Keeping in line with its reputation as a house of thriller dramas, OCN premiered a new a thriller on July 6. Watcher is directed by PD Ahn Gil-ho, who was behind two huge dramas—Stranger in 2017 and Memories of the Alhambra in 2018. The script is penned by the writer of 2016’s The Good Wife, Han Sang-woon. In the show’s main cast are formidable actors like Han Suk-kyu (Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim), Seo Kang-joon (Are You Human Too) and Kim Hyun-joo (The Miracle We Met). (Note: This is a first week review/impressions article that may contain some spoilers.)
An internal investigator, a patrol officer, and a prosecutor turned lawyer are all linked by a gruesome event in the past that changed the course of their lives. Several years later, they end up joining hands to form an anti-corruption team to weed out corruption from Seoul’s police force.
A police vehicle stops at a police station, and we are ushered into a busy police station bursting with officers, criminals, and civilians alike. Amidst the ruckus, a shocked child wrapped in blanket sits alone on a chair. He stares at his bloody feet. A woman approaches the child and calls him by his name, Young-goon. She asks if he saw who did ‘it’, and if it was his dad, as the boy struggles to answer.
SEO KANG-JOON as Kim Young-goon
Young-goon is the child from the opening scene, who is reintroduced to us as a patrol officer being questioned for shooting a suspect. His character, initially, comes across as almost arrogant. He’s unafraid of the officers questioning him and stands up to them abusing their authority, to the extent of hitting back an officer who manhandles him. As we get to know him better, however, we see that he’s dedicated to his job and loved by his neighbors. Despite all this, he’s still haunted by the night his father murdered his mom and finds it difficult to let go of the trauma.
He meets Do Chi-kwang when he’s being questioned for shooting a man who is related to Jang Hae-ryong’s corrupt activities. While he’s initially unwilling to trust Chi-kwang and work with him, we see them transform into a team by the end of the first two episodes. Because of his dad’s case, he has history with both Do Chi-kwang and Han Tae-joo.
HAN SUK-KYU as Do Chi-kwang
Do Chi-kwang is the formidable detective of an internal affairs team who is on a mission to investigate one of Seoul Police Force’s most senior officers, Jang Hae-ryong. On the work front, he has a reputation for going after the most high profile and corrupt officers whom no one else wants to catch. On a personal level, he comes across as blunt and not setting much store for being nice or well-mannered with his seniors or colleagues. He prefers working alone.
He becomes interested in Young-goon’s case after finding out that Jang Hae-ryong is involved, and comes to work with him as a team member. He also shares a special relationship with Young-goon because he used to be his dad’s colleague who first arrived at the scene of Young-goon’s mom’s murder and found Young-goon hiding in the bathroom.
KIM HYUN-JOO as Han Tae-joo
Perhaps the only grey character in the show so far, Han Tae-joo is a former prosecutor turned criminal lawyer. She’s famous for plotting and negotiating with high-profile criminals, and more than once, Chi-kwang mentions how “things get messy” when she’s involved. She’s unapologetically money-minded and cunning.
Interestingly, she also used to be Young-goon’s father’s prosecutor when he underwent trial for murder. Underneath her unshakable confidence, however, is a tragic event—it seems as though she was kidnapped and tortured at one point in her life, which led her to switch careers and suffer from a certain phobia. More than anything, she seems to be after revenge and admits to wanting “the bad cops to fight each other and die,” which leads her to putting together the anti-corruption team to catch corrupt cops, along with Young-goon and Chi-gwang.
HEO SUNG-TAE as Jang Hae-ryong
Right off the bat, we can tell that Jang hae-ryong is a corrupt officer and Chi-kwang is after him for good reason because of this: he turns off the camera while questioning Young-goon and orders his junior to attack Young-goon. Jang is shown to be skilled at mapping out someone’s background to bribe them into silence, given how fast he used Young-goon’s dad to keep him quiet. He’s also ruthless, which we find out when he shoots his own junior who has been doing the dirty work for him. The man has an inflated sense of self-worth and has no loyalty, but despite being the scum of the earth, he seems to adore his little daughter. All the elements to make an engrossing villain? I’m not sure yet, but there is definitely potential.
Seo Kang-joon’s character comes as a refreshing surprise, embodying both the angst of a child who has grown up all alone as well as being a really caring person to old people and children alike. I also liked that as far as his dad being a murderer goes, he’s willing to accept no explanations on his behalf, firmly relegating his father to the category of a criminal and using the anger he feels to catch more corrupt cops. His connection to both Tae-joo and Chi-kwang is especially interesting, because we don’t know how deep it runs and how much it has the power to impact their work together.
Chi-kwang, on the other hand, is a pretty straightforward righteous detective who just wants to catch the bad guys. In the first episode, I wasn’t sure if Young-goon would warm up to him but the way Chi-kwang manages to get an unwilling Young-goon to work with him signals a bromance which I’m excited about. It’s also really entertaining to see their different backgrounds coming together—one is a youthful and energetic officer and the other a veteran detective who never loses his cool.
My favorite and objectively the most interesting character so far is Han Tae-joo, simply because we don’t have a handle on her motivations yet. While Chi-kwang and Young-goon have been established as the good guys, Tae-joo’s motivations are both shady and unclear. As far as I can see, she will most likely develop into an anti-hero(ine)—someone who gets inside a rotting system by becoming one with it, and takes it down from the inside.
On the whole, it’s a classic police drama with one minor change—the police are the villains this time, which is a change I’m sure the Korean public will like, considering the recent public discourse around police corruption. Given how it handled some plot twists in the first two episodes, I think if the show manages to keep the pace it has set, it has the potential to become an entertaining watch.
Reasons to watch
- The burgeoning bromance between Seo Kang-joon and Han Suk-kyu’s characters—They’re both tsundere personalities, and it will no doubt be entertaining to see them warm up to each other as colleagues. I’m also curious if Chi-kwang will end up becoming the missing parental figure in Young-goon’s life that he yearns for.
- Han Tae-joo’s development—I would like her to be a grey character until the very end, to keep us guessing, a la Lee Chang-joon in Stranger.
- Social commentary—With the current political discourse in South Korea centering around corruption within the police, I wonder if the show will draw any parallels between the real and reel life.
- Plot Twists—As with any good police drama/ thriller, I’m looking forward to the kind of cases our anti-corruption team deals with. This drama has also been described as a “psychological thriller,” so I’m curious to see how it will develop.