It’s August 3rd, 2000, and police detective Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong) is at the station, looking at a note taped on his computer that says Sunil Psychiatric Hospital, August 3rd. He’s distracted from his brooding by one of his colleagues telling him to get ready for a briefing on the kidnapping case of Yoon Jung. We’re back in the first couple of episodes as Jae Han walks up the stairs, and the young Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) runs down the stairs and drops a note among his papers.
Later, Jae Han meets with corrupt cop, Kim Bum Joo (Jang Hyun Sung) and tells him that they should look into the suspect’s mystery girlfriend, but Bum Joo is dismissive. As he walks away, Bum Joo’s sidekick, Ahn Chi Soo (Jung Hae Kyun) warns Jae Han to drop it, but Jae Han tells him to stop sucking up to Bum Joo.
Bum Joo takes Chi Soo aside to tell him to follow Jae Han. Chi Soo doesn’t understand at first, but Bum Joo tells him that Jae Han has obtained a crucial piece of evidence in the Injoo rape case, and orders Chi Soo to retrieve it.
In the present, the adult Hae Young is bleeding from a gunshot on the floor of a parking lot, while police detective Cha Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo) holds him. Hae Young tells her that she needs to send a transmission to Jae Han, that the radio always starts working at 11:23pm.
Back in the past, things proceed as they did the first time, with an awkward encounter between Jae Han and the newly transferred, Soo Hyun (the year 2000 version). He promises her that they’ll talk after things finish up, and leaves her to drive to Sunil Psychiatric Hospital, with Chi Soo following behind.
In the present, Soo Hyun calls an ambulance as Hae Young begs her to save Jae Han. They both look over at the silent radio clutched in Hae Young’s hand.
Meanwhile, in the past, Jae Han’s radio turns on, as he stands behind the Sunil Psychiatric Hospital. Again, it’s a lot like the first transmission, except that Jae Han addresses Hae Young, or Soo Hyun, whoever is listening. The person on the other end is Hae Young, but he has no idea what’s happening or who’s talking, because this is the first transmission Hae Young received. As he tells Hae Young about the body in the back of the hospital, Jae Han is hit from behind and knocked out.
Meanwhile, back in the present in the parking lot, Hae Young and Soo Hyun stare despairingly at a silent radio. Hae Young convulses and passes out, just as an ambulance finally blazes into the parking lot.
In the past, Chi Soo wakes up Jae Han, tied up and bleeding, in a deserted warehouse, and tells him to hand over the red scarf. Chi Soo is shocked when Jae Han tells him that the red scarf is not just evidence in the Injoo case, but also proof that Bum Joo killed Sun Woo, but they’re interrupted by the arrival of Bum Joo and gangster, Kim Sung Bum.
Chi Soo attempts to confront Bum Joo, but Sung Bum pulls him aside, while Bum Joo asks Jae Han how he managed to get the evidence against him. As Bum Joo speaks, Jae Han surreptitiously moves his bound hands towards some broken glass.
As he does, Jae Han thinks back to the moment when Soo Hyun had told him over the radio that he was dead in the future. After hearing that, Jae Han decided that the future could be changed. He got into his car, and started driving, while putting together the information he had. Jae Han figured out that after killing Sun Woo, Bum Joo must have disposed of the red scarf in a place unlikely to be connected to him. Jae Han remembered seeing a bag for Sein Pharmacy on Bum Joo’s desk, and figures out that Bum Joo had gone to Sein rest stop between Injoo and Seoul, and disposed of the scarf there. Jae Han drove there, but discovered that the garbage had already been hauled away. He chased down the truck as far as the garbage dump, where he found the scarf on an older woman who had taken it.
Later, Jae Han took the scarf to the Forensics labs, but realized that Bum Joo’s influence extended there, too. Instead, armed with an English-Korean dictionary and the Internet, Jae Han sent the scarf to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences in the US. When he got the results and discovered that Bum Joo’s blood might be on it as well, he stole one of Bum Joo’s cigarettes to send off to the lab, and got a match.
