In the three weeks since its release, the survival thriller “Squid Game” has quickly become the most-watched Netflix show in 90 countries – a record-breaking first for a Korean TV series. In this grotesque, emotional drama, 456 players compete to the death in a series of children’s games such as tug of war and red light, green light. It’s a fresh take on a well-worn dystopian premise, with unexpected twists and haunting performances that leaves the audience wanting more.
Unlike “The Hunger Games,” a film with a similar setup, the players in “Squid Game” all enter the competition willingly, motivated by a cash prize of 45.6 billion won (about $38 million). However, the illusion of choice is a theme that dominates the nine episodes, as each character is motivated by crushing debt and a desire for a better life.
The show lags somewhat in the beginning as it sets up the tragic circumstances of protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a middle-aged gambling addict who must pay his mother’s medical bills and prove financial stability to gain custody of his daughter. Though played well by Lee, this melodramatic backstory makes Gi-hun less interesting and sympathetic than some of the show’s supporting characters. Instead, the unflinching determination of North Korean refugee Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) and the earnest good heart of Pakistani migrant worker Ali (Anupam Tripathi) are easily the most compelling.
Episode six, “Gganbu,” is the standout, with tensions rising and players dropping like flies. The title, a Korean slang word meaning neighborhood friends who share everything, takes on a more cynical meaning. Motivations are not always clear as the lines between hero and villain are blurred, so the audience isn’t always sure who they can trust, which raises the stakes even more. The episode features several heartbreaking moments amidst a deadly game of marbles.
Part of what makes “Squid Game” so mesmerizing, though, is its playful architecture and sickly sweet childhood aesthetic. Pastel dollhouses and geometric playgrounds are effectively juxtaposed with brutal violence to create visual irony. The players’ numbered monochrome tracksuits dehumanize and strip away their identities, but at the same time, give them the strangely comedic appearance of a middle school gym class.
In the end, the show’s critique of capitalism and exploitative systems of poverty is abundantly clear. The Front Man, the mastermind who runs the games behind the scenes, prides himself on keeping the games fair and equal. But he and the guards all hide their faces behind masks, allowing them to maintain their power over the players through anonymity. Watching the games and betting on the outcomes are the exorbitant wealthy VIPs, who uncoincidentally are the only characters who speak in English with noticeably American accents. The desperation of the players and the bloodlust of the orchestrators begs the question: Do they really have a choice? Is there any escape?
“Squid Game” is effective in large part because of fast pacing and episode cliffhangers that make the series easy to binge. It’s gory at times, but the show generally relies more on psychological horror to disturb viewers. Just as the players are unable to leave without a majority vote, the viewers are unable to turn their heads away from the screen. Though many deaths happen off-screen, they feel more gut-wrenching than the bloody slaughters of similar survival action movies such as “Battle Royale” because each character is complex and flawed.
The last episode closes with a final twist, leaving the story with the potential for a second season. However, the open-ended conclusion may be better left as is. Despite the suspension of disbelief necessary to uphold the absurdity of the games, “Squid Game” feels more real than any dystopia because it’s not merely a fantasy of some future society; it could happen today.
Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].