The tree of life is dead, the world is on fire and evil doppelgangers are out for blood — mythological Exo are back with a vengeance in their comeback MV for “Obsession.”

With Lay indefinitely in China and Xiumin and D.O. enlisted in their mandatory two-year military service, the six remaining members of Exo have returned to the convoluted origins of their “Mama” days when they were split into Exo-K and Exo-M. After a year without a group comeback filled with solos and subunits, Exo have delivered one of their most ambitious, conceptual and visually captivating comebacks to date. 

Every time it seems Exo might have outgrown or moved past their superpowered backstory, the group finds their way back. Whether they are werewolves or sci-fi experiments or superheroes, Exo’s fantastical MVs all reference the initially mythology the group established upon debut way back in 2012. However, “Obsession” is the first to clearly be a direct sequel to “Mama” with the comeback’s promotions and marketing using clear symbolic imagery referencing Exo lore. 

While many previous Exo comeback MVs could easily be enjoyed by non-Exo-Ls, the MV for “Obsession” could be overwhelming for the uninitiated into exoplanet, the red force and the tree of life. In fact, viewers could miss the plot altogether if they have not seen the MV’s teasers and Exodeux social media campaign, which much more clearly establish what on earth is going on.

In “Obsession,” Suho, Baekhyun, Chen, Chanyeol, Kai and Sehun are decked out in black military gear on the hunt for their dark, genetically altered clones, also known as X-Exo. These evil doppelgangers can be physically told apart from the “originals” by their styling with colorful contacts, wild hair, scarring and heavy makeup.

X-Exo have red elements in their ensembles, glow red from the inside and dance surrounded by red lasers, which all reflect their allegiance to the red force that Exo has been battling over the years. In case there was any doubt who the good guys were, Suho’s hair is literally styled into red Wolverine-like devil horns. X-Exo’s molten cores gradually crack their skin and turn them to ash, making these doubles powerful but also temporary versions of Exo.

Each member spars with their clone in scenarios that reference that member’s elemental power. In one of the more obvious examples, Chanyeol’s element has been established as fire, which is why he has a fiery fistfight. Sehun’s power is wind, so he uses a bow and arrow to attack his clone.

Suho (water) is trapped in an underwater art gallery filled with paintings of water, Chen (electricity) plays a game of chess surrounded by TV screens, Baekhyun (light) fences on an illuminated fashion runway with sparks flying from his blade, and Kai (teleportation) dodges his matador double on a motorcycle.

If you are watching the MV trying to make sense of all the interconnected symbols, it is easy to miss one of the MV’s more straightforward messages. The MV is purposefully confusing. It is constantly cutting between the “real” Exo and the X-Exo clones. For example, one scene shows Suho in the underwater room and another shows X-Suho alone in the same room. The same is true of the other members, making it impossible to tell who is in control or who is besting whom.

Sehun fires off an arrow at his clone, but just as a volley seems certain to finish the double, the shot cuts to “real” Sehun getting struck with an arrow instead. It seems ultimately Exo and their more dark, exaggerated, flamboyant forms are actually one and the same. 

Each member’s obsession with offing their counterpart ends up killing them in the end, which is reflected in the last moment of choreography when the members of both Exo and X-Exo snap their own necks. The final shot in the MV shows the world half on fire, half not. Perhaps that’s because Exo and X-Exo, light and darkness, life and destruction, the “real” Exo and their performative selves all must coexist in equal measure to bring balance to Exo’s universe.

This twist is also reflected in the final chorus of the song. Throughout the lyrics, the members have been lashing back at a person, perhaps a former flame, who is haunting them and refusing to let go of what they had. After singing for them to “get away from me now” despite the “turned-off exit light” one final time, the group sings a modified version of the chorus:

One night what I saw in the darkness
Was the strange shadow that chased me after
The turned-on exit light
It’s me looking at myself in the mirror

Once they are able to turn on the exit light and finally leave, they can clearly see the situation and realize the shadow holding them back was themselves all along.

This distortion of identity and reality in the lyrics and MV matches well with the digitally distorted vocal effects used throughout the song, including the pitched-up, hypnotizing female “I want you” sample, the “I don’t think so” line in the chorus and the deep, reverberating “exit line” echo. The roles in the group also blur in the song itself, with Chanyeol taking on vocal lines and starting as the dance center of X-Exo, Baekhyun starting the song with a rap-like verse and rapper Sehun singing and even harmonizing with the group’s belter, Chen.

As the group’s lineup will only continue to shift and change in the next few years as members cycle through their military service, it is exciting to see members challenge what fans might think they are capable of and help fill roles while other members are gone.

While Exo’s mythology is now more elaborate than ever, they have remained true to their concept and strengths while continuing to evolve with “Obsession.”

(Youtube. Images and lyrics via SM Entertainment.)