Ahhhh this show. How can we be down to a mere 72 hours until the Apocalypse? 😱 Also, how can I gather all my scattered thoughts and pin them down to a coherent body, fixed in time? (Spoiler: not coherent, a LOT of words.)
First things first, though: that OST you’ve all been waiting for is heeeeere:
Okay, let’s start at the beginning, with A for AGNES:
- I KNEW IT, AGNES. Like, as soon as I saw her backlit silhouette, I got a little shiver down my spine and knew she would turn out to be Future Seo-jin. How crazy was that!!
- Also there’s something about her face now that always looks like she’s lying, even when she’s (potentially) not. But I’m still not 100% sure that the latest Agnes is to be trusted.
- Also, is her Agnes-ness in any way a reference to another time-travelling Agnes? Specifically of the Nielsen clan? (Probably not, and probably only I know what I am talking about. 😅)
- Is she still in love with Tae-sul? Who really broke up with whom? No, really, real question. We don’t actually know.
- It also doesn’t actually matter, actually.
And also actually, there’s no need to dwell any longer on Seo-jin. Not when we have Sigma and Seo-hae and all the other good stuff.
This week’s episodes feel very different from last week’s, not in a bad way—last week was full of action, big moments, big drama and the literal Apocalypse, the focus of this week shifts to the inward, both in terms of mood (introspective) and metaphysics, in the almost transcendental experience of their disembodied journeying through time. I don’t feel quite ready to put my thoughts to words on that yet, so let me circle back.
Oh let’s talk about circles! We’ve talked in our last few reviews about how assured the show is in knowing its story. I really really enjoy how as it has gone on, it has revealed quite a specific kind of ring structure in the way it handles its narrative rather than with a linearly progressing story. We started at the beginning, and at the end: points A and Z. And as the show goes on, we work towards the centre—B to Y, C to X, D to W, and so on. Here is a VERY BAD non-artist’s attempt to diagram how to understand the narrative structure of Sisyphus:
And at the centre is the Apocalypse: the end of everything—and the beginning. And as in nuclear fission, the bomb at the heart of this show explodes when you forcibly separate two things that exist together (even if their existence together is impossible). Yes, I’m talking Tae-sul and Seo-hae 😭
But let’s talk about Sigma first, and I am NOT going to get ahead of myself:
- I was looking for Sigma to be someone we already knew, and the idea of him being Jae-sun (can I just call you Sun now??) was as alluring as it was appalling.
- But then I had a sudden thought, three minutes into Episode 11:
- What if Sigma was…Tae-sul? WHAT IF, OMG
- That would make a sick sort of sense and it TOTALLY BLEW MY MIND
- (This has happened before in a different show. If you know the show I am talking about, you will understand exactly what and who I mean.)
- Except it was also totally scuppered by the end of Episode 12. 😂
- But at least I had the experience of thinking that, if only for an hour.
Part of why I thought this could be the case comes from how Sigma interacts with Tae-sul. It’s not his manic glee (though that’s there), but it’s in the way every single one of his interactions, near or distant, are about pushing Tae-sul to choose between saving Seo-hae or saving the world, which we see most recently in the amusement park of last episode, and the orphanage this week.
When he puts a gun into Tae-sul’s hand and tells him, “Shoot me,” I can’t lie, I want him to. And while I understand why he doesn’t, I also don’t understand at all. (And given what we learn about him at the end of this week, just choosing to kill him seems even more callous and tragic.) And Sigma asks him: why shouldn’t the world end?
- And actually that’s a really great question, especially given how chillingly true his follow-up is: that if you were to give anyone on the street the choice to hit the red button on nukes, so many of them would. That is true. Like, without any data on it, I feel like it’s something we all know in our bones.
- And that’s dark. Like, people would press that button out of pure spite. And then they would regret it, like the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party or Brexit.
- Sigma’s monologues are really great. Horrible, but incisive and with enough truth to them that you feel a bit gutted by it:
“You just pressed the nuclear button. I bet this was your train of thought: If you kill me, my buddies here will kill you. (…) You won’t be able to get the cure. So that girl will die too. You made a choice that will end the world just because of a girl. But don’t beat yourself up too much. That’s just how people are. Even if everyone were to die, they’d still put themselves, their families, and money first. (…) I gave everyone a chance, but not a single person chose to save the world. I’ll be honest with you. I really don’t care about the future. I mean, why would I? You folks call me despicable, but you’re the despicable ones.”
- So is Sigma really evil, or is he just a mirror of the selfish instincts we all carry? It’s an interesting thematic question to think about when you put it alongside what Agnes/Future Seo-jin says about the future being a mirror of the past.
