I loved this drama. It was a 10/10 for me. It had all the hallmarks of a good melodrama – plenty of angst and anguish. Child abuse, dark secrets, shadowed mansions, homoerotic antagonism, BDSM, murder, mayhem, and more. There’s plenty of twists and turns in this drama, keeping the excitement running full speed and the tension high. It’s over the top and a great escape from the norm when you want something different.
Overall, it’s a story about one man trying to determine what kind of person another man is. This evaluation is a difficult and ongoing process – because the man in question does not behave or react in typical ways. He’s contradictory. He’s secretive. He’s extremely clever and ruthless. He’s manipulative and brazen. One minute he’s nurturing and the next minute he’s throwing punches. Mercurial is an understatement. Determining whether or not he is a “good” buy or a “bad” guy is the ultimate challenge – which is intriguing as both the men in question are judges. It is literally their job to figure people out.
It is also a nice metaphor for figuring out your sexuality when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard package (the bisexuals in the audience will get this message right away) – there’s a lot of second guessing, a lot of flip flopping sides, a lot of confusion and emotions, and depending on your circumstances a lot of internal resistance, guilt, anger, and shame that you may have to process before you come to acceptance of your unique self. What is good and bad, right and wrong? What are the rules and who made them? Justice is tricky shit, after all. About as tricky as realizing there is no “normal.”
There’s so much to talk about with this show that I had to narrow it down to keep this review from turning into a novel. But I think I can manage it… maybe. This review is going to be focus on 2 major plot points – the Justice, aka the politics of the drama – and the Queer-Coding, aka, the characters.
There’s gonna be spoilers mixed in with what follows… so go ahead and watch the show. Come back when you’re ready to discuss.
We shall begin with the politics, the more serious topic, before I devolve into a giddy school girl and fill up this post with gifs and fan gushing of our amazing characters.
If you’ve been watching Korean Dramas for a while, you know they do not shy away from the topics of justice and inequality. South Korea, much like America and other capitalistic societies with few/little social safety nets – are fairly obsessed with covering these topics in their media. Of course, how they are covered varies widely and is generally contradictory and confusing (one could argue purposely so).
You can have shows obsessed with the ultra rich and consumer culture airing at the same time as shows that condemn the elite and their wasteful, shallow ways. Of course, if you can find a way to combine the two then you’ve really struck pay dirt. Call it… the Batman Complex. We want to have our mansions AND our social justice – at the same time, please and thank you.
I’ve been watching some great shows with the Batman Complex recently. Taxi Driver and Devil Judge being my two current favorites. Both shows have similar vibes, even though they have totally different storylines. Today I’m here to talk to you about Devil Judge… which wants to have an anti-capitalist, anti-corruption message while also having a multi-millionaire hero. Only the rich can save you… from the rich.
The main character of the Devil Judge is rich. Very rich. He lives in a massive mansion. He has a servant. He has an AI butler. He has one of those ridiculous walk-in closets that are big enough to have seating. He’s the usual Korean chaebol – though how all this money was earned or maintained is never disclosed or focused on. He’s a super rich guy who will occasionally play the role of Batman. Case closed.
In Devil Judge they’ve upped the capitalist anty by having the whole show in a dystopian version of South Korea, aka Gotham City, where you have the exact same problems, but amplified. There’s been a plague, there’s been an uprising against the wealthy that was squashed by the militarized police, there’s been an uptick in immigrants who will to take risky and extremely low-paying work, and there’s been an increase of general social distrust in the government, politicians, the legal system, the police, and basically everyone running the show. There’s only a small fraction of the population that seems to be prospering while everyone else is suffering and slaving away, attempting to make meager ends meet. Everything has gotten worse for almost everyone, while the ones at the tippy top are doing better than ever and oblivious.
