizes the people into fighting back against their oppressors, feels quite weird to me. The inclusion of this biblical reference feels forced and illogical.
Show’s shock tactics
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, the one thing Show guns for, quite consistently, is shock value. I may have no clue where Show plans to go with its story, but I am certain that Show revels in shock value, and drums it up, wherever possible.
I didn’t particularly like this during my watch, because once I start to become cognizant of the fact that Show is just out to shock me, I also start to think less of Show in general, because this angle feels.. kinda cheap, if I’m being honest.
That said, it’s entirely possible that with a different lens on, I might have been able to roll with some of these shock tactics better.
Here is a small selection of shock highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective). Generally speaking, the shock factor tended to amp up when in relation to the TV trials.
1. Lee Young Min’s public flogging
The way his flogging is live, with people whooping in the streets with every stroke, didn’t sit right with me, even though I felt that Lee Young Min deserved to be punished for his crimes. It feels like Lee Young Min’s being treated as less than human. And even though he himself had treated others as less than human, does it make it right, to then also treat him as less than human?
2. Endorsing castration and prison rape as suitable punishment
I found episode 5 very problematic, with the way it shows people taking pleasure in the idea of the castration of a prisoner. That makes the entire society appear so depraved, honestly.
Kang Yo Han doesn’t go for the castration option for the defendant, but his alternative is not that much less disturbing, from my perspective.
That introduction video of the correction facility for sex offenders is so insulting, with the various westerners in the video portrayed as completely lecherous, each other giving the camera some kind of come-hither display. Show clearly endorses the idea of the correction facility, and along with it, the idea that this prisoner is going to be harassed and likely abused when he gets there. Importantly, Kang Yo Han is presented as cool, creative and badass for thinking of this as an alternative sentence, and even receives wild applause for it.
Plus, what about the throwaway scene where we’re told that this guy who gets sent to the correction facility in Texas had been coerced into making that confession? Which means he wasn’t even guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced? 🤯
3. Live execution, with active participation from the public
E14. The whole TV trial with Juk Chang (Lee Hae Woon) is just.. very bizarre and disturbing, when all is said and done.
What boggles my mind, is that Yo Han sets it up such that the votes from the public, would directly feed the voltage on the electric chair to which Juk Chang is strapped, in real time. What in the WHAT. 🤯
It’s all very, very disturbing, with members of the public concluding that they have to punish Juk Chang, and voting towards his execution, and then getting a rush from the sight of him reacting to the increased voltage that he’s experiencing. And then we get the scene of children re-enacting the cause and effect of it, in their playtime, while their mother snatches her phone from them, because they’d been playing with the DIKE app and apparently voting in her place.
Logic stretches / narrative inconsistencies
It’s true that with a makjang lens on, a lot of these logic stretches wouldn’t actually matter. It’s also true that there are number of inconsistencies that I noticed, during my watch.
Here they are, for the record.
E2. It’s a logic stretch that Ga On and Soo Hyun would have been able to keep up with the fancy car chase, over such a distance, with both sports cars going as fast as they were.
E7. The thing that I find most unbelievable this episode, is how we are supposedly shown glimpses of Kang Yo Han’s uncertainty around relating with Elijah. I get the idea, that Show wants us to see that Kang Yo Han is a lot more human than his public persona would imply. However, it really doesn’t ring true to me, that he wouldn’t know how to talk to Elijah, and would need a book to tell him something so basic as speaking with a smile.
Plus, we’ve already seen that Yo Han does have a sense of ease when he’s at home around Elijah. We’ve seen him teasing her and looking very comfortable about it. That doesn’t mesh well with what we’re served up this episode. Not gonna lie; I felt the writing was pretty weak on this point.
E7. I find it a little hard to believe that Chairman Seo would have allowed Sun Ah to bully him for so long, without trying to get rid of her earlier. After all, he is a man with power and connections. He could have engaged someone to remove Sun Ah, couldn’t he? Again, I feel the need to suspend disbelief.
E9. We’re told that the reason why Kang Yo Han forbids Housekeeper Ji (Yoon Ye Hee) from cooking at the house is because she’s a terrible cook, and nobody wants to tell her so.
