Created by: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon
Halloween is this Sunday, and, if you haven’t seen this show yet, reading this post will at least help you make sense of all the weird costumes you may see children wearing as they roam the streets demanding candy.
Squid Game popped up in my Netflix feed because, at the beginning of 2021, I had watched a similar show called Alice in Borderland. Alice was marvelous yet bleak, so I wasn’t ready for another death-game show. Two weeks later, the Internet is nothing but Squid Game memes. I thought, “Am I missing something?” Yes, yes I was.
Seong Gi-hun is one step away from gutter trash when we meet him: he barely remembers his daughter’s birthday, steals his mother’s wages to bet on horses, and has the gall to beg loan sharks for money after they threatened to cut out his kidney. He’s a gambling addict who needs a win.
And get a win he does. After getting slapped by a mysterious man in a subway station, he receives a card to enter into the “Squid Game,” named after a familiar (Korean) childhood pastime. Once at the facility, and after being led through a hilariously disturbing registration process, he and 455 others are corralled into a playground and instructed to play “Red Light, Green Light.” Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that there are significantly fewer than 456 players after the game ends.
Upon learning what he’s actually signed up for, Gi-hun and a large chunk of the players decide to opt out. To my utter shock, the game actually lets them go! We’re then reminded that most of these players’ daily lives are a different kind of death game, just slower. Seeing as the winner of the Squid Game gets 45 billion won (roughly $40 million), many of the players are willing to take the ultimate gamble.
You don’t have to, but the rewards are too great to pass up. On the one hand, few will be talking about Squid Game come Christmastime. On the other hand, the fact that a Korean drama became the most watched show in 90 countries just a month after its release is unprecedented.
Perhaps Hollywood should’ve seen this coming. Loosely speaking, whatever market trends happen in music seep into film, then finally into television. Four years ago, BTS became a worldwide sensation. Two years ago, Parasite won Cannes and the Academy Awards. I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix makes a play for Squid Game at next year’s Emmys (Update 7/6/23: Netflix did! And Squid Game won two of its six nominations, one for directing and one for lead actor Lee Jung-Jae. It is the first non-English show to be nominated for Primetime Emmys as well as win.)
That’s because Squid Game also has a social message underneath its shock and morbid curiosity, one that incises its viewers and leaves wounds long after the show is finished. Seong Gi-hun isn’t actually a jerk; he’s a man who got screwed by the system over the course of three jobs. He picked himself up by his bootstraps three times, but corporate greed, corrupt police, and a bad market respectively wiped him out. He decided that life’s a gamble, so he’ll just make it more direct. The show goads the viewer into judging Gi-hun and the other players all too quickly.
It’s a timely message, considering that South Korea recently had a massive youth demonstration regarding wealth inequality while the U.S. is currently dealing with a labor shortage. Of course, the world’s wealthiest—the ones who arguably most need to watch this show—are escaping Earth via phallic-shaped rockets.
This all makes Squid Game is the show of the moment, which, by nature, means it won’t be the show of the next moment. If Korean dramas maintain this momentum, however, we’ll be looking back at Squid Game as the show responsible for starting a television industry trend.
Frankly, if you’re squeamish, just read the Wikipedia summary; this show is not for you. For those who enjoy horror or dark comedy, this show not only delivers, but also provides insightful social commentary and heartbreaking character work.
If this show doesn’t feel like your speed, other Korean dramas are available on Netflix and are getting a boost because of Squid Game’s popularity. If you want your Halloween to have a more supernatural bite, Kingdom is a clever twist on the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, I’ve greatly enjoyed The Departed-esque revenge drama My Name.
Alternatively, if this show is your speed, Netflix’s Alice in Borderland and The Platform are good followups.