Stranger Season 2 (2020) The Insider as Outsider
A question emerges as the story progresses in these recent days. Why is Seo Dong-jae still alive? Why does his abductor go to all the trouble of keeping him alive after all this time? Wouldn't it be easier to finish him off entirely and dump his body somewhere to be found? The effect would, to my mind be the same but without the inconvenience of having to feed the hostage.
I pose the question not because I don't value Dong-jae's life or his role in this franchise but out of a curiosity regarding the kidnapper's motives for obviously wanting to create a stir and have the law enforcement agencies scramble around like headless hens in search of answers. What does he/she gain by keeping Dong-jae alive? Is the ruffling of sensitive feathers really all that the perpetrator has in mind? The answer to that question is perhaps the key to everything including the impetus behind the second season.
Imagine working for an organisation that you have devoted your entire professional life too. You're onboard with all their stated objectives. So much so that you consistently give it your all because of the belief that it is a cause worth fighting for. And what's more, you're good at what you do and catch the eye of very important people who can... you hope... move mountains.
However, as time goes by you realise, while rising through the ranks, that there are unstated objectives amongst the organization's hierarchy that clash with your cherished principles. Gradually you find yourself wrestling with your own conscience questioning your part in the organisation's agenda/mission -- You start to ask yourself if this is what you signed up for. The job that you love is gradually becoming more onerous with each meeting, with each new order delegated to you.
You're intelligent and competent enough to conclude after a while that you're perhaps little more than a puppet, strung along and dancing to the tune of your superiors. You're given a song sheet with the lyrics and the music but it's so out of tune that only someone who is tone deaf can carry on without too many qualms.
Moreover, you've always believed yourself to be a truth-seeker and now you're being hamstrung by your superiors from digging too deep and worse still you're forced to take sides while putting any kind of objectivity to bed. You're learning to play politics with the best of them.
It was always the case that the police-prosecutors council was a circus performance for media and public consumption. Both sides grudgingly went through the motions as they were obliged to. But the dial of cynicism was turned up a notch or two when Choi Bit and Woo Tae-ha deployed it as a distraction to prevent their underlings from probing further into the Park Gwang-su case. It's not entirely clear if the deceased was just someone who was corrupt during his prosecutor days and his mates in the office covered up for him or if he sank down further into the rabbit hole that he had dug for himself before his untimely death. From Woo Tae-ha's over-the-top reaction it does feel that there's something else going on. Whether DJ's kidnapping has any bearing on this, is still up for grabs.
For me the most compelling part of this season is the way Yeo-jin and Si-mok grapple with being part of a "side". I've heard it said that politics is the art of compromise and yet it is clear that the political-prosecutor feud is far from being engaged in any kind of compromise. It started off with plenty of posturing and now it's an instrument of what can be rightly called... a cover-up. The potential for the slippery slope was there from the start.
Sergeant Baek Jung-gi who was of the Segok station bribery-suicide fiasco had a telling response when he was cleared from the kidnapping accusation. Surprisingly he showed no anger as one might have expected despite the fact that no formal apologies were offered to him. And yet the interesting part is that his mind flew to that pivotal moment with his team when he should have put a kibosh on the notion of taking bribes. Everything else that followed began from that decision. He acknowledged that. If he could turn back the clock, that would be the moment that he would change to prevent the domino effect which followed. That was a road paved with good intentions that led to hell for all its players. Even when he walked away when he said he would, the others persisted in the bribery as he looked the other way. In hindsight it is a microcosm of what is occurring at the other end of the organization.
The reality is that corruption isn't the work of a single day... just as Rome wasn't. Our institutions aren't necessarily the problem because we do need them. The problem lies, as Solzhenitsyn poignantly reminds us, somewhere in the human heart. The issues arise when men and women in key positions make crucial decisions that trigger a chain of events that undermine not only the integrity of the people involved but the organization they represent. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to regain. While no one committed murder in the Segok incident, serious damage was done on multiple levels. Sgt Baek's realisation is part of the morality tale unfolding. Even though he was innocent of the abduction charge, he was not innocent because it was that fateful decision which eventually led to the false charge. As a cop himself, he understood that his culpability was not so easily erased because he did lead his men astray which inadvertently caused Sgt Song Gi-hyeon's suicide which in turn saw the prosecutors exploit the event for political expediency. There was smoke even if the fire was a small one. It is something Baek Jung-gi will have to live with for the rest of his life.
Because corruption has a way of mushrooming beyond the original offence, it has a way of coming back to bite the conspirators/participants. Some would call it karma. For me I prefer the biblical expression of "sowing and reaping". It's not even about being caught necessarily. It's about what corruption does to individuals... their conscience, their soul and their relationships with the people around them. I bring up Crime and Punishment as a wonderful study of this. It's no accident that the drama does this too. Dostoevsky did a brilliant job of plumbing a guilty person's headspace and the behaviour that follows. People who carry guilty secrets act in very specific ways and they respond to even the most innocent passing remarks accordingly. Take the jumpy Woo Tae-ha as an example.
Clearly this theme is most strongly played out in Yeo-jin's arc. She feels it most acutely because she was seconded from being a field officer to the reformation unit. It was never about politics for her. As Si-mok points out she was never one to be backwards in coming forward about her real opinions. It's not that I believe she will succumb but her situation illustrates how easy it is for the rot to creep in. It's so insidious because it's the subtle, little things that sees even the most well-intentioned person embarking on that trajectory. First you hold back from pushing back. Then you look the other way. Before you know it, you become complicit in something questionable. Something you never ever thought you would be a party to.
In her case, the egregious tribalism that she's been pushed into compounds the dilemma. Even Jang Geon was stunned by the repetitive back and forth at the council ding dong that he was compelled to comment. There's no incentive for her to be honest, to speak up because she would be perceived as a traitor to the cause just as Si-mok is accused of being so by his superiors. The police as an organization is obviously in need of reformation but the current fixation seems to be narrowly focused on getting investigative rights from the prosecutor's office. There's some serious need to put that house in order first.
Of course the prosecutor's office haven't got clean hands either. It's a broad church with numerous moving parts or different agendas. But when push comes to shove, they like the house the way it is despite the leaky roof and the rotting floorboards. They too have conveniently forgotten that they are public servants. Their first call isn't to close ranks but to act in public good. They've become so bureaucratized that survival has become the default setting. I almost sound like an idealist when I say this but actually I'm not. I'm a realist. To me all these political games lead to little good in the long run. It sets precedence. It makes things hard for the rank and file to do their job well. It hurts good people. It hurts the organization in the long run because it doesn't reward ethical staff or provide any incentive for anyone to do what is right. Where are the mechanisms for doing the right thing?
I'm not saying that the council is a complete waste of time because good can come out of it. The philosophical underpinnings to the back and forth for the second meeting are hard to disagree with. But the reality is that it isn't about who has the best arguments. They know it. We know it.
Wherever the show intends to take the leads, surely they are meant to be the stalwarts in an ever changing landscape. Yeo-jin can be open to Si-mok where she can't be elsewhere... even with her old gang at Yongsan station. Even though they are supposedly at opposite ends of the "dispute", their core beliefs are very much the same. They are willing to be collaborative and they are dogged about seeing things through to the bitter end. Even with all the obstacles that have been thrown in their path, they are resolute truth-seekers. They are the quintessential outsiders who instinctively reject being squeezed into the organizational conformist agenda.