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?
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.
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-
WHERE TO WATCH:
You can check out this show on Viki here.
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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. ❤️
@Trent – I bought the DVD set. The only other Kdrama sets that I bought are Healer and a Chinese-Korean saeguk called Bichoo that I was so sure that because the series was cut short that the answers to my questions would be in having the full dvd set (it wasn’t).
As for Chicago Typewriter, it has something for everyone. If you’re someone who’s not really into rom-coms, then just hang in there because the show gets deeper as the episodes go on. We have back flashes to the characters in their pre-reincarnation where they’re dealing with pretty serious stuff back as freedom fighters in the 1920-30’s when Japan annexed Korea. I cannot say enough good things but I also don’t want to spoil anything because the shifts and surprises are what make Show enjoyable. All I can say is that if you decide to watch, please make a commitment to finish it. I think you’ll be very glad that you did.
And as long as I’m recommending shows – another show that is a MUST SEE but it’s impossible for anyone to tell you what it’s about without ruining what makes it so great is My Beautiful Bride. It’s not a rom-com or anything that you might think it is from the title.
@Trent – have you seen Chicago Typewriter? Don’t get me wrong, it’ll never shake Healer from my No. 1 contemporary spot, but it’s a hodge podge of everything! (Wait, I gotta go lookup hodge podge to make sure it’s got no negative connotations.) Yes. CT has everything I didn’t know I wanted: ghost story; winks at American movie Misery; a bit of time travel; reincarnation; romance; comedy; melo; 1930’s freedom fighters; and to top it all off – amazing acting!
@beez I haven’t! Back last year when I was still pretty new to kdramaland, Netflix’s algorithm used to throw it up as a suggestion pretty regularly, but that was back before I had any clue who Yoo Ah-in or Go Kyung-pyo were, and I had other shows that looked more enticing to watch. Sounds like I should put it on my list?
I like K that you took on this show and your commentary as always is so thoughtful, your reactions spot on.
I would like to add something to the discussion of religion as a gimmick in this show. Though Sun Ah offs this Jeong Hak (after earlier doing her dominatrix deal with him, rendering him into mumble), who by that time is a bit of a doddering ninny, I have noticed in several K Dramas the trope of the very corrupt character wearing Buddhist trappings. I suppose this trope is probably really very old in Korean story telling perhaps going back as far as the founding of Joseon which was insofar as I can tell at least part a result of the corrupt Buddhist hierarchies driving the Goryeo dynasty into the ground. In the US, we do not see this character, as very little of our history has Buddhism embedded into it, and while folks here are generally ignorant of its complex history and the variations of followings, there is a tendency to idealize and exoticise Buddhists for their serenity on one hand and martial arts mastery on the other.
The make America great trope actually goes back to Charles Linbergh the airplane pilot who attempted to take the US into a fascist direction during the era when such was a fashionable populist thrust all over the world but particularly in Germany and Italy. And there is hardly anything new about American nativism, the current anti Asian sentiment here. for example, having far deeper roots and a far more shameful history, going well back into the nineteenth Century. It is true that President Heo Jung Se both participates in and then is captured by his own buffonery not unlike Donald Trump, and Baek Hyun Jin really delivers on the strange irony that such a personality would have so much power, but the real issue with such characters, imo, is why folks–Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”–so gladly welcome such an obvious character to lead them. That is the far more troubling aspect of such a character, and Devil Judge, unfortunately does not really attempt to address that, rather relying on Baek Hyun Jin’s magnetic histrionics to make their point.
Finally, I most certainly agree with you that Soo Hyun’s character arc was reduced to a plot complication, which is too bad considering she was the most sympathetic character in the whole show. But part of this too is a kind of failure to make Ga On as sympathetic as he should have been. I do not know whether that had to do with the writing, the direction, or how Park Jin Young enacted Ga On, but I found him curiously uninteresting when in fact, he should have been show’s number one rooting interest. Perhaps if the show had beefed up their relationship and Soo Hyun’s role in all this, Ga On too would have been a more interesting character.