Back in the warehouse, Bum Joo brings up the scarf, and flashes back to how he got nicked by Sun Woo’s twitching while setting up the scene to look like a suicide. Bum Joo tells Jae Han how he knew about the scarf, and asks him for the last time to leave the matter alone. A horrified Chi Soo looks on as Jae Han refuses, knowing that Bum Joo will kill him in the end anyway. He’s proven right, when Bum Joo gives Sung Bum the okay to kill Jae Han.
Chi Soo protests, holding Sung Bum back, but Bum Joo doesn’t care and Chi Soo is shoved aside as Sung Bum advances on Jae Han. Jae Han suddenly bursts out of his ropes and headbutts Sung Bum. As they grapple, Chi Soo holds Bum Joo back, telling him they can’t do this. Finally, Sung Bum stabs Jae Han, but Jae Han overpowers him anyway, and grabbing his radio, runs out the door.
Back in the warehouse, Bum Joo grabs Chi Soo by his shirt and yells at him that if Jae Han gets away, he’ll go to jail for everything he’s done, leaving his daughter behind to die. Between his daughter and Jae Han, Chi Soo picks his daughter and runs after Jae Han, with Sung Bum close behind him.
In the present, in the ambulance, Hae Young realizes that something has changed in the past, and tells Soo Hyun to think back to the last time she saw Jae Han. Soo Hyun discovers that her memories have changed, that when he told her that he would talk to her soon, Jae Han had added that he would come back for sure. Hae Young manages to whisper that the past has already changed before he convulses and passes out.
Back in the past, as Jae Han runs from Chi Soo and Sung Bum, he repeats to himself that if he dies, the Injoo case and Sun Woo’s death will remain cold cases and Soo Hyun will wait for him. Jae Han finds the will to keep running.
In the present, Hae Young makes it into the emergency room, but his heart stops. As they start using the defibrillator on him, in voiceover, Hae Young urges Jae Han to use the will and determination that got him this far to live, without the help of the radio. In the end, though, Chi Soo catches up with Jae Han, and a shot rings out. In the present, the heart monitor goes flat as Hae Young dies and the world goes white.
Soo Hyun is in a car parked next to a lighthouse by the sea. In her hands, she’s holding the Batman photo from her desk, and she opens the frame to look at the picture of herself and Jae Han together, posing for the police magazine.
In the past, the shots ring out again, but it’s Chi Soo who’s been hit, and suddenly both Sung Bum and Chi Soo are surrounded by detectives. They help Jae Han up, but he tells them to make sure Bum Joo doesn’t get away, but it’s too late: Bum Joo is already gone.
An injured Jae Han shows up at Soo Hyun’s apartment, helped along by the detectives from his precinct. When she comes racing out, and berates him for being injured, Jae Han responds by hugging her. As the detectives give them some privacy, he tells her that he kept his promise, and she hugs him back tears in her eyes. In the car by the sea, Soo Hyun cries as she relives the memory.
Hae Young suddenly wakes up in his own bed, in his apartment, and finds a dinner left there with a note from his mother. A shocked Hae Young looks around his newly redecorated apartment to find pictures of himself with his parents at his high school graduation, and then when he became a police officer. Thinking back in his memories, Hae Young remembers that Yoon Jung’s kidnapper was caught when he was still a child. He remembers Jae Han coming to his parents’ house and telling them that Sun Woo wasn’t guilty of the Injoo rape case, and that he died because he was trying to get his family back together. Jae Han apologizes for not being able to catch the true culprit in the Injoo rape case, and for letting Sun Woo die. Hae Young remembers chasing Jae Han after he left their house, and thanking him from the bottom of his heart.
