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Life on Mars: Episode 15

Tae-joo is back through the looking glass into the real world—so why does it feel so empty and unreal? Trying to regain a sense of normality in the present, Tae-joo has some amends to make with people he left behind, and a major mystery to solve that followed him across the time periods. But he can’t forget the team that needs him back in 1988…

 
EPISODE 15 RECAP

Tae-joo’s eyes snap open and he wakes up alone and bewildered in 2018. He staggers to the door, and nearly runs into his mother on the other side, who anxiously runs off to find his doctor.

The doctor from Tae-joo’s TV screen smiles at him and introduces himself as Dr. Jang Won-jae, although Tae-joo already recognizes him from his visions in 1988. Dr. Jang tells Tae-joo that the surgery was a success, even if some of his strength has been depleted.

Tae-joo is more focused on his mother though, as he softly apologizes to her. Relieved that he’s woken up at all, Mom says, “I’m so happy you’ve returned to me like this. It must have been so hard.”

Which is when Chief Ahn enters the room, to cast shadows on the happy reunion. Disconcerted, Tae-joo narrows his eyes as Chief Ahn smilingly says, “Congratulations on retuning home, Han Tae-joo.” Now, why does that give me the chills?

Alone, bright lights from outside Tae-joo’s window cast an eerie glow on his face. Stupefied, Tae-joo wonders, “What happened?”

While catching up on the recent news, Tae-joo’s ex-fiancee Jung Seo-hyun surprises him with a visit and hugs him tightly to her. Going outside, Tae-joo apologizes to Seo-hyun. Taken aback, Seo-hyun confesses that she should be the one who’s sorry since it’s her fault he was attacked.

Seo-hyun explains that she was rescued by Officer Cho, but no one has seen any sign of Kim Min-seok since the night she was captured. Tae-joo sincerely tells Seo-hyun to come to him if she has any problems, but Seo-hyun is quick to point out that he’s only been awake for one day, and he should focus on getting better. Seo-hyun asks, “What’s it like to be alive again?”

Contemplative, Tae-joo answers, “I’m not sure. It feels like I’ve had a long dream.” Seo-hyun smiles that it must have been a nice one if he stayed in it for a whole month. As he walks away, Seo-hyun shyly says that she’s glad he came back, which touches him.

Tae-joo recuperates enough to finally go home (sans head bandage, thank goodness) but something at the hospital door gives him pause—the number of his room 5355 reminds him that the mysterious caller’s number ended in 5355.

As Tae-joo gets driven home, Mom by his side, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” starts to play on the radio. The words of real-life radio presenter Choi Hwa-jung catch his attention as the lyrics seem to play just for him, “Have you ever been to the world of dreams over the rainbow? While you’re listening, why don’t you try to forget all your dreams and concerns of that place?”

Looking lost in his own apartment, Tae-joo busies his hands by helping Mom fold laundry. Worried for his health, Mom makes him promise to take time off work and come live with her and Aunt for a while. Tae-joo notes that he missed his father’s death anniversary but Tae-joo doesn’t look reassured as Mom tells him his father will understand.

Instead, he asks Mom if they have ever lived in Insung. Shaken, Mom says that they did for a little while, and Tae-joo tells her that he had a dream while he was in a coma—that Dad wasn’t the great person he remembered. He asks Mom how his father really died.

Mom falteringly answers that she didn’t want to know any of the details, but the police told her that Dad was shot to death. Dad wasn’t the great person Tae-joo thought he was—but, Mom adds, he really was a great father to Tae-joo.

Overcome, Mom weeps that she should have told Tae-joo earlier, but Tae-joo gently hugs her and apologizes for bringing it up when it must have been so hard for her.

Trying to find closure, Tae-joo drives to Insung police station, where the familiar halls are filled with unfamiliar faces. In his old office, an ordinary scene between Yong-ki and Nam-shik fills his vision and when Dong-chul comes up behind him, it feels so real—but then the current captain of the office breaks Tae-joo’s reverie.

The captain is curious how someone as young as Tae-joo can remember the serial killer case, but is happy to let Tae-joo hunt through the old files for clues. Na-young stands among the shelves—but she’s just a ghost and disappears when Tae-joo tries to follow her.

Tae-joo finds what he is looking for, the serial killer case from 1988. He gets increasingly perturbed as he flicks through the contents—everything in his coma-dream really happened, from Go Yeong-suk and Kyung-se’s murders to Hyun-seok’s shooting on the bridge.

Determined to find the truth, Tae-joo asks the police captain to search for records of his 1988 team on the database. The captain warns him that records from thirty years ago are spotty—and he’s right, as they can’t find any mention of the four. The captain promises to look through a more extensive database.