This feels weird. Not only does it feel uncommonly non-confrontational of Kang Yo Han, whom we’ve seen never shy away from a confrontation, it also doesn’t jive with the information that he himself had given early in the show, that he can’t really taste his food, and therefore simply enjoys the sensation of eating.
E13. Again, I want to single out the whole “darkness can’t beat the light” beat, where everyone follows Kang Yo Han’s lead and puts on the flashlight function on their mobiles, and all this somehow galvanizes the people into fighting back against their oppressors, feels quite weird to me. How did we get from Point A to Point B? I feel like I missed something there.
THEMES / IDEAS [SPOILERS]
People aren’t provoked with radical ideas of rogue justice for no reason.
E8. “Do you think that people are angry… because they are fools and were instigated? It started someplace else. It started with bad people. Those evil people who made good people shed tears. Wanting those people to be punished properly… Is that too much to ask?” … “If people like you did better… If you did better as a chief justice, people wouldn’t need to do this. If only the people who are in charge of justice did their jobs well.”
It really is quite a thought-provoking statement. If people had not suffered injustices, they wouldn’t be angry, even if provoked with radical ideas of rogue justice.
Sometimes you might not even notice your changing outlook
E8. Jin Joo (Kim Jae Kyung) becomes more and more discontent with the status quo, thanks to Sun Ah oh-so-casually planting thoughts to do with imbalance, inequality and unfairness in Jin Joo’s mind, every time they speak. What Jin Joo says now isn’t wrong, but what strikes me, is that she herself isn’t even aware of how much she’s changed.
It’s only when Kang Yo Han quotes her earlier words back to her, that the difference is especially stark. “If you include me in the live court show, it would be my honor just to be able to sit next to you.” She really had said this in the beginning, and Kang Yo Han hasn’t done less than she’d requested. She has definitely changed in her outlook of things, and I’m curious to see how this develops, and how it fits into Sun Ah’s apparent plan to take Kang Yo Han down.
The idea that people are afraid to lose what they have, because it hurts more.
E9. We see this once, when Minister Cha’s supposedly loyal secretary (Kim Kyoung Il) refuses to cave to Ga On offering him more and more gold, but quickly changes his tune, when Yo Han puts it to him like the gold is already his, and every second he hesitates reduces the amount of gold that is his.
And then we see it again, with Doh Young Choon (Jung Eun Pyo), when Kang Yo Han sets up that show for him, to see what he would choose. It speaks to how depraved and money-minded Doh Young Choon is, when he would rather try to save the burning money that he thinks is his, than save his wife and daughter who are in the burning house. That’s extremely disturbing, honestly.
Revenge is meaningless
E12. It’s interesting to note that Yo Han’s right hand man, K, whose revenge mission has been against Minister Cha, actually tells Ga On in the car, that even though he now has his revenge, it feels futile. In fact, he even goes so far as to warn Ga On not to get too involved with Yo Han, because he will end up losing everything, including himself.
This proves to be a dark foretelling of K’s own fate, since he dies an abrupt death as Sun Ah’s hands by the time we reach the end of the episode. I do feel rather sorry for K, in that, he’d allowed his desire for revenge to rule his life, and eventually, he gets that revenge, but pays with his life. It feels so cold and.. meaningless, ultimately.
It’s easier to be heartless when you’re not personally involved
E14. I appreciate that we see Sun Ah struggling a little bit, when it comes to reconciling the fake virus treatment of various slum neighborhood, because that literally includes the neighborhood where she’d grown up. It’s easy to be cruel and heartless, when you have no connection to the people who are suffering; it’s a different story, when you can see yourself mirrored in the people who are suffering, because that’s who you were, not so very long ago.
Active players vs. Passive onlookers
E14. One thing I do find thought-provoking, is what Kang Yo Han says to Ga On, “I don’t believe in cheap justice that people talk about in the comforts of their own homes. You want someone else… to fight evil on your behalf without getting your hands dirty?”
