If you’re anything like me, then you spent a day or two binging the new Korean hit drama from Netflix, Squid Game. So nagging were my thoughts on it that I decided to do a non-music review and potentially incense a whole new audience.
The premise of the drama is that 456 players in various downtrodden situations from all walks of life get lured into playing deadly versions of children’s playground games. The reward ends up being 45.6 billion won, which is quite the motivator, but the reality is that most are stuck playing anyway since failure to do so also results in death. Masked staffers run the game for an unknown head honcho for unknown reasons, and the thrill comes from not only unraveling the fates of the players the viewer is introduced to and the mystery surrounding these games, but the secrets of the world it exists in.
Note: Complete spoilers for the entire show follow.
The fact that I binged this all in basically one day speaks to the strengths of Squid Game. As a thriller it delivers on the promises of the genre, keeping the tension constantly high for one reason or another and delivering mysteries to ponder within mysteries.
It’s all a lot of fun because the development of each character and their personality is given a lot of thought and care, and just as important are the performance of the actors who bring those qualities to life. Lee Jung Jae and Park Hae Soo are the centerpieces here, and they turned in performances where sometimes even when a delivery or rationale shouldn’t work, they make it believable in the moment. But that’s no surprise from them, what was a pleasant surprise was the first-timer Jung Ho Yeon, along with breakouts from Anupam Tripathi and Lee Yoo Mi. The latter is especially impressive in the impact she leaves on the show despite having limited time to do so.
For the most part, Squid Game is extremely straightforward, with predictable results to the games and order of deaths due to either the amount of screentime/story given to the character or some kind of two weeks to retirement trope that clues the viewer in. That’s not always a negative, as there are a lot of instances where knowing what’s coming in itself makes things unsettling, and it’s still interesting to see how the characters will die and what the game will be.
The concept itself is a draw for many, and quite frankly shows of this nature always at least somewhat hold my interest based on the premise alone. Squid Game has predictably already been hit by plagiarism allegations, specifically of the Japanese movie As The Gods Will, but that’s a non-issue. I see most of these plots as basically derived from the Battle Royale blueprint anyway, granting different twists on it, and it comes off as just another media in that sub-genre of thriller.
What’s more important, then, is what Squid Game does with the concept, and it mostly executes things with aplomb. An interesting wrinkle of setting it in modern times and in our world is surprisingly unique when you think about it, and so was letting the contestants go after the first game. For as linear as the eliminations are, that was a twist I didn’t see coming, and it really drives home the overarching theme of the outcasts of society struggling to survive in essentially a late-stage capitalism environment and how little difference there is between their circumstances and the clearly immoral Squid Game. That’s driven home in the end, when the winner is depicted as still utterly miserable even with money because of the things he had to do in order to “deserve” it, and in fact chooses to give away most of the winnings (not to mention another winner being so damaged he becomes part of the system itself).
Sure, the contestants have their own personal faults, but many are there just because they drew the short end of the stick in terms of birth circumstances or luck, mirroring society at large. The show does a nice job of showcasing how many of the characters get to a point in life where their lives are effectively hopeless due to a lack of funds and a miniscule chance of winning millions is what they have left. It’s all quite compelling.
So for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent watching it. However, I also felt there were wasted opportunities that took it from potentially great to just good.
The final few episodes of Squid Game definitely sees the quality decline. The show hit its peak in the sixth episode, with its dramatic and heartbreaking marble game, cashing in a ton of the credit it had invested in the characters and dumping it on the viewers in a wave of emotion. From there on in, the emotional moments with the characters still come, but as the plot becomes the focus, things unravel a bit.
For example, the apparent foil to all this was police officer played by Wi Hajoon, hell bent on finding out what happened to his missing brother. And it seemed like he would be key to unraveling the greater lore within this whole show, but as it turns out, the extensive development and time allotted to his side story was essentially just to reveal that Lee Byung Hun was in it. Revealed as the missing sibling who is also the one managing the game, he shoots his cop brother who seemingly dies, so there’s really a feeling of there being no point to everything he did.
Okay, but let’s give that a pass assuming Wi Hajoon’s character is still alive after his fall into the ocean and he will play an integral part in taking down this org in the next season.
Still, that lingering thought of “okay but why” is the issue here. The problem is not the existence of the “twists” or how predictable or unpredictable they are, the problem is there’s no payoff for those twists. The aforementioned emotional waterfall of a sixth episode involved the main lead taking advantage of an old man’s apparent dementia to stay alive, a person with whom he cultivated an understanding and respect for even outside of the game, which resulted in one of the best moments of the series. Then the twist thrown in at the end is that man was actually running the whole game.
So one of the best moments of the series is thrown in the dumpster for … the reveal that the old man’s grand scheme is that he was bored and thinks rich people have it as bad as poor people, so he wanted to have some fun. The choice just seems like a twist for the sake of it, because literally any big bad at the end (including Lee Byung Hun) could’ve had that motivation and been more compelling. The old man is basically like Persona 4’s Adachi as a villain without the important stuff about fleshing out the character’s motivations so that the twist feels deserved and relevant to the plot. He just says his lame justification and then dies to end the show (much like the officer did), and rewatching the drama knowing the twist does not provide a new experience but rather discards much of the best stuff the series had going.
Furthermore, how ridiculous was it that arguably the best character in the series (Jung Hoyeon) was killed off by what amounted to bad luck. A glass shard causes her to bleed out, which leads to her death basically being a plot device to show the viewer how bad Park Hae Soo’s character had become, as if we needed the ambiguity further dissolved at that point.
Note: As an aside, it seems incredibly stupid that the way the glass bridge game ended was for the tiles to blow up. Like where even were the charges? Why not just drop the bridge from the connections? You’re risking killing every contestant remaining doing that and ruining the game. Also, why did the contestants not simply walk on the metal bars holding up the glass?
Finally, as usual, the acting/writing for the foreign VIPs kinda makes you break immersion. You’re so invested into the world and then they come in and every other line makes you cringe, and there’s no real reason for most of them. Like we get it, they’re rich and pompous and entitled and evil and all that, but that can be shown without giving them so many lines.
All that sounds like a lot of negativity, but again, the fact that I’m salty about some of the decisions (none of which ruin the show, mind you) shows how enthralled I was by it, and most is just venting a bit of frustration over believing it didn’t stick the landing. The show’s popularity is understandable, but there’s more to unlock yet.
It’s still an overwhelmingly compelling and tense drama, but at times the viewer needs to watch it with their brain turned down a bit and just be entertained by the deaths, games, and the depth of the characters. I’ll definitely be watching the second season, so here’s hoping the plot tightens things up rather than have it go off the rails. Not quite sure how the expansion of the Squid Game world will go, but it has me dying to find out.