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Alice (2020) For which I tear my hair out in frustration and take a deep breath
This show fascinates and frustrates me on so many levels. Despite my eagerness to get back to it after the Chuseok break and revelling in the highs in these recent episodes (11 and 12), there are aspects of it that leave me shaking my head going "Why?" As an ahjumma who might or might not be entering pre-menopause I certainly can't afford to lose any more hair. But my need to know how it all plays out means that I will be persevering right to the end... bitter or sweet or both. At this point there's really no sense in abandoning ship when the finale is in sight.
12 episodes on, Jin-gyeom's relationship... out of all the relationships he has with everyone in the drama... with present day Tae-yi is, in my opinion, the least interesting. Taboo teasing aside. While I grudgingly accept that he has to have a relationship with her... or even the nature of his relationship with her, the time spent on it seems disproportionate in its execution. When I consider how clever the show is capable of being with regards to time travel and doppelgangers, it's dismal that this supposedly key relationship sucks the oxygen from the room. It's so blah because they're nervously treading a tightrope that could see their ratings plummet altogether. From the looks of things it's already begun to happen.
For the most part Alice has the makings of a good drama and when it behaves like a twisted mind boggling sci-fi thriller, it's at the top of its game. But all the overemphasis on Jin-gyeom's ambiguous relationship with 2020 Tae-yi is tedious. Whichever way you look at it. Part of the problem it seems to me is that she's a patchy character written more to serve a function in the script that sees her dashing here, there, everywhere quite uselessly and often putting herself in harm's way. It doesn't help that she is written as a doppelganger, living under the shadow of the "prototype" which is all the more ironic in light of what she says about herself when she confronts the fact that she's Jin-gyeom's mother's parallel self. It strikes her (and us) that she's a mannequin whose importance to the likes of Jin-gyeom and Min-hyuk is imbued by their relationship with the Tae-yi that they have memories of. That acknowledgement /realisation was perhaps the best thing about her so far. Frankly it should never have taken her this long to get there. Sometimes... in my more cynical moments... I toy with the idea that the show doesn't quite know what to do with her except as someone for Jin-gyeom to rescue and angst over. In contrast, Jin-gyeom's scenes with his beloved Ahjussi roll much better and feel so much more natural.
It's almost tragic how underutilized second tier/ supporting characters are by comparison. Especially when most of them are potentially more interesting. The juggling act especially in the middle act is lamentable. There's no disputing the need for an ensemble cast for a show like this and I've even defended Do-yeon's characterization elsewhere. But it's increasingly apparent that she's becoming more of a prop that they trot out now and again to remind us that she exists. Where's the feisty journalist? What's the point of giving Tae-yi an adoptive sister who does so little to further the storyline? Jin-gyeom's colleagues? Yeah, what about them? Why is Tae-yi playing detective instead of them? And Min-hyuk... dear Min-hyuk... what a waste of the eye candy and the soothing sonorous vocals. Yes, I'm biased because I'm finding him to be a more interesting character than the leads right now. Rather than putting so much focus on Jin-gyeom's need to use 2020 Tae-yi as a vicarious conduit for living with mother, I'd personally rather have seen Do-yeon and the team members better integrated into the bigger picture. There's so little teamwork. Increasingly they're relegated to the place of comic relief and scenery. I am justifiably concerned... especially with only 4 episodes left in the can.
I don't want to be too unkind. Perhaps I'm jumping the gun. True, the world's not about to end. But it's certainly making a great case for 12 episodes being the new default standard for time travel thrillers.
Ko Hyeon-seok's (Ahjussi) arc sadly came to an end in the most recent episode. To its credit the show gave him a lovely send off which not only saw some new facts regarding Alice Inc. come to light but also demonstrated Jin-gyeom's growth as a man in his ability to transcend his alexithymia to a much higher degree. Ko Hyeon-seok, while he understandably threw his lot in with the pro-time travelling monomaniacs, was a genuinely kind-hearted, grieving soul. He and others kept Jin-gyeom on the straight and narrow after his mother's death. They are instruments by which he discovers... attains his humanity, grounding him in the importance of relationships... of family. Moreover, Jin-gyeom's acknowledgement of Hyeon-seok's part in his journey as a father-figure he needed at the most crucial moment was deeply moving. I grieve with those who lost him and one gets a growing sense that the trade-offs to time travel are ridiculously high.