The collective anger and frustration of the general population – that have no voice in politics and no power other than their numbers – has lead to a volatile stew in society. One need only adjust the temperature slightly and the people will explode – maybe collapse the country this round with a revolution. The wealthy use this societal unease and throw the people a bone, a diversion – they offer them a live courtroom where the collective public is the jury. Sure, you may not ever know justice personally, the show says, but you can live vicariously through whatever court case is broadcasted live. Your voice matters, see? We’re listening. On these very selective and singular cases, justice may be served. Kinda-sorta. Don’t look behind the curtain please.
Everyone knows the wealthy use their money and power to skirt the law and the legal system is vastly unfair. The irony of this show – and the “collective judgement” of the people’s court – is that it is also vastly unfair, yet another sham organized by an extremely wealthy guy that gathered up his crew to “fight the system” – which he is only able to do because he is the system itself.
So, without it being explicitly stated, the message is always the same. You are at the mercy of fate if you ever fall into the hands of the justice system. And if you’re pitted against someone with more money or power than you, then even fate ain’t gonna help you much. Justice is an illusion, a sleight of hand, another trick meant to appease you, to lull you into a false sense of security.
The illusion of fairness is very comforting – and greatly spit forth by the higher powers in order to calm the fears of those of us further down the ladder. Everything is going to be okay! Liberty and justice is for all! But you only have to scratch at the surface to see this isn’t the case. It’s as uncomfortable as hosting a fancy fundraising event with limos and lobsters while raising money for… child hunger or something.
The main character of Devil Judge, the devilish head judge himself, is insanely rich. He’s inherited his wealth and has no inclination to redistribute it. He’s very aware of how corrupt the system is, thus believes he is justified in working within it in a corrupt manner himself. And does he help some people get justice along the way? Sure. Is that his motivation for seeing justice in this deeply unfair world? Uh, no. No, it’s not. He’s always been very clear that his motivation is personal. The man’s got a vendetta, a personal score to settle. If he can help out a few people along way then no problem, but that’s not his mission or his priority.
Despite the problematic political messages, I honestly thoroughly enjoyed nearly every court case. It was fun to watch people accustomed to having the rules bend for them suddenly finding an inflexible justice system. These people seemed to struggle with the entire concept of consequences, so it was deeply satisfying to watch them twist in the wind for their crimes. Even the extreme punishments seemed justified, and well suited to the crimes committed.
There was one large fly in the punch bowl, however. In episode 5 of Devil Judge… the “gotcha!” moment at the end was when the judge decided against castration of the male rapist – but instead sentenced him to an American prison exclusively for sex offenders. He then showed a video of these incarcerated sex offender men flirting with the camera like they were about to go onto Fantasy Island. The implication was clear that “your sentence is rape.” Which… as a concept is an interesting penalty for rape, very eye for an eye Old Testament. That’s a serious and horrific punishment for a serious and horrific crime. But because they showed all the inmates blowing kisses at the camera and suggestively winking while the audience giggled at home, it came across with an entirely different tone. It was clearly played for laughs. As if this were funny, somehow. Which is so cringe. Apparently rape is a good chuckle to share with the nation, you know, if it’s male on male. I absolutely hated that this sentence was framed this way. It made my skin crawl.
Please watch this youtube video if you, too, thought it was particularly tone deft… or maybe if you didn’t, cause it really was the a flaw in an otherwise flawless show.
To be fair to Devil Judge, it does use the character of the female cop to point out how the every day problems of average citizens are just as dangerous and important as these larger-scale courtroom crimes. We are reminded of the outside world through this character, and how she struggles without fanfare to do the right thing and make the city a better place. She has no secret agenda, no maid cleaning up behind her at home. She’s just a regular person who believes in the goodness of people and fights to protect them from harm.
And she dies for it.
She was a really great character, honestly. Kind, hardworking, extremely protective of her best friend and love interest… and super cute in all her tom-boy outfits. They had her wooing, rescuing, and comforting her crying boyfriend – the stereotypical moves of a romantic storyline but gender-swapped.
Which, I suppose, is a good segue into Part 2.
This show is so gay.
