THE SHORT VERDICT:
A very compact, impactful little series, Squid Game is the show that you can’t help but check out, even if you’re typically not into the death game genre.
Show is very expensively and carefully produced, and is the kind of drama where, the more you dig, the more little gems you tend to find, in terms of hidden details and added layers of meaning. In my estimation, beyond Show’s shiny packaging, there are two key things that draw audiences in, namely, 1, the characters and their backstories, which are effective and engaging, and 2, the themes and ideas Show serves up, which tend to be deeply thought-provoking.
It lives up to the hype, in my opinion, and is worth a look, even if just to satisfy your curiosity.
THE LONG VERDICT:
When I’d first read this show’s synopsis and realized this was a death game sort of story, which means lots of violence, blood and death with the territory, I’d foolishly decided that I was going to sit this one out. In principle, I just wasn’t interested in watching it, because, well, it’s just not my kind of show.
Ha. Silly Past Me.
In the end, I just couldn’t not check out this one, because one does not simply ignore what is turning out to be arguably the biggest Event Drama that Hallyu’s ever seen. It boggles the mind, really, to think that it’s been only about 3 weeks, since Show premiered on Netflix. In just those 3 short weeks, Show has shot to Netflix’s #1 ranking, worldwide, and is now on track to become Netflix’s most-watched show, period. Woah.
If you’re wondering why Squid Game is as popular as it is, you can check out my recent attempt at answering that very question here.
Also, for the record, just because I ended up enjoying this show, doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to be all into blood, gore and death in my dramas. I just.. am glad that I didn’t miss this one.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review. This is a collection of original music, and doesn’t include the jazz or classical pieces that were also used to score certain scenes from the show.
It’s an eclectic collection of tunes for sure, and while I can’t say I particularly loved any single track, I must say that Track 4, Pink Soldiers, has a very particular child-like yet ethereal yet spooky sort of vibe that, to my ears, embodies this show really well.
Here’s Fly Me To The Moon as well, since I do like that song, and it was featured in a pretty noticeable way, in the drama. If you’d like to listen to it on repeat, just right-click on the video and select “Loop.”
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind, that I think would help you to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:
1. Show gets violent and bloody, but it’s not unrelentingly so. In fact, Show takes time to flesh out our characters and their backstories, and this helps to make the watch feel more engaging and relatable. Also, when it is violent and bloody, I did not find it to be gratuitous.
2. Show does look westernized on the surface, but at its heart, it’s still quintessentially Korean. Like I mentioned in my Dear kfangurl post on the topic, Show is a great hybrid. It has the genre and packaging that viewers tend to associate with western entertainment, but its heart is still Korean.
On this point, I also wanted to say, that even though the general impression might be that the violence, blood and death in Squid Game is new to kdrama, these things really aren’t new to Korean entertainment. Korean movies have been violent and bloody for a long time. Just take a look at 2010 Korean film The Man From Nowhere, which was South Korea’s highest grossing film that year. There’s a loose eyeball in that one, just like there is a loose eyeball in this one. Just sayin’. (For the curious, yes, I averted my eyes both times. 🙈😅)
3. Keep an open mind. I think as a drama fan, it’s easy to brush this one aside as not being “true” kdrama because of its genre and packaging. However, now that I’ve watched it, I do think that Show is a lot more thoughtful and philosophical – and Korean! – than one might immediately give it credit for.
4. Don’t sweat it, if this show doesn’t work for you. Even though Show has become a global phenomenon, it’s perfectly understandable that there would be a section of viewers for whom it just doesn’t work. There’s no show that satisfies all audiences, after all.
5. But also, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I’ve seen a fair number of disgruntled comments about this show being too bloody / too gory / too westernized / too depraved. I’d say to that, please reserve judgment until you’ve actually had a chance to check out the show for yourself. I’d had my doubts too, but now that I’ve watched it for myself, I am convinced that Show has a lot more substance to it than might first appear.
On a related note, I’d also like to say, it’s only fair to reserve judgment until you’ve seen where Show ends its story. The punchline is the most important piece, after all. Where Show chooses to end its story, tells us a lot about what Show is saying, overall.
