“Don’t fight to win, but fight until we win.”
Squad 38 is led by a con artist, and we are one of his victims — we’re conned through and through, even when we thought we’ve figured everything and everyone out. I believe i’m not the only one feeling this way.
On my halftime report, i mentioned how hard it was to predict if the scamming would match the simulation bits until we’re in execution stage. After finishing the series, i’d say it’s rather impossible to predict whether the twists and turns are real or part of Jung-do’s grand scheme until the big reveal. Because, more often than not, it’s the latter — even down the situations where the plan backfired.
I put ‘rather’ there because there are times the ploy was obvious and predictable. Like that moment in the second case with Bang Pil-gyu where Mi-joo sold the team under Detective Sa’s coercion. The acting was oddly awkward, from her tears to Jung-do/Sung-il’s defeated looks, which was justifiable since the characters were acting their parts. That could definitely serve as a pointer for us to decide if we should take certain happening at face value — if something feels off, it’s usually because it is off. Like the duo’s initial attempt to get Chairman Choi Chul-woo (Lee Ho-jae), the third and last target who owes the highest amount of back taxes in the country. I could sense something’s bad gonna happen not only because we were only at episode 12 but also because they got him under their thumbs a bit too easily. Sometimes, we just need to trust our gut feeling more.
That doesn’t mean we can be entirely sure as even a pinch is possibly a calculated move on Jung-do’s end. Whenever that happened, i found myself beaming with awe at how sharp and shrewd the team’s brain is (technically it’s the clever writing) for him to be able to pull those strings. He — well, Show — surely is having so much fun toying with us; there are multiple layers to each deception it could very well be called con-ception. Heh.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to every upside. In this case, the scamming sessions are so engaging that the other scenes pales in comparison. It wasn’t noticeable in the first half as i deemed it the foundation-laying and stage-setting-up time, but the second half got increasingly tedious it was halfway into dullsville. I’m hardly interested in any show’s political side and thus found myself zoning out during those parts, especially in the third leg of the series. We know the bad guys are obnoxious; i need not hear lengthy details of their dodgy ways.
Take Chairman Choi for example. He speaks sooo slowly with long pauses that even speeding it up to 1.4 didn’t help much. Appearance-wise, he isn’t your typical top baddie; he looks kinda frail (his fingers tremble when placing his baduk pieces!) and doesn’t give off menacing/intimidating aura that he gains power and controls people through money. With police, prosecutor, and even the city’s mayor on his side, he’s free to demand his rights as a citizen while abstain from fulfilling his obligations as one.
Another thing i was unenthused about is the love line. I suspected something’s up the moment we learned that Jung-do and Sung-hee were ex-lovers yet had faith in Squad 38 to not go there; it’s an OCN drama after all, which tends to steer clear of romance. That’s one of the reasons i was pretty meh about the second con wherein she’s dragged into. One might argue she served the plot but her involvement felt downright forced. The situation was further worsened by an allusion to a potential love triangle. Both matters were quickly dropped, thank goodness, though that made me question why they’re brought up in the first place.
The same goes for Kim Min-shik’s suicide and Jung-do’s dad’s framing, albeit for opposite reason: i expected more from both cases, yet they were barely followed through. Or Sung-hee’s parentage, which barely added anything. Or Chairman Wang, who ended up a plot device than a key character in paving the way for Jung-do’s revenge.
As for the cons, the bar was raised level by level with each target. I thought the game plan to swindle Pil-gyu’s assets was intricate enough until we got to Chairman Choi’s. I nearly lost track of the scheme due to multiple adjustments and leaks. On one hand, i loved the motive. Initially brought together by lucrative incentive, the team regrouped even when there was no monetary gain (it concerned someone they know personally). On the other hand, it was overly convoluted. Not only was he aware that he’s marked, he’s also fully prepared to counter attack. The stakes were way higher that third-party support were required, including from someone we least expected. This external help came at the expense of internal team’s roles, which got downplayed quite tremendously. Not to mention the undetected rat among them — one of the rare variables falling under Jung-do’s radar. Toward the end, he might appear a bit too trusting for a swindler, but he proved that he’s also good at reading people and picking his teammates.
The big reveal and grand speech were arguably most gratifying in Ma Jin-suk’s case as the effect was less impactful the second and third time around. However, i liked Pil-gyu’s closure and Choi’s reveal best. It still pained me thinking about the former (fifty freaking million dollars in cash thrown away just like that!) and made my jaw drop recalling the latter (what a brilliant steal!). I wish Choi were put behind bars just like any other rich tax fraudster though — ain’t he one of Jung-do’s three targets?
I appreciate Squad 38 for not shying away from pointing out that there’s a price to pay for misdeeds, the end justifying the means notwithstanding. That doesn’t mean i was not saddened by Jung-do’s self-sacrifice (and hence his inability to keep his end of the promise), but someone had to do it and it was perhaps the most desirable option for the mastermind to take the fall. I wonder how long his current term is, given he’s incarcerated for the exact same crime for the third time while still on parole for his second stint. If anything, the uproarious closing scene completely made up for his bittersweet arc. Come on, that’s gotta be the epicest ‘cameo’ ever!
I was this close to complaining about the lack of epilogue on his part prior to that, though to be fair, he wasn’t the only one without proper send-off; what happened to Deok-bae, Sung-il’s detective friend, and Chang-ho, Division 3’s maknae, for example? Okay, i was being nitpicky. This show has a lot characters it’s impossible to cover everyone.
A major element that was somewhat overlooked is character development. I didn’t see or feel much change from our special task force although they obviously became better versions of themselves — warmer, more amiable, less apathetic. Sung-il in particular, who grew from jaded acquiescent tax officer to capable planner/scammer when push comes to shove. He has his ideals, which are in line with his profession’s duty: for every citizen to pay taxes as per Article 38 of the Law, for public officials to work for the public instead of rich individuals, and for law to be impartial. Above all, seeing a broad smile plastered on his face feels so good.
[How i wish the bromance could last longer, or end on a happy note…]
As seen in the epilogue, his work doesn’t end there. There can’t be only three overbearing people with astronomical amount of back taxes, but with papa bear on the lead, rest assured that every owed penny will be collected and paid in full =)
Lastly, i’m simply glad that i still had nice things to say about Squad 38‘s finale since many of the recent ones i’ve watched either petered out toward the finish line or left me dissatisfied and ranty at the end of the series. So there’s that.
Director: Han Dong-hwa
Production: OCN, 2016
Cast: Seo In-gook, Ma Dong-seok, Lee Sun-bin, Heo Jae-ho, Song Ok-sook, Go Kyu-pil, Kim Joo-ri, Choi Soo-young, Jung In-ki, Oh Dae-hwan, Ahn Nae-sang, Jo Woo-jin
Genre: Crime comedy, K-drama (16 Episodes)