Stranger Season 2 (2020) Final Episodes: Crime and Punishment
The more I mull over the ending the more I appreciate its intentions and achievements. It tried to take a different approach from its predecessor... maybe a bit too hard... but it was still a good watch overall. The Hanjo connection is still something of an anti-climax but I'm willing to let it pass because I've come to the conclusion after ruminating over the finale that the writer doesn't do "realistic" crime or political dramas in as much as she spins fables about the state of moral decay in social structures. It was the same with the first season. The contestability of Lee Chang-jun as a martyr for the cause was the shock factor to ensure that the conversation would continue for a time.
The biggest tragedy that's emerged from the entire corruption fiasco is not that men and women in high places committed offences and acted irresponsibly as public officials. It's not even the fact that they tried to get away with it and almost did. There's scarcely anything surprising about all that. Or even that they threatened Si-mok and Yeo-jin with an outcome that forbode doom and gloom for all eternity. What was truly tragic was that most of the perpetrators maintained an unrepentant disposition right to the bitter end. The production team gleefully slugged viewers over the head with a heavy dose of realism -- although I doubt that anyone was expecting a Disney ending in any shape or form.
I keep returning to the drama's references to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment which would have provided a suitable subtitle for the drama. In the original, Raskolnikov, who killed the repulsive pawnshop owner and played out the justifications for doing so in his own mind fell prey to his own conscience despite his stated nihilistic commitments. The former law student considered himself an amoral being, the rules didn't apply to her, and he would be the arbiter of what's right or wrong. How wrong would it be for him to rid the world of someone so obviously abhorrent. He would be doing the world a favour. Of course human beings aren't amoral creatures and Dostoevsky, a man with deep spiritual concerns understood that only too well. Objectively a man like Raskolnikov wasn't an amoral creature especially if he felt outraged over the doings of unpleasant human beings. The spiritual side of Raskolnikov as represented by his conscience was always at play because fundamentally he believed in some kind of universal justice and held to a moral compass. He wasn't indifferent to the pawnshop owner or to his own sister's plight. What he in effect tried to do is displace the Christian God in his mind and put himself in that place of judge, jury and executioner. It was abominable pride. He played out original sin as understood by Christians from the Genesis account of the Fall of humanity. Raskolnikov put a price tag on a fellow human being which the Christian Dostoevsky would have believed was someone made in the image of God.
Woo Tae-ha turned out to be a far more cynical beast than I had imagined. His corruption and eventual exposure was obviously not the work of a single day. I always hoped that there was something less Machiavellian beneath that head of hair but sadly he was nothing more than a caricature of the unconscionable slick political operator. He was perceptibly sociopathic in his glibness. Threatening to destroy someone's career to save his seemed like just another day in the office. The language he used was indicative of a strategy that's part of the arsenal he carries around as a matter of habit: none too subtle bullying and emotional manipulation.
While it might be going too far to say that Woo Tae-ha is cut from entirely the same cloth as Raskolnikov, there are striking similarities. Woo's conscience (whatever's left of it) was at work the entire time as Si-mok and Yeo-jin were digging around for clues to Seo Dong-jae's disappearance. He got nervous, he panicked unnecessarily. He blustered about guiltily and drew attention to himself. He even tried to shut down the investigation. But more importantly he made everything about him. His final exchange with Choi Bit speaks to this: he thought they were a team and he felt betrayed by her actions.
The danger of someone like Woo Tae-ha isn't so much that he's a closet bully or master manipulator but that he puts himself above the law. Multiple steps of rationalization led to one compromising event after another. To be fair, he's not the only one. The accumulation of self-justification over time is damaging for the community. Not only does the system become corrupted and justice becomes a nice, abstract notion, but people get hurt. Some even die as a consequence.
This was also the case of Kim Hu-jeong, the 20-year-old lad behind the Tongyeong drownings. On some level he is set-up to be a sympathetic victim of long-term, incessant bullying. Our sense of justice is appealed to on that front. However, that is called into question when he makes himself judge, jury and executioner of his bullies. Contrary to what he thinks, he didn't get caught because Seo Dong-jae got nosey. He got caught in part because his guilt affected his conscience. To cover up his original offence, he hit Dong-jae over the head with a brick and then tried to hide his crime in his closet. Then when he heard about the fake evidence and fake letter, his guilty conscience saw him reacting once again by cleaning his flat with bleach and took a man, barely alive, out into the forest and dumped him there. The bleaching of his "lair" was symbolic of his wanting to cleanse himself of the crime which shows perhaps that his conscience was needling him. If he really believed that he had the right to kill those other boys, why would he even bother cleaning up? Essentially the point of his arc was that he had committed a crime and was trying to get away with it. We can quibble over the plausibility of that event till the cows come home but what the writer really wants to highlight is the human capacity to rationalize a way into a crime despite the megaphone of the conscience in one's soul.
