After a successful run in 2017, Stranger (also known as Forest of Secrets) came back for a second season and managed to surpass the popularity of the first. Following more corruption and tangled mysteries, Stranger 2 concluded last weekend with a similar message from its first season: justice will prevail but not without its consequences.
This review contains spoilers.
For a recap, the first season of Stranger centred around prosecutor Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo) and police lieutenant Han Yeo-jin (Bae Doo-na) who worked together to solve a string of mysteries and the larger corruption scandal behind it. It is important to note that Si-mok underwent a surgery as a child that leaves with him with almost no emotion or empathy; his lack of emotion and attachment to others helps him in his dogged pursuit to expose the bad deeds that he uncovers. Yeo-jin, while also a determined truth-seeker, is the opposite. She is caring and empathetic, and the two strike up a friendship that continues into the second season.
Stranger 2 picks up two years after the conclusion of season one, with some new faces added to the main cast. One of the new faces is Choi Bit (Jeon Hye-jin), who is Yeon-jin’s boss at the Intelligence Bureau and her unofficial mentor. Another is Woo Tae-ha (Choi Moo-sung), who becomes Si-mok’s boss at the Supreme Prosecutor’s office. The last addition is not an unfamiliar face; Lee Yeon-jae (Yoon Se-ah) was the wife of the late Lee Chang-joon (Yoo Jae-myung) who committed suicide at the end of the first season. She is the new head of chaebol group Hanjo, and she is not below dirty tricks to protect her company.
The second season starts out with a joint police-prosecution council that immediately clashes, though this council is only a background conflict for even more corruption that occurs on both sides. Stranger 2 features similarities and differences from the previous season, with one of the most prominent differences are characters and their developments. However, Stranger 2 is consistent with the first season in terms of its complex plot, with layers that continue to be peeled away until the very last episode.
One of the ways that the series diverges from the first season is through the increased role of female characters. Season one did have a junior prosecutor named Young Eun-soo (Shin Hye-sun), but Yeo-jin was arguably the only woman to play a critical role throughout the whole series. However, in season two Choi Bit and Lee Yeon-jae, whose role was upgraded to a more important one from the previous season, complete the trio of main female characters.
Choi Bit is Yeo-jin’s direct supervisor though she is strict and ruthless, Yeo-jin clearly admires her and thinks of her as a mentor. Choi Bit, to her credit, sees potential in Yeo-jin and wants the best for her career-wise and her subtle rapport with Yeo-jin is a gem amongst the tension that underlies most interactions in the drama. However, she toes the line between likeable and unlikeable, remaining an enigma until her history is fleshed out at the very end.
Lee Yeon-jae, on the other hand, suffers from weak incorporation into the main plot. Though she is the CEO of fictional chaebol group Hanjo, which plays a key role in both the first and second season, her scenes often feel disconnected from the rest of the plot. For most of the drama she interacts solely with her right hand man Managing Director Park (Jung Sung-il), and her role as one of the “bad guys” is murky at best.
Another key difference between the first and second season is the friendship between Si-mok and Yeo-jin. The first season introduced our two protagonists who grew to develop a friendship, in large part due to Yeo-jin’s brash and outgoing nature. This season features a more subdued Yeo-jin; her promotion also led to more conflicts with coworkers, and she no longer doodles whoever, whenever like she did in the first season. Si-mok, on the other hand, remains more or less the same though this time around his coworkers and the audience are treated to a rare smile from the stoic prosecutor here and there.
Their reunification in this season is bittersweet because they have been pitted against each other in the joint police-prosecution council. As a result, the two work together less and against each other more, though their bond in pursuing what is right is never questioned. Ultimately, they are still the partners-in-exposing-crime that the audience has grown to love and root for.
Despite the differences, viewers of the first season of the drama will recognize how Stranger 2 also excels in pulling off a complex storyline. Starting with an accidental death at a foggy beach to the kidnapping of Si-mok’s colleague Seo Dong-jae (Lee Joon-hyuk), season 2 features a multitude of incidents. Not much about the plot is straightforward; Si-mok and Yeo-jin have to continuously dig for the truth facing many opponents, including their own superiors. The death of two university students, a bullying and suicide incident at a police station, and Dong-jae’s disapperance all tie together, though how they are connected is slow to be revealed.
Though the series drags in the middle, with some episodes starting and ending without a climax, it pulls through and manages to get the audience engaged again. Exciting breakthroughs end up being dead-ends but serve to reveal more and more corruption. For example, letters from Dong-jae’s kidnapper and a witness who turns up out of the blue to confirm that their prime suspect is indeed the one who committed the crime. It’s all too convenient, and surprise, surprise, there is someone pulling the strings behind the whole façade.
The first season featured a surprise antagonist, and Stranger 2 keeps the theme going by keeping Si-mok and Yeo-jin, as well as the audience, on their toes guessing who can be trusted and who cannot be. Though all is revealed by the end, reality is that neither Yeo-jin nor Si-mok are hailed as heroes. Instead they are perceived as traitors by many who share their professions, but they persist and even find some unexpected silver linings in their new workplaces. However, they persist and find some unexpected silver linings in their new workplaces. Even Dong-jae, after being missing and injured for most of the series, is his usual theatrical self by the end of the drama.
Stranger 2 concludes with the predictable victory of the good and punishment of the bad. However, the drama drives home the message that justice is never served as sweet as it is expected to be. For now, though, the audience can be content with the knowledge that the morally just were successful and have triumphed over the wicked.
(Images via tvN)