And now for some real answers! This episode, Seo-hae and Tae-sul get to know each other beyond the superficial running-for-their-lives + adversarial banmal stage (yep, this is the one that stuck in my head, kind of like the first answer you write on the test paper). Unfortunately, I’m still not quite where I’d anticipated with this drama during those heady days when we saw the first teasers. I’m watching it more with my brain than my heart, and Sisyphus doesn’t really hold up to that kind of scrutiny. I think that’s down to one main problem, which I’ll talk about at the end of this review. But we finally got some good, meaty interactions between our leads. The best thing about this episode is the growing trust between Tae-sul and Seo-hae, and that’s what I’ve been waiting for.
- Jo Seung-woo, I know you (or maybe the director) are trying to be polite, but… that’s not where you press for CPR 😂
- Going to ex-girlfriend Seo-jin’s office is probably smart, though I don’t know why she’d have medical supplies in her psychiatry clinic. Him trusting her made me suuuuper nervous… although perhaps not a misplaced trust after all, given her actions in this episode. Seo-jin is actually kinda growing on me. (Anyone else recognize Jung Hye-in as the younger version of Young-shin’s bio mom in Healer?)
- So I was right, there was a nuclear war! (Yes, I know, I get no prizes for “guessing” this extremely obvious thing)
- It warms my heart that Tae-sul is suddenly on a mission to feed Seo-hae up properly. With junk food and vitamins.
- Okay, leaving aside that these two are blurting out all their TOP SECRET secrets in the middle of a random convenience store, this conversation between them is the first scene that actually got me in an emotional place. It’s their unstoppable force meets immovable object moment: she’s not willing to compromise her mission to stop the war, and he’s unable to let another chance with his brother slip away, no matter the cost. It felt very real. Seo-hae tossing that giant wad of cash with a flat, “We use this as kindling,” was a great moment, and Park Shin-hye really sold it.
- Her observation (memory?) that everyone around her, living their oblivious and happy lives, looked so dumb, hit with all the resonances of someone viewing the world through grief and trauma, unable to process the naive happiness of others as anything but a betrayal. Yet it’s so human for Tae-sul to cling to the hope he’s suddenly found in the midst of his own grief, and to be unwilling to trade the chance to have his brother back for an abstract future he doesn’t quite believe in.
- And I love how that circles around, in the middle of that intersection, to them coming back together in a moment where he acknowledges that he does need her, and she agrees to make the one allowance that he can’t budge on. He goes from his facade of “I’m more comfortable alone” to admitting that he knows exactly how hard it is to be alone. That he was doing to her exactly what Tae-san did to him by expecting Tae-sul to live a careless life while Tae-san did all the sacrificing, by telling her to take his money and forget about the looming future. I love seeing Tae-sul drop that low-key genius billionaire playboy philanthropist persona he carries like a shield, at least in front of Seo-hae. (Yes, I’m sorry, I don’t know why these Marvel references keep popping up in my reviews either. I blame WandaVision)
- It was hard to watch Hyun-gi (Go Yoon), after that heartbreaking introduction to him in Episode 4, be deceived and manipulated by the Control Bureau. Salt ’n’ Pepper, how dare you lie about his mother’s death and then use it to bend him to your designs in front of her ashes. And it’s interesting how much the dead walk among the living in this show, but unsurprising, since as Saya said last week, in these stories everyone dies at the beginning.
- I’m glad we’re getting more of Seo-hae’s life in the future, finally. Especially the scene with her dad in the burned-out shell of a jjimjjilbang, and the bittersweet mirror to that when she goes to one with Tae-sul, and orders Dad’s favorite food.
- This drama is so obviously written by a man, though
- (Let’s just leave it at that)
- Jo Seung-woo is giving Tae-sul an off-the-wall charm that I don’t think the character really has on paper—it’s his line deliveries in particular moments, like this one above, or when he matter-of-factly tells Seo-hae that the crosswalk light is red, that really draw the disparate Quirky Genius traits the writer has given him into a single human being. His way of embodying both the silly and the serious sides of this character is one of the main things keeping me engaged. And of course, give Jo Seung-woo an inch and he’ll take a mile, in the good sense.
- Ah, he was the one who got her that diary! Cute.
- I really enjoyed the late-night insomniac conversation at Tae-sul’s mansion, and he and Seo-hae finally sharing some painful truths with each other. It’s good to see them finally get on the same page, and begin to recognize where the damaged parts are on each other. And start to be careful not to recklessly poke them.
I’d been wondering if they were going anywhere interesting with this immigration metaphor, and Salt ’n’ Pepper whispering the Control Bureau’s insidious ideology into Hyun-gi’s ear gave me my answer. There it is: immigrants as dangerous, greedy, looking for a free handout—a threat to “ordinary, struggling people like us”. The narrative that blames the difficulties of the average citizen not on, say, the failures of a society that caters to the wealthy, but on foreigners who not only don’t deserve the same rights as “we” do, but don’t even deserve life.
The weaponization of that narrative is so depressingly, exhaustingly familiar. I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, but what I’ve always appreciated about stories that take place in alternate or fantasy worlds is their potential to address our own real-world issues in new packaging, hopefully allowing us to think through them in new ways. I really love how setting up time travelers as “illegal immigrants” challenges ideas about who deserves refuge, from whom, the risks people take to escape war and environmental disaster, and what the receiving society owes them. And how terribly these societies often fail them.
But this show’s major flaw, and the one that’s really keeping me from enjoying it as much as I want to, is the editing. No action/sci-fi TV show, especially one this ambitious and expansive in scale, can manage to close every plot hole and smooth over every ragged edge. Even big-budget blockbusters can’t really afford to do this. But if Sisyphus were edited tightly and skilfuly, we wouldn’t notice these slip-ups, because the pace and tension would be high enough that we’d be riding the adrenaline wave.
Instead, there are long pauses for characters to think about their next move, which just makes them seem less genius (Tae-sul) or badass (Seo-hae), as Paroma mentioned last week. Or times when characters should be feeling rushed, because they’re on the run/afraid for their lives/actively being shot at, and everything just screeches to a halt, I’m guessing so we can enjoy the extremely expensive sets and CG. Yes, I get it, this is JTBC’s 10th anniversary drama and they spent bushels of won. And to be fair, the post-apocalyptic world looks super cool. But the syrup-like pace is taking me out of the experience.
(I call this the Goblin problem—every shot in that show was so incredibly self-indulgent, and the only reason it didn’t kill the experience for me was 1. Gong Yoo’s melty gazes and pretty coats and 2. that MUSIC.)
If these inexplicable tableaus of characters just standing around staring at each other were cut out, we wouldn’t have time to notice how ridiculous it is that Seo-hae survives every fight despite being heavily outnumbered, as men in black come at her one by one as if lining up for a sparring test in karate class. If some of these action scenes were 20% shorter, I’d stay impressed and excited by how cool it all looks, and not slowly become bored and wonder what exactly this is doing to advance the story, and by the way, how much of this episode is there still to go?
…Yeah. So that’s my sadface conclusion about why this drama is falling slightly flat for me, which is such a bummer given how hyped I was for it. And because all the pieces for a great drama are there! Someone just needs to be told that it’s okay to kill your babies. You know, in the writerly, metaphoric sense.