WHAT SHOW DOES WELL
I’ve already given an overview of what I feel are Show’s strengths, in my Dear kfangurl post, but I thought I’d touch on these couple of strengths again, just for good measure.
Good backstory and emotional hook
In my opinion, this is one of Show’s big strengths, and it’s completely in line with what we tend to love about our kdramas. Show does a great job painting in various characters’ contexts, and because of this, it becomes clear pretty quickly, how desperate our characters’ various situations are.
Show does a great job of sucking us into the dilemma of these characters, and I’d say that at the very least, even if you don’t care about the characters, you’d still tend to feel for them at a fundamental level, as a fellow human. Some are literally on the verge of suicide, with no other way out.
[SPOILER] In episode 1, the players have no idea that they are basically betting their lives, while playing the game. But in episode 2, the second time they get in the van, it hits differently. This time, they know what they are getting into, and that there’s a good chance they might die. But they take the chance anyway, because they are that desperate. [END SPOILER]
It is sobering to realize that there are people who really are this desperate, in the world, and it is just as sobering, to ask oneself the question, “What if I were in that position? What would I do?”
Great production values
Overall, there’s something very polished and shiny about this drama world that makes it appealing to the eye.
It feels a bit technicolor-esque, and that makes everything feel larger than life. Also, the large scale of the entire game facility – from sets, to staffing, to those labyrinthian staircases – was all quite fascinating to me. The facility reminds me of 1998 film The Truman Show, where everything in that world had seemed to be part of the real world, but it had just been one gigantic stage.
The direction is careful, deft and deliberate, and I always felt like every frame was being served up on my screen, only after a great deal of thought had gone into it. Plus, you can literally see the Netflix funding on your screen; everything is so elaborate and intricate.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I already made mention of this in my earlier Dear kfangurl post, but I couldn’t help mentioning it again here, in my review.
The western characters are delivered in a manner that I can only describe as stunningly bad, and the English dialogue is cringily written, and cringily delivered. Yikes. I’m just relieved that they didn’t take up too much screen time. 😅
SPOTLIGHT ON CHARACTERS
Aside from the above-mentioned western actors, everyone else does a fantastic job of their roles. Here’s the quick spotlight on a handful of our key players (tee hee; see what I did there?).
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
Lee Jung Jae as Gi Hoon / Player 456
I’m impressed by the change in perspective that Show gives us, of Gi Hoon.
In the beginning, I found him exasperating, for being so hopelessly addicted to gambling, but in a way, I felt sorry for him too, because no one actually wants to be held hostage by an addiction. And while I shook my head at the way he steals money from his elderly mother to bet on horses, I did feel his desperation to get out of his situation.
I didn’t exactly like him; I just didn’t want him to be cut up by loansharks, to have his kidney and eyeball sold for money.
However, context is everything, as I like to say. We eventually learn that Gi Hoon wasn’t always a bum. He’d had a job, until it had been taken from him, and he’d suffered trauma from the death of his friend.
And then, in the context of the game, Gi Hoon shows that he has more compassion and humanity about him, than most other players. This is the thing that really caused Gi Hoon to grow on me.
In episode 6, in particular, I felt Gi Hoon’s humanity very acutely. His struggle is so real. He wants to protect the old man, Player 001, as he always has, but as the time ticks by, and as things become more desperate, he cries as he chooses his own life over the old man’s.
On the one hand, it makes logical sense, because the old man has not much time left anyway, with his brain tumor and his age. But on the other hand, it feels heartless to value one human life more than another. That’s a thought-provoking idea, as is the question, of what one might do, in Gi Hoon’s shoes.
Park Hae Soo as Sang Woo / Player 218
I’d say that Sang Woo turned out to be an uncomfortable character to watch.
At first, he’d seemed simply to be Gi Hoon’s childhood friend, a successful man who’d fallen on hard times because of his mountain of debt, but by episode 5, I found myself feeling conflicted about him.
Sometimes he’s a good and decent guy, like when he gives Ali money for the bus fare, even though he doesn’t have to, and at other times, he seems ready to kill Gi Hoon, like during the switching of the guards, and also, during the shapes game.
It boggles my mind, really, that Sang Woo would be ready to kill his old friend, in order to increase his own chances at winning the prize money. I mean, not sharing important information with Gi Hoon is one thing, but there’s that time, where Sang Woo’s literally once inch away from putting his hand on Gi Hoon’s throat while he sleeps.
