A man sits in a coffee shop, staring at the clock on his phone, terror rising on his face as his hands tremble. Suddenly, the ground shakes and three massive gray creatures emerge from thin air. They are demons, sent to drag the man to Hell. First, they must perform the demonstration, showing everyone the torturous eternity that awaits this man. They smash him around the shop, down the street, and push his face so hard into a bus window that it breaks. They punch and claw at him, blood splattering everywhere. Finally, they reach into his body, destroying him from within in a burst of fire and light, leaving only a charred skeleton. It’s an effective opening to Netflix’s “Hellbound,” another Korean drama that the streaming giant hopes will latch onto the public like “Squid Game” just did. While there are some very interesting themes explored here, that kind of breakthrough success seems unlikely. After a promising start, “Hellbound” gets a little too repetitive, and the second half isn’t nearly as resonant as the first. However, horror fans might find just enough to save it from TV damnation.
It turns out that the man in the coffee shop, and others around Korea, had been visited by an angel in the form of a giant head that told him the exact time that he would be shuttled off to Hell by the trio of demons who look a little like ashy, ghostly versions of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. Created by “Train to Busan” director Yeon Sang-ho, “Hellbound” is more interested in exploring the reality of this dynamic and what it would to do people than it is providing true scares. (The show is sadly thin on actual tension.) What would it do to mankind to not only confirm that God and Hell are real, but that damnation and vengeance are on the menu? In “Hellbound,” it starts to encourage a form of judgment and vigilantism—if God punishes for sins, shouldn’t we follow in his footsteps? And, of course, religion shifts and forms itself around this new vengeful God with the formation of an organization called The New Truth, led by the mysterious and charismatic Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in of “Burning”).
With a six-episode season that’s very distinctly divided into matching three-episode arcs, the first half centers Jeong and a detective named Jin Kyeong-hoon (an effectively morose Yang Ik-june). Jin knows a thing or two about failed justice because his wife was murdered, and the killer got a short sentence by virtue of being under the influence. He basically went to rehab instead of prison, and is already back on the streets, which torments both Jin and his daughter Hee-jeong (Lee Re), who is drawn to Jeong’s magnetism. There are parts of the first couple of episodes that almost play out like a police procedural as Jin and his team try to figure out exactly what’s going on and maybe even stop the next damnation. It’s kind of “Law & Order: Hell.”
Both halves of “Hellbound” hinge on unique pending damned souls. In the first, a single mother with two children by different fathers is visited by the angel of damnation. When Jeong learns of her ticking clock, he decides to pay her to livestream the event, showing the power of the demonstration to the world. “Hellbound” is at its most interesting when it’s interrogating these ideas—how would modern society respond to old-fashioned ideas like demons coming to drag people to Hell? Why they’d form cults and start popular Twitch channels designed to track down sinners, of course. As an abrasive influencer in war paint with a skull on his head over a pink wig pushes his followers to determine the damned mother’s sins, Yeong unpacks how easy it is to fall into mob mentalities that forget about the human beings involved when people have a “greater cause” to hide behind.
The first three episodes basically tell an effective standalone story, which means the season reboots in a sense in episode four. A whole new set of characters are introduced as the story jumps forward to find the New Truth and the trio of burly baddies a major part of society. Avoiding spoilers, this half centers around a pending damnation that seems like it should be impossible. Did the angel get it wrong? Are the demons really coming for a pure soul?
The second half of “Hellbound” has an interesting center but loses a lot of the texture and interesting characters from the first half, making for a notable step down in quality. The tense procedural gives way to a show that’s increasingly repetitive and dialogue-heavy, following people who aren’t nearly as riveting as Jeong or Jin. Yoo Ah-in, also in the Netflix hit “#Alive,” is such a fascinating young actor, one who really gets what “Hellbound” should be about, that the show suffers when he leaves it.
Even as “Hellbound” struggles in its second act, one has to admire Yeon Sang-ho’s ambition here, taking his own webtoon and really expanding it into a multi-character, multi-arc story that sometimes almost feels too full of ideas. There have been dozens of stories about sin and damnation, but “Hellbound” feels different, a show that asks viewers what it would do to the world to know that these concepts are more than just religious doctrine. How would it change human behavior? The daring—and slightly underdeveloped—core conceit of “Hellbound” is that knowing the cost of sin wouldn’t make people better, only more judgmental of their sinful neighbors, and even more willing to take vigilante justice into their own hands. That the second half doesn’t pay off the first is a bit disappointing but fans of Yeon’s work and Korean horror (which seems to be everyone lately) should take a look, especially since the final shot hints at a potentially crazy second season.