Honeyed snacks, candy-colored walls, and a larger-than-life doll all sound like a child’s fantasy come to life. But inside the world of Squid Game on Netflix, innocent nostalgia comes with a body count as 456 individuals compete to the death in playground games for $45.6 billion Korean won (or $38.6 million American dollars). All on the brink of financial ruin and desperate for a way out, the players are pitted against each other by the rich and powerful for entertainment, until there’s just one victor left standing.
Released on September 17th, the South Korean drama already boasts significant accolades. It’s the first Korean show to ever top Netflix’s U.S. Top 10, it’s the platform’s number one series across the globe, and it’s currently on track to become the most popular Netflix series ever—usurping period romance Bridgerton. Created by genre-spanning filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game’s plot line will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, the Japanese cult favorite that popularized the battle royale genre. Even Netflix’s own catalogue from the past five years has similar offerings, like Brazilian dystopian thriller 3% and Japanese fantastical drama Alice in Borderland.
Yet rather than take place in any dystopian landscape, Squid Game grounds its premise through a real-world, contemporary setting. The “last-man-standing” hook means there’s a predictability to how it all plays out, but Hwang is less concerned with subverting the battle royale formula as much as digging into the human stakes that make it tick.
Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), an impoverished man struggling with a gambling addiction and relying on his elderly mother’s meager income. Gi-hun wants to do right by the daughter he seldom sees, but he can’t even make it through one day with the money his mother lends him for her 10th birthday dinner. His luck seems to change once he’s approached on the subway by a man who invites him to play ddakji, a simple game of folded paper cards. Win, get money. Lose, get slapped. After a bruised Gi-hun finally cashes in, the man extends a strange business card and an opportunity: come play more games and win more money. Sounds easy, right?
The nine-episode series plays out like a fable for the extreme lengths that vulnerable people are pushed to under modern capitalism. As the backstories of our main crew are revealed— a Pakistani factory worker whose immigration status is exploited for unpaid labor, a North Korean defector trying to provide for her little brother, a terminally ill elderly man—it becomes clear that any one of them is just a series of unlucky accidents away from crushing debt. Even the antagonists within the players, while never fully sympathetic, have understandable motivations. Squid Game also never lets you forget the true big bad is the one pulling the strings. None of this is exactly subtle, but the garish set pieces and strong performances, like Jung Ho-yeon’s alternately steely and heartbreaking Kang Sae-byeok, keep the story compelling.
Coming from a squeamish scaredy-cat, let me assure you that while Squid Game has its gory moments, the horror here is more psychological. There’s inherently a sense of voyeurism that comes with watching the brutal games, and it’s easy to start anticipating alongside the characters what the next game will be. However, the deaths are never drawn out or overdramatized, and Squid Game works to center its characters’ humanity. Conversations between the games also add necessary depth. In the dehumanizing facility, where players are only referred to by the number on their sweatsuit, an act as mundane as sharing your name demands vulnerability. Trust is in low supply and high demand, and the tentative bonds are what gives the inevitable deaths emotional weight.
Alongside the main competition, there’s a subplot concerning police officer Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), who infiltrates the game facility in a search of his missing brother. Hwang’s investigation (and implausibly resilient iPhone battery) bring key insights into the game runners, but the show’s weakest moments occur when it pulls back the curtains too much. (It doesn’t help that the screen-grabbing Wi remains masked most of the time.) For instance, a swarm of predominantly American VIP spectators comment on the games as if watching a basketball match. Their inclusion could have served as a meta commentary on our own fascination with battle royale stories, but cringey acting renders them into caricatures of the 1%; their callousness and cruelty is expected.
Much thornier are the questions that linger between the contestants as they weigh survival against humanity. Risking your own life is different than risking a friend’s. It doesn’t feel coincidental that one progressively cutthroat competitor is a financial investor charged with embezzlement; touted by childhood friend Gi-hun as “the successful one,” Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) already understands the unspoken rules of the game, and the ruthlessness required to make it to the top.
A bootstraps ethos is mimicked by the game runners who boast of a “pure and fair ideology” that grants equal opportunity for every player to succeed, obscuring the fact that nearly every game played partially depends on sheer luck. As the games continue, they grow in sadism by pitting the players directly against one another. All 456 competitors could potentially win a game of “Red Light, Green Light.” The same isn’t true for tug-of-war: Someone’s going to be holding the rope, and someone’s going to be lying flat on the floor.
Manipulated by fine print, the Squid Game competitors aren’t initially aware of the life-or-death consequences they’ve signed up for. After the first game’s mass casualties, a loophole gives them the chance to opt out from playing and return safely to their empty bank accounts. The choice seems like a no-brainer from an outside perspective. But as the essential second episode reveals, there are no good options for those on society’s margins, and a worry-free existence where money isn’t a daily stressor seems impossible to obtain. The games are bad—but who’s to say the real world isn’t worse?
All nine episodes of Squid Game are now streaming on Netflix.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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