Basically, the deeper we get into our story, the more we see Sang Woo display disturbing, betraying behavior, and it’s quite a discombobulating experience, I think, because we know that Sang Woo’s also perfectly capable of being a decent guy.
It feels like such a low blow, when in episode 6, Sang Woo betrays Ali by using their friendship, which he had first gained, when he’d given Ali bus fare, when they’d met at the convenience store. I’m not entirely surprised, as we’ve seen hints of Sang Woo being ready to betray Gi Hoon, but Ali comes across as such a pure soul, that I can’t help but feel extra, for him. Plus, he had basically almost won, when Sang Woo started playing on his emotions.
It becomes clear that Sang Woo’s compassionate only when there’s a small cost to himself (like bus fare). However, when the stakes are higher and his very future is on the line, all bets are off, and all decency goes out the window.
In episode 7, it’s not surprising, but still disappointing to see Sang Woo push that guy off, but it’s hard to say that it’s not a reasonable line of action, given that they only had seconds left on the clock, and not completing the course would mean elimination for everyone.
In fact, I think that’s the question that Sang Woo’s entire arc poses to us, over the course of the show: What would we do, if we were in his shoes? It’s easy to say that it’s wrong of him to cheat Ali out of his marbles (thus causing Ali’s death), but would we have been able to do differently, in the same situation?
Jung Ho Yeon as Sae Byeok / Player 067
It’s hard to believe that this is Jung Ho Yeon’s acting debut, because she is utterly compelling. What a natural, I say!
Sae Byeok is a character that I felt more for, the more I learned about her. What an awful situation to find herself in, repeatedly cheated and taken advantage of by brokers, while her family is separated, and her mother, stuck in North Korea. It feels like her entire existence revolves around the fruitless task, of trying to get her mother over to the South. With the way the brokers demand big money, and then tend to disappear on her without actually delivering on their end of the deal, it feels like Sae Byeok’s stuck in a Groundhog Day of sorts.
With this context, Sae Byeok, whose name means “dawn,” feels especially poignantly named. To my eyes, it feels like she’s struggling to get to the daylight portion of her life, and it can look like she’s almost there, with the deals made with brokers, but she never actually gets there. Which is why her name “dawn” feels so full of pathos, to my eyes; she never actually gets to the part where the sun rises, in her life. 😭
Knowing what we know about her, it becomes clear why she is always on the defensive, and why she doesn’t trust people, in general. She’s been wounded too many times, to want to risk being taken advantage of, even one more time.
With this context, the scene between Sae Byeok and Ji Yeon (Lee Yoo Mi), in episode 6, feels extra emotional. With only 30 minutes on the clock, they spend the time talking, at Ji Yeon’s suggestion, and by the time they play their round, they’ve become friends.
Augh. Ji Yeon giving up her chance (and therefore her life), to ensure that Sae Byeok gets hers, is possibly the most touching moment for me, out of the entire series. What a community sort of mindset, where Ji Yeon weighs her needs against Sae Byeok’s, and concludes that Sae Byeok needs that chance more than she does.
There’s such a tearful finality in Ji Yeon’s eyes, as she smiles through her tears and tells Sae Byeok that she doesn’t have a reason to get out of there, and there’s such a haunted sense of pain in Sae Byeok’s eyes, as she realizes the inevitable outcome of this conversation. Such a moving, beautiful, yet short-lived friendship, truly. 💔😭
Wi Ha Joon as Officer Hwang
I’ve had a soft spot for Wi Ha Joon for a while, but I have to admit that this role of his, as Officer Hwang, really deepened that soft spot and made it bigger. 🤩
Maybe it’s because I am a complete newbie when it comes to this genre; I hadn’t seen Officer Hwang’s involvement coming, at all. However, I was very pleased, when that development occurred on my screen.
I really like the inclusion of Officer Hwang in our story, because with him going undercover at the games facility, it gives us a whole new perspective through which to understand the games and its workings, ie, not just from the players’ points of view, but from the guards’ points of view too. Plus, it ups the stakes as well, because there’s always this possibility of him getting caught.
