For the last week, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game” has dominated my life. My mother, sister and I attempted to dissect the tiniest details of the Korean survival drama for the entirety of an hour-long road trip. A friend and I discussed Halloween costume ideas, and then subsequently scoured Amazon for the now infamous green tracksuits that figure as key imagery of the show. At the beginning of a work call, my supervisor opened with, “Have you watched ‘Squid Game’ yet?”
Being in the midst and an active participant of a distinct cultural phenomenon feels strangely exhilarating. Netflix analysts predict the show will become the company’s most viewed production. Even just three weeks since its initial release on Sept. 17, major entertainment and business publications continue to write feature stories on the creative forces behind it. “Squid Game” content is constantly trending on social media platforms and cast members have seen substantial growth in follower counts.
And, yes, “Squid Game” does deserve all the praise it’s receiving.
The central conflicts of the show aren’t presented as “never before seen” or revolutionary. Notably, it’s been compared to the themes of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019) and the plot points of the “Saw” film series. An anonymous unit of men stalk the streets of South Korea, searching for vulnerable people. After identification, these individuals are invited to participate in the “Games.” Anyone who’s accepted the offer finds themselves unexpectedly thrown into a perilous fight for their lives. They must compete in a variety of classic Korean children’s games or be “eliminated.” Or, killed, as they soon discover. But the reward is a tempting sum of money.
Characters range from gang members to a husband and wife pairing to ordinary people struggling to pay their debts. Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), the central protagonist, has a severe gambling addiction, unable to support his mother and be a father to his 10-year-old daughter. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) finds himself pursued by federal authorities after stealing money from clients of his investment team. Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) supports her younger brother after their escape from North Korea. Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su) wishes to participate rather than simply let his brain tumor slowly kill him.
It’s a convergence of life, tied together by the underlying current of anxiety around wealth disparities. Everyone needs money, and getting it means survival. The “Games” serve as a controlled simulation of that fierce impulse. It's not difficult to understand what the show attempts to say about illusions of morality and the predatory behavior the rich exhibit toward the poor; but “Squid Game” differs from its predecessors in that it executes this commentary flawlessly.
The entire cast — even the extras with directions to simply scream in terror — excels at making the somewhat unbelievable plot a believable one. There is palpable fear on the face of every person. Anxiety permeates every moment. A viewing experience of “Squid Game” means sweaty hands and sitting on the edge of one’s seat. Added to heart-wrenching dialogue and gutting scenes illustrating the worst of human immorality, it certainly cannot be considered a comfortable one.
Lee Jung-jae especially shines as Seong Gi-hun, the central protagonist. He’s immediately introduced as unwittingly foolish and the butt of the joke, but his character is far from static. The psychological transformations Gi-hun undergoes throughout the series are stunningly realistic with Lee in charge of depicting them. Any actor might have trouble pulling accurate emotional responses for a situation in which one finds themselves drugged, brought to a remote island and made to watch others be brutally murdered. Not Lee. His eyes make the tiniest twitches in anguish. He walks with a gait, shoulders slightly down, that makes tangible the character’s insecurities and humble submission to the grit of the money-hungry world. With Lee, Gi-hun makes sense.
Artistically, too, “Squid Game” calls attention to the absurdity of current hierarchical structures. Every set piece feels childish and morbidly humorous. The walls of the compound are reminiscent of Dr. Suess books, even when dead bodies hang from the rafters and the harsh red of blood mixes with the pale greens of paint. When players die, they are encased in black boxes with pink ribbons, a concisely wrapped present placed in the furnaces of a crematorium. The aesthetic choices intentionally mock the struggling masses. It’s easy to marvel happily at a giant, colorful playground, but it loses its glimmer of childhood nostalgia when a man is shot in the head, leaving behind a streak of blood as his limp body glides down the slide. To an outsider, the ridiculousness of the set successfully fuels that visceral, unsettling tension that “Squid Game” thrives on. No matter how playful the landscape, the brutal physicality of suffering within that space signifies harsh realities.
Episode Six, “Gganbu,” exemplifies all of this. By this time, audiences are thoroughly invested in the livelihoods of a core group of players: Seong Gi-hun, Cho Sang-woo, Kang Sae-byeok, Oh Il-nam and Abdul Ali, a Pakistani immigrant with a wife and one-year-old son. While they’ve been successful as an unofficial unit, “Gganbu” forces the main cast to turn on one another and viewers to ask horrifying questions: who deserves to live and who deserves to die? How does one even begin to decide? It makes for one of the best episodes of television in history.
Ultimately, international audiences are embracing “Squid Game” for good reason. It feels timely, and addicting to watch and think about long after the final episode. Many analysts assumed pandemic-era audiences were looking for escapism through lighthearted entertainment. Apparently, that’s not quite true: the goriness of “Squid Game” captivates millions. Even when the hype surrounding the series dies down, the unnerving reality it seeks to translate to the screen will live on. And maybe people are tired of looking away.