I watched the first episode of this before and while I found the cast and acting to be good, I couldn’t find one character I wanted to actively root for. I don’t think I’ll ever be in the mood for a dark, dystopian drama without characters I’m invested in. I was wavering, thinking I dropped it too early… but I guess my gut-feel was right. This isn’t my cup of kdrama.
Man, what to say about this, now that we are here, at the end? Appreciate your final review, for sure, and especially enjoyed going through this one on an episode by episode basis on Patreon…allowed for more granular outrage and reaction, which was helpful processing what was happening and what Show thought it was doing, or trying to do.
Anyway. I do appreciate your proffer of an updated lens to make sense of what’s going on with Show, particularly since apparently the writer is a former judge (according the show’s Wikipedia page, at least)…it makes sense that he might have strong feelings about using drama as a vehicle to deliver a “shape up, or else” message to his previous profession.
The problem, from where I’m standing at least, is that I don’t think Show is very successful in delivering or articulating that message. I’m in the camp that thinks two things: 1) Show was more or less watchable through to the end because it liked doing flashy things, it at least raised important, legitimate issues, and it had two charismatic leads in Ji Sung and Kim Min-jung, and 2) it was messy, unfocused, and often downright counterproductive in actually addressing or providing an illuminating socio-political critique of the issues it did raise.
I mean, I went on at some length elsewhere about the absolute farce of Show’s “live court” presided over by Yo-han. It was a construct of pure mob justice, and as such its real utility in the world of the show was simply to provide a power base to a skilled strongman/demagogue: Judge Kang Yo-han. That’s the only reason he was even in a position to hang around on the realpolitik stage with the other big actors like the president, business tycoons, and Sun-ah through to the end, because he was backed by the mob justice spectacle of the live court and had built a political constituency through it. He himself tells Ga-on early on, quite openly, that he doesn’t believe in “justice.” So seeing him as any sort of avatar for reform there at the end is…a stretch, to say the least. He’s basically “just another warlord” (to echo a long ago comment I recall from a fellow I met in Taiwan, when I asked him his assessment of Chiang Kai-shek).
And really, where are we left at the end of the Show? Has anything improved? Has anyone learned anything? Do we see our “dystopian” society (that bears an uneasy resemblance to our own, mutatis mutandis local cultural variations among rich economically developed democracies) on a changed path for the better? Not really, not really, and not really. I mean, the current crop of corrupt bad actors are all wiped out; is there much indication that the crop that replaces them are measurably better? Ga-on has learned that politics and the judiciary are more corrupt than he imagined, and that zero-sum power politics apparently works? The live court is rightly abolished, but other judicial reforms? We explicitly see the legislative commission set up to investigate and reform things there at the end patting Ga-on on the head and indulgently smiling at his notion that anything material really needs to change. And resurrected Yo-han is going to “come back” and kick butt again if Ga-on doesn’t…what? Use Yo-han’s own methods to bring about systemic change? Bring about systemic change on his own? What is there to really feel optimistic or uplifted about so far as where Show leaves us? What was resolved, really?
To my eye, it was sixteen episodes of Sturm und Drang, sound and fury signifying nothing. Now, the journey itself is often worth the price of admission, fair enough, and that’s why I say the spectacle and the charismatic scenery chewing and the flirting with legitimately important issues made it watchable. But memorable, compelling, laudable, noteworthy?
Trent – I enjoyed reading your comment. As someone who deals with law this must have been physically painful for you to watch.
I mean, lord knows our modern judicial institutions have all sorts of problems, but we’ve evolved a large and detailed evidence code, and trial and hearing procedures, organized around and meant to further the principles of due process and rule of law, as protections. A live action circus, with the judge-as-showman and the passions of the mob “voting” on any old damn thing put in front of their face…pure farce.
I want to think that show meant for the absurdities on display at the live court to awaken the audience to the dangers of a poorly run or corrupt judicial system, but sadly (as we’ve been discovering here in the U.S. once again), even when you think your satire or over-the-top exaggeration is so obvious everyone will “get the message,” you’re still going to find a significant chunk of viewers will take it at face value and say in effect “hell, yeah, give me summora that!”
