Netflix’s Squid Game Review: Exceptional thrills and deeply thematic storytelling all in one
*This Review Does Contains Spoilers*
It feels like every year there’s always a breakout show, movie, or game that becomes such a big hit you have to drop everything you’re doing to check it out. Of course, just as I’m in the middle of covering New York Film Festival Netflix releases Squid Game and it suddenly becomes a global phenomenon. While I couldn’t cover it right from its release because of other obligations, it became a “drop everything” show that was my next binge.
From what I had faintly heard about it, it seemed right up my alley. A character driven game show featuring deadly games that create a high stakes experience is the kind of gripping and exciting material I’m always on the hunt for and series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s decade long journey to getting Squid Game to see the light of day added another personal layer to Squid Game’s existence. Now after seeing it through to the finish, I can safely say that Squid Game lives up to its hype and achieves so much more in giving Netflix a thrilling, engaging, and captivating experience.
Set in South Korea, the series follows a group of poor Korean contestants competing in a series of challenges based on children’s games in the hopes of reaching the finish line and earning the large cash prize so they can pay off devastating debts. However, the cost of losing is much greater as failing to complete a challenge within the rules results in death meaning that the stakes are higher than ever. It’s really interesting to see how adults tackle these different childhood games and the way the innocence of them is stripped away in these life-or-death circumstances. A simple game of Red Light, Green Light turns into a nerve-shredding terror as a simple flinch or inch of movement comes with a deadly bullet. Each new game comes with a new layer of tension and stakes and the way that Dong-hyuk captures the depth of each game is super engaging.
As each character comes up with different strategies for how to win each game, you kind of end up doing the same and it creates this super engaging experience that’s satisfying and sort of educational. You can really pick up new ways to think about these games and because most of them are easily recognizable childhood games that aren’t culturally bound these strategies expand the thinking behind the game. It’s really compelling to watch everyone come into games they all know with more adult mindsets and different strategies. Things like standing behind someone in Red Light, Green Light so that you can move more freely without being caught and different strategies for Tug of War that can make a seemingly disadvantaged team have real power come out in very interesting ways and it gives these simple games a lot of depth. It’s the perfect kind of fight for survival that makes you use what you know, and these game sequences are some of the most thrilling and captivating moments in modern television.
You’re constantly left holding your breath throughout each game as you watch everyone fight for their life and the suspense built before each game is somehow even more incredible. Like most of the competitors, you’re left in the dark about what games the competitors are about to walk into and there’s some really strong suspense and mystery built before the game has even begun. The idea of picking teams, pairs, positions, and some strange symbols without really knowing the impact they’ll have adds more mystery and complexity around each game. It brings out different approaches to games and prejudices that people have in how they view strengths and weaknesses in other people. Then suddenly as the game is shown, the choices made before have an unexpected meaning that leaves you jaw-dropped and sometimes horrified as how it affects these characters.
Even with all this well-built suspense and excellent reveals though, the series does struggle to maintain its sense of surprise, at least for the first few games, with how it handles its characters. Look, when you give only the main character the hardest task or put all the main/notable characters on one team, it’s pretty tough to believe that they’re about to lose. There’s still plenty of tension throughout each game and the fourth game pits favorable characters against each other in a devastating way. However, the results feel pretty predictable, and characters just seem to fall where they need to. Even having team-based games feels a little cheap at times considering how many people get knocked out at once and I wish the games were structured in a way where maybe more than one person could win in the end. It feels like the series is trying to go for that, but just ends up funneling the competition down for a sole winner. Even with some of its more suspenseful elements of survival not always landing, these game sequence manage to stay captivating because of how strong its characters are.
Squid Game is the kind of show where although there are main characters that stand apart from others, you really find your favorites like you’re watching a reality competition show. Maybe you’re the type that would like someone as innocently naïve and caring as Ali (Anupam Tripathi) or like the silent, cunning type like Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyean). Perhaps you even like a thuggish villain like Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) or a big personality like Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-Ryung). There are plenty of great personalities to get hooked on and root for and against, but its great that this series does a lot for its central characters, especially its gambler protagonist Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and another central player Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), to make them impactful past their personalities.