Uh-oh. News from the TV announces that the still-missing Kim Min-seok hasn’t stopped his spate of serial murders—the body of another twenty-year-old woman was found and all signs point to him.

At the police station, Seo-hyun is mobbed by a crowd of journalists clamoring for a comment on Min-seok’s newest victim. Tae-joo has come to help, and although Seo-hyun does express her doubts that he should be working, she shows him the footage of Min-seok in the convenience store near the victim’s house.

Seo-hyun reminds Tae-joo of the phone call she left him the night she was abducted—she thinks that Min-seok has an accomplice who is protecting him. Intent, Seo-hyun asks if Tae-joo can remember anything about the person who shot him—and now that he’s thinking about it, he remembers the gun was an old model of the guns given to police officers. The accomplice might be a fellow cop.

This revelation is quickly followed by another—the police have discovered Min-seok’s hideout. Rushing to the scene, it isn’t a pleasant sight—Min-seok was living in a hovel without any proper facilities. The neighbors had no idea he was there.

Tae-joo grimly takes note of the picture of Min-seok with his brother and sister, as well as the pile of nail polish. Spotting Min-seok’s food rations, Tae-joo deduces that he must have stayed here for at least a month. A packet of painkillers particularly warrants Tae-joo’s scrutiny.

Outside, a gunshot rings out. Min-seok has been spotted near the crossroads, and some of Seo-hyun’s team chase after him. Worried, Seo-hyun orders for reinforcements and tells Tae-joo to stay where he is since he still isn’t healed… which of course, our reckless, brave hero obeys for all of two seconds before he takes off running.

Tae-joo catches up with Min-seok just in time to see his smug face, and do a pretty nifty jump-roll out of the way of his getaway car (Tae-joo learned from last time!) before Min-seok speeds away. The thwarted police come running after, unable to pursue on foot.

They find the getaway car the next day, abandoned. The journalists’ reports are harsh as they criticize the police and their incompetence in catching Min-seok, which puts the whole team on edge. An officer confirms that Min-seok murdered the recent victim because his DNA was found at the crime scene. Tae-joo is surprised by this, but Seo-hyun cynically thinks that Min-seok is showing off now.

Tae-joo notes that this brings Min-seok’s murder count up to eight women—nine, Seo-hyun corrects him. An as-yet-unreleased victim was found, murdered nine days previously. Which, worryingly, means that the period between murders is getting shorter. Worse than that, Seo-hyun adds, is that the crimes are becoming more violent as well.

Something about this feels off, and Tae-joo instinctively believes that Min-seok’s methods couldn’t have changed this much. The cogs are ticking in Tae-joo’s brain, as he thoughtfully picks up Min-seok’s packet of painkillers.

Tae-joo works through the evidence—Min-seok’s DNA revealed that he has lead and arsenic in his blood twelve times higher than it should be. A surplus of lead and arsenic can cause dizziness, spasms (caught in camera in the convenience store), and paralysis as well as disordered thinking. Tae-joo states that Min-seok is suffering from heavy metal poisoning.

With a new clue to guide the investigation, Seo-hyun orders her team to look back at the cases again.

Back at the newest crime scene, Tae-joo sighs over the evidence. As if Tae-joo called him up when he was needed most, Dong-chul’s familiar voice jovially tells Tae-joo to quit wasting time. He chides, “You can’t catch the culprit with your eyes. You have to do it with your legs.”

Yong-ki and Nam-shik hover in the doorway, ready to jump to do Dong-chul’s bidding (and aww, they give Tae-jo the thumbs-up). Still blustering, Dong-chul bangs his way out of the house—but Tae-joo can’t find him when he follows.

Tae-joo takes Dong-chul’s advice to go do something and retraces Min-seok’s steps from the convenience store to the victim’s house. As he imagines the crime as it happens, he wonders if the reason for Min-seok’s crimes is because of his attachment to his sister.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily because of attachment.” Aww, now it’s Na-young’s turn to guide Tae-joo, as she points out there is no evidence that Min-seok has any sense of connection with the women he murders.

On the contrary, they are locked up and Min-seok forces makeup on them, so it’s more like an expression of anger. Na-young says this looks like a subconscious compensation on Min-seok’s part to make up for some pain he was dealt in the past. With a last smile, Na-young asks, “What’s wrong, Chief?” When Tae-joo glances up again, Na-young is gone and he looks bereft.

A discrepancy in the time between when Min-seok was at the convenience store and when his target was killed clues the team into the fact that Min-seok’s victims aren’t just random. Instead, he carefully chooses and stalks them—which means his next victim has already been found. The blurry image of a woman reveals who Min-seok has targeted next.