- But he’s also backlit like a medieval Italian vampire, so I don’t know how seriously I can take him.
- He deservedly gets his “logic” nipped straight in its sophistrous bud. And genius programmers are nothing if not elegant and incisive: his nope from Tae-sul comes with a flashing BS-tag—because your actions are your own, and even if you use the kind of reasoning Sigma does, it doesn’t change the truth of what he is doing, and his accountability for it.
- I wasn’t sure who of our various groups and bad guys were Sigma’s sock-puppets, but actually, it’s…everyone? From the Control Bureau to the Quantum and Time bigwigs, even to Boss Park and the illegal brokers. That’s a wiiiide web, and you realise…
- Sigma doesn’t have a finger in every pie, he IS the pie.
- Or at least, the purveyor of all the pies.
- Oh but you know what also cemented my Sigma-is-Tae-sul theory was his little line that he could get in anywhere, when Tae-sul asked him how he got into his house.
- Damn I really wanted my theory to be true! I mean, for mindscrewing genius reasons, not because I want Dark Tae-sul. I really really don’t want Dark Tae-sul. Marshmallow-eyed genius Tae-sul is my fave. 😭
- But also it doesn’t quite work because if Sigma is Tae-sul, then he should know how to finish the Uploader, right?
I don’t know why I’m so attached to a theory so short-lived that it was debunked within two hours. 😂 And even though my Sigma-is-Sun theory really does have to be put to bed forever, puppy Sun still gives me moments of sudden chill, where I feel like he’s in some way putting to Seo-hae the same question Sigma puts to Tae-sul, if less elegant: Tae-sul, or the world? If she gets rid of Tae-sul, the Uploader is never made. If the Uploader is never made, there’s no time travel so there’s no Sigma so there’s no nuclear war.
The solution itself is the most efficient, economical one there is, in programming terms, and we watch Sun slowly work up to it—he’s frustrated, he cares about her and he’s jealous of Tae-sul, he’s scared of the coming Apocalypse. You almost can’t blame him for asking the question. But also there’s the ominous background music which seems like some kind of cue that we should worry—and I do! I really like him, like I really like him. But I don’t know him, not the way we know Tae-sul or Seo-hae. And with Seo-hae returning the watch he gave her, that’s a pretty clear-cut rejection of the feelings he has offered her, and it also draws a line.
The better part of me thinks this is nothing, or a red herring at most, but the other part of me is noting how nothing in this show so far has been a throwaway detail. So this dark-faced Sun…we’ll have to see how it plays out. He can still be a villain even if not the arch-villain. 😂
However, let’s not forget that this whole Sigma sideshow is a detour on the way to the main course, which is The Saving of Seo-hae.
Eine Reise Durch Die Zeit (Or: A Journey Through Time)
The real highlight of Episode 11 (or perhaps the whole week!) for me was their journey through time. Seo-hae is about to disintegrate thanks to the injections she got while in the Control Bureau’s custody, and it seems irreversible, except we’re told that the person who made that drug, Agnes aka Seo-jin the Betrayer, may have a cure. Tae-sul gets it and grafts into the machine to bring Seo-hae back—his instructions are to find her, come back as close to the present as possible, and then administer the antidote to bring them back.
- Paroma just pointed out to me that isn’t it so Tae-sul that he would jump in to save Seo-hae, but Seo-hae is the one who ends up saving him? Which is hilariously true—
- BUT ALSO, my primary reading of that is slightly different: to me, it feels like another expression of how they always save each other, and how one finishes what the other starts. They’re a team-deal, in a way that has really developed beautifully ever since Tae-sul accepted that he needed protecting, and that he needed her to do it.
- I really just love how much he enjoys receiving her protection and is 100% her fanboy. I may already have said this. 😂
- That he’s so willing to jump in and save her hurts a little. Like, his feelings for her trump his fear of being atomically dispersed into the universe across time. Don’t tell me that isn’t beautiful. 😭
- But I did not expect at all that we’d jump track from her memories to his, and end up going through his past in all its terrible sadness, or that he would break down entirely. God, Jo Seung-woo.
- Watching baby hyung Tae-san sobbing quietly while baby Tae-sul sleeps, and now adult Tae-sul witnessing baby hyung go through all this alone (“It’s the first time I have ever seen hyung cry”), and then having to see himself grow into an arrogant savage who believed he raised himself alone? Wow. Like, the heartbreak and the self-loathing is so visceral and everything about it is oof.