That feels like a statement about how we are complicit in the systems around us, whether we are active players, or passive onlookers. So in a manner of speaking, if you don’t protest against the death sentence, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between your passive assent, and your active participation in the execution itself. That’s a deeply uncomfortable thought, and I wonder if that’s writer-nim’s intent, in setting this whole thing up; to make us uncomfortable enough to do something in response, and effect change in the world?
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
Well. It feels like everything we’ve seen so far, has just been a very elaborate lead-up to the Jung Sun Ah Show.
I mean, first, we see her showing President Heo who’s boss, much in the same way she’d used to show Chairman Seo who’s boss, while cronies Chairman Park and Chairman Min fist-bump, cackle furiously and drink tea, while witnessing the whole thing.
..Which is well, sort of fine and good, until we get the reveal at the end of the episode, that Chief Justice Min is one of her guys too, and everything that we’ve ever seen – from Ga On graduating, to Ga On being placed to work with Kang Yo Han – had been part of Sun Ah’s plan.
The kicker is, after ALLL of this, Sun Ah says, in her breathy, Betty Boop way, that all she’d ever wanted, was for Yo Han to look at her, the way he’s looking at her now.
WHAT. Is Show trying to say that Sun Ah’s hunger for Yo Han’s acknowledgment is so deep, that it would drive her to destroy multiple lives while building an incognito empire – where she gets away with literal murder?!?? Because I hate that.
I hate that we’re being told that everything’s Sun Ah’s ever done, to drag herself out of poverty, and to make something of herself, and to play this incredibly dirty game of politics with these horribly odious people, is because Kang Yo Han wasn’t nicer to her. Does she.. actually believe this? Has she actually been keeping Kang Yo Han as her motivation, all this time?
Of course, this revelation of the extent of Sun Ah’s depravity doesn’t automatically make Yo Han blameless.
After all, by his own admission, he’s done all kinds of illegal things. But in this moment, when he’s shown to be up against such a dirty system, I can understand why he might have decided to fight dirty like everyone else. And, right now, with him so desperate to protect Elijah from the truth, that she’d actually accidentally started the fire that had killed her parents, I do feel rather sorry for him; he’s given up so much, to protect the only family that he has.
It all feels so.. futile.
As I was watching all of this unfold, and observing Ga On’s brain imploding on itself, from all the whiplashy jerkarounds he’s been subjected to – from believing Soo Hyun died on his behalf, to being convinced that Yo Han had ordered Soo Hyun’s death, to realizing that it had been Sun Ah all along – I couldn’t help thinking that this would drive most people to suicide.
After all, Ga On’s lost the most precious person in his life, AND he’s just realized that almost everything in his life has been a lie. ALL because he happens to look like Isaac, Yo Han’s brother.
I’d actually been wondering whether Show would address the likeness at all, since we haven’t gotten an explanation up till now. And in the end, Ga On’s resemblance to Isaac was but a coincidence? And this coincidence ended up destroying his life, because it’s why he got selected, without his knowledge, to be part of Yo Han’s circle? Dang.
It’s no wonder we close out the episode with Ga On telling us in voiceover, that this was when he decided to die. I can imagine that he’d be so desperate to get away from all of these lies and manipulation and distorted truths that make up his horrible reality, that that would seem like the most appealing option.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
I’ve been trying to make up my mind on how I feel about this finale, and ultimately, I think the answer is: conflicted.
All series long, I’d been trying to figure out what Show wanted to be, and with this ending, I feel like it’s slightly clearer, finally. What I mean is, taking a look at who dies and who lives, gives me an idea of who writer-nim is standing with.
And because Kang Yo Han lives, and is framed as an antihero who might return one day, if Ga On doesn’t rebuild the judiciary system right, it’s finally clicked into place for me, that writer-nim means this to be a cautionary tale; a warning of sorts, to those who shape and work within the judiciary system. That if they don’t do a good enough job, this is what the future might look like, with everyone running amok in their own ways.
The corrupt going to great lengths to feed their greed and ambition; the people who desire justice going vigilante to get it, because the system keeps failing them; the oily dysfunction
trickling flowing down to the children, and possibly permanently coloring humankind’s understanding of justice.
