Life on Mars: Episode 2
Premiere week for Life On Mars loses no momentum in its second episode as Tae-joo tries to piece together what’s happened to him while simultaneously catching a killer. His rocky introduction to the team certainly doesn’t help matters, but nobody said time travel was easy.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
In the middle of a chaotic crime scene in 1988, our detective from 2018, Tae-joo, reels from the alarming similarities between this victim and the modern-day Manicure Killer’s MO. Fellow cop Nam-shik reports to their captain Dong-chul that the victim is a café employee who disappeared after stealing money from her boss. Additionally, the recent loss of her only family to illness spurs Dong-chul to conclude that she likely killed herself in despair.
Pesky Reporter Bae dogs Dong-chul for details while Tae-joo examines the body. Something about the blood pattern is off and he asks Nam-shik about CCTV footage. Nam-shik doesn’t understand what he’s talking about and is further confused when Tae-joo mentions an autopsy. He wonders why anyone would autopsy a suicide victim and Tae-joo announces she was murdered.
Tae-joo storms off, but his declaration was loud enough for the reporters to hear and they knock down Dong-chul in their frenzy. Tae-joo, on the other hand, doesn’t even notice the pandemonium following in his wake. He questions how this case is related to Kim Min-seok despite him only being 8 years old in this timeline. Whether Min-seok time-jumped with him, or is actually a copycat of this killer, Tae-joo resolves to figure it out.
The reporters have disappeared by the time Dong-chul catches up with Tae-joo, and he wastes no time grabbing the younger man by the collar. Fuming, Dong-chul demands to know how Tae-joo could assume it was murder just by glancing at the body. Tae-joo calmly points out that had the victim jumped, she would’ve sustained more than just a head injury, but she wasn’t bleeding anywhere else. He further explains that there was no blood spatter—it had pooled—meaning she’d been killed elsewhere and dumped in the alley.
Breaking free, Tae-joo starts to walk away but Dong-chul grabs him again. Still unconvinced and annoyed by Tae-joo’s attitude, Dong-chul is further shocked when Tae-joo declares that this isn’t just a murder—but a serial murder. Dong-chul scoffs and starts to rail on him when he spots ever-persistent Reporter Bae over Tae-joo’s shoulder, taking note of every word. Slapping on a bright smile, he tries to do some damage-control but Reporter Bae is already scurrying away to write up his scoop.
Everyone reconvenes at Dong-chul’s car and snickers when he walks up sporting ajumma pants (since his got soaked when he fell in the alley). Irritated, Dong-chul takes it out on Tae-joo by tossing his soggy pants in the backseat where Tae-joo was about to sit. Nam-shik innocently moves the pants only for Yong-ki to recline his seat all the way back. Dong-chul suggests he take the bus instead and offers to pay for the transport, throwing a measly coin at Tae-joo.
As they drive back, Dong-chul and Yong-ki laugh at their prank on Tae-joo. They predict he’ll be gone the rest of the afternoon (as the directions they gave would send him in the opposite direction) and are stunned when they arrive just as Tae-joo is getting out of a taxi. The cab driver runs up to Dong-chul for the fare and Tae-joo reminds him that he offered to pay transportation fees. Hee.
Tae-joo is taken aback to discover the autopsy is being performed at a health center and is even more dubious when he meets the medical examiner, MANAGER PARK. Luckily, Manager Park seems to know his stuff and immediately confirms that the victim was murdered. He also determines that she’s been dead for a day, was killed with a mallet, and was not sexually assaulted. He’s unsure about the white powder Tae-joo notices on her hands but agrees to test it.
Frustrated, Tae-joo asks about DNA testing and while the rest of the team is baffled, Manager Park is impressed at his knowledge. Unfortunately, the only way to do those tests is to send the body to America, which would take months.
Immediately after returning to the station, CHIEF KIM drops by to fume about Reporter Bae’s newspaper article. He berates the team until he notices Tae-joo, deducing that he’s the new transfer. Tae-joo just meets him with his trademark silent stare and Chief Kim snaps that he should salute his superiors. He storms out, grumbling about how rude they all are.
