“We have just witnessed the dangers of a media trial. A trial is not a movie. Nor is it a show.”
A prosecutor says these words in the first episode of The Devil Judge (tvN, 2021). He says it in a courtroom, but he also says it in front of thousands, potentially millions of people, as this is the first televised trial of its kind – one that takes audience opinion into consideration.
From its very onset, it is obvious that The Devil Judge is willing to make certain very bold statements. In some senses of the terms, the show may be classified as science fiction or dystopian fiction. Taking place in a post-pandemic Korea, a fascist and populist government that is desperate to win the approval of an increasingly belligerent populace appoints a popular judge to lead a new type of court: one in which every decision is televised, and the final decision is decided by online approval.
From its very onset, it is obvious that The Devil Judge is willing to make certain very bold statements.
As it turns out, dystopian is the right word after all – almost every frame of the 16-episode drama is dripping with the strain of the two worlds in the show: the world of the rich, the privileged, the decadent and the world of the deprived, the poverty-stricken, the oppressed. At the outset, the world seems to be perfectly represented by the two protagonists – Kang Yohan, a popular judge known for his rigid and hardline judgements; and Kim Gaon, a righteous young judge with fixed ideas of truth and justice.
The (literal and figurative) melding of these two characters is the melding of the two worlds of the show, which also seeks to answer certain questions: is the law truly just and is objective justice truly possible? Can one seek justice by the hands of the people?
When does the law become a spectator sport?
In one of the trials, the head of a wastewater plant is sentenced to 235 years in prison after being convicted of gross negligence and causing the death of 47 people. In another, the son of a rich politician is sentenced to being flogged in public after being convicted of assault. Each of these measures are greeted with increasing approval by the public and the end result of which is that Yohan is catapulted to higher and higher heights of public adulation until he approaches an almost messiah-like position.
How the show itself feels about this is considerably murkier. The central push and pull within the show are primarily between the figures of Yohan and his associate judge, Gaon. They dance around the matter, tension bordering on sexual coiled tightly around their interactions. In fact, The Devil Judge makes the relationship between Yohan and Gaon as one of the central tenets of the story, and it shows: as often as they trade blows and end up at each other’s throats (literally), they also increasingly become the other’s fiercest champion, creating one of the strong duos in the show.
When does the law become a spectator sport?
And as a foil to them, the show presents a delightful array of over-the-top villains – the bumbling but performative president, who takes after a certain populist US president; a manipulative Minister of Defense; and a trio of CEOs who are very clearly running the government from the shadows. Each villain of The Devil Judge is recognisable in the role that they play, and their caricaturish portrayals emphasise the social critique of the show.
And above all, the figure of Yohan looms, larger than life, over the entire show to a borderline cartoonish degree. With one or two exceptions, he is ahead of whatever nefarious plan the government is making, and people and plans alike fall like bowling pins in his path.
This can complicate things because of the murky nature of The Devil Judge’s politics: on one hand, it’s refreshing to watch a show which takes on populism and it’s ugly underbelly head on but at the same time, the show is unable to stick to any particular conviction for too long. The central problem is Yohan and how most other characters (and their belief systems) eventually fall subservient to him. This would be fine if the show could make up its mind about Yohan, but it often falls into the trap of attempting to make both Yohan god-like but also human at the same time.
The only person who stands apart is Gaon, and even his story eventually plays second fiddle to Yohan’s. Gaon’s story encapsulates the moderate position to Yohan’s radical but this is heavily watered down as Gaon falls deeper into Yohan’s circle. Since the plot constantly shows Gaon two steps behind Yohan, it wouldn’t have been wrong to assume that The Devil Judge favours Yohan’s politics over Gaon’s. The Devil Judge plays with this by handing Gaon the ‘reasonable’ ball to hold at times (flogging someone as punishment does sound barbaric!) but in an unreasonable world, Gaon’s insistence on trust in the system and following due process begin to sound hollow after a point. But one must also admire that the show has Gaon stick to his convictions, especially when Yohan begins to take actions which are dangerously unethical no matter how unreasonable the world.
Unfortunately, because of how Yohan has been built throughout the show and how his actions have been rewarded in-universe and outside (many viewers watching the show found Gaon’s actions hopelessly naive and called him ‘out’ from not siding with Yohan earlier), the balance of The Devil Judge remains skewed till the end.
By the last two episodes, Yohan and Gaon stand apart – both affected by the other but neither willing to concede, not until the very end. The world in between them is broken and changed, but apparently for the better. And so are they apparently – Gaon is no longer as idealistic as before but stronger in his convictions; Yohan has his rough edges sanded down by Gaon’s persistent care and humanity. The viewer is left with a last glimpse of hope: hope of reconciliation and the hope of a different world. At the end of a show decrying the ‘due process’ and populist methods of judgement, The Devil’s Judge makes a decision and opts for a ‘safer’ ending: a return to status quo, but with lingering questions and signs of change for the future.
The viewer is left with a last glimpse of hope: hope of reconciliation and the hope of a different world
As Gaon asks in the end, “How can I create a world where Yohan is not needed?”
And he is replied to in turn by Yohan’s silence, and by Yohan’s lingering hand at the back of Gaon’s chair. The final reply of The Devil Judge’s slightly uneven run is provided by Yohan himself, as he walks out of the narratives, chooses to trust in Gaon’s methods and leaves the rest of the job to him.