In broad strokes, that sorta works, actually, and I kinda wish that I’d realized this earlier, because perhaps that would have allowed me to enjoy my watch more.
The other broad stroke, which I really should have clued in to earlier, is that this show is best enjoyed as a makjang. I’ve been chafing at Show for taking delight in its shock tactics, but suddenly, it’s dawned on me that if I’d been wearing a makjang lens, I would have been in a much more suitable brain space to deal with Show’s shock tactics. After all, in a makjang, the more shocking, the better, and, it all kinda feels not-quite-real, because of how OTT everything gets. Perhaps with a makjang lens on, I might’ve even enjoyed some of Show’s shock twists?
..But that’s where my internal conflict comes in.
For a start, some of Show’s shock twists really clash with my bottom line of what I find acceptable. And this finale’s vote towards the blowing up of everyone in that court room, is not much different from getting people to vote towards Juk Chang’s execution via electric chair. Execution on live TV, by way of public vote, crosses the line of basic human decency, for me. Maybe other people feel differently, but this is something that I’ve struggled with, ever since Show introduced the concept.
The only difference that I can see in this set-up, compared to Juk Chang’s would-be public execution, is that Kang Yo Han positions himself as dying along with everyone else. The fact that Yo Han would feel the need to fake his death in order to get away with killing all these people, and start a new life elsewhere with Elijah, tells me that he knows he’s operating outside the limits of the law. If he really was executing justice in the eyes of the law, there would be no need for him to fake his death, after all.
On a tangent, two fakeouts of Yo Han’s death, in a single finale, definitely smacks of makjang, yes? Played straight, it’s just one death fakeout too many, but with a makjang lens on, it becomes entertaining, almost.
Aside from the vote towards the execution-via-explosion, which is just too dark for my taste, I was ok with the idea of the group of baddies being killed. In this antihero sort of narrative, it does feel like these people deserve to die, and it does feel like Yo Han’s taking revenge on them, in a personal way.
I also appreciate the mirror effect of the scene being juxtaposed with the church fire scene. In a manner of speaking, everything does feel like it’s come full circle. And.. wouldn’t it have felt more tragically poetic, if, in this timeline, it’s Yo Han who’s left to die in the rubble, while Isaac’s lookalike Ga On, now carries on Yo Han’s charge, to revamp the justice system?
Yes, this would have been sad for Elijah, but Ga On could have then adopted her as his sister, and they could have forged on together, for the greater good?
As for Sun Ah.. I don’t know. I get that she chose to end her life on her terms, instead of allowing someone else to end it for her, but there’s just something less than satisfying about how her arc is wrapped up, I feel.
Instinctively, I didn’t think that recycling of Minister Cha’s request for a gun, for the purpose of “self protection” was very clever. However, I rationalize that perhaps this repetition in itself was intended to be a message. One suicide may be an anomaly, but two suicides, because of the same system, is a pattern and an indication that something’s wrong – or something like that?
Also, instinctively, I would have preferred if Sun Ah’s last expression, before her death, had been something stronger and more defiant, rather than the tearful wistfulness that we got. But perhaps that was writer-nim’s whole point to begin with; that Sun Ah, for all her scheming and bravado, could never truly escape the damage that the system had inflicted on her, from her childhood. Even though she sidestepped the system to go rogue, she never actually left her wounds behind – which, I suppose, reinforces this finale’s big idea, that the system needs a serious overhaul.
Like I mentioned earlier, I thought the ending would have been more poetic, if Yo Han had died in that explosion. However, I can see how Show’s makers would want to leave the option open for a possible second season. BUT HEY. They could always work out another death fakeout, if need be, right? 😏
THE FINAL VERDICT:
As flawed as it is compelling. Your mileage may vary.
FINAL GRADE: B-
The next drama I’ll be covering on Patreon, in place of The Devil Judge, is Lost. I’ve taken a peek at the first episode, and it feels like a really good change of pace, after this show. For now, I feel positively intrigued. 😄
If you’d like to join me on the journey, you can find my Patreon page here. You can also read more about all the whats, whys, and hows of helping this blog here. Thanks for all of your support, it really means a lot to me. ❤️