There’s an interesting rule with the game where players can vote and ends the games with a majority ruling. When this initially came up at the end of the first game, I thought that they wouldn’t end it, but to my genuine surprise, the game ends and the series does a great job using this moment to give greater depth to its characters outside of Gi-hun. Gi-hun’s story is mostly shown before the games and gives a good insight into his financially strenuous situation while also showing his motivations to be in the game to become closer with his daughter and lead a better life. Jung-jae’s performance is really tremendous throughout as he initially emphasizes Gi-hun’s gambling addiction and lack of empathy for others and then gives Gi-hun more complex emotions that come from him connecting with other competitors and wanting them all to live.
However, this return to normal life after the first game actually showcases other characters’ situations and motivations as well and showcases some of the themes about economic disparity and corrupt class systems. Squid Game is actually an excellent companion to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite for not only being a strong example of rising Korean filmmaking talent, but for sharing similar themes about financial inequality. All the contestants face some kind of financial struggle that stems from some of the corruption and disparity in their South Korean homes and with no real assistance or paths for a better future seen in the real world, they’re all forced to compete with the only thing of value they have left – their lives.
Characters like Song-woo and Sae-byeok are especially shown to suffer from the current status of Korean economic disparity as their sense of hopelessness not only affects their own views of reality , but also others close to them. This return to normalcy instills this disparity and showcase how forced into desperations these characters have become. Dong-hyuk also does a great job establishing this visually with how he makes the shots in the real world feel crummy and bleak and the atmosphere in the game have brighter colors and a more fantastical look to it. It’s really the only way that they’re going to get out of the financial holes they’re in and that comes through even stronger in how the series delves into the mystery organization behind it all.
There’s a sub-story introduced involving a detective named Jun-ho (Wi Ha-Joon) infiltrating the mysterious organization behind the game to find his missing brother. It’s a great way to peel back the curtain without revealing too much. There’s a hierarchy among the shape-faced underlings that’s shown, a small conspiracy within the group that involves organ harvesting, and some interesting reveals surrounding the organization’s mysterious leader, The Front Man (Tom Choi). There’s definitely still some mystery surrounding the organization and Dong-hyuk sets up the idea of focusing more on this organization in a second Squid Game season. More importantly, it continues to emphasize the economic and political issues in the real world as it maintains this ideology of the games showing a fairness that these people won’t find in the real world.
These themes about economic inequality come through really well throughout and even though things get a little messy with the big twist that comes in the final episode, these characters really end up having your heart with how they change upon returning to the game. Even if the themes connected to Korea’s economic and political disparities don’t come through, Squid Game dissects human behavior in a deeply emotional and compelling way through its characters.
Gi-hun’s journey throughout this series is very touching with how he grows compassion and empathy for others through the people he connects with. The relationship he develops with an old man that’s more than meets the eye Oh Il-Nam (Oh Yeong-su) constantly tugs at your heart and even how he tries to fight against the depravity the game wants him to act upon really displays who he is. Based on how its structured, the game is meant to bring out the most selfish and worst parts of human behavior that some characters fall into. However, what you really end up taking away are the brighter spots that embody a sense of care or fairness that are shown through Gi-hun’s actions, most of them anyway, and how Sung-woo slowly starts to value himself over others. It’s a great reflection of the importance valuing human lives over dollars, and this is brought out even more in the surprisingly emotional final moments between Gi-hun and the secret host behind everything. It’s even great that Gi-hun becomes so impacted by everything that he’s going to take action and fight against the organization – which will hopefully be a big part of the proposed second season.
Squid Game absolutely defines must-see television. It’s riveting nerve-shredding games are a can’t miss thrill ride and are elevated through the superbly thematic and character-driven narratives that are backed by great performances and engaging storytelling. Netflix really has an event like no other on its hands and Squid Game’s success could not only mean something strong for Netflix, but for the viewing of Korean media as well.