I also like the angle, of Officer Hwang’s investigation. He’s not just trying to blow the lid off an illegal operation that’s killing hundreds of people and getting away with it; he’s trying to find his own brother, who’s been missing for several years. That makes his determination and desperation so much more personal. And because it’s personal, I can understand why Officer Hwang would undertake this crazy level of risk.
Generally speaking, I loved how quick-thinking and creative Officer Hwang turned out to be. I was particularly thrilled with the way his disguise evolved, from player, to guard, and then even to a server of the VIPs.
And I loved how he’s so swift, in getting into character, like in episode 4, where he manages to sound so convincing as a supervisor, even talking the talk, word for word, even though he’s only been there a day. Mad props for having nerves of steel, and being able to function so well under what must be tremendous stress and pressure!
I was rather gutted when Officer Hwang found his brother, only to get shot by said brother, without ever finding out how Hyung had ended up there, and why. 😭
However, I hold out hope that Officer Hwang survived that fall from the cliff into the water, since Hyung had shot him in the shoulder (and not the heart or head), and therefore left him a chance of survival.
Oh Young Soo as Oh Il Nam / Player 001
Oh Young Soo plays Il Nam with a great mix of childlike innocence and delicate fragility, that I found very engaging. I found that my heart went out to him, on just those two things alone. Well, that and the background information that he suffers from a brain tumor and doesn’t have much time to live.
Given his poor prognosis, I was extra taken with the earnest joy with which he participates in the games, even though he knows that he could die while playing.
..Or so it seemed.
It didn’t occur to me until later, after Show reveals in our final episode, that Il Nam is the host behind the very bloodthirsty games, that his cheerful manner while playing, was less to do with his carefree attitude, and more to do with the assurance that as host, he wouldn’t die, even if he did lose a round.
What a narrative-tilting piece of information indeed.
With this information, Il Nam strikes me as a very odd bundle of contradictions.
On the one hand, he has a very jaded view of humankind. On his deathbed, he bets with Gi Hoon, that no one would come to the aid of the passed out drunk on the street, and predicts that the passed out drunk would die, as a result.
And yet on the other hand, we do see, through much of our story, that Il Nam has a wide-eyed innocence about him, which lands as rather pure and simple. It makes me think that he genuinely believes that he’s doing something altruistic, by giving people the chance to play these death games, as twisted a thought as that might be.
Yet, what kind of twisted mind does it take, to actually believe that the enticing of people to gamble with their lives, in a game where the odds are stacked against them, is a noble act, where he’s giving these people a chance to control their lives and their future, just once?
..I can only conclude that Il Nam’s mind is very ill.
Heo Sung Tae as Deok Soo / Player 101
What can I say, the moment I saw Heo Sung Tae, who’d so skillfully played detestable characters in both Beyond Evil and Racket Boys, as Player 101, I had a pretty good sense for the flavor of character Player 101 was going to be.
..And he did not disappoint.
I mean, I get that being on the fringes of society as a gangster, Deok Soo’s had it rough and perhaps some of his values and behavior have been shaped by his gangster environment. However, I honestly could not find a single redeeming quality in Deok Soo, while watching him on my screen.
Deok Soo was as vile as I imagined, and then some.
The way he is so quick to use and abuse others made him distasteful, and the way he switches loyalties the moment it becomes advantageous to him to do so, makes him despicable.
I feel like Deok Soo, as a character, is there to represent the most depraved parts of human nature. In episode 4, when he sees that there are no consequences for breaking the rules and killing people, he makes deliberate, gleeful plans to eliminate more players, in order to increase his chances of winning.
And yet, on the glass bridge, when it comes down to the wire, and there is no more buffer between him and a 50% chance of death, his cowardice comes out in full display, and he refuses to move, so that other players would be forced to the forefront.
That’s so low, honestly. He hadn’t hesitated to push the person ahead of him to their death, but now that he’s eliminated that buffer with his own hands, he won’t budge when it’s his turn to take the next step, for the group. I mean. He could’ve just not pushed the guy, then, right?
Because I found Deok Soo so thoroughly awful, I thought it was a bit of poetic justice, really, that Mi Nyeo fulfills her promise to kill him, for betraying her.