Afterwards, their teammate Na-young listens in as the team discusses the case, jotting down notes. Nam-shik reports that the victim took a delivery to a motel three days ago and hasn’t been seen since. The name for the room is likely fake and the owner could only offer a vague description for the occupant. Tae-joo wants to send a forensic team to check the room but Dong-chul has reached his limit and suggests they each do separate investigations.
Tae-joo heads to the records room in hopes of finding some connection to Kim Min-seok. As he flips through files, he hears disembodied voices and medical equipment beeping. The sound of a defibrillator echoes at the same time the lights flicker out and Tae-joo collapses to the floor. He notices a figure pass by in his peripheral vision but before he can investigate, the lights come back on and Na-young calls out to him.
Tae-joo asks her if there’s anything on previous serial murders but Na-young says they’ve never had such a case in their district. She shows him the files they have for female victims, but there’s no correlation. Changing tactics, Tae-joo asks for directions to the victim’s workplace but from the blank look on his face, her detailed answer isn’t going to be enough.
They question the coffee shop proprietress as to whether she’d noticed any men following the victim. She reveals that the girl had a lot of admirers and can’t remember anything special about the voice of the man who had called in her final delivery except that he seemed young. Finally, Tae-joo asks for a list of the rest of the deliveries she’d made that day. Confused, the owner replies she’s already given that list to the police and motions to a room behind a curtain.
Inside, the other three detectives are watching a dirty movie. Tae-joo whips open the curtain and Nam-shik rushes to click off the movie when he notices Na-young peeking over Tae-joo’s shoulder. The men exchange a few barbs and Na-young excuses herself. A booklet catches Tae-joo’s eye but before he can pick it up, Dong-chul slams his hand over it and snidely tells him to find his own clues.
The proprietress delivers the ashtray Dong-chul called for and asks if what the newspapers said about a serial murder case is true. Dong-chul scoffs but the woman wonders if the victim’s coworker could be the culprit. She says that the man was very interested in the victim and quit the day after she disappeared.
Dong-chul and Tae-joo find the man DJ-ing at another establishment but before Tae-joo can ask his first question, Dong-chul is already beating him up and dragging him away. By the time they start the actual interrogation, the DJ’s been stripped to his skivvies and his face is a bloody mess.
Tae-joo gets first crack but only manages to find out the man last saw the victim three days ago and had a “normal” conversation before Dong-chul takes over with threats and more violence. He accuses the DJ of murder, but the man adamantly denies involvement. He does admit to stalking, but quickly points out that he wasn’t the only one who followed her around.
As Dong-chul and Yong-ki continue to kick the DJ around, Tae-joo flips through the man’s file. A notation on hand surgery catches his eye and he tells the other detectives to stop. Dong-chul ignores him but Tae-joo points out that the man is incapable of bending his fingers and therefore couldn’t have painted the victim’s nails. Unimpressed, Dong-chul refuses to let him go but Nam-shik appears and reports that their suspect was at a funeral the day of the murder.
Back at square one, the team questions everyone with a connection to the victim but they don’t learn anything new. On his way out, Tae-joo hands Na-young a slip of paper with Kim Min-seok’s name and birthday and asks her to look into it.
That night, Tae-joo runs into Dong-chul on his way to check the crime scene again. They engage in a petty shuffle to get there first and Tae-joo wins but immediately zips back. Signaling Dong-chul to be quiet, they both peek around the corner and see a hooded figure crouched where the body had been found. They jump out together only to find that the figure is just Na-young.
Tae-joo flips through her notebook as Dong-chul reprimands Na-young. Sheepishly, she admits that she came because she was curious about the weird bloodstains on the wall next to the body. Tae-joo explains that killer must’ve initially propped the body up, but it had fallen over after he left. He then asks about her notes and Dong-chul reads a detailed psychological profile from the pages.
