Squid Game Season 1 (Netflix)
Written & Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk
I was skeptical when I first heard about the viral Netflix hit Squid Game. Anytime a show is that popular and popping up in so many corners of the internet, I can’t help but think it’s some shallow meme-ish nonsense. However, the fact that it was a Korean series caught my interest. Over the last twenty years, I’ve enjoyed almost every film I’ve seen from that country. Their filmmakers have a fantastic eye and are telling stories that are relevant beyond their own culture. So when I heard Squid Game was addressing issues of economic class, I was sold that I needed to see it, spurred on by the hilarious right-wing media tripping over their feet to argue it wasn’t a critique of capitalism (even though that is what the creator said) and that it was “really about communism.”
Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-Jae) is a divorced father and gambling addict living with his elderly mother. He borrows money from her daily and often loses it hours later at the track. Gi-hun wants to be more involved with his daughter but finds out her mother and stepfather are moving the family to the United States soon. Gi-hun desperately needs money to get his life back together. A chance meeting with a stranger in the subway leads the man to be brought to an island where 455 others are competing in a tournament for billions of Korean won. Gi-hun discovers his childhood friend Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is also there, struggling with embezzling money from his company and owing more to organized crime. There’s also Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-Yeon), a recent refugee from the North trying to get enough money to get her little brother out of an orphanage. Player 1 (O Yeong-su) is an elderly man stricken with cancer who wants the money to go to his family. He ends up becoming close friends with Gi-hun.
All this friendliness is undermined by the game, which ends when all but one player is dead. They are thrown into fatal versions of schoolyard favorites from Red Light – Green Light to marbles and eventually the titular Squid Game. There’s also a Seoul police officer who sneaks onto the island, desperate to learn what happened to his brother, who is missing. He discovers a secret organ harvesting operation and that this whole operation is merely a way for the disgustingly wealthy to entertain themselves. Despite the sunny aesthetics and childlike design of the facilities on the island, this is a gruesome show that has people dying both at the hands of the games and eventually each other.
Squid Game is undoubtedly a melodramatic series, sometimes a little over the top with its visuals and performances. The subplot with the police officer on the island ended in a way that felt like a cheesy anime, but I don’t think it detracted from the overall themes and intent of the show. At its core, Squid Game is a metaphor for the struggle of the ordinary person in the system of capitalism. The players are all at the end of their rope, and so they make easy marks for the organization behind the game. They sign a contract that makes them complicit in what happens, a brutal cut that allows the organizers to say their hands are clean. There’s even a moment where a vote is allowed to suspend the games and let everyone still alive go home. But the organizers know they have picked people that will be lured back when they revisit their miserable lives.
The most horrific sequence for me was in the fourth episode. The players realize that after lights out, the guards are turning the other way, meaning those who can stomach it are allowed to murder each other to increase their odds. It’s one thing when the players are thrown into a room and told they must complete a task or die, but when they have the choice as they lay in their bunks, it takes things to a bleak level. The show creates two clear factions, with one being more resolute and moral while the other is full of shifty criminal types. There is a twist, though, with someone who seems reasonably upright, revealing the darker aspects of their personality, but I suspect most viewers are going to clue in on this a few episodes before.
I think the first half of the season works better than the second. The mystery being set up around the games, seeing the grotesque games play out, and watching players try and find some way to stomach what they’ve been forced into is excellent. However, the subplots and the time spent on the management side of the event are not so great. There are wealthy VIPs who are the worst part of the show, in my opinion. They are played by English-speaking actors, and I’m unsure what went wrong, but their dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural. Despite the flaws in the show, I think the emotions experienced by its main characters really resonate with viewers. It really cuts through the absurdity of so much of what we passively accept under capitalism. It also highlights how we go along with it, choosing to dehumanize our neighbors for the promise that we might get a few crumbs one day. I’m also wondering about the inevitable second season and what direction they will explore the games from. I can think of some predictable ways it could go, but I’d rather they surprise us with something unexpected.