Stranger Season 2 (2020) Early Review

The first season introduced us to Hwang Si-mok, the titular character as a dispassionate, dogged prosecutor who was depicted and located as the consummate outsider to the colluding machinations of Big Business, judicial system and government. It was hugely successful from all accounts, gaining critical and popular acclaim at home and overseas. It also managed to pick up a swag of awards for its troubles. So it makes sense that a second season would be given the green light as long as the cast and crew had the will to make it happen.

Sequels are always tricky as we're well aware. Few sequels ever reach the heights of their predecessors not only because of the perpetual burden of expectations but because it is difficult to replicate the freshness of the original.

Judging from the first two episodes, it seems that the writer has wisely decided to take a different approach although the focus remains largely on the criminal justice system. The old gang (aside from any who died or were put behind bars in the previous season) returns with the addition of some new faces but it's two years later and the political landscape has seen some changes. The show lands us right in a middle of a turf war between the cops and the prosecutors bickering over investigative rights and authority in the determination of case closures. Many on both sides are on edge with neither side wanting to give in. It's a cold war conducted in full view of public gaze as each side attempts to weaken the other's credibility. When the political wrangling reaches boiling point, the big guns from each side decide to do what bureaucrats do when giving the impression that something is being done... form a committee made up of members from each side. Hence the Police-Prosecutor Council is born.

Si-mok who was relocated to a regional posting at the end of the first season is inadvertently recalled to Seoul to be part of this new committee. His old supervisor Chief Kang Won Chul doesn't think it's the best idea ever devised by a person because in his mind, Si-mok is a sword that should only be used for very particular purposes or he will end up back in the drawer of oblivion as he did cleaning up corruption two years earlier. Si-mok's response is that he can't stay in the drawer forever and it's clear he's itching to play with the big boys. Chief Kang is well-aware that Si-mok is not someone who can be easily swayed by tribal loyalties and perhaps his being in the Police-Prosecutor Council will do more harm and than good for "their side".

Meanwhile his former comrade-in-arms, Inspector Han Yeo-jin has been seconded to the Intelligence Bureau within the police organization whose primary brief is policing reforms. Her boss Choi Bit is walking the tightrope of trying to keep promote the organization's interests outside its four walls while protecting the organization from hemorrhaging from within in this battle with the Prosecutor's Office. Yeo-jin has also been tasked to join the Police-Prosecutor Council to protect the organization's interest.

My own feeling is that there are decent but frustrated people on both sides who want to get the job done and hold on to their jobs. But the political wrangling is undoubtedly problematic for a number of reasons. It's a publicity nightmare that can't exactly be inspiring public confidence about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in the country. Potentially it could compromise the integrity of investigations if both sides play oneupmanship with other people's lives in order to prove something. It can be exploited by a an ambitious inveterate brown noster like Seo Dong-jae to get ahead in the organization's food chain. Frankly it feels that someone like Si-mok and even Yeo-jin are needed in such a situation. They once proved that the police and prosecution can be on the same side when larger concerns are at stake, so why not now?

Although still wholly in set-up phase, the second season shows promise. For me the first episode brought in a whole myriad of characters whose importance had to be navigated through for a clear view of the bigger picture. The beach drowning incident although had more to it than first meets the eye became for the two sides a veritable political football. There was no criminal culpability in accordance to the law but the hasty determination was later used by Choi Bit to accuse the prosecution in front of rolling cameras of giving preferential treatment after Si-mok put in a complaint about the unseemly speed in which the final decision was handed down by the prosecution.

It feels to me in these early days that what's really at stake for Si-mok and for the show is the role of prosecutors. All the haggling over authority seem to be about the definition of a prosecutor and what sort of powers they should be entrusted with. Are they investigators? Are they members of the judiciary first and foremost? Is there role in the larger society to exact punishment or to correct? Or are they primarily truth seekers regardless of their tribal affiliations?