Liz Foster ‘22
BITS AND PIECES EDITOR
For over ten years, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game stewed in rewrites, pre-production, and countless shopping to various networks and services in a seemingly never-ending, yet always hopeful, pursuit of a small screen debut. In a mere few days, Squid Game quickly sprinted to the top of Netflix’s daily Most Watched list. In less than three weeks, the show garnered approximately 111 million viewers and earned the title of the most watched Netflix debut of all time. Dong-hyuk’s passion project waited over a decade to see the success that the director knew was inevitable.
In brevity, Squid Game follows protagonist Gi-Hun as he attempts to eradicate his debt of over 400 million Korean won (approximately $340,000) through a series of deadly children’s games. Persuaded into a simple game of ddakji (comparable to Pogs in the United States) by a stranger with a briefcase–played by the charming Train to Busan actor Gong Yoo–Gi-Hun feverishly tries to best his opponent in pursuit of 100,000 won. With every lost round, he receives a slap in the face in exchange for not paying up 100,000 won of his own; eventually, Gi-Hun wins a singular round and his prize money. The anonymous man then hands Gi-Hun a business card marked with a triangle, square, and circle and entices him with the idea of clearing his debts through playing similar children’s games. One thing leads to another and before Gi-Hun knows it, he’s a part of a twisted game for rich onlookers where he must survive six different games and outlast his 455 opponents in order to win a grand prize of 45.6 billion won.
Squid Game distinguishes itself from similar fight-to-the-death media like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale with its element of “choice.” These franchises have distinct villains responsible for hapless victims being forced into an area. Be it by shady company kidnapping or a tyrannical government’s agenda, there exists a system where snatching up citizens to challenge each other in brutal, violent manners is completely passive on the receiving end. Conversely, the participants of Squid Game dial up their captors, announcing that they’re ready to take a chance on whatever may save them from their crippling debt. Protagonist Gi-Hun’s debt of 400 million looks like pennies and dimes when considering the billions some of his opponents owe.
Yet, to call the decision to participate in Squid Game a “choice” neglects Dong-hyuk’s goal of creating a masterful critique on late stage capitalism. Each player is tested by Gong Woo’s train station lackey to determine their willingness to face physical abuse for a few extra dollars. It’s not that each character is a money-grumbling, weak-willed scrub, but rather that they’re victims to a system that limits social mobility and entraps the poor. The game’s mysterious Host, comically caricatured V.I.P.s, and surprise-twist showrunner (I’ll leave them unnamed to save you one of the series’ biggest spoilers) are all able to dole out their fortunes to the suffering debt-riddled individuals but choose to risk the lives of desperate strangers as a cure to their boredom. The money is always there, looming above the players’ sleeping quarters in a massive pig-shaped bank but it is only after countless bloodshed, and a large amount of trauma, that a singular person reaps the reward. The choice is never truly a player’s to make.
In a world ravaged by ever-growing systematic inequality between and within nations, a show like Squid Game was destined for worldwide critical acclaim. The struggles of the show’s central characters are easily identifiable even removing the aspect of overwhelming financial burdens. Gi-Hun is motivated to return to the games when he sees his mother’s healthcare expenses only increasing, a problem reminiscent of the countless Americans who owe a collective of over $140 billion. Gi-Hun’s best friend Sang-Woo achieved academic excellence only to end up worse than he started, Sae-byeok is a North Korean defector hoping to bring her siblings to safety, and Abdul Ali is an exploited Pakistani immigrant just trying to keep his family afloat and alive. There’s an unmistakable humanness in each individual and an all too familiar understanding of the burdensome pressures of modern capitalism. Even the story’s villains borderline on charming
As a television show on its own, without considering its accurate reflection of existing systematic inequities, Squid Game is well-paced, rife with charming characters and entrancing aesthetics. Much of the Game’s host facility is startlingly colorful, reminding the viewer of the nostalgia rooted in the games themselves. Bright pinks and greens reflect throughout the stairwells, the guards wear shapes reminiscent of the PlayStation logo, and the players’ tracksuits call to mind old elementary school gym classes. Squid Game is a sanguine childhood dreamscape coupled with reality television and tainted with an irresistible taste of violence and melancholy.
Squid Game masterfully blends excellent story-telling with an impressive cast, both old and new. Defacto breakout star Jung Ho-yeon saw her Instagram followers multiply fortyfold in mere days, propelling her to the position of the most followed South Korean actress on the platform. In an impressively quick 27 days, Squid Game has established itself as a media force to be reckoned with and a juggernaut on a streaming platform already boasting several successful titles. That a South Korean show could garner such massive success indicates the closing of an international media bridge, and that English speakers are finally willing to read subtitles. Hwang Dong-hyuk struck gold with his daring, innovative exploration into the horrors of our current economic systems and the drastic measures people will take to stay afloat. Don’t miss out on the most hotly received series of the year, give Squid Game a stream.