In the present, Hae Young goes to find Jae Han’s father’s shop, where he discovers that, yet again, Jae Han has been missing for the past 15 years. Hae Young goes racing to the station, only to discover that there is no cold case squad and that no one there remembers him. He goes to Soo Hyun’s old station, to find that his team members, Gye Chul and Hyun Ki don’t remember him either, and that Soo Hyun is nowhere to be found. His next stop is his own old station, where he tries to look for the radio that connects him and Jae Han. His efforts are in vain; no one there remembers him ever bringing in a radio.
Back in the year 2000, Soo Hyun nervously waits in a bar for her first date with Jae Han. When he arrives, he takes her to eat pork skin at the bar where he bought Hae Young omurice. The waitress tells him that Hae Young hasn’t been back in a long time, since his parents are back together. In the present, Hae Young goes to the same bar, and watches the two of them on their date (to be clear, I’m guessing he’s imagining this because the two things are happening 15 years apart). Soo Hyun tells Jae Han that he should let someone else chase after Bum Joo, that he’s done enough, but Jae Han tells her that he’s after bigger fish, the person who engineered the whole situation. In the present, Hae Young asks the waitress if this was the last time Jae Han came to that bar, and she confirms that it was.
It’s back in 2000, and Jae Han calls Soo Hyun that he’s chasing someone in Kyungjin-dong. He tells her to send backup and hangs up, but she has no idea where he is. Jae Han is in a warehouse, and as he carefully walks through with his gun drawn, he’s suddenly attacked by an enraged Bum Joo.
Jae Han easily overpowers Bum Joo, and then tells him that he’s not the one he’s after, but rather he wants to capture Congressman Jang Young Chul (Son Hyun Joo). When Bum Joo laughs in his face, Jae Han reminds Bum Joo about the disk that he stole and deleted, about the Jinyang new city development corruption. Jae Han is convinced that Bum Joo has a copy, but he never gets to hear Bum Joo’s response: the Congressman’s men suddenly appear like a horde and attack them.
In the present, Hae Young is reading this file on his computer, and discovers that Bum Joo was discovered beaten to death in the same warehouse, and Jae Han was the primary suspect for his murder, since his blood was found at the warehouse as well. The case was closed thanks to the statute of limitations running out, but Hae Young is aware that Jae Han would never kill Bum Joo since he was an important witness.
In the end, Jae Han manages to get Bum Joo’s bag and run for it, with the horde of the Congressman’s men following close behind. Jae Han manages to get into his car and drive away. Later, Soo Hyun and the other detectives futilely search for him in Kyungjin-dong. In fact, Jae Han is in his car, parked by the side of the highway. Unable to reach him by radio, Jae Han writes in his notebook as the horde pulls up next to him and approaches his car.
In the present, Hae Young suddenly remembers seeing Jae Han’s notebook at Soo Hyun’s desk at her station, and realizes that he may not need the radio to communicate. Later, Hae Young sneaks into the station and steals the notebook. In it he finds the same note in the back as last time, except now the numbers “32-6” are added to it.
The note is obviously directed at Hae Young, because 32-6 is the address of his parents’ house. Hae Young goes there, to find his cheerful mother. As she brings him tea and fruit, Hae Young asks if Jae Han had ever left anything with her, and she confirms that he had sent her an envelope and requested that she hang on to it. Back in his car, Hae Young opens the envelope to find a floppy disk and a letter from Jae Han inside.
In voiceover, Jae Han tells him that since he survived, the radio hasn’t gone off and he hasn’t heard from Hae Young. The day Jae Han went to see Hae Young and his parents, he realized that unless he held the people responsible accountable, the same thing would happen again. He tells Hae Young that the floppy dish contains the information about the Jinyang corruption case, and that he had no one to send it to in his time, since they would be in danger. Jae Han has to believe that the future is a place where evildoers get punished, and so he sent the letter to Hae Young.
As Jae Han speaks in voiceover, Hae Young looks over at a video billboard showing the news that the Jinyang corruption case news is spreading online. Young Chul is ambushed by a throng of reporters. When he gets past them into the car, Young Chul’s secretary tells him that the information spreading online is the same thing that Jae Han had taken 16 years ago. Young Chul tells him to find it, no matter what.
