Stranger 2 Review: Episode 1

It has been the longest three-year wait, but 2017’s iconic thriller Stranger is back on tvN with a second season. Stranger was a landmark drama for Korean thrillers—it not only got (well-deserved) international attention by earning a spot on The New York Times’ best international TV shows of 2017 list but also won the 54th Baeksang Arts Award for Grand Prize for Television. This season, we have Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na returning to reprise the lead roles. Last season’s screenwriter Lee Soo-yeon has penned this season, too, but the director is new—Park Hyun-suk. There are more murder cases to solve and more corruption to unearth. I’m so excited!

The first episode does away with long drawn-out introductions and throws us into the thick of action right away. On a foggy night, Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo) gets involved in a case involving the drowning of two college students on a beach in the town of Tongyeong, where he was transferred to last season. The case is fishy because it happens despite advisories to avoid the beach that night and restriction lines in place. This is the first case in the show that sets the plot in motion. It is against the backdrop of this case that we are reintroduced to our main characters.

It’s nice to see that everyone’s beloved prosecutor Hwang Si-mok hasn’t changed at all—he still prefers to solve a case over attending frivolous work meetings. This time, he drops out of his own farewell party to personally check out the site of the drowning. His style of working also hasn’t changed in the slightest—staying in the shadows, observing the minute details of the scene, reconstructing the events in his mind. I wonder if Si-mok’s personal involvement has lead to his interest in this particular case—he had passed by the beach earlier that night, noticed the broken restriction lines but left before lodging a complaint.

That same night, inspector Han Yeo-jin (Bae Doo-na) spots strange activity on an Instagram account she follows—the account’s owner posts and deletes couple photos taken on the same beach where the drowning accident takes place and roughly around the same time, too. Our favorite investigative duo seems to have maintained contact with each other during these years, because they immediately call each other up to discuss their suspicions. Si-mok remembers seeing the couple at the site. Both think that the drowning might not have been an accident and start digging through the case.

Han Yeo-jin is still the same spirited police officer, but there’s a different aura to her now. From a bumbling rookie inspector in the last season, she has been promoted to Senior Inspector, also a member of the police team drafting investigative reforms. Her shirts and jackets have made way for intimidating long overcoats and cool suit pieces. It’s not that Yeo-jin’s character did not scream confidence before, but the charisma she commands right now is a very welcome change. It’s evident in the way that she can walk into a place, flash her card, and get a job done that another detective was having trouble with.

The drowning case is an interesting mix of a suspicious accident, a heart-tugging emotional story, and intrigue. The victims are three ordinary college students who had been on their first trip after school, while the couple that is accused of breaking the restriction lines leading to the drownings are wealthy, influential, and entitled. Once rich and influential people get involved, it’s anyone’s guess how a case will proceed. The Instagram couple hire a retired judge turned lawyer for the case and succeed in intimidating the witness in the case, the third surviving student.

The central conflict of this season, however, is the fight between the police and prosecution over investigative rights. Both sides think the other has unfair investigative authority. While the police want the ability to close cases, the prosecution side wants to make sure the police stay under them. On both sides, special divisions have been created to formulate reformative policies, but the tug-of-war doesn’t seem to be coming to an end any time soon. Yeo-jin is also the member of the police’s reformation unit, headed by Chief of Intelligence Bureau, Choi Bit (Jeon Hye-jin).

In this conflict, Chief Choi is already shaping up to be a formidable player from the police’s side. She seems set on her mission to stop the prosecution side from taking over any more investigative control than they already have. She makes a strong first impression—by getting her team to counter the defamatory articles being published against the police, obviously funded by the prosecutor side. She is also the one who suggests the formation of the combined police-prosecution council. When the prosecutors come for the Director of Intelligence Bureau, she thwarts them by launching an internal investigation on the guy, so that the police get to arrest him first and keep him on their side.

While one episode isn’t enough to judge Chief Choi’s character as good or bad or even grey, she definitely doesn’t care as much about ethics as Yeo-jin does. Chief Choi doesn’t betray any emotion—except, I do think that she likes Yeo-jin. If she isn’t straight-up evil, I would actually love to see some women police officer solidarity from this season. I’m not sure if her dedication to one-up prosecution comes from genuinely believing they are corrupt, or if there is another sinister reason she wants their authority canceled out so bad, but I’m intrigued by her doggedness.

Besides Si-mok and Yeo-jin, other familiar faces in this episode belonged to Yeo-jin’s old team at the Yongsan police station—namely Detective Jang (Choi Jae-woong) and Team Leader Choi (Jeon Bae-su). Yeo-jin’s co-workers seem to still be on great terms with her and work with her on the Tongyeong drowning case. Some side arcs in this episode point to the aftermath of the Lee Chang-jun case from last season—specifically Si-mok’s connections with Lee Chang-jun’s wife, the current chairwoman of Hanjo Group—Lee Yeon-jae (Yoon Se-ah).

The Tongyeong drowning case, upon being sent to Seoul, gets closed due to lack of evidence in a suspiciously short amount of time. Si-mok looks obviously disturbed by this turn of events and spots a curious name while examining the case documents—that Chief Prosecutor Kang Won-chul (Park Sung-geun) personally closed the case. This is certainly odd because the case wasn’t anywhere big to requiring the intervention of the Chief Prosecutor of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Kang Won-chul had taken over the position in the last season. He had been portrayed as one of the good guys, at least as good as it’s possible to be in the business. Does his intervention in the case suggest that he’s related to the influential Instagram couple and gave them special treatment? Or is something about the drowning case being hidden? After years of being in power, has Prosecutor Kang Won-chul crossed over to the bad side? Is the drowning case the Park Moo-sung case of this season—a seemingly random murder that will lead Si-mok and Yeo-jin to a much bigger conspiracy?

Just one episode, and I’m already burning with curiosity. Yeo-jin and Si-mok collaborated very briefly, but it still felt exciting to see them puzzle over a case together. I wonder if this case will eventually tie-in with the larger police vs. prosecutors conflict we are about to see. Jeon Hye-jin’s character Choi Bit, too, left an amazing first impression. The final moments of this episode make it clear that the narrative intends to focus on the value of human life against the backdrop of all the politics. There are still quite a few characters from the previous season who are yet to make an appearance, as well as some important new characters, but even so, I’m hooked.

Indoor Enthusiast

Indoor Enthusiast (Esha) is usually found going on rants about how Ji Hae-soo from It's Okay That's Love and Sung Bora from Reply 1988 are the best heroines to grace our screens. Thrillers like Secret Forest and rom-coms with sprinklings of feminism à la Because This Life Is My First hold a special place in her heart. She can be reached at [email protected]

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