Kim Joo Ryung as Mi Nyeo / Player 212
If I had to describe Mi Nyeo’s character in two words, they’d be “scrappy” and “desperate.”
On first impression, I think it’s safe to say that Mi Nyeo is not a likable character. She’s quick to bargain her way through things; she’s quick to change loyalties; she’s also quick to change her tune, according the situation.
However, the more I consider Mi Nyeo, the more I feel rather sorry for her. When trying to gain entry to any group, she’s often heard repeating that she’s really smart, but just never had the chance to study. That indicates to me, that she’s largely a product of her environment, meaning, all her scrappy tendencies are likely learned behaviors that she adopted because she’d found them necessary to her survival.
And Mi Nyeo is desperate to survive. We see her do a lot of things, out of desperation, the most memorable of which, is offer to sleep with Deok Soo, in exchange for him accepting her into his group.
On that note, I just wanted to mention that I’ve seen a couple of comments, that the sex scene is gratuitous and unnecessary. While I concede that this is eyebrow-raising for a kdrama (because kdramas have long been known to be extra pure and extra chaste on the romance front), I did not find this a gratuitous scene.
Was it titillating? No, I honestly wouldn’t say so. Was Mi Nyeo even attracted to Deok Soo? Also, no. She had sex with him out of desperation, because this was the only tool left, that she had available to her. People use every means as leverage, in times of desperation, and Mi Nyeo is a desperate woman in a desperate situation. I feel like she’d sell a kidney, if she had to, if it assured her a means of survival.
Over the course of our story, Mi Nyeo is shown being tossed around among groups, with her attitude changing according to which group she finds herself in. When she’s trying to get into Deok Soo’s group, she’s all cajoling and persuasive, but once she gets into that group, she very quickly turns snooty on Doc (Yoo Sung Joo), who’s now in the position she used to be in.
I find that to be such an uncomfortable but true reflection of human nature. It’s a sad truth, that many a victim will not hesitate to victimize another, given a chance to be on the other side. Mi Nyeo isn’t unique in the way she approaches the world; she’s a representation of any of us, who would likely behave much like her, given the same context, upbringing and circumstances.
In the end, though, there is one thing that makes Mi Nyeo better than Deok Soo, and that is how she’s not afraid to die, to fulfill her promise to him, that she would kill him for betraying her. Should she have killed him? It’s debatable. But it’s clear that his terrible treatment of her angered, hurt and humiliated her enough, that she was willing to pay the ultimate price, to make him pay the price. And she followed through.
Anupam Tripathi as Ali / Player 199
Anupam Tripathi’s role as Ali is noteworthy for the fact that he’s the first Indian actor to have a major supporting role in a kdrama. And boy, does he deliver.
I found myself growing fond of Ali in a big way, because from the very first time we set eyes on him, where he grabs Gi Hoon by the collar and basically saves him from being gunned down during the first game, it becomes clear that he’s a very decent guy. He didn’t have to save Gi Hoon; he didn’t even know him. But he saved Gi Hoon, just because he could.
At the same time, we see that Ali doesn’t have a completely clean track record either; he steals money from his boss, after not receiving a paycheck for 6 months, and runs away. This demonstrates to us that even the most decent human, when desperate enough, can resort to underhanded means, for their survival.
Given the context that we get, though, that Ali really needs the money to keep his wife and baby safe, and that his boss had really been doing him dirty by not paying him, I found that I couldn’t hold it against Ali too much, for stealing that money.
Plus, there’s just how grateful and respectful Ali tends to be, around our other characters, like Gi Hoon and Sang Woo. When Sang Woo asks to partner with him for the marbles game, the look of surprise and sense of gratitude that Ali shows, is just really sweet, heartwarming stuff. Like I said earlier, Ali just comes across as a very pure soul.
I think this is why I felt so sad, at how Ali meets his end, during that very marbles game. He basically loses the game, and therefore his life, because he’d trusted Sang Woo. He’d actually almost won, but had allowed himself to be persuaded by Sang Woo, that they’d be able to find a way for both of them to survive. What a horrible realization it must have been for Ali, to realize that Sang Woo had betrayed him, and had stolen his marbles, which he’d switched out for pebbles.