- And rightly breaks him, because that’s a multiplication of grief no heart can prepare for. And so you’re with him when he cries that he’s never been happy a single day in his life. You know it’s not true, but also, it 100% is. Because what he’s just learned has changed EVERYTHING.
- And how Seo-hae is able to bring him back from that: I love how she gave the weight of joy to all the smallest things. “We all have trivial but happy memories. That’s what keeps us going.” Honestly, that feels like such a needed reminder for us as viewers, living in our own dark world.
- And then she carries him through the door, and they have saved each other, and look at how competent and assured her hands on him are. She never handles him politely or uncertainly—she always touches him like it’s exactly what she means to do, and I LOVE that.
- All these doorways opening into doorways though: they are trippy. I mean, this whole sequence feels way less hard sci-fi, way more trippy, like something out of Diana Wynne Jones, or like one of those wizarding tests/esoteric initiations—the ones where you have to face your worst memories and deepest fears, and then you come out, and now yer a wizard, Tae-sulie.
- And how that brings us to “Sohae Bada”, the West Sea (Yellow Sea), and a sweet callback to the pun that he met her with (Seo-hae/So-hae), and everything that happens here is 😭
- His belief in living is restored
- The most beautiful goodbye I’ve seen on TV for a long time (Seo-hae)
- The most heart-wrenching goodbye I’ve seen on TV for a long time (bro Tae-san)
- And I know like, everyone wants to talk about the kiss, but forget that for a second and remember this: how when he opens the antidote case and you experience a moment of sheer, absolute devastation, because one of the syringes has broken.
- But he doesn’t miss a beat and goes on to give her the remaining one without a word. And he tells her nobody is waiting for him!!
HOW DARE YOU, I AM WAITING
- This goodbye. These emotions. And she comes back and cries over his body as he flatlines, and her grief is so raw. (“How is there no one waiting for you? I’m waiting for you.”)
- And then he meets hyung again, MY GOD. “I told you I would be hiding in a place where no one could find.” I have come across people hiding in memories before, but I was still pretty floored that this was how they meet, and in the same moment, it’s a goodbye, and OF COURSE that missing syringe from Seo-jin’s case would be in Tae-san’s possession. Damn. Look, you can call it a convenient plot device, but whatever, it is absolutely perfect. 😭
- And of all the hollowing, harrowing emotional moments we’ve had in this show, their goodbye is the most romantic, heart-wrenching thing I have ever seen. 😭😭😭
- How. does. Jo Seung-woo. do. this.
The Good Ship Tae-Hae (or is that Seo-Sul?)
You know what I like? I like how Seo-hae and Tae-sul have just slipped into this relationship, quietly, almost imperceptibly—there was no confession, no dithering, no “do they like me?” It just went so naturally from bickering antagonism to trust, from hand-holding to life-saving, and I have zero complaints about how it progressed. Nobody needed to say “I like you” or “I love you” because it’s so bleedingly obvious that it goes without saying for both of them, but also it’s beyond words. You don’t go through what they went through and come out uncertain or in need of the words. It’s in everything that they survived together.
So I thought—until Tae-sul started fishing for confessions 😂 And that adds another level of awesome, because, like everything in Sisyphus’ world, the end comes before the beginning. They started off at the altar—before they’d ever even met each other, they each knew that one way or another, that’s where they’d end. And maybe in that, there’s something to be said for knowing the end before you know the beginning or how you get there. I love that the story explores this, and all the emotional implications of it. It’s not simply a mechanism, it’s something that has a profound effect on how they understand and approach each other.
Now, deep in their unspoken feelings for one another, Tae-sul softly asks her for the words: “So that I don’t forget.” And actually, I think he might kill me with the way he asks her for these, like it is the most precious gift she can give him—and maybe it is, because for someone with so few golden memories to prize, with nobody left in the world to miss him but her, what else can you give him that would mean more? And it’s a gift he’s willing to ask for, because while what they have and what they feel is meaningful, it’s also nebulous and soluble. But words? Words are something solid you can hold in your memory, they have edges, and so he wants her to say it—not to prove it’s real, but to give him something he can remember.
And here is the best part: he asks her for her words because he is wholly, irrevocably smitten. He is. Look at him. And for all of dismantling Sigma’s sophistry, I like that Tae-sul admits that the truth in his heart is a much simpler thing:
“It’s just that I don’t exactly know how I feel. I know that I should kill Sigma and stop the war, but you’ll disappear if I do. I’d hate that.”