With a bashful smile, Na-young tells them she was a psychology major before she dropped out. Her notion that the murder wasn’t a crime of passion piques Tae-joo’s curiosity and Na-young points out that in those cases, assailants tend to attack the faces of their victims. The fact that this woman’s face was intact suggests he felt affection rather than anger.
Tae-joo wonders why he killed her, if he liked her. Na-young thinks the killer is an introvert who was trying to project his desires onto the victim but things didn’t go the way he wanted, so he lashed out. Dong-chul mockingly applauds her “fiction-writing” skills but Tae-joo argues that Na-young’s analysis could hold weight, pointing out that the killer didn’t kill the victim right away.
Na-young suddenly remembers a missing person report she’d received earlier about another girl who works in a coffee shop. The team wastes no time tracking down the correct shop and discover that this girl also disappeared after being called to deliver to a motel. They race over and burst into the room, scaring the bejeezus out of the cleaning lady. The occupant is gone but luckily the maid hadn’t gotten to the floor yet and Tae-joo notices some sugar spilled.
Ordering the other detectives to stay in the hall, he rushes to the bathroom and mixes up a soapy water solution. Back in the room he pours it over the floor and the team watches in awe as two footprints appear due to the change in pH balance. Dong-chul identifies them as combat boots and while the other detectives check nearby bases, Tae-joo remembers the DJ mentioning a soldier among the first victim’s suitors.
They drag the DJ back in but he says he’s only seen the man’s face once, at night. He’s happy to help though, reveling a bit at how the tables have turned. Unfortunately, even after looking through the pictures multiple times, he’s still unable to ID anyone and Dong-chul sends him home.
Taking a break at the bar, Dong-chul asks Tae-joo why he seemed to know details about the case. Tae-joo says there was a similar case back in Seoul, but the culprit got away. This surprises Dong-chul and he scoffs that the high-and-mighty Tae-joo made a mistake, wondering how the killer got away. “I let him go,” Tae-joo deadpans.
The smile slides off Dong-chul’s face and Tae-joo continues that he had the chance to arrest the guy, but let him go. Dong-chul mutters that Tae-joo was so condescending, but figures that mistake is what got him transferred. He asks if the culprit could be the same person but Tae-joo only says they’ll find out when they catch him.
The next morning, Tae-joo tries calling the Seoul offices again and asks for Seo-hyun. The person on the other line understandably has no clue what he’s talking about and he hangs up dejectedly. The mysterious barman calls out that sighing doesn’t solve anything and Tae-joo admits that he feels lost. “You are yourself, wherever you are,” the barman replies, “You’re not someone else. If you try your best in your situation, everything will settle back to normal.”
Stepping outside, Tae-joo hears the voice again and sees the man from the TV. “Don’t give up on yourself,” the man tells him, “You have to stay strong in order to wake up.” He urges Tae-joo to stay strong and never give up before disappearing again just as Na-young arrives. She tells him that she looked into Kim Min-seok but there wasn’t anything on him at City Hall. He asks if she can expand her search countrywide, but she says it’ll be difficult.
Remembering that there’s no database in 1988, he agrees that the task is daunting and would likely take years. Na-young asks what an 8-year-old boy has to do with their case, and Tae-joo soberly tells her that Kim Min-seok is a murderer. She’s confused and Tae-joo snaps that while he’s only a child here, in his timeline in 2018, Min-seok murdered seven people and kidnapped his ex-fiancée, Seo-hyun.
Na-young is taken aback at the mention of a fiancée but Tae-joo pushes on, telling her that he was chasing after Min-seok when he had an accident. After waking up, he was here and this murder case mirrored the cases from his timeline. A little freaked out, Na-young asks if he’s feeling okay.
Deflated, Tae-joo admits that he sounds crazy even to his own ears. Na-young jots down the number of a doctor she knows and urges him to get a checkup, earnestly worrying that he may have suffered psychological damage from the car accident with Dong-chul.
They finally hear back from the health center but Dong-chul can’t understand the medical terminology and passes the phone over to Tae-joo. Turns out Manager Park identified the white powder on the victim’s hands as calcium sulfate, the main component of plaster. The team is disappointed but Tae-joo reminds them that the first victim was kept alive one day before he killed her, which suggests that they only have nine hours left to save the second.