Thanks for discussing the upshot at the end. Why, too, show floundered in final episode. Not really much there, there.
It coulda been a contenda…
The question really is, unless one does a flat out entertainment a la Mad Max, how to make a dystopian cautionary tale in which the ideas and themes do not bury the need for real characterization and seamless plotting. Even more than fantasy or pure sci fi, a very difficult genre to pull off effectively.
thank you for this very detailed and meticulous review. Unfortunately, the drama didn’t work for me – and I wasn’t willing, as you and some of the present commentators were – to invest time into finding out what it might all mean.
I felt next to nothing positive watching this, just a lot of anger over Kim Min Jung’s pointlessly breathy whispering, to the point where I had to turn down the volume to tolerate it. I didn’t find her seductive, I just found her performance very forced. There was no single character I could identify with and this turns me off when it’s not really well and interestingly done.
The court shenanigans were thought provoking. What happens if you leave justice to “the netizens”? But when K was killed so disgustingly I thought “Why am I watching this” and decided enough was enough. Ji Sung is great, admittedly, but in the service of something very flashy and empty.
A hot mess, and that a feature not a bug. The plotholes are too numerous to list, especially in the final episode where show runners were running as fast as they could to simply get out of Dodge–without enumerating them, I can tell you it was impossible watching show’s plot and character arcs to believe almost anything in the final episode
You can say that the gratuitous sadism of show was there as cautionary, but in fact it was there to titillate. It was there to hook an audience in lieu of the harder craft of making speculative, future dystopic story telling convincing. To be honest, this is a consistent problem in spinnning dystopic tales, and in the case of Devil Judge often it did the job, even if one felt like taking a shower after one of its episodes. I will admit, for example, that I got a (sick) kick out of Sun Ah smooshing down President Jung Se’s face with her perfectly pedicured foot in one scene. However there were plenty of scenes where I wanted to toss tomatoes at the screen for the absolute shamelessness of pitching cruelty for no other reason than shock and titillation.
It is hard to deny show’s two leads Ji Sung and Kim Min Jung put in charismatic, cannot take your eyes off of them performances, but now that I have checked out Kill Me, Heal Me and Devil Judge, to be honest I cannot help but wonder what Ji Sung would do in a straight up, gimmickless role, and insofar as Kim Min Jung was concerned, having seen her put in a far more nuanced and complex performance in Mr. Sunshine, I fear she will begin to get typecast in femme fatale roles, which may constrain her range as a dramatic actor. I do think with Sun Ah, a better lens for this, might be to think of her as a sageuk villain, as in sageuks the audience is used to all sorts of sadistic villainy. And as digusting as Sun Ah’s behavior was from beginning to end, even given as sympathetic as the fact of the lust of the poor for the power of the rich, and not just a poor person among the elites, but a woman in a misogynistic society, she remained a thoroughly unsympathetic character for whom the audience never root. Certainly her solution, misandry and ruthless acquisition of wealth and power turns her into exactly the kind of person she so loves to hate.
And to be honest, I found myself quite ho hum in re Yo Han, who turned out to be just the flip side of President Jung Se, someone who manipulates popular culture and the populist impulses of democracies around the worst demons of its fears and anxieties of for his own ends. That is, if we are looking for someone to actually thwart the impulses leading to the dystopia of the Devil Judge world, we would be best to look elsewhere than this show. For example, while perhaps these are only casual not causal correlations not long after Sandglass was aired, capital punishment was abolished in South Korea. The year after Secret Love Affair aired, adultery as a felonious offense was taken off the books. Both of those shows gave a human dimension to these issues that Devil Judge lacked. Ultimately it was meant to be a thrilling entertainment, first and foremost, not an exploration of character, and so it never for all its sturm und drang weighed much. Show traded in excitement for anxiety. Ideas for characterization.