Sergeant Baek and his men at the Segok station found justification to engage in bribery. It started off with the best of intentions. They rationalized it in the name of saving a life. The sergeant got to his limit and stopped. But the others didn't and it seemed that he didn't try hard enough to stop them either. Then comes along Song Gi-hyeon who is a principled cop and he, in their mind, is a cat among the pigeons. The workplace culture becomes such that he is the troublemaker not them. He finds out about the bribery and they make his life hell so that he ends up taking his own life. Out of the whole mob, only two came to some understanding of their culpability in the chain reaction that followed.
This is why Kang Won-chul's resignation was so important. He recognized his culpability in the chain of events that followed a single decision. He allowed his conscience to guide him and he left the prosecutor's office with his integrity more or less intact even if it doesn't erase what had happened. The most important part of why he resigned is that he saw a progression to what he did in the Tongyeong drownings. I'm not saying he should take responsibility for everything that occurred there but a man who can still second-guess himself for the part he played in an event, can find his way out of the pit he's dug himself into. Certainly he made a deal with the devil... Hanjo... but by walking away from the prosecutor's office, he is free from further manipulation. At the very least he values his freedom over being someone else's puppet for the sake of short-term wealth or gain like O Ju-seon for instance.
Kang Won-chul's quick exchange with Lee Yeon-jae was one of the finale (or even the entire series)'s highlights. Of course individuals can and do make a difference. That's what leadership is supposed to be about. Steering the ship in the right course is a start. I'm not sure if she grasps the point that's made but she doesn't have to be her father's daughter or her husband's wife. She can be a leader of a corporation shaped and styled without having to default to "business tactics as usual". Kang Won-chul's comments sting because she knows deep down that there's some truth to what he says about her role in her husband's demise.
The rule of law is one of the most fundamental principles of civilized free societies. Not because it's a blanket guarantee against crime or anarchy from occurring but because, I think, it also protects us from a kind of insular hubris as exemplified by Raskolnikov and Woo Tae-ha et. al. No one is above the law or should be if justice ultimately has to be served.
Although initially painful, it's right (on hindsight) that Yeo-jin stick to her guns and continue with the Intelligence Bureau at the main office despite actively experiencing ostracization. It's not only another instance of the importance of individuals making a difference by standing up to the status quo, but the discomfort she creates here is necessary for some long-term realignment of the workplace culture to some more in line with the ideals of the organization. The fact that she is branded a traitor rather than a hero is predictable considering the systemic corruption at the higher levels already trickling downwards. Her colleagues see themselves as mere cogs in the machinery, not living breathing organisms that can affect changes in the health of the body. In their mind, it's not that individuals can't make a difference but that they shouldn't even try. They should fall in line with what the leadership does and not question their actions because apparently because they are infallible gods. They've learnt to play the game a certain way and can't abide by the fact that someone would come along and tell them that the rules were being broken the entire time. Yeo-jin is being punished via ostracization for the crime of upholding the ideals of the organization... and don't we feel the injustice of it all.
Those that swim against the tide to get the truth heard are laudable in their courage because they pay a very high price for it so that others can have a voice. They're seldom popular for doing so they lose friends and even family for taking a stand. It's easy to speak truth to power when it's prevailing orthodoxy and no one in the mainstream disagrees with you but much much harder when no one cares to hear it. Still the show offers her and the rest of us who barrack for her a glimmer of hope in the presence of the new director. He might be a much needed fresh wind to blow in change that's sorely needed for the organization.
What Seo Dong-jae represents for me here is the value of all human life flawed and unvirtuous as they are. We don't have to like him because he sometimes plays fast and loose with the truth. We don't have to like the bullies to acknowledge that their lives meant something if not to us but to their families. It's easy to dehumanize someone deeply unlikeable to the point that murder becomes a natural next step. Which is what we see in Crime and Punishment. Murder affects the perpetrator quite differently, it seems to me compared to other crimes.
Yeo-jin's visit to Yoon Se-won signals something hugely significant in light of all the nasty stuff that's gone on. To ultimately break the cycle of vengeance and resentment, forgiveness is absolutely key. Park Kyung-won might not be entirely sure of why he's sending packages to the man who murdered his father but I think it's really about forgiveness because that's what his soul seems to be craving.
In keeping with its title the show makes a strong case for "strangers"... outliers in a system made more complex by political chicanery. These "strangers" or outsiders are men and women who remain true to the ideals of the institutions that they are meant to protect from untoward influence no matter the cost. They are few and far between but they are necessary. They are needed to keep the inhouse hustlers from crossing the invisible line. They may be feared or disliked but they are absolutely needed to ensure that the entire superstructure doesn't collapse into a heap. It certainly helps some of us sleep a little better at night that they are people like Si-mok and Yeo-jin about, few as they might be.