Review: Sisyphus

Sisyphus is a Korean science fiction drama exclusively available on Netflix. It follows a successful tech entrepreneur called Han Tae-Sul and Gang Seo-Hae, a woman who travels back from the future to save him from assassination, and by extension, save South Korea from a nuclear attack.

How and why this is all supposed to work is a little hazy for most of the series, because the protagonists themselves, while convinced that their actions have the potential to save millions, do not entirely understand the mechanism by which this is going to happen. This is because they’re trying to change a future that they have only limited knowledge about.

Caricatures that Work

The characters in Sisyphus are – with exceptions – drawn better than I’m used to in Asian fiction. Typically, I expect a half-dozen characters from central casting to surround two main characters who are more fully fleshed out.

Here, the writers have made the effort, and provide more complex motivations and backgrounds to a number of the main characters, even if these are sometimes not clearly explained. The heroes and villains here are nuanced, and that nuance drives much of the content of the series.

Even if some of the characters appear slightly caricatured to a western audience (I’m speaking for myself), it doesn’t sabotage the storytelling or the viewing experience as it occasionally does in other Asian fiction (I’m looking at you, Vincenzo).

The characters are therefore, within the confines of the speculative reality of the series, believable. More or less.

The Ouroboros Theory of Time Travel

I’m working on a time travel novel myself, so I’ve been studying the different ways time travel and its paradoxes can be treated in fiction. Not all of these are scientifically or logically plausible, but used right, each can make for a good story.

In Sisyphus, the exact theory is never laid out, but it appears to be what I think of as the vinyl record or ouroboros theory of time travel.

In this, time travellers can go back to before an event and influence it. Outcomes are, however, ‘sticky’, and causality is unknown. That means there is never any certainty that going back in time will change the outcome rather than cause it. It’s like a needle going over the same track in a vinyl record – it’s going to play the same music because the grooves are the same, but a speck of dust in the right place can make the needle jump right out of the groove.

Another way to think about it is this: If you go back in time to prevent someone from committing a crime, there is the possibility that it was the very act of your going back in time that caused the crime to occur in the first place. In fact, it’s possible you were the criminal all along. It’s also possible that you can go back and prevent the crime, and until you try you will not know.

If you fail to change what you want, provided you survive the attempt, you may be able to find a way to go back once more, and try again.

That said, there’s a certain lack of coherence in the treatment of time travel in Sisyphus, necessary for the rest of the narrative to hold together. They play with rules that are blurry by design and allow the storytellers to do things that wouldn’t hold together so well were the rules laid out in black and white.

They get away with it, which I suppose is good enough.

It All Comes Together in the End

The series was very much split into three parts for me.

The initial episodes were fascinating as the general plot outline, time travel concept and intrigue are laid out. The characters are drawn, their motivations revealed and a promising narrative appears in the negative space that remains to be filled out.

Around episode 4, the story has to get from where we started to where it wants to end up, and while it remains interesting, the revelations become less critical to the final outcome. There’s a strong sense of subplots being used to lengthen the story. This is fine, it’s how stories are written, but when they’re on the screen there’s often an issue of pacing. I found this enjoyable and fun, but there was a growing impatience regarding how it was all going to unwind. Sometimes I felt like I was being deliberately waylaid.

Perhaps if there’d been a stronger background clock counting down to the deadline, the pacing would have felt tighter. Instead, I have a hard time exactly remembering what happened during this period, and why it was relevant.

The end is excellent. Things come together in a way that is satisfyingly coherent. Both the antagonist’s plan, and Han Tae-Sul’s strategy fit nicely within the framework of time travel, illustrating it while giving the series the denouement it needed.

The series finishes with a suggestion of more to come, but with the option of ending it here, as the loose ends are quite neatly tied up.

Conclusion: Should You Watch It?

Investing in a series like this means watching 16 episodes ranging from 61 to 75 minutes long each. That’s over eighteen hours of television.

Yes. You should watch it.

If you’re reading this, then you’re looking for something to invest the next 18 hours in. This is great to pass the time, and will leave you entertained. That said, there’s better things out there, so the question is, have you seen those series yet?

Have you seen Sisyphus? What did you think?

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