The great 20th C Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo in his poem, beginning with the line, “A man walks by with a stick of bread on his shoulder,” wrote “A cripple walks by holding a child’s hand/ After that I’m going to read [the surrealist] Andre Breton?” As of today, nearly five million people world wide have died from the Covid 19 epidemic. The swift response in several Asian nations, among others, putting into public health mitigations have had a remarkably good effect in those nations, whereas populist paranoia of such measures has exacerbated the problem beyond all belief. In the United States, more people have died from Covid than in all its foreign wars combined, more now than died in the great 1918 so called Spanish Flu (actually its origins were found to be in the state of Kansas) epidemic, the greatest single death event in the Americas since the Spanish brought small pox to their indigenous populations. So I found it distasteful to say the least the use of the gimmick of a populist President faking a deadly epidemic to arouse vigilante violence against poor people to displace them in order to make a killing on land development, the latter element a trope so ubiquitous now in K Drama land, that for whatever historical problem it represents has lost much of its steam for having become such a cliche. I do think even worst things could be and have been perpetrated by a populist dictatorship controlling media, it is just that such paranoia right now is actually causing death in the real world. As with its gratuitous sadism, show’s gratuitous politics often trades in on our self destructive demons for entertainment purposes. That is, as a cautionary tale, it has nothing on reality, and often works against the cautions it is prescribing.
That is not to say show with all its flaws is less than compelling, but that one I believe a person watching has to be honest and say at best this show is a guilty pleasure.
While I thought Baek Hyung Jin put in one of show’s most memorable, if not the most memorable, performances as President Heo Sung Je, a totally over the top caricature of many of our world’s worst demogogues, we do not have to look to a dystopic future to find much more buttoned down versions existing in the world today. We get a kick out of how much such a villain can be made into a comic book character. I can think of a half dozen even more sinister world leaders who cannot be so lightly caricatured.
For me, I gravitated toward three support women characters. First, albeit her role somewhat foreshortened, I thought Jang Young Nam put in as strong a support role as the tragic and ambitious Minister Cha Kyung Hee, and her final episode was a tour de force of her style of acting. She is a fine character actor, suited to powerful and villainous roles, and Devil Judge gave her the opportunity to fully enact such a role.
I also quite liked Jeon Chae Eun as Elijah and Park Gyu Young as Detective Yoon Soo Hyun, the two most sympathetic characters in show, and if I had my way with show
This was a far better dystopic genre feature than Sisyphus, the two along with Squid Game–I haven’t started it yet–such dramas, and one thing both seem to raise is the issue of how the now ongoing world wide diaspora is leading to emigration to Korea posing some real, or at least imaginable, backlash to which South Korea might be especially vulnerable. Unlike, say, the multi ethnic United States, where nativism has its roots in Eurocentric racism, Korea has been a much more largely monocultural society, in which it has long been held thrall to a kind of imposed sense of inferiority by its neighbors China and Japan along with its very long and deeply embedded cultural mores and pride. One thing these dystopias feature beyond the usual government/business/gangster corruption and class complaints is what appears to be a newer societal bugaboo–nativism–only hinted at in other such dramas.
Myself, I would rate show B/B-. Too many flaws in show to rate it higher, but too many compelling qualities to rate it lower.
@BE – I read your entire comment and it is beautifully written. So glad I gave this a pass.
@BE Bravo, this lengthy disquisition comes perilously close to capturing my overall reaction to the show. I particularly like your suggested alternative ending..
Will be interested to see your reaction/analysis to Squid Game, because boy howdy does it have some violent bloody grist for the “analyze late-stage capitalist dystopia and its dysfunctions via dramatic metaphor” mill…
@phl1rxd & @Trent–thanks for the kind words and putting up with the typos and errors in sense created by them and my not correcting or eliding usage errors.
@Trent–we will see if I have patience for Squid Game. I have no idea on earth why I stuck with Sisyphus earlier in the year, and recently with both Devil Judge and the noir, The Road, I have stuck with them largely because of the actors, despite finding faults all along the way in both.
I am of mixed opinion about continuing right now with Hometown Cha Cha Cha and Lovers of the Red Sky, having not kept up with the last two episodes of either, even though both are okay.
