Desperation and hope join hands in Squid Game
Full disclosure: I did not want to watch this. The image of a bunch of people in green tracksuits, and another bunch, masked and wearing pink overalls, didn’t appeal so I kept on scrolling. Plus, it’s Korean with subtitles and let’s be honest here – while watching foreign content expands horizons and perspectives dramatically, it’s also work. You can never look away from the screen for a moment for fear of losing the plot.
Then the lovely Plum List editor asked me to write this review, and I can never say no to her. Historically, every time she’s pushed me into something I would never have chosen for myself, I ended up enjoying the show. This time was no different.
Like a dentist appointment, I still put it off till the last possible moment, and the opening scene did little to assuage my ambivalence. It begins with an explanation of the actual children’s activity called Squid Game. It said it is played on a squid shape drawn on the ground, and the rules are simple. Well, I have no idea what a Korean squid looks like but it doesn’t match my vision. As for the simple rules? They are as complicated as only children can concoct.
I pushed on. Sometimes every little detail is unnecessary. And, oh boy, it quickly turned into compelling viewing, and I couldn’t stop watching. When episode 4 ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, I screeched in objection and carried on. I begged the editor for more time because I didn’t want to be subjected to any spoilers on the internet.
I will do you the same courtesy but with the caveat: if you go looking on your own, or click on any of the links in this story, that’s on you.
In episode 1, we meet Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae). He’s a bit of a loser, out of work and neck-deep in gambling debts. He just can’t help himself, and like all gambling addicts, he’ll bet on anything. Including a game of chance with a stranger on a subway station platform, which he keeps losing but sacrifices his dignity for being slapped in the face instead of money (which he doesn’t have, obvs).
At the end of the game, when he finally wins a round, the stranger gives Gi-hun a card with a phone number (it was a real phone number, which led to the poor person getting thousands of calls, and a sad indictment of the misery of Koreans who actually still wanted to play) and an invitation to have the chance to be elevated from poverty. This is after he signed away his eyes and organs with his own blood to appease his debt collectors.
There’s a late night rendezvous on a street corner, sleeping gas, and the next thing we know, Gi-hun is in a massive windowless dormitory with 455 other identically dressed people, each wearing a number (he is 456). Troops of pink-clad guards, I guess you’d call them, with masks bearing circles, triangles or squares (indicating rank) and carrying automatic weapons, explain the rules.
There will be six games over six days. Winners will get a massive cash prize accumulated in a giant transparent piggy bank hanging from the ceiling. A player is not allowed to stop playing. A player who refuses to play will be eliminated. Games may be terminated if the majority agrees.
Everyone signs up; it seems like an excellent opportunity to be free of their crippling debts and dismal lives (because they’re all in that same boat for various reasons, pickpockets and financial managers alike, to the tune of millions and billions of won).
The first game is Red Light, Green Light but there are deadly consequences for any player who moves when they shouldn’t. It’s a massacre and the players are shocked to say the least, as they begin to realise the stakes. After a while, they decide to invoke the termination clause, but even that comes with a twist they do not expect. Returned to the real world, almost all of them decide to come back and give the games another go.
Within a few episodes, we’ve got our core group of favourites (also the ones we loathe; it’s inevitable) but it’s tragic to watch them making alliances and promises to each other when we’ve already figured out there’s only going to be one winner in the end. They still cling to the hope they’ll survive – and be wealthy. But as the increasingly brutal games continue, getting out alive becomes more important than the money.
Add in the following: a mysterious masked puppet master, a police detective who sneaks in looking for his brother and disguises himself as a guard, harvesting body parts, black cardboard coffins tied with pink bows, and a group of VIPs (also masked, extravagantly) who are invited to watch the final rounds live and place bets.
Squid Game is outrageous, crammed with “WTF?” moments and just a few levels above real life game shows in which players don’t actually die but do often submit to humiliation. On the surface it’s a gory thriller series (with a huge plot twist near the end and the tease of the doorway to a second season) and ranks as one of the craziest I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a LOT – but it does speak to the dire cost of staying alive in South Korea.
“Like the Hunger Games books and movies, Squid Game holds its audience with its violent tone, cynical plot and – spoiler alert! – a willingness to kill off fan-favorite characters. But it has also tapped a sense familiar to people in the United States, Western Europe and other places, that prosperity in nominally rich countries has become increasingly difficult to achieve, as wealth disparities widen and home prices rise past affordable levels,” says New York Times.
Pro tip: watch with subtitles and the Korean soundtrack.
And then, watch Parasite on Showmax.