This review was written for the next issue of the Korean Quarterly. It contains no spoilers regarding the outcomes of the story.
For fans of “Stranger” (aka “Secret Forest”), it’s been a long 3-year wait to continue exploring the intricate mind of Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok, but 2020 has rewarded their devotion with season two in the series. Just what changes have occurred in the interim, and what has changed in his life, and that of his unlikely friend, police detective Han Yeo-jin? And one might also ask, can the second series live up to the incredible achievements of the first?
It’s worth mentioning that while it is not essential to have watched the first series before beginning “Stranger 2” to have a sufficient working understanding of the nature of various characters and who they are as individuals as they are sketched out within the first episode or two, however, to get a fuller portrait of who some of the key players are in this season, or who are referenced within it due to their relationship to secondary plot points in the new season carried forwards from the first, it is recommended that the viewer begins with season one (or re-watches it) before continuing with season 2 for a fuller picture.
“Stranger 2” begins approximately 2 years after the events concluding the first series, which saw Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok (once again played brilliantly by Seung-woo Cho) exiled to a remote prosecutorial district, nominally following a relocation policy schedule to avoid prosecutors get too close to cases (avoiding potential corruption or collusion risks). This assignment is over and he is on his way to a new one when he inadvertently becomes involved in what appears to be an accidental drowning by two young men after heavy drinking, but may also have occurred because of protective barriers negligently removed by another couple. Having traveled the stretch of coastal road the same evening, the circumstances of the case raise questions in Hwang Si-mok’s mind and, never being one to accept the facile answer, he looks into it further to resolve the discrepancies he intuits. It had happened in his district, when he’d been there, and he cannot leave the puzzle behind as he sets off for his new district.
Coincidentally, the case comes before Police Detective Han Yeo-jin (Doona Bae reprising her role), now taking part in a high-level task force looking into ways to improve the visibility of the police, and negotiate the right to have greater investigative control in cases (as opposed to the current investigative power balance held by the prosecutorial services). She too embarrassed police higher-ups with her successful teamwork with Hwang Si-mok in the first series, so while this assignment appears to be a plum reward, there’s a feeling that it’s a bit of “window dressing.” Her new task force leader, Choi Bit (played by Hye-jin Jeon), is the first female intelligence chief of the National Police Agency and bringing in a female detective adds to the gender balance on the team. Han Yeo-jin is asked to review cases where prosecutorial investigations could come in for criticism, supporting the police argument. She is troubled by the easy dismissal of charges against the negligent couple, in light of the fact that 2 people have died, and begins her own examinations.
Little do Hwang Si-mok and Han Yeo-jin know, but their mutual concerns will lead them to cross paths once again, and as potential adversaries!
Each in their own way, their investigative actions alarm their respective leaders. Choi Bit, prior to her new position as Intelligence Chief, was police chief for the district in question where the drowning case occurred, and in questioning aspects of that case, another even more curious case comes to light; the apparent suicide of a police detective, which was also conveniently buried as a suicide, but may have been more insidious — a police-on-police murder. This is not the kind of investigation that looks good for the task force or for improving the public’s opinion of the police in general.
Hwang Si-mok’s questions have him looking into the role of the prosecution team that lead to charges being so quickly dropped against the well-connected man who’d been negligent. A former judge, Oh Joo-sun (played by Hak-seon Kim) now established as a lawyer, looking to capitalize on his reputation and connections, has cut some deals to make the charges go away. This investigation may result in the prosecution looking bad, and with the current agitation to have investigative powers relinquished to the police, the higher powers want to sidetrack Hwang Si-mok so he is re-allocated temporarily to the Prosecutorial side of the joint task force, reporting to Woo Tae-ha (Moo-sung Choi) and his new assignment temporarily deferred. They figure his dogmatic and rule-oriented persona is just what they need on the task force; he’s not connected, unimportant, and if they need a political sacrifice if the negotiations break down or fail, he’s perfect for being a fall guy.
New boss Woo Tae-ha needs to figure out how to get Hwang Si-mok focused on things he wants him to do, but this is not as easy as it looks because he’s not familiar with Hwang Si-mok’s medical history and his resultant lack of emotional reactions (or his incredible, single-minded focus and intelligence). But in walks someone else from the past with a gift that “seems” to be the perfect distraction for Woo Tae-ha to assign to Hwang Si-mok. Season one viewers will rejoice to see the smarmy and borderline corrupt (is he or isn’t he) Prosecutor Seo Dong-jae (once again played by Joon-hyuk Lee), looking to escape his reassignment to the purdah of juvenile case prosecutions in a district outside of Seoul any way he can. He’s brought three cases to Woo Tae-ha that raise questions of police corruption and/or investigative failures that would be perfect ammunition if they can be proven to quash the Police’s argument for investigative rights. Seo Dong-jae is disappointed in his quest; Woo Tae-ha judges him to be exactly who he is, a side-stepping, on-the-make, politically motivated and ambitious type who is of little interest, but he holds onto two of the cases as a token gesture. He hands one of these over to Hwang Si-mok to investigate; it just happens to be the death of the police detective under questionable circumstances and the bribery case behind it that Han Yeo-jin has uncovered.
