This article contains spoilers for Squid game.
The first half hour of Netflix’s top-ranked new show, Squid game, introduces Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a middle-aged gamer so unlucky that he steals money from his elderly mother and gives his young daughter a gun-shaped lighter for her birthday, because that it was the only thing he was able to get out of the claw machine where he inserted his last pieces. After meeting a well-dressed recruiter at a train station, Gi-hun accepts an opportunity to earn some money. He gets into a van, is knocked out by gas, and wakes up in a dormitory with over 400 other people. A voice from a loudspeaker tells them they will be arguing over a lot of money – how much, they don’t quite know yet, but it turns out to be $ 45.6 billion. South Korean won, or about 38 million US dollars – playing children’s games.
Here begins the bloody part. The group is parked in another large room, painted incongruously with a bright preschool color palette, to play a game of red light, green light. They quickly find the price to pay for staying on the move after the creepy pigtail robot in charge says “Red light!” Is not just a disqualification, it’s a bullet. Before the end of the game, about half of the participants are outright murdered. This is not a show for viewers who don’t like to see people shot at point blank range (or stabbed, or killed by falling from a height, etc.). There are literally hundreds of such deaths in all nine episodes of the series, with a bonus dissection scene, if what you really dream of is seeing intestines. And almost everyone on the show is scared, all the time – the actors are constantly shaking, crying and shaking, in the most extreme forms of duress.
If you can take it all, you should watch this show. In some ways, Squid game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is another familiar entry in the “Deadly Game” genre. It’s like the movie cube (1997), in that players wear suits that strip them of their individuality, are trapped in an airtight environment that appears to be computer generated, and attempt to solve puzzles before being horribly murdered, but in Squid game the staff who run the game are visible, and there are many more competitors. It’s like Royal battle (2000), although the players are adults and not adolescents. It’s like The hunger Games, although the larger society outside of gaming is not a fictional dystopia, like Suzanne Collins’ Panem, just everyday South Korea. It’s like the movie player (2009), although gamblers are not controlled from afar by the rich who want to experience peril without personal risk, they are just closely watched by the rich who want to experience peril without personal risk.
Squid game is different from its genre cousins in a major way, and it’s the one that gives the series its emotional punch. Players must decide that they want to be part of the game. After the opening massacre, the group takes advantage of a clause in the contract they signed and votes, by simple majority, to end the game and return home, without nobody gets the money. They’re home for a little while, before they all end up in the van, submitting to the sleepy gas, on their way home to try the prize.
They are just too desperate – in debt, like Gi-hun; refugees, like Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon, a haunting onscreen presence, and a fan favorite), a defector who needs money to bring her family from North Korea; undocumented immigrants, like Abdul Ali (Tripathi Anupam), a Pakistani father with a big heart whose employer steals his salary. They would rather try to win big, see a lot of people die, and maybe die themselves, than slowly get lost in the real world, trying to achieve something that seems impossible.
They are not all “good” people. The main villain among the players, Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), is a gangster who owes money to other gangsters. Deok-su is comically evil, resorting to outright murder of other players when he realizes that every death brings him closer to the cash prize, and the staff won’t do anything if he kills outside of the context of the games. And there is another villain, whose identity I will not reveal, who does something unforgivable to another player that is absolutely going to break your heart. The fate of the nicest characters among them is where the drama lies.
The ins and outs of the games are exciting. When the team of disjointed protagonists – male and female, young and old – pull and pull a rope, trying to pull a much stronger all-male team over a precipice, I clapped for every step back. even if they won would mean a bunch of other people would be crushed to death. When Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi), a woman who killed her abusive father and just got out of prison with no money or friends to her name, sacrifices herself for Sae-byeok, I cried. When the contestants arrive at the eponymous Squid Game – an attack and defense contest, so named because the grid the kids play on is drawn to look like a squid – the drama made me look at my phone to escape the voltage. This is what will make you watch a good game.
Yes, I know, there is a certain irony in the fact that a show that is in part a moral commentary on the ills of the viewer is number one on Netflix. Few people are immune to the lure of watching other people play hard and sly when the stakes are high. But, as the news clip of rising household debt ratios in South Korea that stars in a barber shop in the last episode makes clear, the other big idea in the series is financial desperation and what it does to people when they get on the bad side of a bad system. As Gi-hun, who turns out to have a much richer history than I thought, defiantly puts it at one point, “I’m not a horse. I am a person. I can’t wait to see season 2, to see how they play it.