The trials in Squid Game are, at first glance, a mere exploitation of those who have found themselves at financial rock bottom. But, in its purest form, it is a brutal depiction of the dark side of human nature. The show does an exceptional job of portraying this dichotomy of morality and immorality, and explores whether people will abandon all humanity in order to survive.
The South Korean survival drama is Netflix’s new international phenomenon, quickly rising to the top of the platform’s ladder. Since its release on 17 September, Squid Game amassed over 142 million viewers in the first four weeks, knocking period piece Bridgerton off its spot as Netflix’s most-watched show.
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game follows 456 participants’ journey through a series of children’s games in which they must compete to win a ₩45.6 billion (£28 million) prize and overcome their crippling debt. Losing in these games is fatal. Orchestrated by masked rich people, the trials’ true horror isn’t from the contestants’ constant dance with death, but the moral dilemmas they are forced to confront, and the sacrifices they struggle to make.
The show is a masterclass in survival drama, with the contestants being blissfully unaware of the fate they might succumb to in the first game of “Red light, Green light” (similar to the English game “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?”) if they fail. When one of the players is eliminated and shot, it is as shocking to the audience as it is to the other players. One of whom is protagonist Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is the most decent and humane amongst the contestants, and even he can make it hard to sympathise with him sometimes.
The games themselves are only half of the premise, as we quickly learn that all of the contestants live destitute lives that have led them to crippling debt and are using the games as a last resort to pay their dues. We are shown glimpses of their lives, most notably protagonist Gi-Hun’s, as well as the rebellious and nonchalant Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon). Seeing the harsh ways these characters are treated in their backstories only make it that much harder to watch when they must inevitably make morally impossible decisions to survive.
The game draws a parallel to the real world, where the longing for money can hinder people’s morals. One example this is Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae Soo) who is, perhaps, the epitome of a fake friend, with his countless betrayals that heighten our anger with each episode.
While we may, at times, feel contempt for each character (except of course Anupam Tripathi’s fantastic portrayal of Abdul Ali), Squid Game continues to tug at our heart strings as we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It is this constant back and forth that exemplifies just how fantastic Dong-hyuk’s writing is.
Squid Game’s taking over the masses is not solely due to the amazing writing and beautifully presented characters, but also its surprisingly simple concept. It is also a quick watch, being only nine fast-paced and action-packed episodes. The show’s concept of having adults compete in life threatening children’s games is minimalistic in itself, and although western audiences can tend to shun foreign shows, it has captivated people all over the world because of this concept and its relatability – we have all grown up playing kids games.
The juxtaposition between the childhood innocence associated with playground games and the gory mass murder that happens each episode is perhaps the most striking factor in making this concept terrifying and wildly entertaining. Western audiences, having played games different to the ones in Squid Game, are still able to find themselves immersed in the show, as they can imagine what it would be like to have to fatally play their own childhood games.
In the final episode, after everything is revealed, we are given a hint that there may potentially be a season two, though Netflix is yet to confirm this.
Watching Squid Game is an exercise in emotional turmoil. It’s guaranteed you’ll find yourself anxious as you see your favourite character compete in what may be their final game, whilst simultaneously watching to see if they will betray another – a trepidation perhaps more intense than what the characters are feeling. In saying this, once you have started Squid Game, that trepidation is not enough to unstick you from the screen. A truly addictive show.