Needless to say, the first meeting of the joint task force in which the two sides meet are an unexpected but welcome reunion for Hwang Si-mok and Han Yeo-jin, which is at times awkward as each is called upon to defend the respective arguments for why or why not the standards should change, but that soon evaporates as they find themselves working together once again to investigate the same case, and subsequent parallel cases.
A good portion of the story’s investigations pursue three cases that may or may not be linked — as with the first series, the plot threads are complex and tightly interwoven — and there are liberal sprinklings of ‘red herrings’ to further keep the viewers on their toes. In addition to the initial drowning deaths, investigations will explore suicide or murder, another questionable death, conspiracies to hide answers, and the kidnapping of a favorite character.
In another plot wrinkle, there is another link between Hwang Si-mok, the judge, and his recent past. Oh Joo-sun comes to the attention of the new majority owner of Hanjo Group, the widow Lee Yeon-jae (Se-ah Yoon reprising her role) as someone who may be an effective liaison with/weapon against the Prosecutor’s Office, which continues season one’s efforts to pursue Hanjo for tax and other legal misdoings. Seo Dong-jae also approaches Hanjo Group for apparent personal gain, further complicated matters. Just how deeply involved is Lee Yeon-jae, aided by a new assistant, Director Park (played with a slightly sinister touch by Sung-il Jung) in what is happening? That remains to be seen.
This season benefits from some of the same factors that contributed to the successful and highly-rewarding first series, namely the excellent chemistry of Seung-woo Cho and Doona Bae as the unlikeliest of friends and collaborators. Their onscreen rapport is the keystone of the piece, and they work equally well with the veteran actors of “Stranger” as well as those who joined the cast of “Stranger 2.” Though screen time for returning characters such as Sung-gun Park as the head of the Third Prosecutors Division, and former Homicide squad chief Choi Yoon-soo (Bae-soo Jeon), detectives Jang Geon (Jae-woong Choi) and Park Soon Chang (Ji-ho Song) respectively, is relatively brief, they provide not only a link to the past story, but help ground the story in its setting. The script is once again penned by Soo-yeon Lee — worth noting that this is only her third work and that “Stranger” was her first — manages once again to create a tension-filled plot that has strong ties to actual, recent events in South Korea, making for a plausible and emotional story. There is, however, a different director for this second season, Hyun-suk Park, and with him you will see a different tone to the piece. This is most notable in portions of the first few episodes, with a slightly choppier narrative to aspects of the early investigation processes in particular. More backstory, particularly why Hwang Si-mok is the way he is would make for an easier entry into the story if a viewer has not seen the first series, and make various actions in the story more compelling and logical and the omission of this is one criticism that can be made against a generally very satisfying second season.
The new characters of Woo Tae-ha and Choi Bit expanded the exploration of the roles of power and the potential for corruption, as well as decency and righteousness, within the Prosecution and Police Agencies in South Korea that were so crucial to the first story. In these complicated stories we see just how universal the potential is for authority to be misused and used fairly, and how politicized these agencies are. Those familiar with current affairs in South Korea will find familiar events disguised in the plot, and those who are not will see common themes within their own agencies. The actors themselves are excellent choices because they bring something different to the existing cast and contrast with prior characters. Woo Tae-ha is a canny, political animal, but he also seems to act on an almost instinctual level; as smart as he is, he is also impulsive, and not above throwing his authoritative weight around as it suits him. He’s not above being a manipulative bully when it suits him. Choi Bit is a more subtle character, and it’s easy to see how she would succeed as a woman in a man’s traditional world by being low-key and decisive. By glimpses of her home life (she appears to be a single mother) the viewer is led to see her as a woman who’s sacrificed to get to where she is now. She’s risen to her position when a predecessor falls and the question becomes “what will she do to hold on to her position?”
Se-ah Yoon also has an expanded role as the widow and Hanjo Group power figure; her father and brother (primarily offscreen in this series) are her challengers as much is the Prosecution Services looking to cripple the company with tax charges and seeing her begin to step up into this new role is also a welcome addition to the “Stranger” world. Aided by the rigid and perhaps a little too slavishly devoted Director Park, she will become a force to be reckoned.
And that leaves us on a gratifying note for fans of the series, the writer leaves us and her characters in a similar situation as at the end of the first season — their world continues to be complicated, there are threads still to pick up, and new positions and roles to be explored, with a possible third season (perhaps more) yet ahead to delight and confound us!