Mystery Queen is a humorous, engaging watch with an intelligent heroine yearning to escape from the confines of her ordinary life, even if she has to do it secretly. I’m rooting for her to finally achieve her long-held dreams, even if she has to butt heads with a certain cranky hardboiled detective to do it. I’m looking forward to how this unconventional police procedural develops in the coming weeks!
EPISODE 1 RECAP
On a rainy night, a detective ducks into a warehouse where his colleague is waiting for him. We’re not officially introduced to them quite yet, but they’re Detectives LEE DONG-KI (Kim Min-jae) and BAE KWANG-TAE (Ahn Gil-kang). Dong-ki brought a gun, saying kids these days are fearless, but Kwang-tae says that’s overkill. Realizing that each thought the other would call for backup, Dong-ki does it now, but they’re suddenly surrounded by young men in suits. Kwang-tae grabs Dong-ki’s gun, leaving him scrambling for his nightstick.
Kwang-tae aims at the man directly in front of him, who tells his friends that the first one is blank and the next bullet will be real. He points out that he and his friends number more than five. Kwang-tae retorts that five will die then (before Dong-ki whispers loudly that they’re only allowed to fire four shots, haha). Kwang-tae amends that to four deaths, but the hoodlums are undaunted and move closer with their clubs.
Suddenly a voice comes out of the dark, calling for JANG DO-JANG to show his face. It’s Detective HA WAN-SEUNG (Kwon Sang-woo), dragging a man along with him as he descends the stairs, and he suggests they get this over with so they can all go home. Wan-seung grabs a fire extinguisher and attacks while his colleagues begin throwing punches too, and soon it’s a free-for-all.
As the fight rages, a man in a leather coat (Yang Ik-joon) watches from a balcony overlooking the room. A young man approaches him, and the crouching man hands him a pipe, which he uses to hit Wan-seung over the head, knocking him out.
When he comes to, alone on the concrete floor, he looks up to see the man in the leather coat watching him silently. “Jang Do-jang,” he rasps as he struggles to move, blood streaming down his face.
Away from the action, a convenience store owner has reported some thefts, but the pair of uniformed police officers on the case have found no evidence so far. Young officer HONG JOON-OH (Lee Won-geun) studies the CCTV feed intently, and his older colleague tells him to keep looking and leaves, ignoring Joon-oh’s reminder that it’s his first day of work.
Joon-oh wonders how the goods disappeared without being recorded by the surveillance camera, and the owner sarcastically answers that the officer should figure that out. Joon-oh cheerfully corrects her—he’s a lieutenant, actually, and the new head of the local police substation. Surprised, she says he looks like he’s not even thirty, and at his nod, she sighs and bends down to watch the security tapes with him.
A third person pops her head between theirs and says, “Stop!” It’s our heroine, YOO SEOL-OK (Choi Kang-hee), who points at an employee onscreen, saying he looks suspiciously nervous. It’s the owner’s son, and she says defensively that he’s a bit timid. Seol-ok points out that he shows tenseness only when a particular student comes to the store, but the owner tells her to mind her own business.
As the owner rings up her groceries, Seol-ok notices that the student only ever pays with a card, but the owner irritably says that no one uses cash these days. In that case, says Seol-ok, she’ll use her card too, and hands hers over with a little smile—only to have the owner snap that she can’t use her library card to pay.
Joon-oh realizes that this is exactly what the kid in the video did: He “paid” with his library card, allowing the owner’s son to give away merchandise without being detected by the cameras. I’m thinking we have a case of bullying here.
At that moment, the son arrives from school, and his mother instantly starts chasing him with a broom, smacking him as she asks why he did it when she gives him an allowance. He yells at her to stop, adding that he’s going crazy himself.
Seol-ok and Joon-oh approach, the former commenting on the boy’s missing buttons and his ill-fitting shoes. Noticing this for the first time, his mother asks him what he’s done with his running shoes, and Seol-ok suggests that he’s being bullied by another student. The mother feels terrible for not realizing what was going on. Joon-oh offers the services of the police while Seol-ok asks if she can get a discount on her groceries.
At home, Seol-ok prepares breakfast for her mother-in-law, PARK KYUNG-SUK (Park Joon-geum). Kyung-suk asks where her son is, and Seol-ok tells her that he’s stuck at work for a while. Seol-ok’s sister-in-law KIM HO-SOON (Jeon Soo-jin) greets them as she heads to work, skipping breakfast as usual.
Seol-ok sits at the table awkwardly as Kyung-suk tries the food; she instantly makes a face and asks how Seol-ok is going to open a lunchbox business if her cooking is this bad. Ouch. Kyung-suk is off to a seminar, but before she goes she warns Seok-ok not to engage in idle chitchat when she goes to her friend’s store, since that will embarrass her husband.
