To most of the world, money equates to survival. Apart from the richest few, people living in capitalist countries have to plan their lives based around their ability to make money: how they can leverage their skills into profit, what jobs have the best earning potential, how much they need to support their lifestyles and their loved ones. At some point, everyone has considered what they’re willing to do for money, and the answer to that question really depends on how desperate we are. So it isn’t unthinkable that someone might be willing to endure physical harm and vast risk for the chance to never have to worry about money again.
The new surprise Netflix hit Squid Game plays off that idea, and turns it into a grim game. It starts with when someone offers a desperate man the chance to play childhood games, and wager on the outcome. As that offer escalates, it turns out that more than 450 other desperate people have been lured into a brutal life-or-death contest, where they’re playing popular childhood games for the chance to win 45.6 billion Korean won, about $39 million. The nine-episode Korean drama is one of a small handful of American Netflix’s many K-dramas that have crossed over into wide popularity, and cracked the service’s Top 10.
And no wonder — it’s impossible to turn away from, even as it rapidly gets more brutal and bloodthirsty. A Battle Royale-type story where people are forced to kill each other for freedom and resources is nothing new. But Squid Game marks its own territory, first with its especially savage premise and the constant tension around life-or-death scenarios, and second, by focusing on each character’s decisions, as they struggle to choose between survival and humanity.
In spite of the initial absurdity of the stylized survival games, Squid Game’s cultural context, motivations, and interpersonal conflicts are startlingly realistic. The show takes place in present-day Korea, and the players are culled from the margins of society. It seems like the entire game could be happening in secret today. Recent East Asian film and television stories like Parasite, Burning, and Itaewon Class have adeptly addressed wealth inequality and class struggle in real-world circumstances, rather than through the dystopian lenses of American fantasies like The Hunger Games and Elysium.
Film director Hwang Dong-hyuk (My Father, The Crucible) follows this trend with Squid Game, his first drama series: In spite of the fantastical elements, the show seems to have been designed to show that our present reality can be just as hellish as any imagined world.
Each of the series’ players have reasons to value the potential prize money over their own lives. The show’s lead, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), owes a fortune to loan sharks and twice as much to the bank, but he wants to take care of his elderly mother and 10-year-old daughter. His childhood friend, investment banker Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), has been stealing money from his clients. Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector who needs a house to get her brother out of an orphanage. The rest of the cast includes obvious good guys and antagonists, but they all have compelling enough backstories to explain why they would let themselves be lured into the Game in the first place.
The game itself is a nightmarish childhood vision, where losing at a traditional Korean kids’ game (including universal games like Red Light, Green Light, or tug of war) means a bullet to the head, or a more gruesome death. Masked attendants in bright costumes machine-gun the field of contestants and collect their bodies after each event, placing the eliminated, both dead and dying, into caskets decorated as gift boxes. The players enter and exit the playgrounds through a pastel maze out of an M.C. Escher painting. Squid Game’s visuals, which juxtapose symbols of immaturity with graphic violence, add to the dissonance that powers the show. It all reads as ridiculous, frivolous fun that Korean adults normally only engage in if they’re celebrities on variety shows like Running Man or Knowing Bros — at least, until the bodies start dropping.
Though a decent-sized subplot follows a detective who investigates who’s driving the competition, the game itself is more compelling than the mechanism behind it. The secrets ultimately don’t amount to anything more than what the players and viewers learn while going through the experience. The ride is much more compelling, especially because the game masters’ manipulation of the players, and the players’ manipulation of each other, both keep the audience guessing throughout. The audience is also led to feel the same absence of time as the players, who stay in a windowless compound regulated by lights-out and play times, with one round a day. The haunting score by Parasite composer Jung Jae-il adds to the constant tension.
Squid Game, at its simplest, is nine-plus hours of watching average people, loaded with immense debt, make increasingly desperate and homicidal decisions while still trying to hold on to their humanity. The game attendants note at the start that all the players joined the game of their own free will, literally offering up their lives in exchange for a chance at something better. Once the game levels up, and victory involves consciously killing other people to get the largest share of the pot, the hope for wealth gets replaced by questions of humanity. These questions are deeply intimate rather than lofty. There’s no hand-wringing about capitalism and the state of the world, just the question of whether survival is worth watching a friend die.
The show’s message sounds like a self-help idiom: A person’s choices make up their life. What you do with your circumstances is what counts. Squid Game is that ethos dialed up to a hundred. Who’s behind the curtain, what societal circumstances led to the Game’s founding, who knows that the Game is occurring, and who turns a blind eye — none of these details are the real point. The show succeeds because it creates two-dimensional characters and respects every choice they make, whether to help or harm, keep their humanity or sacrifice it for profit. While the game itself is a parable, the characters are fully, empathetically human.
Watching Squid Game is uncomfortable. It’s tempting to fast-forward, either to skip the gore, or to bypass the sense of dread when the show stretches out some of the lethal rounds. While the discomfort could be written off as the price of admission for watching a death game, it really affirms the audience’s own humanity. If viewers don’t watch with a deep empathy for the characters, the show would be pure voyeurism, the entertainment of watching game pieces knock each other off the board. Hwang and his team take immense care with all of the players, laying out how they’re stuck in a horrible system, and just trying to make it through, at any cost. Squid Game is exciting, and startling, and tense, but that care is what really makes it worth watching.
All nine episodes of Squid Game are now available on Netflix.