How can a series like Pachinko land its season finale? I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about this episode. After two stunning episodes in a row, I wondered if the show could make a hat-trick happen, if it could tie together all the disparate threads from previous episodes while leaving enough momentum for following seasons. But I shouldn’t have doubted; while the season finale of Pachinko doesn’t pack the same cinematic, narrative punch of its two preceding episodes, the finale did something else, unexpected and transcendent. It showed us the real-life stakes of the story we’ve been transfixed by for the last eight weeks.
Chapter Eight opens in 1938, where a young Noa encourages a schoolmate not to lose heart. They’ve been teased by Japanese classmates for being Korean, taunted for “smelling like garlic,” but Noa is a bright-eyed, upbeat child, tenacious and persevering. When Isak arrives to pick him up from the schoolyard, Noa flies toward him, his expression suffused with adoration. The two walk toward home, where Mozasu will celebrate his doljabi, a Korean tradition on a child’s first birthday wherein a baby is presented with an array of objects that represent different types of life-outcome like a coin, to represent riches or a pencil to represent scholarship. Isak explains that the celebration is not just for Mozasu but the whole family. Noa quips that Mozasu should grab for the coin because of his appetite. When Noa was a baby, he grabbed the red string, which signifies longevity, a sharp moment of foreshadowing as we viewers know that Noa is absent in the family by 1989.
The next day, Sunja carefully peels an apple when Noa arrives home to say he waited in the schoolyard for an hour. Isak never showed up to pick him up. When Sunja and Noa head to Isak’s church to see what’s gone wrong, they find the building being ransacked and picked apart by Japanese police officers. A parishioner tells Sunja that Isak has been arrested, and when the police showed up to arrest him, they asked for him by name, which means someone has it out for Isak and potentially his family. Sunja sends Noa to the biscuit factory to get Yoseb. Together, Sunja, Noa, and Yoseb go to the police station, where they try to protest that Isak is innocent, not to mention sickly and will not survive in prison. Noa translates for his mother, who does not understand Japanese that well and the vocal cacophony of Noa’s childish Korean and the police officer’s harsh Japanese becomes an auditory representation of the chaos that the family has suddenly been plunged into.
Unable to see Isak or get any information, the family leaves with Yoseb headed back to the biscuit factory to ask his boss for help. Meanwhile, Sunja notices a Korean woman delivering a parcel to the station and asks the woman how long her family member has been held in prison. When the woman answers three months, Sunja despairs, but as they talk, it turns out this woman not only knows Isak but knows something about why he’s been taken away by the police. Sunja and Noa follow this mysterious woman into what looks to be an alley, where the woman says that Isak meant much to her and her brother-in-law, the imprisoned family members she was visiting. Isak gave them love, trust, pride, and hope. Sunja begins to realize that Isak was living something of a double life and finds herself following the strange woman further into Osaka when the woman insists Sunja must meet a mysterious Hasegawa-san, who she assures Sunja will have answers. Meanwhile, at the biscuit factory, Yoseb’s boss is initially supportive and understanding of Yoseb’s situation until Yoseb says that Isak has been wrongfully accused as an unpatriotic person. The boss suddenly balks and ultimately fires Yoseb, who the boss views as potentially having similarly unpatriotic leanings as his brother. Slowly, it becomes clear that Japan is on the verge of World War II. There’s an ideological fervor, a danger about supposed “anti-imperial” sentiment that is beginning to bubble to the surface.
Sunja and Noa encounter the mysterious Hasegawa-san in a dark room, where the man is hiding from authorities. It turns out Hasegawa-san is a professor and involved with the Communist party. He and Isak worked together, fighting for the rights of people in Manchuria, Korea, and elsewhere. Again, Noa translates between Hasegawa’s Japanese and his mother’s Korean. Here, the show deftly uses the subtitles it employed all season by taking them away. Hasegawa’s Japanese is un-subtitled. We, as an audience, only get Noa’s childish interpretation of what the man says. The impression is one of mounting disorientation and dread, both on the part of Sunja and Noa. As Sunja begins to understand that her husband is not “innocent,” at least not in the way she imagined, she begins to shout at Hasegawa, angry that he and Isak seemed not to think how their ideological activities would impact Sunja, Noa, and Mozasu who are now suddenly without a husband, father, and provider. Before the conversation can go much further, the police arrive.
At the police station, Sunja is interrogated, and it’s painful to watch her answer the officer’s hostile questions. She’s in the dark, both literally and figuratively, trying to grasp what she knows to make sense of this sudden bewildering situation. Again, there are no subtleties for the officer’s speech, only the low voice of an interpreter and Sunja’s lonely responses. Finally, Sunja is permitted to leave the station where Noa is waiting for her. As the two leave the station, they happen upon Isak, who is being transported to another location. Noa begins to shout and struggle for his father, squeezing through the iron bars to get at his dad. Isak struggles to get to his son as well, but is ultimately taken away by the police. Noa runs after the car that carries his father away from him, and Sunja’s heartbreak is our heartbreak as she chases after her son and husband, weeping and shouting Noa’s name.
Later that night, at home but sleepless, Sunja gets out of bed and finds the rings her mother gave her when she left for Japan. Noa wakes up too but Sunja tells him to wait for her, that she’ll take care of them. The next morning, Kyunghee finds Sunja making a huge batch of kimchi. With Yoseb having lost his job and Isak in prison, the family has no income stream, and so, to combat her feeling of helplessness, Sunja has decided she will sell kimchi at the market.