It turns out that Kyung-suk’s “seminar” is actually playing Go-Stop with her friends, and they certainly have no qualms about indulging in gossip. One asks Kyung-suk if things are okay between her son and daughter-in-law, but another says to stop being silly, as they’re often seen grocery shopping and having tea together. Kyung-suk knows they don’t do that, and becomes disturbed at the other ladies’ description of a tall, young, handsome man. One of the ladies wonders if it might be the new Officer Hong.
Kyung-suk tells her friends that Seol-ok would never go for a police officer when her husband is a prosecutor. Besides, not just anyone can cheat, she scoffs, and Seol-ok is a nobody without money, education, or a good family—no man would ever fall for her. Lordy.
Cut to Seol-ok bustling around her bedroom, humming as she gets ready to meet Joon-oh. She calls her friend KIM KYUNG-MI (Kim Hyun-sook) at the lunchbox store she owns, and asks her to tell her mother-in-law that she went to buy ingredients if she comes by. Kyung-mi warns that Seol-ok won’t be able to fool her sharp-eyed mother-in-law for long, but Seol-ok grins and says she doesn’t care—she’s too excited.
Kyung-suk’s friends warn her not to take this lightly; hasn’t Seol-ok been going out a lot lately? Does she secretly take calls on the balcony? Kyung-suk suddenly recalls her doing just that, as well as running home at strange times of the day, out of breath. She tells her friends that Seol-ok has been going to her friend’s store daily for cooking lessons, but strangely, she never improves. Kyung-suk decides to call Seol-ok to ask where she is, and when she says she’s at the lunchbox store, the ladies head off to verify her story.
Joon-oh tells his subordinates (let’s call them Slacker Cop and Earnest Cop for now) that he’s off to investigate the Bangtan Market locker case. But when Earnest Cop offers to accompany him, Joon-oh politely declines. Earnest Cop watches Joon-oh admiringly as he goes, saying he seems like Sherlock Holmes with all the cases he’s been solving. Slacker Cop dismisses it as luck, and tells Earnest Cop not to suck up just to get promoted.
Kyung-suk and her friends look in through the window of Kyung-mi’s store, and as expected, Seol-ok is absent. They call the station to find out where Joon-oh is, and decide to go to the market and see if the two are together.
At Bangtan Market, Seol-ok examines a wall of lockers, some of which have been ripped open, and Joon-oh soon joins her. Seol-ok says the thief was an amateur, judging from how much time and energy he wasted; a pro would have stolen a key and used it to make a master key. The culprit used something to force the doors open with brute force, going from left to right, getting better at it as he went. Seol-ok posits that he had to stop halfway through because he was startled by the night guards on patrol.
Strangely, however, the thief took no cash or valuables, but only memorial food ingredients like baby formula and ginseng. Joon-oh comes up with the elaborate scenario of a poor young man, desperate to take care of his family but too righteous to steal money. (Hah, as his story becomes more convoluted, we see a vision of the young man with more and more dependent family members.) Seol-ok points out that in that case, he’d need cash the most. Joon-oh wonders if it was kids fooling around, but Seol-ok is certain it’s an adult—a dangerous one.
A little later, Kyung-suk and her friends spy two men near the same lockers who look violent and scary—ha, it’s Wan-seung and Dong-ki. They go back their car, and Wan-seung looks at his reflection in dismay, frowning at the wounds on his handsome face (his words, not mine). Dong-ki helps him put ointment on his stitches, standing just outside a cafe where Seol-ok and Joon-oh discuss security footage of a suspicious-looking man: Wan-seung, standing by the lockers earlier.
They speculate that he’s a gangster, not the boss but a powerful henchman, judging from his rough appearance. Seol-ok suggests that Joon-oh take him in for questioning, but he says they want to wrap this case up at work, as it’s just a petty robbery. But Seol-ok counters that it’s not petty at all—this is a drug case.
She explains that the criminal (hilariously, she’s now imagining Wan-seung ripping open the lockers with the crowbar) must have been looking methodically for something specific, and everything he stole—frying powder for memorial food, baby formula, ginseng—looks like drugs. She thinks it’s a delivery mix-up.
Joon-oh thanks Seol-ok for her help solving difficult cases so far (he addresses her respectfully as “Teacher”), but he tells her that she’s off this time. Seol-ok stresses again that everything stolen was a white powder resembling drugs, and must have been so valuable that of course cash would seem useless in comparison. (How did this dude even graduate from police school? He seems incredibly dim.)
Seol-ok’s theory is that they lost the key and/or contact with the delivery man, causing a secretive drug deal to become a robbery case. Which means it must be related to the gang member that they saw on the security footage, says Joon-oh, finally having a eureka moment.