This show is not only gay but it has a great time being gay. It’s openly flaunting it, like drag queens cruising a runway. Its colorful plumage is spread out on full display and it’s gonna shake that rump all up in your face. It’s gonna wrap you in a rainbow flag and snuggle up really, really close. It’s just very, very gay like that.
But it’s not gay – officially. It’s just coded that way.
Queer coding is the subtextual coding of a character in media as queer. Though such a character’s sexual identity may not be explicitly confirmed within their respective work, a character might be coded as queer through the use of traits and stereotypes recognizable to the audience.– Wikipedia
Just think of… almost every Disney villain. These characters have all been queer-coded, some more than others.
There have been a few Korean dramas recently with some heavy handed queer coding. Whether it’s the marketing and promos or the actual writing and character performances in the show – there’s no doubt they are pandering to a certain… aesthetic.
Dramas like… Beyond Evil and Strangers from Hell… and the movie The Merciless… share a weird antagonistic gay-vibe. And I’m gonna be honest, I find this hella entertaining (not necessarily those shows, mind you, but the homoerotic antagonist angle).
There’s the super sweet, saccharine romances of most Boys Love that are cute G-Rated affairs… and there’s the weird power-dynamic Boys Love stories with their rape-fetishes… and then there’s whatever these Korean dramas are… somewhere inbetween the two. They feel less like the BL created to cater to the feminine gaze and more like something put out by Greg Araki… something still beautiful and seductive, but also violent and unpredictable and full of insecurities. They aren’t specifically about romance – but it’s the implied romantic elements we remember most.
Beyond Evil, Strangers from Hell, The Merciless, and The Devil Judge all have the power-dynamic BL thing – the older guy who’s been jaded by the world but is capable and independent… and the young chaotic guy who is quickly pulled into the other man’s orbit. There’s a bit of a mentor/mentee vibe. A bit of “Let me show you the power of the dark side, my boy.” A lot of sexual tension and amazing body language. And that tension only increases the closer the two men get. These passionate relationships… not quite friends, not quite lovers, not quite coworkers – no, they are clearly relationships… they change you.
The judges of the Devil Judge… they are the best duo so far in this unique sub-genre of gay.
And the Devil Judge is super, super gay… while still remaining closeted. Kinda like… when some people genuinely thought Elton John was straight.
I mean, do Yuri and Viktor have to say verbatim they are gay? Can’t we just… read the writing on the wall?
The Queer-Coding is blatant and easy to spot. They are not just hinting – they have torches lit and are guiding the plane down the runway towards a giant neon signs that says YOU HAVE REACHED PEAK GAYNESS.
It’s not just the men that are queer-coded in this show, either. They queer-coded side characters and special guests. They queer coded the henchman who worked for the devil judge and henchwoman who worked for our glorious bad girl. I mean… Kim Min-Jung playing Jung Sun-A is hands down my favorite female villain in a Korean drama. Strutting around in her heels and short skirts, slapping politicians and presidents and stealing their thrones. I adored her! They had her slinking up around the female judge and whispering in her ear, catching her when she falls, and even running her eyes up and down her body. Sun-A was a bisexual queen and total badass.
An evil badass. But a badass nonetheless. I could write a full paper just on this goddess… but I think I’d rather talk about the boys today. Cause they’re the most consensual lovers in the mix – the two magnets that immediately flipped the second the other one came close… and nothing seemed to be able to come between them.
Let us examine the evidence of queer-coding between these two judges.
They use tons of traditional “Romance” tropes. There are more than this, but these are the Top 10, in my opinion.
Trope 1 – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
Oh, the looks these two were giving each other was enough to set the fan boards murmuring. Body language is everything, and from the second these two shared the screen you could tell there was something in the water. I mean… if you watched the episode where our devil judge pushes his little cutie against the wall and then gently runs his fingers seductively across his chest while asking him if he lives alone… and you somehow thought this was not a gay show… I don’t know what to say. Other than this is not the behavior of two straight men.
