by Olivia Sterenfeld
When Netflix released Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game in September, immense popularity soon followed. People couldn’t stop talking about the new thriller-survival show and its commentary on social class. Set in contemporary South Korea, the series follows a group of characters in financial jeopardy as they play a game that could either end by winning all the money they could ever need, or in death. The plot primarily focuses on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-Jae), a low-life who lives at home with his rapidly aging mother. He cares about his daughter, but his unemployment and gambling addiction prevent him from improving his life. After meeting a salesman who offers him the chance to play children’s games to win money, Gi-hun is launched into a world in which 455 other desperate people in teal tracksuits compete against each other. Ordered around by authority figures in hot pink jumpsuits and masks they soon discover these games are a matter of life and death. Failure to win the game results in a gunshot, and success leads to the ability to pass onto the next of six rounds. Gi-hun makes alliances with other characters, some of whom the audience roots for just as much as, if not more than, Gi-hun. The players and authority figures become involved in corrupt practices out of greed, displaying the innate selfishness of everyone in the game and perhaps humankind at large.
The characters and their compelling stories make the show engaging, providing a reason to keep watching episode after episode of violent behavior. I wanted to see my favorite characters move on to the next round and see which alliances were formed and broken. Gi-hun is the perfect protagonist of the story: he serves as an antihero, a bit of a loser, never being the fastest to win a game, with a strong moral compass. He is loveable in his somewhat foolish assumption that others will be allies to the end, which is especially conveyed in moments of betrayal. Gi-hun is certainly a flawed character, which can be seen in selfish behavior toward his mother early on and moments when his selflessness is tested throughout the games. By the end of the show, though, the audience gains a full sense of Gi-hun’s selflessness. In addition, his subdued personality allows more attention to be drawn to many other characters and their stories, providing the series with a strong ensemble performance. There are so many players whose lives matter to the audience, giving the storyworld a sense of richness.
One gripe that many have with the show, however, is its lack of novelty. The script for a feature film version was originally written in 2009, a time when dystopian commentaries on social class were all the rage, especially in the young adult world. If the story was released in some form then, it still would have felt fresh. Suzanne Collins had already written and gotten published two-thirds of the Hunger Games books, but the stories would have at least been contemporaries. Now, over a decade later, this hyperbolic look at the rich using the poor as puppets feels overdone. While it is still entertaining to see a new iteration of this genre, more of it is not needed. Thus, when the (what I had assumed to be) mini-series ended on a cliffhanger, implying that this show was merely the first of several seasons, I was disappointed. How many more renditions of the rich killing the poor for fun can people take? Or, how many more do they really want? Its similarity to themes and tropes of movies like it, such as The Hunger Games, is so entrenched in the show that it seems impossible to continue the series without watching more of the same. There is the clear establishment of a hierarchy of authority, the gluttonous, perverted men who bid on players and watch the games as a form of entertainment, the engaging ensemble of characters, and a behind-the-scenes look at the game. Just one season would have been more than enough.