Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “Squid Game.”
Netflix’s new South Korean drama series “Squid Game,” released on Sept. 17, has quickly gained immense popularity, transforming it into the streaming platform’s most-watched show as of October 2021.
In the series, a group of cash-strapped individuals are given the opportunity to play Korean children’s games to win a large cash prize, unaware of the deadly stakes. The game’s creators use money to coerce broke and desperate people into playing to their deaths. This nine-episode series emphasizes the detrimental effects of capitalism and the cruel realities that have led to South Korea having one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
The premise is entertaining and well-executed. The protagonist, Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), an alcoholic with a gambling addiction, is solicited by a man in the subway station to play a popular children’s game — ttakji, in which a player must flip over their opponent’s paper pouch with their own. Gi-Hun accepts the offer from the strange man and then agrees to participate in an even bigger gambling scheme — the chance to win roughly $40 million. He is taken to a remote island, along with the other 455 players, to compete in a round of children’s games. Yet, what everyone fails to realize is that every participant will be playing to the death.
What makes the show so intriguing is the central characters’ relatability and their desperation to win the grand prize. Whether it’s to support their families or other “selfish” needs, each character’s drive allows viewers to see what truly motivates mankind. The entire series seems to propose the question: can humans redeem themselves, or has the ruthless environment created by capitalism hindered any chance at redemption? The friendships made in the series make it easy to overlook the violence endured; however, viewers soon realize that betrayal is what makes the show so riveting. It’s these moments that ultimately make viewers question relationships that they have in their own lives.
Early in the series, a sick and seemingly harmless older man, Player 001 (Oh Yeong-su), befriends Gi-Hun. His sacrifice during the game of marbles truly emphasizes the show’s theme of betrayal. After allowing Gi-Hun to win the game, Player 001’s time in the competition — as well as his life — appears to come to an end. Unbeknownst to the audience, however, he fakes his own death. As revealed in the final episode, “One Lucky Day,” Player 001 is actually the mastermind behind the entire competition, suggesting that humans cannot redeem themselves in a cruel and exploitative world.
Another crucial scene in understanding the themes in “Squid Game” is in Episode 6, “Gganbu,” during the midnight killings. Each player is suddenly confronted with the brutal nature of the games — understanding that in order to win the prize money, they have to be the last player standing. As soon as the lights turn off for the night in the dorms, every player left in the game begins brutally attacking one another. During the horror of this scene, Gi-Hun is given a moment of redemption. Rather than participating or hiding away, he is seen worrying about the friends he has made. He spends the night protecting the older man while fending off the men who were trying to kill fellow player Sae-byeok (Jung HoYeon), a woman who had once pickpocketed him outside of the games. This exact moment proves that the environment of violence changed Gi-Hun’s perspective on life and people. Instead of seeking revenge, he stops the other players from murdering her.
Despite the show’s ever-growing success, creator Hwang Dong-hyuk was unsure if the dystopian survival series would be believable enough to endure watching. In an interview with “The Korea Times,” Hwang reveals that “Squid Game” took 10 years to create and execute.
“I came up with which games to use in the story about 10 years ago. And it was, to begin with, the red light, green light game that makes a big impact with shocking mass deaths,” Hwang said.
Throughout the series, a total of seven variations on classic children’s games are played: ttakji; red light, green light; the dalgona candy challenge; tug of war, marbles; glass “hopscotch;” and “squid game,” the show’s namesake. Games that normally represent the fun and innocent nature of childhood are turned brutally savage. If a player fails to follow the rules and complete the game, they die. The sadistic complexity of “Squid Game” is what ultimately put a halt on Hwang’s creative process, stalling the series’ release and creation.
“People commented on how the series is relevant to real life. Sadly, the world has changed in that direction. The series’ games that participants go crazy over align with people’s desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrency, real estate and stocks. So many people have been able to empathize with the story,” Hwang said.
“Squid Game” brings the harsh realities of income inequality and debt within South Korea to the screen. The series further highlights the socio-economic inequality that torments the lives of many South Korean citizens, such as the increasing household debt crisis that has plagued lower and middle classes. Household debt has risen to over 100% of its gross domestic product (GDP) — the highest in Asia. This has allowed for top 20% earners to have a net worth 166 times that of those belonging to the bottom 20%, a discrepancy which has only increased in recent years. Those without the proper resources have been left in an extremely perilous situation.
This nine-episode series provides a modern take on what would happen if desperate humans were given a chance to win a large sum of money, regardless of the consequences. The brutal truth of living in a capitalistic society, as well as the character execution from the up-and-coming actors, kept the series at No. 1 on Netflix’s most-watched movies and shows. It is unclear when a second season will begin filming. However, what is clear is that many will push for more seasons with the immense amount of support the series has gained.
McKenzie Boney is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.