Trope 2 – Can’t Take My Hands Off You
I find it interesting how often they mirrored behavior in this show – between the men and women “couples” and the two men. In one scene our sweet cop is lovingly comforting her handsome twink and the next scene our devil judge is doing the exact same thing. Exact same gesture.
Trope 3 – Wrist Grabbing
Oh, the K-Drama trope of grabbing someone by the wrist and dragging them around! Such a classic. I always love this. It’s very easy to read shorthand for possessive and territorial interest. Mine, mine, mine.
Trope 4 – Sexy Antagonism (whether verbal or physical)
This relationship was fraught with sexy antagonism. The mistrust, suspicion, manipulation, lies, secrets, and slow reveals between these two men guaranteed to keep them (and us) on edge at all times. The stakes were high and the emotions were high… with that sexual chemistry always churning underneath. I mean, when aren’t these boys throwing punches and tossing each other around in dark rooms with beautiful soft lighting? Yelling at each other, making up, what a bunch of drama queens.
Trope 5 – Nursemaiding
If you ever find yourself applying a bandaid to wound or a cold towel to a sweaty forehead… or otherwise tending to the sick in a Korean drama… then you are the love interests of the show. End of story. This is the trope. To tend to another is to tend to the heart.
Trope 6 – Cohabitation
Whatever excuse is given, there is nothing better than a cohabitation storyline. Our devil judge brought his little injured honey home to meet his ward, show off his house, and get closer… much closer…. to his new friend. He stripped him of his clothes, mended his wounds, and put him in a gigantic bed in his mansion. Welcome home, honey.
With cohabitation comes all the cute domestic scenes as the two men learn more about each other. And play around in each other’s clothes. And try on couplehood.
Adorably, our wounded troublemaker decides to stay even after bandages are no longer required. To investigate his new suitor more thoroughly (cough cough). And cook him dinner.
Gods, I loved this show.
Trope 7 – Everyone Can Tell Ya’ll Like Each Other
At a certain point, everyone could read the room and knew there was something going on between the two judges.
The other judges, the other love interests, everyone. It was obvious.
Trope 8 – Cook for Me / Eat with Me
The dinner scenes – and there were so many – were so cute. I always love how much food is used in Korean dramas. As someone who doesn’t cook, I’m always delighted to see men or women cooking huge meals for their love interest, invested in feeding them with delicious fresh cooked meals. I mean… sign me up for this domestic bliss please.
I also really enjoyed their late night chats in the mega-study-library-living room. Cozy, cozy, cozy.
Trope 9 – Jealousy
I’m only going to briefly talk about the hysterical and intense jealousy these two men have for anyone who comes anywhere near their man. From the “rival” females, to casual coworkers, almost anyone can trigger them to glare to stare and to pout. The boys are of jealous of the other girls. The girls are jealous of the other boy. It’s pure romantic triangle gold, honestly. Sure, it’s not something anyone wants to deal with in reality, but reality is boring. Which is why we love K-Dramas.
Trope 10 – I Would Die For You and/or With You
Both of these dudes would jump off a cliff to save the other one. Literally. They’re constantly saving each other from gangs, car crashes, explosions, riots, or other problematic and dramatic events. Usually it’s the devil judge jumping in to save the day. I am here to rescue you, cutie.
That last episode shook me up – first with one of them willing to die to right the wrong he’d done to the other… bomb strapped to his chest… world about to go up in flames… only to have his honey show up and (sexily) disarm him with only a few seconds to spare. Then with the devil judge seemingly about to blow himself to smithereens to murder the corrupt elite and his cute sidekick eagerly willing to die at his side. My blood pressure can not take these romantically high stakes, people!
This show deserves your love.
This show deserves all of the praise it’s getting. It’s a bold, fun, dramatic romp into gay town – full tilt boogie. Just… openly super gay about everything and everyone. Honestly, we don’t need anyone to say it. We have eyes. We know.
And we love it.
Overall Rating – 10/10. Your Honor, We Find the Drama to be Gayer Than a Unicorn Covered in Rainbow Glitter.