The Korean thriller Squid Game made its resounding Netflix debut on Sept. 17, rapidly snowballing in popularity and igniting near unanimous enthusiasm amongst viewers. Its foundational concept — a contest in which participants vie for an extortionate cash sum in a series of children’s games — is intriguing and innocuous, belying the harrowing atrocity that ensues.
After an ominous black and white cold open of the eponymous Korean childhood “Squid Game,” we are introduced to the woeful protagonist Gi-hun, an insolvent man living with his mother in the weary urban streets of Korea. Gi-hun subsists on his mother’s income, is estranged by his wife and is a pitiful father to his young daughter with whom he is permitted limited contact. His existence is quite frankly pathetic, a reality of which he is reluctantly aware as he squanders his money on gambling.
In a jarring twist of the opening plot, he is pursued by his rapacious money-lenders and coerced into signing a contract, the contents of which he is unaware due to being threatened at knife-point. In the subway, downtrodden and despondent, he is approached by a conniving businessman who entices him into a childhood game gamble for ₩100,000. Gi-hun, clinging to any shred of hope, is unable to resist this temptation. After successive losses and humiliation, he finally attains the coveted ₩100,000. His elation is fleeting, as the businessman then offers him the chance to compete in a gamble of even higher stakes. He is fully aware of Gi-hun’s insuperable debt, and explains that in signing the money-lenders’ contract Gi-hun unknowingly has consigned himself to this competition. Although it may sound absurd, the cutthroat competition of 6 children’s games to determine the victor of 456 similarly debt-encumbered participants immediately sucks viewers into a binge-watching frenzy.
The games are held in an elaborately pristine facility, coordinated by masqueraded employees who conduct the spectacle with the utmost discipline and ruthlessness. The warehouse design is the pinnacle of eerie, saturated in vibrant pastel colors with architecture mimicking playhouses, evoking the nostalgic aesthetic of childhood all whilst “The Blue Danube” interminably drones overhead. The contestants are eager to obtain the tantalizing cash prize, unaware that the “children’s games” have a horrifically macabre twist. The games are dystopian and reminiscent of the Hunger Games; the first game is a grotesque rendition of “red light, green light” in which the competitors who budge during the “red light” are promptly gunned down. Evidently, this is not what the participants consented to in the deceiving contracts they signed. The carnage conveys the reality that these games are a duping of the desperate lower class. They are viewed as expendable due to their financial burdens, and their remaining option is to defray their debt by clawing their way to victory. Immediately, the illusion of choice is presented. The contestants are permitted to cease the games if the majority consents — this is not an option for the desperate recruits.
This duplicitous contract-signing indicates the lower class’ predicament as it is routinely condemned by the devious machinations of unsympathetic potentates. The contestants are granted a fleeting sense of volition, but it becomes readily apparent that they possess no agency — not in the confines of this brutally orchestrated game, nor in their regular lives. The farce of a gameshow is referred to as a “democratic process” by the Front Man, who praises the game as providing a second chance for the destitute, an “equalizer” for those who have been trampled by inequality. Undeterred by the senseless violence, one player laments, “Out there, I don’t stand a chance. I do in here.”
The moral crux of the series, which consists of nine episodes of consistent, nail-biting quality, revolves around this catch-22 of the poor and the ease with which they are exploited, divested of their humanity for entertainment. In each appallingly violent and tension-infused round, participants are easily discarded, devoid of dignity and pitted against each other in a battle royale which elicits the most atavistic of selfish urges. Throughout, the overseers assure that they are benevolently providing a “second chance” for the hundreds before them, assuring them that they will be triumphant if they just “follow the rules.” Although viewers may believe it unrealistic that human beings would subject themselves to such perilous stakes, the participants’ frantic pursuit of victory becomes credible. Squid Game is a sobering reminder that for the indigent, the denigrating agony of their crippling debt is a more ignoble demise than being felled by a lethal gamble.
The series is an exquisite masterclass in tension as all of the equally enrapturing plotlines revolve around the mystique of this morbid scheme. Never before have I been so on-edge as the rounds progressed, wondering which characters would just barely evade a gruesome and heart-wrenching demise. As tension and tribalism escalate, the show viscerally displays a spiraling descent into mayhem while crafting intricate and evocative dynamics amongst players. Despite the praise of the game’s “equalizing” potential, the higher-ups foment bloodlust and rancor in their manipulations of the outcome — an overt representation of society’s illusion of egalitarianism and prioritization of privilege. Although the series is not bereft of flaws — most notably its cliches and obvious parallels to other battle-royal series — it has proven to be not just palatable binge material but a salient sociopolitical commentary.
The characters are incredibly impelling and multifaceted; viewers will quickly develop affection for the hapless yet surprisingly selfless Gi-Hun. The gritty authenticity of the supporting characters is what grants the show its verisimilitude, from the wily North Korean defector Sang Kae-Byeok to the endearing expat Ali. Squid Game perverts the nostalgic revelry of childhood games to convey a somber loss of innocence, elitism, and human savagery when confronting mortality. The emotional weight of the denouement is almost too somber to bear as lives are snuffed out, leaving infinitesimal craters in the world they left behind. Squid Game is an indelible experience, yet there is no respite from its unremitting bleakness as it alludes to the lives expended each day, blips in the radar of the privileged who have the luxury of indifference.
Isabella DiLizia is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]