Note: This review contains spoilers for the first and second season of Shadow Detective
The first season of Shadow Detective on Disney+ aired last year and ended on a far from satisfactory conclusion that nicely set up the premise for the second season, which finished airing last week. The drama, written by Im Chang-se and directed by Han Dong-hwa, follows Kim Taek-rok (Lee Sung-min) who is a jaded but sharp detective drawn into investigations that unearth corruption in the police force and his city. Shadow Detective is a layered crime drama well worth the focus required to watch it.
The first episode of the second season opens with Taek-rok sprinting to his job. It is a callback to the opening scenes of the first season as he chases a suspect, with him narrating that once he retires he is never running again. The two parallel scenes summarize exactly what Shadow Detective is about: Taek-rok, the experienced detective in the moody and perpetually cloudy seaside town of Geumo, simply cannot catch a break. In the first season he is suspected of murdering his friend and colleague while being blackmailed by a mysterious caller. Taek-rok hopes for an easier ride to retirement when he is transferred to the Women and Juvenile Affairs department at the start of the second season. A case involving teenage burglars, however, soon leads Taek-rok to uncover sinister plans involving police corruption that was hinted at in the first season.
Shadow Detective unfurls through Taek-rok’s perspective. He narrates his thoughts as he puzzles over clues and connections between perpetrators, and the drama is careful to keep the audience on the same page as him. For example, when Taek-rok is immediately wary ofhis team leader in the Women and Juvenile Affairs department, Yeon Ju-hyun (Kim Shin-rok), the audience sees limited snippets of her sneaking around and behaving rather suspiciously until Taek-rok realizes her true intentions.
Limiting what the audience knows also forces the viewers to be invested in Taek-rok’s connections with his colleagues and friends. As a result, Taek-rok’s relationships with each of the main antagonists in the two seasons is what makes their betrayals so effective. In this season, Choi Do-hyung (Jung Jin-young), is a friend and former colleague of Taek-rok’s from Seoul that moves to Geumo to start a youth welfare foundation.
Through flashbacks and their discussions, we learn about how they first met, the time they spent together on the same team in Seoul to the events that transpired that tore their team apart and triggered Taek-rok’s move back to Geumo. As Do-hyung starts to display his true colours, Taek-rok finds himself reflecting on incidents in the past that could have led him to realize Do-hyung’s ambitions sooner. Do-hyung’s betrayal, while expected, is still impactful because the audience has been privy to the trials and tribulations that they face together as teammates.
Like the first season, the second season uses most of its episodes to build up the final confrontation in the eighth and final episode. Only in the concluding moments of each terminal episode is there a jarring confrontation, the culmination of Taek-rok and his trusted few labouring over their investigations into corrupt police officers, politicians, and the secrets that they share.
Aside from the plot and thematic continuities, the second season forces Taek-rok to consider his career and past actions to depths he did not have to in the previous season. The first season demonstrated that though he is a well-respected and competent detective, he is far from perfect in both his professional and personal life. This season, however, Taek-rok’s connection to the crimes being committed is more nuanced; he has to examine the snowballing effects of the choices that he has made throughout his career. Since the audience is confined to the narrative of Taek-rok’s mind, it pushes us to empathize with him as he carries with him the burden of his mistakes and their consequences.
Though Taek-rok is very hard on himself, the characters in his small and trusted circle illustrate that while he may not be well-liked by many he has had a tremendous impact on those he cares about. One such character is Lee Seong-ah (Kyung Soo-jin), a colleague of Taek-rok’s who is unfailingly loyal to him. In the first season her loyalty is established from the very first episode; if Taek-rok is the hero of the series, she is his unquestioning sidekick. This season, Seong-ah’s history with Taek-rok is finally revealed. When she was a teenager, Taek-rok was one of the few people that believed in her and her potential. Alongside the introduction and development of Ju-hyun, the insight into Seong-ah’s character signals how the second season of Shadow Detective pays more attention to the few women characters that it does have.
Though the premise of a hardboiled detective working to bring down corruption is a familiar one, Shadow Detective is a drama that commands attention from its audience as Taek-rok slowly untangles the web of secrets and corruption. By telling the story through his perspective, Shadow Detective leaves us with a memorable and imperfect protagonist who has experienced firsthand the costs of achieving justice.
(YouTube, Images via Disney+)