That morning, Noa walks to school and is approached by Koh Hansu in a brilliant white suit. Koh apparently has been following him because he knows the routines and movements of Noa’s life. Together, the two have a brief conversation, and Koh asks Noa if he knows about the Kanto earthquake, an event so large it divided life into a before and an after. Noa doesn’t know he’s walking with his biological father, and Koh Hansu seems not to know exactly how to behave. He ends their interaction by telling Noa not to be content with simply surviving and not to live like a fool; advice that also serves as admonishments of Isak, who Koh Hansu views as idealistic, naive, and not fit for his son.
Meanwhile, after bidding goodbye to Mozasu and Kyunghee, Sunja pushes a heavy cart laden with two barrels of fresh kimchi. At first, it seems the endeavor might be a failure. The market is a place that Sunja felt at home in Korea, but in Japan, the language is different; the people sneer, turning their noses up at her kimchi, telling her to go away. Will Sunja fail? Of course not. Our heroine has a moment when she looks around at the crowd, overwhelmed, the sound filtering out. Her eyes seem silvery, on the verge of tears, but then Sunja comes back into herself. She steps into the throng, calling to passersby, selling her wares. The camera pans upward, away, into the clouds, and though she is in a moment of real adversity, we feel that she is also alive and totally herself.
In 1989, Hana is dying. The doctors tell Etsuko and Mozasu that there’s nothing to be done, and at this point, the amount of painkillers required to make Hana comfortable would cause her to “lose her soul.” Outside of Hana’s room, Solomon tells Mozasu he’s been fired. Mozasu is incredulous; how could Solomon have thrown this opportunity away? Solomon says he wants to work with Yoshii, and Mozasu is having none of it. Yoshii’s grandfather approached Mozasu when he was young; he knows what Yoshii might say to Solomon. Mozasu warns Solomon not to work with Yoshii, but Solomon lashes out at his father, saying his father’s dreams are not big enough for him.
Solomon comforts Hana, who asks him to take care of her mother when she’s gone. Solomon apologizes, saying he’s lived his life foolishly, but Hana tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself. She’s dying here, in this terrible room. She muses that she would have preferred to die in Hawaii, her toes in the warm sand and the sound of waves enveloping her. Hana tells Solomon she wants him to grab all that life offers without mercy.
Solomon goes to Yoshii and proposes a deal, asking Yoshii to use “his methods” to convince the Korean woman from previous episodes to sell her land, allowing Solomon to get back to his old place of work while making the both of them rich men. Yoshii agrees though he clues Solomon in to the bubble that’s about to burst in the Japanese economy, saying they’ll have to move fast before the value of land in Tokyo plummets. Solomon then asks for one more favor, a favor for his friend.
That favor turns out to be for Hana, who is finally in so much pain that her family has consented to the dose of painkillers that will possibly end her life. As Etsuko, Mozasu, and Sunja say their farewells, Solomon bursts into the room, unhooking Hana from the machines and pushing her hospital bed into an elevator and onto the open roof of the hospital. Etsuko, Mozasu, the doctors and nurses are frantic, but Solomon is insistent. Apparently, Yoshii filled out the paperwork to authorize Hana’s move to the open air. Solomon puts a lei around Hana’s neck and says they’re going to Hawaii. She smiles, for a moment at ease, and her vision fades to black as Etsuko tearfully tells her goodnight, sending Hana to her eternal rest.
Later, Sunja approaches Solomon on the hospital roof, where he broods alone. She hands him a pocket watch, the same pocket watch Koh Hansu picked up off of the Holmes’ body, the watch he gave Sunja, which she later sold to pay Yoseb’s debt. Somehow, the watch has returned to her possession (foreshadowing for next season, methinks!), and she is giving it to Solomon. Sunja says she used to think this watch was a curse but now she understands it saved her family, so she wants Solomon to have it.
In a different part of town, the Korean landowner does her homework, learning to read in Japanese. Outside, a pair of dogs begin to bark, and she goes to look outside to scold whoever is causing the ruckus. She tells the stranger in the street off until the man with his dogs turns to look her directly in the eye. He’s clearly intimidating her, sending her scurrying back into the safety of her home. These are the methods Solomon asked Yoshii to use for their business plans, a moment that shows us Solomon’s acquiescence and descent into a less-than-savory world.
Now, if the episode had ended with these storylines, I would have been disappointed. When the title cards began to flash, explaining to the audience that of the two million Koreans forcibly moved to Japan, 600,000 stayed and became stateless people, I couldn’t believe the show would end its gorgeous first season like that. But then, Pachinko did something I’d never seen before. For approximately the last ten minutes of season one’s final episode, Pachinko switched into a documentary, showing interviews with several Korean women who stayed to live in Japan. These are real-life Sunjas. We are reminded that this story isn’t just entertainment but a political act of remembering. The struggles and joys we’ve seen on screen are not hypotheticals but realities.
People often like to quote W.H. Auden in saying “poetry makes nothing happen” to justify a certain nihilism, a conviction that art does nothing in the face of violence. But that line is misquoted. In truth, Auden wrote, “For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives.” Survival can be a radical act, and Pachinko is a story of survival, of perseverance, of love and family, and life in the face of a wildly violent imperialist nation. By remembering, by telling these stories and honoring the lives of women like the ones we see at the end of this episode, we are also invited to resist, flourish, and survive.
• It was a pleasure to go through this season with you all, and I can’t wait for when Pachinko returns for season two! In the meantime, happy watching, friends!