Written by Lee Je-in & Jeon Chan-ho
Directed by Jin Hyeok
For anyone going into the final episodes of Sisyphus hoping that maybe the writers will turn around and have its time travel story make sense with some sort of ‘eureka’ moment, then be prepared for massive amounts of disappointment and frustration.
Very much a capitulation to the show’s values of using time travel as a means to pile on spectacle and incident rather than be an exploration of the nature of time itself, the series doubles down on being one that isn’t afraid to be littered with plot holes or twists that serve the story as its went along as opposed to using them in a way that helps its narrative make sense.
For all the references to William Gibson, Back to the Future and The Terminator (and the final episode itself is structured similarly to both the first Back to the Future sequel as well as the climax of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the writers of Sisyphus have been more eager to revel in the tropes and ideas of those movies to their own ends rather than have large swathes of the story make any logical sense.
There are literally glaring plot holes that are the size of the Uploader.
Whether or not you can ignore those things and just go along with the thrills and emotional thrusts of the story will depend on how plot holes such as this are a make or break element to the viewer.
Like the finale of Lost, itself a divisive ending to a story that threw in time travel to its mix, Sisyphus perhaps takes the easy route when it comes to its final chapter and makes it so that the emotional journey of its characters are what it all comes down to as opposed to supplying answers to its central mysteries or having some explanation where everything makes complete sense.
The latter element might prove to be the one thing that will either make it soar or fail in the minds of the audience and judging from the audience reactions and reviews to Sisyphus’ finale, it’s proving itself to be a very negative experience for the majority of reviewers and fans.
The thing is, the more looser style of dealing with time travel, and how it utilised the sense of rules and logic as it pertained to the series, was evident from the halfway mark when the story starting throwing in an increasing abundance of twists that were either being designed to make the viewers question what they were watching or just confirmation of how the writers were making it up as they went along.
The ending has an emotional gut punch of a conclusion for its two leads that would suggest they had a good idea of where they wanted to take their characters but seemingly never tried to ensure that the ideas and themes related to time paradoxes, the mysteries over Seo-hae’s diary and what happened to Tae-sul’s brother were never really what the writers were interested in exploring as opposed to the more emotional and philosophical conundrums going on around it.
When it came to exploring whether or not Sigma is really worthy of sympathy, even in his increasingly distressed state in the present day before he puts his plan into motion, the series soars, and how it opts to resolve how Seo-hae and Tae-sul will end up together also comes in for a devastating gut-punch come those final moments which cannot be overlooked because they are the show at its absolute best.
If you can get on board with those ideas and explorations then the finale of Sisyphus still works, and the questions it poses for the audience come the final five minutes means it lingers for a while after its end credits, but for all the reasons that I enjoyed it (and I really did even though I feel I was one of the very few to do so), it’s understandable to see why it’s ended up infuriating certain parts of the audience.
A few weeks ago, I compared Sisyphus’ storytelling to the central philosophy at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet; don’t try to understand it, just feel it. In some respects the series could also be compared to one of the funniest jokes in the second Austin Powers film, a time travel comedy that appears to be about to trample over the continuity and established plot of its predecessor before a fourth wall breaking joke tells the characters and the audience to just forget about all that and have fun.
That sort of in-show acknowledgment is perhaps the only thing missing from Sisyphus, although it still had time for humour, but it perhaps needed a character on screen to turn around, almost as if to the audience, and say ‘look, don’t worry about how it works, just enjoy yourself.’
That it kept invoking William Gibson and The Terminator in dialogue was no doubt down to just how much its writers were fans of sci-fi works from that author and the genre as a whole, but it also lacked the sense of rules that are inherent in the works of Gibson and Terminator creator James Cameron, that no matter how illogical things seemed, they always ground their work with rules that allow the audience to get on board it, no matter how far fetched time travelling robots from the future might be.
Fun was always part and parcel of the series. From those never ending Park Shin-hye fight sequences to Cho Seung-woo’s charming performance, to their undeniable chemistry and the sheer over the top brilliance of Kim Byung-chul’s increasingly unhinged performance that pulled you and the story in so many emotional directions, but it’s perhaps its indifference to making sure its threads came together that will hurt the series in the minds of many even though it’s clear by the end that incident and story were more at the heart of what was going on here.
Even with the death of Sigma (the version of him from the future), the series isn’t above throwing in one last twist involving Eddy being the one that ends up shooting Seo-hae at the church. It ends up backing the characters, and by extension the writers, into a corner where the only option for a conclusion is to take the series into something approaching more of an elegant tragedy, where a happy reunion can only take place in an airplane travelling afterlife, itself reminiscent of Lost.
I’ve read opinions on this ending being Tae-sul in an alternate timeline where he is hallucinating Seo-hae but there is no way he could survive a gunshot wound to the head in the manner that he does, regardless that this is a sci-fi series with preposterous twists. He is clearly lying dead in the church and the manner in which the plane’s crew and passengers disappear before the plane is overcome with a white light would suggest an afterlife setting.
The sting in the tail after that is that Sigma hasn’t changed at all and that even with someone asking is he okay or showing sympathy to him, in this case Seo-hae’s father, he cannot actually change his motivations and that like the title of the series suggests, the same things are still destined to happen again and again, or at least a variation of it.
It’s a simultaneously dark and yet moving conclusion, where death is perhaps the only absolute in life, which might seem a bit much, but the image of our central characters reunited, if only in death, is as happy an ending as we can get.
Then again, that was maybe the only way that they could ever truly be together. There was always the danger of a Time Traveller’s Wife scenario where Tae-sul would have to wait for Seo-hae to grow up in his timeline and hope for an age-gap reunion when he was older, but thankfully the series never went that route and instead left its lead characters with nothing but bad options with which to save the day, choosing the world and their own deaths over selfish motivations, the complete opposite of Sigma and Eddy’s motivations in the narrative.
Long story short, I liked this ending. Sure, certain parts of the journey here were better than the whole, and maybe having to watch the series over the course of eight weeks only showed up the plot holes and inconsistencies more than if it was binged in one go where the pace and spectacle might have overshadowed the holes in the story.
It may not have been perfect in the long run, but as a fun, entertaining slice of sci-fi hokum with great production values, cast and characters and emotional undercurrent goes, it didn’t do too bad a job.
I guess in the end the best thing to do is not try to understand it. Just feel it.