This summer I have seen three dramas which so overshadow the rest they have probably left me a bit jaded. Two are classics, Sandglass, which was so thoroughly great–think Godfather Trilogy great–I hardly have enough praise to heap upon it, the second, Healer, same screen writer, Song Ji Na, which while not the work of art Sandglass is, a thoroughly great piece of entertainment that rivals any such kind of genre entertainment I have seen in recent years. The third, On the Verge of Insanity, a complete comfort food bit of salaryman slice of lifery, in which I was just completely happy to be among that cast of characters with the exceptions of two or three really annoying but familiar kinds buttheads that populate many workplace realities.
I have been laid up with a bad back for a year, so I am watching more than usual and probably suffering from a bit too much over exposure these days, desirous of A level dramas, and getting less patient with less than B+ level dramas as a result.
Devil Judge presented me with an interesting conundrum, since I “liked,” if that is the correct word for it, elements of it better than I thought I might, and absolutely abhorred other elements. Both.
Squid Game does not look like a show I would choose to watch (I distinctly watched both Sisyphus and Devil Judge because I have quite admired several cast members in either in other roles). I understand DP comes highly recommended, but I am not really a fan of military dramas as a rule as well. And as with Squid Game, I am not all that familiar with cast members. But I feel K Drama land is in a bit of a lull right now, so I will probably at least check it out, do a quick four ep binge to see what I think to start with.
I’m sorry to hear about the bad back; I’ve been hit with nasty back muscle spasms before, and you don’t really understand how it can lay you out until it happens to you.
I would completely understand if you–or anyone else–took a pass on Squid Game (although apparently a lot of people gave it a look over the weekend; it shows up as “#1 on Netflix” today in my app, go figure). I probably found it compelling because I have an atavistic weakness for that sort of in extremis quasi-gladiatorial set-up. I do think it is quite well-acted, for what it’s worth, with some familiar as well as fresh faces, and it does try to provide real world context to the desperation of the contestants.
I also found DP quite compelling, yes, but it was also dealing with a grim subject–hazing and bullying within the conscripted ranks–an important but not comforting topic, so. The familiar cast members there are Jung Hae-in (who was the wrongfully sentenced Captain Yoo in Prison Playbook, if you’ve seen that) and Kim Sung-kyun (the delightfully off-beat/goofy father in Reply 1988; I was impressed with how he inhabited such a different role in this one).
(Speaking of Netflix originals, I am actually quite interested in the forthcoming-next-month My Name, starring Han So-hee as the double-undercover mob/cops mole. I quite like her, and applaud her ongoing attempt to expand out of the “other woman” niche, although I haven’t yet brought myself to watch Nevertheless, because college students behaving badly, ugh).
I understand being lukewarm about HCCC and Red Sky; I find the first to be inoffensively fluffy entertainment, which is not to be discounted! although I am less than delighted now that the inevitable love triangle is tooling up, because love triangles are one of my least favorite kdrama tropes. And Red Sky, I like both the leads, they’re pretty and fun to watch, and I like the fantasy element, it brings some spice and a little something different to the standard sageuk framework, and then I particularly find the painting motif interesting, so that’s all enough so far to keep me locked in, even if it’s not world-beating drama (so far) or anything like that.
The drama that I just started that I am finding delightful and unexpectedly hilarious after just two episodes is Yumi’s Cells; love Kim Go-eun, and although the live action-animation mash-up would seemingly have a high chance of going horribly awry, so far I have found it, as I said, unexpectedly hilarious. I kind of doubt it is your sort of thing, though. But I am looking forward to seeing if it remains engaging and fun.
@Trent – I second Yumi’s cells. At least for now as it could go downhill quickly. I have also found the animation hilarious. I mean, how many times have I had these conversations in my head? Hundreds, no, thousands of times. Gives the expression “Cry me a river” a while new meaning.
I was dying at the river–what a metaphorically perfect depiction of the flood of emotion that you’re helpless to hold back, and how it just wipes everything out. And KGE acted it out so beautifully in live action–subtle but obvious at the same time! I wanted to cry along with her! And then even in emergency conditions, the different cells were so dang funny!