I really felt the loss of Ali, and was really upset that we lose him. But his arc does beg the question, of whether the pure-hearted really can survive in this world, where there are others always at the ready to take advantage of their trust.
Yoo Sung Joo as Doc / Byeong Ki / Player 111
I’ve got Doc / Player 111 here, not because I found him especially interesting, but because he’s involved in the organ harvesting arc of our story. I found this arc particularly gruesome. This was the only time during my watch, that I found myself having to avert my gaze. Nobody needs to see an eyeball being pulled forcibly out of its socket, right? 🙈
Was it gratuitous, though? I’m still leaning towards no.
With the way Show shines the spotlight on all the dark and ugly corners of human nature, this feels like a reasonable extension. We see that even within a system as twisted and regimented as the one in our game world, there are still those who are desperate enough, and depraved enough, who would pillage the bodies of the not-quite-dead, for an extra buck. It’s sickening – but again, it is a sobering reminder of a black industry that still exists in the world today.
The other thing that I found rather interesting about Doc’s arc, is how, in the real world, he’s despised for medical malpractice, but in this world, and in this different context, where he’s the only person with the skills to conduct the organ harvesting, he becomes someone with some amount of power. It’s not overt power, but those pink guards do bend over backwards to give him privileges that he wouldn’t otherwise have.
It reminds me of that saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Gong Yoo as Train Guy
You probably already knew that I couldn’t write this review and not mention Gong Yoo, right?
I am suitably amused, that everyone’s taken such an interest in Gong Yoo, from a cameo. A CAMEO. That’s some serious charm and star power right there, to be able to capture the attention and affection of so many viewers, with such a short appearance.
I loved his cameo in episode 1, and was delighted to see him make another appearance in episode 9. Ahhh. That charm, combined with such a laidback, good natured sort of vibe, makes him really quite irresistible, and I remember all over again why I love him.
On a more serious note (I’m trying, here!), it does feel like Show is perhaps making some sort of statement about how the dark side often works to suck us in, with pleasantness and charm.
SPOTLIGHT ON THEMES
During my watch, I found myself having quite a few thoughts around the various ideas and themes that Show was serving up. Here’s the overview; feel free to add on, hash out and generally discuss, in the comments!
Aside from the morbid fascination of the game set-up, where people literally get killed when they are eliminated from a game, there’s a deeply disturbing undercurrent running through this, that these people’s lives are cheap and disposable. They were picked up for being financially destitute; so in debt that they wouldn’t be able to turn down the chance to play. And as they play and get killed in the droves, the Front Man dude sits with a glass of whiskey, listening to light jazz tunes, while he casually watches all the casual deaths, on his screen.
The thing is, at this stage of the game, these people weren’t even told, before playing, that there was a chance they might not survive Round 1.
It really paints a picture of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The wealthy are literally entertained by the deaths of the poor; people who are so destitute that their deaths barely warrant a blip on the screen. It’s horrifying that the lives of human beings can be reduced to nothing – and the thing is, this is a metaphor for the real world.
And then there’s how people respond, when they find themselves in a life-or-death situation like this. Do they sacrifice others, so that they themselves have a better chance of survival, or do they give a helping hand to someone, just because it’s the decent thing to do?
At first, this all seems to point to human greed, but in reality, this is really all about desperation, and the difference the sight of money makes. How far will people go, because of greed &/or desperation?
Show does a great job sucking us into the dilemma of these characters. I don’t care about them deeply like I tend to care about my drama characters, but I feel for them at a fundamental level, as a fellow human. It feels heavy, and sobering, to realize that there are people who really are this desperate, in the world. It makes me wonder what I would do, if I were in their shoes? Would I choose any differently?
Self-preservation vs. helping a friend. Sang Woo could have tipped off Gi Hoon, but he didn’t. How far does teamwork, camaraderie and team loyalty really go, especially in times of crisis?
A good number of people who make it, are actually cheating the system. Tip-offs, spying, secret weapons. Is it impossible to survive without cheating?
People driven to desperation tend to take desperate measures. The guy who charged the masked guy and took his gun. But in this world, there is no hostage taking because every single person is disposable.
