I have high expectations coming in the world of The Devil Judge but as soon as episode 1 started rolling I had to throw it all away. Because this is not an ordinary courtroom drama.
Unlike the writer’s previous series Miss Hammurabi, there’s no distinct line between the good and the bad nor lightness and darkness in The Devil Judge. It’s all in a blur, thanks much to its dystopian setting. Without the barriers of social norms, the writer had the chance to raise societal and moral questions in a more imaginative and dramatic manner.
A live courtroom show setting alone breaks all the rules and norms of a courtroom drama. Who would turn a sacred court into a television circus? But the society the characters live in in this series is a future we had yet to imagine. The Korea they know there is in chaos. The gap between the powerful and the poor is distinct. And people are sick and tired of the traditionalist way of seeking justice. Hence, the creation of a powerful medium where people can take part in punishing those who break the laws and in return, trust the system more. It’s more like a PR stunt rather than actual reform. Or at least that’s what the people in power thought it was what they are doing. They failed to realize they put the wrong person at the helm.
The daring judge Kang Yo-han (Ji Sung) is not really one of them. The rich and the powerful hiding behind the charity institution Social Responsibility Foundation were surprised to realize Yo-han is out there to get them. And for a very tragic reason at that. At first, Yo-han looked to me as the typical anti-hero who knows no bounds in implementing his vengeful plot. But I then realized he really has an evil streak in him and he’s not just putting up a mask. He’s no saint. His beliefs are that of an extreme reformist but who could blame him? The root cause of the problem in their society didn’t happen overnight. It was the effect of generations after generations of power greed and abuse. What’s worse is that those power-greed people took away important people in Yo-han’s life.
The fire scene in the church is so allegorical that I can’t just see it as a simple family tragedy. I know that it was a very important part of Yo-han’s storyline but it really is somewhat of a reflection of the whole setting of the series. And also, a zoomed-in picture of human selfishness, which is all in line with the whole series’ theme.
Yo-han already has a different view of the world before that tragedy but that scene added fuel to his anger and transformed it into a full flame. The only difference is that he has someone to protect now – Elijah (Jeon Chae-eun). I really loved watching Yo-han and Elijah’s scene in this series. She’s a reminder that Yo-han is still the “hero” of this series and brings out the human in him. The other person who does that well is Kim Ga-on (Park Jin-young). The dynamic of these two went through a lot of ups and downs in the series. In the end, however, they teamed up to take down the clowns running their current system.
For the most part, I enjoyed watching them expose the people of the Social Responsibility Foundation. The trials are a thrill to watch. There were some parts though that let me down. One instant is the downfall of Cha Kyung-hee (Jang Young-nam). I was excited when they finally targeted her because the build-up from it was so good. Only to be disappointed by her anti-climactic demise. But the rest at least lived up to what I was expecting the drama to do: bring justice in its own very unique – and yes, quite questionable – way.
In between putting evils on trial, the characters try to live and carry on with their lives under the semblance of normalcy. Each has past tragedies that haunt them from time to time.
Ga-on’s “normal life” includes his friendship with Yoon Soo-hyun (Park Gyu-young). These two have an interesting dynamic. Their I love yous and I miss yous to each other are lighter than those said with romantic notions but at the same time have the weight that only those with friendship bonded by time and life experiences would understand. Soo-hyun is clearly Ga-on’s anchor and he goes to her every time he thinks of straying. That’s why I kind of understand why he was manipulated when she died. He lost his world, or at least he thought. He was deep in his grief that he almost forgot there are other people who have kept him safe and grounded in the recent months – Yo-han and Elijah. And thanks to them, he sees that Soo-hyun’s death isn’t the end of his world. He has a bigger purpose to do than become a grieving suicide bomber.
And that scene where he asked, “It’s still the same. Nothing has changed at all. What should I do to make a world that doesn’t need a Yohan?” was a great culminating question for a series that we’ve watched through Ga-on’s perspective. The series was predominantly told in Ga-on’s eyes and how he perceives things. So that shift in ideals was really apparent as the connection between Yo-han and Ga-on becomes stronger. In the end, Ga-on realized that the world isn’t black and white and the grey area in between is larger than he thought.
The connection of Yo-han to Ga-on and Elijah is what set him apart to the series’ main “villain”. I actually couldn’t call Jung Sun-ah (Kang Min-jung) a “villain” because other characters here are eviler than her (but for the sake of this review, let’s just tagged her as the main antagonist). She’s actually one of the characters I enjoyed watching in this series. She’s a villain with a sad back story and I’m always a sucker for that. It somehow helps me make sense of why they do evil things if I know what they had to go through. Like yas! Be evil, make things worse for our protagonist. I support you with that as much as I support your downfall. And that downfall of Sun-ah was an emotional rollercoaster. She died admitting that she really was in need of emotional connection to another person – Yo-han. That’s she no monster nor witch. She’s just similar to Yo-han who wasn’t treated like a normal child growing up. Actually she’s one perplexing character for me. She really riled me up when she’s executing her evil plot but she confuses me when she’s ruminating alone or when she’s with Yo-han. During those moments, I thought the show would somehow give her a redemption arc. Because Sun-ah teaming up with Yo-han and Ga-on could have been a powerful trio and an interesting development to write. But oh well, the writer chose not to (which is a shame, to be honest).
And if I would pick the thing I didn’t enjoy in this series is it’s how the arcs of female characters ended. Soo-hyun was ambushed and didn’t even have the chance to fight at all. Both Kyung-hee and Sun-ah were cornered to their deaths. Although I still think Sun-ah had a better option than Kyung-hee. And one female character that could have been developed further is Oh Jin-joo (Kim Jae-kyung). She was always been put on the sideline as if a mere accessory to the live court trial. Jin-joo has her moments in the show but her character wasn’t developed any further.
If you drop the theatrics, The Devil Judge presented questions that needed to be pondered on. What would happen in a society run by fake populists? Who can claim to be real patriots? What does patriotism even mean? Politicians promised change for a safer nation but it was all a scam. And they fed on the fear of people and gain power from it – scarier than any monster out there; scarier than any kind of “Yo-han” or “Sun-ah”. There’s a lot could-have-been-better in this series but I can still give its showrunners applause for presenting notions/ideals that no one dared to talk about on TV. And those ideals aren’t far fetch. People do have ideals like that in real and there are people who support them. They might be in the minority now but this show made me wonder what it would take for them to fully take over. A pandemic like what happened in TDJ? Or something worse. I’m not sure. But what I’m sure of is I need more daring K-dramas like The Devil Judge.
-The evilest thing Sun-ah did for the whole series is to kill K. How dare you kill him? Kidding. But I look forward to seeing Lee Ki-taek in a new project.
-This Sondia OST!!!
Image Credit: tvN