Seo-hyun uses this information to direct the search, while Tae-joo muses on Min-seok’s motives. His sister Kyung-ran was abused by their father, so he probably was as well, but he shows no resentment towards his father—Min-seok’s crimes are a reflection of his sister.

As Tae-joo figures this out, Min-seok overpowers his next victim inside her home. Lying on top of her on the bed, Min-seok starts to apply makeup onto her crying face, and demands, “Stay still. I told you I’m going to make you look pretty.” Clearly no longer talking to his victim, but to his sister, Min-seok rasps, “What, are you going to hit me again? I won’t suffer because of you anymore.”

The police frantically search the area of the convenience store. It’s too late though, as Min-seok’s face contorts and he smashes a heavy weight down upon the woman’s head.

But perhaps not—Tae-joo and Seo-hyun are close by, and find the woman just barely alive. Tae-joo desperately runs out of the house, knowing that Min-seok can’t have gotten very far.

And he hasn’t. Tae-joo follows the bloody trail Min-seok leaves and slams into him, knocking him over. Although Min-seok attempts to fight back, he is weak and limping, so an agile Tae-joo is able to subdue him quickly.

But Min-seok’s mouth is firmly closed as he is interrogated at the police station. Even though they have enough evidence to lock him away, Min-seok won’t say anything about his accomplice. As an aside, Seo-hyun is informed that Officer Cho has left Seoul to inspect the handgun.

Coldly confident, Tae-joo asks to take a crack at Min-seok. Min-seok greets him familiarly, and notices that Tae-joo has finally remembered him. He tells Tae-joo it’s good to see him alive like this, when Min-seok even went to say his final goodbyes at the hospital. Tae-joo snaps back that he is looking forward to returning the favor when Min-seok is locked up—that is, if he avoids the death penalty.

Tae-joo states that the only way Min-seok is going to avoid the death penalty after his crimes is if he gives up his accomplice. He adds that they already know it must be a cop because of the handgun. Tae-joo leans in to cuttingly say, “I’ve already saved you twice, while risking quite a lot. Why would I do that for a murderer like you?”

Min-seok isn’t cowed though as he smirks and taunts, “You will never catch him. Because that person doesn’t exist in this world.”

This sparks an idea for Tae-joo, and he goes to hunt through the old case files with Seo-hun. Tae-joo muses that Hyun-seok was the culprit in 1988, although Seo-hyun looks confused as she reminds him that Hyun-seok died thirty years ago. Tae-joo is sure he is onto something though, and he orders an officer to look up the details of Hyun-seok’s death.

Hyun-seok was shot while trying to kill Director Park—who was mysteriously killed in 2008. A 38-caliber gun and theophylline (used in inhalers) were found at the scene. Tae-joo realizes with a start that Kim Hyun-seok must not have died in 1988, but has been living as someone else for all these years.

As if to confirm the theory, an officer runs in to inform the officers that Min-seok’s first getaway car was discovered abandoned in a junkyard, and theophylline was found in the car.

The team races over to the junkyard, where they find the proof they were looking for—a name badge with Hyun-seok’s face on it, going by another name now. Seo-hyun orders a sweep of the junkyard, but it’s Tae-joo who notices the figure of a worker running away.

Tae-joo leaps over a wall in pursuit… to be met with the same handgun that shot him a month ago. Hyun-seok demands to know who Tae-joo is, and Tae-joo uses the moment to swat the gun from his hands. The two scuffle, but it is Tae-joo who emerges triumphant with the gun, while Hyun-seok lies gasping on the ground.

Hyun-seok deduces that Min-seok must have been caught, and asks how Tae-joo could know his real name from thirty years ago. Perhaps—have they met before? After a pause, Tae-joo asks if he remembers the name Han Choong-ho.

Hyun-seok isn’t sure. Tae-joo’s face tightens, and he repeats, “You’re not sure? With this gun, you killed my father. And you’re not sure?” Tae-joo takes a step towards Hyun-seok, seeing the vision of his father dying in front of him, his face twisting and hand shaking. Hyun-seok doesn’t move a muscle as he stares helplessly at the gun pointed at his head.

A tense moment passes. Tae-joo whips the gun into the air and shoots it harmlessly into the sky in his fury. Still tense, Tae-joo tells Hyun-seok that the statute of limitations on his string of murders has passed, but his crimes haven’t gone anywhere. Hyun-seok sags against the ground.

As Hyun-seok is loaded into the police van, Seo-hyun confirms to Tae-joo that Hyun-seok’s “death” was fabricated. The original investigation seems like a cover-up, because Hyun-seok’s body was never actually found after he fell from the bridge. But between the Seoul Olympics and the Hwaseong serial killings, it was important to close this case.

