Rather than a straight up, run-of-the-mill police procedural with a typical K drama corruption narrative, The Good Detective (2020) is a morality tale largely preoccupied with the moral choices made by people on bad days. While I wouldn't go as far as to say that the policing elements are merely window-dressing, it seems to be that the police investigation provides a familiar storytelling context in which these moral decisions are interacted with. Kang Do Chang (Son Hyun-joo), presumably the titular character, is a veteran cop that becomes reluctantly thrust into a re-examination of a case involving a death row inmate. 5 years earlier, an art major and a detective were killed and the crime was pinned on Lee Dae-chul (Jo Jae-yun) but in recent days, new information has come to light suggesting that Lee Dae-chul might not actually be the perpetrator but might in fact be the victim of a large scale conspiracy involving various individuals within branches of the so-called justice system. It's a familiar tale of woe from Kdramaland about corruption in high places and the abuse of power.
The title of the show could be said to work in two ways. It could be an oblique reference to Kang Do Chang. Or his latest sidekick, Oh Ji-hyuk (Jang Seung-jo) who seems far more eager to get to the bottom of things and has the acumen to match. On the other hand, the title could refer more generically to a particular type of police officer that is more an ideal that is a reality. Whatever this ideal detective looks like is an integral part of what is being explored in this drama. There are of course assumptions that underpin this ideal and these assumptions are governed by a particular set of moral values. Society at large presumes that there are shared values which inform our ideas of what constitutes an ideal detective. But that's not quite the case. These values are hotly contested especially by those who don't have altruistic concerns. As the drama unfolds, it is clear that depending on where you stand in the corruption spectrum or ladder, notions of the ideal detective shifts accordingly.
Is the ideal cop... as is the case here... just someone who lives by his/her conscience? That is to say, to act according to what he/she knows to be the right thing? But that seems to be an insufficient requirement if corruption of due processes occur routinely. Corrupt officials could well claim that they too are acting accordance to the dictates of their consciences. The word "corrupt" suggests that there is a pristine, untainted state in policing and after a while no one knows what that even looks like if abuses in the system have gained ascendency. When we first encounter Do-chang, he comes across as a timid, brown-noser whose only concern seems to be promotion. That's only half the story. Some time ago he had decided to play the "thou shalt not rock the boat" game because for a man of his experience, he's missed out on opportunities to get ahead while watching younger men climb the ladder of success. As the show progresses, it's clear that Do-chang isn't incompetent so the road blocks turn out to be political and conspiratorial rather than meritocratic. To some degree he had grasped something of the political nature of his position but it is only now that he's digging through the Lee Dae-chul that he's getting the bigger picture of how deep the rot goes. Far more importantly he's come to the conclusion that despite the pretence and the seeming capitulation, he's actually not one to play the game according to the rules of his supervisors. He can't look the other way when the evidence raises alarm bells. So it becomes clear that Do-chang was left out of that conspiracy because the schemers knew that he would never play ball with them.
Conscience by itself evidently isn't enough. It's a perpetual juggling act. The road blocks and gatekeepers are ever present to ensure that the secrets stay buried. It certainly isn't enough to battle a large-scale conspiracy. The drama also demonstrates that there's an existential battle of wits going on. Those on the side of angels, as it were, have to circumvent many of the usual investigative avenues because of the obstacles within the organization itself. Much of the comedy comes from Do-chang and Co. attempting to scam the schemers. It certainly doesn't speak well of a justice system when cops have to create subterfuge within their own organisation in order to save a life and to get to the truth. Sadly the good guys have to play hide and seek in order to survive the backlash of trying to re-open a reprehensible frame-up job. Moreover, it is clear that Do-chang on his own could never achieve the level of success he has so far. Ji-hyuk has been an indispensable variable. As a partner, Ji-hyuk nudges Do-chang along in his journey to atonement. Ji-hyuk wisely perceives that Do-chang's crisis of conscience needs to be played out in more concrete ways. It isn't enough to "feel bad" for the victims of this injustice. Action is needed. Strategizing. And co-opting the media. The combination of Ji-hyuk's nous and Do-chang's experience has brought about some measure of progress against some powerful forces.
So perhaps too the point can be made that a good detective has to be able to work with others and/or provide necessary leadership. He, as is the case here, can't be a lone wolf. Moreover, it isn't just about Do-chang and Ji-hyuk's partnership but the team that they surround themselves with must be with them heart and mind. That's the lesson that we take from Kwon Jae-hong's arc where he's under pressure to cave in to the pressure to spy on his colleagues. Jae-hong had felt himself on the outer, not in step with the rest of the team. However, the team smartly plays up his contribution to the capture of a well-known gang leader with effusive praise and celebratory drinks. Winning his heart was essential to maintaining long-term unity and ensuring his loyalty on a bumpy road. Involving Jin Seo-kyung was also key to giving legs to getting a retrial on the road. She too understood the ramifications of what she was asked to do when cooperating with the "good cops". There are consequences for everyone who work outside the system or the confines of what their respective organizations have laid down. The irony is that though they are made to feel like renegades and even provocateurs the reality is that if they are supposedly seekers of truth and justice then really, they are only accomplishing what was always supposed to be the spirit of their jobs.
With regards to Ji-hyuk, he is driven by something intensely personal. He isn't just a dispassionate detective although it does appear that way to those who don't know him well. His is a life traumatized by crime. His father's murder has been a festering wound in his soul that he can't shake. As someone left behind in an unsolved murder and a suicide, he is driven to catch the culprit in a way other cops aren't. He must know what it is like not to have answers to the questions. No resolution means no closure. He certainly has no qualms about fingering his cousin, Oh Jong-tae for the crime or putting him in the hot seat if the shoe fits. For him, shaped by his tragic past, the truth of what happened is more important than blood ties. He is only too aware from his family baggage that people who share the same blood don't always share the same goals or moral compass.
The other brutal reality that emerges when cops don't do their jobs well is that people's lives are destroyed. Of course the larger forces that play their chess games in their ivory towers live by the maxim that omelettes can't be made without breaking eggs but down in the back streets and alleyways of the big cities are some of the results of their backroom shenanigans. Lee Eun-hye, the daughter of the death row inmate might be the biggest casualty in this as her bleak future continues to play out in unsavoury terms. She suffers from epilepsy. She has a tumultuous relationship with her pimp. There's no where she can call home. If her father is executed, she will forever live with the infamy of being the daughter of a murderer and death row candidate. So a man with a conscience like Do-chang can't look at the true victim of a true crime and walk away. After all she's the sort of person that he must have signed on to protect many years ago.
What's clear too is that justice can only occur when it's accompanied by the truth. Without truth, facts, data there can't be justice. Whoever is guilty of the original murders has to be found to save a man's life but at the end of the day it isn't just about him, it's also about society's confidence in its institutions to protect the lives of everyone without partiality.