I really hope it doesn’t go downhill…
Oh yes, forgot to say, I 100% second your take on Healer, which is a blending of a bunch of different elements into an, as you say, great piece of thoroughly engaging entertainment. Very glad to have been turned on to it by the knowledgeable crowd here…
I seriously have to wonder if we even watched the same drama. “A hot mess”??? It was brilliant. What you called sadism was NOT there to “titillate” but as a warning of what mankind could very easily become. Amazing how you missed that. And to feel “ho hum” about the character Yo Han again makes me wonder if we watched the same drama. Also wondered why you felt such a need for a lengthy rant on covid.
I was rewatching kill me heal me after the devil judge left me with a huge hangover, and have really begun to appreciate what it means to adjust one’s lens. As I watched TDJ its flaws and logical reaches stood out to me, but for some reason I was very emotionally invested. The show really does pack a punch with its delivery. In the end, each episode points much beyond itself in both meta and literature/arts/philosophy. At first, it felt, as you said, more for the form than substance, but fan analyses have managed to convince me that a lot of the show’s thematic and cinematic inspirations have carefully been utilized to expand upon what we see before our eyes.
Had this show caught me at another time it would’ve given me a headache the way W: Two Worlds did, but somehow, I’m willing to cut a LOT of slack for this show just because of how ambitious it is at its core messages and thematic exploration. I was willing to forgive its theatrics because it felt like a far-away world of its own, with a way of reducing the universe to serve the plot. This, and I suppose the fandom experience on reddit and tumblr that discussed several parallels, analyses, theories, etc. really enriched the watching experience. And now with the script being released a lot that was rushed and messy has begun to cover for the lack of linear plot development in the show. And I’m willing to take that as canon. I can’t help but think that had the show been consistent in its awareness of the bombs and plot points it’s dropping on the viewers and fleshed them out properly, this would’ve been a watch that’s easier to digest. The 20 episode format would’ve done this one better. That double fake-death was a massive turn-off though, they could’ve kept it to one and still landed the impact.
I’m very surprised that the tension between Gaon and Yohan didn’t stand out to you as much as Sunah and Yohan’s did. I found Gaon and Yohan’s relationship to be a main character in itself with how convoluted and full-bodied it was. And I often found myself if wondering if it really is bromance that the show is pushing or if it’s queer-coding things, very, very intentionally.
I also found Gaon a very interesting character! We’re pushed to see him as a good, neutral person but the show did a good job of showing us how Gaon’s moral compass was a product of being sheltered and privileged by having a system to believe in. Gaon’s emotional conflict, his suit of reason and “normality” peeling right off with doh Youngchoon was jarring at first, but knowing Gaon’s history of recklessness and suicidality, even (though this is his characterisation in the script, it didn’t make it to the screen), makes it obvious that he’s struggling between the same feral recklessness he sees in Yohan and the moral standard his mentor and soohyun have held him up to. Gaon is actively trying to be a good-person, and takes his responsibility as a member upholding the sanctity of ethics and law very seriously. What he finds jarring about Yohan is his flagrant rebellion and lack of care for his position in the system Gaon reveres so much. It fell together when I realised Gaon is not inherently as principled or self-righteous as he tries to be, heck, if he were in Yohan’s position he would’ve probably landed himself in jail with the way he doesn’t think things through.
kfangirl, thank you for taking up the devil judge. in regards to the lens adjustment you write: “The best way to watch this show, I think, is to not take it seriously.” i think the very opposite – one MUST take it very seriously. sometimes a real shock is absolutely necessary – this drama is this kind of shock – humanity must wake up or the dystopian society painted in this drama is not far from reality in our world. i understand your discomfort and even confusion with certain aspects here, kfangirl, but reality is many times uncomfortable, it’s called “life” and one must face it. and i think it’s wrong to think of it as just a caution to the judiciary system, no, it’s a caution to the entire socio/economical political systems in the world, wherever it might be.