This. That in the midst of the impending apocalypse, he has feelings he doesn’t fully know yet, that he’s feeling all these things and trying to figure it out but also the world is about to blow up. It’s stupid but it’s everything—like, at least if he knew his feelings, he could be sure about his choice, even if that choice was to pick the woman and let the world burn—because conviction. At a point, conviction in your choices is as good as the rightness of them. Because then he wouldn’t feel so torn and uncertain and doubtful—you know you like someone a lot, so much, but you don’t know if it’s worth destroying your whole known universe for. What you need, like Sigma, is an answer, even if it’s a bad one. Even the wrong direction is a direction, right?
“Do I really have to choose between you and the world? I hate stuff like that. I hate making choices. I always order everything on the menu at a restaurant.”
Is that how you say goodbye in the future?
So these terribly high stakes increase the heartache even in the light couple moments, like when they’re searching through his old yearbooks. This tiny slice of time is a respite where they could almost be a normal couple spending a lazy afternoon. He pulls out his dorky Romeo lines (“So I was thinking about this SCIENTIFICALLY…”) and she rolls her eyes hilariously hard when he is all like, “I was born perfect!” It’s just such a comfortable chemistry that it makes your heart hurt so much knowing they have exactly six more seconds to enjoy it. Or, I guess, 72 hours.
- Look at how he positions himself so his eye-level is lower than hers, and he’s looking up at her. I don’t know why this is so perfect but it is.
- I think it’s a really clear expression of the way Tae-sul never takes up her space or dominates her. Jo Seung-woo also does this in God’s Gift with Lee Bo-young, and of course in Stranger with Bae Doona. I don’t know if this is a Jo Seung-woo thing or a character thing, but this viewer appreciates this kind of male lead.
- Can we also please observe her A+ clavicle game. I am jealous of these perfect clavicles. 😭 I also really like this shirt!
- Tae-sul flapping around with the couch-back, poor boi just wanted some lovin’ but creepy baby Sigma won’t even let him have that.
- And on the topic of kissing each other goodbye, hilariously, the subtitles decline to translate “Is it [like] America?” as is, making it instead the extremely neutral (and entertainingly bland), “Do you have a different culture?” hahahaha.
- This is lolarious because it’s one of the funny stereotypes Koreans have about Americans, that they indulge in needless skinship more than is quite proper, haha. I mean, I can see why you would make that translation choice, but I find it all the funnier because of it. 🤣
- I will also never stop enjoying these little conversation blips when we’re reminded every so often that Seo-hae is not from around here:
- It’s so interesting because you get a little jolt and think, oh yeah. No situation came up in her life to have exposed her to certain vocabulary or experiences.
- Also when she jokes with Tae-sul about his ugly past, and he is like, oh you can even make those jokes now!! And he’s so delighted…until he realises she must have picked it up from Sun. And then he’s frowny and pouty. 😂
- I thought it was GREAT to see Seo-hae get jealous back (and I thought the school teacher was a total riot…until she turned out to be a Sigma agent 😱)(Also I’m always ready to titter over the reappearance of Eorbes Magazine 🤣)
- And I rewatched the snippet of them answering whether Seo-hae was his girlfriend or not more times than I should admit. Look at his reproachful little face! He’s all in, Seo-hae!
- Isn’t it funny how you can be so certain of someone’s feeling about you one minute, and then have wild jealousy/insecurity the next? Like, they are SOLID and they know it. But they still have this and it’s great.
- But I still love that Seo-hae’s first response most of the time is in the form of bluster, threats and denial. Yes yes, it’s unhealthy, but some unhealthy is very healthy, and I find her VERY healthy. Largely because Tae-sul sees right through it, and everybody and their mother is actually quite fluent in Seo-hae. 😂
- Also, she hasn’t exactly enjoyed a normal socialisation, so it makes sense to me that her instinctive reaction is to bristle and push away. Once you get to know her, it’s pretty obvious that her “jugulle” means “I was terrified, please don’t die.” “Why are you here” means “I’m so glad to see you,” and so on.
- Because she’s not a words-person. Her love language is mortal combat.
What I’ve really come to appreciate about Tae-sul and Seo-hae is how they are characterised by their non-deterministic approach to the future. And they may accept the past as unchangeable, but that’s only because it’s gone. In their present, everything is to play for. Like Seo-hae frequently repeats the line, “I can change the future. I can do it,” and instead of it playing like an empty bromide, it increasingly takes on meaning, especially in that key, culminating moment in Episode 12 when she tells Boss Park that the bullet his boy took was originally meant for her. 😱 That’s CONCRETE. (But also: how did Boss Park know that the jailbreak was going to happen the next day? HOW.)