Based off the first crime, Tae-joo doubts the second victim was chosen on impulse, meaning the killer had to have stalked her as well. Dong-chul is positive the culprit isn’t from the area but they don’t have time to wade through official channels. Everyone is stumped at how to proceed until Dong-chul whips out a little black book.
Tae-joo watches as Dong-chul goes to work on the phone and before long, the station is packed with all the neighborhood leaders. Dong-chul tells the crowd that they’re looking for a young man that recently moved to the neighborhood and describes the details they know. It works and an ajumma recalls a strange man who lives alone, while another resident remembers the man purchasing camera film from him.
They check out the house and find a dark room with pictures of the first victim. Tae-joo acknowledges that Na-young’s analysis was spot-on about the “object of his desires,” as the culprit dressed his victims up like actresses. Dong-chul finds a jacket covered in briquette powder and Tae-joo points out that calcium sulfate is used in the production of briquettes.
Dong-chul drives the team to a nearby briquette factory and they split up to search. Tae-joo finds bags of calcium sulfate stacked outside a small building and he and Dong-chul go in to investigate. In the basement, they find the location where the first victim had been held and photographed along with the murder weapon.
Dong-chul busts the lock off a door and in a backroom they find the second victim, alive. Footsteps alert the men to the arrival of the culprit and when Tae-joo stands up, he sees Kim Min-seok standing in the doorway. He shoots Tae-joo a smirk before reattaching his face mask and sprinting away.
Tae-joo gives chase but temporarily loses him in a crowd of employees. Dong-chul catches up and Tae-joo crouches down to look for the telltale combat boots. They spot the killer at the same time and bolt after him, Dong-chul motioning for the other two detectives to circle around to cut him off.
Tae-joo tackles the killer and they roll down a hill. The killer jumps up first and kicks Tae-joo in the face just as Dong-chul runs up, shouting, “How dare you do that to a detective!” He and Yong-ki manage to catch and subdue the killer as Nam-shik checks on Tae-joo.
The reporters have already arrived when the detectives lead the culprit out to the police car. Catching up to the others, Tae-joo makes a beeline for the killer, and shoves him against a squad car. Ripping off the face mask, he’s shocked to see a face he doesn’t recognize. Tae-joo demands to know the man’s connection to Kim Min-seok but he’s never heard the name before.
Tae-joo goes ballistic and has to be pried off of him, while Na-young looks on with concern.
The team celebrates back at the bar, but while the others dance about, Tae-joo is lost in thought. He slips out—unnoticed by everyone except Na-young—and returns to the station. Reviewing the case file, Tae-joo notes that nothing connects to Kim Min-seok. Frustrated, he throws the file on the floor, wondering if the case really isn’t related to the killer from his timeline.
Na-young walks in and picks up the file and sweetly suggests that he get some rest since he hasn’t eaten or slept since yesterday.
Tae-joo: “I have no sense of reality right now. Everything I do feels like I’m floundering about in water. I have no idea why I’m here, and I can’t tell if this is reality or a dream.”
Tae-joo asks if he’s gone mad and Na-young tells him a story about when she was in college. She says she did some field work at a nursing home and met a man there suffering from a severe head injury. The injury made him forget what certain objects were called and he was frustrated and depressed. However, the next time she visited, he was happy. When asked why, he told her he’d simply stopped thinking.
“Get some rest, sir,” Na-young tells him, “You look like you’re struggling quite a lot right now.”
As he’s leaving, Tae-joo hears the voice again and he follows it. He finds the TV man and asks if he’s the one who’s been talking to him. The man replies in an echoey voice that he’s Tae-joo’s doctor, JANG WON-JAE, and that he’s speaking with him through Tae-joo’s subconscious. He explains that Tae-joo is currently a patient at Seoul Central Hospital and claims that Seo-hyun is there as well. At the mention of her name, Tae-joo advances on the doctor, but when he reaches out to grab him, he finds himself standing back at the end of the hall, where he started. Freaky.