There’s a chilling effect, of the coffins made to look like gift boxes. Who’s the recipient of the gift? It’s all a matter of perspective. To the host, the gift box coffins are gifts to the deceased players, along with (what he thinks is) a dignified send-off. But from a different perspective, doesn’t it feel like the gift boxes trivialize the deaths of the players? To my eyes, it feels like they are pretty trifles, there almost as door gifts, to those who pay for this entertainment.
After a player dies, no traces are left behind. This feels like a dark metaphor for the real world?
The idea of trusting others, not because you want to, because you don’t have a choice.
Is there room for empathy, in times of desperation? Mi Nyeo, who had been snubbed before, now snubs others, after she’s managed to find a way into the group.
Deok Soo gets away with stealing other people’s food and beating a guy to death. It’s a troubling metaphor for society. Those with power, legitimate or otherwise, get away with a lot more than most of us think.
The fight, where everyone just gets sucked into the violence, and the insanity, reminds me of all the “protests” we’ve seen around the world. It’s disturbing.
How quickly an ally can become an enemy. The promises Deok Soo had made to Mi Nyeo, while she’d offered up her body, were all empty. He casts her away in the blink of an eye, the moment her presence becomes disadvantageous to him.
As we look upon the darkness of human nature, there’s a twisted fascination as we turn the lens inwards. Am I as messed up as these people on my screen, even as I watch them?
You can spin just about everything. Front Man talks as if they are doing something altruistic, giving these people one last chance of a fair game, after they’ve been treated unfairly outside, in the real world, when in reality, these people are being treated as disposable entertainment guinea pigs.
What happens when your ally suddenly is forced to become your enemy? Would you betray a friend for your own survival?
The whole idea that rich westerners travel a long way for this entertainment which comes at such a high cost to the locals, is a reflection of some of the kinds of tourism that exists in our world. Sex tourism, for example, which rich folks pay for, but which destroys the lives of those who have to resort to it, because they are financially trapped otherwise.
The portrayal of the religious as people who pray, but who use those prayers to justify their murderous behaviors.
It’s easy to discount people’s worth, when just referring to them by numbers. That’s again a reflection of real life.
The visual irony, that our finalists are served all this luxurious food, but on their fancy suits, they’re still just numbers. It’s like.. fancy jail. And metaphorically, it feels like charity, where things are given to those in need, but it doesn’t actually solve anything; it just makes the givers feel good that they’ve done something.
I came across these observations by other viewers, that most of our key players’ deaths have something to do with their specific backstories.
Sae Byeok had threatened to slit that broker’s throat, and in the end, she’d died from having her own throat slit. Deok Soo had jumped from a bridge to escape his fellow gangsters, and in the end, he’d died from a similar-but-different fall from a bridge. Ali had stolen money from his boss, and in the end, he’d died because he was stolen from. Sang Woo had been on the verge of suicide when he’d decided to participate in the game, and in the end, he’d died by suicide.
Out of those players whose backstories we know, those who die, all seem to die in what feels like karmic ways. Is Show saying that there’s no shortcut to escape desperation? That what goes around, comes around?
While Show is perfectly entertaining and absorbing, it definitely leaves us with some lingering questions. Here are just a couple. I’m sure there are more, so feel free to list them in the comments!
One of the major questions floating around, when it comes to Squid Game, is how the guards are chosen, and how they are kept in line.
Some people have theorized that the game that Train Guy plays with prospective players, is the point at which they get channeled, depending on the color that they pick. Meaning, if they pick blue, they become a player, and if they pick pink, they become a guard.
Director-writer Hwang Dong Hyuk has come out to refute this theory (sorry folks). At the same time, he has not provided any insight into the guards and how they are selected, unfortunately.
On a tangent, I’d also like to know how the organizers get away with killing so many people on a large scale. Or.. are these people so peripheral to society, that nobody even knows or cares, that they’re missing?
I thought it was a good twist, that Officer Hwang’s brother turns out to be Front Man (Also, what a surprise, that Front Man is Lee Byung Hun. No wonder he sounded familiar, especially when delivering his English lines!).
However, Show doesn’t provide any answers as to how Hyung had gone from participant to executor, in the games. Viewers theorize that Hyung had been the winner of the game, and had then naturally joined the ranks as Front Man. It sounds plausible to me, but I’d like to know what Show has to say about that – if/when we get a second season.