I also appreciate that Seo-hae doesn’t play silent mystic and withhold information from Tae-sul (and her allies, but especially Tae-sul). Like how she tells him about the diary, and finding her own grave, and of course about the future events, including his own death-date. It’s so much more interesting this way, not like how in some shows where they bait you and are really manipulative about it. It feels like we are all along for the ride together on this one.
My big question at this point is: how many times have they done this loop over? Because now we know we ARE in a loop. And each time, they’ve made small changes which Seo-hae’s diary acts as a guide for tracking—she can’t track every cycle from her present vantage, she can only see what has happened in the last one. My theory is that every iteration brings them a little closer to changing the final outcome, but they haven’t succeeded yet: it still ends with them dying, getting nuked, the Uploader being made, and so on. But this cycle is the critical one where they will break it somehow, because it’s the one we’re watching.
Not alone anymore
We’ve just about closed in on how Seo-hae came to travel back, but man, I love how this sequence is a bookend to her meeting her dad again in 2020—her dad in his past, her future. Just. All these feelings. I really think this is what appeals to me most in time travel: the emotions that come out of crossings and connections like these. They’re impossible in real life, but they’re also the meetings we wish and yearn for the most.
We can now understand his send-off to her in a completely different way: the man who sent her off to the past, with the instruction to stay away from Han Tae-sul, was a man who had met his adult daughter already, long ago, who had heard what she’d told him on that rooftop: that she had eaten real fruit, gone to an amusement park, met good people who cared about her, and above all, though she could take care of herself, she wasn’t alone. But also, he’s seen her die—maybe he’s the one who buried her, even. We haven’t got there yet. But he’s also the man that raised his 9-year-old daughter alone, hoping against hope that the day would never come where he’d have to say that goodbye.
- Gahhh it’s so good. And also, I absolutely did not realise until he met with Hyun-gi that he was his older partner!! What an ill-fated connection. Everything we learn adds to everything we already knew and EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. I feel like this is a show I would enjoy rewatching.
- I was wondering how they found this convenient bunker. It’s still convenient, but I trust the show that we’ll get a really good answer. But the bootstraps and causal loops are definitely tightening…I have questions/theories but I’m also good to wait it out. (Scroll down for the speculation)
- Oh if they lived in the bunker for 15 years, then the future is 2035. I wonder what year the first time travelers left from. Seo-jin looks the same as in 2020, so it must have been pretty soon?
- Laughing hard at JTBC’s little meta-joke insert of its own post-apocalyptic existence, haha:
- Quicksand is terrifying. Is this a nuclear desert? Is this what happens when a place is nuked? Does Korea have deserts? I could google this, but I am lazy.
- Also, whenever we see this destroyed cityscape, I wonder: what would the impact of this imagery be on a domestic audience who are intimately familiar with this skyline as it is now? That’s something we miss out on. Like the ruined plinth of the King Sejong statue, or this toll gate:
- But these Assassin’s Creed people are in the future too? Are Sigma’s minions after Seo-hae already, even here?
- THE RETURN OF
THE KINGBONG-SEONIE OMG I KNEW THEY COULDN’T FORGET YOU, THANK GOD YOU ARE ALIVE AND STILL THE BEST 😭
In the spirit of the show at hand, let’s end where we began, and circle back to the Sigma Enigma.
- Firstly, I’m not sure I caught this correctly, but that creepy face picture—did he scan that from the larger painting?
- The pictures are so creepy. They put me in mind of I Remember You.
- Goodbye all my who-is-Sigma speculating! I’m not sure if I feel let down by the reveal. Maybe, a little—I’ve seen this villain before, you know? But I’m still 100% spooked by this intense, chronically abused kid who becomes a psychopath and pays the pain forward. Of course he grew up to destroy the world. Tae-sul’s memories of him are so haunting.
- But does he really see the future? Is there some kind of mysticism at work here, or is it like echoes of himself in the universe? I mean, is it physics, or metaphysical?
- Do they happen because he draws them, or does he draw them because they will happen? Also I wonder what it does to a child’s psyche to act that out. I hope he got proper counselling (like they do in Mouse, the show about whether people are born psychopaths).
- But it still doesn’t reveal much more about Sigma’s motives—we can assume his endgame is to blow everything up, but why? Is the sum of his reason “why not?”
- He’s obviously getting something out of playing with Tae-sul…ohhhh is that it? He wants to play—like play-play, like kids play—with Tae-sul? I mean, he doesn’t need to be more complex than that. Spite is a sprawling, many-splendoured motive that is brutal in its apparent simplicity. (See: the real world.)
And now, if you are tired after all that reading and in need of an antidote made of silly grins, please enjoy this behind-the-scenes Making Video of goodness: