Overall Rating: B (probably)
Subtitles: I watched on Netflix and the subtitles were good overall. There were a couple language quirks but my husband, who is not a big fan of subtitles, watched with me and had no complaints.
Brief Synopsis: A CEO of a big tech company in Korea learns that a kid in Granada, Spain, has developed an incredible Augmented Reality game and flies to Spain to meet him about it, but by the time he arrives the kid is missing. As the CEO begins to explore the game he finds that some elements of the game have real world consequences and gets caught up in a huge mystery surrounding the game itself and how to survive when things that don’t exist have the power to kill you. There’s also a romance plot with the missing game developer’s sister. Watch on Netflix here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: Definitely not happy. Prepare for rage and confusion.
Characters: As with almost everything else with this show I have very mixed feelings about the characters. Honestly I think the characters themselves were quite internally consistent and the acting was superb, but the story failed to really make anything out of any of them or make it feel like the characters being who and how they were was necessary for the story to take place. I guess the only exception to that would be the main character, CEO Yoo Jin Woo (Hyun Bin), whose stubbornness and determination both spark the plot and keep it going. Everyone else was an interesting person who just kind of existed in his story because they were around, and that was pretty much it.
I loved the loyal secretary Jung Hoon (Min Jin Woong) and it’s hard not to care about any character that Park Shin Hye portrays (here it was Jung Hee Joo), but neither felt necessary to the story. Instead they were collateral damage and the emotional orbit around the often emotion-less Jin Woo.
Cha Hyung Seok (Park Hoon) started out as an interesting antagonist/frenemy and even halfway through the story as we started to get flashbacks it seemed like he would have his own important sort of anti-arc to mirror Jin Woo’s but it never played out. While we got to understand him more he stayed the friend who had betrayed his friend, been treated poorly by his father, and died the rival of the person who had known him best.
I was also really interested in Cha Byung Jun (Kim Eui Sung) as another antagonist/villain character who started out as a father figure and then ultimately betrayed Jin Woo for understandable reasons with really twisted tactics, but I was disappointed with the resolution of his story as well. To me, the last few episodes felt like all-around character assassination as potentially interesting storylines and character arcs were left hanging or abruptly halted so that our Jin Woo could end on a bizarre hero arc that was not even heroic. (Seriously he pretty much sacrificed himself to clear bugs from the game aka gave his life so a freaking game could later be released instead of you know just… living and shutting down the servers forever because GAMES ARE NOT WORTH GIVING UP YOUR LIFE FOR).
Relationships: I did find many of the relationships in this show to be very compelling. Jin Woo and his secretary Jung Hoon had the relationship that gave me the most feelings. We go from a funny, asshole boss and try hard employee dynamic to a partner/ally dynamic when Jung Hoon joins the game. Jung Hoon, who stays by Jin Woo’s side throughout all the trials he faces, is the true bae of the show and Jin Woo’s reaction when he dies really cut deep. The scene where Jung Hoon reappears as the ally NPC in the game and his death is confirmed was superbly acted by Hyun Bin and it was a huge emotional impact moment because the writing up to that point had been stellar.
The antagonistic relationship between Jin Woo and Hyung Seok was also done well, I think, though it kept feeling like the writer(s?) was going to take it somewhere interesting and it never happened so in the end I felt very unsatisfied.
The main romance between Jin Woo and Hee Joo I have very mixed feelings about. Both Hyun Bin and Park Shin Hye are phenomenal actors and their chemistry was actually great, so I got plenty of feelings watching their story. But it also felt like this weird extra dressing tacked on to the plot, like every scene between them was an exit from the main action for the sake of having a romance. It was also a classic story of asshole man and caring, loyal woman who loves him despite how much of a dick he is to her. Towards the end there were a couple cute moments and you could make the argument that most of what he was doing was to save her brother, but in the end its hard to untangle Jin Woo’s selfish motivation to solve his own problem from his motivation to do right by Hee Joo. Since both motivations are satisfied by finding the missing Se Joo it’s hard to say for sure that any of Jin Woo’s actions were actually for Hee Joo. Honestly the final episode was hard for me to watch, with Hee Joo holding staunchly to her love for Jin Woo and her belief that he would return, while Jin Woo himself was entirely absent. It felt like a metaphor for the whole show and their whole relationship. Still, I would have felt better if they’d actually ended up together and/or she had just…. seen him in the final scene or something. The way it was left made a weak sort of romantic plot feel just frustrating.
High Points: The entire first 2/3 of the season. Seriously this show started with such a fascinating premise and asked such fantastic questions. It felt fresh and big and masterful and was totally thrilling to watch. Too bad it had to take a nose dive.
Low Points: The last several episodes. The show was propelled by the big mystery about the real-world effects of the game. How come killing other players in game killed them in real life? How was that possible? Why did the players killed in-game continue to persist in the game in a mindless, NPC type role? Was it possible to fix it? If the game bug was corrected would they come back to life for real? What other real world effects could the game create? We get to keep asking them forever because even the writer had no answers. Instead our ending got turned into a forced-heroic sacrifice plot and the moral of the entire story was that making a game playable and profitable for a company is worth losing your life over. I AM NOT ABOUT IT.
Final comments: I have never been a teacher but I think the solid F of the final 1/3 plus the A of the first 2/3 puts us somewhere in the B range? I wish I had stopped watching the show before the end and just let my imagination finish it because I can’t over-stress how much the final few episodes ruined the whole thing for me. The wonder and awe I felt in the first part of the season will forever be colored by the straight rage and disbelief I had when it came to its conclusion. I think perhaps a sequel season could salvage it but honestly the story did not even warrant a sequel? The non-answers were treated like final answers and the only question the story seemed to have left was if Jin Woo was still alive or not and you don’t need a whole season to answer that. Just like…. two more minutes of an episode. But no, we cannot have such things. Instead we are left with angst.
Seriously I cannot in good conscience recommend this show unless you want to stop with about four episodes left and just sit in a tent with a flashlight and finish it yourself.