Just then, Kyung-suk, who is staked out on a bench with her friends next to Joon-oh’s cruiser, calls Seol-ok. She asks her daughter-in-law if she’s still at Kyung-mi’s shop, and when Seol-ok says she is, Kyung-suk says she’ll stop in on the way home. Suddenly seeing the four ladies through the window, Seol-ok drops to the ground and crawls away, just as the ladies turn around and spot Joon-oh.
Seol-ok exits through the back door of the cafe and runs for it while the ladies fuss over Joon-oh until he offers them a ride. Seol-ok is on her way when she sees his cruiser pass by with its lights flashing, all four ladies inside, and she desperately tries to outrun the car. The ladies arrive at the lunchbox shop and Kyung-mi tries various delaying tactics on Kyung-suk, but the older woman soon makes it into the kitchen.
Just as Kyung-suk asks where Seol-ok has gone, she falls in through the door, panting. She crawls behind a counter and then pops up as if she was there all along, grabbing a huge fish and flipping it enthusiastically in a pan. Satisfied, Kyung-suk leaves, and Seol-ok falls to the ground in relief. Kyung-mi walks over and flatly says, “You fried the fish I was planning to use for sashimi.” She yells at Seol-ok to take it out.
Once the store is closed, Seol-ok drinks soju with Kyung-mi, who says crossly that she paid two hundred dollars for that sea bream (which Seol-ok nonchalantly takes bites of). Kyung-mi asks what Kyung-suk’s problem is with her constantly watching Seol-ok, and her friend replies that it’s because Kyung-suk’s son is a prosecutor. However, that status doesn’t come with money; it was Seol-ok who paid for her sister-in-law’s graduate degree. Kyung-mi points out that her husband wouldn’t have become a prosecutor without Seol-ok, who didn’t even get to go to college because of him, and on top of that, she has to deal with Kyung-suk’s condescension.
Still, says Kyung-mi, Seol-ok shouldn’t get divorced. Seol-ok asks if Kyung-mi regrets her own divorce, but Kyung-mi scoffs that she’s completely free, both from her former in-laws and her own family that’s disowned her.
Before Seol-ok leaves, Kyung-mi gives her a parcel that came for her, a study guide for the police exam. Seol-ok excitedly puts the book in a back room which has photos of different criminal cases stuck on the walls, but Kyung-mi is doubtful that Seol-ok will be allowed to become a police officer even if she passes the exam.
Seol-ok studies a picture of a young woman with an older man (herself and her father?), a sad smile on her face. She tells Kyung-mi that this is her last year and asks her to bear with her. On her way home, Seol-ok bumps into Wan-seung as he rushes past her, and he watches her idly as she walks away.
The next day, Joon-oh is in a quiet mood and when he tells the other cops that the locker case is related to drugs, they laugh and tell him not to waste his energy. Seol-ok calls to apologize for disappearing, and he tells her that Bangtan Market is replacing the lockers. People have claimed their things from the top row of the undamaged lockers, but the rest will probably go to lost and found. Seol-ok says excitedly that they can find the culprit, but Kyung-suk suddenly appears, and she has to hang up.
Kyung-suk has a huge pile of blankets for them to wash “together,” but she immediately flops down on the sofa and leaves it to Seol-ok. Seol-ok asks if they need groceries, but Kyung-suk tells her to get to washing while the sun is out. Seol-ok escapes to the bathroom to call Joon-oh back, telling him that if the culprit failed last time, he’ll return to get his package today before it’s moved to lost and found. If he succeeded, however, the accomplice will show, and they can catch him instead.
Seol-ok sneaks away while Kyung-suk sleeps, and Joon-oh prepares to leave the station, grabbing his taser. Earnest Cop asks if Joon-oh is going to Bangtan Market and asks if he can come—he’s curious to know if it’s really a drug case, and he’s already finished rescuing cats for the day.
When Seol-ok arrives at the market, she looks at the top row of lockers and sees one that looks different from the others, but it’s locked. She hides in a nearby photo both and settles down to wait. Soon, a thunderstorm starts, and Wan-seung and Dong-ki arrive. Wan-seung says that Jang Do-jang is sure to show up tonight, but Dong-ki whines that he needs to pee. Wan-seung irritably tells him to just go home, but Dong-ki promises that he’ll wait by the entrance.
Seol-ok is texting Joon-oh to tell him the culprit has appeared when Wan-seung abruptly lifts the curtain of the photo booth, and they both yell. Seol-ok falls off the chair she was crouched on and into his arms, and they end up on the muddy street. She keeps screaming, and he pushes her off him, then runs after her as she flees. Dong-ki comes to see what the commotion is and Wan-seung shouts, “Grab her! She’s the accomplice!”
