Squid Game has stormed out of the gate to become the improbable #1 series on Netflix and the most-watched series launch for the streaming giant.
A Korean show developed specifically for Netflix, the show gained traction thanks in part to trending on social media, particularly the “Red Light, Green Light” portion of the show featuring a larger-than-life robotic doll that murders contestants who fail the challenge. The series has spawned endless memes as more and more members of the American audience catch on to the show, which hit Netflix back in mid-September. But the show is succeeding for much more than its ability to make memes: it is amazing television.
The show opens by introducing us to its main protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), an unemployed gambling addict who lives with his mother and struggles to provide for his daughter, who lives with her mother and step-father. Gi-hun is shown tapping into his mother’s bank account and spending her money to gamble at the horse track and winning, only to have the money stolen by a pickpocket. He is then beaten and threatened by the loan sharks he owes money.
In desperate need of cash to get his daughter a birthday gift, Gi-hun is approached by a mysterious man who offers to play a simple game with him. He will give Gi-hun 100,000 won (roughly $85 USD) for every win and a slap in the face for every loss. Gi-hun endures much abuse before finally getting a win and taking his daughter out for her birthday. The man offers him a chance to join a much higher-stakes game for a life-changing amount of money. Gi-hun accepts and this is where Squid Game‘s story really begins.
Gi-hun is brought to a mysterious island to compete in a series of children’s games with 455 other people in financial ruin, desperate for a way out. The first game is the now infamous “Red Light, Green Light” and the contestants learn in real-time the consequences for failing the games. Still the lure of the money overhead in a giant piggy bank makes it hard to give up. And from that launching point we begin building up a stellar ensemble of characters of different but similar backgrounds, all trying to survive the games and take home the prize money.
Over the next five episodes we expand the team of protagonists to include Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), Gi-hun’s childhood friend that actually excelled in business school yet finds himself in dire financial straits; Player 001 (O Yeong-su), an old man suffering from dementia and a brain tumor with an unusually positive outlook on the games; Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), the pickpocket that Gi-hun ran into earlier as well as a defector from North Korea; Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani immigrant in Korea and eventually Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi), a quiet woman who joins the ensemble a bit later.
The progression of these characters as they go through the first four games ebbs and flows perfectly before they all meet in a crescendo in the sixth episode “Gganbu,” which may be the best hour of television I’ve seen in 2021, if not in years. The show does begin to wobble a bit in the final three episodes, ending some subplots in underwhelming ways and ending with a questionable resolution and unnecessary twist, but for my part, these episodes are still as strong as ever during the games and stick the landing in that regard.
Squid Game remains a wonderfully drawn portrait of the desperation that mounting debt and poverty has on people, and how the promise of money can contort these people to do monstrous things. (Not to mention the indifference of the wealthy elite pulling the strings.)
The series lives and dies by creating terrific characters, thanks to striking performances of the whole cast of players, and how the games both build bonds between them and tear them apart. Despite the bleak circumstances, the series repeatedly leans toward making the kind, compassionate choice even when the odds are stacked against the characters.
NOTE: DON’T watch the English dub. Make sure to watch the show in its original Korean with English subtitles. It can be difficult at times to keep up with the subtitles, but overall it is pretty seamless and the English voiceovers really don’t match the performances of the original cast.
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