Doctor Jang continues that Seo-hyun is waiting for him to wake up. Relieved that Seo-hyun is seemingly okay, Tae-joo asks if this means he’s comatose. “Everything you see, regardless of what it is, is not real,” Doctor Jang replies. He urges Tae-joo to break free from the “illusion” so he can return. Reiterating that Seo-hyun is waiting, Doctor Jang tells Tae-joo not to give up.
Next thing we know, Tae-joo is standing on the ledge of the police station roof. He flashes back to his last interaction with Kim Min-seok in 2018, the gunshot, his ears bleeding, and the echoey voices of nurses with beeping defibrillator machines. Doctor Jang’s last words replay in his mind and Tae-joo finds his resolve.
Tae-joo: “Everything finally makes sense now. I’m inside of a dream right now. Up until now, I’ve been dreaming within my subconscious. Let’s go back. It’s time to wake up now.”
Closing his eyes, Tae-joo dangles one foot over the ledge.
Noooo! I don’t know why, but something about that last chat with the doc was unnerving. Up until that point, I was fairly convinced Tae-joo was in a coma and the hallucinations were the outside world seeping in… but now I’m not so sure. For starters, one way or another he must be lying about Seo-hyun. Because if she is there, why isn’t she trying to talk to Tae-joo as well? It’s weird to think she just turned up after everything that had happened. So maybe he’s lying just to give Tae-joo a push to wake up… but is that all? The way he said everything Tae-joo sees is an illusion is what really struck me. True, if you’re in a coma then everything you “see” should be a dream. But this is the most detailed dream ever and I’m sorry, but if your dream is powerful enough that you can feel pain and bleed, maybe it’s not such a good idea to try killing yourself to wake up. Just sayin’.
But… if this is just a coma, what the heck was Kim Min-seok talking about when he mentioned Tae-joo’s “other self?” That speaks more to some crazy intersecting timelines. My theory runs along the idea that somehow Tae-joo has two physical bodies and his consciousness is what’s doing the time travel. But then, what was his 1988 body doing before he arrived? I could go on, but I’m going to stop myself now before my head explodes trying to figure out the mechanics of this world. We’re only two episodes in, for pete’s sake!
I do have to wonder, though, whether we’ll be staying in 1988 or jumping back and forth. And if there is jumping involved, hopefully Tae-joo doesn’t have to literally jump every time.
For a darker show, the characters sure are fun. I really love the balance of our main trio, not only in personalities but skillset. Tae-joo is righteous to a fault, analytical, and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Dong-chul, on the other hand, lives by a “the ends justify the means” ethical code, is street savvy, and surprisingly charming. Rounding them out though, is Na-young with her idealistic enthusiasm, and perception into people’s thoughts and emotions. She’s got such a pure heart and I suspect a budding affection for our displaced detective. He’s the only one who treats her with the respect she deserves and recognizes that she has something more valuable to offer than serving coffee and washing soiled trousers. She looked a little crushed when Tae-joo mentioned having an ex-fiancee and will surely be bummed when he returns to his own timeline, but I really appreciate that he already feels comfortable enough to confide in her (even if she thinks he might be a little crazy). As for the guys, they definitely started out on the wrong foot, but really came together over the course of the case. Their petty bickering was endearing to watch since Tae-joo is normally so stoic and when Dong-chul got upset during their final chase when the killer knocked Tae-joo down, I could see a beautiful bromance in the making.
Needless to say, I find this show fascinating. When Helcat first suggested it, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. The plot was certainly intriguing and reminiscent of great shows like Tunnel and (to a lesser extent) Signal (who doesn’t love buddy-cop time-warp adventures to catch serial killers?). I’ve never seen the original, and as much as I definitely want to after what I’ve seen so far, I’m resisting until this one has ended. I’m curious how mine and Helcat’s experiences may differ on this journey. Perhaps this show will vary enough that it won’t matter, but it’s a fun experiment nonetheless.