Squid Game is a South Korean survival drama television series created by Hwang Dong-hyuk for Netflix. The series revolves around a contest in which 456 players are chosen from different walks of life to compete in a series of children’s games. Each of them is deeply in debt and chosen for the chance to win a ₩45.6 billion prize, with a deadly penalty if they lose. The name of the series draws from a similarly named Korean children’s game. Its cast includes Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, and Kim Joo-ryoung.
“Squid Game,” depicts a competition, in which boundless wealth is made available to whomever survives a brutal gauntlet of fatal events. These stages are borrowed from children’s playground activities, lending a certain simple irony to just how brutal they become: More than half of the competitors are gunned down, for instance, in the first stage, a version of “Red Light, Green Light” in which those who move after “Red Light” are gunned down. Completely unprepared for the fatal punishment for those who fail the round, the show begins to shock its viewers right from the beginning.
This sees more than half the competition — some 200-plus people — shot down, and “Squid Game” is hardly shy about showing blood and gore. The violence is at once eerily intimate and impersonal: While there’s a brutal frankness to the way the competitors’ lives are cut short, the shooters are masked game employees. Death comes doled out by random functionaries, about whom we know significantly less than about the game’s players. What we gradually learn, through the device of a police officer who’s broken into the system, searching for his own brother, is that they are utterly bought-in, obeying rules of their own and believing rigidly in a game they’ve worked to present with a certain baroque innocence.
This fact — that both gameplayers and gamemakers are bound by need and by a strange loyalty to the rhythms of the competition — has clean, uncomplicated lines. It’s structurally sound and seems, at a glance, clever. So does the show’s structure in its early going, as surviving players are allowed the opportunity to leave after the first bloodbath, and end up returning of their own free will because they need the money that badly. Having now seen both the harsh realities they face in the game and at home, we’re forced to reckon with the notion that infinitesimal odds of survival in the Squid Game might just be better than none in modern society where death comes to you in installments on a daily basis if you’re poor.
It is only Squid Game, though, that goes long form (over nine heavy episodes) and really focuses on the drama of the individuals, and on their active decision to compete. They choose to play. Away from the survivalist bustle of the game, one player pays to get his phone charged at a store while another has to genuflect for bus-fare. Inside that threatening world, they are — if nothing else — all equal. Or are they? Equality is never absolute. In this case it means 455 out of 456 will die. This is a view to a cull.
Squid Game centres around Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) a compulsive gambler who has spent so much of his life looking for — and betting on — shortcuts that he’s barely moved forward. His mother needs an operation, his ex-wife is moving countries with his daughter, he has signed away organs to moneylenders who literally suck his blood. The first episode sets up his misery before introducing the gameshow mechanics of the series, and the remaining episodes compound it. He needs a win.
For all his ineptitude, Gi-hun is essentially a nice guy, something that disadvantages him in an arena uniquely suited to sadists. His fellow participants are less obviously sympathetic, but we unearth layers within each: Kang Sae-Byok (the stunning Jung Ho-yeon) is an unrepentant pickpocket but also a defector from North Korea who wants to bring her family across the border. O Yeung-so shines as an old man with a brain tumor who prefers to play rather than wait for inevitable death in the real world. One of the most compelling is Gi-hun’s brilliant friend, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a top student who went into high finance and is now on the run after investing recklessly in Futures.
Going deeper into Squid Game is pointless – it is the biggest smash hit on Netflix as of date and it is subject to numerous blogs, articles and reviews. Plus I don’t want to spoil the show for you beyond the first game otherwise you lose out on a wonderful show. What I want to do here is talk about poverty and death – two of the major themes of this show. Crushing income inequality – in South Korea for the purpose of this show – is just one example here but this debilitating cycle of debt, poverty and the desire to gain control over one’s own life is extremely common to countries globally. Millions of people play the Lottery globally trying to win money off horses, sports results or basically just numbers. Squid Game makes humans into horses – if you make it to the end, you are wealthy beyond your dreams but one mistake and your life is forfeit. I wonder how many people would play games of chance if those were the odds? Debt and dying daily is fine but a game to take it all or lose it all, is inhumane? Interesting how our brains work.
Now let’s discuss Death – everyone hates it. Everyone tries to avoid it – they feel wealth would allow them some sort of control over death by accessing medicines, treatments etc. But of all the things in life, death is more certain than anything else in the world. However, death is not a destructive concept as we believe it to be – instead it allows for new creation – accepting death and the end of things one day, means you do not get vain or too greedy – knowing that one day either you will be buried in the ground or turned to ashes and all that you thought was IMPORTANT in life really wasn’t. In this show, people greedy for the large sum of money and after experiencing their life outside the game realize that – each round they survive, makes them more alive than they ever have been. Even a measly meal of a boiled potato after surviving a brush with death is like a luxury.
What I enjoyed about Squid Game, aside from its concept and the fascinating portrayal of its unique characters, are the questions it raises. Especially about dying – would I participate in such a game to win such a large pool of money? Considering I am not in debt and I have a loving family, I wouldn’t. But what if I was in the shoes of those characters – facing crippling poverty, hounded by debt collectors and shamed in front of my family. When your dignity is chipped away on a daily basis, wouldn’t facing death head on make sense? The opportunity where you could win it all or be given a death caused by your own choices would seem more attractive than one could think of. I would definitely choose to participate. Wouldn’t you?
So many people – great or mediocre, rich or poor have tried cheating death and they have all failed. Great kings who built huge empires have had these crumble into dust either during their lifetime or after their deaths. The Sumerians, for eg., we all know that they were a great civilization flourishing in ancient Mesopotamia. But name one great Sumerian or their contribution and most of us don’t remember. I am sure the Sumerians thought they were the greatest of their time and now people can’t even remember one thing they did. This is the folly of thinking about your LEGACY. After you die, you are either reborn (if you follow certain religions) or you are gone for ever (if you follow other religions). Either way, this particular instance of YOU who is reading this article and thinking about watching Squid Game on Netflix, will never exist again. So why are you so serious about death or the cruelty depicted in a show when you know the life outside is worse?
Watch Squid Game for the relentless fun you will have. But do stop to think over the questions it raises. It might change your life for the better.