They chase Seol-ok through the dark alleys until she finds Joon-oh, crying for him to save her. Wan-seung and Dong-ki are surprised to see police, and things get complicated when Joon-oh and Earnest Cop give chase. The detectives take off running, but then Dong-ki says he’ll handle this, and he and Wan-seung stop and wait.
When Joon-oh and Earnest Cop arrive, Dong-ki tells them to calm down as he reaches into his jacket for his ID, but Joon-oh panics and tasers him, and he falls to the ground, stunned.
Angrily, Wan-seung pulls out his own badge and shows it to the officers, yelling that they’ve worked so hard on this case, and now that they’ve shown up in their uniforms, they could’ve ruined the whole operation. He stalks off.
Seol-ok is back by the lockers to retrieve her cellphone, which she dropped earlier. She sees a man in a hood opening one of the lockers and approaches him slowly. She notices his hands, saying they’re scarred—is he a boxer? She observes out loud that he’s opened lockers 46, 47, and 48 with the same key; it must be a master. Perhaps what he’s looking for is in 49? Uh… are you sure this is wise?
Ignoring her, the hooded man opens locker 49 to find five bags of white powder, and he stuffs them in a duffel. As Wan-seung watches from around a corner, the hooded man turns toward Seol-ok, revealing his face—it’s Jang Do-jang. He takes out a knife, and Seol-ok gasps.
She tells him to calm down—didn’t he notice that they fixed the security camera? But when she looks, she sees that it’s broken. He approaches her threateningly, and she finally loses her cool, pleading for mercy. Wan-seung darts out of his hiding place in dismay. The knife slashes, blood spurts onto the lockers, and Seol-ok falls unconscious to the ground, her blouse bloody.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mystery Queen based on the teasers, but I was pleased to find that it’s a humorous show with an unusual setup that distinguishes it from the typical police procedural. Dark, intense crime shows are plentiful in dramaland right now, and as great as those can be, this is a refreshing contrast. I hope the show won’t take a left turn into melodrama once the plot gets going in earnest, but I don’t think we have to worry too much about that in a show where the heroine’s name is a play on Sherlock and the hero’s is a play on Watson. I liked that the comedy isn’t over the top, but is instead in small character moments—the dynamic between Wan-seung and his colleagues, for example, or the gag with Kyung-mi’s ruined fish. Choi Kang-hee is great in these wordless comedic moments; the way she was flipping the fish in the pan made me crack up. I also enjoyed the way Seol-ok and Joon-oh’s speculative imaginings of the criminal kept changing in subtly funny ways.
Seol-ok is an interesting character and a surprisingly opaque one; it took nearly the entire episode to get an emotion from her other than the cheerfulness that I suspect she uses as a coping mechanism. And who can blame her, with a mother-in-law who considers her as inadequate for her precious son, orders her around, and constantly belittles her with passive-aggressive comments. (I do like that Park Joon-geum is playing a much more realistic version of a hateful mother-in-law here than she usually does, because let’s be honest, we all know this woman.) Despite Kyung-mi’s advice, possibly brought on by her loneliness, I hope that Seol-ok’s arc in this drama includes divorcing her husband, because as far as I can see, she’s given more than enough to this selfish family already. And it’s kind of adorable that the “affair” Seol-ok is having is with her lifelong dream.
We’ve seen very little of Wan-seung so far, but he seems like a more familiar type: the arrogant, fearless detective who always gets his man and has no patience for dumb civilians who get in his way. I hope there’s more to his character than that, but then it’s Kwon Sang-woo, so I’m sure he’ll be great regardless—and I sure have missed him on my screen. It’ll be fun to watch Seol-ok bring him down a peg. Many pegs. And then they can run around Sherlock-ing together, and hopefully she’ll dump the loser and they’ll start making eyes at each other. I already love their chemistry, and they’ve never even had a conversation!
Lee Won-geun’s character, on the other hand, makes me scratch my head—he seems impossibly naive and dimmer than a penlight, and I’m at a loss to explain how he became lieutenant of even a small substation at his age. Maybe he has hidden depths, but I doubt it, considering Seol-ok had to explain to him what drugs look like. It is kind of cute how respectfully he treats her, and they make an adorable team, but I do hope that Joon-oh’s character is supposed to be comedic, and that all the police in this show aren’t this slow on the uptake. (Earnest Cop and Slacker Cop don’t show much promise either. Maybe this is a low-crime district and they get the bottom of the class?)
This show has potential, and I’m excited to see how it develops. It’s nice to see a brave, smart, quietly confident heroine (even if she shows a worrying lack of concern for her own safety sometimes), because female characters are so often relegated to minor roles in police procedurals. I have a feeling Seol-ok won’t let anyone stop her from being right in the center of the action. Hopefully her knife wound is very minor, and she’ll up again in no time to chase criminals and butt heads with our grumpy hero.