I’d also really like to know if Officer Hwang survived that gunshot, and that fall from the cliff. If we get a Season 2, I’d really like Officer Hwang to come back (cue Wi Ha Joon heart-eyes).
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
I thought Show ended on a solid note, all in all.
Perhaps if you’re coming into this one with a fresher set of drama eyes than I own, you might have found the last stretch a little more exciting and unpredictable than I did, but to be honest, I felt like I could read, more or less, how the big pieces would come together, for the final showdown.
That’s not to say Show didn’t do a good job. I think Show did a very decent job. It’s just that, with kdramas being expected to uphold societal values, in this case, the idea that there is goodness and hope in humanity, it made it almost a given, that Sang Woo wouldn’t win the final game, because he’s already been tainted as a character, with his willingness to kill others for his own gain. And, it was also almost a given, that Gi Hoon wouldn’t kill Sang Woo, even when the opportunity presented itself, because we couldn’t have our main character be tainted, if he’s to continue to stand for the idea that there is still human decency left in the world.
And because Sang Woo isn’t evil through and through, it makes sense that he would rather end it all, rather than go back out into the world.
Not only does he have blood on his hands that I don’t think he’d be able to live with, he also has a mountain of problems that he wouldn’t be able to deal with, without any change in his financial situation.
In principle, I like the idea of our final episode having a good chunk that feels like an epilogue. I think it’s an important thing to explore: what happens after the fireworks have ceased? What has changed – or not changed?
The only downside to this, is that in including this epilogue-esque portion of story, there’s a distinct sense of.. deflation, in the watch experience. Now that the adrenaline has stopped pumping, and the dust has settled, the dramatic tension, which had thus far been keeping us on the edge of our seats, has dissipated too. It makes for a much less exciting watch, to be sure, but perhaps that’s the whole idea.
Perhaps it’s important to drive home the idea that it’s all fun and games – until you have to live with the consequences. It’s sad, but fitting, I thought, that as a result of the games, Gi Hoon isn’t there when his mother dies. Because of his desperation for a quick fix that would solve all his problems, he ends up losing everything and everyone. His disillusionment, demonstrated in his refusal to use the money that he’s won, was portrayed very well, I thought.
Until he’d won that money, Gi Hoon had thought that his whole life would be fixed, if he just had the money. But now that he has the money, he realizes that the cost is too great, and he can’t bring himself to use it.
I thought it was an interesting twist, that Oh Il Nam turns out to be the host of the games. It’s a twisted sort of reason, that he’d host the games, in order to make his life more interesting. For all of the childlike delight that we’d seen on Oh Il Nam’s face when he’d been Player 001, he really does have a very jaded view of the world. I’m glad that Gi Hoon wins that wager at the end, because that drives home Show’s final stance, that there is still human decency left in the world.
I also thought it was fitting, that Gi Hoon would bring Sae Byeok’s little brother Kang Cheol (Park Shi Wan) to Sang Woo’s mother (Park Hye Jin); these two need a family, and now they can perhaps be that family, to each other. And it feels right, too, that he would leave the money with Sang Woo’s mother, so that it can provide for both her and Kang Cheol.
Of course, Show also leaves us with a sobering reminder that life still goes on, and the people who are poor and desperate, are still easy victims of the ones who have the means and inclination to take advantage of them. Even if Gi Hoon himself knows not to play when Train Guy shows up offering a play-for-money deal that’s too good to pass up, there’s always someone else who would be desperate enough to take that opportunity when it’s offered.
I do like the note on which we end, however. Even though Gi Hoon is just one person, and the good that he’d be able to do, in the face of such a large-scale, powerful operation, is limited, he turns around to do it anyway. I like the idea that Show leaves us with; that making a difference, no matter how small, is still worthwhile.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Dark, bloodthirsty and compelling, while also managing to be philosophical and thought-provoking.
FINAL GRADE: A-
If you haven’t seen the show, I just wanted to state for the record that, in my opinion, the trailer is more freaky than the actual drama itself. The trailer’s a collection of carefully curated clips, brought together to entice potential viewers with the freakiest vibe possible. I found the watch experience of the show a couple of notches lower on the Freaky Scale, than this trailer. I hope that helps!