Now that Hyeon-seok is out of the picture one can only hope that Min-hyuk can step into that vacated role in some fashion. He can't be what Hyeon-seok was to Jin-gyeom because of timing and circumstances. The need this time will be different. He will, however, be a comrade-in-arms in line with his skill set and out of sheer necessity in the battle that is to come. Whether Jin-gyeom wants Min-hyuk's help or not, he will have it but more importantly, he will need it. Min-hyuk is a warrior in the way Hyeon-seok could never be. Plus he's man who has some chance of dealing with the "invasion from the future". Now that he's catching on with regards to the ugly side of time travel, he will throw all his resources into doing what he had failed to do previously.
Hyeo-seok's final words to Jin-gyeom come from a man who has travelled back in time and reaped some benefits in doing so. One might even say that he did some good while he lingered on in place of his other self. What he said about taking hold of the present and not having regrets about it is significant in light of that. If the parallel universe thesis applies here it does suggest that even if you have the ability to go back in time and relive moments with your loved ones, it isn't exactly the same. The person from the parallel universe is not a carbon copy of the person you loved. That's the crux of Min-hyuk's comment to 2020 Tae-yi. The parallel universe might be a pleasant way to play out one's fantasies or unfulfilled desires but it's not a place you can necessarily call home. In part because the time traveller has a knowledge of a future that hasn't yet occurred. By going back to the past the time traveller from the future automatically changes the past because of experiences and memories of occurrences that the past is still ignorant about. It's a double-edged sword. Wrongs can be righted but there is still the law of unintended consequences lurking in the background.
According to my perspective, it's in effect a gigantic psychoanalytic laboratory that is doomed for failure if the goal is to change the past to mitigate the effects of suffering. It can't be assumed that change is necessarily for the better (whatever "better" means)... or that the net benefits outweigh the negative trade-offs.
The moral underpinnings are clear. Time travellers of the future seem drunk with power, amoral and have very little qualms killing their past selves if it means furthering their goals. That point is made loudly and with little doubt. They blithely ignore the moral ramifications because... let's face it... the lure of holding on to that kind of power is irresistible for certain types of individuals. Especially if they zealously believe in harnessing that power for good. Furthermore, we don't fully comprehend the Teacher's agenda. Or even future Tae-yi's thinking on the necessity of shutting it all down. But it's not hard to see at least from an outsider's perspective some of the dangers despite whatever short-term benefits it might lead to. Regardless of what pearls of wisdom are contained in the last page of the Book of Prophecy, irregardless of the benefits, there's something about going back and forth in time that feels ominous.
My own feeling is that even the time travelling enthusiasts don't know everything about how time travel works. I've had this feeling for a while especially because of the Book of Prophecy. Ki Cheol-am's almost dismissive comment about paradoxes seems to highlight that. Of course I don't discount that this could be a writing and conception flaw. Because no matter how people go on and on about the multiverse thesis here, they all seem to conveniently return to the prime line where our Park Jin-gyeom is at the centre of it all with no explanation (so far) of how that works. I can only speculate that the Book of the Prophecy is the reason why the Alice facility was built in 2020 and is the flashpoint for all occurrences.
Since now that we know that the Alice project and Teacher crowd intersect via Ki Cheol-am, the writing is on the wall writ large. One wonders how deep the rot goes within the legitimate face of time travel. The illegitimate death cult run by the Teacher sees itself as the ultimate gatekeepers ensuring that continuation of time travel. What about the lad that is called The Broker? Where does he fit into the overall scheme of things?
I have said on other occasions that time travel has to end at some point because of the inherent danger of the technology falling into the wrong hands or the fact that such power appears to be in the hands of an unknown mysterious oligarchy called "Headquarters". There's another reason which I've already alluded to. Fixing the past is a pipedream if all that's happening is the creation of an alternate timeline. It may have some therapeutic benefit as a type of psychodrama. However, the fixation with the past renders the actor immobile. The second-guessing, the hypothetical "if only I had..." ensures that the individual remains static. I return to Hyeon-seok's dying words. The present and the people around are what's important. Th lesson for Jin-gyeom is this: Life is to be lived to its fullest in the here and the now. We are meant to move on from events -- tragic or otherwise and grow. Happiness is not forever. Painful moments are inevitable. They can make us or break us. That's the choice to be made. To accept the past and to move on from it strengthened and wiser to in readiness for the present and the future.
From the bottom of my heart I really want this show to do well. Indeed I do. Science fiction done well is always delight. But there's a niggling fear that it's suffering from the usual problems of ambitious productions comprising of ensemble casts. It's all in the juggling act.