Halfway through Hellbound, the new Netflix horror drama from creators Choi Gyu-seok and Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes. Only in this case, the emperor is a group of hulking, otherworldly monsters, and their nakedness is their volatile rituals that kill people in the middle of the street.
Despite the gospel peddled by the New Truth church, it’s increasingly clear to many in the show that the monsters are not God’s emissaries sent to punish sinners. Rather, they’re “more like a supernatural thing that can’t be explained.” No one knows that (or, at least, wants to know that) better than Bae Young-jae (Jeong Min Park) and Sohyun (Won Jin-ah), whose baby received the decree only a few days after being born.
The baby’s fate becomes the ticking time bomb for the back half of the season, spurring every viewer to ask: Are they really going to kill that baby? But Hellbound manages to take that very daunting question and twist it into an even more clever setup for season 2. (And as far as when we’ll see it, Choi Gyu-seok and Yeon Sang-ho have thoughts.)
So uh what are the monsters in Hellbound?
By the end of Hellbound season 1, everyone wants something different out of the baby’s decree: The New Truth wants the whole affair concealed, so as not to spook their followers. Min Hyejin (Kim Hyun-joo) and her rebel faction hope to publicize the decree, to help show the world the inherent injustice of the events. And the Bae family simply wants to not be in the situation at all.
No one fully gets what they want when decree time comes. Hyejin’s broadcast gets interrupted by a double agent; the New Truth’s attempts to completely derail the broadcast result in a conflict that brings out neighbors and their cellphones, the same social media power that helped rocket the church to power. As the time of baby Toughie’s judgment approaches, the parents crowd around her, shielding her from the light of the monsters. Once it’s done, only Toughie remains, her parents burned.
Little is ultimately confirmed in the moments after — Hyejin escapes with Toughie, disappearing into the city with a sympathetic cabbie who promises to keep her and the baby safe. The Arrowhead leader undergoes his decree as so many before him, with brutality and desperation.
In truth, no one knows what the monsters are or how they function. While an issued decree was previously thought of as a death sentence, something about Toughie’s circumstances meant something changed — whether her parents’ sacrifice was some sort of supernatural shield, a la Harry Potter, or something else entirely. As the season 1 finale makes clear, they are much less like avenging angels and much more as Professor Gong describes them, as “just like an earthquake or any other natural disaster. It can happen to any one of us. It’s not about punishing or being punished.”
That ambiguity was important to Hellbound director Yeon Sang-ho. “We wanted to make sure that none of the things that happened in this universe would remind you of anything that happened in our real world,” Yeon told Variety. The most important thing to him and Choi was how grounded the characters felt. “When we were working on this story, we were set on creating a world that was comparable to hell, and created by people who are unable to tolerate uncertainty and we wanted to show what the society would look like when convictions are in conflict with one another.”
The final twist of Hellbound season 1
Episode 6 offers another surprise. In the bowels of the New Truth’s museum, Park Jungja’s burned body reanimates and comes back to life. It’s as mysterious as it is poetic; despite being the first intentionally publicized demonstration, even the former chairman of the New Truth acknowledged that he wasn’t sure Jungja — or anyone — had sinned enough to face such terrible judgment.
Even still, the decrees still explicitly mention that the receiver will be sent “to hell” following their demonstration, adding to the mystery of exactly where these monsters do come from, and why their supernatural judgement is applied the way it is. Now that Jungja has come back to life, the line between sinner and saint is once again blurred. In a possible season 2, she’d likely be able to provide an account of what (if anything) she remembers, possibly further undermining the New Truth’s doctrine.
Then again, nothing has ever been so simple on Hellbound. As the show wears on, Choi and Yeon are eager to show how God’s will could be interpreted, misinterpreted, and disregarded in ways that end up looking remarkably similar to each other. Both Myejin and her enemies are clamoring to publicize people’s tragedy, even if they do it for very different reasons. After receiving his doctrine, chairman Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in) seemed to feel absolved to help others by any means necessary, even violent ones; his church very much carries on that legacy to the ferocious ends we see in the second half of Hellbound. Season 1 shows how people can bleakly project any judgement on random acts. But mysteries around the impetus for those acts still abound in the world of the show.
Whether the show will answer those in a second season remains to be seen. Netflix hasn’t renewed Hellbound yet, but director Yeon has said he’s already working on a Webtoon comic that could provide the outline for season 2.
“My partner Choi Kyu-Seok and I have decided that the story afterwards will be told first through the webtoon,” Yeon said in the Variety interview. “As for whether we would want to turn that into another live-action series, that’s something that we will need further discussion on.”