The latest series from Netflix is currently the streaming platform’s most successful show
Warning – spoilers ahead for the first season of ‘Squid Game’
By now, everyone will have heard of Squid Game, the brand-new series that makes The Hunger Games look like child’s play. Which is fitting, given that the premise of Netflix’s latest offering surrounds hundreds of competitors who participate in children’s games to win an eye-watering ₩45.6 billion (roughly £28 billion). The nine-episode saga explores the ramifications of late-stage capitalism and wealth inequality in Korea, with horrific results.
What is it about Squid Game that has potentially made the series Netflix’s biggest hit to date? Perhaps it’s the disturbing juxtaposition of innocent childhood games and jarring adult consequences. Even though the viewer understands the outcome will always be fatal, watching how each episode elevates playground politics into life-and-death situations is mesmerising. Seemingly, there is no meritocracy in a competition where absolutely anyone could win.
There’s a good reason to win, too: all the competitors are people desperately in need of money. From North Korean defectors to immigrants to highly-educated con artists, writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk creates numerous characters willing to do anything to win the competition. Hwang is no stranger to social commentary, given his claim to fame: The Crucible (Silenced), was based on a true story of the mass sexual assault that occured in a school for hearing impaired children.
Squid Game is similarly entrenched in the rise of the Korean economy against years of poverty. The series is set against several key points in the history of labourers and employment – Gi-hun’s joblessness, for instance, is due to his participation in the 2009 Ssangyong Motors plant strike, resulting in a violent standoff between workers and the police. Add to that the high rates of unemployment in the young and over half of the elderly population living in poverty, and you end up with an economic system barely able to support everyday citizens, much less the vulnerable and marginalised.
Much like the outside world, Squid Game tries to convince its players that it operates under fair, meritocratic values which supposedly affords players full agency. But as the show makes painfully clear, there is no free choice in the competition, and there is no equal playing field. Soon, players are forced to change their own values in order to win, either by tricking their unwitting opponents, or using their weaknesses to their advantage. It’s a vicious, seemingly never ending cycle that demands and depends on the players’ worst impulses to thrive.
It’s a testament to the actors that they manage to communicate raw emotion without overplaying or undermining the high stakes of the game. Lee Jung-jae does excellent work at conveying protagonist Gi-hun’s multifaceted nature – a man with a gambling problem that has led him into debt, who resents his position as a disappointing father, son, and human. As the seemingly stereotypical ‘villain’ character, Heo Sung-tae is absolutely terrifying as gangster Jeong Deok-su.
The female actors are equally stunning in their roles, although their stories were somewhat limited. Kim Joo-ryoung’s harried and frenzied expressions give off the perfect amount of unpredictability as Han Mi-nyeo, a character who seemingly starts off as a ‘villain’ but whose arc throughout the show is one full of surprises. Jung Ho-yeon is also captivating as Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector scammed out of her money, and has since become a breakout name from the series. Although both storylines are worthy of being told, I wish there were more women represented in the game in general. South Korea occupies the worst gender pay gap out of the industrialised countries, and although the show somewhat touches on misogyny and sexism, from portraying how the men see the women as a disadvantage in a deadly game of Tug-O-War, or in the way Mi-nyeo uses her body as a means to survive, it would have enriched the series if Squid Game included more nuanced narratives about the position of women in the Korean economy – especially given the little screentime they were given compared to their male counterparts.
Admittedly, watching the show with no knowledge of Korean can make it difficult to appreciate some finer technicalities of the actor’s abilities; TikTok users have pointed out the excellent work of Jung Ho-yeon hiding her character’s North Korean accent. Another TikToker also detailed the nuances lost in translating Mi-nyeo’s early speech, which tries to convey how the inequalities in access to education also contributes to the oppression of women and their ability to earn a living. Hopefully, the Internet can elucidate such details more widely to non-Korean speakers. Regardless, this is clearly a well-chosen cast who are able to handle an extremely demanding script with effortless authenticity.
However, although the actors shine in their roles, the series occasionally loses momentum in its pacing. Whilst the second episode’s twist to send everyone home is followed through, it’s underwhelming to return to the banality of everyday worries compared to the surreal heights of before. Nine episodes seems almost unnecessary – six probably would have sufficed. Furthermore, the idea that the rich exploit the poor for entertainment is depicted in a painstakingly cliche manner. Whilst they will probably explore this in the next season, it leaves this current season feeling somewhat underbaked.
Squid Game is a masterclass in suspense, utilising every bit of their cast to weave a gripping tale of morality and mortality. If you can get past the staggering amounts of gore and bloodshed, Squid Game is certainly worth your time.
Words by Alex Rigotti
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