so where do i start? first of all, i do not throw out the baby with the bath water. i look at the whole picture, script, directing, acting, photography, music, costumes, jewelry, set ups, stage designs…etc. it’s art, and each aspect has to support the whole – that’s a good piece of art. this was this kind of drama. did the drama have problems? hell, yes. but i am yet to see a chinese or korean drama that is perfect. can you? this particular drama – the acting was through the roof, of course i am talking about Ji Sung – what a trip! i also enjoyed Kim Min-Jung – i think she gave it her all, very special. and i must mention the young actress Jeon Chaeeun who played Elijah, she impressed me with her arsenal of emotions at such a young age and the ability to express them on screen. Jin Young is a story apart from the others, in my opinion. i believe that he was wrongly cast. his looks are childish and he was too “pretty” for this role, like a decoration or lollypop. but may be that was intentional, to introduce a juxtaposition to Kang Yo-Han, who is all macho in the most beautiful sense, but has a soft inside. i actually never believed that he killed his brother or caused the fire, or killed Kim Gaon’s childhood friend. i just didn’t feel it was in him. but back to Kim Gaon. again, opposite Ji Sung, who is the top of the best in this industry, Jim Young appeared to be very weak, in character as well as in acting. is he the “good” guy, to bring into the show and to us some logical thinking? to introduce logic one must have logic, which unfortunately Gaon does not have. so many times, i looked at his eyes, beautiful – yes, but somehow empty, looking for a way to express a certain emotion, idea, or whatever… kind of looking through the “files in his brain”, but couldn’t find any. Ji Sung, every movement of a finger, slightly raised eyebrow, twitch of the mouth, tilt of his head, posture, thunder in his eyes… i can go on and on, everything is at play. not a single detail missed. you could sense his rich emotional intelligence that he relies on in his work and it totally draws you into his world. i must admit, Gaon somehow remedied himself in the last episode, but that’s hardly enough. Gaon’s friend, Yoon Soo-Hyun, could have been even better than Gaon, she had the potential, but wasn’t given a chance, i felt. so that’s a missed opportunity. the rest of the cast was mostly good, but i am not going to go into details.
the script, that many complained in their reviews, but truly, all or most say they enjoyed, were glued to the screen, participated in the journey, got invested in the storyline… so how can you just dismiss the script? it did something to you, didn’t it? was it all realism, of course not. but i already accepted that Asian dramas suffer from lack or realism, logic, even common sense. part of the “charm” if you will. like when Jeon Seon-a goes to the hospital, she suddenly melts, feels sorry for these girls, but i did not believe for a moment that she actually has the capacity to feel compassion. none. or when she kills herself in the last episode. from what we saw from her, she would first kill the president, yes, but then she would kill Yo-han and then probably all the rest. that would be more in line with her character.
all in all, “the devil judge” drama – spectacular, intoxicating, thought provoking, mesmerizing, instantly addictive, insanely engaging and most of all RELEVANT. RELEVANT WHY? the most important to me was the message that this story tries to convey, a kind of moral and ethical directive. if you think that this is a dystopia, think again and look at politics in general. do you remember what the president said about a clean korean race, about emigrants, about a new republic, about his own power… i had goose bumps, i wanted to throw up… did you hear some of the speeches of our own previous american president – that was eerily familiar, and he is not the only one. the attacks on the american congress on January 6 this year was not much different than Jukchang (the bamboo stick group – self proclaimed patriots). and in general, there are different democracies now that are simply crushing and burning. if humanity can not gather it’s wits and put a stop to it, if they allow these forces to manipulate them, then we are not that far from the dystopia depicted in this drama. and it seems like this is a call for action. a message like this is much more than a flaw in a script.
my final grade: A++
While I do not think story was as successful as you did, I appreciate your enthusiasm, and really appreciate your pinpointing why Ga On’s character was so unimpressive.
@eda harris I second BE in appreciating seeing a different perspective; it’s good to see someone articulate why they loved this and feel passionately about what it was doing.
Oh, and I agree with you about the young actress playing Elijah. She was really good, and I suspect she’s got a bright future ahead of her.
Learning to apply an appropriate viewing lens is the single most useful thing you’ve taught me.
Thank you for that gift!