That isn’t all—Detective Cho has been arrested today after he was bought off by Hyun-seok to tamper with the evidence in Min-seok’s case. Seo-hyun congratulates Tae-joo on a job well done, and Tae-joo even manages to muster a small smile for her.

And here we are full circle, as Seo-hyun and Tae-joo wait outside the courtroom to provide testimony in the criminal proceedings. Tae-joo promises, “I won’t do something I regret again.” Entering the courtroom, Tae-joo shares a trusting look with Seo-hyun before he announces himself with purpose.

Later that night, the TV broadcasts the outcome of the case—Min-seok has been sentenced to death for killing ten women, and his brother Hyun-seok was arrested for being an accomplice and on suspicion of Director Park’s death.

Almost at peace now, Tae-joo looks down at the old case files sent over from Insung. As he is flipping through, one catches his eye—the murder of a group of police officers by gangsters. With trepidation, Tae-joo picks it up, afraid of what he’s going to find.

It’s as bad as he feared—inside are the details of the deaths of four police officers. It’s Dong-chul, Yong-ki, Nam-shik, and Na-young. Oh no, this can’t be happening.

Tae-joo flashes back to the awful scene just before he was pulled back to 2018—of his four teammates desperately fighting for their lives, but getting overwhelmed by the bludgeon-armed forces of gangsters. Na-young’s screams echo in his head. Tae-joo jerks his head up in horror.

 
COMMENTS

Well, here we are. We are finally near the end of this wonderful, thrilling, head-spinning journey. I was terrified that something like this was going to happen. We have diverged from the original BBC series now, with the confirmed existence (and deaths) in 1988 of our plucky team. Whether this means we will be following the UK ending or not, I’m not actually sure, and I love (and hate!) that I don’t know where we are going. That’s just the appeal of a really good mystery, I guess. But it has left me very nervous going into the finale…

I enjoyed that we got a lot of time to spend with Tae-joo in his 2018 life. This felt like a resolution, and a necessary one, given that Tae-joo has spent so much time growing into a better person in 1988. But we always knew that he wanted to come back to 2018, and he definitely had unfinished business to wrap up—in both his professional and personal life. Mom became a comfort in 1988 to Tae-joo, but their roles have flipped in 2018, and it’s time for Tae-joo to provide comfort to his mom. Their scenes together were short, but very effective, and sweet. I’m glad that Tae-joo got the chance to say goodbye to Mom if he is going back to 1988. The return of the driven and lively Seo-hyun was a welcome one as well. I had a soft spot for her, and it was good to see a woman competently handling a team of police officers.

It is clear that Tae-joo has grown as a person, and what struck me was how many apologies he made to his mom and Seo-hyun. The Tae-joo of 15 episodes ago would have been too rigid to give an apology when he didn’t actually have anything to apologize for—but now he recognizes the pain they went through and wants to ease it for them. But the ghosts of his past are haunting him this episode, as the team pops up to lighten the atmosphere. It was bittersweet to see them surround Tae-joo, as he—and we—weren’t sure we were going to see them again. And it’s clear from the longing in Tae-joo’s eyes that he really, really wanted to see them again. Even in 2018, the team felt like the most alive, vibrant part of the episode.

Despite the moments of warmth in this episode, everything was overlaid with a heavy dose of melancholy. Even the palette of 2018 reflects this, as everything was just a little too crisp, too dark, and too blue compared to the earthy tones of 1988. Tae-joo was clearly finding it difficult to adjust back to 2018, even though it was what he had been searching for nearly the entire time he was in 1988. Whereas before it seemed like Tae-joo was actively being abrasive to co-workers and alienating himself, he has mellowed now and just… doesn’t fit in 2018 anymore. It doesn’t feel like a home in the same way 1988 does, which was perfectly exhibited in the scene in his modern, fancy apartment, from the stiff lines in his body. In fact, I have to applaud Jung Kyung-ho here, because there isn’t anything in Tae-joo’s dialogue during the episode that I could point to that showed he felt out of place—this was all down to the lovely, subtle acting done by Jung Kyung-ho.

It has been an absolute joy to watch this adaptation, which hasn’t faltered once and took all the good parts of the original Life on Mars but added a unique Korean spin to the narrative. It has been a tour de force, and is how adaptations should be executed—holding true to the spirit of the original while layering in native flair. I’m so glad that the excellent story and characters of Life on Mars has been transposed to another country for more people to enjoy. Thanks for coming on this ride with me.

Tune of the episode: The scene with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World” was one of my favorites from the original, so I was delighted to hear Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s beautiful voice again in this version.

Mystery of the episode: What does it mean that Hyun-seok died in Tae-joo’s coma (his body definitely was found in that timeline) but not in this 2018? Did 1988 really happen?

 
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