Hae Young, meanwhile, goes to the post office from which the envelope was sent but finds nothing. He tries the police station close by next, asking to see records of any unidentified skeletal remains found in the area. He’s relieved to come up blank again. As Hae Young drives on, he pulls over as spots Soo Hyun coming out of her car and walking into a restaurant. Inside, Soo Hyun shows Jae Han’s picture to the waitress, but comes up blank. As she turns to leave, she spots Hae Young standing nervously in the doorway.
Hae Young asks if she remembers him, then starts babbling about going to the cold case squad then the Jinyang precinct looking for her. Finally, Soo Hyun responds and tells her story, of waking up and trying to find Hae Young. She had gained the memories of Jae Han surviving that day, but in effect, she had still spent the last 15 years searching for him. She adds that one more thing changed, that she got a call shortly after Jae Han disappeared. No one spoke, but she knew it was Jae Han calling. She traced the call back and discovered that it was from a payphone in the same area where Hae Young found her. After confirming that the call had come on November 24th, 2000, Hae Young reveals that Jae Han had sent the letter to him on the same day from the same area.
Hae Young hands Soo Hyun the envelope, and theorizes that Jae Han had contacted them because he knew he was going to die, since Jae Han wasn’t the type to stay away from his friends and family for so long. Soo Hyun doesn’t want to believe it, and when she looks more closely at the envelope, she notices that it’s got the logo of Junghyun Medical Centre. Excited, Soo Hyun shows Hae Young a text she got, telling her and Hae Young to stay away from Junghyun Medical Centre on February 5th, that very day.
Soo Hyun believes that it’s from Jae Han, but Hae Young points out that being on the run for murder for 15 years would have made it impossible for him to survive without help. As he says it, Hae Young suddenly clues in that Jae Han’s father had been burning something the day he’d gone to see him, a ticket from Kangwon to Seoul.
As Hae Young and Soo Hyun drive to meet Jae Han, the horde of the Congressman’s men pull up in front of Junghyun Medical Centre. In voiceover, Hae Young says that he doesn’t know if he’s going to meet the best friend he never knew, or they’re driving towards a terrible fate. The only thing he does know is what Jae Han taught him, that if you don’t give up things will work out. Meanwhile, the horde is turning the hospital upside down, looking for Jae Han.
In a hospital room, Jae Han gets out of bed as the radio starts to work.
This final episode feels almost split into two, so much so that I have different reactions to each section. So, let’s start with first part, with the story of Jae Han’s survival. I enjoyed this part, and I thought that this might have been a good place to end it, even factoring in the idea of a second season. It wasn’t entirely unbelievable for Jae Han to survive, even given the problems with time and how it works and possible loops and paradoxes. Frankly, if you can swallow the idea that a magical radio enabled two people to talk across time, the whole thing with the past and the future being rewritten isn’t that far-fetched. The show followed its own rules well enough that I didn’t feel jarred by the idea that Jae Han could survive, and I could just be happy that he did. And, when Jae Han went to see Soo Hyun even I got a little misty-eyed, though not as misty-eyed as when he went to see Hae Young and his parents.
As for the second part, well, I’m not going to lie; they could have cut 20 minutes of this last episode without losing much, so I’m not sure why it was extended to a movie-length 88 minutes. Yes, the rumours of the second season are pretty much confirmed here, but I don’t know that I needed it introduced in this heavy-handed fashion. We could have just as easily ended with Hae Young figuring out that Jae Han could be alive, Soo Hyun getting a text, and then Jae Han sitting up in his hospital bed. Having the moral repeatedly spelt out for me, along with the hospital raid was too much. Having a great first season would have been enough to get you viewers for a second season, without baiting the hook quite this much.
Regardless, I’m going to miss “Signal”. It wasn’t perfect, but the well-crafted suspense, great characters, and fantastic direction carried me through.
More to come in our series review!