Updated: Aug 9
Pessimistic, dark, and often shocking in its brutality, Insider stands out in a genre that usually prefers the unrealistic and the fantastical. Powered by a layered plot that's compelling enough to keep you engrossed for 16 episodes, Insider is a solid show from start to finish and may well be one of the better-written dramas of 2022.
If you have always believed that justice is not a black-and-white affair but rather a rickety concept built on moral ambiguity and political compromise, then this show is definitely for you.
The Plot (with mild spoilers)
Kang Ha-neul is Kim Yo-han, a naive junior prosecutor sent on an undercover mission to infiltrate the infamous Seongju prison. His task is to befriend an elusive inmate who holds vital evidence that could finally close one of the prosecution's most significant corruption cases. But as soon as he enters Seongju, Yo-han realizes that he had vastly underestimated the power and network of the inmates inside. Not long after, he is betrayed by his colleagues and suddenly disowned by his organization. Now, he has no choice but to embrace the violent reality of prison life to survive.
It turns out that Seongju is no mere prison; it is, in fact, one of Korea's most extensive underground gambling dens. With the help of a gambling genius, a mysterious madam, a cruel prison boss, and many more unreliable and flawed allies, Kim Yo-han slowly learns the ropes of card gambling and the art of the scam. But the road to becoming the next prison kingpin is long, brutal, and bloody. Eventually, Yo-han rises to the very top, only to find that he must now learn to fight off other powerful kingpins whose territories he has disturbed.
When he is eventually released from prison, Yo-han finds that there is no going back to his old naive life. After all, when one has full access to a cabal of new criminal connections and friends in high places, is an ordinary (and powerless) life still worth returning to? Is justice still worth pursuing when you know how deeply flawed the system is? Can -- as the old adage goes -- the master's corrupt tools really destroy the master's corrupt house?
Let it be known that Insider is not a 16-episode k-drama. Instead, it moves, breathes, and bleeds like a Korean crime movie chopped up over 16 hours.
To be perfectly honest with our readers, this much-awaited drama comeback drama of Kang Ha-neul is not exactly binge-able. Often gratuitously violent, with more than enough layers and sub-plots to keep even the most eagle-eyed viewer busy, Insider can be a tough watch for some and confusing at times for others. Humanity is no protection in Seongju prison – pain rains on the criminal and the innocent bystander alike. Yet the show has earned widespread critical acclaim (especially among Koreans) precisely because of its pessimism and bleak view of human nature and power.
As a whole, Insider is an unflinching look at the symbiosis between Korean crime and politicians who ensure its continuity. It showcases a pretty impressive gamut of criminality, from petty crime that victimizes a few to large-scale economic heists that ruin democracies and destroy governments. Even the prosecutors are equally despicable and Machiavellian to the bone. Corruption, collusion, and "protection money" are liberally discussed and carried out. As one character casually remarked, "The law isn't a scale but a blade." And Insider shows that only the wealthy few can wield such a blade.
Insider isn't an easy watch, especially with the level of violence in the first six episodes. The amount of torture and casual cruelty will undoubtedly be off-putting for some and is certainly not what the usual k-drama audience is used to. These scenes are more at home in Korean cinema than on the small screen, and they can be so harrowing that we often wonder if Kim Yo-han would still be alive at the end of each episode. There is little warmth or relief to be had, and there is no romance either. No cheesy montages, sweeping music, or quick and unrealistic transformations are used. Yet for a gritty prison drama, Insider is gorgeously-shot and lit. Directed with the savvy of a poker game player, the tension in Insider is slyly maintained by an unpredictable mix of flashbacks, concealed scenes, and several twists and revelations that are genuinely shocking.
Insider rejects many predictable drama tropes, even doing away with a love interest. It's refreshing to see a protagonist who isn't equipped with an incredible memory, a chaebol connection, or some preternatural ability that gives him an upper hand in prison. In fact, Kim Yo-han is as ordinary and as relatable as they come, with no fighting skills or giftedness to keep him safe, which makes his rise from cell rat to kingpin even more impressive. Surviving on sheer will, tenacity, and compromise, Kim Yo-han is a departure from the usual k-drama prisoner who is often depicted as steadfastly kind and idealistic. Instead, he is changed by every difficult decision he's had to make through sheer grit and brute force.
Insider would have fallen apart in the hands of a lesser performer, but thankfully, we have a tour de force performance by award-winning actor Kang Ha-neul. What an impressive comeback this has been for the beloved Hallyu star. You can see how the actor's eyes – usually so expressive and hopeful – grow dimmer and more stoic as he sinks deeper into prison life. Never one for grand and theatrical gestures, Kang must be applauded for the trademark restraint and nuance he brings into portraying a prosecutor who has lost it all. Over 16 episodes, we watch Kim Yo-han flit from a naive protagonist to an unwilling monster and everything in between. It's quite an impressive performance and worthy of an acting nomination down the road.
But this is definitely not a one-man show. Insider is buoyed by its equally strong cast, who are especially adept at centering all their characters in the grey. Lee Yoo-young (Dr. Brain) brings a sophisticated level of ambiguity into her character as a woman who may or may not be on Yo-han's side. The cast of the prosecutor's office, led by Squid Game's Heo Sung-Tae, are frightening in their intelligence and casual abuse of power. Watch out for the viciously cold and cruel Chairman Yang Joon, played to disturbing perfection by Hong Dong-won, and the gifted gambler Jang Sun-o (Kang Young-seok), a despicable scam artist you might end up caring for.
Amid a hundred revenge dramas that lean toward the impossible and the wish-fulfilling (Doctor Lawyer, Again My Life, The Devil Judge, and even Eve), Insider holds its own by leaping headfirst in the opposite direction and dedicating itself to the realities of prison, power, and punishment. Even the finale is a stark reminder that one man can't bring down a profoundly dysfunctional and corrupt system that has been thriving longer than he's been alive.
Insider is fastidious in its realism and doesn't flinch for a moment across its 16-hour runtime. Powered by an incredible cast of drama veterans and vehemently unsentimental, Insider may just be the violent treat your k-drama heart might want to check out.