45.6 billion South Korean won (38 million in USD) is child’s play—but not without your life on the line—in Netflix’s new Korean thriller, “Squid Game.” With eerie, stunning visuals and a remarkable cast, the series establishes unique plotlines and compelling characters while cleverly handling their underlying criticism of capitalism’s dehumanizing nature. The show was released on September 17, 2021, and has since received worldwide viewership and acclaim. Following main character Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) as he turns to the deadly Squid Game to remedy his crushing financial struggles, the show features 456 debt-ridden contestants who are forced to play children’s games to secure their victory, the prize money, and their lives. Spoilers ahead.
What stands out the most about “Squid Game” is its artful execution of complex characters and the commonly used death game trope. Rather than forcing people into playing, the show’s characters are given the choice to participate in the Squid Game for money and have the opportunity to stop the game at any point with a majority vote. This unique element forces the audience to reflect on each characters’ morality as murder and manipulation are used for the sake of victory. In other situations where players have no choice but to compete for survival, such tactics might be reasonable. But in a context where participants can willingly withdraw from the games yet still choose to pursue them for a selfish motive, can harming others to benefit themselves still be justified?
In terms of game and set design, “Squid Game” also effectively establishes fear within the audience without the use of cheap jump scares or lackluster monsters. By contrasting familiar innocence with brutal massacre, the show makes the dangers of the Squid Game feel much more personal to its targeted audience. Because Red Light, Green Light, Tug-of-War, and all the other games played in the show are based on traditional Korean children’s games, a Korean audience may feel more affected seeing elements of their childhood take such a dark turn. The visual design of “Squid Game” was also made to reflect this juxtaposition of childhood and the looming presence of death. Though many of the game sets are minimalistic and brightly colored, almost mirroring the toys and accessories of a child, lethal contraptions await the contestants in those very rooms. The show’s adulteration of what audiences might have associated with comfort evokes a deep-seated horror that lingers behind long after the first watch.
Accompanying its intriguing plot and set design are the criticisms that “Squid Game” has of capitalism and the oppression that extends beyond a single culture or country. Players may have been given the option to participate in the game, but capitalism was what essentially forced them into making the decision. Under the pressure of increasing wealth gaps and inherited poverty, the lower-class remain without the resources to elevate or sustain themselves, which results in them being forced into certain decisions that they otherwise may not have committed to. Additionally, through the reveal of the Squid Game being used as the elite equivalent of horse racing, the show highlights and forces the audience to reflect on the dehumanizing nature of capitalism. The ‘entertainment’ we get from watching the show could be seen essentially as a parallel to that of the VIPs who derived a more apathetic kind of entertainment from the game itself. Though we might be engaging with fiction, it still makes us think about the ongoing capitalist oppression in our reality and our role within it.
However, the show is not without its flaws; though the build-up to the finale was well-developed, the last episode itself was underwhelming. Before the sixth and final game, as finalist Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) murders an injured Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) to secure his victory, Gi-hun has to come to terms with potentially killing or being killed by his childhood friend. In a call-back to the beginning of the series, the last challenge parallels the squid game that the two played as children. Despite the attempt to make its scenes of emotional and physical conflict resonate with the audience, the effort fails to do anything of the sort. Sang-woo and Gi-hun’s relationship—going from childhood friends to enemies—may be nuanced in theory, but the show never bothers to explain their connection outside of a few offhand references to knowing each other’s parents and biking to cram school together. Without any previous interactions for the audience to emotionally invest in, what could have been a tragic tale for the two men leaves little to no impact on the viewers. The other aspects of the ending were unsatisfying as well: the time-skip to a year after Gi-hun’s victory is jarring, his ketchup-colored hair seems more laughable than symbolic, and somehow the man still fails to be a good father even after becoming a billionaire.
Overall, “Squid Game” is a masterful depiction—maybe even a warning—of capitalism’s corruption and control over society; however, with consideration of its unresolved and underdeveloped plotlines, it receives a 4 out of 5 stars.